Wednesday, May 15, 2024

We Are Pack Animals: Train Behavior


An Amtrak Keystone train at Lancaster Station       

Since 1994, the Amtrak Keystone trains between Lancaster to Philadelphia have been my primary commute method to work at several jobs and volunteer work after I retired.  Since I travel on trains to other places and in other countries, I have probably taken more than 4,000 train trips in the last two decades.  

Which means I see a lot of passengers on the train and on the platform.  

Watching my fellow passengers for two decades confirmed for me that people are pack animals.  Everywhere. 

Almost anywhere long trains pick up passengers, one or two stairways lead down to the tracks.  At the base of the stairway passengers cluster, even on very long platforms.  If I could take an aerial photo of passengers on a platform it would look like a normal distribution curve--the "pig-in-the-snake" curve  or Bell Curve that describes how members of a population act.

Trains vary in length. But Keystone trains always have five cars unless there is a maintenance problem.  Each car is 85 feet long and seats 82 passengers. When the trains are nearly full people walk to the ends looking for seats.

On a mid-day or late-night train when fewer than 100 passengers ride the train, the middle car will have nearly half the passengers. Those passengers move from being clustered in the middle of the platform to clustering in the middle of the train.

I am aware of this because I have always walked to the end of the train.  I like to read on the train and the car at the far end of the train is most likely to be nearly empty.  

Before Covid, I simply thought of this behavior as what people do. And it was fun to think a statistics teacher could use the train and the platform to illustrate the Bell Curve. 

But since Covid, the pack behavior has some strange dimensions.  I was traveling back and forth to Philadelphia on the train in 2020 when the trains stated running again in July.  We were all masked. There were few passengers. Sometimes a dozen of us would board the train in Lancaster, the busiest station on the line where 200 might board a peak commuter train before Covid.  

Of that dozen passengers, nine would sit in the middle car. I would walk to the end of the train and often have an entire car to myself. 

Since the end of the pandemic, there are still people masking.  Whatever their reason for masking, it would seem they would want to be away from other people. Last week, I boarded a train in Lancaster and walked to the end car. The middle car had one passenger in every seat and two in many others.  I counted four people who were masked out of the 50 passengers.  When I got the the last car, I sat at the end of the car. Only six people sat in that car.  Why would someone wearing a mask sit among 50 passengers instead of six?  
Pack behavior pervades life. Soldiers, airline passengers, concert goers, wherever we are we cluster.  The behavior that helped us to survive as hunter gatherers persists on trains, planes and automobiles.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

May 9: Soviet Victory and One-Third of My Broken Bones

May is a big day in my life--and for those who still celebrate the victory of the Soviet Union over the Nazis.  While I am happy the Soviets won (and angry that Russia has returned to its Soviet/Tsarist past) for me, May 9 was twice the anniversary of a lot of broken bones and subsequent surgery.  

On May 9, 1945, the Soviet Union announced victory over Nazi Germany. We and the rest of its allies declared victory on May 8, but the Soviets waited until after midnight so they could have a separate date for victory. 

On May 9, 2007, I crashed at 51 mph on Turkey Hill in Lancaster County PA.  A Medevac helicopter flew me to Lancaster General Hospital with ten broken bones, including a smashed 7th vertebra. I had plastic surgery that night to re-attach my forehead. The next day was surgery to scrape out C-7 and replace it with a cadaver bone.  Mike Whittaker got me the Medevac. Without that, who knows. 

Eight days later I walked out of the hospital in a neck and chest brace.  

On May 9, 2020, I had a very low speed bike crash in Philadelphia that splintered my left elbow into twenty pieces. Five days later I had surgery to reassemble my shattered humerus, requiring breaking my forearm in the process.  The next day I walked out of Lancaster General Hospital in a very large cast.  

Today, I did not ride a bicycle.  I know it only happened twice, but I rode yesterday and will probably ride tomorrow. For however many May 9ths I have in my life,I will be a pedestrian.  

Thursday, May 2, 2024

On Target Meditation

For several years I have been meditating daily.  Briefly. Just for five or ten minutes, but regularly.  I have a friend who meditates for hours, attending meditation events and meditation retreats. I feel like a grasshopper next to meditation giants like her and her fellow meditation experts. Sam Harris and Yuval Noah Harari are two authors I read who are deeply into meditation.

Listening to a description of a meditation retreat, I realized that my practice is very firmly rooted in the most meditative experience I had prior to actual practice: firing on an Army rifle range. To hit a pop-up target just a foot tall and two feet wide at 50 to 300 meters requires control of body and breathe. Forty shots in less than ten minutes requires that breathe and body stay fully under control as the targets pop and drop.  

During the moment of aiming, exhaling and firing, I do not remember random thoughts popping into my mind, the moment is too intense.  But lying in the dirt waiting to fire during the summer months, many ranges have gnats and flies flitting around the firing positions.  Those gnats are like the random thoughts I have during meditation. I wave them away then ignore them.

Meditation has become such a part of American culture, that people talk about meditation at lunches, dinners, barbecues, just about anywhere.  Just as mentioning motorcycles will lead someone to an accident story (fatal or maiming), mentioning meditation will lead someone to say they can't, often in considerable detail.  I thought the same.  Then I didn't.  

I can say definitively as a motorcyclist who survived a bad crash (not maimed, but two weeks in the hospital being reassembled) that meditation is much safer!! 

Anyone who can fire a weapon and hit a target can meditate, the focus and breathe control are ready for use.    

Monday, April 29, 2024

Civil War, the movie: In the first fight, I knew who was going to die


The map of the divided America in"Civil War"

The new movie Civil War is a love letter to journalism, maybe a little too much of a love letter, but a thrill ride of what the best of war journalism could look like.

And it is also a very good dystopian movie. We see bits of America between New York City and DC on a circuitous route through Maryland and West Virginia and Virginia.  

The movie begins with a speech by the President with cuts to scenes of strife showing every word he says is a lie.  [A US President who lies continuously and refuses to leave office, is that believable?] 

My Sons Knew Who Would Die

Then there is the calm of the opening of every good horror movie. Four journalists between 20 and 80 years old roll out of NYC in a big SUV with PRESS painted on the side. Things are relatively calm, then they are following a fire fight between a half-dozen rebels and several soldiers.  The rebels are a mix of races, but there is one black man pinned down.  As soon as I saw the fight in an abandoned building I thought, 'The Black guy is going to die!'

And he did. The rebels civilian clothes and body armor eventually kill the loyalist soldiers, but first the Black rebel dies.

My adopted sons showed me this when we watched movies and video series together.  Whether it was a war movie, one of the Star Wars franchise, a modern Western or other action movie, if there was a mix-race-and-gender group of six to a dozen combatants and there was a Black guy (not a woman) in the group, the Black guy was dead before the end of the movie or episode.  

Before writing this I checked with a soldier and a professor I know, who are Black.They confirmed that low life expectancy and dark pigmentation correlate. 

Returning to the movie, the final scene is the final assault on the White House by alliance of California and Texas. The squad leader of the running battle through the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a Black woman. She not only lives but puts the kill rounds in the chest of whimpering President.

 I like dystopian movies. It was fun to see Kirsten Dunst, a woman of many disasters, move from her Spider love to life as a mid-career combat photojournalist.  Another spoiler, her web does not save her.

Saturday, April 27, 2024

The New Yorker Review of Takeover: The Forgotten History of Hitler’s Establishment Enablers by Timothy Ryback

I am reading Takeover: The Forgotten History of Hitler’s Establishment Enablers, by Timothy Ryback.

The book is fascinating. It is meticulous in documenting Hitler's rise power. As I read I have the sad ring of familiarity in Hitler's actions: the endless lies, the grievance, the mocking, the scapegoating are all the Trump playbook. 

And yet.....

Hitler is 43 years old, has boundless energy, singleness of purpose, and the physical courage of a combat veteran.  Trump is flaccid, cowardly, a follower of his base, and nearly all but 80 years old.  There is hope.

The inimitable Adam Gopnik reviewed the book. The entire review is below. 


Takeover:  The Forgotten History of Hitler’s Establishment Enablers

The Nazi leader didn’t seize power; he was given it.

By Adam Gopnik

The media lords thought that they could control him; political schemers thought that they could outwit him. The mainstream left had become a gerontocracy. And all of them failed to recognize his immunity to shame.

Hitler is so fully imagined a subject—so obsessively present on our televisions and in our bookstores—that to reimagine him seems pointless. As with the Hollywood fascination with Charles Manson, speculative curiosity gives retrospective glamour to evil. Hitler created a world in which women were transported with their children for days in closed train cars and then had to watch those children die alongside them, naked, gasping for breath in a gas chamber. To ask whether the man responsible for this was motivated by reading Oswald Spengler or merely by meeting him seems to attribute too much complexity of purpose to him, not to mention posthumous dignity. Yet allowing the specifics of his ascent to be clouded by disdain is not much better than allowing his memory to be ennobled by mystery.

So the historian Timothy W. Ryback’s choice to make his new book, “Takeover: Hitler’s Final Rise to Power” (Knopf), an aggressively specific chronicle of a single year, 1932, seems a wise, even an inspired one. Ryback details, week by week, day by day, and sometimes hour by hour, how a country with a functional, if flawed, democratic machinery handed absolute power over to someone who could never claim a majority in an actual election and whom the entire conservative political class regarded as a chaotic clown with a violent following. Ryback shows how major players thought they could find some ulterior advantage in managing him. Each was sure that, after the passing of a brief storm cloud, so obviously overloaded that it had to expend itself, they would emerge in possession of power. The corporate bosses thought that, if you looked past the strutting and the performative antisemitism, you had someone who would protect your money. Communist ideologues thought that, if you peered deeply enough into the strutting and the performative antisemitism, you could spy the pattern of a popular revolution. The decent right thought that he was too obviously deranged to remain in power long, and the decent left, tempered by earlier fights against different enemies, thought that, if they forcibly stuck to the rule of law, then the law would somehow by itself entrap a lawless leader. In a now familiar paradox, the rational forces stuck to magical thinking, while the irrational ones were more logical, parsing the brute equations of power. And so the storm never passed. In a way, it still has not.

Ryback’s story begins soon after Hitler’s very incomplete victory in the Weimar Republic’s parliamentary elections of July, 1932. Hitler’s party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (its German initials were N.S.D.A.P.), emerged with thirty-seven per cent of the vote, and two hundred and thirty out of six hundred and eight seats in the Reichstag, the German parliament—substantially ahead of any of its rivals. In the normal course of events, this would have led the aging warrior Paul von Hindenburg, Germany’s President, to appoint Hitler Chancellor. The equivalent of Prime Minister in other parliamentary systems, the Chancellor was meant to answer to his party, to the Reichstag, and to the President, who appointed him and who could remove him. Yet both Hindenburg and the sitting Chancellor, Franz von Papen, had been firm never-Hitler men, and naïvely entreated Hitler to recognize his own unsuitability for the role.

The N.S.D.A.P. had been in existence since right after the Great War, as one of many völkisch, or populist, groups; its label, by including “national” and “socialist,” was intended to appeal to both right-wing nationalists and left-wing socialists, who were thought to share a common enemy: the élite class of Jewish bankers who, they said, manipulated Germany behind the scenes and had been responsible for the German surrender. The Nazis, as they were called—a put-down made into a popular label, like “Impressionists”—began as one of many fringe and populist antisemitic groups in Germany, including the Thule Society, which was filled with bizarre pre-QAnon conspiracy adepts. Hitler, an Austrian corporal with a toothbrush mustache (when Charlie Chaplin first saw him in newsreels, he assumed Hitler was aping his Little Tramp character), had seized control of the Party in 1921. Then a failed attempt at a putsch in Munich, in 1923, left him in prison, but with many comforts, much respect, and paper and time with which to write his memoir, “Mein Kampf.” He reëmerged as the leader of all the nationalists fighting for election, with an accompanying paramilitary organization, the Sturmabteilung (S.A.), under the direction of the more or less openly homosexual Ernst Röhm, and a press office, under the direction of Joseph Goebbels. (In the American style, the press office recognized the political significance of the era’s new technology and social media, exploiting sound recordings, newsreels, and radio, and even having Hitler campaign by airplane.) Hitler’s plans were deliberately ambiguous, but his purposes were not. Ever since his unsuccessful putsch in Munich, he had, Ryback writes, “been driven by a single ambition: to destroy the political system that he held responsible for the myriad ills plaguing the German people.”

Ryback skips past the underlying mechanics of the July, 1932, election on the way to his real subject—Hitler’s manipulation of the conservative politicians and tycoons who thought that they were manipulating him—but there’s a notable academic literature on what actually happened when Germans voted that summer. The political scientists and historians who study it tell us that the election was a “normal” one, in the sense that the behavior of groups and subgroups proceeded in the usual way, responding more to the perception of political interests than to some convulsions of apocalyptic feeling.

The popular picture of the decline of the Weimar Republic—in which hyperinflation produced mass unemployment, which produced an unstoppable wave of fascism—is far from the truth. The hyperinflation had ended in 1923, and the period right afterward, in the mid-twenties, was, in Germany as elsewhere, golden. The financial crash of 1929 certainly energized the parties of the far left and the far right. Still, the results of the July, 1932, election weren’t obviously catastrophic. The Nazis came out as the largest single party, but both Hitler and Goebbels were bitterly disappointed by their standing. The unemployed actually opposed Hitler and voted en masse for the parties of the left. Hitler won the support of self-employed people, who were in decent economic shape but felt that their lives and livelihoods were threatened; of rural Protestant voters; and of domestic workers (still a sizable group), perhaps because they felt unsafe outside a rigid hierarchy. What was once called the petite bourgeoisie, then, was key to his support—not people feeling the brunt of economic precarity but people feeling the possibility of it. Having nothing to fear but fear itself is having something significant to fear.

It was indeed a “normal” election in that respect, responding not least to the outburst of “normal” politics with which Hitler had littered his program: he had, in the months beforehand, damped down his usual ranting about Jews and bankers and moneyed élites and the rest. He had recorded a widely distributed phonograph album (the era’s equivalent of a podcast) designed to make him seem, well, Chancellor-ish. He emphasized agricultural support and a return to better times, aiming, as Ryback writes, “to bridge divides of class and conscience, socialism and nationalism.” By the strange alchemy of demagoguery, a brief visit to the surface of sanity annulled years and years of crazy.

The Germans were voting, in the absent-minded way of democratic voters everywhere, for easy reassurances, for stability, with classes siding against their historical enemies. They weren’t wild-eyed nationalists voting for a millennial authoritarian regime that would rule forever and restore Germany to glory, and, certainly, they weren’t voting for an apocalyptic nightmare that would leave tens of millions of people dead and the cities of Germany destroyed. They were voting for specific programs that they thought would benefit them, and for a year’s insurance against the people they feared.

Ryback spends most of his time with two pillars of respectable conservative Germany, General Kurt von Schleicher and the right-wing media magnate Alfred Hugenberg. Utterly contemptuous of Hitler as a lazy buffoon—he didn’t wake up until eleven most mornings and spent much of his time watching and talking about movies—the two men still hated the Communists and even the center-left Social Democrats more than they did anyone on the right, and they spent most of 1932 and 1933 scheming to use Hitler as a stalking horse for their own ambitions.

Schleicher is perhaps first among Ryback’s too-clever-for-their-own-good villains, and the book presents a piercingly novelistic picture of him. Though in some ways a classic Prussian militarist, Schleicher, like so many of the German upper classes, was also a cultivated and cosmopolitan bon vivant, whom the well-connected journalist and diarist Bella Fromm called “a man of almost irresistible charm.” He was a character out of a Jean Renoir film, the regretful Junker caught in modern times. He had no illusions about Hitler (“What am I to do with that psychopath?” he said after hearing about his behavior), but, infinitely ambitious, he thought that Hitler’s call for strongman rule might awaken the German people to the need for a real strongman, i.e., Schleicher. Ryback tells us that Schleicher had a strategy he dubbed the Zähmungsprozess, or “taming process,” which was meant to sideline the radicals of the Nazi Party and bring the movement into mainstream politics. He publicly commended Hitler as a “modest, orderly man who only wants what is best” and who would follow the rule of law. He praised Hitler’s paramilitary troops, too, defending them against press reports of street violence. In fact, as Ryback explains, the game plan was to have the Brown Shirts crush the forces of the left—and then to have the regular German Army crush the Brown Shirts.

Schleicher imagined himself a master manipulator of men and causes. He liked to play with a menagerie of glass animal figurines on his desk, leaving the impression that lesser beings were mere toys to be handled. In June of 1932, he prevailed on Hindenburg to give the Chancellorship to Papen, a weak politician widely viewed as Schleicher’s puppet; Papen, in turn, installed Schleicher as minister of defense. Then they dissolved the Reichstag and held those July elections which, predictably, gave the Nazis a big boost.

Ryback spends many mordant pages tracking Schleicher’s whirling-dervish intrigues, as he tried to realize his fantasy of the Zähmungsprozess. Many of these involved schemes shared with the patriotic and staunchly anti-Nazi General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (familiar to viewers of “Babylon Berlin” as Major General Seegers). Hammerstein was one of the few German officers to fully grasp Hitler’s real nature. At a meeting with Hitler in the spring of 1932, Hammerstein told him bluntly, “Herr Hitler, if you achieve power legally, that would be fine with me. If the circumstances are different, I will use arms.” He later felt reassured when Hindenburg intimated that, if the Nazi paramilitary troops acted, he could order the Army to fire on them.

Yet Hammerstein remained impotent. At various moments, Schleicher, as the minister of defense, entertained what was in effect a plan for imposing martial law with himself in charge and Hammerstein at his side. In retrospect, it was the last hope of protecting the republic from Hitler—but after President Hindenburg rejected it, not out of democratic misgivings but out of suspicion of Schleicher’s purposes, Hammerstein, an essentially tragic figure, was unable to act alone. He suffered from a malady found among decent military men suddenly thrust into positions of political power: his scruples were at odds with his habits of deference to hierarchy. Generals became generals by learning to take orders before they learned how to give them. Hammerstein hated Hitler, but he waited for someone else of impeccable authority to give a clear direction before he would act. (He went on waiting right through the war, as part of the equally impotent military nexus that wanted Hitler dead but, until it was too late, lacked the will to kill him.)

The extra-parliamentary actions that were fleetingly contemplated in the months after the election—a war in the streets, or, more likely, a civil confrontation leading to a military coup—seemed horrific. The trouble, unknowable to the people of the time, is that, since what did happen is the worst thing that has ever happened, any alternative would have been less horrific. One wants to shout to Hammerstein and his cohorts, Go ahead, take over the government! Arrest Hitler and his henchmen, rule for a few years, and then try again. It won’t be as bad as what happens next. But, of course, they cannot hear us. They couldn’t have heard us then.

Ryback’s gift for detail joins with a nice feeling for the black comedy of the period. He makes much sport of the attempts by foreign journalists resident in Germany, particularly the New York Times’ Frederick T. Birchall, to normalize the Nazi ascent—with Birchall continually assuring his readers that Hitler, an out-of-his-depth simpleton, was not the threat he seemed to be, and that the other conservatives were far more potent in their political maneuvering. When Papen made a speech denying that Hitler’s paramilitary forces represented “the German nation,” Birchall wrote that the speech “contained dynamite enough to change completely the political situation in the Reich.” On another occasion, Birchall wrote that “the Hitlerites” were deluded to think they “hold the best cards”; there was every reason to think that “the big cards, the ones that will really decide the game,” were in the hands of people such as Papen, Hindenburg, and, “above all,” Schleicher.

Ryback, focussing on the self-entrapped German conservatives, generally avoids the question that seems most obvious to a contemporary reader: Why was a coalition between the moderate-left Social Democrats and the conservative but far from Nazified Catholic Centrists never even seriously attempted? Given that Hitler had repeatedly vowed to use the democratic process in order to destroy democracy, why did the people committed to democracy let him do it?

Many historians have jousted with this question, but perhaps the most piercing account remains an early one, written less than a decade after the war by the émigré German scholar Lewis Edinger, who had known the leaders of the Social Democrats well and consulted them directly—the ones who had survived, that is—for his study. His conclusion was that they simply “trusted that constitutional processes and the return of reason and fair play would assure the survival of the Weimar Republic and its chief supporters.” The Social Democratic leadership had become a gerontocracy, out of touch with the generational changes beneath them. The top Social Democratic leaders were, on average, two decades older than their Nazi counterparts.

Worse, the Social Democrats remained in the grip of a long struggle with Bismarckian nationalism, which, however oppressive it might have been, still operated with a broad idea of legitimacy and the rule of law. The institutional procedures of parliamentarianism had always seen the Social Democrats through—why would those procedures not continue to protect them? In a battle between demagoguery and democracy, surely democracy had the advantage. Edinger writes that Karl Kautsky, among the most eminent of the Party’s theorists, believed that after the election Hitler’s supporters would realize he was incapable of fulfilling his promises and drift away.

The Social Democrats may have been hobbled, too, by their commitment to team leadership—which meant that no single charismatic individual represented them. Proceduralists and institutionalists by temperament and training, they were, as Edinger demonstrates, unable to imagine the nature of their adversary. They acceded to Hitler’s ascent with the belief that by respecting the rules themselves they would encourage the other side to play by them as well. Even after Hitler consolidated his power, he was seen to have secured the Chancellorship by constitutional means. Edinger quotes Arnold Brecht, a fellow exiled statesman: “To rise against him on the first night would make the rebels the technical violators of the Constitution that they wanted to defend.”

Meanwhile, the centrist Catholics—whom Hitler shrewdly recognized as his most formidable potential adversaries—were handicapped in any desire to join with the Democratic Socialists by their fear of the Communists. Though the Communists had previously made various alliances of convenience with the Social Democrats, by 1932 they were tightly controlled by Stalin, who had ordered them to depict the Social Democrats as being as great a threat to the working class as Hitler.

And, when a rumor spread that Hitler had once spat out a Communion Host, it only made him more popular among Catholics, since it called attention to his Catholic upbringing. Indeed, most attempts to highlight Hitler’s personal depravities (including his possibly sexual relationship with his niece Geli, which was no secret in the press of the time; her apparent suicide, less than a year before the election, had been a tabloid scandal) made him more popular. In any case, Hitler was skilled at reassuring the Catholic center, promising to be “the strong protector of Christianity as the basis of our common moral order.”

Hitler’s hatred of parliamentary democracy, even more than his hatred of Jews, was central to his identity, Ryback emphasizes. Antisemitism was a regular feature of populist politics in the region: Hitler had learned much of it in his youth from the Vienna mayor Karl Lueger. But Lueger was a genuine populist democrat, who brought universal male suffrage to the city. Hitler’s originality lay elsewhere. “Unlike Hitler’s anti-Semitism, a toxic brew of pseudoscientific readings and malignant mentoring, Hitler’s hatred of the Weimar Republic was the result of personal observation of political processes,” Ryback writes. “He hated the haggling and compromise of coalition politics inherent in multiparty political systems.”

Second only to Schleicher in Ryback’s accounting of Hitler’s establishment enablers is the media magnate Alfred Hugenberg. The owner of the country’s leading film studio and of the national news service, which supplied some sixteen hundred newspapers, he was far from an admirer. He regarded Hitler as manic and unreliable but found him essential for the furtherance of their common program, and was in and out of political alliance with him during the crucial year.

Hugenberg had begun constructing his media empire in the late nineteen-teens, in response to what he saw as the bias against conservatives in much of the German press, and he shared Hitler’s hatred of democracy and of the Jews. But he thought of himself as a much more sophisticated player, and intended to use his control of modern media in pursuit of what he called a Katastrophenpolitik—a “catastrophe politics” of cultural warfare, in which the strategy, Ryback says, was to “flood the public space with inflammatory news stories, half-truths, rumors, and outright lies.” The aim was to polarize the public, and to crater anything like consensus. Hugenberg gave Hitler money as well as publicity, but Hugenberg had his own political ambitions (somewhat undermined by a personal aura described by his nickname, der Hamster) and his own party, and Hitler was furiously jealous of the spotlight. While giving Hitler support in his media—a support sometimes interrupted by impatience—Hugenberg urged him to act rationally and settle for Nazi positions in the cabinet if he could not have the Chancellorship.

What strengthened the Nazis throughout the conspiratorial maneuverings of the period was certainly not any great display of discipline. The Nazi movement was a chaotic mess of struggling in-groups who feared and despised one another. Hitler rightly mistrusted the loyalty even of his chief lieutenant, Gregor Strasser, who fell on the “socialist” side of the National Socialists label. The members of the S.A., the Storm Troopers, meanwhile, were loyal mainly to their own leader, Ernst Röhm, and embarrassed Hitler with their run of sexual scandals. The N.S.D.A.P. was a hive of internal antipathies that could resolve only in violence—a condition that would endure to the last weeks of the war, when, standing amid the ruins of Germany, Hitler was enraged to discover that Heinrich Himmler was trying to negotiate a separate peace with the Western Allies.

The strength of the Nazis lay, rather, in the curiously enclosed and benumbed character of their leader. Hitler was impossible to discourage, not because he ran an efficient machine but because he was immune to the normal human impediments to absolute power: shame, calculation, or even a desire to see a particular political program put in place. Hindenburg, knowing of Hitler’s genuinely courageous military service in the Great War, appealed in their meetings to his patriotism, his love of the Fatherland. But Hitler, an Austrian who did not receive German citizenship until shortly before the 1932 election, did not love the Fatherland. He ran on the hydrogen fuel of pure hatred. He did not want power in order to implement a program; he wanted power in order to realize his pain. A fascinating and once classified document, prepared for the precursor of the C.I.A., the O.S.S., by the psychoanalyst Walter Langer, used first-person accounts to gauge the scale of Hitler’s narcissism: “It may be of interest to note at this time that of all the titles that Hitler might have chosen for himself he is content with the simple one of ‘Fuehrer.’ To him this title is the greatest of them all. He has spent his life searching for a person worthy of the role but was unable to find one until he discovered himself.” Or, as the acute Hungarian American historian John Lukacs, who spent a lifetime studying Hitler’s psychology, observed, “His hatred for his opponents was both stronger and less abstract than was his love for his people. That was (and remains) a distinguishing mark of the mind of every extreme nationalist.”

In November of 1932, one more Reichstag election was held. Once again, it was a bitter disappointment to Hitler and Goebbels—“a disaster,” as Goebbels declared on Election Night. (An earlier Presidential election had also reaffirmed Hindenburg over the Hitler movement.) The Nazi wave that everyone had expected failed to materialize. The Nazis lost seats, and, once again, they could not crack fifty per cent. The Times explained that the Hitler movement had passed its high-water mark, and that “the country is getting tired of the Nazis.” Everywhere, Ryback says, the cartoonists and editorialists delighted in Hitler’s discomfiture. One cartoonist showed him presiding over a graveyard of swastikas. In December of 1932, having lost three elections in a row, Hitler seemed to be finished.

The subsequent maneuverings are as dispiriting to read about as they are exhausting to follow. Basically, Schleicher conspired to have Papen fired as Chancellor by Hindenburg and replaced by himself. He calculated that he could cleave Gregor Strasser and the more respectable elements of the Nazis from Hitler, form a coalition with them, and leave Hitler on the outside looking in. But Papen, a small man in everything except his taste for revenge, turned on Schleicher in a rage and went directly to Hitler, proposing, despite his earlier never-Hitler views, that they form their own coalition. Schleicher’s plan to spirit Strasser away from Hitler and break the Nazi Party in two then stumbled on the reality that the real base of the Party was fanatically loyal only to its leader—and Strasser, knowing this, refused to leave the Party, even as he conspired with Schleicher to undermine it.

Then, in mid-January, a small regional election in Lipperland took place. Though the results were again disappointing for Hitler and Goebbels—the National Socialist German Workers’ Party still hadn’t surmounted the fifty-per-cent mark—they managed to sell the election as a kind of triumph. At Party meetings, Hitler denounced Strasser. The idea, much beloved by Schleicher and his allies, of breaking a Strasser wing of the Party off from Hitler became obviously impossible.

Hindenburg, in his mid-eighties and growing weak, became fed up with Schleicher’s Machiavellian stratagems and dispensed with him as Chancellor. Papen, dismissed not long before, was received by the President. He promised that he could form a working majority in the Reichstag by simple means: Hindenburg should go ahead and appoint Hitler Chancellor. Hitler, he explained, had made significant “concessions,” and could be controlled. He would want only the Chancellorship, and not more seats in the cabinet. What could go wrong? “You mean to tell me I have the unpleasant task of appointing this Hitler as the next Chancellor?” Hindenburg reportedly asked. He did. The conservative strategists celebrated their victory. “So, we box Hitler in,” Hugenberg said confidently. Papen crowed, “Within two months, we will have pressed Hitler into a corner so tight that he’ll squeak!”

“The big joke on democracy is that it gives its mortal enemies the tools to its own destruction,” Goebbels said as the Nazis rose to power—one of those quotes that sound apocryphal but are not. The ultimate fates of Ryback’s players are varied, and instructive. Schleicher, the conservative who saw right through Hitler’s weakness—who had found a way to entrap him, and then use him against the left—was killed by the S.A. during the Night of the Long Knives, in 1934, when Hitler consolidated his hold over his own movement by murdering his less loyal lieutenants. Strasser and Röhm were murdered then, too. Hitler and Goebbels, of course, died by their own hands in defeat, having left tens of millions of Europeans dead and their country in ruins. But Hugenberg, sidelined during the Third Reich, was exonerated by a denazification court in the years after the war. And Papen, who had ushered Hitler directly into power, was acquitted at Nuremberg; in the nineteen-fifties, he was awarded the highest honorary order of the Catholic Church.

Does history have patterns or merely circumstances and unique contingencies? Certainly, the Germany of 1932 was a place unto itself. The truth, that some cycles may recur but inexactly, is best captured in that fine aphorism “History does not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” Appropriately, no historian is exactly sure who said this: widely credited to Mark Twain, it was more likely first said long after his death.

We see through a glass darkly, as patterns of authoritarian ambition seem to flash before our eyes: the demagogue made strong not by conviction but by being numb to normal human encouragements and admonitions; the aging center left; the media lords who want something like what the demagogue wants but in the end are controlled by him; the political maneuverers who think they can outwit the demagogue; the resistance and sudden surrender. Democracy doesn’t die in darkness. It dies in bright midafternoon light, where politicians fall back on familiarities and make faint offers to authoritarians and say a firm and final no—and then wake up a few days later and say, Well, maybe this time, it might all work out, and look at the other side! Precise circumstances never repeat, yet shapes and patterns so often recur. In history, it’s true, the same thing never happens twice. But the same things do. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Persia Renamed Iran in 1935 By a Nazi-Admiring Shah

Reza Shah Pahlavi, Nazi devotee

In 1935, Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty felt the winds of history blowing across the world. He was a friend of Germany who would support the Nazi takeover in Austria and across Europe.  He knew the Aryan myth was foundational for Nazis and he saw the Reich as the power that would replace the remnants of the Roman Empire with a new Aryan empire, of which Persia was the cradle.   

In a stunning move, Reza changed the name of his country from Persia to Iran—which in Farsi means “land of the Aryans.”

A decade later, the thousand-year Reich is dead, and the world expects Iran to revert to Persia. It doesn’t happen. Despite cries from within and without, Iran remains the name of the former Persia. The monarchy resisted calls to revert to Persia right up to 1979 when Islamic fundamentalists overthrow the Shah and declare an Islamic Republic.

Would the Mullahs keep the name decreed by a Nazi-loving Shah? Yes. For the Mullahs, the name Persia recalls a time before Islam, so they left the name as Iran.  And Naziism still had a hold on Iranian culture, just as it did among Palestinian Muslims.  

Grand Muftiof Jerusalem in Berlin during World War II

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem spent much of World War II in Berlin.  When he returned to Jerusalem after the war, he was a fully indoctrinated Nazi and led the implacable opposition to a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel.  

The de-Nazification that swept across Europe after the war never happened in the Middle East.  The Shah and the Grand Mufti remained devotees of Nazi beliefs.  The Jihadis that wanted to wipe Israel off the map and slaughter Jews everywhere got their murderous beliefs from the Nazi-loving Shah and Grand Mufti.  

Addams Family bouquet--flowers cut from the roses

The Middle East suffers from an Addams Family bouquet of bad beliefs, including a living belief in Nazi philosophy.     

--Adapted from the book The Empire and the Five Kings by Bernard-Henri Levy.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Political Wins are Complicated. Just Enjoy!


Roz Holtzman and I and many others 
protested Pat Toomey for more than six years. 
Did we chase him out? Maybe a little....

Wins in politics are so deeply complex, no one is ever sure which grain of sand started the  landslide.  In a move no one anticipated a week ago, Mike Johnson pushed through aid to our allies who are under attack and threat by our enemies.  

For six months Johnson had looked to jellyfish as having more backbone than him. Then this week he suddenly became a Reagan Republican and passed aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.  


Until this week Johnson was cowed by threats from the Freedom Caucus, led by Queen Bitch MTG.  Then suddenly he has a backbone and a moral compass.  

I would love to think that activism by Ukrainian Americans and Americans of Ukrainian descent (like me) pushed Johnson toward the good and away from Putin-loving America First Republicans.  But we will never know. 

So I will happily take the win. And then go to the next fight.  

We Are Pack Animals: Train Behavior

  An Amtrak Keystone train at Lancaster Station          Since 1994, the Amtrak Keystone trains between Lancaster to Philadelphia have been ...