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March 09, 2015

Monday Morning Muesli

On Friday I read yet another plaudit for Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. Sleepwalkers? To judge from the title the great powers went to war in their sleep, without a conscious decision to do so, an interpretation that should let everyone off the hook. At least, the sleepwalking defence has been known to work in a criminal court for defendants accused of murder and rape, so I guess it could also cover the initiation of aggressive wars.

The Sleepwalkers has been sold across the world -- most notably in Germany, where it has been a best seller -- on its title and its great reviews. But the title continues to mystify me, for Clark does not appear to believe it himself. In his introduction (p. xxvii) he writes:

The story this book tells is ... saturated with agency. The key decision makers -- kings, emperors, foreign ministers, ambassadors, military commanders, and a host of lesser officials -- walked towards danger in watchful, calculated steps.

So, not asleep at all. And he concludes his book (pp. 561-562):

Did the protagonists understand how high the stakes were? [Yes, at some length]. They knew it ...

Again: not asleep. What's going on? You can't help wondering if this is a case of an author trapped by a working title that was written into the contract with his publisher before he knew what he would say. Maybe Clark felt he could rescue himself at the last moment by adding the words I missed off the end of the sentence that I just quoted:

They knew it, but did they really feel it?

Then, a brief allusion to the horrors of modern warfare, which those protagonists apparently did not "feel"; and the final sentence of the book:

In this sense the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.

But the way I read this, Clark's complaint is not that these guys were asleep! It is rather that in the majority they were soldiers, trained (as John Keegan once described in The Face of Battle) to respond to the emergency of combat with military professionalism, not unsoldierly panic. When they foresaw horror and extinction with one part of their brain, they were thinking with the other half about how to manage it. And in that spirit they went to war.

It's an interesting point, and an important one, too, if you want to ask why the professional soldiers had such influence in the secret councils of Berlin, Vienna, and St Petersburg in the summer of 1914. But it has absolutely nothing to do with sleepwalking.

***

Thursday this week will see the Warwick Summit on Protest, which follows some unfortunate events that took place on campus at the end of last term. I wasn't a witness and I don't claim any special insight. I did respond to the survey that followed, along with 578 other staff and students of the university. The survey and responses have now been dissiminated behind the university firewall; here's mine. I don't plan to attend the summit, so this will be the limit of my contribution.

  • Please tell us about any concerns you have in relation to protest on campus, including those relating to recent events?

There is a right to protest within the law. This right needs to be upheld. Protests on campus that go beyond that by involving trespass (occupations) or violence have been quite rare. The Warwick Summit should think carefully before basing general conclusions on things that happen infrequently.

  • Please tell us if there is anything you would like to see done differently in relation to protest in the future?

While occupations and violent protests on campus have been rare, they are also polarizing events. In that setting emotion can override calculation, so that over-reaction on either or both sides is predictable. Those who exercise their right to protest should carefully consider the potential for violence in their actions. An example is occupations, which are always forceful (because they forcefully deny other people legitimate access to a space). Moreover, occupations avoid interpersonal violence only by exploiting surprise.

  • Do you have any questions that you would like to see addressed at the summit?

In response to the December events I have heard demands for a self-policing campus (or "police off campus"). This would be a mistake. When crimes are committed, the victims have a right of access to the law. University officials, academics, and students are not trained for crime prevention or investigation, nor should they be. There will always be a need for police on campus.


March 02, 2015

Monday Morning Muesli

Writing about web page Nemtsov Putin KGB

According to Putin's spokesman Dmitrii Peskov, the Russian President considers that the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was a contract killing with "all the signs of a provocation." This theory has been echoed faithfully by the chief of the investigative commission Vladimir Markin:

The murder could be a provocation to destabilize the political situation in the country, and the figure of Nemtsov could represent a kind of 'holy sacrifice' for those that don't shrink from any means to achieve their political goals.

(Remember that phrase: "holy sacrifice" (in Russian сакральная жертва).

These officials imply that Russian oppositionists murdered their own leader in order to cause chaos and create an opportunity to seize power. The investigators are also considering other motives, although none of them is the most obvious one, that someone had Nemtsov killed in order to remove the opposition's best known leader and intimidate those that remained.

That interpretation should not come as a surprise. Two years ago almost to the day, prime minister Putin was campaigning for election for Russia's president. At a meeting he addressed the context of public protests over the conduct of the election. Referring to the opposition, he said:

The ones that you mentioned, they want some clashes and are directing everything towards this goal. They are prepared even to put someone forward as a victim and blame the authorities for it ... They've been trying to do this for ten years, especially those that are sitting abroad. I'm telling you this exactly. This is what I know. They are even looking for a 'holy sacrifice' from among the prominent people. They themselves will go 'bang,' if you'll excuse me, and then they will blame the authorities.

And yes, Markin's words "holy sacrifice" are exactly the same as the words that his master used two years before. You have to wonder if they've been talking to each other.

***

The general effect is one more creepy echo from Russia's past. On 4 December 1934 a gunman entered the Leningrad communist party headquarters and assassinated Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad party chief. The circumstances strongly suggest some kind of official collusion: Someone above Kirov, which really means the NKVD or Stalin himself, either ordered the murder or knowingly allowed it to happen, but all those close to the deed were dead within a few days or months, and the documents in the archives have not settled the matter. Most likely we'll never know for sure.

We do know what happened next: Stalin immediately took personal charge of the investigation. Within days an official narrative began to emerge: the murderer was a terrorist acting on behalf of foreign powers and domestic traitors. The opposition had incited and organized the deed. Based on this conclusion, the Kirov murder became the pretext for ever-wdening circles of repression; many of the defendants in the show trials in Moscow and elsewhere in 1936 and 1937 were charged with complicity in Kirov's death, among many other fantastic crimes.

***

Recently I've been trying to learn about underground humour. In the process I came across a very nice paper by Elliott Oring, “Risky Business: Political Jokes under Repressive Regimes,” in Western Folklore 63(3) (2004), pp. 209-236. This paper has some wonderful material from a respondent called Klava, a Jewish woman from Odessa. Here's a story that I particularly liked:

Klava was born in 1948. She remembered growing up with political jokes. ‘It was a national past time.’ Odessans prided themselves on their jokes and on being good jokers, and this reputation was recognized by people from others parts of the country as well … But Klava was always aware that jokes and other kinds of discussions could not be freely shared. ‘It was a given ... You are not to repeat ... Only to your family members and your friends.’ Because there were very strict – though unofficial – quotas for Jews at the university, Klava, like many Jews seeking education and advancement, obtained her degree in engineering. She was employed at a large firm, but she eventually quit her job, and became a manicurist. She planned to apply for permission to emigrate, and she knew that once she applied, she would lose her engineering job. By obtaining a job as a manicurist before submitting her application, she could assure herself a source of income while awaiting permission. Nevertheless, she did not immediately apply as her family did not want her to leave.

In 1974, she was working in the shop and she had several clients who were waiting to have their nails done. One of her customers came in without an appointment. She needed to have her nails done because she was going on vacation. She had been Klava's customer for several years. Klava told her that she would do her nails if she would wait until she had finished with her scheduled customers. So while she worked on the other customers, the woman waited in the shop. 1974 was a celebratory year in the communist calendar – a Lenin anniversary – and Klava and her customers exchanged jokes and witticisms – many about Lenin …

Her unscheduled customer sat there the whole time that the jokes were being told. The rest is in Klava's words:

"After the two girls left and she was in the chair. And as I was working on her, she told me, ‘Klava, do you know who I am?’

"I said, ‘Of course, your name is Ludmilla Ivanovna.’ And she said, ‘Do you know where I work?’ ‘Of course, it's in the municipal hall.’ She said, ‘Do you know what department I work in?’ ‘I have no idea.’ ‘It's department number one,’ which was KGB. And the joke was said, it was Lenin's hundredth birthday, and so all the jokes were about it. [The customer then told the following joke.] ‘There was a competition for the best joke about Lenin. And the first prize is ten years to where Lenin used to go’ – jail, exile. And she looked at me and the smile disappeared from her face, and she told me, ‘If I did not value you as my manicurist, I would send you for ten years to where Lenin used to go.’ And that was a decisive moment, because I wanted to go [emigrate] like three years ago, and my family did not want me [to]. I was scared. I was very scared, more than in my whole life, before that or after that."

That night Klava called her family together and told them what had happened and that she was going to submit her application to emigrate. It only took her three months to get the permission, and then she had thirty days to leave the country. Her parents also applied to leave but they were refused, and she had to leave without them.


February 23, 2015

Monday Morning Muesli

One of the first statements by Greece's new prime minister Alexis Tsipras called on Germany to pay more reparations to Greece for losses arising from the Nazi occupation in World War II. Some commentators added that, if Germany could have its debts and damages mostly forgiven after World War II, Greece could be forgiven its debts today. Back in June 2012 my LSE colleague Albrecht Ritschl had an interesting column on The Economist websiteabout the magnitudes. Anyway, the implication is that if Germany got away with it; why not Greece?

Maybe a few aspects of how the war ended have been forgotten. At the end of the war, Germany was placed under military occupation. Its territory was divided, and permanently stripped of East Prussia and Alsace-Lorraine in the West. The German leaders responsible for the damages caused in the war were killed or hanged, and punishment was meted out to many other Germans with lesser responsibility. Eastern Germany paid large reparations to the Soviet Union. In both East and West Germany the constitution and economic and social order were comprehensively refashioned by external powers. In both East and West Germany young people were systematically educated to feell shame about their country's recent past.

If you ignore all that, then yes, Germany got away with it. If Greek leaders want to argue for debt forgiveness on that precedent, then let them go for it. I'm not against an element of debt forgiveness for Greece, by the way. I'm just against misusing history and invoking the Nazis to get opinion on your side.

***

Is austerity self-defeating? Lots of people seem to think so, and many of these seem to hold that view with great certainty. Relevant to this is a column by Benjamin Born, Gernot Müller, and Johannes Pfeifer that appeared on VoxEU over the weekend. They study the effects of temporary budget austerity using data from 38 emerging and advanced economies from 1990 to 2014. They distinguish between a budget cut in normal times and in times of financial stress (when the default premium on public debt is initially high). For countries that are initially stressed they find that in the short term austerity is indeed self-defeating: in the first year, GDP falls and the default premium rises. But the adverse scenario does not persist. Within five or so years GDP recovers and fiscal adjustment opens the way to lower interest rates than before.

Of course, this is just one study among many that are under way or recently published. A measure of wait-and-see is usually recommended. But it does contribute one more piece to the case for spending less if it was a problem to spend more. It also suggests we should give some provisional credit to the politicians that adopt it. Maybe they're just taking a longer view, something we don't usually associate with politics.

***

As driverless cars come nearer, there's bound to be public debate on the safety issues. On BBC CWR the other day I heard an interviewee: "But how safe will they be? If something goes wrong, who can we hold to account? We can't have them on the road until they're perfect!" I thought to myself: "Nooooo!" We shouldn't have driverless cars on the roads until they are clearly better at getting passengers safely to their destinations than the typical human driver. Bearing in mind that at 3AM the typical driver is likely to be either a night clubber on the way home or a taxi driver, that standard could be variable and, at times, not very demanding.

I do see the problem though. When the average driverless car is safer than the average driver, so that the total number of traffic fatalities is reduced, the driverless cars will still kill some people, for which they will be blamed. Moreover, driverless cars will be made by a few easily identifiable large corporations, who will make clear targets for the anger of mourning friends and relatives. If a few thousand people are rightly angry with drunk drivers, that's a hopeless cause. If the same number are angry at Toyota, say, it's a campaign. The likely result: driverless cars will be slower to catch on, and the safety gains will be harder to realize. I don't see a solution.

***

You may have already guessed that the title of this column is a tribute to Zack Weiner's fantastic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. I'll try to put some Monday Morning Muesli on the table once a week ... or once a month ... or whenever.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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