Tipping Point?


Has a tipping point arrived with the shootings in Parkland, Florida last week? I don’t know. One thing that makes it possible is that the victims weren’t elementary school children too young to articulate what they felt. They were high school students, and many of the survivors are already 18, or soon will be, so will be able to vote in the elections this year. A number of them have vowed to work for gun control, and have flatly contradicted the same old sentiments about it not being time to talk about the problem and people kill people, not guns.

But there will be plenty of resistance. The NRA has plenty of money to spend fighting anyone who would restrict gun manufacturers and sellers in any way, and no doubt they’ll be calling these kids “liberals” or “communists” before long. I wonder if being trapped in a school with someone trying to kill you for a couple of hours isn’t a good way to be converted to liberalism–unless conservatives take these students seriously and enact some serious reforms. That may not happen unless a lot of Republicans get voted out of office in November over the issue.

But the shooting reminded some young people, on the eve of their being able to vote, that their elected representatives haven’t been serving them. If their representatives prefer not to, it would be nice to see them pay a political price.

But they will try hard to prevent that, and by not changing more than they can help. They’ve already proposed armed guards at schools in Florida, even though that probably wouldn’t be especially effective–it wouldn’t be hard to take armed guards by surprise–and probably wouldn’t be possible to guarantee that the guards wouldn’t do shootings themselves. Veterans aren’t always trustworthy, and how much will school districts be willing to pay armed guards to make sure they get good ones? The idea of putting a lot of guns in schools means there would be more chance for accidents or for people having nervous breakdowns (or other unfortunate circumstances) would have access to guns at times when they shouldn’t. I’m not so sure teachers should have to think about whether or not they could kill a student, either. That’s a question that would have to be asked if teachers were armed.

A post found on Facebook by a veteran says that getting rid of automatic weapons (except for the military and police), including automatic hand guns, would be effective. Those are weapons specifically designed to kill people, and aren’t needed in a civil society. To the people who say they need weapons to resist a tyrannous government, he replies that the government has much more potent weapons. That kind of resistance being successful is extremely unlikely.

Part of the reason for so many shootings in recent years seems to be that a number of men (shootings are almost exclusively a male crime) feel insecure about their masculine privileges being taken away in a time of great income inequality and instability. Insecurity breeds resentment, and if resentment gets extreme, it leads to violence.

Gun enthusiasts say that someone who wants to kill will find a way, whether with a gun or a knife. True, but killing is much easier with a gun, especially one with a large magazine that can get off many shots in a short time. Last year a shooter in Las Vegas was able to kill 58 and injure some 500 in a relatively short time. That’s what automatic rifles can do. Automatic pistols don’t have magazines as big, but they’re easier to conceal. And a large percentage of shooting deaths come from handguns.

Other suggestions (from the other side of the aisle) include getting licensed just like everyone must to drive a car, and to get insurance. That would go with tests to make sure gun owners were psychologically stable and knew how to store, care for, and handle their weapons. Making people liable for weapons they left where irresponsible people could take them would motivate people to be more careful. With the right to bear arms should come responsibility, just as with driving cars. Such laws wouldn’t be perfectly enforced, especially immediately, but neither are laws regarding cars. The author of the post on Facebook suggested that driving race cars on public streets at 140 miles an hour is probably not a great idea. Neither is allowing just anyone to play with guns.

It will be interesting to see how successful the students of the high school in Florida will be in trying to combat the influence of the NRA. If they eventually are successful, will they decide to take on other examples of behavior by large corporations that most people dislike? Polls have discovered that ordinary (non-wealthy) Americans have very little influence over governmental policies, and it’s pretty certain that wealthy people generally prefer it that way. One of the things about these students is that they come from a fairly well-off community. They probably won’t be as intimidated by great wealth as many people.

If they manage to get substantive reform in Florida, and possibly even nationally, what might they take on next? Big pharmacy, which price-gouges on medications needed by many ordinary people (insulin, for instance)? Or pollution?

If this is a tipping point, maybe we’ll find our society beginning to become more democratic. That doesn’t mean democratic as in the Democratic party necessarily, but democratic as in listening to everyone, and not just the people with a lot of money.


A Very Strange Dilemma


Author James Baldwin asked, “Why does white America need niggers?”

The first obvious reason has always been cheap labor. Black labor played a large part in the development of America, especially in the South (for which they received few benefits). But it seems as if there’s always been more to it than that.

The slave trade in North America really took off in the 18th century, if not the 17th. Was it really necessary? Weren’t there enough white people to provide labor in the colonies? In retrospect it doesn’t seem to have been very efficient to go all the way to Africa to get slaves and have many of them die on the return voyage. But the slave trade continued right up to the beginning of the Civil War.

And that’s in spite of the fear and resentment whites felt towards blacks. Part of the fear was because slave owners used their slaves sexually (probably not all owners), as can readily be seen by the range of skin colors in the black community even today. Southern whites in particular were afraid of black men doing the same to white women, and lynched a number of those they even suspected of the desire.

Another part of the fear was because on large plantations especially whites were badly outnumbered by blacks. They used brutality to intimidate blacks, and consequently feared what blacks might do in return.

One result of slavery in the Unites States was identification of it with black skin and further resentment of blacks after the Civil War supposedly fought to free them. In the Old World slaves could be of any nationality or skin color, and could fairly readily become free, even powerful. Identification of slavery with black skin necessitated the rationalization that blacks were inferior, and that having been brought to this country was somehow in their interest. But how could it be beneficial to have their own cultures erased and to be made to feel inferior because of their skin color, the different texture of their hair, their culture, etc?

The oddity of the relationship between white and black is underscored by the fashion for minstrels in about the 1850s, in which white musicians used makeup to look black when performing. What was THAT about? Was it done just to make fun of blacks, or was there something about the culture whites wanted to emulate? If so, what might it have been?

Could it have been an emotional and/or sexual freedom blacks possessed and whites usually didn’t? Knowing little about the era, I can only guess, and not with much confidence. Whites were later more willing to make use of black influence, if not to credit them or reward them financially. Jazz became the first purely American musical art form, but it was white musicians who more readily profited from it.

Whites came to resent blacks for their presence in the country they never should have been brought to. Perhaps the rational thing would have been to apologize and start over again, but whites were generally unwilling to admit their mistake, didn’t want integration, and sending blacks back to Africa, however desirable, wasn’t practical. Nor did all blacks want to go.

But a look at history reveals that blacks in general are perfectly capable of succeeding in America–when they’re allowed to. In each generation there were a few who became doctors, lawyers, or teachers in spite of the odds against them. In the 20th century particularly blacks were successful in music (though often taken advantage of by record companies and having their music copied by whites) and athletics. In the second half of the century they became successful in politics too. If not for segregation in most parts of the country, a form of white affirmative action which prevented competition no matter the rationalized reason, they would most likely have been successful in a wide variety of other fields too.

As it is, the resentment continues. James Baldwin’s question could be extended: why did Europeans need Jews? A recent article in The Atlantic focuses on the late 1930s when Nazi persecution of the Jews reached a higher gear, but before the Holocaust began, when Jewish professionals were forced to clean streets with toothbrushes. The article points out that they were treated this way not because they were subhuman, but because they were obviously human, to humiliate them. But for most of 2,000 years they had been Europe’s favorite group to persecute. Why was that? And why did blacks get awarded that position in the New World?

It seems to me the institution of slavery need not have taken the direction it did in the Americas. It would probably have been a corrupt institution anyway as power imbalances usually are, but it didn’t have to become identified with dark skin, nor did it have to be so cruel.

Why DID we need niggers? What does that say about us?

Martin and Malcolm and America


That’s the title of a book I picked up the other day. It’s not that recent, but Is a useful comparison of the two men, their background, beliefs, and the way they responded to the challenges of the Civil Rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were about the same age (Malcolm X four years older), but came from very different backgrounds. King was from the black middle class, which influenced his point of view and strategy. He saw nonviolence as the best way for black citizens to get the same rights as anyone else, believing that appealing to the consciences of white people would persuade them to treat black people just as they treated whites.

Malcolm X came from the lower class. His father had been a minister working for civil rights along the line of Marcus Garvey, who had advocated a return to Africa for black people. Malcolm’s father died (it’s uncertain if it was accidental, or murder), his mother was left with eight children she had trouble supporting. They all got very hungry, she became demoralized because she had to accept help, and eventually had a mental breakdown. The children were put in foster homes and survived, but were deeply traumatized.

At least Malcolm was, and spoke bitterly about it in later life. He became angry and rebellious partly because of that, and partly because of the behavior of his white foster family. Not because they were overtly abusive, but because they frequently used the word “nigger”, completely unaware of how Malcolm felt about that. He lived an “integrated” life in that he lived with white people and felt controlled by them. By contrast, King had attended segregated schools and developed a sense of himself independent of immediate white control. Malcolm X also mentioned having wanted to become a lawyer, and being told by his high school guidance counselor that becoming a carpenter would be more realistic. He didn’t finish high school and became a hustler on the streets first of Roxbury, Massachusetts, then in New York City. He went to prison at about age twenty, where he was inspired to change his life.

Though King came from the black middle class, he wasn’t immune to racism, and experienced it fairly often in the form of rudeness that reminded southern blacks that they could be seriously mistreated without being protected by law or anything else. He later said he decided to hate all white people, but that his parents reminded him they were Christians and weren’t supposed to hate.

Malcolm X’s experience was in the north, and he remarked that he thought he’d have preferred living in the south where whites were very clear how they felt about blacks. Northern liberals, he said, would pretend to be friends with black people, then desert them. He pointed to his white foster family as people who meant well, but had no idea how he felt about anything.

King’s family believed in the value of education, Martin became very well educated. He said that he felt eternally in debt to white figures like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and blacks like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He was also indebted to his parents who sacrificed so he could meet the residence requirements to get his PhD. Once he became ordained he decided to return to the south, feeling that he could best serve the civil rights cause there. Not long after he had taken his first post as minister came the Rosa Parks incident, in which she refused to give up her seat in  a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white person, and was jailed. He was practically drafted into being a leader of the movement in Alabama and Georgia.

Before this he had joined the NAACP and made speeches about social justice. And after the Parks incident author James H. Cone makes clear that he wasn’t telling blacks to love whites. He assumed that blacks already did because they were predominantly Christian, and didn’t behave violently towards them. Instead, he was telling blacks they it was appropriate for them to stand up for their rights, that segregation was an evil system, and their courage could change it.

Which it did. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted most of a year, and the bus company eventually capitulated. That’s what made Martin Luther King Jr. a national figure.

Malcolm Little, as he was known then, went to prison in 1945 at the age of about twenty. He was still angry, to the point of being nicknamed “Satan” because he swore so much. But that changed when he was told to cool down, and his brother would show him how to get out of prison. At about the same time another convict told him to start using his brains and got him to start learning to read and write.

This prepared him for the message of Elijah Muhammed, who claimed to be a messenger from Allah, and that the white man was the devil. Because of his experiences, this was a message Malcolm was prepared to receive, and he put all his energy into self-improvement, now feeling like a valuable human being, which he had never felt before. He began writing to Elijah Muhammed, as well as his siblings and some hustler friends. When he was paroled in 1952 he went to Detroit to live with his brother, got a job, and began attending the Nation of Islam (Black Muslim) temple in the city, and converting to Islam. Not long after, he met Elijah Muhammed in Chicago, and received his “X” from him. The X was because the name Little was a white man’s name, and his African name was unknown. It wasn’t long before he became a minister, and did so well organizing the Detroit temple that he was sent to organize the temple in New York City, and then became a sort of trouble-shooter for Elijah Muhammed, traveling all over to speak and organize.

Malcolm X’s view of the civil rights issue was much different from Martin King’s. King had developed intellectually and culturally, and he believed most other blacks could do the same if given the chance. Malcolm X’s experience on the streets convinced him otherwise. Poor blacks couldn’t believe white society had any interest in treating them with respect because they’d never experienced it. King had experienced racism, but not as often or in as severe a form as Malcolm X and the poor people he spoke for. In his autobiography, which I read shortly after it was published, he tells of a conversation he had with a street person in New York City which other black leaders he was with didn’t understand at all, since the person was talking slang they’d never encountered. This separation was the basis of much disagreement between him and King. Malcolm X disliked the idea of integration because it seemed something that whites could give to or withhold from blacks. He came from the Black Nationalist tradition which insisted that black and white needed to be separated so whites couldn’t interfere with black lives.

In the late 1950s my siblings and I had a comic book about King, Rosa Parks, and the Montgomery bus boycott. So I knew at least a little about him and his activities, though I didn’t follow him or them closely. I did happen to be watching with my grandmother TV coverage of the March on Washington in 1963, and heard his most famous speech, I Have a Dream. It made my hair stand up.

I encountered Malcolm X’s autobiography not more than two or three years later, and was greatly impressed by it. I have never had to change my opinion that both were great men and incorruptible in a way that few figures since have seemed to be.

King felt that justice transcended black and white, that all were simply human, and that integration was therefore his goal. He said that black and white had been put together in America at this time, and needed to work things out together. Malcolm X saw white people as evil, with few exceptions, though he began changing his mind in the last year or so of his life. King also saw beyond racism within the USA, and toward the end of his life began looking at injustice on the international stage, impelled partly by his view of the Vietnam war.

Malcolm X’s change of heart came partly because he was cast out of the Nation of Islam, partly because of jealousy of other less successful ministers, partly because he discovered Elijah Muhammed was corrupt and not interested in changing (Muhammed had been sleeping with his young “secretaries” and had produced several children out of wedlock). This was another trauma for Malcolm X, who had felt Elijah Muhammed to be his father, teaching him the right way to do things, including being very morally strict. Discovering his “father” was imperfect and didn’t wish to change was disheartening.

But it opened the door for changes for Malcolm X. He went on the Hajj to Mecca, and felt completely accepted there by white as well as black. He also visited African heads of state and got a more international perspective. On returning to the United States, he began his own organization to more fully take part in the civil rights struggle. He also went along with the view the national media liked, that he and King were opponents. Actually, at this time they had started to see each other as complementary, working towards the same goal from different perspectives and correcting each other’s mistakes. Malcolm X made a speech in Georgia, where most of King’s organization was, attacking King on several points, but afterward visited King’s wife to tell her he was attacking King because he thought that was how he could best help him. Malcolm’s being more extreme than King made King more acceptable to the powerful even as he became more radical.

1963 to 1965 was the time of King’s greatest popularity, the time of the March on Washington, his I Have a Dream speech, his reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills. After this he became increasingly disillusioned. He had believed that most whites recognized that racism was unjust, and that it was only a few violent bigots that blocked equal rights for blacks. When he began campaigning for civil rights in Chicago he began seeing that the whole structure of society was stacked against blacks, and very few whites wanted that to change. He remarked that he had been working so blacks could buy hamburgers in the same places as whites. Now he began to feel that his work needed to help blacks be able to AFFORD hamburgers.

Northern blacks were stuck in ghettos, and couldn’t get out. Few if any whites wanted blacks in their neighborhoods, and few wanted more than a token few blacks to get good jobs. Powerlessness encouraged blacks to indulge in alcohol and illegal drugs. The Nation of Islam encouraged them not to use the substances, but their program stopped there. Malcolm X remarked that if, after you stop drinking and drugging you’re still poor, not much has changed, unless you have a reasonable chance at good employment. Hardly anyone wanted black employees, no matter how qualified, for anything but menial work.

Where Malcolm X and Martin King most differed was over method of protest. King believed in nonviolence, rousing the consciences of one’s enemies with love. Kenneth Clark noted that this approach was difficult for many poor blacks, who naturally resented being mistreated. It was a good strategy in the South, though, especially in the age of mass media in which everyone could see on TV the brutality of the Southern response to the demand for rights. Malcolm X saw this method as encouraging blacks to be passive in spite of terrible mistreatment, though King was giving blacks the same message as Malcolm, essentially: stand up for yourself. You have the right to decent treatment and equal protection under the law.

But Malcolm X also had a point: that blacks had the right to defend themselves when whites brutalized them. Whites had never been reluctant to use violence against blacks and others. Cone points out that in American history there have always been “bad niggers” whom whites were reluctant to mistreat. Famous basketball player Bill Russell’s grandfather was such a person, driving the Ku Klux Klan away from his house after being threatened by them. The problem is, that’s not a good strategy for the whole country, in which blacks are no more than 13% of the population. Ronald Reagan, at the time Republican governor of California, made clear where he stood after the Black Panther Party asserted their right to bear arms in self defense by instituting gun control laws in the state.

Both leaders emphasized the need for education. King hired well-educated people to advise him, and took retreats during which problems could be studied and workable solutions proposed. Malcolm X said he wished he could go back to school at the level where he quit and cover everything he missed, eventually getting a degree. Whenever he had time he rapidly absorbed books he thought he could learn from.

It was tragic that Malcolm X was assassinated just after he had left the Nation of Islam and his point of view was still evolving. It’s impossible to know what he could have been and done had he lived.

This was also the time of King’s disillusionment. He felt the loss of Malcolm X as terrible, but he had himself begun changing his view. He began to see the civil rights problem as being economic as much as anything else, and that racism was destroying the promise of America internationally, as well as at home. He abhorred  the war against the North Vietnamese, who had cited the American Declaration of Independence in their constitution, as a war against dark skinned people controlling their own country. Many urged him not to criticize the war, but he felt that God had commanded it of him, and refused to back down. That, along with his work against the Northern white power structure most probably led to his own assassination. It’s also impossible to know what he could have been had he survived.

In the last years of his life he joined Malcolm X in condemning white America and telling us that if we don’t eradicate racism and other forms of brutality, we’ll destroy our nation. The destruction may not be obvious yet, but it’s clear that we haven’t (at least in sufficient numbers) changed out ways. Some will dispute that,  but it seems pretty clear that African-Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of the largest prison population on earth. That the country supposed to be the greatest democracy in the world has more prisoners than China or Russia ought to be alarming. China makes no pretence of being a democracy, Russia makes no more than a pretence.

Racism and class warfare are strikingly similar. Class isn’t always based on skin color, but the categories often overlap: dark skinned people are often in the lower class, which privileged classes have historically felt free to use violence against. Class prejudices have incited violence against striking factory workers or miners, regardless of color. That’s why Martin Luther King was organizing a Poor People’s march at the time of his death. He saw that race and class were closely connected, and more broadly, that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.

Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were totally committed to the struggle for civil rights. King said it was a privilege to suffer for a good cause, and trusted in God when he began denouncing the Vietnam war. He knew he was likely to die of violence, as did Malcolm X. The latter said, “If you don’t have a cause you’re willing to die for, erase the word ‘freedom’ from your vocabulary.”

While both were imperfect, they were also incorruptible: nothing could stop them from speaking their minds and organizing, except death. I think we yearn for people like that, and make heroes of people we HOPE are incorruptible. As far as I can see, no one in this country has adequately replaced them. We’re poorer because we lost them.

Reducing Overpopulation


There are too many people in the world, and they’re ruining it. This planet can comfortably support about two billion people. We have about 7 1/2 billion, and that makes a heavy contribution to environmental degradation. But there are historical solutions to this problem.

The Black Plague started in the Far East in the 14th century, and devastated both Asia and Europe. One estimate is 75 to 200 million died in Europe and Asia. In Europe, the estimates vary from 45-60% of the population. If the pre-plague population was about 80 million, about 50 million must have died. The plague continued to affect Europe and at least the Middle East for a long while, into the 19th century.

The time during which the plague was at its worst in Europe, 1347-1351, was terrifying; people felt it was the end of the world. But that turned out not to be true. In fact, it turned out that so much death created a financial bonanza for the survivors. There was much work to be done, and fewer people to do it.  Workers who might never have found good careers now did, and were paid better too. Something similar to the plague might be economically beneficial to the world. Fortunately, we have people who seem to be aware of the problem, and are working on a variety of solutions.

One strategy is to threaten North Korea. The government is certainly brutal and undemocratic, a good reason to dislike it, but it also has nuclear weapons (possibly with missiles capable of delivering them to our own country, and certainly to South Korea and Japan), chemical and biological weapons, and plenty of conventional weapons too. A war with them would ensure plenty of casualties, possibly enough to reduce population enough to save the world, more or less. But there are other such strategies in place.

One is to antagonize Middle Eastern countries. Progress has already been made in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, but the real coup would be to start a war with Iran (possibly involving Saudi Arabia too). This would also have the advantage of being profitable for American suppliers of arms and military equipment. Propaganda against Muslims helps advance this strategy.

At home, initiatives to reduce funding for Social Security, Medicare (and healthcare in general), education, police, and firefighters will certainly cause more deaths and cripple the economy too, by not providing the workers for the kinds of jobs needing extensive training. Refusing to regulate guns, or at least to enforce the laws already existing may be only a minor contribution, are possibly a step in the right direction.

More effective measures are a new tax plan which reportedly benefits the wealthy disproportionately, as well as pollution. Pollution causes illness, especially among the lower classes, who can’t afford to live where they won’t be affected, and lack of health care can prevent them from making effective complaints about their situation. Recent legislation has made pollution more legal, a quieter way of reducing population than military action. The same applies to efforts to prevent their amassing enough wealth to challenge the status quo. Voter suppression and gerrymandering are part of this strategy.

Another strategy with increasing effectiveness is use of dangerous drugs. The pharmaceutical company that formulated OxyContin and aggressively sold it, advertising it as effective in pain control and not dangerously addictive, has resulted in an opioid epidemic. When addicts ran short of OxyContin, they discovered that heroin was cheaper. The result was an annual death toll comparable to that from auto accidents. We may not have seen peak efficiency of this method yet.

And that’s not counting alcohol or tobacco, which have been with us much longer, of course. Given enough time, deaths from illegal drugs may catch up with those.

Another strategy is to weaken central government, an area in which considerable progress has already been made. A private army (or secret police force) independent of the government has been suggested for the president. If that is established, can private armies for corporations and wealthy individuals be far behind? We may yet see organized fighting in the streets. Whether this would lead to a civil war (a particularly effective way to reduce population) is uncertain, but it would be gratifying to some. Private corporate armies could also suppress laborers’ demands for wages and working conditions. The Civil War of the 19th century also led to strong economic growth once it was over. Another might be similarly advantageous.

We can thank our current administration for legislation that will encourage population reduction, and for repealing over-protective regulations. Those actions, plus the strategies outlined above, may be the best way to make America great again.



A biography of Vladimir Lenin shows his face on the cover looking very intense, even satanic. Conservatively inclined people will tell you he WAS satanic, maybe even literally. People more likely to sympathize with Communism (especially Soviet biographers) have often thought of him as a sort of Communist saint who would never have condoned the monstrous behavior of Joseph Stalin. Dmitri Volkonogov, the author who was granted access to archives in the former Soviet Union unavailable to most previous biographers, sees Lenin as more satanic than not.

Volkonogov says he himself was originally a Stalinist, and gradually became disenchanted and rejected Bolshevik totalitarianism, and confesses that giving up his view of Lenin was the last step in that process.

How did Lenin reach the position from which he could influence so many and inspire such different interpretations? It began with his older brother, Alexander, whose complicity in a plot to assassinate the Tsar, for which he was executed That must have made Lenin think about why Alexander had done it. Could his motivation have been as simple as revenge? To begin with, probably so.

Shaping his path was the times. Radicalism had become popular in Russia as many began to feel that the government was unjust and inefficient. Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel, What is to be Done turned him away from liberalism (which he condemned for compromising) and towards fanaticism, probably fitting comfortably with his anger over his brother. This seems to have been the first book he read which influenced his politics, well before he read Marx. Anger predisposed him to favor coercion and violence well before he could inflict those things on anyone. He could condemn the violence and coercion of the Tsarist government, but applied more extreme coercion himself when he came to power. Unwillingness to compromise hindered his ability to eventually run a government that could be supported by many different groups. He could control the Bolshevik faction, but no more than that until 1917.

Another influence was Sergei Nechaev, who had advocated terrorism as a revolutionary tactic (and been condemned for it by Marx and Engels), and who had served as model for for the main character of Dostoievsky’s The Possessed. The novel was based on a murder of a student by Nechaev, who was a conspiratorial revolutionary who favored overthrowing and exterminating authorities. Lenin condemned him too, says Volkonogov, but willingly used his methods whenever convenient.

Why did revolutionaries have such extreme ideas in Russia? Tsarism was an authoritarian form of government without the sort of checks and balances a democracy has. In addition, 19th century capitalism didn’t have a good record in its treatment of employees. Factory workers crowded into big cities, living in slums where they were subject to deprivation and disease. Dostoievsky’s novel Crime and Punishment gives a picture of the hard lives of the period.

But Lenin never experienced the plight of the urban poor. Though his great-grandfather had been a serf, his mother’s family were nobility, and his father (who died relatively young) was in charge of education in the city where Lenin grew up. After he died, Lenin’s mother received a fairly generous pension. Lenin practiced as a lawyer for less than two years, got bored with it (and didn’t make much money), and never worked for wages again. His mother supported him for much of his life, and so did the Russian Socialist Party, which he joined in his twenties, sometimes through legal contributions made to the party, sometimes by illegal ones. He was always, says Volkonogov, concerned with money, but always had enough to travel at will through Europe (where he spent most of his life after a term of imprisonment in Siberia) and living comfortably. Never having been poor himself, he lacked sympathy for anyone except professional revolutionaries like himself.

It’s interesting that, as Volkonogov observes, he aged rapidly after attaining power through the Bolshevik coup. That’s because he’d never had political power before, and relatively little responsibility. He loved traveling and taking vacations, which makes his behavior similar to (though not exactly parallel) Adolph Hitler, who notoriously had a hard time concentrating on work for long.

He also, according to Viktor Chernov, leader of the Socialist Revolutionary party, “…did not value the creative search for truth, he had no respect for the convictions of others, no feeling for the freedom that is integral to any individual spiritual creativity. On the contrary, he was open to the purely Asiatic idea of making the press, speech, the rostrum, even thought itself, the monopoly of a single party which he raised to the rank of a ruling caste.”

Lenin’s innovation to Marxist theory was to organize a revolutionary elite to start revolution in the name of the laboring class (proletariat). As it turned out, it was this revolutionary elite that became Lenin’s constituency. While his Bolshevik party was most popular after the spontaneous revolution in February 1917, which caused the Tsar to abdicate, that popularity didn’t endure through the Bolshevik seizure of power and the civil war. Another of Lenin’s innovations was to organize a state with only one legal political party. That party survived because it violently repressed anyone who disagreed with it.

In the 1930s Nikolai Bukharin, who had been one of the powers in the party, married a much younger wife. After he was purged (tortured into confessing being a spy and other unlikely things) his wife was sent to the gulag. One of the other prisoners hated her because she was a Communist. This was strange for her because Bukharin’s wife had never met anyone who WASN’T a Communist. After only about twenty years the Communist elite had become totally isolated from ordinary Russian life.

So why did Lenin even begin a revolution if he wasn’t going to listen to the workers he claimed to represent? Volkonogov’s answer is hunger for power.

When I began reading about the revolution in Russia the narrative would say a little about the time between the spontaneous uprising that led to the Tsar’s abdication in early 1917 and the coup the Bolsheviks pulled off that October. It was mentioned that Lenin and his associates had ridden in a sealed train through World War I Germany, but it didn’t occur to me to ask how that came about.

The answer is the First World War. The war was too much for the Tsarist system, which began coming apart. Casualties were unprecedented and workers weren’t getting enough to eat, which prompted them to strike, as the only way they might gain any power to change things and survive. That’s why people rebelled and the Tsar abdicated. But the war continued, and Germany wanted Russia out of the war. They sent Lenin to Russia to get Russia to sign a separate peace, and supplied him immense amounts of money for propaganda. The plan worked better than the Germans probably had ever envisioned.

The Germans picked Lenin because he was totally against the First World War, and wanted it to be a Russian civil war instead, which would give him the chance of taking power. Not exactly a common sort of patriotism.He hadn’t foreseen the February revolution; he wanted to get to Russia to take the revolution over, and the Germans wanted him to do exactly that, to take Russia out of the war.  He wanted to start a revolution which he thought would rapidly spread over the whole world and create a utopia. The Germans wanted him to do exactly that (surmising that any government he set up couldn’t possibly last). A fortunate confluence of interests, which the Communists covered up. I never heard of German complicity in the Russian revolution until the last decade or so.

What Lenin was doing was against Marxist theory, which said that Russian society was too primitive to transition into socialism. So he can only have instigated the October coup to obtain power. That would explain the direction Communist Russia took. It would explain the Communist refusal to share power with any other political party (other than with one faction of the Socialist Revolutionaries, for a short time), to create a totalitarian tyranny even worse than Czarist Russia had been, and to imprison and/or kill anyone they considered an enemy.

They didn’t treat industrial workers, their supposed constituency, particularly well, but it was peasants especially they treated as enemies, requisitioning so much of the grain they produced that they created an artificial famine that killed millions. That was during the civil war. Even worse was collectivization, when peasants were forced to live and work together en masse, and forced to give up their property. Even before this the Communists had been punishing, if not killing, the kulaks, or rich peasants who were supposedly taking advantage of the others. Another way of looking at it was that the rich peasants were the ones who worked most efficiently and productively–and were punished for it. Before World War I Russia had been a net exporter of grain. They continued to export it after the Communist takeover, but at the expense of the peasants.

The Communist regime was extreme, but the things they did weren’t totally unprecedented. Catholics and Protestants had fought the bitterly destructive Thirty Years War in the 17th century over their respective beliefs. European settlers in America tried to enslave the inhabitants when they weren’t trying to exterminate them. They did similar things in Africa, Asia, and Australia as well, killing millions to exploit the natural resources of those colonies. And Europe enthusiastically persecuted the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust. As bad as Soviet Russia was from the beginning, others had done similar things, often in the name of high ideals.

Volkogonov asks how revolutionaries like Lenin justified the gigantic social experiment Soviet Russia became. He might also ask about the abrupt introduction of technology with the Industrial Revolution, which created a higher standard of living than almost anyone had ever known (for those who could afford it), while also destroying the livelihoods of people in traditional industries. Some people used to throw their wooden shoes (sabots) into factory machinery, from which we get the word sabotage. Until the 19th century most people farmed, and were self-supporting. By the end of the century, and well into the 20th century, many farmers were forced out of their farms and into factories to support themselves and their families. For some (perhaps immigrants especially), factories were an appreciated opportunity. Others disliked the way they were treated there (long work hours and poor pay in dangerous working conditions), and began to organize strikes and unions. The way industries reacted to strikes may not have been as extreme as the behavior of the Soviets, but one wonders how they justified maiming and killing their employees.

The Communists had no patent on violence, but theirs was highlighted more than American and western European violence. John Wayne’s comment that our ancestors were perfectly justified in taking the land of Native Americans because they weren’t doing anything with it is a good example of the attitude of our ancestors towards violence against anyone they didn’t happen to like. So are American interventions into the affairs of other countries, which we would never allow to happen to us.

On the whole, it’s amazing the USSR was able to last as long as it did. Many people, including the Socialist parties in other countries, condemned their violence and intolerance of other points of view. I think they must have managed to inspire a lot of people with their vision, though by the end of World War II that faith must have been wearing thin for many.

Joseph Stalin surpassed Lenin in monstrous deeds, partly because he stayed in power considerably longer. But Lenin had set the pattern, and Lenin seems to have had charisma that attracted many to him.

After Lenin had a series of strokes he could no longer function as a politician, and died about two years later unable to care for himself or talk. The Party elite decided to mummify his body as a sort of holy relic to inspire Communist believers. They also mummified his ideas, which were fanatically narrow to begin with.

Russia managed to survive World War II in spite of having to do most of the fighting. When Stalin died millions of people must have been relieved. But, having made Lenin an icon, the government couldn’t question anything he had done,  nor right the wrongs he had commited. Khrushchev denounced the actions of Stalin (many of which he’d been complicit in), but didn’t dare touch the Lenin idol. That’s why the USSR collapsed about 25 years ago. Hardly anyone could believe in it anymore. When Mikhail Gorbachev instigated Russia looking at its past too many crimes were uncovered. ` The Communist form of government could no longer be justified, and the government fell with almost no violence, surprisingly. Those in power couldn’t justify violent repression. Lenin and Stalin must have turned over in their graves.

But Communism isn’t the only form of government that has justified use of violence to repress anyone opposing it. It’s been more extremely brutal (or obviously brutal) than many others, but force is the basis for any government. Future governments may or may not follow the Communist ideology, or be as openly brutal. A case can be made that tyrannies will (or maybe already are) following the pattern of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which citizens didn’t even notice their degradation. That kind of tyranny is even more difficult to resist.

How many people would be willing to give up a high standard of living for the good of their country, or the rest of the world? In this country, at least, we’re very attached to our comforts, even with evidence that our comfortable lives are destroying the ecology that keeps us all alive.

Even the obvious wrong-doing of Communism was hard for some to admit. Much more subtle wrong-doing will continue to be defended by many only willing to see one side of the question. People who benefit from wrong-doing rarely condemn it. If revenge was what Vladimir Lenin desired, he got it. Too bad his revenge victimized so many people, as did the vengeance of many others. Much of the history of the world is the history of ideologues persecuting anyone disagreeing with them. I don’t think the ideologues are going away.



The Vietnam Documentary


Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary about Vietnam is impressive, but various people have criticized it. A number of criticisms seem valid.

One is that, with all the many interviews in the film, only a very few explored the experience of the peasants, particularly of South Vietnam, whose experience of the war was long and arduous. The film concentrated mostly on the view of soldiers–American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese. One article noted that most soldiers served only for short periods, and didn’t stay in one place. Peasants, who didn’t have the luxury of moving (unless they left for a city to eke out a living in that environment), had to stay in one place and deal with soldiers of different allegiances, not to mention artillery, Agent Orange, etc. That gave a much different perspective, which arguably wasn’t represented in the movie.

Another criticism is that the broader perspective of Southeast Asia was hardly mentioned. The fall of the Cambodian government, due largely to bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail in eastern Cambodia and Laos, prompted the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge and their genocidal behavior. And while the presence of drugs in Vietnam, and the habits many soldiers brought back to the USA was mentioned, what wasn’t was that the CIA was largely controlling the trade in heroin, the opium being grown in the Golden Triangle, where, according to a NY Times article, some Chinese warlords settled after the Communists took over mainland China. The CIA, according to this article, has been involved in the drug trade since the Korean War.

The documentary hinted that the US had financial interests in Vietnam when it showed a clip of Richard Nixon explaining the Domino Theory and mentioning Vietnam’s nearness to Malaysia, from which we obtain rubber and tin, but never really talked about any financial motives for the American side of the war. Of course those who built military bases, military equipment and armaments must have made plenty of money, but there’s the question of whether there were natural resources we wanted from the country. I don’t know what they might have been, but won’t exclude the possibility.

Most of the reason for the war seems to have been ideological: The United States didn’t want any more successful Communist countries. There’s some debate about the situation, but briefly, the Communists under Ho Chi Minh had largely taken the country over by the end of World War II and wanted to remain independent. They had been a French colony, and the French returned after the war, trying to take the country back. The United States supported them in this, even though (most notably) President Eisenhower didn’t think the war winnable, and neither did Senator John F. Kennedy, an obscure figure at that time who later became president and committed the country to a larger military presence.

A friend, critiquing my previous post, defined the dynamic of our involvement as showing small left-wing countries who weren’t doing what we wanted that we could ruin them without suffering any great damage ourselves. Of course we DID suffer damage because of the war, but nothing like what the Vietnamese (both North and South) suffered. They lost 1-3 million people, many of them civilians, suffered ecological damage from substances like Agent Orange, and continuing problems from unexploded mines and artillery shells. The war also suddenly changed traditional patterns of life, often not for the better, as peasants who were displaced to cities often had to turn to prostitution and other corrupting practices to survive. A good many children of American soldiers were born to Vietnamese women, and probably weren’t well accepted. The USA lost 58,000 soldiers compared to millions of soldiers and civilians, and no damage to our land. Our damage was moral and psychological, primarily.

That’s not to minimize the suffering of our veterans, many of whom were physically and psychologically wounded. It’s only that far fewer of them were so badly damaged than the Vietnamese. That being so, US officials could see the costs of the war as acceptable, a “win” compared to Vietnam’s situation. That may have made us more willing to invade other small countries. The most notorious of these have been Iraq and Afghanistan, but there have been many others that we ordinary citizens have heard little about.

Much of the damage suffered by the USA has been division between people who found the war horrible and immoral, and other people who thought it justified and supported it more or less uncritically. Those divisions continue, and continue to cause distrust between people of different political beliefs, and between many people and their government. Many Americans thought their government would never lie to them. Few believe that any longer.

As my friend put it, it’s not accurate to talk about our involvement in Vietnam as a mistake that was based on good intentions. Our intention was intimidation. We made our point to other small countries, and then withdrew when it no longer suited us to fight. President Nixon had promised President Thieu that we would continue to supply the South Vietnamese army, but we didn’t. That’s at least partly because Nixon had his own problems with Watergate at the time, but things might not have been greatly different if he hadn’t. We never really cared about the Vietnamese, and when the war became too inconvenient, we abandoned them.

That was a moral mistake. I think it may have been a strategic mistake too. If we had been willing to help former colonies become independent we might never have had to have a Cold War with Communist Russia and China. According to the documentary, Ho Chi Minh became a Communist because of Lenin’s writings on colonialism. The USA didn’t have to accept the role the Communists cast us in. After all, we fought a revolutionary war ourselves, and left behind our colonial past. We could have conceivably had a hegemony based on friendship instead of power, where we persuaded various countries to do what we wanted instead of all but destroying some, and more or less forcibly meddling in the internal affairs of others.

Instead, we took on the role of the foremost colonial power, previously Great Britain (though other colonizers behaved no less viciously, only on a smaller scale), and repressed any small country whose behavior we didn’t like.

At one time, much of the world looked up to us. After the past seventy years I think fewer do, and we’ve managed to make ourselves hated in much of the world. We didn’t have to do that.


Explaining Hitler


Explaining Hitler is the title of a book by Ron Rosenbaum. The cover of it shows a picture of Adolph Hitler as a two year old. It’s a reminder that he was once as innocent as any other baby. Why did he grow up to be one of the most monstrous murderers of the 20th century (though Stalin and Mao arguably killed more)? Hundreds if not thousands of books have been written trying to explain why he hated so bitterly and turned to genocide as the way to right what he believed to be wrongs. There are all kinds of different views on the matter. Some deny the Holocaust, some deny that Hitler caused it, others try to apportion the blame. The book tries to take an objective look at the variety of views, none of which has been accepted as definitive. Probably none can be.

Hitler was strange. Pretty much everyone agrees on that. His strangeness may have been part of his appeal, which seems to have been pretty overwhelming, not only during his lifetime, but still. Why else would so many people continue to write about him and argue about the validity of their views? Why else would some continue to idolize him?

Part of his strangeness is his background. His paternal grandmother had a baby at age 42 without any husband, and she didn’t volunteer a name for the father. She was a maid, and rumor had it she’d worked for a Jewish family and been impregnated by the son of her employer (who would have been twenty or more years younger). But there wasn’t any such Jewish family in the area. Jews had been forbidden to live in that part of Austria, though some traders may have traveled there.

Some years later she married a man named Hiedler. He might have been the father of her baby, whom she named Alois. Alois eventually changed his name from Schiklgruber to Hitler (a slight spelling change from Hiedler), but waited until he was forty to do so. Why wait so long, and why change it at all?

Maybe he thought Hitler sounded better, and didn’t suggest the isolated area around Döllersheim in eastern Austria that he came from, which seems to have been inhabited by the Austrian equivalent of poor white trash. Interestingly, after Hitler united Austria and Germany the area of Döllersheim was used for artillery practice, effectively destroying the church in which the birth of Hitler’s father was registered. We don’t know if Hitler personally ordered this, but he may have. Hitler is also quoted as saying to a nephew who was trying to get money from him after he attained power in Germany that, “No one can know where I come from”. What was he trying to hide? Possible Jewish blood? Or something else?

Another aspect of his strangeness was that just as his paternal grandmother had supposedly worked as a maid, his mother (who was related to his father) had served his father as a maid while Alois’ first wife was dying, and had become sexually involved with him then, marrying him several years later. She supposedly always called him “Uncle”.

Adolph Hitler became sexually involved with his own niece, who was working for him as a maid, making it three generations of that pattern. After he became prosperous in the mid-1920s he hired his half-sister and niece to keep his Munich apartment clean. After he acquired the Berghof on a nearby mountain he had his half-sister stay there while his niece stayed with him in Munich. It was potentially catastrophic when she was discovered shot to death in her room in the apartment. No one knows exactly what happened. Hitler may have shot her, he may have told someone else to do it, or she may have shot herself. But her body having been found in his apartment made sexual and murder scandal quite likely. The incident was successfully covered up, but just why the young woman died has been a matter of debate since.

We know that Hitler was jealous of her, didn’t like her going out, and that they’d argued about her desire to go to Vienna. Whether that was enough to prompt the death is debatable. One suggestion that later emerged was that Hitler practiced a sexual perversion in which he had Geli squat naked above him and urinate (or possibly defecate). We don’t know if that is true either, and Rosenbaum sees the suggestion as a way of seeing Hitler as so completely strange that he was unrelated to ordinary people. None of us could possibly have done what he did because we ordinary people aren’t perverted. The allegation rests on the word of Otto Strasser, whose brother had been murdered by Hitler, so there’s reason for doubt. Whether or not the alleged perversion affected Geli so strongly that she committed suicide, most of the other women he got involved with attempted suicide. Because of him? Or because he was attracted to women prone to suicide attempts?

Psychohistorian Robert Waite sees Hitler’s relationship with his niece, as well as his having only one testicle (“Hitler had only one left ball…”),  as basis for diagnosing him as a borderline personality, the sort of person who does dangerous and dramatic things. The diagnosis may or may not have been accurate, but Waite thinks the missing testicle is very significant, and we don’t know if it’s true. One doctor who examined him said he was normal in that respect.

It’s true that, as Waite pointed out,  Hitler didn’t always seem to want to win the war he later started: he could have destroyed the British army at Dunkirk, but halted his troops for two or three days instead. And after Pearl Harbor he declared war on the United States, committing himself to a two-front war that he had vowed to avoid and excusing Franklin Roosevelt from having to persuade the USA to go to war against Germany. Not only that, but he rerouted trains that should have taken supplies to the Eastern Front to deliver Jews to the death camps instead.That’s not enough to make Hitler a madman, exactly, though. Hubris may be enough to explain that and his behavior when the Russians began getting the better of his troops, and he refused to let them retreat.

But questions remain, and are hard to answer. Was Hitler sincere in his desire to kill the Jews, or was he just an opportunist? Did he believe killing them was right to do? If he did, why is he quoted in the book recording his table talk during the war as commenting (to Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler) on the “rumors” about exterminating the Jews, when they were “merely parking them in swamps”, though they deserved to be exterminated?

And whether he was sincere or not, what caused him to want to do that? Was it simply that Jews (and others) cost too much to feed? Did he do it because he was a sexual pervert? Or was it (as has been suggested) that a billy goat took a bite out of his penis? That  a Jewish doctor took care of his mother during her fatal illness? Or that he caught syphilis from a Jewish prostitute?

Let’s consider some of the different interpretations of what he did.

Perhaps the earliest attempt to understand Hitler was by reporters of the Munich Post, which early decided he was bad news and tracked his behavior and that of his party members. Not just the street violence by the SA, Hitler’s private army, which often enough resulted in injuries and deaths, but the question of Hitler’s ability to live a comfortable lifestyle without visible means of support, and the sexual improprieties of some of his followers, including Ernst Röhm, head of the SA, who was notoriously homosexual.

They also covered the death of Geli Rabaul and the political murders the Nazis began committing in the last two years before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. As determined as they were, and as assiduously as they documented Hitler’s crimes, not enough people paid attention. Once he achieved power the paper was shut down and any of the reporters who were unable to leave the country in time were sent to concentration camps or murdered.

Fritz Gerlich was another journalist who did the same. He had been a rightwing nationalist like Hitler, and might have supported him, but when Hitler asked him for support, he asked Hitler to promise not to mistreat von Kahr, the politician he supported and not to try a putsch. Hitler promised, then did attempt a putsch (sudden revolution) and arrested von Kahr during the course of it. Gerlich could never trust Hitler again. He started his own paper, but he and the Munich Post both denounced Hitler as a counterfeiter who lied about what he wanted, who he was, and especially about the myth that Germany had only lost the First World War because it was stabbed in the back by politicians and financiers, which meant JEWISH politicians and financiers. This was more comfortable to believe than that Germany had lost the war.

Gerlich in particular was able to get under Hitler’s skin. In a piece he published in 1932 he analyzed Hitler’s nose according to the racial characteristics that Hitler endorsed, saying that it wasn’t a Nordic nose, but looked much more Mongolian, and Mongolian mixed with other races. This was a way of pointing out that Hitler looked very little like his supposed blonde- haired blue eyed Aryan ideal.

The racist stereotypes that Hitler supported also stated that real Aryans loved freedom and thought for themselves. This obviously contradicted what the Nazis were advocating, that Germans selflessly dedicate themselves to following their Fuhrer’s direction, and Gerlich commented that this too was, according to racist views, much more Mongolian than Aryan.

Just two years later a book was published in Germany lauding Genghis Khan for being willing to commit mass murder in building a state, the largest continental empire ever known. Hitler may or may not have read this book, but he absorbed the ideas from somewhere, because he gave his SS troops a pep talk just before the invasion of Poland, urging them to kill without mercy in order to secure the “living room” (lebensraum) that Germany needed. He told them to be like the Mongols because Stalin’s Mongols would have no mercy on them if they lost. Gerlich was somehow able to intuit what Hitler was thinking, and he was soon killed by the Nazis for his insight.

The problem with any one interpretation of Hitler is that there is almost always evidence to contradict it. During World War II the Allies compiled as much information about him as they could, and one part of it purports to be information proving Hitler never had sex, while another part says he had too much of it. Both can’t be true–maybe neither are.

Rosenbaum says there are a number of legends of evidence hidden, sometimes in Switzerland, sometimes known to one person who died or was killed before being able to tell it. One is the story that Fritz Gerlich managed to publish a pamphlet accusing Hitler of murdering Geli Rabaul. If it ever existed, it hasn’t come to light. Another says that the doctor who treated Hitler for hysterical blindness at Pasewalk at the very end of World War I deposited his case history in a bank in Switzerland, but entrusted no one with the information of how to retrieve it. Did this happen? Is the information still there?

Rosenbaum also mentions a story in the Hearst newspapers using Alois Hitler Jr as a source. In it, Alois says he’s the son of a cousin of Hitler’s father, when actually he’s Hitler’s older half-brother of the same father. Rosenbaum points to this as the kind of petty criminal outlook characterizing the Hitler family. Hitler was always very concerned about his image, and protecting it. We’re unlikely to find any more previously unknown evidence, and it’s questionable that any one thing could explain his actions anyway.

Since the war there have been further interpretations made. One interpreter, David Irving, lived in England during the war, and didn’t find information given by the Allies persuasive. He came to believe that, because no order signed by Hitler authorizing the Holocaust had been found, that it had all been the work of his underlings–until he came across papers written by Adolph Eichmann after the war referring to that order being received by Himmler. Rosenbaum reports that Irving says he thought, “Oops, how do I explain THIS away?”

He managed to find a way. He managed to meet a number of old Nazis, whom he respected for their intelligence and accomplishments, and their views of Hitler influenced him.

Perhaps the most important of these was Christa Schroeder, who had been Hitler’s secretary. Rosenbaum recounts a story he says rang true to him that Schroeder told Irving.

During the Night of Long Knives in 1934 Hitler purged the Nazi party, primarily of Ernst Röhm, who may have wanted authority over the German army, or parts of it, and whom the army cordially detested. Hitler also had other enemies and dissidents murdered at the time.

Christa Schroeder accompanied him to the SA barracks in Bavaria, where he arrested Röhm and other SA leaders. Afterwards they flew back to Berlin, where Schroeder got something to eat, and Hitler disappeared. When she saw him again he told her he had just had a shower and was now as clean (probably meaning as innocent) as a baby.

Franz Kafka, the famous writer, has often been credited with predicting the sinister bureaucracy the Nazis employed, writing stories like “In the Penal Colony” and The Trial. Perhaps amusingly, an American GI in 1946 visited Hitler’s Munich apartment in which Geli Rabaul had died, and found a lawyer named Kafka living there.

But there are deeper connections than that. Dr. Eduard Bloch, who cared for Hitler’s mother during her terminal illness of breast cancer, used iodoform  to pack her wound. Rudolph Binion argued that Bloch had used too much iodoform, causing Klara Hitler great pain without any good effect. Hitler later compared the Jews to “abscesses” on the body of the nation, which played into his fantasy of himself as “Dr. Hitler” purifying the German people.

Of course this is another one- explanation theory, which makes it dubious, as does Hitler’s documented gratitude to Dr. Bloch. But yet another Kafka enters the story, a nephew of Dr. Bloch, who deeply loved and respected him, and resented Binion’s theory, saying there’s no way any one Jew was responsible for the Holocaust. He, another respected scholar, followed Binion around and heckled him wherever he spoke, and said he would never stop.

Claud Lanzmann, who created the 9 1/2 hour documentary Shoah. took a different approach, from a concentration camp guard who reportedly told a prisoner, “There is no why here.” His rationale seems to have been that trying to understand such horror inevitably leads one to excusing it, which is at least a questionable idea, and which led Lanzmann to attack anyone who disobeyed that commandment and others, even survivors of the death camps. While there is some virtue in denying that understanding all inevitably means forgiving all, Lanzmann himself apparently behaved as tyrannically as the Nazis in denying others the right to their opinions.

One of the people he attacked was Dr. Louis Micheels, himself a survivor of the camps, who insisted, there MUST be a why. He and his fiance had been sent to the camps, where they were separated. Both survived, but didn’t marry each other. They stayed in touch, though, and in the 80s she appeared in a Dutch documentary about the period. Also appearing was a Dr. Munch, who had refused to be a “selector” choosing which Jews would immediately perish when they arrived at the camp (Auschwitz, in this case). He was the only one of the Nazi doctors to be acquitted in a war crimes trial, at least partly because many survivors were grateful to him, even though he hadn’t resisted the brutal system in other ways. Though Micheels thought the film was flawed, he also thought it raised important questions, and invited Lanzmann to see and discuss it. Lanzmann accepted the invitation, then denounced the movie and Micheels for “revisionism”, which apparently means Micheels was trying to excuse the Nazi crimes. Rather unlikely for an Auschwitz survivor.

One possibly valid question is how the Jews could still believe in God after the Holocaust. If the Jews were still the Chosen People, how could God have refrained from intervening. Dr. Yehuda Bauer says that God can’t possibly be all-powerful and just too; if he’s all-powerful, he’s Satan; if he’s just, he must want to intervene, but not be powerful enough to make a difference. Of course there are still Jewish believers, whether or not they’ve thought the issue through as thoroughly as Bauer. Or are we (the whole world, rather than just the Jewish world) supposed to take the Holocaust as a moral lesson for which we should be grateful? Thus, the question is less whether God is dead than whether he has responsibility for, or complicity in, Hitler’s “radical evil”, a more satisfying formulation than his being, or the Holocaust’s being, the product of blind forces no human can withstand. As one commentator put it,, “No Hitler, no Holocaust.” That does seem to be valid.

Emil Fackenheim was struck by the idea expressed by some people he met that we all have a “Hitler within”, an idea he strongly disagreed with. He saw Hitler’s evil as so radical that it couldn’t be found in ordinary human nature. For this reason, he didn’t speak about Hitler or the Nazis for twenty years, until the Six Day War in 1967 between Israel and a coalition of Arab States. He feared a second Holocaust, and decided he must say SOMETHING. He decided he needed to add to the 613 rules of worship and behavior of Orthodox Judaism, so he added: “Jews are forbidden to allow posthumous victories to Hitler.”

He, like Lanzmann, saw a danger in explanations of Hitler. Too much empathy could lead to excusing him. So he recommended use of empathy to understand Hitler, but a resistance to any temptation to explain away his evil. So not allowing Hitler posthumous victories means not only opposing anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, but not refusing to believe in God anymore because of the Holocaust, when one could hardly be blamed for believing that God had failed to hold up his end of the bargain.

George Steiner, the novelist, wrote a novel entitled, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. This has Hitler escaping Germany to South America, being tracked down and forced to defend himself at a trial conducted in the wild. According to Rosenbaum, even some of Steiner’s supporters believe that he let A.H. get away from him, and Steiner had to wonder himself after seeing his character in a dramatization of his novel, and hearing him applauded.

Steiner said that he had already known he had to be careful with the Hitler character, and had vowed not to let his work be translated into Hebrew or German. The Word is very powerful, and can be very destructive. One of Steiner’s earliest memories was of the voice of Hitler on the radio, and of having to flee. His family made it safely to America (on the last ship from Genoa), and as he grew up his father’s dream for him was to return to Europe because if he didn’t, Hitler would have won a victory. Europe would be Judenrein (Jew-free). His father felt the same as Fackenheim.

Steiner became fascinated with Hitler. He knew Hitler and the philosopher Wittgenstein had both gone to secondary school in Linz, and must have at least seen each other in passing, as there was only two year’s difference in their ages. He thought that when Hitler was in Vienna he must also have passed people like Freud and Mahler on the street, and asked that as many photos of the period as possible be searched to see if they could be found together. He mentions that Karl Kraus, a very popular literary satirist in Vienna in 1909 said, “Soon in Europe they will make gloves of human skin.” He sees Franz Kafka too as having either conjured up the concentration camp world, or intuited its coming. The fascination of the best and worst aspects of European civilization existing together, some of them in the same city where they could potentially interact as individuals, and be inseparable. The highest and lowest intermingled.

There’s a photo of Hitler in 1919 standing on a street corner in pouring rain, unnoticed by anyone. As each year progresses he’s noticed by more and more people, which Steiner ascribes to the power of his words, which he compares to Martin Luther’s. This was the proximate inspiration of the novel, part of which wrote itself as he sat down to it.

The climax of the novel is when Hitler is being tried in the jungle when the people who tracked him down are unable to bring him back to civilization. At the end of the trial he speaks, saying that his mission had been to eradicate the people who had brought the idea of conscience into the world which, and whose religion had engendered Christianity and Islam, which had crippled the world with unnecessary suffering. A kind of reprise to Dostoievsky’s Grand Inquisitor. The idea that the religious ideas of the Jews had asked too much of humanity, and had a malignant effect on them. He compares what the Nazis did to what had been done earlier by the Belgians in the Congo, the concentration camps invented in the Boer war in South Africa, and the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. “We were not the worst,” he says. He adds that in a sense he is savior of the Jews because his war on them made it possible to return to Palestine and found the state of Israel.

Did Steiner somehow reveal Hitler’s actual thoughts? Are the thoughts and words attributed to him in the novel so potent that they can convert others into anti-Semitism and what goes with it? Steiner didn’t think so. He thought they were questions that needed to be answered, perhaps first and foremost by Jews. Rosenbaum asked him if the Jews shouldn’t have conceptualized self-transcendence. Should they have apologized for it?

Steiner answers, no. That they would have done better to demand it more of themselves than of other people (which certainly applies to Christians and others as well), but that it would indeed be a very good thing if humans learned to love each other as themselves. Some do, some have, but these are rare. And humans hate being told they must be better. They are likely to hate anyone who tells them that, especially if the teller isn’t clearly better themselves.

This seems a sophisticated way of blaming the victim. However, Steiner goes even further. He believes the Jews as victims were the occasion for lowering the bar of humanity, showing just how bestial humans could be, and that the difference between the Holocaust and previous massacres was ontological: Jews were murdered not because of what they had done, but because they existed. Those who performed this obscenity became worse than beasts. In his willingness to look at the implications of the Hitler of his novel, and what his Hitler says, Steiner is playing with fire, says Rosenbaum. The obscenity that was applied to the Jews can also be applied to any other group.

Other voices shift the blame elsewhere. Daniel Goldhagen blames the German people as a whole for accepting the propaganda of the anti-Semitic press of the late 19th and early 20th century, and being all to willing to murder Jews when they were asked to. This assertion is answered by George Steiner, who says that the Germans may have been the LEAST anti-Semitic of the European countries. Had the Holocaust started in France, he says, it could have been much worse. Also worse seem to have been Austria and eastern European countries. It’s possible to see the passivity with which the Jews refused to fight back in Germany as a love for the country that had allowed them to assimilate and achieve. Anti-Semitic as it may have been, it was better than other countries. All of which is not to absolve Germans or anyone else of the Holocaust.

Hyum Maccoby blames Christianity, and with some reason. Blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus begins in the New Testament and continues for almost 2,000 years. Once Christians achieved political power in the 4th century CE they began persecuting other Christians for heresy, pagans, and (of course) Jews. Persecution was relatively mild at first, but one landmark of change was at the beginning of the First Crusade when the collected crusaders decided to massacre the local Jews.

From then on persecution became more severe. Jews were expelled from England. They were forcibly converted in Spain, children being kidnapped from their parents to be brought up Christian, parents sometime killing their children to prevent it. Eventually some willingly converted, but then practiced rituals of Judaism at home. When this was discovered it set off the Spanish Inquisition in a burst of paranoia, which led to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain too, where they had lived peaceably with Christians and Muslims for much of the previous 700 years. The next step was putting them in ghettos. Some eventually left the ghettos and tried to assimilate, but were still resented. Hitler, at least in some respects, was the culmination of all this history.

And the ostensible cause is darkly ironic. We celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, the appointed sacrifice, then blame the Jews for doing the dirty work from which we all supposedly benefit. On top of that, the more you hate Jews  the more you are saved yourself because you can’t be implicated in the crime of killing Jesus. Just as hating Jews means you couldn’t possibly be one.

Rosenbaum recalls medieval “debates” in which a Christian would debate a Jew as to which religion has the truth. Of course the debates were fixed. Christians had to win. The best Jews could do was try to maintain their dignity in a discussion they had no interest in.

Maccoby sees St Paul as perhaps the originator of Christian anti-Semitism since he purged early Christianity of Jewish law, converting gentiles and telling them they didn’t need to be circumcised  or follow the dietary laws. When the gospels were written (somewhat later than Paul’s epistles to the churches he founded) the story of Judas became prominent as the archetype of betrayal, and considered by many to be the archetypal Jew. What many fail to consider is that Jesus must have been a singularly poor judge of character to make Judas a disciple in the first place, if Judas actually was as portrayed. But this portrayal of Judas and the Jews for 1800 years made the Holocaust possible. Maccoby thinks Christianity would be (and would have been) better served by concentrating on Jesus’s life rather than his death.

There’s yet another interpretation of Hitler and what he did, a “mystical” one. In The Spear of Destiny Trevor Ravenscroft said that Hitler, during his sojourn in Vienna as a young man, had found ways to expand his consciousness and had found a spear which had belonged to one of the Holy Roman emperors in a museum, where he was observed by another young man, a student of the occultist Rudolf Steiner, who saw how much he coveted the spear.

Ravenscroft’s thesis, which I don’t assert the truth of, but which fascinated me when I encountered his book more than forty years ago, was that the spear was the one which had been thrust into the side of Jesus when he was on the cross. Jesus’s blood had made the spear a formidable magical implement, so that anyone who possessed the spear would make history on the world stage.

One possessor of the spear was the emperor Constantine, who made Christianity legal in the Roman empire, giving it political power which eventually made it the national religion and banished paganism. Another was Frederick Barbarossa, one of the outstanding Holy Roman emperors. Hitler wanted it too. But in his process of expanding his consciousness he took mescaline, which Ravenscroft interpreted as black magic, especially when used for the purpose of accumulating political power. In doing so he allowed the spirit of the AntiChrist to possess him, which seems a cogent explanation of his behavior–if you can believe in the AntiChrist. It’s not hard to think of his behavior as figuratively demonic, though I think Ravenscroft belives it to be LITERALLY so.  I neither include nor exclude this possibility.

The final view the book deals with is that of Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who doesn’t see Hitler as ever being hesitant about the Holocaust, but cunningly making it seem as if he was. She sees him as an actor, but not as an actor who is merely an opportunist, but an actor who creates a persona that affords him deniability. She sees him doing this through “esoteric” language that his inner circle would understand, but others would not. He is a criminal not only in small ways, but on a grand scale, and protects himself with a counterfeit persona which seems still to convince some today.

She comes to this conclusion from what he says in Mein Kampf  about being in the sanitarium in Pasewalk, where he was treated after being gassed and apparently suffering a case of hysterical blindness, perhaps brought on by the news of Germany’s surrender to the Allies after a naval rebellion and a revolution had forced the abdication of the emperor. She quotes him as saying, “There is no making pacts with Jews; there can only be the hard either-or.” 

This is when Dawidowicz believes he made the decision, though she adds that he may have made it as late as 1924 when he was writing Mein Kampf. She also thinks he decided to conceal his ambition from all but his inner circle. Extermination on such a scale isn’t a goal to advertise. If she’s correct, he concealed his goal very well. Most historians think he gradually became more radical in what he was willing to do as he acquired more power, so that he didn’t REALLY decide on extermination until 1941 when that became more convenient than continuing to feed them. That’s probably a good model for the murders committed by Stalin and Mao: they were willing to commit them, but murder wasn’t their goal from the beginning.

Hitler did make remarks about hanging Jews from every lamp post, or that having gassed thousands of them in 1918 might have prevented German defeat, but most people didn’t take that too seriously. Dawidowicz points out that just after the war Hitler was still attached to the military, who liked what he was saying, but didn’t want him speaking too plainly. So he used code words: “usurers”, “profiteers’, “exploiters”, all descriptions that had been applied to the Jews before.

As Rosenbaum says, Dawidowicz doesn’t have solid proof that Hitler had decided what he was going to do so early, but neither can anyone else prove that he hadn’t. Hitler is quoted in a speech from 1937 to a Nazi party group in which he says that everyone knows their goal, but that he will do whatever he can to maneuver the enemy into a corner from which he can’t fight back.

She gives several indications of how he concealed his direction of events. He gave no order for Kristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom against the Jews in 1938, but when Himmler tried to get Goebbels to stop instigating the violence, Hitler prevented him.

In January 1939 Hitler made a speech saying that if the Jews started a war it would be their destruction. In September 1939 he spoke declaring war on Poland. This speech stands out because it was one in which he never mentioned Jews. But no less than four times in the next three years he referred to the September speech as the one in which he had threatened the Jews. Dawidowicz takes this as meaning that extermination was the REAL reason for starting the war, and that Hitler “slipped” in thinking he had threatened the Jews in September rather than January.

And she says the threat is also linked with laughter. In several speeches Hitler says the Jews have laughed at him, but that they are laughing no longer. It’s pretty hard to imagine Jews laughing at him in the late 1930s, let alone the 40s. The laughter is really Hitler’s. The extermination of Jewish laughter is the extermination of Jews.

Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper believed that Hitler was “convinced of his own rectitude”. That he was doing something right and appropriate, but that doesn’t fit this kind of laughter. This laughter is, as Rosenbaum puts it, from someone who RELISHES what he’s doing, and the illicit nature of it. While he liked to picture himself as Dr. Hitler destroying a life-threatening infection, he was enjoying what he did in a way that actual doctors don’t. Killing bacteria isn’t something they take personally. Killing Jews was something Hitler DID take personally.

According to Milton Himmelfarb, abstract historic forces didn’t compel Hitler to kill Jews: he did it because he wanted to, and perhaps he saw what he did as an ironic form of art, like the motto at the entrance to the death camps: Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes freedom. A last good joke on the Jews before they died. Perhaps, Rosenbaum suggests, it’s easier for us to believe that Hitler was some kind of freak, insane or perverted, an opportunist who believed in nothing, and only killed Jews because it was convenient. Instead, this picture is of Hitler who knows his own malignance and delights in it.

Emil Fackenheim called Hitler “an eruption of demonism into history”. That could be seen as justifying the idea that he was possessed by the spirit of the Antichrist. Doesn’t that explain his actions as well as anything? Of course there have been mass murderers in the past, and Stalin was already responsible for the death of millions by the time Hitler came to power. Can we explain either of them by any abuse they suffered as children? Or did they simply have a predilection for evil and a genius for getting into position to exercise it?

But it does seem better to say Hitler was as consciously evil as it’s possible for a human to be, and not liberate his memory from responsibility for what he did and caused. That would be, as Fackenheim said, allowing Hitler a posthumous victory.