Thursday, October 25, 2018

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” - George Santayana

I’m going to depart from discussing my usual intellectual property and technology subjects and step on my colleague Dave Morehouse’s toes with discussion of a book. Actually three books—Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy.  

The first book, “Fall of Giants,” follows five interrelated families from Wales, England, Russia, Germany, and the U.S. as they experience social and political issues at the time of the First World War. The second book, “Winter of the World,” continues with these five groups through the rise of the Third Reich, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War. The third and final book, “Edge of Eternity,” continues the families’ stories in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

I first read these books as they were published between 2011 and 2014. While I don’t often reread books, particularly when they are this voluminous, I was recently drawn to them for a second look. If you have read Follett, you are familiar with his creative and interesting use of fictional characters and occurrences to illustrate and explain actual historical events. But unlike dry historical narratives, he gives you a sense of the human side of why things happened. In my initial read, I found the human stories to be most compelling, but viewed them largely in their historical context—things that happened 100, 80, and 50 years ago. In my second reading, I am drawn to the broader backdrop and some striking relevance to current social and political behavior.  

The second book of the trilogy opens at a time when fascism was on the rise in Europe and other political philosophies, while generally sharing a desire to stem the fascist tide, were unable to coordinate within their own governments to facilitate a diplomatic resolution. Fearmongering, angry rhetoric, and blame-game politics engendered fearful silence by some and violent counter-action by others. Free speech was suppressed, propaganda was rampant, and discrimination against various groups was used to concentrate power in groups that were not necessarily supported by a broader population. People just trying to work and raise their families either didn’t notice what was happening or didn’t think it would substantially affect them. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was just beginning my second read of the second book in the trilogy, “Winter of the World,” when the news broke about the disappearance of the missing (presumed dead) Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A Saudi Arabian citizen residing in the United States, Khashoggi went into the Saudi consulate in Turkey and never came out. At least no one has seen him since—not even his fiancé, who waited outside the consulate for him to attend to paperwork relating to their forthcoming marriage. Turkish sources claim that the journalist was murdered in the consulate and his body dismembered. The Saudis have consistently denied any wrongdoing, and theories have been advanced that Khashoggi simply got cold feet about his upcoming marriage and voluntarily disappeared, or he was accidentally killed in an interrogation that got out of control, or, if Turkish authorities really do have audio evidence of Khashoggi’s torture and murder, it was the act of rogue agents.  

As I first heard this disturbing news, I began Chapter 5 of my book. A young Russian Bolshevik had been sent to Berlin to recruit spies that could help the Russians in their opposition to fascism and prepare for another war that they believed they would eventually have to fight with Germany. Upon reaching the fourth page in the chapter, I read:

He was about to do something highly dangerous. If they caught him contacting a German dissident, the best that he could expect was to be deported back to Moscow with his career in ruins. If he was less lucky, he and the dissident would both vanish into the basement of Gestapo headquarters in Prinz Albrecht Strasse, never to be seen again. The Soviets would complain that one of their diplomats had disappeared, and the German police would pretend to do a missing-persons search, then regretfully report no success.

Volodya had never been to Gestapo headquarters, of course, but he knew what it would be like. The NKVD [The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs or Communist Secret Police] had a similar facility in the Soviet Trade Mission at 11 Lietsenburger Strasse: steel doors, an interrogation room with tiled walls so that the blood could be washed off easily, a tub for cutting up the bodies and an electrical furnace for burning the parts.
When I first read this book, I would have moved right through passages like this seeing only interesting and historically factual tidbits used to illustrate the brutality of a different time and place. If I had thought about it, I would probably have assumed that advances in technology and communications (if not advances in humanity) would likely prohibit such occurrences in the modern world. But now it hits home that this is right out of 2018 headlines. What is particularly horrifying is that Khashoggi appears to have been disposed of without any reasonable expectation of secrecy or deniability, but rather the assumption that it will be met with acceptance, indifference, or rationalization.  

Read the books because they are good and you will learn history that you probably missed in school. 

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