The Death of Stalin

You thought “Succession” was hilarious?  The story of minor-league talents battling it out to take over the family business from a toxic patriarch?

“The Death of Stalin” is a terrific movie about the end of the life of quite possibly the worst dictator the world has ever known.  It is reported to be one of Barack Obama’s favorite films.  It was banned in Russia, which, of course, is hilarious.  It was also criticized by some for historical inaccuracies, which, of course, is also rather absurd: it is a comedy.  The comedy lies in the kind of chaos created when an authoritarian, melomaniac, paranoid leader dies without leaving a clear line of succession.

It drives me insane to read, in IMDB, an explanation of why they made the “strange” decision to have the actors speak in plain English, instead with an amusing Russian accent!  The assumption is that they should have had them speak with Russian accents, which is actually a really, really strange idea.  But these are Russians talking to each other in Russia.   Do viewers think that Russians or Germans or French people speak to each other with funny accents?

If you say, that’s what people expect, it is only because they have been trained to expect that moronic approach, the way they have been trained to believe that bullets arrive at their target simultaneously with the sound of the gun being fired: they have been trained by early Westerns which chose not to allow audiences to learn the truth.

The best solution is for them to speak in their real, native tongue, with subtitles, but having them speak fluent English is a good option, and far, far, better than the stupid accent idea.


Estimates vary, as they will, but Stalin was probably singularly responsible for the deaths of millions of people.

Key players:

Lavrently Beria

  • Became head of the NKVD in November 1938.
  • Proposed and master-minded the Katyn Massacre in March 1940.
  • just before Stalin’s funeral, he had the army units in Moscow replaced with his own NKVD units and cancelled all the trains coming to Moscow.

Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor)

  • Closely associated with Vladimir Lenin.
  • Ran Soviet Missile Program during World War II.
  • Discredited Georgy Zhukov to curry favor with Stalin who was jealous.
  • Briefly succeeded Stalin as Premiere and “first among equals” (March 5, 1953)
  • Eventually sidelined by Nikita Khrushchev.  Attempted a palace coup against Khrushchev in 1957 and expelled from the Presidium and exiled to Kazakhstan.

Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin)

  • Negotiated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Germany in 1941.
  • Part of the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death to plot things out.
  • his wife, Polina, had been arrested by Beria, with Molotov’s passive consent.  Three days after Stalin’s death, Beria did indeed release Polina to Molotov, presumably to cultivate support in the ongoing power struggle at the Politburo.

Nicolai Bulganin

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Lazar Kaganovich

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Anastas Mikoyan

  • Part of the the Central Committee meeting after Stalin’s Death.

Nikita Khrushchev

  • Brought back from Ukraine to Moscow in 1949
  • Regarded by British Diplomats as mouthy and misinformed and inarticulate.  They were far more impressed b y Malenkov, though the movie portrays him as a bit of a dunce.

Vasily Stalin

  • Stalin’s son
  • Called to his father’s side after his cerebral hemorrhage, he was drunk and angry, shouting at the doctors

Svetlana Stalin

  • Stalin’s daughter.  Reported that her father’s death was “difficult and terrible”.
  • Beria had been very friendly with her as a little girl, like an Uncle

Maria Yudina.

  • famous pianist who played piano at reception at Stalin’s lying in state
  • 9 years before his death (unlike in the movie which places the event the very night of) she had played the concert shown in the movie, and had been roused out of bed to repeat the concert for a recording
  • Wrote a note to Stalin which she placed in the record sleeve saying:  “I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country.”  She was not arrested.  She died in 1970.

Georgy Zhukov (died June 1974)

  • got along well with Eisenhower; tried to supply food to Berlin after war
  • however, did nothing to stop the brutal rapes and pillaging by Russian soldiers
  • unlike everyone else around Stalin, he refused to kowtow; openly dismissive of Stalin, and openly contradicted him at times
  • did loot Berlin; was caught and made an abject apology
  • Brilliant Soviet military general who guided the stand-off in Stalingrad.
  • his arrest of Beria did occur, but 3 months after the funeral (June 1953), and Beria did get a trial and was executed in December 1953.
  • supported Khrushchev’s bid for power, but, by 1957 lost favor and was forced to retire
  • never returned to a position of influence after that
  • some historians believe he exaggerated his role in WW II.

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The Implications

Today it was revealed that the Supreme Court is likely to rule to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Everyone is hopefully clear on the fact that overturning “Roe vs Wade” does not make abortion illegal.  It throws the problem back to the states which now may either ban it, partially ban it, or allow it, depending on the whims of state legislators.

States will now be allowed to compel women to carry a pregnancy to full term whether they wish to or not, even in the case of incest or rape.

If this indeed is going to be the ruling (which will be handed down in June), there are some enormous implications.  Off hand, I can think of these:

  • The Democratic base will be energized going into the fall congressional elections.  This is Mitch McConnell’s nightmare.  Mid-term elections generally favor the opposition party at least partly because the government doesn’t have a burning issue to run against– it is the government many people like to vote against no matter what stripe.  But overturning Roe vs Wade may light a fire under the Democrats.
  • The issue should play well for the Democrats.  About 60-65% of Americans support the general right to abortion, though they also think limits should apply.  Democrats can cite the government telling women what they may or may not do with their bodies.  Republican state governments are going to “compel” women to carry pregnancies to term which can be spun as intrusive or egregious or over-reach or patriarchal.  Republicans cannot really run on “life begins at conception”– at least, I’ll believe it when I see it.
  • Further to that — evangelical Christians will not be satisfied with overturning Roe vs. Wade.  They want the Supreme Court to go further and ban all abortions.  Life, to them, begins at conception.  They may begin to demand that their Republican trolls reflect that in their legislation, which may be a bridge too far for independents and moderate Republican women.
  • Why stop at Roe vs Wade?  There are host of privacy rights implied in the principle that the Constitution does not protect them.  Strip searches?  Infrared scans of homes?  Drones?  Cell phone messages?  Library records?  Who says we (the FBI, Homeland Security) can’t look?   Who says those records are private (unless the police have a warrant)?
  • So when really does life begin?  If state governments begin debating this issue, and pass legislation, and this legislation is appealed to the Supreme Court, we will have an even bigger can of worms.
  • State Senate races in close states could swing.  Susan Collins is safe for now– she has five years left in her term.  Lisa Murkowski– lucky for her– voted against Kavanaugh, so she is probably safe.  But many other Republicans running in purple states will have to answer the question of who they would confirm to Supreme Court given that they might make another really stupid decision.  (Is “stupid” a blunt instrument?  I mean, Alito and Thomas are obviously not fools, but I stand by my conclusion of the fundamental soundness of their reasoning behind their votes on Roe vs Wade.  In the totality of their disregard for history, culture, justice, and just plain common sense: stupid.  Just plain stupid.  It can stand with the Dred Scott decision– that negroes are not “persons”.)

As you would think is obvious, the ruling is at odds with conservative ideals about government being restrained from intruding into areas of personal freedom.  The government should not be able to require you to wear a mask  around vulnerable people even if you could be infected with Covid 19, but it should be allowed to compel you to carry a pregnancy to full term.


The Saint

Is there anything that speaks as directly and conclusively to the credibility of the church as the fact that the wife of Nicholas II, Alexandra, has been made a “saint” by the Russian Orthodox Church?

In 1981 Alexandra and her family were acknowledged by The Russian Orthodox Church as martyrs, and in 2000, Empress Alexandra was made a saint by the church. She was canonized as both a saint and as a passion bearer.  From Here.  Don’t click on it: it’s one of those awful click-bait Facebook links.


Can we, in the future, expect to see “Saint” Diana?  Why not? Let’s see: she was famous.  She was rich.  She was vain and self-serving.  She was  a consummate narcissist.   Do we even have to wait for a miracle?

I will concede that she appears to have been faithful to her husband, and she volunteered for nursing duty during the war, along with her daughters.  She didn’t commit any mass slaughters like Olga of Kiev.  But she also may have been at least partly responsible for bringing on the Russian Revolution with her irrational attachment to Rasputin and her belief that he could heal Alexey’s hemophilia– at least, temporarily.  When it was apparent to all of the Czar’s advisers and ministers that Rasputin was widely hated among the populace, she and Nicholas refused to disassociate themselves from him.  When Prime-Minister Stolypin reported in more detail on Rasputin’s lecherous behaviour, he had him exiled but Alexandra persuaded him to allow back.  With the survival of the entire government at stake, it was left to the husband of one of Nicholas’ nephews,  Prince Feliks Yusopov, to try to save the Czar from himself by assassinating him.  As it turns out, it was too late.

Can you imagine some sequence of thought or imagination in which a genuinely spiritual person in a Church based on the gospel of Jesus Christ has an authentic experience of encountering qualities in  the story of Alexandra that would inspire you to exclaim, “what a saint!  What a model and paragon of Christian virtue and humility!  What an inspiration to all of mankind!  Think of all the suffering she alleviated!  Think of her purity and modesty!  Think of how constantly she placed others ahead of herself!”

But then, we are talking about a movement–I do mean broadly, Christianity itself– that bloviated constantly about purity and humility and spirituality and service to mankind and truth and dignity… and then voted– overwhelmingly– for Donald Trump in a real election.

How can anything said by its adherents be taken seriously anymore?

And to those who rejected Donald Trump but insist they are Christians, I cannot imagine how you rationalize a faith that itself proclaims that you can and should judge people by their fruits.


Martin Vrieze

When I did a search for a philosophy professor I took a course with 40 years ago at Trinity Christian College, I found nothing.  Except for one indirect reference.

This is shocking to me.  Can a man devote so large part of his life to teaching philosophy to hundreds of students and disappear with barely a trace on the Internet?  Well, of course, this was all before the Internet, but still, you would think there would be a few pages somewhere honoring his memory.  Maybe some former student fondly remembering the required perspectives courses we all had to take our first year (What is this?  A chair?  How you know it’s a chair and not an umbrella?)

Here is my note on Dr. Marin Vrieze, so there is at least one page somewhere devoted to him:

2 plus 2 does not Equal 4

Probably the best course I took at Trinity was Dr. Vrieze’s “Philosophy of History” class.

Until then, we had studied philosophy in various eras, medieval, modern, 19th Century. We studied Kant and Descartes and Hume, all relics of a different era, relevant but quaintly insular. Who really cares about Kant’s categories of being in the era of Woodstock and Watergate and Viet Nam and Bob Dylan and the Beatles?

The revolutionary aspect of Vrieze’s course was it’s reliance on current, living philosophers, and the course texts consisted of periodicals instead of text books. It was here I was introduced to Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Paul Feyerabend, Schopenhauer, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. And it was here, for the first time, I was convinced that 2 plus 2 might not equal 4. This mathematical equation was not some transcendent logic that would always be true no matter what you believed about God or reality or physics. It was the product of rigid doctrines promulgated by the rationalists and the 19th century systematizers.

To be clear, I didn’t necessarily believe that 2 plus 2 was a subjective idea that could be discarded at will. I was skeptical of that too. But my readings, especially of Feyerabend and Lakatos, convinced me that you could make an argument for the idea that it really was an arbitrary construct judged by presuppositions about the nature of physical reality, and that if you assumed a different nature of reality— say, for example, that time is a river, not sequence of atomic moments— you could end up with a universe in which 2 plus 2 does not equal 4.

Karl Popper presented the idea of paradigms: that we can understand the world in the framework of a model or set of assumptions which endure as long as they are “useful” and productive in some way. This idea has been useful to me over and over again: look at the people who support Donald Trump. They operate according to a different paradigm. And it is almost impossible to shift someone’s paradigm until it begins to break down or disintegrate under them.
Wittgenstein believed that all of reality is essentially the product of language. It was in the language expression itself that constructs our experience of the world. I found this idea very intriguing.

Mark Vandervennen who was in the course with me kept asking, “what is the Christian response to these philosophies? How do we answer them with our own truth?” Until then, every course on philosophy concluded with a survey of the “correct” Christian response to these pagan ideas. Most of the time, this consisted of nominally Christian thinkers like Herman Dooyeweerd who rather obviously adapted parts of the pagan ideas into his own scheme, in Dooyeweerd’s case, particularly, categories of being.

Vrieze steadfastly refused to provide an out. He would sometimes repeat the question to the class: “How do we respond to Wittgenstein? Tell me.”
I began to believe that this course was Vrieze’s revenge on the entire edifice of Christian College philosophy and theology. He seemed to be demonstrating to me that none of the pat answers we received in all of our earlier perspective and philosophy courses were adequate to address the real issues raised by the most powerful living philosophers.  Perhaps he was addressing his own professional disappointments.  He never seemed to rise to a position of prestige or professional recognition that I think he felt he deserved.

Google Dr. Martin Vrieze. It is shocking to me that there is almost references to him on the Internet. I need to do a page and make the link: someone should have a tribute to this gregarious, entertaining, provocative teacher.

The Insomniac

Philip K. Dick first came up with the idea for his novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ in 1962, when researching ‘The Man in the High Castle’ which deals with the Nazis conquering the planet in the 1940s. Dick had been granted access to archived World War II Gestapo documents in the University of California at Berkley, and had come across diaries written by S.S. men stationed in Poland, which he found almost unreadable in their casual cruelty and lack of human empathy. One sentence in particular troubled him: “We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Dick was so horrified by this sentence that he reasoned there was obviously something wrong with the man who wrote it. This led him to hypothesize that Nazism in general was a defective group mind, a mind so emotionally flawed that the word human could not be applied to them; their lack of empathy was so pronounced that Dick reasoned they couldn’t be referred to as human beings, even though their outward appearance seemed to indicate that they were human. The novel sprang from this. [From the IMDB “trivia” on “Blade Runner”.]

Remember– Arendt believed Eichmann when he claimed he did not personally intend to send tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths. He was, infamously, just following orders.

As were these SS men in Poland. Disturbed from their beauty rest by the cries of starving children.

Arendt would, I believe, declare that these men were not “evil” in the sense we usually think of it. They were just following orders. They were parts of a system that produced an evil result.

And again, I think she is right in the sense that these men are average. They are human. They behave the way most people behave. The difference is, Arendt doesn’t think that this character should be thought of as “evil”. It’s a deficiency in character. They haven’t self-actualized. They don’t experience empathy.

They obviously can’t see things from the perspective of the starving children.

Von Trotta Diminishes Hannah Arendt: the Banality of Banality

Margarethe Von Trotta’s “Hannah Arendt” is an odd, diffuse film. I never quite got what it thought it was bringing us: Hannah Arendt as martyr? Hannah Arendt as the that beautiful, desirable, intelligent philosopher? Hannah Arendt the victim? Hannah Arendt cheered on by her students as she slaps those insolent leftists silly with her ruthless dissection of the morals of the bourgeoisie?

Hannah Arendt travels to Jerusalem on behalf of New Yorker Magazine to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann. For the life of me, I don’t understand why the movie goes on at length about how much the New Yorker wanted her to finish her articles (and her book), except, perhaps, because someone wanted us to know more about William Shawn and Mary McCarthy.

There is a practical dimension to Arendt’s theory: the evil of the Holocaust derives from a system of colluding parts, of inauthentic people unable to see the world through any perspective but their own, and desiring power and control. So, to prevent evil in the future, we need to make sure we don’t recreate that kind of system. And, jeez, yeah, it does sound a lot more lame now than it did in the movie. Because it’s hard to apply this kind of analysis to, say, Syria, or the Japanese in Shanghai, or Kosovo, or Srebrenica. It just seems… lame.

At the same time, she is right. The solution to suicide bombers is not to find some way to communicate to the potential suicide bomber that what he is thinking of doing is wrong. The solution is to attack the system that produces young men willing to kill themselves for this cause.

According to Arendt– I can’t speak for her, so, to be fair, she might think otherwise– Calley too may have just been part of an inauthentic system the actions of which produced evil– the slaughter of 500 civilians in My Lai, Viet Nam in 1968. But the comments of Ron Ridenhour, among others, are very telling. When he told friends and family at home what had happened in My Lai they all, to a person, warned him to shut up about it. Not one of these people cared enough about justice to advise him to inform the authorities. Not one. Not one. Not one.

Were they all part of a machine? Were they all, individually, not responsible in part for the murders of 500 people? Yes, they were normal people. Yes, normal is permeated with something I would call “evil”. And yes, they were monsters, every one of them. And if you say that to an average person today, they will get angry at you because they know, deep down in their hearts, that they would have done the same thing. And that is about as harsh a thing as you can say about humanity but it’s true and Arendt really is on the wrong side of this question.

As good a summary as I have seen on Arendt’s views of Eichmann:

Arendt’s book is justly famous because it posed this deeply important question and offered an answer that has, over time, come to be seen as persuasively right. In short, it is the case that modern systems of administratively organized murder and criminality depend upon the collaboration and work of many people who, while they support the general goals of the regime, would not otherwise imagine themselves criminals and murderers. These people act out of conviction, but they seek to justify what they do in clichés and bureaucratic language. They take pride not only in their dutifulness, but also in their initiative and support for carrying out the goals of the regime. Ordinary in many ways and far from being cold-blooded killers, they nevertheless willingly and even enthusiastically participate in an administrative machinery of death. They are able to do so, Arendt suggested, because they close themselves off from others and come to think in an echo chamber where they hear and credit no opinions that challenge their own. This shallow thoughtlessness—Arendt elsewhere calls dumbness—is what she names the banality that allows modern regimes of evil to cause such horrifically and decidedly non-banal evil.

There’s a lot that’s right in her analysis. Where I fundamentally disagree with her is her implication that Eichmann is not really evil because he is merely part of a system (as Eichmann himself claimed). On the contrary, I believe that each member of an evil system really is evil. I believe that the majority of Americans who voted for Richard Nixon, and Johnson, and Reagan, and Bush, are culpable for the deaths of the victims of American military aggression during those years.

What Arendt points to is the fact that we have developed complex and sophisticated ways of pretending to be morally good– one of the most prominent of which is the enthusiastic condemnation of others who do what we secretly want to do: kill our enemies.

Fedor Von Bock

The ideal soldier fulfills his duty to the utmost, obeys without even thinking, thinks only when ordered to do so, and has as his only desire to die the honorable death of a soldier killed in action”. Field Marshall Fedor von Bock

Field Marshall Fedor von Bock was not a Nazi. He was, so they say, an “honorable” German, straight Bundeswehr, army, and loyal monarchist. In fact, it is said he despised Hitler, and made no secret of it. Hitler tolerated his outspokenness because he was good at his job: destroying Poland and France, annihilating their armies, so the Schutzstaffel (SS) could enter unimpeded and murder Jews. But he was not a Nazi. Understand?

But he also despised those who wanted to overthrow Hitler. He thought they were unpatriotic. So this outspokenness he is famous for did not extend to standing in the way of mass murder and genocide. He was, after all, just one of the honorable generals of the Bundeswehr.

Fedor von Bock was sent to a military academy at the age of eight, where he was “steeped” in traditional Prussian militaristic values, loyalty to the state, self-discipline, and cleanliness. He could speak passable English, and Russian, and was fluent in French, which came in handy when the nation demanded of his loyalty that he go kill a number of French men. He loved to speak to soldiers. He told them nothing was more glorious than to die in the service of me, a giant dick, who will receive medals and riches if you manage to kill some other impressionable young men whose own generals told them the same thing.

We’ll build a monument on the pile of bodies.

Had he survived the war, I suspect he would not have been tried at Nuremburg. Me might even have eventually served in the reconstructed German government after the war. Loyal. Patriotic. Generous to a fault: lucky you, young man, get to die, like an insect, a dumb animal, an insignificant flea, for the glories of the Reich!

How did Germany lose the war against Russia? With von Bock racing to Moscow in the fall of 1942, Hitler kept issuing orders for Bock to stop and join an encirclement movement, or take some other city along the way that Bock felt should be bypassed in favor of reaching Moscow before the winter– and before the Russians had the chance to fortify their defenses. These delays pushed the advance to Moscow back so that they arrived at the outskirts of the capital city in November! So first there was rain and muck and the trucks bogged down. Then came the bitter, bitter cold– the coldest winter in 50 years. Bock bitterly informed his family that the war would be lost because of interference by the high command.

Was he right?

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that he might well have been right: Russia, at the beginning of the war was weak militarily and the Bolsheviks would have been vulnerable had von Bock taken Moscow, and had von Manstein proceeded directly to Stalingrad at the same time. But I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume the Germans could have sustained their control of such large swaths of territory given the determination and raw numbers of the Russians and the inevitable entry of the U.S. into the war.

It is really interesting to consider how history might have unfolded had Hitler, in this instance, left the war to the generals. Would Communist Russia have been overthrown by the Germans? What kind of government would Russia have had after the war? Would Germany even have lost the war?

Any man who would trust his soul to a man like Bock, or any of the other patriots, deserves to lose it. It is because of people like you that creatures like Assad and Hussein and Pinochet and Putin and Josh Bolton thrive.

The Kitsch Thief

In both the book and movie versions of the Nazi-literacy-kitsch product “The Book Thief”, Hans Holberman and his wife Rosa take in a 20 year old Jewish refugee because his father saved Hans’ life during the first global war. Thus the potentially most interesting aspect of Holberman’s actions is emasculated: he owed the guy’s father. And thus the psychological perversity of this entire story is accentuated. He is repaying what is due. If someone is nice to you, you should be nice to them.

There were many people who took in Jews during the war– not nearly enough– but the percentage of them who were “owed” something by the people they took them in was undoubtedly ridiculously small. That’s not why good people did a good thing. It’s not why people risked their lives to help others. Do we really need another movie to tell us that we are essentially good–nay, saintly– when we merely repay those who we believe owe us something?

It’s psychologically perverse, because if Markus Zusak had the ability to penetrate the surface of his own constructions, he would have revealled just how fraught with moral ambiguity such a relationship would be: the Jew is asking the Holbermans to risk their lives on his behalf. The Holbermans are not idiots: they know that as perverse as a refusal would be, Max, the Jew, is also forced into a horrible position, that of burdening others with enormous risk for his personal benefit. It’s the Nazi-kitsch equivalent of the stranger who rescues the toddler from certain death in traffic as the mother has dozed off in the playground. In Zusak’s vision, the mother is eternally grateful to the stranger, and the stranger feels entitled pride in his achievement. But a real mother is not going to be eternally grateful to someone who makes her look like a terrible mother. Better yet– she might be, but her gratitude is not unalloyed.

When Max, who was forced to leave the Holbermans because of a stupid act by Hans– for which the novelist forgives him instantly– is marched through town, Liesel defies the German soldiers by racing to his side, in a scene reminiscent of James Garner climbing over the beds to get to his beloved Allie at the end of an equally overwrought story, “The Notebook”, where the nursing staff find both of them the next morning, dead, in each others arms! This scene reeks contrivance: Zusak is desperate to clobber us over the head with just how utterly saintly Liesel is and he doesn’t trust his reader to get it: she has to do something patently absurd, instead. The only thing missing was rain.

Graham Greene, better than anybody else ever, pointed out the essential narcissism of stories like this in “The Power and the Glory”, and the damage they do to our understanding of good and evil. When we measure real actions against melodrama, we will fail to recognize the genuine heroism of people who were smart enough not to attract the attention of the Nazis when you are hiding a Jew in your house. Zusak wants it both ways: he wants you to wallow in the impetuous generosity of Hans Holberman when he can’t stand to see the suffering Jews marching through town without water or food, and then he wants you to forget how foolish that action was by refusing to describe the conversation Hans must have had with Max in which he had to explain why he had to flee the house, to certain death.

It should be added that I think Zusak thinks the Nazis didn’t have much use for reading. He doesn’t make much sense of the fact that Liesel’s act of “subversion” is to learn how to read– the Nazis loved education, literature, science, and music. Yes, she takes a book from a book-burning, suggesting that she stands against censorship, but it isn’t developed into anything. The books are rather random and irrelevant, and Zusak doesn’t make anything of that either.

The Nazis, of course, loved culture. They were enthralled with Schiller and Goethe and Wagner. Why does Zusak act like Leisel’s reading is an act of subversion? Other than an appeal to that kind of nebulous dignity and intelligence we attribute to ourselves for loving literature?

The ultimate subversion is this: antiseptic accounts of Nazi resistance don’t do anyone any good if they miss the point, that people who resisted Nazism were not always adorable and those who loved Nazism were not always repulsive.

I will acknowledge here that it was a New York Times Review that first used the word “kitsch” in connection with this work.

Am I too demanding? “The Diary of Anne Frank” is brilliantly evocative of the ambivalences involved with citizens who protected Jews during the war. And this was a 14 year old girl. The difference is, Anne Frank was writing honestly about what it was like to have this experience. Zusak is writing about what he thinks people think the experience was like– and catering to their inhibited sensibilities about the Nazis and little girls and reading and cranky old men with hearts of gold.

Some reviewers commented favorably about the novel idea of having Death narrate the book. If Zusak had actually written some interesting observations or comments by this character…

Don’t let anyone tell you that the movie isn’t as good as the book. The book was singularly unimpressive.

50th Anniversary of the Lone Assassin

If I had been part of the group of men and women who plotted the assassination of John F. Kennedy– if there was a plot– I would very gratified to know the state of the conspiracy theories today: it’s a colossal mess.

It’s democracy in action, of course, but a mess. A simply search of Youtube will turn up dozens and dozens and dozens– if not hundreds– of amateur criminologists all claiming to have turned up some hitherto secret detail that would finally prove that there was a conspiracy. And nothing, of course, does more to discredit the idea of a conspiracy than a multitude of crackpot theories.

Obviously, a number of crackpot theories does not really diminish the possibility that there was a conspiracy. If anything, these crackpot theories are the result of the massive gaps and omissions and errors in the initial investigation and the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination.

So when some theorist announces that he has proven decisively that there was no conspiracy, he is missing the point. He can’t prove that there was no conspiracy. He can’t even prove that Oswald fired the shots. He can only provide answers to the questions that a conspirator would be happy to offer as evidence.

That’s why there is such an obsession with proving that Kennedy was shot from behind. Zing, bang, biff: no conspiracy. But of course, even if the proof is decisive (it’s pretty good), it only proves that the shots came from behind, not that they came from Oswald.

When Dale Myers insists that he has proven conclusively that the shots came from the 6th floor of the Texas Book Depository, I really begin to wonder if he isn’t in the pay of the conspirators. The idea that he can establish, from his CGI reconstruction, that the shots came from exactly that location– that he can insist that he didn’t set out to prove that they came from this location to begin with and that he only “discovered” it from his “research”– beggars belief. Is he serious? Why would he make such a ridiculous assertion? Why not stick to something reasonably credible and demonstrable, like the idea that the shots probably came from behind and above?

Because he has an agenda.

And PBS’ Nova later showed that a more accurate reconstruction of the assassination implied that the shots came from the Dal-Tex building: at least these researchers accepted the science, not the ideology, while acknowledging that identifying the exact location of the shooters is not really possible.

ABC News, in their report, insists that the FBI has established that the bullets could only have come from the gun owned by Oswald.  This was “proven” by a chemical analysis of the composition of the lead in the bullet.  Impressed?  We now know just how reliable that evidence is: the FBI itself has informed other law enforcement forces that it will no longer provide testimony to that effect in any court case in the U.S.  Because it was never true.

ABC News insists that a palm print from Oswald’s hand was found on the barrel of the rifle. It omitted the fact that no prints at all were found when the rifle was initially examined by the most credible expert: the FBI’s Sebastian Latona. He reported that no identifiable prints could be found anywhere on the rifle. It was returned to Dallas where the Dallas police, surprisingly, found the magical palm print. ABC News also reported that Oswald’s finger prints were found on the boxes used to form the “sniper’s nest”. But only one was recent, and Oswald’s job, after all, was to handle boxes on the 6th floor. No other boxes were tested. Other prints from other Depository employees were also found. And so were prints from the police– the evidence was contaminated and would never have been accepted in court.

If Oswald had lived to receive a fair trial and he had had good representation, I think it is quite likely he could have given the Dallas prosecutors a hell of a run for the money. He would have been convicted anyway, because juries can be easily swayed by the weight of opinion held by what they perceive to be the establishment, but a reasonable person might easily have concluded that nobody showed that Oswald actually fired the shots, or that they could not just as well have originated from the Dal-tex building, or that Oswald was not exactly what he said he was: the patsy in a conspiracy.

Many Warren Commission defenders love to point out that it’s been 50 years now and no conspirators have yet come forward to confess their role in the assassination. And if one did, would that change their minds? They would never believe him.  That’s the genius of it.  A conspirator could come forward right now and give 60 Minutes a lengthy interview and provide all kinds of details and no one would believe him.

I Am a Patsy

Answer the right questions: the establishment seems to relish giving alternative answers to the questions that aren’t really germane to the conspiracy. The only essential question is, did Oswald fire the shots? Did he or someone else act alone? For all their protestations to the contrary, the evidence for Oswald as the shooter is quite weak.

I am a patsy.

I have always been intrigued by Oswald’s use of the word “patsy” in the Dallas police headquarters, when asked by a reporter if he shot Kennedy. If you had committed a serious crime and were arrested for it a few hours later, and someone asked you if you did it, what would your first response be? I think mine would be, you’ve got the wrong guy. I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me. I had nothing to do with it. I don’t know anything about it. I have an alibi. I was having my lunch when it happened. You’re making a big mistake.

Oswald said, “I’m just the patsy”. Patsy, of course, has a very specific meaning: I have been set up to take the blame.

Watching the film of Oswald after his arrest, I don’t find it difficult to imagine that Oswald was involved in something, of which he understood little, and quickly realized that he was being set up. I think he quickly realized that he was the patsy and that he would likely be killed rather than arrested. I wonder if Officer Tippit was sent to “arrest” Oswald, and report that this desperate criminal resisted arrest, so he had to shoot him, and Oswald realized that and shot him first.

When the police seized him in the movie theatre, he loudly protested against “police brutality”, almost as if he understood that they were going to kill him if could at all have been made to look creditable. The number of police who converged on the theatre to arrest him was astounding.

For example, check out this guy, George S. de Mohrenschildt. If you think it’s preposterous to believe in a conspiracy, how preposterous is it that this man would be acquainted with the “lone nut” who shot Kennedy? Or that Oswald would send him a copy of the famous backyard picture of him holding a rifle? Just too weird for words.

Bill O’Reilly now defends the Warren Commission. Why oh why do defenders of the Oswald acted alone theory always seem to discredit themselves (as do many conspiracy theorists). O’Reilly claims to have been at George S. de Mohrenschildt’s door at the moment he committed suicide. The private investigator working for the House Assassinations Committee, who visited de Mohrenschildt the morning of the event, begs to differ. (“Killing Kennedy: the End of Camelot”, “co-written” by Martin Dugard.)

And then you explain why there are conspiracy theorists…

We are told that many Americans just can’t accept that someone as inconsequential as Oswald could assassinate someone as important and charismatic as John F. Kennedy.

How about if I explain why so many Americans believe that the U.S. intelligence services and military have too much respect for democracy to ever take violent, drastic actions to “save America from itself” in the face of the global communist threat? There were Generals in the Pentagon who essentially regarded JFK as a traitor for backing down from the confrontation over missiles in Cuba. Moreover, they didn’t think he had the “character” to stand up to the international threats to American hegemony and economic dominance. They believed that they were the true guardians of the American nation– the same kind of people who today describe Obamacare as a communist plot and insist he was not born in the U.S.

Can we have Peter Jennings or Walter Cronkite please offer your mellifluous voices, projecting reason and sobriety, as you describe the behavior and attitudes of people like General Lemay? And then tell us that rational people don’t believe that people like that exist?


Nazi Kitsch

More on Nazi Kitsch

I thought we got beyond this after “Hogan’s Heroes” was cancelled. Why do the characters in “The Book Thief” talk English with German accents? We understand that they are not English. We get that in a movie about people who speak a non-English language–aimed at English audiences– will usually suck up to the exhausted intellects of these audiences by having the characters speak in English, instead of subtitling the film (like the estimable “Downfall” did).

So why the accent? Do they sound quaint and funny to each other? Can’t they speak properly?

Here’s why: this film — and the book– caters to the audience’s desire to feel good about their sympathies for a little girl who hates the Nazis, loves books, and has an endearing old German man looking after her. And a gruff woman who– SPOILER ALERT– has a heart of gold.

All right– it’s Oscar season. Nazis– check! Little girl who loves reading — check! Gruff but lovable old man — check! Glorifies reading? Oh yes, Hollywood loves seeing itself as promoting literacy, as worshippers of the sacred book.

Okay, we’re missing the character with a disability, but everybody has an accent– CHECK CHECK CHECK! I smell Oscar contender! (Check back to the extremely mediocre “The Reader”— Ah! I see where it came from! And relatively undistinguished “The King’s Speech”– how we love the illusion that privileged people are really quite admirable because they allow us to admire them for not being as aloof as we thought they thought we thought they were.)

This is not a film about a little girl living in Nazi German. This is a film about how modern audiences feel about little girls, and Nazis, and old men (who I know would do anything– ANYTHING– for me if I were that little girl), and the faint but digestable taste of titillation, and how much you want people to know that you are smart because you just love books so much that you approve of stealing them, especially from Nazis.

Let’s leave aside the fact that the Nazis actually loved art and poetry and music, but it didn’t make them better people. Please, please, please, leave that aside, because it’s almost as unbearable as this film, which the New York Times rightly called kitsch.