Tag Archives: History

Jigsaw City

I look out to my left, and I see Prussia. Straight ahead of me lies Weimar Germany. Somewhere behind me lies the Third Reich. Below me is Cold War Germany. To my right, modern-day Germany buzzes along.

No city experienced turbulence in the 20th century more than Berlin. With 5 different forms of government (imperialistic monarchy, democracy, fascist dictatorship, occupation & communist dictatorship) in less than 50 years, every time I visit a distinct feeling of this jigsaw history being forced together is impressed upon me.

The Brandenburg Gate, to the left of my position at the top of Lord Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome, is the symbol of old Prussia. Built by Prussian monarch Friedrich Wilhelm II, its victorious quadriga swiftly became established as a symbol of Prussian power and might after it was regained from Paris at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. Bombed during the Second World War and used to host demonstrations during the Cold War, these 6 columns represent the inherent imperialistic foundations of the capital.

Interwoven amongst subtle memories of the kaisers (more prominent in the cathedral, where the mighty organ & lavish masonry of Friedrich I Barbarossa’s tomb seem to be superseded by memorials not to the hegemony of Prussia but to the oppression of its peoples by national socialists and communists) lie the hints of embryonic modern Germany. Between the downfall of Kaiser Wilhelm II following his 1918 abdication and the nefarious advent of the Nazis in 1933, Germany was a democracy, with proportional representation* and a functional parliament. The cries for this seem to be eternally etched onto the front of the Reichstag now – “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE” (“TO THE GERMAN PEOPLE”), carved in 1916 as support for the monarchical autocracy dwindled, which, to the modern onlooker, evoke feelings of a wider significance. Throughout the 20th century, Germany rarely fully belonged to the German people, blocked by a warmongering kaiser, coldly efficient purist national socialists and administrations comprising of Soviet puppets.

Rightfully afraid of an upsurge of Neo-Nazis, the site of Hitler’s bunker during the Battle for Berlin is unmarked. It’s a car park now, not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Like the Residenzstrasse in Munich, simply standing on the street where some of the most pivotal events of Nazi history – the final days of the regime and its first steps towards the seizure of power respectively – is eerily poignant. Just imagining the realisation of the lost war, enactment of scorched earth policy, suicides & cremations which happened all around that point is strangely silencing. It’s the same with Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse-8. The headquarters of the SS. Beck, Canaris, Bonhoeffer, Oster…the names of the lions of the anti-Nazi resistance swim around in my mind as I stand above the excavations of their holding cells.**

The memorials to the victims of Hitler are dotted all around the city; the Holocaust Mahnmal a few seconds away from the Brandenburg Gate, the Jewish Museum (which actually also documents wider Jewish history), the Topography of Terror museum & various plaques. But what I find the most thought-provoking is not the extensive displays of little collections, but rather the places; the spots where Bormann’s skeleton was found, where the grand march of SS troops was held in 1933, where the various ministries ordered the subjugation of what was to become the Third Reich.

Other ‘memory spots’ are to be found in the centre of the city, where the Berlin Wall sliced the world in half overnight in 1961. A line of cobbles traces it outside the Reichstag, in other places a double white line or isolated blocks of it decorated with art and graffiti (East Side Gallery & Potsdamer Platz). The spot where Allied & Soviet tanks faced each other, either one with the capability to incinerate much of our planet through starting a nuclear war, is now a McDonald’s – says a lot about modern society. Checkpoint Charlie is a monument to souvenir hunting and photo opportunities, itself being a replica – the spot itself is far more vivid and evocative.

And although it was torn down in 1989, amidst worldwide festivity, the Wall continues to embody a discrepancy in Germany today. It is widely documented that the wage, employment and quality of life gaps between the former East & West Germany prevail, but I do not refer to this. This discrepancy is much wider, obscure and threatening. It is not the failure of Khruschev & Kennedy to become amicable diplomatically in the 1960s: it is the failure of society today to recognise that those differences are, at present, irreconcilable. The Wall may be down, but its footprint is still there. Although on the face of it East/West relations seem to be effective, in reality, as we are now beginning to witness in Crimea & the Eastern Ukraine, they are probably as dire as in 1961. The routing of capitalist/communist sympathisers may have ended with the death of the latter form of government in Russia, but the propaganda prevails. It is crucial to repair relations with Putin immediately if we are to avoid another century of European turmoil.

In the meantime, Berlin, within whose boundaries the German government even now is vying for non-belligerent solutions to the Ukraine issue, sits atop its marshy ground, the jigsaw city, with all the answers to the future locked within its streets.

 

 

*(which elicited great instability of government)

**This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler. I’m currently researching the extent of the opposition  to the Nazis cocooned within their own regime, primarily within the secret service (Abwehr) which I hope to publish later this year.

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Am I?

“That’s such a right-wing thing to say…”

This rather interesting observation often pertains to any conversation I hold regarding politics, education or history, fastening itself almost indelibly to my opinions on grammar schools (yes please), Margaret Thatcher (excellent wartime leadership & strong economic stance), feminism (no) and so on.

At the moment, I reside in the north of England, although I myself hail primarily from midlands and Scottish stock. Yes, I’m middle-class, Christian and Conservative, but does that really make me so shockingly right-wing? Of course, everything is relative, and relative to most of the people I have daily contact with I must indeed seem fairly right-wing, considering that they are very left-wing but snuggle within the quilting of a very left-wing district, rendering ‘Ed-ite’ politics seem the norm. A fellow student recently held out a 30cm* ruler, representing the political spectrum, and claimed that I am positively off the scale.

Let’s consider this objectively. I believe in private enterprise, governmental funding cuts, an in-out referendum about EU membership, the United Kingdom, constitutional monarchy, the House of Lords, tuition fees and a strong militia. I also believe in controlled immigration, freedom of the press unaffiliated financially and secretively to any particular political party and the NHS (which however desperately needs reform). I admire the special relationship with the US, but agree that it musn’t coerce the UK to become too subservient, have doubts about the sensibility of the EU and am wary of its and Russia’s dealings (although not for the same reasons).

Depending on your background, this will either sound very right-wing, or actually, which is the truth, simply Conservative. I have written before about left-wing indoctrinated of history, which is in peril of becoming revisionist, and my experiences thereof are typical of everyday life in an area so deeply ensconced in itself that it refuses to acknowledge outside views. Sometimes I am even regarded with disdain upon speaking for not having a trace of the local accent (which is worsened when unfortunately I cannot decipher that of the person with whom I speak – this has never been a skill of mine), which I think is bordering on – if not racism – anti-origin attitude.

To the English, I am ‘Scottish’ (my blood is 25% Scottish although I have Scottish origins); to the Scottish I am ‘English’. In arts lessons I am regarded as scientific, and in science lessons I am regarded as linguistic/arts-y. When I play badminton, I am told my style is too much akin to that of tennis; when I play tennis, I am remonstrated with for flicking my wrists as if I was hitting a shuttlecock. Like the dilemma faced by Tonio Kroeger in Thomas Mann’s eponymous novel, both sides seem to regard me as being too much with the other.

When it comes to politics, I may be Conservative, but that does not make me Nigella Farage.

*or, to fit in with my super-right-wing image, 12-inch

Permafrost

Here we are, one week on from the conclusion of the latest installment of medal-fuelled tears and tension, with a diplomatic crisis brewing 400 miles from the Fisht Stadium.

The post-1946 decline in Western-Soviet relations was named the Cold War; perhaps this new one could be termed the Permafrost War. For although grass may grow atop, a façade developed in the uppermost layer of warmer soil, there reposes a hard layer quasi-malevolence beneath it.

I think it’s safe to say that the UK has one of the worst diplomatic relationships with Russia. Since a sizeable proportion of the population with memory or knowledge of the 1950s-60s still hasn’t quite sat up from the knock-out shock of the Philby deception (by far the most disturbing of those of the Cambridge 5), it may seem logical that the defection of another spy caused the newest period of frosty diplomacy between the two states. Alexander Litvinenko did, however, transfer his loyalty from the FSB (Russian secret service) to MI6, an act which, along with publications deemed caustic to the reputation of his former employers, secured his death sentence by the radioactive drug polonium in November 2006. FSB agents were blamed but subsequent inquests have proved inconclusive – handily for the Foreign Office. Finding the death of Litvinenko (under the protection of the British government) to have been, beyond all reasonable doubt, effectively caused by the Russian government on British soil would be more than a little harmful for diplomatic relations.

Yet in 2010, Gordon Brown (PM) and David Miliband (Foreign Secretary) expelled 4 Russian diplomats (apparently intelligence officers) from the UK in response to Moscow’s refusal to allow the prime suspect in Litvinenko’s murder, Andrei Lugovoi, to be extradited. Also in 2010, Moscow expelled a British diplomat on charges of alleged spying. An associate of Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, was found hanged in Berkshire in 2013 in circumstances which will probably never be entirely clear. He was a long-term and defiant critic of Putin.

Ever since the Bolsheviks arranged the murders of the British king’s cousins, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their 6 young children in Yekaterinburg in 1918, relations between our two nations haven’t been the most cordial. The UK supported the Whites in the 1917-22 Civil War and the swathes of refugees, along with her ally France. Although Churchill and Stalin aligned themselves strategically in 1941 to end the Nazi evil, Churchill remained aware of the dangers posed by Stalin, politically prescient as ever, and it was he who, in 1946, coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’. Very much the ‘enemy within’ the Allies, the Soviets initially made a pretence of willing friendship after the conclusion of the Second World War, in order to rebuild trade and industry ravaged by the Nazi infiltration of the USSR, but the West, ever wary of that communist ‘man of steel’ (in the least super-heroic sense), declined and widened the breach. Then the Cold War truly began in earnest; the Berlin Wall; Cuban Missile Crisis; Cambridge 5 revelations.

Royalist Britain simply could not stomach the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917 by fairly poorly supported workers and recently returned ex-patriots – the 36 million or so killings in Stalin’s purges is even less of a cause to be friendly with the old regime. Having led the world in industrialisation, and arguably the most advanced country in the world by that point economically speaking, with a well-functioning political system, it was hard to see what was so bad about the tsar that he needed to be replaced with revenge-hungry killers.

In my own opinion, I believe the fact that 36m or so murders are far less well-known and documented than Hitler’s 11m speaks for itself. The communist USSR and the capitalist west are so ideologically different in so many areas that it would be near-impossible to have maintained diplomatic relations. That’s pretty obvious.

But now? Has the history between Russia and the west laid down insurmountable barriers to happy and productive relations? Of course not. Look at Germany – Hitler ruled for 12 years, murdering 11m of his own citizens and several hundred thousand of ours during that tenancy, and Angela Merkel is received warmly into the Houses of Parliament and the homes of the British PM and head of state. Of course. It would be churlish to insinuate that she is in any way responsible for the Nazis’ atrocities, or that our relations are in some way impaired by it (something closer to the mark would be the word ‘penalties’ – 90 minutes rather than 12 years).

Is Russia so different? I’m afraid so. On top of all the negative history since 1917 go the recent espionage fiascos and the ostensible determination of Putin to supersede the west (his spokesman declaring the UK to be a “small island” that “nobody listens to” in anger over British proactivity over Syria and anti-corruption). The tenet that Russia has been ruled since the Mongol Conquest by silnaya ruka, the iron hand, seems to hold true, and this is not palatable to the modern west. As 19th century Slavophiles in Russia maintained, Russia is clearly different to the west, and therefore must develop differently. Whilst I’m not entirely adherent to that philosophy, the distinction between Russia and the west seems fairly apparent; but for the benefit of not only our children (cue spiel) but also for the global economy, peace and worldwide diplomatic fraternity.

In Alaska, they break away the permafrost with pick-axes of metal. We can break away this permafrost war with pick-axes of diplomacy, if only our politicians would.

Childhood

No matter how far we are from it, most of us like to be reminded of our formative years once in a while. Whether it’s comparing the children’s television of today with that which we used to adore under the guise of entertaining young family members, adding musical memoirs of those times to our Spotify playlists or choosing what to cook on the basis of what we ate with our grandmother, our childhoods reach down indelibly into all of our lives.

This is obvious. It isn’t particularly insightful analysis to draw the link between nostalgic comfort and my desire to listen to the theme tune to “Thomas the Tank Engine”. But when it comes to the study of history, I believe the effects of childhood and the influences thereof are myopically overlooked.

Take  Adolf Hitler. His father, an illegitimate child with confused paternity, was an alcoholic who regularly beat up Adolf’s mother; Adolf, standing up for said mater, was once pushed through a window (albeit ground floor) by his drunk father. Alois exerted a forceful influence on his son, and tried to dictate his life, so undermining Adolf’s faith in a peaceful home and a successful career path that it set the foundations for the disturbed mind which would wreak such havoc upon the world.

Coupled with nationalist grief at the annexation of his local area (Branau-am-Inn) by Austria rather than Germany ingrained from childhood, the influence of famously proto-fascist politicians (e.g. the mayor) and businessmen in his late teenage and young adult years in Vienna, his impoverished situation sweeping drives for a pittance in the rich (and actually predominantly Jewish – who, due to racial career restrictions, often ended up in the lucrative financial sector) sector of the city and of course the defeat of the German empire (to whom Hitler always wished to demonstrate allegiance) in the First World War and ensuing Treaty of Versailles, the disruptive and strained home atmosphere had a deep effect on Hitler the man.

In fact, his extremist tendencies can be demonstrated from a relatively young age (teenage years) from the remembrances of friends and acquaintances. I would argue that Hitler became the evil persona by the time he was 20 – contingency, in the form of the First World War, created the opportunity for that to be released into popular politics, and, except for certain geopolitical tendencies as shaped by Munich professor Karl Haushofer, most of his ideas on politics were already complete prior to the outbreak of war.

In the English history curriculum, this crucial childhood is not explored enough for understanding of the man. If we are to prevent such a phenomenon of psychology occurring again, as advocates of the study of history love to claim its purpose is to do, surely we need to identify the causes therefor and rectify them in our society?

Hitler was not special. There are many alcoholics in the world. There are many nationalist politicians. There are many stubborn little boys. And, although circumstance in the geopolitical division of the border between southern Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire heightened Hitler’s development into the man he became, there are other instances in the modern world. North and South Korea. Sudan and South Sudan. Israel and the Gaza Strip. Just look at Chechnya; disagreements, to put it lightly, in the 1990s about whether or not it was part of Russia or an independent state following the dissolution of the Soviet Union have elicited devastating acts of terrorism and violence – the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and countless other investigators, bombings in Moscow and attacks in Grozny and the devastating Boston Marathon bombings.

If the circumstances exist, so too, somewhere, must such a person. They occasionally pop up, such manifestations of evil; Stalin; Bin Laden; the queer convention that was the Nazi party. In Britain, the Conservatives are most eager to help to diminish the frequency of broken families by encouraging the maintenance of marriage and so on; the break-ups thereof and familial discontent can brew future disaster.

Childhood is important. Childhood is very important. Memories, relationships and  some skills are formed during that time. But we would be foolish to regard it as pure nostalgia and to disregard it in adult life. Whilst Hitlers are – thankfully – extremely rare in positions of such potency, societal issues caused by dysfunctional (if I may venture to use that word) or disrupted childhoods, such as substance addiction, suicides and mental health issues, affect many millions of people. Whether caused by familial, geopolitical or associative (i.e. persons not pertaining to one’s family) issues, the formative years are crucial in developing such.

Please excuse me whilst I YouTube Fireman Sam and eat a jam roly-poly.

Indoctrination

Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler’s Fuehrerbefehl of attenuating the influence of the Jews in Germany reached down into the educational system, the poisonous anti-Semitism dripping through and contaminating even elementary education. In primary school, one learnt the ‘distinguishing features’ of a Jew (big noses, protruding foreheads and close-set eyes, according to the contemporary racial stereotype), was incited to deride those marked with the yellow Star of David and to despise them upon sight. Upon progression into secondary school, in addition to this virulent racism, pupils completed mathematics equations calculating the bombing of Warsaw or relocation of undesirables, were taught eugenics and how the Aryan race had to be preserved.

Soviet bloc. Communism was (or is) glorified as the mechanism for the conservation of mankind, whereas democracy and constitutional monarchy were dismissed as unfair, unstable and unviable. Whilst embryonic or fledged Communists and archaic Russian heroes such as Alexander Nevsky, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin were lauded as heroes and societal exemplars, Peter the Great (who modernised and westernised Russia, developed the navy, furthered trade links and established St Petersburg), Catherine the Great (whose cultural interests brought the enlightenment to Russia) and Leo Tolstoy (author of “War and Peace” and political liberal) were forgotten. Figures such as Oleg Gordievsky, former KGB agent who defected to the west in the 1980s, and Alexander Litvinenko, who also defected from the FSB (successor to the KGB) and was later poisoned for his revelations concerning his former employer, are actively despised.

Modern Britain. Although extremist parties do not hold power, the education of our younger generations is being compromised through the influence of indoctrination. Although ostensibly open and tolerant (the latter is, quite rightly, mocked by German ‘ambassador of comedy’ Henning Wehn for being in fact exclusive since the attitude does not extend to welcoming or encouraging), at times holes in society emerge which expose the issues, such as egging of politicians, school bullying of those with financially poor backgrounds and death threats sent on social media websites to public figures.

There is, however, a more easily rectifiable hole in education. It concerns one subject, but perhaps the most important subject for the understanding of human life and machinations. History. Looking back at past examples, such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China, the initial stage of indoctrination of children via the education system has always been conducted through the adaptation of history. In Nazi Germany, for example, Hitler’s background was altered for teaching to erase his alcoholic father, failure to get into art school on grounds of proficiency and other details inconsistent with the account given in “Mein Kampf”*. In Soviet Russia, the late tsar and his family were criminalised and the western powers (Britain, USA and France mainly) labelled as warmongers, declining powers and sources of social evil. In Communist China too, children – especially during the Cultural Revolution – were instructed in the failings of American society and the ‘shocking’ liberalism thereof.

Today, all over the nation, there are children being indoctrinated by the left. As Michael Gove’s statement, and subsequent piece in “The Telegraph” by Jago Pearson, have shown, just because the UK is not in the hands of extremist lunatics we must not think that indoctrination is not prevalent. Today, all over the nation, there are children being taught that the First World War should not be revered because military leadership led the military, that it is in the interests of democracy not to illegalise the criminal Ku Klux Klan, that all monarchist systems are unfair and should be eradicated. Today, all over the nation, children who do not possess left-wing views are being admonished, ridiculed and marked down.

History must be neutral. Judgement is not a thing to be pre-inserted and taught, so that all lessons are delivered with a spin, and balanced arguments are usually superficial (for example arguments opposed to the left-wing view are minimised and overriden in the end). I am not saying that a Conservative spin should be placed on these lessons; I am saying this, that we should all be extremely careful so as to imbue our children with the importance of the skills true history imparts: analysis, balance and the eradication of bias.

Next year, for the first time in 11 years, I won’t have another history lesson. Despite being the history prefect, I have become so exhausted of arguing for what is right – against the left-wing bias – and for being dismissed on no grounds except that I do not comply with the left-wing interpretation (and not solely in a school environment: my school possesses an excellent history department), I am giving up history. My study shall continue on a personal basis, unaffected by the spin placed upon it by successive governments.

It is ridiculously easy for a government to place their spin on the curriculum of history. And it can be easy to neutralise that spin. The views of hitherto governments have usually affected the impartiality and reliability of the study of a subject which must needs have such, but in modern times I truly believe the situation has never been more dire than now. In all my 11 years of history, never have I encountered such indoctrination as that of the AS level.

This can be changed. And it must be.

***DISCLAIMER***

I have been misinterpreted as being critical of my particular teachers. This is not my opinion; I have had some excellent teachers. My problem is with the curriculum itself and hence hitherto governments.

*In case anybody is interested, I highly recommend reading “Mein Kampf” in parallel with the first volume Sir Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler.

Pink-shirted potency

With the F1 circus still becoming accustomed to the life-threatening coma of Michael Schumacher and the imprisonment of Eddie Irvine, it seems unusual that the most telling of news items concerning the sport this winter is the sad passing away yesterday of John Button.

International news, trending hashtag, dedicated pages. The father of the 2009 champion and McLaren No.1 Jenson Button has, in passing, brought to light an aspect of public life rarely discussed.

There’s an old Newsround video featuring a young Jenson karting. His father John, encouraging from the sidelines, was neither arrogant nor overly ambitious when interviewed – “They all say they want to go to Formula One, but…as long as he’s enjoying himself, that’s the main thing”.

Throughout Jenson’s career, John has been instrumental. It was John we have to thank for Jenson’s proficiency in changing conditions, having restricted his son’s tyre usage as typical British weather prevailed over the karting circuit. From his first win at the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix for Honda to his 2009 world championship to Brawn to his glorious 2011 masterpiece at the Canadian Grand Prix, Jenson has had his father spurring him on, manifesting his delight.

Denis Thatcher was an equally crucial influence upon his wife. Since inciting her to indulge her political ambitions, he never floundered in his unwavering public support for his wife, being an incalculably dependable rock for Margaret during times of strife. “All I could produce, small as it may be, was love and loyalty”, insisted Denis, when interviewed about his role.

Martin Luther King, too, was moulded by his father’s personality. Taking his fear of God, courage, defiance, belief in equality and embryonic societal awareness from his pater, King coupled this key childhood shaping with university experiences to forge the most memorable US social leader of all time.  Anthony Hamilton was his son Lewis’ long-term coach and familial engine for ambition. William III valued the mutual support and respect of his wife and co-sovereign Mary II so greatly that her untimely 1694 death broke him and inflicted chronic wounds on his viability as a strong and popularly visible monarch. And from primary school, from the one area of the curriculum not so easily indoctrinated by the left-wing, we all know the meaning of Albert’s constant consortship to Victoria.

People are not sole moulds. Circumstances leave lasting impressions on us all. My late grandfather’s diligency, benevolence, sincerity and logic will never ever leave my consciousness. We all have major human influences on our lives, and they, together with major events, make us who we are. And for those ‘im Brennpunkt’, as the Germans say, these people are even more important yet oft’ neglected.

Rest in peace, John Button.

Forever Autumn

It’s December, cold and windy, and fallen leaves adorn the frosty streets amidst the traffic of pedestrians, tightly cocooned in their furs and thick clothing. What was formerly luscious and vivid shrubbery is now a mass of weakly twigs and brittle remnants of foliage. Instead of a cocktail of flowers in bloom, freshly mown grass and barbecues, the nose is greeted by gusts of wind, a smoky sense of nothingness and a waft of bratwurst and weisswurst.

Being neither in the depths of winter, nor the late reaches of summer, this barren nothingness is not a season, merely a progression from the feted golden season to the long-awaited festive season. Between the summer and its more frigid counterpart is this drab and depressing period of anticipation for that which is to come; the time of worrying how great an impact the weather will have during the midwinter, the time for long days and little reward, and the time for wishing the ensuing months closer, and the foregone months nearer once they have ended.

This barren nothingness is not a season. It is a period. A period for re-evaluation, planning and hard graft for relatively little pleasure or joy. All students are aware of the notoriety of the ‘autumn term’, a conglomerate of work aplenty and little energy or motivation to execute it.

Winston Churchill’s ‘autumn’ was not perennially occurring, in political terms. His time of despondancy came in the early 1930s, cast out of the inner political fold and warning of the National Socialist menace using the precedent of history in the form of Louis XIV. Politicians, diplomats and journalists, eager for peace and co-operation with Germany, were more disinclined to exclude Churchill for these ardent warnings. Although his literary sidelines never left him devoid of funds, he was frustrated with the barren political years ahead of him prior to his eventual re-instatement. Unlike us, he did not know the ‘winter’ was coming until very soon before; the months preceding the war, although serious and frightening, represented a magnificent comeback from which Churchill never again declined.

Unlike the title from the musical version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, there is no such thing as “Forever Autumn”. Although this bleak period succeeds summer, the time of optimism and metaphorical sunshine, there remains the festivities and jollities of winter in the near future, although this must needs encompass a little environmental hardship therewith. It is not permanent; it will end. And whilst autumn yields to winter, with challenges aplenty in its own way, the arrival of soft pure snow and colourful illuminations fill the time with activity, excitement and festive rewards for the months of strife in the barren nothingness.

Remembrance: more than sorrow and gratitude

This 11th November was unusual. Not only did it mark the 70th anniversary of the most remarkable bombing raid in history, but it was the last before commemorations for the centenary of the First World War begin.

Troops. Aerial bombing. Submarines. Industry. Alliances. All of these were hotly debated topics in European circles as the political climate ascended to uncomfortable temperatures, as imperial Britain, France, Russia and Germany raced to out-industrialise each other, made webs of treatises solidifying diplomatic inclinations between each other and hastily mentally compiled tactics, technical plans and time restraints.

War.

Today, too, although hidden in the shadows, there are such problems. The British Armed Forces are making a myriad of professionals redundant and filling the personnel gaps with volunteers of the Territorial Army, whilst in Germany, compulsory conscription for all male youths was ended a few years ago. The seemingly incessant moral, technical and political debate regarding first drone warfare and now un-piloted programmed ‘planes is never long out of political military consciousness. The future of nuclear warfare is also under scrutiny, especially with frenzied efforts to determine the efficacy and longevity of possible Iranian and North Korean nuclear missiles. Observers in the US and Europe anxiously but almost secretively compare the growth figures of their own countries with those of China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Korea. And, through the highly diplomatic infrastructure of the United Nations, countries align themselves with potent partners.

War? No. Not yet. The present construction of world diplomacy is such that war of a scale of the Great War will be lethargic in construction, and easy to predict. The UN Security Council and summits should, theoretically, highlight international disputes and prove as a medium for serious debate before any serious military action is undertaken.

Nevertheless, we have to be watchful. A US-led coalition invasion of Syria to intervene in the ongoing civil war may provoke Assad’s supporters (or, at any rate, those who do not speak out against him) into action – China and Russia.  And any potential conflict with the US, Europe, Australasia, Canada and possibly India against the might of China, Russia and North Korea would end in utter devastation. Not only conventional methods, such as land and sea battles and conventional strategic and area bombing, but nuclear attacks, cyber-attacks and possibly even pathogenic warfare. In any case, an invasion would worsen the situation between the nations.

The British government frequents Beijing, attempting to accentuate relations between the PRC and the UK. But in all seriousness, this is precisely how such future conflicts can be prevented. Not consorting with evil such as Assad’s regime (due to their use of chemical weapons), but peaceful and economic relations with other potent and prosperous nations.

We cannot allow our militia to become so depleted that, should such a terrifying conflict come, we are unprepared. Professionals must be recruited from the highest walks of life to protect our country against the scores of cyber- and physical terrorists presently devising means to attack us, and also to prevent against international conflict. Whilst conscription would train our populace in readiness, should such an awful occurrence happen, it also is of detriment to quality, continuity and professionalism which marks out the UK Armed Forces as perhaps the best in the world. That can be left for a time of real need.

Remembrance Day for the next 4 years will not just serve to remind the younger generations of the terrible cost of all the troops, sailors and airmen in the First World War, but as a stark reminder of what could occur and how far society has perhaps progressed since.

 

Image credit: BBC 2012.

Chronic relevance

“To be, or not to be, that is the question”, pondered Hamlet, in the eponymous play. Quoted often by students, politicians and literary figures through the years, its simplistic negativity embodies both Hamlet’s indecision and confusion as regards the indecency of his present situation, manipulated and conspired against by his murderous, usurper uncle Claudius.

This simple yet crucial quandary, to be or not to be, to continue to struggle (“against a sea of troubles”) or to give up and end them, faces all people at times in their careers. Not just whilst deciding between suicide and life, like Hamlet, but whether to resign, take on new challenges or back out of a difficult commitment.

Most ostensibly of all, this comes to politicians, especially political leaders. Whether it’s Neville Chamberlain, deciding to “take arms…and, by opposing, end [troubles]” as regards declaring war on Nazi Germany, or to “sleep: perchance to dream” and continue to appease Hitler, or Nick Clegg, choosing whether to stand firm with regard to his manifesto pledges on tuition fees and antagonise his coalition partners or back down and opt for an easier path in Westminster, all leaders have faced this tortuous mental debate.

The internal impact of this situation seemingly devoid of solution is devastating. Hamlet, although slain by the poisoned lance of Laertes, was mentally exhausted and resolute in the end at a much earlier point in the play, and wished only to expose his uncle. Chamberlain, having ceded his office in May 1940 to Churchill after at least 2 years of enthralling, critical and punitive indecision, died in November 1940, weakened greatly*. Clegg’s career is overshadowed by the scandal, and, despite issuing an apology, has undoubtedly lost a great deal of face.

This simple interrogative plagues leaders all over the world, albeit clothed in other wording. From his kingly histories, Shakespeare warns all leaders of the perils of their role. In Henry IV, he conveys, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”; Henry, having usurped Richard II in a coup originally intended to regain his inheritance from John of Gaunt, is frequently unstable as king and relies on the constant support of his nobility to stabilise his rule. In Richard II, as the eponymous character bemoans his downfall and the mortality of his predecessors, Shakespeare warns that “within the hollow crown…keeps Death his court”, and, through Death, shows that misfortune and disaster are proximal to and indelible with the laurels of leadership.

The governmental instability in Shakespeare’s own life – the Elizabeth I succession question, Mary, Queen of Scots scandal, the Spanish Armada, 1601 rebellion, 1605 Jesuit plot against James I and various episodes of regal favourites** controlling the policies of the monarch – influenced him to write extensively about such, warning his audiences of the dangers therein. Not only his histories, but great tragedies like Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet all contain skeins of political unrest, shaky alliances and the instability of leadership resting solely on noble support.

Read or watch these plays yourself, and the ingenious messages therein will be ostensible. As such, Shakespeare should be compulsory reading for any who dare to assume a leadership role.

*Please note that this is not a criticism of Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. Whilst indeed the evil had to be faced head on and conquered fully so as to subdue it conclusively, the years of war which Chamberlain delayed were crucial in terms of readying Britain and the British Empire for war, when it finally came.

**the Earl of Leicester is perhaps the most notorious example.

Pretzel politics

The German-US relationship has meant many things over the years; wars, burgers, and a string of poorly-dubbed TV shows spring to mind. Those aside, the greatest representation of Germany in the States is one humble concoction of flour and water – the pretzel.

Roll it out in your head. Comprising of humble ingredients, the popular snack is often topped with a wealth of flavours; cinnamon, chocolate and jalapeño being among them. At the end of the lunch-break, however, it’s just bread.

The monks and clergy of the Middle Ages dressed up this bread as something more exquisite, to make it more apt for Easter celebrations. Today’s politicians and public figures live in a constant bakery, twirling, knotting and dusting their bread to make it more appealing for public consumption.

Take today. David Cameron is prominent in the politics section for expressing ‘serious concern’ over the somewhat murky situation between Gibraltar and Spain. The whole piece is pretzel politics – devoid of any real action or importance, the statement has been salted and fed to the media.

This is an age-old technique. The Battle of Flodden Field in 1513 was dressed up as one of the greatest English military victories of the century; yet it was against the Scots, inferior both numerically and militarily, and the English army, rather than being pared to the bone in favour of Henry VIII’s simultaneous French campaign as intimated by the propaganda, was still left with its greatest tactical leader and a great deal of soldiery. Catherine of Aragon dressed up this bread to cement her husband’s favour and demonstrate military prowess to her discombobulate father Ferdinand. Bread rolled in cinnamon.

The Germans themselves are experts in such doughy areas; in an exemplar of non-governmental pretzel politics, Michael Schumacher is portrayed in his homeland as the greatest man ever to have pressed the accelerator – the epoch of automotive brilliance – ignoring the serious qualms over the legitimacy of his 1994 championship, subsequent cheating and mammoth superiority of his Ferrari (hence rendering actual driving skill required negligible) in the early part of this century. Bread embedded with jalapeños.

Pretzels are as central to politics, and indeed business, as meaningful accomplishments, actions and skills. It is in this regard that the modest little snack is truly diasporic.