John Green

John Green

John Green is a journalist and broadcaster. He has authored and edited several books and anthologies on a wide range of subjects including political biographies, labour history, poetry, natural history and environmental affairs.

Yours for the Revolution: the life of Jack London
Thursday, 16 June 2016 15:50

Yours for the Revolution: the life of Jack London

Published in Fiction

John Green introduces the life of Jack London.

There is a hullabaloo around the quincentenary this year of Shakespeare’s death, but Jack London’s centenary appears to have been forgotten. Yet in his lifetime he became one of the world’s first celebrity writers, and is undoubtedly one of the great novelists of the 20th century as well as an articulate proponent of socialist and progressive ideas.

His incredible life reads like a Boys’ Own fantasy. He was a man driven by raw passion and anger. Born in San Francisco in 1876 as an illegitimate child, he would die aged only 40. But what a mercurial life and creative energy he packed into those short 40 years.

His mother gave him to a black former slave woman to bring up, before she married and was able to take him back into her own care. Jack’s childhood of poverty marked him for life, but he was a boy full curiosity, who refused to let his poor background prevent him gaining knowledge. In 1880 discovered the local public library in Oakland and devoured the books he found there. One of them was a dog-eared copy of The Communist Manifesto, and reading it changed his life irrevocably. In his notebook at the time, he wrote:

The whole history of mankind has been a history of contests between exploiting and exploited… the exploited cannot attain emancipation from the ruling class without once and for all emancipating society at large from all future exploitation, oppression, class distinction and class struggles.

During his school years, he spent his spare time in a saloon bar on the waterfront and when he told the owner he wanted to go to university and become a writer, the owner lent him the money to do so. I don’t know if he was ever repaid, but it was certainly a fruitful investment, as his protégée went on to become a celebrated and wealthy writer. At aged 13, he was working in a cannery for 12-18 hours a day, but he was not cut out for such a life, and was determined to better himself through a devotion to literature.

London soon quit his studies at UCL, Berkeley in 1897, aged 21 after being rejected by his assumed father, an astrologer named William Chaney. He wrote to Chaney but the latter denied paternity and London was devastated. After leaving college, he headed for the Klondike during the gold rush boom. His harsh experience there would give him the raw material for his first stories. To get to the Alaska he made a journey of 2,500km alone in a rowing boat, but turned his experience into a successful short story. His 1903 novel, Call of the Wild, also based in Alaska, was sold to a newspaper and the book rights to Macmillan. It was the book that would win him rapid renown.

Before he was earning enough money from his writing, though, he borrowed money from his foster mother to buy a small sloop and became an oyster pirate in the Bay. This boat was very soon damaged beyond repair, so he signed on as poacher-turned-gamekeeper for the California Fish Patrol. Then later he joined a sealing schooner bound for the coast of Japan. Once he’d managed to establish his credentials as a reporter, he was commissioned to write about the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 as a war correspondent.

What animated Jack London’s life, says one of his biographers, Alex Kershaw, was

above all, a hope that one day poverty and social injustice would decrease, not increase; that the environment would not continue to be regarded as a resource to be continuously exploited; that humanism would one day triumph.

He was driven by passion, anger and a determination to live life to the full. He played hard and drank hard. Already by the age of sixteen he had experienced more than most people do in a lifetime.

After returning to Oakland from the gold fields of Alaska, his health was in bad shape, but he managed to make a fairly quick recovery. Oakland in 1893 found itself the focus of a war of a different kind, one between the bosses and the longshoremen. Witnessing those brutal struggles helped turn London into a socialist activist. He took on gruelling jobs in a jute mill and in a railway power plant, and joined Kelly’s Army – a mass demonstration movement by unemployed workers.

At the same time he was working incredibly hard to get more of his stories published, submitting one after the other to magazines, and was soon making good money at it. His semi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden reflects that period. He cut his teeth in the burgeoning world of magazines, selling his adventure stories widely and establishing a reputation. He would become one of the first fiction writers to obtain worldwide celebrity and a large fortune from his fiction alone.

More than any North American writer, Jack London had an insatiable appetite for life. He often said he preferred living to writing, and by the age of 16 he had experienced more than most people do in a lifetime. He was always searching for new ideas, new challenges. His thirst for travel took him across several continents and inspired his best fiction.

He also embodied the promise of socialism in his life and writing. He exposed capitalism’s evils, its decimation of the workforce through ruthless profit-making. In some of his most powerful prose, he showed how expendable people are in the process of increasing a governing elite’s wealth.

His stories have been used as the basis for film scripts in countries around the world and in different versions, including Sea Wolf, White Fang and Call of the Wild, set in the Klondike gold-rush era, the semi-autobiographical Martin Eden as a TV mini-series as well as his dystopian iconic novel The Iron Heel.

He was an atheist, an active supporter of the Wobblies, joining the Socialist Labor Party in 1896 and then the Socialist Party of America. He also ran as a socialist candidate for mayor of Oakland.

As London explained in his essay How I Became a Socialist, his views were influenced by his experience ‘with people at the bottom of the social pit’. His optimism and individualism faded, he said, and he vowed never to do more hard physical work than necessary. He wrote that his individualism was hammered out of him, and he was politically reborn. He often closed his letters ‘Yours for the Revolution’.

His progressive political views were somewhat tainted for some by his fascination with a mix of Darwin’s and Nietzsche’s ideas, and the concept of a super race. However, for London this was not in the Nazi sense of one race dominating others, but the idea of everyone become ‘super’ by natural selection. Despite being brought up by a black surrogate mother, he did feel the white Anglo-Saxon people were probably superior to others, particularly the coloured peoples. While such attitudes are inexcusable, they can be explained and understood in the US context and atmosphere of the time. However, they rarely if ever influenced his writing and he could hardly be characterised as a racist in terms of hating or discriminating against others. For him class and the class battles were always central.

As a journalist he wrote an impassioned study of poverty in London’s East End, The People of the Abyss, which prefigured Orwell’s similar Down and Out in Paris and London. His burning indignation came through in so much of his reporting. His reminiscences as a drifter bumming it across America were written long before Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck and others did the same. What comes across in his novels is his first hand experience and understanding of the lives working people and the poor lead. He draws powerful, three-dimensional characters, full of anger, passion and vitality.

London was also a pioneer of environmental awareness. He urged Americans to look for salvation in the wide open spaces, not the canyons of Wall Street, and he led by example. On his farm he introduced many methods that are now common practice on organic farms. He developed the use of liquid manure and hollow block silos as well as pioneering the cultivation of nitrogen replenishing crops like Alfalfa. He was an early animal rights activist, campaigning against cruelty to circus animals.

In 1915, a year before he died, he said in an interview he gave to a journalist from Western Comrade: ‘I became a socialist when I was seventeen years old. I’m still a socialist, but not of the refined school of socialism’. He had by then become disillusioned with the ability of the socialist movement to bring about revolutionary change. This viewpoint is eloquently expressed in his dystopian apocalyptic novel The Iron Heel , published in 1908. It depicts the USA governed by a neo-fascist regime, and the author argues that socialism is the only means of avoiding such a future. It is a forerunner of 1984 and similar dystopian novels. It is one of the most powerful evocations of what can happen to society run by unscrupulous capitalists, determined to maintain their power and privilege. He foresaw German fascism as no other writer did.

He was an avid surfer, and his articles about surfing introduced the sport to America for the first time. He is still celebrated as a cult hero on the beaches of Waikiki in Hawaii.

In 1914 he was sent as a was a war correspondent to Mexico, and following his time there wrote a short story, The Mexican, which has as its hero a Mexican worker who survives a massacre to join the revolution, to free his country of such unscrupulous factory and land-owners.

In 1915 his wife, Chamian, persuaded him to spend time in Hawaii, a relaxing and healthful respite for the two of them. But London's greatest satisfaction came from running his ranch, althogh his ambitious plans kept him in debt and under pressure to write as much as he could in order to pay them off, as well as help out friends and relatives. His determination to write at least 1000 words a day, his continued high consumption of alcohol and unhealthy life style eventually took its toll. But right to the end of his life he was full of bold plans and boundless enthusiasm for the future. When he died, words of grief poured into the telegraph office in Glen Ellen, where he lived, from all over the world.

Ernest Hopkins in the San Francisco Bulletin on December 2, 1916, wrote this:

No writer, unless it were Mark Twain, ever had a more romantic life than Jack London. The untimely death of this most popular of American fictionists has profoundly shocked a world that expected him to live and work for many years longer.

London deserves to be remembered for much more than for his infatuation with surfing, or as a maverick or confused individualist of only historical interest for us today. His works should be read widely, and find a place of honour on every progressive’s bookshelf.
Rebecca, New York, 1921
Monday, 04 April 2016 20:05

A focus on political commitment: the photography of Paul Strand

Published in Visual Arts

John Green reviews a new exhibition about the great American photographer Paul Strand, pointing to the 'mute, empathetic, visual rapport' that Strand achieves in his images.

The socialist photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976) has long been neglected, although during his lifetime he was very influential on many budding photographers and other artists. The painter Edward Hopper was just one of many artists whose approach to urban scenes was heavily influenced by Strand.

Born in New York, he attended classes in photography, and the photographic club, run by Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture School. The modernist movement in the visual arts was just beginnning, and a visit to Alfred Stieglitz's gallery inspired Strand to explore the expressive possibilities of the medium, which previously he had only considered as a hobby.

Along with fellow modernist photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, he helped establish photography as an art form. Some of his early work, like Wall Street, Abstraction, Porch Shadows and White Fence show his experiments with formal abstractions.

 

Reduced White Fence Port Kent New York 1916 by Paul Strand Paul Strand Archive Aperture Foundation

White Fence, Port Kent, New York © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

 

Later on, he adopted a more straightforward realistic approach, becoming more interested in using the camera as a tool for social reform, for example in Blind Woman, a candid and anonymous street portrait made secretly using a camera with a decoy lens.

 

3 Blind Woman New York 1916 by Paul Strand Paul Strand Archive Aperture Foundation

 Blind Woman, New York © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

 

He was one of the founders of the Photo League, an association of photographers that advocated using their art to promote social and political causes.

During the 1920s he concentrated on photographing mainly urban sites, continuing with the machine forms begun earlier, and also turned his attention to nature, using large plate cameras and making contact prints on platinum paper. In these works, which were very influential in the evolution of the ‘New Objectivity’, form and feeling are dialectically related.

In addition, Strand's writings, beginning in 1917 with Photography and the New God, set forth the necessity for the photographer to evolve aesthetic principles based on the objective nature of reality. His early semi-abstract works were influenced by Cubism. Many are platinum prints in small format, which give dense contrasting images, but he went on to use a large format camera with excellent quality lenses to increase the clarity and detail of his images.

After service in the Army Medical Corps, where he was introduced to X-ray and other medical camera procedures, Strand collaborated with Charles Sheeler on Manhatta, a 10 minute documentary film about New York released in 1921. Manhatta was hailed as the first avant-garde film, and traces a day in the life of New York from sunrise to sunset, punctuated by lines of Walt Whitman's poetry.

In 1932, he moved to Mexico and worked for the government there, helping its efforts to reconstruct the country after the revolution. While in Mexico, he became a committed socialist, and inspired by the revolutionary movement there, he started to make politically committed still photographs, and to produce government-sponsored documentary films. For example, Redes (Nets) and La Ola (The Wave), released in 1934, showed the economic problems confronting the fishing families in a village near Vera Cruz.

His most ambitious and controversial production, Native Land (1942) evolved from a Congressional hearing into anti-trade union activities, and was about the violations by US employers of their workers' terms and conditions of employment. It was released in 1941 on the eve of the second World War, and so was considered politically unacceptable and banned. It went on to win a number of awards and is today considered a classic of social realist film-making.

As Strand’s career progressed, his work became increasingly politicised, and more focused on social documentary. His choice of where to take photographs was invariably politically motivated: for example, his locations were often places where regional identity was being impacted by global modernity.

 

1 The Family Luzzara The Lusettis 1953 by Paul Strand Paul Strand Archive Aperture Foundation

 The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis) © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

 

One of Strand’s most celebrated images, The Family, Luzzara, (The Lusetti’s) was taken in a modest agricultural village in Italy’s Po River valley for the photobook Un Paese, for which he collaborated with the Neo-Realist writer, Cesare Zavattini. This hauntingly direct photograph depicts a strong matriarch flanked by her brood of five sons, all living with the aftermath of the Second World War.

He went on to work with Pare Lorentz on The Plough that Broke the Plains, following which he and other progressive filmmakers organized Frontier Films to produce a series of pro-trade union and anti-fascist films. Frontier Films was one of the many left-leaning organisations identified as ‘subversive’ by the US Attorney General and was persecuted in the anti-communist hysteria known as the McCarthy Period.

In 1949, Strand left the USA for France to escape the McCarthy witch-hunts, at the same time as the first trial of his friend, the Communist Alger Hiss. His movements around Europe were still closely monitored by the US security services, however.

Unable to finance film-making after World War II, Strand turned to the printed publication for a format that might integrate image and text in a manner akin to the cinema. He is perhaps best known today through that series of books he produced, which were in the form of portraits of places. He felt he could reach wider audiences this way: Time in New England (1950), a collaboration with Nancy Newhall, sought to evoke a sense of past and present through images of artefact and nature, combined with quotations from the region's most lucid writers.

Other books included La France de Profil (1952), Un Paese (featuring photographs of Luzzara in Italy, with text by Cesare Zavattini, 1955), Tir a'Mhurain/Outer Hebrides (with Basil Davidson in 1962), Living Egypt (1969, with James Aldridge) and Ghana: An African Portrait (also with Basil Davidson, 1976).

His work with Davidson in the Hebrides reflects the social sensitivities of the people who live on the islands and who have fought the elements for centuries, battled poverty and oppression and are still fighting to maintain their autonomy and freedom from exploitation and domination by foreign landlords. You can sense strong elements of resistance, resilience and stoicism, etched in the faces of those portrayed.

 

4 Milly John and Jean MacLelllan South Uist Hebrides 1954 by Paul Strand Paul Strand Archive Aperture Foundation. Photograph Victoria and Albert Museum London

Milly, John and Jean MacLellan, South Uist, Hebrides © Paul Strand Archive, Aperture Foundation

 

Strand conjured the sights, sounds and textures of a place steeped in the threatened traditions of Gaelic language, fishing and the agricultural life of pre-industrial times.

Because of his socialist sympathies, Strand insisted that his books be printed in East Germany, even though this meant that they were initially banned from the US market. At his death in 1976, he had been photographing for nearly three-quarters of a century, gradually finding his ideal of beauty and sense in nature and the simple life. Strand was one of the greatest and most influential photographers of the 20th century whose images have helped define the way fine art and documentary photography are understood and practised today.

Why was such a great photographer suspected of communism, and monitored by the FBI? Although he was never officially a member of the Communist Party, many of Strand’s collaborators were either Party members, like James Aldridge and Cesare Zavattini or were prominent socialist writers and activists, such as Basil Davidson. Many of his friends were also Communists or were suspected of being so, including the MP D. N. Pritt; film director Joseph Losey; Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid; and the actor Alex McCrindle.

But the main reason was surely because of the way Strand's art expressed his politics. What characterises Strand’s work is the complete lack of artifice. The people in his images come across as perfectly natural, relaxed and unposed, although that belies his meticulous framing and even staging in order to achieve what he wanted. In his photos we are confronted with a rich and varied humanity, made up of individual characters who nevertheless make us feel involved with them, part of their lives.

The French artist Claude Roy said about their collaboration:

‘Strand chooses his path, a slow and temperamental one, not a hasty one, but a thoughtful one, a path that had no system, no other goal but that of capturing the greatness of humanity, the simplest and most naked truth’.

The images speak to us, we enter their lives in a kind of mute, empathetic, visual rapport. The viewer does not have the feeling that the photographer is imposing his own individualistic point of view and interposing himself between the figures in the photograph and the viewer. Strand makes himself invisible, as all great photographers are able to.

This aesthetic expression of his social and political commitment is surely why he was monitored by the anti-communist US state security services. He was a pioneer in 20th century avant-garde photography who was able to demonstrate to the world the effectiveness of art in promoting social change.

Paul Strand: Photography and Film For the 20th Century
Victoria and Albert Museum, London. From 19 March – 3 July 2016.

Deutschland 83: Replacing Reality with Fantasy
Sunday, 10 January 2016 06:46

Deutschland 83: Replacing Reality with Fantasy

Published in TV, Radio & Internet

John Green outlines the disappointing failure of the new TV series to accurately portray life and events in East Germany.

The gullibility of even sophisticated audiences and readers when it comes to accepting pure fiction as reality never ceases to amaze me. This is particularly so with portrayals of East-West relations and the characterisation of Communists and former Communist countries. The recent, much-hyped German series Deutschland 83 is no exception. Cold War clichés and the most improbably scenarios seem to be de rigueur. Such fictionalised dramatisations then take on a life of their own, replacing real facts and real events in people’s memories.

The blurb for the new series, which is based on real events, promised to offer a new and different perspective. British-American author Anna Winger, co-producer of the series with her German husband, Joerg, said in an interview about the film:

‘It’s important to remember that a lot of people were happy in East Germany, It didn’t work economically, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel good to be part of it sometimes. The existence of the East made the West more humane but now, in an era of unbridled capitalism, we don’t have that balance.’

Quite promising, you might think. The series does indeed begin quite well with a family party scene in the GDR that doesn’t rely on the clichés of drab-greyness, dour East Germans and low living standards. We actually have attractive looking individuals and young people who could just as easily be from the West, listening to rock music and enjoying themselves. Even when we meet the film’s young protagonist, Martin Rauch, who is a GDR border guard, we are presented with a pleasant young man taking two West German visitors to East Berlin gently to task for buying books in the East with money exchanged illegally. He tells them to scarper, unscathed, but keeps some of their books.

Unfortunately the drama very soon begins to serve the usual stereotyped narratives. When a couple of Stasi agents visit the family home to recruit the young man to work as a mole in the West German Bundeswehr, we are presented with two hard-bitten, stony-faced men, who break one of the young man’s fingers and drug his coffee so that he can be kidnapped.

When Martin wakes up in the West, now as an unlikely agent of the Stasi, he walks into a supermarket and is mesmerised by the array of goods on the shelves. Most GDR citizens regularly watched West German TV and, even if they or their families hadn’t travelled to the West at any time, they would have been used to seeing consumer adverts and programmes that featured big cars, shopping malls and glamour. They would hardly be surprised to see it first hand.

What makes this series very much of a missed opportunity, however, is that the facts of the real story are just as dramatic if less fantastical. In 1983 the world really was on the edge of a nuclear holocaust and it was a single East German counter-espionage agent who saved the day. Ronald Reagan had been elected president of the USA in 1980 and unleashed an unprecedented and hysterical campaign against the ‘Evil Empire’ as he characterised the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies. He, along with his close political ally, Margaret Thatcher embarked on a new and dangerous confrontational policy, surrounding himself with fanatical anti-Communist warriors, like Richard Perle (the Prince of Darkness), Dick Cheney, Caspar Weinberger, Paul Wolfowitz and George Bush who were all determined to confront the Soviet Union and bring about its downfall. After years of detente, the Helsinki Accords and a general easing of tension, the world was once again plunged into a new phase of confrontation that threatened to destabilize post war detente with dangerous brinkmanship.

In 1979, as part of its medium range nuclear modernisation programme, NATO began deploying cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. The first Pershing missiles were deployed in West Germany in autumn 1983. Because of this provocative escalation and the reduction of launch warning time, tensions were stretched to breaking point. The Soviet leadership became convinced that the US was seriously planning a nuclear surprise attack under the cover of carrying out military exercises.

NATO’s giant ABLE ARCHER exercise in 1983 was meant to simulate a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union with weapons. It would take place close to the German-German border. As tension mounted, Soviet nuclear bombers were deployed, on the tarmac at their East German airbases, engines running, waiting for the order to go. If the order had come, most likely nuclear holocaust, at least for Europe and the UK would have ensued. Recently released papers indicate that even among British military leaders Reagan’s reckless agenda aroused concerns that the Russians might take the exercise for the real thing and be provoked to take irreversible action in return.

We were spared this scenario largely due to the efforts of one man: Rainer Rupp, who at the time held a top job in NATO headquarters in Brussels, but at the same time was secretly working for the GDR’s foreign intelligence service. As a student, Rainer Rupp had been an active peace campaigner and was recruited by the GDR to help them monitor Western intentions. He managed to work his way up the hierarchy in NATO, and had access to top level and highly secret documents. He saw his role as keeping the Soviet Union and its allies up to date on NATO strategies in order to help avoid the sort of hellish scenario that seemed to be unfolding.

Richard Perle, State Secretary in the Pentagon for planning and policy, was of the opinion that a limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union could be fought and won without massive damage to the US. Back in the early 1980s the US knew that the Soviet Union had an advantage in terms of both conventional weaponry and size of its armed forces and would prevail in a non-nuclear war scenario, so a pre-emptive nuclear strike was logical from this warped perspective.

In the autumn of 1983 the worst case scenario looked as if it was about to unfold. Reagan’s crusader rhetoric and his Star Wars programme, together with the decision to station Pershings in Europe, had dangerously raised the stakes. The Soviet Union would now have only minutes of warning in the event of a nuclear attack. It considered that NATO’s previous policy of defence preparation had now been transformed by Reagan and his cohorts into one of waging a pre-emptive war. It had already experienced surprise invasions into its territory in the Second World War, which cost the USSR 27 million lives, and it didn’t wish to be caught out again.

ABLE ARCHER took place in that context. The planned combined NATO exercises were viewed by the Soviets as a pretext for a first strike, but they were not prepared to wait and find out. They desperately needed to know urgently if such a plan was indeed about to be put into practice. They were convinced that the exercises were a ruse to initiate a first strike.

The exercises were to be carried out under very realistic conditions, and would take place over ten days, beginning on 2 November and involve all Western European NATO members. The aim was a simulation of a co-ordinated deployment of nuclear weapons and their use. What was particularly alarming was that there were new elements in this exercise: middle-range nuclear weapons were brought onto the field for the first time, absolute radio silence was maintained, and a new code format was introduced for communications. For the first time, leaders of all the NATO countries were intimately involved, which also alerted Moscow to its unusually high political significance. Moscow also thought, wrongly, that the USA had put its troops on the highest alarm stage, DEFCON 1. In reality DEFCON 1 was only simulated during the exercise.

Convinced of an immediate US attack, the Soviet Union put its own strategic nuclear forces on red alert. The smallest mistake could have unleashed a catastrophe. Even Gorbachev later declared that the situation at the time was as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but with an even greater potential for nuclear holocaust.

At virtually the last minute, Rainer Rupp was able to photocopy a whole swathe of top secret documents that convinced the Russians it was indeed only an exercise, thus saving the day. Years later, at a Berlin conference on international espionage in 2005, the former CIA-head for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Milton Bearden, congratulated the former Head of East German foreign intelligence, the legendary Markus Wolf, saying that thanks to his excellently placed source in NATO-HQ in Brussels peace had been saved in 1983, as he had ‘been able to calm the recipients in Moscow’ and in this way, avoid a nuclear war. Rainer Rupp, the agent who literally did save the world, was given a thirteen year sentence for his troubles after the demise of the GDR and his British-born wife, a clerical worker at NATO HQ was also imprisoned.

That is the real story, but Deutschland 83 has used the realistic background to create a fantasy scenario for commercial purposes. Even though the series attempts to portray daily life in the GDR with some sense of balance and doesn’t hide Reagan’s vitriolic rhetoric or the concerns of NATO generals about his dangerous policies. In the blurb to the series written by Gabriel Tate for the Guardian Guide, he writes:

‘The arms race is on and Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart Yuri Andropov are ramping up the rhetoric from the White House and the Kremlin. Germany is caught in the middle, split in half and subject to the whims of its effective occupiers’.

The rhetoric, though, was coming solely from Reagan and the White House, not from Andropov who was acting with restraint and caution. The last things the Russian wanted was a war with the West – they had enough of their own internal political and economic problems to deal with.

The series creates its own fantasy world and thus relinquishes any claim it may have to historical accuracy or real insight. Did the producers not have any proper consultants from the secret services to point out how ridiculous much of the storyline is, and how stilted the dialogue sounds? The idea that East German security services could recruit a young GDR soldier against his will, drug and kidnap him, dumping him in West Germany where, within days, he will become aide de camp to one of the country’s top generals, is extremely whimsical.

The agent is given a cursory training and then let loose on his target. While a visiting top US general and his own chief are out to lunch, he breaks into the latter’s office and photographs secret documents left conveniently behind in an unlocked briefcase, listing all the US nuclear targets in the East. At the general’s house at a party given for the same visiting US general, he slips away from the crowd and telephones his girlfriend in the GDR from the general’s own telephone, only to be overheard by one of the general’s daughters, so has to pop a heavy sedative into her drink very quickly to render her unconscious. His GDR handler meets him and waves copies of secret documents in his face while he is in the middle of a jog at an army training camp. The improbabilities and fantasies mount as the story unfolds.

There is in principle nothing wrong with fiction, however wild and improbable, but when such fiction replaces historical fact in the minds of viewers it becomes dangerously corrupting. It then starts to have more in common with Goebbels’ methodology than Harry Potter. Deutschland 83 is good, gripping entertainment, but it could have been so much better.
Alexander von Humbolt
Monday, 30 November 2015 16:35

Godless revolutionary: the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt

Published in Science & Technology

John Green introduces the life of Alexander von Humboldt, the father of ecology who combined scientific investigation with a sense of high moral purpose. 

It is doubtful that many of the participants at the recent Paris talks on climate change will have heard of Alexander von Humboldt. Yet he is the father of ecology, and was the most admired naturalist and geographer of his age, a scientist with a conscience who Charles Darwin 'always admired and now worshiped'. His name lives on in the many species, geographical areas and institutions named after him – twelve species of animals and plants, six prominent geographical features as well as schools, colleges and even towns – probably more than any other scientist could boast of.

The great liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar said: ‘Alexander von Humboldt has done more for America than all its conquerors; he is the true discoverer of America.’ Humboldt corresponded with a whole array of Europe’s leading scientists, artists and writers, including Schiller and Goethe, who gushed: 'Humboldt showers us with true treasures.'

One can’t underestimate the impact of Humboldt’s’ observations and ideas on the direction of the young Darwin’s research. In fact, it might not be exaggerating to suggest that without Humboldt’s nudging him in the right direction, he might not have conceived his great theory of evolution quite so readily. Darwin referred to him often in his own naturalist’s travelogue, Voyage of the Beagle, and lauded him as ‘the greatest travelling scientist who ever lived…’

The real birth of ecology came about largely as a result of the early midwifery work undertaken by Humboldt in the 18th century. His aim was to achieve a holistic overview of nature: ‘each part contributes its own peculiar activity to the overall activity and the latter is subject to its special impact, so that life in each organised living thing appears as a unity, which comes about as the result of reciprocal actions and reactions of all its parts.’

Thus, individual species were not per se the subject of his studies, but the landscape as a whole, and within them the physiognomy of their plant life. Through the manner in which plant forms expressed themselves, Humboldt attempted to understand what lent specific atmosphere to what he called an ‘Erdgegend’ (what we now call a ‘biome’). This was not dissimilar to the aims of the landscape painters; in his time science and art were not as distant from each other as they are today.

He travelled throughout the continent, using every means at his disposal, including Indian canoe to navigate the Rio Negor and Orinoco, and was the first to attempt an ascent of Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest mountain. Edgar Alan Poe found Humboldt's attempt to unify the sciences a big inspiration and he dedicated his last major work, Eureka; A Prose Poem, to Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt's travels, experiments, and knowledge transformed western science in the nineteenth century. He also pioneered what is perhaps taken for granted today, namely transdisciplinary study, what he called the ‘physics of the world’. He was, though, not only a great scientist in terms of the modernity of his methods and approach to problems, but was a forerunner of our own modern-day ecological movements. Unusually at the time, he countered the idea of nature as an untamed wilderness to be conquered. He saw nature and humanity as part of a complex but cohesive holistic unity and argued that man is not necessarily the centre of the universe: ‘Here, in the interior of the new continent one becomes almost accustomed to viewing people as unnecessary to the order of nature’, he noted.

Humboldt viewed nature as a unity transformed by its own inner forces. He saw it not in a linear form, but as a network of interconnected strands. He considered landscape to be a space of dialectical interaction, both within nature and between nature and humans. Even before the concept of ecology existed, Humboldt wrote: ‘My real and singular aim is to investigate the weft and weave of all nature’s forces, to investigate the influence of dead nature on the lives of all animal and plant creations.’

He realised the value and significance of biodiversity and, already in 1822, was explaining the role of forests in maintaining the health of the planet. He wrote, in 1822, about their role in retaining water and preventing erosion. He castigates the unregulated felling of trees as catastrophic in its affect on water retention: ‘If the forests continue to be destroyed in the way the European colonisers have already done with incautious haste in some areas of America that springs will dry up or become severely depleted; already river beds are devoid of water for periods of the year and at others become raging torrents when the rains are heavy in the mountains.

While researching plant forms, he discovered the relationship between fall in temperature and altitude - the isotherm is his invention. Today he is considered to be the father of modern geography, meteorology, Latin American archaeology and global comparative cultural studies. The specialist branch of plant geography he also pioneered evolved into an important branch of ecology. With the rapid growth of interest and research in natural history at the time, a framework was created for evolutionary theory and geography, based on the interconnectedness between objects of a landscape.

In 1836 Humboldt sent a letter to the Duke of Sussex, the then President of the Royal Society, inviting the co-operation of the Society in the organization of a world magnetic survey. He suggested a programme for the observation of the phenomena of terrestrial magnetism which laid the foundation for the subsequent investigation of the earth’s magnetic fields.

Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Freiherr von Humboldt was born at the Palace of Tegel, in Berlin to an aristocratic Prussian family on 14 September 1769 and died on May 6, 1859). He was the younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt. His father, who was an army officer, died when he was nine years old so he and Wilhelm were raised by their cold and distant mother. Tutors provided their early education which was grounded in languages and mathematics. Once old enough, Alexander began to study at the Freiberg Academy of Mines under the famous geologist A.G. Werner. In 1792, at the age of 22, he went on to become a government mines inspector in Franconia, Prussia. But a sedentary life in a mundane job were not for him. Meeting George Förster (the scientist who accompanied Captain James Cook's on his second voyage) encouraged his urge to travel. He and Förster embarked on a voyage of discovery around Europe.

His childhood had been a torture, he wrote later, in 1801, from Colombia: ‘For a young soul who was maltreated in his father’s house and forced to live in a straitened, gritty environment over 18 years, once he is granted his own freedom, everything glows and shimmers wonderfully and he can at last take in the wonders of the world.’

Humboldt’s inner restlessness and long periods spent travelling abroad were also undoubtedly not unrelated to the fact that he was probably gay. In the Puritan and staid environment of late 18th century Prussia being a homosexual would have been a precarious if not dangerous existence. By spending long periods abroad, he could lead a gay life with relative impunity. He destroyed many of his personal letters, so we have no first-hand proof, but circumstantial evidence leaves little doubt of his homosexuality.

His mother died, when he was 27, leaving him a substantial income from the estate. This became his means of escape from Prussian provincialism. He could have used this new wealth to enjoy a hedonistic and dissolute life, but instead he dedicated himself to an exploration of the world - his life’s ambition. The following year, he left government service and began to plan travels with Aimé Bonpland, the French botanist. The pair decamped to Madrid, where they were able to obtain special permission and passports from King Charles II to explore South America.

Once arrived in the continent, Humboldt and Bonpland were overwhelmed by its exuberant fauna and flora and were able to study these and the topography of the continent in detail for the first time. In 1800 Humboldt mapped over 1700 miles of the Orinoco River. This was followed by a trip to the Andes and an ascent to the summit of Mount Chimborazo (in Ecuador), then believed to be the highest mountain in the world. They didn't quite make the summit, but managed to climb to over 18,000 feet. While on the west coast of South America, Humboldt measured and discovered the Peruvian Current, which, despite objections of Humboldt himself, was given the name Humboldt Current. In 1803 they explored Mexico, where Humboldt was even offered a position in the Mexican cabinet but declined the honour. The pair was persuaded to visit Washington DC staying there for three weeks, in which time Humboldt had several meetings with Thomas Jefferson and the two became good friends.

In 1804 he sailed back from the Americas to Paris and while resident there wrote up his field studies in thirty volumes. He stayed in France for 23 years and while there carried on a lively exchange with other European intellectuals on a regular basis. He supported and worked with leading scientists, including Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, Justus von Leibig, Louis Agassiz, Matthew Fontaine Maury and, most notably, the Frenchman Aimé Bonpland, with whom he conducted much of his scientific exploration.

Humboldt's fortunes were ultimately exhausted by his travels and the costs of self-publishing his reports and he was forced to seek some form of regular income. As his fame had, in the meantime, spread far and wide, he was invited to Russia by the Tsar and there undertook an in-depth exploration of that country and described, for the first time, discoveries such as permafrost. He recommended that Russia establish weather observatories across the country. This was carried out in 1835 and Humboldt was able to use the data to develop the principle of continentality - that the interiors of continents have more extreme climates due to a lack of moderating influence from the ocean.

The scope of this work may be described as the representation of the unity amidst the complexity of nature, an attempt to unify the various branches of scientific knowledge. Humboldt's work was by and large a synthesis of Kantian views of unity of natural phenomena. Drawing together the methods and instrumentation of the discrete sciences and with inspiration from German Romanticism, Humboldt sought to create a compendium of the world's environment.

He left us 47 volumes in total, containing all his publications, including 29-volumes on his travels in the South American tropics. This contained 1400 engravings and was the most wide-ranging and expensive work that had ever been published by a private academic. On top of that, he bequeathed us over 450 essays and reports published elsewhere and around 50,000 letters.

His quantitative work on botanical geography was foundational to the field of biogeography. He was the first to discover the connection between temperature and ecology and developed the first isotherm map, containing lines of equal average temperatures. During his expeditions in the Americas and Europe, he recorded and reported on magnetic declination. He was also one of the first to propose that the lands bordering the Atlantic Ocean were once joined (South America and Africa in particular).

What singled Humboldt out as a scientist of a special bent was that he combined scientific investigation with a high moral sense. Nature and morality were for him two sides of the same coin. He was truly a man of the enlightenment, inspired by the French Revolution and its demands for freedom, equality and fraternity.

His views on religion, on race and colonialism were far ahead of his time. One of his fundamental beliefs was that ‘everyone is equally destined to enjoy freedom’; science and politics were for him indivisible. Even in his primarily scientific writings he defended human rights, excoriated racism and slavery and called for all human beings to have equal rights. Such attitudes were still seldom in the late 18th century. He was a fierce advocate of rights for indigenous populations and of all races. Welcoming the French Revolution, he wrote in a letter in 1798: ‘If there is only one blessing - the extermination of the feudal system and all aristocratic prejudice under which the poor and nobler classes of people have suffered for so long - it will have been worthwhile.’ He castigated the social system prevalent in Europe at the time as ‘the barbarism of our feudal system which keeps the peasants in abject destitution’.

In his praise of the Aztecs for their astronomical and other attainments of civilisation, he castigates previous authors who described them as ‘barbaric’ – ‘These authors view all human conditions as barbaric that don’t fit the image of the culture they have imagined from their systematic ideas,’ he wrote, ‘We can’t allow the validity of such crass differentiations between barbaric and civilised nations’.

He despised colonialism, particularly after witnessing the ravages it caused to the indigenous population in Spanish-ruled South America. In 1802, he wrote from Colombia: ‘The idea of a colony is in itself an immoral one,’ he writes, ‘the idea of country obliged to pay tribute to another, a land in which one is only allowed to reach a certain level of wellbeing and in which diligent industry and enlightenment are only allowed up to a certain point…Every colonial government is a government of suspicion…and the larger the colony, the more committed European governments become in their political vindictiveness and the greater the immorality of the colonies becomes. How inhospitable European cruelty makes the world!’

The forms of Christianity he witnesses in his travels caused him to despise its practice in the colonies. In a letter from Peru, in 1802, he described graphically the appalling cruelties carried out by Catholic missionaries in Latin America: ‘the present missionaries are a class of people who under the guise of helping the Indios, forcefully take their possessions and make them believe it a sin to complain about it. No religion preaches immorality,’ he admitted, ‘but what is certain is that of all existing ones the Christian religion is the one under whose the mask people are made the most unhappy. The Indios are treated like the Africans: if they are not exactly beaten to death, it’s said, they are living well.’

He was also well aware that his radical views had made him extremely unpopular among the ruling elite in Europe despite his high standing as a scientist and intellectual. In a letter to a friend in 1852 he wrote: ‘I have, yes, during recent years, become an unpopular person; and would have long been sent into exile as a revolutionary and author of the ‘godless’ Kosmos if this had not been hindered by my position with the King. For the Pietists and Christian pamphleteers I am a horror. They would love nothing more than that I were already mouldering in the earth.’

Alexander von Humboldt didn’t propound such world-shattering theories as evolution, like Darwin, or that of relativity like Einstein, but his achievements paved the way for the work of both of them as well as many others.