Articles

Friday, February 19, 2021, The Globe and Mail

“He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future,” wrote George Orwell in his iconic work, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or, put differently, as I asked in my book, Long Shadows: Truth, Lies and History, who gets to decide what happened yesterday?

Orwell’s statement, and my question, were written upon a subliminal screen that hovered over the U.S. Senate chamber last week. For what took place in that famed history-soaked room was a critical contest of competing narratives about how Americans, and the world at large, will understand the country whose myth making describes itself as “the city on the hill,” as an example to everyone of how they should live and govern. [more]

Wednesday January 27, 2021, The Globe and Mail

“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.” – Robert H. Jackson, opening address at the Nuremberg trials in November 1945

Although the recent attack on the seat of the United States government was not comparable to the events addressed by the Nuremberg Tribunal, which tried genocidal war crimes, Justice Robert Jackson’s prescient words about accountability directly apply. The putsch against the United States Capitol was an act of domestic terrorism – a major criminal offence; and as Mr. Jackson put it, such crimes cannot tolerate being ignored because civilization (or democracy) cannot survive their being repeated. [more]

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]