Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Archive for November, 2014

Viktor Bulla’s Pioneers in Defense Drill; ca. 1937

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“Viktor Bulla’s photograph of hundreds of children wearing gas masks was not meant to be ghoulish, a commentary on war or lost innocence, but rather exemplified a reason for pride—the country was blessed with well-trained, well-equipped and obviously courageous young fighters.”

(From “Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US” by Leah Bendavid-Val)

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Opening ceremony of Bromma Airport in Sweden with the flags of Denmark, Great Britain and Nazi Germany in the foreground and a Junkers G-38 (which was the largest land-based airplane when it was first built) in the background – Bromma, Sweden; ca. 1936

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Collapse of the Soviet Union:

While the USSR itself ceased to exist, many communist politicians either remained in power or continued to play an active role in their country’s politics. The revolutions were made possible not because of external forces (the US didn’t defeat communism, as it is often claimed) but because the communist party began to lose faith in itself.

Anti-communist and anti-party movements were not entirely uncommon in the USSR, but engaging in public demonstrations carried with it severe risks. In 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary to crush the opposition movement when it became clear that Imre Nagy, a communist himself, could no longer be trusted to rule the communist party. When he declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union mercilessly crushed the Hungarian dissidents. Mass bloodshed was avoided at Nagy’s insistence that the Hungarian people not fight their invaders, knowing perfectly well that there was little chance of victory. Similar events were to be repeated in Prague in 1968 when Alexander Dubček sought to relax party control over public life through democratic reforms including freedom of press. While more successful than the Hungarian revolution, the Prague Spring, ultimately met the same fate as the Warsaw Pact invaded in August. Similarly, bloodshed was spared only through the insistence by Dubček that Czechoslovaks not resist their invaders.

Although the revolutions in each country of Eastern Europe took on a different quality, there was one characteristic that defined them all: they were all non-violent. Beginning with the Polish workers’ union Solidarity and later emulated by Civic Forum (Czech) and Public Against Violence (Slovak) all communist opposition from then on took a strictly non-violent approach believing that, and with good reason, any violence committed by the opposition movements would only play into the communists’ party’s hands. On the other hand, any violent response to the democratic movements now sweeping Eastern Europe would only serve to discredit the communist parties further. Had the Soviets wanted to crush these democratic movements, there is little doubt as to whether they would be successful or not. The violent repression of the Prague Spring was still vivid in the minds of many.

There are two significant differences in the political climate within which the democratic movements of the 1980s were taking place and between those that took place before them and both had to do with the communist parties themselves. Faced with unprecedented protests and a call for democracy, communist officials simply did not understand how to address the protestors. That the revolutions were successful at all, ironically, can be attributed to a series of political and strategic blunders made by communist party officials. In Poland, for example, to address a series of devastating labour strikes, the Polish communist party, for the first time in the history of the USSR, formally recognized Solidarity (the Polish workers’ union mentioned earlier). In the span of just one year, Solidarity membership had reached 9.5 million members. Witnessing its popularity and fearing for its hold on power, the polish communist party attempted to outlaw Solidarity in the 1980s through the declaration of martial law. This would be characteristic of all revolutions in Eastern Europe: the communist party would relax their control over public life only to try and regain that same control later on through greater oppression which only served to discredit further still the communist regimes.

By the late 1980s it was clear in Poland and elsewhere that the communist party had no real sense of how to address their countries’ increasingly unsustainable economic situation or the growing public unrest. In 1989, the communist party having lost all credibility agreed to sit down with Solidarity to discuss the problems now facing Poland.

Among the agreements reached at the negotiations between the communist party and Solidarity was the creation of a new elected assembly. Elections were held just two months after the round-table talks between Solidarity and the party. Although the elections to the Parliamentary Assembly were rigged to retain a communist majority, the Senate elections were to untouched. Surprisingly, though in retrospect not unexpected, Solidarity won 99 of the 100 seats in the senate and all the seats it was allowed to the Parliamentary Assembly. The communist party itself was left in an impossible situation with the only options being to accept the vote and lose power, or to ignore the vote and resign. They chose the latter, at Gorbachev’s insistence, and communist rule in Poland officially ended.

That Gorbachev himself made clear that the Polish communist party had to accept the vote is significant. It was clear that Gorbachev had no intention of upholding the USSR’s official doctrine of quelling opposition through military intervention. Indeed, stating that the growing democratic movements in Eastern Europe were “a matter for the people themselves” signified to the protestors that Russia would not intervene. This minor and seemingly innocuous remark gave the democratic movements the confidence they needed to effectively bring communist rule to an end.

Sources:

Judt, T. (2005). Postwar: A history of europe since 1945. London, England: Penguin Group.

Goldgeiger, J., & McFaul, M. (2003). Power and purpose: U.S. policy toward Russia after the cold war. Washington, D.C. : The Brookings Institution.


M.K. Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, on a swing; ca. 1935

Secularize the state...Weeeeeee!...secure turkish sovereignty...weeeeee!

Secularize the state…Weeeeeee!…secure turkish sovereignty…weeeeee!


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German soldiers moving a 17cm medium minenwerfer into position in France; ca. 1917

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American soldiers celebrate the Armistice and the end of the fighting; Nov. 11, 1918

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In some sectors, fighting continued right up to the moment before the cease fire. The last soldier killed as an American who charged German positions only a minute to 11am, when the Armistice came into effect.

(The American, Henry Gunther, apparently had been demoted earlier, and was desperate to redeem himself, so it was a last chance at glory, but generally speaking, many officers felt that it was proper to continue fighting right up till the end. If for whatever reason the cease fire didn’t work, they wanted to be sure they were still placed well.)


A top sniper, codenamed “Arrow,” loads her gun in a safe room in Sarajevo, June 30, 1992. The 20-year old Serb who shoots for the Bosnian forces says she has lost count of the number of people she has killed .

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She ended up getting shot in the back, basically ripping out her whole stomach and she still walked out of there, not thinking about her but about her comrades and the rifle.

The Bosnian army sniper known by the code name “Arrow” was wounded in early December, hit in the back by a 7.62mm bullet fired from a tank light machine gun. The bullet drove just past her spine and ripped out through her stomach, but missed her kidneys and spleen.

“I never thought for a split-second that I was dead, but I thought my spine had gone,” she said. “I was more worried that I couldn’t walk and my two comrades would refuse to leave me there and they would be killed too.” She forced herself to stand and run another 250 yards to safety, after making sure one of her comrades had picked up her rifle.

– (Associated Press article from the 13th of January 1993 By Tony Smith)

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The whole conflict is a fascinating thing to study, because it really reveals the ways in which people will form fierce group identities, despite these identities being often quite random.

The former nation of Yugoslavia was an artificial construct put together by the Western Powers after WWI. Originally it was called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Croats and Serbs are basically the same kinds of people, their languages are really close and their ethnicities are almost identical, but one is Catholic and one is Orthodox. So they hate each other. The Bosnians are also quite similar, but they’re Muslim. More hate.

During the breakup of Yugoslavia was the Bosnian Serbs, supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), mobilized their forces inside the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to secure Serbian territory, then war soon spread across the country, accompanied by the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Bosniak and Croat population. There were people who lived in Sarajevo but were ethnically Serb, and yet chose to fight on behalf of the native Bosnians because that’s where they were from. So in addition to religion, you’ve got “place of origin” as a marker of identity. Then you throw language into the mix and it gets even more complicated.


Norway receives one of its first shipments of bananas; ca. 1905

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This is at least one of the first batches of banana that was imported into Norway. One of the persons in this picture is Christian Mathiessen, the founder of Norway’s biggest fruit importer, Bama. Norway was the second country to import bananas into Europe, after the UK.


 

Although bananas may only look like a fruit, they represent a wide variety of environmental, economic, social, and political problems. The banana trade symbolizes economic imperialism, injustices in the global trade market, and the globalization of the agricultural economy. Bananas are also number four on the list of staple crops in the world and one of the biggest profit makers in supermarkets, making them critical for economic and global food security. As one of the first tropical fruits to be exported, bananas were a cheap way to bring “the tropics” to North America and Europe. Bananas have become such a common, inexpensive grocery item that we often forget where they come from and how they got here.

(Rebecca Cohen, Global Issues for Breakfast: The Banana Industry and its Problems, The Science Creative Quarterly, Issue 3, 2008)


The nine European Monarchs who attended the funeral of Edward VII, photographed at Windsor Castle; May 20, 1910

I always enjoy identifying where people are situated to identify who was perceived to be the most powerful. Obviously UK front and center, flanked by Spain and Denmark with Germany behind and Belgium relegated to the outside...

I always enjoy identifying where people are situated to identify who was perceived to be the most powerful. Obviously UK front and center, flanked by Spain and Denmark with Germany behind and Belgium relegated to the outside…


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A French soldier threatens an elderly German man during the Ruhr Occupation; ca. 1923

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