Friday, November 11, 2011

A Nazi Story That Still Surprises

A Nazi Story That Still Surprises
Wall Street Journal

With every passing year, every new model of portentous drivel about the Nazi era rolled out by the film industry—"The Reader," about the travails of a concentration camp guard, comes to mind—the more indispensable the facts of history become. The clearer it is, too, how flimsy these film fantasies are as vehicles for drama, compared with that history. The latest reminder of this truth comes with a PBS documentary extraordinary in its detail and revelatory power. It's title, "Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals," may be informative, but it's far from adequate for a work that yields so many surprises, the greatest of which is its freshness. Moving in unexpected directions at every turn, Jonathan Silvers's film averts the burden of predictability—no small accomplishment for work on so familiar a theme.

The Nuremberg trials and their drama are familiar enough to the world, but not the face and the work of the 27-year-old American Army lawyer and investigator Benjamin Ferencz, charged with the task of collecting evidence for the Nuremberg prosecutions. The terrors of entering the just-liberated camps with their hellish scenes—the film provides striking footage, more extensive than the usual documentary clips, of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower doing just that, with Gen. Omar Bradley just behind him—caused him, he tells the filmmakers, to create a self-defense mechanism. The whole scene wasn't real, he told himself—it was "just a case," one of many to get through, in camp after camp. He would become chief prosecutor of a special German unit, the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units operating on the Eastern front. He found the report of their daily accomplishments, which Germans meticulously recorded—a typical page of which is shown on screen, detailing how many Jewish children were killed, how many men and women had been murdered on a particular date. He counted. "When I got to over a million I stopped counting."
Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals

Tuesday, Nov. 15, 9-11 p.m. EST on PBS, whose dates and times vary; check local listings.

The Contenders

Fridays, 8-9:30 p.m. EST on C-Span

The film offers barely a touch of atrocity footage. Its subject is justice, or as the principals in the first part of the film, the liberated survivors of the camps thought of it, revenge—this documentary's only strained, largely forgettable moments. Far more dramatic testimony—and a startling vision of justice—comes in an interview with the middle-aged son of Hans Frank, governor of occupied Poland, one of the Germans hanged for crimes against humanity. "My father was a murderer," Nicholas Frank declares, "one who sanctioned the acts of all the other criminals who got away." One memory from his childhood stands out—the time a drunken American soldier showed up at the Frank house and lined the family up outside, threatening to shoot them all. His younger brothers and sisters cried piteously, he recalls, "but I had the feeling the soldier was correct—I belonged to a criminal family."

Enlarge Image
Harry Dreifuss/PBS

Nazi war criminal Kurt Lishka in Germany in 1971.

Scene after scene brings the struggle for justice to life, in obscure cases as in the ones best known to history. A middle-aged journalist in Cologne, Germany, has discovered by chance, long years after the war, the name and location of the SS officer who had beaten his grandfather to death upon his arrival in Theresienstadt, a transit camp for Czech Jews and others destined for Auschwitz. The journalist had come upon a 1988 news article about a former member of the SS deported from Italy. He recounts his stubborn effort to get a German court to take action—a story this sophisticated professional tells with ease and eloquence, none of which can conceal the rage that had driven him. His grandfather had been murdered, the killer was in Germany, a democratic state now, and the appropriate prosecutor refused to take action—this could not be the end of the story. It was not.

Candice Bergen, the documentary's excellent narrator, doesn't come to the subject of this film as a stranger. She is the widow of Louis Malle, whose haunting "Au Revoir Les Enfants" (1987) was based on Malle's memory of the French Catholic boys' school he attended during the war. The school had sheltered Jewish students who were ultimately betrayed and dragged off to Auschwitz, where they were gassed upon arrival. The headmaster, Lucien Bunel—Père Jacques de Jésus—was arrested and sent to Mauthausen, one of the deadliest camps in the Nazi system. The Malle film's title quotes his last words to the assembled students as he is taken away.

The film Ms. Bergen narrates covers remarkably extensive territory—including a riveting commentary provided by Willam Gowan, a former U.S. Army counter-intelligence agent, on the so-called Rat Line through which Nazi war criminals of high and low rank escaped punishment by fleeing to Argentina, with help from sympathetic Vatican priests. Characteristically, the film enlarges on a familiar fact, taking it to a deeper level. The arrival of this considerable population of war criminals, an Argentinian journalist attests, had its poisonous effect on the nation as a whole. Most of them, he points out, were experts in exactly the kind of merciless repression and terrorization that the dictatorship in Argentina found useful.

Section after section of the narrative is made rich in the same way—by taking the familiar in this history to newer and deeper levels. This is true no less of the final part on the complicated efforts to deport war criminals living in America. Altogether a rare achievement and a spellbinding one.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rick Perry can't remember which government agency he's decided to eliminate

Nov 9, 2011
The moment Rick Perry’s candidacy collapsed
He provides what may be the most painful, cringe-inducing slip-up in debate history VIDEO
By Steve Kornacki

The good news for Rick Perry is that everyone will probably stop talking about his bizarre New Hampshire speech now. The bad news is: He created an even more cringe-inducing YouTube moment at Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate — one that probably represents the most embarrassing public slip-up in what has been a campaign full of them for Perry.

Video is posted below, but we’ll stick to the transcript up here and pick things up mid-answer, a little more than an hour into the debate, when Perry — who had been mostly ignored by the moderators and his fellow candidates — tried to win some attention by talking about which Cabinet departments he’d eliminate as president:

PERRY: And I will tell you, it’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone – Commerce, Education, and, the, uh, what’s the third one there? Let’s see…

RON PAUL (holding up five fingers): Five.

PERRY: Oh, five. OK. So, Commerce, Education, and the uh, uh, uh…


PERRY: EPA. There you go.

DEBATE QUESTIONER JOHN HARWOOD: Seriously? Is EPA the one you’re talking about?

PERRY: No sir, No sir. We were talking about the agencies of government – EPA needs to be rebuilt, there’s no doubt about that…

HARWOOD: But you can’t name the third one?

PERRY: The third agency of government I would, I would do away with – Education, the uh, Commerce, and let’s see – I can’t, the third one. The third one there. Oops...

Update: The transcript has been changed to show that it was Mitt Romney — and not Ron Paul — who actually suggested the EPA to Perry. (h/t reader DR) Also, it’s probably worth noting that Perry, in an answer to a separate question more than ten minutes later, said that the Energy Department was the third “agency” he was grasping for.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Fossil Teeth Put Humans in Europe Earlier Than Thought

New evidence reinforces the suspicion that modern humans exterminated their Neanderthal cousins. The other suspect is climate change.

Fossil Teeth Put Humans in Europe Earlier Than Thought
New York Times
November 2, 2011

The fossils seemed hardly worth a second look. The one from England was only a piece of jawbone with three teeth, and the other, from southern Italy, was nothing more than two infant teeth. But scientists went ahead, re-examining them with refined techniques, and found that one specimen’s age had previously been significantly underestimated and that the other’s dating and identity had been misinterpreted.

They had in fact discovered the oldest known skeletal remains of anatomically modern humans in the whole of Europe, two international research teams reported Wednesday.

The scientists who made the discovery and others who study human origins say they expect the findings to reignite debate over the relative capabilities of the immigrant modern humans and the indigenous Neanderthals, their closest hominid relatives; the extent of their interactions; and perhaps the reasons behind the Neanderthal extinction. The findings have already prompted speculation that the Homo sapiens migrations into Europe may have come in at least two separate waves, rather than just one.

In tests conducted at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit in England, the baby teeth from Italy were dated at 43,000 to 45,000 years old. Other analysis showed the teeth to be those of a modern human, not a Neanderthal, as previously thought when the fossil was unearthed in 1964 from the Grotta del Cavallo.

Similar tests at Oxford established that the age of the jawbone, from Kents Cavern near Torquay, Devon, had been significantly underestimated, by about 7,000 years, probably because of contamination when it was originally dated in 1989. The age is now set at 41,500 to 44,200 years old, making this the oldest known modern human fossil from northwestern Europe.

These dates are remarkable on several counts, scientists said. The earliest reliably dated European modern human specimen, up to now, came from the Pestera cu Oase site in Romania, a long way east from the English coast. The Romanian fossil’s age is estimated at 37,800 to 42,000 years old. No stone tools or other artifacts were found with it.

And in the absence of early fossils, archaeologists had not been sure who made some of the stone tools they were uncovering, the arriving humans or the Neanderthals. It had been generally assumed that modern humans probably entered Europe at least as early as 45,000 years ago, based on changing patterns of artifacts that soon followed.

The two papers describing the new research were published Wednesday by the journal Nature. The lead author of the jawbone report was Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford. The principal author of the report on the baby teeth from Cavallo was Stefano Benazzi of the University of Vienna.

Not only does the jawbone indicate “the wide and rapid dispersal of the earliest moderns across Europe” during the last ice age, more than 40,000 years ago, Dr. Higham’s team wrote, it was also found in cave layers associated with a technology that archaeologists call the Aurignacian culture. The scientists said this “fills a key gap” between the earliest human skeletal remains and the earliest dated stone and bone Aurignacian tools and weapons.

Erik Trinkaus, a paleoanthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis and an author of the Higham paper, said the artifacts associated with the Kents Cavern fossil confirm “what researchers have long suspected, that the human newcomers spread the Aurignacian culture.”

In a statement issued by Oxford, Dr. Higham also pointed out that the earlier dates for these fossils meant “that early humans must have coexisted with Neanderthals in this part of the world, something which a number of researchers have doubted.”

The confirmed early appearance of modern humans in Europe gave them more time for contacts with Neanderthals before the latter’s extinction about 30,000 years ago. Although recent genetic research shows some evidence of interbreeding between the species, there was uncertainty as to how much contact the two had in Europe, as opposed to earlier interactions in western Asia. It is still not clear how widespread was the Neanderthal population in their final millenniums; after a steady decline, the last of them seemed to disappear in their cul-de-sac of a refuge in southern Iberia.

Determining the age for any samples more than 40,000 years old was no sure thing. At that age, levels of remaining radiocarbon are low, and contamination can be a serious problem. As an alternative, Katerina Douka of Oxford, a member of the team examining the Italian specimen, focused on the dating of marine shell beads found in the same archaeological levels as the teeth, a technique that has proven successful at other sites in Europe.

When the teeth had been classified as Neanderthal, it was assumed that artifacts in the Cavallo site — bone tools and ornaments in a style known as the Uluzzian culture — were also considered Neanderthal creations. Now archaeologists suspect that they should be attributed to modern humans.

Ian Tattersall, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who was not involved in the research, said, “The tendency right now is to downplay associating Neanderthals with any cultural developments after humans got to Europe.”

Chris Stringer and Tim Compton, both of the Natural History Museum, London, and members of the Higham group, obtained radiocarbon dates of animal bones found close to the jawbone in Kents Cavern and used a statistical modeling method to calculate the age of the human fossil. They further used CT scans to produce 3-D models of the worn teeth and thus confirm that the fossil was indeed from a human, not a Neanderthal.

“Everybody is going to wish some of that evidence was better,” Dr. Tattersall said. “It is pretty slender, but I have no reason to dispute it.”

Dr. Stringer elaborated in an e-mail on some possible implications of the two discoveries. Perhaps some of the “transitional cultures” that preceded the Aurignacian, he said, were introduced by “multiple early waves of modern humans coming into Europe.” For example, the Kents Cavern fossil might represent an early dispersal through Central Europe that crossed into Britain on a land bridge where the North Sea is now. The Cavallo remains might represent a possibly even earlier migration along the Soouthern European coasts.

Richard G. Klein, an archaeologist at Stanford University, said he was “really impressed” by the new findings. Hearing of Dr. Stringer’s idea, Dr. Klein joined in the spirit of conjecture, noting that Homo sapiens was on the move at that time, venturing as far as Australia by about 45,000 years ago.

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Koch brothers and Herman Cain

Koch-backed group confirms financial ties to Cain campaign manager
By NBC's Michael Isikoff
Nov. 4, 2011

A major conservative advocacy group, funded by Koch family oil interests, says it is reviewing its "financial dealings" with a Wisconsin charity headed by Herman Cain's campaign manager, raising fresh questions about the source of tens of thousands of dollars in funds that were used to pay expenses for Cain's presidential campaign.

The Center for Public Integrity reported late Thursday that Americans for Prosperity, one of the largest and most prominent of conservative political groups, has confirmed unspecified financial transactions with two closely linked Wisconsin non-profits -- Prosperity USA and Wisconsin Prosperity Network -- that were founded by Mark Block, Cain's campaign manager.

One of those groups, Prosperity USA, paid for $37,000 in expenses, including iPads, charter flights and items, for Cain's presidential campaign, according to financial documents disclosed this week by the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

Non-profits are barred by law from paying for campaign expenses, and when the allegations first surfaced this week -- at the same time as the sexual harassment charges against the presidential candidate -- Cain said he would order an investigation of whether there were improper campaign violations.

Cain's campaign lawyer, Steve Bienek, declined to answer questions from NBC about the transactions between the Wisconsin charities headed by Block and the campaign, saying only that the campaign has retained an outside law firm to review them.

"We take these allegations very seriously," he said.

But the Center for Public Integrity report by Peter Stone raises additional questions as to whether Americans for Prosperity (AFP) funds were used by Block to pay Cain campaign expenses. AFP had "financial dealings with Prosperity USA and/or the Wisconsin Prosperity Network," Levi Russell, the spokesman for AFT is quoted as saying.

(Russell confirmed the transactions to NBC News, but declined to elaborate, and added that the group had no reason to believe there was any wrongdoing on its part.)

Some of those transactions are hinted at in the documents released by the Journal-Sentinel: They show a $5,000 expense in February 2011 for Cain to attend a meeting of a group called RightNation "at request of AFP" and that Block made a trip to Washington to meet with AFP's president Tim Phillips and David Koch."

Koch and his oil industry brother Charles Koch were the founders of Americans for Prosperity, but the group -- like most non-profits -- declines to identify its donors.