Ukraine, Putin and a parallel with Europe in the 1930s

Or how the current situation is a reenactment of a dark chapter in our history

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

I have just read a very interesting article by Martin French on Putin’s recent nuclear threat. A very thorough analysis you should probably read.

It triggered a thought association process in that little head of mine. A sovereign country is being invaded by what can be called a dictatorship according to 21st century standards, a tough regime, the leader of which is threatening to resort to nuclear weapons to see his way through. The powers that matter are talking a lot, waving a lot but doing nothing decisive.

Does it remind you of a similar situation?

Europe, 1938

Hitler decides to annex Austria, after having repudiated the Treaty of Versailles earlier and having started a massive rearmament campaign. European powers like France and the United Kingdom decide to follow an appeasement policy and stand aside, allowing Adolf to lay further claims on the Sudetenland, then part of Czechoslovakia. They had it coming since 1935. As for the United States, well, they had already passed the Neutrality Act three years earlier out of concern with the situation in Europe and Asia.

Austria and the Sudetenland then. And today, Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk. And now Ukraine.

It took the invasion of Poland by Adolf to trigger a response from the European powers in 1939, leading to the greatest armed conflict the world had ever known.

What will it take today?

Assumptions

Martin French takes the assumption that Putin is either

a man who is weak and frightened of being found out — ripe to be replaced in a military coup.

Or

a man unchallenged, acting in an unpredictable manner, his diktats carried out without question as they occur to him.

And I think he got it spot on. Unless…

Could the Russian president be flat out crazy, or worse, completely paranoid? In that case, God help us all. World War 2 ended with a couple of low yield nukes. Are we heading there today?

Could he be nuts enough to trigger the Dead Hand? Keep in mind he’s got 6000 nuclear warheads and has been bragging about his hypersonic missiles for some time now.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Was it really better before?

“Things were better before, man”…

I can see where you’re coming from dear friend. Indeed, the past decade or so has been everything but a walk in the park. Economic crisis, terrorism, natural disasters, outbreaks, you name it. Nostalgia aside, I guess however that you should measure the “better” part of your statement by the amount of time by which you define the “before” part of it.

Do you mean 5 years or so ago? Right in the middle of the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Europe.

10 years ago? You’re in the aftermath of the greatest economic crisis since the great depression and at the start of the Syrian conflict.

15 or 20 years ago? That’s 9/11 and the subsequent war on terrorism, Bush, Saddam, the Iraq conflict, the SARS outbreak, hurricane Katherina, the Y2K bug (or lack thereof).

More? 40, 50 years ago? The Cold War, the Berlin wall, apartheid. 80 years bring you back to a world conflict, a genocide and the first and last use of nuclear weapons in an armed conflict, 90 years, to the greatest economic depression in modern history, 100 years, to yet another world conflict and another genocide.

And before that? The Napoleonic wars, the Plague, the great fire of London, the fall of the Roman Empire, the fire of Rome, Nero, Attila the Hun, and many other wonderful humanist concepts like slavery or torture, which were the norm for a very long time. Just an excerpt of a very long list. Many things were not better before. Most actually. Human rights, gender equality, air conditioning and ice cream would only be coming later.

Robert, Hubert – Incendie à Rome

If you are still not convinced, picture this last argument: it took medicine thousands of years of trial and error, starting from basic herbal medicine in the bronze age to the discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Flemming in 1928 to start having effective and widespread antibiotics. Most people reading this post were born shortly after penicillin had become a staple of modern medicine and most will be gone by the time bacteria will have developed enough resistance to render most antibiotics ineffective. It is as if the entire universe aligned itself in order to make antibiotics available right in time for your birth dear friend and will retire them by the time you’re gone. A personal gift to you and you only, of all the people who walked the face of this earth since the dawn of time, emperors and prophets included. So no, things were not better before and the 20 years of extra life expectancy that this gift gave us is a testament to the brighter present we live in.

My point is, past is gone, future is still to be written, so there’s probably no better time for us than today, which is why I would like to wish you a nice today, a nicer tomorrow, and so on for the next year.

Let the board sound

And best wishes for the year to come

Rabih

On a portal to the city of light

I heard it for the first time eleven years ago, on a Wednesday evening in Abu Dhabi. It felt like a call. More than a call, an invitation. A portal to end-of-19th-century Paris. Don’t ask, it just took me there.

To a place and an epoch close enough to our time to make the French Terror and the Napoleonic wars become knowledge which people of that place and time learnt, rather than memories they recollected. Close enough in time for Paris to have already been transformed by the works of Haussmann and his contemporaries into a very viable first version of the lovely city it is today.

Close enough in the mist of time to keep shining this specific Parisian touch which spanned from the end of the 19th century up until the great war. La Belle Époque, as it came to be known in retrospect.

Victor Gabriel Gilbert, Le Bal

La Belle Époque can hardly be framed in words to try to explain what it was or how it felt. Two world wars and a cold one right after, two major economic depressions, many global scale pandemics and the rise of terrorism, among other horrors since that time, made sure it would not be possible. Words hardly have any meaning after that.

We could try to imagine it though, with the help of some music, or a painting, or a book maybe… It might have felt like being in one of the adventures of Arsène Lupin, not one revisited by Netflix with a 21st century twist but rather one crafted by Maurice Leblanc, the father of this peculiar gentleman burglar.

But back to Abu Dhabi. It was 2010, on a Wednesday evening, and I had just heard Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane in F sharp minor for the first time.

Composed as a piano and chorus piece in 1880, then re-arranged as an orchestral version in 1887, it was a perfect fit for the time and place it stood for: 19th century, Paris. Coordinates to which this time machine would hook me up ever since.

It would also put a pen in my fingers and some thoughts in my head. This is how it all started, in French of course, on a moleskine notebook, on a Wednesday evening in Arabia, leading years later to the post I am wrapping up today, in English, on a Friday evening in France.

Let the board sound

Rabih

PS: If you like Paris and words which take you places, meet an author doing just that. The posts are not always about Paris, but they always take you places… Try this one for instance.

On dictators

Dictators? 

Well here’s one with style: Gaius Julius Caesar, main antagonist in the “Asterix” comic series, also incidentally a Roman general and one whose legacy led to the relegation of the Roman republic to a mere slogan and the rise of an empire which would hold for the next 14 centuries. Not bad, considering that the next guy to seriously take a stab at a thousand year realm managed to uphold one for twelve only and went down in history as one of the greatest villain of all time.

But back to Caesar and his fellow Romans. Before the dawn of the Roman empire, ancient Rome was indeed a republic, with a senate, elected magistrates and a system of checks and vetoes to keep the powers in balance. It became a republic after having been a monarchy for centuries, when the seventh and last king of Rome was ousted and his Imperium or power bestowed upon two consuls elected yearly by the Roman citizens.
In extremely dire circumstances, when the republic was in jeopardy, the senate would call for the consuls to appoint a dictator to take the matter in hand. Dictatorship in ancient Rome, unlike what it became later in history, was a temporary and exceptional magistracy above all others, entrusted with the full authority of the state. All other magistrates were subordinated to its imperium, including the two elected consuls, and the powers conferred to it were nearly absolute. Kind of a last resort superhero summoned to save the republic when all else had failed. 
Given the extraordinary nature of the role and the risk it instilled on the state if misused, a dictator was to resign once his mission was accomplished or within a timeframe set by the senate, usually 6 months. As you would expect, some dictators would not abide by this rule. Julius Cesar managed to be appointed as dictator for life by the senate in 44 BC. It would only be the forth time he yielded such a formidable and unappealable power and the final step of a journey where he will have concentrated all the powers normally bestowed on different magistrates for a fixed term into his own hands and for life, essentially becoming an absolute ruler, a de facto emperor of what was until then a republic.

Cesar’s quest was a constant search for perpetual power and a constant justification of his entitlement to it. He would have to fight tremendous rivals who would rise between him and the destiny he saw for himself. Pompey the great, or Crassus, richest man in the Roman republic, or Cato the Younger, the incorruptible senator, to name a few. He would work around them through alliances and bribery or defeat them in battle, but all to no avail it would seem as in the end, his insatiable quest led to his demise. He would be ambushed and stabbed 23 times by a group of senators led by Brutus in 44 BC, an assassination which the intrigants will present as a tentative to save the republic from tyranny, but which would end up sparking a civil war and ushering the dawn of the Roman empire, with Octavian, Caesar’s heir, as its fist emperor under the name of Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustus.

On the other hand, here’s another dictator with no less style:

Back in the early days of the republic, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was an old patrician who had fallen in disfavor and made to sell most of his estate and retire from public life. He was nevertheless called by the Senate to assume the dictatorial magistracy in 458 BC when the republic was facing dire military hardships. He embraced this formidable power, went on to heroically defeat the Aequi at the Battle of Mount Algidus against all odds and relinquished his Imperium a mere 16 days after it has been granted to him, having brought the mission to a close. He would be appointed as Dictator again in 439 BC only to resign his dictatorship 21 days later upon mission success, in a near similar reenactment of his first dictatorship.

Cincinnatus was held in very high esteem by ancient Romans even centuries after his time. His legacy lived on and even today, there are numerous places which bear his name and stand as testament to his integrity, civic virtue and leadership, the least known of which not being the city of Cincinnati in the United States. 
He was most probably an inspiration to George Washington, first president of the United States of America and later a president of the Society of the Cincinnati, who surrendered his command of the continental army after the treaty of Paris was signed and later refused to run for a third term as president of the United States, which he could have certainly secured had he bothered to run for it, setting by that a precedent to which all later presidents but one will abide, until it would eventually be made into law. Washington was “first in war, first in peace and first in the heart of his countrymen” as per Henry Lee’s eulogy of him. And still is the titular figure on the one dollar bill, but no more than that it would seem, at least since January 6, 2021. 
Alas, his legacy seems to have been forgotten, as 224 years after the father of the nation stepped down as president at the end of his second term, America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, would tear itself apart over a man’s ambition, much like Rome many centuries earlier, over the legacy of a man whose thirst for power would dry out a republic and quench an empire for 14 centuries.

Let the board sound,

Rabih