I am mostly finished with Reign of Error and The Five Percenters. The former is a devastating and methodically documented critique by historian and former Bush I administration official Diane Ravitch of a crony capitalist network’s effort to hijack public education and its revenues under the guise of reform. The latter is a friendly journalistic history of the often feared and widely misunderstood Five Percent Nation, which split away, at times violently, from the better known Nation of Islam of Elijah Muhammed and Louis Farrakhan. Knight’s objectivity is somewhat suspect here as he himself became a rare white Muslim Five Percenter (a.k.a. “Azrael Wisdom“) and apologist, but his closeness to the group’s insiders cannot be denied.
The Haunted Wood was once groundbreaking and provocative and is now a classic of Cold War studies. Allen Weinstein, the former Archivist of the United States, died a month ago but he was better known as one of the historians who exposed thatAlger Hisswas indeed the Soviet spy, traitor and secret Communist inside the Roosevelt administration State Department that Whittaker Chambers and Richard Nixon said he was, an achievement that did not endear Weinstein to the dwindling band of hardcore leftist Hiss apologists at The Nation magazine.
Milovan Djilas was a man who epitomized the same conflict as the Hiss-Chambers trial. The right hand to Titoin the Yugoslav Communist Party, Djilas was the highest ranking Communist official to become a dissident and critic, moving politically from convinced Stalinist to an advocate of free elections and liberal democracy. Djilas shrewdly analyzed the Communist nomenklaturaas an oppressive and parasitic oligarchy in The New Class.
I have a tremendous backlog of good books to review that I have read in recent months and I am facing the fact that it is dubious that I will ever to get to feature most of them here. As a stopgap, I am going to try a few mini-reviews instead of the more noteworthy, or at least interesting, titles. Here are two:
Eminent diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis praises Princeton’s Stephen Kotkin for his new biography, calling it “A monumental achievement”. This is certainly correct. Kotkin has done more than break new ground with Stalin: Paradoxes of Power; in my view it is arguably the best book on Joseph Stalin ever written.
Admittedly this is high praise. It is true, that Kotkin is not in the same literary class as Simon Sebag Montefiore, who demonstrated his great prose skill with masterfully written and deeply researched biographies of Stalin, but Kotkin is always a clear, effective and always forceful writer. Where Kotkin excels is in the granularity of his biographical narrative, unearthing aspects of Stalin’s childhood and early revolutionary days, the intra-party rivalries with leading Bolshevik personalities, especially Stalin’s complicated relationship with Vladimir Lenin and Stalin’s skill as a politician and grand strategist. The narrative is accompanied with Kotkin’s piercing psychological analysis of Stalin’s criminal psychopathology emerging from a combination of complex rational political calculation and a bottomless well of narcissistic self-pity that ate away at Stalin’s soul.
If volume 2 equals the first book, Kotkin will have written the definitive work of Stalin for years to come.
The book that accompanied the documentary of the same name, David Shields and Shane Salerno have put together a remarkable page turner that explains the mystifying author behind one of America’s most iconic literary works.
“Don’t worry if all of the first wave of you are killed, We shall simply pass over your bodies with more and more men”
J.D. Salinger’s counterintelligence unit spearheaded the landing of the 4th Division on Utah Beach on D-Day, Salinger participated in five major battles in the European theater including the deadly Hurtgen Forestwhere his regiment suffered 200% casualties and GI’s fighting in summer uniforms without blankets or winter coats froze to death in foxholes. A CICfield interrogator, Salinger operated with great freedom and authority and after participating in the liberation of the concentration camp complex known to history as Dachau, he checked himself into a mental hospital. To paraphrase Shields and Salerno, J.D. Salinger carried six chapters of The Catcher in the Rye in to battle with him, a book that took him ten years to write and which he then regretted for the rest of his life.
The bio of Brent Scowcroft, if my impressions from picking up and opening to two random sections are valid, is going to be very. very good (they were on Scowcroft’s estimation of the working relationship of Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon and Scowcroft’s strategic adice to the first President Bush during German reunification). I was very impressed both with Sparrow’s prose and his ability to let Scowcroft’s voice shine through the text.
The next three books are related. Last year I read the frequently useful, but also at times turgidly tedious, I Knew Hitler, by Kurt G. W. Ludecke. The cause of Ludecke’s downfall with his semi-friend Adolf Hitler was the former’s constant embrace and enthusiastic promotion of the populist roughneck, leftist and “idealist” figures in the Nazi Party, like Ernst Rohm, the Strasser brothers and Alfred Rosenbergand Ludecke’s belief that the “movement” came before the Fuhrer. Ludecke dedicated his massive memoir to the memory of Rohm, who was the catalyst between the old Freikorps paramilitarism of the old German nationalist Right and its hideous and radicalized offspring, National Socialism. Rohm is a key figure in the development of Nazism and a complicated one, being one of the few early Nazi leaders to have been on familiar (“Du”) terms with Adolf Hitler and his sudden fall had wider implications than were realized at the time – including inspiring Stalin to reshape Soviet society with terror and murder (“Hitler, he shows us how to deal with political opponents!”). Rohm’s memoir has been partially translated into English and deals with the early years when the Nazis were but one extremist party in an ecosystem of radical right German politics.
Peter Longerich is one of the top German experts on the Holocaustand it is fitting that he has completed a monumental biography of Rohm’s former deputy, Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer-SS and the chief implementer of the Holocaust of European Jewry. Chris Browning, another expert on the Holocaust also has much to say on the role of Himmler and competing Nazi functionaries in the evolution of genocide as a state policy of the Third Reich. Finally, The Hitler Book was an NKVD/MGB top secret analysis put together by Soviet intelligence for Josef Stalin, mirroring, to a small extent, the OSS psychological profiling of Hitler and top Nazi leaders during the war.
Recently, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage blog asked me how many of the strategy related books on my shelves had been read vs. being in the antilibrary. The answer was “most”. My antilibrary tends toward history and biography where I buy books more quickly than I can read them, while more instrumental books are bought and read shortly thereafter. I also trend toward “collecting” in Soviet studies, classical antiquity, Second and Third Reich Germany, US diplomatic history and books related to the Nixon administration.
An unusually large book-buying spree on my part, fueled in part by a stash of Xmas gift cards.
Reading Thinking Fast and Slow already and will probably start the Kotkin book on Stalin tomorrow and I have already finished On Sacrifice, which I will review elsewhere. I’ve resolved to get more books read this year as 2014 was kind of a nadir in that regard (more on that in another post) by my previous standards and looks rather woeful next to T. Greer’s list.
Scott Shipman was instrumental in my picking up World Order, as he convinced me that after I had slogged through all the volumes of Kissinger’s memoirs that he still had something to say.
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