Amazing Coincidences in History

The Lewis and Clark Expedition was sent by US Pres. Thomas Jefferson in 1804 to discover a route thru the newly acquired territory of the Louisiana Purchase to the Pacific Ocean by land.  The expedition consisted of about 20 Americans with the female Indian guide Sacajawea.  In 1805 they were about 1,000 miles from the nearest US settlement in completely unknown territory when they were surrounded by Indians.  During negotiations, Sacajawea realized that the leader of the Shoshone Indians was in fact her brother!  It seems she was kidnapped from her home by another tribe as a child and had grown up with them.  As a result of this incredible coincidence, the Shoshones were friendly and agreed to trade horses to the expedition, which allowed them to continue their journey.  They came to the Rocky Mountains that they had no idea were there, and decided to cross them.  During the crossing they were forced to eat their horses as the only source of food.  This enabled them to accomplish their goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean, where they claimed the Oregon Territory for the US.  Imagine if the Shoshones had been hostile to them, they might never have crossed the Rockies and might not have reached the Pacific and what is now the Western US might not have become US territory.

When Sun Yat Sen returned to China in 1922 he took with him his bodyguard Morris Abraham Cohen, known as “Two-Gun” Cohen, who came from the East End of London and had been a gangster in Canada, where they had met.  Cohen, known as Mah Kun in Chinese, worked closely with Sen, including fighting with him to ensure the unification of China and gun-running arms for the Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party.  Although Sen was proclaimed President of China, there were large parts of China that were not under his control, including the northern region containing Beijing.  This was controlled by a war-lord, Yuan Shikai, and Sen decided to send Two-Gun Cohen to establish contact with him under the guise of an arms salesman.  Cohen traveled to Beijing and make contact with Shikai and obtained a meeting with him.  Then he requested that they be left alone, whereupon he tried to explain his mission from Sun Yat Sen.  But, they discovered that they had no language in common, Cohen spoke some Chinese, but was not fluent in Mandarin, and Shikai spoke no English.  So Cohen thought he might speak German so he tried to speak to him in Yiddish, and the war-lord replied in perfect Yiddish.  It transpired that he had studied in Germany for some years and had lived with a Jewish family and had learnt Yiddish.  So a crucial negotiation over the future of China coincidentally took place in Yiddish.  Shikai accepted Sen’s terms to appoint him interim President and China was united.


Is History an Evolution?

Albert Jacob, a physician from Dundee and long-time resident of Beer Sheva, recently gave a talk in our informal series of lectures.  His topic was “The long road to WWII,” and he gave an excellent and informative summary of European history, showing how various forces played a role in the wars and events.  He directly compared the course of human history to the kind of evolutionary tree showing the connections between biological species based on various criteria, such as morphology or genetics.  Although I had no objection to the gist of his talk, I objected to comparing history to biological evolution.

There is a branch of history devoted to theories of how history occurred called historiography.  And there are some theories that have been advanced, such as Marxism, in which various classes, the workers, the bourgeoisie and the aristocrats, compete for economic power.  There is also the concept of human social evolution, from village, to town to city, to state, in which human groups, such as tribes or national groups compete for scarce resources, such as land and water.  I believe one can explain a lot about history by considering the development of nationalism, as subject groups sought to overthrow Empires that subjugated them and obtain self-determination.  Thus the rise and fall of empires, from the Roman to the British have certain similarities.  In fact WWI can be understood as the process of dismantling several empires, the Austro-Hungarian, the German, the Turkish and the Russian, and WWII can be considered a continuation of this process, leading to the final rejection of German imperialism and the downfall of the remaining French and British Empires.  Although it must be more complex than that.

Since we could not agree then and there, Albert and I decided to discuss this matter in a civilized manner over tea.  Our discussion was wide-ranging and interesting.  Without going into further detail, I think we can summarize our conclusions in the following way.  It depends how you define evolution.  As a biomedical scientist I define “evolution” as having specific mechanisms, those defined by Darwin as “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” and then also the genetic basis, that Darwin knew nothing about during his time.  In other words, evolution implies a well-defined underlying mechanism going from a primitive to a more complex state. But, Albert attributed his view largely to his training as a General Practitioner and his approach to treating the patient as an individual, rather than as an attachment to a disease. Albert understands “evolution” according to his medical viewpoint as a process of development, which is a dictionary synonym for evolution.  I still disagreed with his direct comparison of history to biological evolution, but it depends how you understand and define the term.


I have been binge watching the Netflix series called “Vikings.”  I had decided not to watch it, since many years ago I saw a movie with the same title made in Hollywood with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, which was terrible.  But, someone recommended the series to me, so I started watching and got hooked.  Now I am up-to-date, watching the 5th series.

I would not recommend it to anyone who is queasy about violence and bloodshed, and graphic sex.  The battle scenes are gory and leave nothing to the imagination.  Also, it is not exactly historically accurate, but it tells a truly interesting story based on the Norse Saga about the famous Viking hero Ragnar Lothbrok and his sons.

Some of the events are historically accurate, for example the first recorded Viking raid on England took place in 793 ce at the famous Monastery of Lindisfarne on the northern coast of Northumbria in England.   Most of the monks were killed and all the precious materials were looted.  This raid was supposed to have been lead by Ragnar Lothbrok, who was the first raider to go West from Norway and cross the North Sea.  Subsequently many such raids took place.  Much of what is portrayed in the “Vikings” series is accurate, for example the Viking sieges of Paris occurred in 845 ce and 885 ce and were led by Lothbrok and they yielded a great deal of treasure.

At that time England was divided into four Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex and a small Kingdom of East Anglia. The name England derives from Anglia after the German tribe called Angles.  Most of the people spoke a dialect of West German, but it was also mixed with Celtic from the original Celtic inhabitants (who were mostly driven into the periphery of Wales and Scotland) and Latin from the previous Roman conquerors (from 55 bce-410 ce).

The Vikings became embroiled in the internal struggles between the Saxon kingdoms and eventually Ragnar Lothbrok was murdered there.  It is true that in 865 ce his sons returned with a large army known as the Great Pagan Army, to wreak revenge and in the process killed King Ayeala of Northumbria and Ecbert of Wessex-Mercia and occupied the town of York, which became their capital and which they called Yorick.  I have visited the underground remains of the Danish town there.

The leader of the Vikings at this point was the son of Ragnar known as Ivar The Boneless, because he was crippled, and who was known to be vicious.  Later most of Eastern England fell under their control and was known as the Danelaw or Danegeld and was a part of a Norse Kingdom that included Norway and Denmark, first under King Canute (or Knut).  But, King Alfred the Great (849-899 ce) pacified the Danish area and later incorporated it into a united England.

This all happened just prior to the invasion of the Norman French, lead by William the Conqueror in 1066 ce, who quickly conquered all of England.  The Normans were actually Northmen or Vikings who had conquered parts of France and who spoke French.  Thus the language of Britain became a mixture of Romano-Celtic-Anglo-Saxon-Danish-Norman-French, that over 1,000 years evolved into the English language.

The depiction of Viking life and religion seems accurate and the acting is excellent, particularly that of Ragner Lothbrok, who plays not a super-hero but rather a man with ambitions who has Kingship thrust upon him.  I also liked the portrayal of his first wife Lagertha by a beautiful actress who was an early feminist and of Flocki the boat builder, who supposedly discovered the uninhabited island now knows as Iceland.  I highly recommend this series for those who are adventurous and not squeamish.

Psychology not History

Recently I wrote a piece entitled “Death of Dictators” (Nov 29) that set me thinking about the nature of dictators.  This includes Emperors, Kings, Fascist and Communist dictators and many so-called cult leaders.  In their resemblance to each other they give away their true nature.  They are all homicidal megalomaniacs, who should be incarcerated in an asylum rather than be able to hold the power of life or death over others.  In that respect they should be judged psychologically not historically.

They were mentally disturbed individuals who found themselves in a chaotic social situation, with the break-down of law and order, who took advantage of this situation to ruthlessly eliminate rivals and to gain power.  They used whatever ideology or dogma was handy for their purpose, and once they had achieved power within the context of their historical situation, they proceeded to use whatever excuses were available to simply murder anyone who was a threat or who they disliked.  Seen in this light, although historians have written reams about Bolshevism and Communism in regard to Stalin and the nature of Fascism and Nationalism in regard to Mussolini and Hitler and all the other dictators, including Tsar Nicholas II and his Romanov predecessors, and Saddam Hussein, who used the Baathist party as a means to gain power, and Ayatollah Khomeini who used Shi’ism, we must challenge these interpretations.

I do not for a moment disbelieve that their analyses are wrong, it’s just that I don’t accept that Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Ceacescu, Saddam Hussein, the Ayatollahs of Iran and so on are really sincere about their beliefs.  That they murder hundreds of thousands or even millions of people in order to establish a greater Germany or an ideal socialist society, it’s that they use these concepts as a front, while their true motivation is ME!   This is the “cult of personality,” I know what to do, I want to have control, I need to eliminate all rivals.

Whether Hitler was a sincere anti-Semite is irrelevant, the fact is that he used anti-Semitism cleverly to gain power in a country, Germany, that was suffused with this belief.  It’s a fact that Stalin murdered every other member of the original Central Committee of the Communist Party.  Hafez Assad razed the city of Hama in 1982, not to improve the plight of the Syrian people, but to maintain power, and his son Bashar did even worse, killing at least 500,000 Syrians.  Whether Stalin, Ceausescu, Kim Il-Sung or Mao Tse-Tung really believed in the brotherhood of man and wanted to improve the plight of the peasants is irrelevant, they used these convictions that others may have believed to take over a movement and then kill all the true believers and everyone else who got in their way.

I remember a truly chilling video of Saddam Hussein, after he had gained power, having a meeting of the central committee of the Ba’ath party, and saying that there were traitors in the audience, and he kept everyone there for hours, but no one confessed.  Finally, he called out names, and soldiers took them away, shaking in fear, and they were shot outside the hall, so everyone could hear.  That’s the way a true dictator operates, a homicidal megalomaniac.  Hitler had his “night of the long knives” when he got rid of Ernst Rohm and his SA followers, Stalin had his Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, bourgeois reactionaries, army generals, etc, etc., who he had murdered, not to improve the lot of the people, but to satisfy his own psychological urges.  Similarly Jim Jones murdered all his followers in a village named after himself, Jonestown, when he realized he had gone too far in killing a US Congressman.

What I am saying is that we should not take the political or other stated motivations of these individuals at face value and judge them purely historically, but rather that we should judge them psychologically. In that respect they show much more similarity to each other. Hopefully democracy, for all its faults, is a system that prevents such people from taking power, by using the ballot box as the mechanism to achieve power that hopefully filters them out.

Death of Dictators

I am currently reading “The Last of the Tsars” by Robert Service (2016), about the last 18 months of the life of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, deposed by the Russian revolution and executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.  It seems to be the verdict of history that most autocratic rulers, emperors, monarchs and dictators, come to a bad end.

So it has been with King Louis XIV of France,  Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, King Faisal of Iraq, King Abdullah I of Jordan.  Consulting the term “regicide” in Wikipedia, there is a list of 138 assassinations and murders of kings, including 17 British monarchs.  Then there are the dictators, Adolf Hitler who committed suicide, Benito Mussolini and Muammar Qaddafi, who were murdered by mobs, Nicolae Ceausescu, who was shot by his bodyguard, Saddam Hussein, who was sentenced to death by trial. 

But, some dictators manage to die naturally in their beds, such as Stalin, who led a solitary life to protect himself, Idi Amin, who was allowed to live in luxury in Saudi Arabia, Francisco Franco of Spain, Fidel Castro, who died recently at the age of 90, and previous dictators of North Korea.  But, these are the exceptions rather than the rule, according to the old adage, “live by the sword, die by the sword.”

Of course, there are still many absolute dictators alive today, the Supreme Ayatollah of Iran, the Premier of Communist China, the Kim dynasty in N. Korea, Assad in Syria.  Some claim to be “democratic”, such as Pres. Putin of Russia, but few are fooled.  There are 49 listed as holding absolute power.  Let’s hope they will all be deposed sooner or later.

Zionism and Nationalism

I am a Zionist, that means that I believe the Jews are a nation and I affirm that as any nation the Jews deserve to have their own nation-state, Israel.  More than most other peoples the Jews need such a State to protect us from our many enemies who don’t hesitate to kill us, this includes Arabs, Muslims, right-wing and left-wing political extremists.

Being a Zionist also means that I am a nationalist.  The term “nationalism” has come under criticism, since pres. Trump’s “Make America Great” movement is considered by many to be nationalistic. Pres. Macron of France in his speech at the WWI Centenary commemoration in Paris stated that “nationalism is the opposite of patriotism.”

Being a nationalist means I support self-determination for most peoples.  This includes the Kurds, the Armenians, the Chechens, the Irish, the Scots, etc.  But, this cannot be at the expense of other people’s self-determination, such as the Palestinians, hardly a distinct people, whose main aim is to destroy Israel.

In Europe there is a problem, namely the rise of nationalism in the face of increased waves of foreign immigrants, mostly Muslims and Africans, fleeing war, social upheaval and economic hardship.  Even though Jews were once refugees from persecution, especially before and during WWII, that does not mean we should support the continued economic migration of millions of people into the more affluent countries of Western Europe and the US, as some American Jews believe. This would be a suicidal policy.

But, note that the original Zionists were mostly socialists.  They believed in the brotherhood of man and naively believed that even though they were not tolerated by  the peoples of Europe, somehow the Arabs would be different.  Boy, were they wrong!  This was a blithely ignorant view of Arab and Muslim culture and history.  There were some socialist Zionists, however, who had a more pragmatic view and knew that to establish a Jewish State would require conflict and sacrifice. Principal among them was David Ben Gurion, who prepared for what he saw as the oncoming attempt by the British and the Arabs to wipe out the Jewish presence in the Holy Land.

Nevertheless, Zionist socialism failed to adequately develop the country, and its sole control over the State from 1948 ended in 1977 with the election of right-wing Menachem Begin’s Herut (Freedom) Party, which later became Likud.   The electorate in Israel, just as in the rest of the democratic world, has moved rightwards.  Such leaders as Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Macron in France, and right-wing leaders in several other European countries (Hungary, Greece) are examples of this.

The failure of Communism in the Soviet Union and in Cuba, as well as in China, where they introduced capitalism with great success (as long as the people accept Communist Party control), are symptomatic of this trend.  Also, Venezuela is a prime example of what happens when a prosperous country is taken over by a socialist party and it become a failed state and a dictatorship.  Over time, in Israel, Likud under PM Netanyahu, has introduced capitalist economics and the State of Israel has prospered.


First World War Centenary

Nov 11, 2018, is the centenary of the signing of the armistice that ended WWI, that was called “the Great War” and “the War to end all Wars.”  But, it turned out only to be the prelude to an even more destructive and deadly war, WWII a mere 21 years later.  Of course, wars recede into memory and the lasting effects of WWII have tended to overshadow those from WWI.  But, WWI was until its occurrence the greatest conflict and the most costly in terms of loss of life that had ever occurred before.

Note that WWI was the first major war in which the loss of civilian lives exceeded that of the soldiers fighting in the combatant armies.  There were estimated to be a total of ca. 9 million soldiers killed and ca. 12 million civilians.  In addition there were ca. 24 million other wounded casualties.  Some of the battles of WWI were clearly suicidal,  indeed some attacks occurred when it was known that the enemy was warned in advance.  Gen. Montgomery who fought in WWI as an officer was asked what was the main difference between WWI and WWII, and he said that in WWII the generals could no longer regard their soldiers as expendable statistics as they did in WWI, but as real human beings whose lives were in their care.

Pres. Macron in his speech at the Arc de Triomph (celebrating triumph in war), stated that the choice in future was between multi-lateralism and nationalism.  I am not sure that is right.  Nationalism itself is not bad, it is the form of ideology that believes that only one’s own belief systems or nationality are superior to all others and that it is acceptable to go to war and to kill others to achieve ones’ goals that is evil.  The terrorists who attack countries today are in general not nationalists.  There are many failed states, such as Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and so on that are cauldrons of war, and there are  examples of countries trying to conquer the land of others, such as Russia in eastern Ukraine and Iran in the Middle East, that are the initiators of wars through their twisted ideology.

If one can say that there was a positive outcome from such a terrible tragedy as WWI, it was that Empires that controlled the lives of countless peoples were largely swept away.  Namely the Austro-Hungarian and the Turkish Empires.  Those of Britain and France had to wait until after WWII.  But, there were of course many terrible consequences of WWI.  First among them was the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the rise of Communism in Russia.  Now we seem to have got beyond these evil ideologies and have achieved at great cost a civilized peace in Europe in which the French President and the German Chancellor embrace on this anniversary.  May it ever be so.