WHAT YEAR IS IT?

A country with an autocratic government led by an aggressive leader has brutally attacked its neighbor without provocation. It has occupied a large chunk of its neighbor’s territory and is threatening further military action. Another country has been increasing its military capabilities in defiance of the world powers. Innocent civilians are being slaughtered because of their religion. The world is largely in denial. Its response has been weak and ineffectual. The American people, war-weary and in the midst of battling their own economic problems, are ignoring these events hoping that they will somehow miraculously solve themselves without American involvement.

What year am I describing? 2015, you say? Russia? Iran? Islamic terrorism? Wrong. I am describing 1938.

Japan had been at war with China since the early 1930’s and had slaughtered millions of Chinese civilians in actions that were nothing short of genocide. Germany was arming itself to the teeth in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles it had signed at the conclusion of WWI. In addition, Germany had annexed Austria and was soon to annex the Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia) and attack Poland. Finally, Germany had begun its wanton and insane persecution of Jews.

The world had been engaged in appeasement, hoping that if they “allowed” Japan and Germany to seize a little bit of territory they would be satisfied. Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain, had just returned from the Munich conference with France, Germany and Italy, which had been convened to discuss the future of the Sudetenland. In return for not opposing Hitler’s occupation of the Sudetenland, he had supposedly promised not to go to war with Britain and France. Chamberlain was shown disembarking from his plane proudly waiving the non-aggression pact treaty in the air. The world exhaled, believing it had secured “peace in our time.”

Well, we all know how that worked out. Rather than taking decisive action against Japan and Germany while they were relatively weak and could have been defeated relatively easily, the world sat back and hoped for the best. The world stood by while Japan and Germany’s power and influence metastasized. America held back until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (the 20th century version of 9/11) dragged us in. Eventually, it took a six-year long world war and 60 million deaths on both sides to defeat them.

CONCLUSION

No one is saying that we should attack Russia militarily over the Ukraine, but I believe economic and currency sanctions would be effective. Russia’s economy and currency are weak and vulnerable. Also, our government should commence dealing with them more forcefully, in general, than it has been. Had we done so, perhaps, Putin would not have been emboldened to invade the Ukraine in the first place.

Similarly, no one is suggesting we invade Iran. Economic sanctions were having an effect and should be re-imposed. Does anyone seriously believe they are not stalling the negotiations while continuing to develop a nuclear capability and delivery system, and that they will adhere to any agreement they may sign? If you do, I have a bridge to sell you. One cannot overestimate the danger to our national security and the stability of the Middle East of Iran’s achieving nuclear capability.

Regarding Islamic terrorism, we need to explore all options, including “boots on the ground.” I am not advocating just American “boots” nor “nation building.” That has not been successful. But, we need to exhibit more forceful leadership in assembling a bona-fide international response, military or otherwise. Islamic terrorists must be hunted down and destroyed. They have been beheading and burning innocent civilians, including Americans, and posting it on the internet for all to see! They have been raping and enslaving 10-year-old girls! This is not the Vietcong hiding in the jungle. We know where they are. They are out in the open mocking us, defying us to take action. Let’s accommodate them. Get in, do the job, and get out. The world stood by in the 1930s and 1940s. Let’s not make the same mistake again.

Remember the famous line from the late 19th century and early 20th century American philosopher, George Santayana, who said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Let’s remember and learn from the past and NOT repeat it.

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MY GRANDFATHER WOULD HAVE SHOT ME

Many families have a “skeleton in their closet.” Perhaps, there was a ne’er do well grandparent or an ex-con in the family tree. These would be embarrassing situations that you wouldn’t want publicized, but their ramifications on your life would not be significant, particularly if they occurred before you were even born. Well, there are skeletons, and then there are SKELETONS! Imagine that you found out, quite by accident, that your grandfather was a Nazi during WWII, and not just any Nazi, but one of the most notorious concentration camp Commandants, the so-called “Butcher of Plaszow,” Amon Goeth. Such is the skeleton facing Jennifer Teege.

Teege is a biracial German-Nigerian woman who has lived most of her life in Germany. Her biological mother was German, and her biological father was Nigerian. When she was only a few weeks old she was left at a children’s home. Subsequently, she was placed in foster care. She spent her childhood with various foster families. She only saw her biological mother occasionally. She was closer to her maternal grandmother. By all accounts, she had a normal middle class upbringing.

Teege spent several years in Israel as a student where, among other things, she earned a college degree at Tel Aviv University and became fluent in Hebrew. During this time she developed an affinity for Israel and the Jewish people. Subsequently, she returned home to Germany, married and raised a family. All this time she had no clue as to her family’s deep, dark secret.

She discovered it by accident. Apparently, she happened upon a book about Goeth in her local library. The author was his illegitimate daughter. Teege noticed that the author bore a striking resemblance to her own mother. It was shocking to her as she realized the implications. “It was like the carpet was ripped out beneath my feet” she stated. She felt compelled to read the entire book, and she realized a startling truth. Goeth was, in fact, her grandfather. Moreover, since she was biracial, her own grandfather would have had her shot on the spot!

Goeth was notorious. He personally supervised the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Any survivors were placed in his camp or in Auschwitz. His special perverse pleasure was to shoot Jewish camp inmates for arbitrary reasons, such as perceived laziness, failed escape attempts by others, or for just plain sport, and then have his dogs attack them. Goeth was hanged for war crimes in 1946.

Briefly, the family history is as follows:

1. Teege’s maternal grandmother, Ruth Irene Kalder, was a secretary in Oskar Schlindler’s factory. It was Schlindler, himself, who first introduced her to Goeth.
2. Goeth’s wife was back home in Austria.
3. Goeth and Kalder had an affair, which produced Teege’s mother, Monika Hertwig.
4. Later, Hertwig had a brief fling with a Nigerian student, which produced Teege.
5. It was Hertwig’s book entitled “I Have to Love my Father, Right?” that set Teege on her quest for the truth about her family’s skeleton.

CONCLUSION

As stated above, Teege said she had been shocked to learn of her ancestry. Heinous as that was, however, she said the hardest thing for her to grasp was how her grandmother could love a man as cruel as Goeth. In addition, she said she had difficulty reconciling this situation with her love of Israel and the Jewish people.

At some point, she decided to write about her family’s history. She has said that one of the primary motivations for doing so was reading an interview of Herman Goering’s grandniece, who said she was so ashamed of her infamous ancestor that she had herself sterilized to “end her bloodline.”

Teege is not about to do anything so drastic. She prefers to look at the bright side. Who you are as a person, she opines, is not determined by some black sheep ancestor; your character is decided by you.

Teege has written a book about this situation entitled “My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me.” So far, it has only been published in Hebrew, but an English version is set for April. It should make for fascinating reading.

LINCOLN – THEN AND NOW

Students of history know that the prevailing opinions of Presidents tend to change over time. Often, a particular President is controversial or even unpopular during his tenure, but with the perspective of history his actions and accomplishments grow in stature and appreciation. Such has been the case with President Abraham Lincoln. As we celebrate Lincoln’s birthday this week I thought it appropriate to offer my “two cents” on his legacy as President.

During his time as President, Lincoln was very controversial. In fact, his very election to his first term in 1860 was controversial. He ran as a moderate from a “swing” state, Illinois, as the first nominee of the new Republican Party. He swept the northern and western states, but he had little support in the South. In fact, he won zero electoral votes in the South. Historically, such extreme regional disparity has been highly unusual, if not unique. Furthermore, in a multi-candidate race he garnered less than 50% of the popular vote, although he did win the electoral vote decisively (180 compared to his rivals’ combined total of 123). Ironically, two of his defeated rivals were William Seward and Salomon Chase, whom, in a show of solidarity, Lincoln later appointed to his Cabinet as Secretaries of State and Treasury, respectively.

Additionally, Lincoln’s election was the “last straw” for the pro-slavery southern states. The slavery issue had been brewing since before the American Revolution. Its resolution had been delayed time and again through various compromises, such as the famous “Missouri Compromise” of 1820. (In order to maintain the balance of power in the Congress the Missouri Compromise was an agreement to admit Missouri as a “slave” state and Maine as a “free” state.) This “can” had been kicked down the road for nearly 100 years. It was the proverbial 500 pound gorilla in the room. Southerners were convinced that Lincoln meant to end slavery. Thus, after threatening to secede from the union for several years, one by one, the pro-slavery states did so before Lincoln even took office, beginning with South Carolina in December 1860. Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, James Buchanan, one of the worst Presidents in US history, had been unable or unwilling to deal with the issue effectively, leaving the mess for Lincoln. Ironically, Lincoln viewed his primary objective as preserving the union at all costs, not necessarily ending slavery.

The Civil War began in April 1861. At first, the war did not go well for the North. The rebels, with more competent leadership, particularly General Robert E. Lee, were more than holding their own. By contrast, the northern generals, such as Winfield Scott, George Meade and George McClellan were overconfident and/or ineffective. Many northerners became dissatisfied with the war. Many in the North had expected a quick and easy victory. Anti-war sentiment took hold. A “Peace Wing” arose in the Democratic Party and gained some traction as the election of 1864 approached. As President, much of this criticism was focused on Lincoln. There was even some doubt that he would win re-election. He did, but the longer the war dragged on the more unpopular it and Lincoln became. Finally, Lincoln found a general, Ulysses S. Grant, who could and would fight effectively. With better leadership and superior resources and manpower the North was able to wear down the South and win the war. Despite Lincoln’s unpopularity at the time many historians, such as Princeton University’s Fred Greenstein, a noted scholar and author on the Presidency, praise him for acting decisively and wisely eventually. In any event, at the time of his assassination Lincoln was a very controversial, if not unpopular, figure.

Lincoln’s stature and reputation have grown considerably over the years. Currently, most surveys by presidential scholars and historians that rank presidents place him in the top three along with George Washington and FDR. Consider:

1. His assassination made him a martyr in the eyes of some people, especially among southern blacks and northern abolitionists. Some historians maintain that his assassination and the aftermath had as profound an effect on US history as any other event in our history.
2. Over the years, he has become a symbol for nationalism, freedom and courage, particularly in times of turmoil, such as WWI, WWII, the Great Depression and the Cold War.
3. He has been memorialized on Mount Rushmore and by the Lincoln Memorial.
4. He has become a pop culture icon. Hollywood has always portrayed him in a very favorable light in movies. The “New Yorker” has denoted that his likeness has been used in marketing and advertising “for almost as long as he has been dead.” His likeness has appeared in TV commercials.
5. In the days immediately preceding America’s entry into WWII FDR referenced his words and deeds in speeches to inspire the American people.
6. His likeness is on US currency, such as the penny and the five dollar bill.
7. In general, he is revered as a common man of humble origins who rose to the highest office in the land and preserved the union.

CONCLUSION

Some fun facts about Lincoln:

1. He was one of 11 presidents who did not graduate from college. He had less than two years of formal schooling of any kind and no law degree.
2. He actually argued a case before the Supreme Court (and lost).
3. He was the first president to have been born outside of the original thirteen colonies (Kentucky).
4. He was the only president to have a patent (for a device that freed steamboats that had run aground).
5. In his youth he was a wrestler.
6. He was a suffragette as early as the 1830s, well before it became a popular issue.
7. As a youngster, his life was saved on two separate occasions.
8. He was photographed with John Wilkes Booth at his second inauguration.
9. In 1863 he designated the final Thursday in November as a day of “giving thanks.”

As an aside, personally, I agree with the prevailing opinion of most historians and presidential scholars that the top three presidents were Washington, Lincoln and FDR, although one can debate the order. I place Jefferson, T. Roosevelt and Truman in the next group.

What is your opinion? I would welcome your comments and opinion.