The World’s First Atlas

Today’s Google Doodle is a particular treat for a map lover like me: it commemorates the publication in 1570 of the world’s first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

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As Forbes explains, Ortelius’ work was an unusual concept at the time: an expertly-crafted book of similarly-sized maps neatly organized by geography. Continue reading

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The Visible World in Pictures

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The Orbis Sensualium Pictus (Visible World in Pictures) is a textbook for children written by Czech educator John Amos Comenius and published in 1658. It was the first widely used children textbook with pictures, covering a broad range of topics ranging from simple physics to social studies. Its comprehensive material and unique combination of visual and lexical (written) education made it revolutionary for the time, quickly spreading across Europe and setting the standard for children’s textbooks for centuries.

Comenius was one of the the earliest champions of universal education, including for women and the poor. He promoted a dynamic approach to teaching that went beyond the common and dull emphasis on memorization. He is thus regarded as the father of modern education.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

If Only We Listened to De Gaulle

In 1934, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance during the Second World War, wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier (Toward a Professional Army), which formulated how France should organize its military. It was ahead of its time in advocating for a professional army based on mobile armored divisions, namely mechanized infantry and tanks. Not only did he propose this as a way to keep Germany in check, but he saw it as a means of enforcing international law.

Unfortunately for France and its allies, the book did extremely poorly in its home country: only 700 copies were sold. However, it sold ten times as many copies in neighboring Germany, where even Adolf Hitler himself reportedly studied it. Sure enough, Germany employed a very similar approach to du Galle’s, with its panzer units and mobile infantry sweeping through the country in the invasion of France in 1940.

At the time, de Gaulle, who had served with distinction in the First World War, remained a colonel, due to his bold views antagonizing France’s conservative military leaders. He nonetheless implemented many of his theories and tactics as commander of a tank regiment, and during an offensive against German armor at Montcornet on May 17th, he managed to temporarily turn back enemy forces without the benefit of air support. While this ultimately proved inconsequential in slowing the invasion, it was one of the few victories France enjoyed prior to its rapid capitulation just one month later.

Whereas French collaborators and traitors would blame French society for the fall of the country, de Gaulle – who refused to surrender and extolled his countrymen to continue fighting – took the reverse stance, blaming French military and civilian leaders while believing the French people had the courage and moral stamina to keep resisting. Given the sheer size and strategic value of the French Resistance, as recognized by Allied leaders like Eisenhower, his point was validated. If only his prescient book and ideas had been heeded, or at the very least he be placed in the higher ranking he earned. World War Two may have gone very differently, if at all.

H/T to  Jean Lacouture‘s DeGaulle: The Rebel 1890-1944 (Vol. 1)

Continue reading

Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Still Life: Vase with Pink Roses by Vincent van Gogh. It was painted in 1890 while Van Gogh was preparing to leave the asylum in Saint-Rémy for the quiet town of Auvers-sur-Oise.

As his departure neared, he became increasingly optimistic about his future, as reflected in his choice of subject and colors: Van Gogh had a love for flowers of all kinds, and tended to paint them in his brighter moments. Vivid colors similarly reflected a more positive mood. Continue reading

Brief Reflections On Why So Many People Care About Brexit

It is fascinating to see how many people are taking an interest in Brexit and the European Union as a whole. Up until then, one rarely heard the media, let alone the average American, give much attention to the E.U. or its various issues and dynamics. Generally speaking, we Americans tend to be an insular lot, and our interest in the world is usually limited to conflicts, the actions of rivals or enemies, or the saga of U.S. citizens abroad.

I suspect much of what is driving our interest in the event is the fact that 1) it involves a culturally similar country for which most Americans have an affinity and familiarity with, and 2) that Brexit and the E.U. as a whole represent debates and issues of universal relevance: sovereignty, integration, xenophobia, nationalism, globalization, popular will vs. representative politic, and so on.

Continue reading

Germany, The World’s Moral Leader

The Economist observes how the refugee crisis has highlighted the German nation’s exemplary moral leadership, starting with this poignant statistic:

Whereas most nations struggle to accept even a handful of refugees, the Germans seem broadly enthusiastic about the idea, owing in part to their history. Continue reading

A (Rightly) Unsettling Holocaust Memorial

Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is intended to evoke a chaotic, cold, and uneasy atmosphere — which I feel it accomplishes quite effectively, even based on this photo by Gerd Ludwig.

Source: National Geographic

According to Eisenman himself, “The sculpture represents a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” One critic noted that the memorial “is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion”.

Moreover, it stands out for lacking the symbolism that is typical of traditional memorial designs, although many have argued that the sculpture resembles a cemetery (which in any case is still an effective invocation in my opinion).

I personally could not think of a more apt approach to representing the senselessness and wanton cruelty that characterized one of history’s largest genocides. The scale of the memorial, which is better captured in the photo below, must make it a powerful experience (one that I hope to understand when I visit Berlin one of these days).

The Merry Cemetery

The Merry Cemetery, located in the Romanian village of Săpânța, stands out for its colorful and sometimes whimsical tombstones, which depict scenes from the departed’s life alongside poems. The paintings display everything from the individual’s profession, to major events or just routine images of everyday life; a few show how they died.

The origins of this practice, which diverges from the prevailing European notion that death is as somber occasion, are said to stem from Stan Ioan Pătraş (1908-1977), a local artist and woodsculpter who is responsible for constructing the 700 or so epitaphs.

On a deeper level, some have speculated that the Orthodox Christian cemetery draws inspiration from the Zalmoxis religion of the Dacians, who lived in the area prior to the arrival of the Roman. They believed in the immortality of the soul and the subsequent idea that death was a moment that should be filled with joy and anticipation for a better life.

Whatever its origins and one’s views on death, the Merry Cemetery is definitely an interesting location, with an ambiance that is far more jovial than most graveyards.

The Stutthof Diaries Collection — A Worthy Kickstarter Project

Whether you are a lover of history, a World War II buff, or enjoy unique and powerful literature, you will have an interest in helping me support the Stutthof Diaries Collection on Kickstarter. Its aims are as valuable as they are captivating:

The Stutthof Diaries Collection are actual diaries and interviews with Norwegian police imprisoned during the Nazi occupation of Norway. The Nazi leadership, under Reichskommissar Joseph Terboven, became intolerant of the Norwegian police and set out to determine the disloyal element in the police and therefore a security threat. That opportunity came with the arrest of Oslo Police Chief Gunnar Eilifsen, for refusing to arrest several young girls who did not show up for mandatory labor. Terboven demanded Eilifsen’s execution and on the morning of August 16th, 1943 Eilifsen was executed for insubordination. He had the opportunity to neither contact his family or a defense lawyer. On the same morning of August 16, police all over Norway were arrested and forced to declare their loyalty to the Nazi Regime. Failure to do so would result in imprisonment or execution. Hundreds of police refused to declare their loyalty. My father was one of them. He was deported, along with 270 other police men, to a concentration camp in northern Poland called Stutthof. There the police kept personal diaries of their experience hidden from their captors. The Stutthof Diaries Collections are diaries, memoirs and interviews collected over the last dozen years which are a treasure trove and describing how personal sacrifice can triumph over purposeless greed and violence.

As of this post, the project is just six days away from its funding deadline, and so far it has sadly garnered only a fraction of the money it needs ($2,181 out of $15,000). I have seen many projects reach their goal despite the most unlikely circumstances, so while it is a tall order, it can be done.

If this endeavor interests you, give what you can or spread the word. These valuable but largely unknown perspectives need to be known. Thankfully, the creator has expressed the intention to publish these diaries one way or another in 2015, but either way he can certainly use the help. Learn more by visiting the official Facebook page here.

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.