a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Elend, Wut wachsen in Südeuropa (Misery, rage grow in Southern Europe)

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 15th November 2012

Debt kills.  Well, ruthless debt punishment kills:

As the head of Greece’s largest oncology department, Dr. Kostas Syrigos thought he had seen everything. But nothing prepared him for Elena, an unemployed woman whose breast cancer had been diagnosed a year before she came to him.  By that time, her cancer had grown to the size of an orange and broken through the skin, leaving a wound that she was draining with paper napkins. “When we saw her we were speechless,” said Dr. Syrigos, the chief of oncology at Sotiria General Hospital in central Athens. “Everyone was crying. Things like that are described in textbooks, but you never see them because until now, anybody who got sick in this country could always get help.

Elena’s still alive, no thanks to the Troika of course.  Dimitris Christoulas isn’t:

A picture of the man who has come to embody the inequities of Greece‘s financial crisis has begun to emerge, with friends and neighbours shedding light on the life of the elderly pensioner who killed himself in Athens on Wednesday.

Named as Dimitris Christoulas by the Greek media, the retired pharmacist was described as decent, law-abiding, meticulous and dignified.

The 77-year-old had written in his one-page, three-paragraph suicide note that it would be better to have a “decent end” than be forced to scavenge in the “rubbish to feed myself”.

Neither is this man, left anonymous in this account by Greek political economist Yanis Varoufakis:

The man had been missing since August. His last sighting was at the Social Security Offices (IKA) in a small town called Siatista, where he was told that his small monthly disability allowance of 280 euros was suspended, as a result of the latest austerity measures. Eyewitnesses said, according  to Athens daily ‘Ta Nea’, that they saw him leave upset and speechless. Soon after he placed a call to his family telling them that “he feels useless” and adding that he “has nothing to offer them anymore”. Naturally, they were alarmed, and soon after called the police. It was only the other day that the Police located his hanging body in a remote wooded area, suspended by the neck from the cliff which was to be his last resort.

These aren’t isolated cases, reports the Guardian’s Helena Smith:

Police data show a 20% increase in suicide rates in the two years since the outbreak of Europe‘s debt crisis in Greece in late 2009, although the health ministry estimated the figure was almost double that in the first five months of 2011 compared to the first five months of 2010. Suicide hotlines have been deluged with appeals for help.

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Congratulations to the EU on the Nobel Peace Prize! You guys *rock*!

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 16th October 2012

Now please consider earning it.

I don’t have much of a problem with the European Union getting a Nobel Peace Prize — I just have a problem with it getting one right now.*   Europe’s elites are using a a cause that once seemed noble — to make Europe too busy, too integrated, and too prosperous to conceive of another war — as a blunt instrument to exacerbate hardship, create conflict, exploit natural resources, and unravel the social contract:

  • Greek health system crumbles under weight of crisis (Tagaris, Reuters, 6/14/12): “Greece’s rundown state hospitals are cutting off vital drugs, limiting non-urgent operations and rationing even basic medical materials for exhausted doctors as a combination of economic crisis and political stalemate strangle health funding.”
  • Hunger on the rise in Spain (Daley, NYTimes, 9/24/12):  “[Dumpster diving] tactics are becoming increasingly commonplace here, with an unemployment rate over 50 percent among young people and more and more households having adults without jobs. So pervasive is the problem of scavenging that one Spanish city has resorted to installing locks on supermarket trash bins as a public health precaution. “
  • Greek anti-fascist protesters ‘tortured by police’ after Golden Dawn clash (Margaronis, Guardian, 10/9/12): ““This is not just a case of police brutality of the kind you hear about now and then in every European country. This is happening daily. We have the pictures, we have the evidence of what happens to people getting arrested protesting against the rise of the neo-Nazi party in Greece. This is the new face of the police, with the collaboration of the justice system.””
  • Greece to become Europe’s biggest gold producer (Zacharikis, Die Zeit, 10/11/12): “The Greek government has been working on administrative reforms since the beginning of the debt crisis. The “Fast Track” accelerated licensing process developed last year is apparently attracting international gold mining companies. […] But there’s popular opposition to the mining projects. People fear serious environmental damage, for instance from clearing about 26,000 hectares of forestland. […] there were violent encounters with police during September protests against the gold mines in the northern Greece region of Chalkdiki.”  (transl. by the author)
  • Eurozone demands six-day week for Greece (Traynor, Guardian, 9/4/12): “In the letter, the officials policing Greece’s compliance with the austerity package imposed in return for the bailout insist on radical labour market reforms, from minimum wages to overtime limits to flexible working hours, that are likely to worsen the standoff between the government and organised labour in Greece.”

Stack these things up next to each other, and it seems reasonably clear that the European Union, led by German right-wing chancellor Angela Merkel, is basically executing a bald “Shock Doctrine”-style economic takeover of the region’s southern tier, with the help of conservative and sometimes fairly fascist political groups in the region.

Opposition is loud, angry, sometimes violent, but as yet apparently quite ineffectual in countries like Greece and Spain. But it appears to be timid-to-nonexistent within Germany, where the middle and working classes are coming off a prolonged period of income stagnation and “Hartz IV” semi-austerity of their own.  A recent report (by Josh Rosner for Graham LLC, via “naked capitalism”) suggests that

Unfortunately for the German population, while German business profited handsomely, and German Banks exported capital to the rest of the world, the costs were borne by German workers who faced wage pressure. German households never reaped the fruits of their labor. The imbalances … were being built into the very structure of the Eurozone by the German government’s sole focus on protecting domestic business interests at the expense of their own population.  […]

The German population has been led to believe, over the past decade, that they are frugal and that frugal is good. [Germans] are indeed frugal, but not entirely by choice. This is a perverse spin on the real situation, the German people have been deprived of wage increases and therefore of consumption of goods.

Rosner warns that “the German government will be forced to choose either a large share of the costs of supporting a further integration of the European Monetary Union or, alternately, the larger economic and social costs of its failure, including the massive costs of recapitalizing German banks and financial support for German industry.”

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th February 2007

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Mexican writer/director Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” owes at least a nod of recognition to Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The first moments of the movie make clear that things may not end well for its protagonist Ofelia, a young, dreamy girl played with extraordinary assuredness by twelve year old Spaniard Ivana Baquero.

But Pan’s Labyrinth is different from “Owl Creek Bridge” in just how the world of imagination that Ofelia inhabits coexists with the grim world beyond — in this case, Franco’s Spain not long after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Her fairy tale quest — complete with the archetypal three challenges, a failure, a redemption, and a final triumph — is enthralling in its own right and a wondrous, illuminating counterpoint to the real world she, her mother, and her comrades endure. As a result, Pan’s Labyrinth becomes both a spooky, gorgeous fantasy and a serious meditation on power, evil, and resistance.

[Warning: spoilers follow.]

I had not known that after the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, some people fought on against Franco, all but forgotten by the rest of the world as it descended into war as well. Centered in the mountains of northern Spain — Galicia, Asturias, the Pyrenees — that resistance was hopeless but valiant and persistent, with fighting lasting beyond the end of World War II, and flaring weakly as late as the 1950s and 1960s. (For its part, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in the summer of 1944 — hiding in a cave, guerrillas read a tattered newspaper account of the Normandy landings.) In his acclaimed history of the Spanish Civil War, “The Battle for Spain,” Antony Beevor writes:

Those who had taken to the hills, ‘los hombres de la sierra’, having escaped from prison or labour battalions, formed small, scattered groups which could not communicate effectively. Yet the first examples of resistance to nationalist conquest had started from the very beginning of the civil war. In Galicia, where so many had escaped the brutal Falangist repression, groups had formed in the hills, especially the Sierra do Eixe. […] Most of those in the south were annihilated in 1937, but in the north the struggle continued until the end of the war and beyond. When the Asturias front had collapsed in 1937, over 2,000 soldiers fled to the mountains and the nationalists needed to deploy fifteen tabors of regulares and eight battalions of infantry for many months hunting them down.*

This is the job — even the calling — of Vidal, the Franquist capitan in the movie. Del Toro is excellent at diagnosing him with a few economical shots (and Sergi Lopez is excellent at portraying him): Vidal impatiently glances at his watch as his new wife and stepdaughter make a late arrival; he vigorously polishes his gleaming boots; he admires himself while shaving with a straightedge razor; he meticulously repairs a shattered watch; he revels in machismo and confrontation, he forces himself to disdain pain or fear.

And he’s a monster. While it’s clear right away he’s not going to be a nice dad, he’s more fully introduced to the audience by brutally killing a peasant and his son in the mistaken belief that they’re partisans. (After he leaves the murder scene, another diagnosis: his lieutenants’ eyes meet, and one lifts an eyebrow and exhales a tiny little “puh” as in, “he’s a psychopath, but what can you do?”)

Here and elsewhere, Del Toro’s connection to the horror and comics genre provide this movie with a distinctive visual style. I lack a vocabulary for it myself, so I’ll call it the “wordless ‘reveal’ panel” I’ve seen in graphic novels like Maus — a symbolic, stylish still life or portrait that’s emblematic of the conflicts in the story: the captain slashing his reflection in a mirror, a guerilla leader appearing from nowhere in the woods after the soldiers give up their pursuit.

Del Toro has certainly created one of the most unsettling nightmare/horror sequences I’ve ever seen. Ofelia is given a piece of magic chalk to draw a door ‘anywhere she likes’; once she goes through the door, she’s warned not to partake of a sumptuous banquet she’ll see, but to simply get a treasure and return. When she opens the door she’s drawn, she finds the banquet all right — with a catatonic, pale ogre seated at the head of the table, its eyes on the table in front of him, paintings all around depicting it slaughtering and devouring babies. It is hideous, pure, blind, grasping evil — and it will not remain sightless or motionless for long.

Given that this scene is interlaced with a second one in which Vidal introduces a stuttering, terrified prisoner to the torture tools he’ll be reduced with — within the same walls that Ofelia has magically tunneled to her own confrontation with evil — one sees the outlines of Del Toro’s views. Power hoards, love spends; power torments, crushes, and discards, while innocence sacrifices; systems demand obedience and get it, for the most part; rare individuals choose freedom and honor, even at the cost of their lives.

And the allegories and fantasies of the story are important in making those points. I watched the movie The Illusionist a few months ago, and although I liked it, I still felt I liked the movie I thought I had early on better than the one I eventually got. Unlike that movie, Pan’s Labyrinth wastes no effort explaining its illusions, much less explaining them away. Rather, its fantastical, fairy tale elements just are; they explain and comment on its real world better than that world can itself.

I wonder if there’s another significance to the muddy, mossy, heathen elements of faun and fairy, Pan and labyrinth. In a story of innocence buying innocent life at the price of its own, set in Spain and told by a Mexican filmmaker, one might have expected mystic, ecstatic Christianity rather than the pagan allusions Del Toro uses. But the Catholic Church was part of the apparatus of oppression in Franco’s Spain — collaborating in censorship, monitoring who did and did not show up for Mass, and unabashedly celebrating Franco’s victory despite the many Spaniards who did not. Beevor writes:

On 31 March [1939] Franco’s armies reached their ultimate objectives. ‘Lifting our hearts to God,’ ran Pope Pius XII’s message of congratulation to Franco, ‘we give sincere thanks with your Excellency for the victory of Catholic Spain.’*

As the movie portrays, economically as ever, the Catholic Church sat at the well-laden dinner table with the Franquist captain, murmuring that one ration card per family ought to be enough. I found another item in Beevor’s book that seems germane to Del Toro’s movie. One Major Antonio Vallejo Nagera, a professor of psychiatry, concluded that

…the only way to prevent the racial dissolution of Spanishness was the removal of children from suspect parents to be schooled in nationalist values. In 1943 there were 12,043 children taken from their mothers and handed over to the Falangist Auxilio Social, to orphanages and to religious organizations. Some of these children were passed on for adoption to selected families, a pattern followed thirty years later in Argentina under the military dictatorship there.*

As viewers will see, at least this one despicable, miserable bit of history is turned on its head in Del Toro’s movie.

At the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, a fairy tale narrator speaks of humans leaving “small traces of our time on earth — visible only to those who know where to look.” Del Toro, in remembering the valor of those who resisted Franco’s regime, has shown moviegoers where to look. For that alone, he deserves thanks. To do it so beautifully and so imaginatively, he and his collaborators deserve admiration and applause.

* ‘Los hombres de la sierra’ — Chapter 37, “The Unfinished War,” p. 421. Pope Pius message — Chapter 34, “The Collapse of the Republic,” p. 397. Children taken — Chapter 35, “The New Spain and the Franquist Gulag,” p. 407. All page numbers from the paperback edition of “The Battle for Spain,” Antony Beevor, 1982, 2006.

UPDATE, 2/20: Other reviews: Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post writes, “See it, and celebrate that rare occasion when a director has the audacity to commit cinema,” and Jim Emerson at calls the movie “one of the cinema’s great fantasies.”

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German blogger series: EU Constitution referendum defeats

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th June 2005

As is well known, French and Dutch voters voted “no” against the proposed European constitution over the last week. I thought I’d scan German blogs for reactions to this development. All quotes are translations, unless otherwise indicated.

Kai Pahl (“dogfood”) — Pahl characterizes the French result as “basically a protest vote against Chirac,” and a protest vote against the rise of so-called “locust” or “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism in the EU. Pahl also sees the Iraq war as further aggravating this kind of protest voter, because it revealed “the divide between the ‘old Europe’ and the ‘transatlanticists'”:

The former want to position Europe as an independent power, the latter understand Europe as an economic alliance and seek partnership with the US in other areas. The Iraq war has made plain that there has been massive change in the center of gravity towards transatlanticism because of the addition of east European countries.

Turkey’s application for admission played an important secondary role, Pahl thinks:

I don’t think that the Turkey question was decisive, but was rather a further indication for many that the EU is heading in the wrong direction.

Pahl adds:

I probably would have voted against the referendum too. Purely as protest. I don’t like the way the politicians associated with the EU constitution expected that the thing would just be passed by acclamation [abgenickt].

Joerg Kantel (“Schockwellenreiter”) — Adopts a “Junge Welt” headline as his own: “Non c’est non: Europe says thank you, France!” Kantel’s quickie post lifts the theme of a second analysis (Bernard Schmid in telepolis), presumably to signal Kantel’s take on the event:

The rejection of the EU constitution points to a growing social polarization; the choice is between an economically liberal or a social Europe.

In the German usage, “liberal” has a different meaning, at least lately, from the “FDR/social safety net/civil rights” meaings it’s associated with in the U.S. It’s beome the word used to mean +/- free-market, “creative destruction,” sink or swim style economics.

Heiko Hebig — writing in English, Hebig comments:

A European Constitution should have less than 1000 words, less than 100 articles and should be easy to learn and understand by school children. […]

A European Constitution should establish a legal foundation for common principles and values. It should not establish red tape.

UPDATE, 6/7: In a second post, Hebig criticizes Schroeder and Chirac for trying to keep the ratification process alive, and writes, “I should start referring to the Draft EU Constitution as the “Terri Schiavo Constitution”.

Andreas Schaefer (“dekaf”) — Schaefer (profiled here in 2003) sounded disappointed, asking:

How many of the potential voters have any idea what’s at stake with the EU constitution constitution, or have even read it? And how many of the blowhards [Dummschwaetzern] in radio, television, and the weblogs, who think they have to comment about it?

His headline: “Why democracy doesn’t work.”

chief pedro (“Der Denkpass”) — this blogger regrets the French and Dutch votes, and thinks the “no” vote was driven not just by concerns about the constitution, but by concerns about the concept of a unified Europe itself –an issue pedro considers settled and out of bounds. Nevertheless, he (or she) acknowledges concerns about the proposed constitution:

It shouldn’t be surprising that this constitution isn’t able to generate much enthusiasm among the voters. A constitution that is supported by its citizens, must above all be understandable by these citizens. One of the fundamental prerequisites for that is a clear, terse statement, something which unfortunately eluded the European constitutional proposal. The American constitution may be a source of American patriotism for that reason, because every American can read and understand it without needing to take several weeks of vacation or needing a panel of experts to explain the most important concepts of international law.

Tobias Schwarz (“a fistful of euros”) — Schwarz, writing in English, puts his hopes in German foreign minister Joschka Fischer’s ‘glass half full’ spin on the defeat in France. Fischer, speaking in Berlin :

The real positive and new experience in the French campaign was that it was a European campaign…. The French (referendum) campaign was the first time that I was really campaigning for Europe.

And such a model (of campaigning for Europe) can work. This would mean that the next time the European Parliament is up for election, we have to raise issues not on a national level, but we have to form Europe-wide platforms created by European-wide parties. And we have to run with candidates representing not national programs, but European programs. I am not talking about a pie-in-the-sky European program with nice ideas that nobody is really interested in. But they have to have a substance. What about social justice in the European Union? What about the free market? What does it mean in France, in Germany, in Poland, in Lithuania, in Slovenia, in Portugal? And then (we have to) present candidates for the job for the president of the Commission and they must run for that position. Without that, I don’t believe we can really bridge the gap between the project of the elites and the reality of the people.

The dog that didn’t bark
Mainly, though, I found no comment at all about either election at most of the German blogs I checked. You can see a partial list under “german blogs” in the sidebar. It’s possible that something’s been added at the ones I looked at since then, of course.

Blogging is a personal thing done in one’s spare time, so I shouldn’t make too much of the lack of comment by any one particular German blogger. Also, the German blogs I frequent are more “mixed purpose” sites than mine, longer on personal reflections and experiences, and shorter on reactions to news of the day.

Still, it seems fair to say there was little deep anguish about the events in France and Holland or the fate of the European Union in this particular online scribbling class. Instead, I’d describe a strong minority of reactions as quiet satisfaction at the “non” and “nee” votes, with reluctant nods of agreement from those supporting the European Union and its proposed constitution. Even among supporters, there seems to be increased skepticism about a constitution, or at least this constitution, for the European Union. Overall, there’s a “wait and see” approach that doesn’t signal deep support for the kind of far-flung “United States of Europe” the constitution seemed to envision.

If my little sample were taken to be representative of German bloggers, their opinions seem to run somewhat counter to German public opinion — but with public opinion catching up. An ‘Infratest Dimap’ opinion poll in early May found that 59% of Germans would have voted for the European Constitution, given the chance — a chance which another poll found 77% of Germans wished they’d been afforded (Deutsche Welle). Instead, the constitution was ratified by the German Bundestag and Bundesrat. Following the French and Dutch votes, a June 4 Ipsos poll found that the margin of support had narrowed to 44% for, 39% against (SPIEGEL).

OTHER “German blogger series” posts: 2002: “German bloggers: an occasional series”; “Gedanken zum Thema Pirna” (East German anti-minority immigrant incident); 2003: “Reactions to Rumsfeld ‘Old Europe’ phrase”; Expatriates: Schaefer, siebenviertel, Klein, Hanson, Praschl; 2004: “Reactions to Abu Ghraib”; 2005:”Discussing German poverty at le sofa blog.”
UPDATE, 6/7: “Allerschaerfstes Willkommen,” Heiko Hebig and Schockwellenreiter readers! Please feel free to leave a comment!
EDITS, 6/7: “pregnant” to “terse” as per chief pedro’s comment. In the same quote, “Darstellung” was edited to “statement” (“exegesis” might have worked, too), and “cause” to “be a source of … for that reason” (deswegen). I will have a word with my editor for leaving translations in such sloppy condition.

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Just in time for the OSCE Anti-Semitism conference: Norwegian TV fakes Jewish conspiracy

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th April 2004

On occasion of the 2d OSCE Anti-Semitism conference, Gert Weisskirchen and George Voinovich wrote in the Washington Post on Wednesday (Halting the New Hatred):

The old conspiracy theories, prejudices and “world domination” fantasies are emerging in new guises and are exploiting the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

While the “old” anti-Semitism sought to stigmatize Jews as individual threats to local coexistence, the “new” anti-Semitism seeks to stigmatize Israel as a collective threat to global coexistence.

Just two days earlier, Norwegian blogger Bjorn Staerk provided an example of that stigmatization — not just of Israel, but of people who support Israelis’ right to live free of terror attacks. Staerk described how the Norwegian NRK television network created a Jewish conspiracy out of whole cloth. It began with reporter Eirik Veum’s efforts to interview Ester Kristoffer, a Norwegian psychologist and co-founder of the anti-terrorism group AKSJON BUSS.* Staerk:

The journalist was quite clear on the angle. He had begun to notice a strong anti-Israeli mood in Norway, bordering on hatred, had heard about Ester’s criticism of NRK and other media, and wanted to give her a chance to present her case. Because of her involvement with the antisemitism meeting, they did some filming with other people in the project present. I didn’t quite believe his story, but I have no reputation I care about losing, and didn’t object to being filmed.

I didn’t catch the interview, and NRK hasn’t put it online, but it appears that when it aired on Saturday, the friendly angle had been replaced by a conspiracy theory in which the Israeli embassy supports a secret network of Christians, through which it hopes to manipulate Norwegian opinion. This is utterly false, pure invention. It’s the kind of lie that demonstrates the inspiration of antisemitic ideas on modern anti-Israelism. People don’t just spontaneously come together to contradict what everyone agrees to be common sense. No, they form secret networks, with nameless and influential members. And at the center of it all, pulling the strings, there’s always a Jew.

Bjorn translated Ms. Kristoffer’s detailed letter denouncing the NRK report and detailing the deceptions and misleading reporting it engaged in, all tailored to reinforce the stereotypical image of some secretive Jewish conspiracy. She concluded:

The report might well be seen as the Norwegian version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It claims that the Israeli government are the conspirators behind a secretive network, with mystical, influential and nameless persons, who take advantage of naive people, primarily Christians, who gather money to defend Israeli policies. The report can be seen as the most extreme example of antisemitic propaganda NRK has ever shown.

We are a foundation with a group of people around us who wish to focus on terrorism, and take a stand against antisemitism. We thought both goals were legitimate. Some of us have also criticized the media in particular circumstances for one-sided coverage of the Middle East conflict. The NRK report, on the other hand, indicates conspiracy theories which can be perceived as classic antisemitism, and the report is seen as an act of revenge against people who criticize the media.

Many people see the report as the worst of its kind concerning antisemitism and personal attacks because of media criticism. We object particularly to the many assurances of the reporter that his intention was to present friends of Israel in a positive way, to reduce antisemitic tendencies in Norway.

Responding to comments about the post, Staerk wrote that “this goes further in that direction [anti-Semitism] than anything else I’ve come across in mainstream Norwegian media. I’m still uneasy about labelling European anti-Israelism in general antisemitic.” Agreed, of course, that criticizing Israel about its settlements or other policies is not anti-semitic per se.

The NRK broadcast was not about Israeli policies, though. So if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like duck, then it probably is a duck — the NRK twisted a humanitarian group into a sinister conspiracy, twisted some more to make the Israeli Embassy in Norway the so-called conspirators’ puppetmaster, and stigmatized Ms. Kristoffer and other AKSJON BUSS members as dupes or worse of the Israeli government.

The 2003 OSCE conference report (Acrobat file) included consideration of the role of media in fomenting and amplifying anti-Semitism. But it seemed to mainly focus on the threatening role the Internet could play as a breeding ground for extremists (e.g., p. 10). Episodes such as this one or the Sharon eating a baby cartoon in the Independent a year ago show that the “respectable” mainstream media are not at all above playing such a role themselves.


*I’m guessing that translates like it sounds, Action Bus, given that the group is putting a bombed Israeli bus on display in Oslo.

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"Who won the elections?"

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th March 2004

In December 2003, two Norwegian researchers, Brynjar Lia and Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (Forsvarets forskningsinstitutt, FFI) found a 42 page document on the Internet titled “Jihadi Iraq, Hopes and Dangers” (Arabic, PDF). They now argue that it “served as ideological inspiration and policy guidance for the terrorist attacks in Madrid”, quoting the anonymous author:

…It is necessary to make utmost use of the upcoming general election in Spain in March next year.

We think that the Spanish government could not tolerate more than two, maximum three blows, after which it will have to withdraw as a result of popular pressure. If its troops still remain in Iraq after these blows, then the victory of the Socialist Party is almost secured, and the withdrawal of the Spanish forces will be on its electoral programme.

(via a Bjorn Staerk 3/24/04 quicklink; emphasis and underlining from the Arabic original)

Beyond the obvious fact that the Madrid bombers did as the document proposed, Lia and Hegghammer point out that the “nom de terror” chosen by an alleged Al Qaeda video spokesman after the attack — Abu Dujana, a warrior and contemporary of Mohammed — matches one mentioned in the “Hopes and Dangers” document.

The authors see a more pragmatic, cool variety of Islamist in the pages of this document. Yassin Musharbath, writing for the German weekly SPIEGEL, agrees:

The message is clear: the jihadists should spend their resources carefully, not at random.[…]

The Jihad handbook of December 2003, whose authenticity is much more certain* and which was probably written in the summer of 2003, is very different from most of the Al Qaeda publications seen until now. For one, it’s less nuts and bolts than the pure bombmaking manuals out of the Afghan training camps, but simultaneously much more intellectual and analytical than the usual propaganda material. […]

In any case it’s an example of the professionalization of Al Qaeda in military tactics. The mujaheddin are reminded again and again in the text not to act spontaneously and rashly: the authors send their pupils off with “Preparation and planning are the foundations for success of every project,” the authors remind their pupils. “Only that guarantees (…) great capability, shortens the (required) time and removes the confrontation with danger.”

(via A Fistful of Euros)

The behavior of an alleged ringleader of the Madrid attacks bears out that this is not your 1990s Al Qaeda any more. A cell phone on an unexploded bomb led Spanish police to Jamal Zougam within a day of the bombings. The next time he was seen in public, he wasn’t declaiming “God is great” or “Death to the crusaders.” As the New York Times reports:

When Mr. Zougam arrived in court after five days incommunicado, he reportedly asked the clerks, “Who won the elections?”

(via Regnum Crucis)

*EDIT, 3/27: The comparison is with a message purportedly written by Abu Musab al-Zarkawi and released before the election, in which he comments on the Spanish government’s theory that ETA was responsible for the bombing.
UPDATE, 8/4: A New Yorker article pulls together this and other aspects of the 3/11 attacks.

Take away the dumb ones and the rest look smarter
SPIEGEL author Musharbash calls the new Al Qaeda a “learning organization.” But it could be simpler than that: for all its haphazardness — the “unconnected dots” before 9/11, the Great Tora Bora Escape — the war on terror may have exerted some strong selection pressure on terrorists. That is to say, despite it all, maybe a lot of the gung-ho hothead types are dead or in custody by now. True, that would still leave the colder, smarter, more cunning ones. But it would also still leave them on the run.

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Spanish troops

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th May 2003

Condolences to the country and families of the 62 Spanish peacekeeping troops who died in a plane crash in Turkey on Monday. Most had been in Afghanistan for four months building an airport road and clearing mines and explosives.

Americans should take a moment to remember them, and thank their country for their service. The Spanish Embassy to the US has a web site and an e-mail form, that’s all I can find.

This is neither here nor there, but I’ve been to Spain twice, once last year: Madrid, Toledo, the Asturias region, and Barcelona. I had a great time, even though my Spanish is confined to a handful of words. Nice people, great food, fascinating history, beautiful country. And an ally we owe a debt of gratitude to.

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The ropes break

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th March 2003

That’s the title of German editorialist Josef Joffe’s latest article in Die Zeit (now a week old or so), subtitled “Europe, Russia, USA: the rubble heap before the first shot.” Excerpts:

We are experiencing an unprecedented power struggle with the goal of rechaining the Gulliver once hemmed in by the Soviet Union. […]

We are experiencing the true end of the post-war era that began with the self-disembowelment of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991. Old friends become embittered opponents, who unite with old enemies against the “last remaining superpower.” The battle cry is “one nation, one vote,” and the war aim is to outnumber the very large one with the many small ones, to tie him down to international institutions like the UN. The logic of this drama has little to do with Saddam Hussein any more.

The result will show, whether the mechanisms of the 18th century still function in the 21st. But it’s probable that both sides will dramatically miscalculate — Americans just as the new “axis powers.” Of course Bush the Second can win the Iraq war alone. But then what? The UN, should it not decline to a league of nations, would then just be a humanitarian global bureaucracy. The Anti-Gulliver reflex would encompass ever more Lilliputians. The “empire” would have to recognizae that the most pressing problems of the 21st century — from protectionism to terrorism, from mass migration to climate change — can’t be solved with precision munitions, but only with cooperation.

And the Europeans? Fundamentally, they undervalue the military just as much as the Americans set too great a store in it — no wonder, because [Americans] have firepower and [Europeans] don’t. France et al know very well that it has only been the American deployments that compelled the dictator to uncover the first centimeters of his arsenal. They know very well that it’s easy to blow the peace horn while riding on the running board of American superpower. And they signal to Gulliver: “We decide, when and if you are unchained.” […]

… The retreat and humiliation of the USA can not really be in Europe’s interest — let alone Saddam Hussein’s triumph. That would be the absolute worst lesson for North Korea, Iran, and Al Qaeda, as well as the end of the Security Council as a bulwark against the new world disorder. But it can’t be in the interest of the USA to reply to the European “No war, never!” with “Yes, war, immediately!”; that would just make the wreckage worse.

What’s left? There’s at least one consensus in the Security Council: Saddam Hussein’s disarmament. America’s opponents know that the massive deployment [Aufmarsch] is the only chance for a halfway peaceful disarmament via long term inspections — if the clock could be slowed to allow more than two bad choices: retreat or attack. That means that Paris, Moscow, and Berlin would have to replace their politics of blockade (which unfortunately works for Saddam Hussein) with conditional cooperation. To be concrete: France and and Russia participate in the military threat, to achieve two things. They remove Saddam Hussein’s illusion of “divide and conquer”, and they win a real voice in American strategy. After a while even the Germans could follow — for example, by helping to protect Turkish air space. Others could help by subsidizing the military presence.

Too late? If the powers are serious about disarmament, then this would at least be a last minute way out of the sterile confrontation. But if Paris/Berlin/Moskau only care about crippling Gulliver — and Gulliver just wants the war, then all of this would be not just too late, but pointless. A cruel triumph for Saddam Hussein — whether he wins or loses.

Too late. I’m not going to pick apart this article from a “Gulliverian” point of view; Joffe’s right about one thing anyway, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But I doubt France and Russia were chafing to be part of the invasion of Iraq; it seems clear those two governments simply don’t want Saddam to fall under any circumstances. Given that the US would face Saddam’s likely future aggressions, that seems a calculatedly hostile act on the part of those two governments.

Germany … who knows. It seems a strange fate for that country to all but tail-waggingly follow France’s lead. But like the French after the first world war, Germans can’t help but recall a terrible second world war, one that ruined their country even more thoroughly than France had been ruined after the first. That war was so horrifying in what happened to Germans (too) — in Hamburg, Dresden, and dozens of other cities — that it’s forgivable, even so long after, for them to say “My god, no, never again,” almost regardless of the situation.

Almost. There’s also a lot of moral preening going on, with a peculiarly belligerent, self-righteous twist that can be more than a little hard to take. The silver lining (depending on your views, of course) is that as usual, there’s a self-ironizing German word for it, “Hurrapazifismus” (hurrah pacifism).

Still, when I read a rant like this* or hand-wringing like this,** I reflect that it’s hard to think of a culture with less to offer than Germany’s when it comes to how or even whether to oppose totalitarian regimes bent on war. It’s just not part of their history, and it looks like Germans mean to keep it that way for a while yet.

Depending on the outcome of all this, two or three years down the line, I very much hope that relations may be repaired with Germany and the German people. I suppose I ought to have similar hopes for France, Russia, and/or “Europe.” There will surely be enough to cooperate about, in all of our self-interests. For the time being, I suppose we’ll have to wait and see how well or poorly the war goes — and what we learn from Baathist files and weapons sites.

And re Gulliver: the analogy might work a little better — yet serve as even less of an excuse for Messrs Chirac, Schroeder, and Putin — if Swift had written of Gulliver saving and protecting Lilliput from two ravening giants of his stature. America has little to excuse itself to Europe about regarding the 20th century, and all things considered rather little to be grateful for in the 21st.


* Scholz: “…in contrast to the USA, the rest of the world has apparently developed other values, that identify a war of aggression for what it is, no matter how much one tries to redefine it as “preemptive defense”: a violent attack on important values like human dignity, the right to life and peace, or freedom of opinion.” Call it a hunch, but I’m guessing all three of those values will be doing quite a bit better this time next year in Iraq than they are right now. And we’ve been over the “aggression or enforcement?” question before.

** Schaefer: “If you don’t read the news, it’s as wonderful as ever here [in California]….But I listen to the radio, watch CNN, and read the newspaper and news on the Internet, and the question remains, how and for how long can I live in this country?” Well, there’s your problem, dude: the answer just isn’t going to be in the newspaper. 🙂

Looking this over, it may seem like I’ve forgotten that these are hardly “German” opinions only, there are lots of Americans who feel the same way. So, to be scrupulously fair: they’re wrong, too.

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It won’t be over till it’s English over there. (Not.)

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd February 2003

Norwegian blogger Bjørn Stærk urges European political bloggers to write in English:

A blog in German or Norwegian stays locked behind borders. A blog in English transcends them. I’m sure there are a lot of Germans below the political and media radars, who have interesting views on what is happening these days. But as long as they write on the web in German only, few outsiders will ever know they exist. All we ever see of Germany is Schröder & Co. I don’t know your political views, but if I were you I wouldn’t be very content with that.

By the same token, Americans and other English-speakers could do more, too: learn and practice more languages, and explore foreign-language (to us) blogs and media more often. It would be interesting, and maybe a real service, to do a foreign-language blogwatch/mediawatch, teaming up with other bloggers who can speak French, Russian, etc.

It would be nice if more Americans were as fluent in a second language as most Germans are. I’m not quarreling with Bjørn, really; as a practical matter, that’s not going to happen overnight, so European political bloggers who want to gain a hearing in the “Anglosphere” would be well advised to to write in English more often.

But given the good English most German bloggers I’m aware of command, I suppose it’s clear that gaining an English-speaking readership by is not a priority for them — just as most American “war” and other political bloggers don’t have the ambition of writing for, say, the French, German, or Arabic readerships. Who do you try to speak with first, persuade first, amuse first? Your countrymen or someone halfway around the world?

Some German blogs do feature fairly frequent English entries. Scott Hanson’s blog PapaScott is a special case; he’s an ex-Minnesotan now living in Hamburg with his wife and son. He’s frequently mentioned by Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit), so most readers are probably familiar with him; his observations on German politics are always worth reading. Camp Catatonia is another good German blog with frequent English entries. Oddly, it too is by an expatriate living in Hamburg*, in this case an Austrian woman (I think) who goes by “katatonik.” Via comments on Bjørn’s first entry about this, I’ve learned of another blog by German Tobias Schwarz that appears to be all in English so far.

Maybe someday more German bloggers will look for overseas readers, and maybe I don’t know about the ones who already do. For my part, I get a kick out of my CETZ (Central European Time Zone) page views. Thanks to Scott Hanson, Peter Praschl, and Jens Scholz for linking to my blog, and to everyone from Europe who’s dropped by! Y’all hurry back!


* Rounding out the Hamburg expat scene is Peter Praschl, an Austrian who teams with Stefan Knecht to produce the indispensable Le Sofa Blog. However, the writing is almost always German, although occasional English and (mon Dieu) French entries happen from time to time as well.

Edit, 2/3/03: added “(I think)”

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“Impudent, but not wrong”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th January 2003

That’s the title of an editorial in Die Zeit (Unverschämt, aber nicht falsch) by columnist Richard Herzinger:

No question, Rumsfeld’s comment was an unheard of, indiplomatic provocation, indeed an act of intentional loutishness. But more disquieting than [his] arrogance is the fact that he’s not so very wrong. […]

…The proudly invoked German-French peace position is just a defensive reflex. It doesn’t answer the question how one gets to democratization and stabilization of the Middle East in the long run. Some naively point to UN inspectors, who are supposed to peaceably disarm Saddam Hussein. But would there have been any inspectors in Iraq, if the USA hadn’t been loudly rattling its saber? […]

The second part of his attack was intended to highlight the young democracies of Eastern Europe as the germ of a “new Europe,” the Europe of the future, and to play them off against France and Germany. […] Indeed Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians do define their membership in the western world mainly via their close alliance with America. This is based on the experiences of their recent history. They know that it was mainly American power that stopped the Soviet expansionism into the rest of Europe. … European politics [while contributing to undermining communist dictatorships] tended over time to accommodate itself to the rule of the Communists. The Poles, for example, have not forgotten that Western Europeans were all too willing to accede to the martial law and repression of the Polish opposition in the early 80s. […]

Given all that, [Eastern Europe] would rather throw in with the Americans, who have time and again proved their resolve to meet the West’s foes with firmness and if necessary with military force. […]

In decisive moments of world history, Europe stood for what was new; that’s how it got to be so old. Now it risks losing contact* with history’s leaders. With his characteristic impudence, Rumsfeld is telling Europe that to its face.

I should say this is a relatively isolated point of view in the German media as far as I can tell. But it’s no less interesting for that.

*“Anschluss verlieren”: used in describing races, when the pack falls too far behind the leaders in the race to be able to catch up. I just can’t think of a pithy translation for that, so yet another footnote will have to do.

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