The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label Russia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Russia. Show all posts

Monday, December 12, 2022

The End of Europe: The Conclusion of a Long Historical Cycle.



The failure of the European Union may have started with the choice of the flag. Not that national flags are supposed to be works of art, but at least they can be inspiring. But this flag is flat, unoriginal, and depressing. It looks like a blue cheese pizza gone bad. And that's just one of the many things gone bad with the European Union. (attempts to make it more appealing failed utterly). It is the conclusion of a thousand-year cycle that's coming to an end. It was probably unavoidable, but that doesn't make it less painful. 


Europe has a long history that goes back to when the ice sheets retreated at the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago. At that time, our remote ancestors moved into a pristine land, cultivated it, built villages, roads, and cities. They traveled, migrated, fought each other, created cultures, built temples, fortresses, and palaces. On the Southern coast of Europe, a lively network of commercial exchanges emerged, made possible by maritime transportation over the Mediterranean Sea. Out of this network, the Greek civilization was born, and then the Roman Empire appeared around the end of the first millennium BCE. It included most of Western Europe. (image from ESA)


As all empires do, the Roman Empire went through its cycle of glory and decline. In the 5th century AD, as Europe entered the Middle Ages, the Empire had disappeared except as a memory of past greatness. In the following centuries, the population of Western Europe declined to a historical minimum, maybe less than 20 million people. Europe became a land of thick forests, portentous ruins, small villages, and petty warlords fighting each other. No one could have imagined that, centuries later, Europeans would become the dominators of the world.

Sometimes, collapses bring with them the seed of recovery. It is what I called the "Seneca Rebound." For some reason, we moderns disparage the Middle Ages, calling the era the "Dark Ages." But there was nothing dark during the European Middle Ages. Europe was poor in material terms, but Europeans managed to create a culture of refined literature, splendid cathedrals, sophisticated music, advanced technologies, and much more. One reason for the prospering of the European culture was the presence of tools that other regions of the world lacked. One was the Latin language, used to keep alive the ancient Classical Culture and its achievements. It also helped trade and created strong cultural bonds all over the continent. Europeans also inherited the bulk of Roman law and culture, and Roman technologies in fields such as metallurgy and weapon making.  

With Europe recovering from the 5th-century collapse, new precious metal mines in Eastern Europe started pumping wealth into the continent. The result was explosive. Already in 800 AD, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, could assemble an army powerful enough to create a new Europe-wide Empire, the "Sacred Roman Empire." With the turn of the millennium, the European population was rapidly growing, and it needed space to expand. Europe was a coiled spring, ready to snap. In 1095, a burst of armies emerged out of Europe, crashing into the Near East. It was the time of the Crusades. 

Initially, the invasion of the Middle East was a spectacular success: the Christian armies defeated the local rulers, established new kingdoms, and recreated a direct commercial connection with East Asia, along the Silk Road. But the task was too huge for a still young Europe. After two centuries of struggle, the European armies were forced to abandon the Holy Land, defeated and in disarray. At this point, Europe faced again the problem it had tried to solve with the Crusades: overpopulation. The problem solved itself by means of a quick population collapse, first with the great famine (1315–1317), then the black plague. The Europe of the 13th century was so weakened that it seriously risked being overcome by the Mongol armies coming from Asia. Fortunately for the Europeans, the Mongols couldn't sustain a full-scale attack so far from the center of their Empire.    


A schematic view of the European population during about one millennium. Note the two collapses: both have the typical "Seneca-Shape," that is, decline is faster than growth. The first collapse was caused by famine and by the black plague, the second by the 30-year war, and the associated plagues and famines. 

Despite the ravages of the Black Plague, Europe re-emerged with its culture, social structure, and technological knowledge still intact. Europe didn't just recover, but it rebounded in a spectacular way. Shipbuilding technologies were improved, allowing Europeans to sail across the oceans. During their internecine quarrels, the Europeans had also turned firearms into terribly effective weapons. During the 16th and 17th centuries, they rebuffed the attempts of the Ottoman Empire to expand into Europe. The Ottomans were dealt a crushing blow on the sea at Lepanto, in 1571. Then, they were decisively defeated on land at the siege of Vienna, in 1683. With their Eastern Borders now safe, Europeans had a free hand to expand overseas. 

The 16th century saw the birth of a pattern that would persist for several centuries. European armies would invade foreign kingdoms, crush all military resistance, and replace the native leaders with European ones. Sometimes they used the local inhabitants as slaves, sometimes they wiped them out and replaced them with European colonists. The new lands were an incredible source of wealth. Europe imported precious metals, timber, spice, and even food in the form of sugar produced from sugarcane. The inflow of gold and silver from overseas stimulated the European economy, and timber allowed Europeans to build more ships. And the imports of food allowed the European population to grow and to field new armies that could conquer new lands that produced even more food.  

Nevertheless, Europe's expansion started to slow down in the 17th century. The 30 years' war, 1618 to 1648, was a terrible disaster that may have exterminated 10% of the European population. Then, as usual with wars, another outburst of plague followed. Europe seemed to have reached a new limit to its expansion. Sugar coming from overseas colonies was not enough, by itself, to sustain the need for materials to keep and further expand the European empire. Wood was needed to produce ships and, at the same time, to be turned into the charcoal needed to smelt metals. But trees were depleted in Europe and importing timber from overseas was expensive. Most of the Southern European countries saw their forests decline and their growth stall.

(image from Foquet and Bradberry). (France is not shown in the figure, but it shows a pattern similar to that of England). 

Despite the troubles, the Northern European economies, (especially England) rapidly restarted to grow after the 17th-century crisis. The trick was a new technological development: coal. Coal had already been used as a fuel in Roman times, but nobody in history had used it on such a large scale. With coal, Europeans didn't need anymore to destroy their forests to make iron. That was the start of a new, successful rebound. By the early 20th century, Europe dominated the whole world, directly or indirectly.  

Europe's population according to Zinkina et al. (2017). The two drops of the 14th and the 17th century are clearly visible, although less dramatic on this scale than in the earlier work of Langer

As typical of empires, with the conquests completed, there came a time of consolidation. No more risky adventures of individual states, but a central government to manage the empire and keep it together. For the ancient Romans, it had been the task of Julius Caesar to create a strong, centralized state. For modern Europe, it was a much more difficult story: how to tame a group of quarrelsome states that seemed to spend most of their time fighting each other? 

The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles 5th (1500-1558), was among the first to try, without success. His successor, Philip 2nd of Spain (1527- 1598), tried to subdue Britain with his "invincible armada" in 1588, but he failed, too. The decline of Spain left space for other European powers to try again. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 -1821) almost succeeded, but his imperial dreams sank at Trafalgar and then froze to death in the Russian plains. Then, it was the turn of Germany. The attempt started in 1914, and again in 1939. In both cases, it was a tragic failure. Even the weak Italy had imperial dreams. In the 1940s, Benito Mussolini attempted to recreate a new version of the ancient Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Sea. Utter failure, again. 

Over and over, the would-be European Imperial powers found themselves facing an impossible challenge. In the West, Britain had no interest in seeing a European Empire arising just on the other side of the Channel. The same was true for the East, with Russia not keen to see a major power near its borders. The result was that the European armies often found themselves fighting on two sides at the same time. Then, the Mediterranean Sea was in the iron grip of the British Navy -- no way for continental powers to expand South. With the end of WW2, Europe emerged out of the struggle destroyed, impoverished, and humiliated. 

The latest (and perhaps the last) attempt to unify Europe was the European Union. The creators of the Union understood that it was impossible to unify Europe by military means, so they tried to do it in the form of an economic free zone and an elected parliament. It was a bold attempt, but it didn't work. It could not have worked. The Union faced enormous hostile forces, both internal and external. Britain and France were supposed to be balancing the German power, but when Britain left, in 2020, the Union suffered an economic defeat equivalent to the military one suffered by Germany in the Battle of Britain, in 1940. In both cases, they had tried to absorb Britain into the economic system of continental Europe, and they had failed.

The defection of Britain left the European Union with Germany dominating it. Just like during WW2, the German government never understood that throwing its weight around was not the way to endear itself with the neighboring states. The result was the growth of anti-European forces all over the continent. It was the movement called "sovereignty" that aimed to restore the power of nation-states and get rid of the EU bureaucrats. So far, this movement has played only a marginal role in politics, but it has succeeded in making the EU deeply hated by everyone who is not getting their salaries from Brussels. 

Just as it had happened in 1941, Europe is now engaged in a desperate battle on two different fronts, but the struggle is now mainly economic and cultural, not military: it is a "full spectrum dominance" war. The struggle is still ongoing, but it seems already clear that Europe is being defeated. Just like Germany had destroyed itself with a military attack on Russia in 1941, the European Union is destroying itself with its economic sanctions against Russia. Effectively, Europe is committing a slow and painful suicide. But that's how full spectrum dominance works: it destroys enemies from the inside. 

And now? It was unavoidable that Europe would cease to be an Empire. The human and material resources that had made European dominance possible are not there any longer. But it was not unavoidable that Europe would destroy itself. Europe could have survived and maintained its independence by remaining on good terms with the other Eurasiatic powers, China, Russia, and India, But, choosing to break the commercial, cultural, and human relations with the rest of Eurasia was not just an economic suicide. It was a cultural and moral suicide. 

So, what's going to happen to poor Europe? History, as usual, rhymes: do not forget that in 1945 the official US plan was to destroy the German economy and exterminate most of the German population. Fortunately, the plan was shelved, but could that idea become fashionable again? We cannot exclude this possibility. In any case, an impoverished Europe could go back to something not unlike what it was during the early Middle Ages: depopulated, poor, primitive, a mere appendage of the great Eurasian Continent. 

And, yet, Europe has rebounded more than once from terrible disasters. It may happen again. Not soon, though.


As inspiring as a blue cheese pizza gone bad


Sunday, December 4, 2022

What is the Next Thing that Will hit us? Brace for it, Because it may be Huge

 

Despite having ancient seers (the "haruspices") as ancestors, I don't claim to be able to predict the future. But I think I can propose scenarios for the future. So, what could be the next big thing that will hit us? I suggest it will be the disruption of the oil market caused by the recent measure of a price cap on  Russian oil.


Do you remember how many things changed during the past 2-3 years, and changed so unbelievably fast? There was a pattern in these changes: one element was that we were told they were just temporary, another was that they were done for our sake. We were told that we needed "Two weeks to flatten the curve," and that "the sanctions will cause the Russian economy to collapse in two weeks," and many more things. Then, our problems will be solved and the world will return to normal. But that didn't happen. Instead, the result was a "new normal," not at all like the old one. 

Now, the obvious question is "what next?" More exactly, "what are they going to hit us with, next time?" There is this idea that there may be a new pandemic, a new virus, or the old one returning. But, no. They are smarter than that -- so far they have always been one step, maybe two, ahead of us. They are masters of propaganda, they know that propaganda is all based on memes and that memes have a finite lifetime. Old memes are like old newspapers, they are not interesting anymore. A particular bugaboo can't scare people for too long, and the idea of scaring us with a pandemic virus is past its usefulness stage. They may have probed us with the "monkeypox" pandemic, and they saw that it didn't work. It was obvious anyway. So, now what?

Let me suggest one possible new way to hit us. You may have heard of it but, so far, it was supposed to be something marginal, not designed to create another "new normal." But it may. It is huge, it is gigantic, it is arriving. It is the price cap on Russian oil. The idea is that a cartel of countries, mainly Western ones, will agree on prohibiting the import of Russian oil unless it is priced at less than $60 per barrel. It will also make it more difficult for Russia to export oil abroad, even to countries that do not subscribe to the agreement. 

This idea is, as usual, promoted as a way to help us. Not only it will harm the evil Putin, but it will reduce oil prices, so everyone in the West should be happy. But will it actually work? Unlikely, to say the least, and it is probable that the promoters know that very well. 

Think about that: it never happened during the past hundred years that a cartel of countries had intervened to force a certain oil price worldwide. Even during the "Oil Crisis" of the 1970s, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) never did what it is often accused of having done, fixing a high oil price. OPEC can only set production quotas or sanction certain countries, but it has no power, and never had power, on prices, which are set by the international market. 

When governments meddle with prices, the results are always bad. Typically, prices of goods are set too low, and that has two effects: the rising of a black market and the disappearance of the goods from the official market. It was a typical feature of the Soviet economy, where prices were often set at low levels to give the impression that certain goods were affordable to everyone. But it wasn't so: theoretically, most Soviet citizens could afford caviar sold at government-established prices. In practice, this caviar almost never existed in shops. But, of course, it was possible to find it in the black market if one could pay exorbitant prices for it.

Today, intervening to set a price for Russian oil is equivalent to throwing a wrench into the gears of a huge machine. Nobody knows exactly how the global oil market is going to react. The only sure thing is that the Russians are refusing to sell their oil to countries subscribing to the agreement. The overall result of having removed a major producer from the market can only be one: increasing oil prices. Exactly the opposite of what the price cap is supposed to do. But this is the very minimum that can happen: the effects of the cap are unpredictable on a market that's already unstable and subject to wild price oscillations. Europe might lose access to oil completely, and go dark. Famines have been a staple event in European history, they could come again. Things like that -- not small changes, huge changes. 

Why did the Western countries engage in this apparently counterproductive idea? Well, there may be some method in this madness. I can think of a few possible explanations: 

1. Western Governments are in the hands of idiots who act according to the principle known as "I ran naked into a cactus. Why? Because it looked like a good idea." They put into practice ideas that look good ("harming Putin"), without worrying about the consequences (destroying the European economy). 

2. The price cap has the specific purpose of raising oil prices. It will force consumer countries to switch from the relatively cheap Russian oil to the more expensive American oil, which will become even more expensive in a near-monopoly regime. This will bring huge profits to American producers. Don't forget that the American elites are convinced that the US oil resources are infinite, or nearly so. 

3. The price cap is thought of as a way to save the US tight oil industry. So far, tight oil has been almost a miracle, bringing back the US to a position of dominance among oil producers. But it is now facing difficulties with oil prices declining in the world market. With higher oil prices, Europe will finance a new round of tight oil extraction in the US, while the profits will remain in the US. It sounds diabolical, and maybe it is. Let me add that there may be a reason why the tight oil industry was recently declared "dead" in the mainstream media. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but this article on "Oilprice.com" may have had the purpose of scaring the US producers and making them accept the risky measure of forbidding Russian oil from entering the Western market. 

4. There may exist a "hidden force," somewhere, that's acting with a plan at the global level. The plan involves a forced reduction of fossil fuel production and consumption to mitigate the damage generated by global warming or, perhaps more likely, to leave energy for the elites while taking it away from commoners. The recent events, the Covid crisis, and the Russian crisis, both have the effect of impoverishing some of the major consumers of fossil fuels, Western middle-class citizens, and so reducing overall consumption. The price cap on Russian oil may be just the first step of a new plan that will force Westerners to abandon for good their addiction to fossil fuels, whether they like it or not. This may not be a bad idea for several reason, but it is a kind of global medicine equivalent to lobotomy or radical mastectomy for single humans. Let's say, a bit heavy-handed. 

It may be that all four of these factors are at work. In any case, it is a powerful convergence of interests that is materializing, likely to be successful in pushing the cap on Russian oil to worldwide acceptance. Considering how easily European citizens have been led to believe the most absurd things during the past two years, it is unlikely that they will understand what's being done to them (and let me not use the appropriate words for the concept). Not that the American citizens will fare much better: the huge transfer of wealth from Europe to the US will go all into the pockets of the American oligarchs. As for the European governments, they are the structures that should oppose this giant wealth transfer, but they are staffed by traitors, idiots, or both; so they will enthusiastically adhere to the idea. 

Is this what the crystal ball shows? Not necessarily. Let's just say that there are reasons to think that what I just described is a likely scenario. Then, the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley. There is a limit to how hard you can push something before it goes to pieces or bites you back. Will European citizens continue forever to be happy to be economically raped by the US? The future is always full of surprises, but the crystal ball always shows the same thing: the world goes where the money is. 


 

Friday, November 4, 2022

Ukraine: The Battle for Flat Mountain

 

Monte Piana ("Flat Mountain") in the Italian Alps. A bloody and protracted battle was fought there during WWI between the forces of Italy and of Austria-Hungary. One more example of how often history rhymes. This ancient battle may tell us something about the current situation in Ukraine


Monte Piana in Northern Italy is a place that deserves to be seen, It is a strange mountain with a flat plateau at the top, located in the middle of the rugged Dolomite Mountains. An eerie place that still maintains relics of the bloody battles that were fought there between 1915 and 1917. 

There is a dirt road that takes you to the top, at over 2200 meters in height. There, you can walk along the gentle slope of the plateau, an area of less than one square km. It is difficult to imagine how so many people could have fought and died for that chunk of land. And yet, it happened. The number of casualties is unknown, but it is estimated as between 10,000 and 20,000, some say many more. If the ghosts of all the dead were to congregate together on the plateau, they would form a crowd of the density that you may see in a city park on a warm Sunday. Maybe they do that on moonless nights. 

On the plateau, there is very little left of the great battles of more than a century ago. You can see shallow depressions on the ground that, probably, mark the hits of artillery shells. There are traces of old trenches and fortifications, wood splinters that, probably, were part of barracks or fences. It takes a certain degree of imagination to picture in your mind how life must have been for those men who found themselves stranded there, surrounded by spectacular mountains. A scenario of incredible beauty. The kind of beauty that kills. 


The story of the battles of Monte Piana is simple: it was an open-air slaughterhouse. The Austrians occupied the North Side, the small plateau, while the Italians occupied the Southern side, the larger one, The two plateaus were separated by a natural trench that marked the boundary of the two sides during most of the war. The Italians would resupply their forces, and bring back the wounded and the dead, using a road that they built expressly for that purpose (it still exists). The Austrians would do the same on the other side, using a precarious cable car that arrived at the top.   

The problem for both sides was that they were in the range of the artillery pieces placed on nearby mountains. Howitzer shells continuously battered the area and that forced both armies to build tunnels in the sides of the mountain, where they would be reasonably safe. But some soldiers had to man the trenches on the plateau, and that meant crouching down all the time, trying to make themselves as small as possible, hoping that the next shell would kill someone else. They could do little more than wait until their unit, reduced to a small fraction of its initial strength, was replaced with a fresh one. 

On that miniature battlefield, the Italians were more aggressive than the Austrians and, every once in a while, the survivors of the artillery barrage were told to run toward the enemy with their bayonets. A run toward death: every time, they were mowed down by the Austrian machine guns; one of the slits from where they fired was still there when I visited the plateau, a few years ago. Sometimes, the Italians would be able to gain a foothold in the Northern Plateau. They were always repulsed by an Austrian counterattack. 

What's most impressive about this story is how futile it all was. Even assuming that one of the two sides could have conquered the whole plateau (and both did for short periods during the early months of the war), they could not have kept it, and in any case, it would have been useless. Anything placed there in the open would have been blown up to smithereens by the howitzers placed on higher ground around. So, why engage in that absurd battle? Why, instead, not use the troops to fight somewhere where there was a chance to break through the enemy lines? But I can imagine the headquarters of both sides: could someone propose to retreat and leave the plateau to the enemy? Unthinkable: it is a question of National honor. 

And so, the slaughter went on for about 2 years. Then, in late 1917, the Austrians broke through the Italian lines at Kobarid (a city that the Italians call "Caporetto") and nearly succeeded in knocking Italy out of the war. The retreating Italian army abandoned Monte Piana and the Austrians occupied it without fighting. About one year later, the starved and demoralized soldiers of the Austrian Empire marched back North. It was now the turn of the Italians to occupy the Monte Piana plateau without fighting. The whole story was futile as it could possibly have been.

I searched the Web for contemporary images of the battle for Monte Piana, but I couldn't find any. In the Italian press, you find almost nothing about the events on the plateau, except for occasional reports of the heroic death of someone there. It seems that two years of useless slaughter went unrecorded and nearly unknown. Not too surprising, since there was nothing to report except about failed attacks to conquer positions that were not worth conquering anyway. So, in terms of the futility of battles, you may take a look at this clip from "Return to Cold Mountain," which shows a scene that may have been similar to the battle for Monte Piana: a massed bayonet attack against a well-defended higher position. Beautiful music, stunning scenery, it may give us some idea of what the futile attacks against the trenches of Monte Piana were.


And now, let's see if this sad story can teach us something about current events. Compare the absurd battle of Monte Piana with the current one, just as absurd, in Ukraine. In both cases, we have a flat area where the fight is dominated by long-range weapons. It was artillery on Monte Piana, it is still artillery nowadays, although more precise, and more long-range, with drones dominating the battlefield. So, the battle has taken very much the aspect of what was World War I. Trenches, soldiers standing there while battered by the enemy artillery, little or no chance to maneuver using tanks or other mobile weapons. The times of Guderian's panzergruppen of WWII seem to be gone, perhaps forever. Recently, the Ukrainians have gained some territory by massing troops on specific objectives along the battle line, but it seems to have cost them dearly. In a certain way, the Ukrainians are behaving like the Italians at Monte Piana, attacking, while the Russians are playing the role of the Austro-Hungarians, defending and counterattacking. 

Of course, history never repeats itself, but there is some rhyming, here. If things go nowadays as they went during WWI, the battle in Ukraine will be completely futile, a useless slaughter of young men on both sides. The war will be decided somewhere else. It will end when one of the two sides, NATO or Russia, collapses economically, just like it happened in WWI -- where the economic collapse of the Central Empires eventually gave the victory to the allies. 

And now? Who will collapse first? Time will tell, but the useless slaughter continues. And history continues to rhyme, as it always does. 

 This post is a condensed version of a section of the book that I published in 2018, titled "La Linea d'Ombra della Memoria" (The Shadow Line of Memory) -- in Italian. It tells the story of a forgotten hero of WWI, but it is a wide-ranging discussion of the history of the "Great War."  


Monday, October 10, 2022

Mind Control as a Strategic Weapon. How to Destroy Your Enemies from Within

 

The "Zombie Fungus" Cordyceps kills an ant after having taken control of its neural system. Could something like that happen in human societies? That is, is it possible to destroy a country by taking control of its leader? This idea has obvious implications for the current war in Ukraine. 


We all know that history never exactly repeats itself, but it rhymes. One of these rhymes has to do with leaders who do enormous damage to the countries they lead. Let me show you a few examples from the past two centuries or so, then we'll discuss the implications for the current situation. 

1. 1859 - Louis Napoleon and the Italian Campaign. In 1852, Louis Napoleon (1808-1873) became the new French emperor. His first major military campaign was the Crimean war: it was a victory, but also a major blunder. France had no reason to help Britain to put down the Russians, but that was the practical result of the war. In 1859, Louis Napoleon made a much worse mistake by joining Piedmont in a war against Austria. The campaign was successful but costly, and it led to the creation of a new state, Italy, that would forever block the French attempts to expand in the Mediterranean Sea, along the African coast. In addition, in 1870, Italy made an about-face and joined Prussia in a war against France. The French were badly defeated, and France ceased forever to be a major world power. Louis Napoleon ended his life in exile in England. 

2. 1935 - Benito Mussolini and the Italian Empire. In the 1930s, Italy was a growing regional power with good chances of becoming a major player in the Mediterranean Region, possibly even replacing the dominance of the British Empire. However, in 1935, the Mussolini government made an incredible strategic mistake by engaging the country in a major campaign in East Africa to conquer Ethiopia. The campaign was successful, but Italy had made a big favor to Britain by having to keep a consistent fraction of its military forces in a region where they could not be resupplied from the mother country. Then, it gave the British an excuse to wreck the Italian economy by imposing sanctions and a ban on coal exports to Italy. The final result was that Italy arrived at the start of WWII weak and unprepared. The British easily destroyed the Italian contingent in Ethiopia and, from then on, Mussolini couldn't have done better if his purpose was to lead Italy to a humiliating defeat, for instance attacking Greece in 1940 without sufficient forces. Italy was defeated, and Mussolini ended his career hanged upside-down in 1945. 

3. 1941, Adolf Hitler and Operation Barbarossa. In 1940, Germany was at the top of its military power. Only Britain had successfully resisted the German attacks, but it was evident that if Germany were to direct the whole industrial and military might of Europe against the British, only a miracle could have saved Britain from being invaded and defeated. Astonishingly, such a miracle occurred in 1941. The Germans nearly completely abandoned their aerial campaign against Britain and attacked the Soviet Union instead, leaving Britain able to recover and regroup. The German decision truly made no sense if we consider that the Germans were risking everything to obtain something they already had: the oil and food resources of the Soviet Union that were abundantly supplied under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. The result of the campaign was the defeat and the eventual destruction of Germany, while Hitler committed suicide in 1945. 

4. 1978 -- Leonid Brezhnev and the Afghan campaignIn the 1970s, the Soviet Union was still a major power in Eurasia, although its growth had been slowing down. Leonid Brezhnev (1906 – 1982) became secretary of the Communist party in 1964 and, in 1978, he ordered a military intervention in Afghanistan to keep the country within the Soviet sphere of influence. The war dragged on for 10 years and it was one of the factors (although not the only one) that led to the collapse and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

5. 1990 - Saddam Hussein and the invasion of Kuwait.  In 1990, Iraq was a growing power in the Middle East region, owing to its abundant oil production. In 1980, the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, engaged in a dangerous gamble by attacking Iran. After 8 years of harsh conflict, the war ended basically in a draw, although the Iraqi claimed victory. In the late 1980s, Iraq entered a dispute in which it accused Kuwait of using horizontal drilling technologies to steal oil from Iraq's fields. The dispute escalated until, in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, conquering it completely in a few days. The reaction of the Western Powers was "Operation Desert Storm." In 1991 the retreating Iraqi forces were incinerated by a bombing campaign while the US continued bombing Iraq up to 2003, when the whole country was invaded. Saddam Hussein was then hanged by the Iraqi themselves.  

So, let's summarize. We have five cases where we see this sequence of events (there are more examples, but not so evident (*)): 

  1. A regional power, led by a strong leader, starts showing ambitions of becoming an important player in the global domination game. 
  2. The leader engages the country in an attack on a neighboring country, smaller and less powerful. 
  3. The attack looked like a cakewalk, but it turns into a quagmire. It may be successful or not, but it considerably weakens the attacker. 
  4. The Great Powers intervene. The regional power is defeated and destroyed, and its disgraced leader is executed or removed in other ways. 

It is impressive how, in this pattern, history doesn't just rhyme. It truly repeats itself, as if the leaders involved were actors following a script. How can that be? I can offer you two explanations

1 -- The pattern is the unavoidable result of the personality of strong leaders. They are, typically, criminal psychopaths with no moral restraints who tend to be reckless in whatever they do. In addition, they tend to be surrounded by sycophants and adulators. At this point, their brain loses contact with reality, and, eventually, they will make a major mistake that leads them to their doom (and, with them, large numbers of innocent people). 

2-- There exists a standard procedure that can be used to take control of leaders' minds. Considering how standard propaganda can take control of ordinary people's minds, it shouldn't be surprising that the same trick can be played with leaders. Actually, leaders' minds could be much easier to sway and influence, since leaders tend to live in isolated bubbles where the information they receive is carefully filtered by their staff. Take control of some influential members of the leader's staff (e.g. by corrupting them) and the job is done. We call this method "psychological operation" or "psyop"

Personally, I tend to favor the first hypothesis. When a single leader dominates a group, internal dynamic factors tend to appear, leading the members of the group to try to gain the attention of the boss by proposing over-optimistic plans. Those who recommend caution risk being silenced or ignored and, in any case, the optimists risk much less than the boss himself. 

We see this groupthink mechanism very well in the minutes of the reunions of the Italian high command when the attack on Greece was decided, in 1941. At that time, Mussolini was already gone on the other side of criticism and was no more in contact with the real world. So, he was easily influenced by his military staff. One of the most vocal proponents of the attack was general Sebastiano Visconti Prasca (1883 -1961), who repeatedly played down the military risks of the attack and managed to be named commander-in-chief of the operation. The only penalty he suffered was to be relieved of his command after the first attacks failed, then he lived to tell the story and died in his bed. 

Another similar case was that of Leonid Brezhnev's decision to invade Afghanistan. It is said that Brezhnev's health had been deteriorating and that, although not very old (he was 70 in 1976) he was not able anymore to take rational decisions. That may have generated a case of groupthink, where the decision may have been the result of the action of a member of the Politburo, the hardline Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov

But there are cases in which we have evidence of the active intervention of a foreign power to influence a country leader. The classic case is that of Louis Napoleon in France: the first documented case of such an intervention. The Piedmontese Government had sent to France the Countess of Castiglione, Virginia Oldoini, with the specific task of seducing Louis Napoleon and convincing him to help Piedmont to fight Austria. We cannot say how important was the action of the Countess, but we can't rule out that she changed the course of history. It would not be the first time: the "honey trap" strategy is very old. Do you remember the Biblical story of Judith and Holophernes? It is that old.

Perhaps the most fascinating case of influencing a foreign leader's mind using the honey trap is that of Adolf Hitler, who threw away a nearly certain victory for an uncertain gamble. It may be related to the story of Unity Mitford (1914-1948), a British woman who traveled to Germany in 1934 with the objective of seducing Hitler. She was, most likely, a British agent, but she was successful, probably the only non-German person who became Hitler's intimate friend. She may have influenced Hitler with the concept that the Britons were, after all, "Aryans," just like the Germans. So, the F├╝hrer may have been unsure about the idea of unleashing the full German military might on them, preferring instead to turn Germany on those people he considered an inferior race: the Slavic Untermenschen. Mitford is reported to have shot herself in the head in 1939. She survived, but she was crippled and had to leave Germany, never to return. That was two years before Hitler's fatal decision, but her influence on him may have persisted up to that time. 

Finally, in the case of Saddam Hussein, we have no evidence of a honey trap being used, but it may well be that he was the objective of another one-man psyop. The US had helped Iraq in the war against Iran, and Hussein saw himself as an ally of the United States. So, he may have been led to believe that the US would continue to support him against Kuwait. He may have been deliberately misled by the US ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie.

It may well be that both explanations are valid in various degrees in different cases. Some forms of psychological pressure, psyops, work so well because great leaders are especially sensitive to simple human emotions, including stroking their overinflated ego or showing off their manhood. In any case, one thing is certain: Giving all the power to a single man is the greatest mistake a country can make. 

Of course, these considerations tell us a lot about the current world situation. There are two cases in progress that seem to be rhyming a lot with those discussed so far: Taiwan and Ukraine. About Taiwan, the recent visit to the island by the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, may have been a not-so-subtle ruse to push the Chinese to attack. But the Chinese didn't take the bait, at least so far. 

About Ukraine, we have all the elements of the classic pattern of a strong leader who engages a regional power in the invasion of a neighboring country. Initially, it looked like a cakewalk, but it turned out to be a quagmire. The war in Ukraine is still ongoing, and we cannot know if it was the result of a miscalculation generated by groupthink in the Russian government, or if it originates from a one-man psyop directed at the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. Or maybe both factors, or perhaps something else. It will take time before we'll be able to evaluate this burst of madness, but history is never in a hurry. In any case, the damage done is already enormous, and we can only hope that history will not rhyme in the same way as it did in previous cases. Otherwise, we face a terribly dark future. 


(*) Other cases. There are several cases of leaders behaving recklessly or stupidly, although following somewhat different patterns. One is that of the influence of the Crown Princess of Norway, Marta, on President Roosevelt during WWII which may have influenced the US policy (h/t Ollie Hollertz). Then, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was surely reckless, but it is also true that it made some sense in strategic terms since it allowed the Japanese navy to move freely in South-Eastern Asia for a while. The USA, in turn, may have fallen in traps with Vietnam and Afghanistan, but in neither case, the resulting quagmire caused the collapse of the attackers. Then, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, handled the Soviet Union to the Western Powers in 1991 in exchange for empty promises. Consider the case of Slobodan Milosevich, the president of Serbia, who, in 1998, was dumb enough to think that Serbia could stand alone against the combined forces of the Western Powers. It couldn't. 

Note added after publication. One day after I published this post, the Business Insider came out with an article proposing a thesis very similar to mine. https://www.businessinsider.com/putin-making-strategic-errors-because-no-one-challenges-gchq-2022-10 -- maybe at the UK secret services, they read my blog!

Saturday, October 1, 2022

Europe: How to Become Poor Peasants Again

 


"Les Glaneuses"  (the gleaners). A painting by Francois Millet (1857). Is this the destiny of the people of Western Europe?


All wars are wars for resources and, in modern times, they have been mostly for the resources that make the very existence of our civilization possible: fossil fuels. We all know how during WWII the attempt of the Germans to subdue the Soviet Union failed when they could not take control of the oil resources of the Caucasus. More recently, after President Carter declared that the oil resources of the Middle East are a "vital interest" for the United States (the "Carter Doctrine"), no one was surprised by the numerous wars and bombing campaigns waged by the US in the region. 

Sometimes, though, the role of fossil fuels in wars is more subtle than just someone trying to steal someone else's resources. Wars may not be a question of scarcity but of abundance. That may be the case of the war in Ukraine that we can interpret as a direct result of the impact of "fracking" in the United States. During the past 10 years or so, the development of fracking led to a reversal of the static or declining production trend of fossil fuels that had been ongoing in the US for about 40 years. 


The result was that American producers could reappear in the global market as exporters of both oil and gas. A potentially lucrative area where to expand was Western Europe. The problem was that the European market was in the hands of Russian producers, who had established a network of pipelines that could export natural gas at low prices to Europe. "Liquefied natural gas" (LNG) from the US just could not be competitive with pipeline gas because of the costs of liquefaction, transport, and regasification. 

In the manuals of economics it is said that, in a free market, the cheaper product always wins against the more expensive one. In the real world, though, markets are far from being free. As any mafia boss can tell you, the cocaine market is not just a question of prices: you have to defend your turf. And not just that: sometimes, you can expand the area you control by friendly (or not-so-friendly) interactions with neighboring competitors. That's sometimes called "arm-twisting," but it may involve much more drastic and painful methods than just dislocating a shoulder. Similar considerations hold for fossil fuels, a market in which states normally behave exactly like mafia families. 

During the past few months, we saw a case of a not-so-friendly interaction aimed at expelling Russia from the natural gas market in Europe. The war in Ukraine is mostly a sideshow: the real thing is the market of natural gas, and the critical point was the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline. Whoever did it, sent a clear message to everybody, not unlike placing the severed head of a horse in someone's bed: the European gas market is now the turf of another mafia family. 

That does not mean that Russian exports of gas to Europe will immediately cease. Completely replacing the Russian gas would require increasing the exports from the US to Europe by about a factor of 10. Maybe not impossible, and other gas-supplying countries may step in to help. But it is not something that can be done in a short time. You can see the situation in the graphs, below. The EU states import some 150 billion m3 of gas from Russia and only about 15 from the US. The US has a total export of more than 100 billion m3, but most of it goes to Canada and Mexico via pipelines. 




(images courtesy of Giuseppina Ranalli)

Hopefully, Russia will not stop sending gas to Europe using the existing pipelines. Then, a strong push toward renewable energy may help Europeans a lot. But the market is likely to behave exactly the way they say it should in the textbooks: a situation of scarcity leads to higher prices. In other words, with Europe desperate to get enough gas, producers are going to have a great time. Don't expect them to be kind to the poor Europeans: why should they be? Mafias are not supposed to be charitable institutions. 

So, in the coming years, we are looking at a situation of both scarcity and high prices of gas in Europe. That will have consequences. Many European citizens, especially the poor, will have to stay in the dark and in the cold this winter, and for several winters in the future. And there will be no European leader who will declare that the European lifestyle is "not up for negotiations," as President Bush 1st said about the American lifestyle. Can you imagine Ms. von der Leyen, the never-elected president of the never-elected European Commission, saying something like that? So, the lifestyle of European citizens is going to go down the drain, and perhaps it was unavoidable that it would, one day or another. But the real question is: will the European industrial system survive the high prices of energy? 

That's not obvious at all, and the Americans may soon discover that they killed the hen whose eggs they wanted. With energy prices five to ten times higher than before, European products may not be competitive any longer in the global market. That implies the collapse of the European industrial system and the return of the continent to the agricultural economy of a couple of centuries ago. It would be a return of the old "Morgenthau Plan" that aimed at doing exactly that to Germany after that WWII was over: destroying Germany's industrial economy and starving to death a large fraction of the German population. If something similar were to happen in Europe nowadays, that would also imply a certain reduction in the European population but, hey, I already noted how mafias are not supposed to be charitable organizations! And, as Ms. Victoria Nuland clearly explained to us not long ago, who cares about Europeans? They were peasants, once, so let those who survive return to tilling fields. 



Below, an article that I recently published in the Italian newspaper "Il Fatto Quotidiano" 


From the "Fatto Quotidiano" of 29 September 2022 (slightly modified)

by Ugo Bardi

The convulsive events on the global geopolitical scene continue to take us by surprise. What is behind the destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline? We can't say who did it, but one thing is certain: the conflict we are seeing is a war for resources much more than it is a warring war. To understand what is happening, we need to go back in time to find the roots of the current situation. 

In the book "Sea and Sardinia" (1921), DH Lawrence tells us how a favorite subject in the conversations among Italians was insulting the English. It was because English coal had become expensive, something that the Italians attributed to the wickedness of the English. The term "Perfidious Albion" had been invented a long time before but was beginning to become fashionable at that time. 

The history of English coal in Italy illustrates the factors still at play in the functioning of the Italian economy today. Italian industry needs energy, but there are not enough fossil energy resources in Italy to support a functioning industrial system. Thus, the industrial revolution arrived in Italy in the 19th century brought by English coal, imported by sea. But, with the end of the First World War, British coal had suddenly become much more expensive than before. It wasn't because the British were perfidious (maybe a little, but no worse than many others), it was because of depletion. As the British economist William Jevons predicted decades earlier, the costs of coal mining were rising and investments falling. As a consequence, the British coal production reached its peak in 1914, and then it began an irreversible decline. In the 1930s, coal shortages forced Italy into a deadly embrace with Germany - which could still produce it at low prices. We all know the results. 

Having emerged half-destroyed from the Second World War, the Italian industry was able to rebuild itself thanks to the US oil provided by the Marshall Plan. Even for oil, however, depletion had to be felt sooner or later. In 1970, the United States reached its production peak. The first major "oil crisis" followed, but the global market could offset the decline with other sources. Meanwhile, natural gas was rapidly becoming a low-cost alternative to oil. Gradually, Europe turned to import gas from Russia via pipelines. With this relatively low-cost gas, the Italian industrial system could survive.

In the last 10 years, however, things have changed dramatically. With the technology of "fracking", the United States has managed to reverse the decline in its production of both gas and oil. As a result, they have re-entered the world market as exporters. This explains many things: the oil and gas market is strategic in the great game of world domination and, in this game, there are no rules. Pushing Russia out of the Western European market makes it possible for the American industry to take back a market they had long lost. That's what's happening. The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline is a signal that Europe will have to live without Russian gas, one day or another. 

And now? In this global strategy game, everything is always changing. It is true that imports from the United States are now able to replace Russian gas in Europe, at least in part. But it is also true that importing natural gas from the US is only possible in the form of liquid natural gas and this involves high costs, as well as a heavy contribution to global warming due to the inevitable losses in the process. To this, we should add a fundamental unknown: how long will the United States be able to maintain its production at the levels needed to supply Europe? 

Fracking has been seen as a miracle technology, but it isn't. As always, forecasts are difficult, but we can be sure of one thing: no mineral resource is infinite and sooner or later we will face the peak of fracking gas. And it all starts all over again with the frantic search for energy to keep the industrial society alive. 

In Italy, we are in a position of extreme weakness. We lack the infrastructure (regasifiers) necessary to import liquefied gas. We can build them, but it will take time and, meanwhile, the Italian industry could suffer irreparable damage. It is not certain that when we have regasifiers there will be sufficient gas available to import. Not only that, but the Italian industry could find itself not competitive in the world market if it has to bear the high costs of liquid natural gas. In both cases, we could be facing the end of the industrial cycle of the Italian economy, about two centuries after its beginning. The problem is that, before the industrial revolution, there were fewer than 20 million inhabitants in Italy and famines were not uncommon. 

It seems clear that for us there are no other ways out than a decisive shift toward renewables, already today much cheaper than fossil fuels and capable of completely replacing them. Politicians have not yet understood this, but moving to renewables would protect us from new crises of energy availability and from blackmail by producers. But it's not something that can be done overnight. Only a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Ukraine would give us the time needed to build a new infrastructure based on renewables. Can we make it? Nothing prevents us from trying. 


Friday, September 9, 2022

A Quick Note About Ukraine: when propaganda rhymes with itself

 

The above is from a previous post of mine, where I laid down some rules to evaluate the wartime propaganda of the media. If you have been following the situation in Ukraine, you noted how for a week, the Russian news had been reporting how the enemy attacks had been repulsed with heavy losses. Then, today, it seems that the Ukrainian army broke through the Russian lines: a perfect confirmation of rule #2, 

Nothing is definitive, of course, and the war is still ongoing. And that doesn't mean taking sides: it is just to note that propaganda is like history, it rhymes with itself (on all sides). It also shows how unreliable and silly are the military pundits who comment on the situation. Take a tour of them on the Web, and you'll see that rule #7 is valid, too. See more on "Moon of Alabama."



Sunday, August 14, 2022

Europe: the Empire that wasn't

 


Napoleon Bonaparte in full imperial regalia. He got close to creating a European Empire, but he failed in the end. He faced the same strategic problem that other would-be European Emperors faced: having to fight on two opposite fronts at the same time, against Russia and against Britain. At present, the European Union (another form of European Empire) is facing the same strategic problems And it is being defeated, although in an economic war rather than in a conventional military one.


One of the fascinating things about history is how people tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over. A couple of generations are more than sufficient for leaders to forget everything their predecessors did, and run straight into a new -- but similar -- catastrophe. It is also called "history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme."

Then, among the fascinating sections of history, there is how people tend to get together to form those entities that we call "states" or, if they are large, "empires." They grow, they decline, they collapse, in a dance that lasts for centuries and that normally implies war, exterminations, and great suffering for large numbers of people. But most people seem to think that these purely virtual entities are important enough that human lives can be sacrificed to them. On this, history has been rhyming for a long time. 

Europe was often on the verge of becoming an empire, a single state with a centralized government. But that never happened. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Charlemagne was perhaps the first to have a go at a European Empire, during the 8th century AD. His "Holy Roman Empire" survived for nearly a millennium, but never included all of Western Europe. Then it was the turn of Napoleon Bonaparte, then the German Kaiser, then the German Nazis, and, recently, the European Union that, for the first time, didn't rely on military might. They were all failures, including the European Union -- an entity that nobody seems to want any longer. 

How should we see these events? A failure or a blessing? Of course, empires are not benevolent entities, and sometimes they do great damage. But a central European government might have avoided at least some of the bloodiest episodes of internecine European wars. It might also have injected some rules into the otherwise lawless worldwide expansion of the European states. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) enacted laws designed to stop the enslavement and the extermination of the Native Americans by the European colonists. Charles V ruled only part of Europe and these laws were ineffective. But we may imagine that, if they had been backed by a strong central authority, they could have helped the Native Americans to survive the European onslaught. 

So, why couldn't Western European states create a central government? After all, when it was a question of making some money by military conquest, they didn't find that it was so difficult to fight together. It happened during the crusades (12th-4th century), the attack on Russia by Napoleon in 1812, the Crimean war (1853-1856), the attack on China during the Boxer rebellion (1899 -1901), and a few more cases. But, normally, the European states preferred to carve their own empires and destroy each other in internecine wars. 

One major problem for a European government is simply geographical. Europe is a peninsula of Eurasia that ends with the Urals, but that's just a convention. Are the Russians Europeans? In many ways, yes, except when their Western neighbors decide that they are barbarians to be exterminated (as during WW2) or, at least, people whose culture is to be rejected or annihilated (as it is happening nowadays). So, where is the Eastern border of Europe? Nobody knows, and that's a sure recipe for war. 

Then, on the Western side, is Britain part of Europe? Geography says that it is, but do the British consider themselves Europeans? The best that can be said is that they normally do, but only when it is convenient for them. During WW2, there was a common saying in Italy that went as "che Dio stramaledica gli inglesi" (may God heavily curse the British). A bit nasty, sure, but it highlights a certain feeling that continental Europeans have for Britain.

Geography dominates politics, and the result is that all the attempts to create a stable coalition of European states faced, and still faces, an unsolvable strategic problem. At Europe's borders, on the East and the West, there are two powerful states, Great Britain (now largely replaced by the US Empire) and Russia (for a period, in the form of the Soviet Union). Neither has an interest in seeing a strong Europe arising, and they normally consider avoiding that as one of their strategic priorities. Neither Russia nor Britain ever were interested in invading Europe. The case is slightly different for the US Empire, which does keep its military stationed in Europe. But, even so, the US occupation is more a question of political, rather than military, control. In any case, during the past few centuries, emergent European Empires usually found themselves fighting on two opposite fronts, on the East, and on the West. An impossible strategic situation that always ended with not just defeat, but catastrophe. 

It was Napoleon who inaugurated the challenge of fighting Britain and Russia at the same time. The resulting disaster led to the disappearance of France from the list of the world's "great powers." Then, it was the turn of the German government to do the same mistake. As a remarkable example of the stupidity of government leaders, they managed to do it twice, in 1914, and in 1939. Note, incidentally, that Adolf Hitler himself, wrote in his Mein Kampf (1933) that Germany should never find itself fighting on two fronts. And then, he led Germany exactly into that! The mind of the "great leaders" is often imperscrutable, but you may be justified in thinking that they are not as smart as their followers think they are. 

After the catastrophe of World War 2, Europeans seemed to realize that the attempt to unify Europe by military means was hopeless. So, they tried a combination of diplomatic and economic actions. It was not a bad idea in itself, but it failed utterly as the result of several factors. Mainly, it was because the leaders never really believed in the idea of a United Europe and consistently tried to manage the European Union in such a way as to gather the most they could for their countries, without much regard for the collective good. In time, the higher layers of the EU fell into the hands of traitors bought by foreign powers. As a result, the attempts to create a European military force were sabotaged. During the past few decades, Europe was effectively defanged and declawed, and, to use an appropriate euphemism, "neutered" in military terms. (image below from "The Economist"). 
 



In the end, the EU went through the same sequence of failures that had doomed the previous attempts at unification. The "Brexit," the exit of the UK from the Union in 2020, was the economic equivalent of the military defeat of Napoleon at Trafalgar (1805), and of Hitler at the battle of Britain (1940). But the true disaster came with the current attempt of bankrupting Russia with economic sanctions. That was the equivalent of the disastrous dash to Moscow of Napoleon's army (1812) and of Hitler's "Operation Barbarossa" (1941). History does rhyme!

The economic war is still ongoing, but we can already say that Russia is surviving the sanctions while Europe has been badly damaging itself. No matter what the outcome of the war in Ukraine will be, Europeans now face a cold winter without a sufficient supply of fuel, and a probable economic disaster. The same outcome of Napoleon's and Hitler's campaigns -- even though not in military terms.  

And now? Disasters beget disasters, it is one more rule of history. The European relentless rejection of everything that has to do with Russian culture and traditions is a human disaster that cannot be measured in economic terms. The last thing Europeans needed was an enemy on their Eastern border. Now they have created it, and they will have to live with it, just as they will have to live with the climate disaster that they lost the capability to fight. And, most likely, the idea of a United Europe is now buried forever. 


Monday, June 20, 2022

What's Really Happening in Ukraine? The Rules of Disinformation During Wartime

 


The front page from the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" on Oct 12, 1941. A good example of wartime propaganda.  

War is a complicated story with plenty of things happening at the same time. Not for nothing, there exists the term "fog of war," and it may well be that even generals and leaders don't know exactly what's going on on the battlefield. Then, imagine how the media are reporting the situation to us: it is not just a fog that separates the news from the truth: it is a brick wall. Yet, the media remain a major source of information for us. Can we use them to learn at least something about what's going on, discarding the lies and the exaggerations? 

To start, we can look at how wartime news was reported in historical cases. As an exercise, I examined how Italians were (dis-)informed by their government during World War 2. I used the archive of "La Stampa," one of the major Italian newspapers of the time, still existing today. The other national newspapers weren't reporting anything really different. Another advantage is that the archive of La Stampa is free to peruse. 

The archive contains a huge amount of material (all in Italian, sorry). I don't claim that I examined everything, but I did go through the decisive moments of the war, in 1941/43. It is a fascinating experience to imagine people reading the news of the time and trying to understand what was really going on. Could they figure it out? Probably not, at least for most of them. But let's go into the details.

Above, you can see an example of how news about the war was presented to Italians. The front page of "La Stampa" of Oct 12, 1941, was titled the "destruction of the Azov pocket." It was true: the battle of the sea of Azov was a major victory for the Axis forces. Even the report on the number of prisoners taken, about 100,000, was approximately correct. 

On the lower left part of the front page, you read of another front: in Ethiopia. The Italian troops fighting in the Amhara region ("Amara" in the text) are said to be offering an "indomitable resistance" against the attacking British troops. Again, it was true. The stronghold of Gondar, in Northern Ethiopia, was successfully resisting. 

That's just the first page. You can read more in the inner pages: reflections on how the defeat of Bolshevism in Russia will unavoidably bring the final defeat for England, of the victorious advance of the Italian troops in the Donetsk region, of heavy losses of the enemy on all fronts, including long lists of British warships damaged or sunk. 

So, if you were an Italian reading one of the national papers in October 1941, you would reasonably conclude that the Axis powers were winning in Russia, that Italy was successfully resisting in Ethiopia, and that the British were facing serious difficulties in all war theaters. That would not have been such a bad evaluation at that moment, perhaps the most favorable for the Axis during the whole war. 

The problem is that, as we know from our modern viewpoint, in October 1941 the German advance was already starting to slow down, and it would completely stall in early December. In Ethiopia, Gondar was just the last pocket of resistance of the former "Italian Empire." It was surrounded by the British, and it had zero chance to survive. It surrendered on Nov 27th 1941. 

How was this less than exciting news presented to the Italian readers? About the Russian front, in December they were told that the Germans had decided to stop their advance and that they were preparing to restart the offensive in spring. At the same time, they were repulsing Russian attacks. Then, about the defeat in Ethiopia, the Italians were told nothing. The fall of Gondar in November was simply not reported. Only on Dec 6, more than a month later, you could read that the "Italian officers of Gondar" were allowed to keep their swords while surrendering. From this, you could finally understand that Gondar was no more in Italian hands. As a compensation, you could read in the column nearby of "more British ships sunk in the Atlantic."


This is very typical. Bad news was simply not reported or delayed during the war. When the Italian contingent in Russia was destroyed, in 1942, it just disappeared from the news. As another example, in 1943, the British had been attacking the island of Pantelleria in the Mediterranean Sea. Up to June 12th, "La Stampa" was reporting the heroic resistance of the Italian defenders facing superior enemy forces. 


Remarkably, when the news above appeared, Pantelleria had already surrendered without firing a shot. That was not reported until June 14th as just a few lines in a corner of the front page. One day later, one of the pundits of the time explained why the loss of Pantelleria was of no importance and that the final victory of Italy was certain. Then, it was silence.   

This kind of disinformation is normal: it happens everywhere, surely not just in the Italian press during WW2. The interesting part is whether we can learn something from this story. I think I can propose a few rules of thumb on how wartime misinformation works. 

RULES FOR DETECTING DISINFORMATION DURING WARTIME

1. When the news reports a major victory of your side that involves a verifiable result, say, the occupation of a city or of a region, then it is most likely true. 

2. When the news reports that an enemy attack has been repulsed and that the enemy suffered heavy losses, it may be true, but it means that the enemy has superior forces in that area and that sooner or later will break through. 

3. When you don't hear anything anymore of a specific contingent, city, or region, it means that the contingent has been destroyed or that the city/region has been conquered by the enemy. 

4. When you read non-verifiable positive news ("enemy cruiser sunk" "40 enemy planes downed"), it is most likely false.

5. Whatever you hear from the "experts" has zero value. With one exception: when the  pundits start saying that "the situation looks bad, but the final victory is certain," it means that the war is lost.  

6. The golden rule: never, ever trust anything that the media tell you. 

 

These rules have a certain logic: despite the attempts of the media to "create their own reality" (Rumsfeld style) they cannot completely suppress the real reality. During WW2, even with the heavy censorship of the Fascist regime, Italians could find other sources of information, including what returning soldiers were telling, and the broadcasting from "Radio Londra," the British radio. Tuning to that station was forbidden and could be dangerous, but surely many people did that. Not that the British propaganda was any more truthful than the Italian one but, at least, Radio London provided Italians with a different version of the news. For instance, the fall of Gondar in 1941 was announced in British newspapers the day after it took place, with titles such as, "END OF MUSSOLINI'S EMPIRE." Radio Londra surely broadcast that and the people who listened were informed about the event several days in advance in comparison to those who had to wait for the Italian press to report it.  

About the current war in Ukraine, these rules can help. For a start, they can be used to filter out the most blatant lies. For instance, you surely heard the story of the "Ghost of Kyiv," the Ukrainian pilot said to have downed as many as 40 enemy planes (some say just six, others 10 or 20). It was non-verifiable news, and hence you could have suspected from the beginning that it was false. Indeed, it was confirmed to be fake by the Ukrainians themselves. The same is true for many reports of the rape of Ukrainian women and children. The originator of these reports, Lyudmila Denisova, Ukraine's commissioner for human rights, was removed from her post by the Ukrainian parliament under the accusation of having provided exaggerated and false news. And the same goes for the many obviously exaggerated reports of heavy losses on the Russian side.

Then, even with the heavy censorship we are embedded in, we can still manage to find a trickle of information from the "other side," not better than from this side, but still providing a different angle of view. The official Russian channels do not report heavy Russian losses (obviously!). Pro-Russian pundits repeat that Russia is winning, although they have toned down their statements several times. They have been telling us, repeatedly, that the Ukraine military was going to collapse, but that is just good evidence for the validity of the rule that says, "The opinion of the experts has zero value." In any case, the reports from both sides agree that, at present, the Russians are advancing, although slowly. Therefore, it is probably true. 

About the final outcome of the war, for the time being, we are in a condition similar to that of Italians in 1941. It would have been difficult for them to understand who would win, although they might have concluded that things were not going so well as the official reports said. But, by late 1942, a critical analysis, even just of the national news, should have made clear to anyone with a functioning brain that the war was lost for the Axis. About Ukraine, instead, we cannot say much for the time being, but it is hard to think that the war could last years. So, we should be able to know more in the near future. For the time being, just don't forget the golden rule: never, never trust what the media are telling you.