But fortunately, there is this Russian lawyer and exposer of corruption, Alexei Navalny. He makes one film after another. And most of them are more captivating, better researched and better produced than most commercial films.
I know, Navalny is controversial, and I am the last person to approve of his nationalistic and xenophobic statements. (If he has moved on since then, he should finally distance himself from them.) But his films are really good.
The most famous film by now is “A Palace for Putin”. In feature length, it’s about much more than Putin’s 100 billion ruble (and butt-ugly) palace, the property for which is 39 times the size of the Principality of Monaco. It is about the system of corruption at the highest level, who pockets what money where and how, about the middlemen and straw men (or rather straw grandmothers, whose granddaughters always happen to have affairs with Putin). And it’s about the beginnings of this biggest heist in modern history – in Dresden, Germany.
If your Russian has gotten a little rusty since Perestroika, don’t worry. The films have English subtitles.
Equally meticulously researched is the film that reveals the exact sequence of events, the many years of planning, and the perpetrators of the Novichok attack on Navalny (and previous attempted attacks):
It’s really like a thriller. The story becomes even more incredible when Navalny finds out the phone numbers of the killers and calls them, one after the other. They all hang up. Only one of them is careless enough to speak with Navalny, who poses as a superior from the state apparatus, about what went wrong with the poison attack and how he made evidence disappear.
In Russia, all this evidence does not even lead to the opening of a criminal investigation. Instead, Navalny is sent to the gulag. After trials which the European Court of Human Rights declared unlawful and arbitrary.
It’s the end of February. If you are like me, most of your New Year’s resolutions have already dissipated, been forgotten or pushed to March or April. The smarter ones among you won’t have made any resolutions in the first place.
But if you want to feel really bad, consider young Winston Churchill’s New Year’s resolutions, as reported in his autobiography My Early Life:
I therefore planned the sequence of the year 1899 as follows: To return to India and win the Polo Tournament: to send in my papers and leave the army: to relieve my mother from paying my allowance: to write my new book and the letters to the Pioneer: and to look out for a chance of entering Parliament.
These plans as will be seen were in the main carried out.
After all, a year has 365 days. Why limit oneself to resolutions regarding exercise, diet or learning a new language?
As we all know, Churchill’s career did take off, both in literature (he won a Nobel Prize) and in politics (he won a World War). Apparently, he was so multi-talented that he was not only a Member of Parliament and eventually Prime Minister, but served as President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Minister of Air, Minister of Defence, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Secretary of State for the Colonies.
It is the latter office that we shall focus on, because Winston Churchill assumed it in February 1921, exactly a hundred years ago. I also want to focus on it because it puts a rather different light on the “savior of the free world”. As always in this series, the centenary serves merely as a starting point and we will explore Churchill’s view on colonialism before and after that.
The River War, the product of Churchill’s above resolution was, rather shocking for a 24-year old, already his third book. It was also, even more shocking, full of crudely racist and anti-Islamic passages. This was not some youthful sin which he cared to rectify with advancing age and increasing responsibility. Quite the contrary. Churchill held deeply racist views that would put him in the camp of white supremacists today.
In 1937, for example, when he was already warning the world about the Nazis, Churchill said:
I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.
Again and again, his thinking reveals this belief in a racial hierarchy, with white Protestants being superior to white Catholics (i.e. the Irish), Jews superior to Muslims, and Anglo-Saxons superior to everyone else.
Apologists will say that this was the thinking of the day. But it wasn’t. Not for many people. Even in the UK, even at the time and even within his own Conservative Party, Churchill was regarded as an extreme racist.
And as late as 1954, he said about the Chinese:
I hate people with slit eyes and pigtails. I don’t like the look of them or the smell of them.
Surely no accident for someone known for his gifted oratory.
Among all the people insulted, humiliated and treated horribly, I want to turn the focus on India, a British colony until 1947.
At one point, Churchill explicitly told his Secretary of State for India that he “hated Indians” and considered them “a beastly people with a beastly religion”. (I am not sure if he didn’t know that there were Indians of different religions, or if he didn’t care.) He was particularly imbued with hatred against Mahatma Gandhi, suggesting that Gandhi “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.”
When the Atlantic Charter, proclaimed by Churchill and US President Roosevelt in 1941, named self-determination of the peoples as one of the guiding principles for the post-war world, Churchill explicitly declared that this would not apply to India. And that despite Indians contributing to the Allied war effort with over 2.5 million men, back then the largest volunteer force in the world.
The low point in a life filled with low points was probably the Bengal Famine of 1943. More than 3 million people starved to death, while Churchill ordered the diversion of grain from starving Indians to British soldiers and to build up buffer stocks in Greece and Yugoslavia.
“The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious than that of sturdy Greeks,” Churchill applied his racial hierarchy. And, he said, it was the Indians’ own fault for “breeding like rabbits”. (Churchill had five children himself.)
Again, this is not some retroactive application of modern morals. People at the time realized the inhumanity. British officials pleaded with Churchill, but to no avail. Canada and the USA offered to send help, but Churchill turned it down. The Indian colony was not allowed to spend its own reserves or use its own ships to import food. Vessels bringing wheat from Australia were not allowed to unload in Indian ports and were ordered to continue to Europe instead.
Considering that British rule was sought to be justified on the ground that “it keeps the people from killing each other”, this was rather cynical. All this makes me wonder about the people, textbooks, novels and films that still romanticize colonialism, which is not a problem pertinent only to the United Kingdom. Or maybe it doesn’t make me wonder, because it’s the same old European feeling of racial superiority. (“But we brought them the railroad.”) That’s why I welcome any debate, and if a few statues need to be toppled or spray-painted for that, so be it.
Obviously, a famine is not a monocausal event. But if I had tried to get any deeper into the course and the causes of the famine, my complete lack of knowledge about India would have become even more evident.
In this article, I have drawn on Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India by Shashi Tharoor. Thanks to Dieter for sending me the book! More books are always welcome, as would be an expert on Mongolian history, on the history of chess, on Irish history and on the Tulsa massacre – especially those willing to take over for one episode of this series.
Impostors who portray their lives as more adventurous than they are don’t just exist in novels and in blogs. Some live among us. Or, when impostorism conspires with narcissism, they force their way onto the big stage.
Now, everyone is thinking of Donald Trump.
But much more interesting is an impostor and narcissist who is also intelligent. Who deceives all his life, but never enriches himself.
Someone like Enric Marco from Barcelona.
Marco, who turns 100 this year, probably had his greatest performance in 2005, when he addressed the Spanish Parliament on Holocaust Remembrance Day. As chairman of an association of Spaniards who survived the Nazi concentration camps. And as a former inmate of the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
A few months later, historian Benito Bermejo revealed that Marco had invented this part of his biography. He had never been interned in a concentration camp. It is true that Marco was in Germany during World War II, but not, as he had claimed, as a resistance fighter who had joined the French Resistance. In truth, he worked as a metalworker at a German shipyard in Kiel, conveniently avoiding military service in Spain.
When things got dicey in Germany in 1943, he absconded to Spain. The Germans didn’t bother to look for him, and the Spanish military did not draft him because they thought he was still in Germany. Marco started a family, concealing the existence of his already established first family, and became a car mechanic.
A life like a novel.
That’s how he survived the oppression of the Franco era. Not exactly underground, but under the radar of the authorities. When he was bored, he told of his exploits in the Spanish Civil War, always on the front line, shoulder to shoulder with the well-known heads of the anarchists, in the attempted liberation of Mallorca, in the Résistance. But only in a small circle, because in the times of the dictatorship, anti-fascists were not en vogue.
That changed after Franco’s death. When the anarcho-syndicalist trade union CNT was reestablished in 1976, Marco went to the meetings. There he expanded on his life story, in which he had now fought underground for the CNT’s cause during the decades of Franco’s dictatorship. For this reason, he said, he had to flee Spain, but had been betrayed and arrested in Marseilles, and had thus ended up in a concentration camp. Although none of the other trade unionists knew this lively, energetic man who could tell stories so well, they elected him president of the Catalan section of the CNT in 1977 and president at the national level the following year.
A life like a novel.
The CNT fell out between different factions, Marco was not re-elected and eventually expelled. His car repair shop did not fulfill him, so he began to study history on the side. At university, he met a young student whom he impressed with his heroic stories of civil war, anti-fascist struggle, escape and underground. With her, he started his third family.
But soon, he was bored again. So he got himself elected to the parents’ council of his children’s school. As was almost inevitable, within a very short time he became vice-chairman of the Parents’ Association of Catalonia. He negotiated with the ministers of education, he gave speeches, and he forced his way into every newspaper photograph.
But at some point, his daughters had finished school, and Marco could not for the life of him remain in the Parents’ Association. He needed a new job, especially since he was now retired. Being a retiree without a second job can be mind-numbingly boring. That was nothing for Marco.
He went to Amical de Mauthausen, an association of Spanish concentration camp survivors, and said that he would like to contribute to keep the memory from fading into oblivion. He could visit a school now and then to give a lecture. It turned into more than a few lectures. Soon, Marco was the organization’s most sought-after speaker, he spoke in schools across the country, he appeared on radio and television, and – this should surprise no one by now – in 2001 he became chairman of Amical de Mauthausen.
A life like a novel.
Javier Cercas, the author of the book “The Impostor” from which I took this story, did not have to invent anything. He was able to write a novel without any fiction because the protagonist provides enough fiction.
And so “The Impostor” is not only a biography, but also a book about the research that Cercas and others undertook over years. The sophistication with which Marco concocted his legend is impressive, but so is the way Cercas uncovers it piece by piece. Chance discoveries in old newspapers or archives often help, but Marco himself continues to be extremely talkative. His craving for recognition goes to the point of self-destruction. But his imagination is also the source of his strength. Like Don Quixote.
What I found excellent about the book is how Cercas embeds Marco’s life, real and invented, in the history of Spain. From the Civil War to the will to forget to the memory circus, as the author calls it. Marco, the historian who became famous as an eyewitness, as a mirror of how Spain deals with history. Or does not deal with it.
Cercas embeds all this in thoughts about fiction and truth, about literature, about psychology and philosophy, which, however, sometimes gets too out of hand. If the author had restrained himself a bit, dispensed with repetitions and superfluous details, the book could have been shortened by at least 100 pages. But nevertheless, it remains an interesting book that you won’t forget about quickly.
My hosts in Linz are exceptionally gracious hosts. On the morning of the farewell, they cook, bake, puree, flambé and prepare food as if I weren’t a humble little fellow, but a horde of a hundred hungry men.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much of an appetite. Because today, my journey will take me to Mauthausen.
The extremely caring hosts don’t mind driving me the 20 kilometers. Maybe they don’t trust hitchhiking, although it got me to Linz safely. Despite the corona virus. We are cruising past blast furnaces, steel mills, smoking chimneys, sparking fires. Railroads are roaring and rushing from one part of the steelworks to another. There is hammering and smelting, productivity and perspiration. This is what the Rust Belt must have looked like before it got rusty.
These are the Hermann Göring Works. Construction began in 1938, a few months after Austria ceased to be an independent country. Built, expanded and operated with forced labor, with prisoners of war and with prisoners of the nearby concentration camps Gusen and Mauthausen. At the time, the Germans and Austrians could not show up to work themselves, because they were busy invading other countries to enslave their populations for the benefit of a German economic miracle. Capitalism needs growth, if necessary by force.
But you have to give credit to Voestalpine AG, the name under which the company is now trading, for maintaining a museum of contemporary history on the factory premises. Thousands of other companies keep as quiet as mice, even though almost everyone in the German Reich had forced laborers, down to small and medium-sized businesses and even small farms.
From the town of Mauthausen, and town is almost too big a word for it, a road winds its way through the forests and cornfields. Always uphill. Up to the fortress, which still yields a threatening and gloomy aura.
Thick walls. Barbed wire. Guard towers.
No trees, preferring a clear line of fire instead.
It is summer 2020 and there are fewer visitors than usual because of the corona virus. The lady at the reception takes a lot of time to explain everything.
Mauthausen was one of the last concentration camps to be liberated, on 5 May 1945. The fact that the first concentration camps had already been liberated ten months earlier did not stop the killing here. The fact that Hitler had killed himself a week earlier did not stop the killing. The fact that the Wehrmacht had already surrendered on many fronts at the beginning of May did not stop the killing. But thereafter, for the rest of their largely unprosecuted lives, the murderers blathered on about allegedly “not having had any choice”.
Because the killing went on in Mauthausen almost to the last breath of the Nazi regime, the camp was the destination of several transfer and death marches from other concentration camps. The number of prisoners swelled dramatically from 1944 on, and in the last four months before liberation, as many people died as in the previous four years. At least 90,000 people in total.
Mauthausen was liberated by the US Army. Looking at the banner with which the Spanish prisoners welcomed the liberators, it becomes evident that the term “Antifa” does not deserve any negative connotation. Quite the contrary.
But it is thanks to the Soviet Union that Mauthausen became a memorial site, the knowledgeable lady enlightens me. Like Germany, Austria was divided into four occupation zones, and north of the Danube was the Soviet zone. The Soviet occupying power returned the site only on the condition that it be maintained as a memorial.
“What do the people in Mauthausen make of the fact that their town is always associated with the concentration camp?” I want to know.
She turns to a young man who is doing an internship: “You’re a local, you can probably say more about that.”
“Yesterday I was handing out flyers for our film week,” he recounts. “Some people were interested. But when I walked into an ice cream parlor and said I was from the memorial site, the woman there turned around and didn’t talk to me anymore.”
He tells it like it’s not the first time this has happened.
And: “When we go abroad, we prefer to say we are from Linz.” I know this phenomenon from Dachau, where people prefer to say that they are from Munich.
Equipped with a map and other helpful hints, I begin exploring the grounds. Outside the fortress-like walls was the soccer field. Here, the SS played against local clubs. The local population could watch, and there was probably someone selling sausages or lemonade. There were also other joint celebrations and regular contact, even marriages between SS men and local women. The population of Mauthausen grew, the landlords rejoiced, the innkeepers were happy.
Next to the sports field were barracks for the prisoners who were so sick that they were no longer a flight risk. To die, they could be stacked outside the walls. Today, a woman is walking her dog in this field and picking flowers. For the breakfast table.
Where the SS barracks once stood, there is a memorial park. A mirror of the post-war situation, the Cold War and the changes that have occurred since then. The first monuments were large, heroic, male. Many groups of victims such as women, homosexuals or children were overlooked.
It was not until the 1970s that a memorial to the Jewish victims was erected. The Roma and Sinti had to wait even longer, until 1989.
And the commemoration was national. Each country wanted its own memorial. Germany is represented twice, not as perpetrator and victim, but as East and West. There are countries that no longer exist, the USSR, the GDR, Yugoslavia. And new countries like Ukraine and Slovenia.
Visitors from around the world put up plaques. There is gratitude to the U.S. liberators next to remembrance of the Soviet victims. The latter ones, at least if they were lieutenant generals, received the more flowery obituary. (“… Torture and mockery did not break the courage of the fiery fighter for the liberation of peoples from the fascist yoke. …“)
One hundred and ninety thousand prisoners. One hundred and ninety thousand stories.
The lady from the memorial center had told me that in pandemic-free years, relatives of former prisoners come from all over the world. The historians then retrieve the respective files from the archives. And all relatives are given a personal tour.
“Sometimes,” she continues, “people hand us a bundle of papers they found after their father or grandfather died. Old IDs, documents, a diary or a handwritten memoir. Our work won’t be over for a long time.”
Visiting a former concentration camp, one expects to be most shocked by the gas chamber. Or by the furnaces in which the corpses were burned. Or by the photos of piles of corpses. But here, the memorial has a different concept: in the basement, where the crematoria are located, relatives are allowed to place plaques, memories and photos of the victims.
The rooms are full of faces, full of names, full of lives cut short.
One hundred and ninety thousand prisoners. One hundred and ninety thousand stories.
I want to tell one of them. The story of Francisco Boix.
You may have wondered, when you saw the image of the liberation, why the poster was written in Spanish. Well, there were about 7,000 Spanish (many of them Catalan) prisoners in Mauthausen.
How did that come about? Spain was never conquered by the Nazis, was it?
It was a consequence of the Spanish Civil War. After Franco prevailed in 1939, many Spanish leftists and republicans fled across the Pyrenees to France. Some of them became German prisoners when Germany invaded France. Others fought with the French Foreign Legion against Germany and thus ended up in German captivity. The Third Reich did not want to put them in concentration camps at first, but treated them as prisoners of war. Germany even offered Franco to send them to Spain, which after all was not at war with Germany. But the Spanish dictator replied: “No thank you. These people have conspired against me, they are no longer Spaniards. Do with them whatever you want.”
That was their death sentence.
Francisco Boix was one of those Spaniards who fought against Franco and against Hitler. He was caught and sent to Mauthausen in 1941. He was also a photographer.
That saved his life.
He had to work as a photo lab assistant for the SS identification service in the camp. Propaganda photos, photos of all new prisoners, photos of deaths in the quarry, photos of executions, photos of the cruel living conditions in the camp were passing through his hands. Photos of everything.
Boix secretly made an additional print of many of these photos. Other Spanish prisoners working in the quarries outside the camp smuggled the photos outside. On the footpath through the town of Mauthausen, they noticed a woman who seemed friendlier than the other locals, who nodded at them, greeted them. The prisoners slipped the photos to this woman. Again and again. Each time at the risk of the lives of everyone involved. This woman, Anna Pointner, kept the photos hidden until 1945.
It was almost unbelievable, but Francisco Boix survived the four years in the concentration camp. Without him or his helpers ever being exposed. His photos and his testimony at the first Nuremberg Trial as well as at the Mauthausen Trial not only proved the cruel conditions of imprisonment, but also the personal knowledge about it of Albert Speer, who was photographed during his visit to the Mauthausen concentration camp.
And then, Boix and the other Spanish prisoners were not able to return to their homeland after liberation. Spain made no effort to restore their revoked citizenship. They remained stateless.
I am learning so much in the exhibition that I cannot reproduce here without going beyond the scope of the article.
About Martin Roth, who was responsible for the operation of the gas chamber and the crematorium at Mauthausen. Since 1945, he was wanted for murder. But apparently not wanted very much, because he was able to live unmolested in Germany and Austria until 1968. Only then was he sentenced to seven years in prison. From 1977 until his death in 2003, he went on summer vacation to Mauthausen every year. He liked to sit in the garden of a pub there, with a view of the former concentration camp.
About the SS, which, in the spirit of capitalism, founded its own limited company to exploit the quarries in Mauthausen. With brochures that advertised the quality of the granite from Mauthausen, Gross-Rosen and Flossenbürg. From the latter quarry, people with a terrible taste in gardening still like to get their granite today.
About the camp brothel to which women from Ravensbrück concentration camp were brought. Only a few privileged prisoners were allowed to visit the brothel. Jews were excluded. The subsequent release which had been promised to the women never happened, of course.
About the efforts of the SS to destroy all evidence in the last months. Most of the documents were burned. The killing facilities were dismantled. Good thing that Francisco Boix had hidden the photos. And good thing that Jack Taylor, an OSS secret agent, survived his imprisonment in Mauthausen concentration camp and was able to help with the US Army’s meticulous investigation.
As is so often the case when confronting National Socialism, it is above all the bureaucracy, the obsession with regulations, the orderliness of the bookkeeping – the German virtues – that are so frightening.
I have to catch some air, step outside, walk through the grass, which is now greener than it ever was in the days of the concentration camp. But everywhere I step, there is a cemetery.
Only at the fence, once electrically charged and another killing instrument, does my walk, lost in thoughts, come to a stop.
Only once did prisoners manage to break through this fence. In February 1945, Soviet prisoners of war attacked the guard towers and short-circuited the electric fence with wet blankets. 419 of them were able to leave the camp.
However, only for a short time. Many collapsed from exhaustion or died in the hail of bullets from the machine guns. The SS organized a veritable hunt for the rest. For three weeks, all surrounding forests and villages were combed to find and kill every escaped Soviet soldier. Under the cynical name “Mühlviertel Hare Hunt” the police, the fire department, the Wehrmacht, the Hitler Youth, the Volkssturm as well as the civilian population participated in the manhunt. Mass murder as a public spectacle. Those were the people who after 1945 claimed that they hadn’t known about anything.
Only eleven of the escaped Soviet soldiers survived because they were hidden by farmers or by forced laborers. These were the ones whom the majority resented after 1945, because they had shown that resistance was possible.
I walk down to the Danube, through the town. It is four kilometers to the train station, which the prisoners had to walk the other way, always uphill for them. Past pretty villas, petit-bourgeois houses, well-tended gardens.
I do the math. Those who were 20 years old back then would now be 95. There won’t be many of them left. The 60- or 70-year-olds sitting in the garden now are the ones who never asked. For fear of what might come to light. Including about their own parents.
It probably takes two or three generations for people to start asking. And sometimes even longer. On the website of the municipality of Mauthausen, the concentration camp memorial is not listed among the local sights. Neither is the memorial to Anna Pointner. But there is a proud reference to the war memorial for the Nazi soldiers who rounded up the victims for Mauthausen all over the world.
There is a graphic novel about Francisco Boix. It has an extensive and illustrated appendix, introducing the history and system of the Mauthausen concentration camp. I found this a very helpful preparation for the visit.
The disturbingly fascinating story of Enric Marco is also set against the backdrop of the Spanish connection with Mauthausen.
When people say that law school is boring, I always have to laugh.
For my second internship, I worked for the district attorney’s office. In Las Vegas. On the very first day, we went to an Indian reservation. After that, a couple of murder trials. A tour of the prison. Seeing the Jackson clan in court. An invitation to attend an execution, to which I responded “hell, no!” An invitation to go on a ride-along with the police, to which I responded “hell, yes!”
I chose the night shift, ostensibly so I wouldn’t miss a day in court. In reality, because I hoped there would be more action.
At 5:30 p.m., I found myself at a precinct in the northwest of the most crime-ridden city in the United States. The police officers were sitting in a room that looked like a classroom. The desks and chairs were far too small for the men, all of whom rather big and burly. They were goofing around until the lieutenant walked in. On a map on the blackboard, he marked where a bank had just been robbed, where a man had been stabbed, where a woman had been sexually assaulted, and where they planned to uncover a drug den.
Then he introduced me and my secret mission. Mike, very tall, very burly, with a black mustache, a picture-book cop, said: “He can come with me.” In Las Vegas, officers usually go on patrol alone because that way, there are more patrol cars on the street at the same time. “Taxpayers want to see something for their money,” the prosecutor had explained this strategy.
We all went to the locker room, where I didn’t get a uniform, but a bulletproof vest. Wearing it under my sweater, I already felt much bigger and stronger.
In the parking lot behind the building, the cars were checked for the night shift. Tire pressure. Lights. Siren. And the radio. It seemed to work, because it was already squawking. “Two juveniles in stolen vehicle northbound on I-95.”
I thought it was a test, but Mike called out to me: “Get in and buckle up!”
Two police cars roared off ahead of us; we were the third one. With sirens. With blue lights. With screeching tires. At over 100 km/h. In the middle of the city. In rush-hour traffic. In the US, unlike in civilized countries, drivers don’t leave a lane for vehicles with flashing blue lights; you have to somehow weave your way through.
Mike operated the steering wheel, the lights, the siren and the horn with his left hand. With his right hand, he operated the radio and a computer that was mounted in front of me on the passenger side. It provided information about the stolen vehicle. “Shit, all this effort for a Corolla.”
Mike could operate twelve things at once, except the brakes. We were approaching a major intersection, the light was red. Neither the two police cars in front of us, nor we slowed down. Mike explained that the police cars were equipped with a device that could manipulate the traffic light and turn it green. At the very last moment, it did turn green. Too late for a driver coming from the right, who rammed the second police car, which crashed into a lamppost, causing it to topple over and hit a number of other cars.
Mike kept on driving at 100 km/h, glancing in the rearview mirror only briefly and reassuring me that nothing had happened to his partner. To be on the safe side, he radioed in the accident. “By the way, if anything happens to me,” he said, “go on frequency 33 and say ‘officer down, officer down.’ And then get yourself to safety.” There was a pump-action shotgun mounted between the two seats, but apparently I wasn’t supposed to use that.
American police cars have a battering ram. That came into play when we pulled up to the stolen Toyota. The two remaining police cars took turns ramming the Corolla, whose owner was no doubt delighted. Around us, it was still rush hour traffic. (That was in 1997, when people didn’t have cell phones with cameras. Meanwhile, the police are filming themselves.)
The officers tried to force the stolen vehicle off the road, but the thieves drove into the parking lot of a supermarket instead. Our cars came to a halt with screeching tires, the two policemen jumped out with guns drawn, ran towards the car that had caused the whole mayhem, shouting loudly, and pulled out two shaking young men. I don’t know if they fell over or were pushed to the ground, but they were handcuffed immediately.
Around us, people were pushing cereal, Coke bottles and steaks in shopping carts, some of which were larger than the Corolla.
The sun was just setting. I enjoyed the last rays of warm light, grinning from ear to ear and thinking, neither for the first nor the last time that evening: “This is like a movie!”
The night went on, of course, with helicopters, a hunt in the desert, a suicide on a volcano, and lots of donuts, but for this series, I promised to keep it short. That’s what you get for complaining about the alleged lengthiness of my articles.
Maybe it was this experience which qualified me to be part of one episode of the German crime series “Tatort”.
Later, when I did an internship in New York, I organized ride-alongs with NYPD for all the interns and trainees of the German Diplomatic Mission. I think I was well-liked there.
So, there I was, stranded at the airport in New York, having missed the flight to Frankfurt. (See last episode.)
It was a Friday afternoon, and I was supposed to be home by Sunday, so I could prepare for the coming week. At that time, I was still working as a busy lawyer, which limited my spontaneity for long-distance travel tremendously. (A year and another missed return flight later, I would therefore terminate this self-exploitation, but that’s another story.)
The woman from United Airlines who had foiled my plans promptly made up for it: “The next flight to Frankfurt doesn’t leave until tomorrow. If we find an open seat on another flight to Europe today, would that be of any help to you?”
“Oh yes!”, I replied, delighted about the idea. Once in Europe, I would be able to get home or to the office from any place by train, a much more flexible means of transport, going once every hour.
She typed a bit into her computer (those were already widely used at the time) and read out the results of the research.
“So, tonight we still have seats available to Barcelona, London and Paris.”
Barcelona I already knew.
London I knew even better.
Paris I had never been to.
“Then I’ll fly to Paris,” I decided, barely able to conceal my joy at this unexpected turn of events.
I had to pay a $100 rebooking fee, and the next morning I was in Paris. Without a guidebook, without a map, without a hotel, without much French. (An attempt to brush up on it had once failed miserably.)
If fate took me to Paris, I might as well stay for a day, I thought to myself. So I took the metro to somewhere that looked like the city center on the metro map, got off, looked around, and decided it was fine. I went to the first hotel and asked if they had a room for one night. “Oui, monsieur.” They had a map of the city, too.
That’s how people used to travel, without internet or GPS. Somehow, it was more fun.
I was ambulating aimlessly until I came to a river. It was the Seine. That was a good sign. I walked along the right bank until I came to a bridge. Then I crossed the bridge and continued on the left bank. Until the next bridge. And so on.
There were many bridges. And from each one, the view was great.
The tourists were not as annoying back then as they are today. People took less pictures, because there was no Instagraph and such. One simply enjoyed oneself. I did the same.
In the gardens of Trocadéro, I could finally tell where I was by looking at the city map. Because on the other side of the river, there was the Eiffel Tower.
I walked a bit further, to the Arc de Triomphe, but really looking for a baguette, and then back to the Eiffel Tower. The queue for climbing the rickety steel scaffolding was long, so I forewent the fear of heights. Instead, I laid down in the warm summer meadow on Mars Field, enjoying a baguette and a book.
From French class, which had always been a France class too, came memories of sights I could visit: Montmartre, Louvre, Notre-Dame, DGSE, Dôme des Invalides, Centre Pompidou.
But I treat places with respect, just as I treat people. And respect demands that one brings the necessary time for a visit. I didn’t have that. Paris is a city where you need two or three weeks. For an initial overview. So I didn’t even start to scratch the surface, but rather remained on Mars Field all day, gazing at the sun, at the tower, and into the sky.
In August 2008, I was visiting friends in New York. It was a very hot summer. I remember that clearly, because due to the heat, I couldn’t go running before midnight. My friends lived in Harlem, and everybody, except for me, found it dangerous to go running at midnight, all the way down to Central Park, once around the park, and back north on Malcolm X Boulevard. I don’t know what people were worried about, because there is much less traffic at night.
On the last day, I arranged to meet with another friend. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I was early, because I was excited to see her again.
She was late, and I don’t know if that meant anything.
Always clever and always trying to look clever, I had brought a book. “Twelve Angry Men” by Reginald Rose. I don’t know how long I was waiting, sitting on the steps in front of the museum, but I finished the whole book before she turned up. I should have been angry like twelve men myself, but as soon as I saw her, all anger was blown away, as if a fierce autumn storm had swept down 5th Avenue.
We enjoyed the museum.
The Benin masks, which back then, we didn’t yet think of as looted art. Paintings. Calligraphy. Arms and armor. A hippopotamus. The patio from the castle of Vélez-Blanco, not knowing that ten years later, I would step into that very castle in Andalusia, connecting continents, stories and memories.
We enjoyed the museum – and each other – so much, that I felt in no rush to get to the airport. My flight back to Germany was in the afternoon.
Eventually, hours later, I managed to part ways with the lovely lady, take the wrong subway, lose another half hour, and arrive at JFK airport 45 minutes before departure.
That should suffice, I thought, being used to small airports like Nuremberg or Malta.
“No way you gonna make it,” said the lady at the check-in counter, without the typical American optimism.
“I can run really fast,” I said, thankful for the nightly exercise.
“You are not the problem, the luggage is. We can’t get it to the gate in time,” she explained the complicated inner workings of an airport.
And thus, I missed my flight to Europe.
I texted my friend, thinking that this was a sign from God and that we should spend more time together, happily ever after. She never replied.
“Wow, already 28 likes and three comments,” she thought, proud of having run five miles in less than 45 minutes for the first time. But still only 291 Instagraph followers, she checked to her disappointment, for the fifth time that day.
Stepping off bus number 247 and onto Radford Road, she was still looking at the screen of her new I-phone 11, when she was hit by a 12-ton truck.
I had been walking for three days, from Nazareth via Sepphoris, Cana, Kibbutz Lavi, the Horns of Hattin and Mount Arbel to Tiberias. There, I had upgraded to a bicycle to circle the Sea of Galilee.
The sun is burning relentlessly, although it is only March. I am still completely exhausted from the half marathon I ran in Jerusalem, just before the hike. And there is almost no water to be found along the trail. Except in the lake, of course. But I mean water that’s clean, without some prophet having put his feet into.
A church on top of a hill catches my eye. The beautiful view can already be imagined from below, the toll it will take to get there not. I have to dismount and push the bike. The hill turns out to be a mountain. Which is logical, because this is where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. The most important place of Christianity is not in Rome, not in Bethlehem, not in Jerusalem. No, it was on this mountain one Friday night that Christianity was founded. With this speech, Jesus turned from a Jewish rebel into the founder of a new religion. (Many Christian readers will be shocked now: “What do you mean, Jesus was Jewish?”)
My hopes rest on Jesus as well. Especially on sura 7 sentence 37 from the Gospel of John:
Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.
And indeed, in the garden in front of the enormous church, the interior of which reminds me of the train stations built during Italian fascism, a fountain gushes, as promised by the master. Palm trees grow around the water hole. The sound of the water feels like an oasis in the desert.
In front of the pond, the above Bible verse is quoted. And next to it a secular sign: “water not for drink”.
After the stellar and promising start of the new series “One Hundred Years Ago …”, I am now under pressure to deliver a funny story every month. The problem: History is not always funny.
The whole month, I’ve been pondering whether (a) to use the Paris Conference on reparations to be paid by Germany to address the myth of the stab-in-the-back legend as well as of Germany’s financial overstretch by the Versailles Treaties, or (b) to use the Leipzig Trials to recall German war crimes in World War I and draw a connection to the Nuremberg Trials.
I find both very fascinating, but I am probably alone in this. So I choose (c) cats.
A hundred years ago, people were still environmentally conscious, which is why hardy anyone traveled by plane (and if they did, it was for dubious purposes). Railroads, long walks to Italy and ships were popular alternatives.
The latter is what we are going to talk about today.
About a particular five-masted gaff schooner, as we sailors call it. A sailing ship, that is. A wonderfully elegant sailing ship, made entirely of wood, but used to transport coal. It was the Carroll A. Deering, named after the daughter of the shipowner.
Since 1919, the ship sailed back and forth between its home port in Virginia, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Spain, which was more dangerous than it sounds. Because this is exactly the spot marked by the Bermuda warning triangle, which was supposed to be avoided at all costs.
But costs are what shipowners hate, and thus, the captain was ordered to sail right through.
On 9 January 1921, the ship left the Caribbean island of Barbados, after the captain had bailed out his first officer from prison.
The destination of the voyage was Virginia, although I’m not sure whether it was on a direct course or a rum-induced lurching course. Because the first sighting of the Carroll A. Deering off the US coast was not until 29 January 1921, when our sailing vessel passed a lightship off the coast of North Carolina and made contact by megaphone.
Oh yes, a lightship is something like a floating lighthouse that is firmly anchored and ideally marked on nautical charts. Please don’t ask “what for?”, you landlubbers. Or read the book by Siegfried Lenz.
So a crewmember from the Carroll A. Deering called over to the lightship, informing it that they had lost their anchors in the storm and asking it to convey the message to the shipping company by telegraph. In his log, the lightship captain noted with astonishment that the call was not made by the captain, nor by the first officer, but by an ordinary sailor. He also noted that he could not spot any of the officers on board.
Mysterious. But the Carroll A. Deering was already sailing on again, heading for Cape Hatteras.
There, she was next sighted on 31 January 1921. Now, not only the captain and the officers were invisible, but the entire crew had turned into ghosts. The Carroll A. Deering had run aground on a sandbar. The sails were set, the lifeboats were gone.
Because of a raging and roaring storm, it took four days for the brave men and women from the Coast Guard, who were probably only men at the time, to finally board the Carroll A. Deering.
They encountered nobody. Not a human soul. No message left behind. No log book.
Only a cat.
The Coast Guard searched the waters for another month and a half, but found no trace of the rescue boats or crew. No one ever saw them again. No one ever heard from them again.
There were many theories:
Mutiny, not least because the lightship had not seen an officer aboard the Carroll A. Deering.
Alcohol smuggling, because Prohibition had been in effect in the US for a year, and the ship came from the Caribbean (rum, mojito, daiquiri). But then why would no one from the crew ever be seen again?
Abandoning ship because of the storm. But why would anyone do that? There was much less chance of survival in the small lifeboats. The ship itself was not destroyed.
Maybe a pirate attack. But there were no traces of a fight.
The wildest theory: The ship had been captured by Communists who wanted to take it to Russia. In fact, a search of the United Russian Workers Party headquarters in New York unveiled such plans. In 1920, German Communist Franz Jung had hijacked a steamer to sail to Murmansk to pay Lenin a visit, which, had this series begun a bit earlier, would surely have been honored in a separate episode.
The cat, the only one to know the truth, kept suspiciously silent.
“What is a cat doing on a ship?” you are wondering, and now the educational part begins:
Until very recent times, cats on ships were not only nothing unusual, but mandatory. Especially on merchant ships, but also warships hardly dared to sail without a cat. And thus, cats came to America with Columbus.
The legal sources date back to the Middle Ages: The Rôles d’Oléron, a 13th century French maritime code. The Black Book of the Admiralty from the 14th century. The 15th century Code of the Consulate of Valencia. They all stipulate that the shipowner is liable for damages if the ship fails to carry a cat and goods on board are damaged by rats as a result. If the cat dies en route, a new cat must be taken on board at the next port.
According to a Scottish law from the 13th century, a stranded ship remained the property of the shipowner as long as there was still a man, a dog or a cat alive on it. The cat thus prevented the ship from becoming an ownerless shipwreck that any beach walker could pocket.
From the time of mercantilism onwards, France insisted in all trade treaties that every ship must carry at least two cats. Otherwise, the vessel was not considered fit for sea.
It was not until 1975 that the Royal Navy banned ship cats from its warships, and it is probably no coincidence that this marked the final end of the British Empire. Just think of the Seychelles, Solomon Islands and Gilbert and Ellice Islands.
From ocean-going cats, I could now move on to the development of maritime law, submarine warfare, the Titanic or the Battle of Jutland.
But I return to the Bermuda Triangle.
Not only do ships disappear there, but so do plenty of airplanes. (That’s why most US citizens don’t fly directly to Cuba, but first to Mexico and then approach the Caribbean island from the west, to avoid the Bermuda Triangle.)
Because this series could also be called “How to get from one issue to another hundred topics” instead of “A Hundred Years Ago …”, the planes disappearing in the Sargasso Sea remind me of planes disappearing in Germany at the time covered in this series. Without the Bermuda Triangle, but in an equally mysterious way.
But I will keep this short and only reproduce a newspaper article from Freiheit, a left-wing Berlin daily newspaper from 29 December 1920:
Under the heading “The Mysterious Planes” it says:
The Reich Ministry of Transport appeals to the public to turn in the airplanes that are still being kept hidden among the population. Since the working class does not have barns, forests, sheds and similar places of storage, there is hardly any point in asking them to hand over the hidden planes. So where are the hiding places? Well, in the enclosures of the large agrarians in the countryside, and it is strange that it is always the Entente missions that uncover such hiding places, causing utmost inconvenience to the German government.
Just the other day, as the Reich Ministry of Transport has to admit, another batch of planes, which had been kept hidden, was flown to Poland. The government has the obligation to pose as harmlessly as if it considered these shenanigans with airplanes to be merely black-market maneuvers and financial speculation. In truth, of course, these planes fill the arms depots of Orgesch and its related organizations, which move their stockpiles of weapons around to keep them out of the sight of the Entente mission.
That would give rise to at least three further topics:
The fight of right-wing forces against the republic did not begin in 1933, nor in 1923 with the Hitler putsch, but on the day the republic was founded. Perhaps that is why we should take a closer look at the constant revelations of right-wing extremist networks in the contemporary German military and police. In the past, airplanes disappeared, today weapons, explosives and ammunition disappear.
You probably wondered why German planes were flown to Poland. Well, it’s a bit like Fiume: Neither the armistice nor the peace treaties really brought World War I to an end. War was still raging on all fronts in Poland, and the planes from Germany were probably used to support the Germans in Upper Silesia. Everything quite unofficially, of course.
Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was prohibited from building an air force. What did the German military do? Well, of course, it secretly built up an air force. And it did so at the secret fighter pilot school and testing facility in – you’ll never guess – Lipetsk. That was in the Soviet Union. The intensive German-Soviet cooperation (there was also a joint secret tank school in Kazan) lasted until 1933. The foundations for the Hitler-Stalin Pact had been laid.
Each of these complexes deserves its own article. But for today, that was enough history, I think. So now I’ll disappear into my Bermuda Triangle and leave you to guess where in the world we will reappear in February 1921.
If someone is interested in deepening the topics only touched upon: No problem. With a little support for this blog, I could work on more topics per month. In return, you will get the perfect papers for your history class.