Ancient Chinese historian on the Roman empire

This 13 October 2019 video says about itself:

Ancient Chinese Historian Describes The Roman Empire // 3rd century AD “Weilüe” // Primary Source

“The ruler of Da Qin is not permanent. When disasters result from unusual phenomena, they unceremoniously replace him, installing a virtuous man as king, and release the old king, who does not dare show resentment…”

Here we have the words of the early third-century Chinese historian Yu Huan, who lived during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. Though he never left China, he collected large amounts of information on the countries to the West, chief among them the Roman Empire.

Enormous thanks to John E. Hill for kindly allowing us to use his translation, and for tips on the possible locations mentioned and correct pronunciation. There is still some debate on some of the places mentioned in the text, so please enjoy debating further about it!


Tolkien, new film, a critical review

This March 2019 film trailer video from the USA says about itself:

TOLKIEN | Trailer 2 | FOX Searchlight

TOLKIEN explores the formative years of the renowned author’s life as he finds friendship, courage and inspiration among a fellow group of writers and artists at school. Their brotherhood strengthens as they grow up and weather love and loss together, including Tolkien’s tumultuous courtship of his beloved Edith Bratt, until the outbreak of the First World War which threatens to tear their fellowship apart. All of these experiences would later inspire Tolkien to write his famous Middle-earth novels.

The film is produced by Fox, part of the Rupert Murdoch empire. Not a good omen.

By Sandy English in the USA:

Tolkien: Biopic of author J.R.R. Tolkien rings false

5 October 2019

Directed by Dome Karukoski. Screenplay by David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford.

Tolkien is a fictionalized biography of the early life of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit (1936) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1947-55).

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) is the most significant figure in the field of heroic fantasy, one of the most popular genres of fiction, film and television today. Fantasy, closely related to science fiction as a type of imaginative writing, emerged in the 19th century from the study of folklore, northern European epic poetry and medieval romance. The understanding of these sources was making great strides in the second half of that century, and helped to inspire fantasy, which was influenced by the romanticism of the earlier 19th century.

It is generally agreed today that Tolkien’s stature as an important English-language novelist—whether one agrees with this characterization or not—should not be diminished by the fact that he wrote about imaginary worlds with fictitious mythologies in which magic is used and which he populated both with humans and with a variety of human-like creatures.

After an initial success of The Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, the trilogy, and its prequel The Hobbit, steadily grew in popularity and are today a defining influence on the fantasy genre, which includes many bestselling novels and popular television dramas, such as Game of Thrones.

Tolkien was born in South Africa, where his father died in 1896. His mother relocated the family to Birmingham, England, and raised him and his brother in poverty until she, too, died in 1904. He spent the rest of his youth under the stewardship of a Catholic priest, Fr. Francis Xavier Morgan (played in the film by Colm Meaney), who sought to prevent his attachment to a fellow orphan, Edith Bratt.

Tolkien shows the author as a young man in the period preceding, during and immediately following the First World War of 1914 to 1918, in which Tolkien served as a junior officer in the British army on the western front. The film more or less stops there, however.

On this basis alone, the film must be judged wanting. It cannot possibly give a serious depiction of the times and experiences that produced Tolkien and his work while omitting the impact of the rest of the first third of the 20th century on Tolkien’s work. Even more seriously, it gives a simplistic and linear view of artistic development in general.

The film lavishes attention on Tolkien’s childhood and youth as an orphan, his association with a group of young friends, first at King Edward’s school in Birmingham, and after 1913—while he was at Oxford University—the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). The TCBS scenes are given far too much emphasis in the film. Another focus is Tolkien’s courtship of Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). Both of these elements only add to a misleading impression of Tolkien as simply a typical middle-class youth of the pre-war period, with an interest in ancient languages.

This was the period of Tolkien’s life during which he formed an interest in the study of Germanic languages, ancient and modern. His love of linguistics and ancient Germanic literature (the Old Norse Eddas or the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, for example) and his play with word-origins became the focus of his academic career after the war, but also a significant source of his own fictional mythology of Middle Earth, the world of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and other works.

To its credit, Tolkien does show this interest—in one scene, John Ronald (Nicholas Hoult) approaches the famous Oxford Germanic linguist Joseph Wright (Derek Jacobi) to ask to be transferred to his course of study.

The acting in the film is generally good. Jacobi is a scholar obsessed by his field, and Hoult has the right proportions of enthusiasm before and discouragement after the war.

Tolkien’s induction into the military, and the depictions of battle on the Somme in 1916, are vivid and affecting scenes. The nightmare visions of thousands of soldiers are here: the piles of corpses, the maddening artillery barrages. One gets a sense of the suffering and carnage that Tolkien saw in that battle, one of the worst in human history.

But the film makes completely misguided attempts to locate these experiences in the development of Tolkien’s art. At one point on the Somme, feverish, he goes on a journey through the trenches to find his TCBS friend Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney). He is accompanied by a soldier conveniently named Sam (the name one of the characters Tolkien uses in an epic journey in The Lord of the Rings 20 years later). Clouds of shell smoke form themselves into the shape of wraiths that resemble those of the Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings.

The rest of the film also indulges is this kind of oversimplification of the sources of Tolkien’s artistic work. When Edith asks John Ronald to tell her a story, he begins by saying, “It’s about journeys, the journeys we take to prove ourselves,” leading the viewer to assume that Tolkien already had in mind the kind of journeys that form the basis of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

While Tolkien was a flop at the box-office, it is true that anything associated with Tolkien is potentially worth millions. In this case, the film was disavowed by the Tolkien Estate, which announced before the film was released that it wished “to make clear that they did not approve of, authorise or participate in the making of this film.” The estate has taken authors and business to court several times, and it sold rights for a television series based on his works to Amazon for $250 million in 2017. The company is said to be investing over a billion dollars in the production of this series.

Tolkien is loosely based on a biography by John Garth that covers the same period in Tolkien’s life, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-Earth (2003). Garth has also raised doubts about the accuracy of the film.

Garth’s biography is a better effort. Overall it sticks to the facts of Tolkien’s life. it makes some interesting observations about the work that Tolkien began writing when he was convalescing from trench fever and was associated with the mythology that later became the backdrop to the Lord of the Rings.

Garth, however, uses the same method as the film does when he fails to identify the place of World War I in history, to trace the conceptions that formed Tolkien’s sensibility or to compare his time on the Somme in any detail with those of other writers who experienced the war. There is little in his book about the immediate postwar period and the enormous impact of the war on European society and politics.

While the war unquestionably had a profound effect on Tolkien—years later he called it an “utter stupid waste” and “an animal horror”—the real question is, what impact did World War I and the next 20–25 years, which saw the rise of fascism, the depression and the coming of a second world war, have on him and his creative work.

Any assessment of the effect of the war itself would have to be weighed in that context, especially since his work about Middle Earth did not appear for nearly two decades. The complexity and richness of a whole historical period during which Tolkien worked out his languages, mythologies and fiction is missing from the book as well as the film.

The immediacy of the war came full force and gave expression to the feelings and thoughts of millions of active-duty soldiers, in works such as Henri Barbusse’s novel Under Fire (1916) and the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, which were also published during the war.

But other works by soldiers took time to develop. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front was not published until 1928, for example, and William March’s Company K not until 1930.

In fact, few authors had a less immediate response to the world around them than J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, who invented his own mythology and even whole languages, passed through a prolonged development, 19 years between the end of the war and the production of The Hobbit.

Understanding Tolkien’s life is an entirely legitimate project, especially for what it can reveal about the social, artistic and personal influences on his work, but the film unfortunately fails to give a broader sense of the times in which he lived.

Tolkien is not in any way critical of British society before the war. The viewer is as surprised as the characters when war is declared and when it turns into a disaster. The film offers few insights into the character of the war, aside from its bloody violence, and it does not show a world transformed by the war. At best we get a sense of what it did to Tolkien, but not to European society. This method does not help us understand the 20th century, the artists that it produced, or Tolkien’s own work.

Why some Renaissance paintings turned brown

This 2014 video from the USA says about itself:

Go behind the scenes with Carnegie Museum Of Art chief conservator Ellen Baxter as she discusses the restoration process of a portrait of Isabella de’ Medici.

Alessandro Allori
Portrait of Isabella de’ Medici, c. 1570-1574
oil on canvas (transferred from panel)
Gift of Mrs. Paul B. Ernst

Filmed in conjunction with the exhibition “Faked, Forgotten, Found: Five Renaissance Paintings Investigated.”

From the American Chemical Society in the USA:

Why some greens turn brown in historical paintings

October 2, 2019

Enticed by the brilliant green hues of copper acetate and copper resinate, some painters in the Renaissance period incorporated these pigments into their masterpieces. However, by the 18th century, most artists had abandoned the colors because of their tendency to darken with time. Now, researchers reporting in ACS’ journal Inorganic Chemistry have uncovered the chemistry behind the copper pigments’ color change.

Copper acetate (also known as verdigris) and copper resinate were used in European easel paintings between the 15th and 17th centuries. Artists typically mixed these pigments with linseed oil to make paint. Until now, scientists didn’t know why the green paints often turned brown with time, although they had some clues. Light exposure was thought to play a role because areas of paintings protected by frames remained green. Also, oxygen appeared to contribute to the darkening process, with the brown color spreading from cracks in the paint that exposed the underlying copper pigments to air. So Didier Gourier and colleagues wanted to analyze the chemical changes that occur in the paints upon light exposure.

The team determined that the molecular structures of copper acetate and copper resinate were quite similar: Both had two copper atoms bridged by four carboxylate groups, but there was more space between resinate than acetate molecules. The researchers mixed the pigments with linseed oil and spread them in a thin layer. They then exposed the paint films to 16 hours of 320-mW LED light, which corresponded to hundreds of years of museum light. This illumination caused bridging molecules between the pair of copper atoms to be lost, which were then replaced by an oxygen molecule, creating bimetallic copper molecules responsible for the brown color. This process occurred more readily for copper resinate than for copper acetate. Boiling the linseed oil before mixing, which some artists did to improve the drying process, slowed the darkening reaction.

British poet Shelley and the Peterloo massacre

This 29 May 2019 video from Britain says about itself:

Percy Bysshe Shelley: Songs for Peterloo

News of the Peterloo Massacre, when it reached Shelley in Italy, sparked off a six month-long writing surge that saw the poet respond from a variety of angles. Four songs by John Webster with Brindaband, taking lyrics from key poems, chart his reaction to the massacre. His fiery initial poems and later works with a more measured philosophical response bear witness to his ‘tremendous commitment’ (as Paul Foot put it) to bringing positive change.

By Paul Bond in Britain:

The Peterloo massacre and Shelley

Part 1: The aftermath of the massacre and the responses

30 September 2019

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, a critical event in British history. On August 16, 1819, a crowd of 60,000 to 100,000 protestors gathered peacefully on Manchester’s St. Peter’s Field. They came to appeal for adult suffrage and the reform of parliamentary representation.

The disenfranchised working class—cotton workers, many of them women, with a large contingent of Irish workers—who made up the crowd were struggling with the increasingly dire economic conditions following the end of the Napoleonic Wars four years earlier.

Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest the speakers and sent cavalry of Yeomanry and a regular army regiment to attack the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn. Eighteen people were killed and up to 700 injured.

On August 16 of this year the WSWS published an appraisal of the massacre.

The following is the first part of a two-part article focusing on the response to the massacre by the great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The Peterloo Massacre elicited an immediate and furious response from the working class and sections of middle-class radicals.

The escalation of repression by the ruling class that followed, resulting in a greater suppression of civil liberties, was met with meetings of thousands and the widespread circulation of accounts of the massacre. There was a determination to learn from the massacre and not allow it to be forgotten or misrepresented. Poetic responses played an important part in memorialising Peterloo.

The Peterloo Massacre

Violent class conflict erupted across north western England. Yeomen and hussars continued attacks on workers across Manchester, and the ruling class launched an intensive campaign of disinformation and retribution.

At the trial of Rochdale workers charged with rioting on the night after Peterloo, Attorney General Sir Robert Gifford made clear that the ruling class would stop at nothing to crush the development of radical and revolutionary sentiment in the masses. He declared: “Men deluded themselves if they thought their condition would be bettered by such kind of Reform as Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments, and Vote by Ballot; or that it was just that the property of the country ought to be equally divided among its inhabitants, or that such a daring innovation would ever take place.”

Samuel BamfordSamuel Bamford, a reformer and weaver who led a contingent of several thousand marchers to Manchester from the town of Middleton, said he spent the evening of the massacre “brooding over a spirit of vengeance towards the authors of our humiliation.” Bamford told the judge at his trial for sedition that he would not recommend non-violent protest again.

Workers took a more direct response, even as the military were being deployed widely against the population. Despite the military presence, and press claims that the city had been subdued, riots continued across Manchester.

Two women were shot by hussars on August 20. A fortnight after Peterloo, the most affected area, Manchester’s New Cross district, was described in the London press as a by-word for trouble and a risky area for the wealthy to pass through. Soldiers were shooting in the area to disperse rioters. On August 18, a special constable fired a loaded pistol in the New Cross streets and was attacked by an angry crowd, who beat him to death with a poker and stoned him.

There was a similar response elsewhere locally, with riots in Oldham and Rochdale and what has been described by one historian as “a pitched battle” in Macclesfield on the night of August 17.

Crowds in their thousands welcomed the coach carrying Henry Hunt and the other arrested Peterloo speakers to court in Salford, the city across the River Irwell from Manchester. Salford’s magistrates reportedly feared a “tendency to tumult”, while in Bolton the Hussars had trouble keeping the public from other prisoners. The crowd shouted, “Down with the tyrants!”

While the courts meted out sharper punishment to the arrested rioters, mass meetings and protests continued across Britain. Meetings to condemn the massacre took place in Wakefield, Glasgow, Sheffield, Huddersfield and Nottingham. In Leeds, the crowd was asked if they would support physical force to achieve radical reform. They unanimously raised their hands.

These were meetings attended by tens of thousands and they did not end despite the escalating repression. The Twitter account Peterloo 1819 News (@Live1819) is providing a useful daily update on historical responses until the end of this year.

A protest meeting at London’s Smithfield on August 25 drew crowds estimated at 15,000-40,000. At least 20,000 demonstrated in Newcastle on October 11. The mayor wrote dishonestly to the home secretary, Lord Sidmouth, of this teetotal and entirely orderly peaceful demonstration that 700 of the participants “were prepared with arms (concealed) to resist the civil power.”

The response was felt across the whole of the British Isles. In Belfast, the Irishman newspaper wrote, “The spirit of Reform rises from the blood of the Manchester Martyrs with a giant strength!”

A meeting of 10,000 was held in Dundee in November that collected funds “for obtaining justice for the Manchester sufferers.” That same month saw a meeting of 10,000 in Leicester and one of 12,000 near Burnley. In Wigan, just a few miles north of the site of Peterloo, around 20,000 assembled to discuss “parliamentary reform and the massacre at Manchester.” The yeomanry were standing ready at many of these meetings.

The state was determined to suppress criticism. Commenting on the events, it published false statements about the massacre and individual deaths. Radical MP Sir Francis Burdett was fined £2,000 and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for “seditious libel” in response to his denunciation of the Peterloo massacre. On September 2, he addressed 30,000 at a meeting in London’s Palace Yard, demanding the prosecution of the Manchester magistrates.

Richard Carlile

Radical publisher Richard Carlile, who had been at Peterloo, was arrested late in August. He was told that proceedings against him would be dropped if he stopped circulating his accounts of the massacre. He did not and was subsequently tried and convicted of seditious libel and blasphemy.

The main indictment against him was his publication of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Like Bamford, Carlile also concluded that armed defence was now necessary: He wrote, “Every man in Manchester who avows his opinions on the necessity of reform should never go unarmed—retaliation has become a duty, and revenge an act of justice.”

In Chudleigh, Devon, John Jenkins was arrested for owning a crude but accurate print of the yeomanry charging the Peterloo crowd when Henry Hunt was arrested. A local vicar, a magistrate, informed on Jenkins, whose major “crime” was that he was sharing information about Peterloo. Jenkins was showing the print to people, using a magnifying glass in a viewing box. The charge against Jenkins argued that the print was “intended to inflame the minds of His Majesty’s Subjects and to bring His Majesty’s Soldiery into hatred and contempt.”

Against this attempt to suppress the historical record there was a wide range of efforts to preserve the memory of Peterloo. Verses, poems and songs appeared widely. In October, a banner in Halifax bore the lines:

With heartfelt grief we mourn for those
Who fell a victim to our cause
While we with indignation view
The bloody field of Peterloo.

Anonymous verses were published on cheap broadsides, while others were credited to local radical workers. Many recounted the day’s events, often with a subversive undercurrent. The broadside ballad, “A New Song on the Peterloo Meeting,” for example, was written to the tune “Parker’s Widow,” a song about the widow of 1797 naval mutineer Richard Parker.

Weaver poet John Stafford, who regularly sang at radical meetings, wrote a longer, more detailed account of the day’s events in a song titled “Peterloo.”

The shoemaker poet Allen Davenport satirised in song the Reverend Charles Wicksteed Ethelston of Cheetham Hill—a magistrate who had organised spies against the radical movement and, as the leader of the Manchester magistrates who authorised the massacre, claimed to have read the Riot Act at Peterloo.

Ethelston played a vital role in the repression by the authorities after Peterloo. At a September hearing of two men who were accused of military drilling on a moor in the north of Manchester the day before Peterloo, he told one of them, James Kaye, “I believe that you are a downright blackguard reformer. Some of you reformers ought to be hanged; and some of you are sure to be hanged—the rope is already round your necks; the law has been a great deal too lenient with you.”

Ethelston was also attacked in verse by Bamford, who called him “the Plotting Parson.” Davenport’s “St. Ethelstone’s Day” portrays Peterloo as Ethelston‘s attempt at self-sanctification. Its content is pointed— “In every direction they slaughtered away, Drunken with blood on St. Ethelstone’s Day”—but Davenport sharpens the satire even further by specifying the tune “Gee Ho Dobbin,” the prince regent’s favourite. (These songs are included on the recent Road to Peterloo album by three singers and musicians from North West England—Pete Coe, Brian Peters and Laura Smyth.)

The poetic response was not confined to social reformers and radical workers. The most astonishing outpouring of work came from isolated radical bourgeois elements in exile.

Portrait of Shelley_by Alfred Clint (1829)

On September 5, news of the massacre reached the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in Italy. He recognised its significance and responded immediately. Shelley’s reaction to Peterloo, what one biographer has called “the most intensely creative eight weeks of his whole life,” embodies and elevates what is greatest about his work. It underscores his importance to us now.

Even among the radical Romantics, Shelley is distinctive. He has long been championed by Marxists for that very reason. Franz Mehring famously noted: “Referring to Byron and Shelley, however, [Karl Marx] declared that those who loved and understood these two poets must consider it fortunate that Byron died at the age of 36, for had he lived out his full span he would undoubtedly have become a reactionary bourgeois, whilst regretting on the other hand that Shelley died at the age of 29, for Shelley was a thorough revolutionary and would have remained in the van of socialism all his life.” (Karl Marx: The Story of His Life, Harvester Press, New Jersey, 1966, p.504)

Franz Mehring around 1900

Shelley came from an affluent landowning family, his father a Whig MP. Byron’s continued pride in his title and his recognition of the distance separating himself, a peer of the realm, from his friend, a son of the landed gentry, brings home the pressures against Shelley and the fact that he was able to transcend his background.

To be continued.

United States ornithologist John Cassin, 1813-1869

This video from the USA says about itself:

Cassin’s Finch (Haemorhous cassinii) Sitting in the Snow – Colorado – April 27, 2016

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the USA, 5 September 2019:

Five American Birds Are Named for Him. So Who Was John Cassin?

Carrying on the work of luminaries Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon, John Cassin described nearly 200 bird species and ushered in a new level of rigor in American ornithology. His life was cut short from years poring over specimens preserved with arsenic—but even so he became one of the most admired ornithologists of the 19th century. Ever see a Cassin’s Kingbird, Vireo, Finch, Auklet, or Sparrow? Meet John Cassin.

Studying ancient paintings with computers

This 2013 video says about itself:

Van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (1 of 2)

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece (closed), completed 1432, oil on wood, 11’ 5” x 7’ 6” (Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

This is the sequel, about the altarpiece when opened.

From University College London in England:

AI uncovers new details about Old Master paintings

August 30, 2019

Artificial intelligence has been used to analyse high-resolution digital x-ray images of the world famous Ghent Altarpiece, as part of an investigative project led by UCL.

The finding is expected to improve our understanding of art masterpieces and provide new opportunities for art investigation, conservation and presentation.

Researchers from the National Gallery, Duke University and UCL worked with technical images acquired from the brothers Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, a large and complex 15th-century altarpiece in St Bavo’s Cathedral, Belgium.

The paper, ‘Artificial Intelligence for Art Investigation: Meeting the Challenge of Separating X-ray Images of the Ghent Altarpiece’, demonstrates how academics used a newly developed algorithm to study mixed x-ray images containing features from the front and back of the painting’s double-sided panels, which scientists have deconstructed into two clear images.

These images are part of a comprehensive set of high-resolution”We’d like to see the impact that the development of similar AI-oriented approaches will have on our ability to reveal other hidden features in a painting, such as earlier concealed designs,” he continued.

The Ghent Altarpiece originally consisted of twelve panels. The two wing sections, each originally made of four panels — painted on both sides — could be opened fully on feast days to reveal the four central panels. The painting has survived near destruction over the centuries and seizure by the Nazis in the 1940s.

X-ray images are a valuable tool for examining and restoring paintings as they can help to establish a piece’s condition and provide insights into an artist’s technique.

However, the penetrating nature of x-rays means that everything in its path will contribute to the resulting image, which is informative but can produce images that are difficult to interpret. This is particularly true for panels painted on both sides, or where an artist has re-used a canvas.

By separating the complex x-ray images, the new algorithm enables art historians, conservators and heritage scientists to better understand Old Master paintings, and the information revealed can help experts when protecting and restoring delicate pieces.

Deep learning approaches are now being used to address challenges arising in other sectors including healthcare, fintech, defence and security.

“This approach demonstrates that artificial intelligence-oriented techniques — powered by deep learning — can be used to potentially solve challenges arising in art investigation,” commented lead academic Dr Miguel Rodrigues (UCL Electronic & Electrical Engineering).

Hélène Dubois, Head of the Conservation Project of the Ghent Altarpiece, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) said: “The application of AI to x-ray image processing will provide very useful tools to decrypt complex technical images. The structural weaknesses of the wooden supports and of the ground and paint layers could be diagnosed with more precision.

“These images will also help to understand the brothers Van Eyck’s techniques and the changes carried out in the course of the successive execution of this unique masterpiece. This new development of the use of the traditional x-ray has great potential for countless applications in conservation of irreplaceable works of art.”

The Ghent Altarpiece Conservation Team and the scientists involved in this challenging project will next research how the algorithm may lead to new insights supporting their conservation work.

The research was funded by the EPSRC and the Simons Foundation.

World War II started 80 years ago

This May 2018 video says about itself:

In the first installment of Footsteps, we visit Gleiwitz Radio Tower in Poland, where the European phase of World War II began on August 31, 1939.

That start was a fake ‘Polish assault’, staged by Heinrich Himmeler‘s SS, on the German radio tower in Gleiwitz.

By Bill Van Auken in the USA:

Eighty years since the outbreak of World War II

31 August 2019

Eighty years ago, on September 1, 1939, the Nazi government of Germany launched its invasion of Poland. Two days later, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The Second World War—which would expand across the globe and last for six years before coming to an end in 1945—was waged with unspeakable brutality and haunts the collective memory of mankind as the most barbaric event in history.

Bestial crimes against humanity were committed during this war. Claiming the lives of more than 70 million human beings, the war erased all boundaries between combatants and civilians, with unarmed men, women and children dying in roughly twice the numbers as soldiers on the battlefield.

The 1859 bloody Battle of Solferino inspired the Swiss founding father of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, to set up that movement to help war victims. At Solferino, only one civilian was reportedly killed. Compare that with 21st century conflicts in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Gaza or Somalia. You will find that post-1945 warfare takes a comparatively even more widespread physical and emotional toll on civilians than the two-thirds civilian death rate of Wold War II.

Relentless bombardment of cities, along with wholesale famines caused by economic disruption, were joined with systematic attempts to exterminate entire peoples.

Even before Germany sent 1.5 million troops along with more than 2,000 airplanes and 2,500 tanks across the Polish border on September 1, 1939, the drive to war had already claimed massive casualties. Italy had invaded Ethiopia in 1935, exposing the impotence of the League of Nations and slaughtering nearly 400,000 civilians over a period of six years. Japan had invaded and occupied China, carrying out the infamous Rape of Nanjing of 1937–38 in which up to 300,000 civilians were slaughtered in one city. Before the war was over, 15 million Chinese would be killed.

World War II introduced a grim catalogue of new words into the world’s political and military lexicon: genocide, blitzkrieg, Total War, Holocaust, death camp, Final Solution, Zyklon B, A-bomb, mushroom cloud, fallout, Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

There are many people still alive who went through the horrors of World War II. Those who survived, both soldiers and civilians, bore scars—physical, mental and emotional—for the rest of their lives. Their bitter experiences played an immense role in shaping the lives of their children and in instilling within them a broad popular revulsion toward war.

The anniversary of such a world-historic cataclysm should obviously be the occasion for sober reflection, the studying of the lessons of the events of 80 years ago and acting upon them in order to prevent the outbreak of yet another world war that would put an end to human civilization.

Needless to say, this is the last thought on the minds of the world’s capitalist leaders as they assemble in Warsaw for an official commemoration of the anniversary on Sunday. Rather, they are staging a celebration of the kind of militarism and right-wing nationalism that accompanied the war’s onset in the first place.

Polish President Andrzej Duda has ordered the ceremony, traditionally held in the opposition-led city of Gdansk, where the first shots were fired in 1939, relocated to Warsaw’s Pilsudski Square, a shrine to right-wing Polish nationalism. His ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has conducted a massive assault on basic democratic rights and spearheaded a campaign of xenophobia and anti-Semitism, going so far as to make it a crime to even mention Polish complicity in crimes against Jews during the Holocaust. It intends to turn the ceremony into a paean to Polish military “heroism”.

Trump, whose fascistic nationalism, anti-immigrant chauvinism and attempts to assume dictatorial powers mirror the politics of Duda and the PiS, canceled his trip to Warsaw for the ceremony, citing the approach of Hurricane Dorian. Vice President Mike Pence will appear in his stead, and his Polish hosts hope that he will announce a further escalation of the number of US troops deployed in the country to 4,500. The Polish government has agreed to spend $2 billion for a base to house the US soldiers, a facility that they initially proposed would be named “Fort Trump”.

While Pence will be there to represent the US, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is going to Warsaw to represent Germany, the government of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, received no invitation. Moscow bitterly protested its exclusion from the anniversary event, given the immense price paid by the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany and driving the Wehrmacht out of Poland.

It is an undeniable fact that the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany was facilitated by the signing of the infamous Stalin-Hitler Non-Aggression Pact on August 23, 1939. … These were acts of reactionary political treachery characteristic of the Stalinist regime, which had by the time the war began already betrayed every basic principle of socialism and revolutionary working-class internationalism.

But it is also a fact that approximately 27 million Soviet citizens lost their lives during the four years that followed the Nazi invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of what was consciously planned by Nazi Germany as a war of extermination. In terms of military casualties alone, 80 Soviet soldiers died for every US fatality. Moreover, the Soviet Red Army—backed by the war production of the USSR’s nationalized industries—was responsible for more than three-quarters of the casualties inflicted upon Hitler’s armies, breaking the back of the Wehrmacht in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk.

The decision not to invite Russia is not, in any event, a response to the crimes of Stalinism. The representatives of German imperialism will be in Warsaw as honored guests. A spokesman for Poland’s President Duda stated: “The invitations were issued according to a contemporary, not a historical, context.”

This “contemporary context” is one in which every major power is preparing for war, and Poland is offering itself as the spearhead of the aggressive US-NATO encirclement of Russia.

Washington has officially declared that its strategic policy is one of preparing for war against “great powers”, such as Russia and China, as it passes successive military budgets of over $700 billion. Trump has recently inaugurated a Space Command dedicated to turning outer space into yet a new battlefield, and, for the third time in recent months, has mused over how he could end the war in Afghanistan by “killing 10 million people”, apparently contemplating an act that would rival even the crimes of Hitler.

The Second World War cannot be explained, any more than the first, by the actions of a single country, much less those of one malignant individual. The roots of both conflicts—separated by little more than two decades—lay in the insoluble contradictions of the global capitalist order: between world economy and the outmoded nation-state system on the one hand, and socialized production and the private ownership of the means of production on the other.

Nonetheless, the circumstances under which the Second World War erupted and the form that it took were unquestionably determined in the first instance by the war aims of Nazi Germany, which was responsible for crimes unprecedented in human history.

The invasion of Poland in September 1939 already revealed the methods that would find culmination in the policies of Total War, i.e., a war of extermination, and Hitler’s “Final Solution” of the “Jewish question”.

The invasion saw the carpet-bombing of Polish cities and, according to one Polish historian, during the September campaign there were roughly 15 massacres a day, which presaged the mass extermination of some 6 million European Jews. Within Poland itself, some 3 million Polish Jews were put to death, along with as many as another 3 million non-Jewish Poles.

Given the unfathomable scale of the crimes committed by the Nazis, the fact that there are today substantial political forces in Germany that seek to justify and legitimize these crimes constitutes a deadly warning to the international working class.

The racist Alternative für Deutschland, whose principal leader recently dismissed the Nazi atrocities as insignificant “bird poop” that should not detract from a thousand years of “glorious” German history, has emerged as the main opposition party in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. Right-wing terrorists operate with impunity in Germany, enjoying the protection of the country’s intelligence agencies.

Hitler himself is undergoing a process of rehabilitation. One of the most prominent and politically influential academics in the country, Professor Jörg Baberowski, is outspoken in his trivializiation of Nazi bestialities. He stated in an interview published in Der Spiegel in February 2014. “Hitler was not a psychopath. He was not cruel. He did not like to hear of the extermination of the Jews at his table.”

US imperialism was able during the course of the Second World War to mask its own imperialist aims behind a democratic appeal to the intense hostility of working people in the US and internationally to Hitlerite fascism. Today, after nearly three decades of uninterrupted wars of aggression, it cannot credibly make any such appeal and confronts a population at home that is increasingly hostile to foreign military interventions.

The decisive question in preventing a new world war is one of revolutionary leadership in the international working class.

It is impossible to understand how the Second World War began outside of the role played by the dominant parties within the working class internationally, and particularly in Germany. The rise of Hitler and the Nazis was, in the final analysis, the product of the betrayals carried out by both German Social Democracy (SPD) and the Stalinist Communist Party, which repeatedly worked to paralyze the revolutionary strivings of the German working class.

Once again, conditions of insoluble economic and financial crisis, intensifying trade war and global militarization threaten to erupt into an uncontrollable and ferocious struggle of each against all. The same capitalist crisis is simultaneously provoking a worldwide renewal of the class struggle, as workers in country after country fight back against the assault on living standards and basic democratic rights together with the unending growth of social inequality.

Just as in 1914 and 1939, the threat of a global imperialist conflict confronts humanity with the choice of socialism or barbarism. The potential for the outbreak of a third world war is greater today than at any time since 1945. Among the greatest dangers in the present situation is the absence of mass awareness of the depth and extent of the geopolitical conflicts that are driving the imperialist powers to war. As in the years that preceded the outbreak of World War II, they are—to use the words of Trotsky—tobogganing toward a catastrophe. As the international conflicts interact with mounting social turmoil within their own countries, the crisis-ridden capitalist regime increasingly sees war as a way out of the present political, economic and social impasse.

… Opposition to war requires the political unification of the working class, on the basis of an international socialist program, against the capitalist system.