Muzungus in the Mist, Part II


The first part of Robert H. Miller’s personal account of Rwanda appeared in Liberty on May 5. Here is the second and final part.

Part II: The Lone Cyclists

Our last day with Slow Cyclist began with a ride on a moto-taxi, something I’d been dreading. It was an innovative way to return us to the point on our route — a junction with an unmarked dirt road — from which we’d detoured for the gorilla trekking. For me it was a novel experience; I’d never been on a motorcycle before, considering them a needless risk. The Slow Cyclist support vehicle delivered our bicycles to the turn-off. Our destination was Gisenyi, 82 kilometers away, on the shores of Lake Kivu — and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I’d sooner walk naked through the South Side of Chicago with a toy gun than go anywhere near the Congo. Even worse, next door to Gisenyi, across the border, lay Goma, a hotbed of rebel activity and Ebola outbreaks — a combination that has caused many international relief and health agencies to leave. Yet it’s seen worse.

The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning.

Back in 1994, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) captured Kigali and Butare on the 4th of July, putting an end to the war and genocide, a million Hutus fled for Goma. The human wave was composed of Hutu Power extremists, remnants of the Rwandan army (FAR), and the Interahamwe — all in full retreat — herding ordinary Hutus whom they’d either coerced or convinced that the RPF would kill them. The génocidaires escaped fully armed, yet they were able to convince the international community that they were the victims, refugees from the Rwandan genocide. The génocidaires quickly established firm control of the nascent refugee camps that sprang up on the inhospitable lava fields of the Nyaragongo volcano on the outskirts of Goma.

By July 20 the FAR and Interahamwe in the camps, now — unwittingly or mistakenly — classified as refugees, were raiding emergency shipments of food relief meant for the real refugees: the Hutu civilians they’d forced out of Rwanda. That same day cholera broke out. More than 30,000 died in the three to four weeks before the epidemic was contained.

Nearly a third of Rwanda’s Hutu population had escaped into Congo (then Zaire), Tanzania, and Burundi and was camped close to Rwanda’s border, in contravention of UN guidelines. The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning. The Hutu Power hierarchy denounced them as RPF accomplices; some had their Achilles’ tendons cut so they couldn’t walk, and some were even killed by the militias. As Philip Gourevitch, in his book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families concludes, “After all, if all the innocent refugees left, only the guilty would remain, and Hutu Power’s monopoly on international pity might be shaken.”

More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.

Raids by Hutu militants into Rwanda and retaliatory counter-raids by the RPF, by then become the Rwandan army, continued at least until 2012. In the interim, Kagame forced the closing of the camps, repatriated most of the real refugees, and eliminated many of the Hutu extremists. Today, President Kagame has extended an olive branch and invitation to the remaining expatriate Hutus to return to Rwanda. He avers that only the organizers of the genocide will be tried.

Yet the troubles persist. The March 9, 2019 Economist reports that the previous collaborative relationship between Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda has soured. Rwanda has taken retaliatory action against Uganda for supporting Hutu rebel forces in eastern Congo that are intent on overthrowing President Kagame.

* * *

We enjoyed a beautiful and varied bike ride to Paradis Kivu Lodge overlooking Lake Kivu. Along the way throngs of colorfully dressed women carrying impossible loads of tomatoes, potatoes, cassava, bananas, and other goods on their heads — some with small children tucked into shawls slung across their backs — headed for markets in Rubavu and Gisenyi, where many Goma residents often came to shop. More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.

Adding to the brooding specter of Goma, the hyperactive Nyaragongo volcano sits just 20 kilometers north of the city. It erupted in 2002, destroying two-thirds of Goma. Its superfluid lava can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, so it’s a miracle only 45 died. There was enough warning that 400,000 residents were evacuated to Gisenyi in Rwanda. The last eruption occurred in 2016.

The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow.

That evening while we were supping on beef, chicken, and fish brochettes at lakeside, the overcast skies glowed pink in one distant spot due north. It was the reflection of Nyaragongo’s molten crater on the cloud ceiling: Mordor on the equator — a sight I’ll never forget.

November 24 broke under heavy rain coming in from the Congo. Today we’d bidden farewell to our Slow Cyclist team and come under the guidance of Rwandan Adventures, an almost totally Rwandan enterprise. When the rain stopped, Roger, our Rwandan Adventures guide, showed up at Paradis Kivu Lodge to lead us to their headquarters in Rubavu and the lodging they’d arranged for us.

We’d hired Rwandan Adventures to book our lodging and provide a trail guide and translator. From the Gisenyi-Rubavu area, our route would follow the Congo-Nile Trail along the length of Lake Kivu down to Nyungwe National Park, after which we’d be on our own. The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow. With lodging options few and far between, and varying considerably in price and quality, Rwandan Adventures’ services were indispensable. The trail is very rural and takes about five days to traverse.

The route follows the precipitous divide that separates the Nile and Congo Rivers — in some ways the very center of Africa — hence the name. Steep, lakeside jungle and terraced land with banana trees, coffee plots, truck gardens, and small fishing communities line the route. Countless islets and peninsulas with dwellings and small-holdings give the shore a look-twice jigsaw puzzle appearance.

The lake itself was devoid of motorized traffic, except for the occasional African Queen-style utility steamer. We saw only dugouts and elegant, clinker-built paddle boats with upturned ends and long net poles for fishing. Lake Kivu is one of those not-so-rare lakes with dissolved gas at its bottom, about 1,000 feet down. It contains an estimated 256 cubic kilometers of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 65 cubic kilometers of methane. Much of the CO2 enters the lake from the volcanic rock beneath it. Bacteria in the lake then convert some of the CO2 into methane. If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode. To mitigate the danger, the Rwandan government is piping the gas up and using it for power generation.

The Congo-Nile Trail started off with a bang — literally. Backcountry bridges in Rwanda are built from logs, with the logs constituting the road surface and placed parallel to the direction of travel. Sometimes the log surfaces are planed with an adze, sometimes rounded. Just before lunch, after logging in a difficult and challenging 25 kilometers — with lots of uphill bike-pushing — we encountered one of these bridges. My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs, stopped only when the handlebars hit the adjoining logs. My face hit the road hard. I dented my helmet and glasses; rasped my forehead and nose; scraped a large area of skin on the inside of my thigh. My right shoulder pounded the ground so hard, three months later I still have yet to fully recover. Subsequent X-rays back in the US indicated no fractures. Roger and Tina ran up, helped me to my feet, and pulled the bike out of its slot. The bike was fine — only a broken rear-view mirror. My shoulder hurt like hell, but it was OK when extended in a riding position. Anyway, there was only one option out here: ride on. For the remainder of the ride I popped Ibuprofen like they were M&Ms (with the occasional painkiller to allow for sleep).

If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode.

It was a Sunday. The road thronged with women in strikingly colorful dresses with matching turban headdresses; men in white shirts, ties, and slacks, and kids in their Sunday finery, all headed for churches. For such a rural area the mass of worshipers was astounding — all walking. Passing by the churches, we heard entire congregations with voices in perfect unison pealing out of chests bursting with vigor, raising high the rafters with glorious a capella singing reminiscent of the old Missa Luba — sacred music sung in Congolese style. I wanted to forget my discomfort, and that helped.

Contrary to the perception (especially on the sidewalks of New York) that in crowded places people mind their own business and avoid eye or physical contact, in Rwanda everyone greets everyone, makes contact, talks, shakes hands, smiles — and we were included. Women don’t mind being looked at, stared at; they usually smile back.

Everyone in Rwanda, no matter how poor, seems to have a cellphone. Roger had called ahead for our lunch, a break I desperately needed. We stopped at a small mud-walled building in a tiny, nondescript hamlet. This was Mama Nelly’s, our sign-free lunch stop. There was no door, but laid out on a rough bench in the narrow foyer was a typical Rwandan meal: rice, beans, spinach, chips (French fries), fried plantains, stewed potatoes, and fried fingerling fish — heads and all — with Akabanga: Rwandan chili oil. All we could eat.

We soon realized that while the trail along Lake Kivu traverses commanding heights, lodging favored lakeside settings. The Kivu Rushel Lodge, a fancy tent establishment, was located three kilometers off-route down a hellish four-wheel drive “road” that sorely shook my shoulders. The welcoming attendant greeted us, helped carry our panniers to our “tent,” and showed us where to stow our bikes. He then asked where we were from. USA, I answered.

His eyes sparkled and he asked, “What do you think of Donald Trump?”

I caught his half-mischievous drift and responded, “I’ll trade you Trump for Kagame.”

He thought about it for a minute and, with a now fully mischievous glint in his eye said “No”. We all laughed.

My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs. My face hit the road hard.

Paul Kagame grew up in Uganda. His family fled to Uganda — with a Hutu mob right on their tail — during one of the periodic pogroms against the Tutsi. Paul was four years old. He would later become a military man through and through. A top student in high school, he opposed the Idi Amin dictatorship, while his best friend Fred Rwigyema joined the Ugandan rebels under Yoweri Museveni to overthrow Amin. When Amin fled into exile, Kagame joined the Museveni faction in the Ugandan army. In 1981, when former dictator Milton Obote again seized power, Museveni returned to the bush to fight some more. At the time, his army consisted of 27 men, including Rwigyema and Kagame. But it would soon grow.

Museveni overthrew Obote in 1986 with the help of Uganda’s Rwandan refugees. By then, his army consisted of 20% Rwandans, with Rwigyema as commanding general and Kagame as director of military intelligence. He went on to receive formal training at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Rwandans had joined Museveni with the tacit understanding that once Museveni was in power, he’d help the Rwandans free Rwanda of the Hutu dictatorship.

Kagame is a caricature Tutsi: over six-feet tall, with a long face, and so skinny that his bodily features are completely hidden by his clothes, which are always spotless and well-pressed. He’s been described as an intensely private public man, but a man of action with an acute human and political intelligence. Married, with four children, he likes dinner parties, dancing, shooting pool, and tennis. One informant told me that Kagame is known to appear unannounced at public events such as soccer games and join in, without security or with minimal security. He likes to mingle with Rwandans as just another citizen. Though he lacks any sign of haughtiness, his mere presence is commanding. He is very intense and focused, seemingly lacking in any sense of humor. His men adored him and composed many chants and songs honoring him. Today, Rwandans don’t just respect him, they revere him.

* * *

The following morning we awoke to solitary male plainsong accompanied by much birdsong — an enchanting combination and unique wakeup call. We were slated for a 60-kilometer day all the way to Kibuye — an actual city — where the tarmac road joins the Congo-Nile Trail. But it didn’t start well and only got worse.

By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as "mzee," old man.

The first three kilometers back to the main trail consisted of uphill loaded-bike pushing with a throbbing shoulder. Roger was indispensable. Then came 20 kilometers of very tough single trail, and then five kilometers of 20% uphill grade on a dirt road strewn with gravel marbles. There was no way we were going to make it to Kibuye by sundown. Roger called a rescue taxi, which was able to get to us — for the trail was no longer a four-wheel drive track — and drive us into Kibuye.

Over dinner at the Rwiza Village Hotel, A-frame chalets overlooking Lake Kivu, we watched the fishermen’s trimarans paddle out to fish as they sang paddling chanties to keep time.

The next day, another 3-kilometer uphill push into Kibuye proper followed by 27 kilometers of roller coaster tarmac with reasonable grades, on a road so perfect, it would shame many of our roads. By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as mzee, old man, as often as muzungu.

The day ended in by now typical fashion: an eight-kilometer downhill detour on an infernal four-wheel drive track to a luxury hotel on an island on Lake Kivu accessed by a causeway that may or may not have been manmade. We were the only guests.

At the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless.

Kivu Lodge is emblematic of Rwanda. Like many hotels in the country, it grows its own produce. Unconnected to the electricity grid, its generator runs at set hours or upon request by the guests. The lawns surrounding its helicopter pad were being mowed by a man squatting and clipping with hedge shears. I asked our host if the helicopter pad was for President Kagame. He smiled and declined to answer.

Rwanda is a third-world country with a first-world perspective. On our month-long, 700-kilometer ride we were never assaulted by any foul odors, hordes of flies, roadside dead animals, traffic accidents, or unsettling sights (other than frequent, local genocide memorials). President Kagame has concentrated the country’s development, Vision 2020, on infrastructure: potable water, sewage disposal, roads, 5G connectivity, electrification, the rule of law, an effective and honest police force and judiciary, health and education, agricultural production, and private sector development fostering a favorable business environment. The plan, developed in the late 1990s, has achieved phenomenal results. At one restaurant in Kigali we met a Taiwanese executive representing a consortium of companies exploring investment opportunities in the country. His enthusiasm was so infectious that both our dinners got cold while we discussed free market philosophy. Later on, at the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless. On the last day of our ride, going into Kigali, one informant pointed to an industrial park up on a hill and said that Volkswagen would break ground there for a factory in 2019.

But Kagame’s greatest success has been his insistence on eradicating the Hutu-Tutsi distinction, while at the same time bringing back — sometimes forcibly — disaffected Hutu expatriates who feared repression; and then successfully integrating them into the national bosom. Article 54 of the new Rwandan constitution states that "political organizations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, region, sex, religion or any other division which may give rise to discrimination.”

To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, the Belgians resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers.

Not that the Hutu-Tutsi thing is any of those specified above. The two groups shared the same national — not tribal — identity since before colonization, spoke the same language, shared the same faiths, lived intermingled throughout the country, intermarried, and in general look so much alike that the Belgian colonial administration issued identity cards so they could tell them apart. To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, they resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers: a long, narrow nose indicated a Tutsi; a wide, pug nose . . . a Hutu. The Belgians were partial to the Tutsi, for their supposed aquiline features and traditional positions of power. Before the issuance of ID cards, people were able to switch identities by acquiring wealth or becoming poor, making a unilateral declaration (subject to acceptance by their neighbors), or any number of other expediencies. Traditionally, clan affiliations overrode the Hutu-Tutsi divide; by the time of the genocide, economic class and entrenched political power were the greatest defining factors between the two.

In one of the strangest ironies ever (one that illustrates the flexibility of Rwandan identities), Jerry Robert Kajuga, national president and leader of the genocidal Interahamwe, came from a Tutsi family. While Jerry was still young, his father obtained Hutu identity papers for the family. During the genocide, while the Interahamwe were out decapitating Tutsis, Kajuga hid his brother (who presumably was still a Tutsi) in a hotel to prevent the family from being targeted as Tutsis.

The origins of the distinction are lost in the mists of prehistory, but the inference goes something like this: the aboriginal inhabitants of the densely forested Rwandan mountains were the Twa, or forest pygmies. Later Bantu agriculturalists moved in from the south and west, followed by — or coming at the same time as — cattle herders from the north and east. The herders were generally tall and lanky; the farmers, of normal girth and stature. With time they became one people, but the more warlike herders organized the land into a kingdom and came to rule over the farmers. Oddly enough, the Tutsi herders favored Twa (only 1% of the population) officers in their armies. By the time of German colonization, the Rwandan king ruled over not only today’s Rwanda, but also parts of Uganda and Congo. As the population densed up, conflicts for land between the farmers and herders intensified, creating the frictions that led to the troubles. These reached a boiling point when, first, the ruling Tutsis imposed onerous taxes on the farmers; second, the German and Belgian colonial governments promoted and favored Tutsis in administration; and finally, status was frozen by the imposition of identity cards.

* * *

Another Sisyphean push eight kilometers back up out of Kivu Lodge to rejoin pavement, followed by 52 pleasant kilometers that landed us at a $40-a-night motel in Kibogura. It was not our ideal choice — it was our only choice. Still, there was cold beer and the mattress was firm.

Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one.

On the day after, the 25 kilometers — all uphill (on tarmac) — to Gisakura and the entrance to Nyungwe National Park, went by fast and sweaty. We arrived at the $200-a-day Top View Hotel pushing our bikes up an extreme incline. It was over the top — individual bungalows with living rooms and porches overlooking the mountains of the park. Roger, our guide, left us here. We no longer needed him: all the way back to Kigali we’d be on main highways, with little chance of getting lost. That afternoon we were scheduled to do a canopy walk in the park and, the following day, chimpanzee tracking. Roger ensured that our permits and fees for both activities, the ranger escorts, four-wheel drive vehicle, and driver for the chimp tracking were organized, and rode off into the mists bearing a generous tip.

On the ride into the park, we spotted many Oyster and Blue monkeys — and one royal Colobus. Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one. Its strange-looking skull sits in the doorway of the visitor center. The 90-meter sky walk allowed us to rise out of the rainforest track and emerge over the canopy for a birds’ eye view down into the treetops and across to the distant mountains, thick with impenetrable green. It was good to be off the bikes.

Unlike many third-world or tropical countries where punctuality is not a value, Rwandans are promptly punctual — in appointments, opening times, and event schedules. Our 3 AM wakeup call (accurate to the second on satellite time) for the chimp excursion was barely effective. We dragged our reluctant bodies to the hotel lobby. There, a group of agitated Chinese mainlanders were loudly assaulting the concierge, who meekly tried to correct whatever wrongs the Chinese had perceived. They’d been our only companions at dinner — loud, uncouth, and with an assortment of Chinese comestibles they’d brought with them. It never occurred to us that they’d go chimp tracking. Some were past any prime they might have ever have had; others were comfortably overweight. Luckily, we weren’t sharing a ride with them. Outside, an old rattle-trap Toyota four-door pickup awaited us. Shadrack, our guide and ranger, and the driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads that would bring us to a distant corner of the park where a troop of chimps lived.

The driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads.

At the park’s far, subsidiary entrance, Shadrack set out the ground rules, and we set off hiking, at 6 AM — with the Chinese and two UAE tourists in tow. Shadrack set a good pace. Within 15 minutes half the Chinese, cigarette stubs hanging out of their mouths, dropped behind and returned to the secondary park headquarters. A mile or so later Shadrack warned of a dense column of fire ants crossing the trail, saying that their sting was intense and their ability to climb up shoes and inside pants cuffs impressive. While the rest of us ran over the column, one Chinese walked. After doing a spirited two-step, with his comrades swatting at his calves, he, too, turned back. By the time we spotted our first chimp, only two mainlanders remained in the group.

Chimps congregate in large, dispersed groups, on the ground and up in the trees. They react to the presence of humans by putting a respectable distance between themselves and us, mostly by disappearing into the canopy. The big males can be aggressive and mostly stay on the ground. Their hoots and hollers are endearing. We had to keep moving in order to prolong the encounters (which the chimps disdained). After a few middle-distance sightings, the remaining Chinese left. Shadrack appointed a tracker to escort them back.

Tina asked Shadrack how he dealt with the arrogance of his mainland Chinese visitors. He smiled and said, “We have our ways,” referring to his passive, polite strategies that day. But he said that a few days previously, a man from China had jumped on his back and demanded to be carried the rest of the way. That was too much for Shadrack. He unloaded the man at a fire ant crossing.

A few days later on the ride we ran into our Slow Cyclist driver, Emi, escorting two Americans to the canopy walk. We told him about our chimp tracking experience and the Chinese. Emi, who always sees a half-full glass as three-quarters full, responded that there are good and bad people in all countries. True! But I advised him that a lasting casualty of the Cultural Revolution was manners. Courtesy and politeness were declared bourgeois values in conflict with proletarian egalitarianism. We were reaping what Mao had sown.

Back at the park entry after the tracking we were greeted by a display of traditional Intore dancing and drumming by a group of about 20 local residents. They pulled us in to participate. Tina, the Arabs, and the one youngish Chinese female interpreter joined in. Not much of a dancer, I took photos and kept rhythm with a foot. The rest of the Chinese couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and proffered no tips. Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.

Gisakura, where the Top View is located, is at the western end of Nyungwe Park. Between Gisakura and Kitabi, at the far eastern border — and our next destination on the bikes — only the main park headquarters, about halfway through, has any services: a campground, toilets, permit issuance, and a snack bar. The 61-kilometer distance across the park was devoid of traffic, people, or downhill stretches — except at the very end.

On the outskirts of Kitabi we experienced a “lumber mill.” Multiple sets of individual scaffold frameworks — each about nine feet tall — built out of skinny branches and topped with gapped planks stood off the road about 50 feet away. Atop each one, a shirtless man held the upper end of a giant rip saw. Below, another man held the opposite end. On the scaffold, between the planks, a big log extended all the way across the top. The men were ripping logs to create dimensional lumber by hand, with an up-and-down sawing motion. The finished boards, not varying in depth or width by more than half an inch, were stacked right next to the road, in bundles separated by lath for drying — boards we might label 2x4s, 2x6s and 2x8s.

Our Kitabi lodging, at $30 the cheapest yet, was delightful. The KCCEM Guesthouse is an outlying university research center specializing in nature and biological studies. It consisted of small, semi-detached brick bungalows interspersed by lawns. A resident troop of baboons, attractive but for their ischial callosities — and indifferent to humans — roamed the grounds.

The section of road between Kitabi and Butare, our next destination, was the only part of Rwanda’s main arterial highways that hadn’t yet been paved. Giant Komatsu and Caterpillar excavators and graders, along with asphalt pavers, were hard at work. Fortunately, the 60 kilometers to Butare trended generally down. By noon, we’d arrived at the Bonnie Consile Convent, our evening’s lodging.

Butare, home to Rwanda’s National University and many other institutions of higher learning, is Rwanda’s intellectual center. Many thought that at independence it would become Rwanda’s capital, but Kigali’s central location and its role as the colonial administrative capital won out. At the beginning of the genocide, Butare was the only province with a Tutsi governor. During the first two weeks of the genocide Butare became a haven for fleeing Tutsis from other parts of the country. But on April 18, 1994 the government dismissed the governor, later arresting and shooting him. On the 19th he was replaced by a Hutu Power loyalist, and the killings immediately began: 220,000 people were massacred, most within three to four weeks.

Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.

We were now in the heart of historic Rwanda. Butare’s cobbled streets were made no softer by the shocks on our bikes. The National Ethnographic Museum, a few blocks away, conserved many precolonial artifacts and offered insights into traditional Rwandan culture — without getting too controversial: no colonial history or Hutu-Tutsi history. Oddly, it showcased Rwanda’s presidents but not its kings. That night was Tina’s birthday. We overcelebrated and slept in the following morning . . . without consequences. An easy 47 kilometers brought us to Nyanza, the seat of Rwanda’s kings. We checked in at a bustling hotel full of business people, families, and school groups, and then headed out to the Royal Palace Museum complex.

Before it became Rwanda the country was known as the Nyiginya Kingdom. Oral tradition traces Nyiginya kings back to the 14th century, but it isn’t until the 15th century, with the accession of Bwimba, Ruganzu I, of the first dynasty, that the dynasties, chronologies, and historical narratives become more reliable. Sixteen kings later, Rwabugiri, Kigeri IV, succeeded to the throne in 1867 (some sources say 1853).

Rwabugiri was the first king in Rwanda's history to come into contact with Europeans. He established an army equipped with guns he obtained from Germans and prohibited most foreigners, especially Arabs, from entering his kingdom.

The kingdom’s armies were composed of special warriors who’d taken an oath of celibacy while in service. Homosexual liaisons among the troops were not uncommon and if not widely accepted, at least widely tolerated. In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today — the legal consequences for being caught in flagrante delicto with a member of the same sex are stiff — being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime. Sex is considered a private matter — a view consistent with the conservative deportment and liberal attitude characteristic of the country.

By the end of Rwabugiri’s rule, Rwanda was a unified state with a centralized military structure divided into provinces, districts, hills, and neighborhoods administered by a hierarchy of chiefs, predominantly Tutsi at the higher levels, but with a substantial degree of participation by Hutus. But as population density increased, a Tutsi elite besotted with its unique Inyambo cattle faced a shortage of pastureland. Rwabugiri imposed more taxes and more corvee labor — both already onerous — on the mostly Hutu farmers. Additionally, Rwabugiri’s wars of conquest exacted a terrible price on the farming communities wherever his armies billeted. By the time of his death in 1895, the Hutu-Tutsi polarization had become entrenched.

In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today, being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime.

Rutarindwa, Mibambwe IV, Rwabugiri’s son, succeeded to the throne but was assassinated by his stepmother, who in 1896 put her own son, Musinga, on the throne as Yuhi V. Three months later the first German colonial officer arrived. The German administration was mostly content to let the kingdom’s hierarchy continue ruling. After World War I, the League of Nations turned Rwanda over to the Belgians. In 1931 Musinga was deposed by the Belgian administration for his resistance to conversion to Catholicism. He was succeeded by Rudahigwa, Mutara III, who converted in 1943 and dedicated the country to Christ.

After a visit to Europe, Rudahigwa decided to move out of his thatched-roof royal residence and build himself more European digs, buy a Volkswagen, and learn to drive. But he was so tall that he had to remove the driver’s seat and become a literal back-seat driver. In the late 1950s, Rudahigwa, wanting to keep up with the times, began construction on a real palace, which by the time of his death in 1959 — in Bujumbura, Burundi under mysterious circumstances — was still not completed.

Rudahigwa was followed by his brother, Ndahindurwa, Kigeri V, who only lasted until 1961, when Rwanda declared independence and abolished the monarchy. Ndahindurwa moved to Washington DC and died in 2016 at the age of 83.

* * *

The royal compound, atop the highest point in Nyanza, is a poignant evocation of an aspect of Rwandan culture and history that for most is not even a memory. The thatched-roof royal dwelling, with its satellite structures and subquarters for queen mother, high priest, and other officials (including a beer and a milk minister) is a careful and perfect reconstruction open to the public only with a tour guide. The best part is the remnants of the surviving Inyambo royal cattle herd and their quintessential Tutsi herder armed with a fly whisk for their comfort. Their horns are huge (forget Texas Longhorns), exquisitely and slightly oddly shaped. All are a rich brown hue with doe eyes. In Rwanda one of the sweetest compliments a man can give a woman is, “You’ve got Inyambo eyes.” They are tame — we didn’t tire of petting them — and pampered: one previous king forced a Hutu vassal to spread honey on their pasture.

Next door is the 1930s royal residence — in meticulous upkeep. One employee was busy on her haunches cleaning the brick grout joints of its semi-enclosed patio. Across the valley, the 1959 palace dominated the view. Not yet open to the public, it is slated to become an art museum.

We left Nyanza for Gitarama, only 47 paved kilometers away, late in the morning. Our destination was Jangwe Lodge, an off-the-beaten-path (by seven kilometers) guest house located just before one reaches the city and run by Georges Kamanayo-Gengoux, a Rwandan-Belgian documentary film maker and his Belgian wife.

Much later Bill Clinton admitted that his lack of response to the Rwandan genocide had been a “personal failure.”

As we neared Gitarama we expected to see a sign for the lodge at one of two right-hand branching dirt roads, but at both likely prospects there was no indication of a lodge anywhere down the side roads. However, the usual troupe of moto- and bicycle taxis hawked fares at the intersections. At the last turnoff before Gitarama we stopped and looked lost. Everyone offered us rides, but without the ability to communicate — “Jangwe” didn’t ring any bells — we felt truly lost. But one taxi biker whose English was structurally sound but nearly unintelligible, said he lived next door to Jangwe. Emmanuel offered to guide us the seven kilometers for 300 Rf, about 25 cents.

Again — tiresomely — Jangwe was “in the middle of nowhere,” off the grid and at the end of a spur track linked to a dirt road that braided and split unpredictably. Georges and his wife welcomed us warmly. The handsome, open brick compound with manicured lawns and an Olympic-size pool was completely isolated. I asked why the absence of signs. Georges shrugged his shoulders and said they didn’t want any “drop-ins,” that guests came by invitation only (they only wanted interesting people, not boring ones). Jangwes only had five guest rooms; today there were no other guests.

Over cold Virunga beers we discussed Georges’ projects. He’d met Bill Clinton and wanted to interview him further about America’s reluctant response during the genocide, but was given the cold shoulder when he followed up on Clinton’s initial invitation. A Belgian VTM channel colleague later asked Clinton why the US was missing in action during the genocide. The former president responded that “Rwanda wasn’t on my radar and CNN wasn’t there” — this in the context of American intelligence having advance knowledge of the genocide plans. Much later Clinton admitted that his lack of response had been a “personal failure.”

But the hale 70-year-old Georges had a more ambitious project in the works: a documentary of the RPF’s advance and liberation of Rwanda during the genocide. He’s already gotten a commitment from Paul Kagame to be interviewed.

Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more.

The RPF, numbering about 18,000 men at the time of the genocide, faced a well-armed Rwandan army twice its size, backed by militias and a great mass of civilians mobilized for “self-defense” — over 45,000 combatants. The “stopping the genocide” invasion (as it’s been dubbed) is an amazing enough story, but the real cliffhanger was the siege of parliament during the 100-day RPF offensive. The Rwandan Civil War, which had been simmering since 1990, was supposedly “settled” with the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords in August 1993. The Accords called for a power sharing structure between the extremist Hutu government and the moderate Hutu and Tutsi RPF. As a confidence-building measure — and to protect RPF politicians — a 600-man RPF contingent was to be based in the capital until the Accords’ implementation, along with a 2,500 UN “peacekeeping” mission.

But as soon as President Habyarimana’s plane went down and the genocide began on April 6, 1994, Kagame ordered the Kigali contingent to muster at the defensive positions they’d established at parliament atop the highest hill in Kigali. At 8:30 pm that night, FAR forces stormed the parliament. But by then the RPF was ready and soon drove off the attackers, holding their positions until relieved three months later. On April 8, the main RPF forces began their pincer advances into central Rwanda from bases in Uganda and northern Rwanda.

Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more — all the while allowing access for both RPF and moderate Hutu parliamentarians to continue their jobs.

Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial.

A few blocks away, the UN peacekeepers billeted at the Amahoro sports stadium complex had been instructed not to interfere in the killing, but to engage only if attacked. Thousands of Tutsis and fearful Hutus, figuring they’d be protected by the UN, had sought refuge there. When the Rwandan Army forces and Interahamwe began forcibly extracting refugees from the stadium occupied by the unresponsive UN forces, the 600-man RPF battalion began, on April 7, a series of counterattacks to protect the Amahoro refugees. They conducted even more daring raids, in the dead of night, to more distant hideouts, saving many more people. By the fall of Kigali on July 4, nearly the entire battalion had survived.

* * *

Our last day’s ride into Kigali, a mostly flat and downhill coast of 62 kilometers, ended in a long, uphill, traffic-avoiding struggle into the capital under a heavy rain. We were accompanied by Olivier, our Slow Cyclist guide, now under contract to Rwandan Adventures, to ensure successful navigation through Kigali and arrival at our hotel without getting lost. Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial to the war against genocide.

After showering and introducing Tina — now that she was an “old Africa hand” — to gin-and-tonics, that favorite colonial tipple, we headed out to a nearby restaurant. Oddly, there was no traffic. At the corner, armed soldiers had stopped all vehicles at the intersections in both directions. And then, coming from the direction of the Hotel des Mille Collines — site of the real Hotel Rwanda, where many had sought refuge during the genocide — a phalanx of black SUVs with red and blue flashing lights turned the corner and headed our way. As they turned into the presidential residence’s driveway, I realized that Paul Kagame was coming home after a day’s work. I focused my eyes and tried to spot him through the tinted windows.


It was a fitting end to a phenomenal adventure, but one that was constantly overshadowed by a nagging question: how could an atrocity such as the Rwandan genocide have occurred in a country with such wonderful people? I am no Hannah Arendt (no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil); much less am I Rwandan. But here is my attempt to identify the factors that led to this holocaust.

1. History. The historical trajectory already mentioned played a prominent part: German and Belgian favoritism towards the Tutsis, culminating in the issuance of identity cards. The Belgians came to Rwanda with an a priori premise, based on their own experience with Walloons and Flemings, that this was a multiethnic country. What ambiguous differences existed were exacerbated by colonial policies.

2. Obedience. The Rwandan people were accustomed to following government orders, having always lived under authoritarian — though not particularly oppressive — regimes, both colonial and post-independence. This obedient tendency was taken advantage of by the Hutu Power clique when it took control and ordered everyone to kill the “snakes” and “cockroaches,” as they called the Tutsis.

There was no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil.

3. Propaganda. Rwandans — mostly illiterate — lived by radio. Both the government radio station, Radio Rwanda, and the immensely popular RTLM, privately owned by President Habyarimana and his wife (as a lively alternative to staid government radio), spewed hatred of Tutsis through talk, pop music, and harangues long before the genocide and, later, to incite the population to the killings.

4. Terror. Using threats and intimidation, the Interahamwe, army, and Hutu Power extremists forced the population to kill friends, neighbors, strangers, and family — both Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too. If they didn’t kill their assigned victims — identified by identity cards at roadblocks and by lists previously drawn up — they or their loved ones would be tortured and killed as accomplices of the RPF.

5. France. In a misguided attempt to salvage what was left of Francophone Africa, France provided military and diplomatic support to the Habyarimana regime before and during the genocide, and continued to provide aid and succor to its remnants in defeat. On the other hand, the Tutsi and moderate Hutu expats — numbering about 350,000 — who had lived in Uganda for so long, spoke English. If the RPF won the Rwandan Civil War, English would become Rwanda’s second official language. (In fact, French and English both now enjoy official status. Still, Rwanda joined the British Commonwealth of Nations in 2009, one of only two countries to have done so that were never British colonies. Queen Elizabeth II is due to visit in 2019.)

The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too.

As early as 1990, when the RPF began the Rwandan Civil War — provoked by a variety of reasons — France intervened on the side of the Hutu government. Not only did the French supply the Rwandan army with weapons throughout the ensuing four years, they provided asylum to Agathe Habyarimana just a few days after the beginning of the genocide. Agathe was the wife of the murdered president and considered not only the power behind the throne but also, after the death of her husband, the head of le clan de madame, a powerful clique of northern Hutu extremists who were instrumental in organizing and carrying out the genocide. The French also gave asylum to 30 other members of le clan. (Madame was finally arrested in France, by French authorities, on March 2, 2010, but in September 2011, a French court denied her extradition to Rwanda.)

After the RPF’s victory in Kigali on July 4, the French — ever helpful — established Opération Turquoise, a safe zone in southwest Rwanda for the fleeing génocidaires and their wards, delaying the RPF’s total victory and helping to set the stage for the post-genocide East African wars.

6. The United Nations. The UN’s 2,500-man peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed lethal force only if fired upon — no intervention to save lives. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, commander of the mission, characterized the UN as, “an organization swamped and sinking under the dead weight of useless political sinecures, indifference and procrastination.”

Worse yet — in its role as mediator between the genocidal Hutu government and the RPF — the UN had to be neutral and treat both sides equally, inadvertently providing a fig leaf of respectability to the génocidaires.

The UN’s peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed no intervention to save lives.

But the worst abomination in the UN’s operation was its structure. By the unluckiest of coincidences, one of the rotating seats in the Security Council fell to Rwanda. Its Hutu Power sympathizer passed every communique Dallaire sent to the UN on to Theonéste Bagosora — the head of the Crisis Committee, Rwanda’s interim government during the genocide, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for his key role in the genocide — impeding any effective action by Dallaire through continuous foot-dragging and objections.

Today, Rwanda agrees to send troops on UN peacekeeping missions only if they can intervene to save lives.

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Muzungus in the Mist


Part I: The Slow Cyclists


“Run where, Papa?”

“Into the bush! Now!

Little seven-year old D’Artagnan had no idea what was going on. Was he supposed to run “into the bush” alone? Why? Rwanda had very little “bush”; it was all agricultural small holdings.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time.

That was the evening of April 6, 1994. That afternoon Rwandan Hutu dictator and president, Juvénal Habyarimana, along with Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, also a Hutu, were shot down by missiles fired at close range as their plane was landing at the Kigali airport. Officially, the attackers remain unidentified. Though Hutu extremists blame the Rwandan Patriotic Forces (RPF) — Tutsi and moderate Hutu rebels opposed to Habyarimana’s dictatorship — RPF forces were nowhere near the area. Only the elite presidential guard was nearby, stationed at the Kigali airport, next door to the president’s compound — and they were armed with missiles.

Habyarimana was just returning from Tanzania after a regional summit. Three months prior he’d signed the Arusha Peace Accords, a power-sharing deal with the RPF that was supposed to put an end to the long-running civil war between the National Revolutionary Movement (MRND) and the RPF. A cabal of Hutu extremists in high government posts, reluctant to cede any power or spoils, opposed the deal. Habyarimana himself was no fan of it; the international community and the RPF’s military might forced it on him.

As soon as the plane went down, the Rwandan genocide began. It had been well planned for a long time. Machetes imported from China, grenades from France (military support of several kinds had been provided by the French government), and masus, clubs with protruding nails on their heads, had been stockpiled for this moment. Extremist Hutu militias, known as the interahamwe (those who attack together), had trained for this moment since 1990. Within hours of the downing of the plane the interahamwe went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians — including the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana.

We’d gone to Rwanda to bike around the small country, our favorite way of discovering new places. With an undergraduate minor in primatology, I wanted to see gorillas up close. What better venue than the Virunga volcanoes where Dian Fossey had done her studies? And my wife Tina had never been to Africa. It was a bucket list thing.

Within hours the militias went house-to-house killing Tutsis, set up road blocks demanding identity cards and chopping down Tutsis on the spot, and murdering moderate Hutu politicians.

We signed up for an 8-day tour with Slow Cyclist, an outfit out of Britain. Having been an outdoor guide all my life, hiring a guide rankled. But the gorilla permits are difficult to acquire, there are no adequate maps of Rwanda’s back roads, my Kinyarwandan is non-existent, and Slow Cyclist promised a first-class mountain bike tour with a guaranteed gorilla trek at the end. So I held my nose and signed up for their Kigali to Virunga ride along the steepest, roughest backroads in East Africa (I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo), with custom lodging at tea plantations, private homes, and reservation-only boutique inns.

After the Slow Cyclist tour, Tina and I would traverse the Congo-Nile Trail, a moderately hard world-class mountain bike trail along giant Lake Kivu on the Congo border. Because much of the single-track is difficult to follow and lodging scarce and variable, we planned on hiring a guide from Rwandan Adventures, a custom guide outfit. After that we’d be on our own across the southern half of the country and back up to Kigali. Our full route traced a circle around the western half of Rwanda, starting and ending in Kigali, which is approximately in the center of the country.

Even though we brought our bikes with us, entry formalities were search- and customs-free. The immigration official greeted us with a big smile and declared that we were VIPs. He asked my profession. I said I was a retired teacher. He responded, “My son says that teachers never retire.”

I was skeptical of their advertised nearly 5,000-foot altitude gain on a bike the first day, but wrote it off as a typo.

On the first day Slow Cyclist took us to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Two hundred and fifty thousand people are buried there. Our guide around the small museum was D’Artagnan. Something about our small custom group — seven participants from the US, Switzerland and Germany — seemed to affect D’Artagnan’s stock presentation. When he recounted the events of that April 6 evening he couldn’t hold back his tears. Neither could we.

“How did you survive?” we hesitantly but anxiously asked.

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated. He added that the interahamwe grabbed small children by the feet and swung them against masonry walls to smash their heads; larger ones were decapitated by machete. No one left that museum tour without physically touching D’Artagnan, who nonetheless left us without ceremony.

In some ways the Rwandan genocide was much worse than the Nazi Holocaust. Patrick Mazimpaka, a minister in the 1997 RPF-led government reflected, “In Germany, the Jews were . . . moved to . . . distant locations, and killed there, almost anonymously. In Rwanda . . . your neighbors killed you. In Germany, if the population participated in the killing, it was not directly but indirectly.”

Little D’Artagnan had wandered lost for days until a kind old woman hid him. His entire family was annihilated.

Mahmood Mandami, in his scholarly analysis When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, says:

The technology of the Holocaust allowed a few to kill many, but [in Rwanda] the machete had to be wielded by a single pair of hands. It required not one but many hacks to kill even one person. With a machete, killing was hard work; that is why there were often several killers for every single victim . . . The Rwandan genocide was very much an intimate affair. It was carried out by hundreds of thousands, perhaps even more, and witnessed by millions.

Then there are the raw numbers. Rwanda had seven million inhabitants before the genocide. Nearly one million were Tutsis. During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute. That the entire Tutsi population wasn’t annihilated is due to the many waves of Tutsi refugees that found asylum in Uganda, Zaire, Burundi, and Tanzania before and during the killing.

The disaster didn’t begin there. The Hutu-Tutsi rivalry became deadly in 1897 when the ruling class — mostly Tutsis — imposed heavy duties on the peasants — mostly Hutus. Then it took another turn in1933 when the Belgian authorities decided to issue mandatory identity cards to all Ruandan-Urundis (as residents of the colony were then called), thereby freezing ethnic and class identity. It was then that infrequent pogroms — by both sides — began taking place. Before then, the Hutu-Tutsi classes were not fixed: a Hutu could become a Tutsi and vice versa. Intermarriage was common, to such a degree that an observer could not visually distinguish an archetypal Hutu from a Tutsi. (Except for the king, who was 7’2” tall; height is a supposedly defining Tutsi trait.) Neither could we make such visual distinctions during our one-month sojourn and 700-kilometer bike ride around the country.

During the 100 days the genocide proper lasted, 800,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. That’s at least 333 1/3 murders per hour — or 5 1/2 lives terminated every minute.

Killings began in earnest in 1959, with subsequent waves in 1962, 1963, 1967, and continued periodically until 1994. In 1972 there was a 250,000 reverse massacre: of Hutus in neighboring Burundi by the Tutsi-dominated government (even though the Hutu-Tutsi proportion in Burundi was the same as in Rwanda: 85% to 15%).

The RPF started their advance south from Mulindi, headquarters next to the Ugandan border, on April 7. Though Kigali was only about 80 kilometers away, they began a three-pronged pincer movement targeting Byumba — the first big city on the road south — Kigali, and Butare, Rwanda’s number two city and intellectual capital, with the intent of breaking supply chains and laying siege to all three. They were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius. When government troops faced the RPF advance, they often ran away. The Interahamwe, armed only with machetes and masus, followed them, while the Hutu Power militias evaporated. The Presidential Guard, the best trained soldiers of the regime, put up the most resistance. As Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, stated in his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, “The RGF (Rwandan Government Forces) soldiers were killing for the sake of killing, not knowing or caring why. In this type of conflict, the men fighting for principles they believed in would inevitably win.”

Finally, after the RPF victory on the Fourth of July, 1994, the Hutu militias, Interahamwe, and remnants of the previous government’s army fled to Congo and regrouped there, with hopes of overthrowing the new RPF government in Rwanda. Kagame, the defense chief of the RPF (and later president of the country) would have none of that. He enlisted the aid of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whom he’d helped to topple Ugandan dictator Milton Obote with the RPF forces, to neutralize the génocidaires.

The RPF were well-disciplined, armed with both guns and morale, and were led by Paul Kagame, who has been described as the African Napoleon — a tactical and strategic genius.

Counting the killings before the genocide, the genocide itself, and killings that continued in wars directly resultant from the genocide, the death toll topped six million.

* * *

In Kigali, Slow Cyclist ensconced us in the Heaven Chalet, next door but one to President Paul Kagame’s residence and about two blocks from the Hotel Mille des Collines, site of the events depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda. If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads. Each hill is overlaid with a paisley street pattern with connector avenues to the other hills.

Kigali is a spotlessly clean city. In fact, all of Rwanda is litter-free; plastic bags are even outlawed. Not only are the people proud of their country but on the last Saturday of every month all businesses shut down and a general cleanup ensues. Kigali is also a city without slums, beggars, homeless people, bare footedness, potholes, or animals — even dogs. Their curious absence drove home for us, more than anything, including the numbers of dead, how they died, and D’Artagnan’s tale, the enormity of the genocide.

If you think San Francisco is hilly, you haven’t been to Kigali, a city so much that way that it defies a grid system for roads.

When the genocide ended on July 4, 1994, a country of 10,000 square miles was peppered with one million dead. They lay both scattered and in clusters, many piled in churches where they’d sought refuge (although there were a few hastily dug mass graves). Rwanda’s neglected and hungry dogs dug into the corpses. As if carpets of corpses weren’t overwhelming enough, watching hungry dogs scavenging the dead was beyond anyone’s tolerance. All dogs were killed. Nearly 25 years later we encountered only two instances of dogs, both pets of foreigners.

The police, according to all accounts, are incorruptible. One informant told us that when offered a bribe, they are instructed to accept it and keep it — and then to write a citation for bribing. Emi, our driver and guide, said thieves and assaulters were lucky if caught by the police. Woe betide the miscreant who is set upon by witnessing passersby before the arrival of the cops.

Traffic laws are strictly enforced. One practice that wouldn’t pass muster in the US but makes the streets much safer for pedestrians and bikers is that any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge. Motorcycle taxis (moto-taxis), the most common mode of public transportation (along with buses and bicycles kitted up with a back seat), carry a spare helmet for fares. And they are scrupulously honest, with no price negotiation. Just flag one down, state your destination, and upon arrival hand over any denomination of Rwandan francs, and you’ll get the right change. How they figure the correct amount remains a mystery to me, but the fares for similar distances from different drivers remained consistent.

To avoid Kigali traffic — which isn’t particularly fast or outrageously dense — Slow Cyclist drove us to the outskirts of the city, and up the first thousand feet of our first day’s ride. With another 4,000 feet up to go, and 50 kilometers along impossibly steep and rugged dirt roads, we’d have been hard pressed to reach the Sorwathe Tea Plantation in Kinihira, our first night’s lodging, without that initial motorized boost.

Kinihira had been fought over in the civil war launched by the RPF in October 1990. It was here that much of the Arusha Peace Accords had been negotiated. It then became neutral ground and was the site of the official launch of the UNAMIR peace keeping force in October 1993. We slept on hallowed ground.

Any motorist who hits a pedestrian or biker is automatically incarcerated for six months before even facing a judge.

As avid bikers, Tina and I can hold our own in any group. But the four 26-year-old Swiss and one German, all experienced mountain bikers, made me feel my age; it was my birthday, and I’d turned 69 that day. Still, it was a tough day for us all: two flats, one lost biker, and a crash so bad it forced the German to ride in the four-wheel drive support vehicle for two days with a bandaged forearm. Was it going to be so difficult every day?

Pretty much. Fifty-five kilometers and 3,500 feet of altitude gain on the second day, all on rocky, rutted four-wheel drive back roads. We started, however, with a tour of the tea factory, with full-on hygienic suits. Observing the sophisticated operation, which was literally “in the middle of nowhere,”’ we were amazed that the entire factory was operated by four massive wood-burning boilers stoked round-the-clock.

During that day’s ride, Tim, one of the Swiss riders, and an economist by trade, with a take-no-prisoners approach to development economics, deigned to ride with this old fogy. He was open and friendly, with a confident arrogance that I found attractive. Since both of us were impatient with small talk, I told him I was an admirer of Hayek and Mises. He added Hernando de Soto, confirming that we shared some theoretical premises.

I then asked him what he thought of Jeffrey Sachs, the doyen of development economics. Tim found the man’s views deplorable and unrealistic, but had bought the main book that expounded his views. When he saw that the introduction was written by a rock star, Bono — Tim’s words were now dripping with sarcasm — he put off reading it.

On a roll, he moved on to a rant about “fair trade,” one of his favorite foils. Like the American economist Tyler Cowen, who observed that if you want to help the really poor, you don’t buy “fair trade,” Tim had his own beef with the concept, especially when thoughtlessly lumped in a basket of other trendy ideologies.

Was it going to be so difficult every day? Pretty much.

A friend back in Bern, an advocate of fair trade and sustainability, had been buying a “fair trade” avocado when Tim revealed to her that the inefficiencies behind that import did not fit a sustainable model — on any level. She sheepishly put the avocado back on the shelf. I sensed an opening to have fun by presenting a poser on economic inefficiencies, as follows.

Our biking guides, Olivier and Godfrey, came from Rwanda and Uganda respectively. Both were 23 years old, excellent competitive mountain bikers, personable and sensitive, with good English. Slow Cyclist also runs tours in Transylvania, Tuscany, and Greece that are manned by locals. Savannah, our Slow Cyclist head honcho on this tour, told me that Slow Cyclist was mulling over bringing Olivier and Godfrey to Transylvania as on-the-ground biking guides — initially on a training basis — and bringing Romanian guides to Rwanda. I told Tim about Savannah’s plans, drolly emphasizing how inefficient such a move would be.

Tim looked at me impishly and admitted that there were some things more important than economic efficiency. I could tell by his smile that a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, had found a new friend.

I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted.

During the succeeding days we continued to enjoy various topics in economics. One evening after a couple of banana beers, I brought up a thought about incentives that I‘d been mulling over for a while when he asked me how long Tina and I had been married; a question, no doubt, precipitated by how well — and uninhibitedly — she and I got along.

I told him we weren’t married, but had been together for 30 years and had known each other for 40, adding that we thought marriage was premised on the wrong set of incentives. Tim was intrigued. I elaborated: if you promise to stay together no matter what, there is a perverse incentive to become complacent and take each other for granted. Better to promise to leave each other if not treated with love and respect; that way, you’re both always at your best and remain attractive to each other. Remember that love is a marketplace and that potential mates are everywhere and that we’re always comparing what we have to what we could have. So always be at your best so you remain your mate’s number one attraction.

Tim just stared at me, transfixed. There was little under the sun that he hadn’t thought about, but I could tell that what I had just said was new, really new, phrased in his economist’s language.

Tim’s fellow Swiss, all single and consisting of a lawyer, a tech whiz, and another economist — one whose work had been quoted in academic papers — were also of an intellectual bent. The following morning all four rode without their usual vigor; they’d stayed up most of the night drinking beer and discussing my views on marriage. Adrian, the other economist, thought me a bit cold, cynical, and outside the mainstream — hence the long discussion. But Tim was convinced of the soundness of my analysis and decided to approach relationships from a new perspective.

* * *

Our little group was mobbed by locals at every tiny village and water, rest, and regrouping stop. Rwanda is densely populated; there are people everywhere, though white people are very uncommon. As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps. But when the cameras came out, so — often — did their shyness. Adults would also crowd around curiously, inspect our bikes, shake our hands, and try to engage us with smatterings of French or English, such as “Good morning” or “What is your name?”

Tina and I, with Kinyarwandan phrases taped to our handlebar packs, would respond in Kinyarwandan, a difficult and unintuitive language for us. Often, just for fun and to elicit laughs from the kids, I’d respond nonsensically and unexpectedly with some words I’d memorized, such as inkoko (chicken), umukondo (belly button), and ingrube (pig) — ordinary words, but out of the ordinary in introductory conversations. One of the words I memorized was umwirabura, black person, which I’d lob back at being called a muzungu.The pitch-black African faces would break into broad grins with teeth so uniform and white that we began to wonder how such perfect dental health resulted in this third world country. And it wasn’t just the nearly universal perfect dentition that was noteworthy. Like the inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, Rwandans — men, women, and children — are good-looking and of above average intelligence. In a month and 700 kilometers, we saw perhaps a handful of smokers and even fewer overweight people. At the risk of losing further credibility, I’ll add that — in our experience — they are all friendly, transparent, outgoing, honest, and helpful. When faced with a hill too steep, roadside Rwandans would pitch in to help us push our bikes. They are a people to fall in love with.

Muzungu: originally a Swahili word meaning “aimless wanderer,” but now generally used as a term for white people. However, it can also be used for any foreigner, including American black people. Emi, our driver, told us he’d driven many American actors, including Harrison Ford, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Isaiah Washington (an actor in Grey’s Anatomy)to and from the gorilla trekking. Though singling out Washington, Emi generalized to other American stars (mostly black, but including some whites), saying that they were all nice but had a propensity to use “jive” language that included terms such as “bad-ass,” “fucking amazing,” and other obscenities used as intensifying modifiers for compliments. Emi had to gently censure them. Rwandans are conservative in deportment though generally liberal in attitudes. They found jive language offensive and offputting.

As soon as they spotted us, kids would cry out, “Muzungus, muzungus!” in glee and run towards us, big smiles on their faces, palms or fists outstretched for high-fives or knuckle bumps.

On our third day out we approached the Rift Valley in northern Rwanda, with its lakes and volcanoes swaddled in mists that added an air of mystery to our anticipation. After a half-day of riding, which included a single-track section composed of an eight-inch ridge flanked by foot-and-a-half-deep ruts on each side that only Olivier and Godfrey could ride, we arrived at Lake Ruhondo. Two wooden boats with canopies, close relatives of the African Queen, awaited to take our bikes and us to the Foyer de Charité, a Catholic convent on a distant shore. Poor Godfrey and Olivier. They couldn’t swim and were terrified of the boat ride, snuggled in their Mae Wests and begging us not to move from our seats for fear of unbalancing the boats. After their display of expertise on the single-track, their worry was an endearing counterpoint.

The following day began with a walk down to the lake and another boat ride to an even farther shore, followed by a steep 2.5-mile uphill walk to the tony Virunga Lodge for a lunch of pea soup and tenderloin steak.

A mile before the lodge, we hit a newly-built public library, again in the middle of nowhere (yes, I know, it’s getting old . . . all of Rwanda seems to be in the middle of nowhere). It was a modest structure, but well-planned and executed. At least half a dozen people were using the new computers or perusing the stacks. One budding artist was drawing a charcoal portrait of a silverback. They were thrilled to have muzungu visitors. We got a tour. All of us made generous contributions to its upkeep and expansion.

Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation.

The Virunga Lodge sits atop a hill with stunning views of the Virunga volcanoes. We were welcomed by a drummer and two Intore (“warrior”) dancers. It’s only accessible by bike, helicopter, or very long four-wheel drive. You can’t get there by car unless you have a four-wheel drive. Inside, the Dian Fossey map room beckoned.

Louis Leakey was important in recommending primatologists to the National Geographic. He favored women: Dian Fossey for gorillas, Jane Goodall for chimps, and Birute Galdikas for orangutans. But I sought credit in that map room for George Schaller, the pioneer of mountain gorilla studies in the Virungas, and without whose groundbreaking research Fossey might not have gotten anywhere. And, taking pride of place . . . there he was, in a large framed article crediting him with initiating the gorilla studies.

In the afternoon we rode 26 kilometers, downhill, on perfect tarmac to Ruhengeri. On the outskirts we passed the headquarters of Team Rwanda, the national cycling team, and stopped for a short visit. It was a first-class operation, with some bike frames weighing as little as three pounds. Bicycling in Rwanda is a national sport and pastime, akin to baseball in the US, and, aside from walking, probably the primary form of transportation. The first set of high-end bikes was donated to the team by President Paul Kagame. When the team rides, either for practice or for competition during the Tour de Rwanda, people line the streets and cheer as they pass — behavior our group experienced often as we rode.

Bikes even played a part in the development of Rwandan coffee (heirloom bourbon of an Arabica strain), to my taste the best in the world, comparable to Jamaican Blue Mountain. In 2002, the world discovered Rwandan coffee. But there was a big problem for the small holders who grew the beans. The beans need to be processed within eight hours of being picked, or they begin fermenting, developing rotten flavors. Some farmers, after picking the coffee in the morning, would have to walk up to 15 miles in the sun, carrying hundreds of pounds of fast-fermenting cherries — the red fruit that contains the beans — on a home-made wooden bike or on their heads, balanced on woven baskets.

We ran across some of these old wooden bikes, more akin to scooters (see picture). They could carry over 100 pounds, but weighed nearly 100 pounds themselves and were impossible on even the slightest incline. In the “Land of a Thousand Hills” they weren’t much of a solution.

In 2005, Tom Ritchey, the developer of the mountain bike — in partnership with Gary Fisher — decided to help the Rwandan coffee farmers. He designed a cargo bike that could haul 330 pounds — two bags of coffee cherries, two goats, or three children. He launched it in 2007, named it the “Hope Bicycle,” and priced it at $110 (still a steep price for a coffee farmer), and sold at a subsidized price.

The bikes were a big success, saving farmers time and effort and allowing them to maximize their profits. However, as is the bane of many development schemes, a shortage of parts — brake pads, derailleurs, chains, etc. — in time made the bikes undependable. And as President Kagame’s emphasis on developing Rwanda’s infrastructure bore fruit, Ritchey’s Project Rwanda’s time came to its end. We were lucky to come across a couple of these Project Rwanda bikes, the Humvees of the bicycle world, still in use. Parts are more available today.

In Ruhengeri — hometown of our guide Olivier, and the past headquarters of Hutu Power, President Habyarimana’s organization that engineered the genocide, we stayed at The Garden House, a private home with five guest rooms, owned by a Brit-Rwandan couple with three pet dogs.

* * * *

We awoke at 5 a.m. to joyous singing and clapping — the cadets’ morning routine at the nearby police and military academies. Today was gorilla tracking day. At Volcanoes National Park we were broken up into small groups according to ability, were assigned a ranger, and underwent an orientation. The park was established in 1925, encompasses five volcanoes, and extends into Uganda and Congo (the Congo side was closed because of rebel activity in the area). Today in Rwanda there are about 600+ gorillas (up from 400 in 2016) in about 30 family groups of about 20 individuals each. Some groups are harder to access than others, hence the division of the tourists into groups by varying degrees of ability. This was about the only place in Rwanda where we saw other muzungus.

At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our group consisted of four Slow Cyclists and one lady from New York. Our objective was the Hirwa or “Lucky” family group, up on “Old Man’s Teeth,” a volcano whose carapace had eroded and only its core, jagged and multi-summited, remained. We were escorted by an armed ranger, three trackers with walkie-talkies, and one porter who distributed hand-carved walking sticks, essential in the steep, muddy, and foliage-thick tracks that passed for “trails.”

A gorilla sighting is not guaranteed, even after one has paid $1,500 per person for the permit, and I resigned myself to our fate, whatever it turned out to be. Along the way the ranger explained that his gun was for protection against Cape buffalo, not gorillas. After about half an hour of uphill trudging, stumbling, machete hacking, losing shoes in the mud, and much walkie-talkie back-and-forth in Kinyarwandan, the ranger gathered us around a large tree and had us remove our backpacks and walking sticks and cache them there. One tracker had reported a member of the Lucky group up ahead. The removal of our extraneous gear made us more familiar to the primates and avoided their snatching our stuff, however playfully. At this point our hearts were palpably beating in expectation while our vocalizations were reduced to low grunts, a sound our ranger told us to produce as a calming signal to the gorillas.

Our first encounter was lightning fast — a young male surfaced above the undergrowth and gave three or four chest beats directed our way before quickly disappearing. Fiddling with my camera, I’d almost missed him. Nearby, an intermittent procession of gorillas wandered in one direction, a pattern I didn’t discern but which the trackers did. They directed us to a tiny clearing where females and youngsters were congregating. Finally the silverback male — papa — lumbered through, gave us a glance, and sat on his haunches about 30 feet from our little group, which was by now crouched on its haunches. The trackers and porter remained almost out of sight; I suppose to visually minimize the size of our group.

We remained in close proximity for over an hour, watching mothers and children interact, mothers and others groom each other, juveniles brachiate and chase each other around trees, and babies try to get papa to play (a hopeless task). At one point Tina put down her camera and phone in front of her, and lay down on the ground to just enjoy the show. That’s when a young juvenile gave her an impish glance and began approaching within two feet of her. “Take that phone away!” shouted the ranger in a muted voice.

Not a few minutes later, the same juvenile grabbed a stick and approached her again to play. “Do not engage!” came the ranger again. Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens. We were all vetted for coughs, sneezes, or any other visible signs of sickness before going.

Contact is prohibited. Gorillas share about 97% of our DNA and so are susceptible to our pathogens.

On the way back I felt the same way I had after listening to the Westminster Abbey choir performing their Christmas service — overwhelmed yet exalted, moist-eyed with respectful elation, quietly contemplative at the remarkable hour we’d just experienced with our closest primate relatives, our extraordinary and compelling creature cousins. Emi, our driver, broke our reverie, asking for our reaction. He’d visited the gorillas eight times, and each time he’d felt the same way we did.

“At $1,500 a pop each?” I exclaimed incredulously. He responded that each time, his clients had paid his way.

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Rwandans love their gorillas. At the base of Old Man’s Teeth volcano a beautiful outdoor ceremonial area has been built to hold “Gorilla Namings.” A three-story high silverback sculpted out of dry vines holds court over a promenade, a manicured courtyard, and other staging ornamentation. When a new gorilla is born, a naming ceremony is held at this arena — the newborn is not required to attend.

We brought up the disparity in gorilla trekking prices between Rwanda and Uganda, where a permit costs only $750. In 2017, Rwanda had doubled its price to $1,500. The price change has hit the Rwandan gorilla tourist industry hard. So the Rwandan Development Board has provided a 30% discount between November and May, the low season. Emi said that Rwanda wants to make its gorilla sanctuary fully sustainable and that the rangers and trackers are well paid. He added that each gorilla family in Rwanda is exposed to tourists for only one hour each day so as to minimize any possible stress. By contrast, in Uganda, even if permits are “sold out”, it is possible to approach “someone” and get a permit outside the normal channels. The result is that Uganda’s gorilla families are exposed to tourists all day, every day. Who knows where those last minute permit fees end up?

Rwanda is a fascinating place to visit — as I continued to find, in the second half of my journey.

This is Part I of a two-part article. The second and final installment may be found here.

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Endgame: the Biggest Superhero Show


Avengers: Endgame may not be the best movie of 2019, but it certainly is the biggest. Clocking in at 3 hours and 1 minute, it’s the longest studio release since the epics of the 1960s. And grossing an astounding $1.2 billion dollars worldwide in its first weekend, it is the biggest financial success in Hollywood history, breaking six box office records so far. At the cineplex where I saw the film with my grandson, it was being shown every half hour, 35 screenings in a single day, beginning at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. We felt lucky to snag three seats together in the neck-craning third row — and we bought them in advance. My grandson was already seeing it for the second time. I might see it again too.

So what’s the attraction of Endgame? It’s just another superhero movie in a long line of superhero movies, right? Is it really that special?

For many, "Infinity War" and "Endgame" marked the movie event of the decade. Super fans rewatched a dozen films or more in preparation for the release of both films.

Well, yes and no. Several factors make this film quite special, while others caused me to cringe in disbelief. I lost interest long ago in the superhero genre, yet I felt duty bound as a movie reviewer to see this one, and found elements that gave it a spiritual and literary gravitas I wasn’t expecting. Since there are hundreds of traditional movie reviews praising this film, I want to step away from the traditional and focus on my experience and reaction watching it, and I can’t do that without talking about significant elements of the plot. So if you want to see the film without the spoilers, you’d better stop reading and save this review for after you’ve seen the movie.

First, the basic plot. Endgame is the culmination of 22 separate superhero films based on Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, featuring Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Spider-Man (played by numerous actors over the series, and in this one by Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Antman (Paul Rudd), Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the entire Guardians of the Galaxy contingent, along with numerous side characters from each domain.

The characters have been crossing into one another’s universes over the past several installments, finally culminating in the ultimate Showdown with Evil in the two-part finale that includes Infinity War (2018) and Endgame, the current film. For many, these two films marked the movie event of the decade. Super fans rewatched a dozen films or more in preparation for the release of both films. While listening to a call-in radio show last week I heard a woman ask whether she could honorably get out of going to a hospice retreat with a friend who is dying of cancer, because she already had tickets to see this movie with her family. (The radio host wisely advised the woman to skip the movie and assist the friend.) Some theaters scheduled marathon showings for fans who wanted to watch the earlier films in the series together. I didn’t bother to “prepare,” yet I still enjoyed the two films just fine by accepting the fact that I didn’t know every backstory or reference, and that was OK.

What I like about this movie is how it taps into deep mythological archetypes and also introduces a new concept about time travel.

In Episode One of the finale (Infinity War), super villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) wants to gain possession of six powerful stones that will allow him to vaporize half the population of the universe with the snap of his gauntleted fingers. He thinks this will make the universe a better place by reducing overpopulation. (Here is the first of many conundrums; what kind of evil superpower is motivated by the desire to make the world a better place? But that’s the way it is.) His plan shares nothing with the parlor game of imagining a lifeboat with too many people onboard and arguing about who deserves to stay in the lifeboat and who needs to be thrown overboard so the others will have enough food and water to survive; his plan is a seemingly fair, unbiased, randomly selected annihilation. And he succeeds, in a particularly moving ending to Episode One, as half our favorite characters are vaporized into tiny particles of flame.

Episode Two (Endgame) begins with the vaporization of a family on a picnic, reminding us that it isn’t just the Avengers who have lost half their numbers; nearly everyone in the universe has suffered the loss of a loved one. Now the remaining Avengers must wage another battle to regain the stones so they can reverse the process and bring back the people who have been annihilated. This is pretty iconic good-versus-evil, science-versus-nature stuff, with mechanized robot-warriors on the evil side, and flesh-and-blood (or wood-and-sap) superheroes on the other.

What I like about this movie is how it taps into deep mythological archetypes and also introduces a new concept about time travel. One of the accepted rules of the time-travel genre is that anything you do while traveling in the past will change the future. Thus Marty McFly in Back to the Future returns to his original present and discovers that his family has changed. His father is successful, his mother is slender, his siblings are happy, and his old nemesis is washing Marty’s car. Only Marty remembers the former timeline, because only he has lived the “new past.” This occurs in most time-travel movies; only the person who went into the past remembers the old present. It always makes me a little sad that those who remained behind don’t realize the dreariness or danger they’ve escaped. In Endgame it’s explained that they can’t change the past because what they are doing actually occurs in the present. What they’re changing is the future, which is true of all our choices. Thanos will still have vaporized everyone, but now everyone will be able to come back. I like that concept because all of them realize the fate they’ve escaped and appreciate the sacrifice of those who fought for them.

Then Thanos returns and another epic battle ensues — just as Satan will, according to the book of Revelation.

What I like even more are the biblical and mythological allusions in this story. At the end of Infinity War, two biblical allusions appear in the sudden and random vaporizing of half the population. The first is a reference to the rapture at the end of the world, when, according to Matthew 24:40, “Two men will be working together in the field; one will be taken, the other left.” That’s exactly how the vaporizing feels. The other is a reference to the destroying angel taking the firstborn of every household in Egypt that marked the beginning of the Israelite Exodus into the wilderness. And another reference to the Exodus is seen when Thanos observes, “As long as there are those who remember what was, there will be those who resist,” echoing God’s decision to make all the Israelites who remembered Egypt wander in the wilderness until they died before the others were allowed into the Promised Land. In yet another scene, Dr. Strange holds back a towering flood of water, just as Moses held back the water in The Ten Commandments. (Okay, that was Charlton Heston. But he was portraying Moses.)

Thanos succeeds initially in Infinity War, but he is killed in an early battle of Endgame. For five years, the remaining residents of the earth enjoy a fairly idyllic life. They marry, start families, work the fields, study, produce, and live in peace. Then Thanos returns and another epic battle ensues — just as Satan will, according to the book of Revelation, be bound for 1,000 years of peace and then unleashed to gather his armies for a final epic battle. And when the final battle occurs in Endgame, the Avengers are joined by the resurrected beings who had been vaporized, just as in the battle of Armageddon — according to some interpretations — Christ will be joined by the resurrected dead. It’s a powerful scene in the movie, met with thunderous cheers from the audience, and made more powerful by the archetypal allusion.

Other references to redemption occur as well. Bruce Banner learns to embrace his inner Hulk, who now lives peacefully on the outside. We see a virtual resurrection of the late Stan Lee, who created the Marvel universe and died in 2018, de-aged and in his prime for his final cameo appearance in a Marvel movie. “Hey, man! Make love, not war!” he calls, as he drives out of sight. Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Iron Man (my favorite of the Avengers because he is an inventor, a businessman, and a reluctant superhero) has also experienced a kind of redemption in his life, having overcome his nearly debilitating addictions 20 years ago to become one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. His career was dead, and it has roared back to life.

This is an astonishing affront after the brilliant success of "Black Panther" in 2018, and serves to highlight the self-righteous hypocrisy of Hollywood liberals.

Perhaps it was the serendipity of Endgame’s opening just a few days after Easter that caused me to see Christian archetypes in the film. The ultimate hero in the story willingly sacrifices his own life to reverse the deaths of those who were vaporized, saying, “If we don’t take that stone, billions of people stay dead.” He willingly trades his life for the lives of his friends — and everyone else. Like Jesus, he dies when his heart literally breaks. His last words are “I am . . . [his name],” I AM being a name of God, applied by Christ to himself. By contrast, the character’s father tells him, “The greater good has seldom outweighed my self-interest,” but I like to think that self-interest and concern for others are not mutually exclusive. In fact, each of us acting in our own self-interest while respecting the rights and property of others is probably the fastest way to the greater good. So I like this too.

My biggest beef with Avengers: Endgame is that the Black Panther universe is shoved to the back of the bus. Its citizens don’t show up until the third hour of the film; they literally stand at the back of the Avengers group in a significant funeral scene; and the token non-BP black Avengers, War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), play secondary roles throughout the battles. Even Okoye [Danai Gurira], who survives the Thanos vaporization in Infinity War and thus ought to be fighting alongside the Avengers throughout the movie, makes only a token appearance in the first two-thirds of Endgame (to report on an earthquake under the sea). This is an astonishing affront after the brilliant success of Black Panther in 2018, and serves to highlight the self-righteous hypocrisy of Hollywood liberals. What were they thinking?

My second beef is actually a chortle at Hollywood do-gooders who couldn’t quite figure out what was evil in Thanos’s plan, whose goal is actually to remove one of their pet peeves — the overpopulation that is supposedly destroying the planet. One would almost expect them to see this save-the-planet-by-eliminating-the-humans tactic as a good thing. (Indeed, many historians argue that the plague produced an economic boon in the Middle Ages by reducing unemployment.) And in fact, Captain America comments to Black Widow at one point, “I saw a pod of whales when I was coming in, over the bridge . . . Fewer ships, cleaner weather.” What a good guy that Thanos is!

I wanted to see more of how the loss of half the population of earth affected trade, manufacturing and production, but everything was presented in a very hodge-podge way.

Nevertheless, the film gives us only a glimpse of life after near-annihilation, and it is glaringly inconsistent with the “liberals’” worldview. The reduction in population seems to have resulted in a dystopian future; five years later, cars are still abandoned where they were left by their drivers when they were vaporized, and our heroes are living an agrarian life in the woods. Okay, that makes sense. If we lose the people who run the factories, drive the trucks, service the power grid, and pump the oil, life is going to become pretty bleak, I think. At least back-to-basics. I wanted to see more of how the loss of half the population of earth affected trade, manufacturing and production, but everything was presented in a very hodge-podge way.

An example: despite their agrarian existence, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is making Tony Stark and their daughter peanut butter sandwiches on something that looks suspiciously like factory-produced Wonder Bread. Who’s manufacturing that soft, squishy, sliced bread with its pure white center and thin tan crust? For that matter, who’s manufacturing the peanut butter? Who’s making their daughter’s machine-knit sweater, her jersey-knit leggings, and her cute little pink tennis shoes? Evidently the Gen-Xers and Millennials who run Hollywood these days don’t understand where products come from, besides the store (or Amazon). Meanwhile, the Internet works, the computer and communications systems work, kids are taking selfies on their cell phones, and somehow food supplies are getting to the diner everyone patronizes. I wanted to give everyone in Hollywood a copy of “I, Pencil.”

Despite such inconsistencies in the setting and plot, not to mention the ideas, and despite my not having watched at least half of the films leading up to this denouement, I have to admit I was moved by the story. I think it was largely because I watched it with my own set of tropes and understandings about good and evil, sacrifice and redemption, resurrection and restoration. The relationships are well portrayed, and I bought into the battle, although I would have liked a clearer philosophical conflict than “Please don’t kill everyone.” I appreciated the fact that some characters changed and chose their own paths. Like my grandson, I will probably see Endgame again.

Editor's Note: Review of "Avengers: Endgame," directed by Joe and Anthony Russo. Marvel Studios, 2019,181 minutes.

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Buying Genocide, Part 3


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.


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).
Groth, Alexander. “Demonizing the Germans: Goldhagen and Gellately on Nazism,” in Political Society Review Vol. 32, No.1, pp. 118-158 (2003).
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).
Jason, Gary. “Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer: A Review of Triumph of the Will,” in Liberty, April 2007, p. 44.
Jason, Gary. “Film and Propaganda: What Nazi Cinema Has to Tell US,” in Reason Papers 35 (1): 203-219 (2013).
Jason, Gary. “Total Regime, Total Propaganda,” in Liberty, July 3, 2016 (2016a).
Jason, Gary. “Whence did German Propaganda Films Derive Their Power?” in Reason Papers 38 (1): 166-181 (2016b).
Jason, Gary. “Selling Genocide I: The Earlier Films,” in Reason Papers 38 (1): pp. 127-157 (2016c).
Kotkin, Stephen. Interview on Uncommon Knowledge, October 6, 2015.
Ridley, Matt. Interview with Russ Roberts, Econtalk, 2010.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Carl Schmitt” (2014).
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).

[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


“Socialists always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite characteristic of them.”       
—Baroness Thatcher

How are totalitarian regimes able to control the populace and gain its support for even the vilest programs?

In an earlier piece, I suggested that there are three basic methods employed by compliance agents — the people who try to get a targeted group to comply with their wishes — to get what they want. These I termed power, purchase, and persuasion.

The Tools of Compliance

By power I mean force, threat of force, or theft. Of course, the attempt at force may not succeed, if the agent has insufficient strength to overpower — or insufficient guile to successfully steal from — the target.

By purchase I mean trading something that the agent and the target both value — money, labor, physical objects. Again, the attempt may fail — the agent may not have enough of what the target values to pay the target’s price, or they may be unable to agree upon a price. By persuasion (or promotion), I mean offering reasons (other than threats of force or attempted bargaining) to the target. If Fred’s doctor urges Fred to stop smoking or face an increased chance of cancer, the doctor is not threatening Fred — after all, the doctor won’t inflict the cancer on Fred; the cigarettes will.[1] Nor is the doctor bargaining with Fred. He is “arguing from consequences”; that is, he is arguing that Fred’s behavior will objectively hurt Fred, so Fred ought to stop that behavior. Even if Fred’s doctor chose not to argue rationally but decided to manipulate Fred emotionally — say, by showing Fred pictures of his kids crying out “Daddy, please don’t die!” — the doctor is neither threatening nor bargaining.

For one thing, it exonerates the rest of the world for its complicity in the Holocaust, and allows us all to sigh in relief that “it could never happen here.”

An interesting point from cognitive psychology that I’ve heard Matt Ridley[2] make is that while nonhuman animals often use force and theft to get what they want from other animals, they don’t, strictly speaking, trade with others, in the sense of giving something they value to get something they value more. As Adam Smith put it, “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”[3] Applying the point about persuasion to animals: I have never seen a dog offer an argument to get another dog to do something — though a dog does seem to know how to appear or sound pitiable to its owners when it wants something.

Of course, power, purchase, and persuasion are not perfectly distinct categories, as I noted earlier. But they allow us to pursue an interesting discussion — one going back for seven decades in the search for explanations of Nazi totalitarianism. A critical review of this discussion, especially as it appears in a number of distinguished works of the 21st century, provides a framework in which key concepts and controversies can be seen.

The Goldhagen Dispute: Why Did Germans Support the Nazi regime?

Let’s start with an insightful paper by Alexander Groth, called “Demonizing the Germans.” In this paper, the estimable Professor Groth — himself a Holocaust survivor — takes up the issue of the culpability of the German public for the crimes of the Nazis. He reviews two books: Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) and Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (2001). Both these books, Groth says, put forward the view that Hitler’s policies during the 12 years of his regime were based on the “spontaneous preferences” of the German public, not the regime’s “coercion and manipulation.” the regime’s use of the power delivered by its police state and the persuasion delivered by its propaganda machine (118).

Groth concedes that the regime’s policies required the collusion and cooperation of millions of Germans. But he criticizes the authors for pushing their cases beyond logic and evidence. Indeed, Groth holds that Goldhagen’s view of Germans is “almost racist in its sweeping character” (119). He takes Goldhagen to mean that “the Germans let Hitler and his minions, soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats, kill the Jews because they fundamentally agreed with Hitler that this was a good idea” (119).

While the average German said nothing about the Nazi destruction of the Jews, neither did FDR or Churchill, even though the latter were far freer to speak out.

Groth has many problems with this view. For one thing, it exonerates the rest of the world for its complicity in the Holocaust, and allows us all to sigh in relief that “it could never happen here.” And he points to a logical gap. Everyone, Goldhagen included, recognizes that the Germans involved in the execution of the Holocaust — the men involved in designing the scheme, arresting and transporting the victims, and running the death camps — could at most amount to 5% of the population of 80 million. The other Germans, while not active, did nothing to stop the killings, but passively accepted them. But Groth points out that while the rest of the Germans did not publicly mourn or protest the mass murder of the Jews, the most reasonable conclusion from that absence of protest would be that they just didn’t care, not that they supported it. I would sharpen the point by adding that while there were no massive protests against the Final Solution, there were no massive rallies in support of it either.

Here Groth rightly notes that Goldhagen fails to distinguish among the German non-genocidaires:

. . . those who could not care less; those who rejoiced in Hitler’s policies; those who were appalled by those policies but feared the risks of speaking out; those who had a variety of doubts and reservations about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews but who also were not willing to jeopardize their lives, their careers, and their families to voice them; and, finally, the many Germans confused and misled by Nazi propaganda and information controls. After all, the Nazis never admitted publicly that they were exterminating the Jews. They were just resettling them in the East. (120)

And Groth adds to this point the observation that while the average German said nothing about the Nazi destruction of the Jews, neither did FDR or Churchill, even though the latter were far freer to speak out, far more informed, and far more protected from reprisals. Were FDR and Churchill “eliminationist anti-Semites” as well?[4]

Groth also criticizes Goldhagen’s claim that the vitriolic German anti-Semitic literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries was unmatched in Europe or elsewhere. Groth observes that Goldhagen adduces no evidence for this claim, and mentions similar anti-Semitic literature in Poland and Rumania. (I will suggest later in this piece that Groth is overlooking something about German anti-Semitism that was unique.)

To Goldhagen’s point that whatever anti-Semitism existed elsewhere in Europe, it was only in Germany that an openly anti-Semitic party was elected to power, Groth replies by noting that in the three Reichstag elections prior to April 1933, the Nazis received only 37%, 33%, and 44% — that last vote coming with the full aid of SA thugs in the streets, intimidating voters. Furthermore, while Hitler’s anti-Semitism is blatant in Mein Kampf, how many voters had read the book? How many dismissed much of it as exaggerated? How many who shared the Nazi antipathy towards Jews favored not merely mass murder, but, say, encouraging Jews to convert to Christianity or emigrate? Remember: from 1933 until the outset of the war or later, the Nazis focused on pressuring Jews to leave. Groth rightly notes that there were no exit polls at the time, so we cannot say why those who voted Nazi did so. Moreover, Theodore Abel’s sociological study of essays by 600 Nazi Party members in the period shortly after Hitler achieved power, describing why they joined the party, showed that only about 36% stated anti-Semitic motives.

From 1871 (when Germany unified) to 1933, Jews were far better off in Germany than in Eastern Europe by any measure — and there were no pogroms in Germany.

Groth cites two scholars in support of his view. First he quotes Sarah Gordon[5] saying that even among Party members, there was considerable diversity of opinion on the “Jewish question,” and only a “small percentage” shared Hitler’s “paranoid” anti-Semitism. She claims that more Germans disapproved of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies than supported them. And, she adds, Hitler’s central role in the Holocaust should never be underestimated. She further points out that Germans faced a (minimum) of two years in a concentration camp for aiding Jews or publicly supporting their cause — a fate much worse than regular jail.

Groth then quotes William Sheridan Allen,[6] who focused his research on the Nazi takeover of the town of Thalburg. Allen reported that most of the townspeople were relatively unsympathetic to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi ideology. Jews at all class levels were well integrated into the town’s society. Though there was “abstract” anti-Semitism — a general dislike of Jewishness that showed up in jokes or expressions of distaste, many people just ignored the anti-Semitic aspect of the Party when voting for it. Indeed, “Thalburgers were drawn to anti-Semitism because they were drawn to Nazism, not the other way around” (127).

And Groth quotes from Saul Friedlander[7] the idea that during the 1930s the German population didn’t demand anti-Jewish measures; in fact, those who supported eliminationist anti-Semitism were only a segment of the Party.

Groth next makes the point that if there were a native German eliminationist anti-Semitism, why didn’t it show up prior to 1933? Indeed, from 1871 (when Germany unified) to 1933, Jews were far better off in Germany than in Eastern Europe by any measure — access to education, participation in social and political institutions, or rate of intermarriage — and there were no pogroms in Germany as there were in Russia and Eastern Europe.

He also cites a survey of 500 German POWs done in 1944. Among men below 30, 33% said anti-Semitism was “helpful” to Germany, while 44% said it was “harmful.” Among men over 30, only 17% agreed it was “helpful” while 60% saw it as “harmful.” (Twenty-three percent of both groups did not reply to the question.) And he notes that when the violence started, be it Kristallnacht in 1938 or the killing camps and Einsatzgruppen later, it was the police, the SS, the SA, and (less often) the regular military who did the killing, not “frenzied, out-of-control German civilian mobs” (130).

Even if the primarily responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the leadership, the question of popular support still remains.

Groth adds that post-WWII, while Germany has seen some Skinhead and neo-Nazi groups, there has been no mass violence against the Jews, but only “scattered” attacks against synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and individual Jews. And political parties espousing anti-Semitism have done poorly in German elections.

Here are some points to ponder.

Regarding the Abel analysis of 600 essays about why Party members joined the NSDAP: the fact that only 36% said they were anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that the rest weren’t. If you surveyed Republicans and asked why they are in the party, perhaps two-thirds would neglect to mention “lower taxes.” But if you explicitly asked whether they favored lower taxes, probably 98% would say yes. Similarly, if you asked Democrats why they support the party perhaps two-thirds would not mention increasing taxes on the rich. But if you asked whether they favored that policy, again, probably 98% would say they did.

Regarding Sarah Gordon, to the effect that few Germans were paranoid anti-Semites of “Hitler’s ilk”: Gordon seems as data-light as Goldhagen. What Groth might have looked at is data on attendance at the Nazi anti-Semitic movies. For example, Jud Süss (1940), which pushed the most extreme anti-Semitism, was the sixth most popular film made during the Third Reich. 20.3 million Germans paid for tickets, about 40% of the adults in greater Germany. Compare the big Spielberg hit, Saving Private Ryan (1998), which was seen by about 20% of American adults at the time, and you see how attractive the anti-Semitic film was.

Regarding Groth’s and Gordon’s point that Hitler played a “central role” in the Holocaust: just why did Hitler and his myrmidons favor extermination of the Jews (at seemingly great cost towards the end of the war)? Was it just, say, schizophrenic paranoia? Was Hitler ever diagnosed as a paranoid, or hospitalized for psychotic symptoms? Or was it a deep ideological conviction, and, if so, why? Even if the primarily responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the leadership, the question of popular support still remains.

Regarding Groth’s point — a completely obvious one — that prior to Hitler coming to power, Germany historically had higher levels of integration of Jews into society, and no pogroms: perhaps the German government (for various reasons) did not allow pogroms, whereas the Tsarist government allowed (and even facilitated) them. And Jews were as well integrated in most of the rest of Western Europe (especially England, which had elected a Jew as Prime Minister as early as 1868), and suffered no pogroms either — but only Germany ever freely elected (by a strong plurality) an openly and deeply anti-Semitic party.

The SS, SA and police were formed from civilian volunteers. And the populace often cooperated with the Gestapo and other police agencies, and did nothing to impede the mass atrocities.

Regarding Groth’s citation (following Gordon) of the survey of 500 German POWs in 1944: the sample size is small (the margin of error is 5%), and its randomness is questionable — maybe German soldiers with attitudes more sympathetic to the Allies surrendered to them more readily. Worse, there is an obvious problem with interviewer error. The Germans were exposing their feelings to — their captors, who the POWs knew were profoundly anti-Nazi. Did those POWs feel free to answer honestly? We need to remember the classic illustration cited by Darrel Huff.[8] During WWII, Gallup interviewed African Americans as to whether they thought they would be treated worse by society if the Japanese won the war, and found that nearly double the number answered in the negative when the interviewer was black compared to those asked by a white interviewer.

Regarding Groth’s point that the actual killers — the genocidaires — of Jews were not civilians, but members of the SS, SA, regular police, and elements of the regular military: the SS, SA and police were formed from civilian volunteers. (The SA and SS had their origins in the Freikorps, organized militias that fought revolutionaries in the German streets after WWI.) And again, the populace often cooperated with the Gestapo and other police agencies, and did nothing to impede the mass atrocities.

Finally, regarding Groth’s point that after the 1940s, while Germany has seen skinheads and neo-Nazis, and occasionally attacks on Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and individuals, there have been no governmental attacks: this is a weak point indeed. By the end of WWII most of Germany had been devastated, with millions of its civilians killed; the world came to know the extent of the Holocaust and condemned Germany accordingly, and the county was dismembered and occupied for decades. Of course even the most devout anti-Semites would be deterred from repeating their crimes. Moreover, post-WWII Germany was virtually devoid of Jewish citizens — even now, at about 120,000, there would be few left for modern eliminationist anti-Semites to eliminate.

In sum, while Groth offers some good criticisms of Goldhagen, they are in my view hardly definitive.

I turn now to Groth’s views on Robert Gellately’s work. Groth accuses Gellately of a flawed analysis of the data and a “lack of familiarity with the literature of totalitarianism.” This seems harsh, especially considering that both Gellately’s books were published not though some obscure press, but through Oxford University Press. But let us consider the rival contentions.

The Gestapo’s power was based not so much on its numbers as on its power to disrupt citizens’ lives, its arbitrary operations, its lack of public accountability, its exemption from the rule of law, and its known tendency to torture and murder freely.

Gellately argued in an early book[9] that the Gestapo was in fact “a terribly undermanned institution, incapable of policing German society on its own,” so it relied heavily on informants (Groth 131).

To this, Groth makes some cogent replies. The first is more of a dig: if contemporary American students and faculty report feeling intimidated on college campuses by political correctness, it is strange to think that the Germans would not have feared the Gestapo. Moreover, the Gestapo’s power was based not so much on its numbers as on its power to disrupt citizens’ lives, its arbitrary operations, its lack of public accountability, its exemption from the rule of law, and its known tendency to torture and murder freely.

Moreover, the Gestapo was interconnected with the SS, a very large organization — Groth doesn’t mention it, but the SS at its peak numbered 850,000, which is roughly the number of all local police in the contemporary US, a nation about four times the population of Nazi Germany. And the Gestapo worked in secret. So even if it had relatively few agents, the public could have no clue about that, or about the number of Gestapo informants among the public.

Groth is correct about the power of the German police state, and that will be the focus of the third in this series of essays for this journal. But he is on shakier ground when he critiques Gellately’s more recent book, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.[10] Gellately asks why the German people almost uniformly followed Hitler from 1933 to the bitter end in 1945. Groth notes that while Gellately acknowledges the role of the Nazi propaganda machine, its strict control of communication (read: its silencing of all opposition), and its institutions of coercion and terror, Gellately concludes that the Nazi regime rested mainly on consensus. And this Groth does not accept.

By the outbreak of the war, the Nazi form of anti-Semitism had taken hold.

Gellately argues that besides using coercion and propaganda, Hitler was much more interested in getting and keeping popular support. So, unlike his rival Stalin, Hitler did not target large parts of his country’s population, confining his police state apparatus to the regime’s enemies and its targeted minorities. The regime sought popular backing until the very end of its existence. And Gellately adds that “many Germans went along, not because they were mindless robots, but because they convinced themselves of Hitler’s advantages and the ‘positive’ side of the new dictatorship” (136).

Furthermore, as Gellately points out, certainly from 1933 to 1939, the regime could show apparent successes in reclaiming lost territory, dramatically lowering unemployment, making more consumer goods available, and building out infrastructure. Gellately points to the rise in Nazi Party membership from about 130,000 in 1930 to 850,000 in 1933, and the SA’s growth from 77,000 in 1931 to 3 million in 1934. In the 1932 and 1933 plebiscites, the Nazis won the plurality of the vote. Gellately further argues that by the outbreak of the war, the Nazi form of anti-Semitism had taken hold.

Gellately additionally notes that unlike most other totalitarian regimes, the Nazis openly discussed their coercive system — in particular, their concentration camp system. I would add that it is striking that while most Soviet camps were hidden away in Siberia or elsewhere in the hinterlands, the Nazis opened their first camps near big cities. Similarly, the Nazis were quite open about their anti-Jewish measures and legislation, discussing these laws and rulings in widely circulated papers. The Nuremberg Laws (passed in 1935) were well discussed and widely publicized — as they would have to be: the populace would have to know that having sexual relations with Jews was now forbidden.

Gellately observes that German propaganda was well-crafted and effective, rather than crude and obvious. Here I would note that Goebbels articulated what is now widely acknowledged by propaganda theorists: effective propaganda is often if not typically an exercise in “confirmation bias”: it works best if it takes preexisting attitudes and beliefs and amplifies them, reconstructs them, and uses them to support something. He adds that the regime received thousands of letters a day, which seems to show that the populace supported or at least felt comfortable with it.

Groth offers a welter of criticisms of Gellately’s claims. He starts by noting that Nazi electoral successes actually dropped from 37.3% to 33.1% in the 1932 elections. Yes, a later election, after Hitler was appointed chancellor, showed a plurality of 43.9%, but that (Groth avers) was likely because of the pressure the SA could bring on voters. And in later plebiscites (in late 1933 and 1934), all opposition had been outlawed. Moreover, Groth points out that Stalin routinely won elections with 99% of the vote.

While most Soviet camps were hidden away in Siberia or elsewhere in the hinterlands, the Nazis opened their first camps near big cities.

To the point about the Nazi Party’s membership increasing, Groth replies that the postwar Soviet-backed Polish communist party membership rose from 20,000 to 1 million. As to the Nazis wanting popular backing, Groth replies that Stalin’s regime did as well.

Regarding Gellately’s claim that Hitler didn’t confront large segments of the German population in the way Stalin did the Soviet population, Groth scathingly replies that Hitler abolished trade unions and outlawed strikes — wasn’t that confrontational? To Gellately’s point about the Nazi anti-Semitism having taken root among Germans, Groth cites the reports of two senior British and American diplomats in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) to the effect that all the citizens they talked to disapproved of the event completely.

Discussing the Nazis’ willingness to disclose the nature of their concentration camps system, Groth rightly observes that this was far short of full disclosure. The camps were portrayed as benignly reeducating communists, socialists, and criminals, and (later) as relocating Jews to the East for their own protection. The public was never told of the torture, rape, and murder that took place in those camps. Groth makes the telling point that not once did Hitler or his Propaganda Ministry ever acknowledge that they were systematically killing the Jews and other targeted groups.

Groth goes on to criticize Gellately’s account of Nazi propaganda as being sophisticated (not crude brainwashing and manipulation) and appealing to preexisting German beliefs and desires. Groth replies that this is a truism: any propaganda appeals to what people believe and desire — certainly Soviet, British, and American propaganda did. In this Groth is touching upon the point made earlier, that propaganda is often an exercise in confirmation bias. But he adds to this point another that is interesting:

Here one needs to take note of the symbiotic relationship between “propaganda” and “terror” in order to appreciate why the balance of these factors would predispose a great many people in Germany to deny and repress knowledge of Nazi crimes. At the top of the political system, Hitler and Goebbels set the norms of what it was that made a “good Nazi” and a “good German.” These norms were constantly replayed by the mass of official media — everything from radio to wall posters. Certainly, an “uncompromising hostility” to the Jews was one of the most important norms; ultimately in Hitler’s view, they were Germany’s most implacable and dangerous enemy. Any conspicuous, publicly, or even privately manifested deviation from the norms could potentially bring significant punishment to those involved. (142)

So if Germans didn’t publically defend Jews, Groth suggests, it is because any who did faced brutal treatment. And — he further suggests — the best way for an ordinary (non-anti-Semitic) German to bow to the authority of the regime but still maintain a favorable self-image would be to deliberately not think about the fate of the Jews. Actually, Groth could have invoked cognitive dissonance theory: faced with his belief in tolerance and his awareness that in not helping Jews he is contributing to their destruction, the tolerant German might simply tune out any new, unpleasant information. (Confirmation bias again . . .)

Groth next criticizes Gellately’s inferring from the fact that the Nazi regime received thousands of letters daily the conclusion that the German public was involved and interested rather than passive or powerless, and that the regime could be manipulated from below. Groth replies that the letters could just be “requests for personal favors, petty complaints, protestations of loyalty, and denunciations of other people” (143). And he criticizes Gellately’s data about citizen voluntary reports to the regime. All Gellately can point to is 403 total reports over a 12-year period — which is statistically insignificant, considering the population of Germany.

Any propaganda appeals to what people believe and desire — certainly Soviet, British, and American propaganda did.

Further, Groth notes that when the Gestapo acted, it didn’t wait for letters and other tips. When the von Stauffenberg assassination attempt failed, the Gestapo rapidly arrested the participants and used unrestrained torture, reprisals on families, and so on to get the names of the conspirators and their supporters. One estimate is that the Gestapo rapidly killed 5,000 people, most by simple fiat (no trials), including whole families of the principals.

Finally, Groth wonders whether, even supposing that 60% of the Germans continued to support Hitler even after Stalingrad, coercion wasn’t needed to suppress dissent in the other 40%. He notes that while the Vietnam War still had majority popular support in 1967, the street protests and the support given Senator McCarthy were enough to convince President Johnson not to run for reelection.

Groth agrees with Sarah Gordon that the regime didn’t so much rely on German public opinion as neutralize it, with a propaganda campaign aided by a communication monopoly, and the dictatorial coercion of the police state. And as the conclusion of the war became obvious to the whole population, and the obliteration of German cities more extensive, that coercion became all-important.

Groth concludes with an attack against Goldhagen and Gellately, holding that their view

validates a Nazi or neo-Nazi interpretation of the Fuhrer. He was a great leader of the German people because he carried out, or at least attempted to carry out, the most sincere and universal wishes and aspirations of the whole German nation.

In remembrance of Oskar Schindler, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Monsignor Bernhard Lichtenberg, Claus von Stauffenberg, and Konrad Adenauer, Hitler is not entitled to this presumption. Some facts about German public opinion on the Third Reich may perhaps forever remain in dispute. But holding a pistol to the head of a captive has certain moral . . . consequences for the assailant which cannot be removed by the argument that the pistol was not very large, and that if the captive had only been a little braver and more enterprising, it could have been dislodged. (152–3)

While I deeply respect Groth’s fair-mindedness regarding the question of German anti-Semitism and complicity in Nazi crimes (especially considering his personal story), let me make a few rebuttals to Groth’s attacks on Gellately, before presenting a deeper critique.

Let’s start with Groth’s criticism of Gellately’s general claim that while the regime’s propaganda machine and its coercive institutions helped keep people in line, the Nazi regime rested mainly on consensus. This claim Groth dismisses as “flawed analysis,” but is it? Hitler’s regime, after achieving power, dramatically delivered on its promises. It lowered unemployment (which dropped from over 30% in 1933 to virtually nothing by 1939), in great measure from a massive buildup in military and in infrastructure spending. This is what Gellately meant when he suggested that the regime’s real and seeming successes from 1933 to 1939 built popular support.

Hitler, sitting in his jail cell after a failed, farcical putsch, realized that both the Communist Left and the Nazi Right were unable to overthrow the government by revolution.

Imagine you are a German worker inclined to internationalism, socialism, or communism, and are initially skeptical about National Socialism. But Hitler achieves power, and lo! He apparently fulfills his economic promises. You and your friends have work, bread, sausage! Again, suppose you are a German businessperson, very nationalistic, but skeptical of (in your view) a group of rowdies led by an ex-corporal who don’t seem to represent German Glory, and call openly for socialism. But they achieve power, and behold! They do rebuild the military in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, take back the Ruhr and annex the Sudetenland, and achieve union with Austria. In 1939, war does break out and you see the regime rapidly take half of Poland, and rapidly defeat France — erasing in your mind an historic grievance. You might well now support this regime you initially opposed.

Groth’s argument that Stalin was like Hitler in that Stalin, too, wanted popular support seems dismissive if not downright disingenuous. One obvious and huge difference between the two figures is that the Bolsheviks never once faced fair elections with real opponents. Lenin won a revolution, and Stalin climbed to the top of the resulting Byzantine power structure by adroitly killing off competitors. But Hitler, sitting in his jail cell after a failed, farcical putsch, realized that both the Communist Left and the Nazi Right were unable to overthrow the government by revolution — so he would have to appeal for votes. And Hitler and the Party hierarchy crafted an ideology accordingly — based on the identification of an International Jewish Order as the enemy, a stab-in-the-back Nazi Historical Narrative, protectionist economics, and socialist envy of the rich — together with a political platform built on ending unemployment and restoring the national military.

To Groth’s point that Stalin won 99% of the vote, whereas Hitler won only 44% in the last election with other parties allowed, and the 44% is suspect because of the activity of the SA: these points seem contradictory. The fact that the Nazis polled only 44% suggests that the election was fairly free after all. More generally, the elections make it clear that the Nazis were able to win the plurality of votes in free elections in margins between 33% and 40%. Groth needs to ask whether the Bolsheviks could have ever done that well at any point.

Any non-Jewish German couple being given an apartment previously owned by Jews would have to know or strongly suspect that the rightful owners would not be reclaiming their property.

Regarding Groth’s comments about those British and American diplomats in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht: again, we need to remember the problem of interviewer bias. Would the average German feel comfortable in expressing support for violent anti-Semitic demonstrations to foreign diplomats — especially from England and America, which according to Nazi ideology were bastions of International Jewish financial power? Indeed, did these diplomats talk to any German workers at all, and if so, how free would those workers have felt in answering the foreign diplomats?

To Groth’s point that the regime never admitted to its own people that it was killing the Jews, two replies are in order. First, any non-Jewish German couple being given furniture or (more obviously) an apartment previously owned by Jews would have to know or strongly suspect that the rightful owners would not be reclaiming their property, and would surely have known or suspected why. But if the people were so completely cowed by the regime’s police and convinced by propaganda, why wouldn’t it just tell the citizens the truth?

Moreover, I think Groth has the relationship between power (coercion) and propaganda somewhat muddled. The relation is symbiotic, but not as he describes it. The propaganda campaign helped solidify popular support for the regime, and make people compliant to its agenda. However, coercion doesn’t so make people want to watch propaganda — it removes the most effective weapon against propaganda: free speech. Specifically, absent the use of power (coercion, terror) to silence all countervailing views, the propaganda of any regime will not be effective long-term.

Critical voices can expose propaganda for what it is — sunlight disinfects — and this is why the coercive power of any authoritarian regime enables its propaganda to be effective. Imagine the damage the satirical power of a Saturday Night Live show could have inflicted on the Nazi Party and its ideology. Imagine if critics had been allowed to do their own documentary on Judaism and the Jews in reply to The Eternal Jew. Groth himself touches upon this when he says:

As long as the Nazis could maintain a communication monopoly supported by terror, the issue of their Jewish policy could be framed for public consumption in such euphemistic terms as “removal of Jews from Germany” and “resettlement of Jews in the East.” An opposition . . . would have framed the issue as mass murder and state-sponsored criminal mayhem. (150)

Finally, to Groth’s criticism that (Goldhagen’s and) Gellately’s view validates the Nazi idea of Hitler as hero, and that this betrays the memory of people who struggled against the regime, two replies. First, Groth cites six anti-regime fighters. But that was six out of 80 million people over a 12-year period — not much of a resistance. And the attempt on Hitler’s life involved military men who were worried about Hitler’s losing the war, not plagued by desperation to save the Jews. Second, maintaining that the very notion that Hitler delivered the goods to the average (non-Jewish) German validates the view of Hitler as a great leader is absurd. Yes, Hitler gave Germans the goods, but they were goods stolen from murdered people and colonized countries. That hardly “validates” Hitler.

Coercion doesn’t so make people want to watch propaganda — it removes the most effective weapon against propaganda: free speech.

In sum, I agree with Groth that the move to tar all or most Germans of the time with some special murderous kind of anti-Semitism is wrong. However, I don’t think he quite makes the case that there wasn’t anything unique about German anti-Semitic ideology. I will return to this point. But even more questionable is Groth’s feeling that Gellately was wrong to say the regime rested on consensus. To be fair to both Gellately and Groth, they were writing a few years before a more powerful explanation of the general support for the regime among the people: the regime purchased its support. Just how and how much the regime did this was not explained deeply until Götz Aly’s seminal research, to which I now turn.

[1] Doctors don’t typically bargain with patients in the sense of “If you quit smoking, I will lower my fees by 10%.” They may bargain about method of payment, and give discounts for fees paid by cash. But of course insurance companies routinely offer lower fees to patients who avoid risky behaviors.

[2] Listen to the Ridley interview here.

[3] The Wealth of Nations, book I, chapter 2.

[4] Groth doesn’t mention this, but in 1943 Polish underground hero Jan Karski told both leaders in person that the Jews were being exterminated.

[5] From her book: Hitler, Germans and the Jewish Question, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1984).

[6] From his book: The Experience of a Single German Town 1930–1935, New York: New Viewpoints (1965).

[7] From Friedlander’s book: Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939, New York: Harper Collins (1997).

[8] In his classic book, How to Lie with Statistics, New York: Norton (1954).

[9] The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing the Racial Policy 1933–1945, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1990).

[10] Oxford: Oxford University Press (2001).

Editor's Note: This review-essay is part 1 of a three-part series.

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Decorating the Dead


My grandmother and her friends used to call Memorial Day by its old name, Decoration Day. People went out to the cemeteries to “decorate” the graves. As a young man, I thought, “What hypocrisy! Millions of people are slaughtered in wars, and they are ‘remembered’ by people who ‘decorate’ their graves!”

The thought still seems unavoidable, especially when you see the Memorial Day ceremonies at a military cemetery. Here are thousands of identical white tombstones, “memorializing” individual men and women who are, for the most part, remembered by no one. And these are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of people slaughtered by wars and revolutions during the past two centuries — shot, drowned, blown apart, starved to death.

Nor is mass slaughter merely a feature of the modern world. The Iroquois wiped out the civilization of the Hurons, and tried to wipe out the Hurons themselves. They almost succeeded. Where are the tribes of the ancient European world? In many cases, only their names remain to be “memorialized,” by the rare scholar who knows their names.

Yet I believe that the idea of “decoration” or “remembrance” can be more than hypocrisy, if we — like, perhaps, my grandmother and her friends — actually use it as a way of asserting the significance of individual human lives. Though lost to specific memory, the lives of those people whose graves we see beyond the cemetery fence were real and important. If in decorating a tomb we actually do remember that, and at the same time remember the horrors that inevitably occur when the significance of the individual is forgotten, we may do well.

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A Collaboration With History


Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian are both familiar to readers of Liberty. Their most recent contribution, memories of Nathaniel Branden, appeared in these pages in February.

On April 17, their film, 1915 — co-written and co-directed by Alec and Garin — opened in theaters throughout the country. It concerns a mysterious director who, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, stages a play in Los Angeles to bring the ghosts of a forgotten tragedy back to life. Liberty interviewed Alec about this very independent film.

Liberty: Alec, will you give us a little perspective on recent events around this film?

Alec: On April 24, 2015, 160,000 people marched six miles on the streets of Los Angeles (and many hundreds of thousands more across the world). They were marching to commemorate and demand justice for an event that took place 100 years ago, on the other side of the world. You may be wondering whether such a thing has ever happened before, but something like it had just happened in 1915, which is set in 2015, on a day very much like the one this April. A few years ago, we saw this scene coming, even if few people thought we were sane when describing it. In our movie, you hear and see glimpses of approximately 160,000 people marching on the streets of Los Angeles, while inside the walls of one haunted, historic theater one man named Simon tries to recreate the reason for their marching, and contrive a destination for them.

Liberty: Why did you set the story in a Los Angeles theater?

Alec: In a theater, history is repeated night after night, with the same actors, each time with different results. So while it might seem on the surface like a fantastic, abstract setting for such a weighty subject, it is for our story an entirely genuine and even “realistic” one. The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

What makes an actor good or bad, a performance true or false or in between? We thought these were important mysteries, especially for a story about how the past carries on in the present, how memory and denial can affect a life in so many ways. The professional challenges of an actor seem very much aligned to the historical burdens of contemporary Armenians. Both inherit a script, a story, which they are impelled to enliven, to honor, to serve . . . or if they can’t handle it, to rather ostentatiously ignore.

The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

Certainly the sense that theater is dead, or dying, or is constantly said to be dead or dying, is not at all beside the point. Simon, the mastermind of the film, is a true believer in the magic of theater, and he is convinced that one great performance can actually change the course of history.

Liberty: Where did you find your actors?

Alec: All over the world. We knew of Simon Abkarian (Casino Royale, Gett, et al.) and Angela Sarafyan (Twilight, Paranoia), the two leads, and wrote and named their parts for them from the beginning. They were the first two to read the script and expressed an instant desire to assume their roles. There are only two things no actor can just pretend to have: intelligence and face. In Simon and Angela we found two faces no one is likely to forget.

Angela lives in Los Angeles. Simon, one of the top stage and screen actors in France, had to fly in from Paris. The vastly talented Nikolai Kinski, whose last name will be familiar to film buffs, cancelled all his gigs and flew in from his home in Berlin. We had admired Sam Page in Mad Men and House of Cards. Jim Piddock is a prolific and beloved comic actor who comes from England. The rest of our cast we discovered through auditions, set up by our sharp casting director. That is how we found eight-year old Sunny Suljic, who delivers a stunning performance in his feature film debut.

Liberty: How long did you work on this film?

Alec: We began to write the script in May of 2012. We began to raise financing in May of 2013. Our first day of shooting was April 27, 2014. We shot for 20 days. The film was released theatrically last month. On opening weekend it was the #2 debut film in the country, in terms of per-screen box office.

Liberty: What was your greatest difficulty?

Alec: That is like asking someone to choose his greatest ex-wife. All of our difficulties were great, great difficulties. Creatively, the biggest frustration in moviemaking is when you can’t afford to fix your mistakes. The author of a book can go back and rewrite a poor paragraph. He does not need $20,000 to buy a vowel — nor does he have to work around the fact that the letter F is stuck in a Belgian cop show until September.

Liberty: What was your greatest pleasure?

Alec: Those moments on set when our imagination was brought to life in surprising and superior ways — by the actors, the production designer, the cinematographer, the makeup artist, the costume designer, the composer. We had masters in each field and together they did a masterly job. They worked tirelessly, sleeplessly, and with an absolute passion and dedication, not to display their own virtuosity, but to make 1915. Thank God, too, because this was a fragile project that could not withstand any too-major outbreaks of idiocy. Knowing that various talented pros are working as hard as you are and thinking as deeply as you are about how best to realize your vision makes you feel good.

By the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

A note here for future filmmakers. The most important thing is not to experience glories on set, but for the audience to experience them on the screen. Too often the one does not lead to the other. You will realize this in the editing room and thus meet your greatest pain. But we were speaking here of pleasures, and I suppose the collaborative vitality and professional excellence I mentioned is the reason most directors never want to retire.

Liberty: How long have you and Garin been working together? What skills does each of you bring to the project? That is — who is better at camera work, editing, writing, directing, or whatever? Have you collaborated previously?

Alec: We have collaborated on a number of things since middle school: newspapers, screenplays, foreign presidential campaigns, revolutions, poker. We are both writers by origin and Garin is the author of an acclaimed memoir, Family of Shadows. This was our first fictional film. Our only prior experience in filmmaking was a series of TV ads we produced for a presidential campaign designed to overthrow a monstrous post-Soviet regime. Overthrowing a paying audience is an entirely different task.

Some directing duos specialize; we do not. We were equally involved in, and equally ignorant about, all technical matters. The writing process began by forming an outline and splitting scenes but by the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

Our vision was for a certain kind of film that had never been made before, to tell a certain kind of story that had never been told — that is, indeed, impossible to tell. So the only valuable skill we brought to the enterprise was that of how to bluff.

Liberty: How many times did you get into a fight?

Alec: Never in public. At this stage, even in private, our fights are mostly fought in silence. By the time one of us opens his mouth, the winner has already been decided, the loser wrapping tape, and what’s left is to clean up the mess.

Liberty: Why should libertarians be interested in 1915?

Alec: Because it is a unique, mysterious psychological thriller that ought to provoke them intellectually and possibly lead them to some deep surprises. It has a lot of layers and secrets and even humor. You might hate it, but you won’t be bored. You will want to find out what happens in the end. In short, it should be a rewarding dramatic ride that might awaken some new feelings and questions about the personal meaning of history.

And it is a controversial movie for almost anyone who watches it — not politically controversial, but spiritually. It poses a different challenge for almost every kind of viewer. One of the dramatic themes in the film is the quest for freedom in the face of trauma, and I’m sure that many libertarians have contended with this in their own lives, this case of reality assaulting an idea.

Liberty: If people aren’t near a theater where 1915 is shown, how can they see it?

Alec: Well, the HD digital version can be downloaded from and also from iTunes and Amazon, to be watched at home. I invite them to do so. Oh, and skeptics can even see a trailer. My policy is to only listen to unqualified praise, but Liberty readers who watch the film and run into me at the dog-track can cite the voucher code MENCKENISMYFATHER to tell me exactly what they think.

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Cambodia: Not to Be Forgotten


The Nazis killed Jews, Gypsies, gays, Polish cavalry, retarded people, and assorted other specific groups, intending to annihilate them. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone and everyone, indiscriminately, to make “ecologically sound” fertilizer.

First, the raw materials for the fertilizer — human beings — were made to dig a giant trench. Second, they were made to kneel along the edge. Third, Khmer Rouge soldiers went from one to another ”useless mouth” delivering a sharp blow with an axe to the nape of the neck — to save ammunition.

Over the first layer of bodies, rice husks would be spread, followed by a sprinkling of gasoline. This procedure would be repeated, layer upon layer, until the pit was full. It was then set ablaze. After the pit cooled, the bones were separated from the ashes, ground on giant mortars and pestles, then recombined with the ashes and packaged in jute sacks to fertilize paddy fields.

Denise Affonco, an ethnic Eurasian French citizen, was convinced by her husband, a Vietnamese Communist, to stay in Phnom Penh and welcome the liberators. She lost everything, including her entire extended family, except one son. Hers is a story of a miraculous four-year survival under the Khmer Rouge’s countryside resettlement policy.

What makes this book special is that there aren’t many Cambodian genocide survival stories in English. It is a miracle that the story has been written and published. Days after they arrived to liberate her, the Vietnamese insisted — and paid her — to record an account of her four years in hell, to be used in a subsequent trial-in-absentia of Pol Pot and Ieng Sery. She did; and as an afterthought squirreled away a carbon copy of what she had written. Twenty-five years later, in Paris, she heard an academic opine that the Khmer Rouge did “nothing but good” for Cambodia. She then realized it was time to publish her account.

The book has the immediacy of something written on the fly. There are quite a few translation and run-of-the-mill typos, but they do not detract — you’ll not easily lay it down. Reportage Press is a small UK outfit. A portion of the proceeds are contributed to a scholarship fund, set up in memory of Affonco’s daughter, who died of starvation. The book is available from Amazon and

Editor's Note: Review of "To the End of Hell: One Woman’s Struggle to Survive Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge," by Denise Affonco. Reportage Press, 2005, 165 pages.

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Elizabeth Warren and the Poison of Identity Politics


Seven months ago, I considered Harvard Law School Prof. Elizabeth Warren from a libertarian perspective. The establishment media darling and Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Massachusetts didn’t offer much to like.

Since then, she’s become considerably more entertaining. And thought-provoking, though not in a way she would have intended.

During the past few weeks, Warren has been caught in a moronic controversy that has put her campaign on the defensive, led supporters to question her political savvy, and — perhaps most damaging — confirmed the impression that she’s a charlatan. The gist of it: for about 15 years, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Warren listed herself in various academic professional directories as a member of a racial minority. Specifically, an American Indian.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Reporters from the Boston Herald asked Warren about her claims of minority status: why she’d made them, then stopped making them, and whether she’d “played the race card” when applying for teaching positions at posh law schools such as Penn and Harvard.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Then, faced with hard evidence from several directories (including the Association of American Law Schools’ annual directory of minority law teachers), she “clarified” her answer. What she’d meant to say was that she’d never made the claims while applying for teaching jobs.

But there were more rakes in the yard . . . and Warren promptly stepped on them. When reporters asked her to explain in detail her claim of Native American ancestry, she babbled:

My Aunt Bee . . . remarked that he — that her father, my papaw — had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do! Because that’s how she saw it. And she said, “And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t.” She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life. . . . I was listed [in the minority directories] because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up. And it turned out that’s — there really wasn’t any of that.

Note the passive voice of “I was listed.” By all accounts, she did the listing. Her nervous rhetoric betrayed her effort to shirk responsibility for the mendacious act of including herself among minority professors. And some pundits focused on the lazy, verging on racist, generalizations behind the dizzy professor’s words: “high cheekbones” are something “all of the Indians” have.

Not exactly Prof. Kingsfield.

Warren’s campaign rushed into damage control mode. Smoother spokespeople explained that, on a marriage license application in 1894, Warren’s great-uncle claimed that his grandmother — a woman named Neoma O.C. Sarah Smith — had been a Cherokee. The campaign then produced a Utah-based genealogist who confirmed that Neoma, Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother, was at least half Cherokee. (According to some, the initials “O.C.” meant native Cherokee; according to others, contemporary documents described Neoma as “white” which, by the practice of the time, could mean she was half Indian.)

If Neoma was a full-blooded Cherokee, Warren is 1/32; if she was half Cherokee, the professor is 1/64. A thin reed, but the campaign was determined to hang Warren’s robes on it. Staffers pointed out that Bill John Baker, the current chief of the Cherokee nation, has a similarly slight blood connection to the tribe.

Really, this is madness.

When I was in college, we read Mark Twain’s satiric short novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, which rightly ridicules racial distinctions based on 1/8, 1/32, or 1/64 ancestry. The story is often dismissed as an angry product of Twain’s bitter late period — and it is angry. But it’s also a strong perspective on the games that identity-politics practitioners such as Warren play. And have been playing for more than 100 years.

Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma.

Warren’s handlers can spin the story — but the damage is done. On the Internet, ever merciless, the dismissive nicknames have started: Pinocchio-hontas, Fauxcahontas, Sacajawhiner. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson: in some cases, the substance of a charge isn’t important; the response — however skillful — is damaging in itself.

(Actually, what LBJ said was: “I don’t care if the story [that his opponent had sex with farm animals] is true. I just want to hear the son of a bitch deny it.”)

A few days after Warren’s campaign came up with the marriage license application, the story took an ironic turn. While Neoma’s provenance remains murky, her husband — a man named Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma. About 4,000 Cherokees died on that “Trail of Tears.” So, even if she’s part Indian, Warren is also descended from an oppressor in one of the most disgraceful episodes in US history.

Here we reach the logical end of racial identity politics — a muddle of conflicting conclusions based on incomplete or contradictory government documents. Statist bureaucrats love categorizing people; but their categories are usually false, so they don’t hold up over time.

And a mediocrity like Elizabeth Warren ends up being vilified by partisans both Left and Right.

The Boston Herald’s populist grievance merchant Howie Carr put Warren’s miscues in the disgruntled right-wing frame:

The problem the elites have understanding the power of this story is simple. They’ve never been passed over for a job they were qualified for because of some allegedly disadvantaged person who wasn’t. . . . [T]he upper classes have no comprehension of the “rottenness” of this system. . . . [S]omeone in the Harvard counseling office might sadly inform a young Trustafarian that he might have a problem getting into the law school. But then Someone who knows Someone picks up the phone and young Throckmorton suddenly bumps a kid from Quincy with higher LSATs . . .

In this worldview, Warren’s shenanigans cost a “real” disadvantaged minority person a slot teaching at a first-rate law school. But the problem with right-leaning populism is that it embraces rentseeking. It settles for asking that the corruption be administered equitably.

Carr comes close to the truth when he tells the story of the smart kid from working-class Quincy — but falls just short of real insight. He gives in to emotional paranoia about the corrupt phone call. The best solution isn’t to “fix” the crooked preference system; it’s to eliminate rentseeking entirely because it always leads to corruption. The kid from Quincy doesn’t need a redistribution system that spreads spoils equitably; he just wants to be evaluated objectively.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

On the Left, partisans voice contempt for “box-checking” by free riders like Warren. Last summer, the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color passed a Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud. The resolution noted that “fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants.”

In a recent editorial, The Daily News of Newburyport wrote:

It seems clear that Warren’s “box-checking” on law reference application forms was designed to help further her career. Similarly, Harvard Law School benefited by citing Warren as a minority faculty member at a time its diversity practices were under fire.

Warren’s claim that she checked the box claiming Native American heritage in her application for inclusion in the Association of American Law Schools desk book so that she could meet people with similar backgrounds is laughable.

This touches on a critical point: identity politics corrupts institutions as well as people. In 1996, when Harvard Law School was criticized by campus groups for a lack of racial diversity among its faculty, officials touted Warren’s supposed Cherokee roots. According to a Harvard Crimson story at that time:

Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, [spokesman Michael] Chmura said professor of law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.

These days, Harvard’s press office says that the university doesn’t make official pronouncements about employees’ ethnic or racial backgrounds. Which seems a bit . . . carefully . . . timed.

Of course, the whole story beggars belief. Warren skeptics are even showing up on Daily Kos, the left-wing political opinion web site that practically launched the professor’s political aspirations. Its Native American columnist Meteor Blades recently wrote:

What’s unclear is whether Warren checked the “Native American” box solely out of pride or because it might perhaps give her a one- or two-percent edge over some other job candidate without that heritage. She says she didn’t. . . . What Warren also didn’t do was step up in 1996 when it became clear that Harvard, under pressure from students and others about the lack of diversity on its law faculty, was touting her Native heritage. . . . What Harvard did was despicable. What Warren didn’t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.

If she’s lost Daily Kos, Warren is in deep trouble.

Others on the Left are distancing themselves from Warren, frustrated that she was supposed to be a winner and now may not be. In the online magazine Salon, Edward Mason noted:

The story about Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage refuses to die. . . . Some Democrats, haunted by the infamous meltdown of Martha Coakley against Scott Brown two years ago, are wondering if it’s déjà vu all over again. “The people in Washington are saying, ‘The people in Massachusetts are a bunch of fuck-ups who couldn’t run a race for dog catcher,’” said one veteran Massachusetts Democratic insider.

But, to me, the most relevant material came in the reader comments that followed Mason’s cautious story. One commenter earnestly tried to make sense of the hullabaloo:

At no time on any census was OC Sarah Smith, nor any of her off-spring listed as anything other than White. . . . As a contrast, my Great Great Grandmother was listed on the Census and Marriage Certificate as White Indian (Cherokee) but even my relative may not have been full blooded. There is no actual evidence, other than family lore, that Sarah Smith was Cherokee, and zero chance she was full blooded Cherokee. At best, and there’s no evidence to support this, Warren could be 1/64 Cherokee.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

Identity politics is a poison that sickens people, intellectually and spiritually. It abandons them in a madness of paranoia, pettiness, and profanity. Ambitious statists like Elizabeth Warren believe that they can manage the poison more effectively than the little people whose support they assume they have. But they’re lying — to themselves first and to the little people eventually. And inevitably.

rsquo;t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.

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