Neanderthal Nature Show!

I discovered this documentary a few years back, but never wrote about it. I like to watch it from time to time because I love the style they made it in. Unlike many documentaries, it is far from the dry stereotypical narrator droning on putting people to sleep. This one is set up more like a nature show, as if cameras were following a band of neanderthals in their “natural habitat”, so to speak.  It details how they survive, and even a face to face encounter with a cro magnon! The neanderthals even are shown to possess their own language, as scientists now believe they spoke a simple language similar to our own. Unlike the common image of a more brutish neanderthal, they are shown to have a complex society, almost on par with the primitive humans. However, they lack more traits of behavioral modernity, such as body adornment and abstract thought and symbolism. New evidence suggests neanderthals may have possessed those traits too, but there is no hard evidence confirming it.

Related image

The story is mostly straightforward, the neanderthals try to survive the oncoming winter, but are forced to migrate to find better hunting grounds. However, one female stays behind and (amusingly to me) has a “one night stand” with a cro magnon! This isn’t too implausible, as hybrid human-neanderthal children’s remains have been found. I also like the part when they caught a female from another tribe and the dominant female looks her over to assert her dominance in the clan. I guess women have always had a catty side :) I can almost imagine it like a reality TV show about territorial catty cave women! The documentary gets gloomy at the end though, as it is unlikely the rest of the band would survive the harsh winter and the cro magnons in their old territory. Indeed, by the very end, the cro magnons resettled their abandoned campsite. Overall, the documentary is probably a bit slow paced for some people who want more of a story type narrative, but I personally enjoyed the nature show type format it was presented in.

One last thought of mine is a bit unique: If one could actually film real neanderthals, how unobtrusive could one be ethically? What I mean is, when a neanderthal gets hurt or ill, or is a victim of violence, is it ethical to just standby and film it. In most nature documentaries, it is deemed ethical since it is the way of nature with non human animals. If a lion kills a zebra, no one feels the ethical need to “save” the zebra as it is the way of nature that the lion must eat. However, the neanderthals are basically human, and probably have sapience similar to ours. Is it ethical to stand by and document a Neanderthal Cultureneanderthal’s suffering when we would have the technology to alleviate it such as an injury or illness? To capture their natural behavior, one must stay undetected, but is it unethical to document their suffering the same way it would be to document a violent crime for a documentary but not come to the victim’s aid or call the police? If one chooses to “save” the neanderthal, it ruins the whole study of them and alters their behavior, but if one lets it suffer, are they morally responsible? I don’t quite know the definitively right answer myself. Would they be under nature’s jurisdiction thus it being acceptable to leave it at the mercy of the natural world as we do other animals, or would a neanderthal, or caveman in general, require the intervention of the human world? One could argue the degree of personhood another species of extinct human has if they have different cognitive capabilities, but that would take up another post!

Posted in Archaeology and Anthropology, Helping Make History More Interesting, Opinion Piece, Paleolithic and Neolithic, Reviews | 3 Comments

War Game

I discovered this short 30 minute film about WWI and it’s quite interesting! It’s animated like a kid’s cartoon, but has much darker elements to it to be considered solely for young children. The story is historical fiction about a soccer team in England joining up to be in Related imagethe army for the impeding war with Germany. The main characters, Lacy and Will are warned by their mother that war is not a “game”, and that they’re needed on their family’s farm, but it is too late. They have their call up papers for Wednesday. They both enter the scene with enthusiasm eager to defend England and the glory once they return. However, they soon find out the grim reality of WWI in the trenches. They begin to settle in after a while and find out how well the German can shoot when they throw things up into the air. One German even makes a smiley face on a metal plate just by shooting it! This is the first time one gets an inkling that the Germans are human too. Things looked grim again until Christmas eve when the Germans sing “Stille Nacht“.  That morning, a German comes out of his trench and bounces around a “foot ball”, challenging the English soldiers to a game of “football” (soccer in America). Will goes out first and soon both sides play a game of football! The fun gets so intense, they end up with 5 goals and 6 balls! Afterwards, both sides get friendly exchanging gifts and stories. Related imageHowever, their superiors get wind and stop the fun. After this, the gloom of war returns and the English soldiers miss their home and football team. The film ends with the English side charging into battle as Will tries to compare it to playing positions in his football games. An explosion goes off and Will is injured badly and lands in a crater with a wounded German. They exchange pictures of the German’s children and Will’s football team. A narrator narrates the rest as Will imagines his team for the last time and closes his eyes peacefully before passing away.

I liked the gentler introduction to the harsh realities of war the film portrayed. The animated style makes it more friendly for a younger audience and it isn’t graphic with blood and guts, but it is very sad especially at the end. I hate to imagine how their family reacted to the news. They were so upset to start with, now their fears were confirmed. I liked how it portrayed the boys as so eager to join and I liked the metaphor in the song “Play the Game” of England having these boys as puppets on a string, being Related imagepropagandized and manipulated by their government. I also loved how they made sure to humanize the Germans and that they weren’t different from the English soldiers. The bilingual element was cool, as it showed that even with the language barrier, they connected never the less. The ending scene really drove the message of shared humanity home when both the English and German soldier showed each other what was meaningful to them and then died together. The narration at the very end was also very touching.

I think the movie is great for kids actually, despite the sad parts. It shows the harshness of war but in a much more toned down way than adult war movies. It is not as focused on the violence, but on the tragedy of war and the message of shared humanity. Many people think children can only handle “unicorns and rainbows” nowadays, but children need to be exposed to big ideas and ethical dilemmas in order to learn to think critically and be aware of their world. Children need to realize that not everything has a happy ending, and yet, also strikes a balance of not being too graphic too soon. War Game is a great introduction to the history of WWI and to big ideas about the nature of war and shared humanity.

Posted in Helping Make History More Interesting, Military, Modern History, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Crucifixion: Was Jesus the Victim?

(Please Note: This contains some theological arguments. While I try to stick to a strictly historical context, due to the nature of this topic, some theological points come into play. This does not mean that these are literal religious standpoints that I endorse, but merely an analysis of what is said in the Christian narrative. To sum it up, I am analyzing the Bible as a source document, not endorsing actual religious views…)

For Christians everywhere, the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the central event in Christianity. Many believe that this led to the salvation of humanity, and the forgiveness of their sins. There are two main perspectives, the Substitutionary Atonement view, in which Jesus’ death was of primary importance, and the Moral Influence Theory, which the death is viewed more as a martyrdom.The latter is the most common view. Many Christians feel angered at Jesus’ death, saying it was unjust. In accordance, many blame the Romans and sometimes Jews for executing Jesus. In popular opinion, many feel Jesus was executed due to his teachings and stating he was “King of the Jews”. Many of these sentiments carry over anti-Roman/anti-pagan undertones. This casts the Romans as the bad guys in a lot of ways, in the light that they were intolerant towards Jesus’ beliefs and teachings. Naturally, one is inclined to feel more sympathetic towards the victim, especially one of such a horrific punishment, but how much of a “victim” was Jesus?

To understand the why’s of the Crucifixion, one must understand some of the historical and cultural context of Jesus’ world. The Romans conquered ancient Judea and the surrounding regions by the time Jesus was supposedly around (History Is Interesting’s First Anniversary!: Reflecting On The First Post Ever). The Jews in the region and the Romans did have some clashes, they had resentments over being under Roman rule and Romans did not take kindly to insurrections, but Rome was more relaxed on matters of religion. Ancient Rome and pagan religions in general, take a more relaxed view on other belief systems. Unlike Christianity and Islam, pagan religions are not exclusivist in that they do not assert that only one religious doctrine is true, thus are more tolerant of other belief systems. Many pagans have even integrated foreign deities into their own pantheon including the Christian god! Jesus’ teachings were not seen as a threat to Rome, in a world where there were dozens of other mystery cults too! The only thing that would get the Romans’ attention would be a threat to the state. The whole “King of the Jews” thing was considered blasphemy by the Jewish courts, and Blasphemy was not a Roman crime. The Romans often let the local courts preside over such matters that do not interfere with Rome. Also, the punishment for Blasphemy under Jewish law was stoning, not crucifixion. During the alleged events, Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea, asked the people whether or not he should spare Jesus or another condemned man. In reality, if Jesus was thought to be a threat against Rome, Pilate would not have let the people choose to release him, as it would only fuel any revolt. Many of the events proceeding up to Jesus’ death and resurrection parallel many much more ancient narratives. Syncretism was not a problem in pagan religions, and even earliest Christianity! There is even a name for the phenomenon, Dying and Rising Gods. The events in Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of an ancient literary tradition in many other cultures. In essence, the facts as presented in the narrative have a more dubious standing in light of the historical background of the time.

In addition to many historical inconsistencies, claiming Jesus as a victim in popular opinion does not have a sound theological basis. In Christian doctrine, the salvation of humanity through Jesus’ death and resurrection was part of a wider divine plan by God. Jesus was aware of the plan beforehand!

From then onwards Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.  Then, taking him aside, Peter started to rebuke him.  ‘Heaven preserve you, Lord,’ he said, ‘this must not happen to you.’  But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  You are an obstacle in my path, because you are thinking not as God thinks but as human beings do.  Matthew 16:21-23

Another passage states: “If God is for us, who can be against us?  Since he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for the sake of all of us, then can we not expect that with him he will freely give us all his gifts.” Romans 8:31-3  Both passages state explicitly that God planned and ordered the whole thing. And to add to the confusion, if one believes in the trinitarian nature of God, then Jesus is also God, so God planned to crucify himself! To blame the Romans and make them out to be the bad guys does not make sense if a divine being was in control of his own fate the entire time! I honestly feel bad for the other two men beside Jesus, as they didn’t have the privilege to come back to life after their executions. What if the people said to spare him? While many would have liked that, what would the divine consequences be? I assume God would need a plan “B”; stoning perhaps? How much control do mere mortals have over any divine plan?…

Overall, the whole issue is more appropriate for the theologians, and not the historians to argue. However, history provides some evidence and insight into the matter. If you go back to my older posts, the stance is that the existence of a historical Jesus is also dubious, due to the lack of secular sources on him. Despite that, the crucifixion of Jesus colors perceptions of other ancient people, so I have come to their defense.


The earliest crucifixion in an illuminated manuscript, dated 586 AD

Posted in Ancient History, Holidays, Opinion Piece, Religion | Leave a comment

Art and History III: German Soldiers

As in previous posts, Art and History Part II: Sculpting The Insane for example, I am often inspired to make art about the history I’m studying! This time, I made German soldiers from WWI up to the Berlin Wall!

P1050309 “Defeated German WWI”


German soldier WWII


German Tank WWII


                           German boarder guards from East Germany and West Germany                                 (These function as bookends so the books in the middle help represent the wall!)

Posted in Art and History, Military, Modern History | Leave a comment

Franz + Polina

Franz + Polina is a movie set in WWII in Belarus. The SS has occupied this little village and built a rapport with the local people. They see the SS soldiers as friendly and Related imageprotectors and invite them into their community. This young soldier, Franz is only in his teens and is after Polina, a local girl his age. They flirt with each other, but the language barrier between them holds them back. The mediators between them are Franz’s officer and Polina’s mother, who both know that they are beginning to like each other. Polina’s mother warns her about dallying with the young soldier, but Franz’s officer encourages him to go after her. However, Franz’s officer hints at a more dark and sinister end to Franz’s winning over of Polina. While Franz only has an innocent crush, his superior hints at him doing more than just flirting, saying he’ll “have her soon” and to get the guts to “take her”. It is clearly implied he’s goading Franz to eventually rape her. Franz, through all of this, is naive to his officer’s intentions.  When they start getting friendlier, the truth comes out as to the SS’s true purpose there: to exterminate everyone in the village. SS Soldiers swarmed the village, shot everyone and burned down their houses. In the midst of all this, Franz lets Polina and her mother hide, and shoots his commanding officer, choosing Polina over his military duties and orders to kill.

Both Polina and her mother survive, and they hide and then flee once it was safe. Polina disguises the now deserted soldier in her brother, Pavil’s old clothes. He was off fighting as a partisan in the woods along with her father. Shortly into their journey, Polina’s mother dies from heartbreak and exhaustion due to what happened. Polina and Franz then went alone into the woods, setting up a makeshift shelter and finding their own food. It is there they finally consummate their relationship, only mutually as opposed to Related imageFranz’s officer’s more brutal vision. As they start to settle in though, partisans do find them and capture them. Polina tried to persuade them not to, and told them that Franz was her mute brother. However, they shoot anyways, but both run and Franz got away unhurt, but Polina was badly wounded. Luckily, they ran into a band of civilian refugees from the village and stay with them to help Polina. Franz, starts to get ill himself, but sneaks into town to get medicine for Polina, by speaking German and taking a guard’s uniform. When he gets back though, he is found out to be a German as he speaks German in his delirium. It is also found out that Polina is pregnant by him as well. The movie ends as Franz fetches water for Polina, but a boy from the village that was burned down shoots him in revenge for what happened.

Overall, the movie was a bit slow in places and seemed to drag on. The only thing I liked about the overall film was that it was bilingual with German and Russian, for authenticity. The tone of the entire movie was quite dark, no true happy moments as they were all quickly snuffed out. However, one can’t help sympathizing with both Franz and Polina and their failed love story. The movie focused less on the politics of the situation, about Nazism and their contempt for Russians, but the situation through the eyes of both Polina and Franz.

Franz’s officer was like a father figure to Franz in many ways, guiding him in pursuing Polina albeit in a dark and corrupted manner. Unlike Franz, he was cruel and had no thought of the deeply unethical nature of what he was about to do to Polina’s family Image result for franz plus polina moviewhose trust he gained. He though nothing of raping the young girl, and tried to encourage Franz to do it. Luckily, Franz did not think as he did and was too naive to perceive what he really meant. I felt bad for Franz as he did not have a good role model in his officer and was manipulated too, in addition to the whole village. Polina’s mother was more sensible, and tried to hold Polina back from getting too close to the soldiers. Both parental figures, contrasted with their charges knew the bigger picture.

What stuck out to me the most, and made this more mundane movie more significant to me, was the message about two young people caught up in something horrible, and much bigger than them. Even though Franz was in the SS, the unit that carried out much of the Nazi party’s evils he was not evil and did not think like them. Franz was only a teenager who was really naive as to what was going to happen and was horrified at what did. His naivete showed most prominently when he didn’t pick up on his superior officer basically telling him it’s okay to “take” Polina by force. He was just as fooled as the locals were into thinking they were friends, not foes. I liked how the movie humanized Franz, instead of making him into yet another sadistic SS soldier. It was clear he was their victim too. When I watched Franz and Polina interact, it was easy to see that they were just kids when all was said and done. They really didn’t have much difference between them, only the language barrier. Franz was as much of a victim as Polina was of the devastation. He even killed his officer, a father figure in his life at that point, to spare Polina and her family.

Related image

I believe the message to take away from the movie was how war devastates young people and they are the innocent victims in it. Both Franz and Polina did not carry the hatred that the other grownups around them did or the weight of what was happening. They both were naive and in their own little world. Despite the SS uniform on Franz and Polina being the “enemy”, they were just kids when all was said and done. Two young people tragically caught up in a horrible world and hurt because of it.

Posted in Military, Modern History, Reviews | 1 Comment

The Weird Side of the Stasi

The Stasi wasn’t fun and games certainly, but they did have an amusing side to their methods! One amusing thing was their disguises. They had informants and spied on everyone, but their disguises were a bit lacking…

Image result for stasi disguises

Yeah… No one would believe they were out of place…

With their fake toupees and weird outdated clothes, I’m sure they wouldn’t look out of place at all! My favorite ones are the last one, called “western tourist” and the second one, called “mama’s boy”! It’s amusing to think they had to put in so much effort to disguise themselves. Why not just wear their own street clothes? The photos were found by Simon Menner when he looked in the Stasi files. He released them to show the funny yet eerie side to the photos, since they were part of a creepy secret government force.

“Many of the images reproduced here might appear absurd or even funny to us,” he said. “But it is important not to lose sight of the original intentions behind these pictures. They concern photographic records of the repression exerted by the state to subdue it own citizens. For me, the banality of some of these pictures makes them even more repulsive.”( “Stasi style! How East Germany’s secret police dressed their agents to ensure they could infiltrate the lives of suspects”)

Some more awkwardness!

Image result for stasi disguises

Related image

Related image

In addition to the weird disguises, the Stasi would photograph the insides of rooms they were about to search, so they could put everything back so the owner wouldn’t know they were there! Pretty creepy if you ask me! Some are creepy in that they look so mundane and boring, like an unmade bed or children’s toys. Others are simply “What the heck???”

What on Earth? Why? Just Why?…

Other photos found were equally as weird. Some were from a high ranking Stasi official’s birthday where he asked guests to dress up as subversives they were targeting!

Birtday party of a Stasi official Image result for stasi disguises

(“Mr Menner found several photos taken at the birthday party of a senior Stasi official in which guests were told to come disguised as members of demographic groups under Stasi surveillance. They included athletes, peace activists, soccer players and religious figures.”)

Who knew the Stasi could be such weirdos? One more picture for your amusement:

(And the “Biggest Snoop Award” goes to…)

Learn more in detail with this interesting article! Absurd Secret Police Photos Show the Campy Side of Communist Spy Games

Posted in Helping Make History More Interesting, Humor, Modern History, Opinion Piece | Leave a comment

The Lives of Others: The Stasi

In the German made film “The Lives of Others“, the powerful (and creepy!) role of the State Security, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, or better known as the Stasi, is highlighted in great detail. They were like the gestapo of the Nazi era, only in communist ruled East Germany. Their job was to know “everything about everyone” to stop potential dissidents and movements they deemed subversive, which included athletes and clergy members to name some odd ones! However, unlike many totalitarian police forces, they did not solely resort to imprisoning and killing people. They did that too, but it was much easier to target far more people by finding ways to intimidate them and ruin their lives. They did that by doing things like bugging their house and listening in on their phone calls to ensure they had zero privacy. They also did things like show up at people’s work to undermine them, spread false rumors that hurt their reputation, and even split up couples by planting evidence of infidelity! The weirdest thing they did in my opinion, however, is hat sometimes, when the person wasn’t home, they’d move furniture around and misplace objects to mess with their mind! They even sent dildos to people’s houses! Often, their victims had no idea the Stasi was behind this, and went insane. Some were even driven to suicide!

Much of this sounds funny and amusing at best, but the Stasi were not a force to be taken lightly. If you were caught, you would often end up in Stasi prison, without any due process. They would brutally interrogate you for hours on end until you cracked due to sleep deprivation and other torture such as being in total isolation from anyone else for your sentence, or even a room filled with water, so you can’t even sit down, much less sleep! One victim of Stasi torture gave this account:

The Stasi’s methods of torture were intricately planned, precisely designed to test the physical and mental weaknesses of each inmate. As an attempted deserter, and worse, someone who was thought to have assisted others in escape, Karl-Heinz Richter was subjected to the full extent of the Stasi’s methods.

There was the physical torture. Five times he was put into a cell three-quarters filled with water for a 72-hour period. Sleeping or sitting would mean drowning. This for a man with two broken legs.

There were the dozens of nights he was kept up by guards beating him for turning over in his sleep, or when they would turn on the lights periodically throughout the night to make sure he was never fully rested.

But even more disturbing was the mental torture. The night he was told he was to be executed in the morning, when he didn’t sleep at all as he heard the guards outside laughing about how they were going to enjoy killing him, only to have a guard come into his cell in the morning with breakfast, laughing that it was all a joke.

Or the endless hours he spent knocking on his cell walls in Morse code to talk to Monika in the cell next to him, pouring out his fears and desires in excruciatingly slow progress for weeks, only to be told later that Monika wasn’t in fact a prisoner or a real person at all, but a series of Stasi agents trying to get information from him.

“They hated me, which meant they used any sign of disobedience or resistance from me as an excuse to send me to the dark room,” says Richter.

“Here they would keep me in complete darkness for week-long stretches, in which the only light I would see was from when they dropped in a plate of gruel or cup of water.”

He explains how once, in an attempt to reach the water, he knocked the cup over onto the floor. He had no other option but to lick up the water off of the filth- covered cement. “I can still taste that floor today.” (Fulcrum “The Human cost of Torture”)

The Stasi called this method “Zersetzung” or “decomposition” in English. The term was originally used in biology, but it was adapted from an older Nazi term meaning subversion of the Nazi war effort. The effect was to “decompose” one’s will to continue their subversive activities, or destroy a person’s life at work and at home. To me, the Stasi sound a lot like the next version of Nazis, only communist. As many point out, while the Nazis did things like genocide, as far as persecuting one’s own people, the Stasi were comparatively worse then the gestapo! There was a ratio of 1 in 63 people, or even 1 in 6 counting in all the Stasi snitches! There were informants in every apartment complex, school, workplace, about anywhere. No one was immune from the Stasi’s scrutiny either, even school children!

No matter where one shared information, the state would put it to use. The East German reporting system kept track of the country’s citizens from kindergarten, throughout their working lives and even into retirement, via the Volkssolidarität (“People’s Solidarity”) organization, which focused on caring for the elderly. It was part of developing a “socialist personality.” Some began practicing denunciations in childhood, as part of the Young Pioneers, and then as teenagers as part of the FDJ. Files were even kept on schoolchildren: “Wears Western clothes,” “exhibits affinity for punk music,” “demonstrates pacifist attitudes.” (Spiegel Online “East German Snitching Went Far Beyond the Stasi”)

When the Stasi finally ended after the fall of the Berlin wall, angry citizens stormed the building and demanded to look for their files. The Stasi destroyed a billion of them, but there was still many more. Today, one can look up their file, but may risk finding out that the people closest to them may have been the snitch. A devastating revelation if you ask me. Overall, the Stasi’s reign of terror over East Germany beats out even the Gestapo and the KGB in Russia! They serve as a lesson in the importance of privacy and dangers of government intrusion gone haywire. As far as I’m concerned, East Germany merely switched one regime for another. The Communists were not better at governing them than the Nazi party was.

The Lives of Others Full Movie (The movie is about a Stasi agent who gets too involved in a couple’s life he has to spy on. He loses his objectivity and his firm Stasi stance in the process. It depicts the Stasi very accurately, according to former East Germans. I found it quite fascinating!)

Posted in Modern History, Opinion Piece | Leave a comment