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A Tribute from One “Literary Cobbler” to Another

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

Dr. Sander Diamond

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.

The Obama Doctrine

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.

Worth Her Weight in Gold

Brittany Heysler believes in accountability.

Brittany at the Ontario County Safety Training headquarters.

The criminology and criminal justice major just completed an extensive project to help Ontario County’s STOP-DWI office research and document a list of unpaid DWI fines dating back to 1986. It turns out nearly a quarter million dollars is owed to the county by some 156 individuals convicted of DWI charges.

On Oct. 31, each defendant was sent a certified letter to their last known address – carefully researched by Heysler. But to ensure no stone went unturned, the full list of delinquent fines, with names, year of conviction and case numbers, was published by the Daily Messenger newspaper in Canandaigua a week later. WHEC-Channel 8 in Rochester also broadcast the launch of “Operation Personal Responsibility,” highlighting Heysler’s work. Those with delinquent fines have 60 days to pay in full or arrange a payment plan with the STOP-DWI office before court action begins to collect what they owe.

STOP-DWI Administrator Sue Cirencione said her office has already collected $8,000 of the total $238,533 unpaid in the first week of the public phase. Cirencione, a Keuka College Class of ‘96 graduate herself, took the helm of the STOP-DWI office in May after 10 years as a probation officer for Ontario County. She said coming in, she knew recovering unpaid fines was a significant need, given fines fund the program budget. Such a time-intensive project would probably take Cirencione alone a year or more, given the many responsibilities of her new post, she said.

Instead, Cirencione knew it would be the perfect project for an intern. Enter Heysler.

As a senior criminology and criminal justice major, Heysler is required to complete a full-semester internship of 490 hours. She already boasted three previous internships at the Sherrill, N.Y. police department in her hometown; the Oneida Tribal Indian Nation police near Canastota; and with the U.S. Marshals office in Syracuse. That’s because the Keuka College Field Period™ program requires every undergraduate to devote at least 140 hours a year to a hands-on internship, cultural study, artistic endeavor or spiritual exploration.

“When I met Brittany, I knew right away she’d be great and she’d be able to tackle this,” said Cirencione.

Eager to “take charge of a project of my own and make a difference for the county,” Heysler said she began digging through the data, spending Aug. 25 – Oct. 29 building and refining the list. She removed the names of those who had passed away, any youthful offenders, and any who had made even sporadic payments. She also ran checks on all 156 names to see if they had a valid license or any other judgment filed against them. Ultimately, the list of delinquent fines represents those who never made an effort to pay what they owed. (more…)

Understanding Vladimir Putin

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

To understand why he took the action he did in the Ukraine, one needs to understand this about Russian President Vladimir Putin: loyalty to Mother Russia and to him is non-negotiable.

Putin was born in Leningrad in 1952, 10 years after the imperial city created by Peter the Great was surrounded and nearly starved to death by the Germans. Both of his parents served in the Red Army and a brother died of starvation. Putin passed his formative years in a Russia still recovering from a war that cost the nation over 20 million people. He holds an advanced degree in international law and worked for the KGB, first stationed in Dresden (East Germany) and later in Leningrad. Putin is a Russian nationalist to his core and to put it delicately, shares the same authoritarian tendencies of those who ran Imperial Russia. A new Stalin, he is not. He is a slick politician who emerged from his position in Leningrad to the post of president.

Aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, his first aim was to rebuild Russia’s lost sense of pride and self-confidence. At the Winter Olympics, held in a city rebuilt on the Black Sea, Putin paraded before his people and the world those who projected Russian power and culture, from Peter the Great to composers and writers. The outfits worn by the Russian athletes featured the symbol of Tsarist Russia on their jackets.

Putin believes the collapse of Russia was avoidable and he harbors a deep bitterness against those responsible. On Oct. 3, 1990, the two Germanys were reunited, Moscow withdrew its forces from Eastern Europe, and the once mighty Soviet Empire started to implode. This was accelerated by the actions and indecision of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. For reasons that are still unclear, in December 1991 the process of breaking up the empire started. An agreement was signed that stated that after Jan. 1, 1992, the USSR would no longer exist and each of the former Soviet Republics emerged as separate nations.

One of those nations, the Ukraine, remained in the Russian orbit but over the past decade, nationalists and liberal-minded politicians started to look West, hoping to reorient the nation as part of the European Union (EU). Ukrainians argued that their economy was in a freefall due to corruption and cronyism. With a GDP of only $293 billion and a per capita income of just over $6,000, they looked to the prosperity in Poland and the Baltic States as success stories and concluded that if the Ukraine was to be successful, it had to detach its economic ties with Russia and connect with the EU. While the pro-Russian president Victor Yanokovych was in control, hopes of moving in the direction of Europe were dashed. However, in late February of this year, he was ousted from office and an interim government was installed.

The prospect of the Ukraine being part of the EU and possibly NATO is unacceptable to Putin.  When it was clear to Moscow that the aim of the effort to overthrow Ukraine’s president was to move the nation into the EU, Putin took steps to keep the country in the Russian orbit.

Talk of Putin rebuilding the defunct empire may be exaggerated as well as claims that a new Cold War is on the immediate horizon. However, to suggest that Russia in no longer a major power is wrong. Yes, its GDP of $2.4 trillion is far less than that of the United States ($16 trillion). However, Russia’s economic power was never measured in the production and consumption of consumer goods, rather in natural resources and military clout.

It has plenty of both.

The US and Iran: Appeasement or Good Sense?

By Dr. Sander Diamond, professor of history

When al-Assid used poison gas against his people in Syria, President Obama threatened to remove the stockpiles by force. Instead, he opted for diplomacy. al-Assid “promised” to permit the removal of the gas stockpiles from his territory, which most observers believe was unworkable in the middle of a violent civil war. It was here that Washington, Moscow, and Tehran found common ground. The last thing any of them wanted was for poison gas to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda, which is freely operating in Syria. The upshot of these back door talks was the opening of a portal for further talks.

This coincided with the end of the presidential term of Iran’s belligerent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who many Iranians viewed as an embarrassment. He was replaced by Hassan Rouhani, who the West viewed as ‘moderate’ within the context of Iranian life. His international debut came at the United Nations, and rather than a tirade of Holocaust denials, calls for the destruction of Israel, and strident anti-Americanism, his remarks suggested that Tehran may be open to talks with Washington.

From Iran’s vantage point, they saw in Obama a president who may give diplomacy a chance, as well as a slight cooling in Washington’s relationship with Tel-Aviv. From Obama’s point of view, the time had arrived to test the waters with Iran after 34 years of isolation.

In November, Secretary of State Kerry and representatives of our Western allies met with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva. A six-month agreement was cobbled together:  in exchange for Iran applying some braking power on the production of fissionable material in its far-flung facilities and re-opening these sites to outside inspectors, some of the most pressing sanctions will be lifted and Tehran will gain access to some of its frozen cash assets.

For those who applauded the agreement, it represented a major diplomatic success which transcends the details. President Obama expressed the hope that diplomacy could help turn the tide in the turbulent Middle East

Elsewhere, the Geneva Accord was greeted with anger and bitterness. The Israelis and Saudis saw the Accord as a concession to Iran that will tilt the balance of power in its favor. Both believe that Obama cannot be trusted and that his actions are not borne out of a lack of experience but a concerted effort to redirect U.S. foreign policy. Many in Obama’s party were also dismayed, as were members of the Republican Party. They were in complete agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, who said that now Iran “is a turn of a screwdriver away” from having WMDs.

For those with long memories, the Geneva Accord could not have been more poorly timed. September 2013 marked the 75th anniversary of the Munich Agreement, which added the word “appeasement” to the lexicon of diplomatic mistakes.  For Iran’s most strident detractors, those who call the shots in Tehran are the sons of Hitler who will in time strike Israel and expand their theocratic vision to the entire Middle East. Obama and some in the West see it differently.  They are well aware that the Supreme Leader calls the shots, but working with President Rouhani may lead to internal changes inside Iran and it is time to give diplomacy a chance. And testing the waters for six months hardly rises to the level of appeasement.

The Geneva Accord may come to little in six months. If the chatter out of Tehran can be believed, the Supreme Leader is not happy with the direction the new president has taken. And if Israeli intelligence is accurate, Iran will have atomic weapons by spring. Once again, the shifting sands of the Middle East are at work and talk of war is in the air. Obama knows that a massive strike against Iran by either the U.S. or Israel will trigger a major regional war. He believes that diplomacy can arrest a march toward war. As we prepare to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, we can only hope he is right.