Wednesday 29 April 2015

Who remembers the Armenians?

'Who remembers the Armenians?' was supposed to have been Hitler's scornful question to his commanders as he urged them to be pitiless to the people of Poland on the eve of the German invasion in 1939. He was referring to the massacre of the Armenian Christian minority in the Turkish Ottoman Empire 100 years ago.

A century on, the answer to Hitler's question seems to be: 'quite a lot of people.' Over the past week, remembrance ceremonies have been held all over the world, and the French president, Francois Hollande, urged Turkey to recognise the massacre of up to 1.5 million people as genocide.

Turkey's president said his country 'shared the pain' of the Armenians, but rejected the suggestion that the killings were part of a systematic campaign, and said that many innocent Muslims also perished during the horrors of the First World War.

The fate of the Armenians has long been a subject of bitter controversy in Turkey. In 2006, Orhan Pamuk, the first Turk to win the Nobel Prize for literature, was charged with'insulting Turkish identity' when he referred to the massacre, and the following year, a journalist of Armenian descent was shot dead in Istanbul after he described it as 'genocide'.

Monday 20 April 2015

How religious fanaticism exacted a dreadful toll in 17th century Europe

There’s a fascinating series running on BBC2 called Sex and the Church. In the second programme, Prof Diarmaid MacCulloch tells how perhaps 65,000 women were executed as ‘witches’ in Europe between 1500 and 1660. About 15,000 men were also killed. Any who tried to deny their ‘offence’, which often included some lurid tale of sexual intercourse with the devil, were tortured or threatened with torture, and that usually did the trick.

The worst place was what is now Germany, where 26,000 lost their lives. It was probably no accident that this was the place where the Reformation began, and where the battle lines between Protestants and Catholics were most clearly drawn, notably in the mindbogglingly devastating 30 Years War.

At first, the Protestants were less repressive than the Church of Rome, allowing priests to marry, for example, while the Catholic hierarchy decried all sex as sinful, even within marriage. (Controlling people’s access to sex, of course, is a very good way of controlling them.) But soon the Protestants were burning witches with as much enthusiasm as their enemies.

As part of the Counter-Reformation, its fightback against Protestantism, the Catholic Church also started running schools for poor boys. And what do you know? In no time, there was a scandal about sexual abuse. And how did the Church, right up to the Pope, react? They tried to hush it up. The first two episodes of Sex and the Church are still available on I-player.

*My account of the greatest volcanic eruption of modern times at Tambora (see my blog of April 11) in my book, Historia mundial de los desastres (A Disastrous History of the World) is quoted in this article on a Spanish website -

Saturday 11 April 2015

200 years ago today - the biggest volcanic eruption of modern history

200 years ago today, the Indonesian volcano of Tambora was spewing molten rock nearly 30 miles up into the atmosphere. It is a less famous disaster than Krakatoa, also in modern-day Indonesia 68 years later, but this was the most powerful eruption of at least the last 500 years.

The immediate death toll on the island of Sumbawa, where the volcano is located, was perhaps 12,000, but across the world, hundreds of thousands may have perished in the volcanic winter that came after the eruption, as ash blotted out the sun.

It brought starvation to China's Yunnan province, hunger and disease to India, while the great chill killed many across Europe as global temperatures fell by perhaps three degrees, with the effect persisting into the following summer. There were food riots in Britain and France, while soup kitchens had to be opened in Manhattan.

The ash meant many countries experienced strange, dramatic sunsets, some of which inspired the great painter, J.M.W. Turner, while the 'wet, ungenial summer' in Switzerland confined Mary Shelley and her friends indoors. For entertainment, they had a story competition. Mary's entry was Frankenstein. The rotten weather was even thought to have contributed to Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.

For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Thursday 9 April 2015

Disasters and the unborn

Some extraordinary facts are emerging about the effects disasters seem to have on babies still in their mothers' wombs. Americans being carried by their mothers at the time of the great flu pandemic of 1918 (pictured) would, 50 years later, have done worse at school, be earning less, and be more likely to be disabled than those who just missed it.

Babies born to Dutch women who went through the 'hunger winter' of 1944-45, when the German occupiers cut off food supplies, were more prone in adulthood to obesity, heart disease, schizophrenia and depression.

Swedes born in the months after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, when radiation-contaminated dust spread across parts of the country were 40% more likely to fail in middle school, even though their physical health did not seem be be affected.

A study in Sweden also found that the children of women who had lost a relative during pregnancy were more likely to suffer attention deficit disorder, anxiety or depression, while another looking at Bangladeshi and Pakistani families in England found that children whose first trimester in the womb coincided with Ramadan, the time of fasting, lagged behind at school when they were seven.

Tuesday 7 April 2015

South America's Great War

150 years ago, just as the American Civil War was drawing to its close, Latin America’s deadliest war was just getting going. The War of the Triple Alliance pitted Paraguay against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

The war was sparked by a coup in Uruguay in 1864, which Brazil and Argentina backed. Paraguay had been involved in boundary and tariff disputes with its powerful neighbours for years, and its dictator, Francisco Solano López, believed the coup threatened the regional balance of power so he went to war with Brazil.

Brazil joined up with Argentina and the new Uruguayan government to form the Triple Alliance, and they declared war on May 1, 1865. The fighting ended five years later in Paraguay’s total defeat. About 400,000 died, and the effect on Paraguay was devastating as the population was reduced from about 525,000 to just 221,000, of whom only 28,000 were men. There the conflict is known as the ‘Great War’.

An exhibition of remarkable photographs of the war is now being toured around Paraguay. They were commissioned by a Montevideo photo shop owner, who had spotted how well scenes of Civil War battlefields had sold in the US.

Friday 3 April 2015

UK election: the next government nothing

One of the more bizarre criticisms of the UK’s coalition government was that in its latter stages, it entered a ‘zombie’ phase. In other words, for once, MPs were failing to carry out their supposed duty of rushing through poorly drafted new laws which they have not read properly, and which have disastrous unforeseen consequences.

It is the kind of mentality that saw Labour inventing 3,600 crimes in 11 years, and we wonder why the prisons are overflowing. Or that had the Tory-dominated coalition mounting yet another complete reorganisation of the NHS – something David Cameron had specifically promised not to do.

What we seem to get more and more is government by vanity project. After all, how is a politician meant to get into the history books by making sure the health service or public transport ran efficiently? No, they want to be the man or woman who shook up the NHS, or built HS2.

How many times have you heard governments promising to ‘cut red tape’? But power is so delightful, and the temptation to boss other people around just too great to resist. Back in the nineteenth century when a colleague demanded that Prime Minister Lord Palmerston should pass a new piece of legislation, he replied: ‘There are too many laws already.’

Somebody once said the trouble with elections is that whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. Whichever government wins this time, expect a flood of new laws and regulations.

More on this from Simon Jenkins -