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.

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

Glass House

GLASS HOUSE: THE 1% ECONOMY AND THE SHATTERING OF THE ALL-AMERICAN TOWN
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.

Notes:
Review first published online March 9, 2017.

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

YUGOSLAVIA: DEATH OF A NATION
By Laura Silber and Allan Little

THEY WOULD NEVER HURT A FLY: WAR CRIMINALS ON TRIAL IN THE HAGUE
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.

Notes:
Review first published online February 13, 2017.

The Man Without a Face

THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE: THE UNLIKELY RISE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN
By Masha Gessen

In a 2013 review of the book Strange Rebels by Christian Caryl, David Runciman had this to say about the author’s line-up of the four people who changed the world in 1979:

If you had told someone at the start of 1975 that the architects of the new age were going to be the MP for Finchley, the bishop of Krakow, the exiled ayatollah and the ostracised apparatchik, you would have been laughed at. Apart from anything, they looked so powerless. So we shouldn’t be surprised if we can’t yet spot who is going to make the difference this time round.

I was reminded of this in reading Masha Gessen’s account of the “unlikely rise” of Vladimir Putin. Five years before taking power as Russian president Putin was a little-known functionary in the government of Saint Petersburg. Five years before that he’d been a typical KGB loser stationed in East Germany. Like the Soviet Union itself, he seemed to be stuck in a rut going nowhere.

What happened?

That’s a hard question to answer, as much of Putin’s early political career is shrouded in mystery. The final step, however, his selection (one can’t say election) as president, seems to have been the result of the decisions of a group of people who underestimated him. He was seen as someone blank and dutiful: the perfect placeholder to manage the affairs of the new elite. He had other plans.

People don’t underestimate Putin as much these days, though he is still not well understood. In this account we can glean a few points. He hates democracy. He is very cynical about the media, seeing it either as a lying enemy or as a tool to be used to control the masses. He is greedy for the most vulgar material things. He likes to power trip. He is intelligent, but conceals it well behind a surprising vulgarity. Donald Trump, in his campaign for president, would express his admiration for Putin’s strength as a leader, but he probably recognized more familiar qualities as well. As Gessen concludes:

What had I learned? That the person I had described in this book – shallow, self-involved, not terribly perceptive, and apparently very poorly informed – was indeed the person running Russia, to the extent Russia was being run.

It’s hard not to draw the comparison. If you had told someone only a year before the American election that the next president would be the much-mocked billionaire host of a reality TV program you would have been laughed at. And yet, here we are.

Notes:
Review first published online January 30, 2017.

Strike Anywhere

STRIKE ANYWHERE: ESSAYS, REVIEWS AND OTHER ARSONS
By Michael Lista

It’s a shame that so much of the little discussion of book reviewing we have in this country gets hung up on the label of whether it should or shouldn’t be “negative.”

The charge of negativity is a hard one to shake. In popular culture the bias toward liking things is deeply ingrained. One thinks, for example, of the long struggle to have Facebook include a “dislike” button (because what sort of a terrible person would dislike something?). We shouldn’t be surprised that the default position for book reviewing is relentlessly and strictly upbeat, and that any contrary opinion is going to stand out.

As the title of this lively collection of literary essays and reviews, mostly on Canadian poets and poetry, indicates, Michael Lista isn’t afraid to group himself in with the bomb-throwers and arsonists, but to limit his critical outlook to any one label is misleading. Lista isn’t a “negative” critic so much as a passionate one, enthusiastic in both his likes and dislikes.

This is essential, since book reviews and most literary essays are by their nature ephemeral and it’s only their passion, personality, and intelligence that makes the best of them worth re-visiting. Lista’s writing has all of these qualities, delivered in a confident, categorical voice that speaks in absolutes but which never comes across as pompous or affected. Instead, his observations are grounded in earthy, humorous language and anecdotes (his trip to the Dante house museum in Florence being a good example). If there’s a fault it’s that the pieces here are so short we never get to see Lista show what he can do beyond quick takes.

A book like this also raises a pair of questions about literary criticism in Canada today that are worth pondering.

In the first place: why is poetry criticism in particular so active? In the last few years there have been a whole shelf of excellent collections of essays on contemporary Canadian poetry published, but next to nothing addressing the state of our fiction. Why is that?

Second: why is popular literary criticism, the kind addressed to the general reader, being written almost exclusively by freelancers or columnists like Lista? None of the best books of literary essays and reviews written in the last several years has been by an academic. Where are the professionals?

Whatever the answer to these questions, we can at least be happy that the flame of criticism is being kept alive, and likely to strike anywhere.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 21, 2016.

The View from the Cheap Seats

THE VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS
By Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is a prolific author whose interests run to just about everything. He has written journalism and criticism, comics and graphic novels, science fiction, fantasy and horror, children’s books, and screenplays.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a selection of Gaiman’s non-fiction that puts this eclecticism on full display. Included here are essays, public lectures, interviews, forewords and afterwords, introductions and even reportage from the refugee crisis in Syria. The subjects dealt with range from appreciations of individual novelists (classic and contemporary, from Poe and Lovecraft to Douglas Adams and Stephen King), to thoughts on genre fiction, movies, music, and more.

The tone is gentle and genial throughout. Most of these pieces are explanations of why Gaiman likes someone or something so much. So The 13 Clocks by James Thurber “is probably the best book in the world,” The Bride of Frankenstein is “my favorite horror film,” and “Where Lou Reed is concerned I lose all critical faculties. I like pretty much everything he’s ever done.”

There are slack moments. It’s a big book and the praise sometimes slides into banality or hyperbole. A few of the more frankly promotional pieces might have been cut.

The core of it, however, offers up a thoughtful consideration of the writing life and an earnest and practical guide on how to live it. Gaiman keeps coming back to the question of what writing is for, and as he goes along he provides a lot of helpful tips – often by way of concrete examples – on how to “make good art.” This is what matters.

The title, which comes from Gaiman’s account of attending the Academy Awards in 2010, points to a nice dual perspective. Sitting in the mezzanine at the Oscars Gaiman is a wry observer of the proceedings, but he’s also gathering material. These are roles he often plays in these essays: performer and audience member, the fan and the man at the podium saying a few words. In either role, however, he is a writer at work, and loving what he does.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star June 11, 2016.

Napoleon

NAPOLEON
By Paul Johnson

The format of the “brief life” invites simplification, and with it overstatement and error. Paul Johnson begins this condensed biography of Napoleon Bonaparte by remarking that the French Revolution was an “accident” “because the example of Britain and the Scandinavian countries showed that all the desirable reforms that the French radicals brought about by force and blood could have been achieved by peaceful means.” This is a crazy assertion, if only because there is no historical parallel between what happened in Britain, over hundreds of years and in a very different context, and what happened in France during the Revolution. Nor is there any grounds for Johnson’s “what-if” speculation that if Napoleon hadn’t sold Louisiana, for a song, to the United States he might have built an empire of French liberty in America. France couldn’t even settle Quebec, so they certainly weren’t going to build a new nation west of the Mississippi.

Later, in the same paragraph (and we’re still in the Introduction) Johnson goes on to say that “It does not seem to have occurred to him [Napoleon] to study the example of his older contemporary George Washington, who translated military victory into civil progress and renounced the rule of force in favor of the rule of law.” Again, this is to draw a comparison to two vastly different historical contexts, and in the end doesn’t really tell us much aside from the fact that Washington and Napoleon were working towards very different ends, with very different routes available to them for achieving their goals. As Robespierre had put it, “America’s example, as an argument for our success, is worthless, because the circumstances are different.”

Finally (we haven’t left the Introduction yet) we are told that France’s “inevitable” “slip from her position as the leading power in Europe to second-class status . . . was Bonaparte’s true legacy to the country he adopted.” While admittedly the Napoleonic era was France’s last turn at dominating Europe, to say that its subsequent decline was Naploeon’s doing is hard to credit. One can think of other factors that may have played a part. Was German unification under Bismarck Napoleon’s legacy Napoleon’s fault? Well, some of his harsher critics have said as much. But the rise of the United States? The First World War? Indochina and Algeria? The Cold War? At one point can we let Napoleon off the hook?

Just from these few examples you will be able to tell that in the endless debate among historians between the Good and Bad Napoleon, Johnson is going the latter way. In this he follows Alan Schom, the Napoleon biographer he is most temperamentally akin to (but who doesn’t get a mention in the list of Further Reading). What the Bad Napoleon usually means, and what it means here, is drawing a line between Napoleon’s example and the horrors of more recent history. In short, that the state he invented and dominated was “the prototype of totalitarianism in its twentieth-century manifestations.” The Revolution that Napoleon embodied “created the modern totalitarian state, in all essentials, if on an experimental basis, more than a century before it came to its full and horrible fruition in the twentieth century.”

Did Napoleon have his contemporary apologists, even worshipers? Certainly, but there have always been such useful idiots:

In the twentieth century, this infatuation was to occur time and again: George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice and Sidney Webb falling for the Staline image, Norman Mailer and others hero-worshiping Fidel Castro, and an entire generation, including many Frenchmen such as Jean-Paul Sartre, praising the Mao Zedong regime, under which sixty million Chinese perished by famine or in the camps. Similarly, the cult of Bonaparte was originally wide, but it did not last.

That final point may be chalked up to wishful thinking on Johnson’s part. Napoleon still has many admirers, and indeed the Bad Napoleon, at least of this black a stripe, is probably the minority view among historians. The thing is, most historians know that few people are all bad, and when penning a hatchet job on a political leader it’s always worth remembering that there must have been some qualities that propelled them to eminence in the first place. This is a problem Ian Kershaw had in his biography of Hitler, where he was left throwing his hands up at how such a man without qualities or “empty shell,” in his analysis, had risen to power. A more extreme example can be seen in Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. As I said at the end of my review of that book:

At the end of the day it’s hard to believe that someone so unlikable, uncharismatic, lazy, dull, and flat-out inept as Chang’s Mao could have achieved what he did. Chang and Halliday would respond that he was totally ruthless (his “most formidable weapon was pitilessness”), opportunistic, and had a lot of help (from Chiang Kai-Shek, the Russians, and even the U.S.). No doubt all this was true, but there is still something missing. The Mao we see here is unpleasant in every way: a lecherous skirt-chaser, a paranoid, a dirty old man (he never bathed) with rotten black teeth, a sleeping-pill addict, a petty and vindictive sadist, a literary dilettante and philistine, a thorough cynic and hypocrite, a military bungler, a foul-mouthed pseudo-intellectual, but never any kind of leader. The Unknown Story is not the whole story – making it a necessary biography, but incomplete.

How much more important is a fuller portrait in the case of a figure like Napoleon, who was a genuinely popular leader?

Of course a biography of Napoleon that comes in under 200 pages is always going to be incomplete. In this case, however, it is also unnecessary because it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s a good read, but should be taken as more of a conservative essay on its subject than a life.

Notes:
Review first published online October 10, 2016.