Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Existential history

"Existential history" is my name for the brand of historical analysis that emphasizes the involvement of men and chance in history.  There certainly are long-term historical processes that culminate in the changes, be it evolutionary or revolutionary, that constitute what we know as history, the unfolding of events representing the story of men and women in relation to the environment and to each other.  But, much also depends on random events, chance and the sheer unpredictability of human actions and reactions.
Bertrand Russell pointed out that Napoleon Bonaparte was born on Corsica soon after the island was captured by France from Italy.  If it had still been controlled by Italy he would have gone to Rome and not Paris and history would have been completely different. Joseph Dzjugashvili survived as a weak child, was brought up in a seminary and then became a bank robber for the revolution.  As Joseph Stalin (steel) he was a ruthless, immoral man who when Lenin became ill and died, became General Secretary of the Communist party and murdered all potential rivals using communist ideology as an excuse.  Adolf Schiklgruber went through WWI and survived to become Adolf Hitler with a burning desire to take revenge on the enemies of Germany, principally the German Jews who he rationalized had been responsible for the crushing defeat of Germany.  Many incidents conspired to allow Hitler to achieve his goals and it took WWII to remove him and his hate-filled racist ideology from the world.   If these individuals had not existed we may say that someone else might have replaced them, but certainly not in an identical or even similar way.
In retrospect, history seems like a clear progression of events leading to certain conclusions, such as the winning of WWII by the Allies.   But, there were times, certainly early on, when Nazi Germany had control of most of Europe, that the eventual victory of democracy looked very remote and millions died before that could be achieved.  How the RAF won the aerial Battle of Britain is itself an example of an unpredictable combination of  technology, men and sheer guts, the superiority of the Spitfire and of its pilots. 
The existence of the State of Israel is another process that unfolded over a period of a hundred years (from 1882 to 1973) including many uncertain events and outcomes.  The military victory of the Six Day war in 1967 seemed to be the turning point in the realization of a strong stable Jewish State.  But, in 1973 the Arabs states attacked on Yom Kippur and the State was in danger of being over-run.  It was the fighting spirit and heroism of individuals like Zvika Greengold and Avigdor Kahalani, who made a stand and prevented hundreds of Syrian tanks from over-running the Golan Heights and descending into Israel.  One might say that such a victory by Israel was inevitable, but at the time it did not seem so, sometimes out-numbered 100:1 the Israelis tankers won out thru incredible firing accuracy and persistance. 
Another aspect of this type of history is the totally unexpected actions of certain individuals, for example, who exposed the corruption of Stalin and the evil of the communist system, none other than Khruschev, one of Stalin's staunch lieutenants.  And who eventually caused the downfall of communism, two of its former leaders, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin.   And who overturned apartheid in S. Africa and released Nelson Mandela, the leader of the last white minorty government F.W. de Clerk. And who brought about peace between Egypt and Israel, Pres. Anwar Sadat, who contrary to all predictions visited Jerusalem in 1977.  
This should give us hope for the future, overall democracy is winning, but the path to victory is not inevitable and is certainly convoluted. What is happening now in the Arab world, that was previously called the "Arab Spring" but has now devolved into an orgy of murder and blood-letting, is another of those processes that will affect the future of all of us.  The current French military reaction in Mali to wipe out a despotic Islamist hotbed, is an example of what will need to happen to contain the dreadful ideology of Islamism that has raised its bloody head from 9/11 onwards.  We do not know how, but we must have faith that through individual and combined efforts this ideological threat to the world's freedom will also be defeated.     


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