Europe

Rick Steve’s The Story of Fascism in Europe

Adolf Hitler.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Xenophobia and populism have been on the rise globally, from Brazil to the United States. Even European nations have not been immune to these trends, despite the continent’s painful history with the far right and fascism. Rick Steve’s has a new documentary, The Story of Fascism in Europe, which provides a concise study of this movement, which might be useful for an introductory class. The documentary begins with an examination of Mussolini’s rise to power, then moves to the tactics adopted by Hitler. Simplistic solutions, the promise of rapid change, economic growth funded through public debt, attacks on unions, rhetoric that emphasized peoples’ fears, the use of intimidation, and the othering of minorities  proved to be a successful political strategy. While the majority of the documentary deals with Europe’s history, the final five minutes makes a link to the present.

If you are interested in hearing more about global topics, please listen to my podcast, Dispatch 7. You can find it on Spotify here, or by searching whichever podcast platform you prefer.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

The cost of education globally

Years ago I lectured in Germany at the University of Trier. While I was there these German students asked me about the cost of tuition at my school, a public institution in Oregon. At the time, my university had by far the lowest tuition rate in the state. But when I told my students what a year at my institution would cost students in tuition they were horrified. Many of them started laughing. They all gathered around me to tell me how outrageous that charge was.

In Germany at that time (about a decade ago) individual states set tuition policies. In most states tuition was free. In others there would be very low; perhaps as little as two hundred dollars. Of course the university was starved for funds. But the students were exceptional, and received an immense amount of hands-on time with their faculty. The program was rigorous, even though funding levels were much less that an American institution.

Now when I talk to my American students the subject of their student debt is always there. It shapes the majors they choose, and their career plans afterwards. Twenty years ago I would ask students in my “Introduction to International Studies” class what career path they preferred. Ninety percent of my students or more would raise their hands when I said “non-profits.” Only one or two would say business. Now that is reversed, and easily ninety percent of my students want a career in international business when they come into my introductory class. I think that is wonderful, and I want to support their career aspirations any way I can. I supervise internships, may connections to local businesses, and encourage students to do a business minor. But I wish that the choices that students made reflected their personal interests as much as their familial and financial pressures.

It is possible to create a different system. In Quebec, Canada, the in-province tuition at Concordia University would be under $3,000 a year U.S. But even that is higher than many European institutions. James Melville recently tweeted a video about how higher education is free in Denmark, and some other European nations.

I have some colleagues who hate when I talk about university finances, because they say it is part of the “business model” for higher education. There is some truth to what they say. But it’s also the case that the way we offer education in the United States imposes incredibly high costs on both our students and their families. We need to rethink our education system from the ground up. And both state and federal governments have to stop the disinvestment in higher education that has taken place over the last twenty years. At many private universities in the United States tuition alone costs over $50,000 a year. That’s without books, fees, room and board. So it might cost a student $70,000 a year to go to a private institution.

Teaching at an institution that has a tuition perhaps less than a sixth of that cost, I know that the private institutions aren’t six times better. But higher education is not a rational market because parents often feel that they cannot discuss the cost of education with their children. At the same time the perceived differences between universities is so great that students fear going to a lower level state institution. Of course, these perceptions are often wildly inaccurate. But they reflect inequalities in funding that have been taking place over a long time.

The higher education system in the United States is highly unequal, and provides a massive disincentive to education for lower-income families. Of course, student loans help many students complete college. But these funds not only saddle these students with immense debt, but also create a huge debt bubble. Ultimately, the loan-based system is part of the problem, as it papers over the fact that the business model for higher education is bankrupt. We need as a society to create institutions that charge students a fraction of the current amount. That will entail more online programs and offerings. But it should be done with tenured faculty, who are paid a living wage. It should not be done on the backs of adjuncts, who have no job security and often teach at multiple institutions for miserable wages. Universities have to drive down costs. But I don’t think that there is any way for tuition in the U.S. to drop dramatically without returning to the funding levels for state institutions that we saw in the 1980s.

Denmark, Germany and other European nations offer higher education for free. Their schools create a highly educated citizenry and workforce, which benefits the entire society. How high do tuition costs in the United States have to go before parents and students say enough; we have to make a fundamental change? What will be most difficult is that Wall Street makes immense profits off of student loans, which have been securitized. So it will be a third rail, much like talking about the public option for health care.

When I first began my career, one of my colleagues in Joplin, Missouri told me that his student loan debts were greater than his mortgage. That was in 1995. I can only imagine the pressure that today’s graduates may face. The United States doesn’t need to become Denmark, but can we find some inspiration and ideas from these models?

If you are interested in hearing more about global topics, please listen to my podcast, Dispatch 7. You can find it on Spotify here, or by searching whichever podcast platform you prefer.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

 

Death in Ice Valley

Two of the viking stone ships (burial grounds) at Badelunda, near Västerås, Sweden.
By User:Berig (User:Berig. Transferred from en.wp) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Every year on Halloween I cover a suitable topic, such as a haunted house in Hong Kong, or a mystery ship in Canada. This year I want to briefly mention “Death in Ice Valley” which is a joint production between the BBC World Service and NRK. This particular podcast examines the mystery that surrounds the Isdal woman, an unidentified person who was found murdered in strange circumstances in a Norwegian valley in 1970. While there was considerable evidence that the woman was a spy, her identity has remained a mystery for all these years.

The mood of the podcast is set at the start of each episode by the sound of the drizzling rain and a haunting vocal. The degree of research that went into this production is simply staggering. The two reporters -one British, one Norwegian- travel from the remote fjords of northern Norway to the home of an aging crime reporter in Spain. They find the woman’s jaw, do DNA testing, and locate a secret file. And with every discovery a new door opens, and more questions surface. As the story progresses, we become swept into the Cold World era. The tale is worth of one of my favorite fictional characters, George Smiley. While there are no supernatural elements to this podcast, it is a haunting, atmospheric puzzling production. The podcast is available everywhere from iTunes to Overcast.  Highly recommended.

If you are interested in a tale of the Northern supernatural, you may also want to put on the kettle, and read my book Dangerous Spirits. But it’s best not to do it in the midst of a Canadian or New England winter, especially if there is a blizzard, and the raccoon is making those sounds in the attic again.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

Spring class at Portland State University

Map of Europe

Image above: Map of Europe, National Library of Ireland, Flickr Commons

For those of you who live in the Portland, Oregon area, I’m writing to recommend Dr. Evguenia Davidova’s spring class, “The European Union.” This is a thoughtfully designed face to face class with wonderful readings, as you can see from the book covers below; just looking at the reading list makes me want to join. Please see the details here:

INTL 452: The European Union
Evguenia Davidova
Mon/Wed 8:15 – 10:05
CRN: 65131
The course deals with the history of the European Union and focuses on  dramatic current developments, such as:
  • Brexit
  • The recent migration crisis
  • Catalonia/Catalunya’s bid for independence
  • Greece’s financial crisis
  • Expansion of populist parties in the EU countries
  • The New EU members from the former Eastern Bloc
The readings include essays by British immigrants, a memoir from the former East Germany, and a critical history of the European Union.

France’s Yellow Vest Movement

I generally try not to simply repost articles on this blog, but Noelle Lenoir’s recent post, “France’s burning hate” does a good job placing France’s Yellow Vest movement into context. Her perspective is sympathetic to Macron. In this depiction, the Yellow Vest movement is an increasingly violent force, which hearkens back to the anti-Semitism and hatred of the 1930s. What is particularly interesting in her description of how establishment figures have adopted the Yellow Vest movement for their own ends. Lenoir is clearly sympathetic to Macron, and says that he is gaining legitimacy by his principled and restrained response to the crisis. I think, however, that the voices of the protesters are missing from the piece. Her essay could have gone into greater depth about their demands, and the grievances that have fueled the movement. In her depiction the Yellow Vests seem more an atavistic force than a reflection of deeply held beliefs.

As in discussions of populism in the United Sates, Lenoir points the finger at the impact of Russian fake news, which incites popular unrest. Last week in my Cyberwar and Espionage class my students discussed Russia’s fake news and propaganda efforts. Collectively, they made a few points: foreign influence in politics and elections is nothing new; outside actors could only have an influence when the U.S. is deeply divided, and the apparent success of the Russian troll factories -which are quite real- may overshadow other political forces driving discontent. While Russia is certainly trying to sow dissent and protest in the West, I also believe that its efforts have become a convenient scapegoat to explain protest movements and unrest. Does Russia really have the influence ascribed to it? If so, what are the weaknesses in Western societies that permit this? And how many people in the United States or France are really following RT, or consuming fake news on social media?

Despite the gaps in the piece, I do think that Lenoir’s piece provides a useful perspective on the Yellow Vest movement, which is well worth reading.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

Diet and Global Health

What is the single most important factor in shaping global health in the developed world? Interestingly, it does not appear to be access to the most technologically sophisticated medical technology. In the chapter on health in our textbook, I start by saying: “Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Guadalupe, Hong Kong, Israel, Malta, Martinique, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates are a diverse set of nations and territories. Yet they all have one fact in common: their citizens live longer than those of the United States, as do the citizens of many developed countries (Smallman and Brown, 2015, p. 236). Lee Miller and Weilu have an article titled “These are the World’s healthiest nations” in Bloomberg (February 24, 2019) which looks at global health statistics. The methodology looked at a number of factors -not only life expectancy- to rank countries. The top five countries were Spain, Italy, Iceland, Japan and Switzerland. There are many such rankings, and each one has methodological questions or choices. But all such national rankings of health can leave you questioning what you think you know, particularly about the role of diet in health. …

Blitzed: A book review

Adolf Hitler, drug addict.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H1216-0500-002 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Norman Ohler’s Blitzed is a disturbing, engaging and insightful look into how drugs shaped the lives of both soldiers and leaders in Nazi Germany. At the same time that drug addicts were being sent to the concentration camps, military researchers in Germany were testing the effects of Pervitin -a brand name for methamphetamine- upon soldiers. When German soldiers invaded France they were using drugs to give them the drive and alertness demanded for Blitzkreig.

At the same time, Hitler himself turned to a quack doctor, who not only injected him with an odd array of hormonal and vitamin supplements, but also with an increasing panoply of hard drugs. The book is based on extensive archival research, which allows Ohler to describe the bewildering array of Hitler’s medications. The book brilliantly captures the toxic atmosphere of Hitler’s entourage, as their leader became increasingly isolated physically and psychologically.

Hitler’s physician, Dr. Theo Morell, was a fascinating figure, who used his ties to Hitler to build a pharmaceutical empire, which was based on organs from the slaughterhouses of conquered territories in the East. At a time when every transport was needed to carry ammunition and wounded soldiers, he finagled trucks and trains to carry organs from the Ukraine to his plant in what is now the Czech Republic. With time, as Hitler’s physical condition declined, his activities drew the attention of not only Hitler’s entourage but also doctors, who believed that Morell was threatening Hitler’s health. The ensuing clash ended in Morell’s victory, based on Hitler’s personal backing. …

Wylding Hall, a book review for Halloween

The Rotunda, Stowe Landscape Gardens. Photo by Philip Halling. Creative Commons license, Wikipedia

Every year I cover an appropriate international mystery for Halloween. For example, last year I talked about ghosts of Hong Kong and Macau. Earlier this month I talked about the ghost ship the Baltimore, which was found with only a single survivor, a woman, who soon vanished from Nova Scotia and was never seen again. This year I want to review a novel, Wylding Hall, by Elizabeth Hand. The novel is a ghost story set in a remote English country house in the 1960s. The characters are primarily members of an English folk band, who came of age in the era of Fairport Convention in the late 1960s, when the folk rock movement was a pop culture force in Great Britain. Even though the pop culture of this period will be familiar to most Western readers, the specifically British context will be alien to most Americans and Canadians. The story begins after a terrible tragedy, which leads the band manager to isolate the band in an old country-house, not only to heal the group’s members but also to create a new album.

The work is inspired by the genre of pop music band histories that focus on juxtaposing the differing voices of band members. Hand, an American, has an amazing ear for dialogue. I think that dialogue is always tricky for a writer, as the smallest error in tone or wording can be jarring. At the same time, it is perhaps the best tool for characterization, and this is how Hand employs it. Dialogue propels the novel, so that the reader is soon swept into the jealousies, loves, and secrets of a British band. All ghost stories are dominated by the past. In Hand’s novel, however, the past at times seems distant and undefined. In truth the book is dominated by the 1960s in one summer in the life of a band. It differs from the stories of M.R. James and many other English authors of ghost stories because the past doesn’t seem to overwhelm the present. Even though the past intrudes, this novel is truly the story of the band itself. …

Northern Supernatural

Skogtroll/Forest Troll. Theodor Kittelsen [Public domain], 1906, via Wikimedia Commons
Every Halloween I do a post on global folklore or an international mystery, from a haunted building in Hong Kong, to the mystery of the ghost ship Baltimore. This year I’m doing some additional posts on this theme, because I want to share a wonderful BBC podcast, the Supernatural North. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough travels to Norway to look at how the weird in the North has haunted the European imagination. Along the way, she explores everything from a Sami shamanic drum made by a Californian (with an image of a surfer) to the witch trials of 18th century Finmark. What is impressive about the story she tells is how stories from this area with a relatively low population have shaped modern fantasy literature from the trolls in the Lord of the Rings to the White Walkers in the Game of Thrones. But these stories live on not only in literature but also popular memory. One Norwegian community is haunted by the history of the tragic 17th century witch trials in Finmark. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough described an unsettling visit to a public art work built to commemorate those who were burned at the stake. You have to admire the work of someone who has been knighted with a walrus penis bone, and who is on the trail of a Norse Arctic explorer.(1)

After listening to the podcast, you might wish to watch the 2010 movie Troll Hunter, which the podcast suggests built carefully upon actual traditions. It’s also very funny, and doesn’t have too much gore, despite some twists. There’s nothing worse (spoiler alert) than a rabid troll. …

The Rise of Populism and Europe

I have a colleague who teaches a course on the rise of populism in Europe, which is an increasingly important topic. What is interesting to me is how quickly populist and nationalist movements have emerged and flourished in the region. Anne Applebaum had an article in the Atlantic on this topic titled “Polarization in Poland: a Warning from Europe.” This beautifully written piece captured the rapidity of these movements’ growth, and their manifold contradictions. What I most liked about this article was her ability to personalize these trends, by talking about her own personal experiences, and how these political forces have torn apart families and friendships. I also liked her point that what is strange about the rise of these forces is that they cannot be explained by the traditional narrative that these movements reflect the hardships of economic recession. Poland has been experiencing a prolonged period of remarkable growth. And yet we see the rise of conspiracy theories and extremist views, which have traditionally perceived in the literature (including my own work) as signs of economic and social crisis. Applebaum’s piece is long-form journalism at its best, and would be an excellent choice for a course on modern Europe, or the rise of Populism.

Interested in Eastern Europe? You can read my blog post about folklore and World War Two in Poland here.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

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