I survived the Warsaw ghetto. Here are the lessons I’d like to pass on

Stanisław Aronson writes:

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel stated this summer that “when the generation that survived the war is no longer here, we’ll find out whether we have learned from history”. As a Polish Jew born in 1925, who survived the Warsaw ghetto, lost my family in the Holocaust, served in a special operations unit of the Polish underground, the Home Army, and fought in the Warsaw uprising of 1944, I know what it means to be at the sharp end of European history – and I fear that the battle to draw the right lessons from that time is in danger of being lost.

Now 93 years old and living in Tel Aviv, I have watched from afar in recent years as armchair patriots in my native Poland have sought to exploit and manipulate the memories and experiences of my generation. They may think they are promoting “national dignity” or instilling “pride” in today’s young people, but in reality they are threatening to raise future generations in darkness, ignorant of the war’s complexity and doomed to repeat the mistakes for which we paid such a high price.

But this is not just a Polish phenomenon: it is happening in many parts of Europe, and our experiences hold lessons for the whole continent. [Continue reading…]

Conflict reigns over the history and origins of money

Bruce Bower writes:

Wherever you go, money talks. And it has for a long time.

Sadly, though, money has been mum about its origins. For such a central element of our lives, money’s ancient roots and the reasons for its invention are unclear.

As cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin multiply into a flock of digital apparitions, researchers are still battling over how and where money came to be. And some draw fascinating parallels between the latest, buzzworthy cryptocurrencies, which require only a virtual wallet, and a type of money developed by one Micronesian island community that wouldn’t fit in anyone’s wallet, pocket or purse.

When it comes to money’s origins, though, conflict reigns. Economists have held one view of money’s origins for hundreds of years. But a growing number of anthropologists and archaeologists, holding a revisionist view, say that economists’
standard story is bankrupt.

Economists and revisionists alike agree that an object defined as money works in four ways: First, it serves as a means for exchanging goods and services. Currency enables payment of debts. It represents a general measure of value, making it possible to calculate prices of all sorts of items. And, finally, money can be stored as a wealth reserve.

From there, the two groups split. Mainstream economists assume that bartering of goods and services inspired money’s invention. Anthropologists and archaeologists contend that early states invented currency as a means of debt payment.

“Much academic work assumes that [monetary systems] arose in nation-states within the last 200 to 400 years,” says sociocultural anthropologist Daniel Souleles of Copenhagen Business School in Frederiksberg. But financialized transactions and debt show up in lots of places much further back in time.

Recent research from the Americas adds new questions to the debate. These investigations suggest that money independently appeared for different reasons and assumed different tangible forms in many parts of the world, starting thousands of years ago. [Continue reading…]

Islam in Eastern Europe

Jacob Mikanowski writes:

There has never been an Eastern Europe without Islam. Eastern Europe owes its existence to the intermingling of languages, of cultures, and, perhaps above all, of faiths. It is the meeting place of the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry, of militant Islam and crusading Christianity, of Byzantine mystics and Sufi saints.

Once, this plurality would have been obvious. A visitor to Vilnius in the 17th century would have heard six languages spoken in the streets; they could have heard prayers conducted in at least five more. The city had churches belonging to five denominations, as well as a synagogue and a mosque. Some examples of “Lithuanian” mosques still exist in Poland and Belarus. Wooden and square, they look just like parish churches, with the minor exception of the ornament at the top: a slim silver crescent instead of a cross.

If anything marks Eastern Europe as a place of its own, and not someone else’s periphery, it is this function as gateway and bridge between and among different traditions. And yet, again and again, the role of Islam in the making of this tapestry has been forgotten or disavowed. That is a grave mistake. Islam is the silver thread holding the whole together. Thirty years ago, the historian Larry Wolff argued that Eastern Europe was a product of the Enlightenment. When Western (principally French) intellectuals began to fashion their countries as realms of progress and rationality, they created the “East” as a flattering foil for their ambitions, filled as it was (in their eyes at least) with backwardness and superstition.

It seems to me that Wolff is only partially right. I think a notion of a separate Eastern Europe predates the Enlightenment by a few hundred years. I think, moreover, that its genesis is intimately tied to the introduction of Islam to the Balkans and southern steppes and, with it, the creation of a shatter-zone between empires stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. This shatter-zone consisted of a sharp border and a soft frontier. Armies and lone warriors fought along the border. People, stories, and miracles crossed the frontiers. So many of the legends that came to define the nations of the region stem from this space of contact. And everywhere you look, relationships that appear at first to be based on enmity turn out instead to be characterized by mutual influence, mimicry, friendship, and even love. [Continue reading…]

Anti-war protests 50 years ago helped mold the modern Christian right

File 20180501 135806 bej79x.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
William Sloane Coffin Jr., followed by his sister, arrives at federal building in Boston on May 20, 1968.
AP Photo

By David Mislin, Temple University

In May of 1968, a high-profile trial began in Boston that dramatically illustrated a larger phenomenon fueling the rise of conservative Christianity in the United States.

Five men had been charged with conspiracy for encouraging Americans to evade the draft. One of the prominent defendants in the trial was a Presbyterian minister and Yale University chaplain, William Sloane Coffin Jr..

Coffin, like many ministers, vehemently opposed the Vietnam War, but many ordinary churchgoers supported it. This disagreement divided denominations.

Eventually, many alienated Protestants abandoned mainline churches in favor of the evangelical congregations that formed the core of the new conservative Christianity.

Who was Coffin?

Coffin was a prominent figure in mainline Protestantism, the term given to denominations like Episcopalians, Methodists and Presbyterians. These were the churches of the middle- and upper-class establishment, and their leaders had long enjoyed close connections to political elites.

The Coffin family belonged to the upper-class circles of New York City. Coffin’s father led the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and his uncle, Henry, had been minister of the prestigious Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church as well as president of Union Theological Seminary, the divinity school that trained generations of noted ministers and theologians.

Coffin’s own life exemplified the overlapping circles of government, academia and religion in which elite Protestants moved. He was a CIA officer during the Korean War, and after completing his studies at Yale, he became the university’s chaplain.

[Read more…]

How a Eurasian steppe empire coped with decades of drought

By Diana Crow

The bitterly cold, dry air of the Central Asian steppe is a boon to researchers who study the region. The frigid climate “freeze-dries” everything, including centuries-old trees that once grew on lava flows in Mongolia’s Orkhon Valley. A recent study of the tree-ring record, published in March, from some of these archaic logs reveals a drought that lasted nearly seven decades—one of the longest in a 1,700-year span of steppe history—from A.D. 783–850.

Decades of prolonged drought would have killed much of the grass that the Orkhon Valley’s domesticated horses relied upon. Yet the dominant steppe civilization of the era, an empire of Turkic horse nomads called the Uyghurs, somehow survived nearly 60 years of the drought, a period about seven times longer than the Dust Bowl that devastated the central U.S. in the 1930s.

Based on surviving Chinese and Uyghur documents from the drought years, the study’s authors concluded that the Uyghurs survived by diversifying their economy and using international diplomacy to boost trade.

Rather than driving the Uyghurs to plunder neighboring territories—as other steppe empires tended to do—the drought led them to take advantage of their location on the Silk Road and reinvent their economy. The Uyghurs’ relatively peaceful strategies seem to have staved off total collapse for a surprisingly long time. “They were champs,” says physical geographer and study co-author Amy Hessl of West Virginia University.

Prior to this paper, no one knew that the Uyghurs faced an “epic drought,” Hessl says. The recognition that they did may change the way historians interpret the social, political, and economic strategies of the Uyghurs.

[Read more…]

New law in China mandates ‘all of society’ honor its heroes and martyrs

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Eight decades after his grandfather was killed during the Chinese civil war, Fang Huaqing is fighting to defend his legacy as a Communist hero.

Mr. Fang has filed legal complaints against online critics of his ancestor’s record over the past year. His campaign got a boost Friday, when China’s legislature passed a law that requires “all of society” to “honor, study and defend” Communist Party-approved heroes and martyrs.

The law, which takes effect Tuesday, subjects anyone who defames members of that select group to potential criminal penalties and civil liabilities.

Mr. Fang has called the “Heroes and Martyrs Protection Law” a necessary, if belated, measure to protect the reputation of national heroes. “A nation that doesn’t uphold its own history has no future,” said the 52-year-old deputy director of a provincial government archive.

Enforcing control over Chinese history is a priority for President Xi Jinping, who has staked the legitimacy of Communist rule on claims that he and his ruling party are guiding China’s return to greatness.

Heroes and martyrs feature prominently in Mr. Xi’s propaganda campaigns, which often hark back to the party’s revolutionary roots. Officials have said that strong legislation is needed to promote patriotism and squelch “historical nihilism”—an official epithet for skepticism about the party’s contributions to China’s progress.

Authorities more aggressively policing history have already banned books, censored academic articles and denounced critics of official versions as disloyal dissidents who want to destroy the party and ruin China.

Public discussion of Chinese history is already curtailed by party oversight and the potential censure or dismissal of dissident scholars. The law will bring the threat of legal punishment into that environment. [Continue reading…]

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Advice for Trump from ancient China

The Huainanzi, a collection of essays of Western Han philosophy and statecraft written over 2,100 years ago, states:

If a ruler rejects those who work for the public good, and employs people according to friendship and factions, then those of bizarre talent and frivolous ability will be promoted out of turn, while conscientious officials will be hindered and will not advance. In this way, the customs of the people will fall into disorder throughout the state, and accomplished officials will struggle.

If the ruler ignores what he should preserve and struggles with his ministers and subordinates about the conduct of affairs, then those with official posts will be preoccupied with holding on to their positions, and those charged with official duties will avoid dismissal by following the whims of the ruler. This will cause capable ministers to conceal their wisdom.

If the ruler is frequently exhausted by attending to lesser duties, proper conduct will deteriorate throughout the state. His knowledge by itself will be insufficient to govern, and he will lack what it takes to deal with the world. [Continue reading…]

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Britain left Stone Age 4,500 years ago as early Britons were replaced by metalworking migrants


BBC News reports:

The ancient population of Britain was almost completely replaced by newcomers about 4,500 years ago, a study shows.

The findings mean modern Britons trace just a small fraction of their ancestry to the people who built Stonehenge.

The astonishing result comes from analysis of DNA extracted from 400 ancient remains across Europe.

The mammoth study, published in Nature, suggests the newcomers, known as Beaker people, replaced 90% of the British gene pool in a few hundred years.

Lead author Prof David Reich, from Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, US, said: “The magnitude and suddenness of the population replacement is highly unexpected.”

The reasons remain unclear, but climate change, disease and ecological disaster could all have played a role.

People in Britain lived by hunting and gathering until agriculture was introduced from continental Europe about 6,000 years ago. These Neolithic farmers, who traced their origins to Anatolia (modern Turkey) built giant stone (or “megalithic”) structures such as Stonehenge in Wiltshire, huge Earth mounds and sophisticated settlements such as Skara Brae in the Orkneys.

But towards the end of the Neolithic, about 4,450 years ago, a new way of life spread to Britain from Europe. People began burying their dead with stylised bell-shaped pots, copper daggers, arrowheads, stone wrist guards and distinctive perforated buttons. [Continue reading…]

How Charles Fletcher Lummis helped create the myth of the American West


At Lapham’s Quarterly, Greg Luther writes:

For a people more and more bound to the city, more confined to factory work and its bitter hours and cramped spaces, to a people suffocating from the smoke and greed of industrialism, a walk under open skies must have seemed the purest freedom.

In A Tramp Across the Continent Lummis fashioned himself as a man unafraid to cast off the shackles of society and stride westward: “In my pockets were writing material, fishing tackle, matches and tobacco, and a small caliber revolver.” Mundane lists like this do a great job of underscoring exactly what has been left off the list, namely gumption, and there is no greater theater for the display of gumption than the mythic American West. In our country’s imagination, the West has long been a place where men could regain the strength that had been sapped by society. “Life consists in wildness,” wrote Thoreau, in his essay “Walking.” “The most alive is the wildest.”

Lummis drew on that mythology in A Tramp Across the Continent but converted it to a more consumable, popular form. He fought off bandits with his bare hands, won a shooting contest, and survived a wildcat attack. These now read like fixtures of the Western, but at the time the genre was not yet in full form. Owen Wister wouldn’t publish The Virginian for another decade. Lummis relied upon early progenitors like James Fenimore Cooper and Captain Mayne Reid, an Irishman who wrote adventure novels set in the wilderness. In doing so, Lummis added another tie to the track that leads away from the historical West and toward the Western. But unlike the works of Cooper or Reid, which tell of fictional characters, Lummis fashioned himself as the hero. [Continue reading…]