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Kostas Sapardanis

Monty Python, the Life of Brian and the Holy Inquisition

Monty Python (left to right): John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman (photo)
Monty Python (left to right): John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman (photo)

Monty Python may have expected some backlash, but they certainly did not expect a Spanish Inquisition when they released Life of Brian (1979). However, that was quite what they were met with when the movie first came out and a large number of priests throughout the Western world who wanted to make a name for themselves attacked them, claiming to be offended.

The movie was banned in Norway, Ireland, cities of England (by local councils) and by the TV channels BBC and ITV for the “fear of offending Christians of the country”. Many times the ban came from people who hadn’t even seen the movie, based on descriptions provided by religious groups, like the “Nationwide Festival of Light”. Christians, Jews and Lutherans protested its screenings, and, whoever tried to watch it, first had to pass through raging crowds of fanatics. Some bans lasted until the 21st century (as in Wales and Germany).

The movie’s commercial success was not seriously affected from all this row, since it became the most successful British movie of the year, with buses carrying viewers from where it was banned to neighboring cities that allowed its screening. The ridiculousness of all this did not escape the Pythons, who used it to advertise the movie in Sweden with posters climing the movie was “So funny it was banned in Norway!”

The movie itself happens to be innocent to accusations of blasphemy, since the protagonist Brian is clearly a different person than Jesus, as stated clearly in the second scene of the film (right after the introduction). The script wasn’t even addressing Christianity specifically, but the tendency of people applying meaning even where there is none; as illustrated in the scene where Brian, in order to escape Roman soldiers, starts preaching random messianic rants among other would-be religious leaders doing the same. When the Romans pass by him and the danger is over, he quits his improvised sermon mid-way and starts to walk away, failing to conclude with the heavenly rewards his impromptu version of piety would endow any believers with. Only then does his audience become excited with curiosity and start following the unwilling new messiah to reveal his “secret”; no matter that he insists of having invented the whole thing.

A comedy taken too seriously
A comedy taken too seriously

Starting point of writing the movie was a scene, which was never included in the final script, where Jesus’ cross brakes because of the inability of the carpenters who made it, and Jesus angrily gives directions on how to build it properly. After discussion among the members of the comic team they decided that it would be unfair to satirize Jesus himself, as they thought “he’s not particularly funny, what he’s saying isn’t mockable, it’s very decent stuff” (from The autobiography of the Pythons by the Pythons).

When the original producer read the script he withdrew his financial support and Eric Idle turned to George Harrison, ex-member of The Beatles, for help, who accepted to found the company Handmade Films and fund the team with 3 million dollars “because he wanted to see the movie” as he said, buying the “world’s most expensive cinema ticket” as Terry Jones put it.

During an interview-debate among two Pythons against a Bishop and a professional Christian, John Cleese claims that the movie does not satirize Jesus but the close-mindedness he himself experienced in childhood. Michael Palin tried to explain that the movie is not religious satire but shows how some aspects of the modern British society and politics abuse the biblical stories.

The movie was filmed in Tunisia, using the stage of Jeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (photo)
The movie was filmed in Tunisia, using the stage of Jeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (photo)

Among the absurdities of the film’s reception, what is usually forgotten is the political satire of the movie. When Brian visits the local gladiator arena, he meets the all-too-many “Judean fronts” that resist (with inconsequential effects) the Roman Empire. Among them, the ‘People’s Front of Judea’ stands in the lead against the ‘Judean People’s Front’, the ‘Judean Popular People Front’ and the ‘Judean Popular Front’ (a single, old, lonely, Trotskyite-like figure). They are separated by animosities, schisms and strives that are lost in the memories of the “activists” themselves, who don’t even remember which Front they belong to or why they split in the first place. At the same time, none of them succeeds any effective action, they are all lost in Daedalic bureaucratic procedures and endless party meetings involving surreal-like rhetoric.

A Greek like myself will be reminded of the triptych GCP (Greek Communist Party), ML-GCP (Marxist-Leninist-GCP) and GCP-ML (GCP-Marxist-Leninist), with the latter two (according to unverified information that are lost in thousands of pages in dusty books) having split because they could not agree on whether a post-revolutionary Greece would do better to become an agricultural economy or an industrial one!

How the protesters greeted would-be viewers of the film… (photo)
How the protesters greeted would-be viewers of the film… (photo)

Watching the movie today, all these reactions might seem merely colorful, as if removed from the modern reality of Christianity. The Church has lost much of the power it had just 40 years ago, and TV shows like South Park can illustrate Jesus himself in as a ridiculous depiction as they like, practically undisturbed. But, like Hitchens reminded us, as the rats in Camus’ Plague that, though they retract in the sewers at the end of the novel, they will always constitute a threat to the inhabitants, so will the Church, even today, once in a while might remember its former glory, however distant, to show her true face and wear the red robes of the inquisitor once more; to silence even a facebook commenter or the actors of a theatre play. Of course, today it is Islam that plays the central role in this story, silencing with threats (and acts) of death whoever dares to utter the wrong words or draw the wrong image. Perhaps it’s time for a sequel, placed in Medina.

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Raif Badawi’s 1000 Lashes: a book for liberty

“Freedom of speech is the air that any thinker breathes; it’s the fuel that ignites the fire of an intellectual’s thoughts.”
Raif Badawi

The title of his book 1000 Lashes and its subtitle Because I Say What I Think is all you need to know about the case of Raif Badawi, and the urgency for something to be done about it.

Arrested for insulting Islam on the website Free Saudi Liberals and tried on several charges including apostasy, violating Islamic values and propagating liberal thought, he was convicted to ten years in prison, a thousand lashes and a fine of more than a quarter million dollars. He has yet only received the first fifty lashes. The following flogging sessions have been cancelled due to his weak health –he is a diabetic, has hypertension and is of a slim build.

Footage of the flogging can be seen here. To the untrained eye it looks rather mild –nothing like the long whips flogging a prisoner tied up on a wooden pole one might see in a movie. In reality, this particular kind of flogging, especially in repeated sessions, does quite a lot of damage –and a permanent one at that. Make no mistake; this is torture. Amnesty International illustrates and explains what happens to the body after the infliction of such a punishment.

It seems –and should be– redundant to condemn this barbaric practice. Who in their right mind would not, but for those who prefer to take moral guidance from the divine and care more for supporting archaic traditions rather than the well-being of their fellow man? Plenty of people, sadly. And if Raif had escaped in time from his theocratic country to take shelter in the West, like so many others have from all around the globe, he would be deemed an “islamophobe” and a bigot if not a fascist neo-Nazi; for nothing other than what led him in prison in the first place –the criticism of Islam.

Raif’s book, a collection of some of his now unavailable online articles, offers a glimpse in a wonderful mind. He does not mince words when he criticizes his country’s backwardness. “Look at all the countries that are based on a religious ideology”, he writes, “look at their people and the generations born into it: What do they have to offer human civilization?” Those who thirstily gathered on the square to witness his flogging, triumphantly shouting ‘allahu akbar’, make his point perfectly -if it needs be made.

“Any religion-based state has a mission to limit the minds of its people, to fight the developments of history and logic, and to dumb down its citizens”, he writes. He himself is the proof of what he claims here; reading 1000 lashes one can only lament on the human value squashed by theocracy and religious fervor.

The solution is evident to Raif. Only secularism and liberalism can bring the Arab countries out of their cul-de-sac; lifting them “out of the third world and into the first world”. Not the persecution of religion, but the founding of a state, not according to the needs of only one ideology or group while excluding everyone else, but accommodating every individual. For him, “liberalism means simply to live and let live”. He dares to (successfully) restate a famous quote defining liberalism: “your freedom ends on the outskirts of the freedom of others.”

“the society needs to open its collective mind to all ideas and ideologies. It needs to give its people the chance to listen to the opinions of others, and then examine them critically instead of rejecting them prematurely. Such a creative dialogue based on positive critical thinking can enhance and develop ideas.”

The articles in this short book bring shame to those in the West who have long forgotten what it means to be unfree and have lost the will to stand up for the enemies of liberty. And what a shame it is for people like Ayan Hirshi Ali and others who are true liberals and truly feminists but dare to speak out against the one religion that is currently leading worldwide in the impingement of such values only to be called names and threatened by such cowardly individuals.

If anyone deserves the term “classical liberal”, Raif certainly does. If you want to help him, visit this site and buy his book (which includes a foreword by physicist Lawrence Krauss). You will not regret it.

The invention of Utopia and its self-confutation

“More must be looked upon rather as the last of the old than the first of the new”
William Morris, foreword to ‘Utopia’

The presentation of a realistic depiction of an ideal world by Thomas More gave birth to a new literary genre, the “utopian”. Drawing from Plato’s Republic and Christianity, he imagined, in 1516, an ideal state in a faraway, unexplored country called Utopia, an insular country that does not exist (“u-topia” means “non-place” in Greek). He describes this state through the words of one Raphael Hythlodaeus, an imagined inhabitant of Utopia and explorer, whose testimony he presents in the form of a dialogue between him and Morus, an alter ego for the author. Hythlodaeus’ positions are posited in such a way that they come in contrast with 16th century’s British society.

Thomas More (1478-1535), portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527 (photo)
Thomas More (1478-1535), portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1527 (photo)

More describes a series of activities and perceptions of a democratic society, starting with crime punishment and, therefore, the problem of justice. Hythlodaeus says that the death penalty for the crime of theft is not fair, as it is too harsh to fit the crime and does not avert future such crimes. On the contrary, it can become a motive for an escalation in crime, since, if someone has stolen, then it’s in his favor to murder the victim of the theft so that there will not be any possible witnesses in case he’s caught. The punishment will be the same anyway. The death penalty seems to only serve the thirst for revenge of the wronged ones, without looking out for the general good. It’s like the teachers who hit their students with more fervor than they have when actually teaching.

Moreover, if theft is not accompanied by violence, the thieves should not even be imprisoned, but forced to penal labor and otherwise live freely. And, since their work will benefit the society, they should be fed adequately. This should not be the cause of much surprise, since labor in countries other than Utopia is a kind of slavery anyway, and since the Utopian thieves are put to hard manual labor. The only intrinsic punishment for these kinds of crimes in Utopia is the feeling of shame forced on them, as it cannot be forgiven that anyone would be raised in such an ideal country with all the comforts and opportunities one could wish for, to end up doing such immoral acts.

Lawyers are obsolete in Utopia (note that More was a lawyer himself), since the laws are very few and written in such a way as to be easily understood by everyone and so that anyone could represent themselves in court, where they are called simply to explain their case, as they would to a lawyer. Why should there be an intermediary who usually has in mind to blur the argumentation and use holes in the legislature to satisfy the interests of each client? Most laws are written by the rich anyway, to protect their wealth and not the interests of the public (one might add here that laws are also written by lawyers who make them complex and incomprehensible enough so that their employment is necessary). Modern societies, says Hythlodaeus, are conspiracies by the rich against the poor.

In Utopia, the working hours are six a day, three in the morning and three in the afternoon. The rest of the hours of the day are spent for increasing one’s knowledge and for attending public lectures. These hours are enough to produce all necessary commodities for a good life, given that in Utopia whoever is able to work is able to find employment, and there are no slackers. We can understand this by observing how many unemployed usually consist a part of any society. Women did not work in More’s times (therefore 50% of the population was not employed) and if we count the rich, who don’t work, their servants, who are not needed in Utopia, the priests, who don’t produce anything, and all those who, pretending to be helpless, beg for money (in contrast to people actually unable to work) we will see that, in reality, only a tiny fraction of the population works hard and the rest benefit from their labor.

Depiction of Utopia island, in the original edition of 1516 (photo)
Depiction of Utopia island, in the original edition of 1516 (photo)

Fanciful clothing and shiny jewels are not appreciated in Utopia. Why would they be impressed by the shining of a stone, when they can marvel at the night’s stars? Why should they be seduced by the foolish idea that someone is worse for wearing lower quality clothes? Only children wear jewelry, but when they grow up they forsake them as they do their toys, as something useless, as an immature avocation.

“Restrict the right of the rich”, Hythlodaeus continues, “to buy up everything and then to exercise a kind of monopoly. Let fewer people be brought up in idleness. Let agriculture be restored and the wool manufacture revived, so there will be useful work for the whole crowd of those now idle”. Until all these happen we have no right to talk about justice and punish thieves, since it is the conditions that force them to steal. We cannot punish someone who, since he was a child, was destined to commit crimes because of our own inability to organize a just society. We create the thieves and then punish them for committing theft!

Instead of a king trying to expand his rule on larger lands, it would be better if he took care of his subjects in the land he already rules over. Larger lands mean more subjects and greater difficulty in dealing with already existing problems that will grow bigger due to the land expansion. There is no grandeur in ruling many beggars –true grandiose consists of ruling prosperous and happy citizens. One should “rather be a ruler of rich men than be rich himself”. Utopia has no expansive intents; land is not considered a commodity but a resource, like the fertile ground available for agriculture.

Hythlodaeus supports that there can be no real justice and prosperity as long as there is private property and everything is judged with a monetary measure. In Utopia there is no money, since that is a cause of corruption, theft, bribery and poverty. As long as there is private property and money, the majority will live with the burden of poverty, tyranny and misery. There might be reliefs, like instituting higher limits for wealth, but there is no hope to cure the problem of poverty and oppression for however long private property remains.

Commodities are more than enough and they are allocated freely to those who obey the laws and the morals of the country. Every citizen has the right to ask from the state whichever commodity he thinks he needs, and the state will provide it without payment, neither a monetary one nor in kind. There is no need of payment since all goods are in abundance, and there is no danger in someone trying to concentrate wealth or goods since he knows that whatever he needs, all he has to do is ask for it. Even for food, everyone goes to public kitchens and no one needs to cook for himself, as it is both a useless expense and a timely one. Education is freely available to everyone and the hospitals are as big as cities.

Thomas More presents us with an ideal society, or rather an idealized one. We could hardly think of Utopia as a reality, even if we bear in mind Hythlodaeus’ narration of its founder, Utopus. He was a king who used untold wisdom to establish this society, but, naturally, not enough information is given on him or on how he accomplished his feat. Several aspects of the country’s infrastructure sound as if they came out of nowhere, and the text, around 150 pages, does not illuminate on this. Free education, free food, four giant hospitals in every city, absence of bureaucracy, wise citizens, minimal criminality, no poverty and abundance for everyone? How should we suppose all these privileges were acquired?

Cover of “Utopia”, along with More’s friend Erasmus’ “Epigrammata” – 1518 (photo)
Cover of “Utopia”, along with More’s friend Erasmus’ “Epigrammata” – 1518 (photo)

Scattered in the text, Hythlodaeus mentions the existence of slaves (“those who make all the difficult and dirty jobs”), but even they are not to be imagined as we have known them in actual history. These slaves are neither prisoners of war nor born slaves nor bought from slave merchants in foreign countries. They are sentenced Utopians (or citizens of other countries sentenced and sold cheaply to Utopia), who are condemned to hard manual labor. They are also foreign workers who voluntarily move to Utopia to become slaves. They are free to leave whenever they want, but hardly anyone does, since slavery in Utopia is better than the harsh environment they come from in their countries of origin that made them flee. The text is a rather moralizing one, as the author looks to find Christian values even in a society where Christianity is absent, and Morus insists to commend on Utopian values to the degree that they remind him of the “Christian values” of Britain. But More is not late to show the hidden totalitarian and self-complacent character of his vision. Let’s see how their sense of justice and moral high ground distort the peaceful and law-abiding nature of the Utopians.

The Utopians consider peace treaties among countries useless, since the fact itself that countries consist of people is enough for each to consider the others friendly. The existence of any treaty makes people see foreigners as inherently hostile, as someone who is made a friend only through the signing of a piece of paper, and any dishonorable action that is not clearly stated as such in the treaty can therefore be performed without guilt. But if they find a people they consider immoral, where the citizens easily make “debauchery of the most squalid sort”, the Utopians feel free to exploit them for their own interests without a second thought. They use them as mercenaries and “thrust them into positions of greatest danger by offering them immense rewards. Most of these volunteers never come back to collect their pay”. Those who do come back are paid according to their promises so that other “worst possible men” like them will be used in the future in the same manner. The Utopians say that “they would deserve very well of all mankind if they could exterminate from the face of the earth that entire disgusting and vicious race” (referring to the Zapoletes, a race of such squalid people).

A sample of Utopia’s alphabet, as imagined by More’s friend, Peter Giles, in the 1518 edition (photo)
A sample of Utopia’s alphabet, as imagined by More’s friend, Peter Giles, in the 1518 edition (photo)

We saw above that the Utopians have no expansive interests because they deem land to be a resource and not property. But on the other hand, war is deemed completely justified in the case when a country denies the natural right of Utopia to exploit the part of its land which it itself does not use but still considers it its property and keeps it without allowing any benefit from its use. So, within a paragraph, More (or, rather, Hythlodaeus) manages to both excuse and forgive killing and destruction, as well as the expansive policy of a country that is rather too sure of itself and of its cultural superiority.

We also saw that thieves are met with reasonable, fair punishment, without resorting to the barbarity of England. But the sentence for any serious crime is slavery (however better than the one we are accustomed to) and, if the convicts do not comply with this punishment, or “if the slaves rebel against their condition, then, like savage beasts which neither bars nor chains can tame, they are put instantly to death”. They can only hope to lighten their slavery or remit it altogether if they are patient and show regret; and only if a prince decides to pardon them -or sometimes by popular vote.

As for religion, on the island they have many, all of them equal and with freedom of expression. Most inhabitants, over time and after contact with other countries, started embracing Christianity, since it is the “most rational” religion of all, and monotheism the most logical view of the world. Utopus banned proselytizing apart from reasonable discussion in a calm manner, and gave everyone the freedom to believe whatever they wanted. Except that he prohibited the citizens to consider that the soul dies along with the body, or that there is no life after death where we are neither rewarded for our beneficence nor punished for our sins. Therefore, the atheist doesn’t seem to have a place in Utopia, since its inhabitants cannot even recognize him as a Utopian citizen, nor do they deem him “worthy to be called a human being”. The Utopians, of course, can only be as wise as More can fathom, and they illustrate such limits with their consideration that if someone does not expect divine punishment for his wrongdoings he will have no issue with breaking the communal laws for the sake of some private advantage, if he thinks he might escape the authorities. Bearing in mind that More was a devout Christian who reached the point of applying corporal punishment on a child, caned in front of his family for heresy regarding the Eucharist, and on a “feeble-minded” man, who was whipped for disrupting prayers (as he wrote in his Apology, 1533), one should not be surprised at such lighthearted abjuration of the unbelievers. He did encourage dialogue with atheists, by way of incorporating it in the Utopian state, only to the degree that he expected them to change their minds after acknowledging “the force of superior arguments”, as long as they refrained from speaking to children about ungodly issues.

Finally, the idolizing of labor and the sense of communal responsibility, as well as the total condemnation of every expression of idleness, results in the infringement of basic human freedoms, such as the freedom of movement. In Utopia, if you find yourself outside your base area without a pass, you are considered to be a defector, and if you repeat the crime the punishment is slavery. But if you want to wander in the local countryside you are free to do so, as long as you have the permission of your father or your wife. You might also freely visit nearby cities, with the relevant permit, but you can’t be idle there either. You are obligated to work on your profession during your stay there, where your colleagues will greet you warmly.

The apparent dreamscape More paints, quickly falls apart, many times within the same page. Social responsibility leads to slavery, the prohibition of every kind of wasteful behavior to expansionism and the revulsion for idleness to a degree of control of privacy that looks dangerous, to say the least. The citizen is merely a member of the state, utterly subjected to it -there is limited room for individuality, and the civilian is seen as part of the whole.

But even in his better moments, what does More offer us other than a fantasy? Anyone can fantasize a world without immorality, but no one can illustrate how to transform an existing society into such a reality. But this is the paradox of every utopia, and the only hint of an answer in More’s Utopia is the wise founder, Utopus. A deus ex machina to whom we might resign ourselves for him to take care of us, for whom we should forsake our liberties with the exchange of solving problems we must recognize we cannot solve on our own. This temptation to succumb to a wise leader or a benevolent dictator is today still persistent.

The idea itself of a utopia –any utopia- is rather problematic. It implies a sense of incapability, of resignation, of driving to a dead end –a tendency to flight towards imagined landscapes. Three years before More published his book, in 1513, Machiavelli had published The Prince, where he faced straight on this pessimism which the two writers seem to share on political affairs. But Machiavelli does not shy away from it -he accounts for the laws of politics in the here and now, giving cynical advice (or ironic, according to the reader) to a prince about how to maneuver in the real world and play the game of the ruling forces. Machiavelli offers us an explanation of the polity, More only an elusive dream.

utopia 5

However, we might as well be wrong to criticize More so harshly. His intensions are not quite so specific. The narration of Utopia’s achievements is made only by Hythlodaeus, a name that means “dispenser of nonsense”. Many readers do not fail to discern a diffusive levity in the protagonist’s overoptimistic narrations –and it is this levity that averted Marxists to bother with this, one way or the other, charming book. In reality, we cannot be certain whether Hythlodaeus’ Utopia parades in front of us as a realistic goal that a society should have or if it simply constitutes an illustration of the insipid nature of utopian thinking.

The founding of Israel

“The only thing worse than having the British as your enemies, is having as your allies”
Unknown

In 70 AD, Israel stopped being considered as the country of Hebrews. It was the year when the Romans took over Jerusalem. Some time later, Hadrian (78-138 AD) changed the name of the country to Palestine after he squashed the local Hebrews’ revolt against the Roman Empire, aiming at erasing Judea from memory. And so, the Diaspora of the Jewish people began, mainly towards the north and the east, to end up mostly in countries of the West.

In 634, the Arabs took the country and it remained under the rule of the caliphs for four centuries, until its taking by the Crusaders, and then by the Ottomans in the 16th century, under whose rule it would remain until the early 20th century. Wherever the Hebrew populations would end up they would become the victims of repeated persecution and marginalization. They never completely disappeared from Palestine and when, in 1492, the catholic kings of Spain singed a decree that forced them to leave Spain within three months, they contributed to the increase of the Jewish population of Palestine.

The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) (photo)
The founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) (photo)

In 1896, Theodor Herzl wrote a book (The Jewish State – Der Judenstaat) where he supported the return of the Jews in the land promised to them by the god of the Old Testament -the “Promised Land”. And thus, the nationalistic movement Zionism was born. “Zion” is the name of a hill in Jerusalem and in the Bible the term implies both the city and the country. The goal of Zionism was not only to comfort the Jews of their troubles, but also to reinstate the Jewish nation in their motherland, with the creation of a Jewish State (not just a state for Jews, but a state with a Jewish identity). Herzl rekindled a hope that never died out among the disbanded people.

In 1903, a new wave of bloody pogroms against the Jews in Russia, that lasted four years, abhorred the international community and the British government made a proposal to Herzl for the creation of a Jewish community in eastern Africa, with local autonomy. The proposal referred to Uganda, but the Zionist movement looked to Palestine, as a land that was rightfully theirs according to divine contract. Jews from all over the world already had started to move to Palestine, where the Ottoman Empire turned against them. The interests of the Jews were synched to those of Entente, the opponents of the Ottomans during the First World War. In 1979, the British government made a commitment with a political statement (the Balfour Declaration, named after the Foreign Secretary) that “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. It was the first time a great power officially recognized the rights of the Jews on their ancestors’ land.

Initially the Arab leaders did not object to the Jewish presence in the region; besides, they shared an enemy in the face of the Ottoman Empire. Emir Faisal, the leader of the Arabic nationalism who directed the Arabic revolt against the Ottomans with the help of T.H. Lawrence (also known as “Lawrence of Arabia”), co-signed with the future neighbors an agreement that reflected the current climate of harmonious collaboration. This agreement talked about the encouragement and consolidation of Jewish immigration in Palestine and that “The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement”. Faisal, in a letter to Felix Frankfurter, president of the Zionist Organization of America, writes that he welcomes “the return of these exiles to their homeland”.

But the West had made promises to the Arabs as well, that were not honored at the end of the war. Britain had promised to the governor of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, the independence of the Arabs in the greater region (including Palestine) with the exchange of its help during the First World War. Thus, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, instead of the creation of a large independent Arab state, the region was shared among the great western powers, into separate countries. Palestine was assigned to Britain (a regime called British Mandate). The Jewish and the Arab nationalisms, which were so far growing in parallel, now clashed and in 1920 Palestine started to become witness to conflicts among Jews and Arabs, since not everybody shared Faisal’s sense of cooperation. The incidents were started by Arabs who looked suspiciously at the Jewish resettlement in the area. The British was late to recognize and counter the problem and restore order in Jerusalem, and started enforcing obstructions in the Jewish immigration, connecting it to the “country’s absorption abilities”, something that could be interpreted in a variety of ways in different circumstances. Trust among the three nationalities begun to decline significantly. From 1929 the conflicts between Jews and Arabs evolved into violence and the problem was intensified when Hitler’s rise begun to materialize, forcing many Jews to seek a destination to immigrate, with Palestine being the only obvious and safe resort.

British Mandate of Palestine (photo)
British Mandate of Palestine (photo)

In 1937, the British assigned the Peel Commission to investigate and resolve the problem of the two peoples’ coexistence in the region. It proposed the creation of two states in Palestine, one for the Jews and another for the Arabs, with the British placed in Jerusalem to have the Holy Lands under their supervision. The Jews accepted the proposal that would mean a reduction to the lands that were promised to them, due to the imminent threat of Nazism’s rise and the urgent need for Jews of Germany and Europe to resettle. The Arabs refused and, two months later, conflict begun again. Britons found themselves in a difficult position since they had officially promised Palestine to the Jews with the Balfour Declaration, and they also wanted to appease the Arabs, as their help would be needed in the possibility of a future war, which wasn’t late to brake out.

With the start of WW2 the Jews of Palestine aligned themselves with the Allies to counter the Nazi anti-Semitic savagery, with the hope that, in this way, they would earn Britain’s favor concerning the freedom of their nationals to immigrate to their new, lest unofficial, homeland. The Zionist leaders received assurances from Churchill and Roosevelt that they would support them after the war, promises that were refuted. Whichever ship with Jewish immigrants reached the country was turned back by the British with catastrophic consequences for the passengers. Nevertheless, considering the immigration waves of the previous years and the illegal immigration to Palestine, at the end of 1947 the population of Jews in Palestine approached 630,000 people, almost one third of the total population of the country. The Jews started an insurgency against the British hegemony, involving attacks against trains, bombings of buildings, sabotage, kidnappings and assassinations. The British realized that the problem was by then beyond their control and in 1947 they bypassed to the United Nations the issue of the “future governing of Palestine”. The Holocaust had caused feelings of guilt to the European nations concerning how they had been treating the Jews for centuries, and in this climate UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) was formed to resolve the issue. The committee was constituted of 11 member nations that had no direct involvement in the conflict (Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Guatemala, India, Iran, Holland, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay, Yugoslavia).

To make a decision, UNSCOP relied on the Balfour Declaration, the historic ties Jews had with the country, the fact that (due to the British promise) the Jews had already immigrated, exploited and developed the land of Palestine and the need to give an end to the long-lasting suffering of this people, as well as the need to give a solution to the urgent issue of 250,000 Holocaust survivors. On 29 November 1947 the decision was announced, which included the following:

  • The end of the British Mandate.
  • Establishing two states: a Jewish and an Arabic.
  • Conducting elections and creating democratic constitutions in both countries.
  • Connecting economically the two states.
The UN plan on the left, and the expanded borders after the 1948 war on the right (source: Wikimedia)
The UN plan on the left, and the expanded borders after the 1948 war on the right (source: Wikimedia)

The Jews celebrated the news of the decision, but not the Arabs, who completely rejected it. Take note that the Jews were invited to participate in the UN’s assembly that decided the founding of UNSCOP, even though there was no official Jewish state at the time. The Arab Higher Committee (the central political institution of the Palestinian people in Mandatory Palestine) boycotted UNSCOP, maintaining that the Arabic rights were self-evident and had to be recognized on the principles of the UN Charter. Their objections were not heard and, on 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the founding of the State of Israel. The two populations were led to war with the participation of the neighboring countries; a war that extended the borders of Israel and led to the creation of 711,000 Palestinian refugees of the 900,000 that lived in the region that was now the dominion of the new country.

Israelites commemorate this war as the “War of Independence” and the Palestinians as “the Catastrophe”.

14th of May as the “Independence Day” of the Jews (photo)
14th of May as the “Independence Day” of the Jews (photo)

 

Depiction of the “Catastrophe” with the Palestinians’ hope to return (photo)
Depiction of the “Catastrophe” with the Palestinians’ hope to return (photo)

Read:

  • Ismat Sabri – Cartographic analysis of the Jewish Settlements in Palestine – The case of West Bank of the Jordan River (diploma thesis for the National Technical University of Athens, 2009)
  • Rita Gabai-Shimantov – Israel, The rebirth of a state (Dioni, 1998)
  • Yves Marc Ajchenbaum – ΙIsrael-Palestine: One land, two nations 1948-2002 (Melani, 2004)
  • Chalazias Christos – Palestine, the drama of a people (Vasdekis, 1982)
  • Ahmat Shahin – The Israel colonialism and the Intifada (Diplomatic Agency of PLO in Athens, 1988)

Homosexuality in the Platonic myth

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

Symposium, part four – Aristophanes’ encomium

“To be perfect, you have to feel perfect about yourself – avoid trying to be something you’re not”
Rick Riordan, The Lost Hero

After the shallow and pseudoscientific speech by Eryximachus, Plato passes the torch to Aristophanes who speaks in complete contrast to his antecedent. His speech is vivacious, purposeful and concise, while his use of myth is not to evoke authority, like Phaedrus’, but to demonstrate his convictions. The jocular nature of the mythical origin of the necessity and the value of love transforms with ease into a meaningful comment on the human condition.

Aristophanes describes the now widely known myth of the bi-gendered beings. “In the beginning of creation the genders of humans were three and not two like today, meaning male and female”189d. The three genders were double in size in relation to today’s. There was the double male, the double female and the hermaphrodite (part male part female). This third gender survives today, says Aristophanes, only “as a name of reproach”. The three genders had four legs and four arms, two faces on a round head and double the genital parts. The male was a progeny of the sun, the female of the earth and the hermaphrodite of the moon, which has elements of both the sun and the earth.

Τα αρχικά, δίφυλα γένη του Αριστοφάνη
The original, dual genders of Aristophanes (photo)

These complete beings had great power, which antagonized the power of the gods. They had great endurance and speed, but also arrogance. They dared to challenge the gods, attempting to rise to the heavens and abolish their rule. Due to their many abilities the gods wanted to punish them and limit their powers, but they didn’t know what kind of punishment to inflict on them since they didn’t want to kill them so as not to lose their sacrifices. “But they also could not tolerate their provocative behavior. In the end, Zeus, after thinking hard about it, found a solution: ‘I think I found a way for both humans to survive and their unacceptable shenanigans to stop. I suggest they lose a part of their power. With a vertical cut I will dichotomize them all. Thus, they will be less powerful but more useful to us, since their numbers will double. They will walk straight, on two legs. If they still don’t respect anything and don’t unwind, I will dichotomize them for a second time, so that they walk on one leg, hopping about’”190d-e. In this way, their power was mitigated and their numbers doubled -and so did their offerings.

Doomed in their new, incomplete nature, these beings spent all their time looking for their other half, and when they would find it “they clenched their hands around each other in embrace craving to rejoin”191a. So they would die of hunger and inaction since they were not willing to do anything else other than being with their other half. When one of these half beings would die, its corresponding surviving one would frantically look for any other half, even one that originated from a differently gendered complete. But in this way, they were nearly led to extinction, as with the dichotomy the genitals were placed in the back of the body and there was no procreation through their embracing. Zeus felt pity for them and moved their genitals to their front, giving them the ability to procreate when they join with their opposite gender and perpetuate the species. But when a man embraced another man “there was saturation from the copulation and they could therefore stop for a while to work and take an interest to their ordinary lives” 191c. The means by which the correct joining between two men took place was love. “Since that distant time, love is inherent to human nature and aims to recover it into its original complete form. The goal is to form a complete out of the two halves and reinstate human’s health”191c-d.

This is why Aristophanes extols Eros by saying: “I am under the impression that humans have not realized at all the power of Eros. If they had truly realized it they would have built the most glorious temples and altars and offer the greatest sacrifices to honor him. Not like today when none of this happens, while normally more than the offers to all the other gods are due to him”189c.

Τοιχογραφία στην Πομπηία, 1ος αιώνας π.Χ. (τέτοιες μάσκες κοσμούσαν χώρους συμποσίων στον Οίκο του Χρυσού Βραχιολιού)
Roman fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet (VI 17, 42) in Pompeii. 1st cent. BCE – 1st cent. CE. (photo)

So, all of us are halves of a whole being, and this is why we search all our lives for our other half. Men and women who come from hermaphrodites fall madly in love with the opposite gender, because that one was the original that completed his or her ancestor, and, Aristophanes says, they usually cheat on their spouse. Men who come from double males are attracted to other men and respectively women to other women. These men “happily embrace each other tightly and sleep with them”191e and “are distinguishable among other children and teenagers, as they are by nature more manly. Some think they are shameless, but they are mistaken, because this behavior does not result from shamelessness. On the contrary, it is due to daring, courage and manliness that they welcome their alike. And the greatest proof for this is the fact that they are the only ones who when they reach adulthood develop into capable politicians”192a. When they grow mature they become lovers of young men and by nature don’t care for marriage and children.

This love, Aristophanes tells us, the one that brings those who are meant to be together close, does not make mistakes. Whoever experiences it can only be benefited, and benefit will be gained for both the lover and the loved one. Because when someone “meets that which truly was his other half, it is impossible to describe the emotion he feels, thrilled with affection, intimacy and love, and doesn’t want even for one second to be separated from him. These people are tightly bound together throughout their lives, even though they would not be able to express what they hope to gain from each other. Because nobody believes that the motive that guides them to rejoice and look forward to their companionship with such yearning is the sensual pleasure. No, it is obvious that it’s something else that each other’s soul yearns for, something they cannot express, but feel it and say it suggestively”192c.

Aristophanes doesn’t leave room for half-measures, restraints or rationalizations. Eros (love) comes when you have found your other half, whether you originate from a double male, a double female or a hermaphrodite. None can explain why they are attracted to their object of love, and reason cannot describe what the gain from the relationship will be. No one knows even what to hope for in their love, therefore utilitarianism doesn’t suit it either. All there is are emotions, love, affection and indiscriminate attraction. It is not limited to the physical pleasure (without denying it) nor can it be clearly defined, but only suggestively and intuitively. Nor can anyone join with someone who does not come from the original whole being of their gender; this behavior had nearly led those who tried in agony to find any other half to their destruction. So, for Aristophanes there is neither a choice nor an alternative. There is only the inborn companionship everyone feels for their other half, whichever that person might turn out to be, whichever gender that person might be.

Αριστοφάνης
Aristophanes (photo)

Aristophanes continues to say that what all of us want is reunification, and if Hephaestus appeared and asked us if we would like to be melted on the kiln and forged as one, even if that would mean we’d have a common life but also a common death, no one would deny this offer and no one would claim to desire anything different. “On the contrary one would have the feeling he heard what he always desired, to join and merge with his loved one, to be one instead of two. This has to do with our ancient nature, with the fact that two of us were once one being. Therefore, love is the desire and the aspiration to rejoin and to be completed”192e.

The comedian offers a poetic narrative about the human nature, and he does it, as might be expected from a satirist, using a myth of his own creation (at least in the context of the Platonic text) that on occasion sounds farcical. Because the image of the bi-gendered beings, as is described in detail, might indeed strike as comical, and his “justification” of the homosexual relationship –or, better, the explanation of its nature- through this mythological origin, as well as his comments, suggesting that men who are attracted to men are more masculine that the rest and that they make the best politicians and the most loyal husbands, are exaggerations that push the limits of facetiousness. This must not impel us to ignore what he says as being ridiculous (like others have done, as we said earlier). Aristophanes does what he always did; he uses a jocular narrative to draw our attention to an aspect of human behavior – here, the sexual behavior. It is reason (however much reason can fit in a myth) that becomes his tool to show us that a loving affair cannot be deemed vulgar if it truly involves two halves of one complete being. On the contrary, it is the denial of this reality -meaning to deny one’s nature- that will lead us to calamity if we search any other half available to join with.

Πηγή
(photo)

His use of myth obviously does not constitute an effort to explain the homosexual relations in biological or naturalistic terms, but an effort to define it as a moral choice. Not a moral choice in the sense of picking the appropriate lover among the many suitors using criteria of quality, like Pausanias did. Because you cannot choose which your other half will be –that is prescribed by one’s gender of origin (we might say it is written, it is your fate). Morality lies in the acceptance of this very fact, that only our true other half will lead us to virtue and happiness. This is the good choice. The denial of one’s nature (the denial of truth – a kind of anti-knowledge) will lead to an impasse of imperfection and misery. That is why Aristophanes does not bother with discriminating between virtuous love (Heavenly) and vulgar love (Pandemos), as Pausanias and the others do. Love is virtuous by definition, because it doesn’t limit itself to the physical pleasures but it de facto includes mental unification and communication of souls. If it doesn’t, it is not love.

“It would be fair to dedicate an encomium on Eros, which benefits us generously, since it guides us to the ones who befit us and, at the same time, if we are pious, gives us many hopes for the future that he will restore us to our ancient nature, he will grant us health in order to become fortunate and happy”193d.

References:

Plato – Symposium (or on love)

Replying to Holocaust deniers

“Even though Hitler and the Nazis made no secret of their war on the Jews, the SS operatives dutifully eliminated all traces of their murderous activities and instruments. No written orders for gassing have turned up thus far. The SS not only destroyed most camp records, which were in any case incomplete, but also razed nearly all killing and cremating installations well before the arrival of Soviet troops”
Arno Mayer, Why did the heavens not darken? (1990)

From the first moment the death camps were liberated and the atrocities of the 3rd Reich were disclosed, the level of horror made many abhor, wonder but also disbelieve that humanity was capable of such actions.

General Eisenhower, foreseeing the reactions of doubt and wanting to forfend them, visited the camps and called journalists from various countries to immortalize in film what had happened, so that it would not be described in the future as false propaganda. Even the SS thought no one would believe what they were doing to the prisoners. As we read in a survivor’s memoirs, the guards told the prisoners “after the war the rest of the world would not believe what happened; there would be rumors, speculation, but no clear evidence, and people would conclude that evil on such a scale was just not possible” (Terrence des Pres, The Survivor, 1976). As we know, this is exactly what happened. Holocaust denial started very early on, with the first relevant book by an academic published in 1962 (Revisionism and Brainwashing by Harry Barnes).

Athens, Saturday 1st of February 2014 (photo)
Athens, Saturday, 1st of February 2014 (photo)

Michael Shermer, in his book “Why do people believe weird things?”, tackles the issue of Holocaust denialism and succeeds in un-masking its lies and falacies. The denial claims have taken many forms: that the Final Solution against the Jews did not consist in their extermination but only their exile; that no gas chambers were used to kill prisoners; or that the number of Jews (around 6 million) is over-exaggerated. In some instances, one can find a combination of denying the events along with congratulating Hitler for his “achievements” who, as they are quick to supplement, did not do enough… (Golden Dawn members have said as much)

The most “refined” among them, don’t want to be identified as “deniers”, referring to what they do as “history revisionism”. But historians know very well what revisionism means: it is the use of a methodology to re-examine historical events, concerning the motives of the protagonists and the process of decision making on their behalf. It is not refuting these events or the existence of the evidence, like the Holocaust deniers do. “Revision is the modification of a theory based on new evidence or a new interpretation of old evidence”, as Michael Shermer says. In reality, honest Holocaust Revision is the debate among historians on whether it took place according to Hitler’s plans that can be traced in the 1920s, or whether it arose as an after-thought, due to the inability of the Germans to relocate all the Jews (which was the original plan, as this side of the debate proclaims), an inability that was intensified because of the Nazi’s failures in Russia. There is, therefore, no denial of whether the Holocaust happened on the side of the historians, only a discussion on the motives, the reasons and the circumstances of its perpetrators.

David Irving talks at the Institute for Historical Review, which promotes Holocaust denial, in 2005 (photo)
David Irving talks at the Institute for Historical Review, which promotes Holocaust denial, in 2005 (photo)

A special mention to David Irving seems to be fitting, an originally significant historian, with eminent findings in the course of his career. Irving -even though not with professional historical education- isn’t one of those historians who read 10 books of popular history to write the 11th. He goes straight to the sources, to the original documents of the military bureaucratic apparatus and the journals of the war participants. He’s the one who discovered the relationship between the Nazis and the British far-right organization British Union of Fascists, in the form of the former founding the latter.

Later, he became a persona non grata when he was revealed as one of the deniers, using the tactic of “discrepancy as evidence”. Irving says there are no holes on the ceilings of gas chambers in Auschwitz, therefore the testimonies on SS soldiers inserting Zyklon-B gas from ceiling walls are false, therefore there were no executions of Jewish prisoners with gas in Auschwitz, therefore neither was there anywhere else, therefore there was no systematic execution of Jews by the Nazis, therefore the Holocaust is a lie. In short, “no holes = no Holocaust”. This was the phrase worn on t-shirts by Irving’s supporters in his London trial, when he sued someone who had called him “Holocaust denier” (he prefers “revisionist”). In reality, the crematorium was destroyed by the Allies’ bombs, so no one should expect to find any holes in the debris of a ceiling that is non-existent anyway.

Another such “inconsistency” the “revisionists” discovered, is that the door of the gas chamber in Mauthaousen does not have a lock. And, if it doesn’t lock, this means the prisoners could push it open any time they wanted…therefore the Holocaust is a lie. Shermer, who was determined to answer all of the deniers’ questions, visited the camp and established the fact that indeed there is no lock on the door (which opens outwards). When he asked the tour guide, he didn’t know why, and called his superior who also didn’t know. They asked the camp-museum’s director, and neither did he know how it was possible to keep prisoners in a chamber while poisonous gas was pouring in with no locked door to deter them from getting out. In the end, it was discovered that this particular door was not the original one being used when the camp was operating. The original had been moved to some European museum and replaced by a (bad) copy, for exhibition reasons. Due to inadequate bureaucratic handling of remnants like this and for the purposes of exchanging artifacts among various museums, it took Shermer almost 7 years to find out what had actually happened. Quite simply, no one had bothered with this detail until the deniers discovered the inconsistency of this particular narrative of the Holocaust. And it is always this type of details that the deniers grasp on to support that, since not everything is explained to perfection, therefore it must all be a lie.

What the deniers don’t realize is that the method by which the historians confirm the facts of the Holocaust is the same that the archeologists and paleontologists use: the “convergence of evidence”. The Holocaust is not something that happened in a specific instance or place or to a person. It’s something that happened gradually, in the course of many years and in many countries. The plethora of evidence is astounding and includes:

  • Documents – Correspondence, notes, drafts, orders, speeches, articles, memoirs and testimonies in the Nuremberg trials and more.
  • Witnesses – testimonies by survivors, guards, locals, even by higher SS officials who did not deny the Holocaust.
  • Photographs – Official photographs by the military and the Press, by citizens, by prisoners who took them in secret and then published them; by Allies and Germans after the war.
  • Material evidence – The camps themselves, objects found in them that still exist today, and copies of destroyed ones.
  • Demographic evidence – All those who the deniers claim survived, are missing.

So, proving the Holocaust is not based on circumstantial evidence, but on hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence, which all point to the same direction –that there was a systematic effort to exterminate the Jews in the concentration camps, with the use of poisonous gas and in other ways. The “inconsistencies” that the deniers indicate, even if they had remained unanswered, don’t mean much; it’s not for them to refute the whole theory, since the theory is not based on them.

Photographs of dead bodies burning in Auschwitz, taken in secret by a Greek Jew (known only as Alexander) (photo)
Photographs of dead bodies burning in Auschwitz, taken in secret by a Greek Jew (known only as Alexander) (photo)

The deniers do not deny the Nazis’ anti-Semitism. They don’t deny that the behavior of the Nazis towards the Jews was inhumane and violent (some even support it). Surely, they say, Jews died during the war, as other social, ethnic and religious groups did. But the volume of the dead was not the widely accepted 6 million Jews -it was somewhere between 300 thousand and 2 million (according to whom among them one might ask). Most of the victims did not die in gas chambers, but from disease, hunger or hardships in the camps (which they recognize only as “concentration camps” and not “death camps”). The deniers parallelize whatever happened to Jews with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans, or of Dresden and Hamburg by the Allies. Governments do bad things, they say, especially in times of war, and the deaths of Jews must be seen in such terms. What will our answer be?

First of all, the fact that “governments do bad things”, meaning the fact that others too do immoral actions, does not diminish the severity of the Nazis’ actions. The immorality of others does not counterbalance the immorality of the Germans.

Secondly, the aforementioned actions of the Allies, even though their necessity is a matter of contention until today, were efforts of an army to weaken another army, forcing it to surrender. The actions of the Nazis were made against unarmed civilians that did not, in any real sense, constitute a threat to their country (therefore it was not self-defense); they did not constitute a method of applying pressure on a hostile government to succumb to their demands (in contrast, the Holocaust was kept a secret from all enemies and allies); nor were they made in the effort to acquire land or material resources. The actions of the Nazis were against a race they deemed inferior and the carrier of a type of a Satanic force. Eichmann tried to use this argument of “moral equivalency” during his trial, and when the judge refused to take him up on it, he fell back on the usual and much-used excuse “I was just following orders”. Of course, this implies that there were orders, and to be exact, Eichmann never denied the truth of the Holocaust, he only tried to illustrate that the associated crimes were crimes sanctioned by the state, for which he had no blame.

Adolf Eichmann waiting for a trial, in 1961, after him being located by members of Mossad in Argentina (he was condemned to death and executed in 1962) (photo)
Adolf Eichmann waiting for a trial, in 1961, after him being located by members of Mossad in Argentina (he was condemned to death and executed in 1962) (photo)

The argument that Hitler, or the SS leadership, did not know about the Holocaust (“even if it happened”), meaning that there were no orders by superiors and, therefore, whatever happened, happened in the heat of the moment and by initiative of their subordinates, is easily answered as there is a plethora of evidence to the contrary. Other than the minutes of the Wannsee Conference (20 January 1942), where the decision to go forth with the Final Solution is illustrated, we can read here some of the protagonists’ statements that prove the systematic nature of the extermination and the leadership’s knowledge of it:

On 13 February 1945 Hitler said “Against the Jews I fought open-eyed and in view of the whole world…. I made it plain that they, this parasitic vermin in Europe, will be finally exterminated”.

Hans Frank (Hitler’s personal lawyer and chief jurist in occupied Poland) during a 1941 conference said: “But what’s to become of the Jews? Do you imagine they’re going to be housed in neat estates in the Baltic provinces? In Berlin they tell us: What’s bugging you— we’ve got no use for them either, liquidate them yourselves!”

Frank again, in December 1941 said: “…we now have 3.5 million Jews. We cannot shoot these 3.5 million Jews, nor can we poison them, yet we will have to take measures which will somehow lead to the goal of annihilation.”

From Joseph Goebbels’ diary: “”The Fuhrer is convinced his prophecy in the Reichstag is becoming a fact: that should Jewry succeed in again provoking a new war, this would end with their annihilation. It is coming true in these weeks and months with a certainty that appears almost sinister. In the East the Jews are paying the price, in Germany they have already paid in part and they will have to pay more in the future.” (19 August 1941)

Heinrich Himmler in a speech (4 October 1943): “I am now referring to the evacuation of the Jews, to the extermination of the Jewish people. This is something that is easily said: ‘The Jewish people will be exterminated’, says every Party member, ‘this is very obvious, it is in our program’”.

Johann Paul Kremer, speaking in Auschwitz (he was the doctor there): “By comparison Dante’s Inferno seems almost a comedy. Auschwitz is justly called an extermination camp!”

Theodor Malzmueller, a guard, said: “we had been dedicated to the Kulmhof [Chelmno] extermination camp as guards…in this camp the plague boils of humanity, the Jews, were exterminated. We were to keep quiet about everything we saw or heard, otherwise we would have to reckon with our families’ imprisonment and the death penalty…”

How many quotes are needed for the deniers to be convinced that the Nazi leadership under Hitler’s command organized the systematic extermination of the Jews?

The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Poland. You can see here Auschwitz 1, 2 and 3. Almost 7,000 Nazi employees led almost 1.1 million prisoners to their deaths in this region of roughly 40 square kilometers. (photo)
The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Poland. You can see here Auschwitz 1, 2 and 3. Almost 7,000 Nazi employees led almost 1.1 million prisoners to their deaths in this region of roughly 40 square kilometers.

There is no lack in conspiracy theorizing by the deniers on the manufacturing of the rhetoric around the Holocaust, with its most usual expression being the claim that the Jews invented the Holocaust and exaggerated the number of their dead, to force the Western governments to let them found the State of Israel. But what played a pivotal role in the UN’s decision to split Palestine in two was the Balfour Declaration, meaning the promise by the British to give the Jews a piece of the region. This Declaration was made in 1917, long before Hitler’s ascension, the break of war and the Holocaust itself. Other reasons for the granting of land to the Jews (as the UN thought, at least) were that in Palestine there were many Jews, that these Jews had already exploited the lands they inhabited, that they had a historical bond with the land and, finally, that there had to be a solution for the survivors of the Holocaust. This last one, meant that it was in the interest of the Jews to exaggerate the number of Jews that survived, not the number of those killed.

Besides, the reparations from Germany to Jews were calculated on the basis of the cost of relocating (transporting and settling) Jews in Israel, and not on the basis of how many died in the crematoria. Once more, it would be in the interest of Jews to lie about too many survivng, not having been exterminated.

Finally, concerning the actual number of the dead, which the deniers contest, the official calculations differ every time an effort to count them is made. How is it, they ask, that every study concludes a different number? The number varies between 5.1 and 6.3 million dead Jews. The figure is derived from population demographics. Every historian uses a different method, and counting is extremely complex: The number of Jews of every country, state, city and village before the war has to be taken into account, and then after the war. Also, the number of those who died of natural causes, accidents, murders, suicides etc. and finally the number of those who fled to countries with no Nazi influence (“You don’t count the immigrants” say the deniers pompously -but we do). Other historians used state documents, like birth and death certificates, others used archives of synagogues. It is such a complex problem, that the fact that every scholar offers a different result tells us that the numbers are not fraudulent. If everyone presented the same number, given the complexity and the margin of error of all methods, then we could reasonably suspect willingness to deceive.

From Michael Shermer’s book “Why people believe weird things” p.237
From Michael Shermer’s book “Why people believe weird things” p.237

The conspiracy theorists insist on this, saying that a false high number of fatalities would win the world’s sympathy for the plight of the Jews and would raise guilt for the Europeans, something that would give the last spark for the allowance to found the State of Israel. But why would the Jewish conspirators take such risk? Why would they risk the certainty of reparations for the dubious results of a sentimental nature, which could very well not be fruitful? Either way, the reasons that the Western nations allowed the founding of Israel were historical, cultural and religious. The Jews had in their possession written promises by the British. There existed diplomatic reasons for the West’s support for their claim; and also strategic ones. The Muslims of the region (both the ancestors of the modern Palestinians and their neighbors) did not have the political, financial or strategic power to reverse the decision of the West (as was proved by the result of the 1948 war). The Jews, on the contrary, were the West’s “familiars” (being, essentially, Europeans themselves) and they were cooperative and understanding of their common interests. They would constitute a good ally and consort of the West among the relatively unknown and unpredictable Middle Eastern peoples.

The more David Irving “revises” the Holocaust the more books he sells, and the more he is called to speak in conferences by deniers and far-right groups. But his constant re-revisions concerning the number of the Jewish victims of war (in the beginning he said they were 500,000, then “at least a million”, and then 4 million), in combination with his involvement with neo-Nazi organizations and parties, destroyed any hint of objectivity on the side of the historian or hope that he could provide anything useful to the conversation. In 1982, he attempted to unite the neo-Nazi parties of Britain in a party called Focus, in which he would play a leading role. In a 1995 conference, whoever would buy his book Hitler’s War, would receive, as a gift, a miniature swastika, similar to the one Hitler had placed on his black Mercedes.

Michael Shermer – Why People Believe Weird Things, 1997
Michael Shermer – Why People Believe Weird Things, 1997


Photographs from the
Majdanek death camp in Poland (taken in 2004):

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The dome hosts ashes from some of the burnt bodies of the prisoners - Majdanek, Poland
The dome hosts ashes from some of the burnt bodies of the prisoners – Majdanek, Poland

 

 

The ashes in the dome, up close – Majdanek, Poland
The ashes in the dome, up close – Majdanek, Poland


On the side, the phrase “May our fate be a warning to you” – Majdanek, Poland
On the side, the phrase “May our fate be a warning to you” – Majdanek, Poland

Ovens – Majdanek, Poland
Ovens – Majdanek, Poland



Ovens – Majdanek, Poland
Ovens – Majdanek, Poland



Ovens – Majdanek, Poland
Ovens – Majdanek, Poland

 

Gas chambers – Majdanek, Poland
Gas chambers – Majdanek, Poland

 

Used Zyklon-B cans – Majdanek, Poland
Used Zyklon-B cans – Majdanek, Poland

 

Barracks – Majdanek, Poland
Barracks – Majdanek, Poland

 

Shoes, stolen by the dead – Majdanek concentration camp, Poland
Shoes, stolen by the dead – Majdanek concentration camp, Poland


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Sources
:

The photos from Majdanek are from my own visit, the rest of the article photos are from here:

The deceitful fascination of daydreaming love

This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

Symposium, part three – Eryximachus’ encomium

“A heart that loves stays young forever”
Greek saying

In Plato’s Symposium, one after one the symposiasts make a speech praising love. Pausanias (third in line) finishes his encomium having separated love in two kinds, the vulgar love and the virtuous love. The doctor Eryximachus complements him, thinking that Pausanias started well enough but didn’t analyze the issue completely.

“Eros is not limited to the souls of men…but can be traced in animals, the earth’s plants and all the beings”185e. Love, with its two sides, is the natural legacy of all bodies. And since health is different than sickliness, and since the unalike things desire and fall in love in a dissimilar manner (meaning different beings have different desires), the love born in healthy bodies is different than the love born in sickly ones. And as it is good to correspond to worthy men and shameful to yield to the vile, the same applies to all organisms. In order for someone to be healthy he must satisfy the good and healthy elements and battle the bad and sickly ones. Therefore, medicine is the science of the loving relations in the body that are intended to saturate and relieve. “The doctor’s mission is to reconcile the most contrary elements of the organism so that they feel mutual love”186d. The best representative of practiced medicine aims at that interference which will discard the vulgar love, in order for the decent one to be adopted, and will inspire love in a body that lacks it.

Δανάη και Έρως (1544)
Titian, Danae with Eros (1544) (photo)

Contrasting elements in the organisms are the directly opposites: hot-cold, bitter-sweet, dry-wet etc. Asclepius, the god of Medicine, placed the inspiration of love and harmony in these elements as a cornerstone in his science. “Medicine in its totality functions under the direction of god Eros, of gymnastics and of agriculture”186c, but also of music. Harmony in music is created by the accordance (‘symphony’) of high and low tones, and rhythm is created by the accordance of speed and slowness. This accordance is created by music when it inspires love and concert among the tones and the rhythms. Therefore, music is the science of the loving relations in harmonies and rhythms.

So far in his encomium Eryximachus doesn’t raise an issue of love having two natures. This arises when the need for the cultivation of man comes up, by utilizing the rhythm and the harmony either through composition or through execution. Pausanias is right, says Eryximachus, to say that we must satisfy desire and preserve the love of the decent men and those who want to become decent. This is the Heavenly Love while the Pandemos Love must be offered only with caution, so that one can enjoy desire without falling in debauchery. In the same way, in medicine too we must ensure the correct way of the tasting pleasure is followed, so that we can taste pleasurably without the negative consequences. “Therefore in music also and in medicine and in everything else, earthly and godly, as much as possible, we must insist in the distinction of the two forms of love because both exist everywhere”187e.

The dominance of Eros extends to all of nature. When the opposing elements (hot-cold etc) meet the decent love and harmonize, the seasons of the year bring abundant crops and health to people and to animals, but when the arrogant love persists, catastrophes are caused, and bereavements, famines and illnesses. “The frosts and the haze and ergot strike the plants and animals, because in this kind of love affairs the balance is overthrown, and the violation of measure predominates”188b. The orbits of the stars which astronomy studies, the seers’ sacrifices and the communication of men and gods in general, they all aspire to the care of Eros. “Because impiety results usually from the one who denies responding to the decent love’s calling”188b.

Σκηνή συμποσίου σε τοιχογραφία από τάφο στο Paestum Ιταλίας, 475 π.Χ.
A fresco taken from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver (from Paestum, Italy, c. 475 BC): a symposium scene (photo)

Eros then, with his two makes, is, some might say, all-mighty. “The Eros being served by men with sophrosyne and justice, both in the world of men and of the gods, is truly all-mighty and provides us with every happiness, while at the same time he secures unimpeded communication and mutual love, even with the gods who are our superiors”188d. Like medicine harmonizes the organic parts of the body, so will Eros harmonize the relations among men and those between men and gods.

Eryximachus proves to be shallow, since the only thing he seems to add with his encomium is that in love we must maintain measure, like in all other things; describing an image of the world that is rather metaphysical, with language that is scientific on the surface, in an encomium without in-depth analysis or particular interest. Many times he results to the praising of medicine rather than love (or Eros), clearly driven by his professional occupation. Love, finally, to Eryximachus, is the measure itself (or, anyway, the harmony which measure achieves); more of a quantitative value than a self-subsistent concept or a process. He makes love dominate and ‘explain’ every single thing in the world; men’s relationships with gods and each other, the health of humans, animals and plants, nature and the weather phenomena, music…He transformed it into some kind of cosmic force that can be applied to all things, and therefore is lost in the totality of everything; because only nothing fits in everything. In short, Eryximachus reminds us of the vague words and the void promises of a Paolo Coelho or a Deepak Chopra; big words covered in beautiful images, good intentions and pseudoscientific pomposity. One only wonders whether Eryximachus ever, even once, fell in love.

As for the Platonic narration throughout the dialogue concerning the procedurals of the symposium, Eryximachus is shown to be rather conservative, since he proposes for everyone not to drink a lot, regulating the amount of wine each of them should consume, and is the first, along with Phaedrus, who leaves the company of the others when they start to overdo it in having fun. He avoids enriching his speech with mythological narration (that the others use), his speech is dry and austere, and he shows self-complacency (at one point he even tries to correct the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus). Careful in the choice of his words, he fails to mention the love for young men like the previous ones did (and the next ones will), abiding perhaps to what he preached, maintaining measure not just in his actions but also in his words. Even Leonard Bernstein, in the opus he wrote inspired by the Symposium (“Serenade after Plato’s Symposium”), dedicated to Eryximachus a mere one and a half minute.

References:

Plato – Symposium (or on love)

The origins of Christmas and Santa Claus

Jesus was born roughly between 2 and 7 BC, according to historians, theologians and the Pope himself. The mistaken calculation was made by Dionysius Exiguus (470 – 544 AD), the inventor of the modern calendar and the one responsible for splitting history in two, before and after Jesus’ birth, which was later used in the Gregorian Calendar. No matter the case, Jesus’ actual date of birth is unknown and we can only logically deduce that it took place during a spring night, as the stable narration we all know refers to shepherds and their livestock being outdoors.

Saturnalia (photo)
Saturnalia (photo)

Long before Christianity’s spread throughout the Roman Empire, even before Jesus’ birth, various customs similar to Christmas were observed, like the Yule of the German paganism, the winter solstice celebrations and the Saturnalia.

The winter solstice (25 December according to the Julian calendar) was very important to the ancients, as the communities of the time did not know whether they would last the winter and had to make 9 months preparations to make it without going hungry; a common plight. According to the custom, they would cut down a big log (Yule log) and burn it. The fire had to last throughout the dark winter season, symbolizing light and birth, until the coming of spring.

So, due to the importance of the season and because the farmers didn’t have hard work to do in the winter, and given that in the days of celebration they would slaughter animals and therefore have plenty of food for a while, many types of celebrations were being had in the period from mid-December till spring.

Santa Claus’ first appearance in the form we know him today, in the service of the American Civil War propaganda, wearing stars and stripes. (1963) (photo)
Santa Claus’ first appearance in the form we know him today, in the service of the American Civil War propaganda, wearing stars and stripes. (1963) (photo)

One of such celebrations was the Saturnalia (as in ‘Saturn’) that lasted one week (17 to 23 December) and dates several centuries before Jesus. It was celebrated throughout the empire. During the Saturnalia, sacrifices were made in the Temple of Saturn (or ‘Kronus’), along with public meals, granting gifts to children or grown-ups and many festivities. There was a general festive atmosphere, with the citizens performing otherwise illegal activities, such as gambling. Traditionally, the roles of master and slave were reversed, where the former would serve the latter while being unable, during those days, to punish the slaves, even for showing insolence towards them. The poet Catullus refers to the Saturnalia as “the best of days” and Horace as “December’s liberty”. The market, the schools and the courts would remain closed and war could not be declared during the Saturnalia. After the end of the public ceremonies, the celebration would continue in a familial atmosphere at home and, those who could, would sacrifice a pig. Moreover, during the Saturnalia the celebrants would put on costumes, a habit that evolved into Halloween.

The Juvenalia was founded by Nero in 59 AD, when he first cut his beard, symbolizing the passing from childhood to adulthood. It was a fertility festival centering on teenagers and was celebrated with dances, mimes and theater plays, but all citizens participated; young and old, men and women.

Puck magazine, 1896 (photo)
Puck magazine, 1896 (photo)

With the spread of Christianity, such pagan festivals had to be abolished, something that proved difficult to achieve due to their popularity. In the third century objections appeared against the anti-Christian character of the birthday celebrations, based on these kinds of celebrations being honored by Herod (Mark 6:21-27) and the Pharaoh (Genesis 40:20-22), and on the basis of several saints having damned their date of birth, like Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-15) and Job (Job 3:1-16). Even though these objections were easily countered, in 303 AD Arnobius ridiculed the idea of the gods’ birthday being celebrated, which shows us that up to the early 4th century, in the eastern Roman Empire, Christmas was not yet made popular; ancient customs remained so.

But it was already set that the 25th of December was the date of Jesus’ birth, and gradually its celebration replaced the pagan festivities, though keeping many elements from them. The general festive atmosphere, the pause of public activities (closed markets, schools and public services) and the family oriented character of Christmas stem from these festivities, as does the giving of presents that slowly earned a central role of the celebration, assimilating Saint Nicholas’ deeds, mixed with traditions from the north.

Saint Nicholas (270-343 AD) earned his popularity by having a generous attitude towards the poor. Most important is a particular incident when he offered dowry to the three daughters of a pious Christian so that they wouldn’t end up on the street. During the Middle Ages gifts would be given to children in his name, on the eve of the holiday named after him (6th of December). During the Reformation (15th -16th century), Luther, wanting to focus the children’s interest on Christ and remove it from the saints, changed the date of this custom from 6 to 25 December.

(photo)
(photo)

During the christening of the German tribes, the image of Odin was assimilated into the new religion. Odin was bearded and wore a blue hood, giving out presents from his eight-legged grey horse.

In Norway a mythical figure going by the name of Tomte gave presents on Christmas wearing a red hat.

The burly Father Christmas of England, apart from presents, spread the jolly feeling of the days dressed in green garments. His most famous illustration is as the “Ghost of Christmas Present” in Dickens’s book A Christmas Carol.

And so, the customs of Saint Nicholas, “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, passed on to America and he was renamed as Santa Claus by English-speaking locals, changing the horse into a reindeer sleight, dressing him in red like Tomte and illustrating him as a chubby, jolly Father Christmas.

In the poem of a priest (A visit from Saint Nicholas, 1837), Santa Claus’ habit of landing on rooftops and climbing down the chimney with a bag of gifts was established. The first drawing with his figure as we know him comes from the Harper’s Weekly magazine (in 1863), drawn by Thomas Nast. The North Pole as his place of residence, is probably owed to the priest as well, from a collection of his works that included a poem with this detail. Later, his wife was added to the myth, as well as his elves that make the, always handmade, toys.

It was much later, in the 1930s, that Santa Claus was used by Coca-Cola on ads, and it was not even the first company that used his image with his current form. In 1923 he showed up in ginger bear ads, in 1915 in White Rock water ads and in the late 19th century in Puck magazine.

The first Coca-Cola ad with Santa Claus, 1931 (photo)
The first Coca-Cola ad with Santa Claus, 1931 (photo)

An interesting fact is how the myth of Santa Claus reached other European countries after passing through America. It reached Greece in the 1950s, through immigrant relatives who sent postcards with his image to their families. But in Greece, and other countries with Christian Orthodox majority people, it’s not Saint Nicholas who gives presents but Saint Basil. Saint Basil (or the Great Basil or Basil from Caesarea), who had nothing to do with sleights, reindeer, snow or giving presents, earned his fame through his charity work, instituting the Almshouse. There, poor, foreigners and other members of sensitive social groups were given care. His story was connected to the story of Santa Claus rather by necessity, since the Orthodox Church honors the name-days of saints (which cannot change) and the giving of presents could not be made in 6 December (15 days before Christmas Day), as the continuation of the custom would be lost. As an alternative, Saint Basil was chosen, probably because of his charity work -it being somewhat relevant to giving gifts- and due to the closeness of Christmas to his name-day (1st of January).

From the German tradition comes the ornamenting of the Christmas tree, which was followed in the country since the 15th century. When, in 1840, Queen Victoria married her cousin Prince Albert of Germany, he transferred this custom in England and then it spread throughout the western world.

Many times, the celebration of Christmas was banned by the Protestants, as it was deemed to be too pagan or non-biblical.

Another Coca-Cola ad (photo)
Another Coca-Cola ad (photo)

Sources:

Photos:

When Castro asked for a nuclear holocaust

“Without a doubt the Cuban people would have fought courageously but, also without a doubt, the Cuban people would have perished heroically.”
Khrushchev to Castro

During the short period known as ‘the Cuban missile crisis’, the planet approached more than ever the biggest catastrophe possible. Given the lauding of Castro after his recent death, what seems to escape awareness in the wide public is his role in those fateful two weeks. Just two days before the crisis ended, he sent a letter to the Russian leader Khrushchev to urge him towards a nuclear attack against the US.

His reasoning was, in case the Americans invaded Cuba, firstly: a nuclear attack would be the sole reasonable move as retribution of that attack, and secondly: the invasion would provide an opportunity for the Soviet Union to preemptively attack and completely annihilate the Americans and in this way to not allow them to perform a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union.

source
source

This is the letter he sent (emphasis is mine)

Letter from Fidel Castro to Nikita Khrushchev
October 26, 1962

Dear Comrade Khrushchev:

Given the analysis of the situation and the reports which have reached us, [I] consider an attack to be almost imminent — within the next 24 to 72 hours. There are two possible variants: the first and most probable one is an air attack against certain objectives with the limited aim of destroying them; the second, and though less probable, still possible, is a full invasion. This would require a large force and is the most repugnant form of aggression, which might restrain them.

You can be sure that we will resist with determination, whatever the case. The Cuban people’s morale is extremely high and the people will confront aggression heroically.

I would like to briefly express my own personal opinion.

If the second variant takes place and the imperialists invade Cuba with the aim of occupying it, the dangers of their aggressive policy are so great that after such an invasion the Soviet Union must never allow circumstances in which the imperialists could carry out a nuclear first strike against it.

I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba — a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law — then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense. However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.

This opinion is shaped by observing the development of their aggressive policy. The imperialists, without regard for world opinion and against laws and principles, have blockaded the seas, violated our air-space, and are preparing to invade, while at the same time blocking any possibility of negotiation, even though they understand the gravity of the problem.

You have been, and are, a tireless defender of peace, and I understand that these moments, when the results of your superhuman efforts are so seriously threatened, must be bitter for you. We will maintain our hopes for saving the peace until the last moment, and we are ready to contribute to this in any way we can. But, at the same time, we are serene and ready to confront a situation which we see as very real and imminent.

I convey to you the infinite gratitude and recognition of the Cuban people to the Soviet people, who have been so generous and fraternal, along with our profound gratitude and admiration to you personally. We wish you success with the enormous task and great responsibilities which are in your hands.

Fraternally,

Fidel Castro

[source: pbs]

Fortunately, Khrushchev was not influenced be Castro’s stance and signed a deal with the US without bearing his hotheaded prompting in mind. He sesnt him a reply in a rather condescending tone, where he reminds him what was in everybody’s mind during the Cold War; that, if one bomb is dropped, all bombs will follow. He tells him that if the Russians drop nuclear bombs in America, the imperialists will surely suffer of course, but the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc will suffer too (he forgets to mention all their neighbors) and that Cuba herself “would have burned in the fires of war”. That this action would unavoidably result in a “global thermonuclear war”. “We struggle against imperialism, not in order to die, but to draw on all of our potential, to lose as little as possible, and later to win more”, Khrushchev thinks. He goes on to say that the deal that was signed achieved the goals of the Soviet Union as well as those of Cuba, since a future invasion of the island was averted, either coming from the US or by one of her allies (as a stated term of the deal).

source
source

Read entire letter here (emphasis is mine)

Read entire letter here (emphasis is mine)

Letter from Nikita Khrushchev to Fidel Castro

October 30, 1962

Dear Comrade Fidel Castro:

We have received your letter of October 28, along with the reports of the conversations that you and President Dorticos had with our ambassador.

We understand your situation and are taking into account your difficulties in this first stage following the elimination of the maximum tension that resulted from the threat of an attack by American imperialists which you expected at any moment.

We understand that for you certain difficulties may have emerged as a consequence of the promises we made to the United States to withdraw the missile bases from Cuba in exchange for their promise to abandon their plans to invade Cuba and to prevent their allies in the Western hemisphere from doing so, to end their so-called “quarantine” — their blockade of Cuba. This commitment has led to an end to the conflict in the Caribbean, a conflict which implied, as you can well understand, a superpower confrontation and its transformation into a world war where the missiles and thermonuclear weapons would have been used. According to our ambassador, certain Cubans feel that the Cuban people would prefer a different kind of statement, one that would not deal with the withdrawal of the missiles. It is possible that such feelings exist among the people. But we, politicians and heads of state, are the people’s leaders and the people do not know everything. This is why we must march at the head of the people. Then they will follow and respect us.

If, by giving in to popular sentiment, we had allowed ourselves to be swept up by the more inflamed sectors of the populace, and if we had refused to reach a reasonable agreement with the government of the USA, war would have probably broken out, resulting in millions of deaths. Those who survived would have blamed the leaders for not having taken the measures that would have avoided this war of extermination.

The prevention of war and of an attack on Cuba did not depend only on the measures taken by our governments, but also on the analysis and examination of the enemy’s actions near your territory. In short, the situation had to be considered as a whole.

Some people say that we did not consult sufficiently with each other before taking the decision of which you know.

In fact, we consider that consultations did take place, dear Comrade Fidel Castro, since we received your cables, one more alarming than the other, and finally your cable of October 27 where you said that you were almost certain that an attack against Cuba was imminent. According to you it was only a matter of time: 24 or 72 hours.

Having received this very alarming cable from you, and knowing of your courage, we believed the alert to be totally justified.

Wasn’t that consultation on your part? We interpreted that cable as a sign of maximum alert. But if we had carried on with our consultations in such conditions, knowing that the bellicose and unbridled militarists of the United States wanted to seize the occasion to attack Cuba, we would have been wasting our time and the strike could have taken place.

We think that the presence of our strategic missiles in Cuba has polarized the attention of the imperialists. They were afraid that they would be used, which is why they risked wanting to eliminate them, either by bombing them or by invading Cuba. And we must recognize that they had the capability to put them out of action. This is why, I repeat, your sense of alarm was totally justified.

In your cable of October 27 you proposed that we be the first to carry out a nuclear strike against the enemy’s territory. Naturally you understand where that would lead us. It would not be a simple strike, but the start of a thermonuclear world war.

Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I find your proposal to be wrong, even though I understand your reasons.

We have lived through a very grave moment, a global thermonuclear war could have broken out. Of course the United States would have suffered enormous losses, but the Soviet Union and the whole socialist bloc would have also suffered greatly. It is even difficult to say how things would have ended for the Cuban people. First of all, Cuba would have burned in the fires of war. Without a doubt the Cuban people would have fought courageously but, also without a doubt, the Cuban people would have perished heroically. We struggle against imperialism, not in order to die, but to draw on all of our potential, to lose as little as possible, and later to win more, so as to be a victor and make communism triumph.

The measures which we have adopted have allowed us to reach the goal which we had sat when we decided to send the missiles to Cuba. We have extracted from the United States the commitment riot to invade Cuba and not to allow their Latin-American allies to do so. We have accomplished all of this without a nuclear war.

We believe that we must take advantage of all the possibilities to defend Cuba, to strengthen its independence and sovereignty, to thwart military aggression, and to prevent a global thermonuclear war in the present stage.

And we have succeeded.

Of course we have made concessions, we have made certain commitments. We have acted on the principle of reciprocal concessions. The United States has also made concessions, it has committed itself publicly, before the whole world, not to attack Cuba.

Therefore, if we compare a U.S. attack and thermonuclear war on the one hand, and on the other hand the commitments made, the reciprocal concessions, the guarantee of the inviolability of the Republic of Cuba, and the prevention of a world war, then I think that the conclusion is clear.

Naturally, in the defense of Cuba and of other socialist countries we cannot trust the promise of the U.S. (not to invade Cuba). We have taken, and will continue to take, every measure to strengthen our defenses and to accumulate the forces necessary to carry out a counter-strike. At this time, with the weapons we have given Cuba, it is able to defend itself more than ever. Even after the dismantling of the missile sites you will have weaponry sufficiently powerful to push back the enemy on land, sea, and air near your territory.

Furthermore, as you will recall, we stated in our message to the president of the United States on October 28 that: “we wish at the same time to assure the Cuban people that we are at its side and that we will not abandon our responsibility to help the Cuban people.” It is clear to everyone that this is a very serious warning which we are addressing to the enemy.

You stated in the meetings that one cannot trust the U.S. Of course you are right. Your statements on the conditions for negotiations with the United States are equally correct. Having shot down a U.S. aircraft over Cuban territory was in the end a useful act because it ended without complications. It is a lesson for the imperialists. Of course our enemies will interpret the events in their own way. The Cuban counter-revolution will also attempt to rear its head. But we-believe that you have total control over the internal enemy without our help. The most important thing which we have achieved is to stop, for the time being, an attack by external enemies.

We consider that the aggressor has suffered a defeat. He was preparing to attack Cuba, but we stopped him and have forced him to pledge to the world that he will not do so at this time. We believe that this is a great victory. Of course, the imperialists will not stop fighting against communism. But we also have our plans and we will make our decisions. This process of struggle will last for as long as there exists on this earth two sociopolitical systems, until one of the systems, and we know that it will be our communist system, triumphs world-wide.

Comrade Fidel Castro, we have decided to send you this answer as quickly as possible. We will conduct a more detailed analysis of what took place in a letter which we will soon send you. In that letter we will make a more in depth analysis of the situation and will give you our opinion on the results of the settlement of the crisis.

At this time, the negotiations on a settlement are beginning and we ask you to communicate your position to us. We, for our part, will keep you informed on the progress of the negotiations and make the necessary consultations.

Comrade Fidel Castro, we wish you all possible success, and I am sure that you will achieve it. There are still machinations against you. But with you, we intend to take all the steps to thwart them and to contribute to the strengthening and development of the Cuban Revolution.

Nikita Khrushchev

[source: pbs]

Castro sends his own reply, in which he seems quite agitated, considering Khrushchev to have misunderstood him in his calculations. Of course he knew, he writes, that the Cuban people would vanish from the face of the Earth if such a war would take place. But he insists that this would be the only choice in case of invasion; “what could we do with those lunatics who started the war?”, he wonders, considering the sole outcome of a conventional war (a Cuban invasion) to be an escalation to a nuclear response. “I think that from the moment when aggression breaks out, one should not give the aggressor the privilege to decide, moreover, on when to use nuclear weapons.”[1]

source
source

If we already knew how close we got to a nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War, and especially during the Cuban missile crisis, the reading of this particular piece of correspondence gives us an overt glimpse into the mind of one of its protagonists. A mind that could find a silver lining in a nuclear holocaust, that is willing to sacrifice itself and the Cuban people in order to destroy its enemy.

Che Guevara, too, expressed similar feelings when he wrote (in Tactics and strategy of the Latin American Revolution, 1962): “Here is the electrifying example of a people prepared to suffer nuclear immolation so that its ashes may serve as a foundation for new societies” and “we must follow the road of liberation even though it may cost millions of nuclear war victims”.

Castro lived long enough to admit his mistake, an admission which would not be worth a penny if his counseling was taken seriously.

[1] These two quotes are translated from Greek to English, as I could not find this letter in English -I only have it available in Greek (on the Greek site leninreloaded.blogspot.com). It is dated 31st October 1962.

Hitler’s willing suicides – the German kamikaze

Fascism has repeatedly been defeated but it doesn’t usually surrender. It denies its defeat, it hangs on every last thread of hope, it sends every last one of its heroes to their deaths and it uses the citizens in peacetime as it does the soldiers at war: as mere means to an end. In fact, fascism does not see people as citizens, but only as subjects. The individual has no merit, his needs are meaningless and death is heroic (even necessary). When the fascist leader is in danger, the whole country is in danger along with him; as the haves wanting to “take it with them” when they depart, so does every little fuehrer, when he sees the end coming, wants to take his own property (his people) with him. One such ultimate, desperate historic moment will be presented here, involving the biggest fuehrer of our recent times, in an incident that has largely been omitted from history.

Perhaps there is no historic phenomenon more exhaustively studied than the rise of the Nazis and the 2nd World War. But there are still relatively unexplored aspects of it. Those associated with the formation and the operation of the suicide attack Unit of the SS that have survived chose to withhold their participation or even the very existence of the unit, perhaps in an effort to avoid unpleasant questions and a public acknowledgment of their leadership’s defeatism during the last months of the war. Pieces of evidence still remain scattered and few.

A short time before Germany’s defeat by the Allies -and as Hitler was already hiding in his bunker where he finally committed suicide- the Nazis tried one last plan. They trained a task force of pilots called Sonderkommando Elbe assigned to ram enemy targets. That the inspiration for the formation of this task force came from the relative success of the Japanese kamikaze, is an intuition that cannot be substantiated with evidence, but seems very likely.

Typically, these were not suicide attacks as, strictly speaking, the rationale was that the pilots would escape from their aircraft (Bf 109) before the impact and survive in order to fly again. But the fact remains that there was no ejection mechanism (this technology was new at the time and was used in roughly 50-60 German airplanes during WW2), and this dropped the chances of survival to 5%, something that makes it doubtful whether the 2,000 volunteers realistically expected to survive their mission.

Ramming depiction by Helmuth Ellgaard, 1944 (photo)
Ramming depiction by Helmuth Ellgaard, 1944 (photo)

The aim of the Sonderkommando Elbe was to delay by 4-6 weeks the American advance of the bombers that decimated their army and their cities, so that they would have enough time to construct new fighter aircrafts (Me 262) and restore their fuel reserves in order to regain air dominance. The pilots’ targets were the tails of the Ally bombers or, alternatively, the winds behind the engine or the cockpits.

The first of the two missions of the task force (operation “Werewolf”) was made in 7 April 1945, with 180 Bf 109 aircrafts countering over 1,300 American (along with their escorts), a ratio that makes the operation seem like an exercise in dementia. The American archives give us an estimate of 8 to 15 bombers being destroyed, while Luftwaffe, probably exagerating their numbers, refers to 22 to 24.

The second mission took place 10 days later, against the Soviet army as it was crossing the bridges of the Oder River east of Berlin, near the borders with Poland. The Germans managed the destruction of some bridges, but in both cases the losses they caused were minimal and constituted only a minor discomfort and delay.

The Sonderkommando Elbe was actually not the first unit created with the aim of using soldiers as human bombs. Earlier, in February 1944 –months before the Japanese kamikaze- an unwilling Hitler was introduced to the formation of the Leonidas air force unit by the fanatic Nazi Hannah Reitsch, who probably wanted to take a little something from the Spartans’ glory. Hitler refused this hopeless notion of self-sacrifice, since he didn’t believe the war effort had yet reached a dead end. Reitsch was an important figure of the war, as she was one of the two women honored with the Iron Cross and had the support of certain higher officers in the army. During a meeting with Hitler in his country house on the Alps, Reitsch finally convinced him; and so the unit was formed (with the official name 5th Staffel of Kampfgeschwander 200) with her positioned as a trainer.

This kind of suicide attacks was rooted in the German mythology and utilized the ‘Nazi spirit’. The Nazis created symbolism drawn from the Teutonic Order of the mythology (and not that of history); in particular the Chivalry, the blood oaths and the idea of war against the enemy from the east (“It is eastwards, only and always eastwards, that the veins of our race must expand. It is the direction which Nature herself has decreed for the expansion of the German peoples.” Hitler, 7/2/1945). The Teutons were of a strongly religious character (they were essentially monk-warriors) and protected Germany from Russian and Slavic enemies. Their code involved dying in battle rather than surrendering (the tradition of Totenritt / “death ride” is widespread). Heinrich Himmler had the Teutons in mind when he formed the SS and transformed them from a small paramilitary wing to the bigger and most powerful Nazi organization. They were his version of the Teutons.

Hannah Reitsch wore the cross Hitler had given her until her dying days. (photo)
Hannah Reitsch wore the cross Hitler had given her until her dying days. (photo)

The aircraft that the modern Spartans would use was actually a modified bomb, with the installation of a cockpit to host the pilot. Training started with 70 volunteers, mainly newly drafted. Here, too, the pilot was expected to make an effort to get out of the aircraft, but the placing of the cockpit in the front made the escape plan a fantasy. The volunteers were required to sign a declaration which said:

“I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as part of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death.”

In the end, the plan was considered to be a waste of lives and resources, and therefore no mission was made by the Leonidas members. Alternatively, a guided bomb was used, which proved inefficient to cause serious damage.

Later, from 17 to 20 April 1945, during the battle of Berlin, pilots of the Leonidas squadron used any craft they would find available and made suicide attacks (“total operations”) to destroy bridges and obstruct the Soviet advances in the capital. The price of 35 pilots was rather high for the miniscule reward of the temporary delay of the Russians.

One of the aircrafts that flew the “final missions” (Focke-Wulf Fw 190s) (photo)
One of the aircrafts that flew the “final missions” (Focke-Wulf Fw 190s) (photo)

Hitler in his final days, and after defeat was certain, ordered the Nero operation, according to which the infrastructure of the country would be destroyed by its leadership, so that the Allies would only find scorched earth. Hitler wanted to end it all not with a whimper, but a bang. According to the Teutonic idea of “win or die”, one of his last orders was to flood the underground tunnels that were hosting thousands of German civilians at the time, in order to obstruct the Russian advance. The result was several thousands of Germans dying, not of drowning, since the water level did not exceed one meter, but due to the panic that it caused, with the weaker among them being trampled by the rest. With this action, which many call paranoid, Hitler “punished” his own people that did not stand up to his own expectations and led his country to defeat.

The fascistic regime utilized history and mythology to fanaticize it subjects, placing the war effort in the realms of fantasy and symbolism; and when it saw the end nearing, in the very literal image of enemy bombers, deeming its citizens to be traitors, wanted to take them along with it to its death. As in the case of the Japanese kamikaze, totalitarianism refused to accept defeat and used the more devoted citizens as weapons, sending them to desperate suicide missions, knowing that they had no real chance of changing the outcome of the war.

Two Messerschmitt Bf 109 aircrafts (Sonderkomando Elbe) (photo)
Two Messerschmitt Bf 109 aircrafts (Sonderkomando Elbe) (photo)

It is no accident that both Germany and Japan avoid mentioning their suicide pilots. This omission suggests how execrable they themselves think sending soldiers to certain death is (sometimes the best among them) only for a few more meters of land, or for a few obstacles less. Of course, democratic regimes also, in times of war, view the soldier as an expendable resource, and often not the most valuable one. As told by a General calculating the outcome of an impending military operation, in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (adapted from Humphrey Cobb’s book):

“Naturally, men are going to have to be killed. Possibly a lot of them. They absorb bullets and shrapnel and by doing so make it possible for others to get through…Say 5% killed by our own barrage. That’s a very generous allowance. 10% more in getting through no-man’s-land and 20% more getting through the wire. That leaves 65% with the worst part of the job over. Let’s say another 25% in actually taking the Anthill. We’re still left with a force more than adequate to hold it.”

This means that 60% of his own soldiers, the general considers an accepted (and certain) loss to take over a hill. The case of the kamikaze, though (and their German counterparts), differs. The French soldiers of the 1st World War in the above excerpt did not have a right to chose. If they refused to carry out the order they were given, they would die from ‘friendly’ fire. And when they made such an attack they had the hope of getting out alive; they probably had no clear view of how improbable that was in such situations. The kamikaze and their Germna counterparts, however, had chosen to participate voluntarily and their death was a certainty. As George Orwell correctly observes in Review of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler:

“human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working hours, hygiene, birth control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice”

These people are the best candidates for supporting fascism; those who still today present themselves with their permanently frowned faces, those who instead of trying to fix the “corrupt system” they want to destroy it completely and replace it with their own broken version.

When the individual is absolutely subjected to the state (the determinant element of totalitarianism), it is not only expected from the regime to sacrifice however many it wants in order to satisfy its purpose, it is the soldier that is expected to self-sacrifice for its sake. The kamikaze pilots were the paragon of the fascist soldier; completely submisive and utterly devoted. And this annoys the defeated fascists. The needless waste of the bravest and ablest shows the untenability of the regime; if they had won they might have praised them as examples for imitation. Because (as Hitler probably said): “If you win you don’t need to explain, and if you lose you are not there to explain.” When the person has no individual substance, when only the mass has a purpose to exist, personality evanesces and a very sinister version of utilitarianism takes over to define thought and action. What’s best for the state is the only thing that matters.

In totalitarianism there are no individuals, there is only the idea of the state.

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