Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of WWII and the End of Civilization is a haunting and sometimes horrifying revisionist look at the lead up to and early years of the Second World War. The book is composed entirely of small vignettes (ranging in length from a paragraph to a few pages) drawn from newspaper accounts, diaries, memoirs, official documents, and other largely contemporary sources. While this style leaves little room for direct argumentation, the main theses of the book are fairly clear and may be summarized as follows:
1. The Allies during WWII (particularly Britain) engaged in numerous atrocities, violations of civil liberties, etc. during the war, and in some cases did so before the Germans.
2. The leaders of the Allied powers (particularly FDR and Churchill) wanted war, and in the case of FDR did everything in his power to provoke an attack.
3. That the Allied powers didn’t particularly care about the Jews, and that the Holocaust could have been averted had the United States and Britain allowed Jews to immigrate as refugees (something which was considered but rejected).
4. That Hitler was a madman in the literal sense of the term. Continue reading
Since today is not President’s Day, I thought I would indulge in a little rant.
Presidential rankings tend to be rather biased. The problem isn’t so much political. A 1982 survey of historians, for example, found that conservatives and liberals were in complete agreement as to the best eight and worst six presidents (though the ordering in each case was slightly different). Rather, bias in presidential rankings is that such rankings tend to reward presidents who do a lot and expand the power of the presidency while punishing those who do not. A president who presides over peace and prosperity is liable to be forgotten, whereas those who faced great crisis, economic or military, tend to be ranked more highly. Indeed, since success in averting or defusing crises often makes them seem less severe in retrospect, this sort of ranking could be said to actually reward presidents for mishandling potential crises, or even creating them in the first place.
How else to explain the consistently low ranking (often in last place) of our 29th President, Warren G. Harding. Continue reading
The following is a statement issued by Bishop Bernard Fellay, the superior general of SSPX:
We have come to know of an interview given by Bishop Richard Williamson, a member of our Fraternity of St. Pius X, on Swedish television. In this interview he spoke of historical questions, in particular on the question of the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis.
It is evident that a Catholic bishop cannot speak with ecclesial authority if it is not a question of faith and morals. Our fraternity does not claim any authority over other questions. Its mission is the propagation and restoration of authentic Catholic doctrine, as found in the dogmas of the faith. It is for this that we are known, accepted and appreciated throughout the world.
With great sadness we acknowledge the extent to which the violation of this mandate has damaged our mission. The statements of Bishop Williamson do not reflect in any way the position of our society. For this, I have prohibited him, until further notice, from speaking publicly on these political and historical questions
We ask for the forgiveness of the Supreme Pontiff, and of all people of good will, for the dramatic consequences of this act. As we recognize how imprudent the statements were, we affirm with sadness that they have directly affected our fraternity by discrediting our mission.
This is not acceptable, and we declare that we will continue preaching Catholic doctrine and administering the sacraments of grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Valkyrie tells the story of the 20 July plot to kill Hitler carried out by German officers in the summer of 1944. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the central figure in both the organization and execution of the plot.
I thought the film was executed well. It manages to maintain suspense despite the fact that for most of the movie not that much is actually happening, and while I can’t call the film especially insightful or moving, the compelling nature of the subject matter does a lot to carry the film forward.
Watching the film did raise two issues , neither of which (for understandable reasons) were explored in the film, but which may warrant further reflection.
The first has to do with the nature of oaths. After Hitler came to power in 1933, he required all German officers to swear an oath of loyalty to him personally. In many cases, it appears that one of the things holding a given officer back from joining one of the many anti-Hitler plots was the knowledge that this would require violating their oath. The oath is alluded to several times in the film, but the moral issues involved are never really explored, presumably because having characters agonize over whether it was right to kill Hitler would not have worked dramatically. Still, the matter does raise some interesting questions. St. Thomas More, for example, was canonized largely based on his firm position on the moral sacredness of oath taking, and while I have little doubt that one can reconcile treating both More and Stauffenberg as heroes, exactly how one goes about doing so could have profound moral implications.
The other issue has to do with speculation on what would have happened had the coup gone off successfully (I trust I won’t be spoiling the ending for anyone if I reveal that the plot is unsuccessful). After seeing the movie, a friend opined that perhaps it was a good thing the 20 July plotters were not able to kill Hitler. His reasoning was that if the plotters had succeed and ended the war just after the Normandy invasion, this would have left them vulnerable to the charge that Germany had once again been “stabbed in the back” and the whole cycle would have repeated itself again.
Maybe. I’m inclined to think, though, that a phenomenon like Hitler was not likely to recur again. Ending the war in 1944 would have saved Europe from a great deal of death and destruction, and would likely have prevented Eastern Europe from falling under Soviet domination for the next 40 years. Avoiding these certain evils seems worth the uncertain risk of other evils down the road.
Seventy five years ago today, a great injustice was ended when Utah became the 36th state to ratify the Twenty-First Amendment, thus ending Prohibition. In honor of this glorious event, here is an excerpt from the book The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey, and Song on how some Napa Valley wineries managed to weather the storm of Prohibition: Continue reading
In 1620 Plymouth Plantation was founded with a system of communal property rights. Food and supplies were held in common and then distributed based on equality and need as determined by Plantation officials. People received the same rations whether or not they contributed to producing the food, and residents were forbidden from producing their own food. Governor William Bradford, in his 1647 history, Of Plymouth Plantation, wrote that this system was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. The problem was that young men, that were most able and fit for labour, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. Because of the poor incentives, little food was produced.
Faced with potential starvation in the spring of 1623, the colony decided to implement a new economic system. Every family was assigned a private parcel of land. They could then keep all they grew for themselves, but now they alone were responsible for feeding themselves. While not a complete private property system, the move away from communal ownership had dramatic results. Continue reading
Conservatives are often accused of wanting to “turn back the clock.” Yet as David Prerau notes in his book Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, when Americans actually do turn back their clocks this weekend in observance of Daylight Saving Time, they’ll have to thank not some archconservative or reactionary, but rather an early 20th century progressive reformer.
It was just over 100 years ago, on a summer morning in 1905, that William Willett thought up the idea while riding through the English countryside. Willett thought it a pity that so many people were “wasting daylight” by sleeping in, and hit upon the idea that by having everyone set their clocks ahead one hour, he could get people to enjoy more hours of daylight after they had finished work (Willett’s plan was on this point at least less intrusive than the plan satirically proposed by Benjamin “Early to be and Early to rise” Franklin to deal with the same problem, which was to set off canons shortly after dawn).
At first Willett’s plan was greeted with mockery and derision. One member of the House of Commons sarcastically suggested that people should likewise relabel thermometers in the winter to keep it from being so cold. When Germany adopted the practice during World War I as an energy saving mechanism, however, both England and the United States felt constrained to follow suit. Continue reading
On Thursday, the presidential candidates for both of the two major parties appeared at the Al Smith Dinner, an annual fundraiser for Catholic Charities which has been a frequent election campaign stop for presidential hopefuls since Kennedy and Nixon appeared there in 1960. The speeches given by the candidates at the Al Smith Dinner are, by tradition, supposed to be funny, and this year the candidates did not disappoint (video of both speeches can be found here). Both Senator Obama and Senator McCain showed themselves to be quite capable of poking fun at their opponents and at themselves which was, I think, all to the good.
One line in particular, though, struck me as odd. During his remarks, Senator Obama stated that he “shared the politics of Alfred E. Smith and the ears of Alfred E. Newman.” Now, obviously, the worst thing you can do with a joke is overanalyze it, but I had to wonder: exactly what were the politics that Barack Obama thought he had in common with Al Smith? Continue reading
Today is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. On the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, I posted the first part of what was going to be a debate last year between myself and Shawn of the blog Rerum Novarum on the morality of the bombings. Prior to the debate, Shawn and I agreed that the atomic bombings would be justified only if two conditions were met:
1) the bombings did not involve the intentional targeting of noncombatants; and
2) the bombings saved lives, that is, any alternative course of action would have resulted in even greater loss of life.
In my previous post, I argued that the first condition was not met. In this post, I argue that the second condition also was not met. Prior to the debate, Shawn had argued that the second condition, proportionality, had been met by the bombings, and had cited in support some figures on the high number of casualties (both American and Japanese) that could have resulted from a land invasion of Japan. I responded as follows: Continue reading
A little over a year ago, Shawn of the blog Rerum Novarum issued a challenge to Catholics to debate him on the morality of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of WWII (he was pro). I accepted the challenge, and we emailed back and forth about logistics, and I prepared an initial post setting out the against side of the question. Unfortunately the proposed debate never ended up happening, for reasons that I won’t go into now.
Since today is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, I thought I would post what would have been my initial contribution to the debate. As it is rather long, I have broken it up into two parts. During our email exchange, Shawn and I had agreed that, in order for the bombings to be justified from a Catholic perspective, it had to be the case both that:
1) the bombings did not involve the intentional targeting of civilians; and
2) the bombings saved lives, that is, any alternative course of action would have resulted in even greater loss of life.
This post addresses the first condition, and argues that the bombings did, in fact, involve the intentional targeting of civilians. In the second part, I will argue that the second condition, proportionality, was also not met. Continue reading
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