Hitler: Ascent

HITLER: ASCENT, 1889 – 1939
By Volker Ullrich

Another biography of Hitler? And not just another, but another great big biography of Hitler?

Hitler: Ascent, which takes us from Hitler’s birth to his fiftieth birthday, runs nearly 1,000 pages and is only the first part of a two-volume set, a massiveness that recalls Ian Kershaw’s epic treatment of the same subject (Hubris and Nemesis).

But yes, another big biography is necessary, and for several reasons.

In the first place because the demand is there. Hitler has been one of the most studied figures in all of history, to the point where whole books have been written about the books that have been written about him, but interest remains higher than ever in the twenty-first century.

Second, while most of the story has been thoroughly researched and is well known, new information (not all of it reliable) keeps coming out in dribs and drabs, mostly in the form of diaries or letters located in archives. The complete diaries of Goebbels, for example, turned up after Kershaw had finished his work, and missing parts from the diaries of Himmler were only discovered earlier this year.

And finally another biography is necessary because Hitler is always with us, with every right-wing demagogue and tin-pot dictator who comes along inevitably made out by the media to be this reincarnation. There’s even something called Godwin’s law that says that the longer any online discussion goes on, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler. He’s inescapable.

Given Hitler’s continuing cultural presence it behooves us to have a fuller understanding of the man, one that explains the meaning behind the myth and places him in his appropriate context.

That context is complex, but Ullrich makes it accessible, judiciously balancing his analysis betwen the personal and the political. Difficult patches like the Nazi’s seizure of power, and how near-run a thing it was, are clearly described, while a sensible discussion is provided of what can be said about Hitler’s personality. In style and tone it is closer to the work of Joachim Fest than that of Kershaw, which shouldn’t come as too big a surprise given that both Fest and Ullrich come from a background in journalism whereas Kershaw is an academic. Ullrich, even in translation, is far easier to read than the precise but dull-as-dust Brit.

Ascent won’t be the last word, because there can never be a last word on Hitler. But this is an excellent bio — authoritative, up-to-date, and readable — that has given us a Hitler for our time.

Review first published in the Toronto Star September 25, 2016.

The Romanovs

The Romanovs
Simon Sebag Montefiore

The Russian ruling dynasty of the Romanovs (1613 – 1918) has always provided dramatic material for popular history. This really helps here, because Simon Sebag Montefiore, whatever his other virtues as a historian, is a dry, undramatic writer. He reminds me a bit of Ian Kershaw, an even duller and more exacting writer who is a bestseller because he writes about Nazis.

The Romanovs tries very hard to make its subject uninteresting. There’s little in the way of synthesis and far too much in the way of footnotes cataloguing secondary and tertiary figures. One would like to skip all of the many and involved footnotes, but they are in some cases integral to the main text, which even in at least one case refers back to them!

Despite these hundreds of not-so-tiny anchors, however, some of the excitement of the dynasty still comes through, especially given how much of the story being is filled with sex and cruelty. Then there is the drawn-out final act: the tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra, which makes up a quarter of the book despite Nicholas’s reign running for less than 25 years out of the Romanov’s grand total of just over 300. Seeing as this will likely be the most familiar part of the story for most readers, I’m not sure this much attention was necessary or advisable, but by the time I’d made it to this point I was relieved at the slower pace, which came like the cool down at the end of an exhausting workout.

Overall, however, I can’t say The Romanovs is a book that works particularly well either as either as a reference work or as old-fashioned narrative history. It falls somewhere in-between, which is where it’s likely going to sit on my shelves for a while.

Glass House

By Brian Alexander

Coming hard on the heels of the election of Donald Trump as president, it would be easy to see Glass House as a political book, an attempt to explain Trump’s improbable rise by taking as a case study the decline of an American industrial town.

This would be mistaken, as Brian Alexander has little to say about politics and, in any event, the narrative of the free-falling white working class taking a hard turn to the right is actually more complex than the media portrays it.

Instead, Glass House is a “state of America” book. Specifically, it is a tale of paradise lost: the end of the golden age of American capitalism and its decline into a cancer stage where nothing about the system (or The System, as it’s often rendered here) seems to work.

The pretty town of Lancaster, Ohio, home to the Anchor Hocking Glass Company, was profiled in Forbes Magazine in 1947, when it was made out to be “the epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system.” Today Anchor Hocking is a shadow of its former self and Lancaster has fallen on hard times, becoming, in the words of one resident, “a dead town . . . a dead little dying town.” The American dream of working hard and getting ahead is gone, the social contract “smashed into mean little shards by the slow-motion terrorism of pirate capitalism.”

Saying what happened isn’t as easy or as obvious as lining up the usual culprits of globalization, technology that makes workers redundant, and the crushing of unions (though all of these played a role). There are, however, clear villains. In answer to the question of what happened, one native Lancastrian responds that “corporate America happened.” Anchor Hocking went through a series of changes of ownership, the only point being to saddle it with debt and drain it of capital, what Alexander describes as “a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’” As jobs were lost and wages and benefits cut, what Lancaster was mainly left with in terms of employment were things that have to be handled locally, often through public services: health care, education, police and law enforcement.

But because a belief in how the system is supposed to work, the American ideology of private enterprise and personal responsibility, is so strong and so ingrained, there is a knee-jerk need to blame others. In particular this means outsiders: immigrants and the federal government. Resentment in turn set in motion a downward spiral, as “Lancaster stopped spending on itself.” Why bother, when there was no longer any belief in community or a common good? And so infrastructure, human and material, rotted while “Even as many condemned both federal and state government programs and government spending, they ignored the fact that their town owed many of the jobs it had to both.”

This is a familiar problem, and one we might expect to get worse. The public sector has become a lifeboat. This breeds envy and resentment among those being eaten alive in the private sector, and also creates a dangerous imbalance in the economy. The government, or unionized public sector, is increasingly seen as the only game in town for safe, secure, well-remunerated employment. In the long run, that’s not sustainable economically or politically.

The future looks grim. The old social contract is gone and there is nothing to take its place but cynical self-interest, resulting in a few big winners and many more desperate losers. Alexander describes the case of one young man as representative of the sense of growing alienation:

it wasn’t just the poor or the working class who felt disaffected, and it wasn’t just about money or income inequality. The whole culture had changed. Brian was from a middle-class family, but he didn’t believe in any institution or person in authority. He didn’t feel like he was a part of anything bigger than himself. Aside from his mother and his father, and his brother, Mike, he was alone.

Well, we might say, at least Brian has a family. Even that, however, is in the process of being eroded. But what will take its place? Nothing that looks like collective action, from any side of the political spectrum. Not even religion, which doesn’t seem to play much of a role in the various lives Alexander examines here.

Which only leaves drugs, and anger.

A book like Glass House works because Lancaster is a microcosm. Of course not every town is like Lancaster, but the essential cultural and indeed moral change that Alexander describes is the same everywhere and is having a similar effect. The city of glass is a mirror for all our woes.

Review first published online March 9, 2017.

Who Rules the World?

Who Rules the World?
Noam Chomsky

While the nation state is still the primary political actor on the world stage, the true rulers of the world are the institutions of the “masters of mankind,” an expression Chomsky borrows from Adam Smith to describe the commanding heights of corporate capital. The masters of mankind, in turn, rule the world in accordance with certain doctrines, which broadly fall under the category of neoliberalism, or class war waged by the rich on the poor.

Chomsky’s method here is consistent with the rest of his political writings, being mainly an exposé of the hypocrisy of America’s imperial ideology, of the sort disseminated by the mainstream media. It’s not new, but then we’re still being lied to.

Minds of Winter

By Ed O’Loughlin

When the wrecks of the expeditionary ships HMS Erebus and Terror, lost while searching for the Northwest Passage in the mid-nineteenth century, were finally discovered (in 2014 and 2016 respectively), it was an event that marked the final mapping of some of the most mysterious geography in the Canadian subconscious.

The fate of the Franklin expedition is one of this country’s founding cultural myths, its very mysteriousness adding to its historical resonance. At the end of Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter the two main characters – Nelson Nilsson and Fay Morgan – watch a news story about the discovery of the Erebus on a television in a bar in Inuvik. The bartender responds in a manner that goes a long way to summing up the novel’s theme: “So that’s the end of that,” he says bitterly. “HMS Erebus. They had to go and find her. They had to solve a perfectly good mystery.”

What makes a mystery “perfectly good” is its power to work upon our imaginations. The search for Franklin’s missing ships did more to map the Arctic than Franklin himself ever could have on his own, and the mystery of what happened to his expedition has been an abiding subject in Canadian arts and letters. If the history of exploration is the story of a shrinking world, Franklin’s expedition offered, in O’Loughlin’s formulation, “something magical, a hole in the map, an escape from dull causality.”

Nelson and Fay aren’t explorers but they are both detectives. Nelson is looking for his brother, who has disappeared. Fay is looking for information relating to her grandfather. The two investigations are connected by a mysterious object, a nineteenth-century chronometer thought to have been lost with Franklin. More broadly, both are engaged in a “search for meaning,” a way of making sense out of the siren call of the north. But their researches only turn up “fragments, or footnotes, of some vision shimmering beyond their sight.” They may be chasing a myth as much as a mystery, the sort of thing Pierre Berton meant when he called his book on Arctic exploration The Arctic Grail (a work that O’Loughlin credits as his own chief research source).

The narrative structure is likened to that of the chronometer. As Fay continues her investigations she has “a vision of clockwork, of wheels within wheels, the hint of bigger wheels lurking behind them.” We skip forward and back in time, meeting figures famous and unknown, many of whom turn out to be related in eerie ways, their “stories converging at the poles, like meridians.” As with most modern novels dealing with such arcane connections there is also the hint of a conspiracy behind it all, with government agents, coded messages, secret devices, and obscure references to a Room 38.

The scope is truly epic, taking us literally from pole to pole and covering 175 years of history. Time present follows the investigations of Nelson and Fay, but the chapters take us back to earlier events involving people like old Sir John Franklin himself, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (another famous disappearing act), and the Mad Trapper of Rat River (whose identity remains to this day a point of speculation). The story also takes different narrative forms, ranging from newspaper reports to letters to a more conventional third-person.

There’s nothing unorthodox about any of this, though it’s certainly ambitious. Nor does O’Loughlin experiment much in the way of style, beyond presenting a story supposedly written by Jack London and taken from his unfinished memoir that’s done in a credible imitation of London’s voice. Instead of stylistic pyrotechnics there’s an economy of language and grounding in physical detail, casting a cold eye on the spare, climatically-determined human environment and making us feel the kidney-clamping cold and lungs lacerated by the “razor-blade air.” The title comes from the Wallace Stevens poem “The Snow Man” and there is a general sense built up throughout of his listener who beholds the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Emptiness, absence, and mystery are pregnant with meaning.

O’Loughlin may present us with a mystery, or really several mysteries, without a solution, but closure is not the goal. In fact, closure is something to be avoided. The point is not to tie up the loose ends. It’s fitting that Nelson and Fay, both “prisoners of the north” in Pierre Berton’s phrase, are finally absorbed into the story, their identities dissolving as they themselves become mysterious footnotes in a new legend, conspiracy, or myth. Minds of Winter is a novel as much interested in unofficial as official histories, with people who slip through the cracks as in heroes. And it doesn’t want to ruin a perfectly good mystery.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, January 2017.

Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation and They Would Never Hurt a Fly

By Laura Silber and Allan Little

By Slavenka Drakulić

Democratic politics tend to have an authoritarian tug to them. The “people” do not clamour for liberal values. As has often been remarked, nobody ever ran for office on a platform of being soft on crime. We want leaders who talk tough and exude power. People who kick ass and take names. Even if the ass they kick may be our own.

This was something brought home to me while observing the campaign of Donald Trump for president. Watching coverage of his rallies, I couldn’t help noticing how it was the chants of the crowds that were egging him on to make his most outrageous statements. An insecure person, he responded to such encouragement every time, which only made him seem more a creature of the crowd than their master. We like to think of the demagogue as someone adept at whipping the masses into a frenzy, but more often than not they are something simpler: figures tossed up by the crowd and made the emblem of a radicalized general will.

You’d think it would be hard to find a more unprepossessing demagogue than Donald Trump, a television personality whose candidacy was seen as a joke by most observers. Without intelligence, experience, or charisma, few gave him much of a chance. However, he (or his managers) had his finger on the pulse of what was bothering people and was so able to ride their resentment into the highest office in the land. I don’t think anyone was as surprised as he was at this turn of events. In the words of Sidney Blumenthal, “Winning the presidency was never [his] deep desire, more a branding scheme that spun out of control.”

Such a phenomenon was not without precedent. Thirty years earlier, a similarly uninspiring candidate, Slobodan Milošević, had come to power in Yugoslavia, carried on a rising tide of nationalism. Milošević didn’t invent Serbian nationalism, and indeed the ferocity of his supporters seems to have taken him by surprise. In their excellent, journalistic account of the Yugoslavian disaster, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, Laura Silber and Allan Little paint a picture of a weak man who did not control events but was controlled by them. Opportunistic, to be sure, but something even less than that word implies. Recalling the first steps of Milošević’s rise to power, then Serbian president Ivan Stambolić describes his response to a rally of Kosovo Serbs in 1987:

After hours of heated talks, the Kosovo Serbs agreed to leave Belgrade. But the crowd had delivered an unmistakeable message – the sheer power of their numbers could easily disrupt daily life.

Milošević understood what it meant. For the first time he saw that an angry crowd could unsettle the Yugoslav leadership. He turned to Stambolić and said: “The fatherland is under threat.” Stambolić was astounded and asked what the matter was. He saw that Milošević was shaking. It struck Stambolić as a decisive alarming moment. “And that’s how it all began. The nationalism ran into his embrace. They grabbed him. He didn’t really enjoy it very much. But he knew it was politically very profitable.”

Throughout these early days Silber and Little describe how Milošević “felt the pull of the masses” and responded to it, rather than the other way around. In many ways Milošević was simply the mouthpiece for a growing sense of disaffection and resentment among a population that felt itself left behind. He understood their anger at being globalism’s losers. Faced with the secession of more successful states like Slovenia and Croatia his rhetoric had to fall back on the last refuge/threat of militarism. “If we have to fight, we’ll fight. I hope they won’t be so crazy as to fight against us. Because if we don’t know how to work and do business, at least we know how to fight.”

And so, as with the accidental President Trump, “things spun out of control.”

Later, after a descent into total barbarism, a peace was hammered out. Silber and Little see only gloomy lessons having been learned. The death of Yugoslavia “demonstrated that might, rather than reason, brought rewards; and it showed that the carving out of ethnically pure territorial units produced neater maps on which to build a peace settlement.” In order to salve their conscience, the West put some of the worst bad actors on trial for war crimes.

This is the story Slavenka Drakulić tells in They Would Never Hurt a Fly. The star of the show, “one of the biggest villains of the twentieth century,” is, of course, Milošević. But who is he? Drakulić admits she doesn’t know. He is an actor, he “needs a public.” It was the public, after all – the crowds, the masses – who made him. As a result, “It is almost as if this man has no other personality than his public one.”

There is nothing interesting about him as a private person, period. The transcripts [of private conversations taped by Croatian secret police between 1995 and 1998], like the biographies, reveal what there is to reveal about this man: banality, vulgarity, and emptiness. There is no elegance or grandeur about him, not a single interesting thought, nothing to inspire curiosity. All in all, Milošević appears to be just a boring character surrounded by corrupt children and a wife thirsty for power. In history, he may have played a gigantic role, the role of a villain, but he appears to be a dwarf. A small, angry, autistic man.

No, people like Milošević, or Donald Trump, are not great men. They are banal, vulgar, hollow men who only amplify the anger of the masses. This suggests at least one way of responding to the familiar questions that Drakulić poses at the end of her account of the trials:

My biggest disappointment was finding that [Borislav Herak, sentenced to death for rape and mass murder] was a man who looked like any other man: a neighbor, a relative, or even a friend. I looked for any evidence that he was different – in short, that he was a monster. And I was not the only person looking for such signs in war criminals. Many have done the same.

Does some personality flaw – or a specific type of character – cause human cruelty? Is there in every community a certain percentage of people who have the pathology to commit the worst crimes if given the chance? Or do they commit crimes only under social and psychological pressure? These questions are not new.

Obviously evil people exist, but in the case of many of Yugoslavia’s war criminals what we’re seeing may only be representatives (literally, in the case of the democratically-elected leaders) of a popular malaise. In other words, this is less the case of “criminal personalities” than a criminal society. As Drakulić puts it, “Perhaps what had changed [in Yugoslavia] was not the person, but the circumstances. There was no longer peace; now there was war”:

there must have been many such “criminal personalities” around to be able to rape tens of thousands of women and to kill more than two hundred thousand people during the war. There would have had to be thousands upon thousands of men committing such acts. Were the majority of them criminal personalities? This is hard to believe. More likely, the war itself turned ordinary men – a driver, a waiter, and a salesman . . . – into criminals because of opportunism, fear, and not least, belief. Hundreds of thousands had to have believed that they were right in what they were doing. Otherwise, such large numbers of rapes and murders simply cannot be explained – and this is even scarier.

I’m not sure this is scarier though. What’s worse: that there may be thousands of murderous psychopaths among us straining at the leash of civil society, or that the general will itself has such apocalyptic desires? It seems to me it would be easier to blame the monsters than ourselves.

Review first published online February 13, 2017.

Three Years with the Rat

By Jay Hosking

Jay Hosking has an interesting CV for a novelist, with both a Ph.D. in neuroscience and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Given this hybrid background it’s not surprising that his debut novel, Three Years with the Rat, is a work with one foot in the world of science fiction.

The narrator is a young man newly arrived in Toronto, the city where his eccentric-scientist sister Grace lives with her boyfriend John. He soon hooks up with one of Grace’s girlfriends and generally settles into a life of going nowhere. Grace and John, however, are going somewhere. It’s just not clear where they’re going, or where they’ve gone after they disappear.

The “three years” are 2006 to 2008, though there are few identifiable historical markers and one of the novel’s themes is the plasticity of time. The narrative skips back and forth as both Grace and John exit the novel’s presentation of “objective” time by way of a magic box. Grace’s brother, along with a lab rat named Buddy, then try to track them down.

I say “magic box” because the device in question isn’t very persuasive even as a facsimile of high tech. Basically an IKEA-style wooden cube filled with fitted interior mirrors, it’s more like a magician’s cabinet or piece of installation art. Buddy the rat even goes in and out of it like a rabbit being pulled from a hat.

This all makes a kind of sense, however, as Grace’s inquiries are more philosophical than scientific in nature. Indeed the nature of science itself is one of the subjects up for debate. Is science about building understanding, or discovering truth? Either way, exactly what Grace is up to, and what alternate dimension lies on the other side when we go through the looking-glass, seems open to interpretation. We are told by one authority that it is beyond human comprehension, which should be warning enough not to worry about it too much.

Though this much of Three Years with the Rat is a puzzle without a solution, it’s still a skilfully developed novel that catches the imagination. A big reason for this is that the focus remains on people who are all the more interesting for not being very likeable. The main characters stand just outside another small circle of club-hopping friends, with Grace in particular alienating nearly everyone. Even on the Other Side no one seems to care for her much.

There is probably a message here, relating to the need to pull our heads out of ourselves (or the danger of withdrawing into a sense of “subjective time”) and how difficult it is for any of us to escape our past (personified as a hunter tracking us through the multiverse). But more than this it is the novel’s juxtaposition of clashing wills and personalities as much as clashing philosophies that makes it shiver with life.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2016.