Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979. Theirs is among the most brutal regimes in history. In pursuit of a utopia, the Khmer Rouge killed 2 million people in four years through starvation, execution and forced labour – one-quarter of Cambodia’s population.  

The leaders of the Khmer Rouge, or the ‘Communist Party of Kampuchea’, were middle-class, French-educated socialists inspired by Stalin and Chairman Mao. Pol Pot (below), or Brother Number One, operated from the shadows – until 1979 few even knew who he was. The Khmer Rouge saw Cambodia’s impoverished peasants as the only force free from the corruption of modern capitalist society, and the force they could harness to take control of the country. To eliminate inequality for good, Cambodian society needed to be destroyed and rebuilt from the ground up, by whatever means necessary.

Khmer Rouge: Cambodia's years of brutality - BBC News

Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953 under Norodom Sihanouk, who tried to play both sides of the Cold War. He called the guerrillas in the countryside ‘red Khmers’, and the name stuck.

In 1973, the Nixon Administration began bombing the jungles where the Viet Cong operated from across the border. That year, pro-American general Lon Nol took power in a coup. As, American bombs devastated the countryside, the peasants who lived there came to detest the government and its city-dwelling backers. 

Although both communists, the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese did not see eye to eye. The North Vietnamese were aligned with Moscow and the Khmer Rouge with Beijing.

Year Zero began in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took over Pnom Penh. On the pretence of an American bombing raid, they evacuated the entire city and forced everyone to abandon their property. Soldiers and members of the old regime were rounded into the Olympic Stadium and shot.

The Khmer Rouge divided Cambodia into two groups: Old People and New People. Old People were peasants who lived in the old, liberated zones in the countryside, whereas New People were relocated, city dwellers.They were distributed into agricultural collectives and forced to work ten-hour days without pay. All public institutions, including hospitals and schools were closed. By 1979, up to 80% of Cambodians had malaria.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-2.pngThe Khmer Rouge were determined to move as quickly as possible to a rural communist society. They envisioned a land free of private property and commerce, where everyone worked as rice farmers – the purest occupation. Everyone wore the same dyed black clothing with red and white headbands and car-tyre sandals. Individualism of any form was prohibited. The only acceptable possession was a spoon.

Filmmaker John Pilger, 1979:

The new rulers of Cambodia call 1975 “Year Zero”, the dawn of an age in which there will be no families, no sentiment, no expressions of love or grief, no medicines, no hospitals, no schools, no books, no learning, no holidays, no music, no song, no post, no money – only work and death. 

Khmer Rouge cadres targeted anyone suspected of impeding their vision; intellectuals too steeped in the old way of life. Those who complained or spoke out were chosen for ‘re-education’ which in practice meant torture and death. Victims included:

  • ethnic minorities.
  • Christians, Muslims, and Buddhist monks.
  • speakers of foreign languages.
  • wearers of eyeglasses.
  • anyone suspected of treason, hoarding, or unliscenced foraging.

To save bullets, the Khmer Rouge used rifle butts and sharpened bamboo sticks. They threw their victims into mass graves, dubbed ‘killing fields’. Children of political victims were killed as well, lest they grow up to take revenge. A Chankiri tree outside Pnom Penh still bears the marks of the infant heads bashed against its trunk. A Khmer Rouge adage was ‘to keep you is no benefit, you destroy you is no loss.’

Most Khmer Rouge cadres were illiterate peasants, both men and women. The most fanatical were teenagers who had grown up in the civil wars.

In 1979, tensions between Cambodia and neighbouring Vietnam reached a boiling point. The communist Vietnamese invaded. They overthrew the Khmer Rouge and set up a new government. Led by China, the international community condemned the invasion and continued to recognise Pol Pot’s ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ as the country’s legitimate government until 1991. The Khmer Rouge survived in the remote countryside until Pol Pot died in 1998.

Although they ultimately failed, the Khmer Rouge changed Cambodia for good. Today the old political elite and much of Cambodian high culture are no more. Many of the country’s leaders are former associates of Democratic Kampuchea.

From Newcastle and New Zealand to the Killing Fields of Cambodia | The  Independent | The Independent

Sources: Asia Pacific Curriculum, Pnom Penh Post, Real Dictators

Tolkien and Lewis

JRR Tolkein (1891-1973) and CS Lewis (1898-1963) were colleagues and friends before and during their careers as writers. Both men wrote fantasy – the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia, respectively – and were both serious Christians. They differed, however, in the role their faith played in their works, one of many points of friction which shaped the ups and downs of a twenty-year friendship.

Tolkien and Lewis were members of the ‘Lost’ generation born in the late 1800s. Both fought at the Battle of the Somme and studied at Oxford. Lewis, though raised a Northern Irish protestant, was an atheist, while Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic.

On meeting Tolkein in 1926, Lewis described him as a ‘a smooth, pale, fluent little chap,’ adding ‘no harm in him: only needs a smack or two’. Nonetheless, they shared a fondness for Norse mythology, loose tweed trousers and beer. By 1927 they were close friends. Tolkien modelled the character Treebeard’s speech patterns off Lewis. For years, Lewis was the only person Tolkien shared his works, and he offered steady encouragement.

Tolkien helped convert Lewis to Christianity. They enjoyed rigorous intellectual discussions, and religion was a common subject. After a talk lasting until 3 am in 1931 with Tolkien and professor Hugo Dyson, Lewis converted; though, to Tolkein’s dismay, not to Catholicism but the Church of England.

In the 30s and 40s, Tolkien and Lewis were members of the ‘Inklings’, a writing group who met weekly at the Eagle and Child pub. Lewis, at the time, wrote mainly science fiction and Christian works. Once Tolkien was sharing the Lord of the Rings (LOTR), their friendship had begun to cool.

Tolkien ignored most of Lewis’s suggestions – that he remove LOTR’s frequent songs and poems, for example. Furthermore, by the time Tolkien finally published it in 1954, Lewis had already written a popular fantasy series of his own.

Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter:

‘Undoubtedly he felt that Lewis had in some ways drawn on Tolkien’s ideas and stories in the books; and just as he resented Lewis’s progress from convert to popular theologian he was perhaps irritated by the fact that the friend and critic who had listened to the tales of Middle-earth had as it were got up from his armchair, gone to the desk, picked up a pen, and ‘had a go’ himself. Moreover, the sheer number of Lewis’s books for children and the almost indecent haste which they were produced undoubtedly annoyed him.’

Tolkien never liked the Chronicles of Narnia. To him, they cherry-picked aspects of different mythologies and folk traditions without building a ground-up coherence. Narnia’s worldbuilding was too shallow. While both LOTR and Narnia were deeply Christian works, Tolkien disliked the latter’s use of allegory which he felt was too on the nose.

While the two had drifted apart by the time Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, CS Lewis did write a glowing review describing it as ‘like lightning from a clear sky’.

When CS Lewis died in 1963, Tolkien wrote to his daughter Priscilla:

 ‘So far I have felt the normal feelings of a man of my age-like an old tree that is losing all its leaves one by one: this feels like an axe-blow near the roots’.

Sources: Humphrey Carpenter – JRR Tolkien: A Biography (1976)

Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was the greatest military commander in history. He led France through 15 years of war and almost conquered Europe. Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, said his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men; historian Martin van Creveld calls him ‘the most competent human being who ever lived’.

Napoleon’s army were mainly conscripts fighting with muskets and bayonets, but were highly motivated. They called their general the ‘Little Corporal’ as a term of endearment. He was 5’6 – average height at the time, but shorter than many aristocrats and generals. His British enemies called him ‘the Corsican Ogre’.

As a commander, Napoleon was calculating and bold. He eschewed gentlemanly conduct and used ambush and deception wherever possible. Napoleon invented the modern corps system, which divides armies into autonomous mixed units instead of specialised blocks. His most famous victories include Rivoli (1792), Austerlitz (1805) and Jena-Auerstedt (1807), all against superior numbers. Of 56 battles, he lost only ten. 

Napoleon was born to a large and impoverished family in Corsica, the year France took over. He maintained an accent throughout his life and never learnt to spell in French. It was not until 1789 that Napoleon embraced a French identity.

That year, revolutionary mobs seized control of France and ended the monarchy. European powers, fearing the revolution would spread, declared war. For 20 years, France fought its neighbours – chiefly Austria, Prussia, Russia and Britain. They formed seven ‘coalitions’ – at first to end the revolution and then to unseat Napoleon.

As an artillery officer in the Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon proved exceptional. By 24, he was a general. He plundered art from Egypt and Italy, including the Mona Lisa, which remains in the Louvre today. By 30, Napoleon seized power in a coup d’etat. In 1808, he crowned himself Emperor. 

For his victories and the stability he brought at home, the French public adored Napoleon. He introduced the Napoleonic Code, which ended religious discrimination and hereditary privilege while denying rights to women, standardised laws, and introduced a state education system. The Code still in use today. To fund his wars, Napoleon sold the French possessions in North America to the USA for 30c an acre and tried to restore Haitian slavery.

At the peak of his power, Napoleon ruled France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Low Countries, and Poland through a network of client states. He ended the Holy Roman Empire in 1805.

While triumphing on land, Napoleon could never defeat the British at sea. Instead, he tried to strangle its trade. He forced mainland Europe into the ‘Continental System’, which placed Britain under embargo. When Russia refused, Napoleon invaded.

The Russian campaign was a disaster. After seizing Moscow in 1812, winter forced Napoleon’s Grand Armée to retreat. With only their horses to eat, his soldiers died from disease, starvation, and cold. Of the 500,000 who set off, only 120,000 returned.

In 1814, the ‘Sixth Coalition’ defeated what remained of Napoleon’s army. They exiled him to Elba, an island in the Mediterranean, restored Europe’s borders and reinstated the French monarchy.

In 1815, Napoleon escaped Elba and returned to France where a regiment apprehended him. Approaching the soldiers, he said ‘Here I am, kill your emperor if you wish.’ The soldiers cheered ‘Viva L’Empereur’ and marched with him to Paris. Alarmed by his return, the nations of Europe – led by Britain and Prussia – formed the final, Seventh Coalition. In 1815, the Duke of Wellington – who had studied Napoleon’s military record intentally – clashed with him at Waterloo. It was the emperor’s final defeat. 

Napoleon Bonaparte spent his last six years in a rotting cabin in St Helena in the South Atlantic. His body was returned to France for a state funeral twenty years later.

The Valley of Mexico

The Valley of Mexico is a plateau in central Mexico that gives the country its name. The Aztecs and Toltecs built their cities here, and the valley was the epicentre of pre-Colombian civilization. It is a high and fertile land, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes on four sides. Today the Valley is home to Mexico City, the second largest in the Americas.

Mountains enclose the Valley, with only a small pass in the north, where wind can enter. The pass was the historical migration route. As waters could not escape, the Valley once housed great lakes, the most famous of which was ‘Lake Texcoco’. Its elevation gave the Valley a cool temperature while volcanic ash made fertile soil and provided abundant obsidian – a valuable commodity.

Early humans settled in the Valley of Mexico in ancient times. Beans, squash, maize and legumes grew easily here, attracting human settlement. By 1,000 AD the Valley of Mexico was one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The great city of Teotihuacan, and the following Toltec civilization, were centred here.

In the 1300s, the Mexica or ‘Aztecs’ migrated from the north. Looking for a place where an eagle perched on a cactus eating a snake, they settled in the marshes of lake Texcoco. The Aztecs adopted the sophisticated culture of their neighbours and expanded across the lake, where they built the city ‘Tenochtitlan’ on an expanse of artificial islands. The city followed a plan and included marketplaces, pyramids, a palace, an aquarium, a zoo and botanical gardens. By the 1400s, the Aztecs were the preeminent power in the Valley, ruling their neighbours through a system of tribute and military subjugation.

In 1521, conquistador Hernán Cortés destroyed the Aztec Empire with an alliance of Spanish and native forces. He forced Aztec captives to level Tenochtitlan and built a new settlement – named Mexico City – on its rubble.

Lake Texcoco was buried under the ruins. Under the weight of the ruins of the old and the streets of the new, the lake dried up. Today no trace of it remains. It took until 1900 for Mexico City to surpass the one million people who had lived in Tenochtitlan at its peak. By 2000, 21 million people lived here.

Pollution is now rife in the Valley of Mexico. As smog and heat from cars and electricity have nowhere to escape they sit stagnantly, washed away only by the yearly rains. Furthermore, without the old lake to soak up the rainfall, Mexico City – particularly its shantytowns – are also prone to terrible flooding, often breaking into water supplies and creating open sewers in parts of the city. The conditions which brought cities to the Valley of Mexico, now impede them.  

Sources: Fall of Civilizations Podcast, World Health Organisation

Paganism

Paganism describes the old religions of the world – before Christianity and Islam came to dominate. We generally use the term in a historical context, especially in areas that are Christian, Muslim or non-religious today. A follower of paganism is a pagan; a modern revivalist is a neopagan.

Pagans did not consider themselves members of a particular ‘religion’ – belief in gods and spirits was simply a part of life. To ancient people, denying the existence of Jupiter or Ra was like denying lightning. There was no concept of ‘religion’ either; religion, society and government were one and the same. 

Paganism was not one creed or set of beliefs but a variety of practices and ideas about the natural world. Pagans did, however, have some ideas in common:

  • polytheism – belief in many gods
  • myths and legends
  • animal sacrifice
  • sacred places like temples, groves and shrines
  • belief in magic

Pagans believed supernatural forces influenced everyday life; these included spirits, ancestors and all-powerful gods. Such forces decided fortune, weather and the elements; everything mortals could not control. Deities could be common across whole cultures or specific to a single region, household, lake or tree.

One could appease a deity by praying to them or offering the life of an animal or (in some cultures) a person. Belief in one god was not exclusive, nor did pagans strictly adhere to gods from their culture. Ancient Rome, for example, had temples to not only its native gods but deities from Greece, Egypt and Persia. Gods represented everything from the sea and sky to abstract concepts like victory or love.

Pagans told stories about their gods but did not treat these stories as gospel truth. Their purpose was less to dictate the origins of the universe than to explain natural phenomena, justify rituals and entertain. It did not matter if narratives contradicted one another.

Most important to pagans were their rituals, for keeping on the good side of the gods was essential to a healthy society. For pagans, what one did was more important than what one believed. In Greece and Rome, in particular, ethics was not the domain of the gods but philosophers.

Many pagans believed in an afterlife. In the Egyptian and Norse traditions, dying and living the right way was immensely important. For others, the afterlife was either dreary, irrelevant, or non-existent. Worshipping gods and spirits were less about benefits in this world than in the next.

The word pagan likely comes from the Latin word paganus, which means ‘country dweller’. When Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, it spread first amongst the urban poor, and then the elite. By the 4th century BC, only the rural population – the pagani­- still worshipped the old gods. The name stuck. As pagans did not consider themselves as belonging to a particular religion; the term is best used when distinguishing old believers from the newer faiths which did.

Sources: Bart D. Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity

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Ancient North Eurasians

Ancient North Eurasians lived in Siberia during the Ice Age. Their DNA is a genetic ‘missing link’ between Europeans, Iranians, Siberians and the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Japan.

Ancient North Eurasians lived 25,000 years ago, during the last Glacial Maximum. At the time, homo sapiens lived-in scattered bands across Africa, Eurasia and Australia who seldom met. Some groups survived and passed on their genes; others did not. As these bands lived in different climates and lived distinct lifestyles for thousands of years, they tended to look different. Because most modern peoples descend from numerous lineages, groups like the Ancient North Eurasians do not correspond to any one people today.

Ancient hunter-gatherers periodically returned to the same sites where they deposited tools, the bones of hunted animals and their dead. Archaeologists link sites to common cultures. Archaeogeneticists connect archaeological sites with genetic lineages.

Three sites are associated with the Ancient North Eurasians:

  • Mal’ta Buret’ culture
  • Yana Rhinocerous Site
  • Anfontova Gora

Remains indicate the ANE were hunter-gatherers with partial Neanderthal ancestry. They hunted hares, bears, bison, mammoths, horses and reindeer and built their houses from antlers and bone. Their tools were made from ivory and flint, their clothes from wool and hide. The Mal’ta Buret culture left over 30 ‘Venus figurines’ made from mammoth ivory (pictured). A 2021 study suggests ANE were the first people to domesticate dogs.

The Mal’ta boy was a four-year-old child buried near Lake Baikal, Siberia. He wore an ivory crown, a bead necklace and a pendant shaped like a bird. Genetic sequencing indicates the boy was a typical Ancient North Eurasian who shares DNA with both modern Europeans and Native Americans.

Until the 2000s, scientists thought Native Americans were of entirely East Asian origin. The Mal’ta boy, however, shares no DNA with modern East Asians, indicating the humans who first crossed the Bering Landbridge were of mixed East Asian and ANE ancestry.

Preserved bodies like the Mal’ta boy had brown hair, dark eyes and medium-light skin. The Anfontova Gora site contains the oldest known person to have blonde hair – a woman living around 16,000 BC. 

Over time, the Ancient North Eurasians dispersed and interbred with different populations. In the west, they became herders who spoke proto-Indo-European languages. Others interbred with hunter-gatherers from East Asia, crossed the Bering Land bridge and populated the Americas.

Estimated ANE ancestry among modern peoples:

  • Indigenous Americans – 14-38 (highest among Andean peoples)
  • Modern Europeans – 10-25%
  • Ainu – 21%
  • South Asians (Indians) – 10 – 20%
  • Iranians – 10-20%

The Kets (above), an isolated group of Siberian hunter-gatherers, have 40% Ancient North Eurasian ancestry.

By noting common elements across mythologies, legends and folk beliefs of their descendants, we can theorise what the ANE might have believed. The traditions of India, Scandinavia, Greece, Siberia and the Americas – from the Sioux to the Aztec – have only one ‘mytheme’ in common: a dog who guards the entrance to the afterlife.

Sources: BBC, DNA Consultants, Nature, National Library of Medicine

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Norse Mythology

Arbo Painting - The Wild Hunt of Odin, Norse Mythology by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Norse Mythology is the body of pre-Christian stories from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. After the Classical tradition, Norse mythology is the best preserved in Europe. Reaching their heyday in the Viking age, tales of the Norse gods still influence film and literature today.

Norse mythology comes from the northern branch of the paganism once followed in Germany, Scandinavia and England, and is by far the most extensive and best preserved. 

Snorri Sturlusson, an Icelandic priest and politician, recorded the old oral tales in the Prose Edda in the 13th century. Unlike the monks who recorded the Slavic and Celtic myths around the same time, Sturlusson did not overtly Christianise this subject matter but told the Norse stories as is. We therefore know far more about them today.

The Poetic Edda, recorded in the same time, is a compilation of 31 poems by unknown authors and a key source.

Norse mythology preserves many old Indo-European motifs, including:

  • a world tree
  • a hound at the gates of the underworld
  • dragon slaying heroes
  • the wild hunt
  • a prominant thunder god

Yggdrasil is the tree at the centre of the universe. A dragon called the Niddhog gnaws at its roots and from it forms nine worlds:

  • Asgard – home of the Aesir
  • Vanaheim – home of the Vanir
  • Alfheim – home of the light elves
  • Dokkalfheim – home of the dark elves
  • Midgard – our world
  • Jotunheim – home of the giants
  • Svartalfheim – home of the dwarves
  • Muspelheim – the world of fire
  • Niflheim – the world of ice

The universe started in a collision of the primordial worlds of ice and fire. A giant called Ymir emerged from the ice, whom Odin – father of the gods – slew. His body formed the earth, and his blood the sea. 

Jötnar (singular jötun), came from Ymir’s armpits. Commonly translated as ‘giants’, they have similar powers to the gods and represent antagonistic forces. While sometimes mentors, helpers or lovers to the Aesir, they are most often foes. As Odin, Loki and Tyr are half-Jötunn, the jötnar may have been a rival family of gods rather than different beings altogether. 

Norsemen worshipped the Aesir. These include taciturn Odin, who sacrifices his right eye for knowledge, and hot-blooded Thor, who wields a hammer and protects humankind. The Aesir’s power surpasses humanity, but they are not immortal. They rely on golden apples to retain their youth and know when and how they will die.  

Main Gods:

  • Odin – god of wisdom, poetry and war. 
  • Thor – his son, god of thunder.
  • Loki – god of mischief and deceit
  • Freyja – goddess of magic, fertility and beauty.
  • Freyr – her brother, god of fertility
  • Njord – their father, god of the sea
  • Heimdall – god of vigilance, watches the bridge between Asgard and the other worlds.
  • Hel – Loki’s daughter, goddess of the underworld
  • Frigg – Odin’s wife, goddess of motherhood and clairvoyance
  • Baldr – their son, god of beauty.

Freyja, Frey and Njord were originally Vanir, a rival group of gods. After an inconclusive war, they went to live with the Aesir in Asgard.

In Icelandic, nouns have an ‘r’ at the end when they are the subject. So, for example, names like Odin and Njord are sometimes rendered Odinr and Njordr.

The Norse believed if they died in battle, female warriors called Valkyries would fly them to Valhalla, where they would feast all night and fight all day, only to be born again and again. Odin was raising an army for Ragnarok. Those who died of natural causes go to the dreary realm of Hel. 

Loki, the trickster, is the enemy within. His scheming starts as simple mischief but grows more and more destructive. His shenanigans breed monstrous children who end up causing Armageddon.

Ragnarok is the end of the world. Norse mythology is unique in that it has an ending. In the final battle, the Aesir and their foes destroy each other and Asgard crumbles. Once the dust settles, however, the few survivors rebuild a new and better world.

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Humanism

This post is a summary of Chapter 7 of Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus.

Humanism is the dominant religion of the modern age. It underpins how we see the world, the stories we tell and our perceptions of goodness, beauty and truth. Rather than exalting a higher power, humanism places homo sapiens at the centre of the universe. By drawing their own purpose and sense of self, human beings can create meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. This world-view predominates in Western and secular societies today, even among the nominally religious.

In the past, humans believed in a world order governed by deities and spirits. Every man, woman and child had a role to play and laws to follow, but their destiny was not theirs to decide. While lacking in agency and power, humans believed life was worthwhile so long as they played their part. In traditional religious societies, laws and political power came not from people but from above. Reality was objective and priests and kings were its arbiters. The old view claims humans are unique but inherantly flawed therefore requiring guidance in their every action.

The Scientific Revolution uprooted the old belief systems. Discoveries in biology and physics revealed the world was random, and in effect purposeless. While most of the world was nominally religious, by the 1800s, many – in Europe particular – no longer let faith guide their lives as it had before, thus Nietzsche’s proclamation that ‘God is dead’.

Philosophers like Rosseau, Voltaire and Kant believed that human will gives meaning to an otherwise meaningless world. What you choose to do in life should not be God’s decision, or your parent’s, but yours. Our inner world is rich and alive – demons and angels exist not outside us, but within. People should be free to do as they please and love whom they please, so long as they do not harm others. Murder is a crime, not because holy texts say so, but because it infringes on another’s right to live. Art is what people agree it is. Legitimate power comes from the masses, not from above.

The 19th century saw three strains of humanism develop:

  • Liberal humanism: individual rights are paramount. History is a gradual progression of scientific knowledge and individual freedoms. Every human is unique. Voters know best. The customer is always right. Beauty is the in the eye of the beholder.
  • Socialist humanism: collective rights are paramount. History is a story of different groups oppressing others for their own gain. Humans are products of their environment. Politics, economics and art should serve the greater human good.
  • Evolutionary humanism: rights are irrelevant in the march of history. Humans are unique, but not all are equal. Politics, economics and war are engines of natural selection and human destiny is survival of the fittest. Art and beauty are objective.

The 20th century saw humanist ‘wars of religion’ fought worldwide. Socialism came close in the 1970s, but ultimately liberal humanism prevailed, and dominates the modern world.

Today’s world runs on the principles of democracy, human rights, individualism and a free market. Swathes of people may cling to older religions and worldviews, but liberal humanism dominates the world’s institutions. The greatest innovations of the past century, including modern medicine, computer science and feminism, stem from the liberal humanist tradition.

Sources: Yuval Noah Harari – Homo Deus

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Tonya the Machine Gun Girl

Antonina Makarova, known as ‘Tonya the Machine Gun Girl’, was a Soviet war criminal and Nazi collaborator. In her early twenties, she executed over 2,000 people with a Maxim machine gun; she then escaped capture for the next thirty years over a case of mistaken identity. Makarova was one of three women hung in the USSR.

Antonina Parfenova was born in Soviet Russia in 1920 in a village near Smolensk. She was the first in her family to attend school. When asked by her teacher on the first day, she could not remember her surname. Knowing her father was called Makar, the teacher noted her name as ‘Antonina Makarova’. 

When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, Makarova joined the Red Army as a nurse. By January, the 21-year-old Makarova stranded behind enemy lines. Starving and distraught, she travelled from house to house looking for shelter. A month or two later, Nazi collaborators offered her a job. They needed an executioner, and Makarova accepted.

Bronislav Kaminski was a Russian engineer and anti-communist who offered his services to the Nazis when they took over his region. With Nazi support, Kaminski formed a brigade of anti-Soviet Russians under the SS around the town of Lokot. They assisted the Nazi occupiers by fighting the Soviet partisans operating in the woods.

Every day, the Kaminski Brigade captured partisans and their families and crowded them into a jailhouse which could fit 27 people. The following day, the collaborators led them to a ditch where Antonina Makarova mowed them down with a machine gun. She was allowed to chose clothes from the dead and spent her evenings with SS officers and local prostitutes. As Makarova killed up to 27 people a day, by 1942, her victims numbered over 15,000. Partisans called her ‘Tonya the Machine Gun Girl’.

Makarova later said:

I did not know who I killed. They did not know me. So I was not ashamed before them. Sometimes, you shoot, you come closer, and some people still move. Then I shot again in the head…. All those sentenced to death were the same for me. Only their number changed. Usually I was ordered to kill a group of 27 people–so many partisans fit into the room for execution…. At the command of the authorities, I knelt and shot at people until they fell to the ground.

By 1942, Makarova and the local prostitutes had contracted a sexually transmitted disease and were relocated to a hospital further behind the lines. When the Red Army reclaimed Lokot two years later, they could not find the notorious executioner. 

When the war ended, Makarova slipped back into civilian life. The KGB, who were responsible for tracking down war criminals, were looking for an Antonina Makarova, unaware her real name was Parfenova. 

Makarova married Victor Ginsburg, whose family had perished in the Holocaust. She lived the respectable life of a veteran for the next thirty years, built a good reputation in her village and had two daughters. The KGB assumed Makarova had died.

In 1977, a Soviet diplomat named Parfenov applied for a passport. As part of the process, he listed all his immediate family members. One name stood out to the officials processing his application – Antonina Ginsberg’s maiden name was not Parfenova like her siblings, but Makarova. Unwilling to try an innocent, the KGB spied on Makarova for the next year until eyewitnesses confirmed she was Tonya the Machine Gun Girl.

The KGB arrested Makarova in 1978 and tried her for murdering over 150 prisoners of war. She had killed more, but only 150 of the victims could be identified. Now 56, Makarova freely admitted to everything she had done but was surprised when the KGB sentenced her to death. She was executed by firing squad.

Sources: Pravda, War History Online

The Greenland Norse

The Greenland Norse were the Norwegian settlers who lived in Greenland from the 980s to c.1450. They scratched out a living on the island’s southern end, traded with Inuit and sold walrus ivory to Europe. By the 15th century, their society had collapsed – what became of it may never be known.

Greenland is the world’s second-largest ice sheet and largest island. It is an Arctic climate with only a few trees growing along its southern coast. Temperatures never surpass 10ºC, even in summer. 70% of Greenland is pack ice and its main inhabitants are seals, caribou, walrus and polar bears.

The name ‘Greenland’ comes from Erik the Red, a Viking explorer who wanted to attract settlers. To con them into thinking Greenland was anything but an Arctic waste, he gave it the ‘favourable name’ of Greenland. His native Iceland was, and is, far greener than Greenland has ever been.

Why did the last Vikings abandon their 500 year-old colony ...

The Norse built two colonies – the Western and Eastern Settlements. The Greenland colonies peaked at 2,000 people around the year 1250. They brought cows from Iceland to farm and grew barley in scarce ice-free soil along the coast. The journey from Iceland was perilous – of Eric the Red’s 24 ships, only 14 survived.

The Greenland colony was never self-sufficient. It relied on regular shipments of iron and other goods from Norway. The Norse killed walrus for their ivory. As the good was in high demand in Europe, the colonies could sustain themselves through trade with the Norwegian boats that visited every year. The royal crown of Austria, allegedly of unicorn horn, is actually narwhal.

Erik the Red’s father, Thorvald, left Norway for Iceland when he murdered his neighbour. Similar circumstances forced Eric to flee west, where he found Greenland. Erik’s son Leif sailed further west and landed in Newfoundland, Canada. He, not Colombus, was the first European to set foot in the Americas. The Norse clashed with the indigenous tribes, who drove them back to the sea. 

Inuit (Thule) whom Norse called Skraelings, settled Greenland in the 13th century from the north. They were better adapted for Arctic life – Inuit hunted instead of farmed, wore sealskins and burned blubber instead of wood. Norse and Inuit accounts record violence between the two peoples. The Norse also traded with their neighbours but never adapted to their way of life.

In the 1360s, the smaller ‘western settlement’ stopped sending tribute to Norway. When Ivar Bardsson investigated, he found abandoned houses and animals running free but no human bodies. Its people’s fate remains a mystery.

By 1400, the eastern settlement too, was in decline. The reasons are many:

  • The Medieval Warm Period ended in 1200, and the Little Ice Age (c.1350 – 1800) lowered world temperatures. Farming in Greenland was no longer sustainable. The Norse suffered while the Inuit prevailed. 
  • The Black Death wiped out 60% of Norway’s population. It did not spare Bergen – the port where merchants sailed for Greenland, and German pirates sacked it in 1393. Trade thus ended with Greenland.
  • As the Portuguese opened trade with Africa and India in the 1500s, demand for walrus ivory – and therefore the Greenland economy – plummeted.

The collapse of the Greenland Norse was not immediate. Younger people left, while the older remained and starved. When Norwegian missionary Hans Egede arrived in 1721, he met only Inuit hunters. Of the Norse, there were only ruins.

Sources: Fall of Civilizations Podcast, Pulitzer Centre, World History Encyclopedia

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