"What's New? How Is the World Treating You?"

In 1939 Johnny Burke (1908-1964) composed the music and Bob Haggard (1914-1998) wrote the lyrics for the hit song "What's New?" whose first line serves as the title of this blog.  To listen to Linda Ronstadt (born 1946) perform "What's New?" with Nelson Riddle (1921-1985) and his orchestra (Asylum, 1983), click here.  A new window will open, allowing the music to play in the background.

Check this web page for occasional posts containing news and commentary, mainly about events in Central Europe.  To read the article of your choice, either click on the title that appears in the table of contents or scroll down the page.
For news and commentary from the most recent past quarter, click here.  For earlier quarters in the year or previous years, see the Introduction and Index for "What's New?"

Table of Contents for the Third Quarter of 2017

A Star of the AdF–Beatrix von Storch    30 September 2017

In the recent election to the German Bundestag, the extreme right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AdF) received 13.3 percent of the votes.  While that is not tragic–extremist, non-system parties frequently get around 10 percent of the votes in countries using proportional representation–it still is unsettling.  As part of the opposition in the legislature, the AdF can be innocuous, but most likely, it will be somewhat noisy, in order to maintain and build its electoral base.

One of its most important members is Beatrix von Storch (born 1971), who is from a highly placed noble family.  Her maternal grandfather was Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk (1877-1977), who was minister of finance throughout the Nazi years and also became chancellor and foreign minister in the government that emerged after the suicide of Adolf Hitler.  Before entering the Bundestag, von Storch served since 2014 in the European Parliament.  In early 2016, she joined the head of the AdF in claiming that the German police should shoot refugees, although von Storch soon qualified her statement, claiming that they should not shoot children.  On 26 February, shortly after her comments, someone dressed as a clown threw a whipped cream pie in her face during a AfD meeting, and the video of the stunt became a hit on Youtube.

Wikileaks Releases Information on Russian Spying    30 September 2017

Wikileaks has released documents that describe how Russians spy on their citizens’ activities through software in their mobile phones.  See https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/wikileaks-releases-documents-claims-detail-115541375.html.

The EU Takes a Bite out of Food Inequality    28 September 2017

Anyone who lives in or visits the part of East-Central Europe or the Balkans that once was in the Soviet orbit and now is in the European Union is familiar with the issue of dual food quality.  Yogurt and chocolate manufactured and sold in Germany, for example, does not quite taste quite the same as the identically packed product in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, or the Czech Republic.  If the manufacturers admitted the differences, they justified the changes with the rationale that tastes in the former communist countries varies from that of other parts of Central Europe and Western Europe.  It was a convenient excuse to cover up the fact that the East got cheaper products than the West.

After many years of frustration, the inhabitants of East-Central European and the Balkans can expect a change for the better.  The European Commission has issued a nine-page set of guidelines that explain that manufacturers making a product with the same labeling must supply the exact same content in every EU country where the product is marketed.  According to the guidance paper:

Even products under the same brand may have different characteristics, due to legitimate factors such as the place of manufacture or consumer preferences in the destination regions. However, what can be a source of concern is when different compositions of identically branded goods are marketed in a way that has the potential to mislead the consumer. 

The Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) will handle any suspected violation of the 2005 Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD).  In the meantime, the European Commission is taking additional steps to eliminate dual food quality production and has set aside EUR 1 million to Member States to finance studies and to devote to enforcement.

German Coalition Talks    27 September 2017

The German elections gave Angela Merkel’s CDU-CSU a plurality of votes, but she will need to form a coalition to govern.  There is the possibility that the Social Democrats (SPD), who currently are in the coalition but did poorly in the elections, may go into opposition.  The CDU-CSU received 33 percent of the votes, while the SPD came away with only 21 percent.  The far-left Die Linke party and the Greens each won 9 percent; the Free Democratic party (FDP), 11 percent; and the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AdL), 13 percent.  Merkel indicated that she would not cooperate with AdL.  For the biographies of politicians who will be influential during the upcoming negotiations, see https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-09-26/merkel-s-top-challenge-is-building-a-new-coalition.

Ukrainian Corruption    27 September 2017

One of the reasons behind President Petro Poroshenko’s single-digit popularity polls is his alleged corruption and the massive amounts of wealth that others have acquired while he has been leading Ukraine.  See https://www.theglobalist.com/ukraine-corruption-oligarchs-russia-europe/.

Browder Accuses Cyprus of Cooperating with Russia    27 September 2017

Bill Browder, the founder of the Hermitage investment fund, accused Cyprus of fulfilling the desires of Moscow after the law firm representing him in Cyprus received yet another request for information.  Browder had employed Sergei Magnetsky, who had uncovered massive fraud in Russia and then died in prison in 2009, under unusual circumstances.  Afterward, Browder was responsible for convincing the United States to pass the so-called 2012 Magnitsky act that placed sanctions on those associated with Magnitsky’s death.  He also testified in Congress about Russia’s interference in the 2016 American presidential election.  Browder is attempting to force Cyprus to sever the close ties it has with Russia, and he said that he would be afraid to travel to Cyprus because they might extradite him to Russia, where a court had sentenced him, in absentia, to nine years in prison.  Metropol refuses to implement the order because it is politically motivated.  See http://cyprusbusinessmail.com/?p=51914.

Trotsky’s Murder Weapon    27 September 2017

The murder weapon used to kill Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), an ice ax, has surfaced and will become a part of the permanent collection of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC.  See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/13/trotsky-ice-axe-murder-mexico-city.

Nord Stream 2 Plans    16 September 2017

A ten-page leaked document from the European Commission sets out a possible scenario for the successful completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that is to increase the amount of natural gas already flowing from Russia directly to Germany through the underwater pipeline known as Nordic Stream 1.  In order to receive European Union support, the Russians will have to agree to give control of the pipeline to a third party, something known as unbundling, because, under the current arrangement, Russia would control both the pipeline and the gas.  Second, third-party access, through public auctions, would enable other firms to supply gas through the pipeline, partly to keep Gazprom, the Russian giant, from arbitrarily increasing prices or cutting off gas to apply political pressure.  Another goal is to prevent the Russians from harming the economies of countries that already have pipelines, namely Belarus and Poland as well as Ukraine and Slovakia, by dramatically reducing the amount of gas flowing through pipelines in their territories.  Of particular concern is Ukraine, which is improving its relationship with the EU and is stuck in a frozen conflict with Russia.  The Russians already have balked at the conditions, which are similar to those that caused them to abandon the South Stream pipeline (they apparently have seen a copy of the secret document).  The United States also threatens sanctions against those investing in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.  See https://euobserver.com/energy/139023.

Defending Democracy in the EU    16 September 2017

The European Commission is proposing to restructure the way political parties in the European Parliament receive operating funds.  Instead of giving each party an equal amount, which benefits the smallest groups, the European Commission is proposing to distribute funds proportionally.  That would mean relatively minor changes for the mainstream parties but serious funding cuts for the fringe groups.  The nationalist and anti-abortion Coalition for Life and Family would suffer a loss of about 66 percent, while several radical right-wing groups would face cuts of more than 40 percent.  Other reforms would prevent contracts from going to firms that provide large donations to political parties.  The lengthy legislative process means that the proposed changes, should they be successful, would come into law after the 2019 elections to the European Parliament.  In many instances, defending democracy does not involve dramatic changes but incremental steps.  See https://euobserver.com/institutional/139036

Hurricanes and Destruction    16 September 2017

I am located in Pensacola, FL, which managed to dodge both Harvey and Irma, this year’s worst storms.  Nevertheless, residents here know the destruction hurricanes can bring from their experiences with Katrina (August 2005), Dennis (July 2005), Ivan (September 2004), Opal (October 1995), and Erin (August 1995).  My home sustained minor damage in Katrina and Dennis, and I had no problems in Opal, but Ivan and Erin brought structural damage to my home, only some of which I repaired on my own.  Others in this area were not so fortunate, and the infrastructure suffered various degrees of damage with each of these weather events.  So as someone who has experienced the hurricanes and who likely will in the future, I understand what some of my friends as well as the other the residents of South Florida are experiencing, and my thoughts are with them.

When I moved to this area, I asked about hurricanes, and someone on staff at the university told me that “hurricanes can’t come here.”  I did not accept this judgement because, while none had struck Pensacola for quite some time, the history of the city is intrinsically tied to hurricanes.  Pensacola is America’s oldest city, while St. Augustine is America’s oldest continuous city.  In 1559, the Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna y Arellano (1519-1573) established a settlement in what was to become Pensacola, but a hurricane obliterated it in the same year.  The Spanish returned in 1698, partly to protect their interests in Florida from the French, who were pushing eastward.

Hurricanes notwithstanding, settling the Gulf Coast seemed logical for supplying and controlling territory, and cities grew up around areas that were natural harbors.  Certain locations, like New Orleans, enjoyed steady growth, but for the most part, the coastal areas of the South did not experience rapid population growth until the advent of air conditioning.  Without that marvelous invention, summer life in an area with steady temperatures well into the 90s and high humidity is unbearable.  That reminds me of what a colleague of mine, James W. Witt (1930-2014), a native of Ohio, told me when I began teaching at the University of West Florida: “Down here, you need to know two good people, your air-conditioner man and your bug man.”  Another bit of advice that several people gave me, when I was thinking about buying a home, was to stay at least ten miles from the beach because of the hurricanes.  My wife at the time wanted to live near the beach, but I was not interested in putting us or our personal property at risk, and the fact that the university was about ten miles from the beach, with a dense urban center between the two, allowed me to make a case for not purchasing something near the water.  My location, therefore, accounts for some of my relative luck with hurricanes.

Every time a destructive hurricane hits a densely populated area, many talk about the need to restrict building along the coastline.  Still, little if anything is done to prevent rebuilding in dangerous areas.  That is because the government is loathe to interfere in the market to prevent businesses from making profits and to keep people from living where they wish.  Meanwhile, continuing to profit from the desire of many for an idyllic (or exciting) life on the edge of the ocean places millions in danger and risks incalculable economic loss.  It is unlikely, however, that anything will change.

In an article for the Washington Post, Andrew W. Kahrl, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia, presents a historian’s perspective on how Americans came to build the Southern coastline: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/09/12/the-cost-of-coastal-capitalism-how-greedy-developers-left-miami-ripe-for-destruction/?utm_term=.106f30fcbbd7.

Religion in America    8 September 2017

This website normally does not include material that does not pertain to Central and Eastern Europe or the European Union, but there are exceptions.  Such is the case with the recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study titled “America’s Changing Religious Identity.”  The most significant findings are:

1. White Christians now account for fewer than half of the public (only 43 percent of Americans identify as white and Christian).

2. White evangelical Protestants are in decline—along with white mainline Protestants and white Catholics.

3. Non-Christian religious groups are growing, but they still represent less than one in ten Americans combined.

4. America’s youngest religious groups are all non-Christian. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are all far younger than white Christian groups.

5. The Catholic Church is experiencing an ethnic transformation.

6. Atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated (most are secular).

The results of the study that show the changing status of white Christians in America help explain quite a bit about American politics, including the recent presidential election.

Slovenia-Croatia Border Dispute    6 September 2017

The Slovenians and Croatians still have not settled their border dispute along the Adriatic Sea.  Croatia refuses to implement an arbitration decision that awards some controversial territory to Slovenia and provides Slovenia with a corridor for shipping in order to access international waters.  The Slovenians are attempting to pressure Croatia into accepting the decision.  See https://euobserver.com/justice/138897.

EU’s Report on the Status of Roma    31 August 2017

The European Commission’s National Roma Integration Strategies (NRIS) has released its report on improving the status of Roma, an initiative the European Union began in 2011.  It notes progress in retaining students in schools and in enrolling Roma in preschool programs but concludes that continued segregation in schools and difficulties in finding employment are areas where the EU states are lacking.  There have been improvements in health, but half of the Roma population still does not have take advantage of national healthcare.  Governments have provided housing to Roma, but few Roma are integrated among the non-Roma population.  The worst conditions are in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, where there are large populations of Roma.  The report is available at http://ec.europa.eu/newsroom/just/item-detail.cfm?item_id=127519.

The Debate over Statues    23 August 2017

For a European historian, the removal of statues as part of regime changes is common.  The Communists destroyed Nazi statues, and most Communist memorials faced destruction, defacing, or repurposing after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Some statues from the past have reappeared.  After the collapse of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, one village ceremoniously removed a statue of the interwar prime minister, Antonín Švehla, that had been hidden in a well and returned it to its pedestal.  The Prague city government has discussed reconstructing the Marian column that protestors toppled immediately after the 1918 collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy.  To better understand the historical situation for Czechs, for example, one might turn to Nancy Wingfield’s Flag Wars and Stone Saints: How the Bohemian Lands Became Czech (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2007).

To comprehend the controversy in America, one needs to realize that Confederate monuments and flags often were linked to outbursts of racism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Those monuments long have been reminders of bigotry for African-Americans.  James Cobb, a historian from Georgia, explains that perspective to NPR in an interview that is available at http://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544886671/like-the-flag-confederate-monuments-have-been-severely-tainted.  Given the suffering of African-Americans during slavery and long after its abolition, some feel that removing the monuments is best, even if the result is an empty pedestal: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/why-i-changed-my-mind-about-confederate-monuments/537396/.

Determining which statues to obliterate can be tricky.  If George Washington was a slave owner, then why not remove his statue along with those honoring the Confederacy?  One suggestion is to determine whether the individual depicted in a statue sought to advance American principals of inclusion and justice or whether they were bent on its destruction.  After all, Robert E. Lee thought it best to eliminate all symbols of the Confederacy in order to facilitate healing and unity, advice which the South did not heed.  See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/opinion/why-lee-should-go-and-washington-should-stay.html.

As an alternative to removing Confederate monuments, two solutions seem plausible for Americans.  The first comes from the effort in Europe to interpret past memorials for current viewers, which involves additional plaques or even exhibitions at visitors’ centers, such as the one in Berchtesgarden, Germany, where Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest still stands.  In Hungary, the solution was to concentrate artistically or politically significant statues from the Communist Era in one location, Statue Park, on the outskirts of Budapest, where visitors still can view them to gain a better understanding of the totalitarian regime they once supported.  Some of these ideas appear in a New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/17/world/europe/european-monuments-statues-communism.html.

A second possibility is to erect new statues to complement those honoring the Confederacy.  One suggestion is a memorial to such respectable figures as John M. Langston (1829-1897), the black congressman from Virginia in the Reconstruction Era. See https://www.thenation.com/article/eric-foner-white-nationalists-neo-confederates-and-donald-trump/.

The Confederate flag and monuments stand as memorials to the past, and as symbols of American history, they are seemingly innocuous.  The difficulty is that the minority of hard-core believers has seized upon them as symbols of their movement.  As a result, the Confederate flag and monuments are eyesores of bigotry for many.  Yet, the solution is not to destroy all such monuments and sanitize American history.  After an intelligent debate, some should be removed.  Others can be subject to reinterpretation, using plaques or museums.  Finally, the commemoration of a neglected past might serve as a juxtaposition for others.

Auschwitz Exhibition    2 August 2017

During the course of the next seven years, more than 600 items from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, will go on tour to seven cities in Europe and seven cities in the United States.  The opening of the exhibit will occur in Madrid before the end of 2017. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State museum did not announce the other cities involved in the tour or any other details about the schedule. See http://auschwitz.org/en/museum/news/new-international-travelling-exhibition-on-the-history-of-auschwitz,1268.html.