Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Sapiens – A brief history of humankind – A review

November 15, 2017

If the author or authors – some think it was Moses – of the Book of Genesis had had the evidence provided by manned and unmanned missions to space, would they have given a different account of the origins of the universe and of humans. Space exploration over the past fifty years has expanded our understanding of the universe but with many questions still answered. Anthropological research has increased our knowledge of the evolution of humans.

 

Along comes Israeli historian Yuval Harari, author of first Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and in 2015 Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. The first traces how humans got from then to now, while the second speculates about their future. Both challenge our views of the world and our place in it past, present and future. Here I comment on Sapiens.

 

The time span of world history stretches from 13.5 billion years ago, while the story of Sapiens deals with the last 70,000 years, a small fraction of this period, when our forefathers emerged out of Africa and spread throughout the world including across the Bering sea from Asia to the American continent. All inhabitants of today’s Canada and the US, for example, are migrants from some time past. Even the first settlers were immigrants travelling south and west through today’s North, Central and South America.

 

Today’s humans have evolved from the genus Homo of which there were many types whose known origins are traced by anthropologists to about 2.5 million years ago in Africa. The evidence used is the carbon dating of stone tools. Fast forward to 200,000 years ago when Homo sapiens is traced to east Africa – sapiens being one species of the genus Homo. We are not alone but one part of this genus.

 

While there were and are several species of the genus Homo, the interesting puzzle is to find out why Homo sapiens survived and why many but not all of the others became extinct. Sapiens belongs to the same genus as gorillas for instance. Harari describes how three revolutions have lead humans to the so-called civilized state we enjoy today – the Cognitive Revolution (70,000 years ago) and the emergence of language, the Agricultural Revolution (12,000 years ago) with the domestication of plants and animals and the emergence of farming to replace the hunter-gatherer; and the Scientific Revolution (500 years ago) of which the Industrial Revolution (100 years ago) is one part.

 

In the broad scheme of things, the present day is a small part of human evolution and will likely pass to another stage which Harari discusses in his second book Homo Deus (to be reviewed later). There are many excellent reviews of Sapiens, all favourable except for the odd academic who wants to quibble with some issue to reveal his or her brilliance…..usually his.

 

What struck me was the short space of time that humans have existed, and the recognition that this could and is likely to come to an end; that we are closely related to gorillas and chimpanzees, and that in certain environments they would survive and we would not. This is aside from extinction of all forms of life resulting from a nuclear holocaust due to the madness of politicians. Today’s politicians make the “Madness of King George” look like a fairy tale. One of my ancestors was an ear doctor who may have hastened his demise. This book makes it difficult for many religions to retain their account of the origin and nature of the universe which is continuing to expand.

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Is Trump a modern day Luther?

November 13, 2017

Fifty years hence will people describe the political rise of Donald Trump as having similarities to the career of Martin Luther (1483-1546)? Of course the details are different in numerous ways, but the general circumstances giving rise to both men have similarities. Both had a following united by what they felt to be injustices or wrongs being committed by those in power. Luther was considered to be a royal pain in the arse by the Catholic hierarchy in Rome as well as church leaders in other parts of Europe. Trump claims to champion those in the US  who have been left behind in the economic growth of the past three or four decades, estimated at 35-40% of the population. The circumstances of these people are described by Michael Sandel, Professor of Politics at Harvard and J.D.Vance author of Hillbilly Elegy.

The personalities of the two men are quite different, but the conditions giving rise to their success have similarities. Luther was appalled by the corruption perpetrated by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church such as the sale of indulgences, and set about creating the Protestant faction of Christian believer. Given the times, it is surprising that he was not imprisoned and/or executed.

Trump plays to the support of those left behind in the prosperity enjoyed by people with higher incomes, and the growing spread between the very rich and the rest. While his tactics do not appeal to many because while he also legislates in favour of the rich, and behaves in unconventional ways, at least he manages to keep the support of about one-third of the population.

How long Trump survives politically is moot at this time, but looking back it may be seen, that like other political rabble rousers, he was adept at identifying sensitive points of the establishment’s behaviour. His use of Tweets may come to be seen as similar to Luther’s authorship of the “ninety-five theses”  containing a critique of the church and the need for reformation.

Dunkirk – a miracle? Perhaps but “wars are not won by evacuations.”  

September 30, 2017

The escape of British and allied forces from Dunkirk is labelled by some as a miracle. If the Germans had captured the more than 400,000 rescued troops and then invaded England and forced an armistice, the global landscape (and my life) would have been very different.

German plans for the occupation of England and then the other parts of Great Britain included the following, described in detail in William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon and Schuster (1990) 782-785:

  1. Males between the ages of 17 and 45 inclusive would be interned and dispatched to the Continent.
  2. All those opposing German occupation would be liable to immediate execution.
  3. Immediate execution would also befall those who failed to turn in firearms or radio sets within 24 hours.
  4. The German forces would be organized from a headquarters in London with centres in Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh, or Glasgow if the Forth Bridge was blown up.
  5. Individual Germans were named to undertake management of the occupation.

These plans were more detailed and repressive than in many other parts of Europe occupied by the Germans. Among Himmler’s papers was found a list of individuals who would be incarcerated. Aside from the obvious political leaders were authors including Virginia Wolf, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, J.B.Priestley, Stephen Spender, C.P.Snow, Noel Coward, Rebecca West, Bertrand Russell, Harold Laski, Beatrice Webb and J.B.S.Haldane.  

Dunkirk was followed by Hitler planning for the invasion of England by weighing the relative strengths of the opposing armies, navies and air forces. He judged that while his army was better trained and equipped, England had the stronger navy, and while Goering boasted that the Luftwaffe would wipe out the RAF, this turned out not to be the case, as became apparent during the Battle of Britain which commenced in earnest in September 1940.

German and British air raids began in the summer of 1940 with the German raids increasing in ferocity in September. London received 57 consecutive nights of bombing from September 7th to November 3rd 1940. Because invasion would require the cross-channel transport of personnel and equipment, Hitler became convinced that it was a risky proposition. At the same time, he was anxious to open up a front in the East, where he could gain land by invading the Soviet Union and fulfill his dreams of a German empire to match the extent of the British Empire and the US.

While Dunkirk marked a turning point in the war, the miracle was hardly a victory. Churchill noted in Parliament on June 4th, 1940 that “wars are not won by evacuations.”

What Miracle at Dunkirk?

September 14, 2017

The movie Dunkirk, released in the summer of 2017, gives an account of the rescue of British and allied soldiers in June 1940 as a result of the German invasion of France, Belgium and Holland. Surrounded in a narrow stretch of land with their backs to the English Channel, some of these troops managed to escape by boat across the approximate 30 miles separating France from England. The film tells only a part of the story; there is another aspect to the miracle.

The events, as recounted from the British side, describe the rescue by boat and retreat across the channel. One aspect of the miracle is the rescue, a second is what might have happened if the German army had been allowed to advance to the Dunkirk beaches and prevent the escape.

About 340,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force were rescued by sea together with about 100,000 French and Dutch troops. They left behind all their trucks, guns and other heavy equipment. Around 65,000 allied personnel were killed or captured by the Germans. Those rescued became the core of the British army which was to go on with its allies to defeat the German, Italian and in the east the Japanese forces by 1945.

Missing from the film is a sense of what might easily have happened. In the period that the evacuation took place, the last days of May and first few of June 1940, the allied troops were surrounded by German tanks and soldiers who were less than 15 miles from the Dunkirk beaches, where the allied troops were being bombed and shot at by the Luftwaffe (the film does show German planes).

Some of the German high command advised Hitler to order the tanks to advance and force the allied troops to surrender before they could escape. Others cautioned against such action and their view prevailed with Hitler. Goering, as head of the Luftwaffe, assured Hitler that his planes would provide the knock-out blow, wrongfully as it turned out.

Hitler was persuaded by some, but not all of his generals, by two other factors, first that his tanks had outrun their supply lines for gasoline and might become victims of the allied forces, and second that the land separating the tanks from the beaches was marshy and difficult for tanks to traverse. The tanks would be vital later for Hitler’s campaign on the eastern front.

A second aspect to the miracle of Dunkirk is that if the allied troops had been defeated and forced to surrender, the British would have had to sign an armistice based largely on German terms. The postwar years would have been notably different, including my own.

The Promise of Canada by Charlotte Gray – A review

November 7, 2016

I would strongly recommend this book to all diplomats posted to Canada, as well as to all Canadians posted abroad who need to understand the history of their country. In fact, the same is true for all Canadians who, if like me, may think they know how Canada evolved but would be pushed to identify all the relevant factors. Charlotte Gray has done this in a brilliantly researched and written way.

I came to Canada from the UK over sixty years ago and have lived here ever since, except for a period of study at the London School of Economics. Two years after arrival I became a landed immigrant and after a further thirteen a citizen. My children and grandchildren are all Canadian by birth.

Charlotte Gray arrived in 1979 and has become a superb chronicler of the evolution of Canada over the past two centuries. In my time here, I have not fully appreciated what was going on around me, but now I do, as she has skillfully authored an account of the country’s evolution from the time of politician Sir George-Etienne Cartier (1814-1873) to rapper Shad (1982- who is new to me).

It requires an enormous amount of skilled research (using both secondary sources and interviews) to develop these materials, and still more to integrate them into an intelligent portrait of a country which has grown in both size and numerous other ways.

Canadian literary blue-bloods have rightly given the book outstanding reviews. Rather than add to these, I will try to outline several things I have learned or have come to appreciate about Canada.

  1. One starting point to understanding Canada is geography, both its relation to other parts of the world, and what goes on inside. As for the latter, there are very few people in Canada in terms of population density or persons per square km. In 1961, the figure was 2/sq km and in 2015 4/sq km. Comparable figures for other countries are Russia 7 and 9; US 20 and 35; China 70 and 146; Singapore 2541 and 7829. Canada is largely empty.
  2. By far the majority of Canadians live in urban areas,18 million (about 60 %) in the ten largest metropolitan areas as of 2011. A light map of the country shows most of these people living close to the US border, while large swathes of the country are drenched in darkness.
  3. The rural population expects preferred treatment and often has difficulty in making its voice heard. The continuation of such measures as supply management for dairy products shows that in some instances this occurs.
  4. The diverse regions in which Canadians live include the Maritimes, Central Canada, the Prairies, British Columbia and the North. The economic, cultural and social character of each has meant that it is often difficult to get agreement on things that affect the whole country, and explains why parts, especially French Canada, from time to time toy with separation. Holding the parts together is a continuing challenge for federal politicians.
  5. All Canadians are immigrants who have arrived at different times. The original settlers came out of Africa about 60,000 to 100,000 years ago, travelling up to and through today’s Russia, across the land bridge to Alaska and down into North and South America. Later settlers, the ones most often covered in history books, came from Europe, especially the French, English, Dutch and Spanish. The arrival of each changes the lives of those already there, and does so for migrants arriving today.

It is how Canada has and continues to respond to these geographic and demographic factors which has influenced how the country has and may evolve in the future. Charlotte Gray’s detailed portraits of nine Canadians from different walks of life, politician, policeman, artist, academic, lawyer, and vignettes of five others (journalist, business, mayor, rapper and pop artist) provides the reader with an outstanding introduction to understanding Canada today and how we got here from there.

Rule or Cruel Britannia

October 5, 2016

Tears of the Rajahs (Simon and Schuster, 2015) by Ferdinand Mount, describes how the British East India Company dealt with the local populations on the Indian subcontinent from around 1600. It was often not a pretty picture and provides more ammunition to British Empire bashers.

I am aware of the list of documented atrocities and Mount helps to confirm them. But there is another side to the story, at least regarding the state of India and the countries which were once part of the Empire. Like most major happenings, there is a good and bad news story to recount. This one links to what is discussed under the rubric of globalization and suggests a good news outcome.

There are several stages and meanings to the idea and process of globalization. A world map for 1905 (I have one on my wall) shows countries of the British Empire coloured red. They include the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, parts of Africa, the Indian subcontinent (today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar), and numerous places like Malaysia, Singapore and a series of rocks and islands. Until 1776, the thirteen American colonies would also have had a reddish hue, and in many ways still do.

From around 1600, and from a geographic viewpoint, the process of globalization lead to Britain becoming the world’s main superpower. On the way it had to compete with Holland, Spain and France in North and South America, in Africa and in parts of Asia. Naval superiority aided by piracy helped to establish British footprints around the world.

Soon after 1905, the British Empire started to decline, and within fifty years of the end of WW1 it was over in a political, economic and military sense, but not, I would suggest, in a cultural and political sense. Its political institutions had become established in North America, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. No formal empire existed, but in its place the British Commonwealth, now the Commonwealth, was formed, reinforcing British views on many issues. English has become established as the common language for international interactions. Even the EU is reported to be considering retaining English as its working language after Brexit.

Another stage of globalization began after 1945, when the US became the main superpower challenged only by the Soviet Union and its satellites. By 1990, the Soviet Union had dissolved and Russian influence diminished globally and especially in central and eastern Europe. Meanwhile China was on the rise following the death of Mao and the reign of Li Peng. While China has become a global economic player, its neighbor Japan has receded somewhat from the global economic scene.

The foregoing is a ridiculously brief summary of how globalization has evolved geographically and politically over the past 120 years, but it does suggest quite a change over a reasonably short period of time. Few if any forecast these changes five years before they occurred. The same is true today and those who make even short term forecasts, say 2-3 years, are usually wrong.

Another dimension of globalization is more economic and technology related. Steam engines, railroads, cars and planes were technological changes stemming from the 19th century. The past several decades have seen the spread of computer-communications technology affecting different areas of economic, political and social activity. Enormous changes have taken place in numerous areas of our lives. These have been rapid and difficult to predict, but entrepreneurs are active around the world, as are criminals who have created a whole field of cyber-security.

In sum, the globalization initiated by the British Empire, although faded in some ways, is still very much present associated with the spread of democracy, certain human values, the English language and many types of sporting activity. How it got there was not always a pretty picture, but in the long run the results have not been too bad. Large parts of the world today still have a reddish hue. Rule rather than cruel Britannia is probably a better summary of many aspects of globalization today.

Brexit and all that (2)

July 6, 2016

What would the reaction have been if the UK vote had been 52/48 in favour of staying in the EU? Almost half the UK population would still have wanted to leave and would have continued to lobby for such an outcome. The message seems to be that there is extensive dissatisfaction with the status quo, as there is in the US for different but related reasons. But the historical and geographical circumstances differ.

Think back to 1945 and the end of WW2. For at least the next 35 years there was a period of global prosperity with rising per capita income reasonably distributed in developed, and in an increasing number of developing countries, as well as in countries ravaged during the war. This postwar fiscal stimulus prevented a return to the dirty thirties.

Politically, the postwar period contained a number of regional wars, Algeria, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam being examples, while colonies gained independence in Africa and Asia. The Soviet and Chinese empires remained mired in their communist molds, each of which was broken but with differing outcomes. China has since experienced rapid economic growth with an economy promoting exports of manufactured goods, while Russia has depended on export earnings from energy and other natural resources. The politics of the two communist systems differ.

The next 35 years, say since 1980, saw major technological change especially  the introduction of computers and the internet affecting many industries such as communications, transportation and manufacturing as well as resource based industries. Around 2008 there was a global recession with the slowdown affecting countries, industries and occupations differently. While Gross Domestic Product grew in most countries, it did so unevenly,  in that some citizens  made a great deal of money, while many saw their real incomes either stagnate or shrink, leading to dissatisfaction and the general malaise found in both Europe and North America. Supporters of Trump and Sanders in the US, and those unhappy with the EU are a reflection of these events. Immigration and the crossborder flow of refugees and displaced persons are other factors affecting both areas in ways peculiar to their locations.

Brexit has understandably forced attention on conditions in Western Europe. Meanwhile the rest of the world has not stood still. Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and parts of Africa, Chinese naval actions in the South China Sea, Russian moves in eastern Europe, and the nuclear factor in countries like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are also cause for concern. The list of political/economic factors could easily be lengthened, one of which is cyber-terrorism (for a future posing)..

A summary of these issues illustrates the context within which Brexit is taking place in a domestic and international setting. If the vote had been no, the context would have changed very little, with the same set of dissatisfactions remaining. For a fuller listing of these see the web report by Maudlin Economic, posting for July 2nd, 2016.

I have no idea what will happen. There are too many factors at play. It easier to forecast the result of a World Cup soccer game, a Wimbledon tennis match, the Tour de France, or even a chess game than it is to assess how world events will evolve.

In the UK, I will watch how the political parties and parts of the country respond, and how other European countries react to the British vote and what follows. It already seems that the EU Council of Ministers, if not the EU Commission made up of officials, recognize that something needs to be done. The fallout from the US November election is even more difficult to forecast.

Brexit or 2016 and all that

June 29, 2016

“Every might at six o’clock Alvar Liddell brought us news of fresh disasters. ….Never you mind the thousands of dead, I said, you put on the kettle and we’ll have a nice cup of tea.” (Beyond The Fringe skit).

What will happen next? The most accurate answer is that no one knows. We are pretty good at reporting what has happened and fairly hopeless at what will happen after some major event. In order to have forecast today’s global economic circumstances, investment advisor John Maudlin writes as follows (from his website for June 25, 2016).

“If I had come on to this stage four years ago and told you … that we were going to have 40% of the world’s governmental debt at negative interest rates, $10 trillion on central bank balance sheets, and $10 trillion worth of dollar-denominated emerging-market debt, and that global GDP growth would average only 2%, unemployment would be below 5%, and interest rates would be negative in much of the world and less than 50 basis points in the US, you would have laughed me out of the room. You would have all hit the unsubscribe button. Today’s world was unthinkable a mere four to five years ago.”

Maudlin causes pause for consideration for those who think that anyone has a good grasp of what is likely to happen in the political-economy sphere over the next five even two years. Economic and political forecasting is far less reliable than weather forecasting and that’s not saying much. The forces of globalization perhaps sums up what is happening, but that overused term needs interpretation and refinement in today’s world.

What appears to be happening?

The Brexit vote is described by some as a tectonic shift in world events. I have my doubts. In the past 110 years there have been two world wars, many smaller ones, as well as a great depression and numerous recessions. Another source of disruption is technological change. It has affected a wide range of activities with the introduction of the steam engine, trains, planes, ships, cars and more recently computers and communications technology. Schumpeterian “creative destruction” took place. Economies were shocked by these technologies, but adapted, sometimes more quickly than others, and life went on. Some people were affected more than others, but in general the standard of living in the world improved. There were winners and losers.

Coinciding with these developments world population was increasing, so that whereas median world income rose there would be more people in the lowest quartile of incomes. It’s a good or a bad news story depending how you spin the statistics. If your income is below the mean today, you are worse off than those above it, but you may be significantly better off than those below the mean twenty or fifty years ago.

With many more people, the current world economy also has more international trade and investment, and more crossborder movement of people as migrants, workers, tourists, criminals and refugees. Developments in communications technology allow people in different countries to have immediate information about conditions around the world, including through the use of social media. In this sense, the world has shrunk, not physically but in the ability of people to be informed about what is happening elsewhere, and in being able to visit and trade with each other. Just listing and mapping trade and investment agreements between countries produces a spider’s web of people and firms connecting around the world.

A similar set of linkages can be mapped by listing the supply chains of firms manufacturing goods and services. The inputs of items like cars come from many countries where part of the value-added is undertaken before shipping to another location in the same or another country. A Japanese car sold in North America may have been made there with few actual Japanese inputs.

Along comes an event like Brexit. Some view it as an unraveling of the movement towards economic and political union in Europe since 1945, and a return to nationalism and the antagonisms between nation states, especially if other countries decide either to leave the EU or weaken their ties to it. Others see it as a restoration of state sovereignty and the desire of countries to shape the social and economic environment within their borders. For reasons similar to why clubs are formed, people want to live beside other like-minded persons, as they do in neighborhoods, clubs and religious communities. Concerns are raised because state sovereignty can lead to nasty nationalism, but this is something that the promotion of human values tries to ameliorate, not always that well as the record of conflict shows.

My take is that things will settle down as people and firms view their options and make adjustments. These will occur in trade agreements, defense alliances, the way industries are structured and organized, .and the ability of people to move between countries.

What is the alternative?

If Brexit had not occurred something else would have to relieve the pressures caused by a combination of the crossborder movement of persons whether as refugees, illegal migrants or others, the debt situation outlined in the Maudlin quote, and the environmental movement.

The last does not seem part of the Brexit debate. It takes place in other circles but will likely become part of the dialogue. My take on this is that there are obvious visible signs of environmental problems such as air pollution in Asian cities, and water pollution in rivers, lakes and oceans. The plastic junk pictured in the Pacific and other oceans is a visible cause of concern with viable alternatives available to address the situation. The link between human activity and global warming is, in my mind, an interesting hypothesis but not one where the facts collected so far confirm the linkage, but that is for another day.

As far as Brexit is concerned, it will cause adjustments to be made. If the vote had gone the other way, the pressure for change would still have been there and would have become manifest in other ways. The pressure for change exists in continental European countries for reasons similar to that in the UK. In the current US presidential campaign, the desire for change is manifest by the widespread support of Trump on one side and Sanders on the other, together with a visceral dislike for Clinton by some. But for now as the opening quote said about the WW2 bombing of Britain,

“Never you mind……you put on the kettle and we’ll have a nice cup of tea.”

A Rehearsal for WW2 – The Spanish Civil War

May 17, 2016

 

I use to think that the interwar years were those of peace between two world wars. My mistake, which a reading of Adam Hochschild, Spain In Our Hearts, Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) makes clear. It illustrates the state of the global political economy, especially in Europe, North America and the Soviet Union at that time.

Economically, these were the depression years in North America, illustrated in prose by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and later in a movie. In the Soviet Union there were ghastly experiments taking place especially in agriculture, which led to many deaths through starvation. And in Europe the political choice for the future was seen by many to be between Fascism and Communism, with the prospects for capitalism and liberal democracy considered by many to be non-existent.

And yet the last survived in North America and Europe, and to various degrees in countries such as Japan and India, although not in many parts of the former Soviet Union, where elements of liberal democracy are a rare find.

The opponents in the Spanish Civil War were right-wing Spanish Nationalists and left-wing Spanish Republicans. When the war started, Spain was ruled by the Republicans who, having disposed of the monarchy, were to be overthrown by  Francisco Franco. He ruled Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. From 1978 to the present, the country has operated as a constitutional monarchy which was not something Franco had planned for.

At home, Franco was backed by parts of the military, the Catholic Church and the wealthier classes especially the landowners. Abroad, he was supported by Hitler and Mussolini, as well as by certain interests in North America and Europe. Germany provided aircraft and pilots, using the occasion to prepare for warfare that was to follow in Europe after 1939. Texaco supplied fuel for Franco’s planes and tanks.

Some of the Spanish armed forces remained loyal to the official Spanish government run by the Republicans, but they were supplemented with foreign fighters from an estimated 50 countries, including the Soviet Union, France, the UK, US and Canada. These international brigades, organized by the Communist International, contained about 60,000 people overall, principally male, of which about 20,000 were active at any one time. A memorial to over 1500 Canadians who served in the Mackenzie-Papineau brigade during the civil war was unveiled in Ottawa in 2001. It is situated on Green Island off Sussex Drive.

Hochschild’s account of the war is based on interviews, correspondence and writings of those present at the time such as George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia) and Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls). It is likely that there are no living veterans, but their descendants are still around. A book about the Canadian participants is Michael Petrou, Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, UBC Press, 2008; and there are numerous titles (book and magazine) about other aspects of the war.

A link between the world wars

The threads that bind 1918, the end of WW1, to 1939 and the start of WW2, include the global economic conditions, especially the burden of reparations imposed by the victors on Germany at the end of the war. Keynes accurately portrayed in Economic Consequences of the Peace the damage to future world order that these payments would create. They lead to the rise of Hitler and the demise of democratic institutions in that country.  At the same time, Mussolini, in cooperation with the Pope and Vatican, established a Fascist dictatorship in Italy. Both Hitler and Mussolini had supporters in the US, UK and other parts of Western Europe who were prepared to make a deal with the dictators.

Mussolini came to power in Italy in the 1920s about a decade before Hitler. God’s Bankers by Gerald Posner provides a good account of the Vatican’s cooperation with Hitler (reviewed in this blog March 28, 2016):

…Pope Pius XI signing the Reichskonkordat with ­Hitler, which, in return for winning a measure of freedom for German Catholics ­under the Nazis, assured silence from the Holy See over the forced sterilization of 400,000 people and then only the faintest of ­objections to the Holocaust. 

Another interwar thread was made up of the hyper-inflationary conditions in Germany, the economic depression in the US and elsewhere, and the pressure for political independence by a number of countries associated with European empires. Independence was to come in the postwar period. Today there are about 200 sovereign countries, although sovereignty often does not come with much political or economic independence, as Scotland may soon find out.

Adam Hochschild’s first rate treatment of the Spanish Civil War fits neatly into this inter world war period, describing a time of localised economic and military conflict, while the major combatants prepared for the main action which was to start in 1939 in Europe and the Far East.

The events described are based on the author’s personal interviews with survivors, and materials which participants recorded, often in letters, about their combat experiences. The war pit Spaniard against Spaniard, leaving tensions which remain, including issues of Basque and Catalan sovereignty. Today we can read about it but also view the war in a television documentary made a few years ago by Granada TV.

What do Trump and wildfires have in common?

May 9, 2016

A short answer is that both thrive when suitable fuel is available. In the case of wildfires, it is super dry forests and underbrush fanned by winds, some of which are created by the fire; in the case of Trump, the spark is lit by a demagogue, and the fuel is the mass of workers and their families displaced by jobs due to technology, while the top one percent make enormous financial gains.

Nine months ago, few if any thought that Trump could win the Republican nomination, and if he did that he could win the election. Now he has done the first, and some pundits, not wishing to be so wrong again, suggest that he could win the presidency. Not only is there a core of Republican primary voters that fuel his support, but there are Democratic backers of Bernie Sanders who feel disadvantaged in many of the same ways as Trump’s supporters. Could some of these defect and support Trump? Could the anti-Trump Republicans just not vote?

What will happen is anyone’s guess, depending also on who controls the Senate and House, and who gets to be the Supreme Court appointee(s). It was less than a hundred years ago that Mussolini and Hitler came to power through a democratic process and then assumed dictatorial powers. Stalin and Mao took control using a slightly different route. There is no shortage of demagogues seizing power when the conditions are right, and no shortage of forest fires when the fuel is available. It would be a mistake today to focus on the person and not the conditions that allow the person to attract supporters.