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Daniel Finkelstein On Hitler, Stalin, And His Mum And Dad

Daniel Finkelstein On Hitler, Stalin, And His Mum And Dad

His memoir is a defense of ordinary life against ideology.

Danny is a journalist, politician, and old friend. Formerly an adviser to Prime Minister John Major, he was appointed to the House of Lords in 2013. He’s a former executive editor of The Times of London and is still there as a weekly political columnist. He’s also a director of Chelsea Football Club. His latest book is Two Roads Home: Hitler, Stalin, and the Miraculous Survival of My Family (the title in the UK is way, way better: Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad). It’s an astonishingly well-researched thriller of a story.

You can listen right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — comparing the horrors of the Soviets and the Nazis, and whether Anne Frank would have been a Justin Bieber fan — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: growing up in Hendon (“my parents chose it because it wasn’t exciting”); his grandfather Alfred as “one of the great archivists of the 20th century”; his work contributed to the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials; The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the Hitler/Stalin pact; their carving up of Poland; the purging of the bourgeois; “If you spoke Esperanto or had stamp collection you were considered a spy”; the horrific cattle-trucks into the Soviet interior meant to cull the weak; the gulags; the state collective farms; working for your food; keeping captives on the bring of starvation; the Katyn Massacre; the devastation in Ukraine; Danny’s relatives who knew Anne Frank as a neighbor in Amsterdam; the dangerous extremes of group identity; “the liberating value of truth”; the main crime of the Jews was their success; the question of Zionism; the Jewish Labour tradition; Danny’s experience as a Jewish Tory; and his mum attending his induction into the House of Lords.

Browse the Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy (the first 102 are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: Neil J. Young on his history of the gay right, Eli Lake on Israel and foreign affairs, Adam Moss on the artistic process, Johann Hari on weight-loss drugs, Bill Maher on everything, George Will on Trump and conservatism, and Nellie Bowles on the woke revolution. Please send any guest recs, dissents, and other pod comments to

Last week’s pod was a big hit:

Thank you for a terrific conversation with Richard Dawkins! You brought out the best in him (as you always do with your guests). And your gracious apology at the beginning of the interview was so generous. It set the table for a respectful and fascinating conversation.

Be sure to check out his substack. His latest post addresses a mutual friend of ours: “Is Ayaan a Christian? Am I a Christian?” The two of them, by the way, are headlining a conference called “Dissident Dialogues” in NYC the weekend of May 3 (along with many other faces that Dishcast fans will recognize), sponsored by the great peeps at UnHerd.

Here’s a small dissent:

I enjoy the podcasts and look forward to them weekly, and I’ve been anticipating this one with Dawkins for a while! 

I had to laugh out loud at his assertion that in America “you can criticize Christianity but you can’t criticize Islam. You can’t criticize transsexualism,” etc. I invite you both to Christmas dinner with my extended family in Dallas! I know you’re talking about a liberal elite groupthink, and I know you know that American opinion is more varied than that, but thinking back to the countless gatherings where I’ve had to bite my tongue, lest I be run out of the county on pitchforks for a liberal thought, made me laugh at the portrayal on offer. Maybe I should stopped biting my tongue and embrace the boisterous Irish family approach instead, but it’s just not our way, sugar. 

I think he meant in public. But point taken. Another fan of the Dawkins pod:

It’s interesting to listen to two people who have good intentions and mutual respect try to understand each other’s religious beliefs. It’s also rare, which is why I so appreciated this episode! I was especially intrigued by how you and Dawkins reacted differently to the idea of a universe without a divine plan and without the promise of an afterlife. You find the idea bleak and depressing, while Dawkins does not. As an atheist myself, I have a hypothesis about this. Because we atheists never had this promise of a heavenly father who would look after us and reward us when we die, we don’t feel a sense of loss about it. But I can imagine to a Christian, to have this promise and then to imagine it taken away, would be horrible. 

The deeper point, I think, is whether it is possible to be a human being in a universe that is going nowhere and means nothing. I don’t think Richard even sees beyond the empirical.

Another listener has a question for me:

I’m not seeking to persuade you of anything, just curious, but why don’t you think Jesus accomplished the miracles he said he did? It seems to me that the people who wrote the Gospels believe He did, and given His status as God — the omnipotent pinnacle of the order of being and foundation of reality itself — it’s entirely plausible that Jesus did go around performing miracles. After all, if He wanted to demonstrate his divinity to His followers, as part of his teaching — they were clearly intended to persuade — he could probably do better than, say, boil a kettle. A miracle is out of the ordinary by definition. 

Anyway, thanks for all the good work. The Dishcast is a beacon of hope in our disintegrating society and a source of interesting and entertaining conversations with people who add texture and vibrancy to my thoughts and beliefs.

Perhaps I’d better say: I don’t think the miracles are necessary to see the radicalism of Jesus’ message and conduct. And that it is hard to see the world as a person in first-century Palestine would. What I’m against is insisting that Christianity is an intellectual acceptance of empirical events. It’s so much more than that.

This next listener has a guest rec:

A few things arise from your talk with Dawkins. First, you mentioned transubstantiation and seemed to present it as a unique ritual, something new in the world. However, as I am sure you know, ritual cannibalism was not unknown at that time, before and since. As with a number of ideas and rituals in both the Hebrew and Christian traditions, many came from earlier civilizations and were adapted to fit particular stories. Is it possible that Jesus’ offering of his body and blood was a similar story?

Second, while I cannot fault Mr. Dawkins on his logic, or yours, perhaps the newer findings in archaeology and anthropology, as described in the new publication The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, suggest that the theory of cultural evolution as similar to biological evolution needs revising. Specifically, if I follow the book’s argument, the idea that human cultures evolved from primitive and simple, to less primitive and more complex structures, may not be supported by these findings. They suggest that early civilizations were much more diverse and complex than that older idea would have us believe.

While Mr. D and you based some of your arguments on that idea of evolution from primitive to modern, a look at Dawn of Everything is in order. (I do warn you that it’s a very long book: almost 530 pages and about 100 pages of notes.) Maybe a discussion with those authors on the Dishcast could be in the future.

Another rec:

I suspect that Dawkins’ reference to the “God hypothesis,” and his dismissal thereof, relates to his nemesis: Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, the former geophysicist and college professor. Meyer has written extensively about intelligent design and is author of the book Return of the God Hypothesis. I highly recommend the book, but caution that it dives deeply into biology, cosmology, physics and reasoning. I hope you’ll consider inviting Meyer on your podcast. He is engaging, highly intelligent and downright enjoyable.

Also, a thought about faith for your consideration. Faith is not about belief or trust. Faith is something else — the bridging of one’s consciousness with the supernatural natural. Can one define how consciousness works? No. Nor can one describe the fabric of the supernatural. Therefore, faith. And you and I are so blessed to have it!

Well, I have it from time to time, and I go through periods where it feels as if I don’t. Here’s a rec for a future topic:

I greatly enjoyed your discussion with Dawkins. I wonder why some people can change religious faith with apparent ease and others appear permanently rooted. Camus said in one of his notebooks from the late 1940s, “If, to outgrow nihilism, one must return to Christianity, one may well follow the impulse and outgrow Christianity in Hellenism.” Perhaps a future column or episode might talk about whether any other faiths have appealed to you, or seemed likely to meet your needs. 

Many listeners keep asking to get Sam Harris on the pod again, so maybe we could talk about Buddhism. I’m gonna ask him to do your quadrennial election preview. Or maybe that would be too depressing.

One more topic rec:

Love the show! I have been a listener for years, and have heard you reference Michael Oakeshott many times to make many interesting points. I most enjoy the shows where you have philosophers on, and so I wonder if there’s a guest with whom you could explore Oakeshott’s ideas in depth?

There are several of course. I just don’t want to get too much in the weeds, but thanks for the nudge. A podcast would certainly help expose him more widely, and help people see that there is a conservative tradition well worth, er, conserving, which is larger, deeper and wider than the current manifestations.

Another listener is “catching up on the Abigail Shrier episode”:

Around the 47-minute mark, you spoke about how trauma you experienced as a child may have shaped you as an adult. I know that is what happened to me. My father is a covert narcissist. He was bullying, cruel, manipulative, erratic, alcoholic and pathologically dishonest. Laypeople often think that PTSD results from singular traumatic events, such as those that might occur in a war or sexual assault. But there is also something called CPTSD (the C is for “complex”), and it is analogous to death by a thousand cuts.

That’s what I have. When I was a teen and into college I had a serious anxiety disorder — trichotillomania. I would compulsively pull my thin little whiskers out of my face until it was red and raw. Oh how I wish an adult in my life had noticed what I was going through and gotten me to a therapist. 

Trauma, as Gabor Mate remarked, is “not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside of you as a result of what happened to you.” Shrier may be onto something about a change in our culture, but she does not come across as particularly knowledgeable about the many varieties of childhood trauma and how harmful it can be. 

I’m in the middle here. I do think childhood trauma can be central to adult dysfunction — and unpacking that, getting on top of it, is really helpful. But the trauma doesn’t define me; it doesn’t control me. It just affects me, and acknowledging that helps me avoid the worst aspects of self-sabotage.

The praise for Christian Wiman keeps coming:

That was one of the best Dishcasts I’ve listened to, and it left me with a tear in my eye at the end. I will buy his book, and his poetry. I had never heard of Christian Wiman before, so thank you for opening up a new chapter for me as I re-embrace being a Catholic.

This next reader kicks off an excellent thread over my latest column, “What Have I, What Have I Done To Deserve This?”:

Loving the PSB headline. Made my entire day. Thanks for another great read.

From a reader in NYC:

I’ve lived here since 1978, so I was here for the boombox years. Perhaps I was just younger and more tolerant, but I never got riled up about boomboxes. They weren’t nearly as ubiquitous as phones and Bluetooth speakers are now. And the music was better back then.

These days, if it weren’t for over-ear headphones and noise-cancelling AirPods, it would absolutely be WWIII in the NYC transit system. Between the high-pitched casino noise of video games, ear-splitting TV novellas, non-stop FaceTime blathering, and blasts of bass-heavy rap, every subway and bus ride now presents the real threat of a high-risk cardio event. Noise is the #1 quality of life complaint in NYC. And that’s sayin’ somethin’ these days! So thank you for this fantastic post. I’m sure you’ll get many responses.

Indeed we did. As one reader puts it, “YOU ARE NOT ALONE.” Another is reminded of a movie scene:

As I read your complaint about people pumping out their taste in the music into public spaces, I immediately thought of this scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (released in 1986; the problem has been around for a while):

Another reader wishes she could fight back:

You’re a man after my own heart where loud music in public is concerned! Thank you for expressing my views exactly. My husband suspects that my antipathy for the loud blasting in public is because I don’t like that particular kind of music. No, it would be just as rude for me to blast Bach or the Beatles (or how about John Philip Sousa) so that EVERYONE is forced to listen. How would they like that?? Maybe as a 66-year-old lady I could get away with pleasantly asking people to turn it way down (assuming I could feign composure), but I doubt it. 

From a fellow beagle lover:

People look at me like I’m from another planet when I tell them I prefer to walk the dog while NOT listening to music, a podcast, audio book, etc. — I just like to walk, enjoy the familiar surroundings and yes, keep an eye on my Beagle Mistress to see what street delicacy I can keep from adding to my vet bill this month. (Dead things are her favorite.)

Things got really tense with this reader:

At the beach we’ve visited for almost 30 years, there are now often dueling, giant speakers, usually playing a mix of bad country and bad rap (which somehow makes sense; everything about the spectacle is tasteless). Last summer while I was concerned about the music, my short-tempered husband was going to say something regrettable to a nearby offender when my on-the-spectrum son wandered over and asked them to turn it down. The man, who was probably 35, lunged out of his beach chair toward my then 20 year old. I’m not sure what he intended to do, but he was so drunk he fell face first into the sand.

Then a woman who appeared to be his mother started screaming at her son and sent him back to their beach house. The next day she made him turn it off when she arrived. Which was great, but a 35-year-old father of three shouldn’t need a babysitter in public.

Another reader also conveys the violent stakes of confronting the loud and obnoxious:

When we first moved to Fresno a few years ago, ghetto blasters were (largely) unknown to me. They became a daily feature and nightly torture.

Never have I ever had my life threatened before.

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