From our man in Europe
We have seen better Fridays, that's for sure. But then again, some people have seen better Tuesdays as well, as I will later explain. The world is in turmoil, but is it more turmoiled than before? How do you compare suffering, how do you compare joy? The benchmark for comparison nowadays of course would be the American press secretary Sean Spicer, who again has been bemusing us all with his Hitler-Assad 'who's the worst bad-ass' counterpoint. It's yet another epic fail which makes you wonder how on earth you can be so stupid to bring Hitler so easily into any equation. My suggestion would be that the CIA had better restart wiretapping German officials in order to work their way into the basics of dos and don'ts of bringing up the Holocaust and other sensitive wartime episodes. Or buy yourself a copy of 'World History for Dummies' (ISBN 9780470547526). It may come in handy.
Now the Magician in Chief may be appalled by the mere thought of getting too close to the German Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel, who is said to have bought a couple tins of capsicum spray before she went on her visit to Washington a couple of weeks ago, as a mere precaution. No one is grabbing Angela by the pussy, that's for sure ! Although German policy in upkeeping bilateral relations twelve hundred years ago sometimes involved a cosy tête-a-tête in one of the old Roman bathhouses of Aachen, at the Palatine court of the emperor Charlemagne, it seems hard to imagine a similar scene nowadays featuring Donald Trump and Angela Merkel.
At this point it might be wise to elaborate a bit on the current state of affairs in Europe, this funnily shaped appendix next door to Russia, this cradle of the western world. In order to get the picture right, I'll concisely re-run two and a half thousand years of European and western history. I have to outline three different traditions to make it understandable:
1. A small tribe in the fertile crescent, in the Middle East, starts worshipping one god, around 1000 BCE. This was outrageous, gods and goddesses were being revered by the dozen, back in those days. The Jews claimed to be the chosen people and had a covenant with their god, Jahweh. And there would be a messiah who would liberate the chosen ones. Several messiahs showed up, but Jesus of Nazareth would prove to have a lasting impact. Many of his deeds have been written down, but none without contradiction. If you think there are only four gospels, check Bart Ehrman Lost Christianities & Lost Scriptures. Concensus, more or less, arose only as late as the fourth century, on dogmas and on the exact good read. Thus, christianity was born.
2. Around 500 BCE the Greeks, for reasons still unknown, start behaving differently. It may have been the combination of raw onions, sour white wine and olives. Just imagine Brad Pitt in Troy or Gerard Butler acting as Leonidas in the 2006 Zack Snyder movie 300. Harsh conditions, to say the least. The city-state Athens invented democracy, the Greeks colonized the Mediterranean Sea and deliberated upon straight lines, triangles, the stars and the essence of life and matter. The smartest of asses were being called sophists, which translates in a way to the alt right using the phrasing 'scientist'. Both of them up to no good, basically. The Romans were much tougher than these sissy Greeks and beat the hell out of them, but at the same time admired their culture. Hence the term Graeco-Roman for the time frame of 500 BCE untill 500 CE.
3. The Germans, always these Germans. They were menacing the Roman empire from the second and third century CE onwards. Vandals, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Alemans, Franks, Saxons, Angles, Frisians, Marcomanni, you would never know which tribe who be burning down your farmhouse and enslave your wife and children. Because they would start their raiding party by clubbing you to death. Why worry about working on the fields if you could just plunder the stocks your neighbours had been piling up for you? The Germans were craving for war, blood and honor. And so were the Vikings, who were just a sub-branch of the great German nation.
These three traditions came together in the life and times of Charlemagne, the German-Frankish king, new Roman emperor and fervent advocate of orthodox christianity with ist Jewish-Judean roots, living around the year 800 CE. Europe had been re-invented in a blend of these three enticing traditions. England, France, Germany, Spain, Austria ; all of the larger and smaller European countries trace back their lineage to these early beginnings. A lot of intermarrying and inbreeding among the nobility did the rest: petty conflicts througout the Middle Ages, mainly about territory and titles, often also about the right shape and form of christian belief. The Americas were being discovered and Asia and Africa were being absorbed by game-changing early capitalist European ventures.
Martin Luther started the Big Faith Upheaval in the early sixteenth century and Renaissance-fed humanism did the rest. Two centuries later, all of sudden Europe woke up in what nowadays is being called the Enlightenment, lit by French, German, Dutch, English and other nation's scholars. The law of gravity, the understanding of the solar system, the microscope, better crop yields, remedy against scurvy; it all was being understood in a way that men had never grasped before, thanks to plain reasoning and some smart experimenting.
The nineteenth and twentieth century were a bit of a drawback, with the rise of nationalism in Europe, which eventually would end up in these two great atrocities, the First and Second World War.
Now we reckoned that we had surpassed all of this, especially with fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. A New Day was dawning, the end of history proclaimed. Mankind had met its final destination.
But then again, history is a demanding mistress and full of surprises. We are finding ourselves in a situation which, in a way, resembles the uncertainties of the early sixteenth century. Erasmus of Rotterdam, back in those days the pinnacle of humanism, could not alter the underlying and sprawling mechanisms of unfolding nation-state power, of iron-clad and faith based rigorism, bewildered by hords of desperate refugees from different countries, a continent torn apart by wars, by burning stakes and famines.
I would like to refer to one tragic incident, on a bad Tuesday, October 27th 1553. Michael Servetus was a Spanish scientist, not only cartographer, but also a physician who gave a first correct description of the pulmonary circulation. A man who met leading scholars all over Europe, but as a theologian had different views on the dogma of the trinity, which he held for absurd. Because of these digressive views, Michael Servetus, in Geneva, Switzerland, was being condemned to death and slowly burned at the stake at that very same day. John Calvin, reformed church-hero, who had a strong influence on the municipal authorities of Geneva, did nothing to save Servetus. Like the German poet Heinrich Heine said : wherever people start burning books, in the end, people also get burned…
We all too may have reckoned untill quite recently that science and reason would prevail, would fend off the atavistic ghosts from the past. But here they are again, in Europe and America alike : warmongering, hatred, self-indulgence, bigotry and fanatism. Get to your senses and say a little prayer to the Goddess of Reason… Have a good Friday !
Hilbert de Wal, The Netherlands