Book Reviews: Five of the Best (History)
The thread linking this post's reviews is that each book offers a view into 19th or 20th century Europe.
My reviews are those of an intellectual dilettante, and I make limited attempts to place works or their authors in a wider context. For example, a "professional" review of Joachim Fest's memoir would certainly allude to his role in the Historikerstreit, among other things. Book titles link to the Kindle store page.
Most human endeavors are ephemeral (a view that helps put daily life into perspective!). The main exceptions that come to mind are scientific advances, academic institutions, and religious hierarchies. In that last category falls the papacy, which for two millennia has been a living, evolving symbol of the Catholic Church. It is, as the Catholic Eamon Duffy points out, the "oldest... of all human institutions", and Duffy's one volume history is an extraordinarily readable walk through the lives of almost all the popes.
The papacy has always been a force in "the flux of history", and it is this interconnection with secular concerns that makes the book more than just a history of the popes -- it is also a history of Western Europe over the last 2,000 years. It is neither a recital of canned biographies nor a gossipy revue, although there is no scrimping on the more notorious occupants of the Vatican. Some of the medieval popes -- the remarkable Alexander VI (Roderigo de Borgia) leading the way as usual -- boggle the mind in their ability to reconcile the ecclesiastic and the temporal.
Where Duffy excels is in placing a pope's life in a historical context. Where he also excels, and this is an accomplishment as the underlying documents are dry and opaque for a non-specialist, is in tracing the evolution in Church dogma; a subject that took on added relevance as the Pope's temporal domains in Italy shrank to nothing in the 19th century. It is fascinating to observe how "paradoxically, the increasingly beleaguered position of the papacy in Italy added to its religious prestige" (this in speaking of Pius IX, or Pio Nono). Duffy traces how Gregory XVI, Pius IX's predecessor, set the tone for much of the Church's worldview for the next 150 years through the encyclical Mirari Vos.
The Catholic Church is widely viewed as a hierarchical organization with centralized power in Rome. It is astounding to learn how recent this structure is, and how, for much of the Church's history, secular powers have had remarkable influence over it. By 1870, King Victor Emmanuel had the right to appoint 237 bishops in Italy -- only in that year was this power transferred to the pope via a new concordat between the Italian state and the Church.
Good history helps a reader understand how the end state arises from all that went before. Nearly every page of this wonderful book brings a new sparkle of understanding and comprehension.
Fest's memoir, which covers only his youth and not the rest of his long and interesting life, provides a child's window into the imploding Weimar Republic and the darkness of Nazi Germany. It is also a diary of the life of resistance during the Nazi era, most overtly in the person of his father. Fest senior, a schoolteacher, paid the price; Fest and his family were outcast and impoverished throughout the Nazi era.
Fest pere never submitted. His son writes that "he gave us a Latin maxim... which we should never forget; it would be best to write it down, then brand it on our memory and throw away the note." The maxim is tiam si omnes -- ego non (from the Gospel according to St. Matthew), which gives the book its German title (Ich Nicht), and in English translation reads: "Even if all others [will] -- Not I".
William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, written just fifteen years after the Gotterdammerung at the Fuhrerbunker, is still the most readable history of the Nazi era, Kershaw and others notwithstanding. The picture Shirer paints, with the immediacy of perspective derived from his presence in Berlin throughout the 1930s, is of a population that was fully complicit. As I came to the end of Fest's book, what struck me was the isolation of this family's resistance. They were almost totally alone in a sea of enthusiasm and compliance.
After the war, Fest embarked on a career as a historian and a journalist. He wrote the first German biography of Hitler, and when he showed a draft to his mother, whose dreams had been obliterated by the Nazis, she said that "from a distance, world events seem rather grand, whereas if one looks at the fates of individuals, one discovers a great deal of shabbiness, powerlessness, and misery." In this memoir, published in Germany in the year of his death (2006), Fest has restored a stolen dignity to a group of individuals who in their lives were rendered devoid of it.
During his long tenure as Prince of Wales -- fifty nine years, a record exceeded only by the unfortunate Prince Charles -- Edward VII led a picaresque bon vivant existence that suggested nothing so much as an intellectual lightweight who made full use of the privileges of royalty. Ridley's breezy yet superbly researched biography confirms the latter, but also shows that Bertie (as he was known to intimates), while perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer, took to kingship in the most unanticipated manner.
John Nance Garner described the Vice-Presidency of the United States as "not worth a bucket of warm piss". The Prince of Wales is the closest proxy to a Vice President in the British monarchical system. This explains some of Charles' more peculiar pronouncements over the years, as he struggles for relevance. Bertie had no such insecurities about being the heir to the throne with little to do, for he extracted the most out of the position. He had a series of high and low affairs; he indulged at the table until he became a twin of Henry VIII at his most elephantine; and if one were to go by the numbers, he appears to have single- or double-handedly eliminated half the avian population of the United Kingdom while at interminable game shoots.
But as Edward VII, he used his personal relationships to navigate the restrictions of a constitutional monarchy, and so had a large effect on British foreign policy, alongside prime ministers who grew to respect him -- Salisbury, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. Edward VII was the uncle of both Kaiser Wilhelm II and Nicholas II of Russia but these relationships were no bulwark, ultimately, against the high tide of nationalism (or against the sociopathic Kaiser). His most significant political intervention, strangely, was in France, the republican antithesis of Russia and Germany, where '“it was his personal knowledge of French ways, his charming Parisian manner and his Parisian way of living in Paris that won influence for him."' (Ridley quoting George Sanders, the Times' Paris correspondent). It is impossible to envision this kind of highly personalized diplomacy in our time.
The arms race in the first decade of the 20th century, mostly between Germany and Britain, set Europe up for the Great War, and for much of what has followed. Edward VII commands our interest as an involved and engaged King of Great Britain during this difficult and important period.
For the casual reader, Karl Marx is no longer a subject of inquiry except when inserted in the line of thinking that goes: Marxism-Russian Revolution-Soviet Empire-Gulags-Fall of the Berlin Wall-Sole Superpower. Marx as an individual, and moreover an individual of his own nineteenth century times, has been effaced, leaving a sequence of "isms" and a trail of discredited ideologies.
Jonathan Sperber writes that "critics... see Marx as a proponent of twentieth-century totalitarian terrorism, as intellectually responsible for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s mass murders. Defenders of Marx’s ideas vigorously reject these assertions, often interpreting Marx as a democrat and proponent of emancipatory political change. Both these views project back onto the nineteenth century controversies of later times." Sperber makes explicit his desire to present Marx in his contemporary context in the biography; and largely succeeds. It is instructional to see how Marx's philosophical thought, his weltanschauung (I am using this word primarily because it's enormous fun to do so), is rooted in the intellectual and political landscape of pre-Bismarck Germany.
It is not possible to write a biography of Marx without delving into philosophical thought -- indeed it would be pointless to do so given that is the main reason we are interested in the man -- but Sperber plants Marx's world view in the contemporary philosophical mise-en-scene in a way that is a role model for intellectual biographies. As an example, after a remarkably lucid exposition of Hegelian thought -- not easy! -- he explains the contemporary setting and skewers Hegel's baroque prose by writing: "although this whole line of reasoning may seem today arcane, vague, and terribly abstract, to contemporaries it packed a powerful punch. Not only guidelines for academic research and writing, Hegel’s ideas became almost a religious cult. Young men from a rationalist background in particular, for whom the doctrines of organized religion had lost their emotional impact, were strongly attracted to Hegel’s ideas, undergoing a conversion experience, almost ecstatically rejoicing in their self-understanding as part of Absolute Spirit."
Marx's monetary troubles, his strange relationship with Engels, the equally intriguing relationship with his wife (Jenny von Westphalen) -- all serve to round out a picture of the man. But it is the evolution of Marx's philosophy in its contemporary social and historical setting that brings out the best in Sperber, both in historical exposition and in turn of phrase. At one point he writes: "Marx, one could say, invented the working class for political reasons: to realize the aspirations emerging from his frustrating encounters with authoritarian Prussian rule." Old Communists will turn in their grave, but for the rest of us, especially those who grew up at a time when the clash of philosophies was still undecided, this makes for fascinating reading.
Konrad Adenauer was the political architect of Germany's post-war rehabilitation, but there are few full-length biographies of him. He is barely remembered outside Germany, though a good case can be made that in his absence post-war Germany would have festered as does Iraq and, in all likelihood, Afghanistan.
Adenauer spent the entirety of the Nazi period in effective internal exile, keeping his moral compass throughout. He was sixty nine at the end of the war and had assumed that his productive life had ceased. But he played one of the great second acts in world history, serving as chancellor until the age of eighty seven with no loss in mental acuity.
Williams has not written a hagiography. It is evident that Adenauer was a ruthless politician, while he was mayor of Cologne during the Weimar period and during his long post-war chancellorship. It is also clear that Adenauer was less than enthused about the post-war denazification process. His administration was riddled with ex-Nazis.
Williams' book fleshes out this important historical figure, who was responsible for leading Germany out of the abyss, and along with de Gaulle was a vital force in the creation of the stable (Western) European political configuration of today. He maintains a good balance between Adenauer's personal travails (such as the trauma of his first wife's death), and politics. And Adenauer's long life span -- born in 1876, his was a fundamentally Wilhelmine personality -- means that this biography presents the era from Bismarck to Kennedy in a uniquely personal way.