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Letters


Why We Go to War

Ferdinand Mount raises the question of why the German Empire went to war in 1914 (LRB, 6 June). He is also sceptical of revisionist accounts which hold that Germany did not really intend to go to war, and that instead a set of dynamics triggered a conflagration for which no one party could be held responsible.

The structural reasons for Germany’s predisposition to war were, first, its continental confinement by Russia on one side and France on the other, with Britain commanding the high seas; and second, as Mount notes, the imperative to secure resources – iron, steel, coal – to assert its position in the world. This is confirmed by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s recorded statement of German war aims in September 1914. ‘The ‘general aim of the war’, he said, was ‘security for the German Empire in west and east for all imaginable time. For this purpose France must be so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time. Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany’s eastern frontier and her domination over the non-Russian vassal peoples broken.’ France was to cede the Vosges Mountains – and so its main coal and iron fields – as well as the coastal strip from Dunkirk to Boulogne. Belgium would be partitioned and reduced to a ‘vassal state’. Luxembourg would become a German federal state. This and much more, including Germany’s economic domination of Europe, is detailed by Fritz Fischer in his book Germany’s Aims in the First World War (1961).

The war aims document was discovered in archives in Potsdam by Fischer in the late 1950s. Other major archives had been destroyed in the Second World War. Mount shrewdly comments that ‘a man as clever as Bethmann-Hollweg would keep such indecent ambitions off the record.’ New evidence has since appeared. The Max Weber scholar Guenther Roth (who died in May) unearthed the letters of Kurt Riezler to his fiancée, Käthe Liebermann. Riezler was Bethmann-Hollweg’s private secretary: it was he who drafted the chancellor’s war aims (on 9 September 1914). At the end of August 1914 he wrote from the German Supreme Command: ‘The Reich chancellor has a very good mind – and people at least have to accept that the stage management has been very good. To be sure, the war was not wanted but was reckoned on and it has broken out at the most favourable moment.’ The chancellor, despised by the military as a ditherer, turns out to have been to the fore in the execution of the production. Riezler’s letters can be found online at New York’s Leo Baeck Institute.

Sam Whimster
Bromley


Stolen Documents

In his article on the Islamic State’s rule in parts of Iraq and Syria, Tom Stevenson makes passing reference to a ‘part of American academia’ that was ‘perturbed by what it perceives as the unauthorised seizure of Iraqi property’ – more than 15,000 documents removed from Iraq by the New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi (LRB, 20 June). Stevenson’s brief portrayal of this controversy – as a kind of benign ‘he said, she said’ between scholars and the New York Times – fails to capture the serious professional, legal, ethical and moral issues involved.

Anyone interested in this issue may wish to consult online the letters sent by the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom (of which I am the chair) to Callimachi and the New York Times and to George Washington University, which has agreed to house the stolen materials. Here I will merely summarise the most important points included in our letters and the supporting materials. First, Callimachi was not given permission by legally designated representatives of the Iraqi government to remove these documents, thereby violating a number of international customary laws and conventions, including UN Security Council Resolution 1483 (2003), which reaffirmed the principle of the protection of cultural heritage, including a prohibition on the transfer of such items, following the looting of the Iraqi National Museum and National Library in the wake of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. In addition, with complete disregard for the potential personal and political ramifications for individual Iraqis, Callimachi and the New York Times have made at least a number of these documents publicly available in unredacted form, thus violating a host of professional and academic research norms. Finally, the contention of having ‘rescued’ these documents is yet another example of powerful outsiders’ patronising claims to know best how to preserve occupied and conquered peoples’ cultural patrimony. These documents are not the property of the New York Times, nor is their disposition a matter that any non-Iraqi individual or institution is entitled to decide. They should never have been removed from Iraq, and they should all be returned to the appropriate Iraqi authorities.

Laurie Brand
University of Southern California, Los Angeles


Imps and Ogres

Lawrence Dunn writes about the distinctions between Pygmies, San and Khoi (Letters, 20 June). I first came across the terms ‘San’ and ‘Khoi’ in the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, where some of these peoples’ art, the most ancient art in the world, is displayed (as resin casts, since the images are mostly drawn or carved on rock). My interest was especially caught by figures whose hair appeared to be braided and even ornamented, reminding me of Robin Dunbar’s argument that grooming and language, mutual attentiveness and care, are tightly intertwined in the origins of culture. The exhibition also records some of the history of the violence suffered by the inhabitants of these lands at the hands of colonisers, and reports on the difficulties the museum has had – and the controversies in which it has been immersed – in telling the story of these people: who they were and are, what happened to them and is still happening to them.

The Iziko condemns the term ‘Bushmen’, and I don’t remember ‘Pygmy’ being invoked. But I expect the museum has either already revised its wall labels or will be doing so soon, observing better-informed and more sensitive historical definitions of identities, as Dunn’s letter illuminates. Naming is of course key, but I am not convinced that ‘exonyms’, like ‘Pygmy’, which announce their ‘crudeness’ help the cause of equality and civility, which is the heart of the matter. ‘Pygmy’ carries derogatory figurative meanings (‘so and so is a political pygmy’), though I suppose it could be retrieved and transvalued in a manoeuvre that is frequently adopted by resistants from below (my favourite was the feminist press Shameless Hussy, and there is of course Virago). Contestation over race labelling has often inspired recourse to this stratagem, and it is hard to keep up with the vicissitudes of naming. It matters who does the naming in the first place and who is speaking. I did find myself perplexed and disturbed by Martin McDonagh’s recent play A Very Very Very Dark Matter, a peculiarly grotesque fantasy about a ‘pygmy’ woman in a cage, the supposed source of the stories Hans Christian Andersen wrote. She was played by a disabled actor, and I suppose embodied European rape, massacre, plunder and artistic appropriation, but I didn’t feel that calling the character a pygmy helped, or avoided perpetuating that legacy.

Marina Warner
London NW5


They all die in the end

John Lanchester writes that it feels ‘newish’ to use ‘investment’ as a metaphor for having followed a TV series (LRB, 6 June). I first heard the term in 1999. I had written a dark comedy about a young journalist who reads of his own death in the personal columns and spends the movie trying to avoid, outwit or confront his fate. I was asked by a producer if I really thought my audience would be happy to make a two-hour investment in my character only for me to finish him off at the end. I could have cited movies in which exactly this sort of thing happens – Thelma and Louise, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to name just two – but was thrown by the question. If I didn’t think the story would work, why would I have written it that way? It seemed perfectly legitimate to me that an audience should make an emotional investment in the characters, the story, the wardrobe or anything else in a movie or a TV series, just as long as they remember that the value of an investment can go down as well as up.

Oliver Wingate
Halesworth, Suffolk


Superhuman

Ben Jackson wonders what impact AlphaZero, a computer program capable of teaching itself to play games at a superhuman level, will have beyond chess (LRB, 6 June). How many ‘real-world situations’, Jackson asks, ‘can be productively reduced to a process of optimisation, with a unitary goal and a predefined set of rules’? Deepmind, the artificial intelligence research company that developed the program, pays its seven hundred employees £200 million a year. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, which funds Deepmind, is presumably expecting something back at some point.

The great thing about AlphaZero is that it learns from experience. The great thing about learning by playing games, from Deepmind’s perspective, is that experience can be acquired incredibly cheaply. That might not be so true of driving a car, say, or running a mobile phone company. But it could be true of analysing the massive collections of data at the disposal of the global scientific community. Dozens of research groups around the world have for several decades been working on the problem – which has implications for drug design – of how to predict a protein’s 3D structure from a knowledge of its chemical composition. A while ago, the groups began assembling twice a year to take part in a competition to measure progress. Last year Deepmind entered the competition for the first time. It not only beat the other 97 entrants, it won by the unprecedented margin of 15 per cent.

Paul Taylor
Institute of Health Informatics, University College London


Anti-Masochism

Kristin Surak repeats the common but incorrect claim that Japan’s nationalists have managed to have all mention of the Nanjing Massacre and ‘comfort women’ removed from Japanese schoolbooks (Letters, 6 June). The Nanjing Massacre is mentioned in all Japan’s current junior high school and high school history textbooks. The best-selling junior high textbook states that ‘the Japanese military killed many Chinese people including ordinary people, women, children and prisoners of war.’ ‘Comfort women’ are mentioned in most current high school history textbooks, though not in the ones for junior high school.

Peter Cave
University of Manchester


Modi does it again

According to Tariq Ali, ‘In three Indian states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Hyderabad – parties built by popular movie stars … dominate the scene, blurring the lines between fiction and reality’ (LRB, 6 June). There has been no state called Hyderabad since 1956; Ali is no doubt referring to Telangana (India’s newest state, created in 2014), which contains the bulk of the old princely state of Hyderabad. The major parties in Telangana are the Telangana Rashtra Samithi and the Congress; Narendra Modi’s BJP are a rising force. None of the three was founded, built or led by movie stars. If it is the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh that Ali has in mind, there the party built by an actor, the Telugu Desam Party, was all but wiped out in 2019.

In Karnataka, no party built by a film star has ever figured in the state’s politics, which are dominated by the contest between the Congress and the BJP, with the Janata Dal – led by farmers – a strong third. Karnataka has had 22 chief ministers, none of them remotely connected with the cinema. As for Tamil Nadu, the ruling AIADMK was indeed founded by a movie star, M.G. Ramachandran, and subsequently led by another, Jayalalithaa. But in 2019 the party won just one of Tamil Nadu’s 39 seats. Two other parties led by actors failed to win a single seat.

These four states have 109 parliamentary seats between them; parties built by film stars won precisely four of these.

Keshava Guha
New Delhi


The Joy of Deficits

Diana Stone notes that ‘Zimbabwe’s fiscal deficit is around 12 per cent of GDP’ and that a country ‘can’t run a deficit that size without stealing from the future’ (LRB, 7 March). The major problem in the economy of Zimbabwe is, as Diana Stone says, hyperinflation. But the reason for hyperinflation is rarely, if ever, the running of large deficits. It is typically, as it has been in Zimbabwe, the collapse of production in tandem with a significant decline in the central government’s authority.

Deficits cannot be assessed in isolation. We need to examine the whole economy, especially productivity, whose prime indicator is the level of employment. And we need to focus on the real aspects of the economy rather than worrying about economic conventions. The whole concept of ‘sound finance’, with its corollaries of ‘fiscal discipline’ and ‘prudent finance,’ all code words for austerity, must be discarded and replaced with functional finance.

Japan is the outstanding example of a state that has done this, albeit inconsistently. It has continuously low interest rates, low unemployment, low yet steady growth, and most important, an unmatched standard of living. All this despite the fact that every year the budget hits deficits in excess of 15 per cent of GDP, while Japan’s Treasury has amassed a debt of some 230 per cent.

Yet if, geography aside, Japan were to apply for Eurozone membership its application would be rejected outright because the country is in violation of the Eurozone’s deficit and debt limits. This is evidence enough of the folly behind the Eurozone set-up, a folly that now threatens to derail the whole European unification project.

Vassilis Serafimakis
Athens


Flimflamming into War

I have read David Runciman’s review of the Mueller Report twice (LRB, 6 June). Upon my soul, I fail to see that the gravity of the antichrist’s misconduct rises to the levels of President George W. Bush flimflamming us into war with Iraq, or President Obama, in the Awlaki affair, arrogating to his office the power to indict, try, sentence and execute an American citizen.

Elmer T. Eells
Seattle, Washington


In the Same Street

In her thoughtful review of Sibylle Lacan’s A Father, Lili Owen Rowlands is understandably drawn to the harrowing scene in which a seriously ill Sibylle is anxiously waiting for her father, only to discover that he is running late because he has been having sex with a woman in a house nearby (LRB, 20 June). Owen Rowlands designates the house as a brothel. In the original French, Sibylle’s term for the house is ‘maison de rendez-vous’, which could indeed refer to a brothel, but in this case Adrian Nathan West’s translation of the term as ‘house of assignation’ is more accurate, as the context indicates. The point is not that Lacan, on the way to seeing his daughter, was overcome by an irresistible urge, which forced him to make a pit stop at the local brothel, but that in a calculating way he had rented a ‘room by the hour’ for himself and one of his mistresses on the very same street where he was to visit his ailing daughter. Had Lacan’s notoriously incandescent impulses compelled him to visit a brothel, his daughter might have been able to forgive him. But the premeditation and malice in arranging an assignation in a neighbouring house borders on the unforgivable.

Dany Nobus
London NW3


When DDT Was Good

Meehan Crist writes about the role Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring played in the banning of DDT, but doesn’t mention the dramatic context in which the widespread use of DDT first came to public attention (LRB, 6 June). In the chaotic final months and aftermath of the Second World War, thousands of concentration camp survivors and millions of displaced people from across Europe had to be sheltered and cared for. Camps hastily set up for this purpose were primitive and overcrowded. There was a risk of an epidemic of insect and tick-borne diseases, for which there were no effective treatments. Of these diseases typhus was the biggest worry. But DDT, deployed on a massive scale, averted the disaster. Newsreels included indelible images of camp occupants being ‘deloused’ by having DDT powder blown into their hair and clothing. The message was clear: DDT was the ultimate insecticide, harmless to humans but deadly to insects. The Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller, who discovered the insecticidal properties of DDT, had conducted routine tests for its safety in mammals and plants. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1948, by which time DDT had become the most widely used insecticide for controlling the parasites of man, domestic animals and plants.

Raymond Clayton
Stanford, California


‘Ulysses’ by the Pool

David Wilson’s letter in the LRB of 6 June was edited in such a way as to create the false impression that Eric Griffiths’s essay ‘Empson’s God’ was a lecture. The end of the letter, as Mr Wilson wrote it, was: ‘But one must not insist too much on the paucity of Griffiths’s publications. He published some important essays. One was “Empson’s God”, which compressed a book’s worth of analysis and argumentation into a tightly coiled 27 pages.’

Editors, ‘London Review’