George Sarant

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Posts Tagged ‘Germany

Notes From Vienna

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I’ve been away from everything on another trip to Europe, this time to Austria and parts of Germany. I didn’t turn on a TV or go online for anything other than travel information so as to maintain the feeling of immersion in the marvelous  17th, 18th, and 19th century architecture of Vienna.  Virtually every building is adorned with statuary and/or some kind of decorative carving. The palaces are gorgeous, and everything is super-clean. Coming back to New York “Pothole” City reminded me that I didn’t encounter a single road defect over a few thousand miles there and I am still baffled why the roads are so much better in Europe. 

Vienna was once the seat of a great central European empire and looks it. It lasted about six centuries under the enduring Habsburgs until the terrible catastrophe of World War I, which it was central to (recall it was the Austrian Arch-Duke’s assassination in Sarajevo that triggered the war).  One hundred years ago it was at the center of world history; but today when making travel arrangements I have to repeat over and over that I’m going to Austria, not Australia, or Vienna, not Viet Nam. 

The city is central to classical music and nothing else comes close. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and many others either came or did their most important work here. Classical music is still vital to the city and there are always concerts in many facilities. Evenings we went to concerts at four different venues, as well as one by candlelight in Salzburg, where sneakers and jeans are not allowed and jackets are encouraged. All inevitably end with the hand-clapping Radetsky March, which you’ll recognize if you’ve ever watched the New Year’s concert that is widely broadcast on TV. We also visited the Spanish Riding School with the Lipizzan horses because my wife wanted to; I found it terminally boring. 

German is the primary language, but everyone speaks English and this is one place where no one will take offense if you address them in English. Overall the city reminds me most of better-known Paris, in terms of beauty and livability, although it has its own ambiance and doesn’t have some of the current problems of the French capitol. To put it another way, on the hurried and harried scale of 1 to 10, New York is a 10;  while Vienna is barely a 2.  No one will raise and eyebrow if you spend much of the day reading a paper at one of the numerous coffee houses.

Apart from other cities we also drove into Germany to visit castles, but were really taken aback by the stunning Bavarian countryside which is incredibly well-ordered and spotless. Farm after farm was full of cows; indeed more than I’ve ever seen anywhere in the US. We spent a night by Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle which was swarming with busloads of tourists despite being in the middle nowhere, before heading back into Austria. 

The only mishap was that one day before leaving I happened to get hit by a car; a car I was driving, (which is too complicated to try and explain here), so I was hobbling around after that. It was painful but without serious damage and I am okay now. 

As an alternative to the Paris-Rome-London circuit I recommend visiting this welcoming city. They sell a pass that is an incredible bargain that gets you admission into just about everything. The tourist traffic otherwise seems to consist mostly of classical music lovers from Asian countries, who have a far greater appreciation of western art these days than we do, which says something about us. 

Written by georgesarant

October 26, 2018 at 6:15 PM


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Russian actions in Ukraine continue to dominate the headlines, and there is no common western policy beyond expressions of disapproval. The question now is what should be done about Putin’s actions? The short answer is, not much. First, because not much can realistically be done by outsiders, and second, given the extent to which the Obama administration has abandoned leadership in the world, things like this are bound to happen in that power vacuum. With the “reset” in relations with Russia in shambles who can have confidence in the ability of this administration to handle this appropriately?

There has been some tough talk from Hillary Clinton, which makes some sense on the surface. She compares the Ukrainian situation to that of Nazi Germany, which grabbed the Czech sudetanland followed other territories on the pretext of protecting Germans in those areas. When there was no effective response Hitler’s appetite increased until the invasion of Poland finally brought on World War II.  However, Putin is not Hitler, and the global context is quite different. Britain and France were committed to alliances with Poland. No one apart from Russia is allied with the territories of the former Soviet Union, which we can assume Putin dreams of recreating. But what can he realistically do in that regard?

If Russia were to regain all those territories the Russians themselves would become a minority in the federation. They would have a substantial, growing and increasingly restive population on their hands. They have yet been unable to completely subdue the existing Muslim population in Chechnya and other Russian territories in the Caucasus. The Russian population is roughly 142 million and declining, with a non-Russian minority at nearly 20% and growing. Russia cannot possibly maintain a stable society with more ethnic minorities in its fold. Putin is no fool and he must know this. But he also knows that he can annex some territories with little to lose. 

Crimea, which is now basically occupied, has a Russian majority and the regional government is seeking a referendum on joining Russia. That should be amended to say rejoining Russia, insofar as Crimea was in fact Russian territory until Kruschev ceded it to the then Ukrainian SSR, in what was basically an internal shuffle, never imagining an independent Ukraine. From the Russian point of view they are simply reoccupying historically Russian territory. Given the history and the demographics there is not much of a case for a strong response to this by anyone. Putin took advantage of the political turmoil in Ukraine. A similar case could be made for Russian majority areas in eastern Ukraine. As long as there are substantial majority-minority population differences there is certain to be instability, and a degree of sorting out would mitigate that and eliminate any pretext for further aggrandizement. A more Ukrainian Ukraine could then pursue its goal of joining the west via the European Union. 

What disturbs much of the world is the use of force in this situation, and for that there should be consequences. The problem is that there is really no one in a position to do much of anything. The next step would be to give a strong message along the lines of “this far but no further.” The problem is that the US administration has drawn red lines before that fell away without consequences, and has no credibility left. The outrage of some hawks on the right is misplaced. This is not the Soviet Union. Russia is not an enemy and there is nothing to be gained by treating it like one. The notion of the west versus Russia is a false dichotomy. . Russia has been a part of the “west” in some sense, at least since Peter the Great. The real barrier to better relations and integration with the western world is the lack of rule of law in Russia. To be continued. 


Written by georgesarant

March 6, 2014 at 6:59 PM


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The Beatles arrived in the US fifty years ago, as hard as that is to believe for those who were around at the time. The years seem to have flashed by progressively faster, as they inevitably do as we age. Somehow what seems like a long period of time just doesn’t feel like it. Curiously this is not because things have changed so much, but rather because they have changed so little. There is a surprising degree of continuity between now and then. For example, people still listen to the music of the Beatles, whereas in 1964 few people were still listening to the popular music of 1914. Where there is a virtually seamless connection between today and 1964 for most people in the West, the fifty years prior to that time are like a huge chasm of discontinuity. 


Consider the year 1914. Then, for the broad public everything was new, from electricity to movies, automobiles, airplanes, appliances, telephones, recordings, etc. Although most of these things originated in the late 19th century, they did not reach most people until costs tumbled due to mass production early in the 20th century. In contrast, apart from the Internet, medical devices, and electronics generally, there is not much in the way of things with comparable fundamental impact on daily life over the past fifty years. Thus, a person from 1964 could fit in comfortably in 2014  (apart from wondering where all the space travel and robots are), whereas a person from 1914 encountering the world of 1964 would be flabbergasted.  

 In geopolitical terms 1914 was the apex of the civilization of the19th century and the old order of Europe, which disastrously exploded into war in August of that year. Thus began, one hundred years ago, the biggest disaster in modern western history, subsequently referred to as “the Great War,” or World War I as we now call it today. There was worse to come, but most of what followed was a consequence of that war. Had it not happened the map of the world would be very different today, and more dynamic powers would still exist in Europe. Today it is hard to imagine countries sending off millions of their young men to war, largely as cannon fodder, ultimately all for nothing. It is equally hard to imagine European countries gripped by patriotic fervor and clamoring for war as some did at the time. The United States only entered the war three years after it began, so military deaths of 116,516 were far less than the 416,800 in World War II. But for European countries in the west the losses were almost incomprehensible. Thus the Great War still resonates in Britain, which lost 908,371 versus 303,800 in World War II or France, which lost 1,357,800 soldiers in WWI versus 200,000 in World War II. On the other side Germany lost 1,773,700, Austria-Hungary 1,200,00 and all of these are only battlefield death. Total casualties were several times more. In the east Russia lost 1,700,000 before leaving the war after the 1917 revolution.

The German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empire, (which controlled much of the middle east at the time), all collapsed as a result of the war, followed by years of turmoil that led directly to WWII and the further consequences of that war. An imperial civilization vanished, and in some ways Europe has yet to fully recover from what began in August 1914.

Clearly most of the seminal events occurred in the first half of the 20th century. The years between 1914 and 1964 constituted a period of great discontinuity, in contrast to the curious continuity between 1964 and 2014. Although we have been led to believe that we live in a time of rapid change, the truth is things haven’t changed all that much, and that is why the years seem, even more so, to have gone by in a flash. As the saying goes, “the more things change the more they stay the same.”



Written by georgesarant

February 23, 2014 at 7:29 PM