Monday, November 12, 2018

HITLER & THE HABSBURGS: A Book Review

There's a knee-jerk reaction these days whenever someone compares Donald J. Trump to Hitler--a
shudder and a rejection of even the remotest  possibility. Unhappily, James Longo's Hitler and the Habsburgs might give you pause.

More of that in a moment. For now let me confess that I am no historian, and therefore not an objective judge of this fascinating book. The author makes no secret of his admiration, even affection for the Habsburg family, and for the Hohenbergs they became after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the monarchy of the Emperor Franz Joseph, was coerced into a morganatic marriage with a Czech duchess despised by other royals as his social--and ethnic--inferior: neither he nor his offspring were entitled to inherit the throne--or to use the family name. Longo's sympathies are clear; he even dedicates his book to a Hohenberg family heiress.

It's still a compelling read, and one that also engages the reader's sympathy to his subjects. As the former subject of a European monarch (Elizabeth II--unfortunately misspelled in this book, one of a few typos and misspellings I noted along the way: the infamous Nazi thug was Ernst Kaltenbrunner, not Kalterbrunner!), I have mixed feelings about aristocratic privilege. On the one hand, I am more than a little skeptical of blood-line heritage; on the other, I have a sneaking sympathy for those called upon to inherit the burden of leadership they in no way earned. Born in the years before Hitler's effort to compel all of Europe into his personal fiefdom, I also have an abhorrence of the barbarities of Nazism and the cataclysm that Hitler and his obedient Nazis perpetrated on the world.

So as a reader of this story I share something of the author's bias. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination famously led to the outbreak of World War I--and eventually to that of World War II--is portrayed here as an enlightened man, dedicated to a mission of peace and the integration of the ethnically diverse peoples of Central Europe. His two sons, Maximilian and Ernst, inveighed against Hitler even in the early days, before his rise to autocratic power, and thereby earned his lasting enmity. Their pre--World War II efforts to restore the monarchy in Austria in order to forestall the eventual "Anschluss" earned them long-term imprisonment in the Dachau concentration camp. In Longo's telling they survived the most terrible of humiliations with dignity intact, and returned, after Hitler's defeat, to do what they could do in service to family, the Austrian people, and the peoples of central and eastern Europe.

Today's readers may well shudder, with me, when they read paragraphs like these:
Wealthy industrialists secretly financed Hitler's rise to power [...]. In return he quietly promised them to destroy the country's burgeoning Communist Party, smash the nation's labor unions, and provide his benefactors with unparalleled profits. The unemployed were assured full employment, and the forgotten man--respect. Hitler promised the military recruits, rearmament, and a restoration of power and prestige.
Just like the man in the Oval Office today. Quoting the journalist Dorothy Thompson, who interviewed Hitler before the war, Longo adds: "Throughout the root of Nazism is unabridged nationalism which elevates a nation into a god." Inspired by Hitler's nationalism, there were sadly many Americans in the mid- to late-1930s who were militant proponents of "America First", and it terrifies me to think that our current "president" follows in their footsteps--along with the rabble of angry supporters he riles up at his endless (yes!) Hitlerian rallies.

So this is a timely book. No matter what you think of aristocrats and monarchies, you will surely share my horror of the racist political oppression that Hitler exerted while in power. You will surely share my disgust with the kind of rhetoric that hypnotized so many Germans into submission to the Nazi regime. You will surely share my conviction that, yes, without vigilance and, when necessary, unwavering resistance, this can happen again--even in America. The book is at once a nightmare of historical fact and a warning of the ease with which "the people" can be manipulated and power abused.

I quibbled a bit earlier about misspellings. They shouldn't happen in a book like this because they serve to distract from the reader's attention and credulity. For myself, too, I would have appreciated the inclusion of a family tree to which I might have occasionally referred in order to catch up on a name or family relationship; and also, to assist me in my deplorable ignorance and given the often shifting national alliances and treaties, a map of the countries of pre-WWI and pre-WWII Europe.

Otherwise, Hitler and the Habsburgs proved an excellent and a provocative read. I enjoyed it immensely.



SATYAGRAHA (Stubborn truth)

We went to the Phillip Glass opera "Satyagraha" yesterday. This is not a review. I lack the musical knowledge to write with any authority on opera. Call it an appreciation.


The Sanskrit word of the title is often translated as "the force of truth." I like "stubborn." The opera is based on the early years of Gandhi's life in South Africa--a time at which he discovered his calling as a leader of non-violence in political action, and first put it into practice. And Gandhi was nothing if not stubborn. "Insistent" if you like--as insistent, it occurs to me as I write, as the music of Phillip Glass.

Divided into three acts, the opera imagines scenes from Gandhi's life, its structure following the growing power of the philosophy and practice of satyagraha rather than the chronology of events. The opening scene is a kind of awakening, with Gandhi lying prone beside the railroad from which, despite his possession of a first-class ticket--having recently arrived in South Africa as a well-paid lawyer--he had been thrown for his audacity in violating race laws.

The opera is multi-layered in its theme--the assertion of human dignity and human rights over exploitation and injustice. The libretto is taken from the text of the Bhagavad Gita, and its historical events take place in the context of the higher--perhaps nobler--truths of ancient mythology and abstract philosophical discourse. The staging of this performance took full advantage of those distinctions: mere mortals were dwarfed by giant articulated puppets...


... monsters and angels whose presence would at times dominate the action. The quotidian materiality of newspaper and corrugated iron--ubiquitous symbols of earthly concerns--were displaced by the ethereality of light, space, and the distant figures of spirit guides: Tolstoy, Tagore, and Martin Luther King Jr.

The eternal struggle of humanity toward equality and justice found its embodiment in the restless, repetitive music and the insistent voices of the chorus; the noble aspirations of the best of humans in the at times powerful, at times lyrical voices of the soloists. In the context of a historical moment in which our country is dominated by intimidation and crassly materialistic motivation, the soaring, simple, repeated notes of Gandhi's "Evening Song" at the end of Act III--part plea, part yearning for serenity and peace, part release from endless suffering, part ode to joy--was not only passionately rendered by the tenor, Sean Pannikkar, it was also truly heartbreaking. I now understand the meaning of that old cliché "achingly beautiful." I have to say, I wept.

(If you can spare 15 minutes to hear an alternative version of this lovely music, try this URL. Or search "Evening Song" on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHKUt5fDbH0)

Friday, November 9, 2018

THE WARSAW ANAGRAMS: A Book Review

It's not unusual for me to happen on a book long after its original publication. I stumbled on a used copy of Richard Zimler's The Warsaw Anagrams at the Laguna Beach library bookstore and paid a handsome dollar for it. I was well rewarded.

First published in 2011, The Warsaw Anagrams lands the reader in the city of the title in September, 1940--a time of infamous brutality on the part of Poland's Nazi occupiers and before the celebrated uprising by the oppressed Jews who lived, or had been sent there. It's set mostly in the Jewish ghetto itself but also, illicitly, in the Polish capital and, towards the end, in rural parts of Poland. The evocation of these various locations is handled with such immediate appeal to all the senses that you can't help feeling that you are actually there in person.

You also share in the dreadful feelings of oppression, isolation, and constant fear that are shared by the complex and compelling characters in Zimler's tale. You share in their physical deprivation, in their pain and suffering. You share in their courage, too, and their determination to survive this period of barely describable affliction; in their despite-the-circumstances humor and the commitment to the persistence of their culture. You share in the game of wits that's necessary for survival.

To call The Warsaw Anagrams a murder mystery is tantamount to calling The Odyssey a travelogue. Yet there it is, at the center of this story, a whodunnit mystery in which the protagonist, a Time-Before psychologist named Erik Cohen seeks out the killer of his young nephew and other children of the ghetto. Their bodies have been cruelly mutilated for grisly reasons not revealed until the eventual unmasking of the murderer. Dr. Cohen, we know from the start, is himself a victim of the Nazi slaughter: he is, indeed, a ghost--in Hebrew, an ibbur--whose story is dictated post mortem to a sympathetic third party. It is only towards the end, too, that we learn the terrible details of his death. The suspense is one factor that keeps us glued to Zimler's story.

But, as I suggested above, the book is much more than that. It is a historical indictment, particularly of Nazi inhumanity, but also of inhumanity generally. It questions the existence of a God who could allow such atrocities to his "chosen people" and the ability of human psychology to explain, let alone prevent them. Above all, though, it celebrates the resilience of the human spirit, even in circumstances designed expressly to destroy it. It celebrates decency and loyalty over barbarity and betrayal; the essential good in human beings over the power of evil; and the persistence of love over demonization and hatred.

The Warsaw Anagrams is in may ways a tough read, but in the end, paradoxically, a hopeful one. The Nazis were, after all, defeated. That their venomous spirit shows signs of making a comeback in our political culture today makes it all the more important that we should learn about the human misery that it caused. And no one will come away from this book unmoved by the tragic history of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

HONK IF YOU LOVE DEMOCRATS

As I sat in meditation this morning I became aware of the insistent and repeated honking of a car horn somewhere in the neighborhood. And no, it was not a car alarm, because it was not quite regular enough for that. And in my distress and fear over next Tuesday's election, my mind came up with the notion that I should be going out there and driving around my neighborhood streets with a bullhorn, honking my horn at that early hour of the morning and shouting through my bullhorn, "WAKE UP, AMERICA! YOUR COUNTRY IS BEING STOLEN WHILE YOU SLEEP!"

But of course I didn't do it. I just returned to meditation, came back to the breath, and instead sent out goodwill and compassion to my adopted country. If I were a Christian (see yesterday's entry in The Buddha Diaries) I suppose I would be praying.

Friday, November 2, 2018

TO MY CHRISTIAN FRIENDS

I was brought up in a Christian home. As those who have been reading "The Buddha Diaries" for a while will surely know, my father was a minister in the Church of England. He was, as the English say (or used to say; I'm not familiar with current usage) "high church"--which meant robes, candles, even incense if he could get away with it in country parishes. All the ritualistic stuff. (Dog collars: the higher the church, the narrower the white band. Or so it used to be...)

My father was also a socialist. At the time of my birth he was the incumbent at St. Cuthbert's church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, at that time a working-class, coal-mining town still suffering from the devastation of the Great Depression. His parishioners were poor, many of them hungry, and generally destitute. My father took his pastoral work seriously, and ministered with such compassion and empathy to his flock that he himself became ill and was urged by doctors to move south for his health.

His first brush with the fundamentalism that takes the form, in America, of evangelicalism, was during his college days, long before his ordination. A broad-minded man with a fine sense of humor, he recalled on several occasions within the hearing of myself, his son--though he would not have done so from the pulpit--the emergence of an evangelical group which called itself the (forgive me) Cambridge Univeristy New Testament Society--and proudly put out flyers throughout the university with its acronym plastered across the top. (You can work that one out for yourself!)

My father's Christianity was so far removed from the evangelicalism in America today that he would not have recognized what so many of our citizens preach in the name of "religion". His Christian faith required him to take care of the poor, the sick, the needy, to put their needs before his own, to practice the kind of compassion that Christ modeled in the New Testament books of the Bible. He would have abhorred the notion of the "prosperity" gospel. His Christian conviction required him to vote for the socialist Labour Party--the political party whose policies were guided by his principles.

Brought up with these--yes, Christian!--tenets, though now at heart a Buddhist, I remain to this day a socialist. I cannot reconcile my father's Christianity with the extreme right-wing views of those evangelicals who vote faithfully for Republicans and, astoundingly, are unwavering supporters of a "president" who proves himself on a daily basis to lack any shred of understanding or compassion for those less privileged than himself; who lacks the moral compass that undergirds decency and good behavior; and who personifies, in my view, everything that is un-Christian.

I know that there are many Christians--whether evangelical or not--whose thoughts and actions in the world are guided more by the New Testament than the Old. I believe that, as would my father, they will vote their Christian conscience at the ballot box. I know that there also are many who are both religious and conservative in their views. I'm guessing they must be much troubled, even torn, by what Republican conservatism has come to represent. And I'm hoping that they, too, will be guided by the wisdom of true Christian principles next Tuesday.

True Christians--I believe I speak for my father here--affirm truth over lies; compassion over cruelty; reflection over recklessness; knowledge over ignorance; charity and generosity of spirit over greed and selfishness; and, above all, love over hate. I want to believe that there are many who, in the name of the one they acknowledge as their "savior," will cast their vote with those Christian qualities remembered in their hearts and minds.