Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Power of Symbols in History

Adolf Hitler is one of those historical characters who will forever fascinate us.  There is something that keeps drawing us back to Hitler and his Nazi cohorts.  Perhaps it is because Hitler was a sort of Horatio Alger hero, the small town boy who everyone disliked and thought would never make anything of himself, only to grow up to become a greater villain than the fictional Emperor Ming the Merciless?

Maybe we are attracted to all the pomp and ceremony that was so much a part of Nazism.  Hitler was a master of propaganda, especially when collaborating with the dwarfish Joseph Goebbels, the very lovely Leni Riefenstahl, and the very talented architect Albert Speer.  They all had in common a degree of megalomania that empowered their creativity.  Hitler was a talented but rejected artist, Goebbels a failed novelist and playwright, Riefenstahl a brilliant pioneer of the cinema, and Speer a psychologically damaged individual easily dominated by Hitler’s much stronger personality. Together they staged a drama more alluring than a Wagner opera.

The continued fascination with Hitler and Nazi Germany was brought home to me during the recent midterm elections.  Two images in particular caught my attention.  One was that of Ohio Republican Congressional candidate and Tea Party favorite Rich Lott dressed in a Waffen SS uniform.  The second was a campaign flyer put out by North Carolina Democrat Tim Spear, which mistakenly used a photograph of re-enactors dressed as German soldiers. 

There was nothing wrong or newsworthy about Mr. Lott’s participation in historical re-enactments.  Many men and women enjoy dressing up in historical garb and playing as if they were once more children.  It’s no different than adults who play with model train sets.  Lott’s knowledge of history is no doubt more extensive than the ad agency that produced the campaign flier for Tim Spear.

Today when “news as entertainment” is more to the public’s taste than actual news, market savvy “reporters” can turn a cat in a tree into a major news story.  I do not mention these two images so as to further embarrass either Mr. Lott or Mr. Spear.  I did not think then, nor do I think now, that either is a Nazi wannabe.  Neither do I want to suggest that the political ideas held by each, however bizarre, are as sophisticated as Hitler’s, or as evil.

If the truth be known, the macho military types among us seem to have a special admiration for the German army.  General Rommel, the Desert Fox, and General von Paulus who commanded the German 6th Army during the decisive Battle of Stalingrad are more romantic historical figures than any of the American generals, except perhaps Generals Patton and MacArthur.  Patton with his pearl handled pistols, and MacArthur with his corncob pipe were dashing figures, indeed.

 We Americans tend to have a soft spot in our hearts for lost causes.  Take, for example, the most popular of all the lost causes, the Confederate States of America.   No respectable Southern home is complete without portraits of General Robert E. “Bobby” Lee and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.  If there is not enough room on the wall for both, then one is allowed to substitute a copy of the famous G. B. Matthews lithograph of “Lee and His Generals.”

Humans are just naturally programmed to respond to symbols.  Symbols have a powerful allure because they have meaning beyond themselves.  I recall a comment by an art critic during the debate over removing the Confederate battle flag, the so-called “Stars and Bars,” from the Mississippi state flag.  He said that it would be difficult to come up with a more appealing image, artistically speaking.  The combination of colors, triangles, squares, and stars is very pleasing to the eye, even for a Yankee like me.

The same might well be said about the United Kingdom’s flag, the “Union Jack,” or even our own “Stars and Stripes.” They are emotive symbols.  Like the Confederate flag, we are attracted to them, whether or not we identify with the historical reality they represent.

Likewise, Nazi symbols have a certain artistic quality, or aesthetic appeal, to them.  Exhibits of Nazi memorabilia attract many visitors.  Last November the National Socialism Documentation Centre in Cologne put on exhibit a small portion of an enormous private collection of items illustrating how the Nazis attempted to take Christ out of Christmas by turning the holiday into a pagan winter solstice celebration.  On display were such items as swastika-shaped cookie cutters, recipes for Nazi and Germanic shaped breads and cakes, iron cross tree ornaments, Nazi and patriotic themed cards–the list goes on and on. 

The mystery of Hitler’s appeal is the subject of a current exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.  Lines formed before the museum doors opened at 10 a.m. on October 13, the opening day of the exhibit.  An estimated 3,000 viewed the exhibit on the first day, and many since.

Before leaving this subject, I should make clear that I am not equating the Confederate States of America with the Third Reich.  The Confederacy was a rebellion on the part the Southern planter aristocracy who claimed to be defending what after the Civil War was often called “states rights.”  Of course the constitutional arguments were but a ruse meant to ward off threats to the South’s “peculiar institution.”

The Third Reich, on the other hand, was a descent into the abyss.  There is nothing quite its equal in history.  The quest to try to understand how a people, who before the First World War were thought to represent the highest level of Western Civilization, could commit such atrocities will never be fully realized.

Well, I have wandered into areas I am not qualified to address.  I have no training in the science of aesthetics, if in fact it is a science.  My artistic knowledge is limited to knowing what I like and don’t like.  But I do know that we human beings are attracted to symbols, symbols that evoke emotions we cannot begin to comprehend.  Remember, Hitler did not invent the swastika.  It is a variation of the ancient sun wheel, found everywhere in the world from the dawn of human history.  In fact, until Hitler’s use of it forever changed its meaning, it was, like the four-leaf clover, regarded as a good luck symbol.  

Enough seriousness!  In my next entry, I shall return to something humorous.

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The Case of the Missing Biscuit

We have all at sometime misplaced or lost our car keys.  The memory of the event lives on.  We never forget the frantic search–looking under cushions, turning out pockets, thrashing around in junk drawers, blaming one’s spouse, children, or even the family pet that cannot defend himself.  Oh, and don’t forget that all of this was done while under pressure to keep an appointment.

Losing one’s car keys is an inconvenience, or even an unexpected expense, but what if one lost something really important?

I was prompted to ponder that question just the other day while listening to the evening news.  It seems that during the Clinton administration one of the president’s aides lost, or should we say “misplaced,” a note card on which was written a code necessary for the launching of nuclear weapons.  The card, known as the “biscuit,” was needed to open the “football.”  The “football” is the little black suitcase that contains the codes. 

Wherever the president goes, he is accompanied by an aide carrying the “football.”  He is never far from the President.  As some have pointed out, he sticks to the President like glue.  Think of those pictures of Elvis on tour accompanied by his stepbrother carrying a little black suitcase filled with pills?

The revelation regarding the lost nuclear codes is found in a new memoir by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Hugh Shelton.  The General alleges that an unidentified aide to President Clinton, one who carried the “football,” misplaced the “biscuit” for several months. The aide was able to keep his little secret until it came time to issue a new “biscuit” with new codes.  Only then did he confess, no doubt with head down and eyes sheepishly staring at the floor: 

“I’m sorry Mr. President, but it seems that I have temporarily lost the codes.  If we have to fight a war, we will have to do it the old-fashioned way.”

There is no reason to suspect that President Clinton was ever aware of the missing codes.  It seems that the aide was more successful than he should have been at carrying out his “little” deception.  However, in this age of international terrorism, one cannot help but ask the question:  “What if. . .”?  What if the “biscuit” had fallen into the wrong hands? 

Those in the know about nuclear warfare assure us that there was never any danger of some “unauthorized” person having been able to launch any nuclear weapons.  The protocol for launching a nuclear attack is, as they say, “a multi-layered system” in which the “biscuit” is but one part.  Put simply, it could not have happened.

Such assurances remind me of the message that precedes the satirical cult-classic movie from the Cold War era, “Dr. Strangelove.”  In a rolling script that precedes the movie, viewers are told that what they are about to see could not happen.  I’m not sure that I can always trust what the government tells me, but a friend who flew one of those nuclear-armed bombers that circled the Soviet Union 24/7 during the height of the Cold War assures me that in the “real world,” the Dr. Strangelove scenario could not happen.

Still, as one newsman commented when General Shelton’s account of “the mystery of the missing codes” appeared, “It’s not quite the same thing as losing your car keys.”  What if President Clinton were called upon to respond to a nuclear attack on the United States?

The whole affair got me thinking about a one-act play, The Case of the Missing Biscuit, by the unknown playwright, P.R. Waibel:

SCENE ONE

A melody of soft romantic music is heard as the curtain rises.

 Before us is the Oval Office.  Only two figures can be seen.  One is the President.  The other is a young, female intern named, Miss Flora Williams. 

INTERN, speaking in a soft voice with romantic overtones:  Mr. President.  Slight pause.   It’s such an honor to be here with the President of the United Sates.

PRESIDENT:  Yes, it’s the Oval OfficeIt makes a visitor feel humble, even grateful, if you know what I mean.

INTERN, looking to one side as if a little embarrassed:  I do.

The President takes a few steps to the side of the room and opens a liquor cabinet.  He holds up a bottle and a glass.  Care for something to drink, Miss Williams?

INTERN:  Do you think I should?  I mean . . . well . . . what I mean is . . . it kind of goes to my head.  I lose control.  She stares at the President with her head cocked to one side and a blank look on her face.

PRESIDENT:  Where is it that you go to school, Miss Williams?

INTERN:  Ole Miss.  It’s in Mississippi.

PRESIDENT:  Yes.  I know.  A party school, or so I’ve heard?

Intern is acting very ditzy; eyes open wide, giggling a lot, increasingly animated.

INTERN:  Ooh yes.  Lots of athletes.  They’re very muscular—She puts emphasis on “muscular”—especially the football players.  Brief pause.  Intern  moves in close to the President.  I’ll bet you’re athletic, Mr. President.  She smiles while looking up at his face.

PRESIDENT, smiling with a twinkle in his eye:  I have been known to, as they say, play around a bit.  Slight pause.  May I call you Flora?  It’s a lovely name—means “flower”.

INTERN, moving in closer so that their bodies almost touch:  You can call me “Flower,” if you like.  Smiling, she moves in closer and begins to run her hand down the lapel of his sport coat.  Or, you can call me what the boys at the frat house call me.

PRESIDENT:  And what is that?

INTERN, leaning forward, their bodies touching, she whispers in his ear:  Willing!

As they begin to embrace, there is a loud banging on the door.  The door burst open.  In rushes a soldier in a full-dress general’s uniform.  Lots of medal s on his chest and tough looking.  Behind him is a young man is a suit, rather nerdy looking.  He has a small black suitcase in his hand.

PRESIDENT, surprised at the intrusion, he pushes the young lady aside:  General Lockjaw!  I must object!

GENERAL:  I’m sorry, Mr. President, but it’s a national emergency!

PRESIDENT:  Do you mean?

GENERAL:  Yes, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT:  Now?

GENERAL:   Yes, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT:  Right now? 

GENERAL:  Yes, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT:  Moving about, obviously thinking.  Stops and looks at the general.  The Klingons?

GENERAL:  No, Mr. President.  Slight pause.  Then with anger and irritation in his voice.  The Communists!

PRESIDENT:  Communists?  Didn’t we win that one?

GENERAL, moving about, agitated and, ranting:  You never win with the Commies, Mr. President.  They’re sneaky!  They’re like a flu virus.  You think you have licked them, but they keep coming back.  They’re everywhere.  Why . . . Why—pointing at the intern who is standing off to the side, trying to be inconspicuous—she might be one!

INTERN, shocked at what the General has said:  Really General!  Daddy is a Republican!

PRESIDENT:  Yes, General Lockjaw, Miss Williams’ reputation—pause—is beyond reproach.

GENERAL, anxiously looking at his watch:  Mr. President.  We have less than an hour, perhaps only minutes.  We must launch a counterattack.

PRRESIDENT, both irritated and anxious:  Very well then.  He addresses the nerdy looking man in the suit, carrying the little black suitcase.  Mr. Kent, hand me the “biscuit.”

KENT, hesitant and stuttering:  Mr. President . . . ah . . . there’s . . . ah . . . there is something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about. 

GENERAL: Not now, you idiot.  This is a national emergency.  Civilization itself hangs in the balance.

PRESIDENT:  Well spoken, General.

GENERAL:  Thank you Mr. President.  He turns to face Kent, fists closed tightly at his sides, anger in his face.  Hand the President  the “biscuit.”

KENT, steps back, fear in his face and voice:  I don’t have it.

PRESIDENT, GENERAL, INTERN, in unison:  What?!

KENT, addressing the President:  I lost it.  Months ago.  I . . . I . . . been meaning to talk to you about it.   

All present stand staring at one another silently.  As the lights dim and the curtain begins to come down, Vira Lynn can be heard singing,

We’ll meet again,

Don’t know when, don’t know where.

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.*

The muffled sound of distant explosions can be heard as Ms. Lynn continues,

Keep smiling through,

Just like you always do,

Till the blue skies chase those dark clouds, far away.*

Of course, such a scenario could never happen in the real world, or could it?

*Words and music to “We’ll Meet Again” by Ross Parker and Hughie Charles.