Collective Guilt and the Third Reich

Someone recently sent me a short essay on the rise of the Third Reich, the History of World War II, and the Nazi mind-set that started it. Below I’ve excerpted from my rejection letter.

I’ll have to pass on this. It is one of the most written-about topics in the history of the Western World.

I don’t think we can reduce Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” or Hannah Arendt’s signature work “Totalitarianism” down to half a page.

The rise of Nazism was the result of several phenomena in deadly combination: group-think as you write, and also militarism, racial and ethnic hatred, a dysfunctional German economy thanks in no small part to the vengefully and poorly engineered Treaty of Versailles, the German turn to mysticism and determinism as the source of authority of the state, and a poisonous political apparatus gone viral … a certifiable national psychosis.

Any idea of a disease of shared history, a kind of collective racial guilt, will never fly at If there is any validity to some aspect of that notion at all, it is to be found in the trend to simplified effortless no-work answers, but the guilt of acceptance lies with individuals, not a race, nation or its leaders. Only individuals can empower tyrants and monsters. You and I are not responsible for Dachau, the Civil War, or Rick Santorum.

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History Snippets: Cradle-land of Battles

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

You have seen it all before, in Egypt’s disintegrating Middle Kingdom. The shifting dunes of time covered man’s works just as surely as the surf and incoming tide leave no trace of the child’s sand fortress on the shores …

Persepolis - from Elvis's weblog

“How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!” — David’s Lament for Saul and Jonathan

Cradle-land of Battles

This is about the world of Athens and Sparta in the time of the Battle of Marathon. Sparta did not participate in this battle, but later redeemed itself in the even more famous Battle of Thermopylae. We’ll not rehash those famous battles. We’ll instead seek a cameo snapshot of the people and their embattled civilizations of that time. For their contributions to what would become western civilization, we owe a great debt. In their failures, there may be great lessons yet to be fully realized.

The year was -490, or “490 BC” in the way we reckon years today. It was a time of contentious – should we say global? – preparations for the defense of a divided and vulnerable western world against the generals of the mighty Persian king, Darius.

“Global” meant known land masses within roughly a thousand miles of the Mediterranean, and perhaps included what little might have been known of a few lands even beyond that.

Darius has already conquered and subdued the Greek presence along all of the western shores of Asia, along and inland of the Aegean Sea. We don’t need to brush up on history to recognize many of the place names: Hellespont, Troy, Lesbos, Chios, Ionia, Sardis, Magnesia, Maeander River, Dorian Cities, Rhodes. Once a conquered city found itself paying tribute to the Persian superpower, life wasn’t bad. Stability and security were practically guaranteed. Trade, agriculture and commerce flourished in the Persian war-free zone. It was hard for the homeland Greek cities of the peninsula to win back the affection of those conquered Aegean city-states. Grecian by heritage, those conquered people felt no loyalty to an Athens which had betrayed and warred with them so many times in the past. Continue reading

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History Snippets: China

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

You have seen it all before, in Egypt’s disintegrating Middle Kingdom. The shifting dunes of time covered man’s works just as surely as the surf and incoming tide leave no trace of the child’s sand fortress on the shores …

In the world time frame around 500BC, early Greeks were not quite aware of it yet, but their civilization was about to confront a vast military struggle for the survival of a culture we today regard as “the western world”. They were only partially successful, because they always regarded conflict as having only a purely military solution.

Another part of the world was also beginning a massive territorial reshaping of its own, a struggle that would come in several waves, like Europe’s, of over two thousand years’ duration. In each world, that struggle would tear lives of the common people apart, and put them back together in ways pleasing to the ebb and flow of the ruling powers.

That land was China.

If equal attention were given to the written history of Asia and the Western World, China’s volume alone would dwarf all of the volumes for western Europe. China is the world’s longest continuous civilization. Continue reading

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History Snippets: Hydrogen Bomb

Hydrogen Bomb, Enewetak Atoll 1952

Hydrogen Bomb, Eniwetok Atoll, Marshall Islands 1952. “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer, known as “father of the hydrogen bomb.”

Previously we discussed natural disasters, setting the stage and scale for a glimpse at global man-made disaster. An obvious candidate is the hydrogen bomb.

The photo above is from an early US nuclear test, which vaporized the island where the device was detonated. A more powerful 1961 Russian device produced a fireball 5 miles in diameter, and a mushroom cloud rising to a height of 40 miles. The Soviets had also planned but scrubbed a larger-scale test, but their own scientists warned that the plane dropping the test bomb could never escape the blast. Further, fallout would not be constrained to the test area or even Soviet borders.  Cold-war testing the device had potential for starting a “hot war”.  The larger device was built and stockpiled, but never detonated.

The largest of these devices can kill directly and instantly beyond a radius of 100 miles – even with radar or satellite warning of a launch, there is no hope of escape. Rock underneath the blast area is turned to ash by the intense heat. Atomic weapons also kill, by fallout, many more victims outside the enormous blast areas..

Two more primitive and much weaker devices were used to incinerate enemy cities over 60 years ago, ending World War II. No one on the planet has ever used these devices in anger since. There is no popular support for use of weapons which, used in a full-scale exchange between opposing forces, will assuredly result in massive changes to the planet and the extinction of most of its life forms.

At peak burst power, the 1961 Russian test released 1.4% as much energy as the Sun in that same instant of time.

Paradoxically, the same principle by which bombs work as devices of destruction may someday be used to safely harness the fusion power of the sun to provide abundant heating, power and energy to all of mankind.

The total energy released by the largest hydrogen bombs cannot match nature’s average volcanoes, let alone supervolcanoes. Fallout from the man-made device can cause also climate change through “nuclear winters”, but lethal radiation poisoning over vast areas make the nuclear device a man-made doomsday candidate for extinction-class catastrophes. One man-made event, represented by a device that could fit into a very sturdy farmer’s ox-cart, might still rival the Santorini event in long-term destructive power.

It is easy to wish the devices had never been built, but the simple fact is that the physics became widely known prior to World War II. If the Nazi scientists had realized only a few kilograms of material are required, before the secret American war project, the outcome of history might have been dreadfully different.

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History Snippets: Battleships

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

In the 20th century we developed giant warships (now obsolete) we called “Battle Ships”. Weighing about 45,000 tons, with a waterline length of about 860 feet and a speed of about 64 kilometers per hour, these were the most heavily armed ships ever put to sea. The “Iowa class” vessels carried nine 16-inch guns, firing projectiles weighing around a ton up to 20 miles.

In World War II, battleships were found to be indefensibly vulnerable to attack by air. They were replaced, in a historical blink of the eye, by the aircraft carrier.

USS Missouri, Iowa class battleship

USS Missouri. The Iowa class battleship was constructed to a length of 887 feet, with a draft of about 29 feet. Click the image to see a larger picture, with enough detail to show sailors standing on the deck, which gives a better idea of the scale of this vessel. The Missouri weighed about 45,000 tons and carried a massive complement of guns described more fully in Wikipedia. After retrofitting in 1984 she carried 1,851 men and officers. Click the image to see a larger picture.

The USS Missouri served in World War II, the Korean War, the Gulf War and other hot spots throughout most of the 20th century. The historic signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender took place on board, signed by General Douglas MacArthur and Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, with numerous Allied military officials in attendance, on September 2, 1945.

The “Mighty Mo” was reactivated in 2984, outfitted with missiles and modern guidance systems to complement her 16-inch guns, and saw service the Gulf War, where she  served essentially as a seagoing gunnery island to soften up Iraqi positions inland.  She had also served in anti-piracy duty in the Persian Gulf, and must have been a massively imposing deterrent to Iranian-manned cigarette boats operating in the area.

Compare the ship above to the ancient Greek war trireme,  which was usually 120 feet or less in length with a draft (displacement) of about three feet of water.

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History Snippets: Cast-iron Cannon

“History Snippets” serializes small bits of research from an unfinished test project. The theme is technology and natural events that shaped our modern world.

Below is a cast-iron cannon mounted on a wooden carriage, typical of about the 18th century.

Small carriage cannon

Small carriage cannon Image from Wikipedia Common. Here we see a cast iron cannon on what might be a horse-drawn carriage.

What we don’t see is the mine that produced the iron ore, the foundry that smelted the iron and cast the blank for the cannon, or the factory that machined and finished the cannon and perhaps also cast the lead balls. We don’t see the industry that mined and refined the potassium nitrate, ground the sulfur and charcoal, and mixed the gunpowder.

To actually build such weapons first required learning how to heat large quantities of metal to temperatures earlier cultures could not yet attain.  Tools hard enough to cut and fashion the new metal had to be invented, shaping the parts to a precision for which the tools of measurement didn’t exist in earlier times … One could not simply master precision casting of a cast-iron or bronze barrel with a hollow bore. The bore had to be machined or polished to a sufficient smoothness to prevent the projectile from  sticking and blowing up both cannon and cannoneer.

The chain of productive innovation needed to set all this in motion would take the cooperation of a whole country or group of countries, and this would take centuries, not decades. Earlier city-states could rarely afford to develop such undertakings on their own. It is hard to grasp the full challenge of the required  technology infrastructure at first.

Ironically, countries that could best absorb the cost of large-scale military technology would be those that also excelled in the free trade of goods and services in peacetime. Conquistador-style looting, plunder and civilization-wrecking were essentially a static one-time transfer of  wealth by force, and could carry the enormous overhead of industrialization only so far.

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Getting Over It

We caught a TV sound bite last night from Senator John McCain. Topic: Vietnam. Message: “Get over it”.

McCain’s quote was tough to find via Google. Relevant links were paraphrased and densely interspersed with commentary. We found it in the Arizona Republic:

“I believe Bush served honorably. I believe Kerry served honorably. Let’s get over it, stop it now,” the Arizona Republican said. “We should be fighting this war [Iraq], not fighting the one that ended over 30 years ago.”

And now, stay tuned for commentary. “Get over it?” John, if we didn’t figure out Vietnam issues 30 years ago, what makes you think we get to say we have a handle on them this time around?

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Wrong News, Polysyllabic Professors

During a discussion of the war in Iraq, somebody commented that I must watch “the wrong news”. I’m not totally unfamiliar with the theory that having the right attitude begins with an exposure to the right news.

What would the “right news” be? I thought I’d surf the web. Starting with good old reliable William F. Buckley Jr. (National Review – founder and patron saint), I hit paydirt right away. I wrote back:

Actually I get most of my in-depth info from the New Yorker. Including, I think, my earlier note about Afghan women’s rights. I just can’t remember which issue.OK, so maybe the New Yorker isn’t the National Review, which says:“But just as millions of Americans were flat-out wrong about the urgency and necessity of fighting the Cold War, today there are millions of good and decent Americans who do not want to look the current enemy in the eye. They cling to polysyllabic professors who find clever ways to say the same dumb things over and over again. They look to America-detesting Europeans, mistaking cynicism for sagacity.” (4/23/2004 by Jonah Goldberg)

Give me polysyllabic professors every time. When it comes to looking current enemies in the eye, we should be pretty proficient, as we have so many of them. And what about the overachieving guy who votes to conscript his neighbor’s sons? If that’s not tough love, my name isn’t Chris Matthews. Hey, at least we should be grateful we have somebody to explain the tough decisions to us.


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The Big Questions

Everybody is talking about war these days. It is like re-living the 1960’s — and everyone is talking about THAT. World War II flashbacks are now part of our evening viewing of the TV show JAG. Death and dying are again in the forefront of the American consciousness.

Below are some observations about this from some notes to a friend.
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“And Fala Hates Wah”

“I hate war, Eleanor hates war, and our dog, Fala, hates war” – attributed to FDR, 1941.

I heard from the friend who sent the Kerry/Fonda picture yesterday. Not only are we still speaking but find we are not poles apart after all. And she says she heard the picture may be doctored. No matter. Friendships were lost in the 1960’s over these issues. I hope it does not have to happen all over again 40 years later.

Excerpts from personal observations I shared in my reply:
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