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A View from Germany: The German Election and the Cloud Cuckoo Land of American Politics

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It really is amazing to observe the serious business of politics of another country during an election that matters and then observing how ridiculous the American President is making himself look from overseas. I commented to my German friends that it seems that the President lives in a Cloud Cuckoo Land of his own alternative reality.

Now let me put some perspective on this. In the summer of 1979 I was traveling across the United States and to Britain and the Netherlands. Back then the world was in crisis mode, the Iranian Revolution had shaken the status quo of the Middle East, the Soviets were on the march in Afghanistan, and the United States seemed moribund. The country was still reeling from Watergate, the Vietnam debacle, and a continuing economic crisis. Interest rates were over 20%, gas prices were high, the economy struggling, it seemed that the Japanese were buying up everything in the United States, and President Carter could not get along with his Democratic majority in Congress.

While I was in the U.K., President Carter gave his now infamous Malaise speech. The reaction overseas was hard to describe, people in the U.K., the Netherlands, and other Western European countries who still believed in the United States were aghast, they found his negativity almost incomprehensible. The dollar dropped in value overnight and having a very limited amount of money with me I found it most disheartening. In fact when I was asked about the speech by people that I stayed with in the U.K., I didn’t know what to say or how to defend it. I was embarrassed. Don’t get me wrong, now 38 years later I admire Jimmy Carter but still cannot understand why he said what he did back then, it didn’t help us at all.

So I have been in Germany the last 10 days. The German election was in its final week, and yesterday the Germans voted. It was a tough election, the “Grand Coalition” of the CDU/CSU and the Social Democratic Party had proved unable to meet the challenge of the refugee crisis coupled with economic fears, especially in states that made up the former East Germany. In that area, as well as in the traditionally conservative state of Bayern, with the exception of big cities like Munich, the new, Right Wing AfD, or Alternative for Germany Party did well. In the east it got over 21% of the vote, in Bayern close to 15%. In the rest of the country it didn’t do so well. The thing about the AfD is that while it initially began as an anti-European Union party, then became an anti-refugee party, which in time became much more racist, anti-Semitic, and pro-Nazi, even using many of the terms used by the Nazis as they climbed they way to power in the late 1920s and 1930s, and suggesting, quite wrongly that Germany should stop criticizing Hitler’s Third Reich. Also doing well in the east was the revitalized and rebadged Communist Party, now called “Die Linke” or “The Left.” Overall the AfD received 13% of the vote nationwide and became the first party of the far right to gain seats in the national parliament, or the Bundestag going back to when West Germany was founded during the Cold War.

I watched the election returns with our friends on two different German television networks, and was fascinated with the discussion and analysis, and I had read election coverage in different German newspapers of various political leanings since I arrived. Last night, from about six o’clock on I was immersed it the German political debate, and I found it to be much more serious and deeper than ours. The reporters asked hard questions to the leaders of all the parties and didn’t let any of them off the hook. Likewise all the parties signaled that they would not work with the AfD, even the SPD which appears to be choosing the political wilderness of being in the opposition along with the AfD and Die Linke.

There are no television and radio advertisements for any party allowed, though campaign posters, rallies, and debates between different political factions are quite common. By reading the literature of the parties, seeing news coverage or rallies, and seeing the campaign posters one easily could tell what the message of each party was. The remarkable thing was just how racist and fear mongering the AfD campaign was. Even on their campaign posters the basic message was the Islamists are coming for your women. They took advantage of the perceived failure of the Grand Coalition in dealing with the refugee crisis and by blaming immigrants and the EU for Germany’s problems.

So at the end of the day the Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU took a beating, many, almost 1.3 million of its voters chose the FDP, or the Free Democrats who are more socially progressive and business minded as a protest, while another million chose the AfD. The SPD, the Social Democratic Party’s losses, while fewer in number were catastrophic many of its voters migrated to Die Linke or the AfD, the SPD garnered just over 20% of the vote, an all time low for the party. Since no party has a majority of the Bundestag membership, it will be up to the CDU/CSU to form a coalition. Since their former Grand Coalition partners, the SPD are going to the opposition it appears that there will be a Schwarz, Gelb, Gruene Coalition of the CDU/CSU which had 33% of the vote, the FDP with almost 11%, and the Gruenen, or the Green Party, which got about 9% of the vote. The leaders of all three parties have vowed to work for democracy and fight against the extreme right of the AfD. It will be an interesting but complicated coalition and the parties will have to find ways to cooperate and a governing program while satisfying their base, which was something that the Grand Coalition could not do.

So what will matter in the next election in 2021 will be how this coalition works, and if the AfD which has no positive program can hold itself together in the Bundestag. Likewise the SPD, long a bastion of German center-left politics must recover what it lost as an opposition party, while not giving legitimacy to the AfD or their traditional nemesis on the left, the former Communists.

As for now Chancellor Merkel must now build a coalition and she has invited the SPD to participate. In one of the shows I watched tonight the leaders of the Free Democrats and the Greens appeared to be supporting a coalition with the CDU/CSU in order to halt the growth of the extreme right. We won’t know for a few days what the final outcome will be but it appears that most analysts are predicting a Black, Yellow, Green, or Jamaica coalition (the colors of the Jamaican flag) of the CDU/CSU, the FDP, and the Greens.

But turning to the United States and how ludicrous President Trump’s words and actions are, and how they are hurting us overseas with our long time allies, with the exception of the neo-Nazi AfD which has mimicked Trump’s anti-immigration, racial, and do-it alone rhetoric with building a wall, getting more border police, and deporting immigrants, even those determined not to be a threat. As far as the blatant racism of the AfD leaders, one has that while Thomas Botang, a member of the German Nation Football (soccer) team is a good player that he would not want to live next door to him because Botang is black. But I digress…

Since I have been here the President has made multiple new threats against North Korea which has only prompted them to respond in kind, and has spent much of his time insulting anyone who criticizes him. While he described Klansmen and neo-Nazis as “Good People” in the aftermath of Charlottesville, he has been quick to berate African American sports figures over their political protests regarding Black Lives matter, which by the way is still a constitutional right whether he likes it or not, and by disinviting Gold State Warriors basketball player Stephan Curry from the White House. His rambling speech in Alabama on Saturday in which he told NFL owners that they should fire the “sons of bitches” that protest during the national anthem and criticized the league for trying to make the game safer for players was met with more open protests from players and owners, and scoffed at over here.

I mean really, watching the political circus and train wreck that is the Trump administrative from afar is even more disconcerting when you are across the ocean and visiting sites made infamous by leaders who led their county to disaster in two world wars, one of who engineered the single most evil genocide in history. I am sorry but watching from over here, and discussing the matter with German friends and others, I am becoming more and more convinced that there is something seriously wrong with him. I do not know if he is a sociopath, if he is mentally ill, or if he in the early stages of some form of dementia, but something is not right with a world leader who acts this way. Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Gerald Ford, Dwight Eisenhower, and Teddy Roosevelt all have to be spinning in their graves. Richard Nixon is probably joyful that Trump may end up making him look good by comparison.

Watching these events from overseas with less access and time to follow them as much as I would in the States has made me shake my head as I cannot believe that we have come to this. Likewise, not being as connected in the moment hasn’t been a bad thing, and I probably will cut back on some of my online activities and try not to get caught up in whatever crisis de jure the President. one of his family members, advisors, surrogates, or media advocates have cooked up to distract us from the Muller investigation.

But anyway it is late. We did have another good day in Germany yesterday, and since it is later here I am going to wish you a good night as we have plans tomorrow that will keep me offline much of the day.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Nothing is as Clear and Certain as it Appears to Be: The Ukraine Crisis

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“in the midst of war and crisis nothing is as clear or as certain as it appears in hindsight” Barbara Tuchman The Guns of August

There is nothing more uncertain than how leaders and people will react in crisis. We would like to think that we can be certain in our predilections, but we cannot because the reality is that human nature is always at play, and human beings have a penchant for doing things that are not expected.

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It did not take long after the showcase of the Sochi Olympic Games for Vladimir Putin to move against the Ukraine and for all practical purposes annex the Crimea. But now after a few weeks it seems that the West is beginning to galvanize in its opposition to the Russian action. Germany is leading the charge from the side of the European Union, with Chancellor Merkel taking the lead. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been taking a hard diplomatic line while military forces gather.

It appears that targeted economic sanctions are in the offing while the European Union prepares to help supply the Ukraine’s energy needs.

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The Russians have blockaded the small Ukrainian Navy in its Crimean ports, it has an estimated 30,000 soldiers in the Crimea and other forces are conducting “exercises” near the Ukrainian border. The Provisional Government of the Ukraine has called up its reserve forces, the United States is deploying naval and air force units to the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean as well as Poland and the Baltic States.

But at the same time this is not the Cold War where two ideological blocks wrestled for domination. Instead the motivations, geopolitical and economic factors that connect the West and Russia make this much more complicated. Money is a big factor and it is of interest to note that a good amount of the resupply of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan is conducted over what is called the Northern Route, which goes through Russia and the Ukraine.

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The situation in the Crimea and the Ukraine is potentially volatile. Any situation that costs the lives of Ukrainians of either Ukrainian or Russian background could spiral out of control. Passions on both sides are running high. We in the West also need to remember that many Russians and men like Putin still feel the humiliation of the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and end of the Soviet Union. Many Russians who even now are not fans of the Soviet system long for the days of empire and Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe.

In 1914 France was motivated by the humiliation that she suffered in 1871 at the hands of Prussia and the loss of Alsace Lorraine. The Russians have a similar attachment to areas where sizable ethnic Russian populations live, including the Eastern Ukraine and the Baltic. One has to remember the words of Otto Von Bismarck who said: “A generation that has taken a beating is always followed by a generation that deals one.”

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When looking at why this is happening we have to remember history.  Likewise we have to also remember the historic Russian paranoia when it comes to the influence of Europe and the West on areas that they believe are still part of Greater Russia. Their memory is long and past wounds are still fresh. Thus the blundering of the EU during the Fall of 2013 in its dealings with Ukraine, dealings which looked to the Russians like an attempt to draw Ukraine further away from them helped cause this situation. Likewise the Eastward expansion of NATO in the 1990s and early 2000s following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact is considered both an insult and threat. The same is true of the presence of the American Anti-Ballistic Missile system in Poland, which is considered by many Russians to be directed at them, not Iran.

The situation is complex and influenced by many factors, and unlike some American politicians and pundits say, it has nothing to do with Benghazi or even what they claim is the “weakness” of President Obama. The roots of this crisis are long standing and diverse and have almost everything to do Russia’s relationship with Europe and very little to do with the United States. Thus for American politicians and pundits to demonstrate their woeful ignorance of history by blaming this all on President Obama is so self serving and transparent that it is embarrassing. But then American politics is almost always a demonstration of ignorance and arrogance.

The problem for the United States is that we have little credibility when it comes criticizing nations like Russia when they do the same as we do. Our actions to invade Iraq in 2003, actions which under the criteria that we laid down at Nuremberg violated international law make it hard for any American leader to criticize another power. This is true even when Putin’s actions, also illegal under international law are no worse and certainly by the historic ties of Crimea to Russia are more justifiable than what we did in Iraq.

Thus the outright hypocrisy of the architects of that invasion like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld shamelessly attack President Obama for his “weak” response to Putin’s actions are in large part to blame for them. They squandered our international standing and credibility, broke the military and bankrupted the country. They then lay the blame on Obama. By the decisions that they made and the subsequent consequences they tied Obama’s hands.

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Sometimes these crisis blow over. Sometimes they stabilize but cause problems that continue for some time after the initial crisis. But there are some times that they take on a life of their own and that the people who think they are directing events end up being caught up in them, often with tragic results. While I do not think this will end in war, the possibility of such cannot be dismissed.

Tuchman in her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam wrote:

“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Europe on the Edge: France and Greece Point to Dangerous Times Ahead

New French President Francois Hollande

The people of France and Greece have repudiated the European Union’s austerity mandate and Europe stands on the edge of chaos.  Maybe not immediate chaos but chaos that will engulf the continent as country after country elects for its own history, culture, tradition and economic freedom.

This is nothing new. In fact the situation in Europe resembles the period of the early 1930s as the Great Depression brought about the rise of political extremist on the Right and Left in very new and fragile democracies, as well as more established democracies.  Parallels can be found in many European nations. In France the election of Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party over Nicolas Sarkozy sent a shiver through the EU. Combined with the implosion of the conservative and liberal coalition in Greece in and results of other European elections the reality is that the European Union could be on the verge of breaking up. The Greek situation is especially foreboding as any coalition government will have to deal with the election of both hard line Communists and Neo-Nazis to parliament.

Greek Neo-Nazis

Now how it breaks up is not pre-determined, however it is obvious that the most strident voices in many European countries are people and parties that in good times are relegated to the political fringe. However social crisis driven by long term economic problems, especially high unemployment and reductions in support to those displaced by the economy are things that have historically brought about revolutions and dictatorships.

The European Union: Can it Survive?

Despite the Socialist win in France the trajectory of Europe is toward anti-democratic, ultra-nationalist and Xenophobic regimes.  Such will bode ill for the world economy as well as peace and the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities. Europe’s long term record on these issues is dreadful and the ghosts of that record seem to rise up almost every time that you think it is safe to go out in the water.

Germany under Chancellor Merkel and her allies in Brussels are attempting to hold together a creation that can only hold together when times are good and money easy.  When the hard times come, nations as well as individuals return to their basest and most primal concerns, not any utopian ideal.

The Hitler apologist and radical conservative pundit Pat Buchanan seems to think that this is a good thing in his latest column. He seems to revel in the potential collapse of the European Union. But then for a man that defend’s Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and blames everybody but Hitler for the war this is not surprising.  While he may diagnose some of the problems inherent in the EU he also forgets that the EU held as its model the United States, the creation of a United States of Europe.

Nazi Election Poster

While I have always thought that the rush to admit nations to the EU in the 1990s and early 2000s was ill-conceived the threat posed by its break up is worse. This is simply because history shows us time and time again that such break ups are fraught with danger.

Likewise the same forces are at work in the United States. Long term economic difficulties are leading people to embrace extremes that in good times they would never consider.  We are not all that different from the Europeans in this. Looking back to the period before the Nazi takeover of Germany one observer told historian William Sheridan Allen that “Most of those that joined the Nazis did so because they wanted a radical answer to the economic problem. Then too, people wanted a hard, sharp, clear leadership- they were disgusted with the eternal political strife of parliamentary party politics.” (The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town 1922-1945 Revised Edition, Franklin Watts Publishers, New York, London 1965, 1984 p.86)

These are dangerous times. It is not time to look to extremists of any stripe that promise simple and radical solutions to the solve the crisis. To do such is to make a deal with the devil.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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November 1918: The Month that Changed the World

November 1918

In November 1918 a world was ending and a new one beginning.  The Great War which had begun in August 1914 following the assassination of the heir apparent to the Throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire wife on June 29th 1914 was in its final days, as was the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Imperial Germany.  It was a month saw the collapse of a long established order which through wanton ambition and unchecked arrogance had brought about a war that devastated Europe.

In the years following the war revolution and civil war enveloped much of Europe and led to the rise of Fascism, Communism and Nazism and a second world war.  The events of November 1918 led to changes that are still being felt today.

In fact the events that occurred over 90 years ago are the ghosts that haunt Europe today.  They are why the European Union is trying so hard to keep Greece from defaulting on its sovereign debt which most believe would destroy the EU and cause global economic and social disruption. Some key European leaders have even raised the specter of war should the Greeks default and the EU collapse.

To the Europeans the thought of such is frightful having been the epicenter of two world wars, continent changing revolutions, genocide and the division of the continent between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.  The very thought of social and economic chaos brought about by the collapse of the EU is a legitimate concern of the Europeans and it is something that should concern us too because we are so naïve when it comes to civil war.

Yes we had a great civil war which rent the country asunder and cost hundreds of thousands of Americans their lives and left scars that still exist.   We say that our civil war pitted brother against brother but it was really more region against region.  When civil war came toEuropein the aftermath of World War One it was a war that pitted neighbor against neighbor and it as often far more vicious and insidious in the way that it was waged. It was ideology and class warfare at its worst. People on the left and the right surrendered to their basest instincts and permitted themselves to the most brutal atrocities committed not against a foreign power, but their neighbors, and in the case of some men who had served together in the trenches against their former comrades in arms.

The deep scars lurk underneath Europe’s veneer of peace and prosperity.  Despite all its advances and the remarkable changes that have occurred in the years following the Second World War the scars of the wars remain. Europe is more fragile than than it looks and Europe’s leaders understand this.  They also understand that people in the smaller and weaker countries like Greece feel threatened by the power of Germany and France, nations that lead the EU and each at one time dominated the continent by the force of arms and have dominated it economically the past 20 years.

The leaders of Europe and many of its people are justifiably concerned about their future because their ancestors lived that future.  We should be concerned as well because same social, political and economic dynamics are in play in our country but our extremists on the left and the right cannot see the danger.  For both it has become a zero sum game.  Eventually as the Europeans found out in the 1920s and 1930s when it is a zero sum game no compromise is possible and one side will eventually crush their opponents until they themselves are crushed by forces that they unleash but cannot control.

In the mid 1920s an artificial a brief period of prosperity enabled by cheap credit extended by the United States provided Europeans the illusion that their fragile new democracies might take root.  Then in October 1929 the economic house collapsed and the world entered the Great Depression and with it the social order melted away. Governments collapsed under the weight of mass movements championed by radicals on the left and the right.  We know the rest of the story.  The question is will it happen again?

November 1918, November 2011.  Are we about to see Europe and the world plunged into another period of unrelenting economic turmoil, social and political unrest leading to civil wars and wars of conquest?  People like German Chancellor Angela Merkel warn of this with good reason and we should be concerned not just for Europe but for our own country.  If the EU collapses the consequences will wash upon our shores.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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