This Day in History: Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union

Posted in American, European, Russian by Alex L. on June 22, 2009

On June 22, 1941, Nazi German armies invaded the Soviet Union, catching the Red Army by surprise and destroying thousands of Soviet airplanes before they even had a chance to take off from the ground. The ensuing battle, known as Operation Barbarossa, lasted until the winter of that year and, according to Wikipedia, “remains the largest military operation, in terms of manpower, area traversed, and casualties, in human history.” I read a few articles (you can tell from which impeccably-reliable source) today about this event and learned a few interesting points.

The mainstream scholarly view of the invasion holds that the Germans caught Joseph Stalin completely by surprise, which explains the heavy Soviet casualties in the beginning of the campaign. A Russian author, Viktor Suvorov, has recently challenged this traditional view with a theory that the Soviets were actually planning an invasion of Germany in 1941 but were beaten to the offensive. This is an ongoing debate among scholars, especially since Suvorov’s theory is largely based on circumstantial evidence (for instance, that the Soviets were developing offensive technologies such as this ridiculous-looking flying tank). Another interesting scholarly controversy I encountered was why the conflict on the Eastern Front of World War II is not well known in America. A recent book, The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture, tackles this question. Although my reading on the subject of Operation Barbarossa has been brief today, there are many interesting avenues for further study.

Colbert calls for poetry revival

Posted in American, Culture, Poetry, Storytelling, Television by Alex L. on June 19, 2009

I enjoyed last night’s interview on the Colbert Report of poet Paul Muldoon, especially how Stephen Colbert tried to popularize poetry by reading one of Prof. Muldoon’s works, “Tea”. As Colbert mentioned, poetry is not cool in today’s America. In a country with a strong democratic spirit, perhaps it seems like an artifact of antiquated aristocratic habits. Quote a poem at a social event and you are sure to sound like a snob.

But this decline in popularity is not entirely the public’s fault. I think poetry, like other arts influenced by academia, has evolved to be too cerebral for the public’s taste. And what a shame!

Well-crafted verse, like no other art, has the power to preserve for posterity emotions, the spirit of an age, and even morals. I heard a contemporary scholar criticize Walt Whitman for writing some of his poems in rhyme. But how well Whitman captured the spirit of a historical moment – the national mood upon the assassination of President Lincoln soon after the end of the Civil War – in his rhyming poem “O Captain! My Captain!”! It is rightly so that this poem is remembered above others in the compilation, Memories of President Lincoln, because it not only delivers a powerful message but also does it so pleasurably (one need not overstrain his brain to understand it).

My hope is that poetry does experience a revival. Words beautifully prepared and powerfully spoken are one of life’s greatest joys.

How do we remember D-Day?

Posted in American, European, Storytelling by Alex L. on June 18, 2009

Amphibious assault on June 6, 1944Twelve days ago was the 65th anniversary of the American and British invasion of Nazi-occupied Normandy. The events of June 6, 1944, D-Day, are worthy subject matter for an epic poem by Homer himself. As the ancient Greeks landed on the beach of Asia Minor to lay siege on Troy thousands of years ago, so too the Allied soldiers of World War II disembarked from their landing craft, assaulted the German defense bunkers and machine-gun nests, and began the liberation of continental Europe. The Allies even prepared a Trojan horse of their own: deception programs named Operation Fortitude and Operation Bodyguard fooled the Germans into expecting an Allied amphibious assault in anywhere but Normandy.

How do we in the United States remember D-Day? As an expatriate of the former Soviet Union, I had observed in that country a reverence of its victories during World War II bordering on worship. The business of the Soviet people halted every year for Victory Day; parades, recollection, thanksgiving, military pageantry, and storytelling about the war permeated the land. This is not the way we remember D-Day in America. A few newspaper articles buried underneath other headlines and a visit by President Obama to the military cemetery in France sufficed as our annual memorial of this event. There definitely did not seem to be a national spirit of remembrance.

What story will we tell about this epic day in American history? Will it be a Homeric tale of heroes and timeless deeds? For Christians, do the Scriptures – which ascribe all glory to God – preclude us from remembering it in this way? To forget altogether, due to laziness or otherwise, would be a loss to culture. While recently reading Walt Whitman’s poem about the end of the American Civil War, “Spirit Whose Work is Done”, I thought that his invocation could well apply to the memory of this more recent war:

“[. . .] Spirit of hours I knew, all hectic red one day, but pale as
death next day,
Touch my mouth ere you depart, press my lips lose,
Leave me your pulses of rage – bequeath them to me – fill me
with currents convulsive,
Let them scorch and blister out of my chants when you are
Let them identify you to the future in these songs.”

Noah’s Ark in the Black Sea: an elegant, if flawed, theory

Posted in Ancient, Bible, Prehistory, Storytelling by Alex L. on June 13, 2009

Sometimes a theory about the past makes for such a good story that it is hard to let go of it, even when it proves to be false. When archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ancient Greek city of Mycenae, home of King Agamemnon from Homer’s Iliad, he found a beautiful gold funerary mask of a royal. Imagine, if the mask was of Agamemnon himself, to have a portrait – in gold! – of a hero from Homer’s epic story of the Trojan War, where previously only our imaginations colored those characters. Alas, when the mask was dated, it was pronounced a few generations off from Agamemnon, but how beautiful it would have been if it was his.

Another elegant theory of our past is the Black Sea deluge hypothesis. In 1996, geologists from Columbia University William Ryan and Walter Pitman postulated that a massive flood from the Mediterranean Ocean through the narrow Bosporus strait created the Black Sea as we know it today. Over seven thousand years ago, they said, water burst through the strait and rushed into the Black Sea with force 400 times that of Niagara Falls. Many communities living around the sea were wiped out and the stories told of this catastrophe later became the Great Flood myths in the Hebrew book of Genesis, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, and other ancient narratives. Finding an archaeological counterpart to the story of Noah’s ark is a tantalizing idea. The famous oceanographer Robert Ballard (who discovered the RMS Titanic on the ocean floor) even led an expedition to the Black Sea to test the Black Sea deluge hypothesis.

Unfortunately, the theory, in light of new evidence, seems to be false. In such a case, one would chuck it from memory, if the idea was not so artful. Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Review comments (according to an uncited quote on Wikipedia) that “if you want to see the Black Sea flood in Noah’s flood, who’s to say no?” I disagree with Mr. Shanks: one should not believe in faulty scientific theories. But the debunking of the Black Sea deluge hypothesis is nevertheless a buzzkill to the imagination.

“The Trials of Henry Kissinger”: a provocative documentary

Posted in American, Asian, Film by Alex L. on June 3, 2009

Portrait of Henry Kissinger

The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a documentary by Eugene Jarecki, who also directed Why We Fight. This film has challenged my opinion of Henry Kissinger, who I previously admired for his reputation of being a brilliant diplomat. Genius strategist he was, the documentary admits, but Jarecki also makes the case that Kissinger had committed war crimes that resulted in the deaths of many innocent civilians. According to the documentary, Kissinger allegedly sabotaged peace talks to end the Vietnam War in 1968 (resulting in two more years of bloody conflict), authorized illegal bombings of Cambodia (destabilizing the country which led to the Khmer Rouge genocide), and armed the Indonesian army for mass-murder in East Timor, among other atrocities.

Kissinger has never faced trial for any of these charges. Future historians will judge – when more evidence has been released to the public – whether he was in actuality a war criminal who cared for nothing other than his political ambitions. Though Kissinger will most likely die a free, wealthy, and respected man (unlike the Ottoman sultan Beyazit, whose ambitions led to a degrading demise), if he was guilty, he still serves a sentence no criminal can avoid. This is the punishment suffered by Rodion Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The documentary ends with these words:

“I do think that somewhere down deep he knows what he was doing, he knows it was against a lot of first principles, which is why so much is masked and hidden. There’s so much distrust. It’s a very, very sad way to go through your life. Whatever he did, whatever he accomplished, I’m not sure it’s worth it, because he had to live a lot more years. He’s been out of power for a long time: 25 years now. In it’s own way, the reason I don’t worry about war crimes or anything else is he’s got his own sentence, he’s got to live with himself.”