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Post Who Defended Dreyfus? Remembering Georges Picquart (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 07/20/21 3:33 AM

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Who Defended Dreyfus? Remembering Georges Picquart (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 07/20/21 3:33 am)

Gary Moore writes:

A quick reply to Leo Goldberger (July 18) on the Dreyfus case.

Yes, it was good that some leading voices braved dangerous resistance to finally support Dreyfus--but that didn't happen for years. When Dreyfus was first kangaroo-courted and shipped off to Devil's Island to rot, in 1894-1895, there was nobody in the world that was for him, except his attorney, his incredibly strong wife, and his family. The initial assumption of his being a loathsome traitor was universal, and not just in the mobs crying "Death to the Jew" in the streets.

Leo mentioned the Dreyfus defender Lt. Col. George Picquart, now rightly seen by everyone as the hero in the case, who increasingly went against a conspiracy among his superiors to the point where suddenly Picquart, too, joined Dreyfus in victimhood--removed from his post and then jailed incommunicado on demonstrably false charges, at one point delivering a dramatic statement from jail that if he were to be found dead (as two real conspirators already had been) the public should know it wasn't suicide.

But my point here is otherwise. Picquart didn't start coming to this opinion until mid-1896, long after Dreyfus had been condemned. In 1896 a new piece of evidence happened to cross his desk and Picquart, notably unlike others, showed curiosity and began tracing the clues. Back in the December 1894 military trial that convicted Dreyfus, Picquart had been an officially assigned observer in the courtroom--and was passionately convinced, like his colleagues, that this man so vehemently accused was guilty. Picquart later wrote about a point in the trial when the evidence presented against Dreyfus seemed so thin that he, Picquart, feared that this traitor might be let off. He told how his heart had sunk at that thought (though he needn't have worried; unseen by him, the accusers were busy fabricating new "evidence" to cinch the conviction anyway).

What I'm saying is that there can be moments in the life of a culture when, for whatever reason, the great majority gives way to scapegoating illusions, in a massive consensus too universally held to be challenged. Much of WAIS might nod in sad agreement at this, knowing it couldn't possibly mean them.

JE comments:  Alfred Dreyfus is one of those historical figures (like Dred Scott) whose legal case is legendary, but about whom we know very little.  Ditto Homer Plessy, Jane Roe... 

So I read up on him.  Dreyfus's health was so compromised on Devil's Island that after his rehabilitation he was assigned to desk jobs.  Nonetheless, he served France honorably in the Great War, as a supply officer for the artillery.


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  • Alfred Dreyfus and Theodor Herzl (Leo Goldberger, USA 07/22/21 9:44 AM)
    As always I am grateful for the expansion of my reference to the Dreyfus affair. Without going into the historical details, I simply wanted to decry the lack of a concerted effort to rid ourselves of the Trumpian menace to American democracy by not having a continual attack on him and his misguided Republican followers. (Just imagine the outrageous pick of Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio for the forthcoming select committee to investigate the January 6th riot...by the outrageously inappropriate Keven McCarthy!)

    Of course I know full well that the so-called Dreyfusards--such as Picquart--as well as many others, such as Anatole France, Georges Clemenceau, Joseph Reinach, Jean Jaures, among other prominent Frenchmen, faced a hard time for their moral stand. Yet this is obviously the cost of moral courage--needless to say.


    By way of my personal interest in this topic, let me mention that the Dreyfus affair was very much a topic of my adolescent, Zionist period in Denmark. I must admit that the anti-Semitism that so obviously embedded the whole affair had much to do with the awakening the nationalistic feelings of us Jews, and in fact it led Theodor Herzl to found Zionism! Sad to say, I never expected the eventual problematic outcome--with the continual battle in the Promised Land.


    JE comments: I was never aware of the Dreyfus influence on Herzl's Zionism, although the connection should be obvious. Herzl's personal and family life was even more tragic than that of Dreyfus. He (Herzl) had an unhappy marriage, and all three of his children died young and unnaturally--a daughter by a heroin overdose, a son by suicide, and another daughter with her husband in the Nazi death camps. Herzl's only grandchild also took his own life. Herzl himself died of heart failure at 44. How sad.


    [Apologies for today's late start with WAIS.  We had a "storage error" problem that took some time to correct.  As always, applause goes to our IT Czar, Roman Zhovtulya, who is on call 24-7.]


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    • "Believe Your Eyes": Dreyfus and Chauvin Trials Compared (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 07/23/21 4:00 AM)
      Gary Moore writes:

      As John E noted (July 17), the "trial of the century" in 1890s France, against ex-Captain Alfred Dreyfus, showed some puzzling similarities to our own "trial of the century" in 2021, in riot-torn Minneapolis, against ex-officer Derek Chauvin.


      Indeed, the Dreyfus-Chauvin similarities that John remarked (mob pressures and pulled punches by the defense) were far from being the only ways that the two eruptions matched--as if collective passion, should it grow large enough to engulf jurisprudence, can involve a kind of stereotypy, with only so many ways the seizure can bounce.


      As John also pointed out obvious differences between the two cases, he inadvertently brought up another similarity, when he reminded that Derek Chauvin "was captured on video actually killing a man." Even to say this is to shock--and the shock is the similarity.


      At Chauvin's trial last spring, prosecutors told the jury repeatedly: "Believe your eyes," and "You saw it in the video"--referring to the ten-minute cellphone video capturing George Floyd's curbside death, under Officer Chauvin's "conscious restraint" knee hold. Really it was that video--and the worldwide horror at its Facebook virality after May 25, 2020--that convicted Chauvin, making it feel unforgivable if he were not to be convicted. The rest of the trial, in its mind-numbing profusion, was detail work.


      In the original formation of impressions, the viral video had two months to shape horrified opinions uncontested. Not until August 3, 2020, were deeply partisan Minneapolis authorities forced to release police body-camera videos from the George Floyd incident, providing missing background. But what could possibly be missing? Didn't the cellphone video say it all? Without threading that minefield right now, it's enough to say, for purposes of the Dreyfus parallel, that in the Chauvin case there was the initial shock from an overwhelming visual impression--the cellphone video--which was far too strong for any unwelcome later evidence to much disturb the narrative.


      Meanwhile, the figurative cellphone video in the Dreyfus Affair, the key piece of evidence that was famous in its day, was called "the bordereau." It was a single sheet of onion-skin paper, so thin that the carefully penned words on each side confusingly showed through to the other. In September 1894, this slip of paper was somberly reported by Lt. Colonel Hubert-Joseph Henry of the French counter-intelligence office. Henry would describe coming into possession of it in the usual monthly harvest of flotsam gleaned by French agents in the German embassy in Paris. This started the case--and then dominated it for years. The bordereau was explosive, unsigned but clearly coming from a French army officer, who was selling military secrets to Germany. And Germany, which had crushed France in the 1870 Franco-German War, slicing off two German-speaking French provinces, was the hated adversary. Now, it was clear, somewhere in the breast of the French army was a viper. The bordereau so shocked Col. Henry's superiors--clear up to the top--that a furious hunt ensued to identify the traitor. This was a point in time--like many such points a century later with Chauvin across the sea--when seemingly inexplicable leaps of deduction demanded to be endorsed as fact, then inspired new leaps--as a process, more often associated with wildfire mob rumor, electrified the stern stillness of epaulets and blotting paper and moustache wax at the very highest levels of French counter-espionage.


      The real secret, peeking out in coming years, seemed to be that the 1870 war debacle might not have been so isolated from the kinds of French army incompetence that continued into the self-important mutterings and conclusion-jumpings made world famous in the 1890s by the Dreyfus Affair. A process of almost laughably discreditable elimination led to a narrowed list of supposedly possible bordereau spies--and one officer on the list, Alfred Dreyfus, was a Jew, the first Jew ever to find his way onto the army's clannish general staff, while the head counter-intelligence officer leading the search was a volcanic anti-Semite (who also had neuro-syphilis, dying of it within three years).


      Also related to France's national angst after its 1870 defeat was what seemed to be an entirely separate wave of increasingly virulent anti-Semitism, peaking in a swarm of anti-Jewish newspapers, and crying pointedly that perhaps France, like its new ally Russia, should be having pogroms to cleanse its decks. It was said that the handwriting of the bordereau matched that of the Jewish captain, Dreyfus (well, except for places where it didn't match, quickly explained as sneaky feints put in by Dreyfus to hide his tracks).


      Eventually, however, the handwriting would be found to be an exact match for that of another French officer, now identified by history as the real spy, and the real writer of the bordereau: Franco-Hungarian infantry commandant Walsin Esterhazy.


      But Esterhazy would stay hidden for a long time, as Dreyfus was convicted and shipped off to Devil's Island. The counter-intelligence director had reportedly dug furiously through mountains of files until he came upon ambiguities like mention of a spy called "D"--with various counter-indications saying this could not be Dreyfus (it actually meant "Dubois"), but those were ignored. A new file, made up of such ghosts, was built against Dreyfus, then was fattened with outright forgeries fabricated by the department, as every protestation of innocence, if loud enough, was met with new fakes to prove guilt. The original impression that had swelled from the shock of the bordereau had to be right. Believers seemed to see no contradiction in forcing it to be right. More than a decade would be required for Dreyfus, brought back from Devil's Island, to be fully cleared and reinstated in the French army, with citation to the Legion of Honor for his suffering.


      But now to return to that other issue, seeming very distant from Dreyfus: What could possibly have been missing from the initial horrifying impression made, in the Derek Chauvin/George Floyd case, by the shocking cellphone video? What could the shock be hiding? The answer is in the phrase that helped to make the video so heart-wrenching, a phrase uttered over and over by prostrate George Floyd as he lay pinned on the pavement by Chauvin's knee.


      To put this in perspective, the cellphone video started at 8:20 p.m., after the restraint of Floyd on the pavement had already begun. It did not show that previously he had been using the key phrase ("I can't breathe!") along with a string of other diversions to try and avoid arrest--well before he was on the ground or in any position for the police to have caused him any breathing difficulties. Originally, Floyd had threatened that he would be unable to breathe if they put him into a squad car because, he said, he had claustrophobia. He was directly stating that any failure to breathe on his part would be from psychological reasons--and in claustrophobia breathing does not stop at all; the frightened sufferer only imagines a potential stoppage.


      This and many other turns left out of the cellphone video serve to suggest why Derek Chauvin, arriving late amid attempts by two younger officers to squeeze Floyd into the squad car--as Floyd went berserk and wildly resisted--would have felt that restraining him on the ground might be the logical response, especially since the police had immediately called for an ambulance for him. Chauvin knew that fire stations customarily answer ambulance calls, and that Fire Station 17 was only two minutes down 38th Street--but fatefully, one of many glitches that day found the fire station listening to the call but misinterpreting and not answering. Thus, as surreal-looking minutes passed on the pavement at 38th and Chicago Avenue, the man on the ground (who, before the cellphone video began, had been exclaiming specifically that he wished to "lay on the ground") continued to be restrained by Chauvin's knee--which, clearly visible even in the cellphone video, was not on Floyd's throat or in any position to interfere with breathing, while the "conscious neck restraint" Chauvin was using was not a choke hold or a "blood choke" and was a recognized procedure of the Minneapolis Police Department.


      In the midst of this, as the minutes dragged on and there was no ambulance, and Floyd's system was also overstressed by an overdose level of fentanyl plus lesser amounts of methamphetamine and residue from heroin and marijuana, there occurred the incredibly rapid but insidiously unobservable change that periodically happens during high-stress, drug-soaked police restraints: His heart gave out. This was not a "heart attack" with its melodramatic clutching of the chest and tissue death to later cinch an autopsy, but instead the kind of sudden cardiac arrest said to strike 400,000 Americans a year, where suddenly you're just gone, no preliminary, no warning, just stopped. At trial, the prosecution of Derek Chauvin would jump through elaborate hoops, with an array of expert witnesses fighting the heroic fight to back up the cellphone video, as they put forth a remarkable four-part theory in attempts to explain that a knee that was not on the throat could somehow choke a man to death. Such choking was what the whole world had seemed to assume in May 2020 as the video emerged. The prosecution's fact-free explanations for its four-part theory were rendered in such rapid-fire sequence, with so many beautiful graphics and convoluted medical terms, that it would seem impossible for even a medical sophisticate to follow--if any such were willing to sit through the hours of droning testimony, offering point after point of disguised medical impossibilities and even false facts that were clearly contradicted by video in evidence. It wasn't necessarily that the Chauvin prosecution was lying in this process; they were just forcing their original impressions to be right--and closing their eyes to what this required. At any rate the falsehoods scarcely mattered in the end, for the jury was being told to "believe your eyes"--believe in that feeling of horrified rightness in the initial shock caused by the cellphone video. And they did.


      Thus, post-millennial America could wrap up its own form of troubles--racial troubles--in fixation on a vast secret underworld of supposedly monstrous police, who had, at least in this one case, finally been unmasked. And if all those others slinking out there had somehow not been caught, all the more reason to get this one.


      On January 5, 1895, when Captain Alfred Dreyfus was stripped of his rank and marched before a great crowd howling "Death to the Jew!" there was no groundswell of protest defending him. The society surrounding him seemed to be unanimous: the monster had been caught, a fitting symbol for all France's woes--and even if he could not be proved to be part of a vast Jewish conspiracy, that didn't mean it wasn't out there. Now this one would have to do duty for all the others that couldn't quite be caught. France did not agonize that it had slipped into the ancient pit of scapegoating frenzy, or ask what such a descent might mean. As months and then years passed, a handful of supporters of Dreyfus would emerge and grow larger, until the bizarre errors in the case began to tumble out, and then became an avalanche. Hence, an amazing rectification would occur, this one time in history.


      But more often the witch stays burnt.


      JE comments:  Gary, Derek Chauvin needs you on retainer for his appeal.  There are two possible mitigators in the case:  1) that Floyd begged not to be placed in the squad car, hence the knee-hold; and 2) whether or not the Chauvin knee was actually blocking Floyd's air passage.


      From today's smug perspective, there can be no comparison between the victim of majority oppression (Dreyfus) and the perpetrator of oppression against a minority (Chauvin).  But both defendants were already convicted in the court of public rage.


      Do I want to go on record to say that Chauvin was treated unfairly?  Of course not; I'm not that brave.  But Gary Moore's thoughtful parsing of the case makes one think.

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      • Peu a Peu: What Brought the Dreyfusards to Dreyfus's Defense? From Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 07/24/21 5:26 AM)
        Gary Moore writes:

        John E's thoughtful comment on my post July 23, when I compared the Dreyfus and Chauvin accusation frenzies (1890s and 2020s), inadvertently illumines a world.


        In the 1890s, a number of the "Dreyfusards," the eventual supporters of condemned Alfred Dreyfus, described how they had originally wrestled with their beliefs before seeing into the heart of the case. Many had initially sided with the consensus condemnation of a man who seemed surely to be a monster. Then evidence kept whispering.


        John, seeing how I updated the Dreyfus example to question the present-day consensus on Derek Chauvin, wondered naturally whether my impertinence was born of faulty reasoning. So he probed. And look at the only two points he seemed to come up with, as he wrote: "There are two possible mitigators in the case: 1) that Floyd begged not to be placed in the squad car, hence the knee-hold; and 2) whether or not the Chauvin knee was actually blocking Floyd's air passage."


        So what's happening here? Apparently when an honest examiner begins to look closely, the points that come up as possible support for the consensus view are no points at all. "Begged not to be placed in the squad car"? How does an arrestee's not wanting to be arrested mitigate anything? This particular arrestee also pleaded (on video) that his mama had just died (untrue), that he had been shot (untrue), and that he was not on drugs (while he was covertly spitting out fentanyl-meth speedball pills later found in the squad car where he went berserk, pills mixed with his saliva and DNA). Similar is John's second point: "whether or not the Chauvin knee was actually blocking Floyd's air passage." This argument might seem doubly bizarre if not for the context of belief. Anybody can look at the viral cellphone video that pushed the case and see that the knee is on the back and side of the neck--in no position to block the airway at the throat in front. Even the prosecution had to acknowledge this. For a knee in that position to cause strangulation it would have to crush so hard that the larynx, thyroid cartilage and hyoid bone would be bloody pulp--and the autopsy was very blunt about this: no damage at all to any airway-related structures, not even very slight damage, not even infinitesimal bruising deep in the tissue--nor any other forensic signs of strangulation, let alone crushing. The "conscious neck restraint" Chauvin was using seeks only to hover so the restrainee can't leap up.


        JE's two points are such non-starters (not even sheltering in areas of ambiguity) that they might almost seem straw men designed to be easily knocked down to prove their opposite--but of course they're not. They're sincere footprints in a journey of belief, once belief begins to step outside the box. No one can say why some concerned believers--like the Dreyfusards--will take this uncomfortable journey, while others do not.


        Also in this vein, Leo Goldberger (July 22) might be interested in a Johns Hopkins Press account telling how the Dreyfusards described their mental journey, first assuming with everyone else that Dreyfus was the monster as claimed, but then slowly--"peu à peu"--beginning to look at the picture more closely.


        https://www.jstor.org/stable/4490752?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A863357affdcf10e7915e61c9de3019a2&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents


        JE comments:  Gary, I don't want to risk any fresh non-starters, but care to address the racial politics of these cases?  It took a couple of millennia, but we've finally learned that anti-Semitism in all its forms is bad.  More recently, society is confronting the scourge of police brutality against African Americans.  So here's the rub:  Dreyfus was on the right side of History, and Chauvin is not--and never will be.  With the stakes this high, the matter of guilt or innocence can easily become secondary.


        Put in another way, could society ever welcome Chauvin into the privileged space of victimhood? A hundred years hence, will we be reading about the Chauvinists...?

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        • Alfred Dreyfus and Alger Hiss (David Duggan, USA 07/26/21 3:36 AM)
          History doesn't play favorites; it doesn't have a side. It simply records what happened and offers later generations to interpret how and why what happened happened.

          Consider that if the Nazis had prevailed in WWII, or at least kept their French territory, Dreyfus would have been obliterated from French history books. Later generations may have found about him the same way current generations are re-interpreting Alger Hiss (was he a traitor? He certainly lied under oath which was what he was convicted of). But the re-interpretation of Hiss came about only because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the release of the Venona project files.


          Hiss of course had his supporters (Dean Acheson, Secretary of State, famously said, "I will not turn my back on Alger Hiss), and defenders keep coming out of the woodwork (or should I say "Woodstock" typewriter--made 50 miles NW of Chicago) to claim that the coded messages describe someone other than Hiss, but the fact remains that he lied about his not knowing George Crosley, one of Whitaker Chambers' noms de guerre (or pen-names if you will; he was a writer).  Hiss skated on an espionage charge because the operative events occurred outside the 10-year period of limitations.


          JE comments:  David, I'll have to disagree with you here.  History always plays favorites.  What happened happened, but "history" is something different.  Long ago Hayden White demonstrated that history has more in common with literary narratives than with the bald facts.


          Your comparison of the Dreyfus and Hiss cases is spot-on.  Seventy years later, Hiss's guilt is more or less assumed in the popular imagination.  The name even sounds sinister--Alger Hiss.  Richard Nixon parlayed his antagonism with Hiss into the vice presidency and later, the White House.

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        • Race and the Chauvin Trial (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA 07/26/21 4:43 AM)
          Gary Moore writes:

          John E has asked for refinement of my comparison of the two "trials of the century," in the 1890s and 2020s: Dreyfus and Chauvin. I appreciate John's dilemma when faced with my insistence on ignored evidence on Chauvin, for John knows Chauvin is a monster; he's seen the viral cellphone video and felt its deep shock. Arguments on evidence don't matter to a larger sense of rightness. The feeling at one's core has great weight.


          In the Dreyfus case, even as passing years brought mountains of new evidence, at least half of France ignored that evidence. Because it didn't feel right. They knew Dreyfus was a monster; their most trusted authorities had said so, and presented what looked like tons of proof (and it could easily look that way from a distance, when one didn't see that these were assumptions drawn from other self-righteous assumptions, not to mention more serious rigged props). Even a half decade into the Dreyfus excitement, as the world at large accepted the new evidence, much of France did not. Dreyfus's attorney was shot in the back and barely survived. Even after Dreyfus himself was officially exonerated in 1906, he was attacked and injured, and a court let his attacker off, suggesting the attack was just. Because he was a monster. They knew he was. Because it felt right.


          As with the racial arguments JE now raises on Chauvin (and not even the trial prosecutors ever brought up race or suggested it was a motive; one of the police assisting Chauvin was African American), anti-Dreyfusard France knew that the larger history was what mattered, the making of a statement, the taking of a stand.


          John wrote: "Dreyfus was on the right side of History, and Chauvin is not--and never will be. With the stakes this high, the matter of guilt or innocence can easily become secondary."


          "The matter of guilt or innocence can easily become secondary."


          Did I hear that right? Coming astonishingly from our elaborately fair-minded moderator, this is the ideology of the mob.


          When I exhumed the Rosewood racial cleansing case from the 1920s, at a time when many survivors were still alive, many if not most of the elderly whites shook their heads sadly about the case, saying they agreed it was horrible and they wished they could have stopped it. They said it was just some white hotheads and drunks who got out of control.


          However, if you continued talking to these sincerely saddened whites, it would begin to come clear that they felt the hotheads and drunks were provoked into it. The mainstream newspapers of the day--all feeding off a single Associated Press source--were unanimous nationwide in portraying Rosewood's destruction as a white response to a mysterious black uprising, about which details were never forthcoming. Because there was no uprising. The core belief, shared unwittingly by whites throughout a large area, was that the sin of the destroyers was not the destruction, but just that they carried retaliation a little too far.


          In mob incidents generally, the actual violence is often done by a desensitized few, but those few take energy from masses who seem to be only shocked onlookers. At Rosewood they were in fact tacit endorsers, who swelled the actual atrocidaires with proud feelings that they, the perpetrators, were taking action that the mainstream would have loved to take--if the mainstream was just not so cowardly and timid. Because it felt right, their serving as violent proxies for those feelings. The guilt or innocence of the people whose houses were burned was "secondary." A statement had to be made.


          JE comments:  I tried to choose my weasel-words carefully:  Guilt or innocence can easily become secondary.  Not that it is, or certainly that it should be.  Can anyone deny that the Chauvin case is about race?  There was no need for the prosecution to point out the obvious.


          I'm still satisfied with the blanket pronouncement I made yesterday:  Dreyfus was on the right side of History, and Chauvin is not.  Gary, you suggest that "history" here is little more than mob-think.  Yes, but... I'm going to take a break now and reflect.

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