Sunday, 19 February 2017

Forgotten colonial wars don't go away

This is a very nice book on a forgotten colonial war that the Netherlands started without good reason and only ended with the arrival of a new colonial power, Japan, in 1942.*


From the first unsuccessful invasion in 1873, through the bitter decades of guerilla warfare to the anticlimax in 1942, Dutch colonial administrators and military struggled to bring an end to the costly occupation of a region that just would not submit, even when all hope seemed gone.

As the Dutch brought more power to bear, the resistance dwindled from a full fledged army defending the sultanate to desperate attacks on individual soldiers and bureaucrats. And as the Dutch sent their columns deeper into the hinterland, all of Aceh was marked with destroyed villages and hasty graves for freedom fighters and their pursuers.

The coming of the Japanese didn’t improve the lives of the inhabitants of Aceh, nor did their struggle end with Indonesian independence. And even though peace has reigned since almost a decade, Aceh is still a poor and neglected part of Indonesia.

Stolwijk, who lived in Aceh for 18 months between 2009 and 2015, gives a sympathetic view of a society trying to overcome the painful present, while keeping alive the ghosts from the past. His anecdotes of interactions with former guerillas and collaborators, students and officials (who seem genuinely pleased that somebody takes an interest in the history of their building or train line) both provide comic relief and perspective.

*full disclosure: I’ve played a few games of football with the author and I think he’s a nice guy.



Sunday, 5 February 2017

Nazi women and Nazi Wives

Fascinating book. Most of the women in this book were highly dedicated to Hitler and his ideas. Magda Goebbels married the 'next best'. They paid a high price for their dedication after the war: destitution, imprisonment, even life.* Yet, several of them defended the Third Reich onto their dying bed.


The book gives a peek behind the scenes of the Nazi party. The stories of Geli Raubal, Hitler's favourite niece, and Carin Göring, the Swedish aristocrat that left her husband for Hermann, provide insight to the workings and social sphere of Hitler's entourage in the Kampfzeit, ie before the Nazis came to power.

It shows that the Nazis were human. Göring was a true romantic, whilst Goebbels was an adulterer with a penchant for adoration and self doubt. Even Hitler felt a moral obligation to take care of Eva Braun after suicide attempts, and although he ordered her to stay out of sight when foreign dignitaries visited the Berghof.

None of these women held any personal power. Women were considered unfit for the political sphere in Nazi ideology. Despite the huge services rendered for the party by benefactresses in the Kampfzeit, their opinions counted for little. Even the staunch Nazi organiser Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, in charge of the party (and later state) women's organisations, never actually got to talk to Hitler.

So all influence these women had was through their men. Whilst Emmy Göring and Henriette von Schirach slowly faded into the background as the influence of their husbands waned, Eva Braun slowly increased her hold on Hitler's private life.

Is there a lesson in these stories?


* That's not saying it wasn't just or deserved or both.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

British Invasion

A colleague of mine gave me this interesting little book. When he read my Waterloo book he revealed that he’d done a documentary in 2011 on the recovery of the bones of a British soldier in the Dutch dunes near Groote Keeten.


The soldier had died on the 27th of August 1799, during the landing of a British invasion force on the Dutch coast. The intention was to raise the Dutch  against their French allies and for the previous sovereign, Stadtholder William V of Orange. When the French had conquered the Dutch Republic in 1795 they installed a satellite government of Dutch revolutionaries.

Although the British invasion force managed to gain the Dutch fleet base (and fleet) at Den Helder and the city of Alkmaar, they were unable to make more headway towards Amsterdam, even after being reinforced by a Russian expeditionary force. Neither had Orangist sympathisers made much of a showing. Late in the year, the British and Russians reembarked, leaving little trace.

The discovery of the remains of the British soldier lead to an archeological dig at the site. The book describes the research, based on the finds at the site linked to historical evidence.

There’s the estimates of length and age based on the skeleton, the analysis of the wood and metals of a musket, some cloth and buttons which all go some way to identifying it as the remains of a soldier of the Coldstream Guards.

A more precise identification was not possible, although based on letters and official records, the search could be narrowed down to a handful of individuals who had died on the 27th of August.


In 2012 the remains were returned to the Coldstream Guards for interment in Britain.

Friday, 27 January 2017

From the Congo to Nova Zembla. A small step

I referred to this beautiful book last Sunday. A year's worth of a German geographical magazine.


Not only is is 145 years old, it has the most beautiful maps. The publisher, Justus Perthes from the German city of Gotha, had a golden reputation for its map making. I also have an atlas of the classical world from these guys. Stunning work.


Not only does it have a piece on Livingstone's research into the origins of the Nile, it also has a lot of stuff on a polar exhibition to Nova Zembla. And this is where a legendary chapter in Dutch history comes to pass. Because what the polar expedition found was an old hut, known in Dutch as Het Behouden Huys, in which a group of Dutch sailors survived an arctic winter.

Here's the 1872 map, showing the location of the hut near the lowest cape on the eastern coast.


In 1596 an expedition led by captains Barentsz (yes, the sea is named after him) and Heemskerck tried to find a way to the East Indies by the north cape. It was hoped that in this way, the Spanish and Portuguese, who claimed the Indian Ocean and the Pacific as their monopolies, could be avoided.



The expedition failed, getting stuck in the polar ice. But the account of their survival during the polar winter, including fights with bears, was widely read and still forms one of the seminal elements of Dutch pride in their Golden Age. The magazine included a couple of classic prints out of the account.


With the north route proven to be unusable, Dutch traders forced more resources into breaking into the Indian Ocean, which lead to the foundation of the Dutch East India Company and a colonial empire that lasted for almost 350 years.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Lovely sculptures

Went to a great exhibition on sculpture this Saturday, charting its development from the mid 19th century till today. The main theme was how sculpture broke free from copying classical and renaissance artists, to new forms and themes. Very well done.


Ecce Puer (See the child) by Medardo Rosso, 1906.


Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1937. Wonderfully 3D effect done with canvas


Beatifully stylised Bird Swallowing A Fish by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, 1914.


This piece, Der Rächer by Ernst Barlach from October 1914 is a good reminder that Germans at that time didn't see themselves as evil invaders but as righteous avengers. The avenger is holding a saex, an ancient Germanic sword type. I feel there's an uncanny resemblance between the face and that of then Emperor Wilhelm II.


Barlach's enthusiasm for the war quickly wore off on the front and he returned as a pacifist. His post war work includes many commemorative signs at war cemeteries. His work was later labeled as Entartete Kunst by the Nazis. Just like Käthe Kollwitz, who lost her son in the Great War. This is her Turm der Mutter from 1937.


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Wow. Just wow

I told you two weeks ago, that my Secret Satan had been very kind and scarily knowledgeable about my wishes. The third package arrived a week ago, but since I wasn't home I had to pick it up at a post office. To which I only came around yesterday.


After all the goodness that had been my share already, I was surprised at the size of the package, although the weight was bearable.Arriving home I left it to unpack my groceries and the set upon the box with a knife.

The packing foam was familiar, but what it uncovered was frankly breathtaking. First, up popped an expansion for Blood Rage, so my thought was that the all-knowing Satan had picked up my interest in the game and wanted to tease me. Colour my surprise as more expansions followed, and finally, the basic game.



That had me stunned, because this was shaping up as no ordinary gift and I had no clue why Satan would have reason to reward me so richly.

Still unbelieving I tried to make sure that there was nothing else hidden in the box before I stashed it away. And colour my surprise several shades deeper as another package turned up, carrying Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG plus an extra adventure, as well as the rule book for Congo, a miniatures game by the same people that brought us Muskets & Tomahawks and Saga.



Satan is keenly aware of my interest in slavery and will have noticed when I expressed my doubts about playing a game with slave traders and which depicts the opening up of the Congo to the merciless exploitation of its people by the Belgian king Leopold as described in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I read the book last summer on the train to London, as Satan seems to recollect.

Also, I have recently been gifted with a copy from a German geographical magazine from 1872, with an account of Livingstone's research into the origins of the Nile. It has me salivating. Satan must be roaring with laughter putting this ethical dilemma before me.



And I hadn't even reach the bottom yet. Satan's final revenge. After all he goodness, there was this...



Yes, that is Knizia's Modern Art. A game which I revile and abhor. So much so that I had given it away having never played it. Okay, so I won a game recently; that doesn't make me like it! Apparently there's no getting rid of this steaming turd of a game. Perhaps giving it away is being too nice. Maybe stronger measures are called for...

There are no words to express my appreciation to Satan for going the length he did to spy on me to bring me such a generous package. I am absolutely overwhelmed by it.

Friday, 20 January 2017

How not to write a history of slavery

Rarely have I been so disappointed in a historian that I held in high regard as by Jeremy Black’s Slavery. A New Global History. There are probably very few untruths in this book, but there is a glaring imbalance.


There are markets and goods, there is military technology and repression. Slavery was more harsh in the Carolinas than in the Chesapeake Bay. But beyond the abstractions that Black uses, you’ll be hard pressed to find out what life would have been like for a slave or a slaver or a freed slave living in a slave society: the daily routines, housing conditions, punishments, or slave markets.

Also the agency of the slaves in ending slavery is dismissed in a few sentences as ‘evidence ... is limited’. But since this is a major theory in the study of slavery, you might expect a serious discussion. As would be warranted by the rest of half century of research and debate on slavery that Black mostly ignores.

The imbalance is especially striking when the book is full of not that relevant detail on imperial and colonial history, and on the abolition debate in Great Britain and its role in the following decades. To the point where becomes self-congratulatory.

Alright, there are some redeeming features. This book has a more global perspective than most, looking beyond the early modern Caribbean. What it basically underwrites is that slavery was part and parcel of most societies up to the 19th century and its sudden retreat in that century is something worth noting.

But essentially this is a White Englishman’s History of Slavers that might have been written in the 1960s. Black should have known his limits and stuck to military history.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Dutch Democracy Is Not In Crisis.

First a note to my English readers: by exception this post is partly in Dutch. A translation is provided below.



Niet vaak dat je zo enthousiast wordt van een boek over politiek. Misschien komt dat vooral omdat het boek nauw aansluit bij wat ik zelf al dacht (goh!?), maar omdat auteur Tom van der Meer ook hoogleraar politicologie is, heeft dat wat meer gewicht.

In Niet De Kiezer Is Gek betoogt hij dat de kiezer sinds zij bevrijd is uit de ketenen van de verzuiling niet wispelturig is geworden, maar wel elke verkiezing kiest uit verschillende partijen die dicht bij haar eigen opvattingen staan. En dat levert een Tweede Kamer op die goed in staat is nieuwe politieke stromingen een platform te geven. De democratie functioneert dus eigenlijk prima.

Waar het probleem zit, is bij het landsbestuur. De politiek heeft zich aan de ene kant niet aangepast aan het veranderende politieke landschap, en weerspiegelt aan de andere kant dat veranderde landschap onvoldoende.

De wens om elke regeerperiode te starten met een uit twee of drie partijen bestaande kamermeerderheid met een dichtgetimmerd regeerakkoord wordt steeds lastiger te vervullen. En het verdelen van banen op basis van regeringsdeelname wordt ondermijnd door dalend partijlidmaatschap en een kleiner aandeel van de bestuurspartijen in het totaal.

Alle voorgestelde alternatieven voor veranderingen voor het kiesstelsel zijn voor Van der Meer dus sowieso al niet echt nodig, maar dreigen in veel gevallen zelfs het probleem te verergeren. Kiesdrempels betekenen minder democratie, niet meer. Loterijen vallen ten prooi aan de groep die nu al het meest politiek geëngageerd is. 

De opdracht is dus vooral aan de politici in Den Haag: profileer jezelf weer op de inhoud en accepteer minderheidsregeringen. Dat laatste is de afgelopen vier jaar in zekere zin al aardig gelukt.

Ben ik dan helemaal gelukkig met dit boek? Nee, toch niet. Voor het door Van der Meer geconstateerde probleem van de banenverdeling langs partijpolitieke lijnen heeft hij zelf geen echte oplossing.

En eerlijk gezegd zie ik partijen dat niet zo snel opgeven aangezien dat een belangrijke reden is voor personen is om lid van een politieke partij te worden/blijven. Zolang partijen geen manier weten te vinden om kiezers weer op andere manieren structureel aan zich te binden zie ik dat niet zo snel veranderen.

Ook denk ik dat de Haagse politiek ook de kans moet krijgen om te veranderen en niet door journalisten en publieke opinie moet worden afgestraft als het weigert de waan van de dag te volgen. Van der Meer had die rol best meer mogen benadrukken.

English version

It’s not often that you get excited by a book about politics. This could perhaps be a result of the book aligning closely with my own views on the subject (surprise!), but also because the author is a professor in Political Studies, which carries a bit more weight than my opinion.

In It’s Not The Voter That Is Mad, Tom van der Meer argues that the voter, since she became unshackeled from pillarisation*, hasn’t become more fickle, but now chooses from a number of political parties to which she feels close. That results in a parliament that is very apt at including new political movements. Democracy, therefore,  is functioning quite well.

The problem on the other hand, lies with government. Dutch governmental politics hasn’t adapted to the changing political landscape and doesn’t reflect those changes enough.

The ideal of starting each cabinet with a parliamentary majority in two or three political parties with a fixed policy programme (called the Regeerakkoord) has become harder to achieve with the shrinking of the main parties. And the division of jobs in strategic positions between the major parties is undermined by falling party membership and the shrinking  share of the old main parties in the total vote.

The suggested alternatives for changes in the electoral system are not really necessary according to Van der Meer, but also run a high risk of only making the problem worse. Electoral barriers make the system less democratic, not more. And systems based on lotteries tend to fall in the hands of those that are already most politically engaged.

So the message of this book is mostly addressed to the national politicians: bring ideology back again. Also accept minority governments, like the Netherlands have effectively had in the last couple of years.

So am I completely happy with this book? No. Van der Meer doesn’t really offer an alternative to the practice of dividing key jobs among members of the ruling parties.


And to be honest, I don’t see that happening too soon. It is a major reason for people to become and remain a member. Certainly won’t happen as long as parties haven’t figured out how to structurally attract people by other means.

Press and public opinion will also have to give politicians the opportunity to break away from the news cycle. As far as I am concerned Van der Meer could have stressed those roles more.

* Pillarisation is the typically 19th/20th century Dutch practice of social, economical and political organisation along religious and ideological lines: ie separate football clubs, unions and parties for Catholics, Protestant sect #1 through #X, Liberals, Social Democrats. This social organisation was broken up in the 1970s and 1980s though some of it remains to this day.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Some good gaming going on

Ok, so I won a game, but that is not the most important in life. It's gaming with friends and that's been good lately.


The Christmas Offensive with the Friday night game group brought up Imperial Settlers, Conan and Scythe, finished off with some Coup. The Geer's slowly seasoned salmon for lunch.


And then dinner and drinks afterwards. Joyous!  


The end of year trip to the North brought a couple of games of Port Royal, Love Letter and Adel Verplicht (Hoity Toity) with the Died and Van Z. I love Adel Verplicht, it's got everything: especially the interaction between auctions, exhibitions, thieves and detectives.


Early January saw two games of Euphrates & Tigris with The Geer and The Died, in which I sucked. Luckily The Geer's excellent cooking made up for all that.


And apart from the victorious experience, last Friday also saw a return to Westeros, with the Game of Thrones boardgame. I managed to set up an advantageous springboard for success later in the game as the Martells, but was too far off to keep the Starks from clinching a sudden death victory making it all hypothetical.

Monday, 9 January 2017

A curious thing happened to me on Friday

Something happened to me on Friday that I though would never happen. I played a game I never understood and that I dislike.The few times I've played it, I always lost badly, the butt of the jokes. I disliked it so much, that when it was gifted to me, I suspected that my gifter knew of my dislike.


Needless to say, I gave it away again after some time. Unplayed.

But this Friday it turned back on me. As a late night filler, it was dropped on the table and I didn't feel in a position to refuse. So there I went.

And I won!

I made the right moves quite a lot of the time. It even made a ridiculously good round cashing in on Karl Gitter paintings. Then guided the advantage home safely with a nice splash of Christin K. paintings. Both not the painters you often see in art galleries these days.

Not sure if I could repeat this feat. Not sure I like the game more now.

But definitely not the worst start of the year.