The Last Hero

Russian Veteran (James Hill)

The Last Hero, Gorky Park, Moscow, May 9, 2007. Credit: James Hill.

The Atlantic adapted Hill’s account of this shot (and others) from his new book, Somewhere Between War and Peace, which chronicles the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer’s work across the world.

Of the hundreds of Russian World War II veterans I have photographed, Yuri Stepanovich Zaguskin remains for me the most charming.

Members of the public traditionally give flowers to the veterans, in gratitude for their valor and sacrifice, and Zaguskin, resplendent in his naval officer’s uniform, had already collected a sizable bouquet by the time he entered the park. I asked him to stand in front of the white backdrop I had set up, and since I needed a minute to change my film, he asked if there was time for a smoke.

When I had reloaded the camera, he was still puffing away. I took just one frame before he noticed that I was pointing the camera at him, whereupon he stubbed out the cigarette and returned his attention to the shoot. I finished the whole film, but that first image, in which he was looking off, lost in his thoughts, was far richer than the others. It was not a naval officer in front of me but an old matinée idol, caught unawares on the set.

I cannot get enough of how much personality there is in this photo. I wager that this man has no doubt lived an interesting life, even beyond his highly decorated service during history’s largest conflict.

Poppy Field

My thoughts and reflections related to Veterans Day, and on war in general, have not changed much since the last time I shared them. This year’s post will not be any less somber, however: as the one hundredth anniversary of the end of history’s first (but sadly not last) “Great War”, the commemorations are especially solemn and reflective.

To mark this grim centenary of the First World War, an independent project called Poppy Field was launched to visualize just how devastating this conflict was — a reminder we sadly never need enough of, given how many other horrific conflicts have transpired since the “war to end all wars”.

Using the opportunity to highlight the brutality and tragedy of war as a whole, the project moves beyond WWI to show every conflict that has every occurred in the 20th century onward, from the lesser-known civil conflicts of Colombia and the Philippines, to the present strife in Syria, Ukraine, and the Central African Republic (notice how most of these wars tend to occur within states rather than between them).

The infographic is as beautiful as it is informative, creatively displaying the length, fatality, and location of each recorded war through the use of stylized poppies (the flower became a symbol of commemoration because it was among the first plants to emerge from Europe’s devastated battlefields after WWI, with its blood-red color and resilient yet delicate nature evoking war).

screenshot-poppyfield.org 2014-11-11 13-00-35

There are several patterns to note here. As mentioned before, most wars have become “internal” in nature — usually fought between governments and rebels, among different ethnic or religious groups, or between breakaway regions and a central power; tellingly, these types of conflicts are especially common in post-colonial Africa and Asia, a legacy of ancient grievances combined with the arbitrary borders that ignored such histories and diversities imposed by European powers.

It also seems that wars have become more frequent since the mid-20th century, although comparatively less deadly than the two great wars that dominated the earlier half (and that for most people serve as a common point of comparison, despite their anomalous nature in terms of scale). Modern wars also appear to last much longer, often drawing out into what are known as “low intensity” or “fourth-generation ” conflicts, in which the lines are blurred between civilians and combatants, and fighting is conducted in such a scope as to become normalized.

In any case, war’s every changing nature in terms of tactics and characteristics does little to change the awful human cost. Looking at these beautiful poppies and the data attached to each of them, it is easy to forget that they represents millions of full, individual lives snuffed out just this past 114 years alone. Especially from this physical and psychological distance.

The Haunting Paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński

This Halloween, I want to highlight the creepy and captivating works of Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor Zdzisław Beksiński (24 February 1929 – 21 February 2005). Describing his style as ‘Baroque’ or ‘Gothic’, the first and most well-known period of his work — from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s — consisted largely of surreal, post-apocalyptic environments and/or very detailed scenes of death, decay, and deformity.

Beksiński stated, “I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams”, and was known for his meticulous attention to detail. He claimed music, namely the classical genre, was his main source of inspiration, and that he was not influenced by literature, film, or other artists.

Despite the grimness of his work, he saw them as humorous and even optimistic, though he also noted that even he did not know their meaning. In fact, he was uninterested in possible interpretations and subsequently refused to provide titles for any of his drawings or paintings, going so far to often avoid the openings of his own exhibitions.

Although shy and low-key, Beksiński was known to be a pleasant and gregarious person with a great sense of humor and keen love of conversation.

An Ottoman Map of North America

As long-time readers know, I love maps, especially the vintage kind. There is something aesthetically pleasing about them, especially when the reflect an interesting snapshot of what their makers (and thus society at large) knew about the world at the time.

Courtesy of Slate is an interesting map that shows our part of the world from a perspective that is rarely given much acknowledgement: the once mighty Ottoman Empire, formerly at the center of global affairs, with dominance over major swathes of three continents.

'The Country of the English People' ('İngliz Cumhurunun Ülkesi'), an 1803 map of the U.S. by the Ottoman Empire. Various Native American tribes are also identified

“The Country of the English People” (‘İngliz Cumhurunun Ülkesi’), which depicts the United States in 1803. Neighboring Native American nations and tribes are also identified. Click to view a large, zoomable version.

As the Slate article points out, the Arabic-inspired script used for Turkish at the time works particularly well on maps, because it allows cartographers to label wide regions by elongating the lines connecting individual letters. I can definitely concur, especially given the artistry and aesthetic beauty of Arabic and Islamic calligraphy.

At the time this map was drawn, the Ottoman Empire was already well on its way to becoming the “sick man of Europe“, shrinking precipitously in territory and influence since its peak during the late 16th century. It was declining just as the U.S. was beginning to rise, though the Eternal State would endure for over another century before expiring after six centuries of existence.

Slate offers some more interesting historical background:

This appears to be the first Ottoman map of the United States, but Ottoman maps of North America have a much longer history. The first were the 16th-century nautical charts of the famous Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis. Some of the last, drawn before the new Turkish Republic switched to Latin script in 1928, show air routes spanning the continental U.S.

American relations with the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century were either commercial or missionary. American missionaries to the empire first tried to win Christian converts. But after meeting with little success, they turned to creating schools to spread the much more popular American gospel of English fluency and engineering excellence.

At times, the mercantile and missionary impulses came into conflict, such as when Greek Christians rebelled against the Ottoman sultan. Many Americans felt their government had a moral duty to stand with co-religionists against a Muslim despot. The U.S. government, however, felt a more pressing duty to stand with its merchants and sea captains, who’d been doing brisk business with the sultan. Supposedly, it was in recognition of U.S. support of the establishment that the empire later sided with the Union during America’s own civil war.

In addition to its scholarly significance, for sheer aesthetic reasons, I would love to have a map like this my room or study.

World’s Biggest Economies — GPD Per Capita

In a previous post, we looked at the world’s largest economies during the past 2,000 years. To recap, China and India both overwhelmingly dominated the global economy for much of this period, being superseded only 100 years ago (only to begin rising once more at the turn of the 21st century).

This time around, we will see the world’s top three richest economies during the same period, but based on GDP per capita (e.g. adjusted by population). As before, The Economist is the source, and the results are pretty interesting.

Since I am busy today, I will not have the time to weigh in on these results as before — I will leave that to you all!

Cantino Planisphere

Another featured photo from Wikipedia: the Cantino planisphere, a map completed by an unknown Portuguese cartographer in 1502, during the European Age of Discovery. It depicts the world as it became known to the Europeans after voyages to the Americas, Africa, and India.

It is considered one of the most valuable cartographic documents of all time, displaying a remarkable degree of accuracy for its period, and being the oldest surviving map to show Europe’s early geographic discoveries. It provides us with unique historical information about the way maritime exploration was conducted and how nautical cartography evolved.

It is now kept in the Biblioteca Universitaria Estense, Modena, Italy.

Forgotten Hero: Henning von Tresckow

The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus [a source of misfortune from which there is no escape]. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.

Last words of Henning von Tresckow, a Generalmajor in the German Wehrmacht who organized German resistance against Adolf Hitler, most famously the Valkyrie plan to overthrow the Nazis (known as the July 20 Plot).

Born into a Prussian noble family with 300 years of military tradition, he was the youngest lieutenant in the German Army during the First World War, earning the nation’s highest military honor — the Iron Cross — for outstanding courage and independent action against the enemy.

The young Tresckow (Wikimedia Commons).

A worldly man well versed in poetry, foreign languages, economics, and law, Tresckow nonetheless remained a career soldier, rising to the General Staff after graduating best in his class in 1936. He opposed many of Hitler’s military and foreign policies, such as the Anschluss with Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, even predicting that Germany would fall from an overly aggressive foreign policy.

Although once an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism due to its opposition to the harsh Treaty of Versailles, he became quickly disillusioned following the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when the nascent SS murdered numerous political opponents and rivals. He regarded the infamous Kristallnacht, the state-sanctioned pogrom against Jews, as personal humiliation and degradation of civilization. He immediately sought out civilians and officers who opposed Hitler, proclaiming to a loved one that “both duty and honor demand from us that we should do our best to bring about the downfall of Hitler and National Socialism to save Germany and Europe from barbarism”.

During the campaign against the Soviet Union, he became further appalled by Nazi brutality, including the treatment of Russian prisoners of war and the mass shootings of Jewish women and children. When he learned about the massacre of thousands of Jews at Borisov, Tresckow appealed passionately to a fellow officer: “Never may such a thing happen again! And so we must act now.”

Thus, as the chief operations officer of Army Group Center, he took great risk to seek out other officers who shared his views and place them in key positions to build up a strong base for internal resistance. He tried to persuade other high-ranking officers to join his conspiracy, to little avail (notably, all those he did manage to recruit cited the massacre of Jews and others as the catalyst for their opposition to Hitler and the Nazis).

Ultimately, he teamed up with several dozen fellow resisters — chief among them Ludwig Beck, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Colonel Hans Oster, General Friedrich Olbricht, and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg — and devised the Valkyrie plan to kill Hitler, seize control of the government from the Nazis, and make peace with the Allies. A few days before the coup attempt, Tresckow confided to a friend that “in all likelihood everything will go wrong”, and when asked whether the action was necessary nonetheless, he replied, “Yes, even so”.

Unfortunately, as we all know, it did go wrong, with many of the plotters later being caught and executed. When Tresckow, who was stationed on the Eastern Front, learned of this failure, he opted to commit suicide after issuing the last words quoted above to his liaison. In order to protect his co-conspirators from suspicion, he staged his death to look like an enemy attack, firing several bullets from his pistol before detonating a grenade beneath his chin. His words from months before ring true to this day, if unfortunately forgotten:

The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.

It is a shame that his story, like that of so many other resisters to the Nazis, remains widely unknown outside Germany (recent attempts by Hollywood notwithstanding).

Tresckow c. 1943 (Wikimedia Commons / German Federal Archives).

 

 

The Leshan Giant Buddha

Photo by Suchet Suwanmongko.

Photo by Suchet Suwanmongko.

The Leshan Giant Buddha, located near the city of Leshan in Sichuan Province, China, is a 233-foot (71-meter) tall stone statue built during the Tang Dynasty. It is carved out of a cliff face facing Mount Emei, lying at the confluence of three rivers that flow below his feet. It is the largest stone Buddha in the world and by far the tallest pre-modern statue in the world.

Construction was started in 713 under the leadership of Chinese monk named Haitong, who hoped that Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. As it so happens, the mountain range in which the Leshan Giant Buddha is located was thought to be shaped like a slumbering Buddha when seen from the river, with the Leshan Giant Buddha now being at its heart.

However, the project stalled due to insufficient funding and the eventual death of Haitong. About 70 years later, an unnamed jiedushi (regional military commander) decided to sponsor the project, and construction was completed by Haitong’s disciples in 803.

As it turns out, constructing the massive statue resulted in so much stone being removed and deposited into the river below, that the currents were indeed altered by the statue, making the water safe for passing ships as Haitong intended.

In addition to being a marvel of design, the Leshan Giant Buddha is an impressive engineering feat, featuring a sophisticated drainage system carved into various places on the body to carry away rainwater and reduce weathering (hence why it is one of the few stone statues built in a wet environment to remain in fairly good condition). This ancient systems works to this day, although today the Buddha and its surrounding area is threatened by pollution more than anything (the government has promised to restore it).

The Leshan Giant Buddha, along with the Mount Emei area, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

The photo below demonstrates just how large and impressive this monument is.

Giant Leshan Buddha

Happy Women’s Equality Day

A good friend of mine reminded me of an anniversary I should have remembered: on this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, prohibiting any citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. This was a culmination of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, which for decades fought at both state and national levels to achieve the vote (indeed, the amendment had first been introduced by suffragist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton many years earlier in 1878).

Prior this amendment,  suffrage for women varied across the country, as the U.S. Constitution allows states to determine qualifications for voting. Since the nation’s independence, only New Jersey had allowed a limited form of women’s suffrage, which was revoked in 1807; the majority of states did not start granting some form of suffrage until the turn of the 20th century, not long before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.

In 1971, Congresswoman Bella Abzug introduced legislation designating August 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day; since then, every president has issued a public proclamation for the commemoration.

The full text of the resolution is as follows:

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and [3]
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex;
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and 
WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26 of each year is designated as “Women’s Equality Day,” and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights took place

The U.S. was among the earliest nations to allow women to vote, but not the very first. Several polities that were briefly or questionable independent had allowed women suffrage for a time, including the Corsican Republic (1755), the Pitcairn Islands(1838), the Isle of Man (1881), and Franceville (1889). Moreover, there were some localities within particular realms, such as in Sweden and Colonial America, as well as among Amerindian groups like the Iroquois, that allowed some form of political participation for women.

But to keep it simple, we will start with what most scholars consider to be the first country to grant women suffrage: New Zealand, then an autonomous British colony, which granted allowed women the right to vote in 1893. It was followed two years later by fellow self-governing British colony South Australia; when Australia was formed in 1901, it allowed female suffrage one year later.

The first European country to introduce women’s suffrage was the Grand Duchy of Finland, then part of the Russian Empire, which elected the world’s first female members of parliament in 1907. Norway followed, granting full women’s suffrage in 1913. It was not until after the First World War that many European, Asian, and African countries allowed women to vote, including most of the Western Hemisphere. Several countries did not adopt such measures until the mid to late 20th century, including France in 1944, Italy in 1946, Greece in 1952 ,Switzerland in 1971, and Liechtenstein in 1984.

Among the most recent nations to join the trend are Namibia (1989), Samoa (1990), Qatar (1997), Bahrain (2002), Oman (2003), and finally the United Arab Emirates (2006, although suffrage is limited for men and women alike). Saudi Arabia remains the only country – unless you count Vatican City, the seat of the Papacy – where women cannot vote nor run for office, although it will presumably allow for both in 2015.

In any case, we have come a long way, even though voting is hardly the only area of concern for women’s rights. Check out this Atlantic article to see where women stand in various metric of well-being — from longevity to reproductive rights — across the world.

The Power of Stumbling Blocks

A stolperstein (German for “stumbling block”) describes one of several monuments created by German artist Gunter Demnig that commemorate a victim of the Holocaust. Stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized memorials for an individual victim of Nazism. The idea apparently arose from an old custom among non-Jewish Germans, who, upon stumbling over a protruding stone, would say, “There must be a Jew buried here.” A stolperstein is intended to similarly divert one’s attention. 

Demnig manufactures a concrete cube of four inches that he covers with a sheet of brass and stamps with the following details: the name, year of birth, and fate, if known. The stolperstein is then laid flush with the pavement or sidewalk in front of the last residence (or sometimes workplace) of the victim. The costs are covered covered by donations, collections, individual citizens, contemporary witnesses, school classes, or communities.

Stolperstein in Bonn for Ida Arensberg “Here lived Ida Arensberg. née Benjamin *1870 – deported 1942. Murdered in Theresienstadt on 18.9.1942″. Via Wikipedia.

As one historian noted: “It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.” Simply seeing them in pictures, I can concur. 

Here are a few more examples, many of which can be found in cities across Europe — a grim reminder of the Holocaust’s scope and scale.

You can read more about these powerful artistic works here.