Fall of Giants: history repeats itself

In Ken Follett's book "Fall of Giants" the parallels with the current falling dominos in North Africa and the Middle East is striking. Where will it stop?

Waking early (5am!) this morning, 21 February, I continued reading this powerful and fascinating book, which combines fact with fiction in the historical period from 1911 to 1924, as experienced through the eyes of people living in Britain, Germany, Russia and America. I was midway through it, reading about the start of the Russian Revolution, when my radio alarm came on with the news, and I was immediately struck by the parallels between then and now.

In 1914 the tensions in the countries of the great powers were a tinder box waiting for a spark: it came with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo: if not that, then something else would have had the same effect. In Russia, where the Tsars ruled the peasants with an iron hand, the resulting degradation of the situation of ordinary citizens eventually led to the October revolution, which pitted the Tsar's dedicated security forces against the people and ordinary soldiers unwilling to fire on their own compatriots.

In Libya, it was reported that the security forces of Colonel Gaddafi have been following the example of the Tsar, but that at least parts of the army are not willing to shoot their own people. How this will continue, and be affected by the ramifications of the spark that lit the North Africa and Middle East tinder box when a single Tunisian street vendor, driven to the limit by his treatment at the hands of the state, set himself on fire. Again, in retrospect, if it had not been him then it would certainly have been someone or something else!

So what does this have to do with us, here in Geneva, Switzerland, and with aviation (these blog anecdotes)? The answer is "quite a lot", bit I will start with aviation-related answers.

Nowadays we can travel by air, at reasonable (to us) cost, to many of these countries for a holiday with guaranteed sunshine. A quick check on one travel agent reveals "unforgettable cruises down the Nile in Egypt, unforgettable tours of Morocco, desert camps and luxurious hotels in Dubai, fascinating escorted tours in Jordan, Syria and Libya, and indulgent spa resorts in Oman". When we go there we are often in a hermetically sealed environment, with little contact with most of the indigenous population, but their glimpses of us reveal to them how we live. At the same time, a percentage of what we pay for our holiday inevitably ends up in the pockets of the ruling elites of these countries, from where it gets moved to property and bank accounts elsewhere, sometimes Geneva. Recycling of wealth!

The people in these countries, as well as seeing us in our affluence, have also acquired the means to communicate, sending and receiving information by the communication systems that we have put in place, in particular the Web and allied applications (e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, you-tube and many others) stemming from research in Geneva. Even when dictators manage to shut these down, information (pictures and video) can be recorded on the memory cards of ubiquitous mobile phones and muggled out of the countries.

We, in our comfort zone, have a different perspective on things. In the case of Libya, Geneva was the source of the political conflict with the Libyan leader, and we had to watch as the president of Switzerland flew there to metaphorically bend the knee before Colonel Gaddafi and beg for the return of two hostages. Perhaps we should ask ourselves if Colonel Gaddafi's actions in ordering his forces to shoot at protestors was influenced by this submissive attitude! I could also add that, in the midst of this crisis, a private hospital jet from Libya was regularly coming to Geneva, supposedly to bring someone for treatment in a major Geneva hospital (not HUG). Business is business!

Finally, to come back to aviation, the various dictators and their families, once they realise that the game is up, will not risk suffering the same fate as the Tsars of Russia (or Louis XVI of France), because they will already have planned their emergency exit: helicopter and private jet to a place where they have stashed money and bought property. It is only at the next level down that their enforcers will likely be treated as they have treated others.

The end result of all this is difficult to foresee. In Europe, since the end of the first world war, we now have evolved some form of democracy in most major countries, but to get there has been a long process sometimes, with major setbacks on the way (Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia and various smaller dictators). When the countries currently in turmoil get back to some form of stability, will it be some form of democracy, not necessarily our western style, or another form of dictatorship or theocracy? Will people there, and maybe here also, be afflicted by one of the three fabled chinese curses

May you live in interesting times

May you come to the attention of those in authority

May you find what you are looking for



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