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review 2018-06-22 16:35
A good assessment of a German statesman
Adenauer - Ronald Eckford Mill Irving

Twice in the last two centuries Germany was directed by an elderly man who exercised disproportionate control over their nation's development at a critical time in their history. The first was Otto von Bismarck, who created the German empire in 1871 and presided over its development for nearly two decades. The second was Konrad Adenauer, who became the first chancellor of postwar West Germany in 1949, guiding its transition in the postwar era from a collection of occupied territories through its postwar rehabilitation and subsequent emergence as a cornerstone of a more unified Europe. Much like Bismarck, Adenauer rose to power through unlikely circumstances, but unlike Bismarck he left behind him a governing system that proved more capable of enduring without him.

 

In writing a biography of Adenauer for Longman's "Profiles in Power" series, Ronald Irving faces the task of providing both an account of Adenauer's life and an examination of how he exercised his authority. This he succeeds in doing, providing an account that is understandably weighted towards analysis of his time as chancellor but still sets it within the details of Adenauer's long life. This balance is important to Irving's interpretation of Adenauer, whom he sees as a product of his early life as a Catholic Rhinelander in Wilhelmine Germany. By the time the Second Reich collapsed in 1918 Adenauer was already mayor of Cologne, an office he would occupy for the span of the Weimar Republic. Forced out of office by the Nazis, Adenauer returned to politics after the war determined to prevent a recurrence of the Third Reich by establishing a true representative democracy in Germany, first by creating a national conservative political party across confessional lines, then by serving as chancellor of West Germany for fourteen years.

 

Nearly three-quarters of Irving's book is spent on Adenauer's postwar career, giving him the opportunity to detail the scope of the chancellor's achievement. He is particularly good at explaining Adenauer's foreign policy — both the reestablishment of a sovereign Germany and his efforts towards greater European integration — and his role in West German politics. While some background on the context of Adenauer's times helps to fully benefit from the nuance of Irving's analysis, even people seeking an English-language introduction to Adenauer will find much to value in this short, insightful study.

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url 2018-06-06 15:44
Podcast #102 is up!
Kurt Eisner: A Modern Life - Albert Earle Gurganus

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Al Gurganus about his biography of the German journalist Kurt Eisner, who overthrew the Bavarian monarchy and served as its premier during the German Revolution. Enjoy!

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review 2018-06-03 16:51
The life of a journalist and statesman
Kurt Eisner: A Modern Life - Albert Earle Gurganus

Kurt Eisner lived a life that bracketed that of the Second Reich which he helped replace. Born into a family of military tailors to the Prussian court, love led him to abandon his scholarly studies for a career as a journalist. He soon emerged as a leading writer in the left-wing press, and after a brief term in prison for lèse-majesté be became editor of Vorwärts, the central organ of the left-wing Social Democratic Party, in 1898. Forced out seven years later in an ideological purge, he nevertheless remained a major columnist and critic until the outbreak of the First World War. Eisner's opposition to the war soon cost him his journalistic platform while his role in organizing a munition workers' strike led to another term. Witt the collapse of the German army in 1918, however, Eisner was released and in a matter of weeks spearheaded a peaceful revolt that overthrew the monarchy in Bavaria. Selected as prime minister, Eisner led Bavaria for three tumultuous months before his assassination in February 1919, the victim of a right-wing aristocrat.

Despite his prominence in Wilhelmine politics and his role in the German revolution Eisner has lacked a biography in English until now. Albert Gurganus has now filled this gap admirably with an account of Eisner's life that traces his professional career and the evolution of his ideas over the course of his life. The man who emerges from his pages is one committed to his beliefs regardless of expediency or cost, a commitment that was key to both his leadership in the German Revolution and in his political downfall on the eve of his assassination. It serves not just as a biography of an unjustly overlooked figure but a portrait of the political left in the Second Reich and a description of German politics during a pivotal period in the history of Europe.

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review 2018-05-24 01:56
Agricola and Germany
Agricola and Germany (Oxford World's Classics) - Anthony Richard Birley,Tacitus

Every one of Roman’s greatest historians began their writing career with some piece, for one such man it was a biography of his father-in-law and an ethnographic work about Germanic tribes.  Agricola and Germany are the first written works by Cornelius Tacitus, which are both the shortest and the only complete pieces that he wrote.

 

Tacitus’ first work was a biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who was the governor of Britain and the man who completed the conquest of the rest of the island before it was abandoned by the emperor Domitian after he recalled Agricola and most likely poisoned him.  The biography not only covered the life of Agricola but also was a history of the Roman conquest of Britain climaxed by the life of the piece’s hero.  While Agricola focused mostly one man’s career, Tacitus did give brief ethnographic descriptions of the tribes of Britain which was just a small precursor of his Germany.  This short work focused on all the Germanic tribes from the east bank of the Rhine to the shores of the North and Baltic Seas in the north to the Danube to the south and as far as rumor took them to the east.  Building upon the work of others and using some of the information he gathered while stationed near the border, Tacitus draws an image of various tribes comparing them to the Romans in unique turn of phrases that shows their barbarianism to Roman civilization but greater freedom compared to Tacitus’ imperial audience.

 

Though there are some issues with Tacitus’ writing, most of the issues I had with this book is with the decisions made in putting this Oxford World’s Classics edition together.  Namely it was the decision to put the Notes section after both pieces of writing.  Because of this, one had to have a figure or bookmark in either Agricola or Germany and another in the Notes section.  It became tiresome to go back and forth, which made keeping things straight hard to do and the main reason why I rate this book as low as I did.

 

Before the Annals and the Histories were written, Tacitus began his writing with a biography of his father-in-law and Roman’s northern barbarian neighbors.  These early works show the style that Tacitus would perfect for his history of the first century Caesars that dramatically changed the culture of Roman.

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review 2018-05-07 16:39
The horror of indifference
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil - Hannah Arendt

When I was in graduate school I read many books that shaped my understanding of historical events, but few did so as profoundly as Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men. By using a battalion of reservists as a case study, Browning showed the process by which men not motivated by ideology or hatred or careerism became participants, even enthusiastic ones, in the execution and deportation of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

Though Browning referenced the experiments undertaken by Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo to explain the psychology of their participation, it's also easy to see the germ of his argument in Hannah Arendt's famous book. For while he was a member of the Nazi Party and a member of its security apparatus, Arendt argues that Adolf Eichmann was less a committed anti-Semite than someone who craved the structure of being part of a larger organization that would give him purpose. Many people have taken this as something of an exoneration of what Eichmann did in his role organizing the deportation of Jewish people, yet this is a misreading of Arendt's analysis, as she makes it clear that Eichmann took pride in his accomplishments and she dismantles his efforts to hide behind the governmental hierarchy. What makes her book so powerful is the sense she conveys of Eichmann, who justified to himself the facilitation of the murder of millions as part of a greater enterprise of which he was proud to serve. Is it this sense of mission devoid of ideology which is at the heart of her assertion of Eichmann's banality.

In the decades since Arendt's book has been published some writers have criticized her for minimizing Eichmann's ideological devotion to Nazism. And while works such as Bettina Stangneth's Eichmann Before Jerusalem do offer important qualifications of Arendt's interpretation of her subject, her book remains essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the motivations of the men and women who carried out the murder of millions of people. For while racism was an undoubted motivation for some, for many others it was a matter of duty, an enjoyment of the power held, or simply a sense of going along with the group. In many ways that was far more horrifying than the anti-Semitism that sparked the Holocaust in the first place: the people who don't just do nothing in the face of evil, but who enable it with their indifferent participation.

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