Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Wheels within Wheels

June 1, 2015

In the previous post, I left off the history of astronomy with Claudius Ptolemy, the last and greatest of the astronomers of ancient times. It was Ptolemy who brought the science of astronomy to its apex in classical times. In his treatise, the Almagest, as the Arabs came to call it, Ptolemy worked out the geocentric model with the complex system of epicycles that the ancients believed described the universe, along with a catalog of stars and constellations and tables of information on the motions of the planets and eclipses of the Sun and Moon. So well did Ptolemy do his work that the Almagest was the accepted text on astronomy for over twelve hundred years.

The science of astronomy did not stand still after the time of Ptolemy. The Western Europeans were a little distracted by the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and contributed little to the progress of learning for some centuries. Fortunately the ancient learning was preserved in the Greek East and when the Arabs conquered much of the Middle East in the century after the death of Mohammed, they were able to learn much from the peoples they ruled and soon began to make contributions of their own in science and philosophy. The Arabs translated many Greek texts into Arabic which Western scholars discovered and translated into Latin. The contributions made by the Arabs can be seen by the fact that Ptolemy’s standard text is known by its Arabic title and that many stars still retain names derived from  Arabic

Throughout the Early Middle Ages, the Muslims translated Greek texts into Arabic and so helped to preserve them until Western scholars could translate them into Latin once things had settled down in the West. The importance of the Arabic contribution can be seen by the fact that Ptolemy’s book is known by its Arabic title, not to mention that many stars are known by names derived from Arabic; Betelgeuse, Algol, Aldebaran, Deneb, Vega, and many others.

Over time, the Arabs, and later the Europeans, developed better instruments for observing the positions of the stars and planets in the sky and to predict the motions of the planets. As their techniques improved, astronomers were able to revise and update the information on planetary motions collected by Ptolemy, and they also found that more epicycles were needed to explain and predict planetary motions. The Ptolemaic model began to seem increasingly over complicated. The last major revision of the tables of planetary motions was commissioned by King Alfonso X of Castile in the thirteenth century. Alfonso, called “the Wise” was known as a patron of many branches of learning and was himself conversant in the science of astronomy. He is supposed to have remarked that if God had consulted him during the creation, he might have suggested a simpler system than the complicated bicycles of Ptolemy. The king almost certainly did not say this, but the sentiment was shared by many who began to believe the universe shouldn’t be so complicated.

Among these was a Polish priest who lived some two hundred years after Alfonso. This priest was named Mikolaj Kopernik, better known by the Latinized version of his name, Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus was a true renaissance man who was learned in such diverse fields as mathematics, canon law, medicine, economics, classical languages, diplomacy, politics, and astronomy. It is in that last subject that he is remembered today. Copernicus came to realize that understanding the motions of the planets would be much easier if he simply assumed that the planets revolved around the Sun rather than the Earth.

Copernicus

Copernicus

The retrograde motions of the planets could simply be explained by their overtaking the Earth as they orbit the Sun. Copernicus seems to have developed his heliocentric theory by 1514 and spent much of the rest of his life working on his book “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” or “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”. Although Copernicus showed the manuscript to his friends and interested scholars, he was reluctant to actually publish his masterpiece for fear of the public ridicule such a radical theory might bring him. It was only after his friends assured him that the book would be favorably received and he was dying that Copernicus agreed to publish De revolutionibus in 1543.

De revolutionibus was favorably received by the few people who actually read it. The fact was that Copernicus’s book was so abstruse and technical that only astronomers and mathematicians could really appreciate and understand it.

It was in Latin and the script was hard to read too.

It was in Latin and the script was hard to read too.

Copernicus’s heliocentric model was not generally accepted for some time. The fact that the assumption that the Sun was at the center of the Solar System made calculating the motions of the planets less complicated did not necessarily made that assumption true and there was good reason not to believe the Earth moved. In fact, the Copernican model did not make the calculations that much less complicated. Like Aristotle and Ptolemy, Copernicus believed that the planets moved in perfect circles and his theory still required some epicycles to agree with observations. It was not until 1610 when Johannes Kepler proposed his first law of planetary motion, that the planets orbit the Sun not in circles that the need for epicycles was finally done away with. The heliocentric model then clearly provided a simpler means of understanding the motions of the planets and so was quickly adopted by most astronomers even though there was not yet clear proof that it was actually true.

Which brings us back to Galileo and the Church. In 1632, the year Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, the heliocentric model was rapidly gaining acceptance, yet from a strictly scientific viewpoint, the Church was quite correct in regarding the model with skepticism, even if it was not correct from any viewpoint to put Galileo on trial, although as I said Galileo himself was mostly to blame for his troubles. And, here I have to ask again, why was the heliocentric theory adopted a century before it could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?

Scientists like to portray themselves cool, logical, unbiased observers interested only in the facts, that is the results of their observations and experiments. Any hypothesis, no matter how attractive, must be put aside if the observations do not agree with it. In fact, scientists are subject to the same sorts of biases as everyone else and a candid view of the history of science will show many instances when scientists have clung to a hypothesis even when the facts seem to show otherwise. This is not always a bad thing. I would even go further and state that this is often a good thing. Sometimes intuition serves as a better guide to discovering the truth than logic and sometimes finding the truth requires ignoring the facts that seem to point in a certain direction while pursuing an underlying truth.

One of the biases that has proven to be most useful in understanding the nature of the universe we live in is the idea that the universe is, as bottom, a simple place that we can understand. If things get to be overly complicated, it is usually taken as a sign we are moving in the wrong direction and should seek a simpler explanation. This is no scientific reason for believing this is the case, yet this bias has proven to be useful over and over again. Ptolemy’s epicycles became more and more complicated, so astronomers switched to the simpler heliocentric system, and were proven right. Physicists and chemists in the nineteenth century were dismayed to discover more and more chemical elements with no clear pattern, until they discovered that all these elements could be explained by the three particles, electrons, neutrons, and protons found in the atoms of every element. Physicist were then confused by the many sub atomic particles they kept discovered, until they learned that these particles were composed of a handful of still smaller particles called quarks. This is really the essence of science, to find simple patterns to explain complex phenomena and this process requires intuition and imagination as much as it requires logical thinking and careful observation. So, Galileo was right, even when he was wrong.

Galileo Was Wrong

May 31, 2015

That is the idea behind an odd website that I found which promotes the theory of geocentrism or the idea that the Earth is the center of the Solar System and that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Geocentrism was, of course, the idea held by every astronomer and scientist up until 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus proposed his heliocentric, or Sun centered, model of the Solar System. For about a century there was a fierce debate among scientists and philosophers over the true structure of the universe. Heliocentrism won out, of course, and no educated person of the twenty-first believes that the Earth is at the center of the universe. Because of this, those who historically had supported Copernicus’s model, such as Galileo are held to be on the right side of science and history, while those who clung to the older geocentrism, such as many officials of the Roman Catholic Church, seem to have been backwards and on the wrong side. This website contends that in the controversy between Galileo and the Catholic Church, the Church was, in fact, in the right and Galileo was in the wrong, hence the title. The strange thing is that the website is actually correct, in a funny sort of way. Galileo really was in the wrong and the Church was right to be skeptical of Copernicus’s theories.

The controversy between Galileo and the Church has often been depicted as part of the never ending battle between the light of science and religious ignorance. It is generally accepted by historians today that Galileo’s troubles had far less to do with an alleged anti-science position taken by the Catholic Church and more to do with contemporary Italian politics and Galileo’s own irascible personality. What is generally less well known is that the Church had good scientific reasons to oppose Galileo. Neither Copernicus or Galileo had any way to prove that the Earth moves around the Sun. With his telescope Galileo did discover the four largest moons of Jupiter and the fact that Venus shows phases, which indicates that it orbits the sun. These discoveries were certainly  suggestive in that they showed that not everything in the sky directly orbited the Earth, but it was possible that while Venus and the Galilean satellites orbited the Sun and Jupiter, the Sun and Jupiter revolved around the motionless Earth. In fact, there wouldn’t be any conclusive proof that the Earth moves until eighty years after Galileo’s death when the astronomer James Bradley discovered the phenomenon of the aberration of light caused by the Earth’s motion through space.  By this time, there was hardly any doubt about the Earth orbiting the Sun.

Why were astronomers so quick to discard the millenia-old and common sense idea that the Earth rests motionless at the center of the universe without any direct proof? The answer is that a heliocentric Solar System better accounted for the motion of the planets. In order to understand this, we will have to go back to the origins of the science of astronomy.

No one knows where or when people began to really observe the night sky and take note of the motions of the heavenly bodies. It must have seemed obvious that the Earth was a flat surface with the sky a dome enclosing it. The Sun, Moon and stars rose into the sky moved from East to West across the sky and then set beneath the Earth. At some point, these early observers noticed that not all of the objects in the sky moved along with the background of stars. These objects seemed to wander about the sky, so the Greeks referred to them as planetes, or wanderers. There were seven of these “planets”. the Sun and Moon, and five star like objects that were named Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. It may seem strange to refer to the Sun and Moon as planets but they like the other planets, moved across the sky against the background of the fixed stars.

The Greeks and the Romans knew that the Earth is round and the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle held that the circle was the perfect shape. Because they believed that the Heavens were perfect and unchanging, as opposed to our corrupt and changing Earth, they believed that the seven planets orbited the Earth in perfect circles. This was the model proposed by the ancient Greek astronomers, especially the last and greatest of the Hellenistic astronomers, Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in the second century AD. For this reason the geocentric model is often called the Ptolemaic model.

There was a major problem with the model proposed by the ancient Greeks, the planets do not move in perfect circles across the sky from West to East against the background of the stars. The planets moved in different paths across the sky and at different speeds. Sometimes they seemed to move backwards in what was called retrograde motion.

This image was created as part of the Philip G...

The retrograde motion of Mars(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Earth passes Mars, the latter planet will t...

As Earth passes Mars, the latter planet will temporarily appear to reverse its motion across the sky. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This apparent retrograde motion is is observed because the planets revolve at varying distances from the Sun and so orbit at varying velocities around the Sun. The Earth being closer to the Sun than Mars travels faster than Mars and so occasionally overtakes the other planet. Venus and Mercury travel faster than Earth and overtake us occasionally. You might be able to get an idea of how this works by considering a group of cars travelling on an Interstate. If I am driving at 60 miles per hour and pass a car that is going at 55 miles per hour, that other car will seem to be going backwards even though we are both going in the same direction. As a car travelling 65 miles per hour passes me, I will seem to be moving backwards to them.

 

In order to account for these dependencies between Aristotelian theory and astronomical observations, Greek astronomers hypothesized that while the planets move in perfect circles, they also moved in smaller circles within the circles. Thus, the heavens were full of wheels within wheels. It was Claudius Ptolemy who developed this system to the form that was used in Medieval astronomy.

epicycle-epicycle

It is easy to disparage Ptolemy for developing such a cumbersome system of concentric circles, but remember he did not have the telescope or many of the instruments invented to observe the motions of the planets that came into use in later years. He certainly cannot be blamed for assuming that the Earth is motionless. After, we cannot feel the Earth move and if we had to go by our own personal observations, we could only conclude the same. In fact, Ptolemy’s system was able to predict the motions of the planets with a high degree of accuracy and this was what the ancient and medieval astronomers were most concerned with.

There is much more to say about how later generations of Islamic and European astronomers refined and improved Ptolemy’s model as better astronomical instruments were invented and how Ptolemy came to be at last dethroned, but I am afraid that will have to wait for another post.

 

Memorial Day

May 25, 2015

Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor those who have fallen fighting for their country and for freedom.

Graves_at_Arlington_on_Memorial_Day

Memorial Day first started to be observed after the Civil War. That war was the bloodiest in American history and the casualties of that war were unprecedented. The number of killed and wounded in the three previous declared wars, the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, were insignificant compared to the slaughter house that the Civil War became. After the war people in both the North and South began to commemorate the soldiers who died for their country. The date of this commemoration varied throughout the country until it settled on May 30.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill. This law moved the dates of four holidays, including Memorial Day, to the nearest Monday in order to create three-day weekends. This, I think, was unfortunate. I believe that converting the day on which we honor our fallen heroes into a long weekend tends to diminish the significance of this day. It becomes no more that day to take off work and for businesses to have sales. There should be more to Memorial Day.

 

The Election of 1836

May 3, 2015

At the end of his second term as president, Andrew Jackson was still popular enough that he could have run for a third term if he wanted. Jackson decided to abide by the two term limit precedent set by the previous presidents and instead promoted the candidacy of his vice-president and hand picked successor, Martin Van Buren. It was curious choice given how very different the two men were. Jackson was a rough and ready frontiersman who had worked his way up from an impoverished youth to become a military hero. Van Buren was a smooth politician from New York who was descended from an old Dutch family. Although they agreed on most of the issues, the two men didn’t really have a lot in common. The thing that actually brought them closer together and convinced President Jackson that Van Buren was just the right man to continue his legacy was the Peggy Eaton, or petticoat affair.

Peggy Eaton was a pretty young woman from Washington D. C. who had developed a certain reputation by her teens. In 1816, at the age of 17, Peggy eloped with a thirty-nine year old Navy Purser named John Timberlake. Timberlake died at sea in 1828 and Peggy married an old friend, Senator John Henry Eaton. This would not normally be considered scandalous, except that there were rumors that John and Peggy had been somewhat more than friends and that Timberlake had committed suicide because he learned of her infidelities.

At the beginning of his first term, in 1829, President Jackson had appointed Martin Van Buren as his Secretary of State and his friend Senator Eaton as Secretary of War, and that was when the scandal broke. Peggy Eaton was accused in Washington society of being an adulteress who had married Eaton indecently quickly after the death of her first husband instead of spending a proper time in mourning. In mean girls fashion, all of the wives of the men in Jackson’s cabinet snubbed John and Peggy Eaton and get their husbands to do likewise. Vice-President John C. Calhoun‘s wife Floride was the ringleader of this clique and this, along with their differences over state’s rights led to Jackson dropping Calhoun from the ticket when he ran for his second term, since Jackson, recalling the vicious gossip about his own marriage to his beloved Rachel, took the side of the Eatons, against his whole cabinet, except for Martin Van Buren, who being a widower did not have a wife to fear.

Because President Jackson became involved the petticoat affair caused a schism in his cabinet that made it impossible to govern. Jackson was unwilling to ask his friend Eaton to resign, so in 1831, he had everyone in his cabinet resign and began again with a new cabinet. Since Martin Van Buren was the only member of the cabinet who had treated the Eatons decently, Jackson made him his vice-president for his second term  selected Van Buren as his political successor.

With Jackson’s support, Van Buren easily won the Democratic nomination for president at the convention that met in Baltimore in May 1836. For his running mate, the convention selected Congressman Richard Mentor Johnson from Kentucky. Although Johnson balanced the ticket, being from the South, and something of a war hero from the War of 1812 and the conflicts against the Indians, he was a controversial choice because he had had a longstanding affair with a slave named Julia Chinn, who he treated as his wife.

The American Second Party System was still developing in 1836. There had been some opposition to Jackson from a variety of factions and these came together to oppose Van Buren. The National Republicans from the previous election joined with state’s rights supporters and the Anti-Masonic Party to form the Whig Party. The Whig Party was only united in their opposition to Andrew Jackson and they never did form a coherent party identity before breaking up over the slavery issue. In 1836, this disparate group could not settle on a site for a national convention or a single candidate, so they nominated three presidential candidates with each man appealing to a different region of the country. First there was Senator Daniel Webster from Massachusetts. He was a supporter of Henry Clay and could win New England and the Anti-Masons. Senator Hugh White from Tennessee could attract voters from the South. Finally, there was William Henry Harrison, a Senator from Ohio and the first governor of the Indiana Territory, he was most famous for leading the military force that defeated Tecumseh’s coalition of Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison, then, was a war hero who could really the West. The Whigs hoped that each candidate would be popular enough to defeat Van Buren in his region and since no candidate could gain a majority. The House of Representatives would select the new president from among the top three, presumably Whig, candidates. It was an unusual strategy that has never been tried again. Perhaps because it didn’t work.


There is not much to say about the actual campaign. There was a great deal of personal invective from both sides. The Whigs assailed Van Buren for being merely a clever politician without character or principles who was evasive on where he stood on the issues. The Whigs in the Senate, over which Van Buren presided as part of his duties as Vice-President, tried to embarrass Van Buren and arranged for tie votes, which would oblige Van Buren to cast a deciding, and possibly controversial, vote. The Democrats portrayed Van Buren as a worthy successor to Jackson and attacked the honor and credentials of the three Whigs.

In the end, the Democrats proved to be far better organized than their opponents and proved to be far better at rallying their supporters. Van Buren won the majority he needed. He won 764,168 or 50.9% of the popular vote.  He won 170 electoral votes from states all around the Union. Of the three Whigs, William Henry Harrison proved to be the most popular with 550,816 or 36.6% of the popular vote. Harrison won the mid western states Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, as well as Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Vermont for a total of 73 electoral votes. Hugh got 146,109 or 9.7% of the popular vote carrying only Tennessee and Georgia with 26 electoral votes. Daniel Webster won only his home state of Massachusetts and 14 electoral votes. Webster received 41,201 or 2.7% of the popular vote.

The Election of 1836

The Election of 1836

There was one more Whig, Willie Person Magnum who got South Carolina’s 11 electoral votes. South Carolina was the only remaining state in which the electors which selected by the state legislature rather than by popular vote.

Willie Person Magnum

Willie Person Magnum

 

There was one other oddity about the election of 1836. This was the only election in which the Senate selected the Vice President, as provided by the twelfth amendment,

The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

Van Buren’s running mate, Richard Johnson, proved to be very unpopular in the South because of his relationship with Julia Chenn, and 23 of Virginia’s electors who supported Van Buren refused to vote for Johnson. As a result he only received 147 electoral votes, one short of a majority. Johnson easily won the Senate vote which was along party lines 36 for Johnson to 16 for the Whig Francis Granger.

 

Oskar Groening

April 30, 2015

Oskar Groening was an officer of the SS stationed at Auschwitz. He wasn’t directly responsible for any of the killings at that extermination camp. Groening was an accountant charged with taking possession of the belongings of the Jews and other undesirables brought to the camp. For the most part, he worked in the office and kept track of the money. Groening knew what was happening at Auschwitz, and by his own account, he didn’t much care for it. He tried repeatedly to be transferred but his requests were denied. Now Oskar Groening is on trial as an accessory to the murder of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Here is the story I read at Yahoo News.

Hedy Bohm had just turned 16 when the Nazis packed her and her parents onto a cattle car in May 1944 and sent them from Hungary to the Auschwitz death camp in occupied Poland.

After three days and nights in darkness, crammed into the standing-room-only car with babies wailing, the doors were flung open. “An inferno,” is how she remembers the scene she saw.

“The soldiers yelling at us, guns and rifles pointed at us,” she recalled. “Big dogs barking at us held back on their leashes by the soldiers.”

One of the black-uniformed men on the ramp was likely SS guard Oskar Groening. Now 93, he goes on trial Tuesday in a state court in the northern city of Lueneburg on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. Two of those deaths were Bohm’s parents, who are believed to have been killed in the gas chambers immediately upon arrival in Auschwitz.

Groening’s trial is the first to test a line of German legal reasoning opened by the 2011 trial of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk on allegations he was a Sobibor death camp guard, which has unleashed an 11th-hour wave of new investigations of Nazi war crimes suspects.

Prosecutors argue that anyone who was a death camp guard can be charged as an accessory to murders committed there, even without evidence of involvement in a specific death.

Groening has openly acknowledged serving as an SS non-commissioned officer at Auschwitz, though denies committing any crimes. His memories of the cattle cars packed with Jews arriving at the death camp are just are vivid as Bohm’s.

“A child who was lying there was simply pulled by the legs and chucked into a truck to be driven away,” he told the BBC in an interview 10 years ago. “And when it screamed like a sick chicken, they then bashed it against the edge of the truck so it would shut up.”

His attorney, Hans Holtermann, has prevented Groening from giving any new interviews, but said his client will make a statement as the trial opens. Earlier, Groening said he felt an obligation to talk about his past to confront those who deny the Holocaust.

“I want to tell those deniers that I have seen the crematoria, I have seen the burning pits, and I want to assure you that these atrocities happened,” he said. “I was there.”

Though acknowledgement of his past could help mitigate the 15-year maximum sentence Groening faces if convicted, the court’s focus will be on whether legally he can be found an accessory to murder for his actions.

Groening is accused of helping to operate the death camp between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death.

His job was to deal with the belongings stolen from camp victims. Prosecutors allege among other things that he was charged with helping collect and tally money that was found, which has earned him the moniker “the accountant of Auschwitz” from the German media.

Whenever I read of some Nazi war criminal being brought to trial, I have to wonder what the point is. Anyone who has had any role at all in planning  and executing the Holocaust is long dead. Any low level functionaries who might still be living are in their nineties and probably so senile that can scarcely remembered the crimes they might have committed sixty years ago. And what punishment could possibly fit their crimes? Even a life sentence will only be, at most, a few years, hardly enough for justice to be done.

Oskar Groening-then and now

Oskar Groening-then and now

As for Oskar Groening, I wonder if he would be in the legal difficulties he is in if he had decided to remain silent about his experiences at Auschwitz. Perhaps his past would have caught up with him anyway, but I can’t help but feel that he is somehow being punished for opposing the Holocaust Deniers by speaking out about the atrocities he had witnessed and been complicit in. Herr Groening is not Himmler, Eichmann, or Mengele. He is simply a man who wanted to belong to what was regarded as an elite organization and found himself in a Hell on Earth.

More on Himmler

April 27, 2015

I have finished reading the book about the Heinrich Himmler and I find that I have a few more thoughts to add to my previous post about the Nazi leader. First, I wanted to get a better idea about what Himmler and his fellow Nazis looked like so I looked at some videos on YouTube. It is really surprising and a little depressing to see that many pro-Nazi comments are left on these videos. I realize that internet commenters are not generally among the most discerning of people but somehow I didn’t expect that the Nazis had so many fans. I have to admit that they were masters of crowd psychology. The sight of rows of people in smart uniforms marching in step to the music of the Horst Wessel Song is strangely compelling. I could understand wanting to march alongside them, if I didn’t know about the corruption and the brutality at the heart of the Nazi regime.

himm9
Second, the hold that Adolf Hitler had over the minds of his inner circle was truly astonishing. Even in the final days of the Nazi regime, the Nazi leaders were intriguing and fighting  among themselves for Hitler’s favor, as if it really mattered who was closest to the Fuehrer when the Russians were on the outskirts of Berlin. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic made more sense. It never seemed to occur to any of Hitler’s associates that as Germany was beginning to lose the war, it might be a good idea to remove Hitler from power. The attempt to assassinate and overthrow Hitler’s government in June of 1944 was perpetrated by Wehrmacht generals and others opposed to Hitler. Heinrich Himmler knew that the war was lost by the winter of 1943 to 1944. He was also aware that Hitler was very ill, both physically and mentally and was no longer really able to lead Germany. Some of Himmler’s associates including his personal masseur, Felix Kersten, suggested that Himmler try to get Hitler to retire from the active management of the Reich. Himmler would not hear of it. He did open up clandestine peace negotiations with the Allies with the help of Kersten, but Himmler knew that Hitler would not approve of the negotiations and he only pursued them halfheartedly. With the backing of the SS, Himmler was probably the only man in Germany who could have orchestrated a successful coup against Hitler and he knew that that was the only way to save Germany from defeat, yet he could not do it.

I think the reason for this loyalty that Hitler’s subordinates exhibited is that none of them were really strong in themselves. None of them, with the possible exception of Herman Goering could ever have risen to a position of power or prominence without Hitler and without Hitler, they were nothing. I imagine that Hitler preferred to have mediocrities working for him as they were less of a threat, though perhaps talented people weren’t drawn to Hitler in the early days of the Nazi movement. Hitler also liked to set his lieutenants against each other by giving them overlapping spheres of responsibility and discouraging them from working together. It would be interesting to contrast Hitler’s approach to leadership to Abraham Lincoln and his team of rivals.

Third, I have been thinking about what I said about Himmler in the earlier post. I stated that Himmler was able to order the destruction of millions of lives because he really thought he was doing the right thing. I do not believe that I was wrong, but I am not sure that is all that can be said on the subject. I believe that on some level Heinrich Himmler knew perfectly well that he was doing wrong. Why else would he continually emphasize the need for secrecy with the Final Solution? He certainly believed that the good ends he was working for, a Europe rid of Jews, justified the evil means used. I think that if Heinrich Himmler, or for that matter Adolf Hitler, had retained the Roman Catholic faith of his youth, he might have retained the Christian belief that some actions are intrinsically evil regardless of context or justification, He might have understood that even if the Jews really did present some dire threat to Germany, that would not justify the massacre of an entire population. But Himmler abandoned Christianity for occultism and neo-paganism and even those Nazis who were nominal Christians tended to follow a nazified Christianity purged of its Jewish elements and any moral teachings that might be opposed to the Fuehrer’s will.

We have in each of us an instinct, a compass which points towards the right, just as a magnetic compass points towards the magnetic North Pole. If a compass is placed near an object with a strong magnetic field, it will point towards the magnet rather than North. Similarly if we reject the authority of the One who is the source of all that is good and substitute our own inclinations or some ideology, our moral compass will point in the wrong direction. As the Apostle Paul might have put it, they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped the creation rather than the Creator. In the case of the Nazis, they exchanged the idea of absolute right and wrong for the idea the highest good was whatever was best for the Reich and the Aryan Race. The rise of the Nazis wouldn’t have been possible if it had not been for the progressive de-Christianization of the intellectual classes in Europe and particularly in Germany that had occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Because many intelligent and well educated people in Europe could no longer wholly embrace Christian doctrine and Christian morals and because human beings must have something to believe in, they substituted ideologies such as racism or Communism to replace the old religion. The results of this following after false idols still haunt the world.

Reopening Old Wounds

April 20, 2015

One hundred fifty years ago this month, General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, effectively ending the American Civil War, the bloodiest war in America’s history.  Brian Beulter at the New Republic thinks that this date, April 9 should be a national holiday celebrated every year.

In a speech one month ago, the first black president of the United States challenged millions of white Americans to resist the convenient allure of overlooking the country’s blemished moral record. It was a dual challenge, actually—first to the classical understanding of American exceptionalism, but also to America’s persistent critics, who abjure the concept of exceptionalism altogether.

In the self-critical America of Obama’s imagination, more people would know about the Edmund Pettus bridge and its namesake. The bridge itself wouldn’t necessarily be renamed after Martin Luther King or John Lewis or another civil rights hero; because it is synonymous with racist violence, the bridge should bear Pettus’s name eternally, with the explicit intent of linking the sins of the Confederacy to the sins of Jim Crow. But Obama’s America would also reject the romantic reimagining of the Civil War, and thus, the myriad totems to the Confederacy and its leaders that pockmark the South, most of which don’t share the Pettus bridge’s incidental association with the struggle for civil rights.

This week provides an occasion for the U.S. government to get real about history, as April 9 is the 150th anniversary of the Union’s victory in the Civil War. The generous terms of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House foreshadowed a multitude of real and symbolic compromises that the winners of the war would make with secessionists, slavery supporters, and each other to piece the country back together. It’s as appropriate an occasion as the Selma anniversary to reflect on the country’s struggle to improve itself. And to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.

He goes on in that vein, but you get the idea. The Confederacy and its leaders must be disavowed as traitors on the wrong side of history. The southern states must not be permitted to remember or appreciate their heritage which includes many great men who fought in the Civil War.

I think this it a bad idea. Generally, throughout history, when some province or region rebelled against its central government and is defeated, that central government punished the rebellious provinces with savage reprisals, including executing the leaders of that rebellion. This only increased the resentment and hatred of the people of that region against the central government and led to another rebellion a generation later, with another round of reprisals. This cycle continued until the rebellious province won its independence or was utterly crushed with its people killed or scattered.

In the United States, we managed to avoid that cycle. For the most part, the defeated rebel states were not treated as conquered territory but were welcomed back into the Union. The soldiers and officers of the Confederate armies were not massacred or imprisoned for treason but permitted to go home. General Robert E. Lee was not hanged. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for a short time but released. There was some trouble in the administration of the formerly rebellious regions during the Reconstruction Era, largely due to efforts to secure the rights of the former slaves, but in general the South was generally well treated after the war.

Because Lincoln and others treated the rebels so leniently, there was no lasting Southern separatist movement. Instead North and South became welded together into a new nation more united than before the war. This meant that the Civil War had to become America’s war. The soldiers and heroes of both sides had to become America’s heroes and the short history of the Confederate States of America had to become part of the shared history of the United States of America. This also meant that justice and equality for the African-Americans had to wait a century. This was unfortunate, but reunifying America had to take priority, just as establishing the new nation had to take priority over ending slavery in the time of the founders.

As a result of this welding together, the South, the former rebels is probably the most patriotic region of this country and southerners have always served in the military in disproportionate numbers. Lincoln’s policy of “letting them up easy” has been more than vindicated. Now, Mr. Beutler would like to undo all of that effort to punish the South once again for the Civil War. The Confederate story must no longer be America’s story. The rebels ought not be be considered our countrymen but as an evil enemy justly defeated.

We know from experience that there will be resistance to such efforts. Some critics will caution that singling out Confederate officers will give way to politically correct efforts to sideline other historically important Americans. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveowners. Shouldn’t we expiate their sins by banishment as well, starting with the $1 and $2 bills?

But figures like Washington and Jefferson fit comfortably within the framework of exceptionalism that Obama sketched in Selma, while supporters of secession do not. Obama’s telling of American history is one in which an establishment worthy of preservation is continually improved by righteous internal forces. You don’t need to be morally pristine to be immortalized in Obama’s America, but you can’t be on the side of forces that reject the establishment altogether when it advances incrementally toward its founding ideals. Likewise, those who would caution that a more accurate reckoning with the Confederacy would inflame racial tensions are merely restating the implication that the country is too weak to be introspective. If Obama’s expression of American exceptionalism is correct about anything, it’s that this kind of thinking has no merit.

By contrast, the Union’s victory, and the abolition of slavery, both merit celebration as exemplars of American improvement and renewal, even if many Unionists weren’t moral heroes. These twin accomplishments are as worthy of a federal holiday as any holiday we already celebrate. So let’s name April 9 New Birth of Freedom Day. And if that creates too much paid leave for government workers, we could swap out Columbus Day. We don’t yet live in the America Obama described, but we should strive to.

I don’t really want to live in the America Obama is trying to build. It seems clear that there is no room for Southern Whites in that America. I have to wonder is Mr. Beutler is trying to start a new Civil War by dividing this country and alienating the South. Actually, there is no great mystery why such a piece would appear in the New Republic. Progressives have generally hated the South, even more that the rest of flyover country because the South has usually been the most conservative region of the United States. The South with its religious, patriotic, and conservative people represents the aspects of America most progressives want to get as far as they can away from and which stands most in need of fundamental change.

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Heinrich Himmler

April 17, 2015

Lately,  I  have been reading a biography of Nazi SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler and I am finding that reading about this man is a strange, somewhat unsettling experience. Himmler was a strange sort of man, even by the standards of the Nazi leadership who were generally an eccentric lot.  He was a mystic, a crank, and a fanatic on racial matters. He hated Christianity and tried to introduce a sort of Nordic neo-paganism in the SS. He was also the one individual who was most responsible for enacting Hitler’s Final Solution against the Jews and so oversaw the greatest crimes in history, yet he was not really an evil man by nature. This seems paradoxical yet it really isn’t. There were a great many men among the leaders of the Nazi Party who were corrupt, venial, cruel, or power mad. Himmler wasn’t one of them. He was not cruel by nature, though he could steel himself to appalling acts of cruelty in order to be tough. He did not seek to enrich himself through his leadership of the SS nor did he seem all that interested in pursuing power for its own sake. He didn’t even relish bloodshed, nor was he especially eager to kill millions of people.  How was it that he was responsible for the deaths of millions in the most cruel ways imaginable?

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The answer is simply that Heinrich Himmler was most concerned with doing what he believed was his duty to preserve the German people or volk. He sincerely believed the racist theories he propounded, that the Germans were the highest race and that the Jews were a threat to the Germans and the Slavs were an inferior race fit only for slave labor. He believed that it was necessary to exterminate millions of people for the greater good of the Aryan race. Such atrocities might be distasteful, yet they had to be done. Himmler was, in fact, greatly concerned that the acts of genocide his SS men were committing might coarsen and brutalize them and he warned them that they must do their duty despite any misgivings, but they must remain decent men. He envisaged his SS as a noble order of knights charged with an unpleasant, but utterly necessary duty. It was this impulse to serve his country, a virtue good in itself, that caused Himmler to commit his acts of greatest evil.

This illustrates a truism that the greatest crimes in history are not committed by bad or indecent people, but by decent people with indecent ideas in their heads, though I might hesitate to call Himmler decent. Still, he didn’t see himself as a a bad man.  Something similar might be said about his master, Adolf Hitler. Hitler was also not a decent person. Hitler really did believe the Jews to be a threat to Germany. If you discovered that a group of people were systematically undermining America, causing us to lose wars and controlling the American economy with the intention to enrich themselves and enslave every American, wouldn’t you think it necessary to exterminate such a dastardly group of people. At the very least, you might want them out of the country. Hitler’s desire to exterminate the Jews had a basic motive to save his people that might be considered good in itself.

If Hitler had only been interested in acquiring power, he would have done a good deal less damage to Germany and the world. He would still have been a vicious tyrant, but he wouldn’t have killed six millions Jews. He might have gone to war to expand German influence in Europe, but he would not have sought to enslave the Poles and the Russians. It was where Hitler sincerely believe that he was going good that he did his greatest evil. Perhaps something similar could be said about the other monsters who have destroyed the lives of millions in the countries they ruled. Joseph Stalin was a cruel, paranoid tyrant, but because he sincerely believed in Marxism he killed millions of Russian and Ukrainian peasants to force them into collective farms. Much the same might be said of rulers like Mao or Pol Pot.

Evil has no power in itself. It is always parasitic on good. It is not possible to commit great acts of evil unless one has the ability to commit great acts of good. Hitler had talents in oratory and practical politics that he could have used to become Germany’s greatest statesman. Himmler’s flair for bureaucratic organization could have uplift the lives of millions instead of destroying them. Lucifer was the greatest archangel until he became Satan. Evil is always more effective when it comes disguised as good. People will do terrible things in the name of their god or country or the general welfare that they wouldn’t even consider doing for selfish reasons. Perhaps this is the lesson that we must not forget. The trouble with the Nazis wasn’t that they were bad people, even though many were very bad indeed, but that even good people with bad ideas can become very, very bad.

There was a depressing number of neo-Nazi/anti-Semitic articles that turned up here. It is so easy to forget.

Let Them Eat Cake

April 13, 2015

To start with, Marie Antoinette never actually said it. The phrase is actually found in Jean Jacque Rousseau‘s autobiography, Confessions where at one point he claims that “a great princess” upon learning that the peasants had no bread made the famous statement. Rousseau couldn’t have been speaking of Marie Antoinette, however, because his Confessions, although not published until after his death, was completed by 1769 when Marie Antoinette was still a girl living in Vienna. Which great princess, if any, Rousseau was actually referring to is unknown and since Rousseau adhered to the”fake but accurate” school of historiography so beloved by progressives it is possible that he simply made the whole thing up. In any case, the statement was actually out of character for Marie Antoinette. Despite the caricature of the callous, out of touch aristocrat created by the French radicals, Marie Antoinette was aware of the plight of the French poor and gave generously to charity. She was extravagant in her spending and could be somewhat clueless about what political advisers would call today the “optics” of the royal administration.

 

Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the late...

She didn’t say it  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Even if she did say it, Marie Antoinette didn’t really say, “let them eat cake”. That is poor translation of the actual statement in French, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“. La brioche is not really cake but a kind of  bread made with eggs and butter to give it a light texture and rich flavor. Brioche was more expensive than the plain flour and water bread that the French poor subsisted upon, so perhaps a more exact translation might be, “if they don’t have the plain bread, let them eat the fancy pastries”. Somehow, that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

 

Not cake

Not cake

 

 

 

 

 

The meaning behind the words let them eat brioche may not be quite what it is generally assumed to be. It generally is taken to refer to a ruler or government callously unconcerned about the poor, but the pre-revolutionary French monarchs were greatly concerned about the welfare of the French people over which they ruled. As I said, the French poor depended on cheap bread to survive and the French government tightly regulated the supply of grain and flour to ensure that they had a steady supply of bread. There were strict regulations and inspections to ensure that bakers did not adulterate their bread to save money on flour. The price of the cheapest bread was set by the government to be affordable to the poor. Since bakers might be tempted to produce only a limited supply of the cheapest bread, and concentrate on more expensive and profitable pastries like brioche, French law required that if a baker ran out of the cheap bread, he was obliged to sell his more expensive wares at the set price for cheap bread. So, if Marie Antoinette had said let them eat cake, what she meant was that if there was a shortage of the cheap bread that was the staple of the poor, they should the have more expensive bread made available to them.

 

This system worked well enough in times of plenty, provided that the government set the price of the cheapest bread at a level that ensured that bakers could make a profit. If there was a bad harvest, however, the price of grain and thus of flour would increase. Since the price of bread was set and could not be changed, bakers could find themselves selling bread at a loss. The bakers were supposed to be compensated for their losses when good harvests return,  but they had no way of knowing when that might be. Under the circumstances, they might well decide to not to bother making any bread at all, leading to worse food shortages.

 

Now, a free market advocate might suggest that the French government ought to have ended its price controls on grain and bread and let the free market determine the cost and supply of bread. Over the long term, the equilibrium between supply and demand would ensure a stable supply of bread at a reasonable price. In fact, that was exactly what was happening in the early years of the reign of Louis XVI. Influenced by the writings of the French school of economics known as the Physiocrats, who advocated free trade and free market economics, and by Louis’s  minister Turgot, the French government had been slowly dismantling the system of price controls and strict regulation of bread in the early 1770’s. Unfortunately, this was also a period of bad harvests which drove the price of grain and then bread to a level beyond the reach of many of the poor. Given time, the market would have righted itself but that was small comfort to the poor who found themselves unable to feed their families. Rioting broke out all over France in 1775, leading to what has been called the Flour War, a sort of pre-revolution. At first the rioters attacked grain merchants who they suspected of hoarding grain, but it wasn’t long before they were fighting with Royal officials. Both the traditional view of the King as protector of his subjects and the free market economics endorsed by Turgot were discredited in the chaos and Turgot was obliged to resign. King Louis XVI  restored the price controls on bread and organized relief for the areas most afflicted by hunger. By the summer of 1775 the Flour War was over, but in hindsight this the beginning of the end of the French ancien régime.

 

Let them eat cake, then, is not really so much the rallying cry of an uncaring and callous elite as it is for a regime that enacts well-intentioned reforms to help everyone but because the unintended consequences of such reforms are not carefully considered they end up causing more harm than good. This is a lesson many contemporary Louis XVIs and Marie Antoinettes  would do well to learn.

 

 

 

Rand Paul for President

April 8, 2015

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has officially announced the opening of his campaign to be the next President of the United States. As CNN reports,

For Rand Paul, it’s all led to this moment.

Since riding the tea party wave into the Senate in 2010, Paul has carefully built a brand of mainstream libertarianism — dogged advocacy of civil liberties combined with an anti-interventionist foreign policy and general support for family values — that he bets will create a coalition of younger voters and traditional Republicans to usher him into the White House.

The test of that theory began Tuesday when the Kentucky senator made official what has been clear for years: He’s running for president.

“Today I announce with God’s help, with the help of liberty lovers everywhere, that I’m putting myself forward as a candidate for president of the United States of America,” Paul said at a rally in Louisville.

Paul immediately hit the campaign trail for a four-day swing through New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada — the states that traditionally vote first in the primaries and caucuses.

In his speech, he called for reforming Washington by pushing for term limits and a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. He argued that both parties are to blame for the rising debt, saying it doubled under a Republican administration and tripled under Obama.

“Government should be restrained and freedom should be maximized,” he said.

In general, I like Rand Paul. He seems to be more clever than most of the  leading Republicans and he is willing to  move beyond the comfort zone of the GOP and reach out to people who haven’t generally been very responsive to overtures from Republicans and he is willing to take unorthodox positions. His mainstream libertarianism is likely to be appealing to the large number of Americans who simply want the government to leave them alone without seeming overly dogmatic or extreme. He seems to be having a somewhat antagonistic relationship with the mainstream media, in that he is not allowing the reporters who have interviewed him to corner him or put words in his mouth. Perhaps Rand Paul understand, as few Republican politicians seem to, that the media is the enemy and will never give any Republican candidate a fair chance. All in all, Rand Paul seems to be an excellent candidate for president.

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I have some reservations, though. Paul doesn’t have much experience in politics, just one term as the junior Senator from Kentucky. The last time we elected a one-term junior Senator, it didn’t work out too well. A more serious objection to a Rand Paul candidacy is the fact that his father, Ron Paul, is a lunatic and I am afraid that the nut doesn’t far fall from the oak tree. My most serious concern with Ron Paul is his extreme isolationism. There are a lot of people, including Rand Paul, who have been labeled as isolationist because they have expressed the position that the United States need not get involved in every conflict in the world and should exercise more discretion in intervening in foreign affairs, particularly in matters that do not affect our interests. This is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Ron Paul, however, seems to be of the opinion that the United States should not be involved in foreign affairs at all. We should mind our own business and in return the world will leave us alone. This is a dangerously naive position to take. For one thing, America is simply too big and powerful to mind its own business. Everything we do, even not doing anything, affects everyone in the world. A small country like Switzerland can keep to itself. The US does not have that option. Also, our present period of relative peace and prosperity depends very much on American leadership and power. If America falters, things could get very bad, very quickly. President Obama’s reluctance to assert American leadership has already caused much vexation among our allies and in the world generally. A truly isolationist administration would be a disaster.

Rand Paul seems to be more reasonable about foreign policy than his father and it may be that he will find a middle ground between extreme isolationism and excessive interventionism. It may also be that his father’s extreme positions will prevent his election or even nomination as the Republican candidate. It remains to be seen. The election of 2016 is still a long way off and it is probably premature to make any predictions or make any decisions about the candidates.


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