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The ghost at all our feasts: three lectures by Adam Tooze

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

[linked by Lynn C. Rees]

One of Mark’s most influential book recommendations for me was The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam ToozeWages of Destruction made most other books on the Nazi complicated run German economy of 1920-1945 look infantile. I read Tooze’s newest book The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 1916-1931 over July. A review is in the works. While you stay up nights waiting for that, Tooze gave three lectures at Stanford University’s Europe Center worth absorbing based on The Deluge:

  1. Making Peace in Europe 1917-1919: Brest-Litovsk and Versailles
  2. Hegemony: Europe, America and the problem of financial reconstruction, 1916-1933
  3. Unsettled Lands: the interwar crisis of agrarian Europe

The rise of the American empire 1849-1922 is the great question of our time.

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REVIEW: The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Monday, August 4th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss 

Some biographies are as much about the era or the milieu as the man. The Orientalist is one of them.

This is not to say that Tom Reiss has written a bad book. On the contrary, it is an enlightening and informative one, even for someone well read in the history of Russia and Germany in the twentieth century, will find that The Orientalist has a rich store of little known anecdotes. In an effort to unlock the mystery of “Kurban Said“, the alleged author of the modern Azeri national epic, Ali and Nino: A Love Story, whose identity is hotly disputed, Reiss became a cultural archaeologist excavating the graveyards of Empires, Tsarist, Wilhemine and Ottoman. It was a search that brought Reiss to a remarkable character, Lev “Essad Bey” Nussimbaum, who had narrowly escaped the Bolshevik CHEKA, made fame and fortune as a literary freebooter in Weimar Germany only to sink into obscurity during WWII, dying in poverty and illness in Fascist Italy.

Lev, who was the son of a millionaire Russian-Jewish oil magnate from Baku, was a cultural chameleon, reinventing himself numerous times, converting to Islam, passing himself off variously as Muslim prince, a Transcaucasian “Wild Jew”, Orientalist scholar, monarchist and anti-Communist writer, briefly a literary star on Germany’s radical far Right. Even in the early days of the Third Reich, despite accusations of being a “Jewish story-swindler”, the many anti-Soviet books of “Essad Bey” were warmly endorsed by Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda for reading by the Nazi Party faithful. The famous individuals who reputedly crossed Lev’s path are remarkable - Joseph Stalin, Fyodor Vinberg, Vladimir Nabokov, Walter Benjamin,  Giovanni Gentile, Walter Mehring,  Benito Mussolini, Egon Kisch, George Sylvester Viereck, Grand Duke Cyril Romanov, Max Brod, Stefan Zwieg, Hertha Pauli, and Ezra Pound among others.  “Essad Bey” was the denouement of the respectable intellectual tradition of 19th century Orientalism, particularly that of Jewish European scholars and ethnographer-explorers. Lev Nussimbaum was less a Martin Buber (whom Lev knew) than he was the Karl May of the East, a dime store mythologizer of  Transcaucasia, old Qajar Persia and Islam for popular audiences accustomed to a tabloid press.

Essad Bey as a character reflects the contradictions and juxtapositions of an interwar Europe, especially Germany, ravaged by the Great War and Communist Revolution in ways that would be highly improbable today.  Lev was a talented writer, a  Jewish refugee who was an exponent of Islam and an admirer of Fascism, more glib than insightful, more clever than wise, at home playing the outsider but his place never secure. When the official black sedans of the Fascist secret police rolled up to an ailing Lev’s hotel and found him dead, villagers assumed the OVRA men where there to arrest “the Muslim”; in reality, it was to take Lev to make wartime propaganda broadcasts for Italy in Persian.

Recommended.

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March 16th: Purim, or Israel vs Iran redux?

Sunday, March 16th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- still trying to cover some of the major feasts and fasts of the world's religions in calendar time, which can open on occasion into timelessness -- Chag Purim Sameach! ]
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Jan Lievens, The Feast of Esther, ca 1625

From the North Carolina Museum of Art site:

The subject of this painting comes from the Old Testament Book of Esther. Ahasuerus (Xerxes), king of the Persians, took Esther as his queen, not knowing she was a Jew. Haman, the king’s evil minister, plotted to annihilate the Jews by issuing a decree of execution in the king’s name. Esther invited both men to a banquet in order to reveal Haman’s plot to Ahasuerus and to plead for the life of her people. The king’s anger is seen in his clenched fists; soon, Haman would meet his fate on the gallows. Although this picture was long attributed to Rembrandt, its scale, bold colors, and dramatic energy have much in common with others painted by Lievens at a time when he may have shared a studio with Rembrandt in Leiden.

**

I don’t want to get itno too much detail on this one, since Purim caught up with me before I’d done the necessary research to write a properly up-to-date account of its “prophetic” significance in terms of contemporary geopolitics this year — but I would like to point us a couple of years back, to PM Netanyahu’s gift of an Esther scroll to Pres. Obama:

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I’ve chosen to illustrate that gift of an Esther scroll via blog headlines, then and now, from the site of Joel Rosenberg, popular Christian novelist and apocalyptic influencer of politicians, who clearly finds “signs of the times” in WaPo and NYT — essentially reading with “news / scripture” bi-focals.

This kind of religious enthusiasm and double-reading is also present in the controversial Gen. Boykin. Accordding to a DOD report of August 5, 2004 titled Alleged Improprieties Related To Public Speaking: Lieutenant General William G. Boykin, U.S. Army Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence“, GEN Boykin gave repeated speeches in which he claimed:

After telling the story of Esther — a biblical figure who, according to LTG Boykin, became queen of Persia and was told she had been “raised up for for such a time as this” to save her people (the Jews in Persia), LTG Boykin analogized the story to the election of President Bush who, he said, had been placed in the presidency by God. “for such a time as this” (referring to the war on terrorism).

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The geopolitical influence of rival eschatologies, then, can be found in Netanyahu, Boykin, Rosenberg, and (plausibly at least) also in Khamenei… and is well illustrated in the books of the “Two Joels”:

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Here’s the rub, though.

When you view the world through apoc-specs, and then influence the policies of Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions (words which have, interestingly enough, their own bi-focal meanings, temporal / terrestrial and celestial / demonic), and the world changes in unexpected ways — Ahmadinejad, with his imminent Mahdist expectation, is replaced by the far more suave and less apocalyptically aroused Hassan Rouhani — it takes some deft footwork to avoid being caught wirthout a chair when the music stops…

As I observed in the mid-1990s:

Bernard McGinn makes a shrewd comment on Luther’s process, in his article on Revelation in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode’s Literary Guide to the Bible:

Earlier interpreters, such as Joachim (but not Augustine), had also claimed to find a consonance between Revelation’s prophecies and the events of Church history, but they had begun with Scripture and used it as a key to unlock history. Paradoxically, Luther, the great champion of the biblical word, claimed that history enabled him to make sense of Revelation…

So: which direction should theologians “read” the analogy between Revelation and history in?
Should they, like Luther, start with history and try to “shoe-horn” the Book of Revelation to fit it, or vice versa? There are two very different processes here, and the results may be correspondingly different — but when people today read accounts of Revelation which propose that the “end times” are nigh, they seldom even ask the question: which came first in the interpreter’s mind?

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Without even getting into the rival eschatologies of Jewish Messianism and Islamic Mahdism, Christian eschatological interpretations themselves are a vastly obscure and complex matter — essentially a sort of verbal Rorshach blot onto which different people in different centuries and on different continents all find it only too easy to project their own circumstances and political beliefs…

Ezekiel, for instance, is famously hard to understand:

Is he writing about semi-mathematical angels or flying saucers?

And what does that map — taken from one of many, many, in Clarence Larkin‘s Dispensational Truth (1918, revised 1920, mine is the 29th printing) — really mean, not in 1918 at the end of World War I, but today, almost a century later?

I confess I have a fondness for Ezekiel. One of his visions, via the gospel song Dem Bones, gave me the name under which I developed my HipBone Games… and of course his interest as an eschatological visionary helped, too…

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DoubleQuote sources:

  • Joel Rosenberg, From Ancient Persia to to Hitler’s Germany
  • Joel Rosenberg, Netanyahu gives Obama Esther Scroll
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    Making Historical Analogies about 1914

    Friday, January 10th, 2014

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

    The Independent has a short, quasi-sensationalist, article featuring historian Margaret MacMillan discussing what is likely to become the first pop academic cottage industry of 2014….making historical analogies about 1914 and World War I! MacMillan is a senior scholar of international relations and administrator at Oxford ( where she is Warden of St Antony’s College)  with a wide range of research interests, including the First World War on which she has published two books.  I am just going to excerpt and comment on the historical analogies MacMillan made – or at least the ones filtered by the reporter and editor – she’s more eloquent in her own writing where each of these points are treated at greater length:

    Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian 

    Professor Margaret MacMillan, of the University of Cambridge, argues that the Middle East could be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of this turbulent region. A nuclear arms race that would be likely to start if Iran developed a bomb “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds,”

    …..While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then,” she says. “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients. 

    Several comments here. There is a similarity in that like the unstable Balkan states of the early 20th century, many of the Mideastern countries are young, autocratic, states with ancient cultures that are relatively weak  and measure their full independence from imperial rule only in decades.  The Mideast is also like the Balkans, divided internally along ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian and linguistic lines.

    The differences though, are substantial. The world may be more polycentric now than in 1954 or 1994 but the relative and absolute preponderance of American power versus all possible rivals, even while war-weary and economically dolorous, is not comparable to Great Britain’s position in 1914.  The outside great powers MacMillan points to are far from co-equal and there is no alliance system today that would guarantee escalation of a local conflict to a general war. Unlike Russia facing Austria-Hungary over Serbia there is no chance that Iran or Russia would court a full-scale war with the United States over Syria.

    On the negative side of the ledger, the real problem  is not possible imperial conquest but the danger of regional collapse. “Toxic nationalism” is less the problem than the fact that the scale of a Mideastern Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is so enormous, as are the implications . Nothing in the Balkans after the turn of the century compares to Syria, then Iraq and then other states sliding into a Muslim version of the Thirty Year’s War. An arc of failed states from Beirut to Islamabad is likelier than, say, a new Persian empire run by Tehran’s mullahs.

    Modern-day Islamist terrorists mirror the revolutionary communists and anarchists who carried out a string of assassinations in the name of a philosophy that sanctioned murder to achieve their vision of a better world

    Agree here. The analogy between 21st revolutionary Islamists and the 19th century revolutionary anarchists is sound.

    And in 1914, Germany was a rising force that sought to challenge the pre-eminent power of the time, the UK. Today, the growing power of China is perceived as a threat by some in the US.

    Transitions from one world power to another are always seen as dangerous times. In the late 1920s, the US drew up plans for a war with the British Empire that would have seen the invasion of Canada, partly because it was assumed conflict would break out as America took over as the world’s main superpower.

    Imperial Germany’s growing power was less troublesome to Edwardian British statesmen than the strategic error of the Kaiser and von Tirpitz to pursue a naval arms race with Great Britain that did not give Germany’even the ability to break a naval blockade but needlessly antagonized the British with an existential threat that pushed London into the French camp.

    As to military plans for invading Canada (or anywhere else), the job of military planning staffs are to create war plans to cover hypothetical contingencies so that if a crisis breaks out, there is at least a feasible starting point on the drawing board from which to begin organizing a campaign. This is what staff officers do be they American, French, Russian, German, Chinese and even British. This is not to be taken as serious evidence that the Coolidge or Hoover administrations were hatching schemes to occupy Quebec.

    More importantly, nuclear weapons create an impediment to Sino-American rivalry ending in an “August 1914″ moment ( though not, arguably, an accidental or peripheral clash at sea or a nasty proxy conflict). Even bullying Japan ultimately carries a risk that at a certain point, the Japanese will get fed-up with Beijing, decide they need parity with China, and become a nuclear weapons state.

    Professor MacMillan, whose book The War That Ended Peace was published last year, said right-wing and nationalist sentiments were rising across the world and had also been a factor before the First World War

    In China and Japan, patriotic passions have been inflamed by the dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. “Increased Chinese military spending and the build-up of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the US as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the two countries in that region,” she writes in her essay. “The Wall Street Journal has authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China – just in case.” 

    “It is tempting – and sobering –to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and England a century ago,” Professor MacMillan writes. She points to the growing disquiet in the US over Chinese investment in America while “the Chinese complain that the US treats them as a second-rate power”.

    The “dispute” of the Senkakus has been intentionally and wholly created by Beijing in much the same way Chinese leaders had PLA troops provocatively infringe on Indian territory, claim the South China Sea as sovereign territory and bully ships of all nearby nations other than Russia in international or foreign national waters. This is, as Edward Luttwak recently pointed out, not an especially smart execution of strategy. China’s recent burst of nationalistic bluffing, intimidation and paranoia about encirclement are working along the path of self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Another similarity highlighted by the historian is the belief that a full-scale war between the major powers is unthinkable after such a prolonged period of peace. “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety,” she says. “The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.

    Agree that globalization is no guarantee against human folly, ambition or the caprice of chance.

    What are your thoughts?

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    American Caesar — a reread after 30 years

    Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

    [by J. Scott Shipman]

    American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur 188-1964, by William Manchester

    Often on weekends my wife allows me to tag along as she takes in area estate sales. She’s interested in vintage furniture, and I hope for a decent collection of books. A sale we visited a couple months ago had very few books, but of those few was a hardback copy of American Caesar. I purchased the copy for $1 and mentioned to my wife, “I’ll get to this again someday…” as I’d first read Manchester’s classic biography of General Douglas MacArthur in the early 1980′s while stationed on my first submarine. “Someday” started on the car ride home (she was driving), and I must admit: American Caesar was even better thirty years later. Manchester is a masterful biographer, and equal to the task of such a larger-than-life subject.

    MacArthur still evokes passion among admirers and detractors. One take-away from the second reading was just how well-read MacArthur and his father were. When MacArthur the elder died, he left over 4,000 books in his library—both seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of history and warfare. Highly recommended.

    PS: I visited the MacArthur Memorial, in Norfolk, Virginia, recently while in town for business and would recommend as well.

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