Russia: Revolution and Civil War

Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917 – 1921
Antony Beevor

Instead of revisiting more familiar battlefields, in his new book Antony Beevor looks at one of the most important, destructive, and least well known conflicts of the twentieth century, the Russian Civil War. Often seen in the West as just a coda to the First World War, the fighting in Russia drew in armies from all over the world (including Canada) to finally settle the outcome of the Russian Revolution.

The action is very hard to keep straight, with numerous armies led by an odd assortment of generals moving about a vast landscape. This confusion, in turn, was one of the main reasons the Bolsheviks emerged triumphant, as the motley alliance against them had trouble pulling in the same direction. Beevor does a great job though using biographical sketchwork and telling anecdotes to pull things into a coherent narrative that makes sense of the brutal and chaotic origins of Russia’s great tragedy.

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Lifesavers and Body Snatchers

Lifesavers and Body Snatchers: Medical Care and the Struggle for Survival in the Great War
Tim Cook

Given the number of books already published on the First World War, especially after its various centenaries were commemorated from 2014 to 2018, you might figure that there wasn’t much more to say. In particular, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tim Cook, who has already written so extensively on the subject, would have much to add about the Canadian experience.

Remarkably, with Lifesavers and Body Snatchers he has.

In this book the focus is on the Canadian Medical Corps, which provides a different perspective on the sorts of damage done, the fallout from bullets and gas, artillery and shell shock. But the background is also well developed, and especially the often bitter political infighting.

Cook has an unrivaled mastery of the archival sources and reveals here for the first time the program of harvesting body parts from fallen soldiers for medical study, without the knowledge or consent of the soldiers and their loved ones. “This was not grave robbing in the deep of night, but an open act of forcing dead soldiers to once again serve their country: having fallen in combat they were now to contribute to victories in future medical battles.”

The King Is Dead

The King Is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII
Suzannah Lipscomb

Suzannah Lipscomb’s little book doesn’t aim to be much more than a footnote in the family history of the despicable Tudors, but it’s still a treat. Among historians there’s long been a suspicion that the will of Henry VIII was tampered with in some way, but Lipscomb looks at the evidence and sees no grounds for believing in a conspiracy. In the family power politics of the time it was pretty clear even to court observers at the time that the Seymours were going to be in and the Howards out after Henry died.

Nor was it all that surprising where Henry’s succession plans went awry. Could anything have been more predictable than Edward Seymour attempting to take over as Lord Protector and set himself up as de facto king? Given the nature of politics in the sixteenth century I don’t think it likely that conciliar rule was going to work.

Did Henry think it would? Power does that to people. “What is most striking,” Lipscomb concludes, “is the disjunction between [Henry’s] professed belief that he would be obeyed and loved – that even after death, he would leave a forceful imprint on his closest companions – and the reality that they so quickly, and thoroughly, shrugged him off.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the will became wastepaper though. It was invoked successfully by Mary against Lady Jane Grey, and the only reason the Stuarts eventually came to power was because of the surprising barrenness of Henry’s direct line. Instead, like all such attempts to map the future – think of the money laid aside for prayers to be said for Henry’s soul, or modern naming rights to sports stadiums – it had a diminishing shelf life.

Liberalism and Its Discontents

Liberalism and Its Discontents
Francis Fukuyama

I don’t think Francis Fukuyama is saying anything new in this little book, but what he does say is representative of a lot of mainstream elite thinking on the subject in ways that are worth taking note of.

A believer in classical liberalism, Fukuyama sees it as threatened on two fronts: from the Right by neoliberalism and libertarianism, which leads to gross inequality, and from the Left by the woke revolution and identity politics, which leads to social breakdown. Pulled to the Right the result is nationalist oligarchy or fascism, to the Left there is anarchy.

While I don’t like either extreme, I have trouble understanding the equivalence made between the different threats. Neoliberalism has been the dominant political and economic ideology, worldwide, for going on fifty years. And on the other hand we have the mobocracy of cancel culture, campus free speech drama, and Drag Queen Story Hour? The excesses of the Right and the collapse of democracies into illiberal authoritarianism continues apace, even while, as Fukuyama admits, “It does not appear at this moment that anything like the full progressive agenda is likely to be realized” in the U.S. or anywhere else.

This sort of both-sidesism is a kind of propaganda, with socialism and wokeism invoked as bogeymen by the Right to justify ever more extreme, reactionary policies. But there is no equivalence. The Right poses a very real threat to liberalism, democracy, and the rule of law, while the Left raises the spectre of culture wars that mostly exercise people in the media and universities. Fukuyama may sincerely believe that it is the undermining of “modes of cognition” and speech that is the most acute threat to liberalism today, but that’s only because he’s an academic.

The sins of the Right are grounded in vicious selfishness, those of the Left in cynical hypocrisy. The latter is despicable, and far from even being the debt vice pays to virtue, but it’s not as great a present danger.

Prisoners of the Castle

Prisoners of the Castle
Ben Macintyre

As well as being a chronicle of horrors, the Second World War also provided many thrilling stories of heroism and adventure, not all of them taking place on the battlefield. Ben Macintyre, perhaps best known as the author of Operation Mincemeat, revisits one of the most famous of these in this history of Colditz Prison, a converted castle which was used during the war to hold captured allied officers who had proven to be high risk.

Of course, every prison story is an escape-from-prison story, and Prisoners of the Castle is no exception, as breaking out of the castle became a sort of high-stakes game fought not only between prisoners and guards but between different national teams of inmates. Tunnels were dug, papers forged, uniforms made, and there was even an attempt at building a glider (that might have actually worked!).

Much has already been written about escaping Colditz, and it’s also been the inspiration for movies and a television series. Macintyre tells the story well though, and lets us marvel again at all the ingenuity and resourcefulness on display.

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock

The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock
Edward White

Alfred Hitchcock has long been a favourite subject for biographers, and I’ve even reviewed a couple of the more recent ones by Patrick McGilligan and Peter Ackroyd. But there’s always room for another, so . . .

The attraction comes from Hitchcock’s cultural impact and the air of mystery that he both cultivated and came by naturally. Personal contradictions are fertile ground for biographers, and Hitchcock had plenty. Was he a man of deep faith, or no faith at all? Was he asexual (“Hitch . . . without the cock”), lustful, or gay? Was he auteur (that is, an artist, a label he rejected) or entertainer? Even in terms of Hitchcock’s working style we can get into arguments. Did he really storyboard every shot in each of his movies, so that he could just snooze through the actual filming? Was that how he worked, or was it just a myth fed to the media? It all depends on whose anecdotes you value more.

There’s evidence pointing in every direction, and Edward White looks at a lot of it in chapters that present twelve different ways of looking at the Master. He doesn’t resolve the contradictions, but then nobody else has and I think it’s safe to say that no one ever will. What he presents instead is a range of entry points that deepen our understanding and appreciation of Hitchcock’s life and work in a fresh way.

Did Jesus Exist?

Did Jesus Exist?
Bart Ehrman

The evidence for the actual existence of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t overwhelming or incontrovertible, though all things considered it’s pretty good. I’m not a religious person myself, but it seems to me almost certain that Jesus was a real person who lived and died at the beginning of the first century CE. And indeed this is a point that has never been much in question. As Bart Ehrman writes, “Every single source that mentions Jesus up until the eighteenth century assumed that he actually existed.” But then some fringe characters began suggesting Jesus might have been made up, a point of view adopted, for various not always complementary reasons, by today’s “mythicists.”

In this timely book Ehrman puts forward the case for believing in Jesus the man (his status as divinity or son of God lying outside the remit of a historian). I say timely because in the twenty-first century the mythicists have been enjoying a resurgence, largely online. While admitting that their position “is interesting historically and phenomenologically, as part of a wider skepticism that has infiltrated parts of the thinking world . . . that deserves a clearheaded sociological analysis in its own right,” this is another direction Ehrman avoids going in. I think that’s probably wise, but it’s still something readers will find hard not to speculate on.

What is there about our own post-truth, Internet-sourced, anti-expertise knowledge ecosystem that leads to the flourishing of so many crank theories? As I began by noting, the proof of Jesus’s existence isn’t so great that it’s irrefutable, and I even found myself resisting some of the points Ehrman makes here. So I get being skeptical of the traditional story. What I don’t understand is why the mythicists believe what they believe. The road of doubt doesn’t necessarily lead to the house of conspiracy. Or at least it shouldn’t.

Chronicles of a Liquid Society

Chronicles of a Liquid Society
Umberto Eco

I’m not being disparaging in saying that this collection of columns by Umberto Eco made me think of the late intellectual as a blogger. He had no remit from the weekly magazine L’Espresso aside from writing on whatever came into his head, so the resulting articles “are by definition an expression of my personal interests, curiosity, and preferences.” These range widely – from religion, race, and technology to comic books – and the essays have a tendency to be more provocative and stimulating than profound, but then Eco’s subject matter is the flotsam and jetsam of a liquid society.

Liquid because it has lost a sense of moral cohesion, social homogeneity, and intellectual guideposts. Postmodernism’s rejection of grand narratives is said to have initiated this breakdown, but I’ve never believed in this critical mythology, which strikes me as only academic dilettantism. Grand narratives have never gone out of style, and in fact are probably more important and influential today than ever.

I’m not even sure Eco would disagree with this, as the pieces here feel less like someone testing the waters and more like mineral samples chipped from the rock-face of our dominant contemporary ideologies. Which makes them all the more worth reflecting on, as our culture continues not to dissolve but to petrify.

On Fascism

On Fascism: Lessons from American History
Matthew C. MacWilliams

Fascism is a label that gets thrown around a lot, and while that has diminished some of its impact I think it still has some usefulness. For Matthew MacWilliams it basically means an authoritarian form of government brought about by a demagogue’s manipulation of the electorate’s fear. This fear is, in turn, directed toward a mostly racialized “other.” In the U.S. this means Native Americans, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Muslims, and any other readily identifiable groups.

MacWilliams draws on various recent polls on America’s authoritarian attitudes and concludes that his country is today facing a real threat to its ideals, particularly in relation to democracy and the rule of law. He provides a quick survey of some of the most significant lowlights of American history, but there’s little deep or connecting analysis showing how these ideas work together to constitute a clear and present danger.

“Broadsword Calling Danny Boy”

“Broadsword Calling Danny Boy”: Watching Where Eagles Dare
Geoff Dyer

Recent years have seen an explosion of monographs on famous (and some not-so-famous) movies, from standalones like Noah Isenberg on Casablanca, Sam Staggs on Sunset Boulevard, Sam Wasson on Chinatown, and W. K. Stratton on The Wild Bunch (these are all on the shelf beside me now) to whole series like the BFI and Soft Skull’s Deep Focus companions. “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy” is a bit like one of these, and may also mark the mid-point of a trilogy of film books by Geoff Dyer, beginning with Zona (on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris) and with the possibility of a follow-up appreciation of John Boorman’s Point Blank teased at the end of this one.

I say this book is like the other books I mentioned, but it’s something quite a bit lighter: nothing scholarly about it but rather just a breezy running commentary on Where Eagles Dare, a 1968 WW2 action film that has gone on to achieve minor cult status, I think mainly for the sense of nostalgia it evokes among men of a certain age. I don’t think Dyer did much if any research into the film, instead choosing to get by with lots of smart talk and breathless run-on sentences. It’s a quick read – quicker than the movie even – and a lot of fun, but don’t be looking to get more out of it than you would re-watching Where Eagles Dare on late-night TV while half-awake. In addition to being irreverent (was Eastwood’s Lieutenant Schaffer fellating Richard Burton in the back of that sedan?) Dyer is also a deeply personal, impressionistic critic and frankly describes the book as yet another chapter in his autobiography. I thought that a welcome change of pace, but if you don’t care for such an approach you might want to take it as a warning.