Articles

Monday November 16, 2020, The Globe and Mail

When my children were young, derisive “Newfie” jokes were all the rage. I didn’t allow them in my house; I’d lived in France as a student and learned enough about pre-war history to know that plural societies can exist peacefully only within an ethos of mutual respect.

Which is why both France and the United States have evolved into tragic political entities. Both their foundational ideologies are dangerously anachronistic.

Take the recent atrocities in France following the conduct of a teacher who pulled out the same caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that provoked major violence in the past. There is no possible excuse for his monstrous medieval-style murder, or for the others that occurred after. But to understand circumstance is neither to assign blame nor to condone violence, a fact historians must constantly emphasize. That France houses almost six million Muslims, the largest population in the West, makes it critical to understand the impact of the Prophet Mohammed caricatures in that country. [more]

Monday July 27, 2020, The Globe and Mail

Last week, a Hamburg state court found Bruno Dey, 93, a former SS tower guard at the Stutthof concentration camp, guilty of complicity in 5,232 counts of murder: the exact number of human beings destroyed during his tenure there in 1944-45.

Because Mr. Dey was a boy of 17 when he took up his duties, he was tried in a juvenile court (where the sight of an elderly man in a wheelchair must have startled the staff). The prosecution sought a three-year prison sentence; the defence called for an acquittal on grounds that such a young person would have been incapable of standing up to his elders in the name of conscientious refusal. The judge, for her part, decided on a suspended sentence of two years. A symbolic punishment.

In the aftermath, the usual questions were raised. Why bother trying someone for a crime committed so long ago, even if the law allows it? Why prosecute a man of 93 whose life was drawing to a natural close? What choice did he have? He had made a public apology at the close of his trial. Shouldn’t that be enough? Finally, might a merely symbolic verdict actually diminish the appalling nature of his offence? [more]

Sunday, May 17, 2020, The Star

Today’s coronavirus has echoes not just of more recent pandemics but of the medieval plague, a disease of unkown origin that unleashed terrible fear and hatred. In the following excerpt from her 2015 book, From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale from Fifteenth-Century Spain, Erna Paris narrates the European experience of the plague, known as the Black Death, in the fourteenth century.

Behold a Pale Horse

There was famine, flooding and the painful erosion of deeply held conviction, but the fourteenth century had not finished delivering up misfortune. In mid-century all of Europe was devastated by unprecedented calamity. Bubonic plague.

“In a.d. 1348, the people of France and of almost the whole world were struck by a blow other than war,” wrote Jean de Venette, the prior of a Carmelite monastery in Paris.

Looking back at that terrible year the goodly prior suspected he had been permitted to see a celestial portent of the plague:

In the month of August 1348, after Vespers, when the sun was beginning to set, a big and very bright star appeared above Paris, toward the west … Whether it was composed of airy exhalations and was finally resolved into vapour, I leave to the decisions of astronomers. It is, however, possible that it was a presage of the amazing pestilence to come. [more]

Dear Visitors,
Welcome to my website.

Given what the world is currently experiencing with the contemporary plague of Covid 19, I thought I’d post my chapter on the Black Death of the Fourteenth Century from my book From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale From Fifteenth Century Spain. (Earlier published as The End of Days.) It was a different age, but human responses were the same. I hope you will find it interesting and enjoy the reading.

Erna

There was famine, flooding, and the painful erosion of deeply held conviction, but the fourteenth century had not finished delivering up misfortune. In mid-century all of Europe was devastated by unprecedented calamity, and in its wake came terror for the non-Christian minority.

“In A.D. 1348, the people of France and of almost the whole world were struck by a blow other than war,” wrote Jean de Venette, the prior of a Carmelite monastery in Paris.

Looking back at that terrible year the goodly prior suspected he had been permitted to see a celestial portent of the plague:

In the month of August 1348, after Vespers, when the sun was beginning to set, a big and very bright star appeared above Paris, toward the west. It did not seem, as stars usually do, to be very high above our hemisphere but rather very near. At length, when night had come, this big star, to the amazement of all of us who were watching, broke into many different rays. Whether it was a comet or not, whether it was composed of airy exhalations and was finally resolved into vapor, I leave to the decisions of astronomers. It is, however, possible that it was a presage of the amazing pestilence to come. [more]

Saturday January 25, 2020, The Globe and Mail

This month, we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest and most infamous of the Nazi’s death camps. It will no doubt be a time of sombre reflection and analysis – and a pointer to whatever trends may be emerging with regard to Holocaust memory.

Historical traumas seem to have their own timelines – and they are long. Think for a moment about slavery in the United States, an era that formally ended in 1865, but continues to wreak havoc in American civic and political life under many guises. Think about our slowly emerging knowledge of the Armenian genocide. It took place a century ago, yet the scale and the enduring import of the assault remains unacknowledged by the perpetrators, the Turkish state.

Persecution, with its attendant human suffering, is always a messy business: It burrows deep into consciousness and encompasses a range of extreme human emotions: from despair to rage, from guilt to denial. Sometimes, although more rarely, it even includes remorse.

And so it is with the Holocaust – an historically unprecedented assault against an entire ethnic group: the Jews of Europe. The Holocaust, a name that came into popular usage only in the 1970s, was unprecedented precisely because nothing on this scale had happened before. And because of the means employed: the deadly technology exploited by the Nazis to effect their murderous plan. [more]