Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Last Days of Peace 1914


By William Urban

Fifty years ago I met a young German who soon became a close friend. This past Christmas he sent me a copy of The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went To War in 1914. I was very familiar with Christopher Clark’s earlier work on Prussia, so I started in on the 695 pages, reading a few pages each evening and finishing on June 28, the day of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, the event that set everything in motion.

For many years this event had seemed far away, but when the centennial of that assassination came, I realized that my meeting Peter in Berlin in 1964 was almost exactly half-way between the marching of armies into the Great War and the tumultuous events of today.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas we were trying to understand how binding alliances had led to the First World War and the inability make alliances which could stand up to tyrants had brought on the Second. The only common link seemed to be that some very bright people made some very bad decisions.

As it happened, my first dissertation topic was on the outbreak of war in 1914. When my professor moved to Rice University, I ended up with another dissertation topic, but the reading I had done was good preparation for following Clark’s book and several others that have appeared recently. Most importantly, I could see that Clark knew much more about the diplomacy of that July than could have been known earlier.

Britons and Frenchmen blamed Germany for starting the war — logically so, because it was the German invasion of Belgium that began the slaughter of a generation of their young men; consequently, they made War Guilt a central point in the Versailles Treaty. With the blockade having created starvation in Germany, they knew the new Republic’s government would sign anything, no matter how disgusting; besides, the army had surrendered its weapons in return for an armistice. The German people, who knew that there was plenty of blame to spread around, were outraged. That falsity of the War Guilt clause and the requirement to pay reparations for war damages combined with the Great Depression to help Hitler to power.

It’s not that Germans were passive onlookers to the outbreak of war. Certainly the Kaiser’s boasting and posturing had created a hostile environment. Then there was Fritz Fischer’s Germany’s Aims in the First World War (a more accurate translation of the German title was The Grasp for World Power), which appeared in 1964 just before I enrolled in the University of Hamburg. (I was unaware that Fischer taught there.) This demonstrated that many influential Germans looked forward to war as a means of winning land, profits and fame. Fischer very sensibly left the country for a while, so I never heard him lecture. His ideas have since been cooled down, but they are not forgotten.

Clark reports that the German government felt trapped. Once the Russian army mobilized, the Kaiser’s ministers could not wait — they had to defeat France before the Russian armies could attack. Nothing new in that.

The war had actually begun in the East. When Austria demanded that Serbia arrest the men behind the assassination, the Serbs put an investigation off, then denied everything. They were encouraged in this by Russia and France, so the situation was much like that of Saddam Hussein in 2003. And the results were the same — the Serbs, who almost agreed to a joint inquiry, were at the last moment persuaded to say no. War followed.

The British, who had dithered throughout all the complicated last-minute diplomacy, came to the aid of France once German troops entered Belgium on their way toward Paris. There was little celebration, Clark said. This was important, since historians have long stressed the public excitement at the end of the long building war tensions — there is a famous picture of the crowd in Vienna, with Hitler celebrating with everyone else. The arms race, the repeated crises, the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, had prepared every public for the likelihood of war.

However, what underlay the screaming headlines of newspapers and patriotic speeches was more important: the Russians had persuaded themselves that the Germans were out to destroy their empire; the Austrians, with more reason, felt that neighbors (Serbia, Rumania, Italy) were ready to seize territories, and the Hungarians and Czechs wanted independence; the French wanted Alsace-Lorraine back; and the Germans believed that time was running out — if they let their enemies get stronger, the chances were that their new Second Empire would become a memory. As for the British, until this moment they had seen Russia as the national enemy; also, if fifteen years earlier Germany had not foolishly built a high seas fleet, Britain would have never have moved toward an understanding with colonial rival France.

Fear, paranoia and hatred persuaded the political and military leaders that they had no choices left; only their enemies did; and when the enemies stood firm in their positions, the only option left was war. When the Austrians prepared to declare war on Serbia, the Russians mobilized, and there was no turning back for anyone.

Clark dismisses several silly ideas that have arisen recently, like Britain having angered Germany by trying to force free trade on the continent. Or the Kaiser having plotted the war, when the worst that can be said is that he ended Bismarck’s policies that discouraged either Russia or Austria-Hungary from starting a war.

Serbia, an expanding power that encouraged terrorists, was inept rather than malicious; Was Serbia wrong to want to bring all Serbs into the kingdom? Clark goes farther, to say that the search for a villain is to assume that people knew what they were doing. To the contrary, they were sleepwalking.

Americans don’t remember much of this. In fact, they never knew it. When I had students in Sarajevo in 1986, most had never heard of the assassination that led to the war. The same was true of Americans in 1914, but 116,000 would perish in what Wilson called the War to End All Wars. Many more were maimed or gassed or mentally injured. That is much less than any other major participant — I remember the simple memorial in downtown Hamburg: “40,000 sons of this city sacrificed their lives for you.”

That is why there is commemoration of the war, but no celebration.

Review Atlas (July 31, 2014), 4.

Roads to Berlin

It seemed logical for me to write this week about a place
was long Ground Zero of the Cold War. No longer.
But, I’ve occasionally wondered, what the situation would be
if the Germans had kept their fourteen million forced refugees from WWII in
camps until they could return to their homes in the east.


By William Urban

This 2012 memoir by Cees Nooteboom reflects an almost forgotten form of literature, belles lettres. That is, his book is meant to read more for the beauty of its passages and its elegantly phrased thoughts than for any information in it. It is translated from Dutch, which means that some of that beauty is probably lost. Not that the translation is bad. The English reads well enough, but there are always nuances. Often the best translations are not word for word, but intended to convey a thought or a mood. The Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward FitzGerald is, supposedly, more FitzGerald than a translation, but it is still great poetry and philosophy, even though not read much today.

I got Roads to Berlin because the reviews were so good, but also because the bulk of these essays reflected his experiences in Berlin between 1989 and 1991, when I was following the collapse of the Wall closely. (Jackie and I were there at the very end of the process, so I have in my office some scraps from the Wall and a one-day visa from the last day the German Democratic Republic existed).

Cees Nooteboom was a well-known novelist who was invited to West Berlin for a period of study by the German Academic Exchange. I’ve had a couple of these grants myself, each resulting in a book that was translated into several languages (but not yet into Dutch). Such grants are good for reaching out to people who might otherwise be hostile or indifferent to your nation. A lot of people felt that way about Germany.

Nooteboom’s earliest memories were those of Nazi aircraft bombing his city, then of grey-clad soldiers riding through the streets. His father died in an Allied air attack that would not have happened if Holland had not been occupied by the Germans. Consequently, he had not spent much time in Germany and his command of the language was fairly weak.

His language ability and his understanding of the various peoples of Germany improved greatly in these two years. As the title indicates, he took more than one route to the city that became united Germany’s capital; it was not easy and never pleasant to go through the East German police state and almost impossible to travel in it, so he visited other, very different parts of Germany. His descriptions of Bavaria, Swabia, Saxony and even Hamburg (where I attended the university) probably affected me differently than they would other readers, since nostalgia has a power that no imagination can quite equal. Not to play down imagination, because to do so would be the equivalent of saying that reading is a waste of time. But to relive mentally former lifetimes.

Particularly evocative were his descriptions of the palaces of Frederick the Great in Potsdam. He must have gone there on a tourist bus, because until the summer of 1991 that was the only way to visit them. (Crossing the Glienicke Bridge with friends on the first day of free travel remains one of my favorite memories.) But Nooteboom was right in saying that the neglected structures and parks reflected not only the long-gone Prussian kingdom that nobody wanted back, but the inability of the Socialist state to do anything right. When I saw the mold on the paintings of the royal collection, my heart almost stopped.

A decade later, when I took students there, the pictures had been restored and there was work on all the buildings. My students were not all that impressed, I fear, but they might be when they look back on what they had seen and the nostalgia factor kicks in.

Equally poignant were his reflections on the now-vanished Palace of the Republic, the ultra-modern governing center for the communist government — the parliament, two auditoriums, a theater, art galleries, thirteen restaurants and a bowling alley. It had a multitude of problems, but the worst was asbestos. The building could have been saved, but architecturally it did not fit on Unter den Linden. But that had been the reason why the Communists built it, to illustrate their confidence in the future. Now its vacant lot may be filled by a reconstructed Crown Prince’s palace (suitably reconfigured internally as an up-to-date office building or something not yet defined). The Palace of the Republic was, whatever its short-comings, a part of the city’s past that is disappearing as quickly as the last traces of the Wall.

The last time I had students at the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie it was difficult to make them imagine what the street had looked like twenty years before. I had crossed here and at Friedrichstrasse numerous times, and none of those experiences can be forgotten. (Jackie remembers the long stare by the border guard just before midnight that finally turned her exhaustion into a laugh, after which he handed back her passport with the half-laughing comment about the picture, “Ja, das bist Du.” The quote may not be fully accurate, but the memory is.) If the art historian on one trip had not confirmed what I was saying about the Wall, and added some memories of his own, the students might have thought I had made it all up.

Indeed, some post-modern scholars consider all history an invented narrative. Which is obviously true, since nobody can list everything that happens to even to one individual in day, much less what happens in a nation over years. But the historian’s narrative has to be based on fact.

A writer’s perspective is also limited by his sources, which may or may not be typical. Nooteboom described politics as seen on TV rather than close-up encounters, and his conversations with Berliners were random, but they corresponded to my experiences and reading.

A reunited Germany was not universally welcomed in 1991. Not in the East, not in the West, much less in all of Europe. Yet today one cannot imagine a united Europe without a strong Germany. Nooteboom concludes with a discouraging chapter on the failure of Europe to emulate the German miracle, and on the increasing reluctance of the German taxpayer to support European integration. It would have been interesting to hear his opinions as to what the German victory in World Cup will mean.

Review Atlas (July 24, 2014), 4.

Book Review


By William Urban

As of this writing Edward Klein’s Blood Feud, The Clintons vs. the Obamas is selling ahead of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. That is easy to understand. One audio-book chapter of Hard Choices was offered free to all listeners. Let’s say that Hillary does not have a future career as a reader. I almost fell asleep, which is understandable. Reviewers say that there isn’t much in the book to keep anyone awake. Certainly nothing new in it. And the book tour has become the literary equivalent of the ObamaCare rollout (or the long ago presentation of Hillarycare).

Klein, in contrast, is very reader-friendly. Twelve point type with generous margins and one and a half spacing allows the eye to race quickly to the end of each short chapter, enticing the reader to lay the book aside easily, then pick it up again when time allows. His style is breezy, his many quotes to the point. I read a number of reviews by progressive critics — far from debunking the comments, they read like advertisements. Maybe that was just the reviewers, who so obviously form into a protective cordon around every Democrat president (except maybe Jimmy Carter) that their judgment has been affected.

Klein has taken hold of two of the most interesting families of our era, very complex individuals without the close family members who used to be the embarrassment of Democratic presidents. Republican presidents don’t have brothers and sisters who lend themselves so well to vicious gossip. Who remembers either mother of Obama or Clinton? Or their fathers? Or siblings? Anyway, don’t worry. Klein ignores them.

Klein gives us a classic tale of political rivals who hate each other but cannot make that public. The Clintons consider Barack Obama an amateur (a quote that gave Klein the title of his last best-seller), while the Obamas disdain their rivals’ willingness to make compromises rather than push harder toward making the United States into a more equal, greener and less warlike nation. Each wants, in short, a nation that would allow people like them to rise to the top, except that, being at the top, they don’t want to share the pinnacle with anyone. There is a lot of egotism here, too much for the two families to co-exist.

But wait, there’s more! The Clintons also dislike and mistrust each other. The Obamas also. Separate bedrooms for both families, separate vacations, and plenty of yelling. Barack Obama gets the worst of this, because Michelle is joined by Valerie Jarrett to browbeat him into making decisions, to criticize his reluctance to look into the details of any program or policy, and his eagerness to get out on the golf course or just give a speech. Obama is also losing his control over the media. By refusing to give real interviews and by repeating obvious untruths, he has offended reporters as deeply as he did supporters and donors by ignoring them once the election was past. Oprah, for example.

Nowhere was this truer than his relations with the Clintons. In early 2012, according to Klein, Obama’s re-election seemed doubtful. His two principal advisors recommended ways to turn this around. David Pfouffe (pronounced Fluff, but meaning hard-as-nails political savvy) said that they had to turn to the Clintons; Valerie Jarrett would rather lose than ask for help.

In the end Obama reluctantly reached out. The unspoken agreement was that Bill Clinton would campaign for the president in 2012, if he would campaign for Hillary in 2016. Valerie Jarrett went along, but only after vowing that once the election was over, all promises were off.

The campaign was melodramatic, and Clinton probably made the difference. At least he thought he did. And also, perhaps, Obama did. Thus jealousy was added to the many disagreements on policies and tactics. And, as Jarrett had recommended, Obama quickly cut the Clintons out of the party’s future as best he could.

Already there was blood in the sand — Benghazi. The true story is complicated, but at its heart was a CIA program to recover weapons from Libyan jihadists and deliver them to Syrian rebels. This was very close to Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal that had brought him so close to impeachment. Obama tried to get Hillary to go on the talk shows to explain that the ambassador’s murder was not by al Qaida, but by demonstrators against a video. Bill, however, said that the story was so obviously false that it would destroy her chances in 2016. So she declined. Obama then asked Petraeus, who said that the talking points were untrue. Finally, the president got Susan Rice, who was jealous that Hillary had become Secretary of State instead of her. The rest is history, except that the story was put on back pages until the election was over.

Since then the relationship became worse. Hillary had disagreed with many Obama policies, but she went along because Bill warned her that she would be blamed for destroying the party if she spoke her mind. After the election she shared her thoughts with close friends and colleagues who were willing to speak with Klein as long as he didn’t mention their names.

The Obama inner circle is much smaller and much tighter, but there are many Democrats out there who think that he has made hash of the presidency. These folks may not like or trust Hillary, but she’s the only candidate out there who can beat any Republican yet to be named.

Republicans will probably enjoy the book except for the feeling that we have reached a political low rivaling the Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome. Not quite so, of course, but not a pretty picture. Democrats will have to decide whether they want to back a winner or someone who could attract only left wing zealots, or even whether the whole business isn’t too discouraging to look into more deeply.

I won’t tell you about the last chapters, since that would spoil everything. Anyway, Klein’s predictions for the future are worth the price of the book. Let’s just say that between incompetence and unpleasantness he will come down for Hillary every time.

Review Atlas (July 17, 2014), 4.

Monmouth College and the World Cup


By William Urban

When I was growing up there were only three sports — football, basketball and baseball. Tennis wasn’t quite a sport; more a pastime for elites or kids who didn’t like get knocked down. Bowling was just fun, as was swimming. Track existed, but after the city-wide grade school Olympics were discontinued, everybody lost interest. The local school for blacks wasn’t invited, and if it had been, its high-stepping marching band would have won first place every year.

As for watching sports on television, there wasn’t much of that. If you wanted spectator sports, you traveled to the big city or turned on the radio. If your town had minor league baseball, as mine did, you were lucky.

As a result, I never expected to like soccer. I was introduced to the game by a German exchange student who later took me to a couple matches in Hamburg. I can’t say I was impressed much — get the ball to a wing, center it, and see if anyone can get a head on it. The rules seemed designed to suppress scoring, as indeed they do.

It was only after I came to Monmouth College that I became involved with the game. In the late Sixties a third of the student body came from the east coast, and, naturally, a few had played soccer in high school. In order to form a soccer club, they had to have a faculty advisor. I was available.

Happily, the local YMCA director, Marc Waggoner, was willing to assist in caring for injured players. It was impossible to treat sprained ankles and keep an eye on the game, and nothing is worst for a coach than to be called to deal with a crisis on the field without a clue of what had happened. Marc started the current Y soccer program, using soccer club members to coach the teams. John Garrett, I remember, continued to coach years after graduation. Though Marc left in 1971, the program continued.

It was hard to make the game popular. Young people were there, enthusiastically so, but school budgets were limited and die-hard football fans were hostile. Even when junior high football was discontinued regionally, there was no interest in replacing it with soccer. I was able to get the soccer club made into a varsity sport only by agreeing to serve as coach without pay. Fortunately, Bobby Woll and Bill Reichow treated me very well in the years that followed.

That did not mean that everything was easy. The equipment manager, Murph, got us recycled basketball uniforms and Rebekah Kloppel put numbers on tee-shirts. Over the years Juan Fernandez, Iskandar Najar and George Converse shared the coaching duties; Lyman Williams and Peter Kloeppel laid out the field and occasionally served as emergency referees. Even getting a field to play on was difficult. Like the old ball field at Lincoln School, which we used for a while. The college brought over a load of dirt and shovels, and part of every practice session was given to making the field more level.

I made good friends, especially Jorge Prats, the legendary Knox coach. He once took a joint team to Barcelona. I couldn’t afford to go, but the Monmouth players had a great time.

There were almost always one or two women on the team. Where else, I reasoned, would future women coaches come from? Later, in 1992-3, together with Fred Keller I helped get the women’s soccer club started. When the team went varsity in 1994, I was teaching in Europe, but we were lucky to get Simon Cordery as coach, then Barry McNamara.

Which brings us to the World Cup. I was a bit prejudiced. When I lived in Italy I saw a number of international matches in person, when I was in Germany a good friend had me over to watch the games on what seemed to be a huge color set — it must have been 24 inches or so. Well, Italy went out. Mexico — well, it was hard to cheer on a team when the government was holding a Marine in prison for what should have been a non-offense. The USA? Well, Klinsmann was right in saying that the team wasn’t playing up to its potential. A bit more of that flurry of enthusiasm at the end of the Belgium game would have made quite a difference.

Klinsmann emphasized fitness, physicality. I sympathize with that. I rarely had players who knew anything about the game before coming to Monmouth College, so the only chance we had to stay in any game was to hustle more, to welcome contact, and to never quit.

Klinsmann had introduced that to the German team in 2006. It showed in the quarter-final with Brazil, which had not lost a home game since 1975! It took a few minutes to get adjusted, then the goals just started falling in. The game also illustrated the importance of morale — when things start going wrong, everyone just stands around. Still, 7-1 could have been worse. Germany played ball control, only rarely pressing forward to score.

Soccer doesn’t lend itself to TV. The beauty of the game — everyone except the goalie playing the ball up and down the big field, back and forth, and ballet-like combinations — doesn’t fit on the screen well. To be in a stadium with a huge crowds is an incredible experience. It may seem that little is happening, but everyone knows that in a matter of seconds, there could be a frenzied assault on the goal; and scoring is so rare that everyone is filled with anticipation or terror. The combination of individual skills and teamwork, with no particular emphasis on height or weight, should make soccer the premier American sport.

Meanwhile, the “beautiful game” remains more popular abroad, especially among the poor, while in the US it has long been limited to the rich and immigrants. It has its faults: referees have to decide whether a foul should be ignored or punished harshly, and the offside rule limits scoring. However, weak teams love the present system, and they have most of the votes. Fans of weak teams know that an upset is always possible, and while the World Cup worked its way down to traditional superpowers, Costa Rica almost made it into the quarter-finals.

Review-Atlas (July 10, 2014), 4.

4th of July


By William Urban

Too often we think the Revolution was about taxes. In reality it was because Americans refused to be reduced to second class subjects. In 2007 Anthony Scotti, Jr, wrote a powerful short book, “Brutal Virtue, the Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton.” The name Tarleton probably means little to readers in Illinois, but few citizens of South Carolina would fail to recognize it.

Movie-goers of 2000 might have seen The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, in which the hero tried to remain neutral in the American Revolution, but was inevitably drawn into the conflict by Tarleton’s misdeeds. This reflected Scotti’s argument that Tarleton was no worse than anyone else in this part of the war, but patriotic propagandists used him to illustrate why Americans had to join the fight.

Another movie, Sweet Liberty (1986), made a additional point. A comedy written and directed by Alan Alda (who also had the lead role except when being upstaged by Michael Caine and Michelle Pfeiffer), the story centered on a small-college historian who had written a scholarly study of Tarleton’s meeting with Mrs. Mary Slocomb, and who was frustrated by the director’s efforts to turn that into a love story. When Tarleton came to her farm to burn it, he asked where her husband was and whether he was a rebel. She retorted, “He is in the army of his country, and fighting against our invaders, and therefore not a rebel.”

Every observer of the colonial scene agreed that South Carolina and Georgia were more loyalist than the other colonies. This was partly because the plantation owners with numerous slaves and the commercial class selling tobacco, rice and indigo saw themselves much like the English nobility and merchant capitalists. However, without British armed assistance, the loyalists could not challenge patriot control of politics.

This changed when Cornwallis was sent to Charles Towne (as it was known then) with 14,000 redcoats and Hessians; after a long siege he forced General Benjamin Lincoln to surrender the city and his 5,000 men. It was the greatest defeat the Americans had suffered yet — the loss of an entire army.

Cornwallis set out to occupy the rest of the colony, but he found it difficult to locate guerilla forces such as those of the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion. His answer to this problem was to recruit loyalists for a mixed light cavalry and mounted infantry body that he called the British Legion; he named as commander the brightest cavalry officer in the army, young Banastre Tarleton.

The British Legion became famed (or infamous) for its long, swift marches and deadly attacks. It would fall on patriot forces at dawn, slaughtering the sleepy men, or charge unsteady units so suddenly that the men would fly for their lives. Not that many got away. No man on foot can outrun a horse. He would demand that enemy forces surrender, and if they did not, his men would kill everyone they caught. This became known as “Tarleton’s Quarter.”

The green uniforms that the British Legion wore are a symbol of pride, but also of what was wrong with British policy. Britons chose to believe that all Americans were dirty, lazy and cowardly. Therefore, they were not worthy of holding government posts or being allowed to buy a commission in the army. They were not even allowed to wear red coats.

A far-sighted government would have made George Washington into a professional officer and rich Americans into aristocrats. But no, the government saw Americans as the equivalent of the Irish and the South Asian Indians, that is, as a lower class of human being. When Americans complained that taxation policies and changing the royal charters were reducing them to slaves (something they knew something about), more than a few Britons thought that would be a good thing.

Benjamin Franklin had gone to London as a lobbyist for the government of the Pennsylvania Colony. World-renowned scientist, philosopher and humorist, honored by British universities, he was nevertheless repeatedly humiliated by the government ministers. Before he returned to America he wrote a satirical tract, “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.”

It was no accident that the founders of Monmouth College, South Carolina Presbyterians, were solid patriots. (The college hymn starts “Loyal to God and Native Land.”) Later they concluded that freedom should not depend on a person’s color or sex. Unable to remain in the Slavocracy that South Carolina had become, they moved to Western Illinois and put down roots in all the towns and villages round about. Their Monmouth College admitted women from the beginning, accepted the first Black student who applied, and the first Asian.

That is what the 4th of July meant.

Galesburg Register-Mail (July 3, 2014).