Haffner and Hitler

The beginning of 2016 saw a significant passing: the Bavarian government lost control of the copyright to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This means that it became legal to print a new edition of the work in Germany. A massive 2000-page scholarly edition has accordingly arrived, which includes the 800 or so pages of the original text with ample commentary pointing out every factual error and self-contradiction. There has been some commentary suggesting that a way ought to be found to keep it illegal to produce new editions, but I don’t really see the point. Not only is the book freely available online, but it’s not like it’s a work of any real intellectual power – I have a hard time believing that anyone who’s read it has suddenly found himself converted to Nazism by the sheer force of the arguments.

I’ve never read Mein Kampf. I understand it’s far too long and terribly boring. My own nod to this particular anniversary will be this post, which reflects on the work of the best author by far that I’ve encountered who has treated Hitler.

I have read a fair bit on the Third Reich. Many know far more than me, but still, I’ve read many thousands of pages. However, it’s not the heavy tomes by Shirer or Kershaw or Bullock that have contributed the most to my understanding of the subject, but rather what are probably the two shortest relevant books I’ve read, both by the famous German writer, Sebastian Haffner. (I admit that it may be you have to go through a few of the 800-pagers to really get the most out of Haffner.)

The first of these books is Geschichte eines Deutschen, which means “Story of a German,” though the English translation is sold under the cringe-worthy title, Defying Hitler. (It seems publishers will do anything to get the word ‘Hitler’ into a title: Jesus Saves, but Hitler Sells.) The second is Anmerkungen zu Hitler (“Remarks on Hitler,” though sold in English as The Meaning of Hitler, a translation disliked by the author.) You should read both.

Let’s start with the latter book. It is certainly by far the most insightful work on Hitler I’ve ever read. Part of its genius is the writing itself. Short, simple sentences. No big words, no massive accretion of footnotes with an immense bibliography at the end, no vast accumulation of facts in the manner of the 800-page tomes that historians so often produce – Haffner feels no need to impress us with this sort of thing (though a list of what he had read on the subject would have been long indeed). What does impress is his thought itself. Psychological insight, thoughts on the significance of the last eight months of the war, on Hitler’s decision to declare war on America, on the meaning of the Battle of the Bulge: there is a great deal to mull over in this book, and I think most of it is correct (Haffner does try to argue that Hitler would not have been remembered as a great man if he had died in 1939, which I don’t find so convincing: with genocide and war, the difference between talking and doing is an important one).

I will pause on one central thesis of the book, because it is not only worth dwelling on, but altogether compelling. Winston Churchill, in his memoires of the Second World War, declared himself content to be judged on his results. Haffner applies this criterion to Hitler, and comes to the conclusion that Hitler was a total failure, one of the greatest failures in history.

People look to the fact that Hitler got control of so much of Europe, and feel that he must therefore have been some sort of genius – an evil genius, but a genius nonetheless. Haffner demolishes this view. Hitler succeeded only where people gave way to him; where he was opposed, he failed. Furthermore, he achieved the opposite of what he aimed at pretty much everywhere.

So, for example, one of his major aims was a war against Russia and Marxism; his actual accomplishment was to bring both into the heart of Europe, even onto the streets of Berlin. He tried to destroy Poland, and the Poles ended up with an awful lot of German land. He set out to destroy the Jews, and instead created conditions in which the creation of a Jewish state was all but inevitable (ohne Hitler kein Israel, says Haffner: “without Hitler, no Israel”). He did not set out at the start to harm Great Britain, but his war had the effect of radically reducing that country’s place in the world. Certainly Hitler did succeed in killing large numbers of people, including his enemies, but he was interested in the fate of nations, not of particular individuals.

The Russian campaign was the most fateful, and here Haffner remarks that Hitler might have won if he’d come as a liberator. This is exactly right but – and this is very often the case with Haffner’s short book – there’s a fair bit to unpack. I’m going to go into it because it’s an excellent illustration of the importance of the moral aspect in international relations. Hitler practised an extreme form of power politics that absolutely discounted the importance of morality, and ended up becoming a particularly potent example of the power of the moral element to determine events.

The thing that has to be kept in mind with regard to Hitler’s attack on Russia was that Germany had beaten Russia in World War One, and had done so at the same time as fighting the major democratic powers to the west in another land campaign. In 1941 Russia’s military (and Russia more generally) was greatly weakened by Stalin’s recent purges, and Russians after two decades of Marxism had rather more reason to rebel against their government than they’d had in the days of the Tsar. How was it that Russia surrendered to Germany in 1917, but Hitler lost in the 40’s?

The answer lies in Hitler’s peculiar genius, which found a way to make defeat all but certain. By waging an unprovoked war of annihilation and enslavement, he gave the people of Russia a reason – even a need – to fight to the death, calling forth in them tremendous reserves of determination and hatred, and further bestowing a legitimacy to Stalin’s government that it would never have achieved on its own. None of this was true in the First World War. In 1917, an end to the war against Germany, even though the terms might be highly disadvantageous to Russia, must have seemed an attractive and even tempting option to many average Russians; from mid-1941, it could not be a temptation at all. If, on the other hand, Hitler’s attack on Russia had been preceded by a propaganda campaign about the iniquities of the Marxist system and the sufferings it had brought to the Russian people, and if (after ‘provocations’ by the Russian state) Hitler had invaded making it clear in word and deed that he was a friend of the Russian people and an enemy only of its oppressive government – well, in that case it’s difficult for me to see how he might have lost. But of course, if he’d taken that route, he would have been somebody else.

Thus it seems to me that the moral element was decisive on the eastern front in WWII. One of Hitler’s (numerous) failings as a thinker was his inability to see the significance of this element. If you push out to the extremes, they push back; in this case, by denying that justice had any power, Hitler made himself utterly subject to it. He said that once the campaign had been won, nobody would worry about how it started; no remark could have been more blind. (Hitler was looking to Friedrich the Great, who made an unprovoked grab for Silesia, but he ignored the fact that Friedrich did not wage wars of annihilation against whole peoples, but rather campaigns against foreign monarchs – and even here the hatred aroused by an unprovoked attack never dissipated: Maria Theresa of Austria never forgave Friedrich and remained his implacable enemy for life.)

Above all, Hitler claimed to be acting for the benefit of the German nation and people, and here the gulf between aim and achievement is extraordinary. Nobody in human history has ever done his own country so much harm. In a speech in the 20’s, he declared “it cannot be that two million Germans died in vain;” in his own war, seven million would. The cities and towns in the more western part of Germany were largely bombed to rubble, but they got off easily in comparison to East Prussia and Silesia, which simply ceased to exist.

The fate of these territories is something of which there’s very little consciousness in the English-speaking world – in the histories I’ve read, it’s covered in a few sentences or not at all – so it’s worth going into a bit of detail at this point. Before the Second World War, Germany extended hundreds of kilometers to the east and southeast of its current border; Germans had been living there since the middle ages. After the war, the population was expelled. Before the war, nobody would even have imagined trying to dislodge the people of East Prussia and Silesia from their ancestral homes, and still less would anybody have been able to do so. Even if someone had somehow managed it, the idea that the people of those territories had a right to that land would have remained – and not only in Germany – making an attempt at taking them back all but inevitable (I think it was Foch who said of Versailles, “this isn’t a peace, it’s an armistice for twenty years”).

The unique genius of Hitler proved capable of overcoming all of these obstacles. Not only did he gradually get Germany into an unwinnable war, but he made sure it was waged with such brutality that he gave Germany’s enemies a terribly compelling reason to want to expel the eastern German population from their homes and force them to resettle as far as possible towards the west. That is, the further to the west the German population was, the safer Russians could feel in the future. And because Germany had by her actions aroused such hatred virtually everywhere in Europe, when the time came to redraw the map of Europe, not only did the Germans not have an advocate present, but nobody who was present was likely to have any sympathy for them.

Years ago at a job in Germany, when I was out with colleagues and we’d had a few drinks, I learned that all those who sat in my immediate vicinity at work were descendants of people who’d been expelled from Silesia or East Prussia. The password to one of our systems was explained to me as the name of a German town – or rather, it used to be German (it was deep in Silesia; my colleagues were all born at least 20 years after the war).

That’s the extent of my personal connection with the story, though I do have a large book of photos from Silesia. A City Hall built in the 14th century, churches, houses, monuments, Breslau (then among the six largest cities in Germany) – a world that looks very much like the Germany I’ve visited myself. It’s hard to imagine the disbelief and horror with which people would have reacted to the news: all Germans were to leave, on pain of death. That couldn’t possibly be true, could it? But it was, and whole cities were driven onto the roads, bringing with them a maximum of 20kg baggage each, never to return. A world simply disappeared, and none of it could possibly have happened if not for Hitler. (It was a condition of the acceptance of German reunification by the major powers in 1990 that Germany would give up its claim to these territories, settling this Hitlerian achievement for good.)

An aside: the town of Görlitz, south-east of Berlin, is well worth visiting, not only because of its well-preserved old city, but also because one can visit a Silesian museum there: Görlitz sits on the only sliver of land in Silesia where Germans still live. One part of the exhibit has a collection of house keys: though people were told to leave them in the doors, many expected to return before long, and so brought their keys with them.

The other territory from which Germans were expelled was East Prussia, which stretched hundreds of kilometers to the east of Germany today. One example: more than five hundred kilometers to the east of Berlin was Königsberg, the city where Immanual Kant lived (and never left); it’s now Kalingrad, inhabited by Russians.

In his youth, Hitler had admired the Teutonic knights, who over centuries pushed German territory east; he himself would undo their work almost literally overnight. He also admired Friedrich the Great, who had added the (then German-speaking) region of Silesia to Prussia. Thanks to Hitler, not only was Silesia detached from Prussia, but its population was expelled. Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, Romania – all had had significant German minorities for centuries, but Hitler taught them all that they’d be much safer without these minorities, so all those Germans were expelled. There had even been Germans living along the Volga in Russia; they were resettled to the far east of Russia. (I met one of the Volga-Deutschen in the US some years ago. He came from a town now in Kyrgistan, called Kant.)

But Hitler achieved even more than this, for he waged the most effective assault imaginable on the very idea of being German: after him, many would say they felt ashamed to be German. This continues even today, when some in Germany support the European project so that they can abandon their German identity for a European one.

Hitler and his Nazis actually were what they declared the Jews to be: an utterly negative and essentially destructive force. Having declared that Germany had a Jewish problem, Hitler convinced Europeans that they had a German problem.

(If you ever want to meet someone who has a rabid, visceral hated of Hitler, try talking to a German intellectual: they’ve often thought an awful lot of this through. I can recall one occasion on which a German intellectual, entirely unprompted by me, have begun to lament the intellectual loss his country had suffered in the 30’s and 40’s – literary, philosophical, scientific giants, not only irreplaceable in themselves, but causing a permanent break and decline in the tradition.)

Such are my reflections on the basis of Haffner’s “Remarks on Hitler.” The other book, “Story of a German” (Defying Hitler in English) is, if anything, even better. Written in the late 30’s, when Haffner was a newly arrived refugee in England (with a Jewish wife), the book was not published until after the manuscript was found among his possessions when he died in 1999. It caused a sensation, as Haffner had become an influential journalist in Germany after the war, well known in his native country for his “Remarks on Hitler,” inter alia. The book is an autobiographical portrait of the times that brought Hitler to power. It not only reads like a novel (I read it in pretty much one sitting the first time), it also gives an implicit answer – the best I’ve encountered – to the question that Germans have been asking ever since: how could it happen?

This is already a rather long post, so I’m not going to say so much about the second book. We get a picture of the years of the First World War and the great shock of the final German defeat from a child’s perspective (perhaps not all that different from the reaction of a great mass of people). We get a portrait of life in the Weimar years; the account of the effects of hyperinflation on everyday life in Germany has always stayed with me. Each month, when his father got his paycheque, the whole family would set out for the market with a wheelbarrow and a great collection of bags, and buy as much mostly non-perishable food as they could. So swiftly was the currency declining, that within a few days, his father’s monthly pay would become worthless, so the family had to acquire the month’s food in a single trip. (incidentally, at the German Historical Museum in Berlin you can see bank notes for billions of Marks from this time.) In time, the Nazis came to power, and we get an idea of the sort of compromises forced on everyone in a dictatorship: Haffner’s father was, by the early 30’s, a retired civil servant, but to continue to receive his pension, he had to sign a document declaring his full support for the government. He contemplates refusal, but how would his son continue his studies? What would his wife live on once he’s gone? The document sits there for some days until finally, he fills it out, signs it, drops it in the post box – and upon coming home has a nervous breakdown that soon leads to his death.

Short, highly readable, rich in original insight, and packed with material that a thoughtful reader will be working through for some time after finishing each book, these two works by Sebastian Haffner are simply essential to anyone who wants to understand Hitler and the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps the best summary of Haffner’s career is found a few blocks from the Frei Universität in south-west Berlin, on the building where Haffner spent his last years (incidentally, Albert Einstein also lived there for some of the First World War). The plaque by the door includes the words, er erklärte den Deutschen Deutschland: he explained Germany to the Germans.


Nicholas Cohen’s What’s Left?

This is an important book. It deserves a far wider readership than it will get. Though it deals largely with everyday political life, treating major events from the late sixties to the second Iraq war, it ties its account in to the relevant intellectual currents of the times, delivering an insightful and searing critique of those currents. Though explicitly aimed at the left, the book is more important than just one segment of the political spectrum, because the ideas it treats – bad ideas whose progress Cohen follows from relative obscurity among top academics and fringe movements to subsequent ubiquity in mass street protests and mainstream politics – have come in no small way to define the nature of our times. What’s Left is an important book for those who want to understand politics throughout the Western world today, but more than that, as a former humanities academic, I think this book should be required reading for all students of postmodernism: it gives a look at what this intellectual movement actually means in practice, something we rarely hear about. It doesn’t hurt that the book reads like a newspaper or a novel – postmodernism is usually known for its impenetrable prose.

One idea central to the book (and postmodernism) is relativism. We have all encountered the doctrine in the form of cultural relativism – i.e., the idea that no culture’s practices are better than any others. So, for example, in some cultures, it’s appropriate to eat with a knife and fork, in others, with chopsticks, in others still, with your hands. The cultural relativist reminds us that no one of these approaches is better than any other – indeed, that it would be deeply wrong and even evil to take any one of them as absolute and to try to impose it on others. In theory, this sounds great, and the doctrine’s advocates often see it as necessary to sustain or to further develop the left-wing movements of the 20th century, in that they think it the only foundation on which real tolerance and coexistence are possible. Cohen, however, deals with the way the doctrine actually plays out in the real world, and there it proves not merely disastrous but actively evil.

One relatively recent application of relativism involves a sharper and more exclusive focus on minority groups. So, for example, “the idea that a homosexual black woman should have the same rights as a heterosexual white man,” says Cohen, “was replaced by a relativism which took the original and hopeful challenge of the early feminist, gay and anti-racist movements and flipped it over. Homosexuality, blackness and womanhood became separate cultures that couldn’t be criticized or understood by outsiders applying universal criteria.” This refusal of criticism involving universal criteria was applied above all to the foreign cultures found in other countries.

Consider, for example, Michel Foucault, celebrated among many academics as one of the great minds of the 20th century, and often taken to be a particularly progressive thinker. In the late 70’s he became enamoured of the Ayatollah’s new regime in Iran, and warned against criticising it – Iranian culture has a different “regime of truth,” after all. That is, they have their own culture with its own practices, and we have no right to try to impose our own cultural practices on them. But what was at issue in this case was not merely matters like how we eat our food, but questions such as whether or not people who protest against the government should be tortured, or questions concerning the rights of women. Cohen brings the heart of the matter out clearly: “if the bishops of the French Catholic Church had achieved the theocratic power of the ayatollahs and used it to prescribe what Foucault and his colleagues could teach at the College du France in Paris, I’m sure Foucault and all his admirers in Anglo-American academe would have gone ape and shouted ‘fascism.’ As it was, the victims of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocracy had brown skins and lived in a faraway country.” Far from being a progressive thinker, Foucault supported tyranny and the crushing of human rights – not in his own country, mind you, but for other people born elsewhere. More than that, he effectively brought the weight of his academic reputation to bear against those in the West who would criticise the Iranian regime and who would support Iranians who wanted something better.

Cohen finds the same sort of idea at work elsewhere in academia, for example, in the almost indecipherable prose of a man who is writing concerning the practice of burning women to death in India. Cohen deciphers the writing, and it soon becomes clear why the academic might express his thought in such an obscure fashion: his writing express concern over the fact that certain people in the West are criticising the practice of burning women to death, rather than over the practice itself. After all, what right do westerners have to criticise another culture?

Once such ideas have become commonplace in academia, it is a straightforward matter for them to trickle down to the rest of society, and Cohen provides abundant examples of how they play out in everyday life, above all in relation to the question of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which lies at the heart of the book.

Cohen’s approach to both Iraq wars was informed by the fact that he had left-wing Iraqi friends, and was thus very much aware of the nature of Hussein’s regime and the desire of Iraqis to be liberated from it. He tells us he didn’t join protests against the first Iraq war because he saw Arabs carrying signs saying things like “Free Kuwait.” He supported the second Iraq war because he was all too aware that the line about Saddam Hussein being a brutal dictator who ought to be removed was, well, true. As someone who was against the Iraq war from the start, I found Cohen’s account of the whole situation instructive and thought-provoking, far the best thing I’ve read on the subject, but that will be another post.

It is in relation to Iraq, however, that the bad ideas from academia really go mainstream, as the great mass of people opposed to the war fail to make important distinctions, and wind up effectively – and sometimes explicitly and actively – opposing democracy and supporting a brutal dictatorship for the people of Iraq. An ethical approach would have been to oppose the rash activity of Bush and his followers while supporting Iraqis who wanted democracy by all possible means. Instead, we read of occasions on which Westerners actually shouted down left-wing Iraqis who were trying to achieve for their own country the same rights we enjoy in our own. Being against Bush was more important than allowing any kind of help for democratic Iraqis. Thus the German government refused to allow its own officials who had experience in dealing with the legacy of the GDR and Third Reich in Germany to go to Iraq to advise on how to approach the same sort of issues there. (Don’t tell me I should admire Joschka Fischer.)

But perhaps the best example in the book of how postmodern thought such as that of Foucault had filtered down to the mainstream comes in the following exchange:

Tony Blair: There is global struggle in which we need a policy based on democracy, on freedom and on justice –

John Humphrys (a BBC presenter): Our idea of democracy…

Blair: I didn’t know that there was another idea of democracy.

Humphrys: If I may say so, that’s naïve.

Blair: The one basic fact about democracy, surely, is that you can get rid of your government if you don’t like them.

Humphrys: The Iranians elected their own government, and we’re now telling them –

Blair: Hold on John, something like 60 per cent of the candidates were excluded.

(BBC Radio 4, Feb. 2007)

I’ve always hated Blair, but in my books he alone is entirely right in this exchange. (again, rethinking Iraq will be a future post.) I’d like to hear if Humphrys made an apology to all those young Iranians who in 2009 proved willing to be beaten and tortured because they wanted “our idea of democracy.”

Numerous well-known leftists come in for well-deserved criticism along the way. Michael Moore, not a substantial intellectual figure, is dispatched in two paragraphs. He “brushed aside the millions forced into exile and the mass graves and torture chambers and decided instead to present life in one of the worst tyrannies of the late twentieth century as sweet… Presented with propaganda which might have come from the studios of the dictators of the Thirties, the jury at the Cannes Film Festival and audiences in art house cinemas on every continent did not protest at the whitewash of totalitarianism, but rose to their feet and shouted themselves hoarse.” It is Noam Chomsky, however, who is subjected to more sustained criticism. Chapter Six, together with Chapter 5, contains an utterly devastating, crushing attack on him, in particular on his moral authority. I can remember people gushing about Chomsky in Vancouver in the 90’s, talking about his upcoming talk as though it were the chance of a lifetime to stand in the shadow of one of the greatest intellectual lights of our time. I couldn’t make it. I now feel rather glad not to have been involved. Cohen’s criticism is a knock-out blow: I can no longer look at Chomsky as a moral authority, and I will feel forced in the future to question the judgment of those who do.

The book has much else to recommend it. Me, I’m interested in the ideas that undergird everything. There are other aspects of postmodernism that turn up repeatedly and which are essential consequences of the relativism discussed above – that is, consequences that arise out of the doctrine’s nature. Relativists will tend not to think ideas through to their logical consequences, and so we repeatedly encounter people who adopt doctrines in a merely partial fashion, unwilling really to commit to anything and failing to confront the full reality of what they are advocating. This brings about what I call mere criticism – that is, we end up with people who focus all their energy on being against something, often coming up with effective critiques of it, but never offering solutions, never being for anything. (At some point, I’m going to do a post of mere criticism.) So, for example, Cohen points to the oft-repeated claim that the war against Saddam Hussein was ‘illegal.’ “Logically, they should then have followed through and demanded that the Americans release Saddam Hussein from prison and restore him to the presidency that the invading forces had ‘illegally’ stolen from him. But, as the theorists of the Eighties and Nineties had anticipated, there wasn’t much call for logic in a post-modern world that welcomed self-righteous fury without positive commitments.”

Also, I’d just like to say that I find it extremely pleasing to hear Jean Baudrillard described as “an overrated French theorist.”

Personally, I enjoyed the book because it so clearly sets out the connection between philosophical ideas and real life. In the process, we get an idea of just how important good philosophical thinking is. Of course, the book’s real focus is contemporary politics, and it will be no less enjoyable for those who come to it from that perspective. Cohen’s book is not just a product of that rarest of rarities, an actively searching mind, it is also a product of two things that very few of those involved in the Iraq debacle can claim: integrity and moral authority. Books this good are rare indeed.

TL;DR: Go buy it. Now.

(also, if you want an idea of what Cohen’s all about, try here or here)

Every Determination is a Negation

My thought for this blog is that I’m going to go back and forth between current events and philosophical principles, the better to illustrate both sides. So here goes my first attempt at the latter side…

Philosophical principles are rather like the foundation of a house. If you get them wrong, no matter how much you get right later on, you’ll still end up with a structure that’s going to collapse. Even though most people don’t study or even think about philosophy, nobody can escape taking implicit positions on philosophical matters, much as everyone who works in (or on) a building is dependent on its foundation, even though they may understand nothing about how that foundation was built. In our own time, some very popular ideas are founded on some extremely bad, poorly thought-out philosophical ideas. Here I want to deal with a fairly simple idea that I think has the potential to improve bad thinking that underlies many problems today.

One of the oldest insights in Western philosophy is that for anything to be something, it has to not be other things. To say that something is a table is to say that it is not a chair, or a cup of coffee, or the number 14 (and so on). After all, if something is a table, it can’t be a chair (and so on). Sounds pretty obvious, right? Well, before Plato, people hadn’t thought this through; he tackles the matter at some length in his dialogue the Sophist (if you feel like a bit of ancient phil). After Plato, the idea pops up repeatedly in the history of philosophy. So, for example, Spinoza’s formulation is omnis determinatio est negatio (“every determination is a negation”). The idea receives a particularly rich development in Hegel (watch for a future post on that).

To be determined (to take up Spinoza’s language) is to be something definite, something specific. And again, to be some specific thing is to not be lots of other things. Another way to think about this is to say that to be something requires a sort of excluding, a rejecting of other things. If a table is not a chair, it can be said to exclude being a chair, and if you leave out that moment of exclusion, you lose the ability to think or communicate anything at all. For if there’s no definite difference between concepts, if the idea of ‘table’ does not exclude the idea ‘chair,’ then there can’t be any difference between “your lunch is on the table” and “your lunch is on the chair” – or, for that matter, there can’t be any difference between “this dog loves running” and “all cats hate being wet” (or anything else). For thinking or communicating to be possible at all, then part of what it means to be something has to be not being other things.

Today, this elementary and fundamental truth seems to me to have effectively been forgotten, or rather incomprehendingly cast aside. Two of the great virtues of our time are openness and tolerance, but they’re often pursued as if what we want is absolute openness, or absolute tolerance. The other side, the need sometimes to be closed to what is other or to refuse to tolerate certain things, is not merely forgotten, but actively denigrated.

Openness and tolerance are taken to be liberal virtues, but if we fail to bring along a healthy regard for their opposites, we get into trouble. In the first place, the words “openness and tolerance” would obviously constitute a bad description of a liberal standpoint today, for one hardly wants to be open to wife-beating or tolerant of child abuse. Liberals have definite, determinate beliefs, and that means there are things they want to exclude – and that means that we all ought to be conscious of the importance of being closed in the right way, of excluding and of refusing to tolerate at the appropriate time and in the appropriate respect.

There is, however, a deeper problem at work: negating, excluding, being closed or intolerant – this group of concepts has a bearing on the possibility of existence per se. Anything that fails to negate, fails to exist – or at least fails to maintain its existence. A puff of smoke is absolutely open, and that’s why it disappears in seconds. In similar fashion, a culture or society that pursues openness and tolerance in a one-sided fashion is already in the process of passing away (though cultures and societies, being larger entities, take rather more time to disappear than puffs of smoke).

Thus we come to what I think is among the most important issues of our time: our own society – the West – has become fixed on openness, on being tolerant, on never excluding or saying ‘no’ to anything that might be perceived as ‘other.’ The idea is that such openness is the basis from which we can best enjoy a peaceful coexistence with others. The problem is that the West has taken this idea too far. The result is that in practice the West is sometimes – or perhaps, more and more – false to its best self, to what should be its most cherished principles. Though few people see the philosophical foundation, we have in effect forgotten that every determination is a negation.

This is a big thought, and it may require a period of digestion before its full significance and the variety of its implications become clear. I have spoken somewhat abstractly because I intend to provide more detail, from a variety of angles, in future posts. I do feel I should mention one book in particular in which this idea seemed to me often to lie near the surface. The book is What’s Left? by Nicholas Cohen. His focus is the convergence of the farther Left with the far Right, with the failure of the Left to stand up consistently for democracy and human rights, and with the willingness of the Left actively to support brutal dictators. Having read it, I see the world – or at least a chunk of it – through different eyes. The book will have a post of its own at some point in the next few months.

I also note that there have been a number of books in German in the post-9/11 era that focus directly on the problem of one-sided tolerance. The famous German feminist Alice Schwarzer edited a tome called The Holy Warriors and False Tolerance, dealing (inter alia) with the failure of the West to stand up for women’s rights when confronted with Islam; Henryk Broder has a book, The Critique of Pure Tolerance (Kritik der reinen Toleranz, a play on Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft); while Alexander Kissler has a book, No Tolerance for the Intolerant: Why the West Must Defend Its Values. I don’t say I’ve read any of them, but perhaps I’ll do so and report back in a few months. Interesting (and typical) that the Germans seem to be closer to the principle than anything I’ve come across in English.

Finally, I wrote in my first post about how the thirties have recently come to seem grimly appropriate to our own time. Warnings from back then have suddenly started to seem relevant again today. This being so, perhaps it’s not surprising that I find myself thinking of certain words of Winston Churchill when I’ve just written about the importance of negating, of excluding, of saying ‘no’ to things:

“Alexander the Great remarked that the people of Asia were slaves because they had not learned to pronounce the word ‘No.’ Let that not be the epitaph of the English-speaking peoples or of Parliamentary democracy, or of France, or of the many surviving liberal States of Europe. There, in one single word, is the resolve which the forces of freedom and progress, of tolerance and good will, should take.”

The Significance of Cologne


I am in Germany for now, so I’m going to be posting on some German-related topics. Today: what was the significance of Cologne?

I’ve seen it compared to September 11th, and I think the comparison is appropriate. Obviously, September 11th was a far worse event – 3,000 people died – but its primary significance, the reason that so many people who weren’t there, and didn’t know anyone who was, have been talking and thinking about it ever since, was this: a paradigm was shattered.

Those who blather on about how more people die in America in car accidents annually than on 9/11 have failed to understand the significance of that event. At 8 am that day, people in the Twin Towers or in the Pentagon might have been thought to occupy some of the safest ground on earth. Living in a time of peace in cities protected by the mightiest military machine in history, itself allied to most of the other great military powers of the day, with no significant enemies within thousands of kilometers, the people in those locations seemed almost absolutely safe from foreign enemies. It was not only the feeling of safety that was soon to be shattered – although it certainly was, and for everyone everywhere, because if they can hit the Pentagon and destroy two of the most important buildings in one of America’s most important cities, they can certainly hit you, living in some far less important place. More than the feeling of safety, however, the whole order of things that I just described was shaken, for the foundations of America’s safety, which had seemed so solid, had suddenly failed. The significance was not simply the body count, but also the shattering effect it had on an understanding of the world. Above all for this reason, it was the beginning of a new era, with a new danger – before 9/11, Islam had scarcely entered the consciousness of North Americans – and with a need for new thinking about what was necessary for security.

The events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve should in this sense be understood as a mini-September 11th. They did not take place in some back alley or in a ghetto known to be dangerous, but in the heart of the city, at the major transportation hub, a place a very large proportion of the city’s population will pass through on a regular basis. (Somewhere in the English-speaking press it was suggested that the Cologne train station is a particularly dangerous place. That’s certainly news to me; I’ve been there many times in the past decade, most recently in June.) The feeling of security in general was thus undermined – and not just in Cologne, because similar events happened all over Germany, as well as in Finland and Sweden.

But the sudden sense of insecurity was only a part of the story, because the sort of attacks that took place in Cologne were of a fundamentally new sort, and intersected meaningfully with current events, specifically the ongoing ‘refugee’ crisis. Perhaps the best way to get an idea of what I’m after here is to consider a very different view, the suggestion of a German politician in the Green party, Renate Kunaste: there was also sexual violence in Germany before the attacks in Cologne, she says, so it’s false to focus only on the migrants in this matter.

Think just how poorly this view accounts for the facts of the case. We can leave aside the fact that the “North African and Arabic” origin of the attackers was widely reported, by victims as by the police, for there was more to this story. A Cologne police officer later said that “the approach of the perpetrators in Cologne is… a phenomenon known in the Arabic world. A group of men circles around a female victim, surrounds her and assaults her. The phenomenon became known to the Western public first in 2013 in Cairo, when many Western journalists observed it during the people’s uprising at Tahir Square.” [more than one of those journalists, he might have added, became brutally subject to it despite having bodyguards.] The comparison with Tahir Square has been very widely made (e.g., here and here), but similar behaviour has been reported in Tunis, in Iran (see the current issue of the Spiegel, specifically #2, 9.1.2016, pp. 20-21, currently here behind a paywall), and an editor in Turkey says that what happened in New Year’s Eve in Cologne “was the same thing that happens every year in the greatest square in Istanbul, Taksim Square” (on Turkey, see also here).

This behaviour is unprecedented in the West. As the German feminist Alice Schwarzer said, “the events in Cologne and in other places had a new quality, a new dimension, beyond sexual violence known so far.” This new quality is attested by the fact that it has an Arabic name – taharrush gamea – and not an English or German one.

But even if we leave aside these facts, consider what we’d have to commit ourselves to if we were to agree with Frau Kunaste and declare that a focus on migrants here is not appropriate. In the first place, if it’s right to find in New Year’s Eve just another example of sexual assault like so many others that occurred in Germany in time gone by, how does this explain the fact that we’re talking about New Year’s Eve in Cologne at all? The fact that it’s international news and a national crisis would seem to suggest that something unusual has happened, precisely what Frau Kunaste’s comment fails to capture. After all, her words aim to emphasise the similarity between this event and others that occur frequently; insofar as this is right, there’s no explanation for the fact that everyone’s talking about this event rather than any other. Furthermore, given that something new for Germany has happened, consider the fact that the events of New Year’s Eve occurred this year. Why didn’t similar events happen in 2014, or 2003, or 1985? If we want to say that migrants are not a crucial part of the story, well, what an astonishing coincidence that this happened this year, immediately after Germany has opened its doors to more than a million migrants! And add in a few of the facts given above, and the coincidence becomes more extraordinary still: what terrible luck for Frau Merkel and the multicultural left that a type of behaviour that has been attested in the Arabic, Persian and Turkish worlds, but never before in Germany, should appear on the streets of Germany immediately after a mass migration from the Arabic world! What absolutely astonishing bad luck!

Of course, there’s no need to believe in such an unprecedented proliferation of coincidences, and much of the commentary has rightly followed a different path. For, of course, what is most significant about Cologne is the fact that it drives into the public sphere the conflict between two beliefs that have both long been dear to the Left.

Specifically what has happened is that assumptions about other cultures have collided with feminism. It has long been an article faith for many on the left that cultural differences involve things like the sort of food you eat, or the kind of clothes you wear (I have heard Frau Kunaste assert just this on TV). From such a perspective, it’s reasonable to push back against demands that new arrivals should be expected to adopt our cultural norms to some degree. From such a perspective, it’s also reasonable to say that the presence of other cultures is simply positive, enriching our lives, and to expect that with a little goodwill on all sides, we should all be able to get along. (etc.) But what Cologne drives into the open is the fact that cultural differences go much farther than many would like to think. In this case, those not desperately active with denial are coming to see that the place of women in society is a cultural matter, and that our cultural preferences in this regard are very much at odds with certain other cultures. A great deal follows from this.

A final word: let’s be clear what I am not saying. It is not the case that Islam, or Arabic, Iranian or Turkish culture, explicitly encourages men to attack women in public. It is not the case that men from those parts of the world are all rapists. The point is to avoid such crude and mindless extremes, but also extremes on the opposite side, such as that advocated by Frau Kunaste, according to which we should avoid thinking about the specific cultural basis of Cologne at all. The difficult work of coming up with a thoughtful response lies in between these extremes, and in an age of mass migration, much depends on our willingness and ability to attempt and discuss this thoughtful response in public.

A Year Later: Why I Subscribed to the National Post

            I grew up reading The Globe and Mail. Sometime in the mid- to late eighties, I began copying my parents, and read a bit of the paper before heading off to school. Often I would return to it in the evenings. In university, my grandmother gave me a subscription, and I kept on reading. I can still remember certain headlines, certain pictures, and above all, certain editorial cartoons (having now read papers in seven countries, I think the Globe’s Brian Gable is the best anywhere). Having grown up with it, I have long had a certain sentimental fondness for the paper. I was, and would remain, a Globe reader for life.

At some point in the nineties, I became aware that another national newspaper was going to start up soon. Bankrolled by the owners of a very large chunk of the Canadian press, it was to be called The National Post. It would provide a conservative alternative to the Globe, and would have all the advantages that its owners’ deep pockets could provide. From the start, I regarded it with a kind of horror, not only because I was appalled by its conservative standpoint, but also because I worried about the harm it might do to the paper I’d grown up with. I remember taking people to task for subscribing to the Post; on at least one occasion I went without the day’s news because only the Post was available (and the fact that it alone was available on that occasion somehow made me feel that evil and dishonourable machinations were at work). I was, after all, a Globe reader.

This past year something changed that. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, newspapers everywhere were confronted with a question: would they print the cartoons? In France and in Germany, the focus seemed to be on the matter of principle: freedom itself, the bedrock of our society – indeed, of our civilisation – was under attack, and now was the time to stand up for it. In Germany it seemed that every single paper reprinted some of the cartoons (if not always the most offensive). One paper had an entire pull-out section with dozens of reprints of Charlie Hebdo covers, some featuring Mohammed, some not. Another reprinted a Hebdo cartoon of Mohammed, but pasted him into their own background, so that he was taking a bath in blood. In France, while so many papers reprinted the cartoons, it was noted in several that virtually the entire press in les pays anglo-saxons (i.e., the English-speaking world) was not printing anything from Charlie Hebdo.

With a few (generally right-wing) exceptions, in Canada, the US and Britain, people who wanted to know exactly what all the fuss was about had to turn to the internet. This was not necessarily indefensible. There are two main reasons why editors might have preferred not to publish the cartoons. The first was summed up memorably by Boris Johnson: “about 10 years ago, the whole Danish cartoon controversy blew up – and I remember distinctly concluding that I would never have published them in The Spectator, which I edited, not just because they were gratuitously inflammatory, but because I didn’t see how I could justify my decision to the widows and orphans of my staff, in the event of an attack on our offices.” In other words, we might be moved by fear, perhaps rightly. The second reason is the desire to respect others, with the further pragmatic reflection that if we want to live in peace with others, a posture of conciliation will help us do so. This standpoint would see publishing the cartoons as not only be wrong it itself by virtue of its failure to live up to the civilised ideal of polite regard for others, but also as undermining our hope of peace in the future by provoking further violent acts.

The Globe, along with much of Canada’s English-speaking press (and in contrast to much of French-speaking press) did not print the cartoons. On January 8th an editorial explained why. In addition to an argument to the effect that actually seeing the cartoons was not necessary to understand the story, the reason came down to a matter of principle: “we hadn’t published the cartoons before the slaughter and our editorial position remains the same today.” The decision attracted some criticism from readers, particularly online. Three days later came a second justification of the paper’s decision. It was the worst editorial I have ever read.

This second editorial seemed to me not to be altogether consistent. On the one hand, it continued the principled stand of its predecessor: “we made the same decision in 2006 after a Danish magazine was threatened by extremists for publishing cartoons depicting Mohammed as a terrorist. Both decisions were made in accordance with the newspaper’s beliefs and values.” That is, the decision was a matter of maintaining a consistent principle, of standing firm and refusing to be moved by the violence of current events. To say this is precisely to say that the Globe was not moved in this decision by fear.

The editorial, however, contained remarks that seemed to point in another direction: the Globe’s critics, we were told, “have nothing on the line as they gleefully accuse the media of heinous shortcomings in the emotional aftermath of the murders of most of Charlie Hebdo’s senior editorial masthead.” To say that your critics “have nothing on the line” is to draw attention, albeit indirectly, to the fact that you, by contrast, do have something on the line. That is, the appeal here is “you may be criticising us, but we’re the ones who face violent consequences if we publish the cartoons and things go badly. Put yourself in our shoes, and see how that makes you feel (and just now we’re going to mention that most of Charlie Hebdo’s senior editors were killed).” This line is continued a moment later, when it is said of critics, “how incredibly easy. How crass and pompous.” That is, incredibly easy for you… This line of thought invites us to consider: if you were an editor thinking about publishing those cartoons in that context, how would you feel? There’s only one answer: afraid. The appeal is unmistakably to fear. To act out of fear is precisely not to stand on principle.

So in the middle of a defense of the principled and consistent stand taken by the paper’s editors, we are pointed at something quite different from principle and consistency: fear. The editorial argues from two different standpoints.

I don’t pass judgment on the editors at the Globe and Mail for being afraid. As they remind me, I don’t have the right to: I never published the cartoons. What I absolutely do judge them is on the terrible job they did of explaining themselves, on the back-handed way in which they introduced fear into the argument, stooping to name-calling at the very moment they were showing that their appeal to principle was nonsense. Because here’s the thing: you can’t stand unflinchingly on principle and act out of fear. It’s either one or the other.

What hit me like a tons of bricks, however, was the fact that the episode brought another historical era to mind. High-sounding declarations of principle on the surface, while an unspoken fear lies underneath, driving behaviour? I had seen this before, as part of appeasement.

The word ‘appeasement,’ of course, refers to that period in the thirties, when the Western democracies wanted so desperately to avoid a second world war, and so failed to stand up to Hitler as he went from a cartoon character to a terrifying force. Like the editors of the Globe, of course, nobody wants to be seen to be moved by fear – or to see themselves this way – so when we read the words of the appeasers of the thirties, we often find appeals to high-sounding principles. The need for conciliation and trust, the importance of admitting our own mistakes and injustices, the great virtue of universal peace – these are the sorts of appeals we find again and again. You can also find a rather desperate willingness to find reasons to trust this new Hitler fellow. People like Churchill who warned about and criticised Hitler were put under tremendous pressure to stop doing so, and were denied platforms in many places. (Wouldn’t want to provoke another war.)

The failure of appeasement in the thirties was not only a moral failure. It also made the world far less safe – indeed, the appeasers can be said to have caused the second world war in a very real sense. Few foreign policy problems have been so easy to solve as Hitler when he was just getting going.

That Globe editorial caused a paradigm shift for me. Suddenly appeasement was not a far-off phenomenon from the pages of history, like the Spanish armada or the Athenian empire. Suddenly it was a defining characteristic of our own times. In addition, I found myself conscious of something I had never felt in my life, almost a sensation in its intensity: I felt ashamed to be Canadian. I was in Germany, where the press had decided, as one, to stand for something, if only for a moment. The French were doing the same thing. And what did the English-speaking world, Canada, and above all, the paper I had grown up with do? The made grandiose declarations of principle to pretend they weren’t afraid. The National Post chose another path, so suddenly subscribing to it seemed positively like a duty.

The Globe’s course was not the only one available. Consider what Dan Hodges, at the Daily Telegraph said: “just before I started this piece I was about to tweet the picture of the cartoon of the prophet Muhammad published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. I was going to do it ‘in solidarity’. And then I stopped. I stopped because I was scared.” That is a contribution, because it gets the fact of fear out there. Hodges can’t feel good about himself in the way that the Globe editors can, because he admits that he’s not acting on the basis of some great principle, he admits he’s acting from fear. But the first step in dealing with fear is to admit it’s there, and so Dan Hodges performed a service by making it a matter of record that there is now a climate of fear, that people are changing their behaviour because of it. The Globe didn’t do that. I don’t think that the paper I grew up with would have made the same decision, but I’m quite certain they would have done a better job of explaining themselves.

As appeasement in the thirties made us all less safe, so too does it have the same effect today. We have given way: there now exists an unspoken ban on certain words and pictures where Islam is concerned. Charlie Hebdo is not going to draw the prophet in the future, and the same is true of the Jyllands-Posten. They can hardly be blamed: they’ve been far braver and more principled than everyone else; they’ve done their bit. But when even the freedom of speech fanatics aren’t going to do it, the rest of us certainly cannot.

And we need freedom of speech fanatics. It is the bedrock, the foundation, the sine qua non of everything else we value, of our way of life. For example, freedom of speech is prior to feminism, because feminism is only possible in a society in which basic cultural norms can be safely challenged. Notoriously, when Mary Wollstonecraft put her arguments to certain men in the 18th century, they just laughed at her. But consider what they did not do: they did not throw acid in her face, nor did they beat her to death. Since the turn of the century, we’ve become conscious of the fact that there do exist societies where such things happen. In the end, the difference comes down to freedom of speech. One could pile up similar examples at some length.

I suspect that the difference between the reaction of the English-speaking world and that of the Germans or the French is to be explained to some degree by a cultural difference: the French and the Germans tend to see the principle more readily, and to act on it; the English-speaking tendency is to focus more on the particular situation at hand. From the latter perspective, one can see why it might not seem so important to print the pictures. After all, by doing so, one doesn’t seem to accomplish all that much, while the danger might be quite real. But all the same, a matter of principle is at stake, and principles really do matter. As Thucydides has Pericles say, “this trifle contains the whole seal and trial of your resolution. If you give way, you will instantly have to meet some greater demand, as having been frightened into obedience in the first instance.”