I just realized (or remembered, now I think about it) Kindle has a visual quotation feature. This one refers to Tahiti, “paradise” to the early sailors who landed there and found a different and less restrictive society, not so much after a few visits.
The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1983. 176 pages.
In today’s science-based world, where simple DNA tests can help free the innocent on Death Row, the story of Martin Guerre might have ended before it began. Inheritance and money were involved, and then as today we take both very seriously. The risk of exposure is greater now, but at least your life doesn’t depend on guarding against it.
In Davis’s own words, the book is an attempt to go beyond the film, “to dig deeper into the case, to make historical sense of it.” In fewer than 200 pages, Davis takes the reader along an exploratory journey into the past that includes a surprising wealth of lessons about geography, local economies and law, culture, beliefs, and customs and practices. She mixes facts such as what is known about Martin Guerre, his wife, and her family, with the conjecture necessary to build a plausible story.
Why did each player act as he or she did and how? What did each hope to gain (or not lose) and how? How did each manipulate public beliefs and opinions? Davis runs through various scenarios, focusing on the village but also referring to broader, changing political and religious issues where they can help answer the larger questions, for example, about Catholic law on marriage and what it meant at the village level, or how the new Protestantism may have been spreading in Artigat and affected the people and the case.
Although the motivations of the actors can’t be known, for the most part Davis’s conjectures seem plausible against the sketchy context she is able to provide. Like Davis, we can only guess at the emotions that must have wrenched the family members when Martin Guerre left and when he returned (and returned again) — the anger, fear, perplexity, concern, and acrimony that can accompany any unplanned or unwelcome change in a life course that has been accepted, especially when that change affects future status, comfort, and security. The older Martin Guerre’s refusal to lead a “life of quiet desperation” upsets the equilibrium the village and the families have achieved and thwarts his own objectives.
In a conclusion that’s as interesting than Martin Guerre’s case, Davis covers the relevant history of Jean de Coras, an officer of the law who found himself compelled to tell the story from a legal perspective, but can’t quite put his finger on the kind of story it is. Davis’s tale of his origins, life, career and writings (including Arrest Memorable), and own demise nearly overshadows that of Martin Guerre. For Coras, “the outcome was wretched . . . at least it makes it hard to tell the difference between tragedy and comedy.” His end, no less tragic than that of the man on trial, combined with his ambivalence toward the case and his selective account of it, made me wish I’d spent less time on Guerre and more on Coras and his rationalizations and changing sympathies.
The Return of Martin Guerre is a great way for a non-historian to learn about a time that we’d like to think was simpler, but in which a seemingly straightforward case could raise religious, judicial, and even philosophical questions around one village, one family, and one man — and whether he was, and was believed to be, Martin Guerre.
A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House. 2006. 416 pages.
In my 50+ years on Earth, I’ve lived through the middle and end of the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, and wars waged from the depths of tropical forests and the expanse of deserts using everything from automatic weapons to automated drones. While the war veterans of 1782 and 1865 wouldn’t recognize much of today’s weaponry or some of the new tactics, “War is hell,” as it has always been.
In A War Like No Other, Victor Davis Hanson outlines the cause, means, and results of the Peloponnesian War and how the strategies, tactics, and technologies evolved as the war dragged on, changing how the Greek world approached fighting and the military even as classical Greece tore itself apart. Hanson organizes his history by the war’s essential elements, such as fear, fire, disease, terror, armor, walls, horses, and ships.
This may sound discombobulating if, like me, you’re not familiar with the classical Greek era. By taking this approach, Hanson brings into relief the critical points and factors in the war’s agonizing progress and evolution, for example, the insufficiency of ravaging, the growing reliance on lightly armed troops, the need for horse troop support, the increasing desperation on both sides of sieges, and the inclination of democracy to make awful decisions and punish the leadership that carries out those decisions.
While aw is a survey, rich details draw the reader into the horrors of the war and its political background — the confusion and noise of the hoplite battle at Delium, where in the chaos Athenians kill Athenians, and the desperation at Syracuse, where men stranded on Sicily hundreds of miles from home are hunted down and slaughtered even as they drink the water of bloodied rivers. Later in the war, sailors are “speared like fish” as their triremes are destroyed.
At the beginning of the war, the expectation is that some land, mainly in Attica, will be ravaged; some cities may be besieged; some triremes may be sunk; and some hoplites will be killed honorably in a few decisive battles. As the war drags on, the rules are ignored, then forgotten. The war, which could have been a series of decisive battle and events, becomes a chronic, progressive disease with no cure but the destruction of one host or the other. Even when it’s in remission, such as during the Peace of Nicias, it’s festering within the Greek body.
By the time Athens is finally defeated, left to watch its vaunted Long Walls torn down, thousands of Athenians, Spartans, allies, and bystanders have died, hundreds of triremes have been rammed and sunk, and the Athenian treasury has been depleted, yet no clear victor has emerged. Athens and her aspirations have been reined in, but Sparta is weaker, while its enemies are not. In the meantime, war, once waged ostensibly according to conventions and rules (even if often broken) has turned into a nursery for ideas and technologies aimed at killing the most people most efficiently.
Why should you care about a war fought thousands of years ago over fear of an empire that faded soon after? Throughout Hanson refers to many wars that have happened since — Ottoman, the American Civil War, the first and second world wars, Vietnam, and Iraq. In some ways the Peloponnesian War set a precedent for why and how modern conflicts are fought, who participates, and how conflicts are marketed and perceived during their up- and downswings.
As Hanson recounts critical miscalculations made by the leaders, peoples, and combatants on both sides, it’s hard to forget that future historians and peoples will look back and marvel at our own errors and blunders and wonder how we could be so oblivious to so much that is obvious. After all the years, money, and lives lost, perhaps the Peloponnesian War’s clearest legacy was helping to make future conflicts easier to sell to people who want to be winners and ever more coldly and efficiently deadly — at which point, no one wins.
A Treasury of Royal Scandals: The Shocking True Stories of History’s Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors by Michael Farquhar. Recommended.
If you eagerly await each issue of The National Enquirer but wish it were less about Jennifer Lopez and more about Henry VIII, this is the book for you. In it, Michael Farquhar has collected charming tales of Europe’s royal elite at their finest — fornicating, battling, murdering, backstabbing, beheading, inbreeding, mincing, politicking, and going stark raving mad. You’ll read about the touching love of Philip the Fair for Joanna the Mad (who’s called that for a reason, as you’ll see), the familial love of Napoleon for his brothers, and the not-so-familial love of Caligula for his sister.
Farquhar’s gift is not so much for digging up tales of shame, but for the irreverent sarcasm with which he dishes them out. Of King Frederick William of Prussia: “The reply [to his son] was written in the glowing warmth of the third person.” “Peter the Great was what might be best described as a super-tsar.” [Groan.] “If Louis XIV was France’s Sun King, then his brother, Philippe, duc d’Orléans, was its Drag Queen.”
Sarcasm and bad puns aside, let’s get back to the comparison to The National Enquirer. Unless you are truly the type who subscribes to Playboy/Playgirl for the articles, chances are that you readThe National Enquirer for the titillating hints of the scandals, improprieties, infidelities, gifts to the Democratic Party, and other acts calculated to provoke moral outrage that today’s royal icons, celebrities, have virtually trademarked.
If you have any common sense (and how would you? Look at what you’re reading!), of course you realise that little of The National Enquirer is burdened by the weight of the truth, but it is seasoned just right to tempt your sense of gullibility. (For example, a cover lamenting Cher’s “heartbreaking disease” — surely cancer, or at least diabetes? — led to a story about her deadly adult acne problem.)
Farquhar takes much the same approach to his subject. Royal Scandals is replete with “reported that” qualifiers as well as apocryphal stories. Perhaps the most obvious is the one about the assassination of England’s Edward II, or rather the description of the gruesome way in which it was allegedly committed. You’d be hard pressed to find a historian who doesn’t scoff at the anecdote, but you are guaranteed to flinch at it. Farquhar will have you hooked.
While Royal Scandals does not quite qualify as history — don’t cite it in your next paper, kids — it may pique your interest in such characters as Bloody Mary, Mary Queen of Scots, the Virgin Queen Elizabeth, and the hapless Jane Grey (whose mother was, “by some accounts . . . romping with a servant fifteen years her junior” at the time of Jane’s beheading).
When you’ve finished reading Royal Scandals, you’ll realise Hollywood has nothing on history — or the embellishments thereof.
The appendices, showing British, French, and Russian monarchs, and a timeline of events in the western world are useful. An index would have been helpful as well.
2 May 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet by Fritz Redlich, M.D. Recommended.
In Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, psychiatrist Fritz Redlich, a Jewish contemporary, attempts to determine how physical ailments and mental disorders may have affected and influenced the Nazi leader.
This type of work, known as a “pathography,” has no set or determined structure. In the first part, Dr. Redlich describes “Hitler’s Life from Birth to Death,” including such topics as “Entry into Politics,” “Ascent to Power,” and “Warlord.” The second part, “Review, Comments, and Interpretations,” delves into more detail about the medical and psychological issues brought up in the first section.
This first part is the more problematic one. Dr. Redlich is not a historian and is not equipped to present or interpret history, especially history as fraught with the unknowns, distortions, and lies that surround Hitler. For example, he refers to the “billy goat story” several times. He notes that Hitler was not known to be cruel to animals as a child, except for the “dubious” billy goat story — a highly unlikely story of questionable origin that no historian would cite as an exception, even with the “dubious” qualifier.
He also discusses Geri Raubal’s death but provides no insight into what actually happened or how Hitler reacted to it. He briefly discusses a few innuendoes that Raubal was murdered, but there is nothing here — about a critical moment in Hitler’s psychological life — that is not covered more thoroughly and carefully in other books (Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, for example). On the other hand, there is sometimes too much detail about Himmler, Goebbels, et. al, which does not particularly relate to Hitler, his health, his psychology, or his actions. Indeed, much of the first section could have been eliminated as it often provides irrelevant information or biographical detail that is explored better in Hitler biographies and Nazi and WWII histories.
In the second part, Dr. Redlich attempts to diagnose Hitler, based on the scant and unreliable information available. He dismisses diagnoses when there is too little evidence or the known symptoms are inconclusive, although given that there is so little information and that neither Hitler nor anyone surrounding him is a reliable source, it is still primarily speculation. Dr. Redlich does conclude that Hitler had Parkinson’s syndrome, of unknown etiology, although at one point he mistakenly refers to it as Parkinson’s disease. He also provides a plausible explanation for Hitler’s headaches.
In his discussion of Hitler’s psychology, Dr. Redlich covers anxiety, depression, sexuality, and other obvious topics (often inconclusively) as well as such things as his lies and ambivalence. Again, there is nothing conclusive to say; many of these questions are still hotly debated by Hitler scholars (for example, whether he believed or came to believe his own fabrications).
The question of cruelty is an interesting one. It’s easy to say that Hitler was cruel, given the death, destruction, persecution, and torture he wrought against dissenting Nazi Party members, Gypsies, Jews, and others. This gets short shrift in Dr. Redlich’s analysis, because it’s not clear that Hitler was cruel in the conventional way many of us might think. Someone who gains pleasure from kicking a dog or witnessing the kicking of a dog is clearly cruel — but generally Hitler did not directly participate in or even witness what was happening in the concentration camps. He kept his distance from it. More discussion of such detached cruelty and distancing, with real-life examples, might be useful.
The reader does learn a great deal about the mundane details of Hitler’s health (including his ongoing problems with flatulence, which Dr. Redlich does not quite connect to his vegetarian diet), about the doctors who treated him, and about some of the medical practices still used in the 1940s (including leeches).
Dr. Redlich’s ultimate diagnosis of Hitler is one that few lay persons would recognize; it is part of the title. Hitler saw morality simplistically in black-and-white terms, he believed he’d been chosen by a higher power to do what he did (and was afraid he would not live long enough to accomplish it), and found a convenient scapegoat (the Jews) around whom to rally his followers. This is a cautionary tale that is especially relevant in today’s international political arena.
It’s important to note that Dr. Redlich’s effort could have been more condensed and focused. In addition, he is not a writer and fails to make what are necessary paragraph breaks to large chunks of text with multiple subjects (as does his editor).
Given how little is known of Hitler and how much of his own history he falsified, it would have been difficult to have produced a definitive work. Dr. Redlich honestly describes his personal reasons for writing Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, which ultimately is not a particularly significant contribution to the Hitler literature. Those who wish to try to understand every aspect of Hitler’s life (including his flatulence and bad teeth) or who wish to recognize political paranoia wherever it rages may find this a must-read.
7 November 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil by Ron Rosenbaum. Highly recommended.
Explaining Hitler is a misleading title, for the focus is primarily on the Jewish academic community’s attempts to explain Hitler — to put it in grossly oversimplified terms, this is somewhat like the prey explaining the motivations of the predator. The result is that, while Hitler remains a mystery, the academic and personal biases of the explainers are revealed. To each person’s theories and comments Rosenbaum adds his own analysis, finding the flaws with precision.
Hitler explanation ranges from the deeply personal (abusive father, infection by a Jewish prostitute, mother’s painful death under the care of a Jewish physician) to the inevitable influence of historical forces (post-war inflation, depression). Rosenbaum discusses the personal in depth, including Hitler’s rumored Jewish ancestor and bizarre relationship with his half-niece Geli Raubal, the convolutions each theory takes, and the lack of facts or reliable information to support any of them. For example, Rosenbaum astutely points out the only real “proof” of the abusive father is Hitler’s own assertion and sarcastically suggests that there is reason not to trust Hitler’s word. One argument that immediately comes to mind that Rosenbaum only briefly alludes to later is that millions of people have abusive fathers, bad experiences with individual members of ethnic and other groups, and so forth, yet do not turn into war criminals responsible for the deaths of millions. In short, these theories might explain Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but not the results.
What is disturbing about so many of these explanations (some of which are advocated by such noted people as Simon Wiesenthal, who favors the Jewish prostitute theory), and more sophisticated ones that appear later in the book, such as George Steiner’s, is their insistence that a Jew or a group of Jews is responsible. In these theories, a Jewish ancestor, a Jewish prostitute, an Eastern Jew with a different appearance, or the Jewish “blackmail of transcendence” and “addiction to the ideal” is responsible for Hitler — implying Hitler is not responsible at all. Although the egotistical and monomaniacal Claude Lanzmann, maker of the documentary Shoah, is too self-centered and angry to clearly articulate the basis for his belief that Hitler explanation is inherently “obscene,” it could be because so much “explanation” has found a way to point a finger at the Jews, directly or indirectly, while minimizing Hitler. Perhaps for that reason, Lanzmann is interested only in how the Holocaust was accomplished, not with the motivations of Hitler or his followers. The major flaw is that Lanzmann has missed the point by dictating that his rule of “There is no why” must apply to all other individuals — and the irony of that.
As Rosenbaum repeatedly points out, no explanations for Hitler are acceptable that excuse him — that look to a bad experience with a Jew rather than to, for example, the influence of anti-Semitism surrounding him in Austria and Germany. Again, however, it can be said that anti-Semitic influence has surrounded many people (as Rosenbaum notes, pre-war France was more anti-Semitic than either Austria or Germany) who have not killed, let alone killed millions.
Rosenbaum’s approach is excellent, pairing individuals with complementary or opposing viewpoints, e.g., Lanzmann and Dr. Micheels, the theologian Emil Fackenheim and the atheist historian Yehuda Bauer in “The Temptation to Blame God.” Even revisionist David Irving is given a chapter. Rosenbaum saves what seems to be his preference for the last chapter — Lucy Dawidowicz’s belief that Hitler decided on The Final Solution as early as 1918, based on what he said and did not say over time, and on the “laughter” that is transferred from the Jewish victims to the Nazi victors. While this does not explain the origins of Hitler’s evil, it pinpoints the time frame and removes the notion that he was ambivalent or experienced a sense of moral ambiguity. Dawidowicz’s Hitler knows early on what he wants to do and lets insiders in on the “joke” he finds it to be. Presented in this way, Dawidowicz does seem to have come closest to the truth about Hitler. After all, how can one capable of ambivalence ultimately kill millions?
To me, one critical question is not why or how any one man became evil or chose an evil course of action, for the explanation could simply be that the capacity for evil in an individual may be higher than most of us are capable of realising or accepting. That is, everyday evil like John Wayne Gacy’s is accomplished in isolation and is therefore limited in scope. The intent and the desired scope given opportunity remain unknowns. The more frightening question is why and how so many chose to follow Hitler. I do not necessarily mean the German people, per se, but the thousands of bureaucrats, managers, and soldiers who physically carried out The Final Solution, knowing exactly what this entailed and what it signified. Hitler seized the opportunity offered by the political and social situation to institutionalize his personal evil. A single man may envision and desire genocide, but it takes followers and believers to carry it out. Explaining Hitler (or Stalin or Genghis Khan) is not enough to explain the scope of this particular human evil. Without followers, there are no leaders. And without followers, millions of Jews (and Cambodians and Indians and so forth) could not have died. The evil that is so hard to face goes well beyond Hitler to a place that no one could truly wish to discover.
18 January 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age by Christopher Hibbert. Not recommended.
The adjective “Elizabethan” invokes a vision of an era of sumptuous dress, religious strife, European conflict, and the flourishing of the dramatic arts. The Virgin Queen is a study of the ruler for whom the time is named, and her rule, which lasted for an almost-unprecedented 45 years.
Hibbert takes a primarily episodic approach to Elizabeth’s life, from her birth as the unwanted daughter of Henry VIII and his second, ill-fated wife, Ann Boleyn. When Henry finally produces a legitimate male heir, Elizabeth is reduced from “princess” to “lady.” After her unpopular, Catholic half-sister Mary ascends to the throne and she is vaguely implicated in some plots against the new queen, Elizabeth is imprisoned despite her seeming subservience and her pleas of innocence, devotion, and loyalty.
Raised away from the court by hired nobility and taught by Cambridge scholars, Elizabeth appears to be both demure and autocratic. The important point is “appears,” because, while Elizabeth in her correspondence is deferential and in her appearance demure, her peers invariably see her as withdrawn, haughty, and “proud and disdainful” — traits that “much blemished the handsomeness and beauty of her person” (Sir William Sidney). Mary, not unjustifiably paranoid, does not believe in Elizabeth’s humility, honesty, or loyalty. Hibbert’s portrayal of Elizabeth, who craves the adoration of peers, councilors, and subjects alike, seems to support Mary’s assessment.
Elizabeth proves to be arrogant and autocratic, allowing no one to question either her or her rights as ruler. She is keenly aware of the importance of having the support of the populace, which she enjoys in contrast to the despised “Bloody Mary.” She ignores the advice of privy council, however, when it suits her, occasionally to the detriment of her popularity.
Hibbert does not explain why or how Elizabeth, kept out of the way during the reigns of her half-brother and half-sister, became so popular. This points to one of the flaws of Hibbert’s episodic approach; recounting Elizabeth’s life in terms of “Subjects and Suitors” (although not all of them), “Papists and Puritans,” “The Queen in her Privy Chamber,” “Traitors and Rebels” (again, not all of them), and so forth, veils or distorts much of the historical context of Elizabeth’s development and reign. Within one chapter, she may be young at one point and in late middle age at another. With England’s changing allegiances and relationships with France and Spain, it is difficult to track what is happening at a given time and why. Elizabeth’s most noted accomplishment, England’s defeat of the Spanish armada, is covered briefly and superficially, almost as an aside, leaving the reader with the impression that it was happenstance that no one, including Elizabeth or the privy council, had much to do with; it just happened, with little explanation.
The tale of Elizabeth’s suitors can be equally confusing. Hibbert describes her negotiations with Henry, Duke of Anjou (later Henry III of France), when he was 20 and, “in fact, twenty years younger than herself.” A few pages later, Hibbert discusses her negotiations with his younger brother Francis when Francis is “not yet nineteen” and she is 39, yet it appears that the talks with the older brother occurred first, which would make sense. Even more confusing, the negotiations with younger brother Francis continued until she was 45 (they would be the last hopes of getting her married).
Elizabeth’s treatment of religious conflict is glossed over. While Mary is noted for her brutal repression of Protestants, Elizabeth, at least in this biography, is a conservative Protestant who fears and loathes radicals of any kind, Protestant or Catholic. During her reign, repression is focused primarily on the rebellious poor; she is less interested in punishing the wealthy nobility than in grabbing their riches.
As portrayed by Hibbert, Elizabeth is a parsimonious, greedy, emotionally needy woman who wishes to rule absolutely but who cannot make a necessary, definitive decision, such as signing the death warrant for her conniving cousin, Mary Stuart. The privy council, led by Lord Burghley, the Earl of Leicester, and others, devote much of their efforts to manipulating this indecisive autocrat into decisions they want and to making sure that she cannot renege on them — an ironic situation for the woman who says to Burghley’s son, “Little man, little man, the word must is not to be used to princes.”
There are several weaknesses in addition to the episodic structure. For example, the queen herself is not quoted often enough in key areas, yet Hibbert devotes one-third of a page to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem speculating about how she might have felt during her confinement in the Tower of London.
Most notably, however, the book’s subtitle is never explained — neither why the era is “golden” nor why the queen was the “genius” of it. While the biography makes it clear that Elizabeth had a strong personality, as did her parents, the nation’s successes seem to have been the work of the privy council under the leadership of Lord Burghley and of adventurers like Sir Walter Ralegh. Elizabeth is not shown even to have played a role in, for example, nurturing the famed playwrights of the time, such as Shakespeare, Marlow, and Beaumont. The subtitle implies that Elizabeth’s brilliance inspired a benign, cultured age, while the text shows a woman so cold and petty that, when her best friend and seeming lover Leicester dies, she worries only about controlling his estates and monies, and so indecisive that her own privy councilors avoid working with her whenever possible. The age itself is brutal, with the crowd “disgusted by the spectacle” of a drawing and quartering performed, against tradition, while the victims are still alive.
At best, The Virgin Queen is a brief, superficial biography that leaves the reader hungry for more — more about Burghley, Leicester, Mary Stuart, and others, but not about Elizabeth herself, who somehow becomes a supporting player in her own biography.
13 March 2006
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf