Snakes in the Grass

hareem_1Let there be no doubt: Men who talk about women the way Donald Trump does are pathetic. Men who treat them the way he allegedly does are even more pathetic. As Nietzsche wrote, noble is he who respects himself. Which the Donald, whatever his other virtues, clearly does not.

But whether such talk and such behavior should really disqualify the Donald or anyone else from serving as president of the most powerful country on earth is another question. After all, if elected he would hardly be the first ruler in history who had sex on his mind. Julius Caesar was perhaps the greatest commander who ever lived, yet had so many affairs with married women in particular that his own troops called him, “the bald fornicator.” Augustus was as great a statesman as the world has ever seen, yet the historian Suetonius says that at his banquettes he liked to be served by naked girls selected for the occasion by his wife, Livia.

Augustus the Strong (reigned, 1697-1706), the king of Saxony to whom the world owes the beautiful city of Dresden, had so many illegitimate offspring that it was said of him that he took his duty of pater patriae literally. By contrast, Richard Nixon is said to have been faithful to his Patricia. Did that make him a more honest politician?

Thinking about it, perhaps the US and other modern countries would do well to revive the ancient institute of the harem at the White House and its equivalents. In Arabic, a harem is a sacred place that is out of bounds. For example, Jerusalem’s Mount Temple is known to Muslims the world over as Haram-al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.

Harems are an ancient institution. One of their functions was to provide relaxation, as in the above image. But they also served a very serious purpose: namely to make sure, as far as possible, that rulers bearing a heavy responsibility—not seldom, including their subjects’ lives and deaths—would at any rate be spared that particular problem. So as to be able to focus on their task instead.

To speculate a little, in a democratic age full of self-conscious, emancipated women entry into the harem can only be voluntary. As, throughout history, it often was; many parents were happy to hand over their daughters to an institution where they would be supported, educated, and taught all kinds of interesting arts. Those sufficiently attractive and sufficiently clever might even rise to take key positions in the empire or kingdom.

It goes without saying that the women should be over eighteen, the age at which they are supposed to be sufficiently mature to vote. They should be made to sign a contract, freely renewable by both sides upon expiration, to stay for so and so long. Some way would have to be found to ensure that they understand what was required of them—these days, too many women, young and old, claim that they just did not. And also to guarantee secrecy. Leaving the harem, the women would receive a generous sum of money and perhaps a bonus as well. You bet that there would be plenty of volunteers—just ask Hugh Hefner.

But that is not what it pleases me to write about today. By one story Victorian women, riding trains through dark tunnels and afraid lest strangers try to use the opportunity to kiss them, were advised to put needles in their mouths. Later things became more straightforward; a woman kissed or groped in public was told to slap her attacker or at least yell at him. And that was that. No damage done, except to the attacker’s reputation. One of those who advocated this strategy was the late Israeli MK Shulamit Aloni (1928-2014). A liberal and a one-time minister of education under Yitzhak Rabin, she was also as proud a feminist as they come.

Since then much water has flowed down the Jordan and, for that matter, the Rhine and the Mississippi. Throughout the world, billions of women have been exposed to feminist propaganda concerning the evils of “patriarchy” and the need to do away with them. Millions have been through “assertiveness” training, and millions more have been “empowered” in so many different ways as to easily fill a library. Countless committees have been created, seminars held, recommendations written, and regulations issued. All in an attempt to make more women hold their own against those wicked tyrants, men.

Enter the Donald’s accusers. Whether their stories are true, as they claim, or not, as he says, does not interest me here. What I do find strange is that, after decades and decades during which the females of the species have been “empowered” in every possible way, the women in question still did not have what it takes to give him what, according to them, he deserved. So dumb are some of them that, at the time, they do not even understand they have been “harassed” or “abused.” Or so they claim.

Miserable creatures! Like snakes in the grass, they spent years and even decades nursing their grievances, real, imagined, or simply invented for the occasion. And waiting for a suitable opportunity. Only then, and only when they had their behinds protected by the likes of the New York Times, did they finally crawl out of their hiding places, screwed up their “courage,” went public, and injected their venom into the presidential race. Or was it just greed and the wish for the fifteen minutes of fame?

And what does going public mean? Whining, of course. About how unable to help themselves they felt. About how humiliating the experience was. About the deep and lasting psychological damage they suffered, the psychotherapy they needed, the compensation they deserved, and so on. If these and other women who come up with similar claims are lying, then they are pathetic. If they are telling the truth, then in some ways they are even more pathetic.

As to what to think of an electorate, now made up mostly of women, that in today’s dangerous world is only interested in what happens from the waist down, make up your own mind.

Just Published!

Martin van Creveld, Clio and Me: An Intellectual Autobiography, Kouvola, Finland, Castalia House, 2016, electronic edition (hard cover to come).


Relatives, friends, students, colleagues, and journalists have often asked me what I see in the study of history, particularly military history, and how I ever got into that esoteric field. I always answered as best I could, but never thought I would try to put my answer down in writing. In my family people only write their memoirs when they are very old and ready to go, which I am not (yet).

Years ago, my stepson and best friend, Jonathan Lewy, was bitten by the scholarship bug. As an undergraduate student of history at Hebrew University, he read Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft, which, as he was not slow to point out, was written when Bloch was exactly as old as I was in 2003. Jonathan has often asked me why I did not try to produce a similar work, and I have often evaded the question even in my own mind.

Jonathan, who in the meantime earned his PhD and did a post-doc at Harvard, is nothing if not persistent. But I did not want to produce yet another volume on the philosophy of history and the technique of teaching it. Instead, I decided I would try to answer the above questions, and others like them, by writing an intellectual autobiography. Why and how did I come to be a historian? What does the study of history really mean to me? Why, in my view, does it merit being studied, what for, and how? How did I master my craft? What problems did I meet, and how did I try to solve them? Where do I get my ideas? What does “scientific” history mean, and how does it differ from other kinds? What does it take to write a book, and what is doing so like? Can history be used for looking into the future, and, if so, how does one go about it? How should history, in fact the humanities and social sciences in general, be taught at the university level? What are the differences between civilian universities and military ones? How does one prepare a talk, and how does one deal with the media? What are the advantages of the scholarly life, and what are the disadvantages? Should one take it up?

As I got to work, I soon found myself in a dilemma. On the one hand, I did not want to appear as some sort of disembodied spirit. Like anybody else, I do have a life outside the purely intellectual one. Moreover, the two are interrelated. I have often wondered about the impact health may have on creativity and vice versa. So, incidentally, did Friedrich Nietzsche, to mention but one. On the other hand, I did not think my personal life is of great interest either to Jonathan, who already knows it all, or to other people. In the end I compromised. I tried to put in only as much of my non-professional life as I considered absolutely essential to explain where I come from and to make the narrative coherent. Unlike a few writers whom I consulted and to some extent used as my model, I do not think it matters who attended to my bodily needs when I was a child. Like them, I shall be very happy to strike out the name of anybody who feels offended by what I have to say. With the aid of word processing and e-books, which most of them did not have, doing so is easy enough.

I very much hope that this book will have something to offer the type of young, earnest students with whom it has been my great good fortune to work throughout my academic career. Nevertheless, in the end it was Jonathan whom it was written for. Therefore, whatever the reaction of others, I pray that he at any rate will not be disappointed.

Well, Yes, the War

The place: Juliana [the Crown Princes, later Queen, of the Netherlands], Street, Wageningen [a Dutch town in the center of the country]. The time: World War II, during the German occupation. The scene: No. 34, a tiny two bedroom townhouse. There is just one tap, cold water only. There is an outdoor toilet with no toilet paper, only square pieces of newspaper joined by a string. In the living room there is standing lamp. For that place and time, quite a luxury.

slotboomThis is the home of the typographer Jan Slotboom, his wife Gerritje, and their son Henk. Jan and Ger, strict Calvinists, are in their early thirties. Henk was four, or so it seems. Recently, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, I was presented with Henk’s memoirs. Written in Dutch in 2015, self-published in soft cover, and exceptionally well-illustrated with period photographs. If anyone has ever read something more direct, more modest and more honest, I’d very much like to see it.

So here are a few paragraphs.

“The morning of 10 May [1940] was restless. Many aircraft in the air and the sound of gunfire at the Grebbenberg [two miles away, as the crow flies]. ‘We are at war,’ people said. I did not really know what war was, but it seemed interesting. Some neighbors, my father and I went to ‘the tall [three-story] buildings’ down the street to take a look. How proud was I to hear my father say: ‘We shall throw those Moffen [Germans] out.’ But the Germans thought otherwise.”

[The family was evacuated. After a week, however, they were allowed to return home]. “Life went on as usual, especially for us children. On 1 September 1942 my mother put me behind her on the bicycle and took me to school for the first time.”

“My parents, by providing people with a place to stay in which they could feel relatively safe resisted the occupation. I believe that, especially during the early years of the war, they did not realize what a risk they were running.”

“From 1942 on we used to have Jewish guests. Some stayed a long time, others just the night. At times the room was full of people I did not know…. This remained the case throughout the war and also for some years after it was over… Where all those people had come from I had no idea, but I understood that my uncle, Anton de Bond [who was in the Resistance], had something to do with it… I had never heard of Jews. But I did understand that it was a secret and that the damn Moffen were not supposed to know anything. I was quite proud to be part of the secret.”

“Our neighbors were known to be fout [on the wrong side.] Their son, Hans, was in the Hitlerjugend. Everyone looked askance at them. But Hans had a brown uniform and a dagger. Secretly my friends and I were jealous of him, because he looked great. We had a love/hate relationship with Hans and his friends. Playing soldiers was fun, and we found it interesting. That’s why we regularly played together, and a moment later we would quarrel…”

“We regularly found food stamps in our mailbox. And food in front of the door. This helped us live through those difficult times. Apparently some people knew what was going on at No. 34.”

“The German soldiers, goose-stepping and singing, made a tremendous impression on me. They could sing very well. I would have liked to follow them, just as one does a marching band.”

“Early in the war some German soldiers were quartered in our street. I think the house owners got some kind of compensation. They were much better than their reputation and their behavior was impeccable. Nice guys! But appearances are deceptive. Those nice German soldiers mounted Razzias to catch young Dutch men, forcing them to hide in the alleys.”

“1942-43 [in reality, 1943-44]. Suddenly Jan Pap was living with us. I remember him as a somewhat pale man with dark hair combed backward. A quiet man who said little…. He had studied a lot, spoke excellent English, and taught my dad to say joenitedsteedsvanamerika [United States of America]. No sooner had the war ended than Jan Pap became Uncle Leo van Creveld [my father, MvC]. I did not quite understand what was going on…”

“On the back side [of the local newspaper, carrying the obituaries of Wageningen’s recently deceased] there was an article about Dutch [Waffen] SS soldiers fighting the Russians. Well, yes, the war.”

“At school we went through air-raid drill. When the sirens started wailing we knew exactly what to do: Everyone under their desks, and those near the window as close to the wall as possible… At night, blackout to make it hard for the Tommies to find us. In the evening you were not allowed to go out. Curfew, they called it… Having landed in Normandy, the Allies overran more and more land and were coming nearer. Who knows, we might soon be liberated. Well, yes, the war.”

[1944-45, following the failure of the Allied Arnhem Offensive]. “The Germans were still in control. They used their power to abuse the Russian POWs whom they made dig trenches and build fortifications. We really felt sorry for those miserable men. From time to time the Germans would throw them an unpeeled cooked potato and a piece of bread. They formed a poor, hungry group… We at least had enough to eat.”

[During that period we were driven from our home. In our new quarters] “I for the first time heard the Wilmhelmus [the Dutch anthem, which had been prohibited by the Germans] loudly sung [by my uncle and cousin]. That was in the kitchen, and looking back it was quite an experience. But my aunt was angry. You shouldn’t sing so loudly, for there were traitors everywhere. In this house people treaded underfoot whatever orders the Germans had issued. Yet doing so was not without risk.”

[Amidst all this] “We children played Red Cross. There were wounded and an occasional ‘dead’ body. War, a game in which everything was acceptable. Well, yes, the war.”

[Towards the end of the war the Germans requisitioned bicycles left and right.] “Including the tricycle of a paralyzed woman. I can still see in front of me three German soldiers riding the tricycle with its levers. They had great fun. For a moment, they were able to put their own troubles aside.”

“We talked to a German officer. He was very young, fanatical and loyal… Hinkel was his name, first lieutenant Hinkel… He believed in the Wunderwaffen [miracle-weapons] of his idol, Adolf Hitler. They would win the war for Germany. Hinkel had a very young batman, Rudy was his name. I think he cannot have been more than fifteen years old. He was quite nice and wanted very much to go home to his Heimat [home] and Mutti [mother].

[The Canadians having liberated Wageningen] we children received large slices of white bread liberally smeared with jam. And a piece of chocolate. And an orange. I had never seen or tasted either chocolate or an orange. Unforgettable, the taste of orange and chocolate. And chewing gum.”

“Well, yes, the war.”

Neither Heaven Nor Hell (III)

Part III


Today is the great day—four questions instead of three. And my tentative answers, of course.

7. Are the better angels of our nature taking over? Some people, especially the American psychologist Steven Pinker, think so. They point out that, relative to the global population, the number of people killed in war each year is decreasing; that in advanced countries the number of crimes committed per 100,000 people per year is much smaller than was historically the case; that the number of executions, especially such as are carried out in public, is likewise falling; and that torture, which in the past was often carried out in public and not without a certain pride, is used less often.

All this reminds me of a famous book, Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process. Elias, a German-Jewish sociologist who left Germany in 1933, made an argument quite similar to Pinker’s. The way he saw it, courteous social behavior originated in royal courts. From there it outwards, gradually causing the surrounding societies to become less uncouth than they had been. The volume was published in 1939—just before World War II broke out and, following perhaps fifty million dead, culminated in Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Enough, said.

Specifically, if the number of people killed in war is considerably smaller than it used to be then in my opinion this is due not to any moral advances but to the fear of proliferating nuclear weapons which has prevented large powers from waging large-scale war against other large powers. The decline in crime is probably related to the fact that Western civilizations are aging, with the result that the group most likely to commit it, i.e. males aged 17 to 25, is diminishing in number and in some cases almost literally disappearing. The decreasing number of executions and the declining use of torture—if, indeed, it is declining—may be due not to the spread of love and kindness but to sheer hypocrisy and, ultimately, cowardice. Finally, as the rise and careers of monsters such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tze Dong, Pol Pot, and their countless cronies and collaborators and assistants and followers remind us, we remain what we have always been. Namely, creatures capable of anything.

8. Is life becoming more predictable? Clearly if we are to build a better future we must have some idea of what the consequences of our actions may be as well as the general direction in which things are moving. The role of God, or providence, or accident, or luck, or chance, or fate, or fortune, in human affairs must be reduced; that of calculation and prudent foresight, increased.

It is true that most of us no longer trust in soothsayers, or prophecies, or crystal balls, or Tarot cards, or necromancy (though a surprisingly large number people continue to consult their horoscopes). Instead we employ “experts,” known, in the field of economics, as “analysts,” whose task is to construct models and identify trends. The more “data” and equations the models and the trends contain, the more scientific and the more reliable they are considered to be. But is there any real reason to think that our ability to look into the future has improved, say, since the Pythia at Delphi, sunk in a sort of stupor caused by gasses rising out of the earth, predicted that, if it came to war between Persia and Lydia, “a great kingdom” would be lost? Not if I judge by the fact that such events as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, or the 2008 recession, were almost entirely unexpected. Not if I judge by the example of President George Bush, Jr., and his advisers when they launched their Iraqi adventure back in 2003. And not if I do so by the repeated, often contradictory, utterances of Janet Yelenn as to whether the economy is or is not “recovering.”

Above all, the basic dilemma remains in force. Very often, a predictable future is one that can be averted or altered; as, for example, when we strengthen our home following a warning that a hurricane is about to strike. In other words, the very fact that we can look into the future is likely to cause that future to change.

Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him what your plans are.

9. Are we proceeding towards a singularity? The way I understand it, a singularity is an event so critical as to completely change the whole course of human history, rendering it irrelevant and bringing about a new start. As, for example, in case we make death lose its sting and start living forever; or when we first contact an extra-terrestrial civilization, especially one that is much more advanced than ourselves; or when our brains will be first replaced, then surpassed, by computers.

Some gurus, such as Google Technology Chief Ray Kurzweil, claim that we are going to see a singularity within the next few decades. For myself, my training as a historian makes me distrust such prognoses. Great and revolutionary events, such as the American or Russian Revolutions, never happen all at once. The same applies to scientific discoveries and technological inventions; let alone long-term processes such as “the agricultural revolution,” “the industrial revolution” and the like. All without exception had roots in the past, not seldom the fairly remote past. So deep were the “roots” of the revolution known as the Renaissance that some historians have tried to push them back all the way to the time of Charlemagne. In the vast majority of cases failure to realize this is simply a symptom of sloppy research. That explains why, for every work that set forth the magnitude of the changes brought about by of the French Revolution there was one which, like Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), pointed to the things that had not changed.

An excellent illustration of the way things work is provided by the history of aviation. When the first flying machines took off a little over a century ago most people considered them toys, entertaining, perhaps, but useless. Some inventors, including the Brothers Wright, were even accused of fraud. As aircraft became more capable and more numerous the doubts disappeared. More and more, they were seen as supplements to existing machines and existing methods. Next, the wind changed. Aviation became the most important thing in the world; taking the latter by storm, it would revolutionize every aspect of life to the point of making it unrecognizable. Slowly but surely, though, people got used to it—and as they did so they realized that, while many things had changed, many others remained more or less as they had been.

Similar stories could be told of any number of other inventions: such as railways, telegraphs, electric light, motor cars, radio, TV, antibiotics, computers, and Viagra. Who today remembers that, when the last-named hit the market in 1998, it was supposed to revolutionize social life by enabling old men to have young women and young women, to link their fate with rich old men even more often than now? Each invention went through the above-listed stages. Sooner or later—quite often, sooner rather than later—each one became integrated into “modern” life while at the same time leaving much of that life intact.  

10. Are we, as a species, going to evolve? Physically, given the short timeframe I have chosen to deal with, the answer is no. Biological evolution is a slow process; there is no question but that, mentally and physically our great-great-great grandchildren will resemble us no less than we resemble, say, the first “modern” humans who lived fifty thousand years ago.

We may, however, use other methods to change ourselves. First, given the enormous attention now being paid to tests designed to identify all kinds of defects and diseases and abort the fetuses who carry them before they emerge from the womb, future populations may well display fewer such defects and diseases. That was how the Nazis did it, albeit that for lack of the necessary medical technology they used to kill people after they were born rather than earlier in their development. Second, widespread use of sperm donors and artificial insemination might lead to the spreading of qualities the mothers consider desirable: such as size, strength, blond hair, blue eyes, and, for women, the kind of curves that have always formed, and still form, their principal means of attracting men. Average, though not exceptional, intelligence may also rise.

Third, we may reach the point where we can replace the genes of fertilized eggs so as to make future people more resistant to diseases or endow them with all sorts of desirable qualities. Fourth, we may turn into cyborgs—in the sense that we shall have more and more artificial devices implanted into our bodies so as to sustain or take over or enhance the latter’s functions. Fifth, some gurus claim that we may have our minds scanned, stored on some electronic devices, and activated so as to replace our physical selves and do away with us altogether.

In which case, as I said, there will be neither heaven nor hell.