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Wanderlust of the ancients

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Wanderlust of the ancients | Aeon Essays

The Roman Empire enabled an early version of globalisation that offered travellers adventure, novelty and opportunity

- by Fabio Fernandes

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2 days ago
Fürth, Germany
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Martin Parr: Photographer of Leisure Pursuits of the Wealthy Classes

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For five decades, British documentary photographer Martin Parr has shown us the world from his unique perspective but saturated with color and contrast. Most of his subjects are at leisure – relaxing, eating, or having a good time.

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26 days ago
Fürth, Germany
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Powerful Photos of Children Waiting for the School Bus Near Sandy Hook

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morning bus

On December 14, 2012, photographer Greg Miller learned of the Sandy Hook shooting while his six-year-old daughter was in a separate Connecticut school.

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30 days ago
Fürth, Germany
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The best open-source Lightroom alternatives (three winners and two that broke our hearts)

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There's no escaping the fact that if you're looking to process your raw photos, Adobe's Lightroom Classic is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. But in addition to its raft of paid rivals, did you know that there are quite a few open-source alternatives available completely free of charge, some of which actually predate Lightroom's own existence?

For this article we took a look at five of the most widely-recommended, open-source Lightroom alternatives, and herein present our results: the three nearest rivals we could find, plus two apps we wanted to love but which left us heartbroken.

What is open-source software and what does it mean for you?

Not familiar with the open-source software movement? Simplifying greatly, the open-source community creates and maintains software as a labor of love and a gift to the community. Not only is open-source software free to download and use, but the underlying source code is also available to modify yourself, should you have the requisite skills. Of course most of us lack those skills, but that doesn't mean we can't take advantage of the wonderful work of those who do.

Like anything free, though, open-source software can span a very wide quality gamut. Some apps are much more actively-maintained than others, and some have much stronger and more supportive userbases. At their best, open-source creations can provide an impressive level of quality, and can even prove more responsive to user-reported bugs and shortcomings than commercial software, which largely shuts end users out of the development process altogether.

Like anything free, open-source software can span a very wide quality gamut. Some apps are much more actively-maintained than others, and some have much stronger and more supportive userbases. At their best, open-source creations can provide an impressive level of quality.

But being unpaid works of love, open-source projects sometimes also suffer issues with developers who may, over time, decide to move on from their creations, as well as with infighting between developers that results in rival versions of the same program – known as forks – appearing to compete with each other.

With all of that said, the open-source software movement continues to thrive. Indeed, these days much of the commercial software we spend our hard-earned cash on builds upon the work of open-sourced developers. The famous Linux operating system, for example, underlies Google's Android OS, and not only does it compete head-on against commercial rivals, it's actually the dominant OS in its space.

Clearly, open-source software is capable of big things when done right. So, can it defeat the likes of Adobe's Lightroom Classic? Let's roll up our sleeves and take a look!

RawTherapee: Vast control over your images, but needs a long-delayed update to really shine

License: GPLv3
OS: Windows, MacOS or Linux

RawTherapee 5.8's user interface in Editor mode.

RawTherapee made its debut in 2005, but it wasn't until 2010 that its original creator, Hungarian PhD student Gábor Horváth, open-sourced the project. Initially started as a hack of Dave Coffin's dcraw, it is still based on that open-source and platform-agnostic command-line raw converter to this day. But since dcraw itself hasn't been updated in four years, the dcraw support is nowadays supplemented by custom code to deliver improved image quality and broader camera support.

There's no overall image database used here, equivalent to a Lightroom catalog; instead RawTherapee stores its edits in sidecar files you place on your drives. Raw support is surprisingly good, as long as your camera is more than a few years old. Even tricky sources like Fujifilm X-Trans and Sigma Foveon sensors are supported, as well as Canon's Dual Pixel Raw and the resolution-enhancing multi-shot modes from Olympus/OM System, Pentax, Sony and others. There are some omissions, though; for example, I discovered that images from my Canon T8i and SL3 had issues.

While the development pace is also fairly good – there are typically 2 to 4 updates per year – things have been stalled ever since the start of the pandemic. However, a major release is coming soon, that should bring Raw support up to date along with a backlog of new features.

RawTherapee also includes support for lens corrections, which can be achieved in a couple of different ways. Firstly, if your lens is supported by the third-party Lensfun library, then lens defects can be corrected automatically. Alternatively, if your camera corrects lens defects before creating the preview embedded within the raw image, RawTherapee can detect and mimic that correction during raw conversion. I found that the corrections worked pretty well, although it failed to detect the lenses built into multiple fixed-lens cameras I tried, even though they're supported by Lensfun.

Image quality comparison: RawTherapee vs. Lightroom Classic.
Click here for the full RawTherapee image or here for Lightroom Classic.

Although there's no overarching "Auto" function in RawTherapee, it will attempt to match the tone curve of the embedded preview, and I found that my images mostly showed reasonable exposures and good color by default, with plenty of detail, too. And there are a truly staggering number of manual controls with which to adjust your images. Thankfully, there's also very good (and multilingual!) documentation available on the RawTherapee website.

So what are the weak spots? The user interface can be pretty intimidating with so many tools on offer, some of them with names like "Retinex," "Wavelet Levels" or "Impulse Noise Reduction" that may leave you scratching your head. As of the current release, there are also no local editing tools, although these are promised in a future release and available already in a third-party fork called ART.

There's also no support for camera tethering, and no map view for geolocation fans. You can only export raster images too, so there's no support for printing, slideshows, and book or web gallery creation. If you find yourself using these functions of Lightroom much, you'll miss them here.

I also found overall performance to be quite modest, with RawTherapee taking around 3.5 to 4 times as long as Adobe Lightroom Classic to render final versions of my images. But if you're willing to live with the sluggish speed, and put the time into learning how to use it, there's no question that RawTherapee is a powerful and stable tool capable of delivering great results.

Darktable: Swift, powerful and very actively-developed

License: GPLv3
OS: Windows (with limitations), MacOS or Linux

Darktable 4.0.1's user interface in Darkroom mode.

The main open-source rival to RawTherapee is Darktable. Created by another PhD student, Germany's Johannes Hanika, it hit the scene in 2009 and has averaged an impressive 6–8 updates per year ever since. (It's also the only application considered for this roundup that has never gone a year or more between releases.)

Darktable's biggest selling point for me has to be its proprietary RawSpeed processing engine. It isn't used for every camera – if a given model isn't supported by RawSpeed, Darktable will fall back to relying on a newer dcraw fork called libraw – but for supported cameras, processing performance is well over double that of RawTherapee. Sure, it still takes about 2/3 longer than Lightroom, but at least it's in the right ballpark.

Like its rival, Darktable has surprisingly good, multilingual documentation, but it goes one better by also offering up a lengthy list of supported cameras. While RawTherapee is totally reliant on sidecars, Darktable stores your edits in a database and uses sidecars only as a supplemental way of communicating its edits to third-party apps. (If these apps make a change to the sidecar outside of Darktable, though, it won't be read back in and will be overwritten by its next edit.)

Lens corrections are also supported, again via the Lensfun library so the list of supported lenses should be much the same. I did, however, hit one image from a Panasonic FZ1000 II that worked fine in RawTherapee but which Darktable would close every time I tried to open it, and which would cause its processing batches to fail if included.

Image quality comparison: Darktable vs. Lightroom Classic.
Click here for the full Darktable image or here for Lightroom Classic.

At the same time, though, it happily read several images from the Panasonic ZS70, Canon T8i and Canon SL3 which RawTherapee had some issues with. And while Darktable did an okay-ish job of rendering images at default settings, it tended to yield softer, darker and more muted images than RawTherapee out of the box.

But while in my opinion most images needed some minor tweaks to luminance and saturation, not a single one was miles off, where RawTherapee was multiple stops out on the ZS70 shot's exposure, and rendered the T8i and SL3 shots with extremely low saturation.

Overall, neither app is clearly better than the other in terms of camera and lens support. The good news is that since they're free, you can try both applications on your own gear with no more expense than your own time.

There's a noteworthy difference between the two apps' features, at least if you're a MacOS or Linux user, as Darktable offers printing and tethering functionality on those platforms – sadly, the Windows version doesn't get them. And while all versions also include a map view for geotagged images, I found that this crashed the app every time I opened it. (Darktable also crashed for me once in the slideshow tab, but was otherwise stable.)

All of its extra functionality makes Darktable a more realistic alternative to Lightroom than RawTherapee (especially for Mac and Linux users). But that's not to say everything's completely on par.

The really big feature is available regardless of platform and works just fine, though. Unlike RawTherapee, Darktable's current release allows not just global, but local editing. In addition to dust and spot removal, you can create hand-drawn or parametrically-generated masks, combine the two, and create raster masks.

And while for global editing there aren't anywhere near as many tools on offer as in RawTherapee, all the basics are there to give you plenty of control over your images. They also mostly have more intuitive names, and there's a search function to help you locate the tools you need.

All of its extra functionality makes Darktable a more realistic alternative to Lightroom than RawTherapee (especially for Mac and Linux users). But that's not to say everything's completely on par.

As well as the omitted tethering and printing functionality on Windows, Darktable forgoes Lightroom's ability to create photo books and web galleries. And while it does have a slideshow tool, this only runs locally and can't export a shareable slideshow. Nor is there any overall Auto function to get you in the ballpark, although some individual tools do have auto modes.

LightZone: Promising, but development and support lag its rivals

License: BSD-3-Clause
OS: Windows, Mac or Linux

LightZone 4.2.4's user interface in Edit mode.

Where RawTherapee and Darktable started off as side-projects for PhD students, LightZone had a very different genesis. Originally launched as a commercial app exclusively for the Mac in 2005, it was withdrawn from sale by 2011. A year later, its developers decided to release the fruits of their labors to the open-source community, who've since expanded its reach to Windows and Linux computers as well.

But while historically it's been one of the top three open-source Lightroom alternatives for years, of late it seems all is not well for the project. It was never the most active, with typically as few as 1–3 updates per year. But for the past two years, we've had only one update apiece (ignoring a very minor Mac-only bugfix).

And alarmingly, the project's website – still linked to from both the app itself and its github page – vanished in the first few months of 2022. Development also seems to have completely stalled, with not a single commitment made to the project since mid-June.

With the website offline, there's no official documentation beyond the included (and rather dated-looking) help file linked from the program's Help menu. And even before it went offline, the website offered only an ancient tech wiki for "LightZombie" (the open-source project's name in its early days), which hadn't been updated in about a decade.

Image quality comparison: LightZone vs. Lightroom Classic.
Click here for the full LightZone image or here for Lightroom Classic.

Still, despite the program's user interface feeling a bit dated too, I soldiered on, as its key "selling" point remains quite interesting: a spin on Ansel Adams' famed Zone System. But where Adams' system had 10 zones, LightZone opts instead for 16. As you mouse over each zone in the ZoneMapper tool, a preview indicates which areas of the image are covered by that zone. You can then adjust the positions of each zone compared to the others to get luminance where you need it. You can also make local adjustments based on luminance and color ranges.

I felt camera and lens support to be noticeably more limited than in LightZone's nearest rivals, although I couldn't locate a full list of supported cameras or lenses. Its image quality at default settings was also the weakest of the trio, with images being quite soft and the exposure frequently out by a fair way. It did a better job with saturation, but white balance was also less-than-perfect and skin tones were poor without manual intervention.

Although it is built on a combination of the raw engines powering both RawTherapee and Darktable, it's nowhere near as swift as the latter, let alone Lightroom Classic. Performance is still a little better than RawTherapee, however.

With its lack of documentation or a website for the application LightZone was by far the least enjoyable of the three to use, in spite of its interesting zone system functionality and inclusion of local editing tools.

LightZone also has the most limited selection of global editing tools of the bunch, and lacks Lightroom features like map view, tethering, slideshows or web galleries. You can print directly from the app, though, making it the only one of this group able to do so on the Windows platform.

Also, while it never crashed on me, LightZone gave me more headaches than RawTherapee and Darktable in other ways. For one thing, unlike its rivals, it didn't detect that my Windows installation uses controlled folder access, and I had to manually let it through Windows' filtering before it could access my files.

It also has an issue with touchpads, in which I could scroll up and down lists or panels, but as soon as I let go of the touchpad it would bounce back to where I started. This was most troublesome with lists that extended beyond the edge of the screen, as you couldn't even scroll with the keyboard arrow keys.

All of these issues, coupled with the lack of documentation or a website for the application, made LightZone by far the least enjoyable of the three to use, in spite of its interesting zone system functionality and inclusion of local editing tools.

DigiKam: An inability to write data was a dealbreaker

License: GPLv2
OS: Windows, MacOS or Linux

Digikam v7.8.0's user interface in Image Editor mode.

There were two other apps that I wanted to include in this piece, but had to drop after experiencing major issues that I couldn't resolve within a reasonable amount of time. The first of these is DigiKam, which dates all the way back to 2001 and has been actively developed for all but one year ever since.

It showed quite a bit of initial promise in terms of its feature set, which mirrors that of Darktable most closely. That said, I found it completely unable to write files to disk no matter what I tried, including manually allowing it through controlled folder access. It also crashed over and over, even when running with administrator privileges, so stability is likewise a significant issue.

Given that none of the other apps I tried had any such problems and I was using the most recent release, I had to give up on it and move on.

Filmulator: Promising, but the Organize tab needs improvement

License: GPLv3
OS: Only Windows or Linux officially, although third-party MacOS betas are available

Filmulator v0.11.1's user interface in Filmulate mode.

The last piece of software I looked at was Filmulator, which is also the most recent of the bunch, having launched in 2017. The hook here is that its image processing, which is based on libraw, aims to mimic the look of film photography. While its global controls are the most limited of the bunch, I'd have to say its default image quality was second only to Lightroom Classic for me.

Unfortunately, though, its Organize tab was basically unusable. Its only possible view is a monthly one, with no other way to locate a photo, and every month is shown in the awkward-to-scroll list regardless of whether it included a single photo or not. (It's particularly fun scrolling from 1970 to today if your camera's time and date weren't set for a shot.)

Clicking to view photos from the individual days in each month is also unnecessarily difficult, and together with its more limited editing features, I decided it's just not a viable Lightroom rival at this point. It's a shame, though, as with better organizational tools it could have been quite promising, especially for photographers who just want good results right out of the box.


I came into this roundup seeking a viable alternative to Adobe Lightroom Classic for those who, like me, prefer to abstain from software subscriptions, and who like to support open-source software when feasible. And while nothing I found could rival Lightroom Classic for performance and features, I was honestly a little surprised by how close some apps came.

Can any of these apps completely replace Lightroom in every way? No, but arguably they don't need to, as most Lightroom users never touch half of what that app has to offer, something Adobe itself has acknowledged in its own attempt to replace it with the rather more feature-limited, mobile-friendly Lightroom CC. Darktable, in particular, gave me most of the features I use with any regularity in Lightroom.

Can any of these apps completely replace Lightroom in every way? No, but arguably they don't need to, as most Lightroom users never touch half of what that app has to offer.

Compared to its for-pay rival, Darktable isn't going to give you quite the same image quality without needing to roll your sleeves up and start tweaking, but that's perhaps to be expected with a product entirely based on its authors' goodwill. Arguably, though, it gets you close enough that it's worth taking the time to learn.

Best of all, you can try it in parallel with your existing workflow of choice – be that from Adobe or one of its rivals – without having to spend a cent. If it's not ready for your workflow yet, well…nothing ventured, nothing gained. And just perhaps, you'll find that an open-source image editing tool gives you everything you actually need, and you can ditch those spendy subscriptions for good!

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33 days ago
Fürth, Germany
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Germany Is Arguing With Itself Over Ukraine

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Last February, three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz stood up in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, and made a remarkable speech. Scholz, a Social Democrat without much of a track record on military issues, told his country—conditioned since the 1990s to believe that it no longer needed a real army—that he would add 100 billion euros to the defense budget this year. Germany, he said, needed “airplanes that fly, ships that can set out to sea and soldiers who are optimally equipped for their missions.” He declared that decades of increasing dependence on Russian energy would cease and that Germany would begin preparing alternatives. And after weeks of refusing to send weapons to Ukraine, he declared that Germany would now be sending anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles.

Scholz called this a Zeitenwende, or historical turning point, and not everybody was ready for it. Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the chair of the Bundestag’s Defense Committee (and a Free Democrat, part of the government coalition) watched the faces of politicians from Scholz’s own party. She could see that many were stunned. Still, she thought that the “turning point” would begin right away. Instead, she told me, it was as if Scholz “said these big words and then had to sit down and rest.”

And this is where we are now: Ever since the speech, Germans have been arguing over what helping Ukraine really means, which weapons can be sent and which cannot, which might provoke some kind of extreme reaction from Russia and which might help win the war. Even as more and more German weapons have flowed to Ukraine, the argument about them remains far more contentious in Germany than anywhere else. It’s hard to imagine a major American talk show spending an hour talking about whether or not to send tanks to Ukraine, but one German talk show recently did (I know, because I was on it). Opposition politicians have been loudly critical of the government on this as many other things, but Strack-Zimmermann and other politicians within the ruling coalition have criticized the pace and nature of the assistance too. Anton Hofreiter, a Bundestag member from the Green Party, which is also in the coalition, told me that heavy-weapons deliveries only happened because so many people “pushed and pushed” for them. I had a glimpse of the emotion in these arguments during a series of meetings in Berlin last week, in which I watched people throw questions at Wolfgang Schmidt, Scholz’s chief of staff. More than once, he was asked about tanks.

[Read: Europe’s sleeping giant awakens]

Some background: Germany has tanks that it could offer to Ukraine, but it doesn’t. The German government has prevented other European countries that own German-made tanks from sending theirs as well. Yet Germany has sent many other heavy weapons, including some that look like tanks (the anti-aircraft Flakpanzer Gepard has gun barrels and the heavy metal treads that most people associate with tanks, and is already in Ukraine). Thanks to these deliveries, as well as other air-defense systems that were knocking missiles out of the sky over Kyiv this week, Germany has become the third-largest supplier of weapons to Ukraine, after the U.S. and the U.K. Meanwhile, Poland and other countries have given Ukraine Soviet-style tanks that they had in their stocks (and Ukraine has picked up quite a few more of these, left behind by the Russian army). Large, modern, Western “main battle tanks” that can be used to attack Russian forces could give Ukraine an advantage. But none are on the way. Quite a few Germans think this refusal is a form of dithering or hair-splitting, and when they talk about it, they get angry quite quickly.

So why not send tanks? During a panel that we shared, Schmidt gave a series of explanations. Some had to do with logistics: Tanks, he noted, require long supply chains and repair systems, and these would take a long time to set up. Some had to do with optics: “If tanks were captured with the German Iron Cross,” he said, “it would be the perfect occasion for Russian propaganda to say, look, this is NATO attacking us.”

But logistics can be fixed. The optics, at this point, are hardly a concern. Putin knows which side the German government is on, and anyway German tanks sent to Ukraine would be painted with the Ukrainian flag, not German insignia. In truth, the clinching argument is political. As Schmidt said, “nobody else is delivering” modern tanks—not the French and most significantly not the Americans. And the Germans, or at least Scholz and Schmidt, are waiting for someone else, especially the U.S., to go first.

Again, why? Germany could create a consortium of all the countries that own German tanks—among them Poland, the Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Greece —and deliver them jointly, a move that would help solve the logistical problem too, since more tanks and trainers would be involved. A group of Green and Liberal Democratic politicians this week issued a statement calling for exactly that, a “coordinated action among our partners and allies. Let’s move forward together!” But no Social Democrats appear likely to join them until the chancellor decides to act. And for the moment Scholz isn’t moving because this isn’t really an argument about tanks; it’s an argument about Germany. And that argument is not yet resolved.

The clue is in the statement’s historical reference: “As a country responsible for the worst human rights crimes in Europe—especially in Poland and the countries of the former Soviet Union—we have a special obligation to restore and secure peace” and to prevent human-rights violations. This group of Green and Liberal Democratic politicians is arguing, in other words, that the lessons of German history compel Germany to prevent another genocide in Europe, even if that means a military engagement. They and others feel this strongly and say it often.

But for the past three-quarters of a century, and especially in the three decades since the end of the Soviet Union and the reunification of their country, many other Germans have drawn exactly the opposite lesson from history. The lesson of 1945, as broadly understood until now, was that Germany should prevent war at all costs by refusing to engage in one, no matter what the stakes, especially in Europe. The lesson of 1989 was often understood in exactly the same way. If Americans think the Cold War was won because of nuclear weapons, the decades-long presence of American troops in Europe, and Ronald Reagan’s push to increase that commitment, many Germans, especially in Scholz’s Social Democratic Party, think that compromise and trade—most notably the construction of mutually beneficial pipelines to Russian gas deposits—ended the conflict.

[Tom Nichols: The stakes in Ukraine have not changed]

The interests of business, especially the big German companies that invested in the pipelines, play a role here too. Talk to a German industrialist or an economist, and you can often hear real angst: When will the war be over? When will we get back to normal? Alongside zero military engagement, the old lesson of German history also implied a green light for doing business with Russia, turning a blind eye to the growing evidence of Russian aggression, and assuming that a high level of economic interaction would sooner or later make Russians more friendly too. The mantra Wandel durch Handel—“change through trade”—gained traction both because it sounded nice and because it was so profitable. While Strack-Zimmermann and Hofreiter are among the many Germans who have accepted the collapse of this paradigm, not everybody else has. The specter of a similar break with China, which buys billions of euros worth of cars and machinery from Germany every year, now looms very large indeed.  Each new weapon sent to Ukraine is more evidence that normal isn’t coming back anytime soon.

Fear plays a role too. Perhaps because the memory of burnt-out cities is still alive in Germany, German media have played up the danger of Russia’s nuclear arsenal ever since the war began. Claudia Major, a defense analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told me that her team had compiled a 100-page-long list of nuclear threats to Germany from Russian public officials and state propagandists, speaking either on Russian television or to the media. These scare tactics work. The calls for some kind of deal—for a forced settlement of the war—are just as loud in Germany, especially on the far right and the far left, as they are in similar pro-Russian political circles in America.

Of course, this message very much suits the Russians who want to make the occupation of eastern Ukraine permanent—a fait accompli that would allow them to regroup, rearm, create a massive refugee crisis in Europe, and then attack the rest of Ukraine in a few years time. A temporary cease-fire would empower Russian President Vladimir Putin, who could claim victory now and continue the war later. Germany would not be safer, but more endangered, as the borders of an aggressive, emboldened Russia moved farther West. Even though some in Germany’s political center logically understand this, many are still scared—which is why every category of weapons becomes the focus of a new debate, and perhaps part of why the chancellor doesn’t want to be the first to use any of them. Will the transfer of airplanes trigger the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine or maybe even the bombing of German cities? Long-range artillery? Tanks?

But the rancor of the debate itself reflects the deep changes that have already taken place. Of all the Western democracies, Germany made the biggest bet on Russian trade and Russian gas, as well as the biggest bet on Putin’s rationality. Germany is now paying the largest economic price for the war too. Support for the Ukrainian military defense nevertheless remains very strong. In a September poll, 70 percent of Germans surveyed still said they want to help Ukraine win even if it means higher energy prices.

Scholz himself recently spoke about the Russian “crusade” against liberal democracy, acknowledging that Putin is committed to the destruction of the world in which Germany formerly existed and prospered. Schmidt likes to say that the vigor of the argument about tanks and other weapons in Germany reflects the fact that Germans are not used to leadership, that they are still “in our teenage years,” no longer followers but not quite ready to lead.

He is clearly right, though I would put it differently: In truth, some Germans are ready to lead, some Germans have re-learned the lessons of history, and some Germans are beginning to convince their compatriots that the world has changed, and that they have to change along with it. They haven’t quite won that argument yet. When they finally do, Europe will be ready to defend itself, Russia will no longer be able to count on the advocates of appeasement, and the Zeitenwende will finally become real.

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35 days ago
Fürth, Germany
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The Liz Truss Travesty Becomes Britain’s Humiliation

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For the first time in my adult life, there is a genuine sense of decay in Britain—a realization that something has been lost that will be difficult to recover, something more profound than pounds and pence, political personalities, or even prime ministers. Over the past three weeks, the U.K. has been gripped by a crisis of crushing stupidity, one that has gone beyond all the turmoil of Brexit, Boris, even the great bank bailouts of 2007, and touched that most precious of things: core national credibility.

Today, we had the absurd spectacle of a prime minister, barely a month into the job, abandoning the central tax-cutting purpose of her premiership and sacking her closest political ally, who had implemented this vision. This all in aid of a vain and surely doomed attempt to cling to power, after the markets concluded that her policies were insane. Never before has Britain found itself in such a humiliatingly risible position. It is the stuff of nightmares: the national equivalent of getting caught short onstage in front of your entire school because you chose not to go to the bathroom when you had the chance.

As hard as it is to get across the sheer scale of idiotic farce now unfolding, let’s try. Just last month, on September 6, Liz Truss replaced Boris Johnson as prime minister. Johnson had been forced to resign because Conservative members of Parliament decided he was unfit for office, after, among other things, he had been fined by the police for attending his own birthday party during lockdown. Truss won the race to replace Johnson by presenting herself as both the continuity candidate—the loyal follower who did not kill Caesar—and the new guard who would do away with all the boring bits of Johnsonism, such as raising taxes to pay for things.

What Britain needed, Truss argued, was a tax-cutting bonanza to set it free. Her rival for the leadership was Johnson’s chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who argued for fiscal responsibility and warned that such a reckless policy would lead to a run on the pound and a calamitous series of mortgage-rate rises. Given this choice, the electorate for the Tory leadership—the roughly 170,000 members of the Conservative Party—preferred the magical money tree.

So, on September 23—two and a half weeks after taking over as prime ministerTruss and her new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, announced an extraordinary array of tax cuts without any indication of how they would be paid for. They called this their “plan for growth.”

And then there was a run on the pound and a calamitous series of mortgage-rate rises.

The reaction to Truss’s plan was immediate and savage. The markets responded with horror at the sudden gaping hole in Britain’s budget. The pound collapsed against the dollar, almost reaching an unprecedented parity, and the cost of government borrowing rocketed. Huge interest-rate increases by the Bank of England began to be priced in as the only way to protect the currency, which, of course, meant stepping on the brakes after Truss had put her foot on the accelerator.

[Helen Lewis: Boris Johnson’s terrible parting gift]

This, in turn, led ordinary banks to start hiking their mortgage rates in expectation of what was coming, just as Sunak had warned, which then sent the property-owning middle classes into a tailspin as they rushed to lock in new rates before the numbers spiked even further. Suddenly, the tax-cutting budget to get Britain growing again had turned into a massive hit on Middle England. Even the International Monetary Fund departed from protocol to issue a sharp rebuke to Truss’s government.

Naturally, Truss’s poll ratings—already low—took a nosedive, sending her to unheard-of levels of unpopularity (currently, a minus-55-point net approval rating). The Labour Party, led by the reassuringly dull Keir Starmer, surged to a 30-point lead. In a single act of folly, Truss had destroyed her premiership and her party’s reputation while resurrecting Labour’s, which had only just been recovering from its own bout of insanity under Jeremy Corbyn.

In a desperate scramble to save herself by reassuring the markets that Britain had not gone mad, Truss began abandoning bits of her “mini budget.” First went the decision—spectacularly unpopular at a time of runaway inflation squeezing everyone—to scrap the top rate of tax for those earning more than £150,000. Then she brought forward the date when the government would reveal how it was going to pay for all its tax cuts, which created the obvious concern that a fresh round of austerity was on its way. And then, today, she went the whole hog, sacking her chancellor and abandoning even more of her plan.

In a single act of stupidity, Truss managed to blow up Johnson’s markedly redistributive election-winning platform—and therefore his coalition, which included disaffected Labour voters from the poorer north of England. Instead of spending more on public services, Truss detonated an economic bomb under the middle classes—first, by lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses and cutting taxes for the rich, and then, faced with market turmoil, by scrambling around for new spending cuts. It would be hard to design a more catastrophic act of political self-immolation.

Truss’s plan turned out to be like one of those booby traps in an Indiana Jones movie, triggering the collapse of a roof covered in deadly spikes. Whichever way she now turns, she seems destined to be impaled on a spike of her own creation. Having given up on much of her plan for growth, she has removed the very point of Liz Truss. But Liz Truss remaining prime minister means that the markets are likely to continue their squeeze. She has nowhere to go but political death.

[Tom McTague: For Britain’s Tories, the answer is always Margaret Thatcher]

Parallels for such an extraordinary demise of a prime minister’s authority are all but impossible to find. In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, one prime minister after another lost power after failing to achieve the central purpose of their government, or experiencing a policy fiasco so dreadful that it sapped their will to carry on in the job. Anthony Eden left office a few months after the catastrophe of Suez, too ill to continue. His replacement, Harold Macmillan, turned things around but left under a cloud after failing in his mission to take Britain into Europe. Harold Wilson held himself up as a man with a plan who would get Britain moving out of its stasis, but was defeated in 1970 having abandoned his failed plan for growth. Edward Heath followed suit, taking Britain into Europe but abandoning his central economic policies when things got tough in the ’70s. One after another, prime ministers came and went, none achieving all that they wanted.

But Britain has never had so epic a collapse as this, nor a prime minister as deeply, painfully unimpressive—the worst prime minister ever, as the historian Dominic Sandbrook put it. When the Queen died, it fell to Truss to speak for the nation. She couldn’t, and she will never get another chance. Her downfall is different from those of her predecessors, for both its speed and what it reveals about Britain.

Britain has been broke before. It was in this position after the war when it needed U.S. assistance, and then again in the late ’70s when it was bailed out by the IMF. It was battered by the markets in 1992 when John Major’s economic strategy collapsed.

What’s happening now is entirely new: the very real prospect that the markets will force a change of prime minister before an election. They have already forced a change in policy. Truss’s problems are so acute that Tory MPs are discussing removing her as a serious option, perhaps their only one. If Truss is removed any time soon, hers would be the shortest premiership in British history, beating George Canning’s 119-day tenure in 1827. And he died in office.

Those considering this drastic course are doing so, in large part, to restore calm and confidence to the markets, not simply to voters. This has not happened before and would surely act like a knife to the body politic, leaving a permanent scar on the country’s reputation.

[Read: The hobbit king]

An old friend who died recently once told me a story about economic decline that stuck with me. He had traveled the world as a journalist for Reuters and said Argentina was the best place he’d ever lived. But that was before its collapse into chaos, populism, and crisis in the late 1990s. I last saw him in 2019; he was living in Brussels then, but told me that he worried some similar decline was happening in Britain.

Back then, I dismissed his fears. I’d lived through the turmoil of Afghanistan and Iraq, the global financial crisis and Brexit. I’d seen Scotland coming close to seceding from the country, David Cameron’s austerity leading to calamity, Boris Johnson’s turbulent administration, and Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour to electoral oblivion. But through it all, Britain had plodded along, not exactly prospering as it once had but inching forward nonetheless. Its institutions did their job, the constitution held up, people’s lives went on much as they always had.

And then Liz Truss came along.

Now I think of my friend, and I begin to wonder. We are now almost 15 years past the seismic financial crisis of 2008 and on to our fifth prime minister. Britain was once a rich country, seemingly well governed with institutions that sat like sedimentary rock on its surface, solid and everlasting. Today it is very obviously not a rich country or well governed, but a poor country, badly governed, with weak institutions. In trying to reverse this reality, Truss has made it visible for all to see.

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43 days ago
Fürth, Germany
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