The Hiroshima Psychosis

68 years ago today, the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Here are some rare photos of the mushroom cloud:

The physical after-effects of radiation were certainly devastating, but the bomb also took its psychological toll, as Robert Jay Lifton’s excellent book “Death in Life” (1967) shows. Based on interviews with more than a hundred survivors, Lifton claims the bomb left survivors psychologically damaged in very unique ways. Beyond the trauma created by death and destruction, it led to what Lifton calls “A-Bomb Neurosis”. Since the after-effects of radiation could kick in years later and take various forms, survivors lived in constant fear and became preoccupied with bodily concerns. Another issue was the widespread sense of being tainted by radiation, leading many survivors to effectively remove themselves from society.

Lifton’s main point is this: The destructive power of the A-bomb can’t just be measured in physical terms. “Death in Life” was one of the first and arguably the most important work of psychological history. It reminds us that nuclear arsenals not only have the power to destroy the world several times over, but also to turn everyone of us into a paranoid maniac.


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Gopnik on self-defence laws

Great piece on Lincoln and the history behind Florida’s so-called Stand Your Ground law:

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JFK and the Germans

Here’s an article I wrote on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s speech in Frankfurt:

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“People, Russia, Putin”

Those who suspect that Vladimir Putin is trying to become a modern Tsar can hardly have been surprised by the language used at last week’s re-inauguration of the Russian Popular Front in Moscow. The Front is a political movement created by Putin and evidently intended to emancipate the President from his immensely unpopular party United Russia. When Putin entered the room, the crowd let out the pre-fabricated chant “People, Russia, Putin”. The slogan was quite obviously derived from the Tsarist motto “Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality”, which outlined the system of political legitimacy back in the day.

Autocracy is now replaced with Putin, signalling who is boss. Nationality is replaced with the more exclusive and definite term Russia. This is evidence of the fact that Russia is trying to become more of a nation state for Russians and less of a multinational country. These two terms thus seem to indicate that the form of legitimacy Putin is seeking may not be fundamentally different from Tsarist times.

However, the replacement of Orthodoxy with People shows the crucial difference between Putin and the Tsars. While the old rulers could claim that they were appointed by God and had a right to rule no matter they did, Putin’s legitimacy is still based on whether he is perceived to promote the interests of the people. His approval ratings will be high only as long as things seem to be improving.

This is a huge problem for Putin. He has created a system that is very successful at maintaining vertical power structures and keeping the opposition down. But is corrupt, inefficient, and will never be able to deliver the progress Russians are demanding in the long term. Perhaps his crusade against Pussy Riot and his blasphemy laws are first attempts to use religion the way Tsars did. But unless he somehow manages to convince Russians that he is appointed by God, his rule will soon lose its legitimacy.

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Why revolutions hardly ever represent the will of the people – and why we stubbornly think they do

Popular revolutions around the world have recently disappointed all those among us who are hoping for an expansion of democracy or civil liberties. They have either failed completely (Russia), produced governments that are hardly better than their predecessors (Egypt, Tunisia) or ended in a lengthy civil war (Syria). But this hasn’t stopped the Western public from getting its hopes up over the protests in Turkey. Our media portray the protests as an uprising of “the people”, presumably a uniform and freedom-loving entity, against an authoritarian ruler.

 This common equalization of protesters and people is perhaps at the crux of our misunderstanding of most revolutions. There are very few revolutions or uprisings in history that really saw a participation of “the people”. In most cases, revolutionaries were nothing more and nothing less than particular interest groups. If we recognize this, we have a far greater chance of understanding what’s going on in Turkey right now.

 The Turkish situation is perhaps most similar to the protests against the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin in Russia in late 2011. Back then, Western commentators were quick to spot an imminent revolution and an overthrow of the Russian ruling elite. Instead, Vladimir Putin won the Presidential election of 2011 by a landslide, without even having to cheat very much (as he had in the parliamentary elections). The simple truth that dawned on everyone was this: The protesters in Moscow had been educated, westernized and comparatively wealthy. As such, they were not the people, but only a small minority in a large population that has shown little interest in democracy to this date.

 Egypt is a similar case. During the protests western newspapers printed numerous portraits of young, urban Egyptians who demanded democracy and civil rights. In the end, Egyptians elected a repressive, Islamist president. As it turned out, those portrayed to us as “the people” were only a minority.

 But what about the classics – the Russian, French and American revolutions? The Russian February revolution of 1917 may have had popular backing in the sense that few people were content with the government, but it was essentially an urban affair, while the rural majority of Russia remained uninvolved.  The October Revolution is a more extreme example: It was an uprising of such a small part of the population that many historians prefer to call it a coup.

 The French Revolution of 1848 was dominated by radicals and took place primarily in Paris. When the revolutionaries held elections across the country, the rural majority elected conservatives who orchestrated a quick return to monarchy. The first French Revolution of 1789 was an uprising of “the people” only as long as the demands were some form of popular representation and land reform. When republicans overthrew the monarchy in 1792, they quickly found that they only had a part of the population behind them. A civil war followed.

 I could list a dozen more examples. In order to be successful, revolutions need a common purpose and some form of organisation (At the very least everyone needs to take to the streets on the same day). Both are very hard to achieve over an entire country, but easy to achieve among a comparatively homogenous and concentrated urban population. This is why it can hardly be surprising that most revolutions in history were backed by urbanites, but faced with a hostile or at least indifferent rural majority. Revolutions were more often oppressive than liberating.

 With this historical track record in mind, our first thought upon hearing about the protests in Istanbul should have been: Here is another progressive urban minority trying to impose its will on a predominantly conservative country. And yet we all instantly assumed that the protesters represented the popular will, that is to say the majority. Why is that?

 The explanation I propose is that we have unconsciously gobbled up the American myth. The American Revolution is the only major uprising I know of that actually represented the interests of the clear majority of the population. This has a lot to do with the modesty of the revolutionary agenda in 1776. Since parliamentary democracy was already in place in the colonies, the revolutionaries essentially said: We’ll keep everything the way it is, but let’s not pay taxes to Britain anymore. Who would oppose that?

Because of the character of its revolution, the American public consciousness has always equated “revolution” with “the people”. Everyone else has followed suit. Revolutionaries in other countries, from France to Russia, have always claimed to represent the people because it gives their cause legitimacy. Those who weren’t directly involved often equated the two terms because doing so turned a complicated situation into a nice and simple fight between good and evil.

 Our American perspective on revolutions and protests is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, it gives us the comforting hope that mankind is progressive and heading in what we consider to be the right direction. But as long as we see revolutions not as what they are, but as what we want them to be, we need to be prepared for eventual disappointment.

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Acemoglu on Taksim

Famed developmental economist Daron Acemoglu takes the longer view on the protests in Istanbul and explains why democratic institutions aren’t an inevitable consequence of economic development. Quite thought-provoking.

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Jews in the Red Army – NYTimes

A large number of Jews fought againts Hitler as Soviet soldiers. In light of postwar-antisemitism in the USSR, it is easy to forget the Red Army was the only fighting force in Eastern Europe that welcomed Jews into its ranks as equals (at least in theory). It is quite tragic that those Jews who risked their lives for the Soviet cause in World War II ended up being driven out of their homeland by discriminatory policies after 1945. Here’s a short but intriguing piece on Soviet-Jewish veterans of World War II in the US:

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Reading Tip

Benjamin Schwarz’s historical take on why male charm is apparently such a rare thing in the US. I am not sure if it is useful to treat charm as a well-defined, timeless character trait, as Schwarz seems to do. But an interesting line of thought nonetheless. Taken from The Atlantic’s June issue.

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Why the red line in Syria is not where Obama says it is, and why it has long been crossed

It may seem logical that Barack Obama declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s Civil War a “red line“ that would warrant intervention. Most people take it for granted that ABC-type arms are worse than conventional ones, and that their use constitutes nothing short of a war crime. They have a point. After all, chemical weapons can kill far more people than conventional ones and make it harder to differentiate between combatants and civilians.

And yet, there is something fundamentally wrong with this argument. The weakness of Obama’s red line is not its acknowledgment that chemical weapons are bad, but its implicit assumption that using them automatically makes a warring party more violent and inhumane. Is it worse to kill thousands of civilians with chemical weapons than to kill them with cluster bombs? I don’t see why it would be.

The Syrian government and certain parts of the rebels have been murdering civilians for two years now (Recently, the New Yorker had a chilling piece on massacres in Aleppo, Some of the worst atrocities in human history have been committed with conventional arms, think of the Rwandan genocide or the mass murder of Soviet Jews at the hands of the Wehrmacht in 1941. These acts would not have been any more or less horrible if chemical weapons had been involved. My point is this: If Obama’s concern is the wellbeing of civilians, he should intervene when they are being killed in large numbers, irrespective of the type of weapon used. By this logic the US military should have gotten boots on the ground a long time ago.

Rather than focus on chemical weapons, a quick look at military history suggests that the red line in Syria lies somewhere else, and has long been crossed. What matters most in Syria’s civil war is not the type of weapons used, but the mindset of the combatants.

David Bell’s book The First Total War and James Whitman’s The Verdict of Battle both argue that warfare became fundamentally more drawn-out, brutal and deadly in Europe some time around the year 1800. Before then, wars were relatively brief and had fewer casualties. The beginning of a new kind of warfare, which both authors call total war, was not the result of new weapon technologies, but of a change in thinking. In the 18th century, wars were fought over disputed territories and usually ended with one side ceding a certain region to the other. Total annihilation of the opponent was out of the question, and while boundaries moved around, monarchies remained stable.

In the wake of the French revolution, an ideological shift occurred that made an end this aristocratic culture of war. Ideals of pacifism and popular sovereignty meant that it became increasingly difficult for rulers to justify going to war. Out of this dilemma emerged the concept of the just war: Fighting was only acceptable under exceptional circumstances against a truly evil enemy that posed an existential threat. And if the enemy was truly evil, a desirable end to a war could only be the enemy’s complete annihilation.

From the 19th century on wars became increasingly rare, but also more drawn-out and deadly. World War I was propagated as “The war to end all wars”, a final clash between barbarous Huns and Western democracy, which was precisely what made a quick armistice impossible. World War II came to embody the new total war in its worst form. Hitler’s belief that Germany would either destroy and enslave its enemies or go down in ruins led to tens of millions of deaths between 1941 and 1945. The US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq under George W. Bush are another case in point. Both aimed not at a settlement, but at a complete removal of the enemy. More than ten years after the invasions, an end to the violence still isn’t in sight.

Which brings me back to Syria. The fighting crossed its red line when both warring parties stopped seeing any possible end to the war apart from either death or complete destruction of the enemy: when the civil war became a total war. The process that led to this shift was gradual. From the very beginning, the Syrian rebels were fighting for nothing less than the removal of Bashar al-Assad. Similarly, the dictator made it quite clear that he had little interest in serious negotiations or a truce. Nevertheless, a quick solution to the war was still far from impossible. This changed with the escalation of violence. As more and more soldiers were ordered to massacre opponents by an increasingly desperate regime, their fate became tied to the survival of Assad’s rule.

Many government troops know that they are held responsible for the regime’s atrocities and cannot expect any pardon if the rebels emerge victorious. In consequence, they are more likely to fight with indiscriminate brutality, knowing that their survival depends on it. The same logic applies to the rebels. The longer the war lasts and the more government officials are assassinated, the less the insurgents can expect to come out of this conflict alive if they lose. As the desire to avenge the dead pushes the wish to end the conflict as quickly as possible aside, a truce becomes almost impossible.

A foreign military intervention that shifts the momentum of the war against the government will do more harm than good here. If Assad’s followers see themselves with their backs against the wall, unable to expect either victory or pardon, they will react with more and more brutality. Total wars have a tendency to cause the most casualties at their very end, when one side has nothing to lose. During World War II more people died in Europe in 1944 alone than in 1941, 1942 and 1943 taken together. It is not far-fetched to expect a similar dynamic in Syria.

Those who are optimistic about a quick outcome to the Syrian Civil War often point to Libya, where rebels were able to overthrow Gaddafis’s government with Western military help in a matter of months. But the way the Libyan rebels succeeded highlights precisely why a similar outcome cannot be expected in Syria. Far more important than the intervention of France and Britain was the fact that several heads of Libyan clans chose to change sides and fight against their former ally Gaddafi. That they were able to make this choice shows that their fate was not inevitably tied to the survival of the regime. In other words: There was a third option available besides defeating the rebels alongside Gaddafi or going down with the regime.

In Syria, this third option no longer exists. Even if the Alawites, the religious group that is most closely associated with the regime, had clan leaders, and even if they formally chose to switch sides, they could hardly expect the rebels to welcome them. This is not to say that no defections are possible. Many of Assad’s supporters could conceivably start fighting for the rebels, who would welcome more support. But many more have every reason to believe that their fate is tied to that of the regime, be it because they are personally known for crimes they have committed, or because their old military unit or religious affiliation guarantees the rebels’ mistrust.

A foreign military intervention may speed up the fall of the regime, but, if military history is any indication, may lead to many more civilian casualties as the regime desperately struggles for survival. Instead, the best way to save civilians’ lives is by artificially re-creating the third way out that the course of the war has destroyed. Granting Assad exile has been suggested, but doing so won’t solve the problem by itself. What is needed is an amnesty and possible exile for all those who see their fate as tied to that of the regime and have reason to fear for their lives or livelihoods in the event of a rebel victory.

This would be a bold and difficult measure, since it would entail finding a new home abroad for tens if not hundreds of thousands of Syrians. But considering how easily leaders embark on military interventions, a general amnesty would prove far less costly in financial and most certainly in human terms.

It is far from clear if such a programme would work, but it is certainly worth a try. Day by day, regime troops and rebels are fighting for their lives. Compared to that, the international community has very little to lose.

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On Not Blaming Putin

Throughout his three terms as Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin has always found clever ways to use media coverage for his advantage. Whether he is shown wrestling, hunting tigers or riding with his shirt off, everything is done to leave Russians with the impression that their President is a strong and fearless leader. About ten days ago, the following news reached the US-press:

In a video that was putatively leaked, posted on a pro-government website and later shown on a state television news channel, Mr. Putin was shown berating the ministers in harsh language, saying they must do more to fulfill his election pledges on social policy. “If we fail to do it, it means that either I’m ineffective or you are, and I tend to believe the latter,” he said.” (WSJ, April 17)

It is fairly obvious that the video was planted rather than leaked, and intended to bolster Putin’s popularity. The message is clear: The President is doing all he can and has everyone’s best interest at heart. If things are going wrong, it has to be the fault of incompetent bureaucrats. What makes this message so effective is that it builds on a tendency to not blame leaders for government failure that has been fostered in Russian collective consciousness for hundreds of years.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Tsar was revered by large parts of the peasant population as god-like. Any crises and hated government policies were generally attributed to evil advisers and ministers. After all, the thinking went, the Tsar himself wanted only the best for his people and surely had no idea what policies ministers maliciously implemented in his name.

Stalin built on this tradition in the 1930s. Whenever one of his policies backfired, he swiftly blamed it on overzealous followers or supposed foreign agents in the state apparatus. Most famously, he had Nikolai Ezhov, head of the Secret Service during the great purges, tried and executed, claiming that the mass killings were entirely his doing. They weren’t, Stalin had signed off on them, but blaming unpopular policies on someone else worked. Many letters from the time testify that people honestly believed that Stalin had no idea about the horror going on in the country. The purges themselves were officially justified by arguing that Stalin’s wise policies had been sabotaged by foreign agents, who had to be removed.

Today Putin is following the pattern and surveys show that people are buying his message. While his party is highly unpopular and generally blamed for the sluggish progress in the still impoverished country, Putin’s approval ratings are comparatively high.

In most Western states, people tend to blame their heads of government for almost everything that goes wrong, often even for those things that are beyond her or his control. In Russia, a large part of the population does the opposite. Rather than blaming Putin for his terrible record, they prefer to believe in their strong leader and instead see his party and the bureaucracy as the problem. This is not to say that this state of mind is universal. Many Russians criticise Putin for his failures, as the protests of late 2011 show. Yeltsin and Gorbachev have been blamed by many for their ill-fated reforms and few people today think Stalin was completely innocent. And yet, there is a certain popular tendency to adore a leader while despising his ministers. The explanation for this can be found in Russian history.

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