Aug 182015
 

Having grown up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, I had a thoroughly Marxist education in history during my grade school and high school years. A central tenet of Marxist history is the concept of “historical inevitability”: that great historic upheavals are a result not of individual heroism or foolishness, but of great socio-economic currents that create change.

I was reminded of this conflict between the “dialectical materialist” vs. the “romantic” view of history while I was reading a superb piece of historical science fiction, Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again. A story in which the protagonist time travels from 2024 to 1914 to change history, prevent The Great War, and make the world a better place. Things of course don’t exactly go as planned (or maybe they go according to plan a little too well?) but I cannot say much about the book without revealing the plot, so I won’t.

But the book, as well as one of the reviews I found on Amazon, made me think of how some of the most fundamental sequences of events in the 20th century were far from inevitable: rather, they were series of astoundingly improbable events, inept bungling that any half-competent publisher would reject as too incredible if submitted in the form of a manuscript of historical fiction.

First, the main event in Elton’s book: the Sarajevo assassination. Think of it: the Serbian organization, The Black Hand, positions not one, not two, but six separate assassins (some sources mention seven, but the seventh conspirator was the recruiter) along the arch duke’s planned route. Meanwhile, the arch duke arrives by train and immediately loses his security detail due to a mix-up as a result of which local police officers took their place in one of the cars.

The sequence of events begins when the first assassin fails to act. The second, too, fails to act. The third finally does act and throws his bomb, which bounces off the arch duke’s car, only to explode underneath the next car, wounding more than a dozen people. This would-be assassin swallows an expired cyanide capsule and jumps into the river, which happened to be only five inches deep at the moment… so he fails to die. The remaining three assassins, too, fail to act as the rest of the motorcade passes by them at high speed.

So then the Austrian general in charge changes the route for the afternoon… and fails to inform the arch duke’s driver. Who then makes a wrong turn, comes to a stop and stalls the car right in front of one of the would-be assassins from earlier that day, Gavrilo Princip. Princip was there ostensibly because he hoped to complete his mission during the arch duke’s return journey, but for all we know, he gave up already and was just getting a sandwich at Schiller’s Deli when the target was so conveniently presented to him. And then he took out his gun and managed to kill both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie with a single bullet each. And thus the life of an arch duke who believed in increased federalism, in modernizing the Monarchy, came to an abrupt end, along with that of his beloved wife, despised and routinely humiliated by the court in Vienna for being outside of the arch duke’s rank. Franz Ferdinand’s last words were, reportedly, “Sopherl! Sopherl! Stirb nicht! Bleib’ am Leben für unsere Kinder!” (“Sophie! Sophie! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!”)

And thus, world history changed and The War to End All Wars began a few short weeks later. Empires crumbled, murderous ideologies were born. A second world war and at least a hundred million deaths later, the world settled into the uneasy but surprisingly long-lasting peace of the Cold War, a peace that lasts to this day, bringing unprecedented prosperity to billions. Who knows what would have happened if Franz Ferdinand did not die on June 28, 1914?

The second bungled event that came to mind was the accidental fall of the Iron Curtain on November 9, 1989. (Astonishingly for me personally, just over three years after I left Hungary as a political refugee, having concluded that I saw no chance of “regime change” behind the Iron Curtain anytime soon, certainly not within a generation.)

The events that led directly to the collapse of the Berlin Wall began in Hungary a few months earlier, when my country of birth decided not to intervene as thousands of East German citizens crossed the border into Austria. Initially, the East German government responded by tightening its regime of exit visas, banning travel for its citizens first to Hungary and later, to Czechoslovakia. Nonetheless, unprecedented mass demonstrations followed in East Germany, with crowds rallying to the words “Wir wollen raus!” (“We want out!”) The East German government decided to take the bold step of allowing severely regulated private travel to the West.

The new regulations were to take effect the next day, but this was not communicated to Günter Schabowski, East Berlin’s party boss who was only handed a brief note announcing the changes moments before giving a press conference. Having made the announcement, in response to a question from a journalist, he stated that as far as he knew, the new regulations liberalizing travel are to take effect immediately, without delay, and involved border crossings along the Berlin Wall.

Almost immediately, crowds of East Germans began gathering at the Wall, demanding the opening of the gates. As no-one among East Germany’s leaders was prepared to order the use of lethal force, finally the commander of one of the border crossings yielded, and the border was thrown wide open.

Less than a year later, the state of East Germany ceased to exist.

What would have happened if Schabowski had been better informed? If the East German state had been able to assert its authority and managed to maintain order at its border crossings? Or conversely, what if they had the guts to give the order to fire? Would there have been a bloody revolution? Would Germany still be divided today? What would the European Union look like?

The date of November 9 is famous for another reason, by the way. It was on this day in 1918 that Imperial Germany ceased to exist with the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the ruler who probably bore the most responsibility for turning the 1914 Sarajevo crisis into an all encompassing World War.

Astonishingly, the last surviving member of the conspiracy to kill Franz Ferdinand, Vaso Čubrilović, lived to the ripe old age of 93 and passed away in the year of German reunification, in 1990.

 Posted by at 10:44 am
Aug 072015
 

Frances Kathleen Oldham Kelsey died this morning. She was 101 years old.

Dr. Kelsey’s name is the subject of legend among thalidomide sufferers. Born in Canada, Dr. Kelsey moved to the United States, where eventually she became an employee of the Food and Drug Administration in 1960. The first file on her desk was about thalidomide, a drug that is now known to have caused many thousands of birth defects worldwide.

Concerned about the drug’s suspected side effects, Dr. Kelsey refused to approve it without full clinical trials. She was vindicated when the numerous birth defects caused by thalidomide came to light. The USA was thus spared a scourge that was inflicted by thalidomide on many other countries, including Canada.

Eventually, Dr. Kelsey was even recognized by the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy.

Dr. Kelsey’s Canadian recognition came much later. In 2015, she was finally awarded the Order of Canada. Her family asked that the award ceremony be moved up as her health was in rapid decline. Accordingly, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Ontario’s Lieutenant-Governor, visited the Kelsey home yesterday. Dr. Kelsey was reportedly aware and was thrilled.

Frances Kathleen Oldham Kelsey died less than 24 hours later. But what an amazing life she lived.

 Posted by at 12:17 pm
Aug 062015
 

This morning, my copy of The Globe and Mail had a pair of postcard-like pictures on its front page:

These pictures are a rather graphic reminder of what happened exactly 70 years ago today: the destruction of Hiroshima, in the first ever use of a nuclear device as a weapon of war.

Thankfully, the last such use occurred only three days later, in Nagasaki. No atomic bombs were exploded in anger ever since. I don’t know how much longer our luck will hold, but I doubt anyone in the 1960s would have predicted a world with no nuclear confrontation for another half a century.

 Posted by at 12:27 pm
Jul 152015
 

I have in my collection of photographs a picture, taken I suspect in the late 1960s or the 1970s by my father-in-law, from the top of the TV tower in Alexanderplatz, in downtown Berlin. The Berlin Wall in this picture is quite visible.

The other day, I was able to identify the exact perspective from which this picture was taken, using Google Maps. The city has changed a lot in the intervening decades (almost half a century!) but some prominent buildings remain quite recognizable. The Wall, of course, is long gone.

Also, there are a heck of a lot more trees. Budapest was like this, too: When I was growing up, there were barely any trees. That is because most trees were cut down for firewood during WW2 so in the 1960s, there were still very few mature trees in the city. Today, the street where I grew up is completely covered by a canopy of green.

 Posted by at 11:56 am
Jun 182015
 

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the final, decisive battle that ended Napoleon’s second, 100-day reign.

People occasionally call the Napoleonic Wars World War 0: like the two World Wars of the 20th century, this war, too, was global in scope (especially if I include the War of 1812) and millions died.

Others suggest that there were much larger conflicts in Europe’s past, such as the Seven Years’ War. Perhaps true, but I’d argue that like the two World Wars of the 20th century, the Napoleonic Wars also had a more lasting legacy: they changed the existing world order. Before the Napoleonic Wars, Europe was still a collection of medieval, mostly multi ethnic feudal empires. The Napoleonic Wars sowed the seeds of ethnic nationalism on the one hand and constitutional democracies on the other. They gave rise, for better or for worse, to the modern ethnic nation states that characterize Europe today. Meanwhile in North America, the War of 1812 established the path that led to Canada’s nationhood.

So to me, it’s World War 0. And it ended exactly 200 years ago today. Unlike World War I, it wasn’t “the war to end all wars”, although it did bring in an unprecedented era of relative peace, prosperity and enlightenment in Europe. As a result, the 19th century became the true century of science and technology, which saw the emergence of modern cities with electric lighting, streetcars, telephone and telegraph networks, proper sanitation, functioning social institutions, modern police forces, newspapers and public education. It is too bad that in the century that followed, the century that was greeted with such hope and expectations that it was once dubbed “the century of reason”, saw ethnic nationalism take center stage and lead to unspeakable horrors.

 Posted by at 7:59 pm
Mar 232015
 

Emmy Noether… not exactly a household name, at least outside of the community of theoretical physicists and mathematicians.

Which is why I was so surprised today when I noticed Google’s March 23 Doodle: a commemoration of Emmy Noether’s 133rd birthday.

Wow. I mean, thank you, Google. What a nice and deserving tribute to one of my heroes.

 Posted by at 11:36 pm
Mar 222015
 

A British monarch was laid to rest today.

No, you didn’t miss anything in the news. Queen Elizabeth II is still the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom or, for that matter, Canada.

The monarch who was laid to rest is none other than Richard III, the last British monarch to have been killed in battle on home soil, 530 years ago this year.

His remains, however, were only found in 2012 and were not positively identified until some time after.

And now, Richard III has found his final resting place.

 Posted by at 7:28 pm
Nov 112014
 

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada.

Unlike the Remembrance Days of recent years, today is perfect. The Sun is shining, the temperature is going to hit double digits. It is a sparkling, beautiful, almost unnaturally splendid late autumn day.

The combination of exceptional weather and the recent death of Cpl. Cirillo, gunned down last month while guarding the very memorial where Remembrance Day ceremonies will take place, will bring exceptional crowds.

But today is not a day of celebration. It is a day to remember.

To remember the War to End All Wars, which began exactly 100 years ago. Far from ending all wars, it claimed nearly 40 million lives, and redrew the maps of Europe, laying the groundwork for another, even more devastating war less than a quarter century later. To remember all the dead: not just Canadians, not just Allied soldiers, indeed, not only just soldiers but also civilians who suffered and died in even greater numbers.

To remember, for instance, my wife’s great-grandfather, who served in the Austro-Hungarian army at one of the bloodiest fronts of the Great War, along the Isonzo river in present-day Slovenia. His little notebook [in Hungarian] detailing, often in verse, his horrendous experience in the trenches, was found among the papers left behind by my wife’s father when he died.

To remember my great uncle Béla, who taught me to play chess when I was little and who was the first among elder family members who awakened my interest in science and mathematics. Uncle Béla served in both world wars and (if I remember family lore correctly) even spent some time as a POW. A memento, a stringless balalaika, hung on the wall of their tiny, bathroom-less working-class flat in central Budapest, where he lived with his wife, aunt Flóra, until his death.

To remember my grandfather on my mother’s side, whom I never met, as he passed away a year before I was born. He spent some horrendous months as an army engineer near the Don river; he only escaped the devastating defeat of the Second Hungarian Army (and thus, likely death or long-term captivity in Stalin’s gulag) because he was allowed to return to Budapest after contracting pneumonia. Nonetheless, what he went through there probably contributed to his declining health and the massive stroke or brain hemorrhage that struck him just a few years later and left him severely disabled for the last 15 years of his life. He was several years younger than I am at present when his life effectively came to an end.

His wife, my grandmother, was responsible for keeping a family of six (including a newborn baby and two preschoolers, one of them my Mom) alive and fed through the siege of Budapest, when the family spent an entire winter in a basement bomb shelter, even as she herself was coping with illness that nearly took her life.

As I am writing down these thoughts, I am listening to the musical Johnny Johnson, by Kurt Weill. Weill, well-known for his Threepenny Opera, is one of my favorite 20th century composers. He escaped Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933, to live the rest of his all too short life (he was only 50 when he died) in the United States. It was here that he composed Johnny Johnson, an astonishing anti-war musical. One of my favorite songs has a German and an American priest preaching in canon on the battlefront to their respective troops: one in German, one in English, but preaching the exact same words. But perhaps the most heart-rending scene is at the very end: the protagonist, Johnny Johnson, is now a toymaker selling his “toys for nice little girls and boys” on the street. Unfortunately, nobody is buying: they are more interested in the speech of a politician just a block away, calling for another war.

The title of Johnny Johnson was inspired by the fact the name appeared on United States casualty rolls more often than any other.

 Posted by at 8:49 am
Sep 192014
 

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanSanity prevailed in Scotland last night.

By a comfortable margin, residents of Scotland rejected (ethnic) nationalism. Whatever their thoughts are about the current government in Westminster, it seems they decided that punishing David Cameron with a “Yes” vote would have amounted to biting off the nose to spite the face.

I always found nationalism distasteful. I don’t care if it is the nationalism of the oppressor or the oppressed. To be sure, it is easy the sympathize with the oppressed. But the solution to nationalist oppression is not to encourage the nationalism of the oppressed (so that they can then go and do some oppressing of their own, like, for instance, Hungarians did with their own minorities during the 1848-49 revolution against Austria). The solution is to put an end to the ideology that led to oppression in the first place. Governments should be responsible for governing the people in the territory that they control, regardless of ethnicity. And fragmenting the world into more, tinier countries in the 21st century just makes no practical sense.

To their credit, the Scots held a referendum with a clear, unambiguous question. “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” No shenanigans about sovereignty-association or a new economic-political partnership. And they seemed entirely civil about it.

Thank you, Scotland, for being wise. For not creating a precedent for the Balkanization of continental Europe.

Now… please don’t do this again, not in my lifetime anyway :-)

 Posted by at 3:20 pm
Aug 152014
 

The other day, I was watching The Tramp and the Dictator, a documentary about Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film, The Great Dictator, in which I came across this gem:

The speaker is Rep. Martin Dies from Texas, who later became known as the founder of the infamous House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities (initially nicknamed the Dies committee). A month earlier, Mr. Dies also presented his views to a radio audience.

Unfortunately, the words uttered by some anti-immigration politicians and activists today in the United States are little different from the words uttered nearly 80 years ago by Mr. Dies.

 Posted by at 7:38 pm
Aug 042014
 

One hundred years ago, the British Empire (and, by extension, Canada) declared war on the German Empire. The War to End All Wars began in earnest.

This reminds me that we have in our possession this small hand-sewn notebook which belonged to my wife’s great-grandfather. He served in the Great War, as a conscript in Austria-Hungary’s army. He fought in the trenches against Italy, alongside the Isonzo river.

His notebook was his diary, written mostly in the form of poetry, during some of the heaviest fighting in the summer of 1915.

I have not (yet) made an attempt to translate any of it into English; the content that is linked above is in Hungarian. But pictures are worth a thousand words: here is my wife’s great-grandfather, with his wife, photographed some time before 1914.

 Posted by at 7:15 pm
Jun 282014
 

Exactly 100 years ago today, a south Slav nationalist teen, Gavrilo Princip, became a part of weaponized history when he shot to death the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, prince Franz Ferdinand along with his wife, Sophie. The shots shattered the dream of the “Century of Reason”: Instead, the 20th century came to be remembered as a century of global upheaval, the two deadliest global wars in history, the birth and ultimately, death of the worst totalitarian empires the world ever saw and the rise of a new kind of empire, as a result of which many now call the 20th century the American Century.

princip-statue-small

Today should be a day of remembrance. And in many ways it is… especially in Sarajevo, where they just erected a statue of the young assassin who set out to change the world and arguably, became one of history’s most successful rebels ever as a result.

And no, contrary to popular belief, Princip was not eating a sandwich at the time.

 Posted by at 10:26 am
Apr 162014
 

Am I the only one who feels that the way the situation is escalating in Ukraine is eerily reminiscent of 1980s vintage TV movies depicting the events leading up to WW3?

Probably not.

And of course it’s purely symbolic, but I keep reminding myself that this year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of The War to End All Wars…

 Posted by at 7:00 pm
Mar 302014
 

People or, for that matter, nation states are known by the company they keep.

Here is the list of nations that supported Russia in the recent UN General Assembly vote on the matter of Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula:

  1. Armenia
  2. Belarus
  3. Bolivia
  4. Cuba
  5. North Korea
  6. Nicaragua
  7. Sudan
  8. Syria
  9. Venezuela
  10. Zimbabwe

All leading champions of human rights, freedom and democratic values, I see.

 Posted by at 10:57 am
Mar 162014
 

Is history thumbing its nose at us? The parallels between the events unfolding between Russia and Ukraine today vs. Germany and Czechoslovakia in the 1930s are unmistakable.

No, I am not going to evoke the hyperbole, comparing Putin to Hitler. (I’ll leave it to Russian propagandists to talk about “fascists” taking over Ukraine.)

But the actual events are another matter.

Consider the parallels between the 1936 Berlin olympics and Sochi.

The parallels between the Third Reich’s prosecution of homosexuals and Russia’s.

The parallels between the Crimea and the Sudetenland.

The parallels between German cries of outrage about the maltreatment of ethnic Germans abroad, and Russia’s.

The parallels between a post WWI Germany, destined to be a Great Power but humiliated by defeat and a vindictive peace treaty, and Russia, destined to be a superpower but humiliated by the collapse of its Soviet empire and encroachment by NATO, Russia’s former arch-enemy.

The analogy is not perfect. Nonetheless we better smarten up before it’s too late. Ironically, the “war to end all wars” started exactly 100 years ago this year… and far from being a deliberate war, it broke out as a result of a series of deadly miscalculations, which in the end caused the deaths of tens of millions, the end of an unprecedented half century of prosperity, the collapse of the existing world order, and guaranteed instability and upheaval (not to mention another, even more devastating World War) in the coming decades.

I spent the first 50+ years of my life in peace and prosperity. I want to live out the rest of my (hopefully long) natural life the same way, not become a civilian casualty of a war more devastating than anything in history.

 Posted by at 6:41 pm
Feb 192014
 

The Swiss are a proud people. Their country has been peaceful and prosperous since Napoleonic times. Several years ago, when I was in Bern, Switzerland, streetcars bore German-language signs advertising 200 years of safety and security. This was made possible, in part, by a strong and effective defense force, which would make any invasion too costly for a would-be attacker.

Or so I thought. Until yesterday, that is, when in the wake of the recent hijacking of an Ethiopian airliner, which eventually landed in Switzerland, the CBC helpfully explained the reason why the airliner was escorted by French and Italian fighter jets. You see, the Swiss Air Force operates only during normal business hours. Invading armies should take note: Switzerland is closed after 5 PM, so if you are late, you might want to reschedule your invasion plans for the next business day.

 

 Posted by at 1:48 pm
Feb 152014
 

One of the many victims of fascism in Hungary was the poet Miklós Radnóti, murdered in November 1944 while serving in a forced labor battalion.

Radnóti’s wife, Fanni Gyarmati, survived the Holocaust and continued a quiet life in Budapest, in the couple’s old apartment, which bears the name of Dr. Miklós Radnóti on its front door to this day.

Astonishingly, Fanni Gyarmati lived for another 70 years following her husband’s tragic death. She passed away today, at the age of 101.

May she rest in peace. May those who were responsible for her husband’s death never find peace. Nor those who are busy whitewashing Hungary’s history as racism and anti-Semitism are once again on the rise in the country of my birth.

 Posted by at 9:42 am
Feb 032014
 

According to Radio Free Europe, there are some remarkably law-abiding deer living along the one-time Cold War border between the former West Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The border (barbed wire, complete with electric fences, heavily armed guards, watchtowers and whatnot) is long gone. Yet the deer are still reluctant to cross, and this behavior is passed on from one generation to the next.

Remarkable. I am sure it would meet the approval of those comrades who came up with the idea in the first place that the primary purpose of a nation’s borders is not to keep enemies out, but to keep their own reluctant citizens confined inside.

 Posted by at 9:47 pm
Oct 112013
 

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Command and Control, by Erich Schlosser.

The subtitle may be somewhat more revealing: “Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety”.

It is a book about the safety (or lack thereof) of America’s nuclear weapons. And it was an eye-opening read.

Yes, I knew that there were some incidents in the past during which nuclear weapons were lost, damaged, or destroyed. Yes, I knew that there were incidents of false alarm, when early warning systems in the United States or the Soviet Union indicated an attack even though no such attack was under way.

But like many, I assumed that the weapons themselves were designed to be inherently safe. That by design, the weapons were secure against accidental detonation (even during a serious accident such as the crash of a bomber aircraft) or unauthorized use.

What I did not expect to read about were weapons that could be detonated by a stray electrical signal. A military leadership that resisted anything that could stand in the way of successful deployment of a weapon, including the installation of coded devices (“permissive action links”.) Or even when such coded devices were ultimately installed, in effect sabotaging them by using the code “00000000” everywhere. What I did not expect to read about were accidents involving nuclear weapons where only a single switch, prone to failure, stood between the world and an accidental thermonuclear explosion.

The book uses a specific incident, the in-silo explosion of a Titan II missile in 1980, as a framework to tell its story. I was shocked by the events leading up to the accident as well as the chaotic, panicky reaction afterwards (including pathetic attempts to hide systemic errors by trying to blame low-ranking airmen for the accident).

The book is mostly about America’s weapon systems, but it is not meant to imply that foolish attitudes towards the deadliest weapon ever invented by humanity are uniquely American. A famous line in the movie classic, Dr. Strangelove, is when Dr. Strangelove yells at the Soviet ambassador in frustration, “Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret!” In the 1980s, the Soviet Union finished construction of the Perimeter system, an automated system designed to respond with a massive nuclear strike automatically in case the Soviet leadership was incapacitated and the system detected nuclear explosions on Soviet soil. In other words: a doomsday machine. The system is believed to remain operational to this date.

And they kept it a secret.

 Posted by at 11:01 am