Best Photos

This guy lives in the Munich zoo. He’s from my other web site, EarthPhotos.com, where there are some 20,000 photos from over 100 countries. Check it out.

Here are the four most viewed photos there, as of today:

Tree climbing lion, Ishasha, Uganda

Vegetable market alongside the huge fish market in Hoi An, Vietnam

Balloon ride over Cappadocia, Turkey

And here, masters of the(ir) universe, in an office block along Oxford Street, London at quitting time

Explore all 20,000 photos.

The European Question

In light of German politicians’ inability to form a government, the German Question has been turned on its head. Post-Cold War, the German Question asked how the unification of East and West Germany might be achieved without creating an economic and political juggernaut, with all the baggage that prospect carried.

Suddenly now, wonders Handelsblatt Global, is Germany “becoming incapable of assuming enough leadership to guide and champion Europe in a globalized world?” In the same week, Matthew Engel’s Travels in Belgium, the dysfunctional, fractured state at the heart of the EU reminds us that that country “went 589 days in 2010-11 without a fully-formed government.”

Meanwhile, Brexit still means Brexit and we can all see how that’s working out. Just ask, (among just about anybody else) anyone living along the once and future Republican/Northern Irish border.

Can European governments govern? That is the new European Question.

Quotes: The German East/West Divide

Every single one of the country’s 500 richest families is from West Germany. The 30 biggest publicly traded companies are managed by a total of 190 board members, and all but three of them are West Germans. Even in the hundred largest East German companies (not that they are very large), two thirds of the top management jobs are held by West Germans.

And so it continues: Out of 200 generals or admirals in the German army, two are East Germans. Out of 22 university directors in East Germany, three are East Germans. East Germany has 13 regional newspapers, yet West Germans manage all but two of them.

Remarkable numbers from Bettina Vestring in the Berlin Policy Journal.

Live Tweeting World War Two

A man who works at the Museum of London named Alwyn Collinson is live-Tweeting (for the next six years!) events as they happened on this date in 1939. Here is his Twitter feed.

System Demise, and What Happens Next?

“Democratic capitalism no longer works well enough to keep together a country of 325 million people and to guarantee domestic peace,” the German journalist Holger Stark declared in the news weekly Der Spiegel, trying to explain Donald Trump’s America to his German readers. I think Mr. Stark is right; our way of governance is under deep systemic stress from both sides of the money/power equation.

The disrobing of the financial Emperors began with the financial collapse of 2008. As the elite who run the financial world stood naked amid their misdeeds, we glimpsed how, among many other things, they had packaged and sold bad real estate loans under false pretenses, for profit, with the complicity of the ratings agencies. (Iceland suffered mightily. See deeper coverage in my book Out in the Cold.)

The moment lasted no longer than it took their Maitre d’s to sweep the crumbs from the Emperors’ Michelin-rated dinner tables. The systems of financial governance they support patched things up, bailed them out and dispatched that nasty little business, and fast.

But the markets were left in turmoil. The elite’s solution was austerity, which resulted in rising unemployment. This led to mass protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy seized on rising inequality as a rallying device, calling themselves “the 99 percent,” pointing out that the top one percent of income earners, who are less affected by austerity measures, are generally the decision makers who caused the problem in the first place.

I think to watch the nascent Obama administration repair the Emperors’ balance sheets was a revelation for middle America. The former party of the working man, made up of all those out-of-work cadres to whom Donald Trump would later appeal, showed flyover country that whichever flag of political leadership flies over the land, the infestation of money has rotted the system clear through.

••••

It’s ALWAYS About the Money

In a Maslow’s hierarchy, the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf ranks capitalism as more fundamental than democracy. He writes, “Democracy cannot function without a market economy.”

“In today’s world, it is not capitalism that is in imminent danger, but rather democracy. A predatory form of post-democratic capitalism, not the end of capitalism, is the threat.” By this Mr. Wolf means we should fear authoritarianism.

Mr. Wolf works for a newspaper whose focus is money, so it is not surprising that he might overlook flaws in the workings of the money part of the money/power question. But there are glaring flaws, and they give rise to alienation.

An alienated center’s loss of faith in institutions invites the rise of the fringes, the peripheral haters and dividers that always rise at times when the disillusioned are too crestfallen to keep up their guard. Opportunist would-be leaders are always ready to exploit such an electoral mood, and this is what we call the rise of populism, an affliction from which we currently suffer.

••••

The post-post-Cold War world is well and truly in flux. Conflicting signals are everywhere. Vladimir Putin’s unapologetic Russian nationalism has brought along bits of east Europe, notably Victor Orban’s Hungary and a grudge-wielding conspiracy theorist whose destructive policies seem driven by personal vendetta, the power behind the throne in Poland, PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński.

Brexit deflated proponents of the European project. Donald Trump has NATO rightly alarmed. Mr. Putin’s loans to Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale seek and may attain influence over a Europe teetering on terminal division.

We all see the challenges facing the German chancellor, who looks more tired by the day, after her fateful acceptance of 1.1 million refugees (or was that 890,000?) in the summer of 2015. A narrative is emerging that she “represents what many voters consider the failings of the past.” Her painful audience with the U.S. president could scarcely have bucked her up before the September electoral challenge from the SDP head Martin Schulz, who has the clear and canny benefit of having been away in Brussels and untainted by the immigration wars.

Still, for every Orban in Hungary there is an Austria, where 73-year old Alexander Van der Bellen ultimately won the presidency last December with 53.8 percent over Norbert Hofer, heir to Jörg Haider’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigration Freedom Party. In Bulgaria the center-right has held, with the pro-E.U.-integration (and corruption-plagued) Boyko Borissov likely to retain his premiership after elections at the end of March. Then too there is the Dutch rejection of the nasty, isolated Geert Wilders. It appears the power side of the money/power question could go either way.

••••

An epic, scene-setting battle is being fought right now, before our eyes, and it is historic. After the 25 year lull we called the “post-Cold War,” this is the world-defining struggle for what comes next. It is history on fast-forward. For now, it is hard to see the emerging landscape for the early spring fog. The 7 May runoff in France and September elections in Germany will help to illuminate the path forward.

The potentially good news on this side of the Atlantic is that Donald Trump’s act wears thin as fast a Wal-Mart t-shirt. We have fast come to know him as a slight-of-hand president, a purveyor of diversion, and there is every chance that his dissipation of the common trust will in time bring the country to a crisis that will not end well. In the context of the times we live in, if there could be a worse time for my country to have installed an ignorant, self-involved unsteady hand on the presidential tiller, I can not think of when it would be.

His rank dissimulation may – just may – prevent our president from being trusted long enough to cause physical harm. How we get from here to there is plenty fraught. But surviving the Trump threat won’t be the end of our woes, for they are systemic. We will still be left to repair our system’s corrupted relationship between money and government. A subject for future consideration.

 

Note: Less than an hour after publication of this post the U.S. Senate did its part in the institutional disassembly process by changing its rules so that sixty votes are no longer needed to confirm a Supreme Court Justice.

This article also appears on Medium.

Be Careful What You Vote For

france

Today the center-right French Republicans have chosen the harder right of the two candidates to offer up to contest Marine Le Pen, if you assume as I do that the chances of the left to make it to a runoff next April are vanishingly small. François Fillon is an earthquake, I think, for socialisty France, in that their center right has chosen its most supply-side, trickle down candidate as their country’s best hope against the Le Pen scourge.

I’d say, with Brexit, Trump and Fillon, we see a trend. Three longish articles for you, first on next weekend’s Italian referendum, in which polls indicate a lurch toward populism.

After that, in March it’s the Netherlands’ turn.

And finally, it may not be too bold a prediction that by next autumn, Angela Merkel’s time may be past. You heard it here first.

The face of the western democracies this time next year is taking shape and I’m not sure how well we’ll get through it.

Oral History, Berlin, part 5

berlin5

To end this week’s series, a post originally published here on D-Day, 6 June, 2014, about Inge’s husband Erich:

“I don’t like Polish people,” he says, and raises one eyebrow that suggests “And how could anybody, really?” 

Among other things, he explains, their language is incomprehensible. 

At 84 he has earned his opinions. 

He’s graying and a little severe, and turned out today in a light spring jacket, tan sweater and shirt with matching scarf. He takes small steps, pitched forward just a little. He’s tall, thin and upright, and he walks us up and down the streets of Wittenberg all day long.

•••••

His father was born in Poland, but mind you, Poland’s borders wave like a battle flag. When his father was born Posen was German. Today it is Poznan, in Poland.

His father fought the Great War riding great horses for the Kaiser, a dragooneer fighting hand to hand with lances. Imagine. His father owed oaths to three sovereigns in his lifetime: Kaiser Wilhelm, the Weimar government and the Third Reich. Imagine that, too.

•••••

Erich was born in 1930. 

His mother had little reason to think he’d go to war. At the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria in 1938, and during the occupation of the Sudetenland later that year the prospects of her eight year old marching off to war seemed distant. When Germany invaded Poland to start the war in earnest, she thanked heaven her boy wasn’t even ten. 

But in time her boy was fifteen and the Reich was depleted of fighting stock. He got six weeks training – rifles, hand grenades, knives, and marched off to dig anti-tank trenches near Bratislava. In the end his unit marched two days trying to surrender to the Americans. 

Early in the morning of 2 May, the Russians captured the Reich Chancellery. Fighting continued here and there, but a week later the Red Army had collected German remnants, sorry unfledged youth and press-ganged elders in a stadium in Prague. They ran them through a gauntlet of sticks and pipes. They held them for a week, rain or shine, no shelter, no change of clothes, gave them only bread, then marched the lot to Dresden.

He feels the Russians were fair enough, but along the way ordinary Czech people beat them with sticks and bats the Russians did nothing to stop them. The soldier’s tongues were so dry they filled their mouths. They came to a camp in Dresden, a German POW camp for Russians that once held 3000, but the Russians used it for 18,000 Germans. 

He was there a month. Sleeping, when one man turned over, the next three or four had to, too.

When he was freed he returned to Berlin, a boy of sixteen and a war veteran. He had no idea if his parents were alive. His father had been a fireman. Because of the bombing, during the war he worked day and night. It was a dangerous job. 

Tremulously, Erich walked up to his old house, knocked, and his mother answered. She peered into his eyes and dismissed him: “I already gave food to soldiers” before at last she recognised him.

He mimicks her, putting his palms to his cheeks and exclaiming, “My boy!” 

He was so gaunt she didn’t recognize her own son.

His family was reunited but their city lay in ruins. He and his father bicycled 100 kilometers, deep into the Spreewald to trade with farmers, for there was no food in Berlin. 100 kilometers on a bike, for food. 

One time it was a Sunday. He was due in school the next day, learning Latin and mathematics but when they got home he leaned his bicycle against the wall and slept all the way through until noon on Tuesday. 

They would trade nails, tools, and especially soap for food. His father could get soap. Firemen had a police connection; they were the Fire Police. Maybe that had something to do with it, but he was never clear, he was just sixteen. 

What food could you get from farmers after the war? It depended on how many nails you brought, how much soap, but the staple was corn.

•••••

Erich loved a woman, and when they wed in 1951 they had nothing. Basic weddings are free in Germany because of the church tax, but the pastor will suggest every extra you might imagine, a tree and flowers and cards and silly things, but they had nothing and told the man they wanted it simple.

Together they finished school as lawyers. Inge became a family court judge. Erich became a criminal attorney. Once the wall went up they stayed in West Berlin, for nearly three decades, denied the opportunity to get very far out into the countryside around town. Later they showed us the Gleineke bridge, the famous spy bridge where Gary Francis Powers and others were swapped between the East and West Blocs, and they showed us enticing woodlands on the other side that you could see but not visit.

They had a wooden boat for fifty years. They would pack enough food for the weekend and live on the boat from Friday night until Monday morning to get out of town. It gave them a measure of freedom. Except they had to be careful. There were buoys beyond which if they drifted in error, they were liable to be shot. Others were.

•••••

Inge and her mother lived in Berlin right through the allies’ assault, until the block of flats where they lived was bombed and burned. They found shelter in the neighborhood, sharing bedrooms with others and moved around from time to time before the German surrender, when they hid from the Russians. 

They so wanted the Americans to arrive first because of the stories they’d heard of Russian soldiers and rape. There was a public shelter across the street from the last place they lived, nearby enough that Inge, a teenager in 1945, and her mother watched in terror as Russian soldiers went in and women came out, ‘blouses ripped’ and hysterical. Even parts of the rump German leadership fled west to surrender to the advancing Americans rather than the Russians.

Finally one day a single Russian soldier, very young, she said, pounded on their door and opened it to find her and her mother inside. “This is it,” her mother said, the moment of horror they’d built up in their minds in all those nights underground, burrowing like rodents against the bombs and the fires.

But the soldier just looked, then closed the door. 

Later a Russian soldier stole her bicycle but left them alone. 

•••••

She thought that because of some translation problem, when the Russians asked the Germans what kind of seed they wanted to plant they misunderstood that the Germans wanted corn instead of wheat, so now there are corn fields where there weren’t before. Which her future husband bicycled into the Spreewald to get instead of starving.

People ate most of the kernels the Russians brought instead of planting them. Which is part of the reason she loved the Americans. They brought actual bread instead of seeds. She said she would never forget when she and her mother got a whole loaf of bread from the Americans. 

When President Kennedy came to give his ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, of course she went, but to Inge, more than Kennedy the star of the show was General Lucien Clay, the head of the American occupation sector, who came out of retirement to accompany Kennedy. She said Berliners felt it was he who had fed and saved them.

•••••

They traveled widely once they could, after the wall came down. They visited all the European capitals. They survived a vicious hurricane in St. Maarten. They liked the warmth of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf in winter and spent lots of beach time in Cyprus and Doha and Dubai. We met some twenty years ago on the beach in French Polynesia.

As American World War II veterans celebrate their great victory in Normandy today, their numbers are dropping by some 550 a day. They are dying, too, in Berlin. 

America’s remaining veterans have led remarkable lives. So too have the remaining veterans in Berlin, some just boys at the time, who fought, were vanquished and left with a city in ruins, then found it rent asunder for 28 years more, divided east from west and friend from friend by the Berlin Wall. 

In April Inge, wife of the young soldier Erich, died in Berlin. We went to see Erich last week to celebrate two extraordinary lives. 

Photo: The Bundestag, Berlin.