Nov 232015

A friend of mine reminded us on Facebook that the tragic events of Paris last week did not represent the worst massacre of civilians in the City of Light after World War II.

No, that title may belong to the events of October 17, 1961. It was on that day that Paris riot police, headed by former Vichy war criminal Maurice Papon, massacred up to 200 Algerians. (The actual numbers remain in dispute, as the French government only acknowledged more than three deaths in 1998.)

This fact raises so many questions. Foremost among them, why do those lives matter less? Is it only because 54 years is a long time and events were forgotten? Or would the ethnicity or religion of those massacred in 1961 have anything to do with it?

Whatever it is, I think it’s high time to come back from the hype and return to the plane of reality. Just this morning, I was listening to the CBC on the car radio and heard that Brussels remains under lockdown for the third day, with the subway not running. Which prompted me to shout at my poor, uncomprehending radio: “They didn’t even shut the London Underground down during the Blitz!”

 Posted by at 8:34 pm
Nov 212015

One of my favorite science fiction novels is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. In the distant post-apocalyptic future that is the setting of the novel, a piece of sacred memorabilia attributed to the founder of a monastic order, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, is in fact a 20th century shopping list.

As it turns out, something similar exists in real life. However, Gal Sal was no saint; he was the owner of two slaves, En-pap X and Sukkalgir. Their names are recorded on a more than 5,000 year old clay tablet that probably served as a receipt or title of sorts.


Though the dates are somewhat uncertain and there are other tablets of similar age, this trio may be the first people in history whose names have been preserved for posterity.

No heroic deeds. No epic battles. No dealings with gods or otherwordly spirits.

Just a receipt. Bureaucracy may, after all, be the oldest profession.

 Posted by at 11:36 pm
Nov 142015

The historical parallels are inescapable.

Three quarters of a century ago, the governments of the United States and Canada, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, declared their own citizens of Japanese descent a threat to national security. This was demanded by a vengeful citizenry who could not tell the difference between the militant government of Tokyo and loyal Americans and Canadians of Japanese descent: they saw “slanty-eyed traitors” everywhere.

As a result, one of the worst atrocities in North American history took place, depriving several ten thousand Canadians and over a hundred thousand Americans of basic rights, and herding them into places that, while more civilized than their counterparts in the Third Reich or the Japanese Empire, were nonetheless concentration camps. Their internment ended in the United States in the wake of a Supreme Court decision in early 1945; in Canada, it lasted until 1949.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, many European citizens wish to follow the same road. They blame the attacks on an open immigration policy. They blame all Muslims immigrants and call those who support them “traitors”. In this case, the determining factor is not race but religion, but it amounts to the same thing: Discrimination against millions for the crimes committed by a few.

You would think that the so-called “civilized world” is better than this. But all it takes is one heinous attack for the old formulas of racism and xenophobia to surface. We are no better than our ancestors.

This is what the ISIS bastards fail to realize by the way. They think they shock us with their snuff films on YouTube. Just as the Japanese generations ago, they will realize too late that when it comes to wholesale murder, we may be the biggest bastards after all.

 Posted by at 1:22 pm
Nov 132015

According to CNN, at least 60 153 127 128 people are dead in Paris tonight, as a result of multiple attacks. I am sure militant Islamists are rejoicing.

But here is some food for thought. You do this often enough and soon, the voices of moderates like myself will be drowned out. Soon our protests, “But most Muslims are not like that! Most Muslims just want to live in peace like anyone else!” will fall on deaf ears. Nationalism, xenophobia, racism will prevail. And do you know what will happen then?

Simple. Dar al-Islam will be turned into a radioactive desert.

Seriously. If you doubt what Westerners are capable of, learn about the two World Wars in Europe. Look what they did to their own kind. Learn about the Holocaust. And then check the number of active-service nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the world’s two greatest nuclear powers, both targets of militant Islamism. Here is something to think about: The only reason we are not the worst murderous bastards on this planet right now is because we’ve been to the abyss and looked down, seeing our own selves staring back.

Do not mistake the West’s restraint for weakness. For now, people like myself have a voice. Soon, we will be branded traitors or worse, and then the unscheduled sunrises will follow.

 Posted by at 5:50 pm
Nov 012015

The other day, the current American ambassador in Budapest, Colleen Bell, gave a speech in which she offered some strong criticism of the authoritarian tendencies of Mr. Orban’s government. Needless to say, supporters of that government denounced the speech and also questioned the moral authority of the United States in light of that country’s less than perfect history.

This reminded me of Ms. Bell’s predecessor, Eleni Kounalakis, who recently published her memoirs.

Her tone is very diplomatic, but she retells some interesting incidents, including one that occurred during the visit of Eric Holder to Budapest. It was a brief exchange between the the first African-American Attorney General of the United States and his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Polt. It speaks volumes about the differences between the way top government officials think in Hungary vs. the United States:

I could see that Holder was disturbed by the description of the Magyar Gárda, the Hungarian radical nationalist militia, as well as by its politics and methods. Polt told his counterpart, ‘I want to assure you that we go to great lengths to ensure that they are not able to march in our streets. We have outlawed their uniforms and will not allow them to gather. It would be as unacceptable as if you were to let the Ku Klux Klan march on the steps of Washington.’ At these words, I saw Holder’s face flinch almost imperceptibly.

“‘I didn’t think I would find myself in Hungary defending the rights of the Ku Klux Klan,’ Holder replied slowly and carefully. ‘But we do, in fact, allow them to peacefully demonstrate in our country.’

 Posted by at 6:23 pm
Nov 012015

Here is a perfectly ordinary object. A paperclip.

But this particular paperclip has a bit of history.

It was attached to a typewritten document dating back to the early 1980s. It was written by some young Hungarian researchers who were entrusted with cataloging the manuscript collection of Hungarian Communist Politburo member Gyorgy Aczel. Aczel was arguably the best educated in the Politburo. He was also known as the architect the “three T-s” cultural policy of the goulash communist state. The T-s stood for “Trusted, Tolerated and Treasonous”. The second category represented works of art and literature that received no support from the state, but if they survived in the open market, they were tolerated and not censored. It was the existence of this category that allowed a cultural life in Hungary that was thriving relative to other East Bloc states.

As a young “star” programmer, I was asked to help this team with developing a manuscript database application (for the Commodore 64, no less). I was paid well, too. And on account of this assignment, I even met Mr. Aczel in person on one or two occasions. Yes, lucky me and all.

All of these are now memories from a distant past but somehow, one set of documents managed to stay with me inside a file folder over all these years. And yesterday, when I came across that folder, I decided to scan the sheets, and to do so, I removed this paperclip.

This paperclip was last handled by someone in 1984 or so, probably in the home of Mr. Aczel in the 13th district of Budapest, in a rental apartment building.

If only objects could speak and tell their stories.

 Posted by at 6:15 pm
Oct 052015

I am reading the latest “alternate history” book by Harry Turtledove: Bombs Away, which describes a world in which President Truman accepts the advice of general MacArthur in 1951 and responds to the Chinese invasion of Korea by deploying nuclear weapons. With predictably disastrous consequences for the whole world.

On account of this book, I looked up historical figures of nuclear stockpiles on Wikipedia, and happened upon a chart that I decided to call the chart of hope.


It depicts the number of warheads owned by the two major nuclear powers. (Other countries are not listed; their combined stockpiles never reached 1,000 warheads, so their contributions are too small to appear on a plot like this.)

Although the more than 10,000 warheads that currently exist are still more than enough to destroy much of human civilization (and arguably, the reduction is due partly to more reliable, more accurate delivery systems), just a few decades ago, the number was in excess of 60,000. A ray of hope, perhaps, that sanity might just prevail. One thing is certain: Back in my high school years in the 1970s, very few people believed that we would live to see 2015 without experiencing the horrors of a thermonuclear war.

 Posted by at 9:19 pm
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.


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