By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
Germany’s best known contemporary writer and winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature died in a clinic in the German city of Lȕbeck April 11. Gȕnter Grass was 87.
The photo that accompanied his obituary in The New York Times captured the man the German world knew so well: black hair with dashes of gray, trademark walrus moustache, and ever-present pipe, which he puffed from morning to night. I was saddened by the news, the death of a mentor from afar. His writings have been part of my life since I first read his masterpiece, The Tin Drum, as a college student more than 50 years ago.
Born in Danzig (today Gdansk in Poland) in 1927, he was the son of a grocer named Willie. His mother was a Slav who hailed from an indigenous people in the region similar to the Sorbs in Germany. His family could barely make ends meet. Pugnacious as a kid, he was a fighter most of his life, a public intellectual who never walked away from controversy. When the war broke out in September 1939, he was 12 and soon found himself in the Hitler Youth Movement like most of his generation, including Pope Benedict. At 15 he was called up to serve in the Wehrmacht. Instead, he was recruited by the elite 10th Waffen-SS Panzer division Frundsberg, after giving up the hope of joining the U-Boat fleet. This decision to serve in a Waffen-SS Division would haunt him for the rest of his life, and for many darken what was a stellar literary career.
Not long ago, I finished reading one of his last books, Peeling the Onion, his memoir. The title is appropriate, not only for his life but also many Germans, who hide their past activities during the Third Reich.
He wrote: “What I had accepted with the stupid pride of youth I wanted to conceal after the war out of the recurrent sense of shame… I will have to live with this for the rest of my life.” And he did. It was the first thing mentioned in The New York Times obituary, much to the annoyance of his dedicated followers. For a man The Wall Street Journal described as “a vivid and controversial chronicler of German guilt,” at age 79 Grass finally peeled back the onion skin that surrounded his life. While some called him a hypocrite, others felt that the action of a 16-year-old in no way tarnished his long career as a writer about German guilt and efforts to bury and conceal the past. His biography was, in many ways, the biography of an entire generation.
While I was appalled but not surprised to learn of his wartime record—there had been hints for years—it in no way tarnished my view of him as a literary master craftsman. His books and articles impacted me in ways unimaginable when I first read The Tin Drum in the early 1960s. I credit Gȕnter Grass for helping shape my world as a practitioner of German history, as well as my work as a writer, especially my last major book, The German Table: The Education of a Nation. It tells the story of how my generation in Germany tried to avoid the past while their elders attempted to bury it under the stainless steel buildings that dot the landscape of the new Germany. The past always resurfaced and we can credit Grass for helping force the Germans to deal with it. He once wrote of Germany: “The history of my people is like a clogged toilet; no matter how hard you flush, the waste keeps coming.”
After the war, he trained as a sculptor and joined Gruppe 47, a group of postwar German intellectuals. He never lost his interest in the plastic arts or abandoned the habit of writing at his stand-up desks, which were the centerpieces in his several studies in Portugal, Berlin, and late in life, Schleswig-Holstein. Once the initial draft of a manuscript was completed in longhand, he sat down and typed it out on one of his many electric typewriters. Pecking away on a blank sheet of paper taught him patience and if you typed with the window open, he wrote, “at least people know you are still alive.” The pecking away has ended but not his influence on literature.
The recurrent theme in each of his books is the complicity of the Germans in the Third Reich and Germany’s complacency in the postwar world. Grass held a position in German society many aspired to but few gained, a public intellectual who believed that a person with his status had the obligation to speak out on the major issues of his time, the ebb and flow of politics and social issues. In his later years he wrote a poem about Israel and what he perceived as its aggressiveness. He had hoped to write this long ago, but feared being called an anti-Semite, a very delicate issue for the Germans. The fighting spirit of his youth lasted to the end of his days, and for many he was a thorn in the saddle of the nation. When Germany was reunified in October 1990, he was against it, calling it the Second Anschluss, a reference to the first when Hitler annexed Austria.
As can be imagined, he had his share of detractors, which apparently he loved, whetting his appetite for controversy. Such was the price of a lifetime of work and dealing with issues most Germans wanted to avoid in the 1950s and 1960s. As Germany’s leading public intellectual and greatest living writer in the last 30 years, his huge collection of writings was read not only in Germany but overseas as well. It would not be an exaggeration to write that he achieved almost god-like status among his followers, which was confirmed when the Nobel Committee awarded him the Prize for Literature in 1999. He joined two other Germans who received the literary prize since the war: Hermann Hesse (1946) and Heinrich Bȍll (1972). These awards did much to restore Germany’s literary reputation that was destroyed by the Nazis and sent many of the country’s leading writers into exile or worse.
Most of Grass’s major books cannot be read in a few days, especially in German. He was a literary cobbler and it was often hard to follow his army of characters. In the fabric of each page is woven the history of Germany’s conflicted past. Grass never asked “what if.” He dealt with what was. His books have a special place in my study. After The German Table was published, I sent him a copy with a polite thank you for addressing those issues that have been the central constellations of my intellectual and professional life. A reply never arrived. Grass was a very busy man to the end, giving his last interview to a Spanish newspaper. In it he expressed his fear that all of the latest chaos could easily lead to a world war.
As he grew older, a younger generation of Germans viewed the war as ancient history and his wartime service did not seem so extraordinary. Younger Germans are mindful of the past but do not wish to be engulfed by it. Grass was appreciative of this and his later books dealt with contemporary issues, as was the case with Crabwalk and Novemberland.
The world has lost a great man and an outstanding author, a giant in the context of German literary life with his trademark Holmesian pipe, walrus moustache, and bi-focal always on the tip of his nose. Gȕnter Grass, R.I.P. You will be missed. Every time I peck away at my venerable old IBM Selectric I will think of you and your influence on this modest cobbler of words.
Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
American influence has long been pervasive in the Middle East and when problems emerged, Washington saw itself as the region’s fireman. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in the early 1990s, the U.S. led a coalition to drive him out in the First Gulf War. When Lebanon fell into chaos, U.S. marines landed and after Sept. 11, with an upsurge of Islamic Fundamentalism and fears that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan.
But now the U.S. is distancing itself from the seemingly intractable problems in the Middle East as part of a major foreign policy realignment. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, historian and Middle East specialist Max Boot called this sea change “The Obama Doctrine.”
There a striking parallel between what is transpiring today and what happened after World War II, when an exhausted and bankrupt Great Britain and France shifted their assets and pulled out of most of the Middle East. Great Britain literally pulled out of the Mandate of Palestine overnight and the new Jewish State of Israel was left to fend for itself.
With the Cold War heating up and the implementation of the Truman Doctrine, the United States moved into the region, filling the vacuum left by the exit of Great Britain and France. It inherited all the problems, including the protection of the nascent State of Israel. In the early 1950s, Washington found itself immersed in the region, not only out fear of Soviet expansion but also as the protector of oil rights held by Anglo-American corporations.
To be sure, the United States is hardly bankrupt but the Middle East has exhausted its well of patience. Washington has grown tired of the intractable problems, the sectarian violence, the internecine violence, and the revival of the Sunni-Sh’ia rift. After so many small and large wars in the region, the American public has grown weary of our involvement in the Middle East. The lives and treasure we have poured into the Middle East have yielded as little fruit as the Arab Spring.
In essence, this foreign policy realignment started the moment Mr. Obama took office. He was dismayed by Israel’s intransigence on the Palestine statehood question. Complicating matters was the abject failure of the Arab Spring (perhaps with the exception of Tunisia), the rise of Islamic radical fundamentalism, the civil war in Syria, the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the problems with Hamas in Gaza. The emergence of ISIS, with its stated desire to rebuild the Sunni Muslim Caliphate, has only complicated an extraordinary complex situation. At the advent of Mr. Obama’s presidency, there were more than 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; today, less than 3,000 special forces. In 2010, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan tripled but today there are less than 10,000 and the president has stated that all will be withdrawn by the end of his presidency.
Sensing all this, the Saudis, Jordanians, and Egyptians formed the Joint Arab Force, a military alliance to balance Iran’s growing regional influence. At its core is Egypt and it is no coincidence that Mr. Obama lifted an embargo on sending arms to Egypt.
A gradual withdraw by Washington does not mean it will abrogate its treaty obligations with the Sunni states and Israel. They will be honored and the U.S. Fleet will be used to implement its power if needed to ensure stability. But if the past is prologue—and it may not be in the unpredictable Middle East—Egypt and Iran will emerge as the major geopolitical players, a revival of the ancient balance of power between the Kingdom of Egypt and Persia.
By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
Since the Jewish State of Israel was founded just three years after the end of World War II and the near total extermination of European Jewry, it has enjoyed a special relationship with the United States. While there have been disagreements in the past, mainly over the creation of a Palestinian State on the West Bank of the Jordan River, nothing in recent memory comes close to the acrimony between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “Bibi” to friends and foes alike. They do not like each other for reasons that are the subject of gossip and speculation in the corridors of power in Washington, foreign capitals, and the cafes that dot the coastline of the small Jewish State. What appears to have begun as a political rift has become a chasm marked by an acidic relationship.
Mr. Obama is not the first president who has had his share of problems with Israeli leaders but somehow the others managed to overcome their differences and work together in an effort to bring peace to this benighted region of the world. Such was the case with Prime Minister Begin and President Carter, as well as President Clinton and Bibi. This is not the case now. While the differences can be attributed to demeanor, style and very different personalities, at the core of the open hostility are antipodal views in a very high stakes game of geopolitics and the inextricable issues of Tel-Aviv continuing to build Jewish settlements on the West Bank where the Palestinians hope to build their homeland. And, as the entire world now knows after Bibi delivered a 45-minute speech before a joint session of Congress, differences on how to deal with Tehran’s atomic and hegemonic ambitions.
From the moment Mr. Obama threw his hat in the ring and announced that he intended to run for president, every aspect of his personality, background, style, views, and demeanor have been the subject of endless analysis. Outside of Israel, this has not been the case with Bibi, who has led Israel through difficult times: the failed Arab Spring, the emergence of ISIS, the war with Gaza last summer, the failed talks with the Palestinians, and looming in the background, Iran with its atomic ambitions. He is up for re-election and odds are he will win, helped along by his reception in Washington, not by the State Department or the White House, but by the Republicans.
At home he is loved by many (they call him King Bibi) and disliked by others, but both sides agree that his only priority is the safety of his nation in what he calls “the world’s toughest neighborhood.” He is a man obsessed with national security and despite assurances from the Obama Administration, Bibi is unconvinced. At the end of his speech to Congress, he reminded the world that if need be, Israel would handle Iran on its own. Small wonder Mr. Obama did not watch the speech on TV and 50 Democrats boycotted the speech.
However affable in public, as the world witnessed when he entered the Congressional Chamber, he is a very tough military man and a seasoned politician, a man with a purpose. He is also a master politician, leading a nation of 6.2 million Jews or as the Israelis are fond of saying, 6.2 million prime ministers. He loves to schmooze, or chat, but as it is said in Yiddish, the very big man is sometimes a shtarker, a man with a strong-arm persona. He is a hard-nosed realist and a practitioner of Realpolitik, who has argued over and over again that Israel faces “an existential threat” from Iran, whose Mullahs have promised to remove what they call “the Jewish entity” from the face of the earth.
The speech before Congress was Bibi’s third; the only person to be so honored was his hero, Winston Churchill. House Speaker John Boehner, who invited Bibi to speak, gave him a bust of the United Kingdom’s wartime prime minister. In the 1930s, from the back bench of Parliament, the out-of-power Churchill warned against dealing with Hitler and believed that only timely action would stop his monomaniacal ambitions. Few listened for fear of another world war. At the Munich Conference in September 1938, Britain, Italy and France handed over the Sudentenland to Hitler. In March 1939, Hitler took the rest of the Czech state. To this day, the word appeasement has entered the lexicon of the greatest foreign policy mistakes. For Bibi, the current discussions with Iran are an updated version of appeasement with the naive hope that Iran will change its behavior. For him, the Mullahs are no different than the Nazis and have the same agenda, the destruction of the Jews. He sees Mr. Obama as a misguided idealist who believes that he can work with Tehran, not only on the nuclear issue but giving the green light for its elite troops to rout ISIS.
The fact that his English is flawless is no accident. He is the son of Ben-Zion Netanyahu (1910 – 2013), a historian who had several professorships in Philadelphia. The family lived in the Cheltenham Township near Philly from 1956 to 1958 and again from 1963 to 1967. To understand the father—Ben Zion literally means “Son of Zion”—is to understand the son. Ben-Zion was an ardent Zionist whose historical works dealt with the history of the Jewish people, anti-Semitism, and his magnum opus on the Spanish Inquisition, which evicted the Jews from Spain after 1492. His central thesis maintains it was not a matter of religion but race that set into motion the exodus of the Jews from Spain and for him was the start of racial anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust. Bibi drew many lessons from his father’s work and uncompromising Zionism.
He is the first Israeli prime minister to be born (1949) after the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. No different than many prime ministers before him, he cut his teeth in the military—first the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) in the Six Day War in 1967 and later in the Special Forces, or Sayeret Natkal. During the raid on Entebbe, he lost his brother, which marked him for life.
After he made his rounds in Washington and gave his well-publicized address to Congress, the 66-year-old Israeli prime minister boarded his El-Al flight for Tel-Aviv. He immediately was back on the campaign trail, using the address and the invitation as evidence of his standing in the world. But his problems with President Obama aside, it would be a gross error in judgment to conclude there is a major rupture in American-Israeli relations. While he is up for his fourth term, the President is a lame duck with just a year-and-a-half until the end of his eight-year presidency. Bibi will just wait him out and if a deal is cut with Tehran, clearly the Republicans will work to undermine it. As is written in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “this too will pass;” this dust-up between Washington and the small Jewish State.
Meanwhile, no different than Bill Clinton before him when Bibi was in office, Mr. Obama has to ask: “How is it possible for such a small state to appear so large in world affairs?”
Just ask Bibi, master politician and a real master at political theater.
By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
About a week after the deadly attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish Kosher grocery/deli in Paris, many world leaders arrived in France to show their support for a grief-stricken nation. Among them was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Bibi” told members of the city’s Jewish community that the doors of Israel are open for them and it was time “to come home.” Said one commentator: “A France without Jews would be unthinkable.”
It almost happened during the Nazi Occupation of France during World War II. Had the Allies not liberated France in the summer of 1944 and the war dragged on, there is no question that France may have been Judenfrei, like Poland. However, after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, several hundred thousand Jews from Arab countries arrived in France, following in the footsteps of the Jews who first arrived in Marseilles (Massilia in the ancient world) around 500 B.C.
Despite their success in nearly every field of human endeavor, France’s Jewish population is frightened. Anti-Semitism has been rising in France faster than any other European country. Two years ago, a rabbi and his children were gunned down in the south of France. The desecration of Jewish cemeteries and the walls of Jewish institutions is an everyday occurrence, and swastikas are routinely painted on temples, despite the presence of police guards. The Jews of France are living in a permanent state of angst.
Anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli sentiment runs deep in France’s Muslim community and it appears that the younger generation, often living in what we in the States call “projects,” are the most infected. Most are native-born, French citizens, as was the case with the three terrorists in the January attacks. Raised on an endless diet of anti-Zionism in the Arab media and on the web, Jew-hatred is part of their worldview. Their sympathies lie with the Palestinians and more broadly with anti-Western views. Yesterday, they supported Arafat; today, Isis and al-Qaeda, whose views on the Jews (“dogs”) are well known. Attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions are a way to express their radicalism, what specialists on this topic call “soft targets.”
Some of these views are shared by the hard right, the National Front, founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and today led by 46-year-old Marine Le Pen. She has distanced herself from the older Le Pen, who denies the Holocaust, dismissing it as a myth created by the Zionists whose aim is to control world events. After the attacks in Paris, Jean-Marie Le Pen offered his read on the attack on the magazine and the Jewish deli: the terrorists were hired by Washington and Tel-Aviv, an allegation heard after 9/11.
While the Jews feel unsafe, the Muslims are just as fearful and have more to fear as a backlash of Islamophobia is sweeping France, Belgium, and Germany. This, in turn, will most certainly cause the coalescence of Muslim communities, which in turn may push back with cries of racism which is extant in France, despite the denials. Street protests will be common, calling for more protection. After all, if the government is protecting the Jews, why not the Muslims? But for others, the solution to their problems is more domestic terrorism, and both the government and the Jews rightfully fear they will be the targets.
It is unlikely that many Jews will heed “Bibi’s” call, and while the rising tide of Islamophobia may cause some Muslims to pack up and leave, it will barely make a dent in the number of Muslims who live in France, about 10 percent of the population.
But there’s no question that France is on the edge, and as much as France without Jews is unthinkable, France without Muslims in the contemporary world is equally unthinkable.
By Dr. Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera, president
The Imitation Game, based on the real-life story of Alan Turing and his team of code-breakers at England’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School in World War II, garnered eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Benedict Cumberbatch.
Turing built a digital computer that broke Nazi Germany’s most closely guarded encryption code, the Enigma code. That story was superbly told in The Imitation Game, which ended with the filmmakers’ revelation that Turing committed suicide in 1954. An open-minded gay man, Turing was a victim of the discriminatory laws of the day.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that “Turing’s work was one of the most important factors in the victory for the Allied forces and had probably shortened the war by as much as two years.” In 1945 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his services to his country and in 1951, Turing was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society.
However, we knew nothing about this war hero and mathematical and engineering genius until the 1970s, and not until 2012, 100 years after his birth, were his wartime papers declassified. What is now known is that Turing’s brilliant work proved essential to the development of computers and today’s machines rely on his seminal insight. He brought cryptology to the modern world and invented the concept of the programmable computer.
In 1936, while reading mathematics in Cambridge, England, the 24-year-old Turing made an extraordinary discovery: a universal “computing” machine. Turing called this theoretical entity the “automatic machine,” or a-machine; today we call it the Universal Turing Machine. Turing proved that the a-machine could solve any computing problem capable of being described as a sequence of mathematical steps. In 1938 he completed his Ph.D. thesis at Princeton, providing a formalization of the concepts of “algorithms” and “computation.” More importantly, he proved the notion that “software,” a word not coined yet, was capable of encompassing “every known process” as evidenced by today’s world of computers.
Turing’s interest in the human mind, even from 1936, centered on modeling the brain; in the 1940s he developed ideas for artificial intelligence (a term attributed to John McCarthy from the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-1950s). In the early 1950s Turing founded a completely new field: mathematical biology (today’s computational biology, without which we would not have been able to decipher the human genome). In 1952, he developed a chess program for a computer that did not yet exist but which he simulated by hand. It was his fascination with the human brain that led him to develop a test for machine-based intelligence; he called it the imitation game, published in his extraordinary paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” It is now known as the famous Turing Test.
The hardware does not look the same, but the mathematical model of today’s computers is identical to the Turing machine. Proving again that he was way ahead of his time, Turing showed indirectly that we cannot automatically detect machine viruses or other malicious code, which explains why cyber-security is one of the most intractable problems of the 21st century.
The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) A.M. Turing Award is an annual prize that honors an individual “for contributions of a technical nature made to the computing community.” It is generally recognized as the highest distinction in computer science, the “Nobel Prize in Computing,” now carrying a $1 million prize.
This is a fitting tribute to Turing, who was grossly misunderstood during his lifetime, but today is remembered as a true science and engineering pioneer, and a hero of the theory and practice of computer science.
And while The Imitation Game did a superb job of chronicling Turing’s heroic work during World War II, the film told just a portion of his story. As I left the theater I couldn’t help but wonder how much further ahead computing would be today if Turing had lived longer.