The Unknown Unknowns

At the risk of sounding clichéd I want to say: Hitler was crazy. I don’t even need to really explain much beyond that for anyone to agree, and with good reason. His legendary megalomania capitalized on the downfall and subsequent chaos in Germany after World War One to secure for himself the single most powerful position at the head of a re-emerging world power. Pretty impressive for a loser who was famously kicked out of art school and had so few friends he had to write battlefield letters to his landlord. After that, that same megalomania turned into a dangerous conviction that invaded every other power in Europe, captivating many, but plunging the world into a war for nothing. He really was insane. Even worse, and I say this as a historian and the grandchild of imperialist Germans, he turned a proud nation into a bunch of mind-slaves and destroyed any honorable lineage in Germany. I couldn’t distance myself from the Nazis enough, and there’s no way I’d defend any Nazi sympathizers. I’m glad my family is on the honorable and right side of history.  Nevertheless, what was left equally for his supporters and his victims was much of the same, though the former certainly deserved it.

Almost faster than people in Europe started throwing up their hands and jumping on the “I always hated that Hitler guy” bandwagon (nice job Austria, making everyone forget you were totally cool with the Anschluss) the world delineated from the Nazis what dictators and genocide were to look like for, at least, the next 60 years. Genocides that followed the Holocaust were spread across the globe. Cambodia and Rwanda highlighted that the modern world suffered the same insanity that killed 6 million in Europe. But the sensitivity to genocide after the Holocaust made these modern era genocides more, shall I say, attractive than ones that had existed beforehand. Armenia suffered greatly at the hands of the Turkish for backing a Tsarist Russian scheme to liberate Armenians after World War One, the Native Americans at least as badly during the age of expansion. So what was the difference? Why were the crimes of the past simply ignored?

The answer is locked up in a quote I heard a long time ago: “History is written by the victors.” At the end of conflicts those that triumph have to set their future policies on the justifications that carried them through conflict. For example, we fought Hitler because he was exterminating peoples, thus we will reject all forms of genocide. In very important ways, this concept of drawing on the past to set future principles has shaped history. Americans learned long ago to value liberty and freedom above all else, so Manifest Destiny resulted. From that came the hallmark American Imperialism, occupying and “liberating” across the Pacific until it put the nation in a competing position against the Empire of Japan. Imperialist Europe worked on the principles of military and political alliances to maintain a balance. When the upstart Soviets withdrew Russia from World War One, they were unpopular, to say the least. Even more unpopular were the Armenians whose Independence was sponsored by the Soviets. They died as a result of the era’s victor’s hate. Furthermore, actions taken after wars give credence to the righteousness of the victors. Vichy French collaborators during World War Two were brought to trial and many were executed because Charles De Gaulle’s France was the authentic government, according to the victors.

Basically, what came out of World War Two, an undeniably great victory, was a new history written by the victors. The Belgian and Dutch began celebrating their valiant resistance movements, while sweeping under the carpet the collaborators. Britain’s incredible holdout during the Battle of Britain was remembered over Chamberlain’s appeasement, while the Free French movement distanced itself from the French generals who did nothing, literally, while Poland burned (I have a special place in Hell for those French officers, who let Poland die while they sat right on the German-French border. It was so bad, the German word Sitzkrieg meaning “Sitting War” was coined. Did I mention the Germans were all in Poland at that point?). Admittedly, the resistances in Europe as well as the tenacious defense of Britain were great, and deserved glory. Yet, there was a real movement away from the horrible truths after, and that left a lot of skeletons collecting in closets out of sight. The biggest collector of bones was Besarionis dze Jughashvili, also known as Uncle Joseph Stalin.

Remember when I said Hitler was crazy? You can scroll back up. Well let me put it out there that Stalin was crazy too. By the end of his “reign,” as it were, it is known that Stalin had killed more people than Hitler. Stalin was worse than the guy that industrialized mass murder. Political and social purges started after World War One was wrapping up, and continued until he died in 1953. Siberian labor and penal camps were always full, but that doesn’t count the many millions of deaths and rapes ordered by Stalin’s political officers during the advance to Berlin and retreat to Moscow. Seriously, thousands of soldiers died because they had contact with Germans, being captured instead of dying, while civilians faced purges for being “suspected” of collaboration (insanely, even before they could have actually collaborated).

Now Jews were never liked in Europe. It’s not a joke, and it’s only funny in its absurdity. Throughout time they were blamed for many things including the Mongols and the Black Death before anyone could even reckon where the Mongols or the Black Death had come from. Tsarist Russia had pogroms, sacking and random murders, throughout the nation and Soviet Russia purged many as “kulaks” or landowning capitalists. Essentially, anti-Semitism was never a secret; it was the rule over the exception. So when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, entering the Baltic States, the Ukraine and Russia proper even people in isolationist America knew the Germans were anti-Semitic. But when the Nazis ordered Jews to assemble for “relocation” in the newly occupied areas thousands (seriously) turned out. They congregated and queued up to be put on trucks, driven out to the forests and shot after being robbed of everything they had. And this wasn’t some great trick played by the Nazis, this was happening along the entire German salient going into Russia. So why would so many turn out to die when it was so obvious? Well, Stalin and the Soviets censored their news. Few normal villagers even knew Germany and Russia were at war. The Germans showing up and occupying their settlements were the tip off for the Russian rural that war was up. And it was so bad, the Jews in the settlements, amongst many others persecuted by the Nazis, had no idea the German special Einsatzgruppen, the SS, the Army (Wehrmacht), and even the Air Force (Luftwaffe) were systematically eliminating them.

Stalin’s total lock-out of knowledge got people killed, when it was so easily avoidable. Many people in Russia were overrun so quickly by the Nazis they had no opportunity to run, but citizens, who had nothing to do with the Red Army and couldn’t care less about the Soviet, chose to stay rather than fight. Think about that next time you read a story about Chinese internet censorship. What information is the Chinese Government blocking that could do so much good? The possibilities are limitless with an infinite internet.

This phenomenon of not knowing something vitally important is called the “Unknown Unknowns.” It is simply not knowing what you don’t know. This is a complicated subject, and paradoxical, but it is critically important. The Unknown Unknowns are is why the United States Government can be so easily harassed by a Chinese teenager with a laptop, and it is why HIV carriers in Africa keep having unprotected sex. Having your scope of information narrowed willfully or involuntarily means you cannot know anything beyond it. The United States focused militarily so long on nukes, submarines, and aircraft carriers no one paid attention to what a $400 (Thanks Costco) laptop can do. Development in Africa has been so destabilized and stalled time and time again information from the outside world has been halted, limiting the access to basic health information from within. If you didn’t know that a Starbucks had opened next door because you never went outside, you’d never go there for coffee. Saying you have to go outside, a focused and direct action, is even beyond necessary. Just look out the window and look. You might not be as intimately engaged as you would be, but you know it’s there at least. Now think about that militarily. If you were at war with Russia and it never got to you, do you think you would be able to protect yourself? Jesus, most of us can’t anticipate when cars in front of us change lanes; we are not intuitive enough to be able to foresee everything. We, at the very least, can expand our horizons (open the window) and look outside.

But why would we do that to ourselves? Well sometimes it’s just ignorance. We didn’t know the neighbor kid was a champion kick boxer so we got in his face at his birthday party. We had no idea you can get into a United States information database with a $400 (Thanks again Costco) laptop. We couldn’t prepare because we didn’t know. On the other hand, information is filtered more and more. As I’ve said on Nationsmith before, thinking you’re the only correct one in the world is dangerous, but how are you supposed to avoid it with Facebook, Google, etc. filtering your results for you? You do a search for Hitler once, and before you know it History Channel has already sent out a promotional mailer. Search Stalin and someone is convincing you to buy a Che Guevara T-Shirt in no time. They know you’ll buy into things you like, so they track what you like. Truly, the scope of the United States is so huge that it’d be tough to wrap in a blanket of complete ignorance from Google alone, but this filtering thing goes beyond into our own selves. The real danger of Google-style filtering means sources of lots of information get rejected. That newspaper page you never read might seem alright to toss automatically, but if you even glanced at it you would know something at least. Also, we don’t search because we think we know, so Google doesn’t even have to make us ignorant. All we need to do is think we know all we need, and you’re set. There has, especially with the rise of technology since the 1980’s, so much change but everyone at the top was sure we’d face down any threat we did nothing.

And that complacency should have stopped when 19 men got onto planes in the United States, hijacked the planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. The Pentagon was so sure the only threat to us was from the Soviet Union and missiles that they put no effort into understanding Al-Qaeda. But that changed, right? Try to get a bomb on a plane nowadays; you can barely take nail clippers. That’s progress right? There was a time, until December 7th 1941, that a foreign assault attack on United States’ territory was considered impossible. And then Pearl Harbor happened. It completely defied the conceptions of attacks. But that wasn’t the first time the United States had to defend itself from foreign aggression. The time before that was in 1812 against the British, or 1861 if you think the Confederacy was a foreign entity. Before that it was Native Americans working with the French in the mid-18th century attacking British settlers.

How is it that with so much evidence for unlimited and unrestricted warfare that we are caught out over and over again? Regression and complacency. It’s not what you haven’t thought about ever, it’s what you didn’t think about it. Stop anticipating something and pretty soon you’ll find that same thing is now going to affect you. Never look across the street and you’ll get hit by a car. Never look at your bar tab and you’ll get hit by a nasty bill. Then you’ll wander outside and get hit by a car because you never look across the street. Double whammy.

There is a way forward. Never stop discussing, never stop thinking and remembering. It’s dumb to say, but: for America, for your neighbors, for your family and for yourself think about the things you’ve never thought about. Read a book on something you know nothing about. All it takes is an idea and you have, at best, ushered in a new age of philosophy and line of thinking that will advance all aspects of civilization. At worse, you have The Clapper.