JUST LITTLE BITS OF HISTORY REPEATING: Hegel and The Iron Curtain
During my time at Lund University, it was in some radical cliques necessary to be familiar with Karl Marx's writings. However, any superficial knowledge was far from being enough, especially for someone who like me was not familiar with all intricate aspects of Marx´s Das Kapital, nor had attended any "Marxist basic course". This disdain for uneducated radicals was especially pronounced among the uncompromising "Socialists" whom my friends and I used to call "the felt people," since several of them, like today's righteous Muslims, exhibited their political affiliation through the way they dressed; Palestinian keffiyehs, soft purple suits of velour, workers´ overalls, Icelandic sweaters, sheepskin furs, Sami beak boots and/or Peruvian chullos and ponchos. Such fundamentalists demanded an additional knowledge of Hegel. My comprehension of Hegel´s teachings was wobbly, to say the least, even worse than my shallow familiarity with Marx´s thinking. Nevertheless, I had read some stuff about and by Hegel, at least enough to find that his philosophy was quite removed from my own opinions, a guy who wanted to have at least some trace of a radical aura, especially since I did not dress in chullos and overalls and nevertheless liked to talk politics.
Like a fundamentalist Islamist who seeks justification for his actions and beliefs in the in the Qur'an and various sacred writings, the felt fanatics justified their behaviour with Marx and Hegel. Hegel! This tedious and difficult-to-understand charlatan, whose cryptic texts I had with such a great effort tried to understand. Hegel's writings were, in my opinion, ambiguous, misleading and in spite of that – quite alluring. He was the kind of philosopher who dressed up his obscure thinking in words that did not make it much smarter. Obviously a common trick among those philosophers who engage their brain before starting their tongue.
What annoyed me most with Hegel? Apart from his opaque language it was his (before its time) basically social-Darwinist idea that mankind had progressively and inevitably evolved through a series of stages of improved consciousness. That human progress had been matched by various forms of social organization. This obviously appealed to Karl Marx and was to became the foundation for his “dialectics”, which eventually were transformed into dogma and religion by Stalinists and similar, ruthless social architects, who imagined their tyranny was based on unyielding laws of nature.
The so called dialectical materialism, whose ideologists, although they often declared that they cared for the unsuccessful, nevertheless were convinced about the validity of a pseudoscience based on the belief that human societies, even humanity, have constantly been improved by competition between individuals, groups , nations and ideas. That such a struggle inevitably leads to the creation of higher-standing forms of society. The basic principle behind this idea was that both human and social development are based on the annihilation of weaker individuals. Only those who are best suited for the constant struggle for survival and propagation have survived and been enabled to pass on their superior genes to their successors. However, Darwin's "natural selection" did not mean that those destined to transfer their genes were the stronger individuals, rather they were the most adaptable ones. Not the ruthless ones, but maybe those who cared for and respected their fellow beings. However, the idea about ruthless “blonde beasts” was already there and could not be swept away.
Marx and Engels obviously assumed that social development is dependent on material factors, something I totally agree with. Humanity undoubtedly advances its collected knowledge and constantly invents cures for fatal ailments. Recent medical progress had been astounding, with its effective pain relief and everything else, and so has the improvement of communications, data storage, etc., etc. However, let us not settle down and forget imminent threats and shadows. I must ask myself if Marxist/Hegelian simplifications of the historical process after all has not been a limiting straightjacket, making us believe that despite all the misery we find around us we are moving towards better, brighter times.
Calculating how many victims state repression have resulted in is extremely difficult. Over- and underestimations are more common than rare. However, even dictators need to know something about the havoc they have caused. So let us have a look at official statistics. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was found that the Governmental archives contained proof of 799,455 official executions between 1921 and 1953. During the same period approximately 1.7 million persons died in the Gulag, plus an estimated 390,000 deaths during the displacement of the so-called Kulaks, according to Stalinist definitions "any peasant with a couple of cows or five or six acres more than their neighbours," and up to 400,000 other deaths among people deported to new "settlements" during the 1940s. On top of this we have between 5.5 and 6.5 million people during the state-induced famine 1932-33.
Please, do not come and tell me that all this suffering, all these deaths, can be excused and justified by the achievement of "increased prosperity". Likewise it is impossible to defend the 45 million deaths during Mao's only four-year-long Great Leap Forward, nor to allow the so-called trickle-down economics to justify inequality and predatory behaviour.
The men and women who imagine that all this misery can be endorsed find themselves on the same side as Joseph Stalin, who in Osip Mandelstam's unforgettable poem sucked on death penalties as if they were raspberries:
We live without feeling the country beneath us,
our speech at ten paces inaudible,
and where there are enough for half a conversation
the name of the Kremlin mountaineer is dropped.
His thick fingers are fatty like worms,
but his words are as true as pound weights.
his cockroach whiskers laugh,
and the tops of his boots shine.
Around him a rabble of thick-skinned leaders,
he plays with the attentions of half-men.
Some whistle, some miaul, some shivel,
but he just bangs and pokes.
He forges his decrees like horseshoes —
some get it in the groin, some in the forehead.
Some in the brows, some in the eyes.
Whatever the punishment he gives — raspberries,
and the broad chest of an Osette.
There are still millions all over the world who praised and still are worshipping The Great Helmsman Mao Zedong, who rose in the morning, satisfied with himself and the murders, suffering and starvation he had caused:
After on 30 June 1958 have read the report in the People´s Daily that the district of Yukiang has succeeded in exterminating the sickness caused by flatworms [schistosomiasis] thoughts thronged my mind and I could not sleep. In the warm morning breeze next day, as sunlight falls on my window, I look towards the distant southern sky and in my happiness pen the following lines.
The poem that follows was a lyrical praise of progress in the mass campaign to eradicate bilharzia, which in 1956 had been initiated by Mao. However, the flatworms could just as well be replaced by human beings, since Mao did not reveal any more compassion for eradicated enemies than he bestowed on flatworms. Something he, for example, demonstrated in a speech he gave to party cadres in 1958, the same year in which the disastrous Leap Forward was introduced:
Ch’in-Shih-huang [the tyrannical emperor Qin Shi Huang] was an expert in respecting the modern and belittling the ancient. Of course I do not like to quote him either. (Comrade Lin Piao interrupts: “Ch’in-shih-huang burned the books and buried the scholars alive”.) What did he amount to? He only buried alive 460 scholars, while we have buried 46,000. In our suppression of the counter-revolutionaries, did we not kill some counter-revolutionary intellectuals? I once debated with the democratic people: You accuse us of acting like Ch’in-shih-huang, but you are wrong; we surpass him 100 times. You berate us for imitating Ch’in-shih-huang in enforcing dictatorship. We admit them all. What is regrettable is that you did not say enough. We have had to say it for you. (Laughter.)
A cynicism hidden behind human affection, not unlike the one demonstrated by all those who claim to be Christians, preaching compassion with their neighbours while they at the same time are paying tribute to Mammon and live in the best possible wellbeing, imagining that their convenience benefits those suffering from poverty and misery.
This abstract view of existence separates yourself from the real, outside world. A thinking based on the paradox "I and the others" leads to an delusion that transforms the suffering of others into charts, statistics and politics. Through such a simplified mind-set, chaos is transformed into order, a dangerous vulgarization of reality, which has been enthusiastically adopted by desk strategists, social architects and dictators.
Hegel considered that human history would culminate in a definitive, completely rational form of society. An abstract utopia that is obviously not as distinct from the writings spread throughout the world by Jehovah's Witnesses. A world where current governments eventually will be replaced by God's Kingdom and everyone worthy of living in this New World will enjoy equal rigthts and eternal peace while under the beneficial rule of Jesus Christ. The Prince of Peace will by then have destroyed all the lawless elements that now master the world and only peace-loving and blameless people will remain on earth. Never again will people spend billions of dollars on weapons. No violence, no revolutions or ethnic conflict will ever occur again Famine will be replaced by abundance. Thorns and thistles, poor soil, advancing deserts, drought and devastating swarms of grasshoppers, all this will cease and disappear for ever. Jehovah will, after ending all food shortages, invite us to an eternal banquet. Every survivor will build her/his own, comfortable home, plant fruit trees and tend beautiful gardens. Perfect health will prevail, physical defects will disappear. Death, tears and tombs will disappear from the face of earth.
A glorious future awaits the faithful. However, a true communist does not believe in God, not in any kind suprahuman grace and salvation. S/he believes in science, in politics, in "international solidarity" as "the working class´s fighting unit". Salvation must be achieved here on earth, without divine intervention. It is only through modern rationalism we might attain human perfection. The time for miracles began with the emergence of industrialism. Science and technology will ultimately provide well-being to us all, but in order to enjoy these blessings humankind must liberate itself from all those parasites and fellow travellers who through their selfish desire for profit have enslaved and abused us all and encouraged discord, competition and inequality. Nothing is more commendable than unbroken productivity and material progress. The ideal of infinite improvement leads us on towards an earthly paradise, an endeavour that is supported by legitimate protests, revolutions and international solidarity.
It is within this shimmering utopia we find Hegel, who assumed that in the end progress, i.e. history, would finally finish as in the fairy tales – "and so they lived happily ever after". What we experience as a chaotic existence is actually not at all chaotic. There is a definite order behind everything, but most of us are unaware of this. Reality is an organic unity of spirit and nature. All development is part of God's nature. What we humans perceive as opinions, desires or purposes are only part of the World-Soul`s [Die Weltseele] mighty outflow of force and power. Thought and reality are actually two sides of the same coin. Abstract thinking, i.e. logic, is a reflection of Existence´s real nature. We can easily imagine that something is perfect. Logic is thus a reflection of nature's perfection, a proof of the validity of natural laws. Thoughts actually exist, they are an integral part of reality, a part of nature. In all its diversity and incomprehensibility our world is after all the best of worlds. Our thinking strives for perfection, and nature is the ultimate perfection, it is God. Hegel´s philosophy has rightly been termed as Aboslute Idealism, and as such it is an entirely abstract construction.
Opposed to the desire of radical thinking to change and tear down, Hegel placed Law and Morality, safeguarded by the State. Individualism and subjectivity are essentially not advantageous for common wellbeing. They are fragmenting The World-Soul, which through historical development indicates how humankind should think and behave. One people/nation may destroy another, though that may be historically justified, since history is after all a product of human will and thus ultimately serves nature, i.e. God´s will and intentions. “God is our thinking about God.” What we perceive as change is in fact nothing else than the Law of Cause and Effect, which inexorably gives rise to its opposite until the day when harmony and equilibrium are reached. When an ideal state of affairs has been achieved change is neither desirable, nor possible. Our world has become like a bee hive where every individual constitutes a harmoniously functioning part of the whole. A society where each and every one of us serves an entirety that is much larger and far more effective than its individual parts – the State.
In fact, as the Prussian public servant he actually was, Hegel tried to turn his opinions into a political weapon. He succeeded in politicizing philosophy, something that did not make his thinking particularly lucid and easy to understand:
In actual existence Progress appears as an advancing from the imperfect to the more perfect; but the former must not be understood abstractly as only the imperfect, but as something which involves the very opposite of itself the so-called perfect as a germ or impulse. […] Thus the Imperfect, as involving its opposite, is a contradiction, which certainly exists, but which is continually annulled and solved; the instinctive movement, the inherent impulse in the life of the soul to break through the rind of mere nature, sensuousness, and that which is alien to it, and to attain to the light of consciousness, i.e. to itself.
Hegel's thinking may be considered in the light of what has been called German Idealism, which point of departure is assumed to have been Immanuel Kant's philosophy, which established that we can never know for sure what exists beyond our bodily senses. We cannot know whether God, or an immortal soul, exists and it is from here the German idealists went on. Johann Gottlieb Fichte assumed that nothing exists outside of ourselves. We create our ideas and thus we also create the world. Friedrich Schleiermacher also believed that reality consists of thoughts and thus it is actually created by us. We imagine that a constant state of creation takes place in accordance with pre-established rules, i.e. the natural laws and according to Schleiermacher these laws are identical with God, who together with man constitutes an all-encompassing entity. In fact, God is the Creator of everything and since humans are part of Him, we are actually identical with Him.
This German and increasingly abstract idealism can be traced far back in time. It is for example found by the mathematician and Jack of all Trades Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 - 1716), who assumed that God could have created any kind of world he wanted to create, but as a perfect being He chose to create the best possible world. Obviously does a world where there is a free will give rise to egoism and misunderstandings, and thus evil deeds as well. Nevertheless, such a world is far better than a world where free will does not exist and this is, according to Leibniz, the explanation to why a perfect God has created a world where there is so much evil.
As an excellent mathematician Leibniz was a master of abstract thinking and his world is like Hegel's an abstraction, a thought structure that he imagined to be identical with the reality and which his successors turned into an unwavering truth, a "science". This is where the wayward thinkers enter the scene. Free thinkers who did not recognize the validity of any authoritarian system. For example Søren Kierkegaard, who detested Hegel's philosophy. According to Kierkegaard, man's free will means that he has the sole responsibility for his choices. You cannot sneak away from your guilt, your liability for the evil deeds you have committed cannot be avoided by referring to the fact that you have been enslaved under a system that allowed misdeeds and transgressions. According to Kierkegaard it was a big mistake to introduce abstract philosophical rules, which allowed us to submit or will to the judgement of others and thereby deny our own free will and the responsibility we have to ourselves and others.
In his picaresque tale Candide or the Optimism, which Voltaire claimed to be "translated from the German of Dr. Ralph, with the additions found in the Doctor's pocket when he died in Minden in the Year of Grace 1759,” the witty Frenchman did with unrestrained vigour and great storytelling demolish Leibniz's theory that we live in the best of worlds. Voltaire´s derisible philosopher Pangloss does like Leibniz claim that everything exists for a reason – nothing emerges from nothing. Pangloss and Leibniz support their theories by referring to the obvious – that existence is better than non-existence, since all that exists is more real than everything that does not exist.
Voltaire refuses to accept such naïve quibbling and throws his guileless hero, Candide, headlong into a world of incomprehensible evil and unforeseen events. Through his love for Cunégonde Candide is due to various misunderstandings thrown out of his protected existence and despite one disaster following upon another he stubbornly choses to fight on, since he assumes he cannot continue to live without his Cunégonde. When Candide finally reunites with his beloved, she has suffered massacres, rape prostitution and syphilis, something that have made her bitter, choleric and ugly. In spite of all this the devoted Candide marries her. Cunégonde turns out to be a skilled pastry baker and together with her and the irredeemable Pangloss, Candide acquires a small farm with a luxuriant garden.
Pangloss sometimes used to say to Candide:
— All events are linked together in the best of possible worlds; for, after all, if you had not been driven from a fine castle by being kicked in the backside for love of Miss Cunégonde, if you hadn’t been sent before the Inquisition, if you hadn’t travelled across America on foot, if you hadn’t given a good sword thrust to the baron, if you hadn’t lost all your sheep from the good land of Eldorado, you wouldn’t be sitting here eating candied citron and pistachios.
— That is very well put, said Candide, but we must go and work our garden.
Thus Voltaire vented his low opinion of German idealism and the fatal thought structures that, despite the sharp Frenchman's warnings, were developed further by a large number of shrewd German academics. Like Hegel, who tried to prove that history was, while being monitored by God's omnipotence, due to end up in a future utopia – per aspera ad astra, through hardships to the stars.
However, I should not be too judgmental about Hegel´s contributions. Particularily since he occasionally claimed that we “never have learned anything from history.” A statement that actually made me write this blog post after reading a forgotten magazine I found in my bookshelf: Granta, No. 30: New Europe!. On December 1, 1989, the editorial staff of this "pocket book for new authorship" had asked fifteen famous European authors to comment upon what had happened during the past year - that is, the fall of communism and the disappearance of the Iron Curtain and what they thought that all this would lead up to. Their contributions were gathered under the title The State of Europe: Christmas Eve 1989. These articles about events that occurred thirty years ago seemed to refute Hegel's view that history is progressing in an advantageous manner. I rather got the impression that nothing has changed as much as one might assume it ought to have and that many of the authors' worst fears have come true.
However, on a second thought that impression is not entirely consistent with reality. During travels through Europe and especially within the former Eastern Block, I have got the impression that many changes have been for the better. The picture is multifaceted and definitely not as one-sidedly positive as Hegel suggested. Though – honestly – Hegel never stated that everything pointed towards a future utopia along a straight line. After all, humans make mistakes, but do we learn from our mistakes? This might conceivably happen from time to time, but definitely not always. Nietzsche, this strange and contradictory man, should probably not only be read in the light of who he was and what he did, but he must probably also be considered as someone who thought aloud and spontaneously wrote down his fancies, occasionally coming up with gold, though occassionly with stupidities as well. Nietzsche's universe is not definite, not regulated, thus his writing is not abstract. It refuses to be planned, ordered and sensible. It is highly personal and instead of writing coherent stories and analyses, Nietzsche wrote down aphorisms and opinions, which he grabbed in the air like thunderbolts and then pinned down on paper. If I read Nietzsche in an undisciplined manner I find one observation after another that takes hold of me, forcing me to contemplate about human existence and generally accepted views.
For example, when Nietzsche writes that we are more interested in the product than in its purpose, and how it was made. A reason to why we are such outstanding consumers of what others have achieved and created. We devour the fruits of knowledge assuming that the reason for a tree´s existence is its fruits, when it in reality is its seeds. At the same time we assume that everything moves in a straight line towards a common, beneficial goal, not realising
that which we now call the world is the result of a host of errors and fantasies which have gradually arisen in the course of the total evolution of organic nature, have become entwined with one another and are now inherited by us as the accumulated treasure of the past – as a treasure: for the value of our humanity depends on it.
Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche wanted to liberate us from routinely embracing what others have said and thought and thereby avoid taking responsibility for our own actions, our life and decisions. I guess this is the idea behind Nietzsche's parables about what he called the Eternal Return. Nietzsche describes a nightmarish scene:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!" Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?
The demon leaves his victim, but you cannot possibly get rid of the ever-recurring question: "Do you want this again and again, times without number?" Nietzsche writes that this query will stay in your mind for ever and become ”the heaviest burden upon all your actions.” Under such circumstances would you not devote yourself and your life to avoid getting trapped in the same track? Would you not try to break free by thinking with such care that you become independent and free from the stifling influence of others? Like in the song by Queen:
I want to break free.
I want to break free.
I want to break free from your lies.
You're so self-satisfied, I don't need you.
I've got to break free.
God knows, God knows I want to break free.
According to Nietzsche “the true, eternal life" is already present within you, "a life of love, free from all selection and exclusion." Fear of eternal return means that we can re-evaluate our lives and not consider them as an abstraction; something distant that we can never really understand and share with others. Instead of accepting a humdrum existence we need to turn it into something exciting, strong and animated.
While writing this I am not only reminded of Queen´s tune, but also the funky History Repeating on Propellerhead's only CD Decksandrumsandckandroll from 1998, which can be enjoyed on YouTube where Shirley Bassey sings:
And I've seen it before
and I'll see it again.
Yes I've seen it before
Just little bits of history repeating.
But, back to Hegel and the reason to why I came to write this blog post. Even he could like Nietzsche come up with a few gold nuggets:
Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience and history teach is this, that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone. Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present.
It is now thirty years since the Berlin Wall fell. The Granta magazine I now found by chance constituted exciting and strange reading. We were in Guatemala when the Iron Curtain suddenly dissolved. Europe was far away from us and the speed of the events appeared as surreal. For me, like for so many others who had been to Berlin and visited Eastern European countries, it was almost incomprehensible that the entire cold-war atmosphere that for so many years had entrapped Europe had suddenly begun to dissipate.
Having from Mikhail Gorbachev received an informal assurance that "1952 will not be repeated", the Hungarian Government began on March 3, 1989 to dismantle the Iron Curtain by opening up its western borders. In April 1989, the Polish government legalized Solidarność, which in June the same year conquered 99 percent of the seats available in Parliament. On the ninth of November, tens of thousands Berliners flooded the control stations of The Wall and finally began to tear down the frightening edifice . On the same day the Communist leader Todor Zhikov was removed from power in Bulgaria and 16 days later, Ladislav Adamee, Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia, resigned. The only former Soviet satellite state where the Iron Curtain's demise resulted in violence was Romania, where possibly 1,000 protesters were killed in the country's third largest city, Timoşoara (it has been almost impossible to find any reliable death figures online, where the causalties vary from a dozen to several thousands dead). However, on December 22, 1989, the Romanian army joined forces with the protesters and arrested the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, who was executed three days later after an improvised, farcical and filmed trial.
Several of the concerns expressed by the Granta authors have unfortunately come true. Russian dissident Andrei Sinyavsky wrote that when a multinational empire such as the Soviet Union crumbles and its satellites are suddenly liberated, this will inevitably lead to xenophobia and ethnic conflicts. The Communist myth of a "bourgeois siege" will be replaced by ludicrous nationalism and fears of infiltration from unwanted immigrants. Other authors, such as the East German Jurek Becker, wrote that the fall of communism and a subsequent mistrust of all forms of socialism, religion, state power and ideologies will result in a lack of guiding principles, while more and more people will lose themselves in consumerism and alienation.
The Czech Josef Škvorecký explained why he could not avoid doubting any positive outcomes from the radical changes his country was undergoing at the moment. As a 14-year-old, Škvorecký had experienced how Nazis had occupied Prague. Ten years later, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, with Soviet support, had conducted a coup d'état and had after that for four decades maintained a suppressive reign, backed by Soviet imperialism. Twenty years after the Prague Coup, the Czechs' hopes of freedom and change would again be extinguished by a Soviet armed invasion, and twenty years after that Škvorecký feared that the final (?) collapse of communism would give rise to ethnic tensions between Czechs and Slovaks that eventually would tear the nation apart.
The French-born George Steiner, whose parents had escaped from Russian progroms, predicted that Yugoslavia would soon be fragmented and suffer from ethnic violence, while the "prim neo-isolation of Thatcherite Britain" might have disastrous results. The German Hans Magnus Enzenberger warned that “Western democracies are facing an unprecedented dissolution” and that they could not expect that a crumbling Soviet Union would remain weak and powerless. Enzenberger also reminded the “new Europeans” that:
We must also withdraw from our untenable position in the war of debt against the Third World, and the most difficult retreat of all will be in the war against the biosphere which we have been waging since the industrial revolution.
The Russian-British historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, wrote that it was quite possible that the European euphoria might prove to be illusionary. Change must reach the depths of the human mind. The people of Eastern Europe did not rebel in the name of a great cause. They rebelled against the regimentation and dreariness of life. They wanted the consumer goods, the entertainment and freedom from arbitrary authorities offered by the West. They were raging at a system that had cheated them all their lives. According to Isaiah Berlin a sudden, overwhelming change like the fall of Communism had to be analysed, felt and understood by as many people as possible, not only by intellectuals and a privileged elite. What happened in Europe 1989 could not be allowed to become a “Revolution of the Intellectuals”, like the upsurge of liberal and democratic feelings that in 1848 toppled governments in Paris, Rome, Venice, Berlin, Dresden, Vienna and Budapest, only to be crushed by armies of conservative forces, which thus maintained the status quo. Berlin´s observation reminded me of the mainly unsuccessful Arab Spring, which in many places resulted in thwarted hopes and bloodshed.
Regardless of their various concerns, all contributors to Granta agreed that walls do not solve any problems, they only create and maintain misery and desperation. What they all wished was that the euphoria created after the disappearance of the Iron Curtain would not constitute a temporary phase, but rather encourage a free market, freedom of expression, compassion and human interaction. That was thirty years ago. The hopes remain, while new walls are being erected and environmental degradation threatens all life on earth.
“Yes, I've seen it before, just a little bit of history repeating.”
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