Undying Defeat: The Power of Failed Uprisings

From the Warsaw Ghetto to the Alamo, doomed rebels live on in culture

John Wayne said that he saw the Alamo as ‘a metaphor for America’. PHOTO: ALAMY

Earlier this month, Israel commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. The annual Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism, as it is called, reminds Israelis of the moral duty to fight to the last.

The Warsaw ghetto battle is one of many doomed uprisings across history that have cast their influence far beyond their failures, providing inspiration to a nation’s politics and culture.

Nearly 500,000 Polish Jews once lived in the ghetto. By January 1943, the Nazis had marked the surviving 55,000 for deportation. The Jewish Fighting Organization had just one machine gun and fewer than a hundred revolvers for a thousand or so sick and starving volunteer soldiers. The Jews started by blowing up some tanks and fought on until May 16. The Germans executed 7,000 survivors and deported the rest.

For many Jews, the rebellion offered a narrative of resistance, an alternative to the grim story of the fortress of Masada, where nearly 1,000 besieged fighters chose suicide over slavery during the First Jewish-Roman War (A.D. 66–73).
The story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has also entered the wider culture. The title of Leon Uris’s 1961 novel “Mila 18” comes from the street address of the headquarters of the Jewish resistance in their hopeless fight. Four decades later, Roman Polanski made the uprising a crucial part of his 2002 Oscar-winning film, “The Pianist,” whose musician hero aids the effort.

Other doomed uprisings have also been preserved in art. The 48-hour Paris Uprising of 1832, fought by 3,000 insurrectionists against 30,000 regular troops, gained immortality through Victor Hugo, who made the revolt a major plot point in “Les Misérables” (1862). The novel was a hit on its debut and ever after—and gave its world-wide readership a set of martyrs to emulate.

Even a young country like the U.S. has its share of national myths, of desperate last stands serving as touchstones for American identity. One has been the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 during the War of Texas Independence. “Remember the Alamo” became the Texan war cry only weeks after roughly 200 ill-equipped rebels, among them the frontiersman Davy Crockett, were killed defending the Alamo mission in San Antonio against some 2,000 Mexican troops.

The Alamo’s imagery of patriotic sacrifice became popular in novels and paintings but really took off during the film era, beginning in 1915 with the D.W. Griffith production, “Martyrs of the Alamo.” Walt Disney got in on the act with his 1950s TV miniseries, “ Davy Crockett : King of the Wild Frontier.” John Wayne’s 1960 “The Alamo,” starring Wayne as Crockett, immortalized the character for a generation.

Wayne said that he saw the Alamo as “a metaphor of America” and its will for freedom. Others did too, even in very different contexts. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson, whose hometown wasn’t far from San Antonio, once told the National Security Council why he believed U.S. troops needed to be fighting in Southeast Asia: “Hell,” he said, “Vietnam is just like the Alamo.”

‘To the barricades once more, ladies, and this time men shall not deny us’ – The Sunday Times

Photo: Steffan Hill

Photo: Steffan Hill

If the women-to-the-back debacle of Jeremy Corbyn’s new cabinet has a silver lining, it’s the reminder that women are good for revolutions, but not all revolutions are good for us. For many on the left this is a painful truth, and one often avoided for fear of giving ammunition to the right. Yet for the future, let alone the history, of women, it’s a truth that has to be confronted.

Since the 18th century it has been the same old pattern. The people become restless. Women mobilise against injustice and the status quo. Their participation tips the scale in favour of change. The old regime collapses. A new order emerges. Political reforms ensue. Women demand their fair share. They go home empty-handed.

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‘Modern authoritarians aren’t out to kill freedom, merely cripple it’ – The Sunday Times

In 1984 the French intellectual, Jean-François Revel, now deceased, published How Democracies Perish, in which he predicted: “Democracy may, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before

Photo: Jean-Frederic Fortier

Photo: Jean-Frederic Fortier

our eyes.”

Less than a decade later, spurred by the fall of the Berlin Wall, he appeared to take the opposite view in Democracy Against Itself, claiming: “Democracy is not only conceivable, it is inevitable. It has been indispensable, but until now it was not inevitable.”

Not surprisingly, Revel, a staunch supporter of America’s battle against the Soviet Union, was ridiculed by critics for his inconsistency.

I didn’t give much thought to Revel after that; at least, not until this year when I began my trek across the world on behalf of the BBC. Then I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I began to see for myself what life is like when there is no such thing as a Bill of Rights, or separation between church and state, or between state and party.

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‘Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fighters’ – The Sunday Times

Phoney cause of the nipple freedom fightersNew York last week was awash with nipples. Actually, it was a tiny corner of downtown Manhattan. And it wasn’t so much a sea of breasts, as a handful (or an eyeful) of women who went topless in support of a campaign to “free the nipple”. For the uninitiated, #FreeTheNipple, was the brainchild of 29-year-old Lina Esco, who felt it was unfair that men can show their nipples in public in all 50 states, whereas for women it’s a mere 13. Esco struggled in comparative obscurity until her protest was annexed recently by Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. She is locked in an ongoing struggle with Instragram over the freedom to post naked selfies. The internet company maintains a blanket policy against nude photos as a way of deterring pornographers and paedophiles.

Meanwhile, in Washington, far from the media glare and Scout Willis’s breasts, another struggle for women’s rights was taking place last week. This one, led by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and others, is part of a White House effort to stem the increase in sexual assaults across US campuses. Roused in part by a 2007 federal study that revealed a shocking level of violence against female students — 20% are sexually assaulted at some point during their college career — in May the White House appointed a taskforce to confront the problem. In addition to holding hearings on the subject on Capitol Hill, the taskforce is focusing on how to use Title IX, a 1972 civil rights law, to force universities to provide better protection for female students.

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