Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity

Weinstein and A. Zakai, Jewish Exiles and European Thought in the Shadow of the Third Reich: Baron, Popper, Strauss, Auerbach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

What did Hans Baron, Karl Popper, Leo Straus, and Erich Auerbach have in common? All four were born between 1892 and 1902. Culturally speaking, all were Jewish Germans, or German Jews (take your pick). All were brilliant intellectuals, and all were forced to flee after Hitler’s ascent to power. Baron to the U.S, Popper to New Zealand and later to England, Straus and Auerbach to the U.S (the latter, after a spell in Turkey.) And all did some of their most important work by way of a reaction to the fate that had overtaken them and their fellow religionists—which, of course, is not surprising.

Baron was primarily a historian who specialized in the Italian Renaissance. The way he understood it, early on that Renaissance was optimistic and forward looking. Did not the Humanists cast off the chains of the “dark” (a much later expression, of course) and superstitious Middle Ages? Didn’t they seek, with some success, to restore the lost glories of ancient Greece and Rome? But wait. From 1494 onward Italy, with Florence as its cultural epicenter, found itself overrun by barbarians—Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Germans—who treated it as little better than part of the stamping ground on which they fought for hegemony in Europe. To Machiavelli and others, the resulting enormous bloodshed and destruction required a reassessment of history. One that would take it away from a forward march and emphasize its more realistic, political and military, side; storia effetuale, as he called it. For Baron, the parallel with Hitler was obvious. So was the need to reassess, in the light of National Socialism, not just Renaissance history but the direction which the whole of Western history was taking.

Karl Popper, who of the four is the one with whose work I personally am most familiar, is perhaps best remembered for his 1934 volume, The Logic of Scientific Discovery. In some ways following in the footsteps of David Hume, he argued that science, resting as it does on experiment, extrapolation and induction, can never attain absolute certainty; hence, that the only way forward is by showing that existing theories are not true. In Popper’s favor it must be said that his seems to be the only theory of science ever to have raised the interest of practicing research scientists. Here and there a few of the latter have even claimed that he greatly influenced their work.

Weinstein and Zakai, however, are primarily interested in another of Popper’s books, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). As the title indicates, the author’s purpose was to trace the roots of Hitler’s totalitarian state as far back as possible, in this case to Plato’s Republic. Personally I find Popper’s attack on Plato unfair and unwarranted. But that does not change the fact that his work, like that of the other three, was decisively shaped by Popper’s own experiences—precisely the aspect that most interests Weinstein and Zakai.

Strauss, I am proud to say, was as critical of Popper as I (and my revered teacher, Prof. Alexander Fuks), am. “Popper,” Strauss wrote, “is philosophically so uncultured, so fully a primitive ideological brawler, that he is not able even approximately to reproduce correctly the contents of one page of Plato.” Strauss himself was primarily interested in the age-old interaction between the rational and the irrational. The rational was represented by Socrates with his relentless, and often very annoying, questioning of everything. Gaining the upper hand through Hobbes, Spinoza and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, it reached the point where it admitted no one and nothing above itself. On the way, morality and religion were reduced to a means for keeping people in their place and leading them by the nose. As a result, when Hitler and his storm troopers, whom Strauss understood as the culmination of irrationalism, appeared on the scene, it had no intellectual tools left to oppose them with.

Finally, it was during his years of exile in Istanbul (1935-47), that Auerbach produced his widely acknowledged masterpiece, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Here he put forward the idea that Western literature, starting with Greece and Rome and leading all the way to Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf, could be divided into two main groups: that which started with the works of Homer, especially the Odyssey, and that which went back to the Bible. The former relied mainly on rhetoric, which meant that it could only treat certain topics in carefully prescribed ways. The latter was less flowery but also more realistic, more diverse, and more concerned with the fate of common people. What the Nazis—always, it seems a fertile source of ideas, in the sense that they literally compelled others to think and think again—did was to do away with the Bible, especially, but by no means only, the Old Testament. You can guess where Hitler fitted into this scheme.

As anyone who has read some of Weinstein and Zakai’s earlier work knows, they are fine historians. Their presentation of the above four scholars, complete with their often complex background, their reactions to their fate and that of others, and their interactions among themselves is far more nuanced than this short review can relate and makes for fascinating reading. As the authors fully recognize, though, it also raises, or rather re-raises in particularly sharp form, the age-old question. Is “objective” thought possible at all? Or is thought, all thought, no more than a thin veneer for our own experiences and prejudices? Suppose, as our authors clearly imply, that we answer the first question with yes and the second, with a no: in that case, what is the point of it all?

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. It is almost certainly no accident that Weinstein, Zakai and Yours Truly are all old and retired. For those of you who are younger, though, the book is highly recommended.

Male and Female*

As many readers know, I have spent part of my career as a historian doing my modest best to understand the relationship between men and women. The outcome, so far, has been two scholarly books—Men, Women and War and The Privileged Sex. Between them they were published in five languages. As well as numerous articles in scholarly and not so scholarly journals and magazines; some of which I have put on this blog.

That explains why I keep receiving quite a few emails on the topic. Some correspondents call me names, among which a reactionary patriarchal-male-chauvinist-racist-pig-who-does-not-deserve-to-live is one of the more sympathetic. Others, apparently in the belief that anyone who does not accept the feminists’ claims in their entirety must be out of his mind, try to psychoanalyze me. And some simply dispute my views.

The first and second categories I routinely ignore. The third I rather enjoy; to quote Epicurus, what is better than discussing things with friends? If possible, while sitting in a garden (mine is small, but it will do for the purpose) and enjoying a glass of wine. Over the Net, if it is not. As long as it is done in the spirit of inquiry and without rancor.

Sticking to the enjoyable kind, most of them point out how much things have changed. As, for example, with women now forming the majority among students and getting better notes both at school and at the universities. And as with women abandoning marriage, children and household to take up all kinds of careers.

Here, to the contrary, I want to point to a few things that have not changed. Needless to say, all references to men and women apply to averages. Meaning that they say very little about individual people of either sex.

* For reasons unknown, proportionally twice as many women as men visit psychologists, faith healers, etc. What that means about their state of mental health, past, present and future, I leave it to readers to decide.

* Women suffer from penis envy (see my post, PE? PE!, 16.6.2016) whereas men, whatever other problems they may have, do not. As a result, women believe that whatever men are and do is better than what they themselves are and do. Proceeding chronologically, more or less, if men have the vote women must have it too. If men get a higher education, women must do so too. If men drive, women must drive too. If men smoke, women must smoke too. If men are wage slaves, women must aspire to become the same. The more the better! If men go to war, then women must do so too. To use an example from my own people, if Jewish men wear tales, Jewish women must do so too. Or else, they feel, there is something missing from their Jewishness.

* Always imitating men—as Marx wrote, whenever revolution comes women, the ugly ones included, are swept along—rarely do women initiate any important discovery or invention. Even the term feminism itself was coined by a man! That is why, though a minority of dissatisfied and aggressive women were able to inflict the vote on the rest and make them work outside the home, they have contributed nothing new to the solution of the world’s problems.

* It is also why, the more modern and innovative an industry the fewer the women who work in it, especially at the higher levels. Also why, as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has just said, men continue to rule the world. Conversely, the presence, beyond a certain point, of women at the higher ranks of any kind of human institute or organization is itself a sign that the institute or organization in question has started to decline and may soon become moribund.

* Women—real women, not emaciated nervous wrecks, desperate not to develop precisely the physical characteristics that distinguish them from men—give birth, whereas men do not. To speak with Nietzsche, the latter are “the infertile sex.” The resulting existential problems do much to account for men’s stronger drive to achieve, as manifested throughout history.

* Partly because they are stronger, physically, and partly because they do not have to take time off for pregnancy, delivery, and lactation, men’s income is considerably greater than that of women. Retirement apart—so many successful men, dying before their wives, leave them their property and their pension—the older people of both sexes are, the larger the gap. Not just in terms of money, but in those of power and fame as well.

* Today as ever, the higher on the greasy pole one climbs. the fewer women one meets. Proportionally more of those one does meet are where they are because they stand on the shoulders of their male relatives, as Sirimavo Bandaranaike (the first female prime minister in history), Indira Gandhi, Corazon Aquino, and Hillary Clinton e.g. did. Or else because they are active in fields, such as modelling, singing, and acting, where men, as men, are excluded.

* Is it necessary to point out that men, apart from being stronger, are also more resistant to infectious diseases that result from dirt entering the body’s orifices? This explains why, at all times and places the hardest, dirtiest, and most dangerous work has always been done almost exclusively by men. As figures concerning industrial accidents show, this continues to be the case today.

* Since women can have far, far fewer children than men, biologically speaking their lives are more precious. Much as feminists cry out for their sisters’ right to become soldiers and fight, no society, on pain of extinction, can afford to lose large numbers of women. That is one reason why men—and, in some nonhuman species, males—keep sacrificing their lives for women; whereas the opposite only happens very rarely. Also why very, very few women have ever fought in war. True, the number of those who did so in uprisings, rebellions, insurgencies, etc. was somewhat larger. However, in all countries without exception it still remains far smaller than that of men.

* Women who have sex with men, being considerably weaker than their partners, put themselves at the latter’s mercy. That, rather than a weak libido, is why they require greater security, both physical and emotional. The difference in strength also explains why, outside the bedroom they are more likely than men to rely on cunning and flattery. If those two don’t work they are also more likely to complain, open the tear-faucet, and show a bit of cleavage.

* Men, producing almost inconceivably large number of spermatozoids each of which is capable of fertilizing an egg, are naturally polygamous; women, producing far fewer eggs but requiring assistance in raising their children, are naturally monogamous. That is why polyandrous societies are rare indeed. Also why attempts, and there have been a few, to set up brothels for women have invariably failed.

Conclusion: Some things have undoubtedly changed. But others, including many of the most important ones, have not. Nor do I see any signs that they will.


* Thanks to Mr. Larry Kummer, whose post on this topic made me think. Really think.

Book of the Month

B. Bueno de Mesquita and A. Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics, New York, NY, Public Affairs, 2011

From time to time, as if by some miracle, one has the pleasure of coming across a good book on political science. A book, say, like Kautilya’s Arthashastra (The Science of Politics) which goes back to the third century BCE. Or Machiavelli’s Prince, which was ritten in 1512. Or, to mention a modern example, Edward Luttwak’s 1969 volume, Coup d’Etat. A book whose author does not content himself with trying to answer abstract questions such as what the origins of government are, what it is, why it is needed, what its purpose is, what its elements are, how it has developed through history, how it is constructed, what kinds of government there are, etc. etc. But one that offers practical advice on what is almost the only thing that matters: namely, how to gain as much power as possible and keep it for as long as possible.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have written such a book. Right from the beginning, they make it clear that their work is about power, not the glory of God, or morality, or how to improve the lot of the governed. For them (as for George Orwell in 1984, incidentally), the objective of power is power; something which rulers have known and understood since time immemorial, but which philosophers, academics, and assorted do-gooders tend to overlook. Forget about religion, philanthropy, justice, equality, liberty, fraternity (fraternity!), ideology, community, and similar soft-headed fancies. They exist, if they do, in order to serve power, not the other way around. At best they may adorn it; but only fools believe they form its essence.

As the authors, following Thomas Hobbes, say, the key point is that no one is so strong that two or three others, joining together, cannot overcome him. In other words, no man can govern alone; he, much less often she, needs supporters. Simplifying a little, this means that there only exist two forms of government. In one, which throughout history has been the most common by far, the man at the top must make a relatively small number of key supporters happy in order to keep the majority of people in check. In the other, which historically has been far less common, the benefits of government are distributed among a far larger number of people. The former is known as autocracy, the latter, as democracy. As Machiavelli, speaking of aristocrats versus commoners, says, government consists of a balancing-act between the two groups. Anyone who forgets that is lost.

Having erected this framework the authors use it, in my view very effectively, in order to answer a whole range of questions. If dictatorships are often poor that is because, by extracting the resources in question, they discourage people from working and producing. If dictatorships have an abysmal human rights record that is not, at any rate not necessarily, because dictators are bad people. It is because, in order to survive, they have to extract as many resources as possible from the majority of the people so as to pay off their supporters. If natural resources-rich dictatorships often have the worst human rights record of all, that is because, controlling the resources in question, the number of supporters they must bribe is even smaller than in other regimes of the same kind.

If dictatorships are bad at coping with natural disasters—as, for example, the military government of Burma was when it allowed over a hundred thousand people to die in the aftermath of a cyclone—then that is because they tend to divert any outside aid they may get to their own supporters. If revolutions devour their children, as the saying goes, then that is because the dictators whom they bring to power fear, often not without reason, that those “children” could use the same tactics as they themselves did.

If democracies rarely fight one another, that is because the people at the bottom—who, under this kind of regime, do have a voice—seldom have much to gain from war. The same consideration also makes democracies wary of casualties; if their rulers do not care for the dead and the injured, at any rate they are forced to put on a pretense, attend funerals, stand to attention, shed crocodile tears, etc.

Yet do not deceive yourself. Democracies are not necessarily peaceful. Precisely by virtue of being democratic, they simply cannot stand the idea that someone does not like them or share their alleged values. As Franklin Lane, who was President Wilson’s secretary of the interior, once put it: “If the torch of liberty fades or fails, ours be the blame.” Off with the Kaiser’s head! From ancient Athens through the French Revolution to the USA, there are few things democracies like doing better than beating down on small, weak dictatorships. Just ask Kim Jong un.

Briefly, it is all a question of who supports whom and what resources he or she is allocated in return. Morally speaking, democratic rulers are no better, no less inclined to doing whatever they can to cling to power, than their autocratic colleagues. The one difference is that the former rely on the many to keep the few in check; the latter do the opposite. In return, democrats provide some public goods: such as roads, education, healthcare, and, most important of all, the kind of stable legal framework people need in order to work and to prosper. This basic fact, and not ideology or people’s personal qualities, shapes the nature of the governments they form and lead.

Though oversimplified at times, the volume is a real eye-opener. All the more so because it deals, implicitly if not explicitly, not merely with states but with every kind of hierarchical organization: including churches, corporations, trade unions, and what have you. And all the more so because, in the end, all it deals with are things as they have always been, and are, and will always remain.

Lazy Hazy Days of Summer

Once upon a time, a little less than eight decades ago, one of the things the German air force was famous for was the speed with which it could and did push forward its bases. First in Norway, where fighters actually landed on, and took off from, frozen lakes even as the campaign was proceeding. Passing through the French campaign; even before the armistice was signed on 25 July 1940, Luftwaffe units, operating from newly captured Norwegian, Dutch, and French bases had started to turn their attention towards England. Later the same speed and determination were evident both in North Africa and Russia.

Though distances were measured in thousands, rather than hundreds, of kilometers, the campaigns in Norway and North Africa were relatively small. Not so those waged in the West and Russia. The latter in particular was the largest in history, dwarfing anything that came before or after. To focus on the Luftwaffe, thousands of aircraft, tens of thousands of men, and hundreds of thousands of tons of equipment had to be redeployed. Often repeatedly so as the Panzers advanced and the Blitzkrieg unfolded.

Captured enemy airfields, many of them rather primitive, had to be reconnoitered and re-equipped. Others had to be constructed from scratch. Sheds for repair and maintenance had to be erected. Communications-networks had to be established. Fuel, spare parts and ammunition had to be brought forward, stored, and secured as best conditions allowed. A weather service had to be installed. Shelters, however improvised, had to be built for crews, all sorts of ground personnel, and commanders. Often anti-aircraft defenses had to be provided as well—this, after all, was a real war in which some airstrips were located as little as 25 kilometers behind the front and, occasionally, exposed to enemy action.

All this, without the benefit of modern transport aircraft. The Luftwaffe’s workhorse, the famous “Tante” Ju-52, could only carry 17-18 men. It had an operational radius of less than 500 kilometers and a maximum speed of just under 200 kilometers per hour. And all this, against the background of a chronic shortage of motorized vehicles of all kinds. A shortage which, on the eve of Operation Yellow, the code name under which the invasion of the West was known, had forced the Wehrmacht to start replacing many of its trucks by horse-drawn vehicles.

And today? Here is what Zeitonline, a website run by one of Germany’s most respected newspapers, has to say about the matter. The date is 17 June 2017, the translation and the material in square brackets are mine.

“Bundesrepublik minister of defense Ursula von der Leyen (Christian Democratic Union) has presented a timetable for moving the German air contingent from Turkey’s Incirlik air base to Jordan. ‘Until the end of June we shall remain part and parcel of the anti-Daesh coalition,’ she told the newspaper Bild am Sontag.’ Then we shall move the tankers to Jordan as quickly as we can.” From that point on our troops will operate from the Jordanian base of al Asrak, not far from the southern border of Syria.

The tankers will only take a few days to start operations, probably towards the middle of July. ‘Moving the Tornadoes and the complex equipment needed to support photo-air reconnaissance [the German aircraft are not equipped to participate in combat, and in any case Daesh has no air force and no serious anti-aircraft defenses of any kind] is more difficult,’ said the minister. It will take two months, from August to [the end of] September [the entire French campaign only took six weeks, MvC]. From October on the reconnaissance-Tornadoes will recommence operations according to plan. The most important considerations are shortening the transition-time as much as possible and the safety of Germany’s troops.” Against what? One asks. Suicide bombers? The oh-so great temptations of Amman’s famous nightlife?

Never mind that the entire mission, such as it is, could have been carried out by drones to better effect and at a fraction of the cost. Now guess how many troops, how many tankers, and how many Tornado aircraft we are talking about here.

Answer: 280, one, and six respectively.