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Two Mini Reviews

Monday, June 29th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

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:

1. Stalin: Volume I Paradoxes of Power

Stalin: Vol. 1: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928  by Stephen Kotkin

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.

II. Salinger

Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno

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 Forest where his regiment suffered 200% casualties and GI’s fighting in summer uniforms without blankets or winter coats froze to death in foxholes. A CIC field 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.

Salinger the Documentary

New Books

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

          

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft ad the Call of National Security by Bartholomew Sparrow

The Fall of the Athenian Empire by Donald Kagan

The Memoirs of Ernst Rohm by Ernst Rohm

Heinrich Himmler by Peter Longerich 

The Origins of the Final Solution by Christopher Browning

The Hitler Book: The Secret Dossier Prepared for Stalin by Henrik Eberle

Some new books….

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.

I’m a fan of the pessimistic Donald Kagan and recommend his Yale Open Courseware series on Ancient Greece from time to time to my own students who show an interest in the Classical world. One of Kagan’s students, now an academic nautical archaeologist, John R. Hale, also produced a fine history of the Athenian navy and the intertwining of thalassocracy, empire and the Radical Democracy and I recommend that book to my students as well.

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 Rosenberg and 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 Holocaust and 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.

What are you reading and buying these days?

New Bookapalooza

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

                    

Stalin: Volume I – The Paradoxes of Power by Stephen Kotkin

World Order by Henry Kissinger 

Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins by J.E. Lendon

A Culture of Freedom by Christian Meier

On Sacrifice by Moshe Halbertal

Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock

My Command Operations by Otto “Scarface” Skorzeny 

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Allen Dulles: Spymaster by Peter Grose

The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks 1932-1939 by J. Arch Getty and Oleg Naumov

The Vikings by Jonathan Clements

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.

What new titles have you acquired?

Reading “Hard” Books vs. Pretending to Do So

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The other day, some friends shared an old post by controversial conservative activist, writer and publisher of  The Federalist,  Ben Domenech, that struck a chord:

The Top Ten Books People Lie About Reading 

Have you ever lied about reading a book? Maybe you didn’t want to seem stupid in front of someone you respected. Maybe you rationalized it by reasoning that you had a familiarity with the book, or knew who the author was, or what the story was about, or had glanced at its Wikipedia page. Or maybe you had tried to read the book, even bought it and set it by your bed for months unopened, hoping that it would impart what was in it merely via proximity (if that worked, please email me). 

I have not, though I frequently catch many people in conversation and even more online who do.

What does happen too often is a sense of despair welling up as my Antilibrary looks down from the shelves with disapproval as I wonder when I will ever get around to reading them. Maybe this weird bibliophiliac guilt is what spurs people to lie about books they have read. Or perhaps they merely are lazy and want intellectual street cred without the work:

….Take Neil DeGrasse Tyson as one example, whom the internet loves with an unrestrained passion usually reserved for fluffy cat videos. He was asked a few years ago on reddit to share his recommended reading list.Given his brief commentary on the eight books he recommends, he seems largely unfamiliar with the actual content of the works by Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Niccolo Machiavelli, and particularly Sun Tzu, who views the avoidance of killing as the best form of warfare.

The truth is, there are lots of books no one really expects you to read or finish. War and Peace? The Canterbury Tales? The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? Announcing that you’ve finished those books might surprise a lot of people and make them think you’re abnormal or anti-social, unless you’re an English or History major who took their reading very, very seriously. Perhaps the shift to ebook format will diminish this reading by osmosis – and book sales, too – since people can afford to be honest about their preference for 50 Shades over The Red and the Black since their booklists are hidden in their Kindles and iPads.

E-reading and reading a book are different experiences. I read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul on a kindle once. It was convenient, as I was traveling, but the kindle seemed better suited for fiction; with a serious book, I felt the need to mark up pages with marginalia. I last used the Kindle for reading Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and Freedom and then gave it to my Eldest child:

So here’s my attempt to drill this down to a more realistic list: books that are culturally ubiquitous, reading deemed essential, writing everyone has heard of… that you’d be mildly embarrassed to admit you’ve never read.

10. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: The libertarian moment has prompted a slew of people to lie about reading Ayn Rand, or to deploy the term “Randian” as a synonym for, say, competitive bidding in Medicare reform without even bothering to understand how nonsensical that is.

9. On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: Many pro-evolutionists online display no understanding that the pro-evolution scientific community rejects the bulk of Darwin’s initial findings about evolution.

8. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo and A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: Virtually every bit of literature about the French Revolution could be tied here, though ignorance of it might inspire fun future headlines, such as “De Blasio Brandishes Knitting Needles, Calls For ‘The People’s Guillotine’ To Be Erected In Times Square.”

7. 1984, George Orwell: A great example of a book people think they have read because they have seen a television ad. On Youtube.

6. Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville: Politicians are the worst about this, quoting and misquoting the writings of the Tocqueville without ever bothering to actually read this essential work. But politicians do this a lot – with The Federalist Papers and The Constitution, too.

Read the rest here.

I have read # 10, 7, 3 and 2 multiple times each and expect I will read them again.  I’ve read de Tocqueville and Tale of Two Cities once. I have looked up stuff in Wealth of Nations but never read it despite having read von Hayek, von Mises, Galbraith, Friedman, Veblen and Marx. I can’t muster much enthusiasm either for Melville or James Joyce, though if forced to choose, I’d select the former.

There’s a lot of intellectual merit – and consequent pride, sort of a nerd throw-down bragging rights – in conquering a “hard” book. I’ve read many that didn’t make that particular list, but perhaps should – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Clausewitz’s On War, Aristotle’s The Politics, Herodotus and Thucydides and (in a more modern vein) Barzun’s  Dawn to Decadence or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  But there’s many more I have not yet read and worse, may never get to, for lack of time or inclination. My hat is off to those who have slogged through Hobbes’ Leviathan or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason because I’m dubious that I ever will; and while I will probably get around to The Muqaddimah, I’m not sure if I will ever dive into Montaigne or Spengler or most of the great twentieth century novelists. Our time is scarce and so we must choose.

This is of course, what makes book-phonies so worthy of ridicule. There’s something pretentious and absurd about holding forth on a book you have not yourself read as if you were an expert. It’s not remotely as morally serious as the “Stolen honor” frauds who are regularly exposed faking military heroics, but the “Stolen intellect” pretenders to knowledge have a similar motivation and in the end, they are only fooling themselves.

What “hard” books do you take pride in having read?

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.


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