The German Workers’ Party

On this day 1919, the German Workers’ Party, the forerunner to the Nazi Party, was founded in Munich by Anton Drexler.

Contrary to its name, the DAP (to use its German acronym) was far from leftist: It was officially anti-communist—many members were drawn from the paramilitary “Freikorps” that fought communist uprisings in the east—but also anti-capitalist, reflecting fascism’s pretensions as a political “third way. However, German nationalism and Antisemitism were the cornerstone of the party, just as they would be for its successor.

While an otherwise obscure figure at the time, let alone today, Drexler played a pivotal role in Hitler’s rise: It was he who approached Hitler and encouraged him to join the DAP, supposedly seeing potential in the man’s oratory. (Hitler claimed the party’s platform reflected his existing ideas.) Hitler was only the 55th member to join, yet his ability to draw a crowd with his speeches quickly grew the party’s numbers—and his reputation and influence.

As his stature grew, so too did the DAP, which managed to organize its biggest meeting yet in 1920 in a Munich brewery. It was here, before a crowd of 2,000 people, that Hitler articulated the party’s 25-point manifesto, which he had authored with Drexler and Gottfried Feder, another key founder whose speech is what first drew Hitler into Drexler’s orbit. The platform gave the DAP a bolder vision: abandon the Treaty of Versailles, recapture and reunite former German territories, expand into Eastern Europe, and exclude Jews from German citizenship. It also included otherwise unobjectionable ideas, such as expanding social security, establishing universal education, banning child labor, enshrining equal rights for all citizens, and defending freedom of religion.

It goes to show that fascism, then and now, always had ideas that, in isolation, were good or nonpartisan, but in practice was intended to win over desperate recruits and limit the benefits only to the “right” ethnicity, race, religion, tribe, or other identity group.

Indeed, on the very same day, the German Worker’s Party was renamed the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), better known as the Nazi Party”. Along with the 25-point manifesto, this was done with the explicit purpose of broadening the party’s appeal: It opposed socialism and communism—which were officially internationalist—so instead proposed a nationalist version. At the same time, the term socialism denoted a dislike of capitalism, except of course the big businesses that could serve Nazi interests.

Drexler was eventually pushed out of the newly minted party as Hitler’s falling into obscurity before his death in 1942–living just long enough to see the monster he helped create.

The Groundbreaking Haitian Revolution

Aside from being the first day of the new year, yesterday was also Haitian Independence Day, which marks one of the most important days in human history. It was January 1, 1804 that Haiti—after a decade-long war against one of the most powerful empires in the world—became the only nation in history to emerge from a successful slave revolt; the first majority-black republic in history; the second independent nation and second republic in the Americas, after the United States. It was the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly two thousand years earlier.

Haiti’s unlikely independence, especially against one of the worlds superpowers at the time, rocked the institution of slavery and inspired revolutionaries across the world, who looked to it for both inspiration and military strategy. In fact, Haiti’s achievement was likely a catalyst for independence movements throughout Latin America, which began gaining traction shortly after its independence; Simon Bolivar, the seminal figure in Latin American independence, received refuge, money, and military support from Haiti.

Haiti also produced such prominent military and political figures: Jean-Baptiste Belley, who served as the first black representative in the Western world (specifically France); Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who fought for Napoleon as the first and highest-ranking black officer in the West; and Toussaint L’Ouverture, an ex-slave turned independence hero viewed by contemporaries as brilliant military strategist, who along with Dumas the highest-ranking black officer in the West. Needless to say, these men undermined the widespread notion of black racial inferiority.

It is also worth noting that Haiti’s success against France, which subsequently lost what was then the world’s richest colony, contributed to its decision to abandon colonialism in North America and recoup its financial losses by selling the Louisiana Territory to the U.S., more than doubling the American republic.

Unfortunately, despite being the only other republic in the whole hemisphere, and sharing a similar revolutionary origin, Haiti was far from a natural American ally: the U.S. still practiced slavery, and naturally did not approve of the example Haiti set for its slaves. Indeed, the Jefferson Administration, which was already pro-French, attempted to assist France in taking back Haiti, and was openly hostile to an independent black republic.

(For this reason, Haiti has the largest military fort in the Western Hemisphere, Citadelle Laferrière, which was intended to defend the country from ever-present invasion by France, the U.S., or any other Western power.)

Given that the international system was by then dominated by Europe, America was far from alone in its contempt and wariness towards Haiti: The country would remain isolated and exploited for much of its history, forced to pay 150 million gold francs in reparations to French slaveholders in order to receive recognition and end its diplomatic and economic isolation. (The debt was not paid until the mid-20th century). The U.S. frequently meddled in its affairs, most notably in its occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934. Centuries of isolation prevented the country from ever finding its bearings, but left it no less proud, resilient, and culturally rich.

The Most Dangerous Profession in the World?

The only thing authoritarians hate more than a free public is a free press, given that the latter can help arm the former with knowledge and impetus to push back. But as “fake news” goes from being an American meme to a global phenomenon, despots worldwide are taking note, invoking it in their familiar but growing crackdown on reporters and journalists.

As Vice News reported:

The annual prison census, carried out by the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), found at least 251 journalists languishing in prison on Dec. 1, 2018, the third consecutive year at roughly that level. But of those 251, a record 28 were behind bars on charges of “false news,” a big spike from just two years ago, when there were nine such cases.

Egypt accounted for the most cases of journalists jailed for so-called false news, with 19 behind bars. There were four in Cameroon, three in Rwanda, and one each in China and Morocco.

The report pointed the finger at Trump as “the leading voice” fueling global rhetoric about fake news. “You think #FakeNews rhetoric doesn’t have consequences?” tweeted the report’s author, CPJ’s editorial director Elana Beiser.

It also noted that while no journalists are imprisoned in the U.S., reporters there faced fatal violence and hostile rhetoric. In June, five people were killed in a mass shooting at the offices of The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and a mail bomber who embraced Trump’s media attacks sent threatening packages to CNN headquarters, among other places, in October.

To make matters worse, the uptick in state-sanctioned violence and repression of journalists is looking like a long-term trend:

It’s the third year running that the number of reporters behind bars has topped 250 — a stat that suggested that “the authoritarian approach to critical news coverage is more than a temporary spike,” and had become “the new normal,” according to Beiser.

The report found the high numbers had been sustained by renewed crackdowns in China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, which, along with Turkey and Eritrea, were the five leading jailers of journalists. Turkey, China, and Egypt alone accounted for more than half the world’s jailed journalists for the third year in a row.

The report found that nearly three-quarters of jailed journalists were facing anti-state charges, such as supporting groups deemed to be terrorist organizations, and the vast majority — 98 percent — were jailed by their own governments.

Considering that the balance of power is shifting to the developing world, most of all China, the normalization of constraining a free press sets a very concerning precedent. But when even the ostensible leader of the free world has embraced hostile rhetoric towards media, it is unlikely that this problem is going away any time soon — even though the need for a free press is more important than ever.

The First Report on the Holocaust

On this day in 1942, the Polish government-in-exile published the first document informing the world about the Holocaust. 

Titled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland,” it was sent to 26 Allied governments (officially known as the United Nations) with the purpose of drawing attention to the Final Solution and thereby discourage Germans from carrying it out.

The most important component in the brochure was a note by Polish Foreign Minister Edward Raczynski authenticating its contents, making it the first official report on the Holocaust and the first time that a country called on other countries to defend *all* Jews persecuted by the Nazis, not just those who were citizens of their country. 

Drawing on extensive reporting by agents of Poland’s underground government, Raczynski discussed the change in execution methods from shootings to gassing, and the increased deportation of Jews from ghettos to locations described as “extermination camps.” He also estimated that up to one third of Poland’s three million Jews had already been killed—which turned out to be an underestimate. 

Much of the information came from a 100-page report by Witold Pilecki, a Polish agent who allowed himself to be captured and sent to a concentration camp so as to ascertain the nature of the Nazi’s campaign. It was the first comprehensive record on a Holocaust death camp, with details about the gas chambers and sterilization experiments. It also states that there were three crematoria in Birkenau able to burn 8000 people daily.

Unfortunately, Poland’s courageous efforts came mostly to nothing. Despite its extensive and detailed information, the document had little effect, largely because people outside German-occupied Europe could not believe Jews were being exterminated on that scale. The concept of genocide, let alone the term, did not exist yet, so no one could comprehend a methodical, systematic, and deliberate elimination of an entire people (though similar campaigns had been undertaken before, and have since been labeled genocides). 

Ultimately, over six million Jews would be killed, along with another five to six million other “undesirables”. Poland would suffer the worst WWII losses proportionally, with nearly one out of four Polish people killed, including nearly all Jews (once the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the world).

The Anniversary of Porajmos

On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler—one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, and the main architect of the Holocaust—ordered that people of full or part Romani ancestry (a.k.a. gypsies) were to be put “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.

Thus began the systematic extermination of Romani people all over Europe, resulting in 220,000 to 500,000 deaths—a quarter to nearly half the total population—though some figures put the death toll as high as 1.5 million. This event is sometimes known as the “Porajmos”, meaning “the Devouring”.

Himmler’s order was the culmination of the racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which classified Gypsies, like Jews, as “enemies of the race-based state”, ripping away their German citizenship accordingly. It also reflected centuries of hatred and antipathy towards the Romani.

Better known as Gypsies—after Egypt, which was believed to be their origin—the Romani or Roma people (to use their proper name) actually arrived in Europe and the Middle East from northern India over a millennium ago; many still retain some Hindu beliefs, customs, and symbolism, and speak a language related to Hindi. (Moreover, tens of millions of Indians maintain a similar nomadic lifestyle.)

Like the Jews, the Romani were regarded as an alien race, inherently strange, untrustworthy, degenerate, and devious. In some of the earliest records, they are described as satanically inspired wizards—hence the trope of the Gypsy curse or fortune teller. Depending on the time and place—or whether people needed a scapegoat—the Romani were either grudgingly tolerated, or chased out and killed. They were often subject to similar discriminatory laws and treatment, including enslavement, forced assimilation, separation from their children, and pogroms. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S., Argentina, and other settler countries. There is even a term for hatred towards them that is equivalent to anti-Semitism: Antiziganism.

Thus, as with the Jews, the Nazis simply tapped into a long-existing prejudice that was widespread and deeply rooted throughout Europe, which is why so many Europeans collaborated in rounding up, imprisoning, and killing them. It is believed part of the impetus for their mass targeting was the heavy resistance they posed to Nazi occupiers, especially as nomadic peoples who were often not well documented in national census data.

Unfortunately, it was their widespread invisibility that partly explains why Romani remain relatively forgotten, despite being one of the Nazi’s biggest targets. Overall records of their population before the Holocaust are sparse or unreliable, and after the war few gave them any mind; West Germany did not recognize them as victims of the Holocaust until 1982. Some scholars also attribute this to Romani culture, which is “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others”. Others blame the effects of pervasive illiteracy, the lack of social institutions, and rampant discrimination to this day, which has deprived the Romani of “national consciousness” and historical memory.

Pictured are Romani people being round up by German police in 1940; most were likely still detained, and thus later killed, following Himmler’s order.

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Ochi Day

On this day in 1940, Italy invaded Greece after Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected Benito Mussolini’s ultimatum demanding that Greece give up its territory. It is commemorated as a public holiday called “Ochi Day”, because the reply was said to have been simply “No”. (Ochi in Greek).

Unsurprisingly, such a terse response by an underdeveloped little country could not stand, and the Italians launched their invasion almost immediately. The rough terrain and unexpectedly fierce resistance by the Greek Army forced the Italians to fall back, with the Greeks launching a counter-offensive that wiped out a key division and ground into a stalemate. The event is regarded as the “first Axis setback of the entire war”, with the Greeks “surprising everyone with the tenacity of their resistance.”

Indeed, the Germans were forced to intervene on behalf of their ally, whom they henceforth regarded as a liability. It took the combined efforts of Italy, Germany, and Bulgaria (a little-remembered Axis satellite) fighting on two fronts to expend Greece’s limited manpower and resources. The country finally fell on June 1941, more than seven months after the first Italian invasion. The conflict spelled the beginning of the end of Italy as a major Axis power; a few more setbacks were to follow, rendering them a mere satellite dependent on Germany. The Greek War also negatively impacted Axis forces in the North African Theater.

Uniquely, Greece would be occupied by three different Axis forces until its liberation in 1944: the Italians, Germans, and Bulgarians. Nevertheless, they would maintain one of the largest and most tenacious resistance forces in the Second World War: one resistance group alone, the National Liberation Front (EAM in Greek) counted 1.8 million members by 1944, out of a total population of 7.5 million.

Pictured are some political cartoons from the time that widely mocked Mussolini and gave some hope that the Axis weren’t so unstoppable after all (a hope that would not be realized, at great cost, for nearly five years).

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My personal favorite is the one that references the Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles, with the “Roman Axe” (or “fasces”, from where the word fascism derives) standing in for the sword that symbolizes inevitable peril for those in power (the lion represents the U.K., which attempted to aid Greece during its conflict).

America’s Role in the Migrant Crisis

As the Honduran migrant caravan makes its way through Mexico towards the United States–prompting widespread public acrimony and various threats by the administration–it is important to keep in mind the historical context fueling this seemingly sudden exodus. As Jericho explains: Continue reading

One Death v. One Million

Any reporter who has covered a humanitarian disaster should understand what Stalin is once reported to have said to a fellow Soviet official: The death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of one million is a statistic. [Note this account is most likely apocryphal.]

This is why news coverage of a famine or a flood will often highlight the story of one victim.

Or why, say, Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, galvanized global attention to the larger refugee crisis.

It is not easy to wrap one’s mind around thousands of deaths. It becomes an abstraction of geopolitics, economics, conflict dynamics — of statistics.

But a single death can be understood in the more relatable terms of, say, a grieving father or a desperate spouse. Or a murdered journalist, like Mr. Khashoggi.

Psychologists have repeatedly found that people experience a greater emotional reaction to one death than to many, even if the circumstances are identical. Perversely, the more victims, the less sympathy that people feel.

The effect even has a name: collapse of compassion. It’s not that we can’t care about a million deaths, psychologists believe. Rather, we fear being overwhelmed and switch off our own emotions in preemptive self-defense.”

— Max Fisher, “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash That Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not“, New York Times

Alexander Pechersky and the Sobibor Uprising

On this day in 1943, inmates at the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland led a revolt, killing 11 SS officers. The inmates were led by Alexander Pechersky, a Soviet Jew who had been captured exactly two years prior during the Battle of Moscow.

Sobibór_extermination_camp_(05b)Pechersky was an unlikely soldier, the son of a Jewish lawyer who studied music and literature and worked at an amateur theater. But like tens of millions of his countrymen, he was thrust into the Second World War following the Axis invasion and conscripted into the Soviet Army, where he quickly served with distinction, saving a wounded commander during an attack.

As a POW, Pechersky had already miraculously endured a series of close calls, including a painful seven-month battle with typhus; imprisonment in a cellar called the “the Jewish grave”, where for ten days he sat in complete darkness was fed only a few ounces of wheat every other day; and an attempted escape from a POW camp in 1942, where he was recaptured.

Pechersky was transferred to Sobibor a month before the uprising, in a cattle car packed with over 2,000 Jews. Upon arrival, he and just 79 other prisoners were selected for work, while the remainder were immediately led to the gas chamber. Continue reading

The Courageous Voters of Afghanistan

In the face of threats of violence by the Taliban, ordinary Afghans are risking life and limb to cast their votes in upcoming elections. However flawed, ineffectual, and corrupt the system may be, for most of the country’s beleaguered citizens–who have endured decades of successive warfare, strife, and theocracy–it is the least bad option available–and worth dying for. As Al Jazeera reports:

Awrang Zib Zierak, a 38-year-old labourer in Afghanistan‘s capital city of Kabul, has decided to vote despite concerns about transparency and security.

For Zierak, an election with risks of fraud and security threats is better than no election at all. He believes voting is his right.

“Because of the lack of resources, constant threats from the Taliban and insincerity of our politicians, a fair chance is never given to a sincere person who wants to do some good for the country.

“But we must change the situation ourselves. If we don’t go out and express what we want, we will always be under a forced regime or a foreign invasion,” he told Al Jazeera.

Since campaigning kicked off on September 28, hundreds of banners and posters featuring the candidates have been hanging across the capital and surrounding cities, highlighting their mottos and slogans.

The parliamentary polls were originally set to be held in early 2015 following presidential elections but were delayed to July 7, 2018 and were then pushed to October 20 due to security fears and reforms in voter registration.

Despite his understandable cynicism towards Afghan politics, and the very real and horrific existential threat that hangs over anyone who dares vote, Zierak likely spoke for many fellow citizens when he told Al Jazeera why he was willing to go to the polls: “I want to make sure I have played a role in any kind of development in this country.”