Jul 08 2009

Gold and Iron, by Fritz Stern

“This is a book about Germans and Jews, about power and money. It is a book focused on Bismarck and Bleichröder, Junker and Jew, statesman and banker, collaborators for over thirty years. The setting is that of a Germany where two worlds clashed: the new world of capitalism and an earlier world with its ancient feudal ethos; gradually a new and broadened elite emerged, and Bismarck’s tie with Bleichröder epitomized that regrouping. It is the story of the founding of the new German Empire, in whose midst a Jewish minority rose to embattled prominence. It is a record of events and of the interests and sentiments that shaped these events; it is a record of events and of the interests and sentiments that shaped these events; it is a record largely told by contemporaries, in thousands of hitherto unused letters and documents. It is also the story of the fragility of that Empire and its ruler, of its hidden conflicts, and of the hypocrisy which allowed a glittering facade to cover the harsh and brutal facts below. The ambiguity of wealth — its threat to tradition and its promise of mobility — is part of this record, and so is the anguished ambiguity of Jewish success, so striking, so visible, so delusive. It is a study of a society in motion, and mobility was its essence and its trauma. …”

“The two men and the form of their collaboration also symbolized the anachronistic forms of Germany’s modernization. The great themes of the nineteenth century — the impact of capitalism, the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, nationalism and imperialism, the rise of Jewry and of its nemesis, the new anti-Semitism — were reflected in their work. It is the intersection of their lives that affords a new perspective on their era and a view of a living society to set against the generalities and abstractions of received opinion.
“Bismarck’s work is known — or thought to be known. A monumental hero, a brooding presence to generations of Germans, Bismarck has been studied many times, but his relations with Bleichröder have, until recently, been excised. Bleichröder was a household word to his contemporaries, connoting enormous wealth, power, and mysterious influence. But Bleichröder faded from consciousness with his death, although his career had a decisive bearing on Bismarck’s life and on the course of German history. …
“Gerson Bleichröder, the chancellor’s banker, rose from obscurity to the pinnacle of German society; often called the German Rothschild, he was the first Prussian Jew to be ennobled without converting to Christianity. His rise dramatized the power of money and the limits of that power; it showed the hostility that money and mobility engendered. …
“Bleichröder’s career mirrored the pervasiveness of capital: its influence on policy and public opinion and it attractiveness to an elite that seemed to forswear it. As his confidant, Bleichröder had immediate access to Bismarck. He was in charge of the chancellor’s fortune, and he was given, and he sought, political assignments requiring his particular mixture of expertise and discretion. Europe knew him as Bismarck’s secret agent, and his diverse roles give us a new view of Bismarck’s reign and of the governing class of Germany at a time when the Reich became the dominant power of the continent. …
“Bleichröder’s career illuminates those aspects of Bismarck’s role previously slighted or ignored. It shows that Bismarck in the public and private realm fully understood the magnitude of money and that even in his much-vaunted and much-studied diplomacy economic weapons as instruments of policy were nver far from his mind. He had learned his lesson early: he needed funds to wage the first two wars of unification, funds that the parliament he defied refused him and that Bleichröder helped to raise.”

Fritz Stern’s book delivers everything promised in his introduction.

“For all his importance and prominence, Bleichröder has remained an ‘un-person’ in German historiography. Bismarck loomed in superhuman dimension; at recent [Gold and Iron was first published in 1977] reckoning, over 7,000 works have appeared about him. This is the first study of Bleichröder. It may be pardonable exaggeration to say that Bleichröder is everything that has been left out of German history.
“For a long time the memory of Bleichröder was an embarrassment. He represented so many lingering taboos — money-grubbing, influence-peddling, Jewish-ness. Even in his lifetime, it was his vilifiers who magnified his role and power; the elite whom he served preserved a decorous silence. The Bismarcks pointed the way: after thirty years of collaboration, after countless conversations and a voluminous correspondence, Bismarck omitted Bleichröder’s name from the first two volumes of his memoirs. In the third volume, slated for publication only after William II’s death, Bleichröder’s name is mentioned once, as somebody’s emissary.
“Of course there was a vast inequality between Bismarck and Bleichröder in life, but that inequality was greatly magnified after their deaths. German historians lifted one man to apotheosis and consigned the other to oblivion — and the two processes were linked. The editors of Bismarck’s collected works published not a letter of Bismarck’s to his banker; mention of him was rare and aseptic. The editors seem to have been restrained in their efforts to uncover the traces of Bismarck’s tie to Bleichröder. This process of excision persisted until 1945.
Historians — whatever their persuasion or intention — reflect the values of the society in which they write, and German historians for the half century after Bismarck’s death had every incentive to neglect Bleichröder. The favorite historiographical focus in those decades was narrowly political or intellectual; social and economic history was long a stepchild of German scholarship. The Jewish question was hardly ever touched by German historians. If Bismarck had a Jewish banker and confidant, then it was something that belonged to his private realm, marginal to the public figure. The will to neglect was easily satisfied: the record of Bleichröder’s role was hard to find and hence could respectably be overlooked.”

The field has of course changed since 1977, in no small part thanks to Stern’s book and others like it. German historians and historians of Germany now look into the gaps left by previous generations. The great opening of German universities that was just getting underway as Stern was writing in the early and mid-1970s (though he first started working on the Bleichröder Archive in 1960) brought with it a much broader spirit of inquiry into Germany’s recent past. Gold and Iron is a monumental work today; it must have appeared a nearly Olympian edifice when it was initially published.

Even the asides are interesting and challenging: “In sum, Berlin was a raw and changing city. It neither was nor became a bourgeois city — just as the Empire was not a bourgeois country. The bourgeoisie proved unable, to some degree unwilling, to set up their own code of values or their own style of life; they aped their impoverished betters. In imperial Berlin, not the black coat of the bourgeois but the king’s uniform became the mask of distinction; even Bismarck always appeared in parliament in his cuirassier coat. … For reasons of politics and history, the German bourgeoisie, even in its decades of unsurpassed economic power, paid obeisance to the values of its earlier aristocratic antagonists, now economically insecure and often dependent upon bourgeois wealth and assistance for adequate survival.
“Germany’s failure at embourgeoisement had a special bearing on the condition of its Jews. Perhaps it facilitated their rise, which under the Empire was spectacular. It also facilitated their vilification. A Germany that half-denied its capitalistic-bourgeois self proved spiritually less tolerant of the rise of Jewry than did some of its bourgeois neighbors.”

There’s lots to unpack in those two paragraphs: Germany as a belated nation, the relative power of the social and economic classes, comparative development among European nations and states, the status of Jews across Europe, and more. Much of the book is concerned with the details of Bismarck and Bleichröder, but asides like the one above show that Stern has the big picture in mind at all times.

Gold and Iron not perfect, and it is not for every reader. Five hundred and fifty pages of very serious history, even with as generally a graceful author as Stern, may be more than one wants to know about how money and power and personality worked together in Bismarckian Germany. I found the Romania chapter (though Stern uses the older-style spelling, Rumania) tedious, which is too bad because railroad financial shenanigans would appear to offer good material. These complaints are small scratches compared with the masterpiece of the historian’s art that Stern has delivered.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/07/08/gold-and-iron-by-fritz-stern/

Jun 03 2009

The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship by Charles Bukowski

This is Bukowski at the end of his life sounding the notes that have become all too familiar: he is a hero for living on his own terms and everyone else is a soulless moron. This theme is continued with a few variations page after page until the very end. As Bukowski himself acknowledges, many great writers go into a decline and lose their touch, and in this rather unimaginative and monotone work he seems to confirm that. Bukowski is pretty good even when he is bad, but in this book he is merely repeating the same things he has always said, only now he sounds more tired and less original. At his best he can be brilliant, but even then his range is extremely narrow: drinking, whoring, writing, and betting at the track, and not much else. As for this unfortunate effort, it probably would have been better if he had died before he wrote it.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/06/03/the-captain-is-out-to-lunch-and-the-sailors-have-taken-over-the-ship-by-charles-bukowski/

May 13 2009

Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

This is a marvelous book that explicates modern literary theories in very readable English. The author has a Marxist bent that flavors his discourse throughout, but he does a good job of explaining critical theories like formalism, the New Criticism, phenomenology, structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, and psychoanalysis. He also asks pertinent and seemingly unanswerable questions, such as, what is literature? What is the purpose of studying literature? Is there a scientific way to study literature? He concludes on a Marxist note that the death of literature and literary studies might not necessarily be such a bad thing, since in his opinion “great” and “classical” literature is an ideological product of the ruling class, but I cannot agree with him there. I find literature to be fundamentally democratic: anyone who can write and has talent can find an audience, and although the literary snobs control the classroom they do not control the reading public. A wonderful read.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/05/13/literary-theory-an-introduction-by-terry-eagleton/

May 12 2009

White Eagle, Red Star by Norman Davies

Just a few short weeks after the end of World War I on the Western Front, Poland and Soviet Russia started fighting again, skirmishing on their poorly defined border that built into full-scale invasions over the next year. Davies’ book White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 tells this complex story clearly and incisively. In the West, the armistice began on November 11, 1918. In the East, nothing was as simple. The separate peace signed at Brest-Litovsk made room for the collapse of the Russian Empire and the emergence of a number of polities on its former territory.

The German army of the east stayed in position, patrolling its vast area of remaining occupation, the Oberkommando-Ostfront, or Ober-Ost, which stretched 1,500 miles form the Gulf of Bothnia to the Sea of Azov. In every quarter local wars were in progress. Soviet Russia was fighting for its life against all the other successor provinces simultaneously, on fifteen fronts. Russian ‘White’ armies sprang up on all sides — Yudenich before Petrograd, Kolchak in Siberia, Denikin on the Volga. Allied armies of intervention were sent to guard the interests of the Entente, the British in Archangel, Murmansk, and the Caucasus, the French in Odessa, the Americans and Japanese in Vladivostok. Then the succession states started fighting among themselves — The Rumanians with the Hungarians in Transylvania, the Yugoslavs with the Italians at Rijeka, the Czechs with the Poles in Teschen, the Poles with the Ukrainians in Galicia, the Poles with the Germans in Poznania. Post-war social unrest in many European cities produced communist revolutions on the Soviet model, each involving still more fighting …
To pay special attention to just one of these conflagrations may seem superfluous. Yet the Polish-Soviet War was different. … Unlike all the other post-war squabbles with which it is frequently equated, the Polish-Soviet War raised wider issues — the clash of ideologies, the export of revolution, the future of Europe itself. – p. 21

Yet now the war is even less known than it was in 1972, when Davies’ book was first published. At that time, it was still within living memory (indeed, the book is dedicated to his father-in-law, who was caught up in the war), but on the other hand communist Poland and the Soviet Union had little desire to remember that they had fought bitterly almost at the very beginning of the Soviet era in Russia.

Ideological tensions were heightened by historical tradition. Russia and Poland were traditional enemies. The Russians saw Pilsudski as the heir to the Polish lords who had conquered Moscow in 1611, who had ruled Kiev until 1662, and whose only accomplishments were rent-collecting and rebellion. The Poles saw Lenin as a new Tsar, whose only thought was to renew their bondage. Both Russia and Poland in February 1919 were states in their infancy, the one sixteen months old the other only four months old. Both were chronically insecure, gasping for life and given to screaming. In the opinion of the senior members of the European family neither infant was expected to live long. Soviet Russia was regarded in conservative circles as an abortion, whose continuing survival was an inexplicable misfortune; Poland was regarded as an unhealthy foundling, incapable of a vigorous, independent life. Soviet and Polish leaders, resenting these opinions, compensated for them by grandiose schemes of expansion, the one by plans of imminent world revolution, the other by schemes of territorial aggrandizement. – p. 31

Initially, the undefeated German army was a buffer between the two new states. But following the armistice in the west and the abdication of the German emperor, there was no point in keeping a German army in the field. The withdrawal, when it came, produced a vacuum into which both Polish and Soviet units advanced. Their first collision came on February 14, 1919, when a Polish detachment captured 80 Red Army soldiers in the crossroads of Bereza Kartuska. Fighting ebbed and flowed throughout the year in the borderlands once held by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth but ceded to the Russian Empire as Moscow’s power grew.

Davies tells a complex story clearly. He presents the many players, from Allied observers to Ukrainian peasant leaders; the many places, from Vilnius in the north to Galicia in the south and Kiev in the east; and the many influential events in a context that the reader can both recall why they are significant and keep abreast of the main narrative. Beyond retelling the events, and making sense of a confusing era, he describes how the war appeared to participants, and why the conflict is worth remembering.

‘We ran all the way to Kiev’, a Polish veteran commented, ‘and we ran all the way back.’ – p. 105

In 1920, Polish forces captured Kiev. The vast open areas of the border region allowed an offensive, once it had gained momentum, to keep going with relative ease. Defensive lines were few, concentrating troops for an engagement nearly impossible. But by the same token, the provinces gained so quickly proved impossible for the Poles to hold, and the initiative eventually passed to the Soviet side. Their offensive was almost as rapid, and led them deep into Poland and almost to the gates of Warsaw in August 1920. But the Polish defenses held, and counter-strikes on the northern and southern flanks pushed the Soviets eastward.

It is pointless to speak of ‘long lines of communications’ or Tukhachevsky’s ‘contempt for space’. These are not explanations. The lines of communication between Russia and Poland cannot be shortened. The vast space of the Borders is a well-known fact, which every general must first accept then ignore; a strategist who treated the expanse of the Borders with due respect would never fight at all.

Negotiators for the two sides reached a temporary agreement for peace in early October 1920. Like many temporary arrangements, it lasted far longer than expected.

The Soviet leadership saw Poland as a bridgehead to Western Europe, where the world revolution of the proletariat would surely claim its victory. Some Polish leaders wanted to establish a federation of the borderlands, joining countries along Russia’s western border to keep it in check, and others saw an opportunity to re-establish Poland’s borders of 1772. Neither came to pass. But after four years of trench warfare in Western Europe, fighting in the East saw the use of tanks in a war of maneuver and several other features of the war that would come to Europe beginning in 1939. Among the western observers was a young Charles de Gaulle. Among the Soviet commanders, only those who followed Stalin’s views along the southern front survived the purges of the 1930s.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/05/12/white-eagle-red-star-by-norman-davies/

Apr 20 2009

The Celts by Jean Markale

The author deserves credit for taking on such a difficult and ambitious project…yet it must be said that this book is full of unwarranted assertions and loose interpretations. Most of what we know about the Celts comes either from what their enemies wrote about them or from Celtic mythology, neither of which are very reliable sources. Markale is entirely too liberal in his interpretations and conclusions, and as a result I cannot help feeling at the end of this work that he has taken his readers for a ride. The Celts were certainly a people who deserve serious study, but they left no written historical records for us to go on, which leaves them at the mercy of imaginative historians like Markale. Not to say that this book wasn’t interesting, but I would hardly regard it as authoritative.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/04/20/the-celts-by-jean-markale/

Apr 12 2009

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

As a self-serving memoir, I am sure this book was more interesting for Graves to write than it was for me to read. Ostensibly it is a personal account of the Great War, but the author is clearly more interested in himself than in the war. Yet the book is not altogether without interest in other respects. Graves agrees with C.S. Lewis that the purpose of the British boarding school is to turn boys into homosexuals. He had personal acquaintance with Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy, T.E. Lawrence, and Bertrand Russell…there is quite a bit of conspicuous name-dropping toward the end. He seems to find English country life pleasant and charming; though I have only experienced it vicariously, it seems to me dreary, dull, shabby, and provincial, even for relatively well off people like him. It is his experiences after the war that I find most interesting; his account of life in pre-Nasser Egypt is humorous and rather fascinating. In spite of the title, Graves is incurably English.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/04/12/goodbye-to-all-that-by-robert-graves/

Apr 12 2009

A History of Ethiopia by Harold Marcus

African history usually depresses me, but the history of Ethiopia is encouraging and inspiring. A lot of people in the West don’t know this, but Ethiopia is a mostly Christian country and has been for most of its history. It is, in fact, one of the oldest continuously Christian countries in the world. Furthermore, even in ancient times Ethiopia was one of the few sub-Saharan African countries that can truly be said to have had a civilization, at least, as Western scholars understand the term. Blessed with a sense of nationalism that transcends ethnic differences and with a series of

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/04/12/a-history-of-ethiopia-by-harold-marcus/

Mar 20 2009

Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection by John Man

The Mongol conquests are certainly impressive, but the Mongols contributed nothing to civilization and in fact destroyed civilization wherever they found it. The author reveals that Europe was spared a Mongol invasion only because the Mongols saw nothing to gain from such a venture, but they did overrun Hungary and Poland to give Europeans a taste of what might be in store for them if they didn’t get their acts together. Genghis Khan was a force of nature, but a wholly negative one, like an earthquake or tsunami leaving death and destruction in its wake and forcing people to pick up the pieces and start over again. His legacy is not nearly as impressive as many historians seem to think it is, this one included.

This was a pretty good book, but unfortunately the author intersperses Mongol history with accounts of his own experiences in modern Mongolia, which he seems to think are fascinating but which I found boring and irrelevant.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/03/20/genghis-khan-life-death-and-resurrection-by-john-man/

Mar 14 2009

Post Office by Charles Bukowski

This is a memoir of the soul-killing job that sucked nearly twelve years out of Bukowski’s life, with a lot of booze and women thrown in for good measure. I had read it before, but it was actually funnier the second time around. It does have a certain serious social relevance: what do people with no skills and no education do to survive in a capitalist society? All of his co-workers thought he was finished when he finally quit his job, but strangely enough when he quit working at shit jobs and began to write his luck turned completely around. Let’s all raise a glass to the man who was fucked by the system and then turned around and gave it a good hard fuck himself. Truly an inspiration to the working man.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/03/14/post-office-by-charles-bukowski/

Mar 14 2009

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

I found this play strangely moving and thought-provoking. The legally enforced sexual morality that the plot hinges on seems incomprehensible to us today, but more interesting was the way in which Shakespeare pushes the issue of justice vs. mercy. Mercy wins in the end, but only after some improbable twists that suggest that justice in this world cannot be practiced at all without some measure of hypocrisy. A fine and underrated drama, one that makes me examine my innermost convictions.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/03/14/measure-for-measure-by-william-shakespeare/