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Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
  

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!

Book Review: Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski 

Recent cyber problems here at ZP (as well as work commitments) have left me with an enormous backlog of book-related posts and reviews with which to wade through this month, including re-starting the aborted “friends of zenpundit.com who wrote books” posts.  Here is the first of what hopefully should be many posts to help readers add to their antilibrary:
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I recently picked up Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power by journalist Andrew Nagorski and found it to be an enjoyable read. Nagorski is telling the tale of Americans in Germany, predominantly journalists and diplomats, who witnessed the death of the Weimar Republic  at the hands of the Nazis and the subsequent construction of the totalitarian Third Reich under the messianic leadership of Adolf Hitler. It is, to be sure, a cautionary tale that is well-known at a superficial level where “Munich” – the 1938 diplomatic agreement where British and French leaders surrendered Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s aggressive designs – is a shorthand today for ill-considered appeasement of dictatorial regimes.

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That said, the deep reluctance of American officials and the public back home to acknowledge intellectually the nature of Nazi Germany and the threat it represented at the time, to the frustration of reporters like William Shirer, is less familiar and too often acknowledged only sheepishly – perhaps because the same “see no evil” pattern was replicated in regard to Stalin’s Russia until well after WWII ended. Indeed, one of the book’s more pathetic figures, Martha Dodd,  the irresponsible party-girl daughter of the American ambassador, transitioned seamlessly from being an enthusiastic useful idiot for Nazism to a slavishly loyal Stalinist and lifelong Soviet agent. A phenomena that mirrored that of many young German men who in the latter years of the Weimar Republic found themselves shifting between Communist fighting groups and membership in the Nazi SA without any democratic or liberal waystation in between.

Some thoughts about Hitlerland in no particular order:

  • Nagorski, like most journalists, is an excellent writer and more skilled at weaving a story than are most historians. Hitlerland is extremely “readable” for the general layman who is the target audience of the author.
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  • If you are well read enough on the subject of the Third Reich to be familiar with Nagorski’s major primary sources you will not see much that is original here as the same texts have been relied upon very heavily by many other writers and historians of the Nazi period. I learned only a few details or anecdotes that were new to me. What Nagorski did that is new is to bring together the stories of the Americans in Germany into one book for a synthesis and explained it smoothly and concisely.
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  • One of the more famous of the primary sources, Dr. Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who wrote a memoir about Hitler and was a very early (if minor) member of the Nazi Party leadership, a P.R. mentor and court jester of sorts to Adolf Hitler, is given close scrutiny. Nagorski brings out the more sinister and machiavellian side of Hanfstaengl, whose ability to charm and play the clown and his influential Harvard connections helped him escape any kind of punishment for his numerous contributions toward Hitler’s regime.
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  • The inescapability of street level Nazi brutality, the crude and fanatical anti-semitism and the increasing enthusiasm of the German people, even relative anti-Nazi Germans, for accepting the regime’s propaganda claims with credulity after years of being submerged in them is an excellent feature of Hitlerland. Propaganda does damage simply by crowding out truth, even when it is not believed.

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Recommended.

Kristallnacht at Seventy-five

Monday, November 11th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — of fire and light ]
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Since Zen tweeted a link to my own Armistice Day, Veterans Day post from last year and posted his own The Vietnam War at Fifty today, I’d going to skip back a day or two in my own calendar this time, and commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, which fell on the night of November 9/10, 1938.

I believe this is a photo of the Hannover synagogue burning:

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I don’t know how we even begin to think about this.

George Steiner famously said “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning” — and also observed, “The world of Auschwitz lies outside speech as it lies outside reason” — and Adorno: “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”.

Contemplating that photo of the burning of the Hannover synagogue, then, I am thrown back on a story told of the rabbi — a disciple of Rabbi Gershon — who came to visit the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, and to whom that great master first revealed his spiritual station:

In the night the rabbi found no sleep. It seemed to him as if here and now the wonder of the far and the wonder of the near must flow together. In the middle of the night the command came to him, soundless and without form. He arose and went. Then he was already in the other chamber and saw: The chamber was filled with flames up to the height of a man. They rose dull and sombre, as if they were consuming something heavy, hidden. No smoke ascended from the fire, and all the furniture remained uninjured. But in the middle of the fire stood the master with uplifted forehead and closed eyes.

The rabbi saw further that a division had taken place in the fire which gave birth to a light, and the light was like a ceiling over the flames. The light was twofold. Underneath it was bluish and belonged to the fire, but above the light was white and unmoving and extended from around the head of the master unto the walls. The bluish light was the throne of the white, the white rested on it as on a throne. The colours of the bluish light changed incessantly, at times to black and at times to a red wave. But the light above never changed, it always remained white. . Now the bluish light became wholly fire, and the fire’s consuming became its consuming. But the white light that rested on it did not consume and had no community with the flame.

The rabbi saw that the head of the master stood entirely in the white light. The flames which leaped upward on the body of the master turned to light, and every little while the amount of light increased. At last all the fire became light. The blue light began to penetrate into the white, but every wave that penetrated itself became white and unchanging. The rabbi saw that the master stood entirely in white light. But over his head there rested a hidden light that was free of all earthly aspects and only in secret revealed to the beholder.

It was thus that the Baal Shem Tov become known to the wider world.

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If I might draw the moral here, suiting my tale (quoted from Martin Buber‘s The Legend of the Baal-Shem) to the occasion — there is fire that destroys, and there is light indestructible.

We choose, always we choose.

Concerning four flags and two tees

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a brief meditation on word and image ]
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Flags have been in the news quite a bit recently. There were the Marine Corps and Confederate flags carried by the protester outside the White House in the upper panel below:

and the flag some protesting Native American (Lakota?) grandmothers took from the white supremacists who hoped to establish a community of the like-minded in the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota — in what one account called an improv “game” of “capture the flag”.

So that’s two protests, right there. But the title of this post suggests it will concern “four flags and two tees” — and thus far I have mentioned three flags. The fourth is the flag worn as a tee-shirt decoration by one of the Grandmothers, and as shown below (upper panel) it is in fact the flag of the American Indian Movement:

while by way of contrast, the tee worn by the confederate-and-marine-flags chap is a logo rather than a flag — it’s a Southern Thread Men’s Special Deluxe Art Tee to be exact. As the ad says:

Alone or under a snap front shirt or a button down, you can show your southern roots or the vintage inspired western look.

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My mind is a side-winder, as you know, so all this thinking about flags and logos got me thinking too about the Logos (or Word of God) and his standard.

When the Emperor Constantine, for better or worse, co-opted Christianity or converted to it or both, his battle cry in hoc signo vinces (or in this sign you will conquer in late Barbarian, in case that’s your maternal tongue) raised the chi-rho as the sign, ensign, or battle flag — the logo if you will — of the newly baptised Roman Empire. The chi-rho — ☧ — combining the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, and meaning the Anointed One.

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Flags and mottos are consequential things. Which comes first: the image, or the word?

Strategy, Winston Churchill, and the power of positive thinking

Monday, October 7th, 2013

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Winston Churchill had terrible parents.

Randolph Churchill was a Tory meteor who shot brightly across British politics only to die of syphilitic inanity by age 45. The elder Churchill’s attitude towards his firstborn was cold and dismissive: while he may never have said anything as chilly as Arthur Wellesley’s mother (“my ugly boy Arthur was food for powder and nothing more”), Randolph Churchill agreed with Ann Wesley’s sentiments enough to pack young Winston off to Sandhurst to become cannon fodder.

Randolph Churchill

Randolph Churchill

Jennie Jerome was an American heiress who spent most of her time pursuing (and being pursued) by high London society. Winning Mum of the Year was item 113 on her 100 item todo list. When his mother finally allowed him to develop a personal relationship with her deep into his twenties, Churchill described their relationship as more brother-sister than mother-son.

Jennie Jerome Churchill

Jennie Jerome Churchill

Churchill reacted to his parental deep freeze by idealizing mum and dad. If the beacon of maternal love in Churchill’s memoirs will never be mistaken for the real Jennie Jerome Churchill, Churchill ignored the incongruity. If the romanticized father he worshipped bore only a slight resemblance to the real Randolph Churchill, Churchill’s desire for the approval of this shade conjured by his own vast imagination was enough to spur him to great deeds. Asked later in life what his greatest regret was, Churchill surprised one interviewer by wistfully wishing that Randolph Churchill had lived to see his son’s career success. Churchill even had a dream starring Randolph Churchill in 1947, 50 years after his father’s died. His father’s ghost appeared and interrogated Churchill about happenings in the world since his death. Churchill got to most of early 20th century history but, tellingly, he didn’t have enough time to tell his father of his key role in those events before the dream ended.

Churchill’s eager over-imaginings not only gave him wonderful parents but other equally sustaining fictions. Churchill believed in (and almost willed into existence) a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland that was as strong and vital in the early 20th century as it was under Pitt or Temple. In reality, the Britain of Churchill’s time was a run-down and dispirited shadow of glory, more fixated on bread and butter at home than dash and destiny abroad. In Churchill’s imagination, the Britain of 1940 was a Tyrannosaur among sheep. In reality, it was a dodo among eagles and bears.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

Lawrence Freedman has argued that Churchill’s strategy in 1940-1941 is vastly different from the strategy contemporary strategic studies holds up as an ideal. His strategy was the triumph of hope over experience, one of the great fantasy spectaculars of the 20th century. His soldiers were tired, his people were dispirited, his aircraft carriers carried biplanes, his generals were mulish, and his empire was restive. The only anchors in reality for Churchill’s strategy were the inability of Nazis to march over or part the English Channel and American reluctance to see faltering Britain replaced by revanchist Germany. All else was theater.

Mule

Mule

Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953. This is revealing: Churchill was a better writer than orthodox strategist. His delusions were as larger than life as his correct notions were. But Churchill’s resort to grand narrative was far more successful than strategic orthodoxy can capture or comprehend. More often than not, the strength of conviction behind a strategy’s more tenuous elements wins more in war than its tenuous connection to reality warrants.

Churchill’s strategy in childhood consisted of holding on to a series of deluded and contradictory beliefs about his parents in the hope that something good would turn up. Churchill’s strategy in World War II consisted of holding on to a series of deluded and contradictory beliefs about the British Empire in the hope that something would turn up. Self-appointed strategic professionals often diagnose a possible strategic outcome as impossible only to be confounded when someone clings to impossibility until the possible turns up. Mere clinging has a long and distinguished record of unmasking the impossible as only the improbable under the wrong circumstances and the all too probable under the right circumstances.


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