Tag Archives: History

#49 – Notes on Atheism, Hitler and Nazism

The faithful are playing with reference to a different set of rules when arguing for the merits of religion based on faith alone. Faith, by definition, requires no tangible evidence. But claims from the faithful about human history can be countered by the inquisitive atheist. We all have access to a plethora of terrestrial historical accounts which were not gleaned from divine revelation. In this edition of the podcast, Aidan explores the classic argument of the faithful against atheism when discussing human history. This argument – especially prevalent whenever the issue of violence or hatred is discussed – is that Adolf Hitler was an atheist. The inferred claim is that this godlessness demonstrates the danger of turning away from the moral teachings of the church. Another aspect of the argument which is often thrown in as an addendum is a charge that the Third Reich was a secular movement. How much merit is there in these claims? Did Hitler reject God, and if he did, did this make a difference to human history? And how secular was Hitler’s Nazi regime? Aidan delves into the argument to provide grounded insight and analysis. Indeed, as with the claims of the holy books, the introduction of earthly evidence is crucial when one desires to separate fact from fiction.

Selected bibliography:

J. Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII
A. Hitler (ed. N. Baynes), The Speeches of Adolf Hitler
A. Hitler, Mein Kampf
C. Hitchens, God Is Not Great
G. Orwell, Literature and Totalitarianism

Additional Aidan Project content on related persons:

Adolf Hitler (podcast)
Christopher Hitchens (article)
George Orwell (podcast)

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#37 – Dogmatic Silence: Abuse in the Church

In this edition of the podcast, Aidan talks to David Greenwood, Chairman of Stop Church Child Abuse. The Catholic Church has a history of cover-ups and scandal, a history of secret Catholic Courts, and a history of unscrupulously moving priests between countries once abuse has taken place. What are the current attitudes emanating out of the Catholic Church in respect of child sex abuse? Furthermore, the Church of England has its own shameful story to tell, or rather, a story that requires activists such as David to tell, for the Church will not seek to do it itself. ‘Abuse Of Faith’ was an independent Church of England review, published in June 2017, which looked at Peter Ball, a former Bishop of Lewes, who was jailed in 2015 after admitting a number of sex offences between 1977 and 1992. How much of a landmark moment is this review? In this Pope-Truth world, Aidan and David discuss the dogmatic silence of church leaders and the institutionalized resistance to transparency. Stop Church Child Abuse is an alliance of clergy sexual abuse survivors, charities that support survivors, specialist lawyers and interested individuals working in the field of child safeguarding. The organisation seeks to investigate and highlight the serious safeguarding failures of church institutions, from 1954 to the present. This episode highlights the serious failings of the Church of England and looks at the campaign to urge the UK Government to set up an Independent Commission of Inquiry into child sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy, religious and other church officials. You can read “Abuse of Faith” at https://www.churchofengland.org/media/3999908/report-of-the-peter-ball-review-210617.pdf. If you were affected by any of the issues raised in this episode, you can visit http://macsas.org.uk/, e-mail helpline@macsas.org.uk, or call 08088 01 03 40.

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#12 – Western Downfall: Why Trump Won

On this edition of The Aidan Project Podcast, Aidan is joined on the line from New York City by philosopher, Dr. Benedict Beckeld. In this episode, Aidan and Dr. Beckeld discuss a number of important issues, most notably Dr. Beckeld’s explanation of Donald Trump’s electoral success. Dr. Beckeld argues that oikophobia – a repudiation of one’s own culture – led to the rise of Trump. The good news is that ‘Western Decline’ is cyclical; the bad news is that there is no immediate sign of a reversal. Also discussed on the show: the ‘Regressive Left’, immigration, Islam, free speech, race riots in Sweden, Brexit, Milo, atheism, bodybuilding, and much more. Dr. Beckeld was born in Sweden to Brazilian and Jewish parents, but emigrated with his family to New York City as a teenager. Dr. Beckeld’s philosophy has thus far focused primarily on matters of aesthetics, ethics, contemporary culture, political philosophy and the philosophy of history. For more information on Dr. Beckeld, you can find him online at www.benedictbeckeld.com and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/benedictbeckeld

For more ways to listen, to subscribe to the podcast or to sign-up for e-mail updates when new content is available, please click here.

Reflections of a Mature Student

The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.

Christopher Hitchens

Preface

This edition of The Aidan Project blog is something of a public service announcement for would-be mature students. It is for those of you out there who have considered taking the leap into higher education but, for whatever reason, have put it off. If this does not speak to you in this context, then I hope you may still find my reflections interesting for what they are.

I took the academic plunge in September of this year. Now, although I may sometimes be treading water, I have not drowned. And if you are reading this, you are doubtless someone with an open mind, so I am quite sure that you would not drown either. What follows are my reflections on my first three months at University.

The First Semester

This week, I complete my first semester at University. Having made the decision to enroll only a matter of weeks before the course started, I can honestly say that only four months ago, the idea of writing a reflective blog on the experience of my first semester would have sounded unlikely. However, I cannot definitively say it would have sounded completely ridiculous, because if truth be told, I have considered becoming a mature student for several years. Nevertheless, this foray towards a degree in History did all come together somewhat spontaneously; that is to say, it all fell into place and felt correct only in September 2016.

I was 34 when the course started, and have turned 35 since. Jumping back into education for the first time since I left school was a nervous proposition. Thankfully, I am not only far from being the only person on my course in the position of entering University later in life, even if I were the only mature participant, I now realise that this was something I had concerned myself with unduly. If you are passionate about the subject, you already have something in common with your fellow students straight out of the gate. Age is trumped by interests.

Progress? What Progress?

There is browsing, and then there is reading. Overcoming one of my main concerns upon joining my course, I have now become much better disciplined in reading, and maintaining concentration whilst doing so. Prior to becoming a student, my time at home would be spent doing multiple things at once; on my laptop, scrolling through Twitter on my phone, watching documentaries, listening to a podcast or audiobook. This was a difficult cycle to break. Now, whilst I fidget and will often wonder what nonsense Donald has tweeted, I stay the course and get my reading done. And I have learnt to enjoy it.

With a strict schedule of work, gym, University attendance and home studying, I have adapted to the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions. I am at peace with my commitments, because I have ensured that all can be accomplished if you plan ahead…and sacrifice a little sleep.

The Lessons of Learning

Any piece of text your lecturers will ask you to read, no matter how seemingly confusing, can be made sense of if you approach it in the right way, with the aforementioned open mind. You may have to read the text several times. You may have to put it down and resume later. But, more likely than not, you would not be asked to read the text if there was no purpose in doing so. I assure myself that, with a bit of patience, the point of the text is there to be found, hiding in plain sight.

Indeed, sometimes the most interesting texts have the dullest introductions. Persevere and get through it. A journal article assigned to my class regarding 18th century Parisian boulevards was desperately dull for the first several pages, yet it now stands out in my mind as one of the most interesting things I have read during the first semester. The article was not merely about boulevards. The point of the article was the emergence of a rising consumer culture, which could not be more relevant to understanding the rise of the Western market society. The text was not difficult. I did not need to read in between the lines, I just needed to read the lines themselves beyond an introduction that had not immediately gained my interest.

University lectures have taught me, above all else, that it does not matter what you think, but how you think. Within some degree of reason, you can read from the bible of Karl Marx or Adam Smith, but this is less important than the role of critical thinking and keeping an open mind. Debate is healthy; always listen to the views of people with whom you disagree. Challenge your perceptions and you will do well.

Course Highlights

Discussing current events, such as Brexit, the conflict in Syria, and the US election, has been the most interesting aspect of the course. I think it will be fascinating in hindsight for me to say that when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, or when Donald Trump became President-elect, I was a student, discussing the potential implications of what was happening. Being a student of history when significant events happen can almost make you feel like you have inside information because you are housed within such accessible historical context.

As a historical event, the French Revolution is the most interesting aspect of history that I had not quite appreciated the significance of before becoming a student. I could tell you nothing regarding Maximilien Robespierre in September, yet I have spent hours since reading and writing about him, and here I am writing about him once more. The case of Robespierre is, to me, so remarkable, as he achieved so much in such a short period of time, yet he remains so little known when these achievements are considered. Perhaps the shadow of Napoleon is to blame. I will share an essay with you all regarding the French Revolution early next year, and not merely the streamlined, academic, 2000 word version, but the epic Director’s Cut edition. Or perhaps I should say the Guillotine’s Cut.

One event, not in a lecture, seminar or book, has stuck with me for the important lesson it provided. It was an understanding gained back in the hazy days of our induction week, which is ancient history now. During a trip to a local historical mansion, a lecturer pointed out what to most people would be seen as an unremarkable toy soldier from the past. This toy soldier, it was explained, was actually that of a Russian soldier, which is indicative of Britain’s political alliances at the time. The toy was a valuable lesson to look beyond the aesthetic of primary sources. As another lecturer advised the class in November, sources can be interesting for what they did not even intend to reveal.

New Skills

Academic writing was something I was looking forward to embracing, even if I was not quite sure how to approach it. I feel I have a unique, be that positive or otherwise, writing style, but the feedback I have from my lecturers has made a huge difference already. I now use full stops, rather than long, flowing chunks of text without end. Good for the markers of my work, and good for you, the dutiful reader of my blog. Indeed, it was my desire to hone my writing skills that led me to launch The Aidan Project.

I have learnt to carefully skim a piece of text for the main principles, extract them, and then make a note of them to explore them in greater depth at a later time. I am less tied up with ceaseless note taking at the expense of actually getting any meaningful reading done. I suggest you make a note of that.

I have learnt the differences and merits of being a Niall Ferguson style, big storyteller, or a micro historian, delving into otherwise obscure parish records. Through the past several months, I have come to realise that I am a storyteller. I see storytelling as not only my primary interest in my quest to gain a degree in the subject, but also an obligation. I want to inform others, and to do so in an engaging manner.

Challenges

During my reading, I have certainly found it challenging to understand the mindset of human development which experienced an Enlightenment, yet still continued to engage so tragically in slavery and Social Darwinism. More confusing still is the fact that inspirational thinkers and exceptional scientists continued to believe in God. Many incredible people behaved in a way that we would find morally reprehensible today. Ironically, I am indeed confused and perplexed by the Enlightenment. I feel many people are quick to point out that we cannot be moral relativists, which has some merit. However, for me, this dodges an imperative to investigate a difficult concept. Perhaps the truth is just too frightening? Much, much more reading to do. The truth is out there, somewhere.

There is also a strange irrationality that I think is inbuilt into many students, which while probably a good thing, is still difficult to rationalise. I have been preparing for my essays since the day I received my course handbooks. Now, despite being a veritable determinist, who knows it is simply impossible that I would somehow fail to hand my assignments in on time, the deadlines remain ominous. Perhaps this is not so irrational after all. Perhaps it is that very same inbuilt anxiety that forces me to complete the essay, which makes sense as, after all, I am a determinist. And yes, this is philosophy, not history. Sorry about that.

Confidence

When I consider what I have become more confident about at University, put simply: I am more confident in simply being a student. Whether my work is good, bad or indifferent, the physical work itself to me was always less of a concern than adapting to actually being a student. I have adapted and I consider myself as a confident student, something I always wanted to be. I was just not ready to be a student when I left school.

When I started the course, I put the odds at 50/50 that the pressures of work would cause me to make a difficult choice and to consign my studies to history before the journey had really begun. I am now confident that I will finish this degree in some distant year, and will get to wear a fabulous hat, if only for a day.

In Conclusion

I jumped back into the pool of academic learning at 35. I was not the person I am today at 18. I would not have enjoyed University as a teenager. I also do not think University would have enjoyed me then, either. But lessons outside of University have now led me providentially into lessons within it. The timing was right.

My advice, especially if you, like me, were not suited to University when all your friends were – or thought they were – is to think of it as like passing a driving test. If I had somehow passed my driving test at 21, I may well have immolated myself in a spectacular fireball shortly thereafter. In other words, had I even been able to stomach University at the conventional age, I would probably have wasted my degree anyway. Timing is everything. Let timing and circumstances be your only considerations, not the fear of being older than your classmates.

I am, to be sure, definitely learning new tricks.

Aidan

The Berlin Wall and Donald Trump

 

President-elect Donald Trump says that his promises of a wall to keep out Mexicans from the land of the free may in fact not be a complete bricks and mortar effort. However, this is not a metaphor of mine to suggest he is not proceeding with a grand design, he has simply said that it may not be a complete wall, but may include sections made of fence. Well, I suppose it breaks up an otherwise boring wall and provides less opportunity for Banksy to strike.

Now, comparisons between this wall – if it ever comes to pass – and the Berlin Wall are, in truth, a stretch, yet they continue to be made. When Trump secured his big win on November 9, 2016, it was 27 years to the day since the Berlin Wall was essentially given its death sentence; a coincidence which heightened the comparisons in the public sphere. I feel this is part of a culture of the deep concern about Trump’s general stated intentions, which is understandable, but what happened in Berlin was very, very different.

The installation of the Berlin Wall was not something proposed as part of a foul-mouthed, erratic, celebrity hotelier’s election campaign, but something that materialised out of the Cold War tensions of the US and Soviet Union. It was not built to stop others coming in, it was built to stop its own citizens from leaving. Maybe this is Trump’s plan to stop half of a hugely divided nation from fleeing…? However, he would be better advised to build the wall on the Canadian border instead…

So, what was the Berlin Wall? And why was it so controversial?

At the end of World War 2, there existed a poisonous tension between the victorious Allies, principally the USA, Great Britain and France, with their Eastern partner, the Soviet Union. This tension existed because of diametrically-opposed political ideologies between the Soviets and its partners.

Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union was a communist, totalitarian regime, whilst its Western allies were capitalist democracies. Both sides of the left/right spectrum wanted to influence the rebuilding and reshaping of the new Europe according to their own philosophy, and following the German surrender and partition, this tension manifested itself in physical form in the German capital, Berlin.

Germany had been divided into four zones, one for each of the principal Allied victors. Berlin, the capital, was itself also divided into four zones. Following increasingly strained relations, the Soviet occupied part of Germany became East Germany in 1949, breaking away from the West. In 1961, the East German regime initiated one of modern history’s most notorious security installations, The Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall

There was a clearly defined, stated purpose of the Berlin Wall (der Antifaschistischer Schutzwall or Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart). The East German government contended that West Germany remained a fascist regime and was not free of its National Socialist (Nazi) past, and the wall was therefore protecting the East’s citizens from this supposed threat. The purpose was reinforced continually by the regime, with the East German public understanding the official purpose and their responsibilities in abiding by it.

The regime’s stated cause was never going to be as effective as the measures used to enforce it. This is because – perhaps with the exception of the most diehard members of the regime – it was obviously not commonly believed that West Berlin remained fascist and that such protection was needed. East Berliners knew well of the reality of life in the West, and were under no illusion that the wall actually stood to prevent East Germans leaving for the West, as so many had (and would continue to attempt to, with varying levels of success, many with tragic failure). The reality was that the Wall was, somewhat uniquely, protecting its citizens from the outside by locking them in.


Before the Wall could be constructed and its purpose announced to the world, the regime
enforced a strict, need-to-know approach in its planning and installation. The strict use of confidentiality worked, as, despite a few rumours, the Wall took the world almost by complete surprise, initially on August 12, extending to August 13, 1961. All considerations were made ahead of time, including telephone wires being cut between East and West Berlin to prevent word getting out about the operation. This was a classic example of ruthlessly effective security planning.

This level of confidentiality was achieved by only informing East German officials, construction workers and soldiers, their specific instructions. When their combined instructions were enacted, the result was a success, as almost complete secrecy had been maintained. After all, had the West learned of the intentions of the East, then the entire project may have been scuppered before the first reel of barbed wire had been laid. The Berlin Wall went up almost overnight.

Physical security was paramount, and was nothing if not intimidating. Its features were vast, and included an inner and outer wall, a wire mesh fence, a control strip, floodlights, anti-vehicle trenches, patrol vehicles, dog patrols, observation towers, an electrified signal fence, anti-vehicle trenches, bunkers, trip flares and alarm equipment.

The physical security features were extremely effective, and to continue this level of efficacy, the regime engaged in continuously upgrading the Wall, including the installation of alarm equipment in the 1980s (technology which would not have been available in previous years). In fact, the wall went through four distinct stages as it evolved to remain effective. The Berlin Wall saw improvements in June 1962, followed by a third installation in 1965, and from 1975, a fourth, final incarnation. The continual upgrading to take into consideration new technologies and the lessons of previous escape attempts allowed the Wall to remain productive until the very end. The immense structure intersected with both over and underground train lines and nearly 200 roads along its 97 miles. The wall indiscriminately cut through the city centre, residential areas, green space, rivers and lakes.


As large a structure as the wall was, there were still enough troops on hand to effectively protect it from fleeing citizens. The Wall was ardently policed by a plethora of Border Troops (Grenztruppen der DDR), who were given license to use deadly force against those attempting to escape to the West. This was a hugely effective deterrent. The troops, as noted by Peter Quint, would often receive state praise for their efforts should they use lethal force to thwart an attempted escape, and while the troops may not have always attempted to use deadly force, they fully understood that it was likely their actions could result in an escapee’s death. Quint notes that these troops, often from small towns, were somewhat naïve and were acting on the whims of their more learned superior officers within an effective command structure.

To gain further political currency from each successful prevention of an escape, the state-run press would highlight the valour of its troops and the treason of the attempted escapees. The press would also blast the West and its influence, and this was all part of the plan to keep East German citizens quite literally in their place. In the West, people referred to the border strip as the “death strip” due to the numerous fatalities that occurred following the engagement of border troops in escape attempts.

If any element rivals the Berlin Wall as a notorious remnant of the GDR’s security policy, then it is the Stasi. Der Staatssicherheit (State Security) was a world-renowned secret police organisation, which imprisoned enemies of the regime, engaged in torture and utilised trickery to obtain confessions and information.

The 91,000 strong Stasi force were supported by 170,000 informers, with a key component of the Stasi’s work – which was absolutely understood by the population at large being the gathering of intelligence on escape plans. The presence of such a ruthless organisation, supported by the State and its considerable resources, was a frighteningly effective reminder to would-be escapees on the dangers of their plans being uncovered. The Stasi permeated a culture of mistrust, and it was not unknown for wives to spy on husbands. The Stasi’s psychologically intimidating methods were a perfect counterpart to the physically intimidating wall. Frederick Taylor has written of the immediate offensive by the Stasi following the Wall’s construction, with the Stasi detaining thousands of non-conforming citizens. The DDR had deployed an effective iron grip immediately, seizing the initiative from day one against its internal critics and those desiring a life on the other side of the wall.


Conclusion

With all ethical considerations aside, the Berlin Wall was a hugely successful security initiative. It crudely, but no doubt effectively, served to divide Europe for almost 30 years, and it should be remembered that its eventual fall was not a result of this particular security initiative being unable to function effectively, but because of the dramatic collapse of a political movement that rendered its existence irrelevant.

For its near 30 year lifetime, the Wall, in combination with the policy of the East German regime, all but crushed emigration from East Berlin to the West, and this was, after all, its purpose. In 1961, the last full year of the regime during which the wall did not exist, Dr. Matthias Judt notes that there were a staggering 207,000 defections to the West. In 1962, there were only 21,000. The wall did not end “illegal” border crossing into the West, but it was hugely successful in reducing it to a level that allowed East Germany to function as a somewhat effective nation.

The borders between East and West were effectively re-opened on November 9, 1989, as Soviet communism all but collapsed overnight. Germany was reunified on October 3, 1990, but the Wall, which only exists today in small sections preserved for posterity, continues to live on in infamy as a ruthlessly effective security installation.

Will Trump really build his wall? Clearly he is going to go to great lengths to stifle immigration from Mexico, but let us hope that it falls far short of barbed wire and death strips of the Cold War’s Berliner Mauer .

You can read my initial reactions to Trump’s election win right here.

Aidan

Further information

Reading: F. Taylor, The Berlin Wall 13 August 1961 – 9 November 1989 (London: Bloomsbury, 2007)

Online: The Berlin Wall Memorial

Media: Goodbye, Lenin! (a comedy on the cultural divisions) and The Lives of Others (a look at the Stasi)