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.

If You Know the Words Zapad & Suwalki…

… you’ll enjoy the photographic essay, Inside the Suwalki Gap by Timothy Fadek at RoadsandKingdoms.com. It’s a nice orientation to the region where the quadrennial Zapad (“west” in Russian) Russia/Belarus military exercise has been underway for two days now.

The photo above is Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The only border between the Baltic states and another NATO country is the 64 mile wide Suwalki Gap, where Lithuania touches Poland. See more Poland and Lithuania photos at EarthPhotos.com.

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.

Rock Star Pope

KrakowChurch

One afternoon in the autumn of 1978 I came screaming across Atlanta in my Chevette, rushing from a job fifty miles up the road, hurrying to meet my friends at the IHOP. My adulthood so far was a scramble of post-college roommates, general naïveté and a bad job, with all the self confidence that just having been turned down for a VISA card would allow.

I paid no attention that day, October 16th just like today, when a puff of white smoke over the Sistine Chapel announced the first non-Italian Pope in 456 years. Karol Wojtyla, the vicar of Krakow (his church, above), chose the regnal name John Paul II.

If we’d said things like that back then, looking back I’d have said, Whoa, dude. It was a pretty darned fateful day. 

•••••

Josef Stalin scorned the church. “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” he would sneer. The year he said that, 1935, was a long time ago. But on December 1st of 1989, eleven years one month and fifteen days after that puff of smoke in Vatican City, Stalin’s successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, came hat in hand to Vatican City, pleading that the Pope return the favor with a visit to the Soviet Union.

Stalin’s heir needed the Pope more than the other way around, and John Paul II was noncommittal, replying that he hoped “developments would make it possible for him to accept.”

•••••

I do not believe in Catholic doctrine. That autumn day in 1978 I didn’t believe in much beyond my disc-jockey job, rock bands of the moment and girlfriends. But with hindsight, with time enough to have visited Krakow and Gdansk, and Warsaw as both Soviet satellite…

WarsawThen

and today…

WarsawToday

I respect that Polish Pope for his hand in shaping the events that puff of smoke helped set in motion back in October 1978.

•••••

Pope John Paul II came to visit Dubrovnik, where we happened to be visiting, on my birthday in 2003. We stood close enough to the Popemobile to be able to read his watch.

Pope

Web Resources for War News

RussianTroopsTweet
Me, I got this uneasy feeling. It may be that them what know ain’t saying and them saying don’t know, but the Polish PM and NATO are queasy, and when the Russian UN ambassador calls for “humanitarian intervention” and the Putin team uses RT to wail it, it looks like boxes are being checked for an invasion. The U.S. Defense Secretary is in the region, saying as much. It’s a good thing everybody’s got so much confidence in our president.

I’d guess it would start overnight one night, and since we’re seven hours earlier here on the U.S. east coast we might find ourselves up all night one night soon working the internets and the news channels. Just in case, here are a few internet resources and live TV feeds from the region:

The Interpreter translates news from Russia
Espreso.tv from Kyiv has a live feed
TV5, Kyiv live feed
UkrainianJournal.com, in English
The Kyiv Post
The Carnegie Moscow Center and especially Demitri Trenin and Lilia Shevtsova (click “latest analysis”)
Tons of links from Johnson’s Russia List
Life News live TV from Russia. Some call it the information arm of Russian intelligence.
Russia24 live feed
Ukraine News1 in English
The Warsaw Voice in English
thenews.pl, news in English from Poland
Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, which runs a live Ukraine blog during the day, CET
NATO’s blog
Live stream from Spilno TV. Not always on.
Ukraine at War blog in English.

I’ll add more as I find them. Please suggest others, if you like.

Short Bits, Warsaw

WagonLit

Sleeper service from Prague to Warsaw in a dark, old Polish wagon lit, with tiny two-person compartments, no restaurant car and no other service, a little downtrodden. At least they’ve had time since the 90’s to put in proper toilets that don’t flush onto the tracks. Each compartment had a pair of plastic wrapped towels and soap, and two Kriss croissants for breakfast.

We brought a sack of beers from the station and enjoyed watching the fading light, then slept, on the theory that darkness is the best time to roll through towns inflicted by the Soviet love of cement.

•••••

Pawel and Marcin are IT specialists in their twenties from Wroclaw. Pawel has a baby on the way and Marcin’s wife calls him constantly. Both are, if not sanguine, at least relatively calm about Ukraine. Neither believes Poland would ever come to blows with Russia. Pawel in particular acknowledges the Russian population in Krim (Crimea).

Kasia, 34, is a geneticist in Posnan. She professes disinterest in Ukrainian affairs but believes it’s not the first time and won’t be the last that Russia acts revanchist. She cites Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. 

Russell, 56, an American entrepreneur and founder of a company that stains masonry and concrete, is skeptical that the information we get in the west is any less propaganda than the Russian side of the story.

General opinion on the Russian aggression ranges from studied indifference through resigned acceptance to denial. The prevailing idea in both Prague and Warsaw might  be, “Krim has a lot of Russians and Russia is big and powerful and if they take Krim, what are you gonna do?” Which makes my fulmination about the end of the Post Cold War era positively hyperbolic. Here we Americans go again, trying to run the world. 

•••••

In July 1944 the Red Army marched up to the river that runs through Warsaw, the Vistula. They stopped on the east bank and exhorted the Poles to rise up and essentially do the fighting against the Nazis for them. 

People of the capital! To arms! Strike at the Germans! May your million strong population become a million soldiers, who will drive out the German invaders and win freedom,” broadcast Soviet radio.

Knowing that from books is rather different than visualizing it, standing 36 floors above town and looking out beyond the Old Town and across the river. Let alone living it.

•••••

It was our second trip to Poland in nine months (Gdansk last summer) but my first stay in Warsaw since my friend Steve and I travelled from Moscow to Berlin by train in the immediate post-Soviet days. In that interregnum most of the everyday commerce was done from kiosks on the sidewalk, because it took some time to sort out ownership of the big Soviet era stores in the buildings. 

Today is rather different, with a smattering of high-rise buildings, fleets of red and yellow trams and matching flexible buses everywhere. They’ve cleaned up the grubby old train station. Stalin’s “gift from the Soviet people,” the Palace of Culture, is still here, as fearsome as ever.

SovietWarsaw1

SovietWarsaw2

Still with Communist bits, though.

•••••

All the important words: “Uwaga” means “Attention” in Polish and sounds African tribal, or maybe Japanese. And “hiccups” is “czkawka.” Sort of pronounced “chi-kup-kuh.” One more – a fine Polish dark beer called Ksiazece. Which is pronounced vaguely like “shown-zhan-tsa.” 

Somehow.