Tag Archives: History

Iceland – a re-cap

How to start when talking about Iceland. The people? the history? the landscape? the towns? So after my 2016 trip I have already posted 4 blogs in chronological order which can be found earlier on this site. But so much remained to be said.

I was, and am still – after 8 months – totally captivated by Iceland…so familiar yet so exotic. At times I felt I had journeyed to Middle Earth; at other times I thought I was observing a very modern society. New suburbs about 10 years old brought a note of the familiar, as did the heavy 5pm traffic flows. We passed satellite towns of smart new developments and ate at restaurants the peer of some of the best in large international cities.

The population is so small and the challenges of nationhood so large, that the country is fascinating. It punches far above its weight on the world stage and just this week voted for compulsory equal pay for men and women.

Since this week Is International women’s day, it is worth mentioning that Iceland was the first country in the world to have a political party formed and led entirely by women Founded in 1983, the Women’s List helped increase the proportion of female parliamentarians by 15%] It disbanded in 1999, merging with the Social Democratic Alliance and left a lasting influence on Iceland’s politics: every major party has a 40% quota for women, and in 2009 nearly a third of members of parliament were female, compared to the global average of 16% for women average of 16%. (from Wiki)

To jog my own memory now and in the future, I have simply cherry picked some facts that stick with me:

LANDSCAPE

  • The country is awesome with volcanic ranges, long fjords, waterfalls, geysers, bog lands, lava fields – some of it beyond description.
  • The volcanic country is rich in geo-thermal activity. Managing this has lead to Icelandic energy experts being sought after around the world and this expertise responsible for a significant contribution to the national income.
  • Iceland has a third of the world’s lava flow with an eruption on the south coast around every 2 years.
  • 24 species of whale swim off the Iceland coast and a polar bear had swum there from Greenland the previous week – only to be shot for his trouble. (In the interests of research and of safety we were told.)

 

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THE CAPITAL

  • About 240,000 of Iceland’s 330,000 citizens live in the capital,Reykjavik.
  • More than 2 million tourists pass through Reykjavik annually, that is more than 6 tourists for every citizen.
  • Parliament Square is the home of the Allthing (the Parliament), a surprisingly small and unpretentious building with a smart extension – surprising until you remember that the population is only 330,000, less than many local authorities/cantons in the western world.
  • Here in 2008 the people gathered to demand action on the financial crisis when the State took over the banks’ debts. In November that year, what is now known as the “pots and pans” revolution happened. People used these cooking tools to generate noise in the square. The police kept the calm. People started dressing in orange to signify peaceful protest.
  • Harpa Hall the concert hall, was being built on the waterfront as a convention centre, hotel etc. by a bank which went bust in 2008. The government bailed them out and this huge cultural centrepiece was completed by the national and city governments. 1.7million visitors a year enjoy this standout building of geometric glass shaped panels. It is a beautiful, imposing building even if perhaps out of scale with the town.
  • Hallgrim’s Church was commissioned in 1937 and took 41 years to complete. It is said to be designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape.
  • There is a settlement museum in town showing where the first houses lay under the foundations of the current town.
  • The National Museum has an artefact which is believed to be of the god Thor, one of the few remaining signs of the pre Christian culture.
  • The pedestrian area is lively as in many sophisticated tourist towns.
  • I enjoyed watching the crowd at one posh restaurant, the Grillmarket, where there was one entrée of 3 sliders filled respectively with puffin, minke whale and lobster. I sat at the bar watching dish after dish of minke whale leaving the kitchen. I enquired of the meat the girl next to me was eating. I was told it was the best horse in town.
  • Wine like most things in Iceland was expensive There were Australian wines: – a Wolf Blass President’s Selection at17,900 IK a bottle ($195) and the familiar old quaffer Jacob’s Creek cab sav for $359 (gulp).
  • Coffee was $5.90 in most places and glass of Spanish wine about $16.

 

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HISTORY

Early history

  • Icelanders have been here for 10,000 years; while Vikings settled the country, Celtic DNA is also present.
  • The Icelandic sagas tell the story of the tribes who settled here as early as 874AD.
  • The first parliament in the world, the Allthing, is said to have begun with the 930AD and then annual, meeting of the 13 Icelandic chiefs in the impressive fields at Laws were read and codified at these gatherings.
  • Christianity arrived in 1000AD and in 1262 the tribal gathering then pledged to Norway’s king. The Allthing was not revived until 1843.

Modern history

Our guide Bjarne (more later) described the recent history of Iceland as the 4 revolutions:

  • Mechanisation. In1902 the first boat with a motor appeared, then the first taller, then the fishing industry was mechanised as were the farms
  • Population explosion. In18990, 13% of people lived in towns larger than 50 people. In 1923, it was 50% and by 2000 only 6% of people lived in rural areas.
  • Energy revolution. Hydro plants were established selling to aluminium companies and the growth of energy knowledge stimulated the export of the expertise.
  • Bank revolution. Around 2000 peopled started to believe Iceland could become an international monetary centre. Government sold the banks to private investors and banks underwrote overseas investments. Local development boomed (some say with the import of eastern european labour including new influences of drugs and criminal elements. By 2008 with the GFC people realised things were wrong and the demonstrations for reform began.

 

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Thought to be the only found idol from the pre-Christian period.

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Along the escapement at Thingvellir where the world’s first democratic parliament met

ECONOMY

  • The economy relies mainly on tourism (30%), fishing (20%), aluminium smelting – enabled by cheap energy (30%) and export of alternate energy expertise.
  • Tourism is seeing a year on year increase of 20%
  • Fish has dropped from 60% of the export economy to 20%. The main fish export is cod but mackerel (which were never seen in Iceland until a few years ago) are now appearing in large numbers.
  • There was a building boom here between 2000 and 2008 preceding and in part generating the Icelandic fallout from the Global Financial Crisis.
  • Now after 9 years, the debts are paid and young people who went abroad are being encouraged to return. There now seems to be more new building happening although the few Icelanders I spoke to were wary, working harder than ever to set themselves up and hoping the cycle was not on repeat.
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Geysers bring tourists and geothermal expertise

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Puffins are a drawcard for the tourists

PEOPLE

  • Settlement is in a number of towns scattered around the coast and many months of the year are spent in constant darkness so like most of Scandinavia and Greenland, inhabitants suffer from the “dark depression”.
  • Between a quarter and a third of Icelandic men are admitted to an alcohol addiction centre during their lifetime.
  • Iceland has more authors per capita than anywhere else in the world
  • the national sport is swimming and recently Iceland has punched far above its weight in soccer.
  • There is a gene in Icelanders that can be found in the Irish and Scottish Celts but the jury is out on whether this came from the women the Vikings stole as wives or whether it is that carried by the Norwegian Vikings it is not known. Suffice to say that there’s a bit of Irish in the Vikings and in the Icelanders.
  • While there are 5 political parties, the recent emergence of the Pirate Party seeking full transparency and open access to government accounted for 40% of the vote, a first in Europe.
  • Whatever the genetic material, I found the people direct and friendly, possibly with a dry humour and certainly they have shown a passion for their politics – all of which sits well with my own Irish background

Our guide Bjarne described the Icelandic character as:

  • Curious about the world because of the island home
  • Hard working , strong and courageous because of the harsh surroundings and the power of natural forces
  • Kind to each other because it is a small society and living is hard
  • Opportunistic, competitive and sometimes greedy (he cited bankers and fishermen
  • Stoic

Our guide personified for me the direct, reserved, dry humoured, knowledgeable, strong person that I began to think was the Icelandic character.

For much of this information I am grateful to Bjarne an impressive man, one time a sculptor then an arts administrator and now a wonderful guide. He had a wonderful face.

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Berlin 4 – the Cold War…September 2014

Berlin was the symbol of the Cold War – that shadow cast over relationships between the USSR and the west from the 1950s through to the final decade of last century. This was a period of international hostility which some believed could erupt into war at any time.

With its division into two Berlins and later the surreal isolation of the western sector of the city by the building of the Wall around it, Berlin became the figurehead of the times. Below I write around some of the photos and some of the impression I took away. I apologise for representing history so simplistically.

The start of it.

Berlin’s post-war problems began at Cecilienhof, the summer residence of Germany’s last Kaiser, which was to play host host to the Potsdam Conference in 1945. Discussions between Churchill, Truman and Stalin sealed the boundaries of Cold War Europe for the next half-century. They divided a conquered Germany into 4 sectors – French, American, English and Russian. But Berlin was the clincher; the western sector of the city was to be an island in what was to become East Germany.

Cecielhof where the Potsdam Conference settled the Soviet/Allied division of Europe and of Berlin. The red star of plantings was said to be a Stalinist exercise.

Cecilienhof where the Potsdam Conference settled the Soviet/Allied division of Europe and of Berlin. The red star of plantings was said to be a Stalinist exercise.

The first blow-up was in June 1948 when the Soviet in response to monetary crises, blocked all allied access and turned off electricity to the western sector of Berlin. For a year goods and services could only be delivered via the famous Berlin Airlift.

Over 200,000 flights (1 every 62 seconds) landed at Tempelhof airport delivering food and fuel. The blockade ended a year late and two separate states formally emerged with the communist German Democratic Republic (East Germany) declared on 7 October 1949.

The Wall

Three and a half million….perhaps one in 6 people, especially and young and the professionals, left the GDR in the first decade of the new “country”. Then one night in 1961 without warning the GDR administration rolled out barbed wire and tore up adjoining streets. Access to West Berlin was terminated.

Seventeen million people were cut off; 4,000 children were isolated overnight from their families; 65,000 couldn’t get to work the next day. That first morning when people saw what was happening some jumped into the west from windows of buildings adjoining the wall. Those windows were soon sealed.

That barbed wire was the beginning of the Wall or as they called it in the East, the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart. The communist claim was that it was protecting their people from remaining Nazi elements. 

The Berlin Wall was more than 140 kilometres long. In June 1962, a second, parallel fence was built 100 metres behind it. Buildings between the fences were demolished The area between the walls was the Death Strip. This area was raked to show footprints; had spikes to stop vehicles and was in sight of the guard towers should someone dare try to escape.

A small section of the Wall at Potsdamer  Platz

A small section of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz

And a stretch of the original.

And a stretch of the original.

Checkpoints and Friedrichstrasse station

The most famous checkpoint and the only one allied personnel and other foreigners could pass through was Checkpoint Charlie on Friedrichstrasse, now a cheap tourist replica.

More interesting is the exhibition in the small museum behind Friedrichstrasse railway station on the site of the original border post. It reproduces the narrow security gates which Germans had to pass to move from one sector to the other by changing rail systems. It is said that 100 people died of heart attack with the anxiety caused at this crossing.

This was the GDR communists' nerve wracking  passageway from west to east.

This was the GDR communists’ nerve wracking passageway from west to east.

While the 9 border posts remained open, any deals (resonances here of Le Carre novels) between east and west did not occur there. Prisoner exchanges occurred at Potsdam in the centre of the now-called Bridge of Spies. To this day each half of the bridge is painted a different shade of green denoting the half owned by each Germany.

The Bridge of Spies at Potsdam

The Bridge of Spies at Potsdam

Escapes

From a painting on the Wall

From a painting on the Wall

At the wall memorial (Berliner Mauer) along Bernauer Strasse there is a 70 metre section of the original wall. Along it is a wall of portraits of many of the estimated (as of now) 139 people who died trying to escape. Walk along to see how the Wall used to be; learn the stories and see the photos of those who died trying such as:

  • in 1961 Ida was the first woman who died trying to jump over the barbed wire from a window above;
  • in 1962 a 21 year old Peter was shot in the death strip;
  • there is the story of the young boy who was shot when he chased his ball into the wrong place and
  • who cannot be moved by the tragic love story of the young man you tried to swim underwater to his love but froze in the river?

Stories are also told of the successful attempts.

  • One engineer knew the tunnels under the river and through manipulating a series of complicated gates organised his family to safety.
  • Students from the West carved a tunnel under the wall to a safe house and rescued those wanting to leave. The story is that they talked a TV station into paying for the project in exchange for first pictures of emerging faces.
  • My favourite was the story of the train driver who instead of stopping at the rail barrier between east and west, loaded his train with family and drove straight through. Other unwitting passengers were taken for the ride but later returned to the east.
  • Finally, another love story……. of the man who hid his fiancée and her mother in the boot of a sports car low enough to careen under the checkpoint barrier as at the last moment, he ducked.
A remaining guard tower inside the concrete walls

A remaining guard tower inside the concrete walls

The number of attempted escapes is quoted as 5,000 and many of the successful ones were the young police on guard duty.

The Stasi and life in East Berlin

On the eastern side of the wall, the Stasi worked at controlling the citizens. It is said that the absence of CCTV in Berlin today is a reaction against the draconian surveillance methods of the past and the reason so much table tennis is played in Berlin was that in the East this was the way people could interrupt any microphone surveillance.

Shredded files and microfiche found in Stasi HQ

Shredded files and microfiche found in Stasi HQ

Nowhere is the insidious story of the Stasi so well told as in “Stasiland” by Anna Funder.

Fifteen thousand people worked in the Stasi HQ which now houses a small museum again with stories of those whose lives were affected. There was one spy, often local “informers”, for every 7 citizens. When the Wall came down citizens were able to access the 111 miles of files and seek out their own story. Many found that neighbours and even relatives had informed on them such was the pervasive environment of threats and fear.

If you have 15,000 spied you  must have a lot of stamps!

If you have 15,000 spied you must have a lot of stamps!

Part of the east Berlin Stasi offices

Part of the east Berlin Stasi offices

This whimsically display in the Stasi museum was probably displaying the various chair seats left by the bureaucrats.

This whimsically display in the Stasi museum was probably displaying the various chair seats left by the bureaucrats.

In Nuremburg the “puzzle women” are working still at piecing the shredded files together.

Opposition to the Wall in the East.

The German people continued to show their scorn for the bureaucratic, moralistic and spying communist regime. At the minor end of the spectrum it was the symbolic growth of  nude sunbathing.

Here at the park in potsdam nude sunbathing continues. Anecdotally it is said to have grown as a protest against the rigours of the communist era.

Here at the park in Potsdam nude sunbathing continues. Anecdotally it is said to have grown as a protest against the rigours of the communist era.

More seriously….in the early days, overt protests happened. On June 16 1953 there was a strike by workers building new housing near Frankfurter Tor. On June 17 1053 there was a small revolution when 40,000 people marched to the Brandenburg Gate chanting: “We want food, we want bread; we will kill the Russian dead”. Troops opened fire. Later public meetings of more than 6 people were forbidden.

The workers strike in 1954 was by workers building the housing here at Frankfurter Tor.

The workers strike in 1953 was by workers building the housing here at Frankfurter Tor.

In the ‘80s Gorbachev in Russia began his policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (reform). The border with Hungary was opened and thousand of GDR citizens left that way. In East Germany small gatherings often in churches were signs of a liberation movement gaining confidence. In 1989 an East German official, wrongly briefed, said in a TV interview that relaxed border restriction in Berlin would come into effect immediately. An avalanche of people immediately descended on the Wall and there was no holding them back.

The Wall today.

There are a few remnants of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz which has been totally redeveloped since it was totally demolished through bombing and then by demolition for the Wall. The Berliner Mauer memorial along Bernauer Strasse is a strong tribute to the hardship of those times but unification is really celebrated in the East Side Gallery where artists painted over the remains of the concrete barriers. Sadly graffiti has damaged much of it.

The most popular painting of all -Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing as painted by Dmitri Vrubel.

The most popular Wall painting of all -Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing as painted by Dmitri Vrubel.

Below is a small sample of the other pictures I could not resist

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This November marks the 25th anniversary of the Wall coming down and Berlin will commemorate it with a light installation set up along the former path of the Wall as a “symbol of hope for a world without walls”. Made of thousands of illuminated, helium-filled balloons, a border made of light will run for 12 kilometres across the city centre for a weekend. At 5 points balloons will be released to the sky to commemorate the opening of the Wall.

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Berlin 3 – remnants of Hitler …. September 2014

On rereading this memoir I am surprised at how, unlike most things I write it is free of opinion, explicit or implied. It may be that there is so much factual material I want to record or it may be that the subject is so complex and large that I have refrained from playing superficially at the edges.

This panel in the Topography of Terror provides the context.

This panel in the Topography of Terror provides the context.

*************************************************************************** There is nothing left of the grand architectural vision Adolph Hitler and Albert Speer designed for their Germania/our Berlin except some lampposts along Strasse des 17 Juni. The ghost of Hitler himself is tightly lassoed. The very public icons of remembrance and reconciliation are the museums about the evil that was initiated by the Third Reich and the touching homages to the victims. Some of the shadows of the city’s history are to be found in memorials and museums I visited. At all the places below as at others, I was constantly impressed by the number of visitors and the quiet respect they showed for the evil acts to which they were bearing witness.

  • The Topography of Terrors – a museum built on the site of the old Gestapo and SS headquarters, which details both the perpetrators and the victims of their crimes. A visit here reduced me to tears. Not only are there the stories of individuals from all the persecuted minority groups but a picture of SS men and women enjoying Xmas in their party hats is a terrible counter-point. Much of the story is told in the ever present stark cardboard hangings
The Topography of Terrors on the site of the old Gestapo and SS HQ

The Topography of Terrors on the site of the old Gestapo and SS HQ

Former female guards in the first trail before a British military court of 45 of the SS camp personnel and Kapos from Bergen-Bergen camp.

Former female guards in the first trail before a British military court of 45 of the SS camp personnel and Kapos from Bergen-Bergen camp.

While the world knows that jews, homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses were rounded by and sent to the camps, we are not so aware that the "work shy" also faced that fate.

While the world knows that Jews, homosexuals, the mentally ill and Jehovah’s Witnesses were rounded up and sent to the camps, we are not so aware that the “work shy” also faced that fate.

  • The Jewish Museum . This silvery zinc building details the history of Jewish people from Roman times until today and explores cultural and political themes often in minute detail.
One of the splendid architectural achievements of modern Berlin.

One of the splendid architectural achievements of modern Berlin.

  • The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It takes a whole city block, 2711 stelae of different heights; land slightly undulating; sombre, yet at one stage I saw young children jumping from one to the other and thought  that maybe as a sign of their innocence it was OK. In one of the rooms under the memorial a brief biography about each of  the 6 million murdered, is being read. It is said that it takes 6 years to complete.
People walk silently through the memorialMost stelae tower above head height.

People walk silently through the memorial. Most stelae tower above head height.

A panel in the Topography of Terrors speaks of the seeming indifference of “ordinary” Germans to the treatment of the Jews, It speaks about  how the “mistakes” or “excesses” in the Nazi’s treatment of Jews  were seen as marginal in the context of the great political ‘events’ and the improvement in the social and economic lot of most citizens. These latter disposed people to view Hitler and his crowd’s treatment of the Jews with indifference. But there were exceptions……….

  • The Workshop of the Blind in Hackescher Hof was where Otto Weidt employed  a number of Jewish people in his brush making business and then hid them for as long as possible from the Nazis.
  • The German Resistance Museum– Again, we have the simple stories on cardboard of those individuals who did their best to stand up to the Nazis . In the courtyard is a tribute sculpture to the military men who tried unsuccessfully in the Valkyrie operation to bring about Hitler’s downfall.
The memorial on the sport where the military men charged with the assassination plot against Hilter, were shot.

The memorial on the spot where the military men charged with the assassination plot against Hilter, were shot.

A small sign in this museum to those who tried to stand against the Nazis.

A small sign in this museum to those who tried to stand against the Nazis.

Goring’s grand old Luftwaffe HQ from where he directed the Battle of Britain, inter alia has been put to a more practical use. It is now the department of finance managing the national tax.

Once Goring's Luftwafee HQ, now tax is collected here and during the Cold war it was incorporated into the Wall.

Once Goring’s Luftwafee HQ, now tax is collected here and during the Cold war it was incorporated into the Wall.

Around town there are other smaller remnants of the Third Reich:

  • A small memorial to students who tried to start an anti Nazi demonstration stands near the Lustgarten
  • Small brass plaques are embedded in the paving in the old Jewish quarter with the names of the Jews who were taken away. In 1933, the Berlin Jewish population was 163,000 or 0.77% of the city’s population.

    Bronze plaques in the cobble stones commemorating holocaust victims who lived nearby

    Bronze plaques in the cobble stones commemorating holocaust victims who lived nearby

  • Outside an Wittenbergplatz railway station is a sign that lists the names of all the concentration camps where Jews departing from this central point were taken
Yet another simple, stark reminder in a central area.

Yet another simple, stark reminder in a central area.

  • In Bebelplatz, opposite the grand library of Humbolt university a glass covered view of underground empty bookcases marks the spot where Nazi students burnt 20,000 books. Goebbels addressed the crowd of 40,000 before the fire.
Near this spot in front of the Opera renovation and opposite the university library, students fired up by the Nazis burnt books by Brecht, Mann and Marx. Under a glass pane  empty bookshelves are the reminder.

Near this spot in front of the Opera renovation and opposite the university library, students fired up by the Nazis burnt books by Brecht, Mann and Marx. Under a glass pane empty bookshelves are the reminder.

  • The broken spire of the bombed memorial church near the Zoo station and near Kurfurstendamm (the famed centre of West berlin during the Cold War) stands as a reminder of the Allied bombing.
  • Schinkel designed the neo Classical peace memorial on Unter den Linden for the Prussian court. The Nazis used it as a Hall of Fame for Heroes and now it is a memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. It houses only a pieta sculpture by the famed Kathy Kollwitz.
This is the pieta which sits in the peace memorial on Unter den Linden.

This is the pieta which sits in the peace memorial on Unter den Linden.

About 30 minutes outside Berlin on the edge of the  charming German village of Oranienburg is the former Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. I went there with a guided group. Nigel the guide was wonderfully knowledgeable.

The gates of the camp bear the slogan "work makes (you) free".

The gates of the camp bear the slogan “work makes (you) free”.

How in a simple travel aide memoire can one write about a place where such horrors occurred? Although nearly 30 years ago I visited Dachau, it perhaps wasn’t with the increased sensitivity of my now age.Suffice to say, at Sachsenhausen I was flattened and tearful. Among the prisoners, there was a “hierarchy”: at the top, criminals (rapists, murderers), then Communists (red triangles), then homosexuals (pink triangles), Jehovah’s Witnesses (purple triangles), and Jews (yellow triangles). This was the HQ of all the camps where many of the worst Commandants were trained for the 2000 other camps across 18 countries. Here industries included making bricks for Speer’s version of the new Germania, sorting glasses and teeth from other camps and testing army boots by excrusiatingly running all day until you dropped to test every possible circumstance. Women were prostituted and if pregnant, their babies killed. Medical experimentation occurred. Over 200,00 enemies of the Reich were imprisoned here from 1936; in 1941, 10,000 Soviet prisioners were brought here to be killed and the Soviets kept it operating for the first 10 years of their occupation when 12,000 people died here. At the end of the war  in the death marches when prisoners were taken into the countryside by the failing regime, 35,000 were taken from Sachsenhausen and only 6000 survived. In one of those sad ironies, the adjoining training camps used by the Third Reich are now the Berlin police training camps.

The memorial at Schachenhausen

The memorial at Sachsenhausen

My final Nazi era memory is of the carpark and adjoining road near the form administrative offices of the Reich. This very bland and almost unkempt precinct now covers the bunker where Hitler, Goebbels and their loved ones died. There is no sign, no acknowledgement. The “Feuhrer’s” personal memory has been fittingly supressed by the ordinariness of the place.

Hitler's bunker was under  a carpark here - no sign, no acknowledgement. Fitting.

Hitler’s bunker was under a carpark here – no sign, no acknowledgement. Fitting.

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