Reviews


“What if” is a two word question that vexes academics. Historians generally fall into two camps with when this line of dialogue appears: refute that fantastical propositioning is a waste of time, or, spend an inordinate amount of time creating narratives for nonexistent events. When it comes to academic study, the former option should always be employed. However,  In the realm of popular writing, alternative-history is a niche market where those questions can readily be explored.
The First World War, alternatively also known as The Great War, was brought about militarily by a mass invasion of German forces through Belgium into France. The British Empire hinged its threats against Germany on any violation of Belgian neutrality. And since the pass through Alsace-Lorraine is awful for advancing armies, the German general staff concluded a swift punch of soldiering through the Low Countries could knock out France before numerically larger, but ill equipped Russia could mount a counter attack and come to its ally France’s aide.
In a line of questioning that causes wonder to every first-year history undergraduate and migraines for the majority of academic faculty, “what if the Kaiser’s army invaded Russia instead of France and Belgium?” is a perennial event.
Andrew J Heller, the author of Grey Tide in the East, provides a nuanced, if slightly passé narrative on how the aforementioned question would play out.
In turns both fantastical and at times vaudevillian, Heller approaches the war from the perspectives of a dozen or so minor characters.
Having spent a great deal of my adolescence reading Harry Turtledove, who rivals Tom Clancy in both verbosity and desperate need of an editor, I was contented that Heller’s work was relatively short and to the point.

The oral history style of the work was a welcome change from most military history which does not lend itself well to a broad audience.
While I am glad to be back reading serious history, it was a fun walk through a path not taken, and one which my history faculties are most likely glad came to a short conclusion.
Recommended for elementary readers of First World War European history.
Grey Tide in the East by Andrew J Heller. Strict Publishing International: 2013 164 Pages. Purchased copy.

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For activists engaged in social democracy, disease as well as bullets and knives are the nature of their undoing. Olof Palme’s mysterious death on a Stockholm pavement twenty years ago continues to both engage and enrage the Left. Conversely, the death of Anglo-America historian Tony Judt in the summer of 2010 to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) was as coldly real and non-mystical as death can perhaps become.
From the testimony of others who knew him, and indeed his own words, Judt appeared to not to fall into despair over his pending death. In the months leading up to it in fact he coauthored two books, one a discussion of the twentieth century (Thinking the Twentieth Century with Timothy Snyder), that laid bare Judt’s keen insights into what was missed and what needs to reevaluated in our collective thinking of a century that saw enormous progress, but also the brutality that arguably has never been equaled in the history of humanity.
The second book, “Ill Fairs the Land”, is Judt’s closing remarks on the need for a renewed social-democratic movement in the face of Hayek-induced austerity fervor.

To many in American and European circles, the free-market was supposed to be the crowning victory in the fight against Stalinist totalitarianism, yet Judt observes in the first sentence of his work that, “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today”. Judt gives voice to a belief that had gone underground since the late 1980’s: the notion that high tax rates, public utilities and social justice were all good things that people generally agreed on.
This is an anathema to the majority of even left-leaning westerners at the current time. Markets and their supposed rationality were to bring unbridled growth, while privatization of even basic services were seen as adding a competitive edge to government, as though the government was a prize stag in Kentucky or Yorkshire.
Judt is bold because he has no reason not to be. Facing the end of his life and slowly losing the vitality which pervades so much of his work, there is no obligation to mince words even in interests of civility. Here, Judt is simply fed up with the self-induced panic that the European and American Left have given in to. His call is not just to needle the Right, though he does do that, but to act as a polemical bucket of ice water on parliamentary systems that at one time advanced the causes for which the word ‘labour’ not simply a noun, but a movement.
Hobbes’ warning (among others) in Leviathan is the still prescient statement that the dismantling of the state precipitates a cataclysm of people against their own wellbeing. Judt astutely notes that this is precisely what has happened in both the US and the UK. Looking at the current Chancellor of Exchequer’s hard-grinding austerity and war on the poor, it is jarring to see the foretelling of a crumbling nation become reality.
Recommended for experienced readers of European history.
Ill Fairs the Land by Tony Judt. The Penguin Press HC: 2010. 237 Pages. Purchased copy.

Germany had become a nation of walkers. Men, women, children and the infirm all at some point in time and across the formerly spacious Reich left their homes, shoppes and places of worship toward the center or west of Germany. The sins committed by fathers and sons of Germany had come home, and many faced a fork in the road of their lives: Suicide and a quick death, or run, and stave off death at least for a little while. In After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation attempts to bring this dark and turbulent era of peace to light in hopes of putting a mirror to the faces of an overly righteous east and west.

While conventional knowledge of the Russian atrocities in Berlin and elsewhere was widely available and shared during the Cold War, less discussed, if known, was the atrocities committed by French, English and American soldiers against the occupied populous from the time of Germany’s surrender through the creation of the West German state in the late 1940s. To be sure, on scale alone, Russia’s crimes against the German people are of a magnitude unmatched elsewhere in continental history since perhaps the 30 Years War.

MacDonogh is adept at exploring and interweaving the Macro and the Mico scale of destruction that permeated not just from an economic perspective, but also the fraying of the cultural fabric of German society. For example, the assault of German women was also compounded by the fact that many women were later forced to commoditize their bodies in order to procure goods for their families that they needed to survive. This begrudged the German men, if any were left, and had an emasculating effect that likely put strains on thousands of post war marriages.

In addition, through utilizing personal narratives, MacDonogh is skillfully able to create a complex portrait of persons and places that provides a human face to the occupation while not neglecting the need to examine the topic in a broad, generally readable, manner.

                At the risk of stating the obvious, any academic student will quickly realize that it is inherently difficult to create a broad and stimulating historical examination of a period of time that occupies the better part of a decade and spans several countries and hundreds of historical actors. The author does his best, but by the time the reader reaches the occupation of Austria, the intellectual and emotional reserves are run thin. This is unfortunate, because the occupation of former Hapsburg lands is almost more interesting than the increasingly homogenized Germany. When occupying forces entered the west and east of the countries, respectively, they happened upon a country filled with deportees from the east as well as Slovenes, Croats, Italians as well as native Austrians.

In many cases, the German speaking evacuees had been forcibly put on trains or forced to walk the hundreds if not thousands of miles to the Austrian border while experiencing every conceivable type of deprivation and denigration. This presented a complex issue to the three occupying nations (UK, USA, USSR), who approached their occupying duty in Austria with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The English were bored, the Americans were confused, and the Russians mainly concerned with shipping everything of industrial or economic value back to the charred and destroyed areas in the east. This is in stark contrast to the attitudes of the occupiers of Germany proper, where the attitudes of the Big Three were almost uniformly punitive. It is a shame that Macdonogh does not spend more time on this analysis, as he becomes more involved in presenting an ever growing and wearying amount of evidence of Allied crimes.

Another particularly jarring moment is the oft overlooked (or purposefully hidden) role of the English troops in ‘repatriating’ Cossack troops who had fought under German flag against Bolshevik’s, but as Stalin made clear, they were still citizens of his Soviet Union and therefore his to deal with. This in effect was a mass deportation of men but also their women and children to the east and an almost certain death. A slightly moving if romanticized moment occurs when the German commander of the Cossacks, Helmut Von Pannwitz, chooses to go to Russia with the rest of the men under his command, though strictly speaking as a Wehrmacht officer in British custody he was not forced to go with them. Macdonogh masterfully shows the connections that people make during wartime that have long reverberating effects. Pannwitz was summarily shot in Moscow upon his arrival for crimes against the Slavs in Yugoslavia. The casualness with which death was meted out after the supposed peace is one of the great unmentioned themes of the Macdonogh’s work, and is the element that sticks with the reader the most after conclusion.

The race to the finish of a conflict often includes a frenzied period of violence in advance of the coming peace. Before the guns went silent on the eleventh hour on the eleventh day on the eleventh month in the last Great War, the artillery from both sides rang constantly, hoping to add one more body to the enemy’s cemeteries and wastelands. In the second war, violence of that sort continued unabated long after the ink on the losers signed documents went dry. If anything, Macdonogh show readers that assault, looting and murder petered out only after the perpetrators appetite, whetted by 6 years of deprivation, had been satiated.

In the west, the narrative shown to school children and uninformed adults is one of monastically abstinent American and British soldiers entering a benighted Germany, grateful for their carpet bombings and ‘liberating’ them from their possessions and in some cases, lives. Instead, what Macdonogh shows is that brutality is not party to one nation or one side. Instead it is a crime that makes even victors become villains.

Recommended for readers familiar with Central European social history and revisionist narratives.

  After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles MacDonogh. Basic Books USA: 2007. 656 Pages.  Purchased copy.

15793661Establishing some kind of unified field theory concerning British hegemony in the 19th and first half of the 20th century has become something of a grail quest for historians. Perhaps one of the most incisive and exhaustively academic is “The Rise and Fall of the British Empire” by Lawrence James. For as rigorous as James’ study is (700+ pages), it was published some 15 years ago. Current academic and social understanding of empires have continued to evolve from then. For example, when James was published, Hong Kong still had two years of its 99 year lease left.

Into this vacuum enters English historian John Darwin. Having previously tackled imperial attitudes in After Tamerlane and The Empire Project, Darwin uses his experience as a lecturer and researcher to attempt to provide a complete account of the question that has haunted the British establishment since perhaps 1948; What caused the decline and fall of the great British Empire?

I said before that historians looking for a united theory in explanations have discussed this topic in academic journals and publications for years. In an attempt to square this historical circle, Darwin proposes that the reason Britain became an empire at all was because of the “four C’s”: colonizing, civilizing, converting and commerce. It is a neat and tidy grouping that does its best to contain the bloated weight of two hundred years of imperial memory.

However, I give credit to where credit is indeed due. Darwin has an excellent moment of real keeping early on when he states:

“Nor was it just the modern world that was created by empire. This suggests that the conditions that give rise to empires are neither peculiarly modern, nor peculiarly rooted in European behaviour, technology or values. It also suggests – unless we dispense with our view of historical change as a whole – that empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those they ruled over.”

In fact I think it is fairly easy to defend the thesis that empire was the default setting of early nations and states. The fact that some succeeded for longer than others is a testament to the brutality of these empires.

Darwin doesn’t exactly offer his work in supplication to the formerly ruled. Instead, it acts more as contextualization of European empire in general and British policy in particular. None of which is to say he does not call out the sadistic nature of the occupying forces. His coverage of Indian policy and also the internment of both Boers and later Mau Mau is particularly acidic in nature. If permitted, I would take Darwin’s conclusions a bit further and reference George Orwell, whose experience serving the glory of the Raj drove him nearly insane with anger at the local population (see “Shooting and Elephant”).

Understandably, empires are destructive not just to the people that are being occupied. They also wear on the emotional stress of the occupier and colonial elite. Tales of alcoholism, violence and madness are a common theme stitched through his whole narrative.

Indeed, if Darwin succeeds in creating a great narrative of British rise to hegemony, it is on a kind of cumulative radicalisation. “entrepot imperialism”, using force and soft power to force British goods into new markets, ruled policy until the foundation of the American Republic in 1783. From this cataclysm for British soft power, new markets were already opening up, as Darwin points out:

“…far from heralding the implosion of British imperial power, the loss of America was the prelude to a colossal expansion of its scale and ambition.”

This ambition had a name; India and (and greater South Asia as a whole). From here Britain would make its mark into the history books as its laissez faire rule through corporatism led inexorably to direct rule and from there to complete domination of the sub continent and elsewhere.

While Darwin does cover the various entry points into local societies around the globe that marked the modern world with anglophone names on a majority of the world’s landmass, his best work is when discussing how India and South Asia were the real linchpin to British hegemony in the world. The navy they used kept markets relatively stable for British goods which could be produced ‘freely’ from cheap Indian labour.

Darwin doesn’t bring anything necessarily new to the table regarding British rule of the world’s largest empire. But perhaps the fact that it keeps civil society discussing the legacy of imperialism and how it very visibly affects our day to day life is worth while enough.

Recommended for readers with interest in broad anglophone histoy, great for introductory courses.

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain By John Darwin. Bloomsbury Press USA 2012. 496 Pages. Purchased Copy

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quionto, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore.

This is a little gem of a film. It’s not easy to create a compelling film that takes place entirely on two office floors, but director J.C. Chandor manages it with ease.

Based loosely on the collapse of Lehman Brothers (the CEO is named Duld God’s sake), the film covers the 24 hour period from the discovery of bad securities by a young risk assessor (Quinto) on the firing of his boss, (Tucci). From there, the seven or so odd characters are all sent scrambling on how to save their firm (and their jobs in the process).

Jeremy Irons is used perfectly as the CEO. Moore, whom I really am not fond of as an actress manages to deliver a solid performance by playing against her bellicose normal sermonizing.

However, it is Paul Bettany that steals the film. His witticisms and amoral views makes the least complex, but most enjoyable character to watch. It is refreshing to see Bettany take on roles more suited to his dapper ability. That whole apocalyptic film thing was not good.

At the heart of it Margin Call is a film about relationships. The bonds and trust that people build. From the CEO to the senior staff, and from the traders to their buyers. When that trust erodes, nobody is buying or selling. In a roundabout way it shows the crux of investment banking: you have to trust that the guy who is selling you a securities product, or its just not worth.

And that’s the big lesson of this film.

Amy Cole, Paul Banwatt and Nils Edenloff form The RAA

I have the joy and honour of seeing one of the best acts around tonight live. For those of you not in the know, here’s a sample:


Author Mary Gabriel begins her article about her new biography of the marriage of Karl and Jenny Marx with this tired phrase:

Karl Marx famously said, “If anything is certain it is that I am not a Marxist.” Nowhere was that more evident than in the Marx family home in London. 

Gabriel is obviously aware that the one of the greatest minds in human history was a real jerk to his wife and child. Marx, for all his revolutionary fervor, was not that great at keeping his family clothed and fed. Indeed, much has been written about how Engels, an astute mind in his own right, ended up bankrolling the Marx clan for many years.

Gabriel seems to lament the life the life Marx never lived. Marx, a well educated German man whose family had converted to Lutheranism from Judaism in order to gain access to a better social standing, chose the path of most resistence.

Gabriel:

It could have easily been otherwise. Marx was an educated Prussian married to a baron’s daughter. He might have used his considerable intellectual abilities and her aristocratic status to gain a position that would have ensured his family’s security. Marx, however, never truly entertained that traditional, easy path as an option. He had a mission to build a more just society, which ultimately became a mission to save the masses—working man and middle class—from the excesses of capitalism. The sad irony was that as much as he loved his family, he did not seem to consider that they, too, needed saving. Like an artist single-mindedly dedicated to his vision, Marx expected his wife and children to fall into place behind him because they also recognized the significance of his work. He believed that they, too, must be ready to sacrifice for his goals. Lovingly and without hesitation, they did.

From the essay that Gabriel wrote, I am not sure whether the reader is supposed to lament the life of Marx’s wife and daughters and hate the author of Das Kapital.

Marx may have been a less than stand up father and husband, but he was not the only barring factor towards female liberation from paternalism, and to act as such is intentionally misleading.

As to Gabriel’s opening quote? It is actually taken from a quip Marx said regarding leaders of the French Communists whose ideas were radically different than his own and has woefully been taken out of context for over a century.

I look forward to reading Gabriel’s work, if only to see how people with no concept of Marxism get published.

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