Dec 30 2007

The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler by Robert Payne

I have read this book many times, and it never fails to fascinate. Hitler’s later career is well known to history; the really interesting part of this book deals with his youth. He appeares to have been an isolated dreamer, alienated from others but not totally devoid of human feeling. For much of his young life he drifted about aimlessly, unable to make anything of himself or even support himself. It wasn’t until he was in his thirties that he discovered his ability to speak. Thereafter the demons entered in. As a young man he was alienated but probably not altogether irredeemable; by the time he rose to power he was probably insane. It remains a profound mystery that one of the most civilized nations in the world could have followed him willingly into the abyss. This book is the biography of a madman who influenced world history more than any man before or since. It offers cautionary lessons, and it illustrates how fragile civilization is at its core.

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Oct 11 2007

Brown shadows

One of the things that’s generally known about Germany, but not often spoken about for various reasons(1), is how much continuity there was between the Third Reich and the early days of the Federal Republic. A certain degree of continuity is inevtiable any time a government changes; even the Bolsheviks brought back a lot of Tsarist officials simply because no one else knew how things worked. But the questions for West Germany after the war are how many, for how long and at what level?

Over time, and thanks in no small measure to confrontations in the late 1960s, more and more German institutions have taken an honest look at who did what to whom during the Nazi period, and where they ended up afterward. The answers to the three questions have often been quite a few, for their whole careers, and at leadership levels. Several forces have gotten companies and institutions to be more truthful about their activities from 1933 to 1945, and the continuity between that period and the postwar era. One such has been the simple passage of time. People who would have been expected to pay a price are now retired, or dead. No doubt, knowledge is coming at the cost of justice.

The latest institution to undertake such an examination is Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (Bundeskriminalamt, or BKA). Credit to the BKA’s current president, Jörg Ziercke. He didn’t have to do it, and he didn’t have to let it be done so thoroughly. What has turned up in a study by historians is a remarkable number of SS men who went on to leadership positions in the BKA. Files used by the Gestapo to harass and persecute Roma and Sinti were taken over by the BKA, and harassment continued well into the postwar era, in some form at least into the 1980s. The views on “criminal biology” formed during the Third Reich were still influental at the BKA into the 1970s. The essential stories are here, here and here, from the newspaper whose web site still could be better organized. (I had hoped to translate these for this post, but real life kept getting in the way. The story hasn’t really made it into English-language media yet.) There was also a Sunday article, complete with charts of who from the SS rose to what position in the BKA, but I can’t find it online. The English-language Spiegel online has a summary here.

The questions resonate in the present, as post-Communist countries continue to wrestle with the legacies of their dictatorships. Who rose to power? Who did they step on to get there? What are the demands of justice in a new era? Other European countries have their own debates, and indeed their comforting myths, about collaboration, about wartime acts, about the fates of fellow citizens.

There aren’t any easy answers, especially more than half a century later. One good side effect is that the revelations may prompt Germany’s main intelligence service, the BND, and the constitutional protection office (Verfassungsschutz) to examine their pasts. With luck, they will be as honest as the BKA.

(1) Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe was a key reason at the time. As years passed, additional reasons came to include embarassment, fear of personal consequences, unwillingness to bother the old folks and now the passing of people with firsthand knowledge and consequent general ignorance. Another is that Germany has turned into a reasonably well functioning democracy despite the Nazi pasts of many people in its institutions.

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Jul 31 2007

More of Mr Potter’s Magic

Last night I was in the downtown bookstore to pick up some stuff for travel planning, and I glanced over at their bestseller rack. Number one was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In English. The German edition won’t come out until October.

The best-selling book in the store is in a foreign language. That’s some powerful enchantment, Ms Rowling.

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Jul 24 2007

H. Potter and the Dearth of Regular Blogging

At least I’m not the only one.

Good discussions here, here, here, here and here.

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Apr 11 2007

Future Shock by Alvin Toffler

This was an interesting read, especially since we now live in the time Toffler was making projections about. Some of his predictions have proven wildly off the mark, as when he writes of colonizing the ocean floor, but this was nonetheless an excellent treatment of how the world will cope with the dizzying and accelerating pace of change. Myself, I take a laissez-faire approach to such things, but he is right in pointing out that developments that seem immediately beneficial can have unintended negative consequences, and therefore some planning and foresight is needed. A science fiction writer could easily draw a lot of inspiration from the vast array of future scenarios Toffler grapples with in this fascinating work.

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Feb 12 2007

Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern

Fritz Stern was born in what was then Breslau, Germany, grandson of Jews who converted to Christianity, son and grandson of physicians and researchers, at a time when medicine was truly becoming a science and Germany was leading the way. His godfather and namesake was Fritz Haber, who discovered how to fix atmospheric nitrogen, won a Nobel, led research into poinson gas as a weapon, and died shortly after his forced emigration from Germany.

Stern emigrated with his family to the United States in late 1938, in the proverbial nick of time. He rejected Einstein’s advice to stay in the family business of medicine and became a distinguished historian of Germany and Europe. Along the way, he also became an active participant in transatlantic relations, always retaining his liberal perspective.

The book begins with background on Breslau, the emancipation of Jews in the 19th century, industrialization, science and what all of these meant for his immediate ancestors. The five Germanys he has known are Weimar, the Third Reich, the Federal Republic, the GDR and the post-unification Federal Republic. He tells his stories vividly, mixing a historian’s detachment with a memoirist’s recollection and commitment.

My academic background is in political science and German history, so this is a bit of intellectual homecoming. I know the territoriy well, and the charm is in the details and the composition of the portraits. Stern is, in fact, something like an academic great-uncle. I’ve never met him, but the closer he got to the present, the more names he mentioned that I either knew, or knew at one remove.

The sixth Germany — the one his parents and grandparents lived in — is the one that I learned the most about. The turn to modernity is fascinating, and seeing how it happened in one family is a great way to understand the changes and disruptions involved. (The early essays from Czeslaw Milosz’s To Begin Where I Am strike me the same way.)

The five Germanys in 500 pages are as good an overview of the period as any, and a good deal livelier than a survey without the memoir. Plus Stern is a delightful, lively writer, and his life has been full of unexpected connections. Allen Ginsberg was a good friend from his first day of college, for example.

Some snippets:

“There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness — those forces are miracle, mystery and authority.” Dostoevsky and Nietzsche taught me to better understand the complexitites and fragility of democracy — and the place of the irrational in politics. pp. 190-91

I lived in a cheap rooming house [in Munich in 1950] and spent most of my time in the university library, but despite my work and these friends, I felt lonely and displaced. Was I a hostile alien in what had been my native country? The city was still full of rubble and half-destroyed buildings, and American troops were omnipresent. … Casual conversations with strangers, who were full of self-pity and often volubly anti-American, didn’t help. p. 200

All three [of his subjects of The Politics of Cultural Despair], writing under different historic conditions, fastened on one root of evil: liberalism. They attacked it because it seemed to them the premise of modern society from which everything they dreaded sprang: the bourgeois life, Manchesterism, materialism, Parliament and political parties, the lack of political leadership. Moreover, they thought liberalism was the source of their inner suffering. “Theirs was a resentment of loneliness; their one desire was for a new faith, a new community of believers, a world with fixed standards and no doubts, a new national religion that would bind all Germans together.” … My three critics, whom great and gentle Germans praised because of their “idealist” attacks on modernity, fostered the mood of discontent that foreshadowed the National Socialist synthesis: its attack on the “rotenness” of modern German culture and the exultant promise of a great völkisch future. p. 227

To me American policy [in Vietnam] seemed a nightmare of mindless escalation: it recalled, on a lesser scale, the slaughter in World War I, when soldiers were sent to their deaths because “one more push” would prove decisive. And the war’s human and political cost was dividing us at home and estranging us from our allies abroad. It was not a time for passivity or private lament; I thought “moderates” needed to act. p. 246 [Stern is obliquely scathing about George W. Bush in numerous places.]

All of this [reasoning about the causes of the sudden outburst of virulent anti-Semitism in the 1870s] is hard to document and easy to exaggerate, but the paranoid underworld of politics in an age of affluence and cultural unease cannot be overlooked. p. 278

In March 1979, shortly before I went to Jerusalem for the Einstein symposium, Raymond Aron and I walked to an exhibition in West Berlin commemorating the centenary of the births of Einstein, Max von Laue, Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner. We passed bombed-out squares and half-decrepit mansions in the once-proud capital, talking of that earlier profusion of genius. Aron suddenly stopped at a crossing, turned to me, and said, “It could have been Germany’s century.” p. 303

“Our often pious generalities about human rights need at the core a specific statement of the minimal conditions that we think should be universally binding — such as the abolition of torture,” I wrote [in 1977]. Grim reading today. p. 356

After I finished at the [Institute for the Study of the U.S. and Canada, in Moscow, in 1979], I went to a playground opposite our hotel where I dictated notes into a tape recorder. I knew we were being watched. Once, a lightbulb in our hotel room gave out and pleas to the woman-spy who watched over our floor proved ineffective — but Peggy’s and my complaining loudly to each other in the room brought instant results. There are advantages to being bugged. p. 377

The German American groups were but one part of a rapidly growing international network, composed of well-known internationalists and new, younger people, too. Perhaps there was an excess of high talk and high living — I often mused that some of the world’s great hotels lived off world crises, real or assumed. But I note now that in the new century the decline of these public-minded efforts has perhaps added to international estrangement, while the corporate world has taken up the slack in the luxurious conference métier, serving narrower interests at higher costs. pp. 405-06

The dinner [in 1983] had a comic aftermath: thereafter, the White House, regardless of incumbent, sent me an official Christmas card, a minor privilege I shared with about a hundred thousand other people. Then, during George W. Bush’s first term, a million cards were sent out, and I was dropped off the list. Who, I wondered, edited the lists — and at whose expense? The removal was more flattering than the inclusion. p. 421

“I agree with every word of your statement, and I won’t give you a penny,” [said Richardson Dilworth, a distinguished investment banker and philanthropist]. Why not? “Because it won’t do any good. What this country [the US] needs is a great catastrophe.” My instant response: “Mr. Dilworth, I come from a country that had a great catastrophe. That’s why I think it’s better to act beforehand.” p. 453

Mrs. Thatcher received us graciously, and at lunch I sat next to her husband, Denis Thatcher, whom it was difficult to converse with. p. 468

Little could I have known [in 1990] that in a dozen years [Richard] Cheney would be determining policies relying solely on the ruthless and often incompetent use of power. p. 471

The [German newspaper whose web site really could be better organized] reprinted my entire speech the next day, omitting only this one sentence about the editor of a rival paper! Marion [Dönhoff] was angry at this, rebuked them, and mentioned it in a brief essay about me. So much for my hope for a more liberal culture of conflict! pp. 513-14

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Feb 11 2007

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

What percentage of the top 10,000 titles in any online media store (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, or any other) will rent or sell at least once a quarter?

That’s the question posed by Robbie Vann-Adibe, the CEO of Ecast, a digital jukebox company, a question that launches Wired’s editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, on his exploration of more consequences of the digital age for business.

Anderson writes,

Most people guess 20 percent, and for good reason: We’ve been trained to think that way. The 80-20 rule, also known as Pareto’s principle (after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who devised the concept in 1906), is all around us. Only 20 percent of major studio films will be hits. Same for TV shows, games, and mass-market books – 20 percent all. The odds are even worse for major-label CDs, where fewer than 10 percent are profitable, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Most people are wrong. The answer is 98 percent.

As my mom is wont to say, “It takes all kinds.” And indeed it does. Somebody, somewhere will want almost anything. (Even a blog about European issues.) When the marginal cost of adding, selling and delivering drops to practially zero, the true demand curve starts to emerge. And while hits still make a lot of money, their share of the total market drops because the total market is so much bigger than it was when it was confined to the shelves of the nearest retailer.

One of Anderson’s first anecdotes is the story of a book called Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. The book, by Anderson’s account, is a harrowing story of near death in the Peruvian Andes, and was published in 1988. It got good reviews, sold a reasonable number of copies, and was on its way to being out of print when a funny thing happened. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer became a publishing sensation. Amazon’s recommendation algorithms brought Touching the Void to people’s attention, and they bought. Random House brought out a revised edition, which in time landed on the bestseller lists. More than a decade after the book had been written.

This is something new about the new economy. Before Amazon, few people would have made the connection, and these would have had to scour used book stores for a copy of the out-of-print book. (The used book business has also been transformed by linking inventories online, and Anderson tells part of that story as well.)

Anderson’s key thesis is that the area under the demand curve out past what traditional retailers have carried is at least as large as what they do carry. In other words, there is a market for books that practically no store carries, and that market is as large as the entire bookselling market in stores. He doesn’t quite prove the case, but then again, the jury is still out, and he may well be right.

Much of the book was outlined in the original article of the same title in Wired. In fact, this was yet another case (“The End of History,” “The Clash of Civilizations”) where reading the article is probably better than reading the book. The book fleshes out the argument, adds more cases, more details and so forth, but did not, for me, break additional ground. (There is also a Long Tail blog, which has interesting discussion.)

The two most intriguing additions: First, practically any point on the demand curve is itself the head of a long tail. For example, a blog on European issues may be well down the curve in the scheme of Web sites that the general public visits. But that blog is potentially near the top of a curve of other blogs about European issues. Somewhere down that curve is a blog about Istrian items. And that Istrian blog itself is probably at the top of a curve of other Istrian blogs, subdividing into interests. There’s most likely a bottom somewhere, well before a Feynman point, where people are not blogging about Istria but going to an Istrian beach instead, but the idea stands: it’s a fractal curve.

Second, he asks how many categories have long tails. Is it just music, movies and books? Andserson says no and sketches five alternatives, each involving adding a digital component to a business that had been analog. This is a really interesting question, and I wish he had not waited until his penultimate chapter before addressing it.

I also wish, in general, that this was not a business book knocked out in about a year of his non-Wired-editing time. I wish it were a really hefty, weighty tome full of heavy-duty research. Maybe that book is out there in the long tail, or will be as soon as someone writes it…

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Feb 11 2007

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Ali and Nino, the closest thing that modern Azerbaijan has to a national novel, was first published in German in 1937, sold in various translations, hit US bestseller lists in the early 1970s and bears the name Kurban Said as its author.

But the question of the author’s identity had never been resolved. All anyone agreed on was that Kurban Said was the pen name of a writer who had probably come from Baku, an oil city in the Caucasus, and that he was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulags, or the dilettante son of an oil millionaire, or a Viennese cafe-society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot.

The answer, which Reiss gets to quickly, is essentially, “All of the above.” And therein, of course, lies a tale. Or twelve.

Kurban Said was the pen name of a young man who also went by Essad Bey, though he had been born Lev Nussimbaum. He was born on a train, his father was an oil millionaire in the same boom that made the Nobels, his mother was an early Bolshevik, he was largely raised by a German (probably Baltic German) governess, and he did die at an early age in Italy after failing to get out of fascist Europe in time.

Not only did he write Ali and Nino, he was a bestselling figure in Weimar Germany, with a biography of Stalin, an analysis of oil in the Caucasus, a book on the Bolsheviks and much more crammed into a short span of astonishingly productive years. He escaped the Russian revolution by heading across the Caspian into the un-Bolshevized khanates, then down into a Persia that was stil nearly medieval, and wound up back in Baku for a time before heading into the mountains disguised as a Bolshevik himself, reuniting with his father under truly improbable circumstances, enjoying a brief exile in Georgia, converting to Islam for the first time in Constantinople (he wasn’t taken seriously enough), and eventually settling into the comparative stability of Weimar-era Berlin. This all well before his 20th birthday.

Reiss has a terrific story to tell, and he does not fail his subject matter. The mystery of Kurban Said not only opens up Lev Nussimbaum’s unlikely life — he also married and divorced an American heiress — it also illustrates how thoroughly jumbled Europe was in the recent past, and how much of that past lives on into the present.


Invited to dinner one night by our neighbor, a raven-haired, blue-eyed Turkish English New Yorker name April, my wife and I were introduced to her cousin by marriage — an older man impeccably but modestly dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit of uncertain vintage. Thus, I found myself shaking hands with Mr Ertugrul Osman, the rightful heir to the Ottoman Empire. He was the eldest male member of the ancient house that had ruled the Muslim world for six centuries, and had things gone differently, he would now be the sultan of Turkey.
Mr Osman had the unmistakable sleepy-lidded eyes and pointed eyebrows that I knew from the portraits of Suleyman the Magnificent and the other sultans, though he was thinner and wore a black knit tie rather than a silk turban. … The current Mr Osman’s gestures seemed youthful for an octogenarian; I felt I was speaking with Suleyman the Magnificent as an old-fashioned Harvard man.

Or thus:

In 1916, Georgian monarchists had been allowed to establish a kind of government in exile in Berlin, the German-Georgian Society, under the guidance of the aging Prince Matchabelli. Then, for a time, the Germans backed the independent Menshevik Republic of Georgia against the Bolsheviks.

To which a footnote adds:

Prince Matchabelli himself soon gave up the struggle for the Georgian monarchy and moved to New York, where he amassed a fortune by putting his name and family crest on a line of perfumes.

Who knew?

And not just Europe.

By the spring of 1934, when [an American admirer of Hitler] gave a speech at Madison Square Garden to more than twenty thousand “friends of the New Germany,” the hall was hung with American flag shields, swastikas, and pictures of Washington and Hitler.

Said’s life and times take the reader back to any number of lost worlds, from cosmopolitan Baku to interwar Berlin to the shadowy existence of his last years, when, as a Jew (at least in the view of the authorities), he had to use fronts to earn anything from his books, and where he kept one step ahead of persecution until a rare disease put an end to his odyssey. Reiss tells the tales of Nussimbaum’s life with care, with brio, and with understanding of the cross-currents.

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Feb 09 2007

The Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells

Technically this book is science fiction, but in reality it is a brilliant social allegory, much in the same vein as *Gulliver’s Travels*. The Food of the Gods is a newly discovered chemical compound that makes animals and humans grow to huge proportions. But the subject of this book is not really bigness and big things. The theme is actually littleness, the universal littleness that the author sees in the world around him and that can only be brought to light by a stark contrast with bigness. The Food of the Gods is not just a stimulant to growth, but also a liberator from small ways of thinking. I get the sense from reading this work that Wells was truly brilliant, and also, perhaps, slightly mad. This is his most profound work.

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Feb 07 2007

Premature Evaluation: Albion’s Seed

Why is America the way that it is?

Wrong question, the author of Albion’s Seed would say. America isn’t any one way, and hasn’t been since the very beginning of European, particularly English, colonization. David Hackett Fischer puts the core of his argument straight into his subtitle: Four British Folkways in America. He identifies four distinct migrations from Britain, and to a much lesser extent Ireland, that shaped American culture and regions down to the present day. These migrations were fairly coherent in origin, destination and religion. Understanding these origins will help understand cleavages in the contemporary United States, and it will help understand America as a whole.

The four migrations that he identifies are Puritans, distressed cavaliers and indentured servants, Quakers, and borderers. The Puritans came from East Anglia and settled New England. The cavaliers and their servants came from the south of England and settled tidewater Virginia. The Quakers came from the north Midlands and settled the Delaware Valley. The borderers came from the border between England and Scotland, sometimes by way of Ireland, and settled the thirteen colonies’ backcountry. Each had a distinct religious tradition: Puritans and Quakers most obviously; cavaliers had Anglicanism; and I haven’t read about border religion yet, this is a premature evaluation after all.

It’s a fascinating argument and a fascinating book. It’s filled with snippets and stories, and for an 800-page tome it zips along nicely. That’s due in part to Fischer’s non-ponderous historical prose, but also in part to the book’s organization. Each group gets roughly 200 pages, and in that space he covers a set list of 15 topics, so that the four are analyzed in parallel. He looks at naming patterns, marriage patterns, views on aging, on death, on hierarchy, and so forth. He argues strongly for religion as the key motivation for many colonists, and for religion’s importance in shaping the folkways that he describes. It’s a thorough discussion.

Though not without its flaws. Most obviously, America’s largest city in colonial times is not mentioned: New York. While religion’s role may have been discounted in 1989, when the book was published, it is more prominent today. Influence on contemporary America is more often asserted than demonstrated. And the book was supposed to be the first volume of five or more that would form a social history of the United States. Subsequent volumes have not appeared, making references to them in the main text or footnotes irritating.

Two related questions follow from Fischer’s argument. First, if the religions and regions of the original migrations are so important for the fabric of America, are they equally so for the contemporary United Kingdom? Why or why not? The topic is obviously beyond the remit of Albion’s Seed, but thinking about it illuminates the claims about influence down to the present. Second, what about later migrations? I think he addresses this a little at the end, but it was probably a question for the subsequent volumes that never appeared.

I think the basic premise is useful, and the details are fascinating. (Last night I learned that Philadelphia cream cheese isn’t actually a cheese, but more like semi-dehydrated sour cream. Who knew?) Some of the patterns do hold, and it is a usable framework for thinking about competing currents in American culture and politics.

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