Archive for category History

Inferno!

inferno

No spoilers about story or plot in this entry!

On May 14th I was among the first to purchase Dan Brown’s new book, Inferno.   By the next day I had finished all 463 pages, it is perhaps the best in the Robert Langdon series, including the earlier books Angels and Demons, The DaVinci Code and The Lost Symbol.

The reason I devoured the book is because almost of all the action takes place in either Florence or Venice; the lion’s share in Florence.   On Monday I take off with students on a travel course to Italy, visiting Venice, Florence and Rome.  This book whetted my appetite for Italy with brilliantly descriptive images of Florence, mixing tidbits of history with a story line that honored perhaps the greatest and most influential author of history, Dante Alighieri.

Dante’s book The Divine Comedy included The Inferno, which was Dante’s description of hell.  Brown notes that most of our images of a dark underworld of torture, demons and suffering come from Dante’s imagery.   Yet Dante wasn’t simply trying to depict a religious vision of hell – quite the contrary.   His book was sarcastic social commentary – a kind of satire – in which famous politicians, church leaders and other elite of his day found themselves suffering somewhere in the inferno, with the punishment always fitting the sin.

Exiled from his city of Florence in 1301 due to political rivalries, Dante (1265-1321) wrote The Divine Comedy as a kind of literary revenge, skewering leaders and the politics of the day, while honoring his muse Beatrice, a woman he had barely met but with whom he had fallen in love.   She died at 24, but remained a muse for the poet until his death.  Dante wrote The Divine Comedy before the printing press, but in the vernacular.  In fact, modern Italian is traced back to Dante, so great was his influence.

Botticelli's image of Dante's inferno.

Botticelli’s image of Dante’s inferno.

Dante was one of the first humanists, moving away from a focus on the divine to a perspective embracing the world as it was.    While in exile he would meet Giotto, whose Scrovegni Chapel in Padova broke with past practices to offer a true humanist perspective.   The life of Christ is told with emotion and realistic detail.    Humanism would change European thought forever, and make the enlightenment possible.

While most of that is away from Brown’s story line, which looks more towards the future than the past, his embrace of Dante adds an historical poignancy and meaning which puts Inferno  a step ahead of his previous efforts.   For anyone who loves Florence, the book is a must read; he captures the spirit of the city while describing some of its most compelling locations.

Angels and Demons  was my favorite before now.  I not only liked the story line – mixing the CERN Large Hadron Collider with a Papal Conclave – but it has delightful images of some of my favorite places in Rome.   I make sure to do an “Angels and Demons walking tour” when I take students to Italy.  Not only do those who have read the book identify with the places we see, but Brown does an excellent job in choosing interesting and relevant locales.

Dan Brown, author.

Dan Brown, author.

In the future I will add “Inferno” walking tours to both Venice and Florence.   I may even try this year, though since the book just came out I doubt too many students will have read it.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes a fast paced plot with twists, turns, compelling characters and a few dramatic surprises.   It is a must read for those who love Italy, especially Florence and Venice.

So I’m ready to head to Italy next week, starting in Venice and then going on to Florence and Rome.  It was a pleasant surprise that Brown’s latest novel would be released just in time for me to re-immerse myself into Florentine history and images from both Florence and Venice.

Next week I start blogging from Italy.  My co-instructor in this endeavor is Dr. Steven Pane, who teaches Music History.  He also is fascinated by the study of sound, and plans a sound seminar for our first day in Venice to help students learn to appreciate the different sounds of various cities and locations.   I sent him this snippet from Inferno  (p. 313), set at the piazza San Marco.   Steve said this could be an introduction to his seminar:

“It was not until this moment, as he entered the sheltered square, that Langdon could fully appreciate this city’s most unique offering.

Sound.

With virtually no cars or motorized vehicles of any kind, Venice enjoyed a blissful absence of the usual civic traffic, subways, and sirens, leaving sonic space for the distantly unmechanical tapestry of human voices, cooing pigeons, and lilting violins serenading patrons at the outdoor cafes.  Venice sounded like no other metropolitan center in the world.”

Next week, blogging from Italy!

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Remembering Obama vs. McCain

Four years ago McCain was the only Presidential candidate with gray hair

I started this blog “World in Motion” back in May 2008, with my first blog post about comparing cyclone Nargis with hurricane Katrina.   That meant I was blogging through fall election campaign so I decided to look back at how I was describing the last days of that campaign.

Some posts were light.   The world series was going on, and it reminded me that in 1980 I was rooting for the Phillies and put a big “Tug McGraw for President” sign on my door (he was the relief pitching ace for the Phillies, if you never heard of him).   2008 felt a lot like 1980, Americans were ready for a change.

Tug McGraw and the Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals in 1980

I didn’t keep track of all the polls, but exactly 11 days before the election I wrote about the polls which showed a clear lead by Obama over McCain, usually by 4 to 6 points.  A few polls had a double digit lead, and IBD/TIPP showed Obama up only one.   The state polls had comfortable leads for Obama, though one (Strategic Vision) had McCain up in a couple swing states and in striking distance of others.   That company still exists, but focuses on marketing.   It was one of those partisan polls that tried to make the race seem closer than it was.

On October 27th I wrote about “Democratic Gloom and Angst,” about how Democrats were convinced that negative tactics and dirty tricks in the waning days of the campaign might give the election to McCain, here’s part:

“Moreover, many are convinced that the negativity will be ratcheted up, perhaps with new video from Rev. Wright, or some false but yet believable rumor that will be pushed out at the end of the campaign, without Obama having time to effectively respond.  It doesn’t have to change the whole dynamic, just win enough votes to win the “red” states they need on November 4th.  Indeed, some are convinced that the faked attack on a McCain worker, who claimed a black man attacked her and carved a “B” in her face, was part of some kind of dirty trick.  She’s from Pennsylvania, the state McCain hopes to flip by scaring those in the western part of the state to think Obama is too strange and risky.  Even if they don’t like McCain, perhaps they can be persuaded not to vote for Obama.”

Although Obama cruised to an easy victory in 2008, supporters were nervous up until the end

In hindsight that election looks like it was an easy victory for Obama – a country in economic turmoil with a young candidate promising hope and chance alongside an old out of touch McCain.   At the time, it didn’t feel like a sure thing to most people.    I also had a post about early voting and the ground game, which hit on some of the same themes I wrote about yesterday.

I’d forgotten one post “Desperation Breeds Stupidity,” bemoaning the fact Elizabeth Dole, a woman I’ve always admired, had an ad attacking her opponent Kay Hagan, an elder in the Presbyterian church and a Sunday School teacher:

“In the ad a tough narrator notes that Kay Hagan held a fundraiser that was ‘hosted by the Godless Americans PAC,’ showing clips of people from that group calling for God to be removed from the pledge of allegiance and from money, and in general dissing religion.  ‘What did she promise them’ in exchange for the fundraising, the ad asks.  It ends with a close up of Kay Hagan and a voice saying ‘There is no God!'”

Kay Hagen sworn in as North Carolina’s Junior Senator

It didn’t work, North Carolina’s junior Senator is now Kay Hagan.

On the weekend before the election I had a post “Is McCain Surging?”  The Drudge Report and right leaning media tried to create the sense that the race was tightening and McCain might pull it off:

“To look at the Drudge Report, you’d think McCain has been steadily inching closer to Barack Obama, and is within striking distance of taking the popular vote lead and running the sweep of toss up states necessary to come from behind and win the election.  Last week it was a “shock Gallup poll” which showed the two within two points using the ‘traditional model’ for likely voters.  By Sunday it was a ten point race in that group again.  But no matter, Rasmussen showed it narrow to three points, so that was cited — well within the margin of error!  Alas, it expanded back to five points, and Rasmussen declares the race “remarkably stable” with Obama at about an 85% chance for victory.

Then it was the IBD/TIPP poll which has always showed a tighter race.  And finally on early Saturday morning Drudge screamed out that ‘McCain leads in overnight polling!’  Wow!  He must be zooming back.  For the Obama fans, this is their worst case scenario, another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, an unexpected comeback.  For the McCain faithful this plus slightly tightening polls in Pennsylvania and Ohio shows that their come back scenario is on track — they can do it!”

Watching the current race, which is much much closer, I’m reminded how hindsight has 2020 vision.   Now it appears as if after September 15th when McCain suspended his campaign and then seemed to flail around helplessly in trying to respond to the economic crisis, Obama was a sure thing.   Nobody is talking about the “Bradley” effect this year.   That was a big deal in 2008, a belief that people tell pollsters they’ll vote for Obama because they don’t want to appear racist.  That led many on the right to discount Obama’s lead, sort of like the  “skewed polls” this year.

This year is much different.   The election is closer, the dynamic is uncertain.   Yet a lot remains the same – polls give information but can be used to mislead.  The Drudge Report often seems to be occupying an alternate universe.   And it’ll be an intense final days with rumors, hopes and fears on all sides causing partisans to experience a full range of emotions.   Get ready for the ride!

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Augustine, Machiavelli, and Petrarch Conversing

One place for the conversation: in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, where Giotto’s frescoes mixed the old religious themes with a new humanist perspective

The assignment closing out the first unit of my honors first year seminar was straight forward: imagine a conversation between Augustine, Petrarch and Machiavelli.   Have them talk about the issues that dominated their lives, react to each other, and bring up others we read or talked about (Aquinas, Dante, Giotto and Boccaccio).   The results were spectacular.

I gave students freedom to tackle the assignment however they wanted.   One took the voice of Machiavelli, describing the conversations and his internal thoughts — polite to Augustine in conversation while ridiculing him in his head.   Another had them all in purgatory, some had them in heaven, one had them in a rather rowdy bar (Augustine sipping fruit juice), while one had them in the equivalent of zoo, having been snatched from earth and brought somewhere outside space/time.   One put herself in the role as translator of the conversation, giving her reflections on what they said, which worked really well.

Augustine (354-430) developed the spiritual philosophy and theology that would define the medieval world view – this world is an illusion, designed to tempt and test, but exists only as symbols of a deeper reality.   Do not pursue worldly delights or ambitions, those only lead you away from Christ.  With that view dominating, it’s not surprising that the Europeans spent nearly a thousand years with little progress!

Petrarch is often called the “father of humanism.”   Humanism means taking the human experience seriously.   Petrarch, along with others such as Giotto, Boccaccio and Dante, were rediscovering the classics from Rome and Greece, and thereby opening the door to a past that Europe had long forgotten.   They were enthralled by the classics, a world where human emotion and practical knowledge mattered — where life wasn’t only about preparation for the after life.

Petrarch expressed humanist love and emotion, but never approached his muse Laura – he loved from afar

Art became more realistic, human emotion invaded literature and poetry, and the material world started to matter again.   This led to the renaissance and an expansion of knowledge and wealth.    It also meant growing corruption in the Church as the spiritual became secondary to the practical.    Niccolo Machiavelli (1649 – 1527) took that humanism to its pragmatic ends justify the means conclusion with his book The Prince.

What’s most impressive is that the students  captured the essence of what these three people  symbolize.   Augustine is the other-worldly mystic who warns about the corruption of the flesh and power of a love for God.  Petrarch has his feet in both the Augustinian world and the new world of humanism.   He writes stirring emotional poetry to a woman, but one he loves from afar.    One student has the two of them reflecting on their similar experiences.   Augustine’s most powerful moment was when opened the Bible at random and was touched by something written by Paul.   Petrarch had done the same with Augustine’s Confessions atop Mt. Ventoux.

Florence at the time of Machiavelli – the wealthiest city in Europe, yet surrounded by strife, corruption and discord

Machiavelli is the anti-Augustine.   He is a humanist and a realist.   Of course the Church and God is important, but one has to live in this world with humans who are, as all three agree, base in their nature.   Humans are wicked, sinful and unclean.

Augustine’s solution is to go to the mountains and live separate from the depravity and ruin, in monasteries where life is devoted solely to the spiritual.    Petrarch admired Augustine but fantasized about living in classical times.   He would carry on conversations with Cicero and others from the past, wishing he could be in a world where knowledge and culture were advanced and developed.   Machiavelli compartmentalized the spiritual in order to focus on the practical.

What impressed me is how the students got into the mindset of the era, be it the dilemmas of humanism, the impact of Aquinas and Aristotle, or the inherent tension in the methods of the Scholastics.   They managed to mentally put themselves into that time frame just before the reformation.

That’s important.  It is so easy to think “oh, they didn’t have science yet, they were backward…the Church is controlling everything, that’s wrong.”   That’s a view of someone in the present imagining those structures of thought imposed on the here and now.

If we judge history through a modern lens we fail to understand the fundamental questions and dilemmas that the people at the time grappled with.    We wouldn’t appreciate how their dilemmas were similar to issues we face now; these were intelligent people whose thinking was not so unlike our own.    Moreover, once we endeavor to understand the past in context, it’s easier to see the imperfections of our own reality.

When we get to the end of the course students have an assignment to write about the present the way an Honors class 400 years from now might see it.    What do we do that will be seen later as barbaric and ignorant?   War?   Chemicals in food?  Eating meat?

How will religion and science change?    Is the history of western civilization — and all other cultures — starting to merge into a global discourse?   Might the intellectual history of the West be bracketed — ending at some year when cultural merging makes such cultural distinctions impossible to maintain?

The goal of the course is for students to see their academic journey and their place in the world as part of an unfolding story.   How we think is shaped by our cultural past.    Even an atheist has views and understandings that can be traced back to thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Luther.    Instead of being in the present looking at a past whose sole purpose was to create this moment, we are part of an exciting unfolding of history, connected to the past and part of a future yet undiscovered.

And if one sees life that way, learning is not a chore, it’s fun.   Learning does not end when college ends, but one is motivated to continue exploring and understanding the exciting and riveting history unfolding.   Traveling to a city like Rome is not just visiting another place, but traveling through time as we connect with history.   We are not in a world of stress, distractions and emptiness, but are part of the most exciting story ever told — being told by voices across time and space, each voice as loud and important as our own.

That sense of wonder has shaped how I look at life and my place in it.   It provides a sense of wonder and awe that transcends daily routines.    As a teacher, my goal is to provide opportunities for students to make that same discovery.   These papers show evidence that these honors students are doing just that.

 

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Travel Well, Live Well

The Duomo and Baptistery in Firenze

This coming May we plan on offering a travel course to Italy.   It will be the seventh time I’ve been part of a travel course to Italy with student.  I’ve visited Italy five other times, including the year I lived in Bologna while attending the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (from which I earned my MA).

Having just discovered some cool websites involving Italy including Margieinitaly, lovebeautyexperience,  and traveling foodie, I’m very engaged with planning of the trip.   I’m the “trip planner,” the one who makes arrangements and takes care of the finances (in exchange my colleagues take over a lot of excess work during the trip itself).

Venice has been described as a “thinking person’s Disneyland,” but it’s beauty is real

The trip is difficult to plan because of the numbers.   We routinely have 40 students and four faculty, flying into Venice and out of Rome.    Venice is not a major hub so to get inexpensive tickets for that many people requires booking early.

My colleagues:  Steve Pane (Music History), Sarah Maline (Art History) and Luann Yetter (Literature) are the other three faculty, and together we’ve created a tight, integrated interdisciplinary course that yields an academic experience unlike any I’ve encountered.   Not only are we “on the scene” when we talk about art, history, the Catholic Church, or Florence, but over the years we’ve amazed ourselves by how much we learn from each other.    We find connections between disciplines and perspectives, and develop those in conversations with students.  The trip is always an educational experience for us as well as for the students.  There’s always more to learn!

Luann Yetter near Santa Maria Nouvella, talking about Dante at the end of the “Dante walking tour.”

1.  Numbers and Recruitment.    While it may seem like we’d be more comfortable with fewer than forty students, the economics of such a course requires at least nine students for each faculty member at a minimum.   We’re now gathering e-mail addresses of perspective participants, communicating with students who might be interested, and Monday held an early meeting (with a slide show!)   Because the course has a reputation, we usually have a good number who really want to go — but getting to forty can be daunting.

2.  Hotels.   Hotels are a challenge with over 40 people.   Luckily we’ve made connections over the years.  We know of a good hotel in Venice, Agli Artisti, near the train station.   Our favorites are the FLorentine hotels Abacho and Giappone, just blocks from the Duomo.   The Florence hotels feature five flights of stairs and no elevator, but the people there are awesome – we’ve stayed there every time.   Rome varies.   We usually stay near the Termini train station because it’s convenient, but they don’t like booking large groups.   We often have to break the group up.   My strategy now is to inquire about smaller groups in a number of hotels located close to each other.

Here I am with students in a Florence park, a seminar about the themes of the course so far (students were divided in groups, faculty rotated)

3.   Money.   Every trip has had a balanced budget.   As “keeper of the finances” my task is to determine a travel fee (cost of airfare, hotels, internal travel, public transportation, airport service, and many museums and events) and keep it as inexpensive as possible.   We do pretty good.   We get group rate train tickets (much cheaper than the Italian rail passes we got our first time); with hotels we balance price and quality.   By quality I mean safety and cleanliness, we eschew luxuries!   Students bring their own money for meals and others (though hotels usually have breakfast).

The hard part – determining the price in September without knowing what the value of the Euro will be in May.   Sometimes, it makes things really tight.    Even pricing in a higher value things can shoot up, that happened a couple of times and it was a struggle to stay in budget.   Once, though, the Euro dropped pretty dramatically and we were able to have some group meals and extra day trips.

Not the best quality photo, but our friends at Hotel Abacha (via dei Banchi) in Florence surprised us with some bread and wine one evening

4.  Logistics.   Who is coming?   How many need a bus to the airport?   Can we pick people up at the Kennebunk rest area?   How early should we get to the airport?    Too early and people get bored, but we don’t want to risk a flat tire or traffic jam threatening our flight!   One thing I learned is that when you’re traveling with a big group, airlines treat you right.   They don’t want to rebook 40 people.

Once we flew Portland-New York-Rome.   Due to a weather delay we arrived in New York at the very time our Rome flight was to depart.  I was convinced we’d have to spend the night near JFK.   Nope – Delta had a bus next to plane just to get our group to our flight.  They had held it for us, gave us boarding passes as we entered, and the best part is that our luggage arrived on time too!   Another time in London British Airways switched to a bigger plane to rebook us to Vienna (on a Germany-Austria trip) after we missed our flight due to volcanic ash.

Vatican seminar – the history and politics of the Catholic Church is fascinating

Theme of the Course:  Travel well, live well.   Traveling well means to accept that problems will emerge.   Museums will be closed, trains will be late, we’ll get lost, we’ll miss out on something, and our feet will get blisters.

Some people get very annoyed when things don’t go as planned, they get mad at airlines, the trains, and people who seem to be mucking up their day.   Stress builds.   These people are not traveling well.   The key is to let it go, go with the flow.   No matter how bad it seems, you’ll have a story and things will work out.    Once a student forgot his passport at the hostel and had to miss the train from Florence to Rome.   We gave him instructions to catch the next one, but due to a change of platforms about three hours into his trip he noticed the Alps.   Ooops, not Rome.   But he made it.

Another student had a passport stolen, others have gotten ill, and we get lost and off schedule quite a bit!   Don’t let such things get the better of you, look at it all as an experience — enjoy and travel well!   My experience is that if you can travel well, those traits carry over into every day life.   Problems get solved, life goes on, and you collect experiences!

Still eight months to go, but already I’m thinking of Italy!

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An unforgettable train conversation

Some of my most memorable conversations have taken place on trains in Europe

It was January 25, 1992 and I had just spent a few days with students from St. Olaf College, helping out on a “global semester” course run by Professor Rod Grubb.   I was living in Bonn, working on my dissertation, and had been hired by Professor Grubb to come help out as he led 15 students around the world, with a January stop in Berlin.   The students were great as we explored old East Berlin, not yet rebuilt or remodeled — a Berlin that is now gone.

I had to take the train back to Bonn, buying the German newsweekly Der Spiegel and finding a compartment that was empty.   Nowadays European trains tend to have open seating, much like airplanes.  In those days they were generally divided in compartments of six seats, three people facing three others.

Those compartments yielded some of the most memorable conversations of my life.  I recall once spending a night in deep conversation with four others on an overnight train from Bologna to Munich.    I chatted with a girl from Austria who got pulled from the train by the police when we crossed over into Germany.   Seems she had a striking resemblance to a female terrorist – she said she got pulled aside almost every time she crossed from Austria to Germany.   I developed a crush on her, got her address, but never saw or heard from her again.

Three seats like this were across from three other seats, often fostering conversation between strangers, and even lasting friendships

On this January day I was anticipating an uneventful trip.   However, soon my compartment was invaded by three talkative elderly women.    I had a window seat and buried myself in Der Spiegel as the train zoomed westward.    At some point one of the women was having trouble putting a bag onto the luggage rack above.   I stood up and offered to help, and she was very thankful.    She asked where I was heading, and I told her Bonn.   I think she could tell my accent was not German so she asked if I lived there.   Yes, I said, but only for this year, as I was actually a student from Minnesota studying in Germany.

She started asking me about Minnesota and my impressions of Germany.   It was a pleasant conversation, and the other women joined in.   At some point I mentioned Germany history, and the false impressions Americans had of Germany because of war movies and images of Hitler and the Nazis.

“I…” one woman said, looking at her colleagues, “we lived through that.”   She paused.

“What was it like?”   It was probably not a politically correct question, as Germans tend to be very sensitive about that era of history.   Yet I was curious.   My German Professor in college, Gerhard Schumutterer, had been in the Germany army in WWII.    We would ask him what he had thought about Hitler and what it was like to be in the German army.   I don’t think we realized how sensitive such inquiries were.   He’d answer patiently, noting that while he believed at the time Germany was right, he had been living in New Zealand with his missionary parents when he was called to the army.

My old German Prof, Gerhard Schmutterer (1919 – 2005), who I thank for getting me to fall in love with the German language and culture.

His father had connections in the Lutheran church and arranged to have him come study at Augustana College in Sioux Falls (where he would later teach until he retired) right after the war.    He said the first night he arrived he was tired and taken to his new dorm room.  Turns out the next day was a big football game with South Dakota State University.   The tradition then was that SDSU students would come and try to break into dorm rooms and paint the faces of students red (SDSU’s colors were red and white).    He hadn’t locked his door, heard screaming, leapt up remembering his time fighting on the Russian front, and when they broke into his room and painted his face red he was sure the Russians had invaded.   What a way to wake up in a new country!

So I wanted to hear the experiences of these women as we traveled across Germany on a non-descript winter day.   The most engaging and insightful woman told me how she was born in Lotsch, Germany and her parents had been supporters of the Catholic party and not too enthused about Hitler.   Yet, she recounted how under the Nazis the economy boomed and pretty soon Germans felt proud be German again.

Raised to be patriotic and proud of their country, most Germans thought it self-evident they were on the side of good in World War II

The others agreed — the newsreels at the cinemas would compare Germany’s economic growth in the mid-thirties with the depression in the West, and many Germans felt that they were unified and moving forward.   Other voices were silenced.    One woman recounted how her brother became an enthusiastic member of the Hitler youth, and though he was young wanted to fight to the very end when the war was finally over.   “He never fully recovered,” she said, “he still deep down is a Nazi.”

They started talking with each other, stories about that era – rationing, what happened in the schools, what their parents were doing, friends they lost and how convinced they were that the war had been forced on Germany because others were jealous of their economic success.   One talked about a priest who was genuinely conflicted, believing in Germany and disliking the war and censorship.

They told me of how hard it was after the war, how one who lived in the East hid in a haystack from Russian soldiers who were raping German women and girls.   They talked about how unreal it seemed.   Propaganda had convinced them of their superiority, but now allied troops occupied their towns.

I asked about the holocaust.   One woman insisted it was a shock to her and if she had known she never would have supported the war.  Another woman was more sober.  “I didn’t know about it,” she said, “but I knew Jewish people were disappearing.   People said they were immigrating, not wanting to be part of the National Socialist state.   I think we believed that because we wanted to.  But we could have known.   All the signs were there.   We closed our eyes.”

The first woman disagreed, but the other nodded her head.   They were clearly uncomfortable.   I realized that their war experiences were not that much different than those of the French or British — citizens are brought along for the ride, manipulated and used by leaders with their own agendas.

Now high speed trains are comfortable and open. I miss the old compartments.

They exited in Dortmund.   As they got off the train one of them grabbed my arm.  “I have never talked about this in this way or in so much detail.   Not even with my children or grandchildren.”    I nodded, unsure what to say.   “Thanks, I’ve enjoyed the conversation,” I responded.  She smiled.   “Enjoyed?”   She smiled again, shaking her head, “have a wonderful time in Germany, I’m so glad we had a chance to talk.”

I watched them get off the train and walk away as the train left the station.   I thought about my German professor, and how thankful I was that he inspired me to learn the German language.   Without that, I could never have had that kind of conversation.    I also realized that history looks clear in hindsight, but while it unfolds there are numerous shades of gray.    I can’t blame them for not seeing the evil that Hitler represented, nor can I be confident any of us won’t be fooled by someone who promises prosperity and claims war is being forced on us.

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Twins Win! 25 Years Ago

In 1987 the Twins defeated the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first World Series

Can it really be 25 years since that magical 1987 victory of the Twins over the St. Louis Cardinals?   Going through some old material I found a Twins Yearbook from 1987, and paged through it.    A number of that year’s championship team were born the same year I was: Frank Viola, Kent Hrbek, Steve Lambordozzi, Al Newman and Tom Brunansky.   Over half the team was born within two years of me — that team was my generation of Twins!

It was an amazing year.   Along with a bunch of others at the University of Minnesota I attended home opener and followed the Twins through the year.     On rainy days I’d often buy $3 bleacher seats, sometimes going to the game alone just to watch.     The Twins went 85 – 77 that year, barely enough to win the division championship.   I don’t think I saw them lose a game when I attended;  their home record was 66-25 (road: 29 – 52).    Luckily they had home field advantage in the series, which they won 4-3, losing the three games at St. Louis.  I’m tempted to go watch the tapes I made of the series, but I no longer have a Beta-max to play them on.

What a team!  Gary Gaetti, the efficient third base slugger, Greg Gagne at short stop, Steve Lombardozzi at 2nd and Kent Hrbek at first.   Superb defense!   The outfield was Brunansky in right, Gladden in left and Kirby Puckett in center.  Viola and Bert Blyleven lead the pitching staff, with Jeff Reardon closing out games with brutal efficiency, usually set up by Juan Berenguer.   It’s like it was yesterday.

Alas, time may heal all wounds but it also dampens all worldly joy.   As I googled the names of the players it was clear that their glory days are behind them.   One of the brighter stories belongs to Frank Viola.    Viola, nicknamed “Sweet Music” was one of the most amazing pitchers to watch back in his heyday with the Twins.

When he was on his game, Viola was virtually unhittable

Viola left the Twins before their 1991 World Series season, and had a few good years (and a few mediocre) before he retired with a 176 – 150 lifetime record, with 1844 K’s.   Since then he’s had a nondescript career coaching baseball, currently a pitching coach for the Met’s A team, the Savannah Sand Gnats.   He’s still with the game he loves, but it’s a far cry from winning Game 7 of the World Series.   Still, his daughter Brittany competed in the 2012 London Olympics as a diver.  Though she didn’t win a metal, seeing his daughter perform at that level must be as thrilling as it was for him to pitch in the big leagues.

As her father was an artist on the mound, Brittany Viola is an artistic diver

But some stories are sad.   One that brought tears to my eyes on many levels is that of “The Terminator,” Twins closer Jeff Reardon.   Reardon was rock solid to shut down the opposition when called from the bull pen with a save opportunity.  He is second on the all time save list.  Yet Reardon lost his son Shane to drugs in 2004.    Shane was 20 – my ’87 Twins Yearbook has a picture of the Reardon family with a young Shane.

The Twins would not have made it to the series without the most consistent closer in the business in 1987 – Jeff Reardon.

That is sad in and of itself.   But Reardon could not take the death of his son, he fell into depression, was heavily medicated, and then needed heart surgery.   After that he had a urinary tract infection, and apparently the mix of prescriptions left him out of control.   He tried to rob a store and was arrested.  He had also attempted suicide.

Ultimately he was found not guilty by reason of drug induced insanity, his medications were cut down and from what I can tell he’s doing better.   Still, as a father myself, I really felt for him and what it must have been like losing his son.   Add the psychological issues, medications, and torture he went through, and the glory days were far gone.

A mug shot instead of a baseball card

Perhaps the worst story is that of the all around “good guy” and hero of the Twins, Kirby Puckett.   Nobody was more loved than Puckett who drove in the winning run in game seven of the World Series, and four years later would hit a home run to win game six of the 1991 World Series.    He was generous and well liked, but his career was tragically shortened by contracting glaucoma in 1996 and being forced to retire at age 35.   Later he was arrested amid scandals of his affairs and treatment of women, and he died in 2006 of a brain hemorrhage.

In my 1987 Yearbook Reardon and Puckett’s pages are side by side.

Most Twins fans remember the Puckett who homered to win Game six of the ’91 Series commemorated with a statue at Target Field (Puckett played in the Metrodome)

Most stories are anti-climatic.  Steve Lombardozzi has a son who is also a second baseman, playing for the Washington Nationals.  He was born in 1988, a year after the Twins won their first series.   Many are still in the Twins Cities area, including Kent Hrbek.   Hrbek could have been one of the biggest stars of all time, when he came up he was slender, strong, agile and literally ‘a natural.’   No one could play first base defensively like Herbie.   But he didn’t take care of himself, gained extra weight, had nagging injuries and never dedicated himself to being the best he could be.  But he had fun — and I still remember witnessing some awesome homeruns from him at the Dome.

Kent Hrbek could have been one of the greatest of all time. But I have to respect the fact that he wanted first to have fun. He now does an outdoors show.

Tom Kelly, who became the youngest manager to win a World Series, currently works for the Twins, though he resigned as manager in 2001.   His number 10 uniform will be retired on September 8th this year.  I taped Kelly’s only major league homerun back in 1975, putting my cassette tape recorder up next to the radio speaker as Herb Carneal gave the play by play (I did that with every at bat of every player, then taped over the at bat if he didn’t hit a home run — that gave me a nice ‘home run tape’).

Using Google to find “where are they now,” it was odd to think how fleeting the glory from that World Series was.  As a fan the team is forever young in my mind, the 1987 season and series stands as unchangable event.  In reality, the players moved on, and glory faded.   It’s a reminder that life is more like a marathon than a sprint.

And somehow as I close this post I think it’s fitting to remember Tom Kelly’s baseball philosophy:  stay even, don’t get too high, don’t get too down, just go from one game to the next.    Wise words.

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Clockwork Angels: a Rush Classic

Rush – Geddy Lee (Gary Lee Weinrib), Alex Lifeson (Alex Zivojinovich) and Neil Peart have been together as Rush for four decades.   During that time they have released 19 studio albums, the latest being Clockwork Angels.    To be blunt: it is a stunningly poignant, powerful and entrancing album.

For their first album in five years the trio go back to the prog rock standard of having not just a concept album, but an album that tells a story.   Rush did that in the seventies, but after Hemispheres came out in 1978 they rejected long stories and overt concept albums.    Clockwork Angels is a story told by an older man looking back at life in a dystopian steampunk world.

A youthful Geddy, Alex and Neil

For Peart – the lyricist and story teller, the album is personal and reflects a kind of bookend to the 1976 classic 2112.   In that album a young man confronts a world of conformity and control, and finds power in music to rebel and express his individual freedom.   2112 is a young man’s story, inspired by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, brimming with optimism about one’s ability to go out and create one’s life, taking control and expressing the ideal of freedom.

Peart, who calls himself a “bleeding heart libertarian” has backed off from his embrace of Rand, and this album helps explain why.   It is the album of a man nearing sixty who looks back at a life with moments of both glory and tragedy.   Peart himself lost his daughter in a car accident and his wife to breast cancer within a year.    He’s traveled the globe and had success doing what he loves – drumming and creating lyrical magic for a band that has stuck together through thick and thin.   But he’s experienced lows, saw the pain this world can create, and realizes that reality betrays his ideals.   Yet he still is an idealist.

Older but more experienced rockers – they still electrify crowds.

One inspiration for the album was Voltaire’s classic Candide, mentioned overtly in the album notes introducing the last song – The Garden.    Candide was Voltaire’s response to Rousseau’s belief that nature was good and any evil and pain humans experiences is due to our choices in constructing civilization contrary to nature.   Voltaire visited Lisbon after the famous 1755 earthquake and saw the horror there — and was stunned to hear that Rousseau blamed the victims for defying nature and building a massive city vulnerable to such tragedy.   He wrote Candide as a response to Rousseau, having the hero travel the world with his mentor Pangloss, who claimed that all happens because it should.

While not mirroring in structure or content Voltaire’s work, the hero in Clockwork Angels  is on a similar journey.   In BU2B he writes:

‘I was brought up to believe the universe has a plan
We are only human, it’s not ours to understand
The universe has a plan, all is for the best
Some will be rewarded and the devil will take the rest

All is for the best, believe in what we’re told
Blind men in the market buying what we’re sold
Believe in what we’re told until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker loves us all to death”

The capital of this steampunk world is Crown City, where the angels of Chronos Square help the Watchmaker keep order.   Life is secure, but boring.   As a young man our hero yearns for something more: “I can’t stop thinking big!”   He escapes a life of order and obedience, working at first for a carnival.    The songs take us through some of the hero’s journey such as The Wreckers where he emerges from a shipwreck as the sole survivor and Halo Effect reflecting on how easy it is in love to fall for illusions:

“What did I see?
Fool that I was
A goddess, with wings on her heels
All my illusions
Projected on her
The Ideal that I wanted to see”

As the album nears an end the hero comes to conclusions similar to those of Voltaire’s Candide.   In Headlong Flight (a song with vintage Rush stylings) he reflects on “all the journeys of this great adventure.”   His “headlong flight” is life, with high peaks and dark valleys, a journey different than expected but with no regrets: “I wish that I could live it all again.”

That is followed by BU2B2:

“Belief has failed me now, life goes from bad to worse
No philosophy consoles me in a clockwork universe
Life goes from bad to worse, I still choose to live
Find a measure of love and laughter and another measure to give”

He reaches a profound conclusion in that passage – in a clockwork universe there can be no satisfying philosophical answer to life’s mysteries.   You can have faith in the Watchmaker (e.g., God), but reality makes such faith hard if not impossible to hold.    So he turns to choosing life – a measure of love and laughter.

The penultimate song, Wish them Well adds:

“All you can do is wish them well
Spirits turned bitter by the poison of envy
Always angry and dissatisfied
Even the lost ones, the frightened and mean ones
Even the ones with a devil inside
Thank your stars you’re not that way, turn your back and walk away…”

He’s also found there is no point in dwelling on the weaknesses of others, even those who’ve cheated him or caused pain.   They are the ones with the sickness in their souls, all you can do is “wish them well.”   The hero realizes that dwelling on the misdeeds and betrayals of others only gives them power over his own thoughts and mood.    He will not be diminished by the smallness of others.   Rather than seeking revenge, wish them well.

Candide is often seen as the first modern philosophical expression of humanism

The album notes for the last song, The Garden, cites Candide, a story from “another timeline.”   Candide experienced adventure and tragedy while being constantly told by his teacher Pangloss that all that happens is the will of God.   At the end Candide concludes that “now it is time to cultivate our own garden,” choosing a simple life in the countryside.   Peart’s conclusion is similar:

“The treasure of a life is a measure of the love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give in the fullness of time
it’s the only return that you expect

The future disappears into memory
with only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen.”

Candide is often considered the first full modern expression of humanism.  God may exist, but he doesn’t need our love and efforts – we humans need them.    We need to love ourselves and each other.   The humanist ethic emerges when idealism battles cynicism.   Idealism wins, but at a price.   Instead of faith in an omnipotent loving God and a future of paradise, one only has life and the moments as they arise.   Living each moment well has/is its own reward.

“The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect.”

A few things stand out about the album.   First, these guys are no slouches.   The album took work, they explored new musical territory while not letting go of their signature sound.   I’m not qualified to write a musical review, but most music critics are amazed that these musicians are not only still producing quality work, but taking great pride in trying to always produce their best album ever.   That work ethic is why they can still produce a masterpiece when others from their era are either retired or rehashing old music in arenas, often two or three of the old superstar bands teamed together.

Beyond that, a look at Rush through time shows a band that constantly grows and evolves, both musically and lyrically.   They never try to be commercial (only Tom Sawyer was a real hit), and until their last two albums have tended to be dismissed by music critics who took a snobbish view on the entire prog rock movement — the two coasts sneering at the Midwest and Canadian hard rock sound.    Now, though, even the critics have come around.    Perhaps Rush will finally get a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This is not an album they could have made back in the 70s.   It reflects the wisdom of thoughtful years through Peart’s lyrics, the meshing and development of a variety of sounds through Lee and Lifeson’s compositions, a seriously evolving style of drumming from Peart, and a commitment by the band to excellence and to each other.  Their success now is a vindication of the band and people like me — fans who have always seen something special in their words and music.    Just as the youthful rebellious individualism and hard rock power in 2112 inspired me at age 16, the reflective wisdom and tight musical complexity of Clockwork Angels moves me at age 52.

Here’s a drum solo from Peart from a 2011 appearance on Letterman:

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The Reagan Legacy

Ronald Reagan’s true legacy is in opening the door for high US debt

In 1980 I voted in my first Presidential election and like many people, voted for Ronald Reagan because of his optimism and vision of better times for America.    The late seventies had been traumatic.    After first bringing a sense of relief to a country torn apart by Vietnam and Watergate, Jimmy Carter seemed helpless as the US slipped into another oil crisis, a recession, and renewed tensions with the USSR.  In retrospect Carter handled the situation about as deftly as one could, but to a country used to being on top, it felt like we were in decline.

I had been a fan of Reagan’s back in 1976 when he challenged Gerald Ford for the Republican Presidential nomination.  His optimism was contagious, he was likable and seemed to offer a clear answer to our problems:  freedom and confidence.

Reagan, Bush and Ford on the podium at the GOP convention in Detroit in 1980 – I was there and took this picture – the theme was “Together a New Beginning”

Alas, the reality turned out to be much different.    When President Reagan took office the US debt was 30% of GDP, considerably lower than that of most European countries.    However, the deficits climbed in the 80s:

In 1977 the deficit was $53.7 billion.   That was low enough to help pay down the US debt, as the economy was growing faster.   It was down to $40 billion in 1979, though the recession caused a sky rocket to $73 billion in 1980.  Then the debt started to pile up:

1981 – $79 billion (mostly Carter’s budet), 1982 $128 billion, 1983 $207 billion, 1984 $185 billion, 1985 $212 billion, 1986 $221 billion, 1987 $150 billion, 1988 $155 billion.    Things would improve after that, and for four years (1998 – 2001) there would be supluses before debt would skyrocket again.

During the Reagan years debt went from 30% of GDP to nearly 60% of GDP.   Private debt grew just as fast, and credit card debt began to grow (it was very low before 1980).    Reagan’s rejection of the “malaise” of the 70s was straight from Michelob’s marketing department —  we can have it all!   Low taxes, less regulation, and more spending!

Due to borrow and spend, the 80s felt opulent and instead of being hippies, people like me became “yuppies” – young uppwardly mobile professionals

That was, unfortunately, the wrong direction to go.   Working in DC for a Republican Senator in the early/mid 80s I recall hearing constantly how the deficit was not a problem.    When told that during an economic boom one should keep surpluses in order to have money to stimulate the economy when the next bust comes, the response was predictable – counter cyclical funding was Keynesian demand-side economics.    Laffer curve supply side economics was now the rage.

Others had a more Machiavellian view — increasing debt would “starve the beast,” making it impossible to continue liberal big government programs.   Even as David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, resigned out of anger over the economic illogic of the increasing debt, the growing economy with low inflation caused most people to close their eyes and enjoy.   It was the 80s, after all!

This decision is now haunts us.   The ‘we can have it all’ response to the recession of the early eighties was really simply a refusal to accept reality — that the US had to structurally adjust to the changing global economy and the fact that the rest of the world was catching up.   The post-war superiority that the US enjoyed after WWII was over, and the US needed to find ways to live within its means and make sure that commitments didn’t overwhelm capabilities.    We didn’t necessarily need to pay off the debt we had, but keeping a 30% debt to GDP ratio would have been smart.

Instead the so called “conservative” economists of the Reagan-Bush administrations (and later the George W. Bush administration — in which Vice President Cheney boisterously proclaimed budget deficits to be irrelevant) opened the spigots and borrowed and spent even during a boom.   As long as inflation didn’t rear its ugly head, they figured it was safe.   Add to that the deregulatory fervor that even the Clinton Administration joined in, and the cheap credit to the public coming from the fed, and it was party time for thirty years!   Borrow spend, carpe diem, living high, living fine on borrowed time!

Add to that the end of the Cold War and all was grand — we won the Cold War, the Soviets and communism lost, it was going to be an American led free market world… what could go wrong?

Perot warned of the unsustainable debt, and shaped the 1992 debate. By the end of the decade the US was running surpluses and it appeared on the right track

Ross Perot, a successful businessman and political gadfly, saw the problem and brought it front and center in the 1992 election.   It appeared to push the parties towards fiscal responsibility.   Unfortunately the US was beginning an advanced stage of economic decline, perpetrated by two sequential bubbles, the “dot.com” stock bubble and then the real estate bubble.   The latter was driven by both a renewed bout of debt from 2002 onward, plus very cheap and easy credit thanks to a misguided federal reserve policy.   The result is that when the bubbles burst and dust settled we see that de-regulation, tax cuts, and deficit spending gave us about a total debt of over 100% of GDP, an economy that relied on consumption more than production, and imbalances requiring a deep and long recession to repair.

Both parties share blame.   Both mouthed a desire to balance the budget but neither made the hard choices it would take.  Instead they reached the Great Republican and Democratic compromise – lower taxes and more spending, financed by debt.

I’m in the yellow shirt kneeling lower left in the South Dakota “College Republican” youth for Reagan delegation to the GOP Convention in Detroit.

Reagan can’t be blamed for all this – it took a long term bi-partisan effort to do so.   However, if we had heeded Jimmy Carter’s prophetic warning and avoided the Michelob “you can have it all” mentality, we might instead have built a sustainable economy in the 80s, immune to oil shocks and banking crises.   We took a wrong turn thirty years ago, and it’ll take at least another ten to get on the right path — assuming we start making better choices now!

Looking back at being part of the large “youth for Reagan” group in Detroit in 1980, being on the floor when Reagan accepted the nomination (they let a lot of us in despite lack of credentials in order to give television the image of lots of young people supporting Reagan), I don’t regret going.   Reagan did inspire hope, and it was an amazing experience.  I even traded a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin for a Maine lobster decal I’d carry all over on my photo case for over ten years, never dreaming I’d actually live in Maine (I’d never even been there).   But unfortunately the hope was misplaced.  Reagan’s borrow and spend approach bought short term prosperity at a long term cost.   But to be fair, he couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t a bi-partisan effort.

We stayed with youth from around the country at EMU in Ypsilanti — these two Maine girls (no idea who they are) traded me the decal I’d proudly carry on my photocase for over a decade, an omen perhaps that I would end up in Maine!

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From the Mind of Minolta

My companion to Detroit, Italy, Germany and beyond – the Minolta SRT MC2

Sounding very much my age, I was talking to my kids about what photography was like when I was young.   The idea of not seeing the picture right away seemed odd to them, as did the notion of developing film.   I got out my old camera to show the boys and let them see how it feels/looks.    I tried to explain how you had to try to get the right shot at the start since it was expensive to develop film.    They learned to change the lens, focus (they’ve only used autofocus), and how film worked.   They attached the flash and played with that.   I tried to explain all the complex settings on the camera and the flash.   While they were interested, it was obviously a relic to them.  I may as well have been explaining Gutenberg’s printing press.

Ryan trying to get the feel of what “old fashioned” photography was like — and with that uncombed hair, he’s definitely on the right side of the camera!

One thing about my generation is that we’ve seen a large range of technological change.    I still remember dial phones, black and white pre-cable TV and adding machines with a pull handle.    When I was a kid flash cameras had these nifty little flash cubes.   Each cube had four flashes (one on each side) and the camera would turn the cube a quarter way each time.  That means you didn’t have to replace a flash bulb with every picture.

Who can forget the blue bulbs in the cubes – perfect for light new convenient cameras in the 60’s!

I’m not sure when it was, perhaps my first year of college, but I decided I wanted to get a real camera.   One where you could control the shutter speed, set it for different film speeds, determine how much light you wanted to let in, and replace lenses for long range or wide angle.

I already had a Polaroid, which despite giving instant pictures, was low quality.   I still have some in my old albums – a lefse making project in northern South Dakota and pictures of friends.   But as I saw the kinds of photos others were taking I realized I wanted something better.

So at K-Mart on the east side of Sioux Falls I bought a Yashica for about $100 (in today’s money that’s about $200).   It was nice, but I soon became dissatisfied and bought the Minolta shown above.   It cost nearly $300, which was a major investment for a college kid!

I learned to be very good with that camera.  I could frame the shot exactly how I wanted, adjust for different kinds of lighting, play with different settings, and as soon as I clicked the camera the picture was taken, exactly as it looked in the view finder.   If I set the shutter speed high enough on a sunny day I could get someone running full speed to look perfectly still — no blurrs.

The camera case is a story in and of itself.   Given the politics I present in this blog it my shock readers to find out that in college I was a college Republican (even South Dakota state PR Director), and I went to the national convention in Detroit that nominated Ronald Reagan in 1980.    I was even on the convention floor when Reagan gave his acceptance speech.  With me was my Minolta camera of course.

But at Eastern Michigan University where we “Reagan youth” were housed, a party atmosphere was the norm.   I hung out with two girls from Maine (I don’t recall their names), and traded a big “South Dakotans for Reagan” pin (at least 6″ in diameter) for a little Maine lobster sticker which I put on my case.

You can see the red Maine lobster sticker on the right hand side

I would carry that camera case with me for the next decade – always with the symbol of Maine, even though I’d never been there and had no clue that I would end up living here.  An omen?

I lived in Bologna, Italy for a year attending Johns Hopkins SAIS.   I’d travel to visit friends in Germany, taking the overnight express train to Munich through the Brenner pass (trying to sleep in the compartments – .   The villages there were picturesque in the Alps, and I made sure to take a day train once just to get photos.   Two nuns were in the compartment and pointed out photo opportunities.   Even though it was from a train chugging through the Alps one of the photos was so good that my parents had it framed.   With that camera, it was easy to take an excellent photo.

The last year I really put the camera to use has a sad ending — it was the year I lived in Germany.   First, the camera started to have mechanical problems and didn’t work well.   Second, I decided not to develop my film in Germany because it was much cheaper to develop it in the US.   So I packed the film and other things in a box and mailed it to my US address.   The box never arrived.   Dozens of rolls of film from a year in Germany gone.

Then digital photography came.   At first I hated it.  There was always a pause between when you pushed the button and when the picture got taken — or a pause afterwards as it stored it.  I found I lost my ability to take good pictures.

I finally have a digital camera I can use — a Fuji Finepix.  It has a real camera feel (though light), but at a cost of $200 it’s still far lower quality than my old Minolta.   I find my Iphone can take good pictures.   Meanwhile Minolta and Yashica are both out of business, and rather than striving for a few quality photos to save film now people snap numerous photos figuring the law of averages will give them a couple really good ones.

High end digital cameras are becoming as easy to use as the old film cameras — easy as in taking instant shots and being able to manipulate settings.   And the fact that photos are now “free” – once you buy the camera and the storage card you can take as many as you want and download them – is definitely an improvement on film.  After the experience of my lost German photos, I certainly like being able to download and save them!

And though society belongs to the youth, I count it as one blessing of getting older as having the memory of things like taking photos with my old Minolta.

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Berlin Bunker

The “Berlin Story” Museum traces the history of Berlin since its grounding in the 1200s to the present. It includes a tour of one of the remaining bunkers.

One fascinating museum in Berlin is the “Berlin Story” Museum on the Ku’damm.   It traces Berlin’s history back to the 1200s, sketching out how the city became one of the most open and tolerant cities in Europe — a rather ironic distinction given the reputation it has for being the capital of Nazi Germany.   But even the Nazis never really had Berlin under their control until the war started and they could impose martial law.  It’s a fascinating story, and the descent into the Nazi era is symbolized by climbing down four flights of stairs into a cellar with a dark atmosphere as we follow the Nazi seizure of power.

That quickly morphs into the Cold War and the divided city, looking at everyday life in each “side” of Berlin as well as politics and culture.    This includes stories of how East German agents managed to sneak into the West, whether through a secret “hole” in the wall or a hidden entrance to the Friedrichstrasse train station.    A highlight is a tour of of one of the four remaining bunkers designed to protect Berliners in case of nuclear war.

During the Cold War Berliners knew that they’d be at risk if war broke out.   Recognizing that neither side would likely bomb the city directly, they worried primarily about fallout and radiation.    They decided to set up a series of bunkers to house as much of the population as possible for two weeks, betting (hoping) that after the initial launch people would find a way to quickly end the war.   Almost all of those bunkers have been decommissioned, only four remain.

When I first visited Germany NATO was divided by the decision to modernize NATO’s nuclear force — installing Cruise and Pershing II intermediate range missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet introduction of the SS-20 in the late seventies.  This led to the rise of the Green party in Germany and a massive peace movement with protests sometimes in the hundreds of thousands against the missile plan.

Although supported by the German government, the modernization was opposed by average Germans across the political spectrum.    The reason was obvious.   In the US the Reagan Administration was talking about a “winnable” nuclear war, one that could be limited to the European continent.   US Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger stated the US was no longer in a post-war era but a “pre-war era.”

The rationale for this was to make extended deterrence credible.   In order to provide a nuclear deterrent against a Soviet attack on Western Europe the Soviets had to believe the US would actually escalate to a nuclear war to defend Europe.   Since a nuclear war meant the destruction of the entire planet, the rational US response would have been to let Europe go.   As Charles DeGaulle asked, would the US sacrifice Chicago for Paris?

To convince the Soviets that was not the case the US had to act as though it believed a war could be both won and limited in scope.   Even in the US almost nobody believed that was the case.    But it was a bluff the Soviets couldn’t call since if they were wrong, it would lead to their destruction.   So under this Damocles sword the Cold War balance of power was maintained.

A Trabi – the main automobile of East Germany – on display at the Berlin Story Museum

The problem with that is if you were European it seemed the US was saying “we can limit the nuclear holocaust to Europe” and come out on top.   The Germans saw Ronald Reagan as an anti-Communist Cowboy who wanted to destroy the Soviets and feared that the US could drag them into a war that would assure the destruction of Germany.  The crisis could have torn apart NATO, had not Gorbachev come to power in 1985 and then negotiate with Ronald Reagan a removal of both the SS-20s and the new NATO missiles with the 1987 INF Treaty.

Once numerous bunkers dotted West Berlin; now only four remain

The bunker we visited was below ground and the first 3600 to arrive after the war broke out would be admitted.  They’d each have a bunk and would eat dry food, barely enough to survive.   Water was stored, but there would also be a pump.   Air filters would keep the air breathable, but would be less than 1/20th as fresh as air in a modern office building.  It would be damp and stale — but would sustain life.

The lack of privacy would be immense, there would be no showers, little water for personal hygiene, and toilets had curtains instead of doors to prevent people from seeking refuge in the toilet — a bit of space all alone.     There would only be 8 people who “worked” there, they would rely on self-governance.   Any medical help would be provided voluntarily by doctors who happened to be among the 3600 admitted.   They’d have minimal medical supplies on hand — the most plentiful drug would be valium.

To be kept constantly dark, the bunker seems roomy until one considers sharing it with 3600 people!

Their fear was that if people got aggressive and panicked it would be over — mass hysteria could lead to violence and horror.    They even had tasks, some unnecessary, to try to provide a sense of community.   Although it wasn’t necessary to pump up water from the well, people would be assigned to do that — or if someone was starting to panic, that activity might give them a release.   The goal would be to strive for a sense of community to trump fear and panic.

After two weeks the supplies would be gone and they’d be forced to leave the bunker, hoping that radiation levels had gone down and that those on top would have a plan to save the population.

Besides a water pump and storage, the bunker had air filters and its own generator for electricity.

Leaving the bunker and breathing the fresh, open, tolerant atmosphere of Berlin today, it’s easy to forget how different things were before 1989.   It was a divided city and travel from West Berlin to anywhere else was difficult — though the city compensated with lots of immense parks to give its population an escape.   To keep West Berlin populated required incentives, including the fact that males in West Berlin could avoid mandatory conscription.

The Berlin story is one that meanders from Prussian militarism, enlightenment rationality, the interwar Cabaret scene and the post-war division.   The Berlin Story museum is worth a visit – it captures the essence of that story with fun and informative displays.   The bunker tour reminds us that during the Cold War West Berlin was the front line – a piece of the West 300 kilometers behind the Iron Curtain.

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