Friday, 22 August 2014 00:00

Good Reads – 22/08/2014

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Another week, another selection of the best European reads, brought to you by two of E&M's editors. Frances and Bettina share a few gems they've come across online, ranging from an article about British POWs in Germany during the First World War to attempts to set the most recent outbreak of the Gaza-Israel conflict in its cultural and historical context, highlighting the role of regional and international stakeholders and Europe's hypocrisy in the affair.

Frances, Sixth Sense editor


At home in enemy territory

Ever since visiting the exquisite Italian Chapel in Orkney, which was built by captured Italian soldiers during the Second World War, I have been intrigued by the fates of prisoners of war – both military and civilian. So it was with some interest that I stumbled upon Stephen Evans' recent article on the BBC website about the 5000 British citizens interned at Ruhleben on the edge of Berlin between 1914 and 1918.

These men were not soldiers, but civilians who happened to be in Germany when war broke out across Europe: everyday folk simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite many privations, they were determined to make the best of their lot and set about establishing not just order, including class and racial hierarchies, but also a degree of comfort. As Evans engagingly explains, they grew flowers in biscuit tins, organised rugby and cricket matches, put on plays and, in fact, ended up far better off than the people living in the German capital at the time. Even the name of the detention camp is somehow appropriate: roughly translated, it means "the quiet life". 

There is something very endearing about the behaviour described in this piece. One could, of course, put the whole thing down to the stiff upper lip and what's now often referred to as the "Keep calm and carry on" attitude, but I think it actually goes far deeper than that. I feel sure that a group of people from any country would – in their own way – do much the same in a similar situation. The detainees weren't being exclusively British, merely human.

Königsberg | Kaliningrad: past – present – future

Some 400-odd miles to the east of Berlin lies the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Once one of the most precious jewels in the Prussian crown – a revered seat of learning, a Baroque architectural masterpiece – the city bore the name of Königsberg until 1945. It was bombed heavily by the RAF towards the end of the Second World War, before falling into the hands of the Red Army. Under Soviet rule, not a trace of the German connection was allowed to remain, but in modern-day Kaliningrad change is afoot and efforts are being made to restore the city to its former glory.

In an article that was originally published last month by the German magazine Der Spiegel, Susanne Beyer not only discusses in-depth the plans for urban rejuvenation, she also offers an engrossing introduction to the history of the city and a shrewd account of the current mood there. Perhaps most interestingly of all, she notes that some of the younger inhabitants have begun to identify themselves as Prussians, rather than Russians. Reading Beyer's work, I am reminded of what Milan Kundera referred to as the tragedy of Central Europe; in fact, I reckon you would be hard pushed to find a more telling example of the tension between the cultural, geographical and political concepts of East and West than Königsberg/Kaliningrad.

Somewhere, someone, something in between

Moving even further to the east – so far, in fact, that, strictly speaking, we're no longer in Europe, but hopefully you can forgive my geographical imprecision just this once – I came across something rather magical on the RFE / RL website. Janyl Jusupjan's photo essay focuses on a remote community in the mountains of Tajikistan, descendants of Kyrgyz nomads, now perched – sometimes precariously, it seems – between the two cultures.  With sparse, circumspect commentary, he depicts young and old; there is poverty and occasional strife in Jerge-Tal, but also humour, hope and understanding. 

Besides the obvious beauty of the images and the insight into the unknown they provide, I must admit that there was another reason for making this my third and final selection. It is my (now not very secret) hope that E&M's new photo competition Europe Through a Lens might be the catalyst that one day enables us to take a leaf out Jusupjan's book and branch out into quality photojournalism. There is, of course, still much to be said about Europe, but possibly even more that needs to be shown.

Bettina, Sixth Sense editor


No simple truth and only one humanity

At the moment, there are a great many reports about the most recent flare-up of the ongoing Gaza-Israel conflict doing the rounds, so I've decided to start off by recommending two articles that highlight the conflict’s historical origins and political background without taking sides. In fact, both authors explain that taking sides in this conflict does not actually make any sense. Ali A. Rizvi, a Pakistani-Canadian writer, shows the conflict’s tribal nature which requires people to pick a side out of emotional loyalty to a certain group rather than rationality or indeed loyalty to humanity in general. While naming 7 Things to Consider Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East Conflict, Rizvi explains the conflict’s religious base and calls upon readers to be  "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestine", i.e. pro-human, by supporting "secularism, democracy and a two-state solution".

The second article is unfortunately only available in German, but too insightful not to get a mention. In it, Jonas Bedford-Strohm describes Rizvi’s endorsement of secularism naive and instead calls for more tolerant religious practices, something that in my opinion seems equally naive. At the same time, he contradicts himself by acknowledging that the problem does not actually lie in religion but in humans abusing it. This again brings him closer to Rizvi, as they are both actually making a case for humanity and for humanism, a stance that requires people to take on responsibility for their actions and the resulting consequences.

Bedford-Strohm points out the hypocrisy of various allies on both sides in the Gaza-Israel conflict, particularly Germany, which officially stands behind Israel, while indirectly delivering more weapons to Gaza by exporting arms primarily to Gaza’s own direct and indirect supporters. He challenges us Europeans not to blindly and lazily pick a side in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but to ask ourselves the right questions, which implies reconsidering our role and influence in the altercations. Perhaps the onus is on us to make a decision against local jobs in our arms industries in order to support peace in the Middle East and finally act with the moral courage we claim to posses.

Radicalisation in Israel and Europe

This hypocritical discrepancy between self-perception and actual behaviour does not only apply to numerous European and other countries in the network of geopolitical international relations, but also to Israel's own internal politics. As illustrated in a recent Financial Times article, Israel’s internal politics have massively radicalised over the past 20 years to a point where its democracy, the main characteristic that sets the country apart from its regional neighbours, is in serious danger. Such a development translates into drastic measures jeopardising any peace efforts outside of Israel, too.

However, this does not in any way justify or explain the recent worrying increase in anti-Semitism across Europe, especially as being Jewish does not automatically imply support for Israeli politics. Even if it did, though, it would not justify discriminating against Jewish minorities and abusing them as scapegoats in the attempt to find a facile truth where it simply does not exist. Besides, Europe's questionable entanglement in the conflict puts us in no position to judge anyway and only feeds into fear, itself a major reason for Israeli radicalisation in the first place. 

"Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?"

The horrendous implications of such a rise in European anti-Semitism are summarised in an article by a young British Jew, who fears that he may be forced to make a choice and leave his home, if the current trend continues. Just a couple of weeks ago, MP George Galloway declared the city of Bradford an "Israel-free zone", and stated that Israeli goods, people and services were no longer welcome there. Although this was followed by a rather uplifting counteraction, in which a group of Israeli tourists decided to take a trip to Bradford just to spite Mr Galloway, we may yet have to rethink European double standards when faced with the highest number of Jews leaving Europe since the Second World War because of violence and tangible fear.


Last modified on Tuesday, 02 September 2014 21:18

If the Editorial team had an actual office it would have to stretch from the corner of Britain to the edges of Spain, Sweden, Germany and beyond. (With frequent trips to America too) .  The term 'from the editorial office' then, is very much a figure of speech. 

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