By Katie Engelhart - Monday, May 13, 2013 - 0 Comments
What’s at stake in today’s parliamentary elections
On Wednesday, March 20, a 41-year-old man in the Bulgarian village of Sitovo paid a visit to his local gas station. There, Todor Yovchev doused himself with gasoline and lit himself ablaze. He died two days later, at a hospital in Varna—shortly after telling doctors he was unemployed and unable to buy bread for his child and he “could not stand it anymore.” Novinite, a Bulgarian news agency, called the man’s death the latest “in the country’s unprecedented self-immolation wave.” Yovchev is reportedly “the sixth Bulgarian self-immolator in the course of just one month.”
After so many iterations of “Occupy” X and This-or-That “Spring,” tumult in Bulgaria has failed to capture international headlines. But something momentous is happening in Sofia. In February, Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov was forced to resign after weeks of sometimes bloody demonstrations by thousands of Bulgarians in dozens of cities. Borisov was either the latest victim of pan-European austerity, or a sign of early “Spring” in southeastern Europe.
Then, this week, allegations that the former government was involved in illegal wiretapping stirred the pot anew; several shady recordings, featuring top-level politicians and judges, were leaked to the press. Borisov denies the allegations, but observers are already speaking of a “Bulgarian Watergate.” Just weeks before the next national election, the country’s caretaker prime minister warns that “Bulgaria’s democracy is sick.”
By Katie Engelhart - Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 10:30 AM - 0 Comments
Several European countries–most notably Germany–are welcoming descendants of Third Reich victims
About a year ago, Alex Yale became the citizen “of a country I’ve never been to, where people speak a language that I don’t understand.” To Yale—a 25-year-old management consultant from Connecticut—Austria seemed a faraway land indeed. His Jewish grandparents were born and raised in Vienna, but fled shortly before the Anschluss (Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria). They eventually made their way to the United States, after stints in Cyprus and what is now Tanzania. Once settled, they tried their best not to look back; their children followed suit.
But Yale is one of a growing number of North American descendants—children and grandchildren of Jewish Holocaust victims—who have recently obtained European citizenship through programs that undo wartime and postwar denaturalizations. Germany receives many of the North American applications (717 in 2012, up from 128 a decade ago), along with its Eastern European neighbours.
By Bookmarked and Katie Engelhart - Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 9:30 AM - 0 Comments
For decades, Cold War scholarship focused on a single question: whodunit? In the ’40s and ’50s, historians blamed the Soviets. In the ’60s, however, a wave of revisionism washed ashore. New scholars argued that the postwar East-West escalation was, in fact, a product of American bullishness—rooted either in America’s “foreign policy idealism” or its “military-industrial complex,” depending on the interpretation.
In his masterful new account of the early Cold War period, historian Robert Gellately takes us back to square one. Whodunit? Stalin. “Moscow made all the first moves,” writes Gellately, a proud Newfoundlander who teaches at Florida State University. The West’s main crime was complacency. Gellately takes aim at FDR, who believed for too long that he could soften Soviet ambition with kindness. In meetings of the “Big Three,” Roosevelt often sided with Stalin, at Churchill’s expense. Gellately recounts a famous episode at the 1943 Tehran conference. At dinner one evening, Stalin joked that the Allies should execute 50,000-100,000 German Army leaders outright. Roosevelt joked back that the number should be set at 49,000. Churchill rose from the table and stormed away
Still, Churchill does not get away unscathed. Both Britain and the U.S., increasing fearful of Germany, ignored Soviet acts of barbarity—like the 1941 Katyn massacre, which saw some 22,000 Poles slaughtered by Russians. Soon after news of the massacre broke, British officials instructed the BBC to praise the Kremlin for its wartime “co-operation.”
But Gellately’s account does not get lost in high-level diplomatic machinations. It is also noteworthy for its grim rendering of life in Stalin’s backyard. Gellately uses a mass of archival material, released from Soviet archives in 1992, to account for the estimated 25 million Soviet lives lost to the Communist experiment—and to the exporting of Stalin’s revolution. The book ends in 1953: when Stalin died, “in circumstances that are still subject to controversy.” For four cold decades, his war lived on.
Visit the Maclean’s Bookmarked blog for news and reviews on all things literary
By Katie Engelhart - Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 8:00 AM - 0 Comments
Critics contend that U.K.’s ‘bastion of cruelty’ is causing profound developmental damage
The boarding school has long stood as a symbol of Englishness. Since the 15th century, the likes of Eton College (Prince William’s and Prime Minister David Cameron’s alma mater) have been training grounds for stiff-lipped elites. Until recently, more spartan reformatories—à la Dickens’ fictional Dotheboys Hall for unwanted children in Nicholas Nickleby—have housed the nation’s less-than-moneyed. The austere boarding schools of yore have been upgraded, and almost 70,000 British children—among them, the most privileged tots in the land—continue to attend.
Might they be at risk of severe psychological trauma? Enter a new diagnosis: “boarding school syndrome.”
Last month, at the Society of Analytical Psychology in London, Dr. Joy Schaverien gave a lecture on boarding school syndrome. She coined the term in a 2011 paper in The British Journal of Psychiatry, arguing that boarding schools “can cause profound developmental damage.” Schaverien says that after years of counselling “ex-boarders,” she noticed “a cluster of learned behaviours and discontents.” Among the symptoms: an inability to express or interpret emotion, generalized depression and problems with intimacy. “They get on with the job and so on,” says Schaverien, “but they never talk about their feelings.”
By Bookmarked and Katie Engelhart - Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 8:30 AM - 0 Comments
The book jacket dubs her an “ultimately tragic figure,” but in the 1930s, Dorothy (“Dot”) Wrinch was one of the hottest mathematicians alive. Scientists had just determined that proteins were molecules. But what did those molecules look like? Dot—the ﬁrst woman to earn a science doctorate from Oxford, and the first female mathematician to lecture at Cambridge—had a theory: globular proteins were a kind of fabric or “lace.” The idea “set off a buried land mine.” Wrinch was a sensation.
As it turns out, she was also incorrect. Powerful microscopes have long since proved her theory wrong. And Wrinch has slipped quietly into the annals of fallen greats. In I Died for Beauty, she is resurrected by Senechal, her former pupil. Why was Wrinch forgotten when her contemporaries—many of whom also had error-studded careers—are revered and even Nobelled?
Senechal offers a detailed portrait of her pioneering mentor. In early chapters, we meet an unapologetically bright young brain who spends free evenings at Cambridge’s Heretics Society. Next, we see Dot through her intellectual prime. Those of a philosophic bent will delight in Wrinch’s thick-as-thieves friendship with famed logician and thinker du jour Bertrand Russell.
But the book’s second half is hard to bear. When Wrinch’s model proves wrong she is exiled from the halls of Oxbridge. In old age, she is partially vindicated (her structure was found, though not in protein), but remains ostracized. “First they said my structure could not exist in nature,” Wrinch explained. “Then when it was found in nature, they said it couldn’t be synthesized. Then when it was synthesized, they said it wasn’t important anyway.” Dot dies marginalized and alone.Visit the Maclean’s Bookmarked blog for news and reviews on all things literary
By Bookmarked and Katie Engelhart - Friday, March 22, 2013 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
Z—which is based on real events but takes plenty of artistic licence—opens in 1918, seven years before the publication of The Great Gatsby cemented F. Scott Fitzgerald’s place in the 20th-century literary canon. Scott, then a dashing young army lieutenant, arrives in Alabama—where he soon falls for a 17-year-old belle with a healthy dose of impishness. Against the wishes of Zelda’s hidebound parents, Scott and Zelda wed and set off for the jazz-fuelled streets of New York City.
The rest of the book follows the slow collapse of that marriage. Yes, there are periods of success and elation—usually celebrated over stiff cocktails with the likes of Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway (whom Zelda deplores). But in the end, misery wins out. Scott is blighted by tepid book reviews and a love of the bottle. Zelda spends her 30s in “sanitariums” for the mentally disturbed.
Parts of the novel can feel cheesy and contrived. At times, Fowler’s descriptions are overly expository—as if she is too eager to squeeze in biographical detail. But Gatsby devotees will find much to like about Z’s rich, if ambivalent, portrayal of Scott. “Depending on who you ask,” Zelda muses in a diary entry, “Scott’s either a misunderstood genius or a pathetic son of a bitch.”
As to the question of who ruined whose life, by the end of Z, Fowler’s Zelda is revealed as a tragic figure: a talented mind whose spirit is tethered and whose ambition is crushed by a husband who loves her absolutely but will not let her thrive.
Visit the Maclean’s Bookmarked blog for news and reviews on all things literary
By Katie Engelhart - Tuesday, March 19, 2013 at 1:50 PM - 0 Comments
National Culturists put a younger face on conservatism
He’s an unlikely far-right trailblazer: neither old, nor angry, nor square. Jack Buckby, the 20-year-old founder of the National Culturists—a Tea Party-inspired youth movement that aims to reinvigorate Britain’s flagging far right—pairs John Lennon glasses with modish ties and ironic facial hair. He’s well-spoken. He blogs. He’s already a darling of the radical British National Party (BNP), which campaigns on the premise that immigration has put British culture in peril, and has plans to spread the word to campuses nationwide.
His political awakening occurred, he says, after realizing that “if you disagree with multiculturalism, you are deemed a racist.” Frustrated, Buckby came across the work of John Press, founder of the Brooklyn Tea Party. Press argues that “traditional majority culture” should be promoted over diversity, which, he feels, embraces “practices such as female genital mutilation and drug-running gangster culture.” In 2011, Buckby, who is partway through a political science degree at the University of Liverpool, founded the National Culturists. “We don’t have aspirations to be a street movement,” he says. “We want to be an academic organization.”
That may be just what Britain’s far-right needs: in 2009, a street movement known as the English Defence League attracted hordes of supporters to its anti-Muslim marches. But the group’s window-smashing, proto-fascist song-chanting members also alienated social conservatives.
By Katie Engelhart - Tuesday, March 12, 2013 at 7:00 PM - 0 Comments
Margaret Thatcher’s hometown opts against erecting a statue in her honour
If it weren’t true, it could have come from Monty Python. Grantham, Lincolnshire—the small southwest British town from whence Margaret Thatcher hails—has been torn asunder over plans to commemorate the three-time British prime minister with a statue.
On Monday, a proposal to erect an effigy of the Iron Lady was voted down by district councillors. The twist: Conservatives quashed the plan—despite support from Labour Party politicians. (Thatcher is credited with having revived flagging British Conservatism; she is the sworn foe of many a left-wing Labourite.) Thatcher herself is alive, but suffers from dementia.
Tory Coun. Bob Adams told reporters that he was respecting the “express wish of Baroness Thatcher that a statue not be erected in town.” Early this year, Labour councillors vehemently rejected calls for a memorial—but they later backtracked. Grantham Labour rep Charmaine Morgan explains: “Despite our personal strengths of feeling about her . . . Lady Thatcher provides an opportunity to attract international tourists to our town.”
By Katie Engelhart - Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 4:59 AM - 0 Comments
Britain is talking about a girl. She is 16-year-old Lauren Marbe, who scored 161…
Britain is talking about a girl. She is 16-year-old Lauren Marbe, who scored 161 on a school IQ test—one point higher than Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and even Albert Einstein and enough to qualify her (by a very safe margin) for membership in Mensa: the global “high IQ society” whose members have an IQ score in the top two per cent.
British media outlets, however, have reported the story with something less than editorial grace—the Daily Mail declared she’s both “ditzy” and “officially smarter than Einstein!” and most of the headlines drew attention to the fact that Marbe is an “Essex girl.” Essex is the southeast British region from whence Marbe hails. It is also something of a pejorative: a stereotype used to describe British women who are vulgar, promiscuous and somewhat dim-witted.
Even Marbe embraces the traits commonly associated with the Essex region: “I am blond, I do wear makeup and I do go out. I love my fake tan and fake nails as well so I guess I am a bit of an Essex girl,” she told British reporters. “[My teachers] had always thought I was blond and a bit ditzy.”
Marbe—who aspires to study architecture at Cambridge University, or perhaps become a West End stage actress—hopes her Mensa membership will persuade critics that great minds can reside in the blondest of heads. One imagines a boy with comparable mental agility would not be asked to account for the colour of his locks.
By Katie Engelhart - Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 7:00 PM - 0 Comments
And An Economist’s Other Surprising Theories About Quirks Of The Heart
“Have you ever wondered if national well-being is higher in countries in which men have larger penises that in those in which men are less well-endowed?” That question opens economist Marina Adshade’s upcoming book, Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love. (The answer: As average penis size increases, national income increases—but only for a while, at which point the reverse holds true. Adshade dubs this relationship the “boner curve.”) Comparing the “global penile length distribution map” to GDP is a bit of a gimmick, but Adshade’s broader point is “that almost every aspect of sex and love is better understood by thinking within an economic framework.”
Take this tidbit: shorter men have younger wives. Why? Adshade explains that women tend to value height in a potential mate—even when controlling for income. As a result, short men in their 30s are “significantly less likely to be either married or in a serious relationship.” Short men, then, are more likely to be single when they are older, by which point: a) they have proven their abilities as financial earners and b) their more alpine colleagues are already hitched. At that golden moment, they can take advantage of “a later-in-life marriage market that is populated with younger women who are less concerned with their husband’s physical appearance and more interested in his ability to provide a stable income.”
Here’s another: lesbians earn six to 13 per cent more than heterosexual women. Adshade says that’s because gender wage gaps don’t exist in homosexual unions, as they tend to in heterosexual unions. Lesbians might not expect to marry a higher-earner in the way that heterosexual women might. One study she cites shows that this encourages lesbians to invest more in skills that will give them a labour-market advantage. In the long run, this early investment pays off. The same effect is observed among obese women, who “recognize that they are less likely to marry, and if they do, they are likely to be married to men who have lower incomes.” They invest more in their “human capital,” one economist argues, than thinner women do.
By Katie Engelhart - Thursday, February 14, 2013 at 10:39 AM - 0 Comments
R&R? Canonization? A look at what’s ahead for soon-to-retire Pope Benedict XVI
George Ferzoco is betting on a sainthood. Some time in the 2060s, predicts the Bristol University theology lecturer, the man who was once Pope Benedict XVI will be canonized: declared a saint by the Catholic Church.
Ever since Benedict gave Vatican Cardinals’ his three weeks notice, journalists and insiders have been busy imagining what his imminent retirement will look like.
Several Holy See City press conferences later, and key questions linger: Where will the Pope live out his final hours? And how? What shall we call him? And who gets to keep his papal swag?
What we know is that, promptly upon abdicating, the Pope will skip town—travelling to Castel Gandolfo: a papal retreat in the hills south of Rome. Benedict is said to like the gardens, and a Madonna statue that rests near the goldfish pond.
By Katie Engelhart - Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 6:43 AM - 0 Comments
Been there, done that: Katie Engelhart reports on the scene outside St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica—believed to the largest church in Christendom—is perched at far end of Vatican City. From the steps outside the entranceway, a tourist can spot the Apostolic Palace: the official residence of the Pope. The window on the top floor, far right, opens into Benedict’s bedroom.
On Tuesday, hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced his intention to abdicate the papacy, effective Feb. 28th, tourists were craning their camera-laden necks.
The small, cobblestone streets leading up the Basilica are lined with tacky tourist traps that hawk glass bottles of Coke and mummified panini. Small bodegas sell fake marble figurines, bobble-head Pope dolls, and €5.99 copies of Die Hard and Miami Vice.
A stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square, right outside the San Pietro metro station, is Savelli Arte e Tradizione: a massive “antiques” emporium, offering stamps and statuettes and ornate rosaries. Asked whether more tourists have been stopping by, since Benedict XVI’s announcement, sales manager Betty D’Eletto only winces: “No, not really.”
But soon she loosens up. With a furtive glance around the room, Betty—who has a warm face and honey-coloured hair—whispers: “To be honest, nobody likes this Pope.”
By Katie Engelhart - Monday, February 11, 2013 at 10:45 PM - 0 Comments
Pope Benedict’s reception in his fatherland has long been a thing of awkwardness, Katie Engelhart reports
In Germany, word of Pope Benedict XVI’s imminent resignation fell on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), the kick-off to Karneval—a kind of German Mardi Gras. One top German Catholic, on hearing the news, dismissed it as a “carnival joke.
But Benedict’s reception in Germany, his fatherland, has long been a thing of awkwardness.
Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Joseph Ratzinger) was born in 1927 in Marktl am Inn, Bavaria, where his father worked as a police officer. Ordained in 1951, Ratzinger spent much of his career in academia—before his appointment as Archbishop of Munich and Freising.
In Germany, Ratzinger’s 2005 election, as the Church’s 265th Pope, was celebrated as a milestone. Benedict XVI became the first German pontiff in more than 1,000 years. His papal rise was widely viewed as a symbol of Germany’s post-war absolution. Famously, the German newspaper Bild greeted news of Ratzinger’s election with the headline “Wir Sind Papst” (We are the pope). Continue…
By Katie Engelhart - Monday, February 4, 2013 at 2:00 PM - 0 Comments
A softer brand of fascism makes a comeback in Italy
Last week, sombre crowds gathered in capital cities across Europe to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel firmly atoned, in a podcast, for her country’s wartime past.
At a memorial in Milan, Silvio Berlusconi appeared far less contrite. Rather, the former Italian prime minister used the occasion to celebrate Benito Mussolini’s wartime alliance with Adolf Hitler. Berlusconi cheered the Fascist dictator for his muscular leadership—and dismissed his pact with Hitler as a half-hearted political manoeuvre. “The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini,” Berlusconi granted. But “in so many other ways” Mussolini “did well.”
By Katie Engelhart - Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 9:45 AM - 0 Comments
The soulmate search will soon be mobile, transparent and constant
In 2003, a young Mark Zuckerberg sat in front of his computer and instant-messaged a friend. Back then, “the facebook thing” was still a rough idea, and 18-year-old Zuckerberg was trying to finesse the concept.
Already, he knew what he didn’t want. “I don’t think people would sign up for the facebook thing if they knew it was for dating,” Zuckerberg wrote. “I think people are skeptical about joining dating things.”
A decade later, a somewhat savvier Zuckerberg has had a change of heart. Last week, Facebook unveiled “Graph Search,” a new search engine that will allow users to comb through data from their existing online networks. At a press launch, Facebook reps showed off the new product, explaining that it could be used to search for restaurants, or for job recruiting. At one point, a Facebook employee stood to demonstrate a search for “friends of my friends who are single and living in San Francisco.” Continue…
By Katie Engelhart - Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at 3:00 PM - 0 Comments
How did a self-described ‘classical Marxist’ with an unfashionable affection for surrealist psychoanalysis become a household name?
Earlier this month, London’s renowned Royal Opera House revealed the unlikely muse for its 2020 season: the radical leftist and notoriously unkempt Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The opera house has commissioned four (four!) new operas inspired by Žižek’s work, which will hit the main stage in seven years. Announcing the news, Britain’s Guardian referred to Žižek (pronounced Gee-gek, both soft Gs, as in regime) as “the most high-profile and controversial public philosopher of our time.”
Elsewhere, Žižek has been called “the Elvis of cultural theory” and the “Borat of philosophy.” More flatteringly, Foreign Policy recently named him among its “top 100 global thinkers.” Almost 25 years after he published his first English-language philosophy text, he has acquired cult icon status. Žižek’s latest film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, debuted last year in Toronto and New York. He published three books in 2012 alone—topping off the more than 50 he has written. His byline is awe-inspiringly ubiquitous—as are Žižekian decryption texts, such as the recent Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed. There’s even an International Journal of Žižek Studies, edited by Leeds University lecturer Paul Taylor. “Certain stuffy academics had a problem with the journal,” Taylor said. “There seems to be this tradition that people have to be dead before you can study them.” But exceptions are made for Žižek. Continue…
By Katie Engelhart - Friday, January 25, 2013 at 1:00 PM - 0 Comments
The coffee juggernaut plans to open a café in Montmartre, to the dismay of locals
Earlier this month, Starbucks announced plans to open a café on the old stomping grounds of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso in the storied Parisian neighbourhood of Montmartre. In response, the association Paris Fierté (Paris Pride) is circulating a petition and planning to protest its arrival. “Opinion,” the association says, “oscillates between anger and fatalism.”
Paris Fierté spokesperson Pierre Brabant warns that Starbucks’ attempt to breach Montmartre could be “the drop of coffee that makes the vase overflow.” The global giant opened its first French branch in 2004. But there are just 81 Starbucks in France, compared with more than 1,000 in Canada, and France’s Starbucks have yet to turn a profit.
In response, Starbucks has changed tactics—offering croque monsieur and pain perdu alongside its blueberry-studded jumbo muffins.
Laurent Pauzié, a young engineer in Paris, believes the Starbucks outlets “are only here to comfort tourists when they’re lost.” Kate Menzies, a Canadian living in Paris, is more accommodating. Starbucks, she says, “is one of the few places with public toilets and free WiFi in the city.”
By Katie Engelhart - Monday, January 21, 2013 at 4:00 PM - 0 Comments
UK says “hands off our islands”
The British government’s latest military manoeuvre seems fresh out of a Monty Python sketch: 150 British soldiers who just returned from a tour in Afghanistan are being redeployed to the Falkland Islands, a land mass roughly the size of Connecticut, almost 13,000 km from Britain.
The saga began this month, when Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner published a letter in two British newspapers staking her claim on the Falklands (the Malvinas, as they are known there), which are just off Argentina’s coast. “In a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism,” she wrote, “Argentina was forcibly stripped of the Malvinas.” Fernández urged the UN to restore the islands’ “territorial integrity.” British Prime Minister
David Cameron didn’t miss a beat, quickly appearing on the BBC to declare his “extremely strong” resolve to keep the islands British. Already, military chiefs have drawn up plans to prevent hostile action by Argentina, London’s Telegraph reports.
Of course, we’ve been here before. And memories of 1982 are certainly guiding Cameron’s hand, says Graham Stewart, author of A History of Britain in the 1980s. That year, prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s firm action during the 10-week Falklands War—which cost 650 Argentine and 250 British lives—helped solidify her political support, and shape her legacy. “Cameron is clearly aware of the legacy,” says Stewart. Continue…
By Katie Engelhart - Tuesday, January 15, 2013 at 9:57 AM - 0 Comments
Decision comes amid threat of financial collapse in EU
Later this year, the leaders of European Union nations will meet in Brussels for their annual European council. On the agenda: a discussion of Europe’s military might. At the summit, it’s likely that two equally bold visions for European defence will be put forward. One would see the union’s 27 member states pool military resources as never before—with an eye to eventually building a bona fide EU army. The other would see the union member with the strongest military, Britain, withdraw from the EU—leaving the Continent sputtering.
In London, it is talk of a potential pullout from the EU that dominates. But elsewhere, calls for a pan-European military are growing—with France and Germany leading the charge. In September, a group of EU foreign ministers spelled it out directly, weighing, in a controversial report, the possibility of a European army.
How exactly that army would function has yet to be decided—or even sketched out in much detail. In the event of another Iraq war, would the EU commit troops as a block? In the case of a major terrorist attack in Paris, would EU troops be called in? What seems unlikely is the prospect of EU leaders disbanding their own militaries. For that reason, a viable EU army would have to accommodate coexisting national forces—and leave room for individual opt-outs. But the question is: should the balance between national and continental defence be shifted? And how far? Last fall, EU defence ministers agreed to develop what sounds an awful lot like a kindergarten rulebook: a voluntary code of conduct on pooling and sharing. Continue…
By Katie Engelhart - Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 10:10 AM - 0 Comments
The much-quoted British politician still makes headlines—47 years after his death
When Winston Churchill was a young boy, he was convinced of his imminent importance. The late British prime minister “had a very strong sense that he was going to make his mark on history,” says Natalie Adams, an archivist at the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, England. “So he kept everything. And we have everything.”
That includes drafts of speeches and correspondence with monarchs—as well as damning school reports, letters to his mother, and a stern warning from the security service that Cuban cigars received as gifts could be poisoned or rigged with explosives.
In October, Churchill’s personal papers were made available on the Internet. The archive is “the closest the U.K. has to a presidential library,” said Jonathan Glasspool, managing director of the publisher Bloomsbury Academic. “Its publication online will become a landmark in 20th-century historical studies.”
By Katie Engelhart - Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 6:30 AM - 0 Comments
Some French speakers are bewildered by the loosening of long-held rules of grammatical etiquette
In July 2011, Franz Durupt, a young journalist for Le Monde’s website, committed an error of grave proportions. On Twitter—in an otherwise unremarkable comment about the eurozone crisis—he referred to Laurent Joffrin, a Parisian editor, using the informal second-person “tu” instead of the formal “vous.” Joffrin did not let the lexical affront slide. He tweeted a 31-character battle cry: “Qui vous autorise a me tutoyer?” (“Who said it was okay for you to ‘tu’ me?”)
The now notorious exchange was reprinted endlessly in French broadsheets. Joffrin came to epitomize France’s semantic old guard. But, as wise folks might one day say, real life is more complicated than a Twitter stream. In recent decades, France’s grammatical structures have loosened, leaving some French speakers bewildered, says Australian French professor Bert Peeters, co-editor of the book Tu ou Vous: l’embarras du choix. What used to be a simple snap judgment—formal or informal?—has become “an uneasy choice.”
The seeds of this malaise were planted in 1789, when Parisians stormed the Bastille and France was awash in revolution. As the French masses rose up against a long-entrenched aristocracy, “vous”—the syntactic equivalent of doffing one’s cap—was demonized. “Revolutionaries wanted to do away with all that aristocratic business,” says Peeters. “They wanted everyone to be on a ‘tu’ basis. But that didn’t last long.” Enter Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor famed for restoring the ancient regime; re-enter the formal vous. Continue…
By Katie Engelhart - Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
Topless models the focus of a national debate about decency in the press
In 1970, soon after Rupert Murdoch acquired Britain’s Sun newspaper, the “Page Three girl” was born: her hair tousled and shoulders sun-kissed, her left breast exposed for all to see. The page-three topless models were credited with salvaging the Sun’s flagging circulation, and were widely copied; homages include Canada’s Sunshine Girl, Chile’s La Bomba 4 and Germany’s Seite drei Mädchen. Now, the Sun’s buxom bosoms are focal points in a national debate about decency on Britain’s printed page. A new petition, “Take the bare boobs out of the Sun,” has garnered almost 60,000 signatures.
The brouhaha began last summer, when 36-year-old Lucy Holmes was flipping through the Sun’s Olympic coverage. “The biggest image of a female in the paper was that of a young woman in her knickers,” she recalls. “It made me so sad.” Soon afterwards Holmes launched the campaign, which has gone viral. She’s even attracted an unlikely ally: Nina Carter, once a page-three girl herself. “In the early days,” the former swimsuit model insists, “it was classy.” But the “glamorous ladies” have long since fled the page.
Supporters want advertisers to leave the Sun, Britain’s largest-circulation daily, and some want government to intervene. Continue…
By Katie Engelhart - Friday, October 19, 2012 at 11:30 AM - 0 Comments
Kenyans look for financial compensation and a state apology for torture committed 60 years ago
As of this month, the British Empire is on trial. Or so goes the story in London.
On Oct. 5, a British high court ruled that three elderly Kenyans who were tortured and abused by colonial authorities in Kenya in the 1950s can proceed with their case against the British government. They are asking for financial compensation and a state apology. Pushing aside the claims of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that too much time has elapsed for a fair trial, and that modern-day Britain is not to blame for the wrongs of its colonial forebears, the high court has, for the first time, allowed colonial victims to sue the British state.
When the decision came down, the trial’s three claimants gathered at the Kenya Human Rights Commission in Nairobi with their supporters. Members of the crowd, some in their 80s, rose to dance in slow shuffles and sing nostalgic ballads from the days of their independence struggles. “This is an historic judgment that will reverberate around the world,” said Martyn Day, the lawyer for the three claimants, greeting reporters in London in what felt like a muted call to arms. “There will undoubtedly be victims of colonial torture from Malaya to the Yemen, from Cyprus to Palestine, who will be reading this judgment with great care.”
“History is on trial,” affirms Harvard University historian Caroline Elkins, who is serving as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. Indeed, the alleged crimes are a half-century old—part of the last gasps of a dying British Empire. But the British government, for its part, does “not dispute that each of the claimants suffered torture and other ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.” What it does deny is legal liability. The FCO has already announced its intent to appeal the high court’s decision to subject imperial Britain to the scrutiny of modern-day justice.
What is at stake is Britain’s legal liability for events that occurred during colonial rule. How the FCO handles the Kenyans’ damning charges will affect its reputation on the international stage. The pitched legal battle has already uncovered a dramatic tale of “missing” documents, clandestine intelligence operations and allegations of a state cover-up. The world is watching.
The lawsuit brought by the three Kenyans—Wambugu Wa Nyingi, Jane Muthoni Mara and Paulo Muoka Nzili—concerns the brutal effort by colonial authorities in the 1950s to quash an anti-British rebel movement. In the 1940s, more than a half-century into British rule, a small group of mostly Kikuyu, the country’s majority ethnic group, formed the Mau Mau: a secret group whose followers took an oath to oppose British rule. The practice of “oathing” spread across Kenya’s bucolic farmlands, with thousands of Kenyans swearing (sometimes willingly, sometimes under duress) to give their life for the independence cause. The Mau Mau came to resemble a kind of amorphous insurgency, with up to 25,000 operating as forest fighters, where they’d fled to hide. And though the vast majority opposed the initial move to violence, a core of radicalized members—bound by the ritual of drinking animal blood—took an oath to kill. Those rebels murdered around 30 Europeans, as well as hundreds of colonial officers and loyalists.
In response, colonial authorities began an aggressive and large-scale counter-insurgency aimed at strangling the Mau Mau. In October 1952, Kenyan Governor Evelyn Baring, the Queen’s representative in Kenya, declared a state of emergency. Two years later, the colonial army began rounding up Kikuyu by the thousands, erecting barbed-wire compounds to house the alleged oath-takers. The so-called “Kenya Emergency” lasted until 1960. An estimated 150,000 Kenyans were detained; a “pipeline” of detention camps was set up to house them. Tens of thousands died in the camps, with many more left scarred by torture.
The three plaintiffs are survivors of the camps. Their 2010 witness statements detail the most depraved acts of their army aggressors. In one statement, Jane Muthoni Mara recounts how, as a teenager, she was arrested for helping to feed a group of Mau Mau rebels that included her brother. At the screening camp in Gatithi, Mara claims, British officers pried her legs apart and shoved a bottle filled with scalding water into her vagina. In a second statement, Wambugu Wa Nyingi details years of steady and severe whippings. In his statement, Paulo Muoka Nzili describes being castrated with a pair of pliers.
In 1960, the Kenyan Emergency ended. The detention camps were closed. Three years later, Kenya was granted independence. Back in London, army officials like Gen. George Erskine—who as early as 1953 acknowledged in a letter to the British Secretary of State for War that the revelation of their conduct “would be shattering”—kept mum. The new government did not lift Britain’s ban on the Mau Mau, and surviving members were driven further underground—until 2003, when the organization was more or less obsolete, with many members deceased.
But in 2005, the floodgates opened, when two revisionist accounts of the Kenyan Emergency were published to popular acclaim, one by Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, and one by the Oxford University historian David Anderson. Elkins’s Imperial Reckoning won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. Soon after, Mau Mau veterans associations began registering members. The Kenya Human Rights Commission in Nairobi sent young lawyers out to hunt for plaintiffs; a few survivors were selected to take the case forward. Three historians, including Anderson and Elkins, were brought on board to act as expert witnesses, to fill the role that a ballistics specialist might play in a military trial, or a psychiatrist in a murder case.
The fight over whether this case should go to trial has carried on for years. Initially, the FCO resisted on technical grounds: yes, torture took place, but the Kenyan Republic assumed responsibility for it upon independence. When that plea was rejected by a judge in 2011, the FCO changed its tack, contending that a fair trial was no longer possible since “the key decision makers are dead and unable to give their account of what happened.” This month’s decision overruled that claim too. “The difficulties advanced by the defendant,” the judge wrote, “are more illusory than real.”
In a statement released after the court’s ruling, the FCO accepted that the judgment had “potentially significant and far-reaching legal implications.” A spokesperson refused to elaborate on what those “far-reaching implications” might be.
Meanwhile, historians have been looking back in time. Or trying to. About a decade ago, historian David Anderson realized that something was awry at the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi. “There were missing blocks of files,” Anderson explained from his office in an old house inhabited by Oxford’s African Studies Centre. Behind his desk, a shelf is lined with faded binders labelled Mau Mau. “In critical deposits, there were batches of five, 10 files missing. For no apparent reason,” he says. “Wouldn’t your alarm bells ring?” From file catalogues, Anderson could see that most of the missing material concerned accusations of abuse from the Kenyan Emergency period.
Meanwhile, historians in Britain found references to documents that had been whisked to London after independence—in violation of Britain’s pledge to hand over all files to Kenya. Inquiries were made, but the FCO denied having any such documentation. When the Mau Mau trial got under way, the FCO was pressed again. Again, the office professed ignorance.
The back-and-forth that ensued has been recounted in excruciating detail in pages of official inquiry reports that have been hungrily reprinted in the British press. Last year, the prosecution uncovered the treasure trove at a high-security government building at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire. The so-called “migrated archives” contained 8,800 FCO files—1½ tonnes of missing documents.
The files represent a bombshell for the British government, because they contain material from 37 former colonies, including more than 15,000 pages deemed directly relevant to the Mau Mau trial. The papers prove that there were operations “to remove documents in every single British colony,” says Anderson—“things they didn’t want successor governments to see.” In Uganda, the purge was code-named Operation Legacy. The new documents show that some of the most top-secret files are still missing. And they confirm what historians have long suspected: that many more document caches were illegally set ablaze as the empire crumbled.
Tony Badger, an independent University of Cambridge historian hired by the FCO to oversee the file transfer, calls the episode “embarrassing.” But he accepts the government’s explanation that incompetence, not malfeasance, is to blame for the FCO’s “missed opportunity to come clean.” This intrigue does not bode well for an empire on the defence. “Whether [the remaining documents] are really lost or whether they were conveniently misplaced is an open question,” says Anderson. His verdict? “I very much doubt that they were destroyed,” he whispers. “To be candid, my guess is that they’re with MI somewhere. They’re with the spooks.”
For the past few weeks, rumours have been circulating in London that victims of other colonial atrocities might follow Kenya’s lead. Survivors of the 1950s Cyprus Emergency are seen as viable candidates. They include former members of the EOKA, a Greek Cypriot independence organization that fought British rule and was countered with brute force.
One recent morning at his central London ofﬁce, Day, the Mau Mau lawyer, looked uncomfortable when asked whether he had been contacted by Cypriot lawyers. “Odd bits,” he mumbled. “It’s kind of vague at this stage.” When pressed about the nature of those contacts, he refused to elaborate. “Ah, I’m not saying too much.”
George Morara, of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, who oversees the case, was more forthcoming. He says the commission has been contacted by people in Malaysia, India, Zimbabwe and Uganda. Morara says he will advise them on how to initiate claims against Britain—how to seek recompense for colonial violence that was, until now, simply seen as a constituent of imperial rule. “If you want to come talk with us,” he enthuses in his warm baritone, “you are most welcome.”
The Mau Mau case is unique because it marks the first time that British colonialism has been put to trial. But it fits with a broader push for historical trials over the past few decades: of aging former Nazis or Francoists or out-of-office Chilean dictators. These trials rarely proceed smoothly. Costly and divisive, they shove lawyers and the judiciary into the role of amateur historian, forced to reconstruct and interpret long-ago history in order to judge the specific crimes at issue.
Day explains that in this trial, it is “quite crucial” for him to prove that British violence in colonial Kenya was “systemic.” The defendant, after all, is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—not an army officer or a civil servant. To do so, Day must link individual acts of unlawful detention or castration “to the halls of British government,” as he says.
Elkins says that such a system revealed itself in 1957, soon after the colonial office in Kenya approved the “dilution technique,” which allowed officers to use “compelling force” against suspected oath-takers. The Cowan Plan, named for prisons commissioner J.B.T. Cowan, authorized the use of violence and forced labour, was a derivative of that technique. It was rubber-stamped by the government in London after meetings at the Foreign Office in which British officials were briefed on the situation in Kenya. “The evidence is just overwhelming,” insists Elkins. “We’re swimming in it.”
But this legal approach can mean that individual acts or agents are glossed over—in an effort to expose the “system” behind them. When asked whether his clients had considered bringing a case against surviving colonial officers, Day just shrugged. “Vaguely.”
In London, a popular history of British colonialism is being written through press coverage of this trial. But in many newspaper articles, that history is askew. Often missing, for instance, is any acknowledgement that Mau Mau rebels also committed horriﬁc murders. On the crude balance sheet of history, their crimes are considered less weighty. To Day, his clients have become “stand-ins” for colonial victimhood; in this way, the FCO may be standing in for the Imperial Army.
Huw Bennett, another historian involved in the trial, is rooting for a shift in popular perceptions of that army. “There [is] this impression,” Bennett explains, “that the British army doesn’t do war crimes.” It is popular in British academic circles to contrast British restraint with America’s bloody excesses. People believe this is what “Americans do in Vietnam or in Abu Ghraib,” Bennett scoffs. “It’s the kind of thing the French do in Algeria. But atrocities—that’s not British stuff!”
On Oct. 26, a hearing will determine how the trial will move forward; Day expects more cases to be filed. And yet the mood was jubilant in Nairobi on the day the decision was handed down. “I am very, very happy,” said Wambugu Wa Nyingi, who still bears black marks on his ankles where manacles rubbed his skin raw over 50 years ago. “My heart is clean,” echoed Jane Muthoni Mara, who is still haunted by visions of her sexual assault. “I will tell [my children] I won.”
By Katie Engelhart - Friday, September 28, 2012 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
The Belfast agreement was signed 14 years ago, but century-old resentments remain
A hundred years ago this week, half a million men and women in Belfast filed into City Hall to sign the Ulster Covenant: an official petition against “Home Rule”—a move toward a self-governing Northern Ireland, independent of Mother England. Enraged loyalists—convinced that Home Rule “would be disastrous”—gathered to defend their “cherished position” in his gracious majesty’s United Kingdom.
This Saturday, thousands of modern-day loyalists will take to Belfast’s crumbling main streets, to commemorate a battle won. Their republican neighbours—who would have rather seen Home Rule carried through a century ago—are already steeling themselves. The capital city is quiet now, but this past summer it hosted a string of ugly demonstrations that saw bricks, bombs and bullets exchanged across sectarian lines—and young riot officers turn water cannons against civilian crowds. With the memory of Northern Ireland’s bloody “Troubles” still fresh, Belfast residents are counting down to the big anniversary with practised wariness.
“There will be trouble. Oh, there’ll be trouble,” said John O’Neill, a sprightly taxi driver, on a recent drive through central Belfast. “There’s no killing here, no bones anymore. But when you scratch the surface, this place is a sectarian home. And it always will be.”
By Katie Engelhart - Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 10:50 AM - 0 Comments
Sixteen years after the Dayton accords, Bosnia remains a failed state—with no will to set things right
In late July, a great crowd gathered in Sarajevo to mark an occasion: the opening of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s first McDonald’s. Beneath the golden arches, perched high above the routine bustle of Marshall Tito Street, there was much fanfare. The president was on hand, as was the U.S. ambassador and Sarajevo’s stern-faced mayor (who bought the first burger). Patrons, who gathered by the hundreds, were quoted in the international press, saying things like, “We’re a normal country now!” or, “McDonald’s is a symbol of the Western world and I’m happy that Bosnia is joining it.”
It had been a long haul for the burger behemoth. “We faced problems with a very complicated system of government and administration, a difficult tax system and patent corruption,” Adi Hadziarapovic, McDonald’s local marketing director, explained. The chain must be relieved, then, that months later the place is still hopping with round-bellied men and flocks of well-heeled women in floral dresses clasping Big Macs. And the venue, a colossal new building whose glass facade overlooks the central thoroughfare, is still pristine. Two tidy-looking employees stand at attention by the door, straight-backed, brooms in hand—watching stoically over Bosnia’s new national treasure.