This is a book about a Syrian-American, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who, at the time of hurricane Katrina in 2005, was a successful businessman living in New Orleans. The author spends a lot of time developing his character and that of his wife, Kathy and their four children. The reader learns about Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria, his brothers, his father and mother, and his father’s adventures on the sea. We learn of Zeitoun’s adventures on the sea too before he meets Kathy in New Orleans and settles there. We learn of Kathy’s life as a southern Baptist, her conversion to Islam and her life with Zeitoun. We learn about their extensive network of friends. We learn especially about their ethic of hard work, tolerance, honesty and fairness. All of this background serves to magnify the arbitrary nature of the injustices perpetrated upon these people by their native or adopted country.
Kathy and the kids, along with hundreds of thousands of others, leave New Orleans as the threat of Katrina becomes more imminent. Zeitoun stays. He hunkers down in the family home intending to protect his property and does an admirable job using plastic trash cans to catch the water coming through leaks that open up as the roof is damaged by the winds, stuffing pillows into breaks in the windows caused by flying debris, moving things out of harm’s way. Finally he sleeps for a while only to awake to a new sound, that of water pouring into his yard. He quickly surmises that the levees have been breached by the storm. He knows that the water will flood the ground floor so goes to work moving anything he can carry up to the second floor. He remembers that he has a canoe in the garage and gets it prepared for use. When the water ceases to rise, he finds himself trapped on the second floor of his house in a mostly deserted neighborhood.
Zeitoun begins to paddle around the neighborhood, rescues some people, and finds some trapped dogs that he begins to feed. He meets a few others who have stayed. He visits some of his real estate holdings to assess the damage. During this time, Zeitoun’s human compassion, civic pride andself-sufficiency become even more obvious. Then, after several days, he is arrested. What follows is a nightmare of American police brutality, miscarriage of justice, Homeland Security, and violation of constitutional rights. A real page-turner. Highly recommended. (July 11, 2011)
Figes O (2007) The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia. Henry Holt and Co: New York
Those who grew up during the Cold War are familiar with rumors about life in the Soviet Union. Lots of stories about lack of freedom, limitations on the freedom of speech, intimidation by the state police, arrests, torture, abuses… It turns out that it was all true. The Soviet Union became a world power on the backs of its workers in the most oppressive and brutal manner possible. Forget the glorification of the worker. Especially in Stalin’s time, state planning included estimating the number of prison laborers needed to complete a capital project such as a canal or railroad line and then arranging for the arrest of that number of people - free labor. What mattered was the number of arrests, not the guilt or innocence of the people arrested. The NKVD was given a free hand. Such a system worked better if children mistrusted their parents and neighbor mistrusted neighbor. The communist system arranged all of that through the indoctrination of children in schools (and in the Pioneers and Komsomol) and the placement of political observers in every workplace. Intimate relationships were discouraged. Long after Stalin was dead, his policies of terror continued to affect the lives of millions. George Orwell’s 1984 (1949, Secker and Warburg: London) hit the nail on the head. At a time when it seemed like fiction to people in the West, it was the day-to-day reality of people in the Soviet Union. Thank God the communist system collapsed in Russia. (Let’s hope that China is not far behind.)
Many of the people who survived the brutality of Stalinist Russia were so scarred and scared by what they had been through that they never told anyone. So effective was the intimidation that even in the latter part of the XX century when Figes began to gather information for The Wisperers, it was hard to get people to talk. But some people did talk and this book is their stories, the oral history of life in Stalinist Russia. The hesitation that many people had about talking may have been well placed. Only six months ago, in December 2008, the Russian police raided the offices of the Memorial Society in St. Petersburg - one of the places where some of Figes’ assistants worked and kept their records - and confiscated those records. The Memorial Society is dedicated to revealing the truth about the totalitarian past of Russia and promoting democracy. One wonders if things have changed in Russia.
Stalin took advantage of many people who had been inspired by the rhetoric of the Revolution. Here is one description of a person dedicated to the Party: “…Yeva was a good person, but that goodness had retreated before a sense of duty to the Party, whose articles of faith had predefined her response to ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the world. She had subordinated her own personality and powers of reason to the collective and ‘unapproachable authority’ of the Party. There were tens of thousands of Yevas among the Bolsheviks and their unquestioned acceptance of the Party’s judgment persisted even as the Revolution gave way to the Stalinist dictatorship” (p.31). These people even thought that if they were arrested and pressured to confess to crimes they had not committed, it was the right thing to do because it was for the State.
In 1926, the population of Russia was 147 million people. Eighty-two percent were peasants living in 613,000 villages scattered across the country. Most of these people were farmers who were directly affected by Stalin’s policy of collectivization beginning around 1928. This policy was effected partly by identifying the kulaks as the scapegoats for the other peasants. The kulaks were the more successful and established farmers who often had lived in the same house for generations, had owned some land and had productive fields and livestock. Collectivization meant that all these things would become part of the collective. Kulaks were forced out of their homes, often internally transported to remote regions where there were no houses. They were dropped off and expected to live in these regions often without food. In the frigid Russian winters many died. Villagers were expected to identify their kulaks and turn them over to the authorities; in many cases it was not clear who might be a kulak and villagers met in town meetings to decide who would have to go (there were quotas). This would set neighbor upon neighbor. “Overall, at least 10 million ‘kulaks” were expelled from their homes and villages between 1929 and 1932” (p. 88). Ironically, the purge of the kulaks eliminated the best and most experienced farmers; their fields and livestock were neglected and famine followed which led to many more deaths. Figes relates many stories of the people who survived this ordeal. Often kulaks would not reveal their personal history because they would be shunned by other citizens and denied opportunities for employment, education or advancement. These things were often denied to the children of kulaks too so these children would lie about their families and their histories; many rejected their parents. “The denunciation of family traditions and beliefs was usually the sacrifice required for entry into Soviet society” (p. 347). Figes interviewed people who revealed their kulak pasts for the first time after decades of silence.
All of the arrests and expulsions and the famine meant that many children were left parentless. Some of these children lived by their wits on the streets and their stealing and beggary became a societal blight. No problem. The Stalinist regime enacted a law in April 1935 lowering the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years. In the next 5 years over 100,000 children aged 12-16 years were arrested, convicted of criminal offences and sent to the Gulag.
In reality, in Soviet egalitarian society “…there was a rigid hierarchy of poverty” (p. 171). To get anything, e.g., a rented room, household goods, a railway ticket, a passport or official papers, required personal contacts – family and kin, colleagues, friends or friends of friends. Below the Party elite, almost nobody had many possessions. People had the clothes on their back and little else. Many went hungry. In the distribution of what little there was, there was a strict ranking system with infinite gradations among employees based on status in the workplace, experience and skill level.
Just when things seemed bad, they got worse. The Great Terror took place in 1937-1938. During that period, according to incomplete (and almost certainly underestimated) state statistics, 1.3 million people were arrested and 681,692 of them were shot for crimes against the state. Figes relates story after story of people who did not know for over 50 years what had happened to a loved one who was arrested by the NKVD during one of their terrifying nighttime visits. The fate of family members of those arrested was often tragic as well. For example, the wife of an arrested man who was a Party member all of a sudden lost her status, no one would talk to her and no one would give her work. She became isolated. Many people were lonely without being able to talk to anyone or to trust anyone. Figes relates one heartbreaking story of a woman whose husband of 15 years was arrested as an enemy of the state. She was put under great pressure to denounce him but remained loyal to him. She lost her job and was levied a high amount of back taxes on her apartment (charged for surplus living space!). Unbeknownst to her, her husband was executed in 1937; she continued to look for him, writing hundreds of letters to the Soviet authorities until her death in 1974.
Especially during the Terror, the State systematically dismantled society, effectively isolating most people from others. Figes tells the story of a man who was arrested and shot for helping an orphaned girl. There was a system of punishments for those showing kindness to others. Even in the orphanages and schools, people were unkind to the children of enemies of the state for fear of being arrested themselves as enemies of the state if they were seen to be caring towards these wretched souls.
Konstantin Simonov (1914-1979) was an author in Soviet Russia who wrote many plays that were performed in various theatres and is perhaps best know for his famous war poem, “Wait for me”. He served in the Red Army during World War II as a war correspondent and spent time on the front lines with ordinary soldiers, relating some of their experiences in his reports. Within The Whisperers, Figes has embedded a biography of Simonov including his stormy relationship with the actor Valentina Serova (1917-1975) who he married in 1943. This couple was the closest thing the Soviet Union had to celebrities and they were immensely popular. Many of Simonov’s poems, including his most famous, were dedicated to her.
Siminov’s literary success led to his positions as editor of Soviet literary publications and gave him direct access to Stalin. He was compelled to act in accordance with Party policy and had to make decisions that had more to do with the primacy of state power than with literature. Siminov wielded his power over even well known writers including, for example, Boris Pasternak (1890-1960). In 1946, Pasternak asked Siminov for an advance on a poem Siminov had agreed to publish. Siminov refused and then decided not to publish the poem. Such were the whims that dictated the fate of even great authors.
Many of Siminov’s personal papers and memoirs survived in state archives that were recently opened in Russia and Figes was able to incorporate some of this material into his book. He describes Siminov’s deathbed self accusations:
“’To be honest about these times, it is not only Stalin that you cannot forgive, but you yourself. It is not that you did something bad – maybe you did nothing wrong, at least on the face of it – but that you became accustomed to evil. The events that took place in 1937-38 now appear extraordinary, diabolical, but to you, then a young man of 22 to 24, they became a kind of norm, almost ordinary. You lived in the midst of these events, blind and deaf to everything, you saw and heard nothing when people all around you were shot and killed, when people all around you disappeared.’” (pp. 266-267)
These comments reveal the complexity of the situation for individual people. Anything but complete acquiescence to what was happening would almost certainly lead to becoming one of the “disappeared”. I was reminded of the soul searching by some who lived in Germany during the Hitler era. The question of collective guilt continues to be a complex and challenging one. (see Baer, 2002, In the Shadow of Silence. Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.: Toronto for a thoughtful treatment of this question.)
Many people were exiled to the labor camps of the Gulag described so graphically by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1974, Harper & Row: New York). Those who returned were physically and mentally broken. A few years in the Gulag was enough to make a person permanently old. Some prisoners had aged so much that they were barely recognized by relatives when they got home. In the post-Stalinist years there was some effort to “rehabilitate” people who had been illegally arrested and shot or sent to labor camps. This amounted to receiving a document stating that the arrest had been illegal and a puny financial compensation; small comfort for the dead! For others, the rehabilitation process turned out to be more of the same nightmare. People had to go to the residences they occupied before their arrest and get those living there now to sign a document stating that the living quarters had been taken unfairly from the original occupant. Bureaucrats were often hostile to former prisoners believing them to be guilty as accused.
The Whisperers complements many previous historical accounts of Stalinist Russia but provides a view of the personal lives of citizens in a depth and breadth not previously reported. The recent account of the lives of individual soldiers serving in the Red Army during the Second World War (Merridale (2005) Ivan’s War: The Red Army 1939-45. Faber and Faber: London) comes closest to this book in communicating the impact of Stalin on the daily lives of ordinary people. I have sometimes mused about what the world might have been like if Hitler had succeeded in building the atomic bomb first and Nazi Germany had won the war. Perhaps one needs only to look a short distance east of Germany to find an answer. (June 15, 2009) Return to top
Fischer DH (2008) Champlain’s Dream. Alfred A Knoff: Toronto
Scholars of many nations agree that the founders of New France were able to maintain relations with American Indians more effectively than any other colonizing power” (p 527). This statement from Fischer’s closing chapter summarizes well one of the dominant themes of his excellent book. This biography of Samuel Champlain (c 1570-1635) is a joy to read. It is thoughtful, very well researched and written in a narrative manner that makes it easy to follow. The characters are alive and their adventures at times are filled with tension and anticipation. I am sure my heart rate increased when Champlain and his Indian allies and collaborators moved deeper and deeper into Iroquois territory.
Champlain lived in France during a very unsettled time when sectarian groups were at war and committing atrocities on a regular basis. He served as a soldier on the side of Henri IV. He travelled as a young man to Spanish-occupied territories in the West Indies and continental North America and witnessed first-hand the atrocities visited upon the indigenous peoples by the Spanish; Champlain provides independent evidence for the horrors described by de las Casas (1484-1566) in his searing account of the behavior of the Spanish towards, for example, pearl divers and mine workers. Fischer argues that these experiences profoundly influenced Champlain’s attitudes towards war and fighting and his determination subsequently to find peaceful solutions to cohabitating with native North Americans in New France.
Champlain felt that, “…the indigenous people must be treated with humanity and respect. A major effort should be made to establish a rapport by straight words and equitable dealing” (p 118). This attitude led Champlain to present himself openly to the native North Americans and they reciprocated. What followed was enduring friendship and trust. This allowed Champlain to learn from the Indians. One thing that struck me was that already in the very early seventeenth century is was clear that the Indians of north eastern North America had extensive knowledge of the continent. They were aware of the Great Lakes, Niagara Falls, and the Detroit River. They knew what are now called Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Hudson River. They referred to the body of water that we now call Hudson’s Bay and to Florida. Some spoke of the great saltwater sea far to the west, the Pacific.
Many complexities challenged the placement of a permanent colony in New France. There was opposition from the court of the King of France where some felt that North American colonization should be given a low priority. There were the logistical problems of funding expeditions and getting enough supplies to the colonists so that they could survive the winter especially in the early years before they were able to produce enough food to sustain them. There was competition from businessmen who wanted unfettered access to the fur trade and who often dealt unscrupulously with the natives. In this regard, I was struck by how similar the problems of free enterprise then were to those we face now. Entrepreneurs would do whatever it took to get furs and therefore make money. They traded weapons and alcohol with the natives, things that degraded their culture and frustrated Champlain’s goals of living harmoniously with the natives. Anything to make a buck and hang the long-term consequences.
Fischer frequently referred to archeological and linguistic evidence that supported claims made by Champlain in his writings about his work in New France. The linguistics were particularly interesting. He referred to colonial lag in the development of the French language in New France compared to France. The founders of Quebec came from maritime towns; today in Quebec, one getting out of a car will débarquer and one who is fed up might say, "j'ai mon voyage". He also provides examples of creative borrowings from Indian languages, e.g., the word atoca for cranberry (canneberge in France).
Champlain's policy of encouraging intermarriage between native North Americans and Europeans has led to the emergence of the Métis in North American. Demographers have estimated that more than 750,000 Canadians are descended from this group. DNA analyses are eagerly awaited to determine the full extent of intermixing of the two populations.
Champlain is perhaps one of Canada's most important founders and he deserves a prominent place in our history. Anyone interested in the early history of Canada and the formative role those early days have played in what we have become should read this book. (July 11, 2011) Return to top
Gibbon E (1963/1776-88) The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Dell Publishing Co.: New York
Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), an Englishman, published The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in six volumes during the period 1776 to 1788. The work covers the period 180-1453 CE, beginning after the time of Marcus Aurelius. This abridged volume contains Gibbon’s chapters on the earlier period from 180 to 582 CE and then jumps to his treatment of the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It lacks Gibbon’s copious notes, many written in Latin or Greek in the original. Even the abridgement, at over 700 pages, is quite a slog but there are many rewards. There is, of course, the historical knowledge but there also are Gibbon’s theories for why things went wrong presented in his eloquent prose and with considerable wit. The books themselves have become an important part of history.
Gibbon observed that Rome, in the years prior to those considered in his opus, preserved peace by constantly being in a state of preparation for war. This comment foreshadows his thesis that one of the contributing factors to the fall of Rome was a shift away from this policy over the coming decades, perhaps coupled with a shifting of soldierly work from Romans to mercenary barbarian troops.
As Gibbon takes his readers through the years from emperor to emperor, some good (e.g., Antonius Pius, 138-161 – “Antonius diffused order and tranquility over the greatest part of the earth”, page 72), some not so good (e.g., Elagabalus, 218-222 CE – “…lavished away the treasures of his people in the wildest extravagance…”, page 113), the changes in Rome become apparent as it moves from a proud nation with dedicated citizens towards a citizenry characterized by selfishness and sloth. Many emperors’ reigns lasted for only a small number of years or even less than a year as the military (made up more and more of “barbarians”) conspired constantly to control the emperor. It was a job that eventually no one wanted because it was so dangerous.
Some emperors chose co-emperors to rule with them, as was the case with Diocletian (244-311) who chose Maximian (250-310) in 286. Previous emperors had made their choice to discharge a debt of gratitude to a friend, for example, with little thought about the usefulness of the choice for the people but Diocletian chose a fellow soldier with the interests of the state in mind. Maximian was born a peasant and had no or little formal education, being illiterate. Gibbon tells us, “…the rusticity of his appearance and manners still betrayed in the most elevated fortune the meanness of his extraction” (p. 185). This is a tiny example of Gibbon’s eloquence.
Gibbon is well known for his ideas about the impact of Christianity on the fate of Rome. On page 220 he provides his list of five causes for the rapid growth and far-reaching success of the Church. He prefaces his list with care not to offend by commenting that, of course, Christianity succeeded, “…owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author” (p. 219). He goes on to point out that, although this is the case, “…the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose” (p. 219). This being the case, “…we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church?” (pp. 219-220). One gets the impression of walking on eggs here; this was particularly masterful for Gibbon given his considerable girth.
In pondering the success of the Church, one might wonder why people believed in miracles. Gibbon contrasts the contemporary (XVIII century) attitude of people, “… a latent and even involuntary skepticism adheres to the most pious individuals” (p. 239), with early Christians who, “…perpetually trod on mystic ground, and their minds were exercised by the habits of believing the most extraordinary events” (p. 239). Through this rich apparent experience of the supernatural presence, early Christians easily believed the mysteries of the church that were acknowledged to surpass the limits of human understanding. Gibbon goes on to lament the extent of human suffering in the centuries that followed this beginning of the age of ignorance brought about by the weaving of this fabric of superstition.
Gibbon speaks about Britain in the IV century after the death of Constantine (272-337). He recounts a tribe of Caledonians, the Attacotti, who practiced cannibalism. “When they hunted the woods for prey, it is said that they attacked the shepherd rather than his flock; and that they curiously selected the most brawny parts both of males and females, which they prepared for their horrid repasts” (p. 450). He muses that if, in the neighborhood of the literary and commercial town of Glasgow cannibals actually existed, it is possible to contemplate in the history of Scotland the opposite extremes of savage and civilized life. Such reflections broaden our minds. They, “…encourage the pleasing hope that New Zealand may produce in some future age the Hume of the Southern Hemisphere” (p. 450). James Cook (1728-1779) had just recently visited New Zealand in his voyage of 1768-1771 and at the time that Gibbon was writing reports of Maori cannibalism had appeared.
I was struck by how similar the arrival of the Hun at the end of the IV century sounded to the arrival of Genghis Khan (1162-1227) over 700 years late. Gibbon says that in the East they built the Great Wall to keep the Hun out but that it did not work even though it was 1,500 miles long. The cavalry of the Huns, “…frequently consisted of two or three hundred thousand men, formidable by the matchless dexterity by which they managed their bows and their horses; by their hardy patience in supporting the inclemency of the weather; and by the incredible speed of their march…” (p. 460).
On Aug. 9, 378, Rome, led by Valens (328-378) was defeated by the Visigoths at Hadrianople. Gibbon refers to this as among the most inauspicious dates on the Roman calendar; 40,000 Romans died. This was a major defeat but its effects were more far-reaching. “…the effects that were produced by the battle of Hadrianople on the minds of the barbarians and of the Romans, extended the victory of the former, and the defeat of the latter, far beyond the limits of a single day” (p. 480). Rome shrank before the Goths.
The continued decline of Rome in the West is traced over the coming years. The Goths, led by Alaric (c. 370-??), went on to attack Italy, and Rome was under siege in the year 410; many of the inhabitants starved to death. Around the same time, Rome finally quit Britain, and Aquitaine became independent. Africa was in the hands of the Vandals and Moors. Gaul and Spain were divided among the kings of the Franks, Visigoths, Suevi and Burgundians. German peoples controlled western countries of Europe. The Byzantine Empire in the East lasted for another thousand years until the fall of Constantinople to Mehmed II (1432-1481) in 1453. Gibbon was an extraordinary scholar whose treatment of the history of Rome stands out as a unique work with great value both as history and literature. It is worth reading even some of it just to experience his eloquence. (Aug. 6, 2010) Return to top
Irwin R. (2004) The Alhambra. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.
Robert Irwin (1946- ) studied modern history at Oxford and has published fiction and non-fiction often with an Arabian theme. His background suited him well for his treatment of the Alhambra in this book. I read The Alhambra in the days preceding my recent visit there and as a result felt like I knew the place by the time I got there. Irwin brought it alive and created an excitement about being there. I would recommend this book even if you are not imminently traveling to Grenada.
The Arabs along with Berbers from North Africa entered the Iberian peninsula in 711 and held control of Andalusia, the southern half of what is now Spain and Portugal, or parts of it, for nearly the next 800 years. For about 300 years the Umayyad Caliphate, thought to have been descended from the same family as Muhammad, controlled the region from Cordoba. The Caliphate fell in 1031 and there followed a period of city states in Andalusia although the Moors, as the Muslims were known, continued to control the region. In 1238 the Nasrid Kingdom of Grenada was established and the Nasrids subsequently built the Alhambra as their palace and fortification on top of the ruins of former fortresses on the hilltop overlooking Grenada. The Palace of Charles V was built within the Alhambra walls in and around 1527. There followed a period when the site was neglected and fell to considerable ruin but then, beginning in the XIX century restoration began transforming the Alhambra into its current state as one of Spain’s major tourist attractions and it is now a World Heritage Site.
The complex of buildings includes two centerpieces, the Court of the Myrtles and the Court of the Lions. Both are enclosed, serene spaces. The Court of the Myrtles has a large rectangular pool that reflects the façades of the buildings that surround it, one of the ways light is used to enhance the serenity of the Alhambra. Irwin recommended sitting on the floor by the pool as the Moors would have done centuries ago to get the full effect. We were there in the morning and as soon as we sat by the pool we noticed the mirror-like reflection of the adjoining walls, creating a sense of depth and open space. Irwin explains that this courtyard would have been hung with many tapestries, now all missing, and the alcoves along the sides would have been adorned with large vases or jars; one remains in the Alhambra museum housed in the Palace of Charles V.
The ceilings and walls of many of the rooms of the Alhambra are exquisitely ornate. Many ceilings are decorated with stalactitic and honeycomb effects that dazzle. What is particularly impressive is to imagine how they would have looked painted in blue and gold as they had been at the time of the Nasrids. Archeologists have been able to get into small areas that have been protected from the elements for centuries to find traces of the original paint, allowing rediscovery of the original appearance. Ceilings were designed in a manner to produce acoustical effects, for example, muting sound. Walls were elaborately decorated with arabesque designs, often referred to as vegetate because of the use of plant- and vine-like elements. The wall and ceiling designs often incorporated text. The text in high places was verses from the Koran and that in lower places was often poetry, all in Arabic script. As most of the artisans who worked on the Alhambra would have been illiterate, this feature of its décor attests to the role of intellectuals in the design and decoration of the palace. Irwin stated that the, “men who built the Alhambra worked as much with light and shadow as they did with stone and wood” (p. 127). Irwin commented on the irony that the Alhambra brings so much joy to the very infidels it was built to keep out. (April 16, 2012) Return to top
Kurlansky M (1997) Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. Vintage: London
This was one of the saddest books I have ever read although in many ways it was the same old story - greed perhaps, but more a fatal naivety that we humans can’t seem to get past. Cod so thick in the inland waters around Newfoundland that you can dangerously overfill a boat in short order. Eventually over the years their numbers dwindle and it becomes necessary to go out further into the sea to catch them and the catch isn’t as good. No problem, get ships with giant seine nets and scoop them up. Again the quantity is stunning and more and more fishermen (and governments) get into the act. All of this goes on like it is going to last forever. When the inland fishery collapsed the seiners proved that it wasn’t that the fish were gone, only that they were farther out. Even as it breaks my heart to read this book, we can still order orange roughy in restaurants! (The orange-roughy story is a more recent example of the same phenomenon that led to the demise of the cod fishery.) We burn oil like it will last forever. Maybe cod is renewable and oil is not. But maybe cod is not renewable if new species begin to exploit the niche occupied by cod making it hard for the cod to come back. I was not left with feelings of great hope for the future of humans on this planet.
Codfish have been feeding people for centuries and the enterprise surrounding its procurement and distribution played a central role in the expansion of trade and exploration over the past centuries. Kurlansky talks about the Vikings in Iceland and Norway drying and eating codfish over 1,000 years ago and suggests that they ate cod on board ship on long voyages. The use of codfish as food by these people contradicts the suggestion of Jarad Diamond in Collapse(2005, Viking Books: New York) that the Nordic peoples in Greenland perished partly because they did not eat fish. Kurlansky also suggests that the Basques were fishing the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador long before the arrival of other Europeans. Cartier (1491-1557), who claimed Gaspe and surrounding territory for France in 1534, noted the presence of over 1,000 Basque fishing boats when he arrived!
Trade in cod was a central part of the development of North America. The American Revolution took place in part over opposition to British control of the cod fisheries and finally in 1782, Britain ceded that control to the Americans.
Ironically, Cod won an award but not for history or investigative journalism but as the best food book identified by the Glenfiddich 1999 Food & Drink Awards. An unusual feature ofis its inclusion of cod recipes throughout and it was this feature of the book that won the award. Even as cod has been fished to the brink of extinction and a masterful book details its history, the only award that this book received was one for how to prepare the fish for eating. Am I missing something here or is this mad? (Jan. 2011). Return to top
Lawrence J (1969) A History of Russia; Second Revised Edition. New American Library: New York
This was the second edition and I see at the booksellers that the book is now in a seventh edition. John Lawrence first visited Russia in 1934 and spent three years there during the Second World War as the British Press Attaché. Since the war he has visited Russia often and his familiarity with the Russian people comes through in this thoughtful account of their history. One of the main lessons I took home from this book was that the centrality and brutality of the Stalinist era were not new. Russia has a long history of being ruled by a despotic central government.
Lawrence picks up the story roughly with the Scythians fleeing before the Hun in the V century. By this time there had already been at least a thousand years of history in the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas and the exact origins of the people who were there in the V century is debated. The Romans still called the barbarians on their north-east border Scythians. Before the Hun they fled north, as the path west into Rome was not open, and there they mixed with the Slavs.
The Church played a central role in the development of Russia as they adopted the church of Byzantium. Lawrence contrasts the Roman and Eastern Church to illuminate some of the fundamental differences between Russians and Westerners. The Roman Church was more legal and rational, providing the necessary bases for the development of science. As a result, Russia was ill prepared for modern times as science led to the development of technology.
The southern regions of the emerging Russian state were again invaded from the east in the XII century, this time by the Mongols led by Genghis Khan (1162-1227). They stayed into the XIII century, ruled by Genghis’ grandson, Batu Khan (1205-1255). During the same period, Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263) flourished in the north where he led a Russian army against the invading Swedes led by King Birger Jarl (1210-1266) and defeated them in 1240. In 1242, Nevsky’s army defeated the Germans (Livonian branch of the Teutonic kings) in a famous battle on the Ice of Lake Peipus and further secured the sovereignty of Russia. Alexander Nevsky is considered to be a saint in Russia and the main street of St. Petersburg bears his surname.
After the German defeat, the Russians continued to trade with the Germans but the two sides generally did not mix; there was a strong mistrust between the Western Roman Catholic Germans and the Eastern Orthodox Russians. Lawrence describes the emphasis on external correctness that developed in Russia’s past and forms the roots of the formal protocol that still (in the XX century) dominates her politics and international relationships. He says it has to be taken seriously. He describes how Russians had no administrative sense and no way of keeping records in the early days of the nation.
Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) reminded me of Stalin. He had military successes against several Khanates including one in Siberia that opened Russia’s way to the Pacific. He was Tsar from 1547 to 1584. He hired goons to extract taxes. He sought to indenture the peasants, binding them to the land just as Stalin did centuries later. Lawrence describes XVI century life in Russia including beatings, forced labour and torture, again, not unlike Stalinist Russia.
Peter the Great (1672-1725) was described as a big wild man who also ruled like Stalin. His greatness comes from his victory over berserker Charles XII of Sweden (1682-1718) in several battles in the early XVIII century. Peter built the city that bears his name, St. Petersburgh, at the time on Swedish territory that he subsequently conquered. Peter put in place service to the state thereby breaking a long tradition of birth-related privilege. He liberated the minds of educated Russians from the fetters of the Middle Ages. In spite of these advances, the differences between England and Russia in the XVIII century were striking, most notably the gap between landowners and peasants in Russia.
Catherine the Great (1729-1796) was German, married to the deposed tsar Peter III. She ruled from 1762-1796. On the one hand she continued the modernization of Russia begun by Peter the Great but on the other, she further entrenched the oligarchy. She saw Russia begin to be recognized as a world power and strengthened Russia’s international connections.
The XIX century saw wave after wave of repression of intelligent and independently minded people leaving in its wake an attitude of despair and futility. All through this history it seemed that the Russian system conspired to concentrate power in the hands of a few and to keep the masses as bound to the land, uneducated and poor as possible. The Stalin era was similar with the use of forced labour, extensive police presence in day-to-day life and little opportunity for individual expression. The people of Russia have suffered so much for so long under the yoke of repressive regimens. It is a credit to the human spirit that great people have managed to be great from within such a confining system. (July 24, 2010) Return to top
Liddell Hart, B.H. (1926/1994) Scipio Africanus: Greater than Naploleon. Da Capo Press: Cambridge MA (originally published in London as A Greater than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus).
When Publius Cornelius Scipio (235-183 BC) was born, Rome included Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, most of Italy and some of Spain. When he died, Rome included these territories and all of Italy, all of Spain, North Africa, Macedonia and Asia Minor. As it turned out, one man made a big difference. Liddell Hart argued in his Introduction that historians tend to focus on great leaders who eventually loose, e.g., Napoleon, Lee. Because Scipio succeeded, he is less well known.
In 218 BC, Hannibal arrived in northern Italy. By 211 BC, Rome was perhaps closest to a breakdown that she had ever been. The Carthaginians in Spain had soundly routed her armies and Hannibal was threatening Rome itself. Enter Scipio. He got himself elected as pro-consul to Spain at the age of only 24 years and departed with a small army. There he linked up with Marcinus who had gathered together the remnants of the defeated Roman army. Here, and at many points in this book, Liddell Hart emphasized Scipio’s effective dealings with others and his generous nature. Rather than treat Marcinus as a subordinate and fear his possible rivalry, as Napoleon might have done, he praised him for his efforts in Spain and kept him in his circle of advisors. After the defeat of the Carthaginian armies in Spain, Scipio set terms that were quite moderate and led to almost 50 years of peace there. The author contrasted Scipio’s approach to that of the allies in Versailles, perhaps anticipating the disastrous consequences of that treaty.
Liddell Hart was a military expert and he often compared Roman tactics to those of more modern generals making for interesting reading especially as he was writing after the First World War but before the Second. For example, in the battle for Cartagena – New Carthage, the Carthaginian port in Spain – Scipio placed himself on a hill so that he had an excellent view of the battle and so that his soldiers could see him and thereby be inspired by his fighting spirit. Liddell Hart speculated that future commanders might go aloft in airplanes to survey the battlefield and keep in touch with their staff using “…wireless telephony” (p. 34).
In Spain, Scipio’s strategy had been to cut off the communications and supply lines of the Carthaginian armies by taking their port of Cartagena; he subsequently defeated the Carthaginian armies in Spain. After Spain, Scipio returned to Rome with Hannibal in the south and threatening. Following the same strategic thinking, he proposed to raise an army and attack Carthage directly, again endeavouring to cut off the Carthaginian lines of communication and supply and thereby threaten and weaken Hannibal. Liddell Hart emphasized that Scipio had to achieve this plan by going through the Senate and convincing it that his plan was a good one. The author contrasted this state of affairs with the dictatorial status held by many other great generals such as Alexander and Napoleon allowing them a freer hand in planning. He got his wishes but was charged first with going to Sicily and raising there his own army. Scipio did this and waged a brilliant campaign in North Africa to establish a base there to secure his operations. He managed to draw Hannibal back to North Africa where he soundly defeated him in spite of inferior numbers in what must be one of the classic battles of all time. He was able to secure the capitulation of Carthage by diplomacy after his successes in North Africa.
Alexander had established an empire that stretched form the Danube to the Indus but it died with him. Napoleon’s gains were subsequently lost. But Scipio took Rome from a local to a Mediterranean power that lasted for hundreds of years. Scipio was a cultured man who read and wrote both Latin and Greek. It is even suggested that he founded Roman civilization (p. 273). In 1739, the Abbe Seran de la Tour compiled a life of Scipio. He said, “‘A king has only to take for his model the greatest man by far in the whole of Roman history, Scipio Africanus. Heaven itself seems to have formed this particular hero to mark out to the rulers of the world the art of governing with justice’” (quoted on p. 276). Scipio’s aim was to establish a Mediterranean confederacy of states with Rome at the head. It is amazing that he is not better known. Return to top
Ludwig, E.(1926) Napoleon. Pocket Books: New York.
Ludwig broke from the biographic tradition of his time by writing a personal account of Napoleon the man and statesman, focusing on his interpersonal style and personality characteristics rather than on his military exploits. Most striking in the book is the almost total absence of accounts of his many battles. Sometimes major battles pass in a few lines or one short paragraph and then it is back to Napoleon and the people around him. Napoleon was a man of great energy who focused on the details, “In affairs of magnitude I have learned that in the last resort, everything invariably turns upon a trifle.”
Napoleon wrote or dictated daily and left over 60,000 political letters, an astounding number. This correspondence and the many personal letters that he or the people around him wrote provide a rich source for the biographer. Ludwig emphasizes Napoleon’s skill at writing, “With the pen, Bonaparte rounds off the victories he has won with the sword.”
Upon returning to Paris after the campaign in Egypt, Napoleon became Consul in 1799 and began to consolidate his dictatorship. But rather than rule with terror, he ruled with benevolence. He invited the émigrés back and provided provisions for them; 40,000 returned. He provided for the people: “If the cold should be sharp, as it was in 1789, you must have fires kept alight in the churches and market-place, so that as many people as possible can warm themselves.” “The winter is very severe, meat is dear, we must provide work in Paris. Get on with the cutting of the Ourcq canal, with the construction of the Quai Desaix, with the paving of the back streets.” “There are a great many out-of-work shoemakers, hatters, tailors, and saddlers. See to it that five hundred pairs of shoes are made every day.” This sensitivity to the daily needs of the people came from his military experience; he always knew the state of the supplies and kept a close watch on their movement.
His insight into other people is revealed beautifully in his comments about Tsar Alexander: “The tsar is an attractive figure, well formed to exercise a victorious charm on those with whom he comes in contact. Had I been inclined to surrender to superficial impressions, I should have become devoted to him instantly. But there is something peculiar about him, which I can best express by saying that in all he is and does there seems to be something lacking. The strangest point about the matter is that it is impossible to foresee precisely what will be lacking in any given instance, for the defect is infinitely variable…Were Alexander a woman, I think I should fall passionately in love with him.”
Napoleon loved Josephine. It is remarkable that he seemed to spend about as much emotional and mental energy on her as he did on waging the entire Italian campaign! She bore him no children, however, and he eventually decided that he needed to take a new wife who could provide him with a legitimate heir. This meant divorcing Josephine and caused him great sorrow. Ludwig’s description is moving: Napoleon… “held a death watch such as no lover had ever held before over the love from whom he was to be eternally severed: he remained there for three days, absolutely inactive…” Of a letter he wrote at the time, “A melting mood has once more taken possession of him. The tone resembles that of the passionate letters from Milan by the young general to his faithless wife in Paris. It is set in a minor key; and the same melody that surged up and soared above the whole orchestra of his senses in those days, is now played by the ‘cello as a solo echoing through the desolate halls of the Tuileries.”
Napoleon had a vision of a United States of Europe. At the time that Ludwig wrote Napoleon the realization of such a dream was still more than 60 years away. Yet, now in the XXI century, Napoleon’s dream has been realized. Ludwig summarized Napoleon’s belief… “that what he was striving to establish by force with the aid of eight hundred thousand men will some day come into existence as a voluntary amalgamation based upon reason and necessity. All the nations will fuse into one. ” Quite a remarkable insight!
The final six years of Napoleon’s life were spent on St. Helena, a desolate, wind-swept rock far out in the Atlantic. Ludwig portrays the situation as miserable for Napoleon but with his energy and imagination continuing to struggle against his slow demise right up to his death on May 5, 1821. Napoleon continued to dictate during these last years. He wrote that his legacy can be found in legislation and many public works: his code of laws, harbours at Antwerp and Flushing, waterworks at Dunkirk, Havre and Nice, docks at Cherbourg, the port of Venice, highways, mountain passes, bridges across the Seine, bridges in Tours and Lyon, canals, re-establishment of the Church, industries, the new Louvre, warehouses, streets and water supply in Paris, the quays along the Seine, weaving mills in Lyon, sugar factories, palaces and museums, collections of art, agriculture, horse breeding… It took a long time before Napoleon was remembered for these things although that started to happen by the time Ludwig wrote this book. So many people died in the battles he waged. During the Egyptian campaign, he had thousands of prisoners massacred when there was not enough food to feed them or a convenient way to hold them. He led his soldiers to Moscow and then on a brutal retreat that killed most of them. He was ambitious and egotistical. Always he wondered, “What is Paris saying?” This was a recurring refrain in the book that effectively brought the story back to this focus no matter how far afield it had moved. The irony that a military commander came to power in the vacuum left by the revolution and rose to be, not just a king but a king of kings, an emperor, was not lost on Napoleon. He was a complex individual who foresaw the democratic system that we cherish today but who also thought that early post-revolutionary France was not yet ready for democracy; perhaps he was right. Return to top
MacMillan M (2003) Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. Random House: New York
After the Great War ended, an international meeting took place in Paris in 1919 where decisions were made about the borders of many nations that had been involved in the war. The Treaty of Versailles is the most famous outcome of these meetings. MacMillan systematically takes the reader through the decision-making process from country to country and region to region. Often the personalities involved are described in considerable detail and this adds a personal dimension that balances the international politics. In the end, the reader knows not only how the borders of many countries came to be as they are today but also who slept with whom during the meetings.
The central figures were Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), President of the United States, David Lloyd-George (1863-1945), Prime Minister of Great Britain, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), Premier of France and, for a time, Vittorio Orlando (1860-1952), Premier of Italy. The meetings began with plenary sessions with the representatives of many countries in attendance but soon the Big Four began having private meetings and they emerged as the Supreme Council before which many constituencies brought their cases. Through their discussions of the arguments put forward by various interest groups the personalities of the members of the Big Four began to take shape and the reader got a sense of their biases and their will to reshape the political map. Clemenceau had traveled in the U.S., married a New Englander and spoke English well. He had been a good friend of Emile Zola (1840-1902) and with him strongly supported the defense of Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935).
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had a strong impact on the Paris Conference. Leaders became more respectful of their constituencies with the thought that the workers might join forces and throw them out. Leaders feared the spread of Bolshevism especially into countries without strong governments such as Germany and Hungary. They wanted a buffer zone of reliable allies around the western boarders of the emerging Soviet Union. These events influenced decisions about the borders of Poland and Rumania and indirectly, Germany and other countries. With the fall of the European monarchies such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there was the idea that the old order was gone; countries were viewed more as a people rather than the territory of a particular monarchy. These considerations and the new concept of self-determination drove decision making about borders.
The history of some of the conflict between Japan and China made for interesting reading. China had been a closed society for centuries governed by a succession of dynasties. When Westerners came calling at Chinese ports and began to develop Chinese resources, there were few laws in place to deal with these foreigners. As a result, a number of China’s coastal regions fell under the control of imperialistic nations. The Germans controlled the Shantung region of China. They developed a number of industries there including beer making; they set up the Tsingtao Brewery that continues to produce good German-style beer to this day. One matter dealt with by the Paris Conference was Germany’s colonial interests. These were divided among the victors as the spoils of war. A particularly controversial colony was Shantung that in the end went to Japan. This created a Japanese presence on continental China that the Chinese deeply resented. The Chinese lost their trust of the West when they took this decision about Shantung and it was at about this time that they began to look to Russia as an alternative alliance. The Chinese Communist Party was born at this time and it came to power in 1949.
Japan was beginning to grow as an industrial and international power in the late XIX and early XX century and they looked for good models for how to structure their society. They choose Britain as a model for their navy, Prussia as a model for their army and constitution and the U.S. for their banking system. These decisions subsequently influenced their choice of allies in World War II. There was some tension between the army, that favoured Germany and the navy, that favoured the U.S. The Japanese were not treated as equals in many regions of the world including the U.S. and one of the requests of the Japanese at the Paris Conference was that racial equality be mentioned in the charter of the League of Nations. The Powers had some problems with this notion because of their racism. In the end, Japan did not get the racial equality clause into the treaty but they were placated with Shantung. I had to wonder at the depth of their commitment to racial equality.
Iraq was born in 1921 when it became the kingdom of Faisal who was sympathetic to Britain. Britain wanted to keep control of Mesopotamia because of the new discovery of oil in the region. Faisal and then his son reigned until 1958 when the monarchy was overthrown and Britain withdrew from the region in 1971. The shape of Iraq had more to do with British interests than with the principle of self-determination. The country had strong regional foci that were different for Shia Moslems, Suni Moslems and Kurds. There was no sense of an Iraqi people before 1921. Perhaps there still isn’t.
The Paris Conference was an amazing meeting that determined many of the international borders that still exist. It was possible to see the partisan interests of particular countries driving their agenda and the conflicts that arose from this. The birth of the League of Nations represented a new era of multilateral cooperation although it took some years before a sustained and functioning institution was set up. The amount of power wielded by the Big Four was staggering. The representatives of many nations looked to Wilson and his principles for a just resolution to their claims. Many were disillusioned. The pressure of the conference aged Wilson and he is thought to have had a small stroke around the time of the end of the conference. The burden borne by the members of the Supreme Council were immense as they reshaped the world of the day into many of the units that still exist. (Sept. 7, 2007) Return to top
Mandela N. (1994) Long Walk to Freedom. Little, Brown and Company: New York.
Freedom fighter Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 and dedicated his life to the emancipation of blacks in South Africa. It is amazing how the single-mindedness of one person can inspire the courage of an entire nation. Reading his autobiography, you can’t help but admire him.
The agenda was to establish a democracy in South Africa thereby essentially transfering governmental control from the whites to the blacks. If it couldn’t be done peacefully, it would be done through armed insurrection. If it meant jail time, so be it. Like the reunification of Germany before the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late XX century, it didn’t seem possible. But Mandela wore down the white government, did his time, and led the transition from white to democratic (mostly black) rule in South Africa. He led the first black government and he became a legend in his own time.
Mandela’s life began in a primitive African village where the residents had lost their land to the white man who basically came and claimed it (sound familiar?). He was fortunate to get the opportunity to study in a nearby town and then became the only black student in the law faculty at University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1943. It is striking how matter-of-factly Mandela recounts his treatment by often-bigoted professors and fellow students. He was so clearly set on his path to black emancipation that he seldom let the apparent barriers deter him. There were many. His first job after passing his qualification exam in law was at the firm of H.M Basner in Johannesburg. Mandela speaks glowingly of Mr. Basner as a, “…passionate supporter of African rights” (p. 148), but mentions that his Afrikaans-speaking secretary, Miss Koch, refused to take dictation from a black man.
Some further barriers: For Africans, “…it was a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past eleven, a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have the wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.” (p. 149)
The authorities watched Mandela’s political activity closely and eventually they tried to put it to an end. In December 1956, when McCarthyism was raging in the United States, Mandela and 143 others were charged with communist conspiracy and high treason. The trial lasted a long time with Mandela defending himself and becoming more and more known nationally and internationally. By the time he began his long incarceration in 1962, he was so well known internationally that the South African government was obliged to treat him at least marginally better than their treatment of most black prisoners. But prison was never easy. “Prison is designed to break one’s spirit and destroy one’s resolve. To do this, the authorities attempt to exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality – all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are” (p. 390). They failed utterly with Mandela. The book builds to the remarkable story of his release and then the gradual transfer of government as he refused to be bought off for personal gain.
The communist connection was always controversial. What the African National Congress and the Communist Party had in common was their struggle against the governing National Party. For this reason, Mandela saw advantage in collaborating with the communists even though it cost the ANC some support. I saw this as an analogous situation to the United Kingdom and the United States getting into bed with the Russians in their allied effort against the Nazis during the Second World War.
Mandela always found the best in people. Late in the book he met one of the prison guards he had encountered while on Robben Island. They chatted and the former guard revealed that he had been driving the truck that first day the prisoners were taken from their cells to the quarry where they were forced to do hard labor. Earlier in the book, Mandela had described that truck ride and how rough it was. The guard confided that he had tried to hit every bump he could along the way. I thought that his willingness to tell this to Mandela reflected the effect Mandela had on people. After those first days being driven to the quarry, the rides stopped and the prisoners were forced to walk to the quarry each day. Many of the other prisoners complained about this but Mandela saw it as a wonderful opportunity to get some exercise each day and to enjoy being out of doors. I thought that this revealed another aspect of his personal strength and determination to survive. He exercised almost every day, even when confined to a cell.
The latter part of the book details the secret negotiations that Mandela had with the South African government that led to democratic elections and the transfer of power. The ANC had engaged in an armed struggle over many years and the Government insisted that the ANC renounce violence and give up the armed struggle before they would enter into further negotiations. The two sides spent many weeks discussing this issue. The Government contended that violence was criminal behavior and could not be tolerated by the state. Mandela, “…responded that the state was responsible for the violence and that it is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of the struggle. If the oppressor uses violence, the oppressed have no alternative but to respond violently” (p. 537). It is amazing that one man was able to achieve so much by learning the political principles of the oppressors and using those same principles to eventually convince the oppressors of the errors of their ways. (April 19, 2012) Return to top
McNaught KW, Saywell JT, Ricker JC. (1963) Manifest Destiny: A Short History of the United States. Clarke Irwin & Co. Ltd: Toronto
The idea of manifest destiny, argued by the authors to have been believed deeply by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), is that the influence of America must be felt throughout the North American continent. The growth of the United States into a country that spans the continent was the partial realization of this idea. The eventual expansion of American influence well beyond the borders of the fifty states into every part of the planet really was the culmination of the idea of manifest destiny.
One cannot grow up in Canada, living within a hundred kilometers of the American behemoth and constantly exposed to American pop culture and propaganda, without learning something about her history. Canadian and American colonial histories are heavily intertwined too, so that learning about the former often means learning about the latter. With this background, I read Manifest Destiny with the purpose of getting a snapshop of the whole story of American history and seeing how the parts fit together. The book did that but often I found myself wanting to know more than what was presented. However, the book’s title makes it clear that it is a Short History and it is perhaps no surprise that the authors could only provide a cursory account of many events in their few hundred pages.
The divisive effect of slavery on America continued to operate long after emancipation and the Civil War. It was ironic that the development by Eli Whitney (1765-1825) of the cotton gin in 1793, instead of contributing to a reduction in the need for slaves, turned out to be a pivotal event in the prolongation of slavery. Farmers had been developing crops of indigo and rice because slaves could only harvest about a pound of cleaned cotton per day, making cotton less economical. With the gin they could do fifty times that per day. Within only a few years after Whitney’s invention, farmers of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee turned to cotton and cotton became the King of the South. Southern cotton farmers relied more on slavery than ever before and asking them to give up their slaves was like asking a northern industrialist to turn over half his factory for some worthy public purpose.
While the northerners complained about slavery in the South, they got together to pool their resources, as industry got too big for individuals to finance. Factories became depersonalized and workers were pressed to work harder and longer for less. Slums grew up around factories. Efforts by the workers to unionize were thwarted by punitive laws ruling that they were conspiring against the factory owners. Perhaps these northern factory workers were still better off than slaves in the South but I found it ironic that the northerners took such a righteous position towards the slave owners while treating their own workers so badly.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) had more casualties than any other American war before or since: over 600,000 dead and perhaps 600,000 wounded. When it was over the South was defeated and slavery was abolished. However, the attitudes in the South towards African Americans could not be legislated. Once African Americans got the vote, Whites in the South formed groups to terrorize them into not voting. This was the origin of the Ku Klux Klan in 1865. KKK members resisted the Reconstruction of the South led by northern Republicans. Years later, during the period of the Red Scare in the 1920s, the Klan arose again with renewed vigor in its determination to protect America from African Americans and other undesirable groups.
By the beginning of the XX century, American imperialism was sharply rising, driven partly by the ideas that came out of social Darwinism. American companies established operations in Central and South American countries, for example, and became prominent influences over American government policies towards those countries. Americans won control over Puerto Rico and territory in the Pacific, viz., Guam and the Philippines, in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The U.S. supported a rebellion in Panama against Colombia that led to the independence of Panama in 1903 and American access to the territory (Canal Zone) they needed to build the Panama Canal.
The First World War was followed by the 1920s. Prohibition began. The authors tell a fascinating story about how organized crime grew on the immense profits generated from illegal liquor sales. The Chicago gangster Al Capone (1899-1947) is the best known of the organized crime figures but every city had its own Al Capone. The Red Scare arose from the fear that the Russian Revolution would spread to the West. Anarchists fueled the fear with mail bombs, for example. On September 1920, an anarchist’s bomb killed 38 people and injured 143 on Wall St. These and related events precipitated a conservative vigilante movement that led to people having to watch what they said. I could not help but see the irony; the fear reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was leading to restrictions on the freedom of speech in the U.S. thereby fulfilling the fear that some of the effects of the revolution would reach the U.S. During this period, 6,000 foreign-born radicals were arrested and 500 of them were deported. Strikes were forbidden. After years of quiescence, the KKK again emerged, warning African Americans, Jews and Catholics that the Klan stood for the protection of Protestant and Anglo-Saxon Americans.
The tide of religious fundamentalism that accompanied the Red Scare led, among other things, to the outlawing of teaching about evolution in Tennessee and the famous Scopes’ “monkey” trial of 1925. John T. Scopes (1900-1970), a high school teacher, was charged with breaking the law when he taught evolution. Former presidential candidate and Woodrow Wilson’s former Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) led the state’s case and the defense was led by Clarence Darrow (1857-1938), a famous civil libertarian. In a hot, unairconditioned court room, the two lawyers verbally duked it out over whether the world was created in six days as described in the Bible until Darrow, drawing on the scientific literature, finally trapped Bryan into admitting that it might have taken a bit longer! In spite of his brilliant case, Darrow lost and Scopes was fined although he was never required to pay due to a technicality. The importance of this case was that Darrow’s famous defense of freedom of opinion and unfettered education helped to promote freedom of thought.
The 1920s also witnessed a new era of mass communication. In 1920 the first commercial radio station in the U.S. opened; by the end of the decade nearly half of the American population owned radios. Franklin D Roosevelt (1882-1945) took advantage of this phenomenon by instituting his fireside chats, broadcast to the nation by radio during the next decade. FDR was a new kind of president. He faced unprecedented challenges during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Relying on advice from advisors who were often university professors, the Brain Trust, he brought in many reforms and the New Deal, a series of economic programs designed to stimulate the economy and get people back to work. Reading about the New Deal made the more recent presidential response (The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) to the current economic crisis sound somewhat familiar. I wonder if the recent initiative will have the kinds of consequences that came out of the New Deal legislation. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s hydroelectric project led to electricity coming to homes and industry.
Manifest Destiny was published in 1963 and therefore ended at the nadir of the Cold War. Germany was permanently divided (p. 302). President John Kennedy (1917-1963) dispatched his Attorney-General (and his brother) Robert Kennedy (1925-1968) with full authority to prosecute those who violated recently enacted desegregation orders. Governor George Wallace (1919-1998) of Alabama was prevented from refusing African Americans admission to state universities. On June 11, 1963 the President made a moving speech, entreating people to extend to African Americans (Negroes in the vernacular of the day) the rights they had been promised over 100 years earlier at the end of the Civil War. The election in 2008, almost 50 years later, of the first African American president, Barack Obama (1961-), is a fitting tribute to the decisive actions taken by America’s youngest president when faced with the race issue that has cleaved America almost since the Revolution. (Sept. 19, 2010) Return to top
McQuaig L (2004) It’s the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. Anchor Canada.
Print journalists have written some of the best books I have read. They are, after all, first and foremost, writers. They are often skilled at research and proficient at describing and interlinking the elements of their story. Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal (1995; Vintage Books) is one stellar example. Linda McQuaig, author of this book is another. She has extensive experience with Canadian newspapers including the Globe and Mail, National Post and Toronto Star. She has won journalism awards, authored a number of best selling non-fiction books and has a reputation for challenging the establishment. This book certainly fits that mold.
It’s the Crude, Dude explores the history of American oil companies, their strangle hold on oil markets and competition through the formation of a cartel and their extensive influence on the policy making of the government of the United States. It was a coincidence that, just before taking up this book, I had seen the movie An Inconvenience Truth (2006 d. Guggenheim D) in which Al Gore presented the facts of global warming in a manner that left this viewer stunned. With so many great minds and outstanding scientists in the United States, it is hard to figure out why that country has done so little to address the problem of global warming. McQuaig provides the answer: the interests of big oil are not served by efforts at conservation or the development of alternative energy sources. It’s the crude, dude!
There is lots of interesting information in this book. McQuaig recounts the historical reaction of weavers to the development of improved looms and the origin of the term, “Luddite”. She suggests that the business-suited executives in the god-pod of Exxon, the people who run the world, are modern-day Luddites, equally imprisoned by their own self-interest and unable to see the broader benefits for mankind in the changes they so fiercely resist. They “…[deny] the world the opportunity to save the earth’s ecosystem” (p. 37). One way that they have done this is by pressuring the U.S. government not to sign the Kyoto Accord.
The blatant self-interest of members of the current administration (I am writing in Feb. 2007) including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz is vividly depicted in the complicated and often covert dealings that led up to the war in Iraq. Cheney’s links to big oil as a previous CEO of Halliburton and the huge contracts Halliburton received for “work” in Iraq can’t be a coincidence. Big oil financed Bush’s presidential campaign and, once elected, he wasted no time in killing American involvement in Kyoto and initiating hostilities in Iraq.
I have heard pieces of the SUV story before, something about making it exempt from auto emissions standards because it was classified as a small truck and discriminatory tariffs on imports to protect the American auto industry. McQuaig lays this story out in detail in chapter 5, From coffins to world destruction: the tale of the SUV. The interests of automakers dovetail with those of oil producers. These big corporate interests have managed to usurp early American ideals such as individualism and spin them into a rationale for driving highly polluting vehicles. A leader in this depredation is Lee Raymond, CEO of Exxon. There is a wanted poster for him on the Greenpeace International website: Wanted for crimes against the planet.
OPEC is part of the tale. Its history beginning with Libya’s efforts to control their own oil production, the strange alliance of Venezuela with Arab nations, the shock to America of the 1973 oil embargo and America’s response all contribute to understanding the central role of oil in American foreign policy. Perhaps most astounding is the clearly bogus American claim that they are interested in installing a democracy in Iraq. McQuaig carefully reviews American intervention in Saudi Arabia and Iran, two places where they unashamedly have worked hard against democracy to support regimes that were or are repressive and dictatorial. It is amazing how clearly understandable American foreign policy is from the point of view of their need for oil. It is clear, too, that we are on a reckless rampage of indulgence that will lead to not only our own destruction but the destruction of nothing less than our world.
I will give the author the last word: “If all commercial buildings in the U.S. were required to install the most up-to-date lighting equipment [and they complied], the rise in carbon dioxide emissions would virtually be halted” (p. 324)! (Feb. 9, 2007) Return to top
Menocol MR (2002) Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Little Brown and Co.: New York
This book provides an in-depth look at the apex of Arab civilization in southern Spain from the time of the arrival of Abd al-Rahman (731-788), the last of the Umayyads, and the establishment of the Western Caliphate in Cordoba in 755, until the expulsion from Spain of the Arabs and Jews at the end of the XV century. The Cordoban Muslims loved books and they established extensive libraries there. They translated many Greek texts, re-discovering philosophical discourses that had remained silent for hundreds of years. Jews lived in relative peace and harmony with Muslims and Christians and occupied high places in the government. The erudition and religious tolerance of the Arabs contrasted with the xenophobic intolerance of Christians (Catholics) in the rest of Europe. In the end the Christians won. They drove the Arabs out and they burned many of the texts that had been translated or written by them.
During the period of Arab rule, there was turmoil as different factions vied for power. Al-Mansur (938-1002) pretended to be regent and he brought in a mercenary army of Berbers from North Africa. These relatively unsophisticated Arabs sacked the Christian center or Santiago de Compostela in 997, carrying off the bells from the shrine to James the apostle; to this day Christians make pilgrimages to Santiago where James is venerated as the Moor-slayer representing the subsequent re-conquest of this Christian shrine from the Muslims. In 1009 the Berbers sacked Cordoba, destroying many of the Umayyad palaces and their spectacular gardens, and ending the period of Cordoban importance. What followed was a period of city-states during which no central authority could be established.
It was during this period of city-states that the relatively young city of Grenada became the new center of Arab influence. Vernacular languages began to take precedence over the traditional Latin or Arabic. The modern song form was invented at this time; the verses would be in Arabic and the refrains in the vernacular languages. During this time the Normans arrived in Iberia and Arab influence began to move north. Andalusian authors such as Petrus Alfonsi (1062-1110) published on topics such as astronomical tables, astrology, calendrical calculations and the use of the astrolabe (a device for accurate astronomical measurements). Northern Europeans who relied on farming hungrily received this knowledge as it improved their ability to predict when to plant their crops.
The Papal Inquisition was established around 1230 and perhaps marked the beginning of the end for Arabs and Jews in Andalusia. No doubt the arrival of the Black Death in the middle of the next century fanned the fires of the Inquisition. Finally, in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella banished Arabs and Jews from Andalusia. One way to recognize Christians was that they ate pork. People would eat pork to demonstrate their religious orientation. To this day, Andalusian ham is a popular and common food in that region. Highly recommended. (Dec. 27, 2007) Return to top
Menzies G (2008) 1434: The year a magnificent Chinese fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance. HarperCollins: New York
Menzies hypothesis is stated in his title. He argues that a Chinese fleet led by the famous Muslim admiral Zheng He (1371-1435) sailed from China to Venice in 1434. According to Menzies, the Chinese brought an abridged copy of the Yongle Dadian, the encyclopedia of Chinese knowledge compiled from 1403-1408 during the reign of the Ming emperor Yongle (1360-1424) and maps drawn by Chinese sailors who had been to North America. Leonardo da Vinci (1453-1519) plagiarized the information from the Chinese to produce the famous drawings of technological devices in his notebooks, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) got his ideas of heliocentricity there and Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) had a copy of a Chinese map when he set sail for the Americas. The Chinese fleets sailed the world during the first third of the XV century and then suddenly disappeared. Menzies suggests that a comet impact around 1434 in the sea off the coast of New Zealand produced massive waves in the Pacific that destroyed the Chinese fleet and from then until modern times the Chinese remained isolated from world commerce. A lot of people, many of them historical scholars, have bitterly criticized Menzies’ hypothesis.
Menzies was a submarine navigator in the British Navy from 1959 to 1970. He is perhaps most convincing when he speaks of the navigation capabilities of the Chinese as he argues that they had star charts that allowed them to ascertain their position on the globe as early as the XIII century. The astronomy (among other things) of Guo Shoujing (1231-1316) is well known and he has been called the Tycho Brahe of China. His astronomical calculations allowed China to know the exact date and time centuries before the West developed the same capabilities. Shoujing calculated the length of the year to an accuracy of 26 seconds! Chinese navigators would have been able to use star charts to find north without a compass. Menzies argues that they had the capabilities to navigate and to draw relatively accurate maps.
Menzies argues that the stars painted on the ceiling of the sacristy in San Lorenzo’s church in Florence were done with great accuracy that reflects the Chinese influence. The position of the heavenly bodies is apparently accurate for the date July 6, 1439, the date of unification of the Churches of the East and West. The only source of such information at the time was the Chinese.
There is little doubt that Zheng He sailed to India, Arabia, Africa and Indonesia. There is no currently accepted evidence that he sailed to North and South America or to Venice. There are many accounts of Zheng He’s ships, for example from Marco Polo (1254-1324) and the dry docks where the large Chinese treasure ships of Zheng He may have been built have recently been found by archeologists in Nanjing. One of the enduring mysteries is why the Chinese all of a sudden withdrew from the world stage, stopped their voyages of exploration and trade and turned inward. Menzies argues that there was a comet impact in 1430-1455 that created a large tsunami in the Pacific resulting in the ruin of the Chinese fleet. He presents archeological evidence from academic submissions to scientific meetings. His scenario is that the Chinese turned inward after their fleet was destroyed in the Pacific. This is a fascinating idea that is testable. It will be interesting to see how Menzies ideas stand up to scientific scrutiny. (Jan. 2010) Return to top
Merridale C (2005) Ivan's War: The Red Army 1939-45. Faber and Faber: London
When I read Beevor’s Stalingrad (1998 Penguin Books: New York) I remember puzzling about the lack of first-hand information from Russian soldiers concerning their front-line experiences; by comparison he cited many letters written by German soldiers. He had read many of those letters after German wartime records that had been sealed since the war were made available to scholars in recent years. At the time I wondered if maybe many of the Russian soldiers were illiterate and as a result didn’t write letters home. That may have been true for some but lots of them were literate and did write letters home. The People’s Commissariat For Internal Affairs (NKVD) intercepted most of those letters and they were entombed in Russian government archives until they were recently unsealed. Merridale read some of those letters and talked to some of the few surviving Red Army veterans of the Second World War in researching this book. The result is a devastating tale of persecution and suffering even in eventual victory. Anthony Beevor referred to Ivan’s War as, “Essential reading”.
People in Russia don’t tend to smile. This was a striking impression from walking the streets of St. Petersburg as recently as 2006. Perhaps young people were the exception proving the rule as they sometimes would laugh and smile with their friends. My hypothesis that the generally dour demeanor of Russians might be a result of Stalinist times was supported by some of Merridale’s comments. Red Army soldiers were subject to a strict code of behaviour that included not laughing; singing was allowed only at designated times. The political officers were always watching and they were hungry to find violators lest they be fingered for not doing their job. Political officers were charged with reporting friendships among soldiers, something else that was prohibited. This created an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia that permeated the Red Army (indeed, all of Russia). No-one could trust the next person. As if all the suspicion and persecution was not enough, Red Army soldiers were poorly equipped and poorly fed, especially from 1939 until mid-1942; many froze in the winters.
It was around mid-1942 that the tide of the battle of Stalingrad began to turn. A Red Army system based on political merit began to shift to a system based on professionalism. Russian manufacturing began to recover from the effects of the German invasion and (mostly) American lend-lease aid began to arrive. Red Army soldiers began to be drilled in appearance, emphasizing washed and pressed uniforms and polished boots, as the mood became more optimistic. They finally began to taste victory as the noose around Paulus’ army tightened until he finally capitulated in January 1943. Victory at Stalingrad began the long and difficult march to Berlin. With the recapture of occupied territories came further suspicions about collaborators and deserters.
Stalinist repression was everywhere and no one was beyond suspicion. Sometimes loyal Red Army soldiers would get separated from their units during heavy fighting only to be suspected of desertion when re-united. Red Army soldiers were considered to be cowards if they panicked. Post-traumatic stress disorder was not in the diagnostic classifications of Red Army doctors.
On the backs of the Red Army, Russia and her allies won the War and Russia went on to become a superpower. The ultimate price was paid by a staggering number (millions) of Red Army soldiers who fought bravely for the Motherland even as that Motherland treated them with suspicion and cruelty. Those who survived the hell of German prison camps were treated like traitors on their return to Russia and often their return to Russia was marked by further internment in Russian prison camps in the Gulag. Maimed soldiers were left to fend for themselves, often resorting to begging and were then arrested. Ivan’s War paints a grim picture of Ivan’s fate, even in victory. (Dec. 7, 2007) Return to top
Nevins A, Commager HS (1967) A Pocket History of the United States, fifth edition. Washington Square Press: New York
Nevins (1890-1971) and Commager (1902-1998) were both notable historians of the United States who published almost one hundred books between them. This particular volume may have grown out of a 1939 collaboration,Readings in American History. A Pocket History was first published in 1942 and underwent multiple printings and revisions up to and after the fifth edition reviewed here. The book was meant to be accessible to the layman and designed to meet the need for a short narrative history of the American people. As its multiple printings might suggest, it succeeded brilliantly. The narrative style of the authors makes the book engaging and informative.
The book begins with some comments about Native Americans that reflect earlier conceptualizations that have since changed. For example, the authors state that they, “…showed little capacity to subdue nature’ (p. 4). It is now clear that Native Americans were successful farmers and that they had substantially altered the biome prior to the arrival of European settlers. The authors clearly knew something of Native American farming as they subsequently refer to how the Native Americans taught the settlers how to plant and fertilize corn. The authors focused mostly on the military ineptness of Native Americans when faced with the, “…well-accoutered and vigilant bodies of whites” (p. 4).
It seems like right from the start and continuing to this day, America has struggled with the question of how much government. Clearly there was a need at first to find legislative and economic ties to bind the colonies together and to begin to build a nation. On the one hand, George Washington’s (1732-1799) Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) favored big government and played a key role in strengthening finance, industry and linking the states under the federal government. On the other, one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), distrusted big finance and big government, favoring the independent farmer and less federal power. The tension created by these two fundamental views characterizes much of American politics throughout its history. The Civil War (1861-1865) can be seen in part as a manifestation of this conflict.
In many ways, what America has become was defined by the discoveries of the XIX century and the technologies and businesses that emerged from them. The list is long. For communications, it includes Samuel Morse’s (1791-1872) invention of the single-wire telegraph and Morse code, leading to the establishment of Western Union in 1856. The first trans-Atlantic cable from Valentia Island, Ireland to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland followed in 1866 and then Alexander Bell’s (1847-1922) invention of the telephone in 1876. C. Latham Sholes (1819-1890) and Carlos Glidden’s (1834-1877) invention of the typewriter in 1867 provided an indispensible tool for writers and businesses and led to adding machines, cash registers improving accuracy in accounting, the addressograph for advertising, and card catalogues for libraries. For transportation, the list includes air brakes for railroad cars invented by George Westinghouse (1846-1914) in 1872, the rail car coupler invented by Ezra Miller century and the technologies and businesses that emerged from them. The list is long. For communications, it includes Samuel Morse’s (1791-1872) invention of the single-wire telegraph and Morse code, leading to the establishment of Western Union in 1856. The first trans-Atlantic cable from Valentia Island, Ireland to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland followed in 1866 and then Alexander Bell’s (1847-1922) invention of the telephone in 1876. C. Latham Sholes (1819-1890) and Carlos Glidden’s (1834-1877) invention of the typewriter in 1867 provided an indispensible tool for writers and businesses and led to adding machines, cash nly available in theatres and in the 1920s talkies emerged.
Treatment of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s New Deal and the entry into World War II follow apace. The authors talk about how the Allies poured money into West Germany to rebuild the country after the war, including the Marshall Plan for all of Europe, and contrasted the Soviet Russian approach of taking everything it could out of East Germany. They commented on how the citizens who were oppressed by the Axis powers were willing to help as soon as the Allies arrived. It reminded me of the current situation in a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries where the citizens seem to hate their governments and are willing to rise up against them if the opportunity presents itself.
The final section covers the rise to power of John F Kennedy (1917-1963) and his fight against segregation in the south. In Montgomery Alabama in 1955, blacks boycotted the public transportation system because of racial discrimination. They car-pooled as an alternate means of getting around. The municipal government responded by making car-pooling illegal! In 1960, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led a boycott of retail stores that practiced segregation at their lunch counters and this led to long-awaited reforms. As stated by Barack Obama around the time of his election, it really was the case that his father would not have been allowed to eat in many of the restaurants found within a short distance of the Capital.
Remembering that this book was written before Richard Nixon’s (1913-1994) election to the presidency in 1968, I was struck by the authors’ comment, “Few had confidence in his character or ability…” (p. 544). (written June 2, 2011) Return to top
Radzinsky, E. (1996) Stalin: The First In Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives (Translated by H.T. Willets). Anchor Books Random House: New York
Edvard Radzinsky himself is descended from Russian royalty. This fact might go some distance in explaining his obvious cynicism about the Bolsheviks and their politics although the eventual revelations of the truth about the motivations behind the actions of Stalin (1879-1953) and his minions is perhaps reason enough. In spite of the enormity of Stalin’s misanthropy and this cynicism, Radzinsky shows admirable restraint in writing details of individual suffering. This approach prevents the reader from becoming inured to these details so that on the very rare occasion when they are mentioned, their impact is devastating. I have read accounts of peoples’ suffering during the Red Terror that were full of horrors but the sheer volume of the crimes against individuals led to a kind-of self-defense denial that blunted their impact. By contrast, the rare and brief accounts of individual personal suffering that surface in Stalin cut to the very center of this reader’s humanness and left me almost disabled emotionally. I cannot get them out of my mind. Less is more.
The revolutionary movement that led eventually to the victory of the Bolsheviks came out into the open around the beginning of the XX century in the capital of Stalin’s own Georgia. In 1901 in Tiflis (Tbilisi) Stalin participated in the organization of a worker’s demonstration against autocracy. Shouting Leninist slogans, about 2,000 workers clashed with Cossacks and their blood ran, as Stalin had planned. Bloody revolution was the way to get the quickest results. Stalin evaded police on this occasion but not on many others. Often he was arrested for his constant revolutionary activities and finally he was exiled to the north. But he escaped from there too.
Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili took the name Stalin – Man of Steel. Radzinsky speculates that during his early revolutionary years Stalin was a double agent, working simultaneously for the police and the Revolution. He based this speculation on Stalin’s apparently extraordinary ability to avoid arrest or to get off with minimal punishment often when he was arrested. When jailed he frequently escaped including his escape from internal exile in the north. This might help explain Stalin’s subsequent mistrust of almost everyone and his ruthless dealings with his colleagues.
Lenin (1870-1924) believed that killing was a necessary part of the Revolution. For example, when it was suggested that capital punishment be done away with, Lenin replied, “‘What nonsense! How can you carry out a revolution without shooting people?’” (p. 140). Of all the lessons he learned from Lenin, this was perhaps the one Stalin took most to heart. Problem was that later he forgot about the Revolution part! Stalin, “…was genuinely cruel, like the Revolution itself. He was as rough, as bloodthirsty, as treacherous as revolution itself, and as single-minded and primitive. For the sake of the Revolution he would set fire not just to Paris but to the whole world” (p. 171).
The dictum on tolerating no opposition, a principle that guided its politics throughout the history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was part of the Revolutionary package. The Unified State Political Administration, more commonly known as the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, a body spawned by Lenin’s reformation of the Checka in 1922, answered to Lenin and the Politburo. It was dedicated to the struggle against serious crimes that endangered the state and in that capacity, intelligence gathering. It “…retained the right to shoot any Russian citizen without exception, and with no questions asked” (p. 179). Lenin laid the groundwork for Stalin’s bloody rule.
Lenin concentrated power in Stalin without realizing that Stalin might take control of that power and then by the time he saw the danger, it was too late. Stalin envisioned, “…a unique country. One that united the Marxist economic utopia of which they had dreamt in 1917 with a mighty state. There would be a single bank, a single economic plan, a peasantry organized in collective farms, and a pyramid of lesser leaders, all-powerful at their own level. At the top of the pyramid would be the Supreme Leader, his word instantly made flesh in the lesser leaders. There would be ruthless discipline, ruthless punishments. Gigantic resources would be concentrated in the hands of the state and the Leader. He would be able to create a huge industrial economy. And hence a huge army... and then the Great Leninist Dream of World Revolution” (p. 232).
By 1929, The Year of the Great Turn, Stalin had things firmly in hand. By using the unfunded labor of peasants on the collectives he was able to produce capital to build a world-class industrial and military power. Constant threat and fear were used as tools to keep people in line. The show trials began with little concern that innocent people were being victimized; it was all in the interest of the State. The annihilation of the kulaks began. These were peasants who had farmed the land for generations and families that had lived in the same houses for centuries. They were packed into trains and exiled to remote regions where they were forced to live with little food and no heat. Perhaps 400,000 endured this treatment. Their homes and well-tended fields and herds were taken over by the collectives.
Without the veteran farmers to look after the land, famine ensued. It is estimated that in 1932, the famine killed 5-8 million people. Stalin instituted a system of internal passports to keep track of people’s movements. He didn’t issue passports to farmers living on the collectives so they were bound to the land, unable to move for fear of arrest. With little food and restricted movement, more died. In the arts, the avant-garde was suppressed. Art’s only duty was to set the agenda for technology. Those who disagreed did so at their peril.
In 1933, Hitler came to power in Germany, partly because Stalin had forbidden German communists to ally themselves with the Social Democrats. As a result, the anti-Hitler coalition was split and Hitler and his National Socialists won the election. The author suggested that after Lenin and Trotsky, Hitler was Stalin’s third teacher. For example, Hitler denounced his former comrades as traitors and saw to their extermination. This was to be Stalin’s approach too. 1934-1937 are known as the Bloody Years. During this time Stalin totally destroyed the Leninist party, a party that he already controlled. Perhaps he followed Lenin’s suggestion that all revolutionaries should be terminated at the age of 50 to avoid fossilization and make room for the next generation. Many of the existing party bosses were poorly educated, some could hardly write and they were ill equipped to husband the rising military industrial complex.
The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and its leader Levrenti Beria (1899-1953) did Stalin’s dirty work. A special department of the NKVD kept watch on all party members. Members of the NKVD were watched by a special secret section of the NKVD. A super-secret special section kept an eye on the members of the secret special sections. These sections kept numerous files. The NKVD had a large network of informers embracing the whole country. Rewards for informing included cash and advancement in their profession. Often workers could exact revenge on unliked bosses by informing on them. “People fought for the right to inform” (p. 347). Anyone who knew someone who had been arrested was obliged to inform the authorities of their relationship with the arrested individual. It is hard to imagine life in such a society. As Radzinsky put it, anyone who had lived in the Soviet Union will remember that dangerous sense of freedom experienced when he found himself abroad.
In July, 1937, Efim Shchadenko (1885-1951), one of Stalin’s generals in Kiev, personally sent tens of thousands to their deaths. That averages out to more than 700 per day. He complained to his wife in a letter that he had so much work to do that he couldn’t get away from headquarters until two or three in the morning. Stalin himself would sign lists of people to be executed. His signature appears on 366 lists that still exist in the Russian archives; the names total 44,000. The manner of maintaining fear and intimidation was brutal. First the target person would be arrested. The arrest of his or her relatives and acquaintances would follow. A careless word or a misprint in a newspaper might lead to further arrests. No-one could trust anyone.
Before a large infrastructure project began, for example the building of a canal or a power station, the NKVD would know how many arrests were to be made. The arrested people provided the free labour force for the project.
One of the still-debated questions about the Second World War is why Hitler invaded Russia (on June 22, 1941) when he already was fighting on the western front. Radzinsky argues that Hitler invaded because he knew that Stalin was planning to invade Germany. He presents evidence including records of Russia’s preparations of troops along their western front and speeches by Stalin. One thing is sure. As Hitler’s troops descended on Moscow in December of 1941, Stalin was ready for them and met them with his carefully hidden fresh divisions. The defeat of Germany started at this point and they were gradually pushed all the way back to Berlin where they capitulated.
Radzinsky suggests that near the time of his death, Stalin was planning to go to war with the West. In 1952 he planned the exile of the Jews. He knew that this would provoke the West and he wanted this confrontation. He was planning another Terror in 1953, like the Terror of the later ‘30s, meant to prepare the country for war. The Cold War began during Stalin’s time and continued for many years after his death. So did many of his policies including the oppression of all opposition within the USSR. For someone who lived during the Cold War and heard the endless stories about life in the USSR, this book provides a valuable resource. The reader hears from a Russian who lived there during that time and who knew many of the people who were affected by Stalin and his policies. It was as bad as they said it was. (April 23, 2008) Return to top
Rostovtzeff, M. (1927/1960) Rome. Oxford University Press: New York. (First published as, A History of the Ancient World, Volume II, Rome, 1927 and reprinted with corrections in 1928).
Rostovtzeff was born in Kiev in 1870. His father was a teacher of Latin and Greek who provided his son with an excellent grounding in ancient history. At the age of 18 he wrote his first monograph on the administration of the Roman provinces in the time of Cicero. At the University of St. Petersburg he continued his studies of ancient Greece focusing on art and monuments as historical sources. His graduating thesis in 1892 was on Pompeii. He traveled extensively in Europe and the Near East, further developing his knowledge of the ancient world. He eventually became professor of history in St. Petersburg and subsequently completed his masters and doctorate with theses on Roman taxation systems and tokens.
Following the revolution he left Russia in 1918 and continued his studies at Oxford where he lectured on Hellenistic and Roman history. In 1920, he received a chair in ancient history at the University of Wisconsin where he wrote his History of the Ancient World. In 1925 he moved to Yale as Sterling professor of ancient history and classical archaeology, director of archaeological research and curator of ancient art, a position he held for 19 yr. During that time he played a central role in the excavation of Dura Europos (a Roman base in present-day Syria) and he wrote three monographs from these studies. Rostovtzeff was a master in the use of archaeological materials and this aspect of his work made him unique as a great historian during his time. There is little doubt about the scholarship of Rome. He died in 1952.
The beginning of Rome is often pegged at around 750 BC. Rome’s defeat in the Gallic wars at about 390 BC convinced her of the need to replace the almost all-patrician army with a national army and to fortify Rome with walls. As a result plebeians fought side-by-side with patricians. When the battles were won, these plebeians received land and eventually influenced the passing of new laws repealing the ban against marriage between patricians and plebeians and giving plebeians a place in the body of fully qualified Roman citizens. Plebeians won the right to election to counsels. Thus the democratization of Rome was a gradual process based on successive agreements between patricians and plebeians.
Rostovtzeff chronicles the conflict between Rome and Carthage, following M. Atilius Regulus’ failed assault and Hannibal’s astounding march from Spain to the outskirts of Rome. Hannibal returned to Carthage in 202 BC where he faced Publius Cornelius Scipio and was defeated for the first time and the power of Carthage was broken.
It seemed like Rome faced some of the same problems that we face today. Thus, in 132 BC, Tiberius tried to change the laws so that public land would be given to the landless and the landholdings of the giant landholders would be limited. Conflict with the Senate ensued, Tiberius was killed, but his radical reformer colleagues persisted and Rome slid into civil war.
In 49 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome. Pompey left, returning with an army that Caesar defeated leaving him in 45 BC the unrivalled leader of Rome with a senate of his own choosing. In Egypt, Caesar met Cleopatra who bore him a son. Then, in 44 BC on the 15th of March, Caesar was killed.
There soon followed almost 200 years of peace under the Roman emperors including Augustus and Tiberius. This was an extraordinary time that extended far beyond the inner circle in Rome to all who were influenced by civilization. Nations of the West and East, some of which had barely been touched by it in earlier times, were inoculated with this civilization. The amazing thing is that Rome did this, not by armed violent means or by forced migrations but by peaceful methods and the natural attraction of a better life offered by a dominant state.
Rostovtzeff offers an insightful and detailed account of many aspects of life in the Roman Empire during this time. Municipalities functioned quite autonomously from Rome with people free to move about the Empire without restrictions. This was made more possible by the extensive network of roads built by the Romans. One of the few restrictions that Rome placed on municipalities was that there be no clubs or societies of a seditious nature. Christians alone were persecuted.
The decline of Rome is a much-debated topic that Rostovtzeff covers in the final chapters of this book. He tracks what he calls the ordeal of the third century. The death of Commodus in 192 marked the end of the period of enlightened despotism and the beginning of a new period of bloodshed and misery. During this period the army ruled and officials grew by degree more barbarized. People were bound to the land and forced to pay taxes. The old institutions were replaced by utterly primitive conditions in an unbroken reversion to barbarism. Rich families had fewer children and their influence waned over generations. Christianity was victorious with its influence reaching throughout the Empire. The people, “…turned greedily to a creed that promised to calm the troubled mind, that could give certainty in place of doubt, a final solution for a host of problems, and theology instead of science and logic” (p. 308). The author argues that Christianity shifted people’s focus from the present to the future. They were willing to submit and suffer in order to find true life hereafter.
Rostovtzeff ends by painting a picture of an atmosphere of indolent contentment for the privileged classes and especially the urban middle class. They found ideals in pleasure, the pursuit of gain, and the attainment, for themselves and their families, of the material advantages of civilization. It was an era of sterility and stagnation, creative genius dwindled, the textbook took the place of research and no new artistic discoveries were made. One sees throughout this book Rostovtzeff’s reliance on archaeological evidence to discover the circumstances of Rome’s rise and decline. Although Rome continued to exist for many centuries, her power was diminished and divided into east and west; the end of the rule of Constantine in 337 is usually identified as the end of the Empire. Return to top
Spurling H. (2009) Matisse, the Life. Penguin Books: New York.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) spent his entire life painting. In telling the story of his life, Hilary Spurling moves from painting to painting, making it particularly rewarding to read this book because the reader is treated to an in-depth review of almost all of Matisse’s work, including the provenance of many of them. Prior to Matisse there had been some departures from realistic representation, the unique “expressionism” of El Grecco (1541-1614), the fantastic but generally realistic images of Francesco Goya (1746-1828), the genuine abstractions of symbolist Odelin Redon (1840-1916) and, of course, the Impressionists, especially Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), but there had never been anyone like Matisse. His art, especially his use of colour and abstraction, broke new ground again and again throughout his career. It is remarkable to learn about the ridicule and derision he experienced for making his abstract images and to think about what it must have been like for the people of the early XX century who saw these images for the first time, his Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra of 1907, for example. Matisse’s paintings and cutouts became icons of the XX century that continue to appear frequently and widely today. Many people may not wonder where the popular images they see come from or realize that many of them came from Matisse. Matisse is a case of one man having a huge impact on popular imagery.
Later in his life, Matisse spoke of his approach to art as being analogous to a drunken brute trying to kick a door down. This somewhat violent image is almost never actually portrayed in his art. Spurling speculated that Matisse’s “approach” to his art may reflect images and experiences from his early life in the Flemish village of Bohain. Life was tough; people worked long hours at physically demanding jobs: twelve-hour shifts in the textile mills; laborers bent double, nose to ground, weeding beet fields. “Weavers had feverish eyes, pale faces and gaunt, etiolated bodies…” (p. 13). Matisse’s early exposure to weaving and textile making had another influence on his life as he always had fabrics in his possession and colorful, patterned textiles appear frequently in his paintings. Spurling tells us that,
“The weavers of Bohain were famous… for the richness of their colours, for their unerring sense of design, imaginative daring and insatiable thirst for experiment. They worked to order for the top end of the market, supplying handwoven velvets, watered and figured silks, merinos, grenadines, featherlight cashmeres and fancy French tweeds for winter, and for summer, sheer silk gauzes, diaphanous tulles, voiles and foulades in a fantastic perfusion of decorative patterns, weaves and finishes.” (p. 14)
It sounds a lot like some of Matisse’s paintings, especially the later ones from Nice.
Spurling commented about how well Matisse knew how clothes lay against a woman’s body; “…he understands better than anyone else the way fabric lies against flesh…how the straps and ribbons cross and slip in a woman’s garments…how they wind about her waist…or under the curve of her breast” (p. 33). This reminded me of reading a similar comment about Impressionist Camille Pissaro (1830-1903) in Irving Stone’s 1985 biographic novel, Depths of Glory. The story was that his future wife Julie agreed to sit for him. When he had finished the painting she was embarrassed because she could see how Pissaro was able to see under her clothing in order to create the image of her with the clothing laying so perfectly against her body.
I was surprised to read about the impact experimentation could have on a painter’s life. One might think that people would like the paintings more or less depending on their tastes but that the images themselves would not determine whether or not someone liked the artist. Apparently, this is not so. Matisse began his career with formal training doing traditional representational images. In 1897 Matisse broke from this traditionalism and began painting in a more impressionistic manner but also with emotion – and lots of colour. His first wife Camille and her daughter left him. His former teacher and his friends rejected his new canvases, painted in Belle-Ile off the coast of Brittany, where Monet had painted. During this time Matisse claimed orange as his special color just as Turner had claimed yellow. Matisse fought the demons of custom and familiarity inch by inch in his long struggle to break through to fresh ways of seeing.
In 1905 the Steins began buying Matisse’s paintings and the interweaving of the lives of Leo (1872-1947), his sister Gertrude (1974-1946) and sister-in-law Sarah (1870-1953) with that of Matisse and the Parisian avant-garde began. The Steins purchased a large number of Matisse’s paintings and took some of them back to the States thus introducing his work to a whole new audience. Sarah said of Henri’s artworks that they, “..opened the way to a new world that could be perceived only by a fundamental shift of vision” (p. 158). Many of the Stein’s paintings were given to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that now boasts a fine collection of his works. It was during this period that Matisse created some of his iconic works including Woman with a Hat that now hangs in the SFMOMA. Matisse also met Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) during this time and Picasso, of all people, was shaken by Woman with a Hat! The painting of his wife Amelie was widely ridiculed and people stood before it and laughed.
In 1907 Matisse produced Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra that now resides in the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the Cone Collection. This was another of his paintings that created a major scandal. It was the only painting that he showed at the Independents in March of that year. “…he scandalized the public, bewildered the critics (who described the new work as indecent, atrocious or reptilian), and stopped the art world in its tracks” (p 152). Leo and Gertrude Stein purchased the painting.
Here is one example of Spurling’s excellent descriptions of Matisse’s paintings. Speaking of the 1922 painting Seated Odalisque with a Raised Knee, she describes a, “…big-breasted, soft-bellied houri in a transparent skirt, with rouged nipples and a fake tattoo on her forehead.” She refers to, “…the exquisitely observed and miraculously painted texture of her body and legs, set against pink striped upholstery, seen through embroidered silk gauze, and outlined with flecks of turquoise green which stabilize the composition, establishing what Matisse called its architectural underpinnings, interacting with the turquoise turban and the purples and pinky-mauves of the floral backcloth in a pulsing, shimmering framework of colour” (p. 340). It is useful to look at these paintings as Spurling describes them as her descriptions often help the viewer to see details of the painting that they might otherwise miss.
Throughout the book the reader meets the buyers of Matisse’s art. Besides the Steins, there was the Russian Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936) who bought many of Matisse’s masterpieces including Dance (II) and Music, both done in 1910, that now appear in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg along with many of Matisse’s works. Another is American Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) whose large collection is available for public viewing at the Barnes Foundation in Lower Marion, a suburb of Philadelphia. Barnes commissioned works by Matisse including a large art piece, another version of Dance, completed in 1933, for some of the walls in the Foundation building.
I strongly recommend this book. Like Picasso said of Matisse’s Still Life with Magnolias, done in 1941, “his colours are uncanny” (p. 479) (April 28, 2012) Return to top
Stanton, D. (2001) In Harm's Way. St Martin’s Press: New York.
In the movie Jaws (dir. Spielberg, 1975), Robert Shaw’s character, Captain Quint, argued by some to have been patterned on Captain Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), tells a brief story of being a survivor of the torpedoed warship Indianapolis when he refuses to put on a lifejacket in the face of being aboard a sinking ship while enduring a shark attack. In Harm’s Way is the story of the sinking of the Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine in the Pacific in 1945 and the ordeal of the men who survived. Over 200 died on the ship when it was torpedoed; it sank in minutes and about 900 men went into the sea. When rescue came almost 5 days later, 317 were alive. Sharks attacked most violently at sunup and sundown each day but there were swarms of them around all the time. Some of the survivors were in rafts or floating nets but many were in lifejackets in the water.
The Indianapolis had delivered the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima from San Francisco to the Philippine island where it was loaded onto the Enola Gay for its trip into history. After delivering the bomb, she proceeded to Leyte Island for training exercises but never made it. The book traces the communications failures that were responsible for the long delay between when the Indianapolis was sunk and when her crew was rescued. It tells the story of the survival of the ship’s captain and his subsequent court martial and eventual exoneration (over 50 years later and after his suicide). It is a story of immense suffering and bravery. Return to top
Urban, M. (2001) The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of George Scovell. Faber and Faber: London.
This book reveals a lot about Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington during the Peninsula Wars (1808-1814) but is really about a member of his staff, George Scovell (1774-1861). A prominent theme is the non-noble birth of Scovell and how it seems to have constantly led to his being overlooked for promotion in spite of his tireless, heroic and often brilliant contributions to the war effort. Specifically, he, more than anyone else on Wellington’s staff, studied and eventually cracked the codes used by Napoleon, his brother Joseph in Madrid and his generals to send messages over the long distances between Paris and Iberia. The information gleaned from these deciphered messages gave Wellington a decided advantage in the war against the French and contributed importantly to his brilliant successes.
Scovell studied at the Royal Military College at Wycombe where he was hopeful of learning the business of the Quartermaster-General’s branch of the military. Although clearly a scholarly student, he also was interested in the extra pay received by the Deputy-Assistant Quartermaster General; he really needed the money. He was an accomplished linguist fluent in English, French and German and competent in Spanish and Portuguese. “Wycombe men were taught that science and brain power were more important to victory than noble birth or the maintenance of patronage” (p. 47). At Wycombe, Scovell applied himself to schemes for tracking the enemy’s faults. He studied late into the night writing in his notebook in the hopes that he one day would be able to use his new found knowledge in a campaign. He kept up this habit of keeping a notebook and, as a result, left a rich source for historians.
Wellington studied at Eton, was tutored privately and clearly never got the Wycombe message. He was a strict believer in hierarchy. Self-appointed reformers like Scovell irritated him. His own birth to a distinguished landed Anglo-Irish family and his upbringing in that family, as well as the events of the revolution on the continent, convinced him of the importance in the military of people who have a connection with the property and rank of the country. Those without a noble birth are more likely to destroy the country’s institutions.
The book contains lots of examples of the realities of warfare in the early XIX century. Urban tells his readers about the siege laws that had emerged from two hundred years of siege warfare. For example, if a garrison refused the besiegers’ summons to capitulate, the invading army eventually storming through breaches could do whatever they wanted with the inhabitants and their property. On the one hand, a general may have wished to restrain his troops from excesses. But, on the other, the business of a siege, especially the final storming when a breach was created, was gruesome and the soldiers were motivated to endure the ordeal by the allure of the rewards inside.
Napoleon eventually developed an elaborate numerical code based on a large conversion table that included multiple numbers for each vowel as well as dummy numbers that made it almost impossible for decipherers to break. Undaunted, Scovell persevered; taking advantage of reckless mistakes by the encrypters and his considerable experience, he pieced together the meaning of intercepted messages. Wellington used this information to make his preparations in the Salamanca campaign. “In Madrid, Joseph and his chief of staff awaited events with a sense of enraged impotence.” (p. 175).
After Waterloo, Scovell finally received the recognition from Wellington that he deserved. He was promoted and his wages increased. After the war, he again fell on hard times and had to resort to appealing to the government. Finally, he was able to settle into a comfortable and well-deserved retirement. The story of Scovell’s code breaking has all of the intrigue of the Enigma story that emerged after World War II and provides an excellent glimpse into earlier incarnations of intelligence services. Return to top
Weatherford J (2004) Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Three Rivers Press: New York
When most people think of the Mongols they think of barbarian hoards descending upon the civilized world and leaving a path of destruction and death. Weatherford’s treatise ends with a discussion of the Mongol origins of Renaissance art and the rise of science in Europe, a shocking iconoclastic view. It rises out of a revisionist historical view of the life and times of Genghis Khan (1162-1227) and his Mongol successors. The account of the sources themselves is fascinating with reference to Stalinist suppression of Mongol history and the heroic efforts of Mongol scholars to preserve the history of the Mongo Empire. This book fills an important gap between the period of ascendancy of Arab science and philosophy and the beginning of the rise of Europe in science and art.
Genghis Khan was a fierce fighter. His army was all cavalry. They traveled fast and light across the open steppes of central Asia. An army of 30,000 might include 5 horses per man for a total of as many as150,000 animals as they moved upon their intended victims. They made the cumbersome heavy armor of knights obsolete as they literally rode circles around them. They ended the era of walled cities as they became masters of siege warfare, often using tactics reminiscent of those of Caesar in Gaul. Khan’s empire included Russia, China, Korea and India where he created free trade zones, decreased taxes and set up the world’s first postal system.
Genghis Khan had to overcome a number of traditions of the Mongol plains people to be able to build them into one of the world’s most effective fighting forces. For example, kinship had governed alliances. Khan made alliances based on merit and demonstrated loyalty rather than bloodline. He accepted conquered enemies as equals and encouraged intermarriage. This approach was so successful with the Tatars that the Mongols and Tatars often are confused with one another. Khan tolerated different religions and at times his army included Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. Weatherford suggests that this was a novel development but overlooked the religious tolerance of the Arabs in Andalusia several hundred years earlier.
As Genghis Khan’s conquests mounted, he built a propaganda machine that would have been the envy of many modern states. When a city was taken, they killed the aristocrats but kept the literate non-aristocratic people. Khan encouraged dissemination of information about their military success. Often this information preceded them to their next victim and sometimes led to a bloodless conquest. At a time when human mutilation was common in Europe, the Mongols did not torture, mutilate or maim.
By 1241, the Mongols had captured all of Russia and unified what had been a large lot of independent warring regions led by princely families. Batu Khan (1205-1255), grandson of Genghis, who had led the Mongols became ruler and was referred to as Tsar Batu, beginning a tsar lineage that lasted into the XX century. Stories of the Mongol invaders spread west as far as England where they were chronicled in 1240 by Matthew Paris (1200-1259), a Benedictine monk in the abbey of St. Albans in Hertfordshire. The tales struck terror in the hearts of Europeans. Ironically, they blamed the Jews who were widely persecuted at this time as a result. But the forested lands of Europe did not suit the raiding style of the Mongols and they never advanced beyond Kiev.
In the coming years, they moved on to Baghdad, the heart of Arab civilization. Beginning the siege, they encircled the entire walled city with a new wall or trench and ramparts thereby controlling all possible egress. (The siege strategies of the Mongols reminded me of those of Caesar in Gaul.) They used cannon to fire exploding projectiles at the wall of Baghdad. The city fell in 1258 to Hulegu Khan (1217-1265), another grandsone of Genghis.
Yet another grandson was Khubilai Khan (1215-1294) who built what is now Beijing as the capital of the eastern part of the Mongolian empire. Within Beijing, Khubilai and his court lived in the Forbidden City, where they could continue to live like they had lived on the steppes of central Asia. Khubilai Khan created thousands of schools in China where children could be educated in their local languages. During this time China was unified into the country that still exists today. The Mongols encouraged research and development. In medicine, they brought together the knowledge of pharmacology, acupuncture and the circulatory system of China with the knowledge of surgery of the Arabs and established new hospitals where experts from both groups worked together. The Molgols printed books. In 1620, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in England wrote that the greatest influence on European development had been printing, gunpowder and the compass. All were spread to the West from the Mongol Empire. Ideas that came from the Mongol Empire include paper money, primacy of state over the church, freedom of religion and international law. Weatherford included diplomatic immunity as another idea credited to the Mongols. However, Caesar makes reference to the convention of not harming diplomats in his descriptions of his wars in Gaul suggesting that this idea may have preceded the Mongols.
Perhaps the most infamous legacy of the Mongol Empire is the plague or Black Death. Traveling with trade goods from China, it made its way to the Middle East, Africa and Europe where, in the 60 years from 1340-1400 it killed an estimated 75 million people. With the almost total cessation of trade, the economic engine of the Mongol Empire stalled and it became isolated and weakened. Genghis Khan is an excellent book that shows that the Mongols were much more than murderous hoards; they contributed importantly to the development of the modern world. (Dec. 31, 2007) Return to top
Winchester S (1998) The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. HarperCollins: New York
I remember looking up word meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and thinking how neat it was to see quotes, often from well-known sources, that showed how the word was actually used. The Professor and the Madman documents in fine literary and narrative fashion the origin of those quotes. When you start to think about it, it is a daunting task to imagine digging up actual uses, often first uses, of a word in print. Perhaps not so today with the powerful search engines we have at our fingertips and the vast electronic databases that they troll but in the XIX century, people actually had to read all those books to find the words. Who did that? The answer is that the makers of the OED, in a fashion aped to a certain extent by the modern free encyclopedia Wikipedia, got lots of people to participate. They solicited word origins from the public through running ads in magazines and newspapers and placing flyers in bookshops and libraries. Soon, the sources began to flow in from all over the UK and beyond as people dutifully read the best literature to find the putatively first use in print of over half a million words.
James Murray (1837-1915) was the primary editor of the OED; he began his work in 1879 and continued it until his death in 1915, still 13 yr before publication of the completed project. He was a lexicographer who knew many languages and was well suited for the job. He had the Scriptorium built on his property and there set up a system for pigeon-holing the slips of paper that contained references to word uses. One prolific contributor was William C Minor (1834-1920). It is his story and how it interlaced with that of the OED and Murray that made this book so interesting.
Minor was an American soldier and surgeon who had served in the Civil War where he witnessed unspeakable horrors. He developed delusions of persecution that were with him all his life. While living in London, he killed a man while in a delusional state, imagining that the man was threatening him. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and incarcerated in a mental institution where he spent most of his life. He had his army pension from the U.S. so was able to buy things including books during his time in the institution. He was a voracious reader and he probably received one of the flyers soliciting assistance with finding word usage inside one of his many purchased books. For years he sent slips to Murray indicating word usages and in time Murray would contact him for assistance with a particular word. Murray had no idea about Minor’s real condition until meeting him after many years. The two men became friends and Murray often visited Minor and the two of them walked in the gardens of the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, discussing words.
I was particularly interested in the biographical information about Minor because it provided insight into the life of a person with schizophrenia before the advent of chlorpromazine and the ability to provide some symptomatic relief. Minor was doomed to live with his demons. Frequently Winchester tells us about Minor’s tortured nights with his imaginings about being taken away and forced to engage in lewd acts with all sorts of people.
Ward notes from Broadmoor from June 1875 describe how, “The doctor is convinced that intruders manage to get in – from under the floor, or through the windows – and that they pour poison into his mouth through a funnel: he now insists on being weighed each morning to see if the poison has made him heavier” (p.124). One can see here the inappropriate attribution of importance to things that should be ignored. I wonder why he never developed delusions about his many books? The reader could see how Minor incorporated new technologies into his delusions as he began in 1878 to imagine that electric currents were being passed through his body. Although he was delusional about these goings on during the nights, he could often speak coherently and intelligently on many topics during the day. The reader is able to see in these descriptions of Minor the textbook features of schizophrenia. The reader can see too how much people suffered with this illness before the modern era of pharmacotherapy. (Aug. 2, 2007) Return to top