Apr 21 2008

The History of Germany Since 1789 by Golo Mann

This was a beautifully written book that covered Germany from its earliest nationalist stirrings following the French Revolution to the postwar partioned Germany up through 1965. There were colorful portraits of German statesmen such as Bismarck, William II, Adenauer, and yes, the most famous one of all. The chapter devoted to the Nazi episode was thorough and spared no one, but the author goes to great pains to argue that the German people at that time were not as evil as the people who led them. The book concludes on the note that Germans have regained their prosperity and their prominent place in the world without being the threat to anyone that they were in former times. The author, by the way, is the son of the famous German literary figure Thomas Mann.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2008/04/21/the-history-of-germany-since-1789-by-golo-mann/

Apr 09 2008

Napoleon Bonaparte by Alan Schom

This is a well written and well researched book, but it is the most anti-Napoleon book I have ever read. The author gives the devil his due, acknowledging Napoleon’s outstanding abilities as a battlefield commander, but other than that, he has nothing nice to say about the great man. And he takes the peculiar position that the traditional monarchies and aristocracies of Europe were actually honorable and benevolent, a most unusual position for an American historian. There is plenty of Napoleonic dirt to dig up, and Schom dishes it with a little too much obvious relish, but after reading this book one can only conclude that the Corsican was mostly a force for evil rather than good. Still, Napoleon was the outstanding personality in nineteenth century European history, and I think he deserves a little more respect from his biographer.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2008/04/09/napoleon-bonaparte-by-alan-schom/

Feb 22 2008

A History of Greece to 322 B.C. by N.G.L Hammond

This was a historian’s rather than a layman’s book, a bit more packed with details than I am used to, but it is a thorough one-volume treatment of a subject that has always fascinated me. I can’t do justice to it in 1000 characters, but one observation I would make is that the Spartans have been overrated both on their military and moral virtues. They were certainly formidable warriors, but they used their military prowess more effectively to dominate and oppress their fellow Greeks than to defend Greece against foreign invaders. Most of the credit for defending Greece against the Persians should go to Athens rather than Sparta. I would also argue that, while Athens was also guilty of imperialism and oppression, it would have been better for Greece and better for Western civilization if Athens had won the Peloponnesian War. And lastly, Alexander remains unequalled in the history of the world, unique for being a ruthless conqueror and a passionate romantic in one. That’s all.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2008/02/22/a-history-of-greece-to-322-b-c-by-n-g-l-hammond/

Feb 12 2008

Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Conrad Black

The author of this book has also written a biography of comparable length of Richard Nixon. I must say that compared to Roosevelt, Nixon comes across as positively principled and idealistic. Black portrays FDR as a bold and gifted but somewhat underhanded and unscrupulous leader. His portraits of all of the major figures of this period–Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, de Gaulle–are also quite memorable. I can’t really do this book justice in the short space allowed here, but this book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the history of the twentieth century.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2008/02/12/franklin-delano-roosevelt-by-conrad-black/

Feb 12 2008

Alexander the Great by Lewis Cummings

Many historians have fallen in love with Alexander, but Lewis Cummings remains cold-eyed and immune to his charm. Cummings sees him as a bloodthirsty tyrant, possessed of an impetuous and almost childish nature, whose military genius served only the evil purpose of conquest and imperialism. Yet not even the most hostile biographer can deny what an extraordinary individual Alexander was and the breadth of his grand if rather inhuman achievements. Not even Caesar or Napoleon were his equals, in my judgment. Yet I say this breathing thanks that there are no Alexanders on the scene today.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2008/02/12/alexander-the-great-by-lewis-cummings/

Jan 22 2008

Taking Stock of 2007: Books

I read about as much in 2007 as I did in 2006, but I wrote far fewer reviews. One of the perils of full-time employment. It also looks like a year of consolidation, rather than a year of discovery. Having polished off the lucky thirteenth in Lemony Snicket’s set in December 2006, I reached the end of 20 books with Aubrey/Maturin in January 2007. While in the course of the year I only re-read four books, I went back to the well with a lot of authors I knew I liked. Even the Stalin biography was by the same author. And just one book in German the whole year. Schade.

Among what was new to me in fiction, Cory Doctorow and Paul Park made the biggest impression. Doctorow needs little introduction in the blog-world, but his fiction is strange and interesting, addictive and just a little unsettling. Park is fooling around with the tenets of fantasy in a way that I like, and as soon as part part three makes it into paperback, I’ll gobble up parts two and three. (If your budget runs to fantasy in hardback, don’t tell me how it ends!) The fun factor was highest in Naomi Novik’s four novels. Napoleonics with dragons, what’s not to like? A few things, but it’s a series with promise.

Many more new voices and one-offs in non-fiction. Tom Reiss, Fritz Stern (ok not completely new), David Hackett Fischer (though I do wish he’d written the promised additional volumes). The Race Beat is terrific on the civil rights struggle in the US and the crucial role of the media, which was understood clearly by both sides. Ivan’s War deserves a full-scale review, though the private Soviet soldier’s perspective is summed up in three brutal sentences: “They called us. They trained us. They killed us.” The River of Doubt captures not only Teddy Roosevelt but much about early 20th century America, exploration and Brazil.

Complete list (in order read) is below the fold. Links are to previous writing about the book or author on AFOE.

The Long Tail – Chris Anderson
The Hundred Days – Patrick O’Brian
Blue at the Mizzen – Patrick O’Brian
The Orientalist – Tom Reiss
Fevre Dream – George R.R. Martin
A Storm of Swords – George R.R. Martin
A Feast for Crows – George R.R. Martin
Five Germanys I Have Known – Fritz Stern
Albion’s Seed – David Hackett Fischer
Iron Council – China Miéville
The White Castle – Orhan Pamuk
The Swords of Lankhmar – Fritz Leiber
Glasshouse – Charles Stross
Green Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
Good Omens – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Blue Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson
The Atrocity Archives – Charles Stross
The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett
The Race Beat – Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff
Spin – Robert Charles Wilson
Salonica: City of Ghosts – Mark Mazower
Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town – Cory Doctorow
The Armageddon Rag – George R.R. Martin
His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novik
Overclocked – Cory Doctorow
Ivan’s War – Catherine Merridale
Toast – Charles Stross
A Princess of Roumania – Paul Park
Little, Big – John Crowley
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – J.K. Rowling
Innocents Aboard – Gene Wolfe
The Big Over Easy – Jasper Fforde
Castle of Days – Gene Wolfe
The New Life – Orhan Pamuk
33 Augenblicke des Glücks – Ingo Schulze
The Ghost Brigades – John Scalzi
The Fourth Bear – Jasper Fforde
The River of Doubt – Candice Millard
The Hidden Family – Charles Stross
Nature Girl – Carl Hiaasen
Europe East & West – Norman Davies
The Snow Leopard – Peter Matthiessen
The Ladies of Grace Adieu – Susanna Clarke
The Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum
Throne of Jade – Naomi Novik
On the Field of Glory – Henryk Sienkiewicz
Black Powder War – Naomi Novik
Empire of Ivory – Naomi Novik
First Among Sequels – Jasper Fforde
The Dogs of Babel – Carolyn Parkhurst
Other Colours – Orhan Pamuk
Special Assignments – Boris Akunin
Young Stalin – Simon Sebag Montefiore
Black Cherry Blues – James Lee Burke
Dixie City Jam – James Lee Burke
Spook Country – William Gibson

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2008/01/22/taking-stock-of-2007-books/

Jan 18 2008

The Second World War by Martin Gilbert

Except perhaps for Iris Chang’s *The Rape of Nanking*, no other book I have read captures the horror and brutality of World War II like this one. Martin’s trademark style is historical narrative intermingled with individual stories and anecdotes, and it is the individual accounts, replete with documented proper names and direct quotes, that convey the proper note of atrocity committed by the Axis Powers. There are daily accounts of Holocaust victims that should be enough to refute any Holocaust denier, and there are also recorded acts of selfless courage and heroism. No other book I have read on this subject expresses to this extent the madness perpetrated in the last century by two of the most powerful and advanced nations in the world. This is not a book for students of tactics and military strategy a la John Keegan, this is a memorial of human suffering in the most horrendous war ever fought. It is not exactly exciting, but it is appropriately appalling.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2008/01/18/the-second-world-war-by-martin-gilbert/

Jan 10 2008

The Fall of the Roman Republic by Plutarch

Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, and Cicero, all the major figures associated with the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, except maybe for Cato, who is included in another Penguin volume. A theme in this collection is the way in which the ambition of outstanding individuals can strain the fabric of a society and threaten to bring about its collapse. Rome had a system of checks and balances just like we do, but the Senate’s failure to deal constructively with the impending crisis practically made Caesar inevitable. Caesar is certainly the most impressive figure in this rogues’ gallery, although Plutarch seems to suspect that he was conspiring to bring down the republic almost from the moment he was born. Plutarch has many failings as a political historian, but he definitely has insight into human personality. These are some of the best of his profiles.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2008/01/10/the-fall-of-the-roman-republic-by-plutarch/

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.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2007/12/30/the-life-and-death-of-adolf-hitler-by-robert-payne/

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.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2007/10/11/brown-shadows/