Buying Genocide, Part 3

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Nazis as Socialists: How Accurate a Description?

An economic historian, Andrei Znamenski, wrote a nice analysis of the question of whether the National Socialists were really socialists. He begins by noting a fascinating historical fact: in the West outside of Germany, people to this day call the NSDAP “Nazis,” whereas the Germans still call them National Socialists. The full name of the party was of course the National Socialist German Workers Party, but Germans use — and used — just the first two words. Znamenski points out that Hitler and his followers never liked the term “Nazi”; they used “National Socialist” or the initials ND or NSDP. And in the years after the discovery of the Holocaust, “Nazi” — like “fascist” — became a generic term of abuse against political opponents. So we now have expressions like “condo-Nazi” and “femi-Nazi.” But as Znamenski notes, this is odd. Historians and other intellectuals never use “Commies” when writing about the Soviet Union under Stalin — they call people “Soviets” and so on. In fact, Znamenski observes, the Left in the West has systematically refused to recognize the egalitarian and socialist aspects of National Socialism. It has instead pushed two versions of the “Hitler Myth.”

One version — the one the communist and socialist Left most embraced — is that Hitler, while manipulating ordinary Germans, especially the bourgeoisie, was a puppet of the large industrial capitalists. That is, this Leftist myth has it that Nazism in particular and fascism in general “were the last-ditch effort of decaying monopoly capitalism that used them [i.e., dictators like Hitler and Mussolini] in their desperate desire to save the [capitalist] system from its final and unavoidable collapse” (550).

The Left in the West has systematically refused to recognize the egalitarian and socialist aspects of National Socialism.

This idea is belied by the facts. Early on (1925–1933), two-thirds of Nazi Party members were workers, farmers, and professionals. By the mid-1930s, industrial workers — who earlier supported by huge margins the Social Democratic and Communist Parties — were drawn over to the National Socialists, primarily because of the Party’s program of full employment. By the mid-1930s, nearly half of the SS were people of working-class background. By contrast, the industrialists overwhelmingly favored the conservative and ultra-conservative parties — the German National People’s Party, the German People’s Party, and the Catholic Center.

The second version of the Hitler Myth — the one most embraced by the progressive liberal and non-communist Left — was that Hitler was a demonic, uniquely charismatic dictator “who took advantage of the German people’s sadomasochistic and authoritative nature — enabled in this by the Great Depression.” Znamenski cites as an example a recent BBC documentary written by Laurence Rees, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler.

By the mid-1930s, nearly half of the SS were people of working-class background.

Znamenski doesn’t reply directly to this myth, so I will. I would suggest that it is in fact a pseudo-explanation. To say that Hitler was “charismatic” is merely to say that he was able to make his message resonate with many people. But the issues remain: what was the message? Why was it ultimately more appealing than the communist, mainstream socialist, progressive and conservative ideologies? Saying that Hitler (or Churchill, FDR, JFK, or Reagan) was charismatic is like saying that silent movie star Clara Bow was the “It” girl — the word names rather than explains an historical fact.

Yet, as Znamenski argues, the work of Götz Aly and others enables us to see that Hitler’s regime was indeed both nationalistic and socialistic:

Their goal was to empower all people of “Aryan stock” at the expense of non-Germans. Whereas Stalin cannibalized his own population, expropriating and phasing out segments of society on the basis of their social and class origin, Hitler rejected class warfare and acted as a “benign” dictator toward the German people. His bio-politics aspired to mold the members of the Aryan “tribe” into an all-inclusive “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) by uplifting them not through attacks on “class” aliens but on ethnic and racial “others.” Hence the ideological emphasis of Hitler’s regime on the expropriation of resources belonging to non-Germans and the exploitation of their slave labor. (545).

He might have added the exploitation of their bodies — the hair, the gold teeth, and even the ashes of bones used as fertilizer. National Socialism was similar to the international variety: anti-bourgeois, aiming for a classless system, but dissimilar primarily in privileging one ethnic group at the expense of others.

Znamenski adds a number of important points, including the fact that Hitler espoused socialist views before he adopted virulent anti-Semitic ones. Underscoring Aly’s analysis of the regime’s purchase of popular support, Znamenski quotes Albert Speer, the regime’s preferred architect and minister of war production:

It remains one of the oddities of this war that Hitler demanded far less from his people than Churchill and Roosevelt did from their respective nations. The German leaders were not disposed to make sacrifices themselves or ask sacrifices of the people. They tried to keep the morale of the people in the best possible state by concessions. (546)

It is worth noting that the top income tax rate in Germany throughout the war was a mere 13.7%, compared to 23.7% in Great Britain, and a whopping 94% in the United States.

One last, provocative point that Znamenski makes is that as the Nazis gained power, their socialist opponents started aping the nationalist aspect of National Socialism. In Germany, a group of communists formed their own splinter party — National Bolshevism — which (among other things) espoused militarism and anti-Semitism. They had posters with both the red star and the swastika and their street fighters were called “beefsteak” (brown on the outside, red on the inside).

He might have added the exploitation of their bodies — the hair, the gold teeth, and even the ashes of bones used as fertilizer.

Even more interesting is the response of Stalin to Hitler, a man whom Stalin trusted and admired at some level, but also feared. During the ferocious war with Nazi Germany, a war costing the lives of upwards of 22 million Russians, Stalin started openly appealing to Russian patriotism (as opposed to class warfare) and even loosened restrictions on the Russian Orthodox Church. After the war, Stalin aped Hitler ever more closely, In January 1953, an aging Stalin had the state propaganda organ Pravda put out the story that a group of Kremlin doctors, almost all of them Jewish, had poisoned two of Stalin’s closest aides and taken part in a “vast plot conducted by Western imperialists and Zionists to kill the top Soviet political and military leadership.” This was the Doctors’ Plot, and Stalin intended to have a show trial to set up a national campaign to rid the Soviet Union of “cosmopolitan” and “Zionist” elements. In short, Stalin was going to go after Russia’s (then) 2 million Jews. They would be sent to Stalin’s own concentration camp system, under the pretext of protecting them. No doubt the Jews would have been sent to the industrial camps to be used as slaves to support the Soviet regime. Stalin’s own profound anti-Semitism was a partial motive for his actions, but one suspects that he figured out that he could help pay for his war against the West by stealing whatever Jewish assets were left, just as this strategy worked for the Nazis (at least for a while). Only Stalin’s death a few months later stopped this plan from being implemented.

As fine as Znamenski’s analysis is, however, it requires considerable qualification.

First, there was a salient difference between Nazism and socialism (as that was typically defined), concerning ownership of private property. Specifically, even “democratic” socialist regimes traditionally advocated the nationalization (the socialization or social ownership of) major industries. For instance, Britain after WWII nationalized the coal, electricity, railway, and healthcare industries. And the communists essentially tried to own all industries, virtually socializing all sources of production, even family farms.

In Germany, a group of communists formed their own splinter party — National Bolshevism — which espoused militarism and anti-Semitism.

However, the Nazis seemed ambivalent about socialist economics. While their early party platform advocated nationalization of major industries, when in power Hitler actually privatized a number of companies. These included four major banks; the German railway, then the second largest socialized company in the world; the largest German steel company; several shipbuilding companies; and the company that controlled all the metal production in Upper Silesia.

Hitler’s own description of his economic views is at least unclear, if not downright oxymoronic. He said at one point, “We are socialists; we are enemies of today’s capitalistic system.” However, he also held that socialism of the Nazi sort “has nothing to do with Marxian socialism . . . Marxism is anti-property; true socialism is not.” And he said in private, “I absolutely insist on protecting private property . . . we must encourage private initiative.” Again, Hitler said, “Socialism! That is an unfortunate word altogether . . . What does socialism really mean? If people have something to eat and their pleasures, then they have their socialism.” He also said, “The basic feature of our economic theory is that we have no theory at all.”

One revealing thing that Hitler (after achieving power) said in this regard was, “There is no license anymore, no private sphere where the individual belongs to himself. That is socialism, not such trivial matters as the possibility of privately owning the means of production. Such things mean nothing if I subject people to a kind of discipline they can’t escape . . . what need have we to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings.”

Stalin figured out that he could help pay for his war against the West by stealing whatever Jewish assets were left, just as this strategy worked for the Nazis (at least for a while)

This has puzzled some commentators, so much that some say the Nazi regime didn’t really have an economic ideology. But it did, of course: it had its own form of corporatism (or “corporativism”). Corporatism permits private businesses but organizes them by industrial sector and tightly controls them (as well as the workers) so that economic production satisfies the state’s needs and purposes. From the corporatist perspective, what was needed was not the elimination of private enterprise but its total control by the State for the good of the people generally.

So under corporatism the State is the chief institution. No wonder the Italian fascists summarized this view as: “Everything for the state; nothing outside the state; nothing against the state.” It is worth noting that this vision (of the various institutions in society not competing and clashing, but of cooperating — under the direction of the state) is a vison shared by more than fascists and National Socialists: it is attractive to many Catholic social philosophers (who have advocated a “Catholic corporatism”), many American soi-disant progressives, and the present-day leadership of both China and Russia.

Under corporatism, people are allowed to keep their private property, including their businesses, even large ones, but only if these are controlled by and run for the benefit of the state. Neosocialism, of which fascism and National Socialism were varieties, can be defined as the state pursuit of socialist social goals (such as equality and “fraternity”) through a corporatist rather than a socialist economy.That is, a neosocialist state will pursue wealth equality, say, or fraternity (e.g., Volksgemeinschaft), not by nationalizing industries sector by sector but by controlling and coordinating the private companies to further these goals, including taxing businesses and redistributing the wealth.

From the corporatist perspective, what was needed was not the elimination of private enterprise but its total control by the State for the good of the people generally.

The concept of Volksgemeinschaft informed the National Socialist form of corporatism. The state would not directly own, but would certainly direct all major industries, and control and coordinate labor, industry, farming, the educational system, and the media for the benefit of the Volk, through its embodiment as the state, which was in turn embodied in the Führer.

The Nazi regime pursued classical corporatist economic policies, including central planning, massive controls, autarkic and one-sided trade policies, and massive spending programs. The regime replaced the trade unions with a unified German Labor Front, under regime control, which banned strikes, lockouts, and summary terminations. The regime replaced all the chambers of commerce with a unified Chamber of Economics, which then was folded into the Labor Front. The combined Labor Front and Chamber of Economics was run by a board of trustees, all appointed by the regime. Small businesses were monitored by shop councils and Courts of Honor that cooperated with small business owners to set working standards and wages — under the supervision of the regime.

The first economic program the regime formulated was a massive infrastructure program, which led to a 300% increase in the number of construction workers. The regime controlled the number of car models made, and (when war broke out) restricted their use. The regime of course rapidly increased military spending, which hit 10% of GDP in 1936, vastly more than that of any other European nation. And while there were regime members who favored free market policies, the faction that favored autarkic policies and a military economy won out — Hitler envisioning a struggle to the death between National Socialism and “Judeo-Bolshevism.” Germany’s trade policy was reconfigured to favor trade with southern and southeastern Europe, aiming to make southern Europe and the Balkans dependent upon the regime, supplying it with raw materials in exchange for German manufactured goods. The regime fostered the creation of monopolies and oligopolies, the better to control them. Naturally, the degree of state control over the economy only increased with the outbreak and then escalation of the war.

The state would not directly own, but would certainly direct all major industries for the benefit of the Volk, through its embodiment as the state.

The clear Nazi aim was to provide a high standard of living for citizens of the country — an aim that was never urgent for Stalin. But consider another major difference between Stalin and Hitler. Lenin had achieved power by armed revolt and Stalin by systematically eliminating his rivals in the party dictatorship. At no point did Lenin, Stalin, or any of the Bolsheviks ever have to face genuine elections with actual opposition parties, parties with competing ideologies, as the Nazis originally did. This may be part of the reason why Stalin could (in Znamenski’s nice phrase) “cannibalize” his own population, selecting various groups on the basis of alleged class affiliation for use in the Soviet’s own vast concentration camp system. However, the Nazis retained to the end the sense that they needed to keep their base — German workers, farmers, small businesses, bureaucrats, big businesses, the military command — at least materially provided for until the end. And as I explain below, there was a deeper motive for the National Socialist transfer of wealth to German citizens.

In the end, the regime collapsed, because as the conquests were halted and then rolled back — and the number of Jews (and others) whose assets and labor it could completely seize diminished — it ran out of money, men, and machines to continue fighting.

The regime fostered the creation of monopolies and oligopolies, the better to control them.

In fine, the Nazi regime was truly socialist. And it died as all socialist schemes must, for precisely the reason Baroness Thatcher identified so clearly: it ran out of other people’s assets to steal.

Nazi Anti-Semitism: Was it Unique?

In the last section I focused on the socialist aspect of National Socialism. Let us turn now to the nationalistic side.

It is a question often asked: How could the Germans — arguably the most culturally advanced people in the world at the time — descend into the barbarism of totalitarianism and genocide? I suggest that a great part of the answer lies precisely in that advanced culture.

Let me start by talking about an influential German sociologist who helped shape National Socialist ideology: Ferdinand Tonnies (1855–1936), a star in the German academic world. Tonnies distinguished between Gemeinschaft (roughly “organic community”) and Gesellschaft (roughly, “associational society”). Gemeinschaft is the sort of emotionally tight community that (allegedly) characterizes the family and long-standing ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. In such communities, Tonnies held, individuals have mutually recognized roles to play in set relationships defined by Wesenwille (“natural will”), which consists of naturally occurring emotions. People behave towards one another in accordance with traditional social rules developed by a shared organic history.

In the end, the regime died as all socialist schemes must, for precisely the reason Margaret Thatcher identified so clearly: it ran out of other people’s assets to steal.

In contrast, Tonnies said, Gesellschaft is the sort of loosely structured and diverse organizations such as governmental bureaucracies and large industrial companies. Such organizations are characterized by Kurwille (“rational will”), relationships based solely on rational self-interest. The growth of Gesellschaft (during the industrial revolution) undermined the ties of family and neighborhood, resulting in an impersonal society and widespread alienation, the feeling of being separated from one’s work and society generally. This is a line of thought that traces back to Marx at least.

Now, Tonnies held that all societies contain both sorts of organizations, though a given society may have a dominance of either Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft. His view was not that societies should aim at one or the other type of association, but rather (in the words of the New World Encyclopedia), “More important for the developed of a successful society is the effort to harmonize the two aspects, and thus to ensure that both individual goals and the needs of the society as a whole are satisfied, while maintaining the element of care and concern for each person as members of one human family.”

In much sociological literature, then as now, so-called observational science is mixed with ethical value judgments. The fact-value distinction — or in Humean terms, the is-ought distinction — is routinely disregarded by sociologists in particular, and social scientists in general.[1] Whatever Tonnies meant about balancing the two types of association, by his very description, Gemeinschaft is more appealing, especially to people of a romantic bent. Isn’t familial concern a better basis for society than cold, selfish calculation? So, while Tonnies opposed the Nazis, leading them to strip him of his emeritus position in 1933, the National Socialists seized on his concept of Gemeinschaft and made it the center of their worldview. More precisely, the Party’s sociological ideology was centered on turning Germany into a Volksgemeinschaft — in this case, an extended Aryan clan.

German socialism is informed by the national spirit, the antithesis of the German spirit is the Jewish spirit, and the main goal of the German people and National Socialism is to eliminate that Jewish spirit.

We can now turn to Werner Sombart. Znamenski mentions the key influence that Sombart (1863–1941) played in the development of national socialist ideology but doesn’t spell out this influence. Sombart started as a Marxist, but moved away from Marxism to develop his own rightist critique of (modern) capitalism. He laid his views out in his magnum opus, The Modern Capitalism: Historical and Systematic Presentation of the Overall European Economic Life from its Beginnings to the Present Day[2] — first published in two volumes in 1902, then expanded in 1916, and growing to three volumes by 1927 — as well as The Jews and Modern Capitalism — published in 1911.

Sombart held that capitalism developed in three stages: early capitalism (prior to the industrial revolution); high capitalism (beginning in 1760 or so); and late capitalism (beginning with World War I). In Sombart’s analysis, early capitalism — medieval commerce — was a stable, coherent, supportive system, in which guilds and merchants cooperated, with wages held constant at a “just” level, markets shared equitably by the players, profits and wages guaranteed but held to reasonable levels, and markets with production levels limited and protected from competition with those in other places. But, he argued, because Jewish traders and manufacturers were excluded from the guilds, the Jews developed a hatred for the system, deliberately destroyed it and replaced it by modern predatory capitalism, with its unlimited competition.

In a book he wrote at the outset of WWI, Sombart advocated the theory that the war was the unavoidable clash “between the English commercial civilization and the heroic culture of Germany.” The English, under the influence of their commercial mindset, with its utilitarian emphasis on the happiness of individual people, had lost their warlike instincts. He held that the highest ideal was the “German idea of the State. . . . The State is neither founded nor formed by individuals, nor is its purpose to serve any interests of individuals. It is a Volksgemeinschaft in which the individual has no rights but only duties.”

Considering that this is precisely how Hitler consummated his power after gaining office, Schmitt’s work is prophetic, to say the least.

By 1917 Sombart was a full professor at one of the top universities in Germany, and was more renowned as a sociologist than even his longtime friend Max Weber. By the early 1930s, he had moved into the National Socialism orbit.[3] In a 1934 book called German Socialism, he claimed that German socialism puts the “welfare of the whole over the welfare of the individual.” This new socialism requires “a planned economy in accordance with state regulations.” Moreover, German socialism is informed by the Volkgeist (national spirit), the antithesis of the German spirit is the Jewish spirit, and the main goal of the German people and National Socialism is to eliminate that Jewish spirit.

Besides Sombart, there were a number of other academic or intellectual stars whose views informed the development of the National Socialist ideology in the 1920s. These thinkers, whom Jeffrey Herf has called “reactionary modernists,” tried to combine progressive feelings toward modern technology with regressive feelings toward modern democratic government and free market economics. They included sociologist Hans Freyer (1887–1969), philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), writer Ernst Jünger (1895–1998), legal scholar Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), and historian Oswald Spengler (1880–1936). While these thinkers differed in their receptivity to the National Socialist party — most joining the party enthusiastically, but one of them (Spengler) being critical of it — they were all “nationalists who turned the romantic anti-capitalism of the German Right away from backward-looking pastoralism, pointing instead to the outlines of a beautifully new order replacing the formless chaos due to capitalism in a united, technologically advanced nation” (264).

How enthusiastic Sombart and Heidegger were about technological advance is open to dispute, but that these thinkers contributed ideas that informed National Socialism is not. Freyer held that the highest stage of society is the state in which individuals merge into a collective unity. Jünger wrote that the Jews had to be either completely assimilated or forced to immigrate to Palestine. Spengler argued for a Prussian Socialism, meaning a German nationalistic non-Marxist socialism.

This is, of course, a standard fascist trope — suggesting there is such a thing as “the Will of the People” in a collective sense.

Especially useful to the National Socialists in developing their views about government and law was the work of Carl Schmitt. During the 1920s, he wrote a string of influential essays and books with ideas that the National Socialists found useful. For example, in 1921, he published the essay On Dictatorship, in which he argued that one of the most effective components of the new (Weimar) constitution was the power given to the president to declare a state of emergency, which he characterizes as dictatorial. Considering that this is precisely how Hitler consummated his power after gaining office, Schmitt’s work is prophetic, to say the least. And Schmitt urged that dictatorship means simply power achieved by other than the slow means permitted by republican democracy.

Just a year later (1922), Schmitt published another controversial essay — Political Theology — in which he advanced the thesis that political theory investigates the state in precisely the way theology investigates God. In 1923 — a decade before he joined the Nazi Party — he published a critique of the legitimacy of parliamentary government entitled The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. In this work he attacked the practices of representative liberal politics in ways that ironically anticipate by a half-century Public Choice Theory, arguing that actual party politics are far from the ideal of dispassionate rational actors debating policy prescriptions with the goal of reaching the best answer for society, but are instead the trading of favors in back rooms. He also questioned the idea that a majority vote represents the will of the people. As an author of the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Schmitt puts it:

If a majority can overrule a minority, and identify its will with the will of the people, why should it not be possible for the will of a minority to express the will of the people? What if a group of democratic rebels want to establish a democracy in a society where most people are opposed to the principle of democracy? Would they not be justified, from a democratic point of view, to abandon majority rule, to identify their own will as the will of the people, and to subject their compatriots to a re-education dictatorship? Schmitt suggests that such a dictatorship would still have to be considered democratic, since it still appeals to the idea that political rule ought to be base or the will of the people.

This is, of course, a standard fascist trope — suggesting there is such a thing as “the Will of the People” in a collective sense. His was a sophisticated defense and explication of the fascist notion that the dictator can better represent the Will of the People than even — the majority of the people!

The last major work that Schmitt brought out during the period during which the National Socialists were solidifying their general ideology and electoral platforms (the early- to mid-1920s) was The Concept of the Political (1927; with views elaborated in Constitutional Theory, 1928). In this work, he advances the theory that “the political” is what is central to politics, not mere party politics. The political, he held, is always and everywhere constituted by the existential delineation of friend from enemy. Not even friend from other, please note, but friend from enemy. The enemy can be anybody felt by the dominant political group to be different and alien “in an especially intense way.” And the difference that sets the enemy apart need not be nationality — it can be any difference (racial, religious, or ideological) so long as it is felt deeply enough to become a violent struggle with the other.[4]

The notion that the state’s political unity necessarily requires the delineation of an enemy that threatens the people’s interests and wellbeing is tailor-made as a justification for the singularly virulent National Socialist anti-Semitism.

Looking at the work of Tonnies and Sombart in relation to the development of National Socialist ideology, I think we are in a position at least partially to answer the question raised by the work of Goldhagen: whether the reason for Hitler’s support was that the German culture had a uniquely virulent form of anti-Semitism — eliminationist anti-Semitism — that accounted for the German public support of the Holocaust.

The notion that the state’s political unity necessarily requires the delineation of an enemy is tailor-made for National Socialist anti-Semitism.

The idea that there is a unique form of anti-Semitism indigenous in German culture seems dubious on its face. The standard form of anti-Semitism is one common in Europe, but also in North and South America, and the Middle East. It is what I call lumpen anti-Semitism — the anti-Semitism of the average, not particularly well-educated Christian. Among many Christians, it takes the form of hating Jews, allegedly because they “killed Christ,” but also generally from “prophet rejection resentment,” the idea that Jews are people who reject the view of Jesus as Messiah, and even more as the son of God. Lumpen anti-Semitism is quite common among Muslims as well, because Jews also reject Muhammad as a prophet. Pogroms aimed at Jews were recurrent in European history. Note, however, that lumpen anti-Semitism is not eliminationist: throughout European history, typically, if any Jews converted to Christianity (or Islam), no further attacks were made on them.

But the Nazi Party’s ideological anti-Semitism was never based on the idea of prophet rejection, or on any aspect of Christian theology, for the simple reason that the Party never allied itself with any Christian religion, in the way some other German right-wing parties had.[5] No, the Nazi Party’s anti-Semitism was what we can call doctrinaire anti-Semitism. It was informed by the rightist anti-capitalism of the German academic right-wing critics of modern capitalism, which held that Jews represent modern capitalism, that they are solely interested in profit and market share, not Volksgemeinschaft, that they want unrestrained free markets and widespread free trade, rather than structured and controlled nationally autarchic markets. This was the justification for the singular twist of Nationalist Socialist anti-Semitism.

What was unique to Germany was the presence in the late 1800s and early 1900s of a group of major academic thinkers — truly academic superstars — whose writings were not widely influential outside the German world but profoundly informed the National Socialist ideology. It was a more “sophisticated” anti-Semitism based on a hatred of modern capitalism rather than a love of ancient religion. It tapped into a pre-existing strain of German romantic pastoralism. And it was given a racial basis by the Nazis. This is what was deliberately spread by the Nazi propaganda regime, certainly exploiting pre-existing lumpen anti-Semitism but twisting it into the doctrinaire anti-Semitism.

The idea that there is a unique form of anti-Semitism indigenous in German culture seems dubious on its face.

If you want to see the Tonnies-Sombart strain of socioeconomic theory in Nazi ideology, there is no better place to look than one of the five major anti-Semitic propaganda movies the regime produced during the period 1939 to 1940, Linen from Ireland (Linen aus Irland, 1939). I have discussed this film extensively elsewhere, so I will be brief here. Suffice it to say that the plot concerns humble German village artisans and a local company owned by a man who, although he is wealthy, has total respect for them. The artisans make linen, and the local company buys it. Together the local tradesman and the company form a cozy economic Volksgemeinschaft — the artisans earn a decent living, taking pride in the craft that they and their ancestors have practiced time out of mind, the company owner gets rich, but not “obscenely” so, and looks out for the artisans in a patriarchal sort of way. The owner and the artisans are able to get the prices needed for them all to live well because the government imposes steep tariffs on linen imported from Ireland — where apparently it can be produced much more cheaply.

Into this German spirit heaven — heaven for the workers and owners, but apparently not for the consumers who are forced to pay higher prices! — steps a devil right out of Jewish spirit hell. A big company owned by a good Aryan but controlled by a scheming Jewish manager buys out the local linen companies so that they will not oppose a scheme to end tariffs on imported linen. The manager’s scheme calls for importing cheap linen from Ireland and then shutting down the domestic industry. The Jewish manager is portrayed as quite willing to do this and thereby (the film alleges) destroy the centuries-old community and starve thousands of people, because (as he brags) he is a man of the world, not rooted in any community. Only at the end is his scheme exposed and halted.

The Conviction of Ideologues

In this essay have tried to explore a number of points, some specific to National Socialism, and some more general. I explored the general compliance mechanisms of power, purchase, and persuasion. I argue that these tools are not mutually exclusive; any regime will use all three to get citizens to comply with its goals. Clearly, the National Socialists did so. In an earlier essay I argued that they had a propaganda machine second to none, which I illustrated by showing the amount of work the regime devoted to just one tiny medium of propaganda — uniforms and insignia.[6] In this piece I covered in detail how the regime carefully used racially redistributionist economic policy to give German citizens material prosperity, thus purchasing popular support. (In a subsequent essay, I will explore the regime’s use of power to enforce support).

Into this German spirit heaven steps a devil right out of Jewish spirit hell.

This brings us to another subject that I examined: the degree to which the National Socialists were socialists. Here, the answer is probably surprising to most Americans, but as Aly’s work brilliantly establishes, the National Socialists were indeed profoundly socialistic; that is, they pursued the practice common to all socialist regimes of targeting a subset of the population and then confiscating its assets, but they pushed the practice farther than most socialist regimes do. Rather than take, say, 75% of a targeted person’s income (as the present socialist prime minister of France has tried to do), the National Socialists tried to take, and often succeeded in taking, 100% of the targets’ assets, right down to their labor, personal belongings, and ultimately their bodies — hair, teeth and bones. This worked for a short while — only about a dozen years, which is just a blink of the eye in historical terms — in delivering material wealth to the nontargeted “Aryan” Germans. The National Socialists engaged in a radical redistributionist frenzy, but it worked only for a brief period.

The third subject I explored was the nationalist side of National Socialism. I suggested that what was unique about National Socialism was its explicit identification of Jews as the main enemy, and its focus on proper “Aryan” Germans of all economic classes. It wanted a fascist dictatorship of the Aryans, rather than the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat. This identification with the German nation, presented as a desire for a Volksgemeinschaft, was a crucial feature of Nazi ideology, crafted to win popular support, especially the support of workers and farmers, away from other socialist and communist parties. The strategy worked so well that the communists started emulating the Nazis’ nationalism. Patriotism is a much more powerful identity than class.

The fourth matter I examined was the unique nature of National Socialist anti-Semitism. It transformed the traditional religious lumpen anti-Semitism, based on prophet rejection, into a pseudo-scientific doctrinaire anti-Semitism based on race-genetic theory, Social Darwinist eugenics theory, and right-wing anticapitalist sociological theory promulgated by major German academics. So the National Socialists didn’t just engage in a radical redistributionist frenzy; they engaged in a radical racial redistributionist frenzy.

The National Socialists were indeed profoundly socialistic; they pursued the socialist practice of targeting a subset of the population and then confiscating its assets, but they pushed the practice farther than most socialist regimes do.

How does this understanding of National Socialist ideology help us come at the Goldhagen-Groth dispute? Both authors were right about some things and wrong about others. Goldhagen (and Gellately) are right in thinking that the German people broadly backed the regime, and that anti-Semitism was historically common in German culture. But Groth is right in thinking that native German anti-Semitism was no different from that kind that is present in virtually all Christian and Muslim countries (then and now), not some special “eliminationist” anti-Semitism. More importantly, Groth is right in thinking that the regime’s popular support didn’t rest upon the German people’s anti-Semitism.

He is wrong, however, in his failure to recognize that National Socialist ideology certainly did have a different and more dangerous anti-Semitism than the lumpen variety. The regime’s anti-Semitism was based on racial genetics and anti-capitalist sociological culture. More importantly, Groth is wrong in thinking that the regime did not enjoy broad support throughout its existence. It did have that support, not because the whole populace shared its ideological anti-Semitism, but because the regime delivered substantial material wealth and other seeming geopolitical successes (at least until 1943). To reiterate a rejoinder I earlier made to Groth, this hardly validates Hitler. Yes, he gave his political base material wealth and national pride, but it was wealth stolen from viciously victimized people, especially the Jews, and it was national pride based on the brutal seizure of other countries’ lands.

Let me end by discussing briefly the issue of the role that ideology played in the “Final Solution.” I’ll repeat an observation made by Stephen Kotkin, who is arguably the greatest authority on Stalin and the Soviet Union. He makes the point that contemporary scholars now have access to archives recording what Stalin and other high-level officials said in private to one another. What scholars have discovered, Kotkin notes sarcastically, is that the communists really were — communist! In other words, the Party officials were true believers in Marxist-Leninist ideology at the highest level.

The Nazi regimed enjoyed broad support, not because the whole populace shared its ideological anti-Semitism, but because until 1943 it delivered substantial material wealth and other seeming geopolitical successes.

I would suggest that anyone interested in National Socialism take the same perspective. The Nazi leadership were true believers. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels et al. really accepted National Socialist ideology, including especially its doctrinaire anti-Semitism, as fully true. They didn’t cynically target Jews and just call them racially and culturally inferior and dangerous; no, they targeted Jews because they viewed them precisely as such.

Now, was the National Socialism “eliminationist”? It certainly seems to be an open question, in that while the Party’s hostility towards the Jews was made manifest from the start, with a sequence of targeting actions. Yet in reality no attempts to exterminate the Jews in Germany or elsewhere took place before 1941. What was going on?

My suggestion — or better, my speculation — is that we need to differentiate between inherent and operational eliminationism. From 1933, when Hitler achieved power, to 1939 when he invaded Poland and the English declared war upon him, he was content to rack up geopolitical gains and simply harass Jews into emigrating (after seizing most of their tangible assets). The arch-ideologue Eichmann himself kept pushing his “Madagascar Plan” (under which all European Jews were to be dispossessed of assets and then shipped to Madagascar to live) until 1939 or later.

The Nazi leadership were true believers. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels et al. really accepted National Socialist ideology, including especially its doctrinaire anti-Semitism, as fully true.

This was consistent with what I will call inherent eliminationism. If your anti-Semitism holds that Jews are racially inferior but also culturally dangerous to true Aryans, and you hold that true Aryans will eventually conquer the world, this would seem to imply that eventually, Jewish people must be eliminated. But that is like saying, “Someday, the Messiah will come.” It is more a statement of faith in the future than an imperative for the present.

But in 1939, things began to rapidly change. After earlier geopolitical successes with no military opposition, Hitler’s invasion of Poland finally brought Britain and France into the war. He had earlier threatened to hold Jews at fault if war ever broke out. In 1939, he had his excuse.

I suspect that the planning for the war with Britain and France in late 1938 was a big part of the reason the regime started the production of its first two explicitly anti-Semitic feature films, Robert and Bertram and Linen from Ireland, both produced in 1938 and released the next year (the first just two months before and the second one month after the outbreak of the war). Preparing for the actual use of the Wehrmacht (and recognizing the massive increase in funding this would require) led the regime to start actively preparing the public for the wholesale dispossession of the Jews.

In 1939, planning started in earnest toward the Wehrmacht’s much bigger challenge of invading the Low Countries and France, which again would increase the need for seized assets. Moreover, both Hitler and Goebbels were disappointed with the strength of the anti-Semitic messages of the 1939 films. So the three major regime studios were ordered to start production on major production anti-Semitic propaganda films. These films (The Rothschilds, Jud Suss, and The Eternal Jew) were released in 1940.

The socialistic solution to the nationalistic military program was to target Jews for complete dispossession, followed by the looting of captive peoples generally.

The war clearly went in Germany’s favor from 1939 until 1941. The regime rapidly conquered the Western half of Poland, the Nordic countries, and France with relative ease. It was only with the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain in 1941 (which ended the possibility of invading Britain) that the regime began to sense its vulnerability, and it was in 1941 that the decision was made to exterminate (rather that force the emigration of) the Jews.

So it was a real change in geopolitical realities that induced the National Socialists to move from merely implicit to actually explicit eliminationist anti-Semitism, and then to the implementation of the Final Solution. The socialistic solution to the nationalistic military program was to target Jews for complete dispossession, followed by the looting of captive peoples generally. This allowed the regime to purchase the support of the average (non-Jewish) German with stolen food, clothing, furniture, and homes.

In the first article in this series, “Total Regime, Total Propaganda,” I suggested that one crucial mechanism exploited by compliance agents, especially in totalitarian regimes, is propaganda — persuasion, if you will — and that the National Socialists were adept at that tool. In this article, I’ve put the focus on the mechanism of purchase — that is, gaining compliance by trading items of value; and I’ve reported Götz Aly’s evidence of how attentive the regime was to buying the citizen’s support. Aly nicely points out that the two methods of compliance — persuasion and purchase — were mutually supportive. Dispossessing, deporting, and destroying the Jews was made easier by the relentless and remorseless campaign of propaganda against them.

In the third and final installment of the series, I will turn to the role that power played in the regime’s attainment of popular compliance with its agenda. It is ironic — as Daniel Goldhagen and Götz Aly, despite their differences, agree: the regime’s power apparatus was modest, compared to its reputation. I will examine this idea more closely.

References

Aly, Götz. Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State. New York: Henry Holt and Company (2005).
Backhaus, Jürgen. “Sombart’s Modern Capitalism,” in Kyklos 42 (Fasc. 4) pp. 599–611, (1989). http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6435.1989.tb01276.x/abstract
Groth, Alexander. “Demonizing the Germans: Goldhagen and Gellately on Nazism,” in Political Society Review Vol. 32, No.1, pp. 118-158 (2003). https://isistatic.org/journal-archive/pr/32_01/groth.pdf
Grundmann, Reiner and Stehr, Nico. “Why Is Werner Sombart Not Part of the Core of Classical Sociology? From Fame to (Near) Oblivion,” in Journal of Classical Sociology Vol. 1 (2), pp. 257–287 (2001). http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/14687950122232558
Jason, Gary. “Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer: A Review of Triumph of the Will,” in Liberty, April 2007, p. 44. http://libertyunbound.com/node/92
Jason, Gary. “Film and Propaganda: What Nazi Cinema Has to Tell US,” in Reason Papers 35 (1): 203-219 (2013). https://www.academia.edu/24443412/Film_and_Propaganda_The_Lessons_of_the_Nazi_Film_Industry_2013_
Jason, Gary. “Total Regime, Total Propaganda,” in Liberty, July 3, 2016 (2016a). http://www.libertyunbound.com/node/1574
Jason, Gary. “Whence did German Propaganda Films Derive Their Power?” in Reason Papers 38 (1): 166-181 (2016b). https://reasonpapers.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/rp_381_9.pdf
Jason, Gary. “Selling Genocide I: The Earlier Films,” in Reason Papers 38 (1): pp. 127-157 (2016c). https://reasonpapers.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/rp_381_7.pdf
Kotkin, Stephen. Interview on Uncommon Knowledge, October 6, 2015. http://www.hoover.org/research/hoover-fellow-stephen-kotkin-discusses-stalins-rise-power
Ridley, Matt. Interview with Russ Roberts, Econtalk, 2010. http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2010/Ridleytrade.mp3
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Carl Schmitt” (2014). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/schmitt/
Znamenski, Andrei A. “From ‘National Socialists’ to ‘Nazi’: History, Politics, and the English Language,” The Independent Review Vol. 19, No. 4 pp. 537–561 (2015). http://www.independent.org/pdf/tir/tir_19_04_06_znamenski.pdf.



[1] Werner Sombart in particular couldn’t resist making value judgments — especially about Jews — though he feigned being purely scientific in his writings (Grundmann and Stehr, 270).

[2] For a nice overview of the structure of Sombart’s Modern Capitalism, see Jürgen Backhaus.

[3] Reiner Grundmann and Nico Stehr note that Sombart was initially enthusiastic about National Socialism, and say that he — like other reactionary modernists such as Heidegger and Schmitt — only soured on the regime when they realized it didn’t want them for high positions or for policy advice (271). They don’t explain why the regime didn’t welcome these intellectuals, but I would suggest it was primarily because Hitler was profoundly anti-intellectual, neither comfortable around nor deferential towards intellectuals.

[4] Tom G. Palmer in a recent lecture made the point that Carl Schmitt’s perspective is very much alive in Putin’s Russia.

[5] Indeed, there was a fascination with arch-anti-Christian Nietzsche among many of the Nazi hierarchy — including, of course, Hitler himself.

[6] I have written more extensively of the Nazi propaganda machine. Some of my essays of interest might include “Film and Propaganda: The Lessons of the German Film Industry”; “Whence Did German Propaganda Films Derive Their Power?”; and “Selling Genocide: The Earlier Films.”


Editor's Note: This essay is the final part of a three-part series.



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Buying Genocide, Part 2

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In the first installment of this series, I discussed two major explanations for the extensive support the Nazis received from virtually the entire German population. One is the view that the majority of ordinary Germans supported the genocide of the Jews because of the historically peculiar breadth and depth of their pre-existing cultural anti-Semitism — it was a virulent “eliminationist” strain (to use Goldhagen’s term) expressing a desire to eliminate Jews from the world. The other view (elaborated forcefully by Groth and others) is that a better explanation lies in the formidable police state that oppressed the German people, as well as the cradle-to-grave propaganda machine that worked on German opinion ceaselessly.

Only a couple of years after Groth’s article, an eminent German historian published a fine book that explored a new theory for German support for the Nazi regime. This book — Aly’s Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State — “set the cat among the pigeons,” as Tom Palmerhas put it. Really, I would suggest to Palmer that the book set a lynx among the pigeons.

The systematic plunder of others (especially Jews) and the flow of this plunder into households of average Germans was precisely what made the populace generally compliant and content.

In his preface, Aly recounts that one of the inspirations for his book was Stuart Eizenstat’s efforts to recover damages from the German and Swiss governments for Jews who had their bank accounts and other assets stolen by the Nazis. His only worry about such efforts is that they reinforce a false narrative — that only German industrialists, financiers, and other elites of the German bourgeoisie were responsible for the Holocaust. This wrongly shifts the blame from the German people generally to a relatively few “bad actors.”

On the contrary, Aly’s research has discovered that the systematic plunder of others (especially of course the Jews) and the flow of this plunder into households of average Germans was precisely what made the populace generally compliant and content. The Nazis bought the support of the people. Aly strikes a personal note by saying that when he asked relatives who lived through the regime, they cheerfully admitted that they were well-provisioned with clothes, food, jewelry, shoes, and other goods by family members serving in the German military abroad, and that the antique furniture he had inherited was undoubtedly pelf purloined from Dutch Jews. Aly holds that “Hitler was able to maintain general morale by transforming Germany’s military offenses into an increasingly coordinated series of destructive raids aimed at plundering other peoples” (4). Here he quotes Göring’s cynical words, “If someone has to go hungry, let it be someone other than a German.”

More broadly, Aly adds, his work is aimed at helping to explain why the Germans so often tolerated “unprecedented crimes against humanity.” He is admirably accepting of a multicausal (or compound causal) approach. He rightly observes that the powerful racist and anti-Semitic ideology of the regime. But ideology is only a partial explanation, in the sense that traditional German anti-Semitism was no more virulent, nor German nationalism more intense, than those that other nations experienced antecedently — or contemporaneously. And while the regime relied on a powerful propaganda machine to promulgate its general ideology and specific policies, that is only a partial cause of the people’s tacit or overt support. Aly notes (5–6) that even in the medieval pogroms, religious hatred was conjoined with overt plunder, and gives several historical examples. He sums up this point by saying, “While anti-Semitism was a necessary precondition for the Nazi attack on European Jews, it was not a sufficient one. The material interests of millions of individuals first had to be brought together with anti-Semitic ideology before the great crime we now know as the Holocaust could take on its genocidal momentum” (6).

Survivors cheerfully admitted that they were well-provisioned with clothes, food, jewelry, shoes, and other goods by family members serving in the German military abroad.

But this raises the larger question: how could the “obviously deceitful, megalomaniacal, and criminal” Nazi ideology win over the majority of Germans? Here Aly lays out his plan of attack. Part I of his bookexplores the notion that the first reason Nazi ideology had broad appeal was that while it targeted Jews (and some other groups, such as the disabled and the Roma), it was broadly inclusive, redistributing much wealth to underprivileged Aryans. Part II explores an anomaly: while the Nazis waged an unprecedentedly costly war, they managed to arrange it so that their own soldiers and citizens were well fed. Aly examines the financial tricks the regime used to transfer the wealth of the conquered countries to its own armed forces and citizenry. Part III explores the systematic and historically unparalleled plundering of the Jews. Finally, Part IV explores how internal policies (leveling wealth) and external policies (looting the Jews and conquered people) worked to cement widespread popular support, which lasted to the end of its reign.

Aly’s analysis focuses on the socialistic (i.e., redistributionist) aspects of the regime’s policies, because the common explanations — involving a demonic but charismatic Führer, or some conspiratorial clique of racist ideologues, ultra-wealthy elites, high-ranking military, or major industrialists who seduced the German public — are all unsatisfactory. Such explanations shift blame away from the vast number of Germans who supported the regime. And these “explanations” — really, just excuses — cannot account for that popular support, which manifested itself as lack of widespread opposition to the regime and a refusal to accept blame for it after its demise.

Part I begins with an exploration of the National Socialist ideal state. The ideology was hypernationalistic in that it held that nations (in the broad sense of “peoples,” or extended ethnic groups) were unequal — the German people alone being superior. But the socialist side of the ideology was important as well — all “Aryan” Germans are equal, regardless of economic class. As I suggested in an essay on The Triumph of the Will, one of the earliest and most successful of the regime’s propaganda movies explicitly pushed the theme of German unity across class. The dream of a Volksstaat was one of a “socially just state” in Hitler’s phraseology, or what Aly rightly calls a “welfare state for Germans of the proper racial pedigree” (13).

Prior “explanations” of Nazism cannot account for its popular support, which manifested itself as lack of widespread opposition to the regime and a refusal to accept blame for it after its demise.

When Hitler achieved power in 1933, he was only 43, and most of the other high-level party members were in their late 20s or early 30s; even to the end of the war, the rank and file of the Party viewed it as an extension of the youth movement. Young people rallied to support the regime — for example, university coeds would volunteer to spend their summers staffing daycare centers in Poland so that the German “settlers” could harvest crops. As Aly notes, people in their 20s often desire independence and challenging work, but also the chance to change the world, and the regime seemed to offer that.

Adding to the National Socialist appeal was a conspicuous imitation of leftist sentiments — remember, the Nazis fought the international socialist parties for the support of the German working and agricultural classes. Not surprisingly, the Nazis borrowed some of their opponents’ ideologies. The converse was also true — leftist parties started to borrow Nazi tropes.

Aly adds a point I find fascinating but paradoxical: the regime got its greatest support when it pushed seemingly contradictory policies, such as preserving tradition while embracing technological advance, or indulging the anti-authoritarian desire to topple the old elites with a desire for an authoritarian, rigid new order, or — most contradictory of all — harmonizing the social classes with committing racial genocide.

Another matter Aly explores is the large degree to which the German bureaucracy — especially civil servants in the Ministry of Economics — was transformed and used by the regime for its own purposes. For example, Göring demanded that German Jews pay an “atonement payment” of a billion reichsmarks in 1938 (about $14.5 billion in today’s money — quite a fine for the 214,000 Jews remaining in Germany at the time). The Finance Ministry immediately instituted a 20% tax on all personal assets of Jews, paid in four installments. The Ministry collected much more than Göring’s original goal.

Young people rallied to support the regime — for example, university coeds would volunteer to spend their summers staffing daycare centers in Poland so that the German “settlers” could harvest crops.

Aly argues that the willingness of the populace and the bureaucracy to support the Nazi regime resulted from the fact that the regime gave people much of what they wanted. It delivered many needed reforms (such as reforms on debt collection), as well as consumer goods (such as cars and vacations) and a number of popular policies (from increasing pension plans to environmental conservation). The regime took care to favor families in tax policy and redistribute wealth to poorer workers and farmers. It especially rewarded the families of military personnel, using such means as freezing their rents.

Aly reports, surprisingly, that the regime did not compel public employees to show absolute devotion to the Party. “Instead, it called for closeness to the common man — an anti-elitist stance that held considerable appeal for twentieth-century European intellectuals” (24).

But all of these popular programs needed funding. In 1935, the Nazis’ finance minister held a meeting in which he asked his staff to devise ways to change the tax system so as to extract maximum resources from the Jews. Proposals focused on denying Jews tax exemptions of various kinds — such as exemptions from the tax on dogs to those for people blinded in military service.

Fascinating as well is Aly’s discussion of the average non-Jewish German’s view of the Nazis as “unifiers.” Of course the Party was intolerant of “socialists [i.e., Marxists], Jews, and nonconformists.” But the post-WWI peace treaties that forbade Austria and Germany from unifying were highly unpopular: if nations of similar culture and language wanted to unite, why should other nations be able to stop them? Indeed, “Hitler always defined himself not just as German chancellor, but as leader of the entire German people, including ethnic Germans living outside the boundaries of the state he ruled” (27).

The willingness of the populace and the bureaucracy to support the Nazi regime resulted from the fact that the regime gave people much of what they wanted.

So Hitler’s early victories — the retaking of the Ruhr, the unification with Austria, and the annexation of the Sudetenland (and later the remainder of Czechoslovakia) — all “cheap” in the sense that Germany did not have to go to war to achieve them — together with the appearance of economic recovery, decisively weakened opposition to Hitler on the home front” (28). Aly adds that the regime was not maintained by force but by popular support, and it accordingly worried about the mood of the people and monitored that mood carefully. He notes that while Communist East Germany employed 190,000 secret police to control 17 million citizens, the Gestapo had in 1937 around 7,000 total staff, to keep tabs on 60 million citizens. In 1936, after an initial spasm of violence and terror against their opponents, the Nazis held only about 5,000 people in concentration camps — many just common criminals and vagrants. Aly notes, “Most Germans simply did not need to be subjected to surveillance or detention” (29).

Again, a big reason for this support was the Nazi focus on uniting the 96% of Germans it held to be racially German by smoothing out class and other social differences. Aly points out that a major tool in leveling differences within the “Aryan tribe” was the various uniformed services — the Hitler Youth, the National Labor Service, and the Wehrmacht. As I observed in my earlier review, wearing a uniform does indeed foster uniformity.

Another tool the regime used to level social differences among ethnic Germans was its move in 1939–1942 — a period when Germany seemed likely to assimilate much of Eastern Europe — to relocate Slavs farther to the East and give their land and other property to Germans. Racial ideology again justified the purchase of support: the Slavs, held to be an inferior race, must be forced to vacate their lands so that the “Aryans” would have “living space.” (The official plans called for 50 million Slavs to be relocated to Siberia, or to be slaughtered outright.) The intention was to give poor German farmers small plots of land, and poor German coal-miners access to vast new lands. As a result, “hundreds of soldiers’ wives dreamed of owning country estates in Ukraine” (31). Again, the idea was to purchase popular support with property stolen from non-Germans.

The recession hit bottom in 1933, when Hitler took power, so he got credit for the recovery.

All this was in marked contrast with WWI, during which 400,000 Germans starved to death, and the period of civil unrest and hyperinflation that followed. Between 1914 and 1918, the German average standard of living dropped by two-thirds. The regime was aware of the privation experienced in WWI, and how it undermined support for the war, and it was not going to repeat the mistake.

Aly’s second chapter has the intriguing title, “The Accommodating Dictatorship.” It explains the domestic side of the regime’s purchase of support. When Hitler took power in 1933, 6 million Germans were unemployed, and Hitler promised to put them all back to work. He appeared to accomplish this ambitious goal in just five years. Aly argues, however, that this victory was apparent, not real. He cites figures indicating that while the public came to believe that economic recovery was real, wages were falling. But the recession hit bottom in 1933, when Hitler took power, so he got credit for the recovery. Furthermore, by 1935, the regime had reinstated the draft, remilitarized the Rhineland, officially abrogated the Treaty of Versailles, and withdrawn from the League of Nations: “The early years of Hitler’s rule gave a desperate, belligerent and self-destructive people satisfaction for perceived past affronts.” (37).

But the apparent economic success of the regime was built upon massive borrowing. During the first two years, public debt ballooned by 10.3 billion reichsmarks, or about $144 billion in current dollars. The only taxes raised were those on corporations and the wealthy,and revenues were far below what was needed to fund just the military. Between 1933 and 1939, the regime dumped over 45 billion marks into the military — more than three times the total state revenues for the year 1937. The national debt expanded to 37.7 billion marks. The regime turned increasingly to extracting the money from the Jews. From the time it took power until late 1937, it pursued a campaign of harassment, including forcing Jews to sell their businesses to “Aryans,” aimed at pressuring Jews to emigrate, while it placed increasing restrictions on the ability of emigrating Jews to take assets abroad.

While the regime thus increasingly stole from Jews in a piecemeal fashion, it didn’t pursue a total looting of the Jews as such. But with the takeover of Austria in early 1938, Hitler’s personal economics advisor Wilhelm Keppler was appointed Reich commissioner for Austrian affairs and tasked by Göring with exploiting Austrian natural resources, keeping prices and wages stable, and, more importantly, “Aryanizing” Jewish-owned businesses. The debt caused by the military buildup began to threaten the economy as a whole, so the regime enacted laws requiring native-born Jews to declare all assets worth over 5,000 reichsmarks to the government, creating conditions for the complete confiscation of the assets of Jews fleeing the country, with nothing but state bonds as compensation. In April 1938, Göring met with all Reich ministers to plan “the definitive removal of Jews from economic life” (44). In the face of a worsening financial crisis, the regime sped up its annexation of Czechoslovakia and the war against the Jews. Göring told his assistants that all tangible Jewish assets were to be converted into government bonds, and the proceeds used to fund the regime’s war machine. After the outbreak of war in 1939, this 1938 model of Aryanizing Jewish assets would be applied all over the conquered lands (as Aly shows in deep detail).

But the apparent economic success of the regime was built upon massive borrowing. During the first two years, public debt ballooned.

While the Jews (and later others) were having their assets confiscated, the regime increased its taxes on the wealthiest Germans and the biggest corporations. During all this, middle and lower classes were, by deliberate design, only lightly taxed. The regime was sensitive to its base of support. This led to a long struggle between the regime’s economic realists — who felt that the lower and middle classes needed to shoulder part of the burden of the war — and what I would call the regime’s political realists (especially Hitler and Göring), who wanted to be sure that the regime’s base of support was contented enough to not rebel. Aly documents this strategy. For example, he shows that in 1941, the regime instituted tax breaks for farmers, and actually raised pensions. The latter move was intended to combat the widespread suspicion that “the National Socialists had no time for the elderly and physically weak and wanted them to die off quickly” (56). Aly understands the strategy, observing that when the regime’s ally Mussolini was kicked out by his own countrymen in the summer of 1943, Goebbels called for a renewal of National Socialism to make sure that the lower and middle classes had no material cause for complaint, so no reason to rebel. The focus was now (in 1943) to be on owners of rental property and stocks.

The battle between the economic and the political realists continued even into 1945, as the regime’s demise was clearly and universally apparent. The political realists — who included the Party members at the top of the hierarchy — prevailed. In fact, during the war, “family members of German soldiers had 72.8% of peace-time household income at their disposal. That [was] nearly double what families of American (36.7%) and British soldiers (38.1%) received” (72).

In part II, Aly takes up the subjugation and subsequent exploitation of first Western and then Eastern Europe by the Wehrmacht. Here Aly richly documents the various tricks the regime used to covertly loot lands it conquered. This was a radical form of imperialism, indeed: force the conquered lands to pay for the conquering army that oppressed it. And it was quite a financial trick, indeed.

Aly explores the foreign “contributions” that came to Germany. He notes that at the outset of war, despite wage and price controls, the profits of companies and the wages of workers increased, as did the pay awarded to soldiers. But with production more and more focused on the military, there was a gap between purchasing power and what was available to the public. This led to black markets, inflation, and a flight to tangible assets, such as durable goods. The problem grew acute by late 1939, and as the gap widened through 1941, the regime finally decided to export inflation to conquered lands. As one Finance Ministry bureaucrat put it (echoing Göring), “If there has to be inflation, better there than in Germany” (76). Aly notes that pillaging foreign economies thus served two purposes: it kept the regime’s base relatively well-provisioned, and it was a major source of funding for the war machine. Regarding the latter, the regime had the explicit goal of getting any conquered territory to pay for all the costs of military occupation. Aly documents how the regime was able to do this “with unwavering efficiency.”

This was a radical form of imperialism, indeed: force the conquered lands to pay for the conquering army that oppressed it.

In occupied Serbia, for example, the Nazis set up a new Serbian national bank with a new currency and outlawed most currency exchanges, thus forcing people to cash in their real currency for a new one. This temporarily halted inflation — and allowed the Serbs to pay their “contribution for military protection” (as the regime called it, in all the countries it occupied). During the war the regime exacted unprecedented financial tributes from the countries it conquered — tributes that “soon exceeded the total peacetime budgets of the countries in question, usually by 100% and in the second half of the war by more than 200%” (77). Aly shows in detail how this affected Poland, France, Denmark and Norway. By 1943, most of the revenues funding the Nazi war machine came from “contributions” from conquered countries, and from the regime’s “allies” (Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Romania), as well as from foreign slave labor in Germany and the complete dispossession of the Jews.

The regime, as Aly shows, was successful in its clever manipulation of official exchange rates in occupied countries. He documents this in the case of occupied France, Bohemia, and Moravia. This currency manipulation, along with the establishment of “clearing accounts,” helped German consumers and Wehrmacht soldiers as well as the war regime. Soldiers “bought” massive amounts of food and other goods in the countries in which they were stationed and shipped them home to help their families.

Aly explores the use of another financial gimmick the regime employed — “Reich Credit Bank” certificates, which looked like paper money and could be traded by troops for local goods. As one German minister put it, these were really “requisition receipts disguised as money.” The regime had devised a way to take what it needed without incurring the direct wrath of those being relieved of their goods.

When the customs border between Germany and the Protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia was eliminated, German soldiers went on a “purchasing frenzy."

The regime forced allies and conquered countries alike to buy its bonds, and by July of 1944 it owed roughly 29 billion marks (or about $421 billion in today’s dollars) to the bondholders. An internal Nazi report estimated the total value of goods and services taken from the occupied territories from 1939 to 1944 at as much as 100 billion reichsmarks ($1.4 trillion in today’s dollars).

In a chapter called “Profits for the People,” Aly explores other mechanisms of plunder. One of them was direct soldier purchases. For example, German soldiers in the Netherlands were allowed to receive up to $15,000 per month (in today’s dollars) to buy local goods and ship them home. And German soldiers could take as much cash as they wanted when leaving Germany to return to the conquered lands. This led, predictably, to German soldiers buying so many local supplies that shortages ensued, much to the distress of the German occupying authorities. When the customs border between Germany and the Protectorates of Bohemia and Moravia was eliminated, German soldiers went on a “purchasing frenzy,” buying all the Czech goods they could, furniture included.

As Aly puts it, “German soldiers literally emptied the shelves of Europe. They sent millions of packages home from the front. The recipients were mainly women. When one [i.e., an historian such as Aly] asks the now elderly witnesses about this period in history, their eyes still gleam at the memory of the shoes from North Africa, the velvet, silk, liqueurs, and coffee from France, the tobacco from Russia, and the tons of herring from Norway — not to mention the various gifts that poured from Germany’s allies Romania, Hungary, and Italy” (97). Aly quotes numerous letters of German civilians saying in essence that they suffered no privations during the war years.

Aly gives another example: in the words of a French historian, these contrived purchases for the people back home “did significant damage to the French national economy, playing a significant role in the development of the black market and inflation. They were the reason it was increasingly difficult for everyday French people to procure the basic necessities” (99). Aly shows that the same phenomenon occurred in the Baltic States, Russia, Norway, Denmark, and Poland.

In the Wannsee Conference the next year, Heydrich emphasized the need for apartments in driving the decision to exterminate the Jews.

This pervasive pillaging fostered a climate of corruption and crime. Aly quotes extensively from an internal regime report on corrupt conditions in the Ukraine. The report reviews letters written home by German soldiers, and alleges that the Ukraine has become “the Reich’s flea market,” with soldiers writing their families to send cheap jewelry, cosmetics, used clothes, and other junk to be traded with the locals for the best food and produce. All this “sharp trading” was done by the Aryans, the very people who targeted the Jews for annihilation because they were allegedly — sharp traders! Vicious irony, indeed.

The crucial year for the outright dispossession of the Jews was 1941. In that year, “while people in the East were dreaming of a black market El Dorado,” civilians in Germany’s northwestern cities were really hurting from the British bombing. The Gauleiter of Hamburg, Karl Kaufmann, requested of Hitler that the Jews be removed so their apartments could be given to non-Jewish citizens made homeless by the Allied bombs. Hitler immediately made this an order. In the Wannsee Conference the next year, Heydrich emphasized the need for apartments in driving the decision to exterminate the Jews, and in late 1941, the first Jews rounded up were in the cities most bombed.

Not only were the Jews’ apartments confiscated, but so were their household effects, from their furniture down to their clothes. This policy was extended shortly thereafter to cover fine art, which was confiscated and sold. From France alone, the regime extracted about a million cubic meters of household goods from more than a quarter million Jewish homes. There are similar figures for goods taken from Jews in Belgium, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere, and for the wholesale confiscation of containers filled with the household effects of Jews who had emigrated earlier (129). By 1942, the regime was confiscating the containers of household effects of Jews now being sent to the death camps. And the regime bragged about what it was doing — one poster Aly that reproduces has a headline proclaiming that 1,362,945 books were seized, “enough to fully equip 2,600 local libraries” (128). Aly adds that the recipients of these handouts were grateful to the regime, as shown by an outpouring of thank-you notes.

Aly provides a revealing discussion of the regime’s systematic looting of the areas of Western Europe under its control from their fall in 1940 to their liberation in 1945. He describes the various mechanisms the regime used for surreptitious transfer of assets from the occupied population to the regime’s home base, via the hands of occupying German troops, who bought goods to send home. The burden was heavy. Belgium, a nation of about 8.3 million people, whose pre-war state budget was 11 billion francs, was pressed to pay 18 billion francs to the regime for occupation costs. With stolen Belgian money, the regime was able to buy in that country 18,500 motor vehicles, 1,100 locomotives, and 22,000 freight cars — in 1941 alone! That same year the regime was able to steal 41 tons of Belgium’s gold. All this the regime itself carefully documented. During the period in which Belgium was under occupation (1940–1944), its government spent 83.3 billion francs on providing for its own citizens, but had 133.6 billion francs worth of goods and currency taken for occupation costs — not counting the stolen Belgian gold or the loot grabbed from Belgium’s Jews.

By 1942, the regime was redistributing the household effects of Jews sent to the death camps. Recipients of these handouts were grateful to the regime, as shown by an outpouring of thank-you notes.

Statistics are equally striking for the other occupied counties. By 1944, the Netherlands had paid 8.3 billion reichsmarks (about $120 billion today), quite a sum for a nation of 8.8 million citizens to bear. 60% of that money was used to buy goods for the German citizenry. France during the occupation surrendered a staggering 40 billion reichsmarks to the regime (or about $580 billion dollars). Although Germany occupied its erstwhile ally Italy only from 1943 to 1945, it managed to extract the equivalent of 10 billion reichsmarks ($145 billion current dollars) from the hapless country.

Aly does not neglect the role that the Eastern European occupied territories played in the regime’s program of purchased support. He suggests that a huge component was the use of forced — truly, slave — labor. The regime made between 8 and 12 million people work for it, essentially for free and under harsh and dangerous conditions. Most of these forced laborers were from Eastern Europe. They were housed in shabby conditions (for which they were charged), and were paid 15% to 40% lower than German workers. And the regime managed by various schemes to divert much of that pay for the war effort. The workers’ pay was taxed, of course. Also, the regime officially set aside the money for the workers’ families, back in their home countries, paying these families in local currency out of the “occupation charges.” In other words, the home countries were forced to support the workers’ families. The essence of the regime’s con was clearly identified in 1944, by eminent jurist Raphael Lemkin: “The occupied countries not only finance exports to Germany but also pay their own people working in Germany.”[1]

Workers from Poland, Ukraine, and Russia received the worst treatment. Men and women taken prisoner and shipped to Germany to work in the labor camps would have their property liquidated and the money theoretically held in trust for their return, but in practice it was merely confiscated. The conscripted workers were paid low wages, and the Poles in particular had to pay a 15% “supplemental social compensation fee” in addition to an income tax. Poles in agricultural work got as little as 8.5 reichsmarks ($125 in current dollars) to 26.5 reichsmarks ($348) per month. In addition to the special fee, they were assigned to the highest income tax rates (paid by the wealthiest Germans).

Generally, Aly notes, “the amounts deducted from the wages of Jews — as well as of Gypsies and forced laborers from Eastern Europe — were thus more than triple those demanded of German workers. The Reich was able to double its wage tax revenues during the latter half of World War II on the backs of involuntary workers assigned to German industry” (160). There was some internal opposition — that of some people within the regime who feared that exploitation of the forced laborers would lessen their will to work hard and encourage resistance at home. But one economist estimated that, among Polish and Russian workers earning 40 reichsmarks per week, only 10 were left after the various taxes, fees, and charges for room and board in the labor camps.

But even leaving those meager wages in the hands of the forced workers threatened to reduce the availability and increase the prices of consumer goods for the “Aryan” Germans. So the regime devised another scheme: paying the forced laborers in part by special “savings bonds,” which supposedly offered a 2% interest rate but in the end were virtually unredeemable.

Among Polish and Russian workers earning 40 reichsmarks per week, only 10 were left after the various taxes, fees, and charges for room and board in the labor camps.

By these various artifices, the regime was able to pocket 60% to 70% of the forced laborers’ wages, which allowed for stable prices and no shortages and — as Aly shows in detail — in great measure paid for the social welfare programs that benefited “Aryan” workers. Behold National Socialism: it delivered the goods for the national workers in great measure by exploiting the international ones!

Reviewing the specific measures — including wholesale currency manipulation and food confiscation disguised as food purchases — by which the regime was able to pillage Ukraine and Russia, Aly trenchantly observes, “Even with food rationing, and wartime changes in people’s eating habits, shortfalls occurred. But as it had not done in World War I, the German leadership transferred the burdens of those shortages to people in occupied countries, to disadvantaged minorities, and to Soviet prisoners. The result was famine in Poland, Greece, and especially the Soviet Union; in psychiatric hospitals, ghettos, concentration camps, and POW camps, people starved to death” ( 170). The result, as Aly notes, was also a savage exploitation of Soviet POWs. By 1942, 2 million of the 3.3 million Red Army prisoners had died in the camps or in transit to the camps.

The regime stole a staggering amount from the Soviet territories. In one telling chart, Aly shows that the regime was able to transfer about 106 million Gus (grain units, with 2.5 Gus being what it takes to keep one person alive for a year) from Soviet lands to the Reich in the years 1941–43. Before the invasion, the Soviets produced 101% of the food needed to feed their public. This means that the Germans deprived about 21.2 million Soviet citizens of the food necessary for survival. Aly contrasts reports by German civilians that, until February 1945, no women complained that their children lacked whole milk, with reports of about 4,000 people starving to death a day in Leningrad.

In Part III, Aly focuses on the dispossession of the Jews. Chapter 7 — aptly entitled “Larceny as a State Principle” — tackles the common view that the “Aryanization” of Jewish property benefited German businessmen and bank directors the most. Aly argues that this is a false narrative. He describes in detail how the process took place.

Behold National Socialism: it delivered the goods for the national workers in great measure by exploiting the international ones!

Typically, first in Germany and then throughout occupied Europe, Jewish assets were first nationalized (i.e., seized by the state or occupation forces), then privatized (i.e., sold atbargain prices to non-Jewish individuals). Even selling these goods at bargain prices, however, brought substantial revenues to the state treasuries. In this regard, the 1938 seizure and sale of Jewish assets, which helped the regime to spend like mad building up its war machine without inducing hyperinflation, served as a model for how it would run its conquered territories.

The model proved useful indeed. As the regime imposed onerous “occupation costs” on its conquered territories — costs that in just the first year, according to one Reichsbank study, represented 211% of regular state revenues in France, 200% in Belgium, 180% in Holland, and 242% in Norway — it used the expropriation of Jewish assets to hold off hyperinflation in those countries.It pursued the policy under tight secrecy. Since the liquidation of civilian assets was a complete violation of international law, the regime employed small cadres of trained senior officials to do the actual seizures. Aly notes that in Serbia, where enough documentation remains to reconstruct the process, within one year after the invasion a Wehrmacht administrator reported that he had all the Jewish men rounded up and shot, and all the Jewish women and children suffocated to death by truck exhaust fumes. With Serbia’s 22,000 Jews dead, administrators from the department responsible for implementing Göring’s Four-Year Plan began the seizure and liquidation of their assets. The money flowed first to the Serbian treasury, then to the Nazi treasury as payment for occupation costs. The amount seized was able to cover more than six months of occupation costs, which dramatically lowered inflationary pressures in Serbia for an even longer period.

Aly notes that while ordinarily the expropriation of Jewish assets was done without any cover of law, in 1941 the regime did pass a law — the Reich Citizenship Law — that in one stroke seized the assets of Jews, which in great measure had earlier been forcibly converted into bonds, so it was easy to do. The debts were simply nullified. In 1942, Himmler and Reichsbank President Walther Funk worked out a deal by which all gold, gemstones, and cash taken from the death camp inmates would be given to the Reichsbank, which would then pay the market rate for this loot into a special treasury account (under a fictitious owner, ironically named “Max Heiliger” or “Holyman”). While gold watches were sold domestically, the regime sold jewelry in Switzerland.

Aly describes exactly how in 1941 one Jewish couple (the Uhlmanns) were dispossessed of more than 47,000 reichsmarks, between the emigration tax, the tax on Jewish wealth, and the confiscation of bonds when they fled to Luxembourg. When the regime conquered Luxembourg, they were killed. The money extracted from them “allowed the state to avoid tax increases — equivalent to a 50% hike for eight hundred workers with two children each — that otherwise would have been necessary,” as well as to “absorb some excess spending power in the middle of the war by selling off the Uhlmanns’ possessions” (200).

With Serbia’s 22,000 Jews dead, administrators from the department responsible for implementing Göring’s Four-Year Plan began the seizure and liquidation of their assets.

Aly devotes another chapter to various ways the regime used to launder the money it stole from Jews. He starts by describing how the regime used the puppet it installed in Norway, Vidkun Quisling, to strip Norway’s 2,100 Jews of their possessions. He did this in stages, and was able to put 11 million reichsmarks from the liquidated property into the Norwegian treasury, which then passed to the regime as part of the occupation costs, which then passed into the hands of German soldiers and regime procurement officers. Watches stolen from Jews were given out to German generals, who sometimes gave them away as Christmas gifts to staff and families.

The Belgian campaign to steal Jewish assets was carried out by the German military administration, rather than a collaborationist regime. As early as October 1940, the Wehrmacht required its approval for every ordinance concerning Jewish business, the registration of all Jews and all businesses “in which Jews had influence,” and the wholesale removal of Jews from the government. The next month the Wehrmacht ordered the removal of Jews from the economy and the liquidation of their businesses. But throughout the process, the regime managed by various subterfuges to keep a public “façade of legitimacy” over this asset seizure.

In Holland, the regime followed its common course after conquest: the removal of Jews from the economy. By 1941, Dutch Jews had to register their various assets. Shortly thereafter, the liquidation of Jewish assets began, under the color of legitimate governance. Dutch stockholders helped the regime sell about 80% of confiscated Jewish stocks, the proceeds going into state and industrial bonds — which made it appear as a transfer rather than a seizure. But the bonds were soon converted into Dutch government securities and used to cover the costs of occupation. Of the 14.5 billion reichsmarks (or about $210 billion in current dollars) extracted from the Netherlands during its occupation, about 10% came from the country’s tiny Jewish population of 140,000 souls.

Watches stolen from Jews were given out to German generals, who sometimes gave them away as Christmas gifts to staff and families.

The Reich didn’t simply enrich itself; it subsidized its allies. Even in 1940, in the puppet state of Slovakia, laws were passed to “Aryanize” the economy, with the goal of shipping all Jews to Madagascar (Adolf Eichmann’s personal plan). In just the first two years, the Slovakian government liquidated or “Aryanized” nearly all the 2,000 registered Jewish businesses — to the evident advantage of the non-Jewish population. In late 1941, when it went to war with Russia, the Slovakian government decreed a compulsory “contribution” of 20% of the total Jewish wealth under its control. During 1941 to 1942 the Slovakian government deported most of the country’s 89,000 Jews — with 53,000 sent directly to Auschwitz in just the first 13 weeks. Of the 7 billion crowns that Germany stole from tiny Slovakia during the war, 40% came from liquidated Jewish wealth — amazing, considering that Jews constituted only about 3% of the population. The story was the same in the Nazi puppet state of Croatia.

Bulgaria, which had joined the Axis Powers before they began their war with Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941, had to “loan” the Reichsbank nearly 62 million reichsmarks in 1941. It received parts of Thrace and Macedonia in compensation. It then had to cover the total costs of the German forces within its territory. It passed an anti-Semitic law in early 1941 that declared Jews to be foreigners and required them to register all their assets. Over the next two years these assets were pillaged. The Jews in Thrace and Macedonia were shipped to extermination camps in 1943.

Similarly, in Romania, even by 1940 Jewish-owned properties were being confiscated. This accelerated during the next year. By the end of 1942, surviving Romanian Jews were sent to Treblinka and murdered. Himmler was able to boast of settling half a million ethnic Germans in Romania in property once owned by Jews. In the end, the Jews were forced to cover 25% to 33% of the total costs of Romania’s part in the war.

Even the ancient Jewish cemetery in Salonika was cleared of headstones and the land auctioned off for real estate development.

Aly has been able to uncover the fate of the Jews of Salonika, Greece, once a center of Jewish population.This is a story that many Greeks would rather not confront. Crucial to the story is the “Aryanization” of Jewish assets — including twelve tons of gold (worth perhaps $5 billion today). Suffice it to say that the Nazis, along with their Italian and Bulgarian allies, rapidly conquered Greece and divided it into three occupation zones. As the Germans (and Bulgarians) took the produce of the land, the Greek currency started to lose its value. Stories surfaced about Greek children starving. Even Hitler was concerned enough to raise the issue with Mussolini. The Nazis sent in a special emissary to stabilize the situation. His measures “accelerated the ghettoization, dispossession, and deportation of Jews” (250). In October 1942, the Germans were pressing for Greece’s Jewish population, mainly concentrated in Salonika, to be dispossessed. In January 1943, Eichmann’s deputy Gunther flew to Salonika to help the process. Within two months, Jews were forced to declare their assets to the newly created Greek Office for the Management of Jewish Assets. Shortly thereafter — starting March 15, 1943 — deportations of Salonika’s 44,000 Jews began (along with 2,000 additional Jews from nearby), and were completed in a matter of months.

Jewish properties were seized and sold. Even the ancient Jewish cemetery in Salonika was cleared of headstones and the land auctioned off for real estate development. The proceeds were used, as elsewhere, to fund the Wehrmacht. But because of the rapid inflation of Greek currency and the relative poverty of the land, the Nazis focused on wringing as much gold out of the victims. The gold, Aly suggests, was sold by Greek brokers in Athens, and the cash that was raised flowed to the Wehrmacht, which used it to purchase local supplies to feed the troops and to pay the troops themselves. This stabilized the currency. The 46,000 Jews sent for Salonika to Auschwitz yielded 12 tons of gold, which was between two-thirds and three-fourths of the occupation costs. This gold stayed in Greece.

Part IV of Aly’s book, called “Crimes for the Benefit of the People,” draws his themes together and adds a great deal of information on the motives of Nazi minions.

For instance, he says, “Before the victims of Nazi looting could be deported from the occupied territories, the German military officers had to agree on and in most cases provide the means of transport. They did this without the slightest objection — and not simply because they hated Jews or were willing to sacrifice the last vestige of their consciences out of a supposedly innate German need for obedience. The officers helped carry out the deportations because the deportations served their own interests” (280). That is, besides the standard explanations for the expulsion and dispossession of the Jews — i.e., widespread German racialist anti-Semitism and the regime’s propaganda “ceaselessly” portraying Jews as a dangerous enemy “fifth column” — the driving motivation for the Wehrmacht’s complicity was the desire to keep troop morale up and keep pushing ahead with the military strategy. This military imperative to seize Jewish and other assets was intensified by the resolve of Nazi economists not to fund more than half the war’s costs by debt.

Aly notes that the various deceitful and opaque means of confiscating Jewish and conquered people’s assets succeeded only too well in hiding the massive dispossession from the notice of humanity. And in setting it up so that Jews had their assets first converted to German asset vehicles, the actual extermination of the Jews was made economically tempting: simply liquidate the creditors! Aly suggests concisely that the Holocaust will never be properly understood “until it is seen as the most single-mindedly pursued campaign of murderous larceny in modern history” (285).

To the reply that the resources seizedcould not have cost more than about 5% of the total wealth in the “German war chest” between 1939 and 1945, Aly observes that this was itself a large amount. I would add that during the period from 1933 to 1939, huge amounts were seized from Germans and Austrians. And seizures could be timed to fund major new offensives, such as the battle of Kursk in 1943.

In setting it up so that Jews had their assets first converted to German asset vehicles, the actual extermination of the Jews was made economically tempting: simply liquidate the creditors!

In the years 1939 to 1945, the regime brought in from occupied lands an astounding 170 billion reichsmarks — about 2.4 trillion euros. Of the total amount of money collected by the regime during this period, about 10% came from taxes on lower and middle class Germans, another 20% from taxes on wealthy Germans, and the remaining 70% from the proceeds of theft. It is precisely this that guaranteed that the regime retained substantial support until the very end.

In a chapter called “Speculative Politics,” Aly explores how the regime was able to render more or less invisible the massive borrowing it carried out, and again how this was done to make the load of the war light on the shoulders of non-Jewish Germans. Then, in the final Chapter, Aly summarizes his view of Nazi socialism as a socialism that radically confiscated assets from targeted groups and used them to fund the war, while enabling the population to live well. He puts the total amount of Nazi wartime revenues stolen from dispossessed Jews, occupied countries, and forced labor at a remarkable 70% of its total war costs (327). His book — all 334 pages of exposition, 59 pages of notes, and 17 pages of references — makes this estimate credible.

Much of the socialized pelf was funneled directly to German civilians in the form of fine food, produce, wine and liqueurs, jewelry, household goods, clothes, toys, books, and candies, making it clear that the regime’s support was based on purchase, as opposed to power or persuasion. “Nothing less than massive popular greed made it possible for the regime to tame the majority of Germans with a combination of low taxes, ample supplies of consumer goods, and targeted acts of terror against social outsiders” (324).

In sum, Aly’s suggestion is that the Germans were not exactly Hitler’s willing executioners, nor were they his unwilling victims; they were instead his willing beneficiaries. From the start, the regime’s elimination of unemployment by massive infrastructure and military spending was financed by the confiscation of the wealth and labor of the Jews. When war got underway, the regime exploited to the ultimate degree the people of conquered countries. It was a regime that pursued a radical racist redistributionism from the first.

The regime’s support was based on purchase, as opposed to power or persuasion.

One of the matters that Aly does not consider is the important role that early computer technology played in the Nazis’ war against the Jews. Henry Hollerith, an employee in the US Census Bureau in the early 1880s, first conceived of using punched cards to record census data. “Hollerith Machines” sorted and counted the millions of cards. The Hollerith Machine Corporation was sold to a conglomerate that eventually became IBM. The German industrialist Willy Heidinger established a subsidiary of the corporation called Dehomag (an acronym for the German Hollerith Machine Corporation) in 1911. Heidinger became an enthusiastic Nazi supporter, and the Nazis appreciated his machines. They used IBM machinery to implement the 1933 census and were thus able to catalogue citizens with partial Jewish ancestry, expanding the count of Jews to 2,000,000. The Nuremberg Laws specified the number of grandparents of Jewish ancestry necessary to be counted as a Jew, and those could now be identified.

At any rate, it was the seizure of wealth that bought the support of the Germans for the regime, rather than the Germans’ pre-existing anti-Semitism. It was this kind of socialism that really won the day. But the thesis requires some additional analytical work, which will be presented in the final installment of this series.


[1]Lemkin is the man who coined the neologism “genocide,” which he did in 1943 or 1944.


Editor's Note: This review-essay is part 2 of a three-part series.



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Bureaucratic Precision

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This must be right. The EU's translation budget is hundreds of millions a year.




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Hungary 1956

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Some years ago, at a used-book store, I found a book that got my immediate attention. It was Cry Hungary! Uprising 1956, a pictorial history of the Hungarian Revolution, and included a day-by-day summary of events. The pictures showed the death and detritus of battle along with closeups of the Freedom Fighters, often young men and women shouldering weapons, some grim, some smiling. There were pictures showing clusters of citizens riding the streets of Budapest on captured tanks they had decorated with fall flowers or painted with the Arms of Kossuth. And yes, there were pictures of AVO men, the hated Hungarian secret police, being shot down in the street, or hanging from trees.

The book’s author was British writer Reg Gadney. Its publication date in 1986 was the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. This past October 23 was the 60th anniversary of the first shooting and killing. I was a junior in college when it all began. While I was absorbing chemistry and English letters, Hungarians my age were setting Soviet tanks afire and shooting their escaping crews. And while thus engaged, many of the rebels died.

The image of one young girl, Erika Szelez, became a symbol of the Revolution. Her picture has often accompanied articles and books on the uprising: a 15-year-old girl carrying a submachine gun with its straps across her shoulders. Alas, her story is a sad one. The picture was first published on the cover of a Danish magazine, Billet Bladet, on November 13, 1956. By that time Erika was already dead, shot five days earlier on a Budapest street by a Russian soldier.

While I was absorbing chemistry and English letters, Hungarians my age were setting Soviet tanks afire and shooting their escaping crews.

The events leading up to the Revolution, and the characters involved, all read like Tolstoy inventions. The key event was the Soviet “liberation” of Hungary in 1945. Russian soldiers raped and looted their way across the country, making enemies instead of friends. Under the Horthy Regency, Hungary had allied itself with Germany. It did so not so much from shared convictions as from a desire to recover territories lost in the previous world war. Stalin’s chosen leader for Hungary was Matayas Rakosi, who proceeded to move Hungary step by step toward a Stalinist dictatorship, a regime of murder and exceptional cruelty. Under Rakosi, collectivization of agriculture and attempts at industrialization impoverished the broad citizenry. Hungarian uranium went exclusively to the Soviet Union. Added to this, the Soviets had taken Hungary’s industrial machinery and part of its precious-metal reserves as spoils of war.

Rakosi, “Stalin’s best pupil,” hardened by 15 years in Horthy jails, mimicked his master’s purges. Party members were tortured to gain bogus confessions and then put on trial, where the confessions were repeated for the edification of the masses. Then the offenders were punished with imprisonment or hanging. One of the victims of the purges was Laszlo Rajk, whose elegance, perhaps, Rakosi found annoying. Rajk himself was a devoted Stalinist, who claimed the Soviet Union as his cynosure. He was, in fact, hoist with his own petard, having set up the very agency that accomplished his arrest and torture. On October 15, 1949, he was hanged for his imagined sins — being a “Titoist spy” and an “agent of Western imperialism.” Another victim of the Rakosi terror was man-of-destiny Janos Kadar, who, ironically, had cosigned Rajk’s execution order. Kadar spent two years in prison, where he endured torture, reportedly involving his genitals.

But in February 1953, Joseph Stalin died. Nikita Khrushchev came to power, and with him came the first hints of de-Stalinization. Rakosi was summoned to Moscow and informed that Imre Nagy was to serve as Prime Minister. Rakosi was to remain as First Secretary of the Communist Party. Nagy had experienced battle in the Hungarian armies, a conversion to Communism, further military service with the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, and imprisonment in the Horthy era. Victor Sebestyen’s useful book, Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, describes Nagy as a loyal Communist and Party man, having survived for 15 years in the Soviet Union. And yet, avuncular, food-and-football-loving Nagy hadn’t reached the level of cruelty shown by fellow “Muscovite” Rakosi. Perhaps this was why he fell out of favor in Moscow and why, in 1955, Rakosi seized power once again, installing his own man, Andras Hegedus, as Prime Minister. But the Stalinist Rakosi couldn’t throttle Hungary or Hungarians as he had once done — especially after a famous Khrushchev speech.

By that time Erika was already dead, shot five days earlier on a Budapest street by a Russian soldier.

On February 26, 1956, Nikita Khruschev gave a six-hour speech before the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. In it, he denounced Stalin and his “Cult of Personality” and detailed his enormities. The speech was given in secret, but its contents became widely known and sent an unintended signal to the Soviet-satellite nations. Rakosi was suddenly given to speeches denouncing the “Cult of Personality” — one more irony in the Communist world of kaleidoscopic truth.

Students and intellectuals were showing greater freedom in expressing their discontents. Soviet Ambassador Yuri Andropov informed the Kremlin of “destabilizing influences” among the Hungarian populace. One such influence was the Petofi Circle, a group of students and intellectuals who discussed and debated such issues as “Socialist Realism” (a state-sponsored art style) and the theft of Hungary’s uranium deposits. Particularly significant was the speech given before the group by Julia Rajk, the widow of Lazlo Rajk.

October 6 is an important date in Hungarian history. On that day in 1849, the 13 generals who had led the Revolution of 1848 were hanged by the Austrian Empire. And on that day in 1956, the remains of Laszlo Rajk were reinterred in Budapest. Julia Rajk, Imre Nagy, and perhaps 100,000 other Hungarian citizens witnessed the ceremony. The late Rajk, a dogmatic Stalinist, had become a symbolic victim of Stalinist lies and brutality.

Nagy hadn’t reached the level of cruelty shown by fellow “Muscovite” Rakosi. Perhaps this was why he fell out of favor in Moscow.

At last, Budapest’s militant students met and agreed on a list of 16 demands. They hoped to get radio time to publicize them, but chose instead to publish them as pamphlets and post them all over town. The list included demands for the removal of Soviet troops, foreign insignias, and Stalin’s statue, and for free elections, free speech, a better run economy, and international marketing of Hungarian uranium. And there was one truly fateful demand — the restoration to power of Imre Nagy.

Thus, on the morning of October 23, 1956, the student demands were everywhere and easily read by the public. That afternoon, crowds gathered for demonstrations preplanned by those same dissident students. Perhaps 200,000 people eventually joined in a procession that marched to the statue of poet Sandor Petofi. There, they heard a reading of his famous call to arms, written in 1848. The Gadney book provides this translation:

Magyars, rise, your country calls you!
Meet this hour, whate’er befalls you!
Shall we free men be, or slaves?
Choose the lot your spirit craves!

Then the crowds marched to the statue of Josef Bem, a Polish general who fought for Hungary in the Revolution of 1848. Someone placed a Hungarian flag — the tricolor, without any Communist emblem — in the arms of the statue.

Pictures of the demonstration show participants smiling, apparently in a festive mood. The march across the Margaret Bridge involved a huge procession, though ahead of it was a small advance guard carrying rifles. Later, at the Parliament Building, Imre Nagy was brought in to address the demonstrators. On his way, Nagy reportedly noticed a Hungarian flag with a donut-like hole in the center — the superimposed Soviet red star had been cut out. By that time, many Hungarian flags bore a similar vacuity. Nagy’s words to the crowd have escaped preservation, but it’s known that he asked them to sing the national anthem.

Someone placed a Hungarian flag — the tricolor, without any Communist emblem — in the arms of the statue.

Erno Gero, the reptilian Stalinist who replaced Rakosi as Party First Secretary, had made an earlier radio broadcast that merely compounded the hatred people felt for him. Part of the crowd ended up at the radio station. They demanded a microphone, and when it was refused, some of them tried to break into the building. The AVO members defending the building threw tear gas and finally opened fire, wounding and killing some among the crowd. The unarmed demonstrators quickly acquired weapons, perhaps from local policemen or Hungarian soldiers, many of whom were in sympathy with the protesting crowd. More weapons arrived, brought by workers from Csepel, the industrial district. The armed demonstrators, now blooded Freedom Fighters, occupied the Radio Building, hunted down the sequestered AVO men, and shot them.

That same evening, another group arrived at the huge bronze statue of Joseph Stalin, intent on removing it. Obtaining metal-cutting equipment, they brought the statue down and carved it up for souvenirs. Only the boots remained, affixed to the marble plinth. Someone stood a Hungarian flag in one of them.

At midnight or soon thereafter, Imre Nagy learned that he was, once again, the Hungarian Prime Minister. By that time there was fighting in the streets. Soviet armor arrived in the very early morning of October 24. In his memoirs, A.I. Malashenko, then a colonel and acting Soviet Special Corps Chief of Staff, wrote that his formations were greeted with “stones and bullets.” Although Nagy eventually became a hero of the Revolution, his early statements urging a ceasefire weren’t in keeping with the mood of many Hungarians. Indeed, pictures show Freedom Fighters pulling a red star off one building, removing a portrait of Lenin from another, and, most startling of all, summarily shooting members of the AVO or jeering at their hanging corpses or those of their paid informants. Peter Fryer, a reporter for the British Daily Worker and himself a Communist, described “scores of Secret Police hung by their feet from trees” in Budapest. He tells of people spitting or stubbing their cigarettes on the bodies.

The unarmed demonstrators quickly acquired weapons, perhaps from local policemen or Hungarian soldiers, many of whom were in sympathy with the protesting crowd.

Other pictures show streets torn up and trolley cars capsized, their tracks pulled from the ground, to impede Soviet armor. Seen more than once is Pal Maleter’s tank, a T-34 stuck in the door of the Kilian Barracks. Maleter was a tragic hero of the Revolution. A colonel in the Hungarian Army, once decorated by the Soviets, he was in command at the barracks when, encountering the Freedom Fighters, he decided to join them rather than fight them. He later became a general and the Defense Minister in the Nagy government. On the night of November 3, while attending sham negotiations with the Soviets, he was arrested by the KGB head, General Ivan Serov, accompanied by the Soviet police. Maleter was later tried and, like Imre Nagy, executed by the new, Soviet-endorsed government.

There were two more mass shootings of unarmed demonstrators. One occurred at the Parliament Building on October 25. It began with the AVO opening fire, apparently responding to insults from the crowd. Soviet armor joined in with its firepower. The other shooting happened in Magyarovar, a small town in northwestern Hungary, close to both the Austrian and the Czech borders. A demonstrating crowd — men, women, and children — arrived at the AVO headquarters. The AVO was ready with grenades and machine guns and used both on the crowd, killing a reported 82 people and wounding and maiming many more. Peter Fryer described the aftermath at the town’s cemetery: the bodies in rows, including women, a young boy, and an infant. The surviving demonstrators obtained weapons, found some of the AVO men, and killed them.

Considering the eight-year ordeal of the Hungarian people, it’s tempting for a Westerner to ask why they endured tyranny for so long. One reason is that during those years Hungary was an efficient police state. A secret army of paid AVO informants lived and worked as ordinary citizens. Any attempt to communicate dissatisfactions or to plan a rebellious act or organize a dissident group could easily come to the attention of the secret police. Even those marginally associated with suspicious words or deeds could face arrest, exile, jail without trial, or even torture and execution. As Lenin maintained, individual rights are incompatible with equality, and equality was his ultimate value.

Added to the police-state terror was the authoritarian tradition of Hungary and Eastern Europe. Before the Soviets seized Hungary, the country was ruled by the Horthy Regency, and Admiral Miklos Horthy maintained his own oppressive system — referred to as the White Terror. Perhaps a tradition of overbearing government blinded Hungarians to the importance of individual freedom, and its logical companion, free-market capitalism. Indeed, the Freedom Fighters maintained their loyalty to socialism. The heroic Pal Maleter could be arrogant in its defense.

Even those marginally associated with suspicious words or deeds could face arrest, exile, jail without trial, or even torture and execution.

Still, from October 29 to November 4 the Freedom Fighters believed they had won their battle, they had achieved their immediate ends. An agreed-upon Soviet withdrawal had begun on the 29th. Tanks and trucks were leaving Budapest with dead Soviet soldiers upon them. In a radio broadcast Imre Nagy proclaimed, “Long live free, democratic, and independent Hungary.” There were more shootings and lynchings of AVO men.

But then, the Soviet withdrawal began to slow. As early as the night of October 30, Nagy realized that the Soviet forces were returning. It’s likely that Pal Maleter was the first to so inform him.

Khrushchev had changed his mind — a free, democratic, and independent Hungary meant its possible Westernization and a capitalist country on the doorstep of the Soviet Union. The Revolution had to be crushed. Nagy and his associates faced a crisis reborn, though the smooth-talking Ambassador Yuri Andropov, later General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, continued to reassure them that the withdrawal would proceed. And yet, on the night of November 1, 1956, Janos Kadar, a member of the ruling Committee, fled the scene, after pledging to fight Russian armor with his bare hands and broadcasting his support for the Nagy government. His statements were a smokescreen, behind which he vanished, ending up in the Soviet Union with two fellow defectors. One of them was Ferenc Munnich, who would eventually join Kadar as his deputy in the new Soviet-approved government. Victor Sebestyen described Kadar’s reluctant climb into that final Soviet automobile, goaded by Munnich — and perhaps by the thought that if he stayed, he was a dead man.

Malashenko described meeting Kadar at the Tokol Airport and providing him with quarters there. When Kadar finally enplaned and flew away, it was with KGB head General Serov. Once installed as leader, Kadar, like the good Communist he was, set about eliminating his rivals. He was impatient to see Nagy hang, along with others. He ruled Hungary for the next 32 years, eventually creating a mixed economy and a measure of prosperity. Khrushchev referred to the Kadar system as “goulash Communism.”

Peter Fryer wrote of the final moments of the Hungarian Revolution:

In public buildings and private homes, in hotels and ruined shops, the people fought the invaders street by street, step by step, inch by inch. The blazing energy of those eight days of freedom burned itself out in one glorious flame. Hungry, sleepless, hopeless, the freedom fighters battled with pitifully feeble equipment against a crushingly superior weight of Soviet arms. From windows and from open streets, they fought with rifles, home-made grenades, and Molotov cocktails against T-54 tanks.

Much has been made of the West’s, and especially America’s, reluctance to intervene in Hungary, despite pleas for help broadcast over Hungary’s Radio Kossuth. Often blamed is our preoccupation with the Suez crisis, precipitated by Egyptian President Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. Forgotten is the prevailing 1950s fear of nuclear war. The Eisenhower administration kept bombers in the air, prepared to administer a “second strike,” should the Soviets or Red China drop The Bomb first. A direct confrontation with the Soviets was to be avoided, and “containment” became the chosen policy toward the Evil Empire. Thus, we maintained troops and missiles in Western Europe, and fought limited wars in the world’s backwaters. Our government’s preoccupation was with America’s interests and security — as it should have been.

Khrushchev had changed his mind. The Revolution had to be crushed.

Did Radio Free Europe, by advocating the Western version of freedom, actually encourage the crushing of the Revolution? Perhaps it did, at that moment in history. But as James Q. Wilson wrote in The Moral Sense, westerners consider their version of freedom an ultimate good. He quoted a superb passage composed by Professor Orlando Patterson, which begins with these words: “At its best, the valorization of personal liberty is the noblest achievement of Western civilization.” A greater problem for the Hungarian dissidents was their own faith in socialism. They remained willing to submit to a system that Hilaire Belloc warned must lead to the Servile State — that is, to slavery. As he said, “The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.”

And as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, under socialism there is no organic pricing system, no marvelous supercomputer that, under capitalism, signals production and distribution. Socialism can only exist by making plans and enforcing them with punitive regulations. Of course, its inevitable failures must lead to stiffer regulations and punishments and new theories that predict but never achieve abundance.

Still, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 hangs heavy on the mind — with its images of men, women, and even children battling the Soviet tanks and, implicitly, the worst enemies of human freedom. Perhaps they were seeking a kind of freedom they couldn’t quite define. Finding it nowhere else, neither in the everyday world nor as a promise in their political tradition, they found it, at last, in mortal combat.

* * *

SOURCES

Belloc, Hilaire. The Servile State. London: T.N. Foulis, 1912. www.archive.org/stream/servilestate00belluoft/servilestate00belluoft_djvu.txt
“Cry Hungary! By Reg Gadney.” Kirkus Reviews. http://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/reg-gadney-3/cry-hungary/
Douglass, Brian. “On the Road to the Servile State.” Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles. 3 Dec. 2009.
“Erika Szeles.” The Female Soldier, 21 April 2015. www.thefemalesoldier.com/blog/erika-szeles
Flynn, John T. The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution. New York: Devon- Adair, 1949.
Fryer, Peter. Hungarian Tragedy. London: New Park Publications Ltd., 1986.
Gadney, Reg. Cry Hungary! Uprising 1956. Introd. Georges Mikes. New York: Athenum, 1986.
Garrett, Garet. “Belloc’s Puzzling Manifesto.” Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles, 13 Jan. 2003.
Gessmer, Peter K. “General Josef Bem: Polish and Hungarian Leader.” Info Poland: Poland in the Classroom, 8 June 1958. www.info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/bem.html
Gyorki, Jeno, and Miklos Horvath, eds. Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary 1956. Budapest: Central European Univ. Press, 1999.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents. Ed. Bruce Caldwell. London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007.
Lenin, V.I. State and Revolution. New York: International Publishers, 1943.
Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Third Revised Ed. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1966.
“Sandor Petofi.” Encyclopedia.com. www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/russian-and-eastern-european-literature-biographies/sandor-petofi
Saxon, Wolfgang. “Janos Kadar of Hungary Is Dead at 77.” Obituaries. The New York Times, 7 July 1989. www.nytimes.com/1989/07/07/obituaries/janos-kadar-of-hungary-is-dead-at-77.html
Sebestyen, Victor. Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
“This Hungarian Woman Was Already Dead When her Photo Became Symbol of the Revolution.” Hungary Today, 12 Oct. 2016. www.hungarytoday.hu/young-hungarian-woman-already-dead-photo-became-symbol-revolution
Wilson, James Q. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.




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Castro Agonistes

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“You know you’re speaking to a dead man.”
                                                                      —Fidel Castro talking to Cuban artist Kcho

Fidel (Hipólito Casiano) Alejandro Castro Ruz died on November 25. He was born on August 13, 1926 on his father’s sugar plantation in Biran, near Mayari, in what was then Oriente Province, Cuba.

When it came to Latin dictators, he was second to none, ruling autocratically for over 56 years (if you count the time he shadowed Raul after formally retiring); longer than Porfirio Diaz, Alfredo Stroessner, Anastasio Somoza, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Rafael Trujillo, and Francisco Franco. However, as a murderous dictator, he was definitely second-class. He eliminated nowhere near as many as the 20th century’s truly heavy hitters, Mao Tse-tung (70 million), Joseph Stalin (40 million), Adolf Hitler (depends on how they’re tallied), Pol Pot (2 million) — or a slew of other, lesser killers. He did, however, kill more people than Augusto Pinochet.

Castro’s kill tally has always been a bit uncertain and somewhat controversial. Nonetheless, the late Dr. Armando Lago, a Cuban economist, attempted to document all deaths attributed to Castro in what he called the Cuban Archive Project. In it, Dr. Lago distinguished two major categories: #1, those directly killed by the regime, and #2; those whose deaths were an indirect consequence of Castro’s power. The majority of category #2 cases are mostly collateral damage from Fidel’s foreign adventures in places such as El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, etc.

When it came to Latin dictators, he was second to none, ruling autocratically for over 56 years. However, as a murderous dictator, he was definitely second-class.

To be counted in the first category, as one directly killed by the Castro regime, each candidate victim must have a name and address and have his death corroborated by two independent sources. This category includes people executed with or without a trial, those killed in prison directly or by premeditated neglect, uncooperative campesinos summarily executed during the revolution, counter-revolutionaries killed in battle after the revolution, balseros murdered adrift while attempting to leave Cuba, and a few other unfortunate souls in various other categories.

Notably, the first category also includes Cuban soldiers — both conscripts and volunteers — killed in combat abroad, mostly in Angola and Ethiopia. Dr. Lago’s tally of deaths directly attributed to Castro tops 115,000, with the balseros alone constituting over 60% of the killed, and about 5,000 casualties of the Angolan intervention. With such stringent criteria, there are doubtless more. Bear in mind that as a percentage of Cuba’s modest population, 115,000 is a notable plus or minus 2%. Dr. Lago’s second category tally tops 500,000.

* * *

Like most absolute dictators, Castro lived his life as if the world revolved around him. He kept his own idiosyncratic hours, rising late and pursuing the business of state long after midnight and well into the dawn. He’d summon underlings peremptorily at all hours of the night for orders, consultations, or dressing-downs, and keep journalists and visitors waiting indefinitely for promised interviews.

Castro’s kill tally has always been a bit uncertain and somewhat controversial.

Though loath to admit it, he had much in common with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. At the time Fidel was born, Cuba had been independent of Spain for only 25 years. In fact, Castro’s father, Angel Castro, had been a young Spanish soldier stationed in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. After Spain’s defeat, he decided to stay and try his hand at growing sugarcane in the newly US-controlled island. Although he was illiterate, it didn’t take long for the ambitious and enterprising Castro père to acquire vast tracts of land through a combination of extreme luck — he won Cuba’s biggest lottery jackpot twice — and thrift.

In Cuba, all families retained strong atavistic links to the Old World regions from which they hailed: European descendants to their home provinces and African descendants to their tribes. These took the form of clubs or associations that met often to promote old regional ties and values. Fidel’s father hailed from Galicia, the old Celtic province on the northwest coast of Spain fronting the Bay of Biscay. Galicians still play their bagpipes. (Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s inscrutable conservative prime minister, is also Galician.)

Franco too was Galician. Both were very gallego: bull-headed and inflexible, with a dedication to idealism, whatever the stripe. Vain, reserved and austere, with strong characters and personality, neither Francisco Franco nor Angel Castro had a well-developed sense of humor.

Jose Ignacio Rasco, a classmate of many years, says, “(He’s) completely lacking in a sense of humor. [He] doesn’t know how to laugh at himself. A solemn gravity is his ordinary conversational tone. [He’s] uncomfortable with small talk during which he’s given to hyperbole and suspense . . . and lying.” What little sense of humor Castro possessed was forced out at the conclusion of the Elian Gonzales saga when Fidel hosted a public conference to reflect on the event and its meaning. On the way to the podium he stumbled and fell. The audience froze. Fortunately, little Elian saved the day. When the boy started giggling, Castro loosened up and the participants thawed. Some almost laughed.

Fidel’s vanity was a strong, albeit eccentric undercurrent of his demeanor. His own best PR man, he was obsessed with his image and, by extension, the Revolution’s. In public he was always meticulously outfitted in handmade black leather boots, impeccable olive green rebel fatigues, or, in recent years, a tailored business suit. After the Revolution, he never shaved his beard — it had become a symbol of everything he stood for. However, he had no interest in finery, jewelry, or elegance — though he ate well — or the acquisition of things; and he forbade any visible signs of a personality cult, such as statues of himself or the naming of streets or plazas after him.

On the other hand, in his private person, he was not just unshaven but usually unwashed and unkempt. Before coming to power he often insisted that close family members cut his nails and attend to his laundry. Fidel’s vanity, when coupled with his humorlessness, would become a contributing factor in his own death (as I will discuss below), and more than his own death: it cost General Arnaldo Ochoa his life.

He had no interest in finery, jewelry, elegance, or the acquisition of things; he forbade any visible signs of a personality cult, such as statues of himself or the naming of streets or plazas after him.

Ochoa was a hero of the Revolution, the African wars, and many of the Latin American interventions. An easygoing and irreverent Afro-Cuban — affectionately known as “el negro” — he rose to prominence from humble origins. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, heir apparent, head of the armed forces, and the brains behind Cuba’s economic survival after the loss of Soviet subsidies, depended on Ochoa as an uninhibited sounding board. He was Raul’s best friend and drinking buddy. At the time of his death, Ochoa was arguably the third most popular man in Cuba.

On a fishing trip with el maximo lider, Ochoa crassly joked about Fidel’s unflattering swimming trunks. It was the beginning of Ochoa’s downfall. In a severe test of his brother’s loyalty, Fidel insisted that the popular general be court-martialed on trumped-up drug charges. Convicted, he was subsequently executed before a firing squad. When Raul faced Cuba’s military elite to justify and make sense of the brutal murder, he was visibly distraught. He wore a bulletproof vest and helmet. Halfway through, he broke into tears. Many suspect he was drunk — a not uncommon condition for him.

The opposite of his brother Raul, Fidel seldom drank or socialized in groups. He had a deep-seated drive to control all situations and always be the center of attention. In some ways Fidel was much more gallego than Cuban. The suspicion lingers that he had absolutely no sense of rhythm as no one ever saw him dance, beat time to music, sing, or hum along with a tune. Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, Castro’s personal bodyguard of 17 years, says in his book, The Double Life of Fidel Castro, that Fidel couldn’t dance and had no interest in music.

Castro’s anger was cold and withdrawn. In those 17 years, Sanchez saw him lose his temper only twice. When his daughter Alina defected, “Fidel went mad with rage . . . [H]is gestures resembled those of a capricious child in the middle of a tantrum: standing up, he stamped his feet on the ground while pointing his two index fingers down to his toes and waving them around.” The second time was when his mother-in-law — a dedicated tippler, bon vivant, and accomplice to one of Fidel’s wife’s infidelities — finished off a bottle of his favorite scotch.

Like Franco, Castro was not particularly out for personal gain, nor could he be characterized as a cynic. So when Forbes magazine alleged that his Swiss bank accounts made him one of the world’s richest men, it hit a nerve like nothing else, except being called a caudillo, the Spanish term for Führer — usually reserved only for Franco. On a fairly recent visit that Castro paid to Spain, the Galician premier suggested that Fidel, when he “retired,” should consider living out his last years in Galicia. Fidel studiously ignored the suggestion. But like Franco, he admired autarky. One of his very first edicts, on Christmas of 1959, was to outlaw imported Christmas trees, suggesting that palm trees ought to grace the holiday.

The suspicion lingers that he had absolutely no sense of rhythm as no one ever saw him dance, beat time to music, sing, or hum along with a tune.

Franco, like Fidel, died after a prolonged illness of the gut. Their illnesses and deaths were clouded by much rumor and speculation, because many thought their regimes’ survival depended on their own survival. Contrary to irresponsible rumors, both men are still dead. As to Castro’s regime, it’s on life support.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s ideological journey began at La Salle, the Catholic Christian Brothers’ primary school he attended, with the inculcation of boilerplate catechism, the virtues of sacrifice, and a strong empathy for the poor. Afterward, in high school, the Jesuits added an intellectual dialectic that probably undermined his religious faith — though he still retains a soft spot for liberation theology. As a child growing up in the sugarcane plantations of Oriente, he was struck by the disparities between the US-owned sugar refineries and the kowtowing of the local producers to their sometimes arrogant whims, including arbitrary price fixing and social segregation. When he learned how the American refiners entrenched themselves — during the turmoil of the US occupation after the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American War — about the shabby treatment meted out to Cuba’s independence rebels by the American expeditionary forces during and after that conflict, and about the imposition of the Platt Amendment (whereby the US Congress retained the right to veto Cuba’s foreign policy), he developed a strong anti-US and anti-imperialist streak.

At the university, attaining power for its own sake became his main focus, according to his sister Juanita and many other sources. Initially, ideology was irrelevant as long as it fitted his temperament — radical, action-centered, and decisive — so he shunned the moderate center and gravitated toward political extremes. At the time this meant gun-toting, gangsterish fringe groups — not uncommon in Cuba’s then-claustrophobic political milieu — such as the Revolutionary Insurrectional Union, which he duly joined.

He admired men of action, particularly Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Lenin. During his first years in law school, he was drawn to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera’s Spanish Falangism, the ideology behind Francisco Franco’s movement. Padre Llorente, one of Fidel’s teachers at Belen, later recalled breaking into spontaneous, rousing choruses of Cara al Sol, the Falangist anthem, with the young Castro. A bit later, he came to admire Benito Mussolini’s Fascism.

In 1948 General Fulgencio Batista, who had ruled Cuba in one form or another from 1933 to 1944, returned from his self-imposed US exile. Castro finagled an introduction to the strongman from his new brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who had become a prominent member of Batista’s inner circle. Overstepping every boundary of propriety, Fidel insinuated himself into a tête-à-tête with the ex-president and tried to convince the man to launch a coup d’état. His presumption was rebuffed in the iciest of terms.

Ideology was irrelevant as long as it fitted his temperament — radical, action-centered, and decisive — so he shunned the moderate center and gravitated toward political extremes.

So Castro moved to the center, joining the progressive, reformist Orthodox Party later that same year. Unfortunately, he was constitutionally incapable of working as a member of a team and was distrusted by the party’s ruling elite, who thought him an unprincipled gangster. Still, he decided to run for the lower house of Congress in the 1952 elections.

Unwilling to subject himself to the messy business of Cuban political sausage-making, Batista did in fact launch a coup in 1952, seizing power and canceling the elections. Fidel would probably have won his seat in Congress, but by then he’d lost all confidence in the democratic process, particularly as it was practiced in Cuba.

Exactly when Castro became a Communist has been a point of contention ever since the triumph of the Revolution. The fact that he actually never joined the party before seizing power and always kept his ideological cards close to his chest so as not to imperil his chances complicates the issue. During his congressional campaign Fidel used Raul as his intermediary with Communist Party members, who backed him but whose public support would have been detrimental. In a 1975 interview, Raul Castro confirms that it was Fidel who first introduced him to Marxism, back in 1951 when Fidel had given him Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Raul read it twice and experienced something of a Pauline conversion.

In early 1953 Fidel sent Raul to a Kremlin-sponsored international youth conference in Vienna. Raul made quite an impression, particularly on Nikolai Leonov, a young KGB operative, who befriended the Cuban. Leonov later went on to become the KGB’s top Latin America specialist. After the conference, Raul was invited to spend a month in Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

Later on, while in prison after their first botched attempt to seize power, both brothers took advantage of their enforced respite to deepen their understanding of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, reading, among other works, Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. In a December 2, 1961 speech Fidel Castro declared that he was already a Marxist when he launched his coup on July 26, 1953 by attacking the Moncada army barracks: "Various people have asked me whether back during the Moncada thing I thought then the way I think now. I've told them: 'I thought then very similarly to the way I think now. On that date, my revolutionary thinking was completely formed.’ What's more, I believed absolutely in Marxism back on January first [of that year]" (emphasis Castro's). Ideologically, if not through actual party membership, Fidel Castro had been a communist for a decade before the triumph of the Revolution.

Exactly when Castro became a Communist has been a point of contention ever since the triumph of the Revolution.

President Dwight Eisenhower was well aware of Castro’s ideology and ordered the CIA to overthrow him — a project bumblingly attempted with hired Mafia hitmen, exploding cigars, and other Rube Goldberg expedients. John F. Kennedy, when he became president, continued the operation, by then codenamed Mongoose. Between 1961 and the time of Kennedy’s assassination, there were eight separate CIA attempts on Castro — if you don’t count the one by the unlikely troika of the exiled Batista, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (whom Castro had once tried to overthrow), and Jimmy Hoffa, who may have been helping out mob friends fearful that Castro would close their Cuban operations. Instead of eliminating the problem, the attempts became high-caliber ammunition in the increasingly serious propaganda war developing between Cuba and the US.

* * *

Fidel Castro loved adulation and power and wallowed in their perks. As a leader of men, he was second to none, being able to inspire and cajole nearly anyone into anything. Though he was perceived as having the gift of gab, this was a talent he studiously developed in his years at Belen, one of Cuba’s best Jesuit high schools. There he joined the forensic society and practiced his diction, delivery, and organization of thoughts interminably — in private and before a mirror. He had to. Growing up on a sugarcane plantation in the province of Oriente, he spoke a colorful guajiro vernacular, the Cuban equivalent of the backwoods Arkansas hillbilly dialect. Later, his ability to switch back and forth between the colloquial and the educated became a potent rhetorical device that forged a deep connection with his fellow Cubans.

It is no exaggeration to say that he has spoken more words on the public record than any political leader in history. He could hold audiences rapt for hours, Führer-style. Even those who hated him would tune in for his hours-long harangues. During his first 25 years in power he delivered over 2,500 formal speeches — that’s two per week, every week. The longest on record, in January 1968, was 12 hours long — fortunately, with an intermission. He still holds the record for the longest speech — at four-and-a-half hours — ever delivered at the United Nations. “As you may well know,” he said in November 1993, “my job is to talk.”

Fidel was a “big picture” man. He could size up a man or a situation in seconds, and strategize many moves ahead in nearly any circumstance. As a political strategist and propagandist he was unequalled. But as a tactician and organizer, he was a disaster.

Between 1961 and the time of Kennedy’s assassination, there were eight separate CIA attempts on Castro's life.

When he stepped onto the pages of history on July 26, 1953 with his attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago, he tripped. Never mind that Batista had been in power for only one year and that, in Marxist terms, a “revolutionary situation” just did not exist. This first attempt to overthrow President Fulgencio Batista proved suicidal for most of the participants. Not only did they meet stiff resistance (which Castro should have expected), but all his planning had been little more than careless wishful thinking coupled with impromptu expediency (some rebels even had to ride public buses to the assault). One participant remembers Castro running around screaming hysterically, shouting orders that made no sense. Pure luck saved him. Those who weren’t killed in the strike were soon rounded up and shot in cold blood by the soldiers. A few, such as Fidel and his brother, lay low for a few days and then turned themselves in after pleas for clemency from well-connected family members made surrender a possibility.

The survivors were tried in a civil tribunal. At the trial, Castro acted as his own lawyer and summed up his defense with what would later become his most famous speech, “History will absolve me.” A sympathetic judge, Manuel Urrutia Lleo, voted for leniency. (Castro was grateful and later appointed Urrutia Provisional President after the triumph of the Revolution; he lasted only six months.) The Castro brothers were sentenced to life imprisonment on the Isle of Pines.

Fidel described his incarceration as a “necessary and welcome vacation.” In a letter home he wondered “how much longer we’re going to be in this paradise” and compared the accommodations to those of the Hotel Nacional, Cuba’s premier luxury hotel and, later, the residence of El Maximo Lider. Compared to the prison conditions his regime would impose, the Isle of Pines was a Caribbean vacation. Castro was allowed twice-monthly visits, including the conjugal sort. His cell bordered a large patio and remained open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. He was never subject to roll calls or regimentation and could rise or retire at will. The prison had a well-stocked market where Fidel, the gourmand, could buy delicacies and prepare them in his kitchen; alternatively, he could enjoy a fine meal at the small prison restaurant. He wrote home, “I take two baths a day due to the heat . . . [L]ater in the small restaurant available, I dine on calamari and pasta, Italian bonbons, fresh drip coffee and an H. Upmann #4 cigar.”

But prison wasn’t all vacation. Castro read voraciously, contributing many tomes to the Raul Gomez Garcia prison library, and ran classes for fellow inmates at the “Abel Santamaria Ideological Academy,” both of which he founded and maintained.

Two years later, again following pleas for clemency from his sympathizers — but over the strenuous objections of his ex-brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who knew him well and was a member of Congress — President Batista pardoned Fidel Castro. He and a handful of men left for Mexico to regroup and train to return to conquer Cuba.

Eric Shipton, the great British mountaineer, once said that if a man couldn’t organize an expedition on the back of an envelope, he wasn’t up to the task. Fidel seemed to belong to the back-of-the-envelope-expedition-planning school, but he was no Shipton. Though somewhat of a mountaineer, he was decidedly no sailor, and, as the disastrous Moncada attack had shown, he was thoroughly out of his element when faced with detailed and complex planning. When he finally set out to invade Cuba, he nearly trumped his Moncada failure.

On November 24, 1956, Fidel Castro launched from the Mexican port of Tuxpan with 82 men (many again arriving via public bus) aboard the critically overloaded 60-foot yacht Granma. They sailed with barely enough food, water, and fuel to reach Cuba; without medicine, charts, maps, or navigational aids (except for the built-in compass); and in the face of gale-force winds at the tail end of the Caribbean hurricane season. Blown off course, their landfall was a deliverance but also a total mystery — no one knew whether they’d landed in Jamaica or Cuba.

One participant remembers Castro running around screaming hysterically, shouting orders that made no sense. Pure luck saved him.

The men waded through chest-deep water and came ashore in a swamp whose tangled vegetation lacerated them. Solid ground was no reprieve. Batista’s air force and troops had been tipped off. They surrounded the men in a canefield and slaughtered all but a dozen, reporting back that Castro had been killed and his entire band wiped out.

What little equipment Fidel had brought on board was lost in the confusion of the disastrous landing. Miraculously, the surviving dozen were able to make their way deep into Oriente province’s Sierra Maestra Mountains to regroup and heal their wounds — including Guevara’s shot in the neck. In less than a month the Rebel Army was reduced to nine men. Luckily, no one was looking for them.

The disastrous voyage must have precipitated a massive depression in Castro, for it led to the realization that he was an organizational and management failure — no easy thing for Fidel to admit. So he promoted his brother Raul to captain just before landfall. This proved to be the best decision he ever made. Ironically, Fidel’s principal weaknesses as a leader were his brother’s greatest strengths. Raul would later rise to become the tactical mastermind not only of the conquest of the island but also of the remarkably successful Angolan and Ethiopian military interventions and, finally, of Cuba’s economic salvation when the Soviet Union imploded.

During the two-year-long insurrection, Fidel Castro remained in the Sierra Maestra strategizing and propagandizing, while Raul coordinated, organized, and managed the details of the revolution. Field Commanders Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos advanced, fought the battles, and won the victories. But they also had outside help.

At the time, Castro’s 26th of July Movement was not the only armed resistance to Batista, but it was the key one. Alongside it, the Students’ Revolutionary Directory organized urban hits, while the Escambray Front and Second Escambray Front both waged guerrilla war from the Escambray Mountains in Camaguey province near the center of the island.

Blown off course, their landfall was a deliverance but also a total mystery — no one knew whether they’d landed in Jamaica or Cuba.

On New Year’s Day 1959, Santa Clara, the capital of Las Villas province, fell to a rebel pincer movement coordinated with the combined forces of the Escambray Fronts. One thousand demoralized government troops surrendered. The following day, Guevara and Cienfuegos, at the head of their victorious armies, entered Havana. The capital went wild. But Batista had already fled on New Year’s Eve; and Fidel, ever the showman, delayed his triumphant entry until January 8. Then the world went wild.

The two-year war had been relatively bloodless, with only 867 casualties on both sides. But Castro soon made up for it with firing squads. As Grayston Lynch, one of two CIA operatives present in the Bay of Pigs invasion, states, “In the first three months of his regime, Castro topped the 867 figure with room to spare. More than 5,000 Cubans would meet their death at the paredon, the firing wall.”

* * *

Fidel’s family tree is messily complex. He himself was not the son of his father’s wife, Maria Luisa Argota, but rather of his father’s 19-year-old live-in lover, Lina Ruz — Angel Castro and Maria having separated years before and taken up new mates. At the time, both in Cuba and in Spain, illegitimacy was a harsh burden, branded on the offspring with the mother’s surname instead of the father’s. Castro’s father did not marry Lina Ruz until the boy turned 17, at which time he became Fidel Castro instead of Fidel Ruz. He would forevermore hold social conventions in contempt. Fidel had six full brothers and sisters — in order, Angelita, Ramon, Fidel, Raul, Juanita, Enma, and Agustina — and two siblings from his father’s first wife: Lidia and Pedro Emilio.

Initially, Angel Castro spent little time with Fidel, foisting him off on Haitian tutors in far-off Santiago at the age of four to begin his proper education. At the time, he was much too busy managing the family ranch, and he believed, as was common then, in the benefits of a boarding school experience. Fidel hated it, complaining that “these people don’t care for us, they don’t feed us, we’re always hungry, the house is very ugly, the woman is lazy and we’re just wasting time here.” Much later — perhaps out of guilt or regret — Fidel became his father’s favorite son and was spoiled rotten by him. Like many overindulged children, Fidel bullied younger playmates and threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way. He was a bad loser.

On the one hand, Angel Castro wanted, more than anything else, for at least one son — Fidel — to achieve a university education. On the other hand, Fidel lacked his family’s entrepreneurial bent and showed no inclination toward or talent for earning an honest living. The boy was a brilliant dilettante. So, Angel provided money and powerful contacts to his son well into adulthood. Nonetheless, father-son dynamics played out their strange minuet with, at best, Fidel becoming ambivalent about his father and, at worst, deploring him. Juanita Castro, in her memoirs, quotes Fidel as saying, at news of their father’s death, “There’s no time for mourning; we need to prepare for worse things,” while both Ramon and Raul wept unselfconsciously.

Promoting his brother Raul to captain proved to be the best decision Castro ever made. Fidel’s principal weaknesses as a leader were his brother’s greatest strengths.

There were many reasons for the ambivalence. Fidel and his father both shared similar, very gallego personalities, which clashed. Both had an inflexible drive to dominate, untempered by any vestige of wit. And both had a strong sense of social justice, which nonetheless led them to clash ideologically. Angel’s was more noblesse oblige, while Fidel rejected what he perceived as rightful entitlements dependent on the charitable whims of any one man. The Castro compound in Biran just wasn’t big enough for both egos. Finally, Fidel, the ultra-nationalist Cuban chauvinist who would rise to avenge all the injustices — real and imagined — that were ever imposed on the Pearl of the Antilles, couldn’t stomach the fact that his father had fought against Cuban independence, never regretted it, and didn’t become a Cuban citizen until 1941, at the ripe old age of 66.

Playing no favorites and exercising his inflexible streak of dogmatism, Fidel confiscated all the Castro family lands after the Revolution (though he warned his family to sell their herd before the Agrarian Reform edict went into effect).

Castro’s middle names are both revealing and a source of controversy. The first, Hipolito, was given by the Haitian foster family under whose care he lived while attending grammar school in Santiago de Cuba, Oriente. As more-or-less godparents, they had the privilege of conferring a middle name. No one knows the origin of Casiano. The only source for the name is a Cuban government secondary school diploma issued in September 1945. Alejandro, on the other hand, is self-endowed, a tribute to Alexander the Great, one of Fidel’s long-time heroes. It replaced Hipolito and Casiano; and became the given name for three of his sons: Alexis, Alejandro, and Alex.

Castro’s family name speaks volumes. The word comes from the Latin castrum, meaning castle. In Asturias and Galicia whence it originates as a family name, it refers to a pre-Roman fortified hill site — one that has stood its ground interminably. Fidel, of course, is from the Latin for loyal.

Fidel’s love life was even more Byzantine. In 1948 he married his teenage sweetheart, Mirta Diaz-Balart, a woman whose family were intimates of Fulgencio Batista and whose brother would soon become a minister in his government. Flush with a $10,000 gift from his dad, Fidel bought a blue Lincoln, shipped it to Miami and drove to New York for their honeymoon. They had one son, Fidelito. But differences — in aspirations, in politics, in families, and in fidelity (in spite of his name, Fidel was el maximo philanderer, being nicknamed El Caballo — The Stallion — by Benny Moré, the popular entertainer [by contrast, Batista was a dedicated family man]) — soon undermined the marriage. He didn’t marry again until 1980; but the number of his affairs and assignations rivaled the length of his speeches.

In his Sierra Maestra redoubt he took up with Celia Sanchez, the woman who would later become what Juanita Castro described as “the right hand, left hand, both feet and beard of Fidel.” Meanwhile, at the triumph of the Revolution, Castro wallowed in female adoration. Yanez Pelletier, a confidante who’d once saved him in prison from poisoning, became his procurer. He was known as “minister of the bedroom,” a nickname coined by Raul. When Pelletier fell from grace, Celia Sanchez became his intimate executive secretary, moving into Fidel’s quarters with him. Though now severely circumscribed, the assignations still continued. When Celia Sanchez died in 1980, Fidel was bereft.

Fidel couldn’t stomach the fact that his father had fought against Cuban independence, never regretted it, and didn’t become a Cuban citizen until the ripe old age of 66.

Still, less than a week after her death, he married Dalia Soto del Valle, the mystery woman with whom Fidel had shared his life since 1961. As if reinforcing the myth that the Revolution was his only mistress, Castro imposed such a low profile on her that Brian Lattell, a CIA analyst, says that “[she] and her sons might as well have been consigned to a witness protection program, so elaborate are the security precautions that surround them”. She never attended any of his public appearances (unless in disguise) and did not accompany him on official functions, diplomatic receptions, or foreign trips. During the latter, his mistresses included Juana Vera, “Pili” Pilar — both interpreters — and Gladys, a Cubana airline flight attendant. All told, at least five different liaisons, relationships, and marriages produced nine to twelve children. He was coy about it. Asked in 1993 how many children he had, Castro replied, “Less than a dozen . . . I think.” (Wikipedia and Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, his bodyguard, tally nine and ten, respectively.) Like their mothers and his siblings, some are with him, some are against him, and some have come to terms with the status quo.

* * *

Fidel Castro couldn’t really be characterized as a psycho- or sociopath, though he had a well-developed sense of vengefulness. And he wasn’t all-consumed by the suspicious mistrust and cruelty that absorbed Stalin and Mao. Unlike most of the other 20th-century tyrants, he was tall, athletic, and handsome. His Jesuit education and law degree inspired a thoughtful, intellectual sophistry that made him an absorbing confabulator, gifted with a glib tongue. But the world didn’t see this side during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Instead it saw an aggrieved adolescent. Fidel Castro had a streak of brinksmanship, an uncontrollable desire to “play chicken,” come what may. Jose Rasco recounts an episode of the young Fidel making a bet with a classmate, Luis Juncadella, that “he [Castro] was capable of crashing, head first, on a bicycle at full speed, against a concrete wall in full view of the entire school. And he did it, at the cost of cracking his head and ending up unconscious in the infirmary.”

Arnaldo Aguila, a recent biographer, gives this analysis:

Right here, from his youngest years, Fidel’s personality all comes together: an illegitimate social origin; an authoritarian father, brusque and of strong character, hard, without affection, indifferent; an excellent physical constitution that permits him to best others easily; a memory so outside the norm that no other student comes even close and an egoistical self-denial that impels him against every type of wall (including social impediments and Yankee Imperialism) coupled with a deep-seated passion to excel, to make bets to demonstrate that he can realize what others won’t even attempt, that he’s better than everyone else, perhaps to impress/defeat his father.

When Nikita Khrushchev provided China with nuclear weapons technology and missiles in the late 1950s, he was unaware of Mao’s absolute disdain for human life. He assumed that Mao’s long relationship with the USSR made him trustworthy. He soon learned otherwise and, by 1960, withdrew all technical nuclear assistance to China.

Two years later, when Castro requested nuclear missiles, Khrushchev jumped at the opportunity. But burned once, he didn’t fully trust Fidel (despite his name). So he complied only on condition that the Soviet Union retain absolute control over them. Though Castro agreed, it infuriated him. That fury was further aggravated when he was left out of the Kennedy-Khrushchev negotiations and subsequent missile removal that defused the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Castro had a streak of brinksmanship, an uncontrollable desire to “play chicken,” come what may.

The Missile Crisis was precipitated by the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in mid-October of that year and by President Kennedy’s ultimatum that they be removed. The crisis consisted of the threat that failure to do so would precipitate armed attack. In anticipation, the US mobilized the navy to blockade the island. On October 26 Castro informed Khrushchev that “the Soviet Union ought never to permit circumstances in which the imperialists could launch a first nuclear strike…and that if they invade Cuba that would be the moment to eliminate forever such a danger — no matter how hard and terrible that solution may seem . . .”

On October 30, Khrushchev responded to Castro: “In your cable . . . you proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear strike against the enemy. You do understand the consequences of this. This wouldn’t be a single strike, instead . . . the start of a thermonuclear world war . . . Evidently, in such a case the US would suffer great losses, but the USSR and the entire socialist camp would also suffer much. As to Cuba and the Cuban people . . . at the start of the war Cuba would burn . . .”

The next day Castro confirmed to Khrushchev that he well understood the consequences: “I knew . . . Do not presume that I ignored . . . that [the Cubans] would be exterminated . . . in case of a thermonuclear war…”

It’s good that no one was paying attention to him: he had made it quite clear that he would not have backed down whatever the consequences. Perceiving the entire event as an unpardonable breach of Cuba’s sovereignty, he soured on Khrushchev, and relations with the USSR worsened. China and Mao Tse-tung’s more uncompromising brand of communism became his new best friends.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s drive to prove that he’s better than everyone else drove him to eliminate his immediate competition — anyone whose charisma and popularity threatened to overshadow his, as in the case of General Arnaldo Ochoa. After his accession to power, Castro set his sights on Huber Matos, leader of one of the independent Escambray Fronts. By luck or design, he managed to kill two birds with one stone.

Matos had sent a letter to Fidel resigning his position because of ideological differences. Since Fidel brooked no ideological differences, he declared Matos in rebellion and sent Camilo Cienfuegos, second in popularity only to Fidel, to arrest him. After meeting with Matos, Cienfuegos advised Castro that there was really no rebellion; that in fact, Matos was simply resigning. That night, the plane carrying Camilo Cienfuegos back to Havana mysteriously crashed. The second officer dispatched to arrest Matos did not question Castro’s orders. Matos, however, got off easy. Due to his own very public and principled defense, Cienfuegos’ mysterious death, the ensuing publicity over the whole affair, and pleas from foreign governments and NGO’s, Matos kept his life but spent the next 20 years in prison, after which he emigrated to the US. Huber Matos died in 2014.

Castro took it personally (as well he might). So he sent Guevara along with about 100 Cubans into the very heart of darkness — the Congo.

Che Guevara was next. The Argentine had captured the world’s admiration and affection with his idealism and boyish good looks. He appeared as an Argentine selflessly risking his life in a foreign country for a Robin Hood morality; a slight, asthmatic waif, barely able to grow a beard, brandishing a Thompson sub-machine gun and puffing a big cigar, with a refreshing but unpredictable tendency “to call shit, shit.”

Soon after taking power Fidel had to transition his confidants from military duties to civilian appointments. During one brainstorming session, he asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up and Castro appointed him minister of industries, then finance minister, and finally president of the national bank. In September 1960, Che nationalized the banks. Then, in a quick sleight-of-hand move, he announced a new currency, convertible only in limited amounts. Most Cubans’ life savings suddenly disappeared. Che’s idealism, when coupled with Castro’s unwillingness to share the spotlight, would cost him his life.

When Guevara published an article in 1965 criticizing the disparity between the lives of the Revolution’s elites and those of the common people, Castro took it personally (as well he might). So he sent Guevara along with about 100 Cubans into the very heart of darkness — the Congo, where the remnants of Patrice Lumumba’s forces were mired in the hopeless task of trying to regain power. It wasn’t the beginning of Fidel’s foreign adventurism, a policy of exporting socialist revolution around the world. That had begun back in June 1959, with his disastrous attempt to invade, first, the Dominican Republic to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo, and then the following month his attack against Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Nearly all the men on both attempts perished.

Before leaving, Guevara, in private, wrote his will, renounced his Cuban offices and citizenship and compared Castro to Stalin. In a fit of pique, Castro made the documents public. When Mobutu Sese Seko consolidated power, the Cubans admitted defeat and returned to Cuba — all that is except Guevara. But Congo did not become El Che’s grave. Uncomfortable about returning to Cuba, he bided his time in Dar-es-Salaam and Prague until duty again beckoned.

Castro hit the mark when he then sent Guevara to Bolivia. There he was to organize the peasants and overthrow the government. Daniel Alarcon, Che’s second-in-command, recalled, “Fidel accorded with the USSR and the Bolivian Communist Party sending Che to die in the jungle,” where he was ignominiously executed on October 9, 1967.

Soon thereafter Castro decided to get serious about exporting revolution. At the end of the ’60s he established Punto Cero de Guanabo, a 64-square-kilometer training camp 15 miles east of Havana for Marxist guerillas. The list of recruits trained at Punto Cero is a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s radicals: from Colombia — the FARC, the ELN, and M19; from Peru — the Shining Path and MRTA; from Chile — the Patriotic Front of Manuel Rodriguez, from Nicaragua — the FSLN (Sandinistas); from El Salvador — the FMLN; from Spain — ETA (the Basque separatist movement); from Northern Ireland — the IRA; from Palestine — the PLO; from Western Sahara — the Polisario Front; from the US — the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Macheteros; from Venezuela — Carlos the Jackal; from Mexico — Sub-Comandante Marcos; and an unnamed group from Guatemala.

Thanks to Fidel Castro, the Cuban people have buried their dead in the most unlikely corners of the earth. Perhaps the most absurd intervention El Maximo Lider ever undertook was in the Ethiopia-Somalia war. Somalia, a Soviet client state ruled by the iron fist of Mohamed Siad Barre, coveted Ethiopia’s Ogaden region under the guise of creating a greater Somalia. Mengistu Haile Mariam, absolute ruler of Ethiopia — also a Soviet client state — would have none of it. Castro, fancying himself an honest broker, decided to mediate. He counseled peace. When Siad Barre ignored his counsel and Somalia attacked Ethiopia, Fidel intervened by sending Cuban troops and materiel to Ethiopia, effectively giving Mengistu the upper hand.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s star shone brightly in the fall of 1979. His lifelong quest for glory and power had achieved its zenith: against all odds, he won his first and only election — and on a global stage, at that — for president of the non-aligned movement, consisting of those countries that professed neutrality in the Cold War. The victory was all the more remarkable because of Cuba’s $6 billion a year Soviet subsidy. There was no denying that he was firmly embedded in the Soviet camp.

The list of recruits trained at Castro's Punto Cero Marxist guerrilla camp is a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s radicals.

The Cuban army had been active in Africa as early as 1961, with aid to Ahmed Ben Bella’s liberation movement in Algeria. It later intervened in conflicts in Congo-Brazzaville and Guinea-Bissau. By 1979 Cuban troops were four years into the 16-year Angolan intervention, which later secured the victory of the Marxist regime. Forty thousand were to remain to guarantee it. They had met the South African army on the battlefield and were besting them. The Cuban intervention involved the air and sea transport of 60,000 troops over 6,000 miles despite the obstacle of limited or nonexistent forward international bases. This resulted in long journeys aboard old aircraft with overworked pilots. While Cuban soldiers’ pay averaged only 71 US cents per month, the Angolan government reimbursed the Cuban government 40 US dollars per soldier per day — a nifty profit for Fidel. Castro himself ran strategic and tactical operations from Havana after Soviet advisors in the field proved inept.

Another ten to fifteen thousand troops were stationed in Ethiopia propping up Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist government. Now they were contemplating intervention in neighboring Sudan. In his own backyard, Castro had been crucial in boosting to power Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Maurice Bishop in Granada. Everywhere, the Cubans had fought with great ferocity, upholding their commander-in-chief’s uncompromising demands. It was a staggering accomplishment for a country of 10.5 million.

In contrast, the US was mired in the throes of “Vietnam syndrome” and had just survived Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. For Fidel, things couldn’t be better. In October 1979, he traveled to New York to address the United Nations demanding: “We want a new world order based on justice, equality and peace to replace the unfair and unequal system that prevails today…” Never again would the stars align so propitiously for Fidel.

And then, on Christmas Eve, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, precipitating Castro’s long descent into failure and irrelevance. The invasion proved beyond the pale even for the corrupt, authoritarian, and sycophantic left-wing governments that comprised most of the non-aligned movement. Unable to justify the invasion on non-aligned principles, Castro capitulated to the USSR: “We [are] not going to place ourselves on the side of the United States and so we [are] on the side of the Soviet Union.” For the rest of his three-year term as president of the non-aligned movement, he was a lame duck.

While Cuban soldiers’ pay averaged only 71 US cents per month, the Angolan government reimbursed the Cuban government 40 US dollars per soldier per day — a nifty profit for Fidel.

The invasion and reversal of fortune was a devastating blow whose consequences rippled throughout Cuban society and into the very bowels of the Kremlin. Economic problems had worsened considerably while Fidel had been preoccupied with his international feats. On April 1, 1980, a group of Cubans crashed the gates of the Peruvian embassy seeking political asylum. Thinking that there were only a disaffected few, Castro urged any and all who wished, to leave. To his surprise and embarrassment, 10,000 desperate Cubans from all over the island stormed the embassy, occupying every inch of space, perching on tree limbs and roofs. Even policemen deployed to maintain order joined the throngs. Humiliated, Castro decided to shift the problem to the US. He opened Mariel harbor to unlimited emigration for four months. The Dunkirk-style evacuation freed 125,000 refugees; including murderers, rapists, psychopaths, and the criminally insane, whom he’d surreptitiously thrown in for good measure.

For the Soviet Union, the Afghan war proved a burden too heavy for a bankrupt system already on the verge of collapse. In the crisis beginning in 1989, Soviet Communism capitulated to the popular will, the Union dissolved, the ruble became worthless, and Cuba’s subsidies disappeared.

* * *

Motivated by socialist values, Fidel Castro outlawed and stamped out all private economic enterprise — except whenever Cuba’s economy bottomed out. At those points, emulating Lenin’s New Economic Policy, he’d legalize small, tightly regulated — and exorbitantly taxed (sometimes at more than 100% of gross receipts) — entrepreneurial initiatives. Once Cuba’s economy was back on its bound feet, he’d outlaw them again.

When the Soviet Union fell and Cuba’s subsidies were cut, it took more than family restaurants and B&B’s to float the island. So Fidel reached for a new paradigm: he launched what may be called CASTROS (Capitalism, Apartheid, and Socialism To Restore Our Solvency). Here’s how it worked. The Cuban government, employer and investor of first and last resort (Socialism) created joint partnerships with foreign firms to create profits (Capitalism). The profits provided — and still do — the lion’s share of Cuba’s income. The joint partnerships, mostly developed as resorts for foreign tourists, employed a handful of Cubans. No other Cubans were allowed on or near the resorts or their clientele (Apartheid). The resort economy has its own currency, tightly controlled and unavailable to regular Cubans. Following an earlier Chinese model, the authority for the joint partnerships resides in the army, headed by Raul Castro. The joint partnerships are now a bigger source of foreign reserve than sugar, which, ever since nationalization, has underperformed.

Having grown up on a farm, Castro considered himself something of an agricultural expert. His first big program was island-wide agrarian reform. At first, this mostly meant the confiscation and nationalization of all the big sugar plantations and refineries. But later, every cow, pig, and chicken became state property. Not a few campesinos paid the ultimate price for slaughtering their backyard animals for a meaty meal without permission. After Soviet tractors and parts became unavailable, draft oxen replaced 90% of mechanized farm labor.

Inevitably shortages ensued and the government instituted rationing. Even sugar was rationed. Cuban cuisine suffered without olive oil, cooking sherry, capers, ham, chorizo, pimentos, and other essential ingredients. With cattle being retained from the abattoirs and trained as draft animals, beef all but disappeared. But el maximo dietician came to the rescue. Production of comestibles turned organic and “sustainable” — out of necessity, not health concerns. Salads, previously considered nothing more than “grass and water,” became a de rigueur staple, topped with eggless mayonnaise, something considered by Cubans America’s worst invention. And roadside kiosks, once a staple of innumerable meat goodies, now sell previously exotic “pizzas” of dough, tomato sauce, and cheese.

Having grown up on a farm, Castro considered himself something of an agricultural expert.

Fidel raised the intellectual level of the sugar harvest by drafting primary, high school, and university students and faculty members to “voluntarily” wield machetes to bring in each season’s cane crop. No doubt these were welcome physical sabbaticals for overworked brains. Another of his innovations was the expansion of the coffee crop from steep, well-drained mountainsides down to low, water-logged flatlands. Coffee production bottomed. But his real genius lay in tobacco cultivation. A previously dedicated cigar smoker, he left that alone.

Fidel was also, however, a medical innovator. Although back in 1953 Cuba had more doctors per capita than France, Holland, or the UK, Castro perceived a problem. Today, Cuba’s healthcare system of free universal coverage is the envy of every well-intentioned, ill-informed humanitarian. True, it’s absolutely free to the patient; the Cuban government picks up all the costs — in money, anyway. Trouble is, the government’s intentions are bigger than its pocketbook, so extreme shortages and rationing result. For expedited attention, an under-the-table gratuity is expected. In hopes of fat tips, underpaid doctors moonlight as taxi drivers for rich tourists. True also that everyone is covered — about as well as a dishcloth covers a king-size bed; only those in the center get complete coverage.

Fidel’s countless economic failures are due not just to his doctrinaire Marxism but also to a remarkable talent he was born with: a photographic memory. He discovered the trait as a student when faced with exams for which he hadn’t cracked a book and for which he was forced to cram at the last minute. The photographic memory — allowing him to memorize entire books, including the page numbers of particulars — saved him. But he always confused memory with a critical understanding of actual knowledge. This, coupled with his absolute lack of humility, prevented him from realizing that he was incapable of wisdom.

Time after time, after reading a single book on the subject du jour, Fidel would talk expertly about the marvelous economic benefits of some half-baked new scheme: how Cuba would overflow with milk once Pangola grass was planted to feed the dairy herds; how every Cuban would eat steak every day once Holsteins and Zebus were crossed (a project he pursued on the fourth floor of his downtown Havana residence with the help of a construction crane to lift and lower livestock); how the Zapata swamps would feed not only all of Cuba but much of the entire world, once they were drained and planted with a new strain of rice — how whatever new invention of his would cause manna to fall from the sky.

* * *

Fidel’s skills as an advocate were at their postmodern, post-ironic best when confronting the long-running US trade embargo. When the US first declared an embargo on the regime, it was a boilerplate, pro forma response to a worsening diplomatic situation. At the time, not only were embargoes considered rational alternatives to war (as they still are), they were actually considered effective. Today, with globalization and free trade much more in the ascendant, embargoes have become increasingly symbolic.

Castro's real genius lay in tobacco cultivation. A dedicated cigar smoker, he left that crop alone.

No one has exploited the propaganda value of the embargo better than Fidel, to the absolute embarrassment and chagrin of every US administration that prolongs it. But the truly post-ironic aspect of the embargo is the blind brinksmanship of both sides. If a US president, calling Castro’s bluff, had declared free trade with Cuba, it would have been Castro who would have invoked his own embargo against the flood of goods, traders, and tourists. After all, such an invasion would have been much more effective than any military operation. And Castro is well aware of this. Serious overtures to lift the embargo, first by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration and later by Jimmy Carter, were peremptorily rebuffed.

Relations with the United States at the end of the Fidel Castro era aren’t bad at all. The embargo, as regards trade in food and medicine has been eased. Fidel, perhaps with a little arm-twisting from his brother Raul, cooperated with the US war on terror by no longer overtly questioning the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military base and by cooperating with the enemy combatant incarceration program there. Escapees were quickly returned. And he finally cooperated with the war on drugs. Though many years ago he presided over narcotics, ivory, and tobacco smuggling operations and turned a blind eye to drug transshipments and money laundering — mostly to irritate the US and gain a tidy profit to finance his Revolution — he later purged his regime of all drug related graft. The anti-drug policy is still strictly enforced.

As an informal quid pro quo, the US refrains from any Bay of Pigs sort of enterprise and keeps close tabs on US based anti-Castro armed activity. Additionally, we’ve modified our unrestricted Cuban refugee policy; we now return any and all refugees who don’t actually make a US landing. These informal understandings, along with a desire to avoid bloodshed and maintain stability, are perceived as the basis for a post-Fidel transition.

* * *

In January of 2004, the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, after meeting with Fidel Castro while vacationing in Cuba, reported that, “he seemed very sick to me.” His condition, later diagnosed as diverticulitis and aggravated by vanity, deteriorated over the course of the following two years. Unwilling to undergo the indignity of a colostomy bag, he insisted on a proper fixing up. The operation led to septicemia, which nearly killed him then, and set the stage for his ultimate demise.

If a US president, calling Castro’s bluff, had declared free trade with Cuba, it would have been Castro who would have invoked his own embargo against the flood of goods, traders, and tourists.

On July 31, 2006 — two weeks before his 80th birthday — Fidel temporarily delegated his duties to his brother Raul while he recuperated. But his close brush with death and his slow recovery finally led him — one and a half years later, in February 2008 — to retire from all his government offices, at which time Raul assumed all official duties.

It wasn’t his first brush with death. In April of 1983 he suffered his first recorded intestinal attack, which hospitalized him for 11 days, after which he convalesced for three months with no public appearances or speeches. The second attack occurred in September 1992 and was graver than the first, precipitating the initiation of transition protocols. During both events, Castro resorted to using a double who would ride the streets of Havana in his limousine, waving to passers-by to dispel any rumors that might have been leaked.

At his retirement, Castro’s fortune was estimated at $900 million, among the world’s top ten, by Forbes magazine — a revelation that irritated him no end and which he vehemently denied, claiming that he owned nothing but his nine-hundred peso monthly salary, equivalent to about $38.

But Cuba did not change, and, contrary to all expectations, Fidel Castro remained the “conscience of the Revolution,” exercising influence through his column in Granma (Cuba’s version of Pravda), hovering and pontificating over all things large and small, exerting a censorious tempering judgment over events, and merely by being alive — a condition guaranteed to put the brakes on any radical reforms. To emphasize his resurgent vigor, he was elected Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement, serving from 2006 to 2008.

Until 2011, Fidel Castro remained Chairman of the Communist Party of Cuba, in effect the guiding light of the Revolution, and a strong tempering influence on any possibility of change by his brother in the island.

He did, however, admit to some mistakes. He’d mishandled the Cuban Missile Crisis; he’d advocated nuking the US; he’d been wrong to persecute gays. Further, the “Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” He had already given up cigars back in 1985, for health reasons. And, as befits a retired pensioner, he took to wearing colorful tracksuits even during photo opportunities. Fidel’s Granma editorials ruminated on international events, sometimes striking a loud chord, especially when he berated the US policy of subsidizing ethanol, which he correctly perceived as a cause of rising food prices in the Americas; and when he warned the US not to engage in wars with Iran or North Korea after one Afghan and two Iraqi wars.

In 2012, the master of endless words — who had already corralled his thoughts from interminable logorrhea into much shorter newspaper editorials — further truncated his opinions into the severely constrained structure of the haiku, versifying on current affairs and recent history such as bemoaning Deng Xiaoping’s invention of “socialist capitalism” in three short lines. Cubans scratched their heads.

Cuba did not change, and, contrary to all expectations, Fidel Castro remained the “conscience of the Revolution,” exerting a censorious tempering judgment over events merely by being alive.

From March to November Fidel disappeared from public involvement. Since he didn’t congratulate Hugo Chavez on his October 7 reelection victory, rumors proliferated about his demise. The Miami Herald even reported that he’d suffered a debilitating stroke that left him in a vegetative state. To counter the speculation, a very frail Castro was wheeled into the Hotel Nacional to chat with the staff and provide a photo-op for the foreign press. Two days later, in a state media article ironically titled “Fidel Castro is dying,” he wrote that he was fine but that Cubans would hear even less from him in the future (shades of Franco).

When, in December 2014, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to reestablish diplomatic relations, Fidel remained silent. On the day the US Embassy was reopened, August 14, 2015 — one day after Fidel’s 89th birthday — he finally weighed in, declaring that the US owed Cuba billions of dollars in lost revenue because of the embargo. He still didn’t realize that trade is a two-way street. US Republican responses categorized the deal as a birthday present to Fidel; but judging from Fidel’s silence and petulant response, he perceived it as a slap in the face.

Castro shared one trait with former US President Richard Nixon. According to bodyguard Sanchez, Castro had a mania for recording everything. Perhaps someday the entire oeuvre of the Castro tapes will be released and the world will be able to listen to him in perpetuity.

Fidel, perhaps with a little arm-twisting from his brother Raul, cooperated with the US war on terror by no longer overtly questioning the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military base.

As of this writing, few realize that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba does not eliminate the embargo originally established by Dwight Eisenhower, strengthened by John F. Kennedy, and further fortified by Bill Clinton though the Helms-Burton Act. Only a congressional amendment or rescission of the Act can reverse the US embargo. Still, there was one dramatic change in Cuban policy: political detentions dropped to 178 in January 2015 from a monthly average of 741 in 2014.

* * *

As to Cuba, the scuttlebutt is that Raul wants to follow the China model by opening up the economy and making the peso convertible. This would allow him to retain power and, as head of the army’s joint venture programs, keep the money flowing into his coffers. Though everyone wants a peaceful transition, these “understandings” completely ignore Cubans’ — domestic and expatriate — democratic aspirations.




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The Green, Green Cane of Cuba

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Cuba has garnered a reputation for, and has been touted as, a model of green, organic, non-GMO sustainable production and consumption. According to the Organic Consumers Association (quoting Cultivating Havana: Urban Agriculture and Food Security in the Years of Crisis, a study), many of the foods that people eat every day in Cuba are grown without synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides.

Some of this is true, but because the regimen has been adopted out of necessity and not out of ideology (unless you count the Communist ideology that brought this on in the first place), it is not rigorously adhered to in the way in which, for instance, an organic farmer in the US might adhere to it. It is expediency, with ideology added after the fact to capitalize on necessity.

At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail.

As USA Today reported in March, “Cuba once focused on capital-intensive, industrialized agriculture on large state-run farms, but was forced to change after economic support from the Soviet Union evaporated. Beginning in 1990, Cuban food production fell precipitously. The country shifted to a low-input agricultural cooperative model. Even so, it suffered serious food shortages in 1994, which prompted further changes.” It might be added that, changes or not, sugar production has fallen by 60% over the past 30 years.

Unable to import industrial fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba resorted to using horse, cow, pig, chicken, and even human waste for soil nutrition. And it tried to become self-sufficient in food production. At one time, killing what heretofore had been your own chicken but was now state property could land a campesino in jail. And woe betide the gardener who broke a shovel — sabotage!

Into the breach stepped Uncle Sam, easing the embargo restrictions on exporting food and medicine to Cuba.

On my recent bike trip across Cuba, I was accompanied by a bourgeois socialist couple — retired on government pensions, upbeat about Castro’s “reforms,” berning-for-Bernie — who wanted to see the island before it was “ruined” by McDonalds, Walmarts, discount dollar stores, and other popular tendrils of free choice that might invade once the embargo is lifted. Fair-weather vegetarians (don’t mention bacon around them!), free-range egg fans, supplement-swallowing, sugar-hating, GMO-abjuring, organic-food faddists, they were also looking forward to eating “healthy” food in Cuba.

Well, Cubans don’t do vegetarianism. Castro pushed salads — mostly cabbage — on them during the “Special Period” in the ’90s; and, at least for tourists, greens remain a dependable staple, composed mostly of cabbage, tomatoes, beets, and cukes topped with canola oil and vinegar. But Cubans much prefer meat, beans, rice, and starchy veggies — yuca, malanga, and plantains, preferably fried — plus anything with sugar: rum (and any other alcoholic drink, such as the mojito, with an added dollop of sugar), guarapo (pure sugar cane juice), raw sugar cane, churros, cucurucho (a mixture of honey, nuts, coconut, and sugar), coffee brewed with sugar (traditional), malta (a thick, extremely sweet version of non-alcoholic malt stout), coke mixed with sweetened condensed milk, ice cream, and extra sweet pastries.

Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice it up.

On our visit to Cuba, my wife and I saw chickens everywhere, scrawny but free range. Every evening when arriving at our lodging, our host would offer us dinner, an always preferable alternative to eating in a government restaurant. I’d ask what was available and, knowing Cuban cuisine, would decide for the group. Initially I’d lean toward chicken out of respect for my “vegetarian” companions. Invariably, the chicken portions would consist of a giant thigh and leg with meat so white one could have mistaken it for a breast.

Aside: contrary to popular US perception, Cuba does have a fast-food restaurant chain — El Rapido, a state-run enterprise. Guidebooks and trip accounts tout it as dependable, with food quality varying from passable to good, especially the chicken — again, a thigh and leg combo. We never ate at a Rapido — but not for lack of trying. The ones we stopped at were either out of meat or not serving food because something had malfunctioned, or something else had gone wrong — but still open, with full staff just sitting around.

Riding with me in a taxi one day, Melinda, one of my progressive companions, wondered how the chickens we were served were so big when the ones we saw roaming about were so rickety. So I asked our driver. He said Cubans don’t kill their chickens, they’re for eggs. Eatin’ chickens are stamped with madinusa. Not familiar with the term, I asked him what it meant. He looked wryly at me, sideways, and then I got it: Made in USA.

When I told Melinda she gulped and said, “You mean we’ve been eating Purdue chickens? From now on let’s ask for pork; at least it’s organic.”

Pork is the ubiquitous Cuban meat. The only available roadside lunch snacks were in-season fruit stands and roast pork sandwiches consisting solely of pork and bread. (Cuba grows no wheat; it’s all imported, some of it possibly GMO.) Our diet-conscious couple brought boxes of “natural” granola bars so as to avoid the pork. My wife and I brought a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of sriracha sauce to spice up the pork sandwiches (yes, it’s a strange combination, but delicious).

Beef was the least available meat, even though we saw lots of cattle in the central provinces. Apparently it’s reserved for the nomenclatura and tourists. Though not available in government ration stores, it can be obtained by anyone at convertible currency stores — if you have the money. At one B&B where the owner was tickled pink that I was a Cuban-American, it brought out her impish side. I requested ropa vieja, a traditional brisket or flank steak dish. She thought about it for a minute and said, “We can do that. And it’ll be the best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.”

I responded, “Remember, I had a Cuban mother.”

Without skipping a beat she retorted, “It’ll be the second-best ropa vieja you’ve ever had.” We both laughed.

Fish is widely available but of varying quality. Whenever it was offered as fresh and a good species, especially pargo, Cuban Red Snapper (nothing like it!), I opted for it. Yes, Cuba hasn’t overfished its stocks. But not for eco-ideological reasons; rather for “sugar cane-curtain” reasons: to limit small boat traffic along its shores, minimizing escape and infiltration attempts. Additionally, small-enterprise fishing businesses haven’t been allowed: the state will provide the fish. However, lobster is often available, and it is to die for — huge, cheap, and delicious.

Arguably, our best meal was at a paladar (private restaurant) in Playa Giron (aka Bay of Pigs). We were the only ones there. The menu, recited, not read, included a special trio of fresh fish, shrimp, and lobster, all for $15 each, including cheap imported Chilean wine and all the trimmings. When the waiter was through I asked him about caiman (the Cuban croc), which I’d heard was available for eating in the Zapata swamp area. He answered that yes, they served it but couldn’t announce it, as it was a protected species. Though I desperately wanted to try it and cock a snook at the Castro regime, we all opted for the special.

One of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — the source is nostril level and in-your-face.

One B&B owner, who’d been in the tourism business all through the Special Period, both legally and illegally (and had spent time in jail), elaborated on what food was like back then. He cooked us a typical dinner (as a side dish to the marlin and lobster he was serving us): boiled cabbage. I don’t know what he did to it, but it was surprisingly tasty. He added that breakfasts in the special period consisted of sugar water followed by labor in the cane fields — a dish he didn’t serve us.

You see a lot when you ride a bike through the countryside. At least once we saw someone spraying pesticides on crops. When I mentioned it to Melinda she despondently admitted that she too had seen it. But one of the worst personal and environmental assaults in Cuba is the air pollution. It’s not the brown clouds that bedevil Beijing — Cuba’s breezes dissipate that possibility, and there’s little heavy industry. The source is nostril level and in-your-face. All those old cars that look so charming have been retrofitted with diesel engines that have zero emission controls. Clouds of black smoke spew out of nearly every vehicle, to such a degree that one of our companions got sick. Riding for any length in one of those classic cars will make you sick. Floor holes funnel the poison into the cabs, which means that all windows must be open all the time. Our B&B in Havana closed all the windows facing the street, to keep the exhaust out. Though the problem is acute in cities and towns where traffic can be dense, even out on the highways we’d hold our breath and avoid in any way we could the passage of a bus or truck, the most common vehicles on highways.

Garbage, like many things in Cuba, is full of contradictions. Cubans are a very clean people. One informant told me that trash collectors are particularly well paid. In general, the streets are quite clean. But . . . every once in a while mounds of garbage dot cities, towns, and the countryside, almost as if they’ve been warehoused in discreet piles and then forgotten, only to make a sudden reappearance.

On the way to find my grandmother’s grave, I struck up a conversation with a street sweeper, about my age. He was pushing a two-binned pushcart and sweeping with a handmade broom. He had a very photogenic face and was smoking a cigar. Intermittently picking up trash — there wasn’t much — and sitting in the shade, he caught my eye. I asked if I could photograph him. He was proud to be so noticed. After some introductory remarks and typical Cuban give-and-take, he declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” I asked him to elaborate. He said things were much better before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

According to one person I talked to, the only municipal potable tap water in Cuba is in Baracoa, in the Sierra Maestra mountains at the far east end of the island. And it is delicious. Cool, free-flowing rivers fill Baracoa’s reservoir. Elsewhere, municipal water is a mess. In Guantanamo and in Havana, where I actually watched the process of getting tap water (and likely in other places too), it runs like this: Early in the evening, the water mains fill up. In a couple of hours the water level in the pipes gets high enough to reach the house branches. At this point, my two B&B owners turned on an electric or gasoline pump to get water from the mains into a cistern. Another couple of hours goes by; then, around 11 pm, another pump moves the water from the cistern up to a rooftop tank. Voila! Domestic water! — though not provided in the greenest way. Rural areas depend on trucked water and cisterned rainwater. Potable, government bottled water is also widely available. It is definitely not delicious. Though it has no actual repellent taste or smell, I have never tasted worse purified water. The consumer cost of both water and electricity is trivial — again, hardly an efficient or green approach to conserving resources.

Cuba’s organic farm production and the Obama administration’s trade overtures have caused concern among Florida’s organic farm growers. The March 18 issue of USA Today reports that

Florida farmers say the Obama administration’s plan to allow Cuban imports threatens their $8 billion-a-year business. Florida’s larger organic growers, already struggling to remain profitable, may be particularly hard-hit because Cuba has developed a strong organic farming sector.

Initially, Cuba most likely would export many of the same products grown by Florida organic farms, and the communist nation would enjoy the advantage of lower wages, state subsidies, cheap transportation and the novelty appeal of Cuban products.

It’s not just the subsidized competition that is worrisome. One American farmer asks, “When you buy Cuban products, are you helping the Cuban farmer — or the Cuban government?” He goes on to note that he worries about diseases, pests, and invasive species. Two-thirds of Florida farmers are against any deal. Bell peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers are the primary products of Cuban state farms, but avocados and more exotic produce such as guanabana (soursop) are in the running.

The street sweeper declared, “We want capitalism to come back.” Things were much better, he said, before the Revolution; there was more opportunity, more dynamism, and more wealth.

USA Today adds, “Eva Worden, a Cuban-American organic grower in Punta Gorda, Fla., supports a resumption of trade between the U.S. and Cuba but wants to be sure the fruit and vegetable needs of the Cuban people are met before encouraging exports.”

Natural, organic, and even “genetically modified” terms have always been a minefield of imprecision and ideology. When politics is added to the mix, it’s anyone’s guess what government policy might turn out to be. Best to let the consumer decide . . .




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Closing the Circle

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We may be approaching one of the most significant events of our time: the end of the Castro regime in Cuba. So long have Fidel Castro and his friends reigned in Cuba that it is hard to get perspective on the regime and its history. The history of Cuba itself remains little known to Norteamericanos.

Fortunately, there is Robert Miller. A longtime contributor to Liberty, Robert was reared in Cuba as a member of a prominent family. He has spent most of his life in the United States but has followed events in his homeland closely. When Liberty discovered that Robert was writing a memoir of his family’s life in Cuba, their flight to the United States, and their adventures here, we asked him if we could print parts of his work. Robert agreed. We are featuring it in several segments, of which this is the second. The first was published in Liberty in February.

The memoir is not a work of political science; it is something much more: an introduction to ways of life, parallel to those of North Americans, and connected at many points, but always pungently different. We think our readers will find this view of Cuba, before and after the Castro Revolution, strange, unpredictable, charming, funny, tragic, and always very interesting.

Part II begins with the reactions of Robert’s father (Pop) and mother (Mina) to Castro’s war against the Batista regime, which he eventually overthrew. — Stephen Cox

Part II

Mina was a skeptic; Pop was a fan. Optimistic about Castro, he was later to contribute money and property to the Revolution both before and immediately after its victory. But revolutions, no matter how well-intentioned, are inherently disruptive and unpredictable. This didn’t stop Pop. The urgency of his ambitions was fueled by the specter of the grim reaper. With the addition of rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling and disfiguring disease, his chronic malaria and angina pectoris became a threesome.

After the Bug took root, he partnered up with a German colleague from Volkswagen and launched a brand new enterprise in early 1958. Though he’d been Controller of the Oxford Paper Company for only a short time, back in 1940, he must have felt confident in opening Cuba’s first big paper products factories, Envases Modernos S.A. and Industrias Cello-Pak S.A. He wanted to give Dixie’s or Lilly’s (I don’t remember which) de facto monopoly a run for its money. When the paper cup assembly line became operative, he proudly took the family out to the factory to watch the process and presented us each with a waxed paper cup as if it were a votive offering.

Less than one month after Castro’s victory, when euphoria and grandiose schemes still permeated the Cuban atmosphere, Fidel proposed planting a thousand trees along the avenues that had hosted the rebels’ triumphant procession. Pop immediately offered to donate 1,000 paper cups to hold the seedlings. He not only did not receive an answer, but no trees were ever planted.

Pop proudly took the family out to the factory to watch the process and presented us each with a waxed paper cup as if it were a votive offering.

Nineteen fifty-eight also brought television to our home. Instantly it became hypnotic. Rin Tin Tin, Annie Oakley, Sea Hunt, Bat Masterson, Gunsmoke, all dubbed in Spanish, became staples, keeping us kids indoors in the evening, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

After Castro’s victory, however, all broadcasting became live news, 24/7, way before CNN. Though initially spellbinding, Fidel’s speeches soon tired us: the endless narration; the panoramic shots of crowds supporting this or that, or protesting this or that; the mass televised trials; and the endless coverage and speculation over the explosion of La Coubre in Havana Harbor in March 1960, a ship bearing an arms shipment — with Fidel’s endless rhetorical question, “Armas, para que?” “Arms, for what?” The arms were intended for the new revolutionary government, but Castro spun the sabotage to his advantage.

But to return to the events that put Castro in power: in May 1958, with three active guerrilla fronts operating on the island, Batista finally decided to get serious. He dispatched 10,000 troops to destroy Castro’s 300 guerrillas in Oriente Province, and the Directorio Revolucionario’s Escambray front, now also numbering in the hundreds. But it was not to be.

Throughout June, July, and August government troops suffered defeat after defeat, surrendered en masse, or switched sides. Huge amounts of equipment, including tanks, fell into the hands of the rebels. By September 1, the two Oriente fronts, one under Che Guevara, the other under Camilo Cienfuegos, had begun a two-pronged advance westward, toward the center of the island. It would be only a matter of time before they reached the capital.

With the steamroller now nearly unstoppable, Cubans began letting down their guard. No longer was Radio Rebelde listened to clandestinely; it was openly monitored and discussed. Young men — and some women — from all over the island rushed to join the advancing rebels, jumping on the bandwagon as it picked up momentum.

Headed over to the Castellanos’, in search of distraction, I ran into one of the young guys — related somehow to the ex-mayor — who were often there. He was a guy who had actually paid attention to me, shown friendship and kindness even — behavior that, to a young boy, instantly made him a role model. Now he was dressed in full olive green army fatigues, with backpack and sidearm, and was walking down the street nonchalantly. Since the regular army wore khakis, either this guy was foolish or fearless, or the risk was minimal.

Fidel's physical seclusion in the mountains but unquestioned leadership and tenacity gave him an Olympian air, abetted by his curly Greek beard — one he would never again shave.

I stopped dead on the sidewalk in front of him, speechless, eyes bugging out. The only soldiers I‘d ever been this close to were my little toy soldiers. He said he was off to join the rebels. I asked if I could go with him, even though I knew that was impossible. He smiled, metaphorically (or perhaps actually) patted my head, and kindly said no, that I was too young. When I told my parents about the encounter, they shuddered, grimacing that his behavior was beyond foolish.

In September, Guevara’s and Cienfuegos’ troops, advancing separately, met up in Camagüey province and continued their westward march as one large force. Government resistance to the advance was mostly limited to aerial bombardment, intermittent at best because of the heavy rains of the fall hurricane season.

On October 7, the now-combined Castro forces crossed into Las Villas province and encountered the forces of the Directorio Revolucionario in the Escambray Mountains under the field command of Faure Chaumont. Though Castro’s 26 of July Movement and the Directorio Revolucionario had heretofore been completely independent enterprises, Chaumont agreed to a coordinated offensive. The news ignited Cubans; hundreds of men volunteered to join the rebels.

In November, government forces concentrated behind defensive positions in the cities of Las Villas province. Rebel forces, meanwhile, worked out operational plans for the new joint command, planned the next offensives, trained new recruits, and awaited drier weather.

Fidel himself remained ensconced in his headquarters in the Sierra Maestra, coordinating military and political strategy. His physical seclusion in the mountains but unquestioned leadership and tenacity gave him an Olympian air, abetted by his curly Greek beard — one he would never again shave.

Nearly all the rebel forces sported beards and long hair, starting a sartorial trend, with philosophical implications, that would take the world by storm in the 1960s. Raul Castro, with his skimpy fuzz of a beard, gave rise to rumors that he was either homosexual or illegitimate — or both. Camilo Cienfuegos, on the other hand, hirsute as a Tolkien character in Lord of the Rings, with a beard that made one wonder whether it housed legions of unidentified critters, was beginning to upstage Fidel. Handsome, with a seductive and ready smile, and a twinkle in his eye under his black cowboy hat, he would later die in a suspicious plane crash in 1959 on a fool’s errand for Fidel.

On December 20, the final rebel offensive began. In quick succession, the cities of Cabaiguan, Placetas, Remedios, Cruces, and Sancti Spiritus fell to the onslaught. Two days later, Camilo Cienfuegos began an assault on the army garrison at Yaguajay; while Guevara’s and Chaumont’s combined forces attacked Santa Clara, capital of Las Villas province.

After nearly two weeks of intense combat and aerial bombardment, 250 government soldiers surrendered Yaguajay to Cienfuegos on New Year’s Eve, and 1,000 more surrendered to Guevara and Chaumont on New Year’s Day, 1959.

* * *

New Year’s Eve 1959 was a memorable one and not soon to be forgotten! Word passed around like wildfire that Batista and his cronies had fled, throwing in the sponge at last. The island had been cut in half at the now famous Bay of Pigs and the Escambray rebel troops were headed for Havana. On New Year’s day it became a reality and while many mobs roamed the streets seeking revenge against the hated dictator’s cronies who had not as yet left, we were not molested. I personally did not leave the house, carefully following the advice given over the local radio.

So begins my father’s account of those fateful days between Batista’s exit and the rebels’ arrival, an account he wrote for Time magazine but that was never published.

When Batista fled the country at 2 AM on New Year’s Day, 1959, Havana erupted into an orgy of celebration. The metropolitan police, technically members of the old regime, kept a low profile. We children weren’t allowed to get near the windows, much less leave the house. All the prisons were thrown open, and riotous mobs roamed the streets wreaking havoc on anything associated with the old regime, especially casinos. Another favorite target was parking meters, a hated source of government income. My sister Nani remembers one passing car peppering our living room with bullets. My mother, ever cautious, concocted a Molotov cocktail “just in case.”

Days later, when Castro’s tanks rolled into the city, mobs lionized the long-haired, bearded rebels. Contingents of the olive-clad, Thompson-submachine-gun-wielding soldiers ringed all the embassies to prevent “enemies of the people” from escaping. With the Mexican ambassador’s residence only a block from our house, I couldn’t keep away. Armed with my pellet gun — for solidarity and fun — I’d hang out for hours with the militiamen, target shooting at birds and passing the time. For a 9-year-old kid, it just didn’t get any better. As I’d later say when I learned English in Mississippi, “I was shitting in tall cotton.”

My mother, ever cautious, concocted a Molotov cocktail “just in case.”

CMQ, Channel 6, went to round-the-clock programming. Though I preferred outdoor activity, the novel, continuous TV coverage of events mesmerized us. Abuela, we kids, and the household staff — whenever they managed time between chores — gathered in the TV room to watch the Revolution unfold.

On January 2 Manuel Urrutia, the judge who had tried Castro sympathetically after his July 26, 1953 uprising, became President of Cuba. He was appointed to the post behind the scenes by Castro, no doubt because his reputation for probity and his spotless record wouldn’t cause any ructions domestically or internationally. Jose Miro Cardona became Prime Minister. Days later the US recognized the new government and appointed a new ambassador, Phillip Bonsal.

I asked Abuela how Urrutia became president without an election. She shrugged her shoulders and mumbled something I can’t remember. She’d seen so much. It would have taken too much effort and too long a time to try to explain it all to a 9-year-old kid.

Then on January 8, Fidel Castro, with his now-mechanized No. 1 Jose Marti Column slowly rolled into Havana amidst a stately procession of troops and army vehicles. It was beautifully scripted to appear spontaneous — which, to some degree, it was. Not riding atop a tank — as has often been reported — along Havana Harbor’s Malecon seawall and waving to the ecstatic crowds, Castro seemed to have turned out all of Havana — along with busloads of provincials — to line the streets.

Castro stopped in front of the Columbia Army Barracks and ceremoniously approached the podium and microphones that awaited him. It was the biggest crowd ever along the streets of Havana. After he’d begun talking, three white doves alighted on his podium, one landing on his shoulder. The crowds went absolutely wild. Most thought it was a sign from Providence: Fidel was “untouchable.” We were glued to the TV, in spite of just being little kids listening to a politician.

Mina’s cousin Eddy, a mostly unemployed bon vivant, was there also. Afterward he set out to regale the extended family about the event, to little response. He’d make the rounds of relatives ingratiating himself and cadging what he could. Mina didn’t care for him and called him a Communist. Chuchu, just a kid at the time but later to marry into our family, got to watch the procession from the balcony of his nearby home.

After Castro had begun talking, three white doves alighted on his podium, one landing on his shoulder. The crowds went absolutely wild.

In three days the TV spectacle switched to military tribunals set up to deal with members of the old regime, followed by executions before firing squads with screams of “Al paredon!” (To the firing wall!) This prime-time TV tableau vivant continued through January and into February, and trickled into March, with a break during Easter Week, by which time 483 “war criminals” had been executed — a little over half the total number of war dead on both sides during the two-year revolutionary war. Near the end of January, 100 “women in black” demonstrated against the executions. As many as 500 Batistianos — Batista partisans — were executed, with the US calling it a “bloodbath.” Had we not lost interest in the repetitive, propagandaish, and predictable drama, I sensed that Abuela might have tried to distract us with a game of cards.

In spite of this — after all, the nuances of the rule of law and due process were slippery to nonexistent in 9-year olds, and excused by most adults in the excitement of a well-intentioned revolution — all my family were middling-to-sympathetic Castro supporters. But one detail nagged me: Castro held no formal role in government. How did he wield so much influence? Perhaps it was a naïve question for a child, but it was prescient.

On February 16, Fidel replaced Miro Cardona as Prime Minister with himself. With Castro now holding a formal government post, things started to make sense to me. Kids just don’t understand power without position and titles. Twelve days after his appointment, Castro announced that “elections could not be held now because they would not be fair. We have an overwhelming majority at present and it is in the interest of the nation that the political parties become fully developed and their programs defined before elections are held.”

Revolutions, no matter how radical, always provide opportunities for profit. Sometime that winter or spring, the Felices Company, a sweets and canned guava producer, decided to sponsor a new idea — a set of 268 “baseball” cards that commemorated the Revolution and its leaders. The events depicted on the cards were rendered in colored line drawings, while photographs — like real baseball cards — depicted the Revolution’s leaders. Fidel was number 126; Raul, 127. The full collection, pasted into a bespoke album, traced the Revolution from 1952 to 1959. Production of the individual cards was dribbled out, both in time and quantity, to create a sense of drama and expectation. A flat slab of bubble gum accompanied each little packet of cards, the exact content of which was always somewhat indeterminate.

In three days the TV spectacle switched to military tribunals set up to deal with members of the old regime, followed by executions before firing squads with screams of “Al paredon!” (To the firing wall!)

This indeterminacy was a stroke of genius for the Felices Company. Kids might end up with many duplicates of the same card or a few hot-off-the-presses new cards. The resulting oversupply and scarcity created a hot trading market among kids, who were all racing to be the first to fill their albums and complete their set.

“I’ll give you two Almedias for one Che Guevara!”

“No way! Che is worth much more. One Almedia, one Chibas, and one Cubelas, and you can have Che.”

“OK, deal.”

Kids who had absolutely no interest in baseball — me included — became avid collectors of the Revolution cards. Recess at St. Thomas became a swap meet for cards. Fights and impromptu games ceased. I don’t remember anyone not participating. Even my nerdy, chubby, reclusive, almost-albino friend, Urzurrun — nicknamed bola de nieve for his glaringly white complexion — started collecting the cards and pasting them in his album.

But it was the educational (some might say propaganda) benefit that these cards provided that was most overlooked. Little kids don’t read much; and what they overhear adults saying about current events is discrete, discontinuous, out of context, usually boring, and often misunderstood. These cards made history and current events come alive. Some of us memorized the names of all 16 Rebel Comandantes. We’d argue about the cause and effects of the events depicted on the cards, marvel at the deeds and atrocities, and elaborate speculatively about the events given short shrift.

Some of us even went so far as to read Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech — his summing-up at the end of his trial in 1952 — that was printed in full on the inside back cover of the album. Had the speech been assigned reading for an eighth-grader, eyes would have glazed and rolled, homework would have been put off, and stern admonitions from teachers would have poured forth. But the Felices Company managed not only to make fourth-graders read and reread the speech, but to do it voluntarily and with enthusiasm.

I have no idea how much the Felices Company profited from this venture or even if they ever got to keep their profits, as money and property were confiscated bit by bit. But a recent Google search for Album de la Revolucion Cubana revealed that one leather-bound, mint condition, completed album sold for $100,000 at Sotheby’s. An old, ratty one like mine goes for about $1,500 on Ebay.

In mid-April Castro visited the US on a ten-day trip, where he was greeted everywhere by exuberant crowds. TV had more or less returned to normal broadcasting, but special events always received full coverage. Because the month before Castro had expropriated the properties of ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph Company) in Cuba and had taken over control of its affiliate, the Cuban Telephone Company (CTC), some of the reporters of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, his hosts, asked him outright whether he was a Communist. Castro publicly denied the allegations.

As the future would later reveal, Castro’s grudges would rival his speeches in endlessness.

Pop must have been somewhat reassured, in spite of owning 50 shares of CTC valued at $5,000 (about $50,000 in 2010 dollars). The Cuban Telephone Company was, after all, a public utility with a de facto monopoly — to many, an excusable target for government takeover. Telephone rates dropped.

But then, in mid-May, Castro signed the Agrarian Reform Act, which in a little over one year, expropriated nearly half the land in the country, forbade foreign land ownership, and nationalized cattle ranches. Farms were restricted to 13 km2 with other real estate holdings limited to 993 acres. The majority of expropriated property was retained by the government for state-run communes, while the remainder was redistributed to peasants in 67-acre parcels.

To implement the new law, Castro established the National Agrarian Reform Institute and named Che Guevara as its head. Expecting some resistance, Guevara created a special militia to enforce the reforms. Though he supported agrarian reform, Pop began to worry about the foreign ownership bit.

We owned a small 13.75 acre piece of rural land, Finca Leon, valued at $7,000. It was well below the maximum allotment and was not a farm, but it was definitely “foreign” owned.

By this time, Pop was hedging his bets — probably a strategy he would have used no matter how confident of the future he was. As a good businessman, he tended to minimize risk by not putting all his eggs in one basket. This took the form of creating diverse partnerships, limiting capital outlay, never becoming the official CEO of any enterprise, etc.

Meanwhile, President Urrutia, to allay growing fears of Communist infiltration of the government, declared himself a strong anti-Communist and began attacking the ideology. In response, Fidel Castro theatrically resigned as prime minister, demanding Urrutia’s resignation. In mid-July, Urrutia and his entire cabinet, pressured by Castro, newspapers, and a 500,000-strong protest march, resigned the presidency. A week after his own resignation, and in the presence of great public consternation, Castro resumed his post as prime minister, giving long speeches both when he resigned and again when he resumed the office. He replaced Urrutia with Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado, an obscure Cuban Communist Party lawyer, again without a vote.

Six months after gaining power, Castro made his first foreign revolutionary foray, in part to distract public opinion from the Urrutia cock-up: he attempted an invasion of the Dominican Republic. But it was an ill-planned, pathetically executed affair. Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator — and a truly sadistic butcher — was perceived in Cuba as the twin of the much more benign Batista. Castro proudly declared that it was his duty to extend his revolution to the sister republic. It was a wildly popular move, because Trujillo had helped Batista. But the real reason was revenge. Trujillo had done everything he could to derail Castro’s revolution and, as the future would later reveal, Castro’s grudges would rival his speeches in endlessness.

Castro’s expeditionary force of 200 men was wiped out by Trujillo’s army, which had been tipped off and was awaiting them. (The ancillary irony is that when Batista fled, he sought refuge in Santo Domingo from Trujillo; but Trujillo held him hostage for months until Batista paid him a ransom of many millions of dollars from his ill-gotten gains. Then the Dominican President allowed him to fly into permanent exile in Portugal.) Undeterred, a month later Castro launched an identical operation against Haiti’s dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier. There were practically no survivors.

More troubling than the Agrarian Reform Act was the establishment of the ironically titled Ministerio de Recuperacion de Bienes Malversados (MRBM), or Ministry for the Recuperation of Ill-Gotten Gains. Established in January 1959, it at first focused on the recovery of the previous regime’s illicit proceeds. But it didn’t hit full stride until later that year, when it began going after exiles’ property. Its remit extended over every type of private property, owned by just about anybody, down to personal jewelry and silverware. Historian Herminio Portell-Vila says that it “functioned capriciously, without the rule of law, anarchically, settling cases hastily . . . and without the protection of [the courts].” It even ransacked banks’ safe-deposit boxes — without warrants — for loot. By the end of 1959, the MRBM had confiscated $58 million worth of property, a figure that would, by 1961, rise to over $400 million.

Pop hadn’t quite become like the proverbial slowly boiled frog, but he decided to take a break from the increasingly bad omens in Cuba with an old-fashioned car trip in the US with the family, visiting the recently opened Disneyland in California before the start of the 1959–60 school year.

The most absurd stretch of military rank protocol was Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s conferral of a state funeral with full military honors to his amputated leg.

Next to Fidel, 27-year-old Camilo Cienfuegos was the most popular Comandante in the Revolution — and he was probably more trusted, because of his unassuming, transparent demeanor. Che Guevara wasn’t even in the same league. Though popular, not only was he a foreigner, he was also an idealistic ideologue who wasn’t affected by the limelight. Not far down that line stood Comandante Huber Matos, who had been made military commander of Camagüey province.

Cuban military ranks had been subjected to curious political manipulations ever since 1933, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista led his non-commissioned officers’ coup against both the higher echelons and, by later, behind-the-scenes machinations, the government. He’d then promoted himself incrementally to colonel, then general.

Throughout Latin America, rank inflation since the wars for independence had gotten out of control, like incontinent old men engaging in a pissing contest. Titles such as field marshal, emperor, dictator-for-life, and most serene highness, all self-conferred and bandied about to a degree that relegated the rank of general to dogcatcher. Probably the most absurd stretch of military rank protocol was Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s conferral of a state funeral with full military honors to his amputated leg.

Fidel Castro took a different approach, even though his rank of Comandante, Commander, was also self-conferred. Comandante was the highest rank in the rebel army. There were only 16 Comandantes including Fidel. It was a stratagem that implied humility and equality, a fiction that the primus inter pares didn’t take long to dispel.

In late October 1959, Comandante Huber Matos, along with 14 of his officers, resigned, citing the appointment of Communists to key positions of power in the government. Suspecting that Matos was organizing counterrevolution, Fidel dispatched Camilo Cienfuegos to arrest him. But after talking to Matos, Camilo didn’t want to arrest him. He argued with Castro that Matos was an honorable man and should be allowed to resign for reasons of conscience, that Matos was no danger to the Revolution, that he was not planning an uprising, and that he was a man who kept his word. But Castro wasn’t moved. So Camilo arrested the 15 men and had them incarcerated. Afterward, he boarded a plane for Havana.

The plane never made it back.

Some believe Castro ordered it shot down, perhaps because Camilo was becoming too popular or because he questioned Castro’s orders after talking with Matos. Others think it simply disappeared over the ocean during the night flight. A few days’ search yielded nothing but speculation; speculation that, to this day, has only caused both sides to reach for more tenuous extremes of supporting evidence.

Though others were questioning Castro’s intentions, it was the Cienfuegos-Matos affair that put the first doubts about the Revolution in my 10-year-old mind. Matos was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in the Carcel Modelo on the Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Pines). He served his full sentence, 16 years of it in solitary confinement, subjected to multiple beatings and torture. Afterward, he joined the Miami-based anti-Castro CID (Cuba Independiente y Democrática).

I wasn’t the only doubter. Matos’ conviction marked the end of the “revolutionary coalition” between moderates and radicals, and put the great Cuban exodus that continues to this day into high gear.

By mid-December, only nine of the original 21 ministers of the revolutionary government remained. With Raul Castro as Minister of Defense, Dorticos in the presidency, Guevara in charge of the Central Bank, and himself as Prime Minister, Castro had concentrated all the reins of power in his hands.

Money, instead of being the root of all evil, is the tangible, distilled essence of a person’s best efforts, a repository that allows him to store his labor and talents in tiny bits of otherwise useless paper and metal for later conversion to food, housing, clothing, transportation, dreams, and even love. For safekeeping, once the reservoir exceeds, say, a month’s earnings, people resort to the safety of a bank, where funds are guarded and insured. It is a sacred trust.

How Che Guevara, an Argentine doctor, became head of the Cuban National Bank owes more to ideology than to expertise. Soon after taking power, Fidel had to transition his confidants from military duties to civilian appointments. During one brainstorming session — according to a story Guevara told David Atlee Phillips (Pop’s CIA tenant) at a popular Cuban coffee house — Fidel asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up, so Castro appointed him first, minister of industries, then Finance Minister, and finally, in November 1959, president of the National Bank.

The Argentine immediately began a series of draconian currency controls that, in effect, stole depositors’ money. But he did it incrementally, so that depositors wouldn’t withdraw all their money and run. Much later, between June and October 1960, these controls culminated in the nationalization of all the banks, and then, in a quick sleight-of-hand move, the introduction of a new currency, convertible only in limited amounts. Most Cubans’ life savings suddenly shrank or even disappeared.

Fidel asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up, so Castro appointed him head of the Cuban National Bank.

I cannot begin to imagine the stress Pop and Mina were undergoing towards the end of 1959, but I’m certain they were no longer at all sanguine about the direction the Revolution was taking. I seldom saw either one — not that they’d confide their worries and troubles to us kids. In his action against the Cuban government, filed under the International Claims Settlement Act of 1949, Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the United States, Pop would file a subclaim of $24,219 for “Impairment to health & loss of ability to work.”

It wasn’t just his immediate family that Howard was worrying himself sick about; it was also his employees, their families, their livelihoods. These were the people who depended on him and his businesses for a living. He was concerned about all of them equally. Pop came from a family who took in stray cats; who, upon encountering an upside-down beetle would stop to right it; who shooed away flies instead of killing them; who wrote poetry to pass the time — a family so shy, sensitive, quiet, and self-effacing that few of his siblings ever married, preferring to continue living together for the rest of their lives.

Christmas of 1959 revealed little of the brewing storm. The big public controversy was Castro’s suggestion that true Cuban patriots should decorate a palm tree for Christmas instead of an imported pine tree and should relegate Santiclos to the dustbin of history. We stuck to a locally grown pine tree.

Pop and Mina went all out. When we kids awoke at 5 AM and tiptoed down the stairs to see what Santiclos had brought, there were more presents under that tree than I had ever seen. But the pièce de résistance was the elaborate, full-scale Lionel train set with my name on it; one which, when it came time to leave the island, I was forced to leave behind.

I well remember New Year’s 1960. Alone, at the end of one of the streets that butted up to the Almendares Barranca, I reflected on my life thus far, and on the new decade and the changes that might come. As I sat on the inner barricade, when midnight struck I said goodbye to the ’50s, realizing in amazement that they were forever gone and would never return — their events now part of the past. And I wondered what the new decade, the ’60s, would bring. It was so curious, so concretely surreal, to stand at the exact threshold between my first and second decade. At the moment the clock struck 12 (not that I had a watch; the instant was marked by distant bells, bangs, and fireworks) I felt the pang of the irreversible passage of time, forever irretrievable.

A few minutes after midnight, I wandered home. No one questioned my whereabouts.

* * *

Not everyone welcomed the New Year as reflectively as I had.

Now that Che Guevara held the three most important economic portfolios in Cuba — president of the National Bank, minister of industry, and head of Agrarian Reform — he began rapidly extricating the Cuban economy from world markets and bringing it into dependence on the Soviet Bloc. His first moves, to sever Cuba’s ties with the Inter-American Development Bank and from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (aka the World Bank), were coupled with a sweetheart trade agreement with the USSR.

On February 6, Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba and signed a preferential Trade and Payments Agreement worth $100 million in oil, petroleum products, wheat, iron, fertilizers, and machinery for . . . sugar. With the exits from the IADB and the World Bank, the Castro regime destroyed the traditional geopolitical ties between Cuba and the Western world. Full diplomatic relations with the USSR were established in May after having been severed by Batista seven years previously, after his coup in 1952. Ironically, it had been Batista who first established diplomatic relations with the USSR, back in 1943, and who had brought a number of Communists into his government, albeit without voting rights.

United States responses to these moves began as early as October 1959 with preliminary studies, and took actual form in January 1960. Concerned about the possibility of another attempted Soviet military base in the Western Hemisphere only five years after the overthrow of the Marxist Arbenz regime in Guatemala, President Eisenhower ordered the CIA to create a Cuba Task Force to draft overt and covert response scenarios to the deteriorating diplomatic and human rights situation.

There are many misconceptions surrounding the US Central Intelligence Agency. Its basic remit is to gather information about foreign governments in order for the US to design an effective and appropriate foreign policy. Since the US cannot depend on CNN and Fox News for its information, it must depend on on-the-ground, on-the-spot sources abroad, along with satellite and electronic surveillance. This is called “spying” — an essential operation for a practical and engaged foreign policy. It is not a “government onto itself,” is not a military organization, does not have any law enforcement capabilities, took no part in Watergate, and is very limited in its domestic intelligence gathering. Its operatives have a GS 1-15 government employee rating and are subject to normal federal regulations.

The CIA, under specific executive branch orders, also promotes democracy in its wider sense: not just electoral democracy, but also individual rights and free markets. As to “overt” and “covert” actions, the first refers to US military operations; the second to aiding and organizing homegrown resistance against despotic regimes. Covert operations are impossible without credible and widespread domestic opposition within the target country. Since 1960, counterterrorism and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons have been added to the CIA’s priorities.

We kids had no inkling of the gravity of the impending changes until Nana, after playing at a neighbor’s house, came home one evening with trivial gossip. Marcia, her friend, had sat her down conspiratorially on the bed to confide something her mom had told her: that “everyone will soon be leaving Cuba by boat because of the Communists.”

Nana’s talk with Mina produced more of a shotgun shell of hidden queries than a comment: What did Marcia’s mom mean? How could everyone leave Cuba by boat? Were we going to leave Cuba in a boat?

Mamá approached her response slowly and thoughtfully, first saying that talking politics was impolite, but then, after a long pause, adding that it was “dangerous to talk politics.”

Whether 9-year-old Nana could make the connection between politics — as in elections and voting on the one hand — and leaving Cuba by boat on the other hand (this also being a kind of “politics“) is questionable, though she already had a healthy fear of Communism, not just from her catechism classes but from watching movies of the Spanish Civil War. At that age Nana was too slow and shy for followup questions. Nonetheless, Mamá’s response and the way she delivered it made a deep and lasting impression on Nana.

An even more blatant incident went completely over my own head. I had been assigned a poem to memorize and recite at an upcoming public forum at St. Thomas, celebrating something I can’t recall. When the day arrived, Mina was present, sitting with all the proud parents and attendees on movable bleachers. In between presentations, the St. Thomas Military Academy brass band played martial music. For a short while, I took center stage.

My father arrived at his Envases Modernos paper factory to be welcomed by big red graffiti on the yellow walls urging “Miller al paredon!”

I don’t remember being nervous or even the gist of the poem, but there was only perfunctory applause afterward, even though my recitation had been flawless. At the close of the ceremonies, Mina was nowhere to be found. I waited patiently by the car for her appearance. After a while I spotted her marching around the corner, headed for me, all four horsemen of the Apocalypse in one big bundle of angry woman. Steam was coming out of her head, but she said nothing during the drive home. I retreated into inconspicuousness, unwilling to experience any collateral damage from that critical mass.

Later, I overheard her and Pop discussing the incident. Mina thought the poem was un-American. But not just “un-American” — it was a load of scurrilous lies made to be delivered by a 10-year-old American kid to a Cuban audience. Mina took it personally. But she also didn’t take it as an isolated incident. She was connecting dots that led all the way up from a poem at St. Thomas through the new public policy ukases now filtering into education at even private schools, to Fidel Castro himself.

I was later to glean that it was this incident that, for Mina, sealed our exit. Trivial as it seemed, compared to the conflicts Pop must have been struggling with, forthcoming events were to indicate that he doggedly insisted on reconciling irreconcilable views. His concern for the family butted up against his optimism that everything would not turn out as bad as the Cassandras perceived. Mina’s insistence convinced him to leave, yet he remained frustratingly diffident. He took no concrete steps to divest himself of Cuban assets, thinking that his businesses and expertise would be beneficial to the new order — or, since I’m trying to delve into a mind long gone — he did not want to raise any red flags with the regime by appearing to think about leaving the sinking ship.

But a sinking ship it was. By March 1960 the New York Times had reported five serious anti-Castro groups operating out of Miami. Soon after, President Eisenhower initiated the by-now 55-year-old embargo. The embargo terminated US Cuban sugar purchases, ended US oil deliveries to the island, continued the arms embargo of 1958, begun so as not to take sides in the Revolution, and authorized a “Covert Action Plan Against Cuba,” which included the organization of a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro — what was to become the Bay of Pigs invasion.

One week after Eisenhower’s authorization, David Atlee Phillips, our old tenant, was appointed Director of Propaganda for the Cuba Operation. He immediately began the project to set up and run Radio Swan, the disinformation arm of the operation. This powerful CIA anti-Castro radio campaign was based on Swan Island, an uninhabited tiny dot in the Caribbean halfway between Nicaragua and Cuba, but claimed by Honduras. Starting out with 40 CIA operatives, nearly 600 noncombatants were to be involved in the Bay of Pigs operation — as trainers, organizers, technical experts, and all-round fixers.

Just before the Easter holidays of 1960, Castro ordered an island-wide strike against foreign-owned businesses. My father arrived at his Envases Modernos paper factory to be welcomed by big red graffiti on the yellow walls urging “Miller al paredon!” (Miller to the firing squad wall). He realized that it hadn’t been painted by his workers; he knew them all too well and shared a mutual trust and affection with them. To him, it looked more like Fidel’s handwriting on the wall — a much more troubling scenario. His diffidence disappeared.

Pop drove to the AIC offices downtown and told Hilda Navarro, his secretary, “I’ve got to leave.”

Hilda, a large, fun-loving, twinkle-in-her-eye woman, was incredulous. She responded, “Nonsense, I can live under any government,” and agreed to hold down the fort for what they both believed would only be a temporary interlude. Later, after the “temporary” became wishful thinking, she wrote to Pop asking for help in seeking exile. She successfully escaped from Cuba.

Two days later, under the guise of going on vacation, my father and mother and we three kids left for Merida, Yucatan, carrying a suitcase apiece and $25 each. My grandmother, Ana Maria Diaz y Otazo, stayed. She was too old and too Cuban to leave, and too parsimonious to abandon our grand mayoral residence to the clutches of Castro, as the new revolutionary law was very soon to require.

Over the course of the spring and summer, Cuba nationalized all US companies and properties, singling out oil companies and banks. Meanwhile, Eisenhower’s Covert Action Plan Against Cuba went into full swing. Work began on a 5,000-foot runway at an airfield at Retalhuleu in Guatemala to supply the Cuban exile force that was training in the nearby mountains on the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

Pop didn’t even leave the airport. An associate who met him there warned him to leave immediately, as there was a warrant out for his arrest.

Although the entire operation was meant to be top secret, almost from the start it became an open secret, with Castro’s secret police and even journalists discovering and reporting on the operation. But I doubt that Pop was aware of it.

In a vain attempt to salvage some of his business interests, he flew back to Havana in the fall. He carried 5-year-old Patsy with him. Why, I can’t fathom. Either Pop was still in a state of partial denial as to the danger he was in, or it was a temptation to draw Abuela into exile with us. Either way, it was foolhardy.

On October 13 — virtually coinciding with his visit — the Urban Reform Act took effect. This legislation effectively outlawed the sale or rental of residential property. Existing rents that were not covered by the act were cut in half. Additional protocols stipulated ratios of inhabitants to floor space. To hang on to our big house — and to avoid eviction — Abuela invited the remaining servants’ relatives to move in with her. Most of Carmen’s immediate family took up the offer. Other, separate legislation nationalized nearly 400 Cuban companies.

Pop didn’t even leave the airport. An associate who met him there warned him to leave immediately, as there was a warrant out for his arrest. Later, my father was to successfully lobby the Kennedy administration to pass legislation to allow the deduction of Cuban property losses through the federal income tax.

* * *

Uncle John was more bullheaded — in spite of Aunt Marta’s persistent nagging about the fact that Howard and Mina had left, that Howard was smart, that Mina wouldn’t do something stupid, that he didn’t want his sons to come to any harm, and that blah, blah, blah . . . But Uncle John was a tough operator and took pride in obstinately resisting Marta. In October he finally relented and sent Marta and his sons Johnny and Richard off to the US. He, however, stayed behind, hoping to salvage something of his rapidly disappearing life’s work.

Even worse was the shipping of 1,000 kids to the Soviet Union in January of 1961 for schooling.

What he thought of Operation Pedro Pan, I’ll never know. Over the course of the summer and fall, the Castro regime had closed all parochial schools and expelled the nuns and priests who ran them, taking over the operation of all primary and secondary schools. Cuban parents were aghast. They feared the indoctrination of their children by the government; they feared that the Castro regime would take away their parental authority. Remembering the airlift of Spanish children to the USSR during the Spanish Civil War for “safety and education,” and paying heed to the alarming rumors going about, over 10,000 worried parents, led by James Baker, the headmaster of our kindergarten alma mater, Ruston Academy, and with the help of the Catholic Church and the US government — to the tune of a million dollars and visa waivers — organized an airlift of 14,000 children to Miami the day after Christmas.

Their fears turned out to have been altogether too true. Under the guise of the Literacy Campaign of 1960 and School Goes to the Countryside, thousands of kids were removed from their homes for 45-day periods to camp with their teachers in farming cooperatives, combining education with productive work. According to Flor Fernandez Barrios in her book, Blessed by Thunder, the abuse and punishment for nonconformity at the camps was nearly as bad as having to eat your own vomit.

Even worse was the shipping of 1,000 kids to the Soviet Union in January of 1961 for schooling.

When, on January 3 of 1961, the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, Uncle John finally left, in the vanguard of what was to become an exodus of over one million Cubans during the next two decades.




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Cuba, Obama, and Change

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Although Republicans and, no doubt, the Castro brothers perceive President Obama’s visit to Cuba on March 20 as American kowtowing, the perception on the Cuban street is entirely different.

To Cubans, the visit is an honor ranking right up there with the Pope’s visit, and one not vouchsafed to the island since President Coolidge’s visit in 1928. El mulato, as he’s informally referred to in the Cuban fashion of conferring nicknames on everyone, and his historic visit, bring the promise of hope and change to the island more concretely than any pronouncement ever made by the Castros.

I know. Three days ago I returned from a 30-day bike journey across the island, from Baracoa in the east to Havana. American flags were everywhere — in cars, taxis, horse- and pedal-drawn taxis, even clothing — even before the visit was announced. Warned by guidebooks and savants to minimize exchanges with uniformed personnel, and never to photograph any, I found the admonition accurate. These were all serious, unfriendly, incorruptible, suspicious, and averse to any sign of curiosity. But once the visit was announced, I decided to test the premises. Passing soldiers, policemen and God-knows-what functionaries, I’d yell, “We’re not enemies anymore!” and I’d add some typical Cuban sassy wordplay non-sequitur as a true native would. I managed to get a few smiles and even some playful responses. Things are changing.

The hustle, bustle, entrepreneurship, and raw energy that permeated every person was a far cry from the typical listless socialist citizen.

Back in March 2012, in a Liberty article entitled “The Metamorphosis,” I outlined the changes to the Cuban economy legislated by the Castro government (see also “Cuba: Change We Can Count On?”, Liberty, December 2010). The changes attempted to drop one-fifth of the workers from government jobs and make them self-employed — this in a country where everyone is employed by the government at pay scales of $1–2 per day. But the fine print indicated internal ideological conflicts. While dozens of job categories were authorized — from transportation to food, to lodging, to construction, to personal grooming (and many more) — permits, taxes, limits on employees and much red tape don’t make the goal easy to achieve.

Nonetheless, the hustle, bustle, entrepreneurship, and raw energy that permeated every person pursuing his hopes and dreams along miles of city streets and rural roads was a far cry from the typical listless socialist citizen. Ironically, even the poorest — those whom socialism is touted to help the most — were selling homemade sweets, cucuruchos, in the Sierra Maestra Mountains without permits! One told me he’d be fined $3,000 if caught. To a poor guajiro unable to pay such a fine, jail would await.

Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income. One university economics grad student whose psychologist wife still works for the state now runs a B&B in Las Tunas, where I overnighted between Bayamo and Camagüey. Next year he plans on studying Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek. I asked whether that was possible; he said definitely, in advanced academia. His study plan had already been approved.

Three blocks from the capitolio in Havana, along the Prado, I spotted a sandwich board advertising real estate. A university economics professor tended the spot. He had no office other than his board, his clipboard, and the built-in bench on the promenade. Though we’d seen many “For Sale” signs on many buildings, including the humblest of abodes, we saw no real estate offices. I excitedly elbowed my wife Tina, a realtor in Arizona, to engage her interest.

Bad move.

A middleman agent of finance — the epitome of freewheeling capitalism — just didn’t fit into her perception of a socialist economy. Either the man was deluded or he was a scammer (an unlikely scenario: the police are ruthless with physical and financial crimes). I insisted on us engaging the man. Immediately she blurted out, “How can you own property in Cuba when there are no property rights and the state can confiscate your property at any time for any reason?”

Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income.

The poor man, without a vestige of the ingeniousness of an American used-car-salesman, took on a pained and thoughtful look. He didn’t know where to start, but he understood that Tina had zeroed in on the heart of the matter. Translating his response was an exercise in empathy. He told us of a building across the street from the capitolio whose residents had just been told by the government to move out: the government needed the space. He didn’t know whether compensation, alternative housing, or even a grace period had been granted. He was the first to admit that Cuba has no property rights and no judicial system to enforce them. Nonetheless, what was he to do? New laws, albeit extremely constricted, allowed for the buying and selling of cars and property. No mortgages are available; only cash transactions. Interest is still illegal. But someone was paying him four times the salary he’d made at the university. He had nothing but hope and an optimistic outlook: “This time the people will not let the changes be reversed.”

I reminded him of the roadside billboards that read, “The changes in progress are for MORE SOCIALISM” — a sure sign, he counterintuitively agreed, along with Obama’s visit, that the changes now have a better chance of sticking than any previous promises. Or as one informant put it, “Castro educated us; now we know what he’s up to.”




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What’s So Selfish About Capitalism?

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It is a mischaracterization of the free-market society that is as old as capitalism itself. One recent recycle comes from self-designated “libertarian socialist” and “anarchist” Noam Chomsky: “It’s just, I’m out for myself, nobody else — and that’s the way it ought to be” (Power Systems, p. 157).

Now it is absolutely true that laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” (in the most shallow sense), basically because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things. A man can spend every penny he has on trinkets (from which expanding circles of merchants and others will actually benefit), or he can donate all he owns to charity — or select among all the types of intermediate options. Freedom of property gives people these choices, in the same way as freedom of religion provides them with a smorgasbord of theisms, atheisms, and agnosticisms. The separation of state and religion doesn’t mean that everyone will embrace, say, Seventh-day Adventism, nor does it follow that the separation of state and economics means that everyone will embrace “selfishness” — or any one exclusive behavior.

The fear that freedom of charity — ending redistributive taxation, thereby completing the separation of state and charity — will mean not a diversification, but the utter death of charity, proceeds from the premise that the one thing everyone will do under capitalism is nothing — for or with anyone else. But this contention that individual liberty entails an abject disregard for others corresponds to no social reality. Does freedom of assembly mean that people will never assemble — in any way? Does freedom of trade mean that everybody will in fact stop trading? Does freedom of speech and of the press — an unregulated market in ideas — mean not that we will have a rich and engaging culture, but that nobody will exchange any ideas about anything?

Laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things.

Consider freedom of sexuality. Now it is also absolutely true that capitalism allows someone to indulge in what was formerly euphemized as “self-abuse.” Does that mean that without government control of sex — without a nationalization of the means of reproduction — individuals will do nothing but lock themselves away in their rooms? That there will be no dating, no courting, no marriages? No births, no propagation of the species — is that how “rugged individualism” will “atomize” society? Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” (Engels) degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators? Is that the fate from which only coercion — by a hereditary monarch, a Putsch oligarchy, or the Election Day majority-plurality — can save us?

Forebodings of societal necrosis notwithstanding, there is no conflict between liberty and community — the former is each tree, the latter the forest. By allowing each adult to act on his own choices, liberty empowers consenting adults to interact in various ways within a multiplicity of modes: religious-philosophical, professional-economic, sexual-romantic, cultural-artistic, fraternal-humanitarian, and many more. Hence the profound error of thinking that capitalism — voluntarily funded government limited to the defense of person and property — has any one “way it ought to be” concerning socioeconomic matters (such as Chomsky’s “I’m out for myself, nobody else” burlesque). Its only commandment is political: the prohibition of the initiation of force or fraud — by either state or criminal agents. We may therefore confidently retire verso Engels’ and recto Thomas Carlyle’s “cash nexus” caricature of the open society. Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity — the multifaceted, multihued consent nexus of capitalism vs. the flat, sanguineous coercion nexus of statisms left and right. When some lobbyist hands us the line “If government doesn’t do it, it doesn’t get done,” what he’s really telling us is: it doesn’t get done his way only.

Many of the giants of classical liberalism recognized the affinity of compulsion and conformity. Jefferson wondered: why subject opinion to coercion? His answer: “To produce uniformity.” And Ludwig von Mises, in a survey of paradoxical charges against the free market, observed: “The atheists make capitalism responsible for the survival of Christianity. But the papal encyclicals blame capitalism for the spread of irreligion. . . .” Irreligionists identify capitalism with religion because capitalism (unlike leftism) doesn’t suppress religion, while religionists identify capitalism with irreligion because capitalism (unlike rightism) doesn’t suppress that. Let us put aside the question of whether such behavior — the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself — constitutes “selfishness” in the most destructive sense. What this example illustrates perfectly is the statist projection inherent in linking laissez faire, which neither suppresses nor subsidizes, to any homogenized culture. A “capitalist society” is no more synonymous with “selfish materialism” than with “selfless spirituality.” The only thing everyone in a libertarian political order does — with no one’s mind, body, and property but his own — is act, not for his exclusive “gratification” against any consideration for others, but on his own judgment protected against any violence from others.

With regard to the nature of civil liberties, the freedom to withhold one’s wealth from the state — apparently the gravamen of the charge of capitalist “selfishness” — is wholly like any other human right. The state has no more claim to the individual’s private property than to his private body or his private mind. (Indeed, what a person does with his own property or body is what he does with his own mind — all coercion is “thought control.”) If we do not grant government the ability to more wisely or morally use a citizen’s mind or body, we do not grant it the ability to more wisely or morally use his property. Yet that is exactly what the accusation of “selfishness” wants to guilt us into conceding: that the state (essentially a handful of guys with guns) will manage each and every person’s money “better” than these people (essentially the entirety of the population) will do themselves. Just who is manning this administration — mortals or gods?

Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators?

The importance of private property to political dissent was memorably demonstrated by an unexpected but significant source. In response to President George W. Bush’s launching of the Iraq War, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee issued a public statement entitled “An Appeal to Conscience: In Support of Those Refusing to Pay for War on Iraq,” which upheld a citizen’s right not to pay “all or a portion of one’s federal taxes as a form of conscientious objection.” Among the signatories were many who proudly wore the label “socialist,” including . . . Noam Chomsky. Now here were outright collectivists defending the right of every individual to keep his money from the taxmen, for no reason other than to reflect his private conscience — that is, his personal disagreement with government policy, even when the government was enthroned by the Election Day majority-plurality. (And certainly Bush 2000 won a much greater percentage of the popular vote than Chile’s Allende, whose “democratically elected” credential is repeated by the Left as calculatingly as Castro’s dictator status is not.) The “Appeal to Conscience” didn’t even contain a little pledge that each tax resister would spend his withheld wealth on good things (e.g., children’s charities) and not on bad ones (hookers and heroin).

Since war is a government undertaking, we must note the converse in America today: almost every government project is conceived as some kind of “war” — hence a War on Poverty and a War on Drugs no less than a War in Iraq and a War on Terror. If, as a matter of principle, a citizen may stop giving money to the state as a practical expression of his “conscientious objection” to any particular war — if he can in that manner legitimately protest national security and other policies — we thereby recognize that private property is essential to freedom of conscience. What then is left of any variant of wealth seizure? What are we left with but capitalism in its purest form?

Yet that is the very politics denounced by the Left, including even its antiwar tax resisters, as “selfishness.” One cannot help recalling the scene in A Man for All Seasons where Sir Thomas More, accused of high treason, explains that his believing a “loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing” is a matter of necessity “for respect of my own soul.” Thomas Cromwell, the state’s advocate and More’s antipode in this “debate” — a rigged trial in which the defendant’s life is in peril — tries to undermine this statement of conviction in a common manner, sneering, “Your own self, you mean!” More doesn’t deny it: “Yes, a man’s soul is his self!”

Possibly the “egalitarian” supporters of the “Appeal to Conscience” believed that its broad principles should apply to only specific people — namely, themselves and those sufficiently parallel. That returns to the fore the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself. Said refusal is a good working definition of what many actually champion as the corrective to capitalist “selfishness”: the social-democratic “welfare” state — the mixed economy:

To be capitalist or to be socialist?— that is the question. Precisely what is the mix of the mixed economy? When is it capitalist and when is it socialist? When does it protect property and when does it confiscate it? When does it leave people alone and when does it coerce them? When does it adhere to the ethics of individualism and when does it obey the code of collectivism? And just which is the metaphysical primary — the individual or the collective (e.g., the nation, the race, the class)? The fundamental truth about the mixed economy is that mixed practices imply mixed principles, which in turn imply mixed premises — i.e., an incoherent grasp of reality. With socialism, the chaos was economic; with “social democracy,” it’s epistemological. Ultimately, the latter can no more generate rational policies than the former could generate rational prices. The mixed economy doesn’t present us with a mosaic portrait of the just society, but with a jigsaw of pieces taken from different puzzles.

Unable to provide any philosophically consistent answers, the mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected. One example that virtually suggests itself: while a myriad of voices clamor for censorship, who ever says, “There have to be some limits on free speech, and we should start with mine”? Concerning “economic” issues, do we ever hear, “Y’know what? Give the competition the subsidies. Me, I’ll bear the rigors of the market”? As for intellectual and moral integrity: do we see the National Organization for Women (NOW) and fellow “progressives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the abortion industry — a heresy that elicited a charge of “possessive individualism” from Christopher Hitchens when in office as socialist inquisitor — except, that is, when these “progressives” demand tax dollars for abortions (and deny reproductive rights, the putative sine qua non for gender equality, to males)? Do we see the National Rifle Association (NRA) and fellow “conservatives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the gun culture — a deviation that roused Robert Bork, majoritarian mongoose to any perceived libertarian snake, to attack the NRA via a comparison with the ACLU — except, that is, when these “conservatives” demand that private property owners be prohibited by law from refusing entry to persons carrying firearms?

Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity.

No matter what combination of contradictory positions any particular avatar of the mixed economy advocates on any given day, he is always a libertarian with his own liberty and a capitalist with his own capital, but an authoritarian with the freedoms of others and a socialist with their property. Such is the “idealism” that distinguishes modern liberalism and its special-interest lobbies from the “selfishness” of classical liberalism and its establishment of the same rights for oneself and one’s neighbors.

With social diversity now multiplying the types of special interests in many social democracies, the resulting political conflicts cannot be dismissed, let alone defused — least of all by the bromide that “we all accept that our tax dollars go to things we disapprove of.” No one in fact accepts that. Even though taxation exists to separate people from control of their money, selective tax protests span the spectrum of otherwise pro-taxation pressure groups. We’ve seen collectivists — reputed foes of all private property — endorse antiwar protesters who demand as a matter of individual conscience their right not to pay taxes. Years ago in The Nation, an ad told readers that “your tax dollars” funded what it alleged was Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. Public school supporters, who never voice concern over how many “Americans really want to give tax dollars” to that monopoly, suddenly claimed great concern with what “Americans really want” at the prospect of those dollars going to “school vouchers.” And among traditionalists, tax protests involve everything from abortion to art (if it offends them) to foreign aid (for the countries they don’t like) to free condoms and free needles. Under a system that denigrates the concept of equal rights for all, everyone wants to be exempt from paying taxes for the things he disapproves of, but no one wants — any guesses why? — his neighbors to be exempt from paying taxes for the things they disapprove of.

There’s not a mote of doubt as to what — with the double standard as its only standard — exposes itself as the inherent politics of “selfishness”: the hypocrisy of social democracy. All the warring camps of social democrats brazenly acknowledge that hypocrisy — in the other camps. A snowy day stuck indoors will pass much more tolerably with a back-and-forth Googling of “liberal hypocrisy” and “conservative hypocrisy.” (Each camp also detects tyranny — “fascism” — in only the others; compare Jonah Goldberg vs. Naomi Wolf.)

And what of social democracy’s central claim to “social justice”: its redistribution of wealth from the “most greedy” (richest? most materialistic? least philanthropic?) to the “most needy”? Consider one form of redistribution that no North American or European “welfare” state allows — or ever would allow. Let us stipulate that I have no problems with (a) the government’s taking a portion of my money for the purpose of tempering my “greed,” (b) the idea of those tax dollars going to the “most needy,” and (c) the percentage the state takes. But there is one thing: I don’t consider the current recipients to be anywhere near the “most needy.” My definition does not include my fellow Americans, who even at their poorest are richer than most people on the planet. To get right to it: I believe that the “most needy” — the “least of these” — are undeniably the starving children of the Third World, and I insist that my tax dollars all be sent to them.

The mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected.

Now why is that a problem? I am not declaring a right to withhold my taxes from the government, with no assurance about what I will do with the money — unlike the antiwar leftists who signed the “Appeal to Conscience.” Nor am I trying to control what others’ taxes pay for. All I’m asking is that my money go to those who my independent judgment and individual conscience tell me are the “most needy.” Why should I pay for full medical coverage for all Americans, when the Third World children don’t have any food? Why should I pay for textbooks for American children, when the Third World children don’t have any food? So, why can’tmy tax dollars go to them? Because the Election Day majority-plurality decides that “charity begins at home” (i.e., nationalism trumps humanitarianism)? If the neediest-recipient principle justifies my money’s transfer to my fellow Americans, why doesn’t it justify the money’s transfer from these Americans to the starving Third World children? Isn’t the principle violated by the dictionary “selfishness” of voting other people’s money into one’s own coffer (“tax booty for me, tax burden for thee”)?

The redistribution of wealth in a “welfare” state is not directed by a neediest-recipient or any other principle. It is purely a matter of power. With its rejection of consistent property rights, social democracy forces all people to throw all money onto the table (which some resist more successfully than others) and then allows them to take what they can (with some better able to take than others). That’s right: The money goes from those who are politically unable to hold on to their wealth, to those who are politically capable of grabbing on to that wealth. The former are no more guaranteed to be the “most greedy” than the latter are to be the “most needy.” It would be criminal not to cite Lord Bauer’s denuding of foreign aid: the “transferring [of] money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.” And it would be downright felonious to omit business subsidies. Any redistribution of wealth operates in only one way: from each according to his ability to contract via civil society, to each according to his ability to coerce via the state — a feature applicable (by degree) to both socialist dictatorship and social democracy.

The confusion of limited government with “selfishness” is reflected in the socialistic thesis that such government comprises nothing but the “class self-interest” of the business (“capitalist”) class. This thesis implodes almost immediately when we begin to ask precisely what concrete policies manifest that specific “class self-interest.” If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations? If unregulated commerce leads to monopolization by these “capitalists,” why do real-world businessmen look to state regulation to gift them with monopoly entitlements? And if free trade gives an advantage to this class, why do each country’s business — and union — leaders lobby for protectionism?

The classical liberals formulated their principles of private property, laissez faire, and free trade — rejected by “socialists of all parties” and big business alike — not against the yearning of the have-nots for a better life, but in opposition to policies that favored the few over the common good, that is, the routine of “merchants and industrialists . . . demanding and receiving special privileges for themselves” (in the words of Robert B. Downs). Free-market economics (The Wealth of Nations) and American nationhood both arose as part of the revolt against such mercantilism — corporatism, in today’s parlance. The American “welfare” state, in contrast, began as a neomercantilist reaction against that revolt. “The essential purpose and goal of any measure of importance in the Progressive Era was not merely endorsed by key representatives of businesses involved,” observed Gabriel Kolko; “rather such bills were first proposed by them.” Big business has never stopped being a major driver of big government. Would President Bush’s 2003 prescription drug bill (the “largest expansion of entitlements in nearly forty years,” according to Jonathan Chait) have gone anywhere without its hundreds of billions in industry subsidies? Would Obamacare even exist without the “advice” and approval of the health insurance cartel?

If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations?

Corporate privilege is a raison d’être — not a corruption — of the “welfare” state (aka “corporate liberalism”). Charity is not the purpose of the “welfare” state, much less its innovation. Concern for “the poor and stranger” long preceded its birth and will long survive its death. Like family life or the division of labor, charity is (to quote Paine’s view of society vs. state) “part of that order which reigns among mankind [that] is not the effect of government. It had its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man.” What had its origin in government is the swarm of anticompetitive measures benefitting “connected” entities — the fixed economy of the mixed economy. Without tariffs, for instance, how many people would always prefer to buy domestic goods? And how many would ever write out checks to a multinational conglomerate for nothing in return? Those are the “market failures” that the opponents of a free market fear.

Any state initiation of force exists not for a noble end (which, as Jefferson said of truth, requires no such coercion), but for a sordid one. Regarding military conscription, Ayn Rand pointed out that a “free (or even semi-free) country has never lacked volunteers in the face of foreign aggression.” However: “Not many men would volunteer for such wars as Korea or Vietnam.” Likewise, people will allocate money for the education of their children, sound retirement funds, the less fortunate, and especially the services of a limited government. What they won’t do is give it to “teachers” who can’t teach, Ponzi schemes, Boeing, or Chrysler — or the Taliban, which just a few months before 9/11 received from Uncle Sam a total of $43 million for its “help” in the victory-elusive War on Drugs (a sum that too obviously pales next to the multiple billions handed over to Vice President Cheney’s compadres for the purpose of building infrastructure — in Iraq). Only pursuits of folly and injustice seek the means of force or fraud.

Portraying laissez-faire capitalism as the tailored benefactor of big business is transparently a projection on the part of the mixed economy’s corporate liberals. The consistent socialists, on the other hand, care no more whether commerce is privileged or left alone by government than whether religion is privileged or left alone by government. They want the abolition of commerce, of religion, of a free market in anything, of any independent institution of civil society: the replication of totalitarian theory and history.

Will only the unfettered state stop the virulence of “selfishness”? Ideally yes, asserted Plato, for whom the “highest form of the state” was one “in whichthe private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions. . . .” Reductio ad fundamentum: There will be no more “selfishness” when there are no more selves.

Capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees.

The unfettered market boasts no ability to effect a change in “human nature” — in social reality. There will always be situations in which people compete to get or to keep one position, one prize. But while the market can do nothing about this conflicting “selfishness” (and will do nothing about different parties’ demands for a guarantee of monopoly), it commands the common self-interest that people have in all competition being governed by an equitable rule: a ban on the use of force or fraud by any rival, the only possible such rule. The analogue of the market is not the jungle, but the stadium — more broadly, a network of stadiums and other venues.

Capitalism’s multiplicity of open competitions enables each individual to find the field where he can succeed. The free market’s profit-and-loss dynamic (to quote Adam Smith) “encourages every man to apply himself to [the] particular occupation” most sought after by others. These interactions synthesize the most prosperous social order as defined by the participants themselves — all of them, as opposed to any one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be.” It is an ideal that has been realized to the degree thata market mechanism has been implemented. In contrast, socialism’s “equality” has meant nothing but poverty for all. And in a jarring echo of the Great Depression, the mixed economy’s regulatory sector in recent years orchestrated a general downturn in the US (where the crisis was Orwellianly blamed on “deregulation”) and in Europe (the “PIIGS”). State intervention in production (i.e., one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be”), once heralded as the alternative to the market’s alleged class conflicts, evidently produces only the “common ruin of the contending classes” — to redirect a phrase from The Communist Manifesto. When the prescribed cure for “selfishness” actually afflicts the common good, we must reexamine the diagnosis of the condition.

Preponderant among the essential criticisms of limited government has been the charge that it fails to recognize as natural rights such things as food, clothing, and shelter, to say nothing of education (“from pre-K to Ph.D.”), advanced medicine, and whatever else might be tacked on. The sober reply: these items are not natural rights because they are not natural produce. It costs a man nothing not to coerce his fellow citizens, thereby respecting their rights to worship, speak, etc. But how can he provide everyone’s “right” to all those scarce materials and services? And why should he, when he himself is promised a “right” to those things whether he does any work or not? Realistically speaking, capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees. And the condemners are quite serious in that belief: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Wealth simply exists, and only capitalist “selfishness” prevents its equal distribution to every soul on earth.

Ultimately, the free-market society is guilty only of affirming each individual’s right to control his own mind, body, and property, a conviction that calls for a single sentence: if that is “selfishness,” let us make the most of it.

Recommended Reading

  • Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, 2012.
  • Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, 2012.
  • David Kelley, Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, 2003.
  • Robert P. Murphy, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, 2007.
  • Andrew P. Napolitano, It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong: The Case for Personal Freedom, 2011.
  • John Stossel, No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed, 2012.



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Disquieting Developments

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My father served in the Army Signal Corps, under General Patton, and participated in the liberation of one of the Nazi concentration camps. He and his fellow Signal Corpsmen photographed what he saw. As a young boy I found some of those grisly photos tucked away in the garage. They left an impression on me that lasts to this day — to this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, to be exact, when I decided to take some time to discuss the current state of anti-Semitism.

Europe is now witnessing a surge in anti-Semitism such as it has not seen since the Holocaust era of the 1930s and 1940s. This certainly shows up in European soccer matches, as a recent Washington Post article reports: the crowd at a game taunts the visiting fans from Amsterdam, a city with a historically large Jewish population, with chants such as “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” and “My father was in the commandos, my mother was in the SS, together they burned Jews, because Jews burn the best!” At another game, British spectators taunted a team often supported by Jewish fans with the chant “I’ve got a foreskin, how about you? F--- Jew!” In other games, players and fans have given an imitation Nazi salute (the “quenelle”) invented by a devoutly anti-Semitic French comedian named Dieudonne M’bala M’bala. The article cites a study showing that anti-Semitic incidents at European soccer games are at a record high.

Whenever there are demonstrations or riots in Muslim neighborhoods of European cities, the participants don’t scream “Death to Israel,” but “Death to Jews” and “Gas the Jews.”

More generally, as a recent US News & World Report piece put it, “From Toulouse to Paris, London to Berlin, Brussels to Copenhagen, Jews are being harassed, assaulted and even killed.” The report notes that a new study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows anti-Semitic attacks at a seven-year high. As of 2013, Jews have faced intimidation and even persecution in more than three-fourths of Europe — 34 out of 45 countries, to be exact. These attacks include desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, verbal slurs and physical assaults, and even murders — most recently of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff and (right afterward) the killing of customers at a kosher food market.

The Pew survey indicates that currently 25% of all Europeans feel antipathy toward Jews. This result comports well with a 2013 survey reported in an article by Cathy Young. The survey was of 6,000 self-identified Jews living in eight EU countries, conducted by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. The results were both surprising and disturbing. The survey revealed that:

  • two-thirds of the respondents thought that anti-Semitism was a serious problem in their home countries;
  • three-fourths thought that anti-Semitism has increased over the last five years;
  • one-fourth reported being personally subjected to anti-Semitic bullying or attack;
  • nearly one-half reported being concerned about harassment;
  • two-thirds were afraid that their children would be harassed at school, or in transit to and from.

What is behind this swelling tide of European anti-Semitism? I think we can point to three groups: Muslim immigrants to Europe European leftists and European right-wing extremists.

This triumvirate of communities infected with large numbers of Jew-haters is explored in a recent report by the American Jewish Committee. As the report puts it, “Three distinct groups in France are noticeably more anti-Jewish than the overall population, according to two new public opinion surveys on French anti-Semitism. The groups are supporters of the National Front party (extreme right), to a lesser extent supporters of the Left Front coalition (extreme left), and members of the Muslim community.”

The article gives the results of polling conducted by the French think-tank Fondapol last year. They show that while about 25% of the French generally say Jews have too much power in the media, 33% of Left Front sympathizers, fully 51% of National Front sympathizers, and a mind-boggling 61% of French Muslims agree. Again, on the question of whether Jews use “Holocaust victim status” as an egoistic ploy, 35% of the whole French population agrees — already a shockingly high number — while 51% of Left Front supporters, 56% of Muslims, and a nauseating 62% of National Front supporters agree. Regarding the recent upsurge in violence against Jews, while 14% of the French public generally thought it was “understandable,” 29% of National Front supporters agreed, as did 21% of Left Front supporters, and 25% of Muslims.

The polls also showed that the degree of anti-Semitism among Muslims was directly proportional to the degree of self-reported religiosity.

Let’s examine these groups more closely.

Start with the Muslim European community. It is no shocking news to report that Europe in recent years has seen a massive increase in Muslim immigrants. As a recent Pew study reports, the Muslim percentage of Europe’s population has grown about 1% per decade, from constituting 4% of the EU population in 1990 to 6% in 2010. (In 2010, the total Muslim EU population was over 13 million.) The study projects that this will continue through 2030, when the Muslims will be 8% of the total population. France and Germany have the highest percentages of Muslims (at 7.5% and 5.8% respectively). And from that community has come most of the attackers of Jews.

The idea that the Left was sympathetic to the Jews after the Holocaust doesn’t comport with historical reality.

The polls I discussed earlier showed anti-Semitic sentiment strong among French Muslims. Other polls indicate that the same holds true of the rest of Europe. As a recent paper by Gunther Jikeli notes, many other surveys done throughout Europe confirm that there is a much higher level of anti-Semitism among Muslims than among non-Muslims (or the public at large). In a 2006 Pew study, Muslims in France, Germany, and Spain were twice as likely to have unfavorable views of Jews as were non-Muslims, while in Britain Muslims were seven times more likely. Jikeli reviews ten other studies conducted in a variety of ways in a variety of other European countries, all showing basically the same result.

It is often said that whatever hatred comes from elements of the Muslim immigrant community is created by Israel’s policies, specifically its occupation of the West Bank. I don’t find this claim plausible, for several reasons.

First, as the US News article noted, whenever there are demonstrations or riots in Muslim neighborhoods of European cities, the participants don’t scream “Death to Israel,” but “Death to Jews” and “Gas the Jews.”

Second, and more obviously, European Jews — i.e., precisely those Jews who have chosen to stay in their European homelands rather than immigrate to Israel — have virtually no influence over Israeli policies. So harassing, assaulting, and killing those Jews will certainly not change Israeli policy. And how crazy is it to think that desecrating the graves of long-deceased Jews could be motivated by the intention to protest against Israel and its various policies? I mean, if this were anger at Israeli policies, you would expect the attacks to be directed at Israeli embassies, not random Jewish graveyards.

Third, there has been tremendous antipathy toward the Jews in all Muslim lands since the inception, not of Israel, but of Islam itself. Anti-Semitism has been endemic in Islam throughout its existence for the same reason it has been endemic in Christianity throughout its existence. Judaism denies that Muhammed was a prophet and that Jesus was the Messiah. It is basically that simple. And we should note that the hatred Muslims often feel against the Jews for not accepting the Prophet is also directed at Christians (and Hindus, Zoroastrians, and so on) for the self-same reason.

None of this should be taken to mean that I think Israel’s state policies are now or have ever been above reproach, or that I think anybody who criticizes those policies is necessarily (or even likely) an anti-Semite. Of course everyone is free to criticize Israel — or America, Egypt, Iran, or any other country.

Islam itself was a colonialist creed. The Turkish Empire was hardly a Jewish one, to take the most recent case.

I just doubt the claim that Israel’s policies are the predominant cause of Islamic anti-Semitism. The existence of Israel is the current focus for that anti-Semitism, but the long-standing Muslim antipathy toward Jews would have remained even if Yasser Arafat had accepted the two-state solution negotiated by Bill Clinton some years back, and even if all Israelis moved to somewhere else tomorrow. As Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Islamist terrorist army Hezbollah, so charmingly put it: “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak, and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice I do not say the Israeli.” Duly noticed.

Let’s now turn to another group responsible for the recrudescence of European anti-Semitism, the European Left. I want to start with addressing what I will call the New York Times Received Account. The name gives recognition to an NYT article written a couple of years ago by Colin Shindler.

In that piece (“The European Left and Its Trouble with the Jews”), Shindler began by noting the growth of anti-Semitic violence in France, such as the then recent firing of blanks outside a synagogue, Islamists tossing a grenade into a kosher restaurant, and the killing of a teacher and some children in a Jewish school. He then averred that much of the European Left had remained silent about these cases where “anti-Zionism spills over into anti-Semitism,” as he put it.

His thesis was that the Left was very sympathetic to Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but started reversing itself with Israel’s “collusion with imperial powers like Britain and France during the Suez Crisis,” and only intensified during the 1970s with the Israelis building out settlements on the West Bank. By the 1990s, he added, many European Leftists began to view the growing Muslim immigrant population as “a new proletariat.”

I don’t find the Times Received View remotely persuasive (but then, very little of what emanates from the Great American Progressive Propaganda Organ seems persuasive to me). To begin with a couple of obvious quibbles, the idea that the Left was sympathetic to the Jews after the Holocaust doesn’t comport with historical reality. Certainly in the contest of the post-war Soviet Empire, as Daniel Hannan notes, Stalin’s pursuit of the “Doctors’ Plot” was intended to initiate a campaign targeting Jews with the goal of throwing massive numbers of them into his Gulag. Also, there were show trials of “Israeli spies” in both Czechoslovakia and Hungary, as well as purges of Jews by the Polish communist party.

Of course, much of the European Left did not support the Stalinist Soviet Empire. But much of the European Left did.

And the idea that the Left began to oppose Jews and side with the Muslims because Israel sided with imperial powers in 1956 doesn’t square with the fact that the European Left seems to have had little problem with Soviet imperialism (remember, the year 1956 also saw the Soviets butchering Hungarians who wanted freedom from their empire), or Chinese imperialism. Moreover, as Daniel Greenberg has observed, Islam itself was a colonialist creed. The Turkish Empire was hardly a Jewish one, to take the most recent case. And the empire that Iran is trying to put together (by controlling Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen) is again not a Jewish but a Shia Muslim one.

Anti-Semitic trends in socialism go back to the beginning.

But waive those points. Jews who have chosen to remain in Europe have no control of any kind over Israel’s policies. The main reason a person would allow his hatred of Israel’s policies — which are not universally accepted even by Israelis — to extend to all Jews would be that he is a Jew-hater to begin with.

And again, as Daniel Hannan has forcefully observed, anti-Semitic trends in socialism go back to the beginning. Pierre Leroux, the 19th-century leftist who coined the term “socialism,” trumpeted, “When we speak of Jews, we mean the Jewish spirit — the spirit of profit, of lucre, of gain, of speculation in a word the banker’s spirit.” The 19th-century German radical Wilhelm Marr embraced the term “anti-Semitic,” crowing, “Anti-Semitism is a Socialist movement, only nobler and purer in form than Social Democracy.” The 20th-century French socialist-communist Pierre Myrens had that, “The Yid is an Israelite by religion, a Jew by race, and what is more, a capitalist!”

Of course, the über-leftist himself, Karl Marx — whose father converted to Protestantism from Judaism, so would have been categorized as Jewish under the Nuremberg laws — held that “the essence of Judaism and the root of the Jewish soul is expediency and self-interest: the God of Israel is Mammon, who exposes himself in the lust for money.” He and his collaborator Engels wrote of the Polish Jews, “The Polish Jew-Usurer cheats, gives short weights, clips coins, engages in common swindling.” This from the “genius” revered in philosophy departments worldwide!

Jews themselves have often been politically leftist, but as a group they have historically been associated with capitalism (“money-lending”) in the European mind. And what defines the Left — from progressive liberalism, to socialism, to communism — is precisely the disapproval or loathing of capitalism.

Here of course is one of European history’s great ironies. You might call it the Catch-22 of Judaism in Europe. Jews were often barred from land ownership, membership in the trade guilds, and government service. They were, however, allowed to be peddlers, and otherwise to engage in business. They were allowed to do something Christians were forbidden to do: lend money at interest — to Christians. So Christian policy itself often drove Jews into business generally and banking in particular. Drove them into it — but condemned them for it.

Again, I want to add the caveat that while the European Left has been a wellspring of anti-Semitic sentiment, I don’t say that most European leftists harbored such feelings. I simply say that they are more likely to have such sentiments than the population as a whole.

Let’s finally consider the rise of ultra-Right parties in Europe. Over the past five years, they have been making rapid gains in membership and (accordingly) in representation in legislatures. Last year in particular saw these parties achieve major gains.

Christian policy itself often drove Jews into business generally and banking in particular. Drove them into it — but condemned them for it.

These parties fall into two broad categories: the ultra-right-wing, so to say, and the neo-Nazi. The Independence Party in the UK and the contemporary National Front in France, both to the right of what we would call conservative or neoliberal parties, are of the first category. The Golden Dawn Party in Greece and the Jobbik Party in Hungary are both in the second category. The difference between the two types of European radically right-wing parties is explored in an article by John Palmer a couple of years back.

The neo-Nazi parties mimic the German Nazi Party of yore. For example, the Golden Dawn party of Greece has its own version of the SA (Sturmabteilung), which delights in bullying immigrants and refugees. And the Jobbik party in Hungary delights in bullying the Roma (Gypsies). On the other hand, the UK Independence Party and the contemporary National Front don’t terrorize anybody, but instead oppose continued widespread immigration and want firmer measures to assimilate the recent immigrants.

Interesting here is the National Front in France. It has recently seen something of a power struggle between the founder of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and his daughter Marine. The father has said a number of things that seem to show genuine anti-Semitism. For instance, he has spoken about making an “oven-load” of a Jewish singer. Regarding the Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews, he has repeatedly made slighting comments, such as, “If you take a book of over a thousand pages on the Second World War, in which 50 million died, the concentration camps occupy two pages and the gas chambers ten or 15 lines, and that’s what one calls a detail.” Considering that of the 50 million people killed in WWII, at least 11 million died in the Nazi concentration camps, I don’t think we are talking about a detail meriting two pages out of 1,000. And he has said, “I’m not saying that the gas chambers didn’t exist. I couldn’t see them myself.” While not denying the concentration camps existed, Le Pen has clearly attempted to dismiss them, which seems odd for a person who had no anti-Semitic beliefs to do.

His daughter seems to have taken command of the party and distanced it from his anti-Semitism, focusing instead on anti-immigrationism. But even so, it seems clear that the long-term members of the party are more likely to harbor anti-Semitic beliefs than is the French public as a whole.

Now, in the European context, radical right-wing parties have a markedly different flavor from that which we Americans view as “right-wing.” Many Americans consider libertarians to be on the Right politically, but Europeans would more correctly view then as “liberal” advocates of minimal government. Most American conservatives, too, are distrustful of a powerful central government. But the European Right tends to favor economic statism and intense nationalism. What focuses their anger is the vision that many European leaders share of a “United States of Europe.”

The European Union started as a free trade zone (at which it was quite a success). Then it became a unified monetary zone (the success of which is bound to be severely tested, should Greece leave). But the goal of political union, in which the existing European nation states merge into one overarching state, sticks in the craw of the radical Right. (To get a sense of the intensity of the disagreement, you can listen to a recent heated debate between two Euroskeptics and two True Believers in a United States of Europe.)

There are plenty of reasons for even libertarians to distrust the idea of a unified European state. But one of the main reasons for the European Right lies in its own tribalist feeling of “volk,” of the people as an extended kinfolk bonded by blood as well as culture. Many of those who view immigrants as “outside the tribe” — i.e., as members of the out-group — also view Jews in this way as well. Jews are often seen by the ultra-rightists as being “cosmopolitan,” a code for saying that they aren’t really Germans (or French, or whatever). They are of “different blood.”

Add to this the traditional tie between the Right and the church in Europe, which brings in the element of Christian antipathy toward the Jews, and the attraction the fascist Right has toward socialism, with its suspicion of capitalism (and hence of “money-lending”), and you have a further source of anti-Semitism.

As Europe struggles economically, the radical Left and radical Right may continue to grow in number and political influence.

One point should be made explicitly and stressed. While the three European communities with the most anti-Semitic feeling are Muslims, leftists, and rightists, that of course does not necessarily mean that the majority of their members approve of Jews being physically attacked, or are even anti-Semitic. Reverting to one of the polls reported earlier, while 14% of the French generally say violence against Jews is “understandable” (which may or may not mean that those respondents approve of it), 21% of the Left Front, 25% of Muslims, and 29% of National Front say it is understandable. That in turn means that 79% of the Left Front, 75% of Muslims, and 71% of the National Front say that they do not believe anti-Jewish violence is understandable, much less approve of it.

That said, however, some other points must be made as well. First of all, the number of people agreeing to certain anti-Semitic statements (such as the one about Jews using the Holocaust as a victimhood ploy) does reach majority support among the three groups. Also, it is quite likely that many people who really do believe violence against Jews is understandable (and perhaps even deserved) will not want to admit that to a pollster. Almost surely, the reported percentages are lower than the real ones.

Further, as Europe struggles economically, the radical Left and radical Right may continue to grow in number and political influence. Should Greece leave the Eurozone, and should this lead to financial crisis, these groups may increase their influence. And regardless of Europe’s short-term financial future, the Muslim population is likely to continue to grow. In view of these trends, I think that the level of European anti-Semitism will probably be rising as well.

In short, though Holocaust Remembrance Day has come and gone, there is much still to ponder, and it is deeply disquieting.




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