Posts from March 2014

March 2nd, 2014

The Medici!

young - the mediciOur book today is that hugely durable old 1910 war-horse, The Medici by G. F. Young, a quintessential example of the particular breed of monumental Victorian history that holds up effortlessly under the onslaught of time. It’s amazing, really, how widespread across the breadth of art and literature are these great histories – and it’s a shame we’re a century too early for that fact to be widely acknowledged, caught still as we are in the mania of whether or not the archival details are all jot-and-tittle correct – as if that were the most important aspect of a history. But even so, we can take comfort in Young’s book, since it had a hell of a run. It was a gigantic bestseller in its own day, and it got an enormous second life when Bennett Cerf added it to the Modern Library list in the 1930s, just in time to catch both the explosion of popular reading and a recent explosion of interest in Italian history specifically.

The Medici went through a satisfying number of Modern Library editions, but my favorite is the Modern Library “Giant” edition from 1933, which has a very nice block of crisp black-and-white illustrations that the other editions don’t have; it’s always nice to have some Titians and Raphaels and Bronzinos to season the mix.

But the main attraction is and always will be Young’s lovely, sharply intelligent Victorian prose, which sweeps from indelible character sketches to broader panoramic portraits. And the history of the various branches of the Medici family – even more so than that of the Borgias, or the Sforzas, or the House of Este – provide Young with a near-endless variety of such material. He has insights into virtually all of his colorful characters, as when he makes an crucial insight into the character of Pietro the Unfortunate:

Pietro was not a fool, as often stated. He was simply an ordinary young noble of his day, without more brains than other people possessed. But the Medici had always had more brains than other people possessed; it was expected of them; and they were not wanted by the Florentines as rulers if they ceased to be thus gifted.

And he’s just as insightful when speculating about the tangled dynamic that always existed between the Medici clan and the people of Florence:

When a despotic monarchy is succeeded by a republic there is only one family embittered by the loss of former greatness. But when a republic is succeeded lucy reading youngby a despotic monarchy there are created an hundred such families; and these are also the most influential in the State … It may be imagined what fierce wrath such a state of things created; wrath which, though it dared not show itself, was all the more carefully nourished by those concerned. The taking away of a “liberty” which had never resulted i anything but internecine strife might in time have been forgiven; but the deprivation of all the power and importance to which the leading Florentine families had for generations been accustomed could not be forgiven; it was a ranking sore which could never be healed.

An excellent new book about Cosimo de Medici prompted me to re-read Young, and as luck would have it, I recently found a battered copy of the Modern Library “Giant” edition at my beloved Brattle Bookshop. I gentled it back to my Santa’s workshop and labored to re-inforce it to withstand a good rough reading: carefully-placed reinforcements, a tastefully-positioned book plate, and of course plenty of that marvel of the modern age, clear plastic packing tape. And once I’d done all that, I did indeed give it a good rough reading: gripped in hand for a day over hill and dale (well, street and subway), energetically annotated in pencil, and occasionally rescued from underneath the gelatinous girth of a Certain Someone who has crushed more books in her old age than ever she ate in her youth.

And the Young held up – in every conceivable way.  I heartily recommend it – and of course I’d be happy to send you a copy.



December 12th, 2013

Best Books of 2013: History!

History, too, was thriving in 2013, although I saw the usual reasons for concern – mainly two: the continued rise of imbecilic cardboard garbage calling itself history and increasingly mistaken as such even in respected venues, and the (connected, obviously?) decreasing historical competence among the average citizens of the Republic of Letters. In a word: dumbification. In a country where the heavily and ineptly ghostwritten pseudo-histories of TV comedian Bill O’Reilly can be phenomenal bestsellers, this downward trend is manifestly visible, but as in all previous years, so too in 2013, there is hope yet! I read well over a hundred works of genuine, searching, intelligent history this year (a great many of which were issued with little hope of profit by my beloved academic presses without which the intellectual landscape would be a barren mire) so many, in fact, that I had my usual agonizing hour choosing only ten of the very best:

the furies

10. Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines (Bloomsbury Publishing) –   Martines’ lean, fast-paced book reminds its readers that the Renaissance era we thumbnail as a time of burgeoning artistic expression was also a time of unrelenting war; this was the most truly interesting book on the period I’ve read in years. You can read my full review here. 

the guns at last light

9. The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt) – As great as the previous two volumes in Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy were, this third one stands far beyond them in its sheer narrative power as the author brings us into the heart of the Western Front of WWII. You can read my full review here.

lawrence in arabia

8. Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (Random House) – I was initially skeptical of Anderson’s approach here, as he lavishes hundreds of pages on lesser-known English and American players in the Middle East in and around the time of the Arab Revolt; I wondered how much weight could really be placed on characters T. E. Lawrence had only seen fit to mention in passing in his great Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But I was once again reminded that the storyteller makes the story, not vice versa: Anderson’s book is toweringly good, even though Lawrence still (and always?) steals the show. 

rebranding rule

7. Rebranding Rule by Kevin Sharpe (Yale University Press) – Shortly after I read this enormous and scholarly masterpiece, I was shocked to learn that Kevin Sharpe recently died – I’d actually been ready to send him an email praising the monumental achievement of this book. I can’t tell him how much I loved it, alas, but I can tell all of you: this account of the slow and subtle ways monarchy domesticated itself and adapted to its own powerlessness (in order to survive at all) is brilliant and utterly convincing. When taken as the capstone of a life’s work (all of Sharpe’s other books are equally good), it’s all the more impressive, although melancholy.

franco's crypt

6. Franco’s Crypt by Jeremy Treglown (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – This artfully written examination of the long shadow cast on Spanish culture by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco doubles as very insightful look at what life under that shadow was actually like. Treglown’s approach is so elastic and all-encompassing that this book sometimes felt tricky to classify; the author is easily conversant with the history of Spain in the 20th century, but what he’s really doing here is tracing the soul of a cultural identity. The subject matter couldn’t interest me less (I suspect I’m not the only one for whom Hemingway spoiled Spain), but the book captivated me completely.

the genius of venice

5. The Genius of Venice by Dial Parrott (Rizzoli Ex Libris) – This beautifully-illustrated book (the straggling, pathetic remnant of last year’s mighty all-Venice list!) turned out to be something very different and very much better than I’d expected. I went into it thinking it would be yet another smoothly impersonal art-and-architecture view of the Piazza San Marco, complete with the usual canned, freeze-dried chunks of Venetian history. But Parrott infuses his familiar subject with terrific energy and pathos; he tells the story of Venice’s unfolding social history as if it had never been told before and makes it all feel new. The result is a Venice book so good it doesn’t even need the gorgeous pictures that adorn it.

warsaw 1944

4. Warsaw 1944 by Alexandra Richie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – The horrifying, utterly pitiless story of the Warsaw Uprising has been told many times before, but never to my memory better than this fat volume by the author of that wonderful feast of a book, Faust’s Metropolis. Richie has studied her subject down to the least historical document, and she fills these pages with dramatically-realized real characters – which makes the whole thing even more emphatically heartbreaking. 

the borgias cover

3. The Borgias by G. J. Meyer (Bantam) –  The second Italian Renaissance history on our list this time around, this spirited study by Meyer (whose World War I history A World Undone was fantastic, and whose one-volume history of the Tudors is mighty good too) takes a clear, revelatory new look at the era’s most notorious family – and finds nothing at all he was expecting to find. The resulting tone of smart, incredulous outrage that fills the book is extremely entertaining.  You can read my full review here.

the bully puplit

2. The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster) – The headlining subject of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest and best book is the personal and political rift between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft that resulted, among other things, in the election of Woodrow Wilson as President. But the book’s other subject – the progressivism of the Roosevelt era and the tight-knit group of muckraking journalists who sharpened their rhetorical skills on the many corporate and social evils of the day – manages to be even more interesting. The combination of the two makes for a mighty involving book. You can read my full review here.

the days of god cover

1. Days of God by James Buchan (Simon & Schuster) – Buchan’s incredibly lively, incredibly thoughtful examination of the fundamentalist revolution that gripped Iran in 1979 and plunged the entire world into spasms of violent, unpredictable religious insanity from which it’s still suffering every day is outstanding on every level; not only has Buchan traced the actual roots and details of the revolution with painstaking care, but he’s written it all with passionate prose and a very old-fashioned sense of high dudgeon that make this the best history book of 2013.






October 19th, 2013


hastings armageddonOur book today is Max Hasting’s smashingly good 2004 Armageddon: The Battle for Germany – 1944-1945, a fat, heavily-detailed account of the final months of World War II in Western Europe, the fitful and protracted mopping-up about which Winston Churchill said in February of 1945, “Tonight the sun goes down on more suffering than ever before in the world.”

One of the many, many strengths of Hastings’ pitiless book is its willingness to assign a chunk of that suffering to Churchill himself, who insisted on continuing the savage, comprehensive carpet-bombing of German cities long after they posed any strategic or logistical threat to anybody. But there’s plenty of blame to go around here, from the German populace displaying itself every bit as callous and jingoistic in defeat as it had been in victory to the remorseless Red Army troops raping and pillaging their way across Eastern Europe in a whirlwind of destruction the other Allies disgracefully allowed to the British and American troops slogging their way deeper and deeper into the German heartland, increasingly concentrating on all the wrong things:

A contemporary British report identified three causes for sluggish forward movement: enemy resistance, difficulty of supply and repair; and “the desire of soldiers to enjoy ‘the fruits of victory.'” Bing, one of 13 Para’s Alsatian dogs which had jumped at the Rhine in special harnesses, disappeared one morning and was found hopelessly drunk in a German wine cellar. Loot had become the chief preoccupation of some men. “Did he have a Luger? Did he have a Luger?” a captain in Private Charles Felix’s battalion demanded, almost jumping up and down with excitement, when he heard that his men had captured a German officer.

Hastings is one of our best living military historians, and the Second World War is his speciality. He delves in primary sources like few historians of any period, always in search of the telling human details that make his writing so dramatic:

When front-line soldiers escaped from imminent peril for a few hours, their desires were usually pathetically simple. Soldiers talk much about women, but on the battlefield their private cravings were seldom sexual. A British officer described his men’s priorities as “char, wad, flick and kip” – tea, food, a movie, and sleep.

This is necessarily a brutal story. The Third Reich was in ruins by this point, and the German army was split between swaths of surrender and many hard chunks of desperate, last-man fighting after all hope was lost. It’s to this period that the famous confrontations at Arnhem and the Hurtgen Forest belong, as well as what Hastings refers to as an “American Epic,” the Battle of the Bulge. As the net inexorably tightened on Germany, it caught more and more civilians; Hastings’ book, almost always supremely uneasy reading, is full of women who are clearly outrageously traumatized (at one point a British officer exasperatedly tries to explain to a bawling German housewife that her misery was only a small fraction of the misery her nation had visited on countless others, but he soon gives up). And it’s full of children who’ve been blasted completely out of childhood:

A British tank officer glimpsed some tiny figures beside a wood half a mile away, from which a German half-track had just emerged. He fired a few rounds of high explosives from his gun, then followed up with a long burst of Bess machine-gun fire. Trees caught fire. He saw survivors start to move across the tanks, hands held high. “To my horror, they were civilians,” wrote William Steel-Brownlie, “followed by a horse and cart on which were piled all kinds of household goods. They were children, a boy and a girl, holding hands and running as hard as they could over the rough ploughed earth. They came right up to the tank, looked up at me, and the small boy said in English, ‘You have killed my father.’ There was nothing I could say.”

In addition to being superbly talented, Hastings is also prolific – a happy combination that isn’t as common as it once was – and Armageddon is one of his best books. A hard, horrifying book, but a great one.

March 31st, 2013

Twelve Against the Gods!

twelve against the gods - brattle - jan 2013Our book today is that hilarious, engrossing, inimitable classic, Twelve Against the Gods, written under the pen-name of “William Bolitho” in 1929 (the same author also wrote the enormously enjoyable Murder for Profit) and celebrating a baker’s dozen historical figures who epitomize one aspect or another of the adventurer’s ideal as conceived by our author, who certainly knew something of which he wrote, having led quite an adventurous life from his Cape Town boyhood to his blooding at the Somme to his braving of Fleet Street as correspondent for the old Manchester Guardian. In that life he learned, among many other things, how to write in a way that makes people want to read him – always a good trait for somebody determined to live by his pen. In Twelve Against the Gods, he picks several signal characters from the past and writes their lives in brief ala Plutarch (whom he often invokes, always adoringly, and self-deprecatingly enough so that the reader will invariably wish this book were enormous and were called Forty Against the Gods). The list is varied: Alexander the Great, Cagliostro, Christopher Columbus, Casanova, Charles XII of Sweden, Mohammed (spelled in the old style, as “Mahomet”), Lola Montez, Isadora Duncan, Catiline, Napoleon (I & III), and Woodrow Wilson (whom our author saw cheered through the streets of Paris in the heady days after World War I) – and the idea is simple: “History has always treasured a catalogue of adventurers – she has not changed her ways, though she may not, for business reasons, be allowed to publish it.”

Those business reasons didn’t quite preclude this book, however, and the reading public ate it up. Bolitho is not hero-worshipping – the common thread uniting his portraits isn’t selflessness or even physical bravery but rather an essential hunger for life, and a willingness to risk everything for that hunger. His adventurers are all gamblers:

What if this injustice were the very life of adventure? The man who puts his stake on the roulette board does not want justice, or his stake back unaltered. Justice for Christopher [Columbus] is a small shop in Genoa, or it may be a foot of wall in a Portuguese jail for fraudulent bankruptcy, or a hole in the ooze at the bottom of the sea, somewhere a few leagues out from the Canaries. Justice for Alexander is another dagger such as killed his father; for Casanova a horse-whipping, or a lifelong judgment of alimony. In this light, adventure is an excited appeal for injustice; the adventurer’s prayer is “Give us more than our due.”

Bolitho’s stars make that prayer all the time in these stories, and since our author was both a student of history and a thorough (though a trifle embarrassed) Edwardian, the prayers tend to be male-dominated. He grew up in a world that still routinely relegated women to the roles of either queens or courtesans: “In the Law of Adventure, male adventure, love is no more than gold or fame – all three, glitterings on the horizon, beckoning constellations,” he tells us, “But with the woman-adventurer all is love or hate, the sole pole of her field. Her adventure is man; her type is not the prospector but the courtesan.” This is manifestly too easy, of course; Bolitho could easily have alighted on female figures of significantly more consequence than a dancer and an actress, and if only he wrote that enormous tome Forty Against the Gods, surely he would have.

He doesn’t do it in this book, but that’s its only shortcoming. “Life, that winged swift thing, has to be shot down and reposed by art, like a stuffed bird, before we can use it as a model,” he tells us, and this is exactly what he does in these pages: his characters are artfully posed indeed and seem to live in every anecdote and aphorism. His research is sounder than it seems on its razzle-dazzle surface, but you don’t really go to a book like this one for research – you go to it for the razzle-dazzle, and rightly so. Bolitho was an extremely lively thinker about history, and it’s always fun to read the musings of such a person. Sometimes he can be a little eerie, as when he writes, “To say that the United States is the historical counterpart of old Rome is too far-fetched. To say that it will be extraordinarily like it in a lucy reading bolithohundred years is an intelligent probability.”

And sometimes – in fact often – he’s bracingly misanthropic:

The nightingales, dear naturalists, do not sing for us or you. The flowers are proud, and those trees your own grandfather planted in sweat have no feelings of gratitude towards men. All animals except the parasitical dog and cat we have debauched hate us; a sparrow that will not move aside for an elephant will hide itself before the most angelic child on earth can come within reach. … The trees themselves, it might seem, turn their backs to you, the wet blanket, the human, the unwanted, the horror. A strange experiment, that one of carnivorous anthropoids, killer-monkeys; the whole of Nature hopefully awaits the day we shall be extinct.

Fortunately for readers everywhere (or anyway, the ones diligent enough to go find a copy of this wonderful book – a handy Penguin Classic would solve that little problem, and yours truly would of course be happy to introduce and annotate such a volume), those killer monkeys sometimes write things worth reading. Twelve Against the Gods is high up on a list of such things – it’s exactly the kind of highly opinionated, actively moralizing after-dinner chat that was the norm rather than the exception among the ancient writers Bolitho so adored. In fact, it’s a fitting companion to Plutarch, which is just about the highest – and rarest – praise a book can get.



October 2nd, 2012

A Military History of the Western World!

Our books today are the three volumes of J. F. C. Fuller’s magnificent The Decisive Battles of the Western World and their Influence upon History, specifically the handy paperback set issued by Da Capo in 1987 and re-titled A Military History of the Western World. All of which might sound like a forbidding tangle, but once you start reading Fuller, you forget it all – he’s a skilled storyteller, and his comprehensive, wide-ranging interest all things military is positively infectious. In fact, Fuller is so wide-ranging that this is one of those rare instances where I consider the American title of his masterpiece better than the British one; our author was not only a staff officer during the First World War but also a postwar fascist and heartfelt dabbler in crackpot mystical mumbo-jumbo – he was well-steeped in the world, in other words, unafraid of confronting either the physical, the theoretical, or the metaphysical. He read voraciously and wrote voluminously, and he thought very deeply on all the ways mankind’s ferocious internecine clashes both fuelled history and drew fuel from it – his huge work is by no means a simple run-through of troop movements, as is clear from this little aside from Volume I, “From the Earliest Times to the Battle of Lepanto,” about his theory as to why the Rhine became Rome’s northern frontier:

Yet there was a deeper reason still, deeper than the loss of Roman vigour; it must be sought in the character of Alexander himself. In spite of the glamour of his age, he was a splendid rather than an heroic figure. Though not lacking in courage or pertinacity, as a leader of men he cannot compare with Julius Caesar. He was a tolerant opportunist who, by means of his policy of divide et impera, became the managing director rather than the monarch of his Empire. He believed in Rome as a great business, a vast monopoly, and looked upon states and frontiers as bonds and securities. He lacked the power to electrify men and compel them to accomplish the seemingly impossible which distinguishes the man of genius from the merely great.

In some important ways, Fuller was one of the architects of what we now think of as modern warfare, and that fact is never clearer in A Military History of the Western World than when his narrative reaches just such junctions of change. He’s always mindful of how war changes history, but he’s acutely sensitive to how war itself changes:

Napoleon’s strategy failed, not only because his means were inadequate, or because his presumption was inordinate, but because his policy was out of tune with the spirit of his age. He had aimed at establishing a universal empire and had followed in the footsteps of the great conquerors of the past. But times had changed. No longer was Europe a conglomeration of tribes and peoples, but instead a mass of crystallizing nations, each seeking its separate path towards the illusive pinnacle of a new presumption – its personal deification.

At Jenna, Napoleon destroyed not only a feudal army, but the last vestiges of the feudal idea, and out of the ashes arose a national army, which at Leipzig destroyed him. On the corpse-strewn fields by the Elster, present-day Europe writhed out of its medieval shell.

It was in Fuller’s time – and in largely through Fuller’s agency – that just such another calamitous transformation came upon the world of war, this time in the realm of his particular speciality, mechanization. He began his military career in the Africa of the Boers; he saw cavalry-charges with sabers waving, and he imagined less fleshy, less stoppable variation on that theme. Fuller was that most politically useful of scholars: a theorist with a coldly quotable literary style. Never more so than when he was writing about his brainchild, the modern tank:

It solved the two outstanding difficulties – namely, how to harmonize movement an fire power and movement and protection. It increased mobility by substituting mechanical power for muscular; it increased security by neutralizing the bullet with armour plate; and it increased offensive power by relieving the soldier from the necessity of carrying his weapons and the horse from hauling them. Because the tank protected the soldier dynamically, it enabled him to fight statically; it superimposed naval tactics on land warfare.

Virtually every page of these three volumes is like this: intelligent, scrupulous, debatable, vaguely disturbing. You never lose the feeling that you’re in the hands of an enormously well-read authority, but you’re also fairly often reminded – on some rhetorical level that would be hard to pinpoint – that you’re in the presence of a military thinker well-loved by Adolf Hitler.

I imagine there are few military history buffs out there who haven’t already studied their Fuller, but reading him is to be urged just the same. This is stark, grand, appalling, stuff, but it – more than anything else – is mankind’s most unambiguous history. And Fuller is its master historian.

July 16th, 2012

The German Dictatorship!

Our book today is a tonic the poor patient might not even agree he needs! After the sybaritic pleasures of a seaside vacation – a blessed time of bike-rides and home-made breakfasts and wine and idle robin-watching, say – nothing will quite bring a reader back to down to Earth faster than Karl Dietrich Bracher’s searching 1969 epic, Die deutsche Diktatur: Entstehung, Struktur, Folgen des Nationalsozialismus, which was translated into English in 1970 by Jean Steinberg as The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure, and Consequences of National Socialism. The book is one of the earliest and most magisterial accounts of the rise, flourishing, and fall of Hitler and National Socialism, one that attempts the finest degree of historical dispassion on one of the most passion-riddled subjects in the almanac. Bracher’s book came out ten years after William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and filled something of the same hunger of a new generation to learn as much as possible about this dark enormous thing that happened in the days of their fathers and uncles.

Shirer’s book, despite its depth of research, is carved almost entirely out of passion – a passionate hatred for the Nazis and all the damage they did to the world. Bracher (a German, unlike Shirer) bases his book on the same grounding of deep research and then moves in the opposite direction, reaching for a clinical, detached tone. This bothered me mightily when I first read the book, not only because I was a passionate fan of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (how many poor hapless suburban commuter-readers did I press it on, when they wandered into my bookshop for a recommendation? How many – if any – ever bothered to read it?) but because I thought a clinical, detached tone shouldn’t be used in connection with this particular subject, that some horrors were meant to stay horrifying. It was frustrating to read passage after passage of Bracher’s crystal-clear language (to my great relief, Steinberg faithfully captures that clarity – and the strong whiff of pedantry that accompanies it):

… modern dictatorship differs from absolutism insofar as it calls for the extinction of the individual. It forces him into mass organizations and commits him to a political creed which becomes a ‘political religion’, a binding religious surrogate. This exaltation of the political rests on the absoluteness of a political myth: in the case of Fascism, the myth is of an imperial past; in the case of Communism, of a socialist-utopian future; and in the case of National Socialism, of racial superiority. Yet, despite the validity of this analysis, it is nonetheless inconclusive.

Even though I knew it could harm his undertaking, I wanted the author to rage – but this book resolutely doesn’t do that, and every time I’ve read it since, I’ve slowly fallen under the calming spell of Bracher’s inquiry and simply delighted in watching his superb mind at work. He devotes a great deal of space to the precise mechanisms by which the National Socialists came to power in the first place – how they built coalitions, how they wooed support, their blunders which would be comical if there weren’t such horrors waiting on the other side of them. Bracher clearly wants to know how these brutal buffoons could ever have achieved supreme power over a people as smart and sophisticated as the Germans of the early 20th Century, and he points out with bitter exactitude how close it came to not happening at all:

Mishaps and errors, consequence and accident, became an almost inextricable mass of causes of the National Socialist seizure of power. It is not a ‘necessary’ development; even at the very end, there still remained a freedom of choice, but one which the political and intellectual elite relinquished, partly in tired resignation, partly frivolously, and partly maliciously.

Underpinning all this analysis is the most extensive bibliography of German-language sources then amassed for a popular publication, all of it marshalled with an intellectual authority of impregnable strength. Reading it again, fresh from vacation, I realized that such timing may in fact be perfect: it’s instructive to remember just how much of Germany – and the Western world – was enjoying home-made breakfasts and morning bird-song (and all such simple peace-time pleasures) while the knotted wrongs of Bracher’s subject were laying plans and gathering strength, often in plain view.

The dispassionate stance still bothers me – I think it’s easy to make the case that the whole barrage of later histories that use such dispassion to contextualize the Nazis right into a kind of moral equivalence (David Irving being the most famous example, although as more recent works have shown, the trend continues) got their start in works like The German Dictatorship. But such twisted progeny can’t impugn Bracher’s motives, and they can’t really dull the persuasive power of his book.


May 20th, 2012

The Nazi Doctors

Our book today is Robert Jay Lifton’s horrifying 1986 masterpiece, The Nazi Doctors, a copy of which I recently found at my beloved Brattle Bookshop and so of course not only bought but sat down and re-read.

If the watchword nightmare of Nazi Germany was the ability of an advanced, scientific, cultured modern nation to become one vast clanking dungeon of sub-medieval terror, then Nazi perversion of medical science was the very heart of that nightmare, and Lifton looks straight into that heart with an unblinking courage that makes his book one of the most depressing ever written on any subject – and also makes it absolutely necessary, compelling reading. The Nazi Doctors explores not only how the German medical establishment was suborned (or, in far too many cases, didn’t need to be) into the service of a sadistic state but also how the individual doctors involved – many of whom Lifton interviewed – managed to do the things they did and still function in society. This latter problem is seen through the lens of Lifton’s famous psychological ‘doubling,’ perhaps because simple cowardice and evil somehow don’t seem adequate to what these trained professionals – every one of whom swore a solemn oath to do no harm – did to innocent men, women, and children in the Reich’s hospitals, ghettos, and death-camps.

Doctors were involved in almost every aspect of places like Auschwitz, where a Hippocratic veneer was pulled over the simple, brutal task of selecting which new inmates seemed fit enough to be worked to death and which were for one reason or another too feeble and must either be sent to a medical wing or executed out of hand. A doctor nodded agreement at the selection for instant death of thousands of little children and elderly people who were self-evidently incapable of enduring 15-hour work-days, and the doctors – and their ghoulish stand-ins – were a watchful, deadly presence in those medical wings as well:

SS doctors ordered and supervised, and sometimes themselves carried out, direct killing of debilitated patients by means of phenol injections into the bloodstream or heart given on the medical blocks. These injections were most extensive during the early years of Auschwitz (1941-1943) prior to the full development of the gas chambers. They were usually performed by medical technicians or brutalized prisoners, who served as surrogates for the doctors. SS doctors had similar responsibility for another group of phenol injections ordered by the Auschwitz Political Department (actually the Gestapo) for what were known as “hidden executions”: the killing of such people as Polish political prisoners or occasionally German military or other personnel condemned to death for various reasons. Doctors also attended other executions of political prisoners – usually by shooting – in order to declare the victim officially dead.

In addition to all this guilt, there was also abundant awareness of guilt, codified into entirely fictitious hospital charts and an entire vocabulary of post-mortem lies:

In connection with all of these killings, doctors signed false death certificates, attributing each death of an Auschwitz inmate or an outsider brought there to be killed to a specific illness (cardiac, respiratory, infectious, or whatever). Those Jews selected for death at the ramp, never having entered the camp, required no death certificates.

And throughout the book, Lifton simply piles grim fact on top of grim fact, until it seems like there was no element of wickedness unexplored:

In the case of official corporal punishment (for instance, whipping), SS doctors were required both to sign forms attesting to the physical capacity of the inmate to absorb such punishment, as well as to be present while it was administered.

Arthur Conan Doyle (who had ample reason to know whereof he spoke) had Sherlock Holmes coldly observe, “When a doctor goes wrong, he is the first of criminals,” and no reader finishing The Nazi Doctors will doubt it. Every time I read this book, I’m struck again not only by Lifton’s prodigious research (and sharp narrative voice, though necessarily removed) but by the almost perverse necessity of the thing. It’s strong, stinging stuff for a sunny summer afternoon, this unrelenting tour of the depths – after every reading, I find I have to indulge in complete literary frivolity for a few books, to regain my balance. But I keep going back to it, because that darkness holds some truths that you won’t find anywhere else, I think. I highly recommend the book, but: gird yourself first.


April 16th, 2012

The Chronicles of Froissart!

Our book today is most commonly translated into English as the Chronicles of the great fourteenth century historian Jean Froissart, who was born (somewhere in the 1330s) in Valenciennes, a French-speaking Netherlander town in what was then the independent kingdom of Hainault. He was that familiar writerly pattern, an unusually clever son of unimaginative but well-off suburban parents, and the wide world beckoned. At first, Froissart’s timing was impeccable – in his twenties, good-looking, exceptionally smart, memorably articulate, ambitious without being grating: he was able to make himself known at court, and since 1361 saw the dawn of peace between England and France, a person could travel around without necessarily risking getting killed (bandits still haunted every forest road, but that’s what armed guards were for).

Froissart travelled to England, perhaps on a low-level embassy from John of Hainault (uncle to the Count) or perhaps on his own speculative dime – in either case, he was soon attached to the household of that most famous Hainaulter of all, the short, boisterous, utterly wonderful Philippa, who became the queen of King Edward III of England. Froissart began his service to the Queen in the fairly conventional manner of churning out pages and pages of gawd-awful verse, but the whole time he was doing that, he was talking and especially listening to everybody around him, including all the veterans of England’s late wars with France (and not just English veterans – any number of French veterans were hanging around London in the 1360s, hoping – or not – to be ransomed back home). He quickly conceived that there was an epic story to be told here, and since he had the essential knack of making friends, he set himself the task of telling that story. He travelled all over England, ventured into Scotland and Wales, ransacked every royal or ecclesiastical archive he could get his hands on, and began amassing the materials he’d need to write the Chronicles, all with the royal blessing (since the pure of heart are seldom afraid of history’s verdicts).

He was travelling on the Continent in 1369 when the news reached him in Brussels that Queen Philippa was dead. The news broke his heart, of course (that was its universal effect), and it also changed his plans: instead of returning to England, he began hunting up wealthy patrons closer to home – and he began writing his Chronicles. He took advantage of earlier written accounts (as well as all those first-hand testimonies) and used his own abundant literary talents to bring everything vividly to life, including those events that long pre-dated his arrival in England, like the epic sea-battle King Edward fought against the Spaniards in 1350 at Winchelsea:

On that day, I was told by some who were with him, he was in a lighter mood than he’d ever been seen before. He told his minstrels to strike up a dancing tune which Sir John Chandos, who was standing beside him, had recently brought back from Germany. Out of sheer excited happiness, he made Sir John sing with the minstrels, to his own vast amusement. At the same time, he kept glancing up at the look-out he’d posted to watch for the Spaniards. While the King was enjoying all this fun (and his knights were enjoying seeing him enjoy himself), the look-out shouted, “Ship, ahoy! And she looks like a Spaniard!”

His book has something of the sweep of panorama, but its most charming and memorable segments almost all on a smaller scale. More than one critic over the centuries has compared Froissart’s abilities in this vein to those of his contemporary Chaucer, and the comparison is apt; Froissart the chronicler tried his best to verify events and square accounts, but Froissart the dramatist breaks loose of the annal-form whenever possible in order to shed some human light on his proceedings – as when he describes one little moment during John of Gaunt’s frustrated 1373 expedition to France:

The English struck camp and moved off in the direction of Soissons, always staying near both rivers and fertile farmlands. As they went, they were continually flanked by some four hundred lances led by the Lord of Clisson, the Lord of Laval, the Viscount of Rohan and others. Sometimes they rode so near each other that they could easily have fought if they’d wanted to, and often they talked to one another. For example, Sir Henry Percy, one of the most gallant of the English knights, was once riding across country with his men, and Sir Guillaume des Bordes and Sir Jean de Bueil were riding with theirs, each keeping to his own path. Sir Henry, who was on a white charger, said to Sir Aimery of Namur (the son of the Count), who was alongside him on the left, “It’s a fine day for hawking! Why don’t you go for a kill, since you’re used to flying?” “Yes,” said Sir Aimery, dancing his horse a little out of line, “it’s true – a good day for hawking. If it were up to me, we’d certainly go a-hawking on some nearby prey.” “I think you would, Aimery,” replied Sir Henry. “Just persuade your men to take off – there’s good game to be had!” In this bantering mood, Sir Henry Percy rode for some time alongside the French, talking to that splendid young soldier, Aimery the Bastard of Namur. The two sides could have come to it many times if they’d wished, but instead they rode forward with perfect discipline.

There are hardly any modern-era English translations of Froissart’s Chronicles, alas, and the few we have often as not manage to strangle the jingling, nimble cadence of his prose (that above excerpt is by yours truly, only because every existing English version I could find had taken worldly raillery and made it dull). And to add insult to injury, most of the English-language editions ever made of the Chronicles abridge the hell out of the work, essentially leaving in the battles and the jousting and cutting everything else. The original Froissart is broadly discursive, enormously enjoyable, and as thick as a cinder block – maybe some enterprising publisher will craft a gorgeous, limited-edition unabridged hardcover one of these days. I’d buy a copy.


February 8th, 2012

Six for the War!

Humans fight global wars, but they also write great books about them. War is famously a scourge, but from a purely book-worm point of view, library shelves would be much poorer without the books. The 20th Century was the apex of human social convulsion, the ultimate trauma of the species so far, and in many ways the crisis point of that trauma was the Second World War, which began in a tangle of treaties and duplicity like something out of the 19th Century, worked its way through half a decade as the apotheosis of so-called ‘conventional’ warfare, and then ended on a bizarre, terrifying note that belonged to some unguessable future.

And the war produced books in such a vast number and variety that it’s almost impossible to imagine the literary landscape without them. Any student of history must have a full book case devoted to the Second World War, even with serious pruning, and more truly great volumes on the subject come out every year. So an entry like this can’t do more than scratch the surface of that mighty mound of passion and research and erudition – but even so, and apropos of nothing, here are six really good WWII books:

 Munich: The Price of Peace – Naturally, we start with the hope that none of it might have happened. Maybe the last person to hold that hope – and certainly the person who felt it the strongest – was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who exhausted himself in a series of increasingly furtive and hallucinatory conferences in 1938 with one goal in mind: to find some agreement, some terms short of open war, that German dictator Adolf Hitler would accept. That frantic last season of hope was never chronicled better than in Telford Taylor’s magnificent 1979 doorstop, in which he takes us through every twist and turn in the story, always bringing us back to what he saw as the point of it all:

It is not for us to criticize them; so do most of us today, despite looming perils such as poverty, pollution, resource depletion, terrorism, and nuclear warheads. Munich does not tell us how to overcome these hazards, but it is a potent and historically valid symbol of the dangers of not facing up to unpleasant realities. That is not a new lesson, but it is a great one, and it is the lesson of Munich.

London at War: 1939-1945 – Chamberlain was right to hope, but he was wrong to place any hope in Hitler – war came, and the nations of Europe, with their sleeping vigilance and their relic armies, fell like ten-pins before the Wehrmacht Hitler had so zealously built while professing peace. In what seemed like no time at all, England stood alone against the greatest concentration of military power the Western world had seen since Napoleon Bonaparte. German bombs rained down on English cities; German U-boats strangled the stream of imports on which England depended, and German invasion forces massed on the other side of the Channel. It (and only it, nothing before and certainly nothing after) was the perfect moment for blowhard demagogue Winston Churchill, who managed in those alone-days to say exactly the words his beleaguered country needed to hear, and in great historian Philip Ziegler’s intense 1995 account, we’re reminded not only that England’s trial was concentrated in London’s but that London’s trial lasted well beyond that initial period of solitary defiance. Ziegler ends on a note of quiet approval, of course:

So only the memory is left; not the memory of a golden age perhaps, but still one deserving much congratulation. There is much that Londoners can look back on with pride, remarkably little about which they need to feel ashamed. The war had been a test unexampled in its relentlessness and its ferocity. Its legacies did not prove as potent as had once been hoped, the opportunities that it created were frittered away, but no one looking back on those dreadful years can doubt that the test had been passed with honour.

Eagle Against the Sun – Large variables were at work backstage of that war London fought alone, foremost two: Hitler’s mad-in-hindsight decision to turn east and invade Russia, and Japan’s mad-in-hindsight decision to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. The former drew the deadly Nazi focus away from an island that would otherwise have been all but helpless before it, and the latter completely changed the nature of the war itself by introducing an enormous new dimension – one recounted with workhorse proficiency by Ronald Spector in his 1985 best-seller:

The war between the United States and Japan was in many ways a unique and unprecedented conflict – the first, and probably the last, to be waged on such a scale and upon such a stage. It began with a stunning display of air power by the Japanese and ended with the most deadly air raids in history by the Americans. As a naval war, it was unparalleled. More battles were waged at sea and more warships sunk than in all other twentieth century naval campaigns combined.

Silent Victory – that war between the United States and Japan had a frightfully modern cast to it: it was made possible, entirely carried out, and horrifyingly ended by new technologies. Thousands of miles of open ocean separated the combatants, so operations depended on sea and air craft – an Iliad fought almost entirely out of sight of land. Veteran submariner Clay Blair, in his absorbing 1975 landmark study, concentrates on one aspect of that bizarre new war: the fight going on below the waves, between the submarine forces of the U.S. and Japan. And just as submarine warfare was by nature far more concentratedly personal than land warfare (close quarters, isolated bands of men working in darkness, etc.), so Blair’s book never strays far from the innumerable small-scale stories he faithfully collected. This is a book full of skippers, not grand strategies:

Tarpon, commanded by Lewis Wallace, was twice “pooped” (swamped by huge waves). She rolled violently and took heavy water down the conning tower hatch. The water rushed into the pump room, a compartment below the control room. Before Wallace got control of the boat, water was waist deep in the pump room and two feet deep in the control room. A great deal of machinery was flooded out. After Wallace got the damage repaired, he sighted one fair-sized Japanese ship sailing alone. He made a sonar approach. It was botched when a torpedoman, distracted by a leak, accidentally fired a torpedo.

Bodyguard of Lies – Just as the world of submarine warfare took place literally below the surface of the visible conflict, so too there was from the start of the war a vigorous but largely unseen war being fought beneath the battles and the headlines: the espionage war, without which no war can be fought or won. Anthony Cave Brown tells something of that story is his big 1975 masterpiece about the carefully-orchestrated counter-espionage campaign conducted by the Allies in order to keep the invasion of Normandy a secret from the Germans. Brown’s book is full of heroes readers have never heard of, victories nobody ever saw, and a bravery very different in appearance from the bravery for which it paved the path. Brown is thus sensitive to the unseen side of history and can evoke it even in the most public of war’s spaces:

There on the beaches of Normandy, so it is said, one can hear the sounds of old battles in the wind. It is the same phenomenon that one hears onthe gentle rises at Waterloo. For those who require monuments, there are strange, rust-red shapes sticking out of the sea, looking so remote from present history that they might have been there since the days of Richard the Lionheart. They are the remnants of the merchantmen sunk as breakwaters for the Mulberry harbors. The seas wash over these relics, rising and falling with the fierce tides. But they are not destroyed. They remain as a testament to that time and place where the fates changed horses an history changed its tune.

A Time for Trumpets – Despite those hidden wars behind the scenes and under the waves – and despite the staggeringly enormous battles being fought on Germany’s Eastern front – for most readers the Second World War will always be epitomized by the newsreel-ready battles fought on land between the Allied and German ground troops, and in the popular imagination (to the extent that the popular imagination even remembers WWII), one of the greatest of these battles will always be the so-called “Battle of the Bulge,” Hitler’s enormous last-ditch effort to punch back at the wave of Allied forces inexorably closing in on him from the west. Charles MacDonald fought in that battle, and in 1984 he gave it a proud and durable monument in his oft-reprinted book, in which the unassuming valor of his comrades is given center stage:

Hitler saw the American soldier as the weak component (the “Italians”) of the Western alliance, the product of a society too heterogeneous to field a capable fighting force. Bouck, Crawford, Tsakanikas, Umanoff, Moore, Reid, Descheneaux, O’Brien, Jones, Erlenbusch, Goldstein, McKinley, Mandichak, Spigelman, Garcia, Russamano, Weiszyck, Nawrocki, Campbell, Barcellona, Leinbaugh. Black men too, although their color was hardly to be reflected in their names. The heterogeneity was indeed there, but at many a place – at Krinkelt-Rochenrath, at St. Vith, atop the Skyline Drive, at the Parc Hotel, Echternach, Malmedy, Stavelot, Stoumont, Bastogne, Verdenne, Baraque de Fraiture, Hotton, Noville – the American soldier put the lie to Hitler’s theory. His was a story to be told to the sound of trumpets.

Obviously, six more great books could be substituted for these – sooner or later at Stevereads we’ll get to all of them (several of you have asked for similar lists devoted to both the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and they’re coming) – but these certainly deserve inclusion in the over-burdened WWII bookcase – and if you don’t have such a bookcase, these six books are a great place to start.

February 1st, 2012

War in Human Civilization!

Our book today is Azar Gat’s monumental War in Human Civilization from Oxford University Press, which arrived on the scene in 2006, just a bit too early for me to give it the full panoramic treatment in Open Letters Monthly. Gat has been studying military history for a long time (and lives and works in a militarist state), and this 800-page inquiry is likely his masterpiece on the subject. It’s certainly meant to be comprehensive, as the jacket design clearly shows – the front is a carving from the reign of Ashurbanipal 2700 years ago, and the back is a freeze-frame of the second plane about to strike the Twin Towers in 2001 (comprehensive and a bit controversial, perhaps, since I, at least, would argue against considering the 9/11 attacks actual warfare, at least in any sense of the word Ashurbanipal would have recognized).

The book is a grand heavy thing, one of those quietly magnificent Oxford productions that seem to come and go every season, regularly making the ‘best books of the year’ lists in the more abstruse literary journals and then disappearing into the night. War in Human Civilization, for instance, had only a modest print-run in hardcover and an infinitesimal one in paperback – and its readers kept it, since you virtually never see it turn up in used bookstores (to those of you who usually use such observations to comment “I see it everywhere! My local Annie’s Book Swap has ten! They’re giving them away!” – kindly pipe down). Indeed, it’s so scarce I had to settle for a copy whose previous owner had the barbaric habit of underlining in ink. Shudder.

Still, Gat’s book is worth the effort to find. This is classic ‘disinterested’ big-scope historical inquiry, only one part the old familiar Agincourt-Waterloo-Somme shuffle that usually forms the whole of books titled “War in Human Civilization,” and the other parts meta-analysis in the Toynbee manner, always thought-provoking and often brilliant. Gat studies the causes of warfare, the nature of the decisions societies make when they choose it, and he’s shrewd about its long-term costs. Of course, Toynbee-style meta-analysis can tempt just about anybody to the occasional wooden phrasing (it sure prompted Toynbee to a few), and Gat isn’t immune:

It may not be superfluous at this time to reiterate some comments by way of clarification. My discussion of human belligerency does not assume that all tribal societies, or all people, were equally war-like. There has always been a great variation between societies, arising from their specific and complex set of circumstances.

That first line, “It may not be superfluous at this time to reiterate some comments by way of clarification” is almost comic in its Casaubon-esque donnishness (the entire line can be reduced to the word “again”), but it’s mercifully rare in the course of War in Human Civilization. What’s far more common are passages that distill an enormous amount of learning into observations that both summarize and provoke:

Throughout history, sieges were slow and laborious, taking many months and years to complete successfully. In regions where fortified cities and fortresses abounded, warfare pretty much revolved around sieges. Armies often concentrated on one selected prize for each annual campaign, as they would do in early modern Europe.

I confess, I love this kind of writing, so studied and yet so interesting – even when I don’t agree with it, or when I think it hits the wrong emphasis. I love authors who pull off such a comprehensive, flexible approach to an enormous subject (John Reader’s Africa is another example that springs to mind). There’s an illuminating bit of deep thinking on virtually every page of Gat’s book, as when he rehearses the old Enlightenment view that selfish autocrats were the ones responsible for the scourge of war – and then deftly explodes it:

According to that view, once the people who carried the burden of war and incurred its costs were given the power to decide, they would recoil from war. However, as already mentioned, the demos was the most bellicose element in Athenian society even though it fought in the army, manned the rowing benches of the Athenian navy, and had to endure war’s destruction and misery, as in the forced evacuation of Attica during the Peloponnesian War. Rome’s proverbial military prowess and tenacity similarly derived specifically from her republican regime, which successfully co-opted the populace for the purpose of war. Indeed, historically, democracies proved particularly tenacious in war precisely because they were socially and politically inclusive. And, again, in pre-modern times they also did not refrain from fighting each other.

Pointing out the continued relevance of Gat’s book would be pretty damn fatuous, and beside the point in any case, at least for me. This is a tough book, a dense one with many subtleties and much deep thought behind it. It’s a great whopping synthesis of its dark topic, however, and it deserves more attention than poor old clueless Oxford University Press ever managed to drum up for it. I’m hardly in a position to criticize them, of course, since I’ve learned first-hand how tricky it can be to promote complex literary endeavors. But still: I bet your local library has a copy of War in Human Civilization that’s been sitting demurely on its shelf since it was bought – you should go and make its acquaintance.