Divided Together: The United States and the Soviet Union in the United Nations, 1945-1965 (2013)
Renowned Russian historian Ilya Gaiduk, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences and author of two monographs on the Soviet role in the Indochina conflict, did not live to see the completion and publication of Divided Together. But he undoubtedly would have been pleased with the result. The book is the first multi-archival English-language exploration of how the politics of the Cold War suffused the functioning and evolution of the United Nations, often to the detriment of the international organization’s fundamental purpose and goals. Though the historical literature on the Cold War is dauntingly vast, not much of it has focused on the United Nations as an arena of superpower conflict.
Great power disunity in the United Nations often prevented the organization from fulfilling its basic mission. At the heart of the dilemma was the dual nature of the U.N., as both an instrument for negotiating disputes among states and a forum to influence international opinion. Like no other organization that had come before, the United Nations provided a venue for national leaders to appeal to the court of world opinion. Yet the latter function frequently inhibited the efficacy of the former. The use of the U.N. as a Cold War propaganda platform impeded its utility as a mechanism for resolving conflicts. At the same time, however, the United Nations played a key role in de-escalating crisis situations and facilitating their peaceful resolution. The Suez and Cuban missile crises stand out as examples of U.N. efficacy.
Soviet and U.S. views of the U.N.’s utility evolved in response to dramatic changes in the international arena. In the early postwar period, when the creation of the United Nations and the drafting of its charter seemed to many to be dominated by the United States and its Western European allies, the Soviets considered the U.N. to be a mere tool of American foreign policy. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin even went so far as to consider sabotaging the U.N. and replacing it with an organization that would be subordinate to Moscow. The stark bipolarity of the early Cold War period, however, softened in the face of international developments, particularly decolonization, that irrevocably altered the way the Cold War was waged. An influx of members from the newly independent states of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East not only transformed the composition of the U.N., but also sought to influence its agenda. These countries, many of which would later become members of the Non-Aligned Movement, were understandably dissatisfied with the way that the Cold War competition had dominated U.N. proceedings, and sought to redirect the energies of the organization toward easing the transition to independence.
For an academic who was educated while the Soviet Union was still extant, Gaiduk evinces an impressive degree of scholarly professionalism and does not shy away from sharply criticizing Soviet behavior at the U.N. Though the English translation is at times awkward, the content of Gaiduk’s monograph is original, coherent, and persuasive, and successfully bridges the historiography of the United Nations with that of the Cold War.
Ambassador Adlai Stevenson displays photos of Soviet missiles to the United Nations, October 1962 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the USSR, at a meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, September 1960 (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Published on Wednesday, September 11, 2013
War Along the Border: The Mexican Revolution and the Tejano Communities (2012)
The Mexican Revolution knew no borders. Mexicans migrated north seeking refuge from its tumult, Tejanos, (Mexican-American Texans) assisted the fight by supplying weapons and incorporating these new immigrants into their communities. Other Tejanos and African Americans from Texas even joined the Mexican revolutionary forces. Texans were then, both directly and indirectly, by choice or by circumstance, part of this historic period.
Prior to the publishing of War Along the Border: The Mexican Revolution and the Tejano Communities, the lived experiences on the Texas side of the border had never been told in a transnational historical perspective. Raul Ramos sums up the importance of this approach in writing that “people, families, ideas, capital, goods, and violence crossed back and forth across the border to the point that self-contained national narratives lose their power to explain and make sense of the past.”
The porousness of the boundary between the United States and Mexico during the Mexican Revolution is eloquently captured in this edited volume. The histories told illuminate the lived realities of communities on both the Mexican and the U.S. side during this tumultuous period. One need not be an expert on the variety of revolutionary factions, alliances, and motivations. The opening essay by Paul Hart offers readers a concise historical background that contextualizes the larger ideals of the Mexican Revolution. From this point forward, the reader is guided through more intimate scenes of the period.
The emphasis on the lived experiences of Tejanos makes this a path-breaking endeavor. Rodolfo Treviño tells the intimate family history of his grandfather’s immigration. In sharing one family’s struggle to survive after migrating, Treviño elucidates the possible similarities between his family’s history and the history of many others, who like his grandfather, emigrated from Mexico into Texas during this period. As a cotton picker, Geronimo Treviño – and other Mexican immigrants both male and female—helped propel the agricultural industry in Texas. As Treviño explains, these are the forgotten histories of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things in American history.” The exceptional story of Felix Tijerina, proclaimed to have been the first Mexican-American millionaire in Houston, also serves as an example of an overlooked history of a remarkable American. The chapter details Thomas Kreneck’s quest for unearthing the truthful birthplace of Tijerina, a self-proclaimed American citizen. Kreneck’s pursuit takes him across the border, where he discovers the small villa where Tijerina so adamantly denied having been born. American citizenship during a period filled with racism and opposition to the influx of immigrants from Mexico, explains Kreneck, helps to contextualize Tijerina’s obstinate desire to be recognized as an American at all costs. In fact, Kreneck discovered Tijerina’s birthplace only after Tijerina’s death. Felix Tijerina died as a proud American.
Mexican rebels camped outside Juárez, Mexico, 1911 (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)
Not all stories left untold revolve around successful rags-to-riches sagas. Violence, racism and death were also consequences of the Revolution on the American side of the border. Two chapters describe in detail the triangle of violence that resulted from the Plan de San Diego, the Revolución de Texas, and the Texas Rangers. Richard Ribb outlines the violent repercussions lived by Tejanos and Mexicans, after discovering that social revolutionaries called for the Mexican and Mexican-American community to join forces in an armed uprising against the United States, scheduled for February 20, 1915, that would seek to kill all Anglo Americans. The discovery of this plot initiated a period of Anglo violence toward the Mexican-American population regardless of their involvement or support of the plan. La Revolución de Texas as Trinidad Gonzales details, was different than the Plan de San Diego in ideology; however, the lived experiences of Tejanos at the wrath of the Texas Rangers and Anglo vigilantes, was the same. Supporters of La Revolución de Texas, clearly outlined their motives for their uprising as a response to the continual racism experienced in Texas. Ironically, this forthright challenge to prejudice served as a catalyst to massacre hundreds of Tejanos and Mexicanos. A year later, in 1916, El Paso experienced its own form of Revolutionary violence. Miguel Levario evaluates the influence of the El Paso Race Riot fueled by the slaughter of American engineers at Santa Ysabel, Chihuahua, in categorizing Tejanos as “un-American.” The race war and race-related violence in Texas during the period of the Mexican Revolution claimed the lives of Anglo Americans, Tejanos, and Mexicans.
The violence and death experienced on both the Mexican and the American sides of the U.S.-Mexico border also ironically created niches of opportunities for some women. The essays by Juanita Luna Lawhn and Sonia Hernández convey the ways in which women sought safe-haven in the United States from this revolutionary violence. Lawhn unearths the experiences of elite women in exile. She utilizes newspaper records to trace the lives of the wives of famous revolutionaries with surnames like Madero, Villa, and Carranza. Hernández on the other hand, relies on bi-national archival research to excavate the experiences of women in the labor industry, as well as their social and political activism during the revolutionary period.
Members of the U.S. Army's Pancho Villa Expedition camped in San Jerónimo, Chihuahua, Mexico, 1916 (Image courtesy of the U.S. Federal Government)
The contributors to War Along the Border entangle the Mexican Revolution with transnational history and American history. By focusing on the experiences of Tejanos, by disregarding the political boundaries of the international border in their research, and by choosing to present this period as one of multinational influences, these scholars sketch a rich historical account of the Mexican Revolution as it affected Americans. War Along the Border is an invaluable contribution to the histories of Texas, the Mexican Revolution, Tejanos, Mexican-Americans, Mexicans, and the history of the United States in the early twentieth century.
Published on Monday, May 6, 2013
Co-Winner of April Essay Contest: Another Face of Empire: Bartolomé de Las Casas, Indigenous Rights, and Ecclesiastical Imperialism (2007)
Bartolomé de Las Casas has been long renowned as a religious reformer, champion of indigenous rights and an advocate of the freedoms of the Indians in the Americas. He has been lauded as the “Father of America” and “noble protector of the Indians.” Conversely, he has also been much disparaged and criticized by historians. In Another Face of Empire, Daniel Castro examines the life and work of Las Casas and addresses the reasons why the controversial Dominican reformer has been both adored and vilified throughout history.
In this in-depth study of sixteenth-century ecclesiastical imperialism, Castro illustrates the goals, accomplishments, and failures of the religious orders in the Americas, and examines the lives of the indigenous people themselves, including the myriad of ways they were perceived, treated and subjugated by the Spanish during the conquest of Mexico. Although the religious conversion advocated by Las Casas and other reformers of his ilk was thought to provide a “humanitarian element,” Castro stresses that it was nevertheless a “benevolent form of imperialism” forced upon the natives by the Spanish, who considered themselves inherently superior. His discussion of Las Casas” reform efforts in the New World effectively reveals how the priority of Spain during the conquest was not religious conversion, but the “possession of the land and its resources.”
Castro argues convincingly that while Las Casas may have thought his goal to be spiritual conversion, his actions nevertheless contributed to the priorities of the Crown, and that he directly assisted in Spain’s economic imperialism through his tacit acceptance of Spain’s “dominion and jurisdiction over America and its” inhabitants.” His ongoing written communication with the Crown in an attempt to denounce the “atrocities committed in the Indies” by the Spanish colonists was in actuality a conduit for valuable information, and as such, became a “useful tool in the imperialist designs of the monarchy.” Ergo, despite an earnest desire to secure humanitarian treatment for the natives, Las Casas was complicit in the “extraction of wealth from America,” and while he may have sincerely believed in the righteousness of religious conversion, his actions nevertheless became “a viable justification for the Spaniards to conquer.”
An illustration of Spanish atrocities against native Cubans published in Las Casas's "Brevisima relación de la destrucción de las Indias" (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Castro does not hesitate to reveal the less altruistic face of the “Father of America,” and unabashedly portrays Las Casas as a vociferous defender of indigenous rights, who nevertheless seemed unconcerned with the destruction of their established cultural, social and political way of life at the hands of the Spanish. Nor does Castro shy away from the dichotomy of Las Casas, who, while proclaiming that the natives should be treated as “equal subjects of the Crown, and not as slaves,” simultaneously advocated the importation of slaves from Africa to work for the colonizers.
Although Las Casas defended the rights of the indigenous people of Mexico, he inevitably served to perpetuate the imperialism and subjugation imposed upon those he was sworn to defend. A reformer he may have been, and his intentions were undoubtedly good, but he was nevertheless a servant of the Spanish Crown and its” imperialist aims. Another Face of Empire is a compelling read which affords a fascinating glimpse into the life of a controversial religious reformer who, according to Castro, was the “incarnation of a more benevolent, paternalistic form of ecclesiastical, political, cultural, and economic imperialism.”
And be sure to check out the other co-winning submission from Daniel Rusnak
Published Monday, April 15, 2013
The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet (2013)
Perhaps one day some whimsical people with money will get together and honor books for their subtitles. Lawrence Friedman’s new biography of Erich Fromm, subtitled “Love’s Prophet,” wins for getting the total picture; for, in just two words, capturing a whole life. But it couldn’t have been a difficult choice.
Erich Fromm was a German-American psychotherapist and ethicist, most noted within the academy for his groundbreaking synthesis of Marxism and Freudianism. After emigrating from Germany in 1934, Fromm became a robust public intellectual, a voice for love and freedom who spoke in words a schoolchild could read. Fromm’s message was brief: love -- and don’t wait -- or perish. Mike Wallace’s interview with Fromm perfectly captures his otherworldly charm, his preference for the elegance of plain truth over reasoned facts, his will to enjoy, his deep concern for humanity, his long view of history. This footage makes me nostalgic for the time when playful intellectuals visiting us from some mystical other world would come on TV.
Fromm’s ecstatic prophetic pose alienated many academics.and few young scholars today are familiar with or even interested in Fromm’s arguments about freedom, fascism, capitalism or love. And yet, there was something about Fromm’s style that seemed to catch; few thinkers achieved Fromm’s global popularity.
In Friedman’s telling, Fromm wasted no time becoming Fromm. The biography opens with an adolescent Fromm's coming-to-terms with his neurotic, overbearing father.. Rather than moving far from his home in Frankfurt to become a rabbi, as he wished, Fromm remained close to his family by attending the nearby University of Heidelberg. There he studied economics under Alfred Weber, Max Weber’s brother. Fromm’s dissertation explored “the function of Jewish law in maintaining social cohesion and continuity in the three Diaspora communities - the Karaites, the Reform Jews, and the Hasidim.” Much of his ethics would follow from these roots in humanistic Judaism. Although Weber believed Fromm’s work qualified him for a promising career as a scholar, Fromm's father wasn’t so sure. He showed up in Heidelberg on the day of his son’s defense to tell the faculty committee that, because Erich was not prepared and would fail, he was going to kill himself.
Fromm’s affair with Frieda Reichmann, a much older Frankfurt psychoanalyst who introduced him to the new discipline and thereafter become his first of three wives, offered the emotional exit he needed from his oppressive family. Fromm spent his twenties invigorated by psychoanalytic training, and even then, he showed signs of departing from Freudian orthodoxy. Around 1929, Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School for Social Research hired Fromm to bring in the new psychology that had been blossoming in Vienna and Berlin. For whatever reason, Fromm’s estrangement from the Frankfurt School casts a large shadow over the magnitude of his involvement, first in grounding the Institute’s particular “Freudo-Marxism,” and secondly in ensuring its future. Many scholars and activists today, historians included, have become so accustomed to thinking about culture in fluid social psychological terms similar to those Fromm pioneered that they forget the great chasm that once existed between Orthodox Marxism and Freudian analysis. Fromm worked to forge a dialectical link between “social structure” and “instinctual need,” where structures (e.g. forms of work organization, distributions of wealth, broad cultural practices) modified libidinous impulses that in turn cement or challenge (“explode”) those structures. Fromm proved that psychoanalysis could provide Marxism with a better understanding of subjectivity and he “postulated that the entire interaction between changing instincts and changing social forms took place most conspicuously within the family, the primary mediating agency between the individual psyche and broad social structures.” At Frankfurt, Fromm accomplished what was then a radical philosophical feat.
When Hitler came to power, Fromm was offered a position on Columbia’s sociology faculty. Fromm successfully lobbied Columbia for the Frankfort Institute’s use of University facilities in Morningside Heights, ensuring the future of an intellectual tradition he would not long remain part of. Fromm’s intellectual conflict with some of the Frankfurt School crew (notably Adorno and Marcuse), at least on the surface, revolved around his departure from the notion, popularized by Freud, that sexual libido, in its repression by the reality principle, was the material basis of the unconscious and of mental illness. In America, Fromm cultivated friendships with analysts who shared his rejection of Freud’s libido theory of mind. Through his friendships with Karen Horney, Harry Stack Sullivan, and Margaret Mead, who all emphasized culture and intersubjectivity over the economic and the psychosexual, Fromm’s thought flourished. Rather than seeking to occupy a position of authority or submission vis-a-vis his contemporaries, Fromm wove his own ideas out of the “interpenetrative,” fraternal exchanges with his rather intelligent and pioneering friends. In other words, the generative mode of his life’s work corresponded gracefully to its content.
Fromm’s psychotherapeutic career occupies in my opinion too small a portion of Friedman’s book, though we can forgive the biographer this fault since access to that deeply private history is no doubt heavily restricted. What we do know is that Fromm was a lay analyst, which created problems for him in an increasingly institutionalized, medical and behavioralist psychological field. Fromm innovated his technique away from what believed were Freud’s alienating and paternalist approaches; hence his rejection of the couch. The way Friedman describes it, Fromm viewed therapy as a “dance” between friends, and his sessions recall a piece by the performance artist Marina Abramovic, “The Artist is Present,” in which two interlocutors stare at each other, taking the other in, silently and fully, affirming their shared experience and desires.
On the question of politics, Friedman argues that Fromm must be remembered as an enthusiastic Marxist. Fromm called himself a socialist humanist, but if his commitment to Freudianism was often contested, so were his Marxist credentials. The fuss was understandable: Fromm confounded ideologues, especially with such seemingly innocuous ideals - love, self-discovery, freedom. When Herbert Marcuse published Eros and Civilization, in 1955, with its rabid critique of Neo-Freudianism, Fromm’s split with Frankfurt returned to haunt him. Marcuse’s apparent victory in what became a highly publicized feud in the American magazine Dissent seemed to seal Fromm’s rejection by Marxist scholars and the New Left: by Marcuse’s rhetorical tricks, Fromm’s post-Freudianism came, oddly, to signify his post-Marxism. What Marcuse saw in Fromm’s good tidings - his evangelical message of love (formalized a year after Eros in The Art of Loving - in my opinion Fromm’s most beautiful book) - was the happy acceptance of bourgeois alienation, a “sunny-side up” accommodation to capitalism akin to the opium of religion and capitalist morality. Yet, despite his deep spiritualism,or because of it, Fromm vigorously criticized American religious life, which he believed combined the worst of authoritarian and consumerist moral delinquency. America’s God appeared to Fromm as, in his words, the “remote General Director of the Universe, Inc.” If wit is cunning simplicity, Fromm’s flew over Marcuse’s head. Friedman’s verdict of what Fromm actually believed should be definitive: “Society had to be changed, to be sure, but the reader [of Fromm] should not await the demise of capitalist structures and values before seeking to master the art of loving.” Fromm’s revolution was impatient, so impatient that it transformed into what we call ethics -- an under-acknowledged aspect of Fromm’s Marxism, a bedfellow, perhaps, to Walter Benjamin’s cry that “the state of exception is now.”
In 1961, Fromm’s cousin Heinz Brandt, a radical social democrat who survived the Death March, was kidnapped in West Berlin by Stasi operatives. Just as Fromm had worked tirelessly to assist a large network of Jewish friends, relatives, and colleagues escape Germany before and after Kristallnacht, Fromm now entered into a game of international arm wrestling that involved Bertrand Russell and Khrushchev. His cousin was released by the GDR, no doubt in part due to Fromm’s skillful manipulation. On these occasions, Fromm personally displayed the courage in the face of state brutality he so cherished in his writings.
Friedman’s biography leaves little wanting. I highly recommend it, especially as a readable primer in Critical Theory. Excepting his mild tendency to repeat himself, Friedman has produced what will surely remain the best intellectual biography of Fromm . Sadly, however, if we happily accept Fromm’s ordainment as prophet, this designation must remain strictly a stylistic observation. One sociologist recently penned an article on Fromm called “How to Become a Forgotten Intellectual.” Although Fromm’s books sold extremely well throughout the postwar years and over the globe, he failed to develop a mass following appropriate for a prophet. Here’s to hoping Friedman’s book reignites at least some interest in a man who failed at every turn to be uninteresting.
Sigmund Freud, 1922 (Image courtesy of LIFE Photo Archive)
The central figures of the "Frankfurt" school: Max Horkheimer (front left), Theodor Adorno (front right), and Jürgen Habermas (in the background, right), 1964, Heidelberg (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A plaque memorializing Fromm, Bayerischer Platz, Berlin (Image courtesy of Axel Mauruszat/Wikimedia Commons)
Images used under Fair Use Guidelines
Published Monday, March 11, 2013
Lords of Finance (2009)
For those watching the financial markets, events in Europe are front and center. Market participants await announcements by government leaders, finance ministers, central bankers, and economists with anticipation. Depending upon the degree of optimism or pessimism generated by a given announcement, the market reaction leads to hundreds of billions of dollars lost or gained on equities, currencies, bonds and commodities from Frankfurt and London to New York and Tokyo. One might assume that the enormous worldwide impact that events in Europe are having is a function of globalization, new forms of financial engineering, and the speed of information transfer brought about by the Internet. Without doubt each of those has had an impact, but as the Liaquat Ahamed’s superb history of the events leading up to the Great Depression reminds us, it has all happened before.
Lords of Finance is a multiple biography of the four most prominent central bankers of the 1920s: Mantagu Norman of the Bank of England; Benjamin Strong of the New York Federal Reserve Bank ; Emile Moreau of the Banque de France and Hjalmar Schacht of the Reichsbank. There is a colorful supporting cast including the economist John Maynard Keynes, Winston Churchill as Chancellor of Exchequer and Thomas Lamont of J.P. Morgan & Co. However, the focus is on the actions and inactions of the four bankers.
Ahamed did not write the book in anticipation of our reaction to the financial crisis of 2008. He does not draw direct comparisons of the events of the 1920s to those of today. His narrative is an artful description of the roles each of the men played with rich and meaningful insights about their individual characters, their relationships with one another, their ambitions, and their personal struggles. Those insights are not just bits of historical gossip but they are at the heart his explanation of the failure of the United States and Europe to confront the problems that ultimately brought about the Depression and set the stage for the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany.
The historical and biographical details are engrossing. In addition, Ahamed’s economic and investment background allows him to deliver an excellent primer on currency, the gold standard, and international banking.
Although Ahamed does not relate the events or lessons to today’s problems, it is hard for a reader to refrain from doing so. At the root of Europe’s problem was the debt burden imposed on Germany in the form of reparations after World War I and the decisions made to return to the gold standard at pre-war rates of exchange. Today’s problems are also related to excessive external sovereign debts and a Euro currency mechanism, which, like the gold standard, eliminates devaluation as an instrument of economic policy. In the 1920s, the economic prescription was austerity and it is the same medicine being prescribed today.
Let’s hope for a better outcome and that someday another author will describe the events of our era as well as Ahamed does the 1920s.
John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White at the 1946 Bretton Woods Conference (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 1936 (Photo Courtesy of The New York Public Library. Photography Collection: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs)
Posted on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012
The Second World War (Little, Brown and Company, 2012)
Acclaimed British historian Antony Beevor’s recently published The Second World War is a masterful account of the worst conflict in human history, when truly the entire world became engulfed in the flames of war. Having written previously on various aspects of the era, Beevor’s work attempts to synthesize his prior research into a detailed narrative of World War II.
Consisting of over 800 pages, The Second World War is primarily a military and diplomatic history of the war. Beevor provides a brief introduction discussing Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and creation of the Nazi totalitarian state in Germany, as well as Japan’s invasion of China, in the 1930s. The book covers the entire course of World War II, beginning with Nazi Germany’s preparations during 1939 for invading Poland and concluding with American use of atomic bombs to force Japan to surrender. Beevor skillfully describes the military strategies employed by both the Allied and the Axis Powers during the war. He focuses on the particular generals from each country, such as Rommel of Nazi Germany, Zhukov and Chuikov of the Soviet Union, Montgomery of Great Britain, and Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Patton of the United States, contemplating how their individual personalities affected their planning and the course of the war. The author gracefully moves his story from one sphere of the war to another, whether it be Western and Eastern Europe, North Africa, China, or the Pacific islands.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
The leaders of the great powers serve as the major actors in The Second World War. Beevor especially gives much attention to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, and fittingly so, as the vicious battles between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were of central importance in World War II. The author vividly depicts how both dictators possessed excessive vanity and extreme paranoia. Such characteristics contributed to creating brutal totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union. Hitler and Stalin bitterly hated each other, and their mutual loathing influenced the course of the war, according to Beevor. Hitler became obsessed with conquering Stalingrad, believing that the loss of his namesake city would humiliate the Soviet leader. This proved disastrous for the German armies. After Hitler’s suicide at the war’s end, Stalin ordered his men to find his corpse and bring it to the Soviet Union as a final punishment for the Nazi leader. Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt also receive much attention from the author. Churchill possessed dogged determination to ensure Great Britain’s survival, even in the darkest hours of the war. Roosevelt’s pragmatism and moderation helped keep the Allied Powers focused on winning World War II, especially when Churchill and Stalin clashed on matters of military strategy and postwar Europe. Beevor also examines their often complicated relationship with allies Chiang Kai-shek of China and Charles de Gaulle of France, and illustrates the significance of the Emperor to the Japanese people.
The author vividly depicts the unprecedented violence and cruelty of World War II. Soldiers fought to sheer exhaustion in harsh climates. Civilians in China, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Germany suffered from widespread rape, looting, and murder at the hands of enemy armies. Hundreds of thousands of people became refugees and prisoners of war. Starvation affected millions around the world. Bombing raids devastated cities and countryside. Atomic bombs destroyed two Japanese cities and radiation caused lasting health problems for many people in Japan. Stalin’s paranoia led to vicious purges of both real and imagined enemies. And most infamously, Hitler and Nazi Germany conducted genocide against Jews in Europe. Beevor fully describes this horror, discussing concentration camps, sickening medical experiments performed on Jews, and how virulent anti-Semitism and propaganda caused most Germans to ignore these crimes against humanity perpetrated around them. Beevor’s accounts of the brutalities of World War II, especially the Holocaust, reminds readers how hatred can lead to sadism and true evil.
The atomic mushroom cloud over Nagasaki (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A bombed Hiroshima (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Aerial view of Nagasaki beforethe Allied bombing (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Aerial view of Nagasaki after the Allied bombing (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Antony Beevor’s The Second World War is a most welcome addition to the vast historiography on World War II. With great skill Beevor narrates the military and diplomatic events of this war while also examining the terrible human suffering of these years. Readers interested in World War II, military history, and international relations will benefit from reading this fine book about the most consequential event of the twentieth century.
The signing the German Instrument of Surrender at the Soviet headquarters in Karlshorst, Berlin. Standing in the middle is Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
You may also like:
Antony Beever talks to the BBC about conducting research for The Second World War.
Our monthly feature on the UT Austin History Department's Normandy Scholar Program.
Our review of Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II.
Posted on July 31, 2012
Undergraduate Essay Contest Honorable Mention: The Global Cold War (2007)
The Global Cold War by Odd Arne Westad is a fascinating account of superpower interventions in the Third World during the latter half of the twentieth century. Covering a wide sweep of history, Westad argues that the United States and the Soviet Union were driven to intervene in the Third World by the ideologies inherent in their politics.
Westad opens his book with an examination of the ideologies of the United States, the Soviet Union, and the post-colonial leaders before the Second World War. Emerging victorious from the war, Westad argues that the two countries believed it was their destiny to combat the competing ideas of modernity in the post-war era of decolonization. With the world divided between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, any country declaring independence outside the blocs was a potential battleground for the competing ideologies. In a conflict that lasted over forty years and affected billions of people worldwide, Westad highlights the events chronologically from the Korean Peninsula to Latin America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and finally the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Seamlessly tying together seemingly unrelated incidents, The Global Cold War manages to take a bird’s eye view of history while still providing incredible details of the specific events, which turned the tide of the Cold War. Westad explains that each pivotal turn represented a new ideological shift for Moscow and Washington in the continuing struggle to win the hearts and minds of newly emerging countries. A few notable incidents from the book include the CIA operations in Guatemala, containment in Vietnam, and détente in Ethiopia. As this book proves, these superpower interventions only exacerbated the conflicts of diverse nationalities who were struggling to emerge from under the heels of Imperialism. The unfortunate result of these interventions was incredible bloodshed, environmental devastation, and millions displaced as refugees. The turning point of the book is the 1979 Iranian Revolution, preaching a new ideology, Islamism, which rejected both liberal capitalism and Marxist-Leninist socialism. The best chapters in the book follow the emergence of Islamism and the repercussions of its rapid spread in a two-bloc world.
This book provided a refreshing perspective on the Cold War as it related to the political and social developments in the Third World. Echoing Clausewitz, Westad calls the Cold War “a continuation of colonialism through slightly different means.” Anyone who reads this book will appreciate Westad’s tragically ironic statement that while both Moscow and Washington were formally opposed to colonialism, the “methods they used in imposing their vision of modernity on Third World countries were very similar to those of the European Empires who had gone before them.” This book will force readers to question the motives of American foreign policies which authorized assassinations, toppled democratically elected regimes, and supported dictatorships all in the name of protecting freedom and democracy from the evils of socialism around the globe.The conclusion of The Global Cold War is especially poignant when considering the ongoing conflict in the Middle East and the return of American troops this Christmas. Twenty years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union but the specter of the Cold War still haunts American foreign policy today. With the breakdown of the bipolar world, this book should encourage citizens around the world to question the motives of any country, which imposes an ideology upon their neighbors as humankind progresses into the twenty-first century.
Unknown photographer, Soldiers ride aboard a Soviet BMD airborne combat vehicle, Kabul, 25 March, 1986
DOD Media via Wikipedia
Check out the other winning and honorable mentions submissions for our First Annual Undergraduate Writing Contest:
William Wilson’s review of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia
Lynn Romero’s review of Open Veins of Latin America
Katherine Maddox’s review of Beirut City Center Recovery
Posted on December 5, 2011
Sacred Hunger (1993)
Sacred Hunger, a novel by Barry Unsworth (which was awarded the 1992 Booker Prize) is the story of a single ship and a single voyage. The novel begins in 1752, in Liverpool, England. The Royal African Company, a chartered corporation created in the mid-17th-century with a monopoly on trade with the African coast, has just lost the last of its privileges, making the slave trade, for the first time, a “free trade” (all irony intended). Inspired by the promise of lucrative profits, a Liverpool merchant, William Kemp, commissions the construction of a ship to engage in the newly opened trade. Before the ship sets sail, Kemp engages his nephew, Matthew Paris, a disgraced apothecary, to serve as the ship’s surgeon.
In the scales of Kemp’s complacent morality, his good deed in “saving” Paris, will be amply repaid in the healthier and more valuable slaves that his ship will be able to sell once it reaches America. This fictional view closely mirrors that of Thomas Jefferson, who once wrote that masters who spared pregnant slave women from field labor were wise as well as kind, for “a child raised every 2 years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.” To Jefferson, this happy equation revealed the hand of an enlightened creator in making “our interest and our duties coincide perfectly.”
In the chapters that follow the ship’s arrival on the African coast, Unsworth vividly and accurately describes the painstaking and painful process by which a slave ship “made” a cargo in the mid-18th-century. The climax of Sacred Hunger occurs during the “middle passage” when slaves, sailors, and Paris combine to mutiny and seize the ship in mid-Atlantic. (That slaves might take control of a slave ship at sea draws upon several historical precedents.) The mutineers do not attempt to sail back to Africa, but rather steer the course later taken by the men who mutinied against Captain Bligh on the HMS Bounty in 1789. They try to escape recapture by sailing “off the map,” and build a new society in an uncharted region, deep in the Florida Everglades.
Once in Florida, Jimmy, the African “linguister,” brought on board the slave ship to communicate with the enslaved, puts his story-telling skills to work to weave the fledging camp of ex-slaves and ex-slavers into an “imagined community” with a shared identity and purpose. Paris, while acknowledging the importance of this task, also recognizes it as a process of myth-making. Jimmy’s oft-told history of the mutiny, the community’s founding legend, “ran like a clear stream” with a straight-forward causality, and clear moral purpose. In keeping with his role as the community’s “moralist” (and historian), Jimmy “omitted” or “even falsified” “certain aspects” of the past. This historical “morality play” starkly contrasts with the more ambiguous, “viscous substance of truth,” that Paris peers into when he tries to recall the actual event. When questioned by his young son (born in Florida to an African wife) about the contrast between “what really happened” in the past and how it has been remembered (or retold) Paris answers simply: “Nobody sabee de whole story.”
Sacred Hunger similarly weaves together the real and the fictive. For instance, the incident that sparked the mutiny follows closely upon the actual (and infamous) case of the slave ship Zong in 1781, in which sickly slaves were deliberately cast overboard so as to collect upon their insurance value as cargo “lost at sea.” However, in other places, Unsworth subtly alters or inverts the historic record, drawing a fictional curtain across the facts, perhaps to deliberately cast doubt upon the veracity of historical “truths.” Nicolas Owen, an Irishman who kept a journal of his life as a slave-dealer on the Sherbro River in West Africa in the late 18th-century, becomes in the novel, Timothy Owen, an Englishman. However, the factual Owen’s callous disregard for the human cost of the trade is echoed by his fictitious doppelganger. Similarly, Timothy’s foreboding sense of death in the novel mimics the actual death of Nicolas in Africa in 1781.
A nineteen century painting captures the brutality of the 1781 Zong slave ship massacre
In the novel, the mutineers’ Everglades community, “‘where white and black live together and no one is chief,’” reaches a crisis during a “palaver,” or public trial. Watching the trial, Paris realizes that regardless of the outcome, the accused, a man named Iboti, will be sentenced to some form of servitude, either permanently enslaved to his accuser if convicted, or if acquitted, temporarily bound to labor for his “attorney” in payment for his services.
Given the community’s origin, Paris expresses dismay at its members’ willingness to countenance the reemergence of human bondage. In response, Iboti’s accuser, an ex-slave named Kireku, calls Paris a fool. “I no ask come here. Now I here, I fight for place,” Kireku declares. Kireku proffers a version of Adam Smith’s (not yet written) Wealth of Nations in pidgin creole (that also echoes and mocks the opening chapter of the novel, when Liverpudlians eagerly anticipated the profits they would make from a free trade in slaves): “Strong man make everybody rich. Everybody dis place happy an’ rich come from trade. Some man not free, nevermind, buggerit, trade free.”
Unsworth presents Paris’s own quest for knowledge as intellectual hubris or worse. It was his arrogant “insistence on [promulgating his own] opinion, concealed under the appearance of a desire for truth” which led him to publish the “blasphemous” ideas about the age of the earth that brought about his disgrace and the death of his wife and child. Despite this abject lesson, Paris continues to try to impose his ideas upon others. Kireku dismisses Paris’s egalitarian ideals as mere intellectual colonialism. Nadri, a man with whom Paris shares a wife, accuses him of wanting everyone to “serve some idea in your head” and of “all the time wanting to make some kind of laws for people.” When Paris protests that arguing “from particular truths to general ones” is a basic rule of reason, Nadri counters, “Partikklar to gen’ral is [the] story of [the] slave trade.”
Since morality and other kinds of “law” cannot be separated from self-interest, the novel ultimately rejects the moralizing and truth-making project itself. While Paris belatedly realizes that his attempt to engage in a “moral argument” with Kireku was a mistake, Unsworth presents Nadri’s “constitutional unwillingness to generalize about human behavior” as form of wisdom.
Like the post-modern theorist Michel Foucault (whose influence in the Anglo-phone world was peaking at the time of the novel’s publication), Unsworth portrays the pursuit of knowledge as intrinsically intertwined with the creation and exercise of power. In his own work, Foucault argued that since the mid-18th-century Enlightenment, western society’s inquisitiveness has worked in tandem with its boundless acquisitiveness and desire to dominate. In the character of Matthew Paris, Unsworth offers us an anachronism: an early-modern protagonist who acquires the post-modern insight that truth-making is itself a form of control and who becomes aware of his complicity in an oppressive system without having any intellectual, metaphysical, or religious beliefs upon which to build any alternative. In the final pages of the novel, as he lies dying, Paris dimly recognizes that “doubt is the ally of hope, not its enemy, and . . . [this was] all the blessing he had.”
Joseph Mallord William Turner, “Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon coming on”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston via Wikimedia Commons
Posted on November 17, 2011
True History of the Kelly Gang (2001)*
The title of Carey’s best-seller is misleading. The True History of the Kelly Gang is not a “true history” at all, but rather an imagined autobiography of Australia’s greatest folk-hero, the bushranger Ned Kelly and his band of Irish-Australian outlaws. The novel is written as though it were an authentic autobiography, written by the bushranger on paper printed with the “National Bank of Australia” letterhead, dated 1878. It has an intentionally old feel as though it had been discovered by a historian in the archive. To write this novel Carey climbed into the bushranger’s worn-out boots, mounted his stolen horse, and bounded gallantly into the land of historical fiction bravely going where many have gone before.
Certainly Carey’s not-so-True History is based on historical evidence. The Kelly Gang’s criminal exploits left a sizable paper trail for historians to read and interpret, including criminal records, newspaper reports and wanted posters offering prizes for Gang members dead or alive. The real Ned Kelly also left the long “Jerilderie letter,” a sort of manifesto that he dictated during a bank robbery to justify his life of crime. Based on such documents, Carey makes Ned’s own voice clearly heard. Historians can also ponder the Kelly Gang’s famous suits of iron armour, and Ned’s eerie death mask, both of which are on display in public museums in Victoria.
The primary sources can tell us a lot about Ned Kelly and his Gang. Ned was born in 1854 in the colony of Victoria to impoverished Irish convicts. He became a petty thief while still a lad, appearing before a judge more than once for stealing livestock before his sixteenth birthday, and serving three years in prison before turning twenty. Upon his release from gaol, Kelly and his Gang gained notoriety for murdering three policemen and then robbing a series of coaches and banks. For a long time the elusive Kelly Gang avoided the police in a drawn-out game of catch me if you can. Kelly was finally shot by police after an epic shoot-out in the town of Glenrowan, where his Gang had kept the entire town population hostage in a pub. Soon afterwards, in 1880, Ned Kelly was hanged until dead in the Melbourne Gaol.
The documentary life history of Ned Kelly is a great one and it is complete in the sense that it has a beginning, a middle and an end. But there are still plenty of gaps that story-tellers like Carey want to fill and this is the beauty of historical fiction. It’s an art form that allows us to speculate on aspects of history that are otherwise are unknowable. What kind of man was Kelly? Who did he love? Who did he hate? Why did he pursue a life of crime? As Carey did not have primary sources that could answer these questions, he invented them.
In many ways Carey’s historical fiction sticks to the script of the Ned Kelly legend. Carey’s Ned is kind and brave, coerced into violence by the violence of the cruel colonial system he had the misfortune of being born into. It’s this version of Ned that has made it to the big screen many times, including in The Story of the Kelly Gang produced in 1906 and thought to be the world’s first feature-length narrative movie. Later films had clear political agendas. The heartthrob rocker Mick Jagger started as a radical Ned Kelly in Tony Richardson’s 1970 film (really!) who called for the establishment of an Irish Republic downunder, and in 2003 the late Heath Ledger played the bushranger in Gregor Jordan’s Hollywood production. This most recent Hollywood interpretation of Ned Kelly controversially suggested that Ned’s brother Dad Kelly and Joe Byrne were in love. Born from Carey’s fertile mind is a wife and baby for Ned. These wholly fictional characters allow us to also get to know the bushranger-hero as a husband and father.
Like any other good reads, historical fiction serves to entertain us. The True History of the Kelly Gang is a beautifully written story, and it won Carey the Man Booker Prize in 2001. But Carey’s novel also had a political program. The Ned Kelly that Carey imagines seeks to redeem a nation founded as a penal colony. For a long time Australians with convict heritage were ashamed of the fact. It was the myth of the honest bushranger that allowed Irish-Australians to embrace their ancestors who were transported to Australia against their will. Carey’s True History breathes new life into this legend. One can also read Carey’s portrayal of police stupidity and brutality sponsored by the Crown in the colonial period as an attempt to renew Australia’s Republican movement. In 1999, shortly before Carey wrote this novel, Australians voted no in a referendum to break political ties with Great Britain.
Today the Queen of England remains Australia’s Head of State and retains the authority to dissolve a democratically elected Government. Only a writer opposed to Australia’s membership in the Commonwealth would write the novel that Carey did.
It suggests that historical fiction also provides us with an opportunity to come to know a version of history that is more intriguing or more convenient than the actual past.
*Note from the editors of Not Even Past: we are aware that Australia is its own continent. However, because we do not currently have a section dedicated exclusively to books written on Australia, we decided, however inadequately, to categorize The True History of the Kelly Gang as "transnational."
The National Museum of Australia, “Armour worn by Ned Kelly, 1879, State Library of Victoria; armour worn by Joseph Byrne 1879, private collection; armour worn by Dan Kelly 1879, Victoria Police Museum; armor worn by Steve Hard 1879, Victoria Police Museum”
You may also like:
Information on the exhibit at the National Museum of Australia entitled "Not Just Ned," which covers the history of the Irish presence in Australia.
Posted on November 15, 2011
Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary
Within the span of thirty years, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein (Trotsky) went from living as a revolutionary in exile to being one of the world’s most successful revolutionary leaders, only to spend the waning years of his life back in exile and on the run from the regime whose creation defined his life’s work. In Trotsky: The Downfall of a Revolutionary, Stanford Lecturer and Hoover Archives Fellow Bertrand M. Patenaude provides the definitive account of the events leading up to Trotsky’s assassination by a Soviet agent in August 1940 at his Mexican residence. Patenaude’s work highlights the paranoia, contradictions, ideological stubbornness, cultural intrigues, and violence that led to Trotsky’s eventual exile from the Soviet Union and his tense journey through European exile to Mexico, where Trotsky’s violent past caught up with him.
Few authors bring their extensive archival research to life in the way Patenaude does as he ushers the reader through the last years of Trotsky’s life as if writing a fictional thriller. While thoroughly examining the chronology of events during Trotsky’s exile, Patenaude takes strategic pauses in order reflect on Trotsky’s revolutionary career and give events both global and regional historical context. The author reminds readers how Trotsky lost the power struggle to Stalin, delves into family and sexual matters, addresses arguments made by earlier biographers and examines Trotsky’s influence among Communists and Socialists in the Americas and Europe.
Patenaude explores the tensions that Trotsky’s arrival in Mexico created for that country’s leftists and shows how much of his support in the later years came from American Trotskyites from New York to Minneapolis. His friendships with world-renowned artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera mix into the narrative alongside Trotsky’s rivalries with Soviet political contemporaries Stalin, Bukharin, and Kamenev. His relationship with wife Natalia and the sad story of his family both in and out of the Soviet Union is another constant thread. Some of the most intriguing parts of the book examine the assassins and GPU (Soviet secret police) infiltrators whose work eventually led, after one failed attempted, to Trotsky’s mortal wounds.
Pantenuade uses his story-telling skills to highlight both the contradictions of Trotsky’s ideological arrogance and portray his real human concerns and sensitivities. Trotsky was an ideologue so stubborn that he could barely agree with many Trotskyites, but he was also talented at seducing women and had a profound love for cactuses. The way in which Trotsky and those around him became increasingly paranoid leads up to the shock and horror of the assassination as it unfolded. One can easily picture oneself standing in the guard’s place and contemplating what steps might have been taken to prevent the inevitable.
Still, the humanization of Trotsky does not necessarily force the reader to sympathize with “the Old Man.” In fact, readers may even be agitated by how such an intelligent and human character could be so stubborn and un-recanting. After all, how could a man who pointed out the dangers in Lenin’s program of centralized terror before 1917 never once question the original Bolshevik revolution, even as the same ideas he once feared were actively hunting him down? Patenaude’s work gives the reader an enhanced understanding of Trotsky’s life and the relevant characters and events leading up to that paradoxical, and bloody fate.
More on Lev Trotsky:
Rare, high quality photographs of Trotsky in Mexico from the Hoover Archives
Bertrand Patenaude discussing his work on Trotsky's life in Mexico (video)
Trotsky denouncing Stalin (in English) from Mexico (video)
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Posted Thursday, September 1, 2011