Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Das ist bei uns nicht möglich

I happen to have just noticed that there is a new German edition of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. I wonder what motivated it?

I was struck again, in reading Amos Oz’s account of his childhood and family history, how his aunt told of welcoming the prospect of German conquest of her Lithuanian homeland: The Germans wouldn’t tolerate the sort of barbaric chaos that the Jews were subject to. The Germans might be antisemitic, but they had always proved themselves to be civilised and orderly.

Too many people lazily learn the wrong lesson from the inability of Jews and others to recognise the full dimensions of the Nazi menace. The problem, they suggest, often in cheap jokes, is the failure to recognise the profound taint of the German soul. The real lesson should be, it seems to me, you never can tell. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they like to say in finance. The Germans descended into the most horrible racist violence in the 1930s and 1940s. Their children and grandchildren have built one of the most securely democratic and humane nations in the world. Britain pioneered annihilationist antisemitism in the Middle Ages, then moved on to a more benign view of Jews as being almost white people, potential allies in subjugating the genuinely inferior races.

Is there anything in the British soul that will make them resist when the EU offends their amour propre and the Daily Mail is baying for mass expulsions? The question answers itself. 

“Up to 500”

I’ve just been reading Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust: A New History. I don’t think there’s much new in the overall picture, but there are certainly many details that I was not aware of. For example, Rees discusses Himmler’s May 1940 memo “Some Thoughts on the Treatment of the Alien Population in the East”.

A large section of the memo dealt with Himmler’s plans to conduct a search among the Polish population in order to find children that were ‘racially first class’ and who ‘came up to our requirements’. These children would then be transported to Germany and raised as German citizens. Himmler believed this policy would not just allow Nazis access to more German ‘blood’ but deprive the Poles of the potential for a leadership class. As for the rest of the Polish children, they would receive the most basic education — taught only to count ‘up to 500’ and to write their own names.

It’s easy to fall into thinking of leading Nazis as ruthlessly efficient master criminals. Reading things like this is a good reminder of the extent to which they were actually kind of erratic and bonkers. It’s a sort of dilettantish megalomania that one sees in certain leaders today as well, with grand ideas that come from manipulating a vague picture of reality, decked out with a few random, nonsensical details. Why “up to 500”? Why not just say, “teach them to count” and leave it at that? How could anyone think that it would be possible to teach people to count up to 500 without learning the general principle of counting further?

This is why historians have emphasised the role of the proverbial Schreibtischtäter, the “desk criminals”, who worked hard to interface the lunacy with the proverbial railway timetables, that can’t be cajoled with blather about national will to power and providence.

Montaigne on random controlled experiments

In the past I’ve read a few individual individual essays by Montaigne, but lately I’ve been really enjoying reading them systematically — partly listening to the English-language audiobook, partly reading the lovely annotated French edition by Jean Céard et al. It’s fascinating to see the blend of inaccessibly foreign worldview with ideas that seem at times astoundingly modern. For example, in the essay titled “On the resemblence of children to their fathers” (which seems to have almost nothing at all to say about the resemblence of children to their fathers), in the course of disparaging contemporary medicine Montaigne suddenly anticipates the need for random controlled trials — while at the same time despairing of such a daunting intellectual project. After acknowledging a few minor cases in which physicians seem to have learned something from experience he continues

Mais en la plus part des autres experiences, à quoy ils disent avoir esté conduis par la fortune, et n’avoir eu autre guide que le hazard, je trouve le progrez de cette information incroyable. J’imagine l’homme, regardant au tour de luy le nombre infiny des choses, plantes, animaux, metaulx. Je ne sçay par où luy faire commencer son essay : et quand sa premiere fantasie se jettera sur la corne d’un elan, à quoy il faut prester une creance bien molle et aisée : il se trouve encore autant empesché en sa seconde operation. Il luy est proposé tant de maladies, et tant de circonstances, qu’avant qu’il soit venu à la certitude de ce poinct, où doit joindre la perfection de son experience, le sens humain y perd son Latin : et avant qu’il ait trouvé parmy cette infinité de choses, que c’est cette corne : parmy cette infinité de maladies, l’epilepsie : tant de complexions, au melancholique : tant de saisons, en hyver : tant de nations, au François : tant d’aages, en la vieillesse : tant de mutations celestes, en la conjonction de Venus et de Saturne : tant de parties du corps au doigt. A tout cela n’estant guidé ny d’argument, ny de conjecture, ny d’exemple, ny d’inspiration divine, ains du seul mouvement de la fortune, il faudroit que ce fust par une fortune, parfaictement artificielle, reglée et methodique Et puis, quand la guerison fut faicte, comment se peut il asseurer, que ce ne fust, que le mal estoit arrivé à sa periode ; ou un effect du hazard ? ou l’operation de quelque autre chose, qu’il eust ou mangé, ou beu, ou touché ce jour là ? ou le merite des prieres de sa mere-grand ? Davantage, quand cette preuve auroit esté parfaicte, combien de fois fut elle reiterée ? et cette longue cordée de fortunes et de rencontres, r’enfilée, pour en conclure une regle.

But in most other experiences, where they claim to have been led by accidents, having no other guide than chance, I find the progress of this information hard to believe. I imagine a man looking about him at the infinite number of things, plants, animals, metals. I don’t where he would start. And when his first whim took him to an elk horn, which might be easy to believe in, he would find his second step blocked: There are so many diseases, so many individual circumstances, that before he could arrive at any certainty on this point, he will have arrived at the end of human sense: before he could find, among this infinity of things, that it is this horn; among the infinity of diseases, epilepsy; among the individual conditions, the melancholic temperament; among all the ages, the elderly; among all the astrological conditions, the conjunction of Venus and Saturn; among all the parts of the body, the finger. And all of this, being led by no argument, by no prior examples, by no divine inspiration, but purely by chance, it must be achieved by the most completely artificial, methodical and regulated turn of chance. And suppose the cure has been accomplished, how could you tell whether the disease might not have simply run its course, or the improvement occurred purely by chance? Or if it might not have been the effect of some other factor, something he ate, or drank, or touched on that day? Or the merit of his grandmother’s prayers? And if you could provide complete proof in one case, how many times would you need to repeat the trial, and this long series of random encounters, before you could conclusively determine the rule.

Trump: The new Caesar?

From Montaigne’s “The story of Spurina”:

Caton mesme avoit accoustumé de dire de [Caesar], que c’estoit le premier homme sobre, qui se fust acheminé a la ruyne de son pays.

Cato himself liked to say that Caesar was the first sober man who ever set out to ruin his country.

16th century rape culture

I was reading Montaigne’s essay “De l’inconstance de nos actions” (On the inconsistency of our actions). As a particularly piquant example of inconsistent behaviour Montaigne tells this tale:

Pendant les débauches de nostre pauvre estat, on me rapporta, qu’une fille de bien pres de là où j’estoy, s’estoit precipitée du haut d’une fenestre, pour éviter la force d’un belitre de soldat son hoste : elle ne s’estoit pas tuée à la cheute, et pour redoubler son entreprise, s’estoit voulu donner d’un cousteau par la gorge, mais on l’en avoit empeschée : toutefois apres s’y estre bien fort blessée, elle mesme confessoit que le soldat ne l’avoit encore pressée que de requestes, sollicitations, et presens, mais qu’elle avoit eu peur, qu’en fin il en vinst à la contrainte : et là dessus les parolles, la contenance, et ce sang tesmoing de sa vertu, à la vraye façon d’une autre Lucrece. Or j’ay sçeu à la verité, qu’avant et depuis ell’ avoit esté garse de non si difficile composition.

During the disorders of our poor country I heard of a young woman very close to where I was staying, who had thrown herself out a window to escape the advances of a piggish soldier who was quartered in her home. Not being killed by the fall, and to complete her task, she tried to cut her own throat with a knife, but was restrained, succeeding only in wounding herself grievously. She admitted that the soldier had imposed himself only by pleas, attentions, and presents, but said she feared he would force her by violence. We see here the words, the demeanour, and the blood all bearing witness to her virtue, a veritable modern-day Lucretia. And yet, I have it on good authority that before and after this event she was a slut who was by no means so difficult.

He goes on to warn his (male) readers not to take any evidence in one circumstance for proof of their mistress’s fidelity in general.

Here we see in pure form the mindset that still exists — perhaps is even still prevalent — and still even pokes out occasionally from judges in rape cases: Chastity is acceptable, even commendable, but it is the only plausible reason for a woman to refuse sex. Once she has given up the claim to refuse all sexual contact, to refuse any particular partner seems like pure tergiversation. Even if it looks like violence it’s not really, since to this way of thinking what looks like violence is really just helping her to overcome an atavistic need to make a public show of chastity. (One is reminded of American officials who claimed that they tortured Muslim prisoners to “help them” fulfill their need to make a show of resistance before they could square talking to the enemy with their religious obligation.)

One hears this often from feminists who lived through the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s: While men experienced the relaxation of public sexual mores as a liberation, women had a much more ambivalent experience. The first step, eliminating the respect for chastity, was experienced by many as a loss of autonomy. Seen from the perspective of the 21st century it looks like a necessary step toward reclaiming women’s right to physical integrity and self-determination, but partly because eliminating hypocritical shield of chastity has forced men and women both to come to terms with what has now come to be called “rape culture”.

Electric guillotines

Just reading The Vanquished, Robert Gerwarth’s history of the violence that followed the ostensible end of the First World War. He has this to say about the atrocity rumours that circulated about the Bolsheviks:

Although the reality of the civil war was so terrible that it hardly needed any embellishment, fantastical stories about Lenin’s regime flourished and drifted westwards: of a social order turned upside down, of a never-ending cycle of atrocities and retribution amid moral collapse in what had previously been one of the Great Powers of Europe. Several American newspapers reported that the Bolsheviks had introduced an electrically operated guillotine in Petrograd designed to decapitate 500 prisoners an hour… The Bolsheviks, or so it was suggested [in the British press], had ‘nationalized middle- and upper-class women, who might now be raped at will by any member of the proletariat. Orthodox churches had been turned into brothels in which aristocratic women were forced to offer sexual services to ordinary workers. Chinese executioners had been recruited by the Bolsheviks for their knowledge of ancient oriental torture techniques, while inmates in the infamous Cheka prisons had their heads stuck into cages filled with hungry rats in order to extort information.

It seems that there are three things that escalate the ordinary horror of despotic violence into extraordinary horror, all of which are touched upon here:

  1. Violation of the natural order, particularly of a sexual nature.
  2. Upwelling of arcane, precivilised, non-European presumptively diabolic culture.
  3. Abuse of modern technological means toward barbaric ends.

I’m particularly fascinated by the last, represented by the “electrically operated guillotines”, which prefigure the genuine industrialised slaughter of the Holocaust. More than the scale of the killing — which could be achieved by other means — it is the industrial precision that unsettles people, and makes the Holocaust unique. Or, perhaps better said, makes us want to see it as unique.

It’s hard to disentangle these feelings about the Holocaust, which is what makes the electric guillotines so useful: It’s not that this would have been all that exceptional, to kill 500 prisoners in an hour, and you wouldn’t need anything as unusual as an electrically operated guillotine. (It’s not even clear to me how electricity would accelerate a guillotine significantly.) But the combination of electricity, then the prime symbol of modernisation, with mass execution, was shocking.

“The blood of our youth”

So, here’s racist US president Donald Trump, presenting his notorious racist new attorney general Jeff Sessions, with infamous genocidal racist president Andrew Jackson glowering in the background.


And Trump announced that he was directing the departments of Justice and Homeland Security to

break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people.

This rhetoric doesn’t sound like usual presidential terminology, but it does sound familiar. What could it be? Maybe it reminds me of this:

Gift der Jüdischen Presse […] das ungehindert in den Blutlauf seines Volkes eindringen und wirken konnte

The poison of the Jewish press that penetrates without resistance and attacks the blood of the people

Or this

Er vergiftet das Blut des anderen, wahrt aber sein eigenes.

He [the Jew] poisons the blood of the others, but preserves his own.

From Mein Kampf.

Who tricked whom into eating potatoes?

Reading Richard Evans’s The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815–1914, I discovered this anecdote about Ioannis Kapodistrias, appointed by Russia as governor of Greece in the late 1820s:

He introduced the potato into Greece, in an effort to improve people’s diet. At first, this met with deep skepticism among the peasantry, who refused to take up his offer of free distribution of seed potatoes to anyone who would plant them. Trying a new tactic, Kapodistrias had the potatoes piled up on the waterfront at Nafplio and surrounded by armed guards. This convinced local people and visitors from the countryside that these new vegetables were precious objects, and thus worth stealing. Before long, as the guards turned a blind eye, virtually all the potatoes had been taken — and their future in Greece was assured.

This reminded me of something I read many years ago, in Fernand Braudel’s The Identity of France:

In France, despite its early success, it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the potato was regarded as truly ‘worthy’ to be eaten, with partisans prepared to defend it on both dietary and culinary grounds… In the géneralité of Limoges, potatoes were originally banned because they were thought to cause leprosy…

The corner was not really turned until the severe famine of 1769-70. The following year, the Academy of Besançon set an essay competition on the subject: “Suggest food plants which might be used in times of famine to supplement those usually eaten.’ All the essays mentioned the potato — notably the winning entry, which came from Parmentier. He then embarked upon a massive propaganda campaign, deploring ‘the mocking humour of our scornful citizens’. He published widely, gave advice on the growing and storing of the potato, organized gourmet dinners in his own home at which nothing but dishes made from potatoes were served…, brought to Paris all the varieties then cultivated in France and had even more shipped from America to give a better selection. He finally obtained from Louis XVI, in 1786, permission to set up an experimental plantation on about 20 hectares just outside Paris in Neuilly, on the untended and infertile soil of the plain of Sablons. It was a complete success. In his efforts to attract consumers, Parmentier concluded that the best method would be to entice people to steal his potatoes. So he ostentatiously had his plantation guarded by the maréchaussée, the local police — but only by day. Similarly, he advised landowners not to force potatoes on their peasants, but to plant one fine field full themselves and ‘expressly forbid anyone to enter’ — a more subtle approach than that of Frederick II of Prussia who sent in the troops to make the peasants plant potatoes.

Is it possible that Kapodistrias knew of Parmentier’s example? I guess so. Was this actually a well-known method for tricking the childish peasants into trying something new? Maybe. Or are these anecdotes, rather, merely recrudescences of a universal myth about how to trick the childish peasants? I’m not interested enough to track down the references…

Meeting our Waterloo

From the Guardian:

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative, says the 23 June last year will be remembered as a great day in history. It is comparable with Agincourt and Waterloo, he suggests.

I guess that’s how people talk about it in Britain, but it seems to me everywhere else “Waterloo” is synonymous with a crushing defeat. I imagine the Brexit vote will be the same: Considered a victory in Britain, recognised as a crushing defeat everywhere else.

16th century Sokal hoax

Many of our readers will recall the celebrated hoax perpetrated by mathematical physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 against the humanities journal Social Text. Sokal submitted an article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” for an issue on “Science Wars”. The article strung together buzzwords helter-skelter to conclude with a flattering claim of the importance of social theory for natural science. The fact that it was published is cited even today by supercilious physicists and insecure journalists as conclusive proof that academic jargon in the humanities and social sciences is all fake.

Anyway, I was just reading Montaigne’s essay “Du pedantisme” (On pedantry), and found the following anecdote:

J’ay veu chez moy un mien amy, par maniere de passetemps, ayant affaire à un de ceux-cy, contrefaire un jargon de Galimatias, propos sans suitte, tissu de pieces rapportées, sauf qu’il estoit souvent entrelardé de mots propres à leur dispute, amuser ainsi tout un jour ce sot à debattre, pensant tousjours respondre aux objections qu’on luy faisoit. Et si estoit homme de lettres et de reputation, et qui avoit une belle robbe.

I observed at my home a friend of mine making sport of one of these [pedants] by making up a nonsense jargon, propositions with no succession, a patchwork of pieces that had nothing in common except for some buzzwords  that he stuck in that related to their topic, and he amused himself a whole day with this crazy debate, always managing to think of new answers to the man’s objections. And this was a greatly reputed man of letters.

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