The Sixties’ high-water mark, Nazi mysticism, and the strange world of birding
YOU SAY you want a revolution? sang the Beatles in their 1968 White Album. At times that year it seemed very much as though you were going to get one. It’s not just boomer nostalgia that enables anyone of a certain age to rhyme off remarkable, often shocking, events almost on a month-by-month basis. February: the surprise Tet Offensive in Vietnam galvanizes anti-war sentiment. March: Czech reformer Alexander Dubcek tries to put a “human face” on Communism. April: Martin Luther King is assassinated; Pierre Trudeau becomes Prime Minister. May: student and worker riots almost topple the French government. June: Robert Kennedy is assassinated. August: Red Army troops crush the Prague Spring; violence between police and demonstrators plunges the De-
mocratic convention in Chicago into turmoil. October: 10 days before the Mexico City Olympic Games are to open, the Mexican army fires on student protestors, killing more than 250.
U.S. TV captured the violence at the Chicago convention
And that’s just the political milestones—sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, feminism and general cultural upheaval were also hallmarks of a year that looked set to turn the world upside down. Two factors united these disparate events, according to Mark Kurlansky’s absorbing history 1968: The Year That Rocked the World (Random Flouse). First was a widespread spirit of youthful alienation and antiauthoritarianism. People in the West rebelled against capitalism, in the Soviet Bloc, against Communism, and everywhere, against established institutions, political parties and leaders.
Just as significant was the role of television in making 1968 what Kurlansky calls the first global year. TV was at its zenith of power, a true mass medium concentrated in a handful of channels watched by nearly everyone. Technologically it could now provide same-day footage of bloody Tet battles for American supper-hour news shows, or 17 minutes of Chicago police clubbing demonstrators, or Czech
students facing down tanks. Marshall McLuhan’s global village, where dissenters in one country could instantly discover the tactics and aims of their counterparts elsewhere, had become a reality. At the same time, TV remained an untamed force to puzzled authorities, not yet the controlled, splintered force it is today.
Himmler believed that Aryans were once sheathed in ice
Kurlansky, 55, makes no bones about which side of the great divide he stands on. His “vision of authority,” he writes, is “shaped by the memory of the peppery taste of tear gas and the way police would slowly surround before moving in, club first, for the kill.” Kurlansky writes well, with an eye for the telling detail, like the fact that prominent student activist Mark Rudd raised money for his visit to Cuba by selling hash in upper Manhattan. But for all his celebration of a time
when much of the world seemed to rise up against war and oppression, Kurlansky is ambivalent about what the spirit of’68 accomplished. It’s the American military, he ruefully concludes, that drew the sharpest lessons and acted most forcefully upon them. In future wars, draftees must give way to volunteers to take the steam out of campus unrest. Wars must be short and won by overwhelming technical superiority, not attrition. Above all, the media must be controlled—even “embedded” within the power structure.
The world has not turned out as the dreamers and revolutionaries hoped, the author notes. Feminism, gay rights and racial equality have made massive advances, and Soviet totalitarianism is gone. But for many, globalized capitalism doesn’t exhibit a “human face” either, while social and economic justice remain elusive. In a rather wistful conclusion, Kurlansky finds the true legacy of1968 in a certain hope, “a sense that where there is wrong, there are always people who will expose it and try to change it.”
Thirty years earlier, during another seminal decade in world history, the German Tibet Expedition set out for the Himalayan realm. One of the Third Reich’s more ludicrous manifestations, the 193839 journey was the brainchild of Ernst Schäfer, a gun afficionado and zoologist anxious to make a name for himself as an explorerhero of the new Germany. But it was the patronage of Heinrich Himmler—head of the SS, mass murderer and crackpot—that ensured it got off the ground. As Christopher Hale’s astonishing Himmler’s Crusade: The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race (Wiley) reveals, Himmler was no garden-variety Nazi.
He was in full agreement with Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism, but he was also a devotee of the World Ice Theory (frozen water as the universe’s primal matter), who believed the ancestors of the Aryan “race” were once sheathed in ice before being released by divine thunderbolts. Cold, mountainous Tibet was just the place to look for traces of them. Schäfer and his fellow explorers, all SS officers,
dutifully measured the nose and cranium of any Tibetan willing to stand for it.
Hale’s story could be read as a comedy— Schäfer’s antics, like smearing his face with the blood of birds he shot, or the pennyante version of the Great Game the Germans played with befuddled British officials in India, could have been Monty Python sketches. Except, of course, that the path of loony racial theory ran straight to the Holocaust. During the war Bruno Beger, the expedition’s physical anthropologist and chief measurer of Tibetan noses, worked at Auschwitz and other camps helping to choose the prisoners whose skulls and skeletons would end up in Nazi collections.
It’s a relief to turn to a harmless obsession. Even when hardcore birdwatching becomes as gruelling and irrationally competitive as it’s portrayed in Mark Obmascik’s fast-paced The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession (Simon & Schuster), no one—and no bird—croaks. A diehard birder undertaking a “Big Year” sets out on Jan. 1 for a 12-month quest to see more kinds of birds in Canada and the U.S. than anyone else—ever. The 675 native species are only a starting point; the rare jewels that make a winner are “vagrants” and “accidentals”— foreign visitors blown in by storms or lured by unusually good weather.
Obmascik follows the fortunes of three very different competitors in 1998—a Colorado chemical company executive and a New Jersey contractor, both of them wealthy and retired, and a just-divorced, povertystricken software programmer. They scheme, strategize, keep their plans secret, and race each other around North America. They travelled 450,000 km in total, spent a small fortune and, occasionally, wondered what the hell they were doing. (Contractor Sandy Komito’s dark night of the soul came on Christmas Eve as he ate alone in a Chinese restaurant in Duluth, Minn. But he managed to marshal his resolve; after all, he had birds to view the next day.) By year’s end, aided by one of the strongest El Niños ever and a flood of storm-tossed Asian accidentals on an Alaskan island, one of the men had seen a record 745 species. Competitive birders talk of it in the tones baseball fans use for Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak—a feat that may never be topped. Maybe, but someone will try. Human obsession, whether benign or bloodthirsty, clearly knows no bounds.
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