A Reflection: Fifty Years, A Father

(Note: This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on April 17, 2021.)

In the early morning hours fifty years ago, serving as a young Army officer in then West Germany, I became a father.

On April 18, 1971, our daughter, Nicole, was born in the Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden, just across the Rhine River from Mainz, where I was stationed with the 8th Infantry Division.

(Nicole’s Birthday, 2006)

My wife and I had arrived in West Germany only seven weeks before. I was 22; Geri was 21. We were young and resilient. I had faith in myself, us, the US Army, and the free, democratic West led by the United States.

When her water broke in the middle of the night, it was all frenzy to me. West Point had prepared me to serve my country as an officer and soldier; no one had prepared me to be a father. I hurriedly drove to the hospital, 20 minutes away.

Happily, I had already scouted the way to the exact building on the base, however, not the exact floor. I parked in front of the building, jumped out leaving my laboring wife, and dashed up the stairs, two-by-two, quickly reading the signage.

I finally reached the 4th floor and the Labor and Delivery ward. Out of breath, I sought to calm myself as I found the night nurse on duty. Playing the unruffled Cary Grant, I said: “I think my wife is having a baby.” The nurse looked at me and said wryly: “Well, I think you had better bring her up.”

Three days later, on a very sunny spring day, with ornamental cherry trees bursting their pink blossoms everywhere, we brought home our new daughter. Two years later came Thomas, and three years after Thomas came James. By the time I was 28, my wife and I had three children. Life for us was never the same.

Children are headaches. One had a serious medical condition which required major surgery at only18 months. One had crooked legs which required an awkward leg brace to be worn through the night. One slept so soundly that there were many bed-wetting incidents in the night.

Long, restful sleeps were no more. Our free time was no longer our own. If we stayed up late partying with friends, we would pay for it early next morning. We no longer joined festive parties on New Year’s Eve.

One of the many challenges that American Civilization faces is the demographic challenge. It is very elemental: If a civilization does not produce enough children, in the shorter term it has such problems as providing the social security net for its older population. However, in the longer term, it simply is pushed aside by other, more demographically vibrant civilizations.

Over the past century, the US total fertility rate (number of children per woman) has dropped below that required to sustain the population (2.1) only during times of economic strain: the Great Depression of the 1930s and also during the oil shocks of the 1970s.

Over the past few decades it has hovered around the 2.1 level until recently. In 2019, the fertility rate hit a 35-year low of 1.705. Last year’s rate was slightly higher at 1.779. The number of marriages does not seem to be a driving factor; the marriage rate over the past few decades has remained fairly stable. In 2017, Pew Research reported that about one-half of Americans, ages 18 and older, were married, although this figure is down 8% since 1990.

However, the drop in the fertility rate does seem related to the median age of the first marriages. In 2018, the median age of first marriages reached an all-time high of 30 for men and 28 for women, according to the Census Bureau.

However, I find another statistic most troubling for our civilization. In 2019 Pew Research reported that nearly two-thirds (65%) of Americans say that society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and having children. This is up from 57% in 2016.

Happily my wife and I, having known each other since we were very young, having grown up in the same hometown and living just a few blocks from each other, in families who shared similar Roman Catholic, Italian-American cultures, did not have much to discuss regarding children. We both saw children as a given, the first order of married life.

Children are smelly handfuls, but also sweet-smelling sources of endless surprise and joy. They are heartache, but also happiness. They are tears of sadness but also tears of joy. They come to have not only your physical traits but others as well. They grow up, get married, and—with luck—give you grandchildren who become tremendous sources of pride, joy, and comfort. What was once our family of two, sitting on Sunday afternoons at a little table in an apartment in Mainz, West Germany, burgeoned 40 years later to a table in Portsmouth, with an array of tables, seating as many as 17 family members, eating Sunday dinner, laughing, telling stories, and passing on timeless truths.

(The grandchildren, 2020)

It was President Ronald Reagan who in his farewell address stated:  “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” I wonder if many of the challenges American Civilization faces today are best treated at the family and not the government level. Government can pass laws, allocate resources, and initiate massive programs, but it is not good at instilling enduring values like trust, faith, and hope, which a civilization needs to sustain itself. The family is.

When I come across Jimmy Rodgers’ hit of 1957, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” I chuckle in reflection on the last 50 years. In the last stanza, he sings: “Had a lot of kids, a lot of trouble, and pain/But then, whoops oh lordy, well I’d do it all again.”

A regular columnist, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University. He is writing a book on The Challenge of American Civilization.

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Dorothea Lange and “Migrant Mother”

(Note: A version of this essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on April 5, 2021. It is the sixth in a series on Notable Women.)

Eighty-five years ago this month, in the middle of the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange, one of the early “documentary photographers,” took her most iconic photograph—“Migrant Mother.”

Lange was born in Hoboken, NJ, in 1895, to German immigrants. At age seven, she contracted polio, leaving her with a weakened right leg and a limp. She stated: “It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me, and humiliated me.”

She decided early in her life that she wanted to be a photographer, and so after high school she apprenticed at several photography studios in New York City. At 23, she left New York, settled in San Francisco, and established a successful portrait studio, making a living by photographing the city’s social elite.

In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, she turned her attention from the studio to the street, from the elite to the dispossessed. She was driven to capture with her camera the luckless lives of the hundreds of thousands who migrated west to California from the Dust Bowl of the Mid- and Southwest.

Her candid photos of the homeless and the unemployed drew attention to her and led to her employment with the Farm Security Administration. She captured the plight of the poor and forgotten, especially sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers—both white and people of color.

Her most dramatic and powerful image was taken in March, 1936, of a woman and three of her children at a pea-pickers camp in Nipomo, California.

In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience in the magazine, Popular Photography. “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. …she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. … There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

Destitute pea pickers. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California, 1936. US Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Library of Congress

Decades later the woman was identified as Florence Owens Thompson, a full-blooded Cherokee born in 1903, in Indian Territory (current day Oklahoma). During the 1930s she and her family worked as farm workers, following the crop harvests in California and sometimes in Arizona. Thompson recalled picking 400-500 pounds of cotton from dawn till after dark. She said: “I worked in hospitals. I tended bar. I cooked. I worked in the fields. I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.” She had a total of ten children with three husbands.

In 1978, reporter Emmett Corrigan located Thompson at her mobile home in Modesto, California. Thompson stated: “I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.” As Lange was funded by the federal government, the image is in the public domain with no royalties involved.

When Thompson became sick in 1983, her family appealed for financial help. The appeal brought in $35,000. in donations for her medical care along with over 2,000 letters. Son Troy Owens reflected: “For Mama and us, the photo had always been  a bit of [a] curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride.”

A regular columnist, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University. He is writing a book on The Challenge of American Civilization.


Dorothea Lange. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothea_Lange

Accessed March 19, 2021.

“Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection.” Library of Congress. https://guides.loc.gov/migrant-mother . Accessed March 19, 2021.

Durden, Mark. Dorothea Lange. Phaidon, n.d.

Estrin, James. “Unraveling the Mysteries of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” The New York Times, November 28, 2018.

“Florence Owens Thompson.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Owens_Thompson . Accessed March 19, 2021.

Oshinsky, David. “Picturing the Depression.” The New York Times, October 22, 2009.

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Women as Warriors Have Long History

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on March 1, 2021, and by the History News Network on March 14, 2021.)

The American experience with true women warriors—not just our wonderful Hollywood Wonder Woman—has only recently begun. However, with the benefit of recent archaeological discoveries and re-examinations, we can say that women have been warriors—or certainly hunters—for millennia.

When the U.S. ended the draft in 1973, women represented only 2% of enlisted personnel and 8% of the officer corps. Today the figures for the officer corps are significantly higher across almost all services. As of 2018, women represented 19% of the Army officer corps, 19% of the Navy’s, 21% of the Air Force’s, and 8% of the Marines’.

An important milestone occurred in 1976, when the first young women were allowed to enter the three service academies. I was privileged to teach the first group at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and, in 1980, to witness the first female cadets graduate in 1980 and become second lieutenants. 

A significant transformation in the roles women play in the military took place in December, 2015, when the Department of Defense opened to women combat roles across the services. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated: “There will be no exceptions.” “They’ll be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat. They’ll be able to serve as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry, Air Force parajumpers and everything else that was previously open only to men.”

In that same year the Army opened its most challenging training course to women—Ranger School. Lieutenants Kristin Geist and Shaye Haver became the first women to graduate from the school,–a tough, 61-day course—the most demanding training I underwent in my 21-year Army career. As of April 2020, 50 women have graduated from the course.

Today women Army officers are commanding infantry and armor combat companies, indicating that they soon may be commanding combat battalions and larger Army units.

Recent archaeological discoveries and studies show that these current women warriors have actually a long pedigree. Women as warriors—or certainly hunters and not simply gatherers—have a long history reaching back thousands of years to pre-history.

In November of last year, researchers found that the remains of a 9,000-year-old hunter buried in the Andes mountains was a woman. The specialized tool/weapon kit at the burial site indicates she was a big game hunter.

This discovery encouraged the researchers to re-examine evidence from 107 other graves throughout the Americas from the same time period. Out of 26 graves with hunter tools, they were surprised to discover 10 contained women.

These discoveries challenge the traditional beliefs about gender roles in pre-recorded history: Men hunted and women gathered. The picture is now more mixed.

The richest body of literature and artifacts on women warriors in ancient Western history is found in ancient Greek history, and it deals with the mythical Amazons. Amanda Foreman, writing in the “Smithsonian Magazine,” (April, 2014) explains that the ancient Greek poet, Homer, writing in the 8th century BCE, was the first to mention these women warriors. In his “Iliad,” he mentions them briefly as Amazons “antianeiria,” a term translated variously as “antagonistic to men” or “the equal of men.” In any case, Homer made these women brave and stalwart military opponents to the Greek male military heroes, who of course always vanquished these women warriors.

Amazons on ancient Greek vessel (national geographic.com)

Future Greek writers continued referencing the Amazons. For example, they supposedly fought for the Trojans in the Trojan War. Also, the demi-god Heracles completed his ninth labor by taking the magic girdle of the Amazon queen, Hippolyta.

Thus tales of the Amazons became inextricably intertwined with the rise of Athenian democracy which began in the 6th century BCE. In this century, images of Amazons battling Greeks spread; they appear not only on pottery but also on their architectural friezes, jewelry, and household items. 

Recent archaeological discoveries dating back to the 5th century BCE indicate that the Amazons were rooted in real equestrian, nomadic women of Eurasia—the Scythians. Adrienne Mayor, writing in “National Geographic History” (May/June 2020) states that the Greeks would have encountered these women in the 7th century BCE as they established colonies around the Black Sea.

Rendering of Scythian warrior women (ancientorigins.net)

Excavations of Scythian burial mounds began in the 1940s, and revealed skeletons with spears, arrows, axes, and horses. Originally identified as male, more recent DNA testing shows that some human remains were women. About one-third of the Scythian women found in the burial sites had weapons. Also, their bones have indications of combat: marred ribs, fractured skulls, and broken arms.

It is clear that the more egalitarian society we Americans continue to strive to create had an antecedent on the steppes of Eurasia.

Contributing editor Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University. He is writing a book on The Challenge of American Civilization.


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King’s Final Book: Both Political Roadmap and Passionate Sermon

(Note: This essay was originally published in two segments by the Newport Daily News, RI, on February 1 and February 2, 2021. It was subsequently published on the History News Network on February 14, 2021.)

In his final book before his assassination, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” (Beacon Press, 1968) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s scope is broad and ambitious. Not only does he take on racism and injustice in the U.S., but he also grapples with these issues and more on the international level. More than this, he challenges us not only to think with our minds but also to feel with our hearts and souls.

King finished writing the book in early 1967, as the country was spiraling downward into the disunity and discord of the late 1960s. His overall purpose is never clarified in the opening chapter; therefore, it becomes clear that his purpose is to answer the question in his title: where does our country go from here—chaos or community?

Clearly one of his most important purposes is to challenge those African Americans who advocate “Black Power,” the movement gaining strength at the time, which was much more militant than King’s movement of nonviolence.

After his introductory chapter, “Where Are We?” surveying the status of blacks in the mid-1960s, he devotes his entire second chapter—the longest in the book—to dissecting the Black Power movement and systematically presenting his counter-arguments. King remains steadfast in his belief in nonviolence: “Occasionally in life one develops a conviction so precious and meaningful that he will stand on it till the end. This is what I have found in nonviolence.”

In addition to Black Power and nonviolence, King deals with the concepts and issues of racism, justice, freedom, segregation, discrimination, poverty, and white fear, resistance, and backlash—a full agenda indeed.

He begins to define the central concept of racism by quoting others. George Kelsey: “Racism is a faith …a form of idolatry…an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power.” “…the idea of the superior race….”

He quotes Ruth Benedict: “…the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to hereditary inferiority and another group …superiority.”

King settles on a definition of racism as the “arrogant assertion that one race is the center of value and object of devotion, before which other races must kneel in submission,” eventually abridging his definition to simply “the myth of inferior peoples.”

In terms of diction, King’s word choice for blacks is “Negro” and “Negroes,” phrases that are now anachronistic and offensive. Also surprising and less understandable is his virtually total male vocabulary. He speaks always in male terms, using “he” and “him,” never “she” and “her;” “man” and never “woman.” The only time he even references women is in his brief section on the Negro family.

The main issue King addresses is the continuing racism and injustice in America, resulting in continued discrimination, exploitation, and poverty for blacks. Despite some notable progress after the protests, boycotts, demonstrations, and even landmark federal legislation of the mid-1960s (e.g., Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965) a significant gap remains between the demands of the law and its full and genuine implementation.

“White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation, or all forms of discrimination.” King asserts: “The daily life of the Negro is still lived in the basement of the Great Society.”

The greatest responsibility for this injustice he places in the hands of whites. “In short, white America must assume the guilt for the black man’s inferior status.”

Even though whites bear the major blame, King maintains that the solutions for these problems must come from both white and black America. He states: “Negroes hold only one key to the double lock of peaceful change. The other is in the hands of the white community.”

In terms of programs, King is clear on its size and focus. America needs a “radical reordering of national priorities” so that a “massive program” can be implemented to provide either guaranteed employment or income, allowing dignity “to come within reach for all.” To ensure its achievement, a timetable should be established.

To those who might question the justification for such a program, King states: “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”

Martin Luther King eventually turns his sights on black America. King argues that the overall strategy must be nonviolent agitation, even using the word “coercion.” It needs better leaders of character, fewer blacks who remain “aloof” on the sidelines, and more political activism by better organized groups who understand the importance of alliances, all combining to bring the necessary power to effect real change.

Suggested by the pages he devotes to it and the emphasis he places on it, King’s second main purpose in writing the book is to make the argument for his strategy of nonviolence and challenge the strategy of Black Power. While conceding that Black Power was gaining strength, he states: “Black Power has proved to be a slogan without a program, and with an uncertain following.” … “… no new alternatives to nonviolence within the movement have found viable expression.”

In his final chapter, King fulfills his third main purpose by raising his sights from the national level to the international level.While fighting the national crusade against injustice, he calls on all nations to recognize their interdependence, that we are all part of the “world house.” Technology and progress have brought us closer, making us all neighbors now. He summons us to develop a “passionate commitment” to fight the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.” To accomplish this, the “wealthy nations of the world must promptly initiate a massive, sustained Marshall Plan for Asia, Africa, and South America.”

King wrote this book not only with his mind but also with his heart and soul. Thus, the most challenging aspect of reading the book is that we hear King speaking with two different voices: the political realist analyzing the politics of racism and injustice in America, but also the passionate preacher touching our hearts and souls and calling all of us to a higher moral and spiritual plane. The former is concerned with politics and power; the latter is concerned with empathy and love.

In the middle of the second chapter on “Black Power,” this duality first shows itself. “The problem of transforming the ghetto is … a problem of power—a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo.” But then he speaks of love. “In this sense power is not only desirable but necessary in order to implement the demands of love and justice.”

On the next page, he states: “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” He defines the “collision of immoral power with powerless morality” as “the major crisis of our times.”

In ending his chapter rejecting Black Power, he states: “It will be power infused with love and justice, that will change dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, and lift us from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. A dark, desperate, confused and sin-sick world waits for this new kind of man and this new kind of power.”

In ending his next chapter on “Racism and White Backlash,” he states: “Man-made laws assure justice, but a higher law produces love.”  He continues “…something must touch the hearts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right.”

In his final chapter on racism in the U.S., “Where We Are Going,” we hear the political realist first: An oppressed people realizes deliverance comes “when they have accumulated the power to enforce change.” He states that this is simply “mature realism,” and urges us to get the order right: “We have to put the horse (power) before the cart (programs).”

He continues: “Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands.”

He eventually uses military language: The movement must become a “crusade.” “Recognizing that no army can mobilize and demobilize and remain a fighting unit, we will have to build far-flung workmanlike and experienced organizations in the future ….” He states that “responsible militant organizations” are “indispensable” to the struggle.

However, to end the book he uses the voice of the passionate preacher. He quotes Arnold Toynbee: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”

He then returns and challenges us with the central issue of his book: the choice between nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation; between community or chaos. He also leaves us to judge whether these two worldviews, one of power and one of love, are indeed complementary or contradictory.

Contributing editor Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University. He is writing a book on The Challenge of American Civilization.

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Princess Red Wing – Shining Light of the Original Americans

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 10, 2021. Note: This is the fourth essay in a series on Notable Women.)

Princess Red Wing of the Seven Crescents—educator, historian, artist, and storyteller—spent her life preserving the culture of her Indigenous people and educating all who would listen.

Born Mary E. Glasko in 1896 to Narragansett and Pokanoket Wampanoag parents, she moved from Connecticut to Rhode Island when she was nine.

She had a life filled with accomplishments and distinctions. From the 1920s to the mid-1970s, Red Wing traveled extensively to lecture throughout the country, at universities in Florida, Michigan, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Montreal, even addressing the United Nations in 1946. She also lectured and gave other presentations at local schools, libraries, public parks, and scout troop meetings. She helped hundreds of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts receive their Indian merit badges. Red Wing also narrated stories and legends at campfires at scout summer camps for 28 years.

In the 1930s, she was invited to participate in a ceremony at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, which included an American historical pageant. The script angered her. “It spoke of the ‘dirty painted savages of New England.’ I sent it back and told them that they did not know their history of New England natives who, in that age of yore, jumped in the water every single morning to cleanse their bodies. I told them ‘NO’. I would not take part as a ‘dirty painted savage’ or get any of my people to do it.”

In 1945, she became Squaw Sachem of the New England Council of Chiefs, presiding over her tribe’s sacred ceremonies and ensuring its traditions lived on.

From 1947-1970, she served as a member of the Speaker’s Research Committee of the under secretariat of the United Nations. In an interview in 1973, she related: “I met Eleanor Roosevelt and [Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei] Gromyko and a lot of other leaders at the U.N. When you’re the only Indian in the place, they notice you.”

In 1946 the Rhode Island Writers Guild presented her with a certificate of achievement for her stories, plays, and poetry about the history, culture, and folklore of Indigenous people of the Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.

From its beginning in 1958 until 1984, she was the co-founder, educator, and curator of the Tomaquag Museum, originally in Hopkinton and now in Exeter.

She succeeded in bringing awareness and knowledge of Indigenous people to certainly thousands of non-Indians. Indians recognized her as an important activist and advocate for them. About her lectures, she once said: “I want them to know the lovely things of Indianhood. So many things are not in the books. I can remember back 80 to 85 years myself, and I remember the things my parents and grandparents told me when I was young.”

In June, 1975, she received a Doctor of Humane Affairs, from the University of Rhode Island. She received awards also from the Rhode Island Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Boston Indian Council, and the Rhode Island Writers Guild.

Residing in the 1960s with the owners of the Dovecrest Indian Restaurant, Exeter, Princess Red Wing was known to diners for her weekly reading of tea leaves. In an interview in 1986, she explained that her aunt taught her: “I just read the symbols the tea leaves form. All things have meaning. I just look to see if things are clouded or clear.”

Shortly before her death in 1987, she said, “My life work has been to keep up the heritage of my people teaching it to all races and nationalities, and especially to youth.”

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250th Anniversary of Beethoven’s Birthday: A Cause for Celebration and Music

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on December 28, 2020.)

Nine months after the “Boston Massacre” here in the New World, Ludwig van Beethoven was born in the Old, and Western music would never be the same.

Beethoven’s musical talent was obvious at an early age. At 13, he published his first work, a set of keyboard variations. At 21, he moved from Bonn, Germany, his birthplace, to Vienna, the capital of the vast Austrian Empire with a flourishing arts community, where he studied under Joseph Haydn.

He soon found an admirer, Karl Alois Prince Lichnowsky, who became his first patron. In 1800 he created his first major orchestral work, the First Symphony, followed by his first set of string quartets in 1801.

It was at this time that his hearing began to decline. By 1814, he was almost completely deaf, and he ceased performing in public. He became so dejected that in 1802, he considered suicide, writing that “it was only my art that held me back.”

Despite his declining health, he continued to compose his later symphonies, chamber music, and piano sonatas. He composed a single opera, “Fidelio,” first performed in 1805 and revised in its final version in 1814.

After months of being bedridden, he died in Vienna in 1827 with many thousands attending his funeral.

The celebrations in Germany (bthvn250), Vienna, and elsewhere, honoring his 250th, began before the pandemic struck and envisioned hundreds of events. Regrettably, most of these had to be cancelled, down-sized, or moved online.

To honor the anniversary, the New York Times dispatched many writers and critics here and abroad over the course of the past year to research his life and music. On December 12, it offered readers a magnificent collection of essays and recordings. (“Beethoven’s 250 Birthday: Here’s Everything You Need to Know.”) The Times offered this summary praise for him: “No composer left a mark on music quite like Ludwig van Beethoven. He took the popular forms of his time…and stretched them to their breaking points. He embodied the then-new ideal of the musician as passionate, politically engaged Romantic hero.”

Edward Rothstein, critic-at-large for the Wall Street Journal, maintains that “Beethoven’s music heralded something quite different. It is full of disruptions, violent interjections, dizzying withdrawals and unexpected musical vistas. There is no way to miss the force of individuality in his music, its imposing will and probing attentiveness.” He indicates that “he may also be the first modern composer.”

In 1989, my wife and I found ourselves on our final Army assignment in Bonn, then the capital of West Germany. Walking through one of the main plazas, we discovered the statue of Beethoven and also the house off the plaza where he was born. Little did I know the impact he would have on my appreciation for classical music, music I had always respected but little understood.

The Hollywood film about him, “Immortal Beloved,” changed all that. Its main theme focuses on an actual letter Beethoven wrote to a woman in 1812 but never sent. The film’s plot deals with a search after his death for this woman, whose identity to this day remains a subject of debate.

He begins: “My angel, my all, my own self—only a few words today …. Can our love persist otherwise than through sacrifices, than by not demanding everything?” … My bosom is full, to tell you much—there are moments when I find that speech is nothing at all.”

In the body of the letter he addresses her as “my Immortal Beloved.” He ends: “What longing in tears for you—You—my Life—my All—farewell. Oh, go on loving me—never doubt the faithfullest heart. Of your beloved L [Ludwig] Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours.”

The scene which transfixed me unfolds like this. Beethoven and another man, Anton Schindler, are listening to a rehearsal of George Bridgewater, the Afro-European violinist, performing a sonata Beethoven wrote for Bridgewater, the “Kreutzer Sonata.” Schindler does not realize it is Beethoven speaking to him. “I can’t hear it, but I know they are making a hash of it. What do you think?”

Schindler is perturbed at the interruption. Beethoven continues: “Music is a dreadful thing. What is it? I don’t understand it. What does it do?”

Schindler: “It exalts the soul.” Beethoven: “Utter nonsense. If you hear a marching band, does it exalt? No, you march. If you hear a waltz, you dance. If you hear a mass, you take communion.”

“It is the power of the music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism. So now, what was in my mind when I wrote this?”

Schindler is speechless. Beethoven’s relates his experience. There is a man whose lover is waiting for him; she will wait only so long. His carriage has broken down in a storm, and he cannot reach her. “This is the sound of my agitation. This is how it is the music is saying. Not how you are used to being, not how you are used to thinking. But like this.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.


“Beethoven’s 250th Birthday: Here’s Everything You Need to Know.” New York Times, December 14, 2020.

“George Bridgewater.” Brighton and Hove Black History. https://www.black-history.org.uk/george-bridgewater/. Accessed December 17, 2020.

Immortal Beloved. Columbia Pictures. 1994.

“Immortal Beloved.” Letters of Note. https://lettersofnote.com/2011/06/10/immortal-beloved/. Accessed December 17, 2020.

 “Ludwig van Beethoven.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludwig_van_Beethoven

Accessed December 17, 2020.

“Ninth Lives: Beethoven’s Triumphant Career Was a Struggle Against Adversity.” The Economist. November 21, 2020.

Rothstein, Edward. “What Beethoven Can Still Teach Us.” Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2020.

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The Plague in Ancient Athens: A Cautionary Tale for America

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on December 7, 2020, and by the History News Network on December 20, 2020.)

Twenty-four hundred fifty years ago the ancient Greek city-state of Athens—Western civilization’s first democracy and one of the political systems our founding fathers studied—came under great stress. In 430 BCE, in the second year of a war, it was hit by a plague. As Athens was challenged, so the U.S.—under stress from the COVID-19 pandemic, from a fraught, polarized, political class and  citizenry, and from a sitting president who will probably never concede the election—faces great challenges. While our health experts and political leaders draw lessons from the current pandemic and plan for future ones, Athens’ experience should serve as a cautionary tale for our democracy.

In his book, The History of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek historian Thucydides provides the setting. Athens and Sparta had been the two principal leaders of the united Greeks who vanquished the mighty Persian Empire fifty years earlier. Athens, a democracy, headed a large maritime empire which came to threaten Sparta. Sparta, headed by two kings and with a mixed political system, had a very militarized society and an invincible land force. Thucydides sums up the fundamental cause of the war: “I believe that the truest reason for the quarrel, …, was the growth of Athenian power, which put fear into the [Spartans] and so compelled them into war ….” [Book I, 23]

The advent of the plague was certainly related to the overall strategy which Pericles, the preeminent Athenian leader, had proposed and the Athenians had adopted: a defensive strategy on land with limited naval offensives. This meant that once the war started in the spring 431 BCE and the Spartan land force invaded, most Athenians in the surrounding countryside came within the walls of the city. Thucydides states: “An aggravation of the existing calamity was the influx from the country into the city, and this was especially felt by the new arrivals. As there were no houses to receive them, they had to be lodged at the hot season of the year in stifling cabins, where the mortality raged without restraint.” [Book II, 52]

Thucydides indicates that this plague was extraordinary in that “a pestilence of such extent and mortality was nowhere remembered.” [Book II, 47]

With brutal candor, Thucydides—who contracted the disease and recovered—describes the sickness. “People in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inner parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and the breath unnatural and fetid.” Then followed sneezing, hoarseness, hard cough, discharges of “bile,” and violent spasms. Internally the body burned and could not withstand the touch of clothing. The sick “plunged into the rain tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst ….” [Book II, 49]

Plague in an Ancient City, Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652-1654

After seven or eight days, if the person remained alive, the disease “settled in the private parts, fingers, and toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes.” [Book II, 49]

All remedies proved ineffective. “No remedy was found that could be used as a specific; what did good in one case, did harm in another. Strong and weak constitutions proved equally incapable of resistance, all alike being carried off, in spite of the most careful diet.” [Book II, 51]

“…[N[or did any human art succeed any better. Prayers in the temples, divinations, and so forth were found equally futile, till the overwhelming nature of the disaster at last put a stop to them altogether.” [Book II 47]

Thucydides highlights the psychological impact. “By far the most terrible feature in the malady was the dejection which came on when anyone felt himself sickening, for the despair into which they instantly fell took away their power of resistance … there was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other.” [Book II, 51]

Thucydides also attempts to portray the impact that the sickness had on social norms and practices. “…for as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane. All burial rites before in use were entirely disregarded….” [Book II, 52]

Athenians looked at what was happening—the rich suddenly dying and the poorer classes seizing their property—and became unhinged. “They reflected that life and wealth alike were transitory, and resolved to live for pleasure and enjoy themselves quickly. No one was eager to persevere in the ideals of honor … present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was accepted as both honorable and useful. Fear of the gods or law of man were no restraint.” [Book II, 53]

In his book, The Peloponnesian War, Donald Kagan indicates that the plague took about four years to run its course and that it killed 4,400 Athenian soldiers (hoplites), 300 cavalrymen, and about one-third of the city’s population. In his book, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Josiah Ober, estimates that it took one-quarter of the city’s population, about 75,000 people and identifies the disease as typhoid on the basis of DNA tests reported in 2006.

Among the dead was Pericles, Athens’ political and military leader, its “first citizen,” who died in 429 BCE. Nonetheless, Athens persevered in its war effort for many more years until 404 BCE when it succumbed to Sparta and its allies.

As of this writing, Coronavirus cases and deaths have spiked for the past seven weeks. Based on data from the Johns Hopkins University, the Wall Street Journal reports that the two-week trend shows a 34% increase in cases, with close over 16.5 million total cases and over 300, 000 total deaths.

A comparison of the two diseases shows that the plague in ancient Athens was clearly as least as contagious as COVID-19, but much more virulent.

Ancient Greek medicine and therapies were totally ineffective against the plague in the 5th century BCE, and vaccines did not exist. We have discovered the benefits to be gained by wearing masks, social distancing, smaller gatherings, and proper hand-washing.

Regarding vaccines, the World Health Organization reports that globally there are approximately 200 vaccines in development today. The West’s robust extended medical community has produced three front-runners: vaccines from Pfizer & BioNTech, Moderna, and finally the University of Oxford & AstraZeneca. On December 14, the first of Pfizer’s vaccines were given with Moderna’s vaccine likely soon to follow. Western science appears to have begun the end of the virus’ stranglehold on us.

Athens lost its nominal political and military leader to the plague, while President Donald Trump caught and recovered from COVID-19, returning to the campaign trail and the election with gusto.

Though under stress from the plague and the loss of its leader, Athens was able to maintain its prosecution of the war against Sparta and its allies. The U.S., enduring the pandemic for eight months, has to date been able not only to hold together, but also to have a national election with a record turnout of the electorate. Our political system remains under stress as our sitting president refuses to concede the election results, confirmed by the formal voting of the Electoral College on December 14, with the support of far too many Republican loyalists.

If our political system holds, we will have shown greater resilience than in the tumultuous period, 1972-74, when the Vietnam War continued and Watergate wrenched us. However, even if it does, the American body politic has much work to be done to return to health politically and civically after returning to health medically. 

Contributing editor, Fred Zilian, is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island. (zilianblog.com: Twitter: @FredZilian) He is the author of From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s (East German) Army by the Bundeswehr.


Emanuel, Rahm. “How to Prepare for the Next Pandemic.” The Wall Street Journal, April 14, 2020.

Freeman, Charles. The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World. NY: Viking, 1999.

Hanson, Victor Davis. A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. NY: Random House, 2005.

Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. NY: Viking, 2003.

McKay, Betsy. “Lesson for the Next Pandemic—Act Fast.” The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2020.

Ober, Josiah. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Richard, Carl J. Greeks & Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Sir Richard Livingstone, trans. London: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Woodruff, Paul, ed. and trans. Thucydides: On Justice, Power, and Human Nature. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993.

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Zora Neale Hurston: Harlem Renaissance Writer

(Note: This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on November 16, 2020, and at the History News Network on November 22, 2020.)

Against the strong headwinds of racism and resistance against women’s rights, Zora Neale Hurston forged a life dedicated in her writing to exploring racism against blacks and also the lives of African American women. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison described her as “one of the greatest writers of our time.”

Hurston was one of the foremost writers of what was called the Harlem Renaissance, a period, 1918-mid 1930s, which has always fascinated me. The “war to end all wars” was over, our country launched into the great redemptive experiment of Prohibition, the 1920s roared in with the Charleston and Jazz, and movies were no longer silent. On a personal level, this was the time when my father began tap-dancing and when Aunt Rose went rogue and cut her hair.

Harlem was the primarily African American community in northern Manhattan, New York City, where this “rebirth” was centered. Primed with a population which had re-located from the segregated South during the Great Migration, Harlem was the scene of a great flowering of art, literature, and music, giving artistic expression to the black yearning to breathe truly free and energizing African Americans to demand equality and respect as human beings and as artists.

Zora Neale Hurston (wikipedia.com)

Hurston was one of the writers that gained national prominence during this period along with others such as Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Omar Al Amiri, Eric D. Walroud, and Langston Hughes. Their successes led to opportunities finally to publish with mainstream publishing houses.

Zora Neale Hurston—novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist—was born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891, and grew up in Eatonville, Florida, near Orlando. She attended Howard University, and then switched to Barnard College, the only black student there, graduating in 1927.

During her writing career, she penned four novels, two folklore books, an autobiography, and over 50 short stories, essays, and plays. Her novels were under-appreciated for decades until Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author (The Color Purple) wrote about her in an article entitled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in “Ms.” magazine in 1975.

I have read two of her books: her most popular novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and also the non-fiction book, Barracoon. Published in 1937, the novel tells the story of the struggles of a fair-skinned, independent-minded African American woman named Janie Crawford: three marriages, hardship, poverty, and ending with the horrible hurricane of 1928 and its aftermath. I found the book distinctive for the precision she took in expressing the common black vernacular, her description of the hurricane and the terror it inspired, her portrayal of the strong, female protagonist, and finally the dramatic ending.

In Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, a work of non-fiction, Hurston relates the story of Cudjo Lewis (originally Oluale Kossula), the last known surviving slave from the last known slave ship, the Clotilda, which made the transatlantic voyage from Africa some 50 years after such trade was outlawed.

Writing in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hurston relates in her Introduction: “Of all the millions transported from Africa to the Americas, only one man is left. He is called Cudjo Lewis and is living at present at Plateau, Alabama, a suburb of Mobile. This is the story of this Cudjo.”

The result of many interviews with Lewis over three months, the book gives insights into his life: his childhood in Africa, the attack by female warriors on his hometown, the trail of misery after being taken prisoner and being marched overland to the barracoons (“barracks” or holding structures) of Ouidah on the coast, the ordeal of the Middle Passage on the Clotilda, the years of slavery during the Civil War, and finally his role in founding Africatown in Alabama.

In February of this year, I had just finished her novel and found myself in Fort Pierce, FL. How surprised I was when I picked up the “Fort Pierce Magazine” and found her featured in it. She spent the last years of her life there as a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines. She also taught at Lincoln Park Academy, a segregated secondary school. Majorie Harrell, president emeritus of the Zora Neale Hurston Florida Education Foundation, related: “She was my teacher for 10th grade and part of 11th.  …she would give out an assignment and then be buried in her writing.”

Marvin Hobson, current president of the foundation, said: “It’s been over 50 years since her death [1960] and her work is still being released. She is part of who we are as African American people.”

In 1973, Alice Walker placed a headstone at her grave site bearing the words: “A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH.”

Contributing editor, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University.


Cuccurullo, Rachel. “Reviving Zora’s Legacy.” Fort Pierce Magazine, Vol 13, 1, 2020.

Davidson, James West et al. Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past. NY: McGraw Hill, 2011.

“Harlem Renaissance.”  Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlem_Renaissance. Accessed November 7, 2020.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo.’” NY: Amistad/Harper Collins, 2018.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. NY: Harper, 2013.

“Zora Neale Hurston.” Wikipedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zora_Neale_Hurston , Accessed November 7, 2020.

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Battle of Salamis Opens Door for Ancient Greece’s Golden Age

(Note: This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on October 5, 2020, and at the History News Network on October 11, 2020.)

Twenty-five hundred years ago in the Battle of Salamis, the ancient Greeks defeated the invading Persians and paved the way for Greece’s Golden Age of the 5th century, BCE, a foundation period for Western Civilization.

By the late 6th century BCE, the Persians had come to dominate numerous peoples and reigned as the superpower of the era. At its height, the Persian Empire consisted of twenty provinces and stretched from the Indus River in the east to northern Greece and Egypt in the west.

At this time ancient Greece, or Hellas as the Greeks called it, consisted of some 1500 city-states spread across the Greek mainland, the Aegean Sea islands to the east, and Sicily and southern Italy to the west. The most important and powerful of these were Sparta, a highly regimented city-state (polis) with a mixed political system and an invincible army, and Athens, a democratic polis with the largest population and navy in all of Hellas.

As the Persian Empire expanded westward into Asia Minor (current day Turkey), it came to dominate a number of Greek city-states on its western coast and on the islands in eastern Aegean Sea. In 499 BCE, this domination became intolerable to some city-states and they rebelled, calling on other Greeks for assistance. Athens responded and provided support. Though the revolt was suppressed, King Darius of Persia never forgave the Athenians for their audacity in challenging him. Legend has it that at dinner he ordered a slave to say three times: “Master, remember the Athenians.”

Persia had launched two earlier expeditions which did not bring success. The first in 492 BCE proved disastrous. The second in 490 BCE ended in the stunning victory for the Greeks, led by Athens, at the Battle of Marathon. (Our current day marathon is 26.2 miles because this was the distance that the messenger, Pheidippides, ran from the battle site of Marathon to Athens to announce the victory.)

In 480 BCE, Persia, now led by Xerxes, renewed its campaign with overwhelming force. The ancient historian, Herodotus, indicated that 300,000 Persian allied forces crossed the Hellespont into northern Greece and faced Greek forces perhaps one-third that size. In his play, The Persians, the Greek playwright, Aeschylus, who fought in the battle, indicated that the Greeks had 310 ships facing a Persian allied fleet of 1207 ships.

After defeating the Greeks, led by Leonidas and 300 valiant Spartans, at the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian force marched south to Athens, now essentially evacuated, and sacked it. Most of the Athenians and other unconquered Greeks had withdrawn to the island of Salamis or manned the Greek fighting ships, the triremes.

While the Spartans argued for withdrawal and the defense of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, the Athenian leader Themistocles won the debate on the strategy. His plan for defeating the Persian navy was simple: Lure the large Persian navy northward into the narrow strait feigning withdrawal, neutralizing its superior numbers, and then attack.

To set the hook, he arranged for a slave, Sicinnus, to give the Persians false information: The Greeks were squabbling and were in disarray. They planned to withdraw the next day. Eager for victory, Xerxes took the bait.

On September 29, 480 BCE, the Persian fleet—its rowers already in action for 12 hours—advanced into the trap. In his play Aeschylus relates the action at dawn:

 “…first there came from the Greeks the sound of cheerful singing, and the island rocks loudly echoed it. Fear struck all the Persians who had been disappointed in their hopes. For the Greeks were not singing their hymns like men running away, but like men confidently going into battle. The noise of the war-trumpet on their side inflamed them all.”

“It was possible too to hear shouting: ‘Sons of the Greeks, forward! Liberate your country, liberate your children, your wives and the temples of your gods, and the graves of your ancestors. The fight is for everything.’”

Battle of Salamis, Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868

He also paints the picture of the utter defeat of the Persians.

“The sea was full of wreckage and blood. The beaches and the low rocks were covered in corpses. Every ship rowed in a disorderly rout, every one of the Persian fleet. … Wailing and shrieking covered the sea until dark night put an end to it. I could not finish telling you of the terrible happenings even if I were to relate them for ten days. Of the one thing you can be sure, never in one day did such a multitude of men die.”

Xerxes observed the action from the heights above the strait. Aeschylus envisioned his reaction to the disaster.

“Deep were the groans of Xerxes when he saw this havoc; for his seat, a lofty mound commanding the wide sea, o’erlooked his hosts. With rueful cries he rent his royal robes, and through his troops embattled on the shore gave the signal for retreat.”

Salamis has come down to us as a key event in the early history of Western Civilization. If the Greeks had succumbed and came under the Persian “barbarian” yoke, ancient Greece probably would not have experienced its Golden Age in the 5th century BCE, with all its achievements: scientific inquiry of the natural world free from religion, philosophy, architecture, sculpture, mathematics, organized athletic competition, the realization of the world’s first democracy and the enrichment of the idea of freedom.

Charles Freeman in his book, The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World, gives due adulation to the Greeks for the victory, however; he argues that it was the land Battle of Plataea, the succeeding year, which was more decisive. “It had dislodged the Persian forces from Greece and sent them home in humiliation and so, possibly, had changed the course of European history.” This is true; however, without the decisive naval battle of Salamis there would have been no decisive land battle of Plataea.

The Greeks today have been celebrating the anniversary of this battle to include the staging this summer of the play The Persians, at the remarkable ancient amphitheater at Epidauros, which I was lucky enough to visit fifteen years ago.

Independent journalist John Psaropoulos witnessed the play and noted that the audience erupted in applause when the Persian queen Atossa asked of the Greeks, “Who is their master and commander of their armies?” The chorus leader answered: “They call themselves nobody’s slaves, nor do they obey any man.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches Western Civilization and politics at Salve Regina University, RI.


Amos, H.D. & A.D.P. Lang. These Were the Greeks. Chester Springs, PA: Dufour, 1982.

Dupuy, R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy. The Encyclopedia of Military History: from 3500 B.C. to the Present. NY: Harper & Row, 1986.

Freeman, Charles. The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World. NY: Viking, 1999.

Gomez Espelosin, Francisco Javier. ”Salvation at Salamis.” National Geographic History, May/June 2016,

Ober, Josiah. The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Psaropoulos, John. “The Ancient Greek Battle that Never Ended.” The Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2020, C4.

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In Removing Confederate Symbols, US Military Follows German Military’s Example

(Note: This essay was originally published by the History News Network on August 23, 2020.)

By moving to eliminate all Confederate names on military installations and banning the display of the Confederate flag, the U.S. military is following the example of the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) during the unification of Germany in 1990, when it assumed control of the National People’s (East German) Army (NPA).

Thirty years ago, as the Federal Republic of Germany (West) and the German Democratic Republic (East) were preparing to unify, I had the privilege of serving as a “liaison officer” to the West German Army. In 1989, I was embedded in the German Army at a major installation in Cologne. For the next several years,  I witnessed first-hand and researched how the West German Army took over the remnant of the East German Army, reduced by October 3, 1990, to about 90,000 men.

One of the key decisions West German political and military leaders made related to the symbols—monuments, plaques, wall murals—and traditions of the East German Army. They decided that none of the NPA symbols and traditions would continue into the new German Army after unification. State Secretary Karl-Heinz Carl told me that he made the decision that the identity of the NPA should vanish. “On October 3, 1990, one Bundeswehr.” In my interviews with members of the West German Army, they stressed how the East German Army was rooted in a fundamentally different value system—a Communist value system where the Communist Party officials always had the final word. With unification, a fundamental break with these values was necessary. The former NPA soldiers would now belong to an army of a democracy, rooted in the concept of the “citizen in uniform” [Staatsbürger in Uniform], which placed a high value on individual human dignity, basic rights, and the rule of law.

The Bundeswehr implemented this policy beginning on the very first day of unification. No East German or NPA flags were hoisted or lowered. All NPA unit colors, streamers, orders of the day, and documents that conferred names of facilities and garrison signs were sent to the Military History Museum in Dresden. All East German, NPA, and Warsaw Pact medals and awards were banned.

In a recent conversation with me, Lieutenant General Werner von Scheven, Deputy Commanding General for the takeover of the former East German forces, summarized the policy: “For the most part, no physical symbols of the NPA were allowed to remain in public view, and none of the Communist ideas, principles, and traditions were allowed in the new German Army.”

As the German military in 1990 decided that a definitive break with the past was needed, so today the U.S. military has begun a definitive break with the ideas and their attendant symbols of the antebellum South and the Confederate States of America—specifically inherent white supremacy and its inverse, inherent black inferiority.

In mid-July, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced a new policy which effectively bans the Confederate flag from being displayed on military bases. General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress: “These generals [of the Confederacy] fought for the institution of slavery. We have to take a hard look at the symbology.”  

In stark contrast to the partisanship of recent years, the Congress—with strong support from both parties—is also taking action. On July 21, the House passed an annual defense bill which requires the Department of Defense to change the names of all military bases named after leaders of the Confederacy. It also prohibits the display of the Confederate flag on military installations.

On July 23, the Senate followed suit, overwhelmingly passing a bill which calls for the formation of a commission to prepare a plan for renaming the bases. The Defense secretary would then: “implement the plan submitted by the commission …and remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederate States of America … or any person who served voluntarily with …[it] from all assets of the Department of Defense” within three years of the bill being enacted.

While President Trump has said he would veto a bill with such provisions, the votes in both houses of Congress indicate that it would be overridden.

By taking these actions, the U.S. military would put itself among the many activist groups, towns and states that have already taken such actions in recent years, but especially since the killing of George Floyd on May 25. In February, 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that since the June 2015 white supremacist attack at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC, 114 Confederate symbols had been removed across the country with 1,747 still standing. Most significantly, such action has been taken in Richmond, VA, the former capital of the Confederacy. In early July, Mayor Levar Stoney, citing public safety and the need for healing, used his emergency powers to remove about a dozen Confederate statues. He stated: “It is time past.” “We have needed to turn this page for decades, and today we will.”

Painting of General Lee in West Point Library

Over fifty years ago the large portraits of General Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, facing each other on opposite walls in the large reference room of the West Point library, would mesmerize me as I did homework there. The portraits still remain mounted in the newer cadet library, the library staff recently told me. While I may regret the possible movement of General Lee’s portrait to the West Point Museum down the road from the library, it would be a small but necessary step towards an American reconciliation.

A retired Army officer, contributing editor Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University. (www.zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) He is the author of From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s (East German) Army by the Bundeswehr.

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