The Confederacy & Nazi Germany

Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil by [Neiman, Susan]Title: Learning from the Germans:
Race and the Memory of Evil
Author: Susan Neiman
Genre: History/Philosophy
Pages: 386 (plus citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 3 of 5

I reject the romanticized “Lost Cause” interpretation of the American Civil War. A perusal of the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States, the “Cornerstone” Speech, and similar primary source documents makes it very clear that for the decision-makers in leadership the war was fought to preserve slavery (whether that is what individual soldiers felt they were fighting for or not). This book is driven by this understanding of the Civil War and the Confederacy coupled with a recognition of the shameful evil of slavery in America and its racist legacy (“Jim Crow,” etc.).

The author, a Jewish American philosopher who currently lives in Germany, explores the difference between how Germany and the US have dealt with government propagated racism in their past history. No direct “more/less evil” or “more/fewer victims” comparison is made between Nazism and slavery. The comparison is in how these events are memorialized, acknowledged, defended, excused, atoned for, and/or (her favorite phrase) “worked off.” Personally, I have pondered this idea before and was interested to see a scholarly book on the topic. It ended up being a very different book than what I was hoping for.

The book meanders through history, the author’s personal experiences (mostly living in Berlin & visiting racially charged locations and racial reconciliation groups in Mississippi), and her own philosophical/political thoughts. Much of it felt scattery and as if she were trying to talk through her ideas on paper and come to conclusions as she was writing. As she does this, she comes from a philosophical/political perspective somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders, and tends to attribute the worst possible (usually racist) motives to those of other political persuasions.

Overall, I did find much to appreciate and ponder in this book even though there are areas where I would strongly disagree with the author. I would love to see this same topic taken on by someone whose forte was history rather than philosophy.

Ugly History

Title: The Sleepwalkers:
How Europe Went to War in 1914
Author: Christopher Clark
Genre: European History (WWI)
Pages: 587 (+160 pages of citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

This is the ugly history of the politics, propaganda, and events that led up to World War I. Prior to reading this, my general impression of WWI (based on fuzzy memories of high school history & reinforced by the fourth season of Blackadder) was that it was a horrifically pointless war started on a pretext by arrogant greedy statesmen whose various alliances dragged all of Europe into a maelstrom of death…and it was somehow mostly Germany’s fault. Having read this amazingly well-researched book, I think the blame could be spread around a bit more liberally, but my general view remains pretty much the same.

Christopher Clark makes meticulous use of primary source material to weave together a coherent account of how the Great War came about. This is a daunting task given the complexity of the issue and massive amount of (often self-justifying) written sources. He does his best to describe for the Balkans (especially Serbia) and for each of the “great powers” what was going on domestically, militarily, colonially, and in their relationship with each other. This required a lot of jumping back and forth over the same material many times to try to cover the myriad of interactions. It could be confusing at times, but given the complexity of the matter, I was impressed overall with the author’s clarity.

The author also interacts with secondary sources, stating when he agrees or disagrees with common conjectures and analysis. He steers away from blaming things primarily on Germany, pointing out different (and constantly shifting) degrees and kinds of paranoia, imperialism, bellicosity, manipulation, etc. in all of the “great powers.” He also maintains that world war was not fatalistically inevitable, conjecturing about specific situations, decisions, policies, and procrastinations that could have completely changed the course of history had this or that person/committee acted differently in the moment. As the title of the book implies, the author sees the forces of Europe stumbling along with woefully incomplete understanding or analysis of the possible effects of their various power games.

Whether you agree with all of the author’s analysis or not, this is a must read if you are trying to understand the causes of WWI. If you’re not the kind of person who can sit down and read a long history book, then I suppose you can settle for Blackadder’s explanation of how the War began or if analogies are more your thing there’s the story of If WWI were a bar fight (though Serbia bumping into and accidentally spilling beer on Austria should probably be Serbia chucking beer in Austria’s general direction and then pretending it was an accident).

No, Bonhoeffer is on MY side!

Title: The Battle for Bonhoeffer:
Debating Discipleship in the Age of Trump
Author: Stephen R. Haynes
Genre: History / Theology / Politics
Pages: 190 (plus bibliography & index)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The tone of this book differed from what I was expecting, but I still appreciated it. Stephen Haynes critiques how various groups have invoked, used, and abused the name and writings of anti-Nazi pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was hoping for a full-orbed (if brief) analysis of Bonhoeffer and his theology, but the author mostly pointed out where he believed others were wrong without ever giving a complete summary of his own understanding of the man and his work (though frequently mentioning “complexity” and the “give and take” of scholarly opinion).

Though Haynes covers a wide variety of those who have sought to co-opt Bonhoeffer’s legacy, his primary animus is directed against Eric Metaxas. In fact, the subtitle to the book could have been “Why Eric Metaxas’ book is oversimplified, erroneous tripe and his political advocacy disgusts me.” Haynes spends much of his page count criticizing Metaxas’ book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and excoriating his invocation of Bonhoeffer in support of Donald Trump. The book crescendos with this denunciation:

“You [Metaxas] were grossly irresponsible to use your role as an influential interpreter of Bonhoeffer to endorse someone whom Bonhoeffer would have found repulsive. You are entitled to your political opinions, of course. But you used credibility gained largely from your association with Bonhoeffer’s estimable humanity to imply that voting for Donald Trump was incumbent on American Christians. You thus gave them permission to ignore their spiritual intuition that the man was a repudiation of everything they held dear. In the process you did a disservice to Bonhoeffer, to Americans, and to the cause of Christ” – p. 131

This is shortly followed by a final chapter entitled Your Bonhoeffer Moment: An Open Letter to Christians Who Love Bonhoeffer but (Still) Support Donald Trump. As far as calm, thoughtful political rants (if that’s a thing) go, it was pretty good. Overall, I would have liked more detail on historical Bonhoeffer and some warning that this book was primarily about confronting Metaxas, but there was plenty of food for thought here.

Sobering History

Title: Darkness over Germany:
A Warning from History
Author: E. Amy Buller
Genre: History
Pages: 296
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In the years leading up to World War II, E. Amy Buller spent a lot of effort fostering dialogue between English educators and Germans. Obviously, war was not averted, but in this book (published in 1943 while WWII was still raging) she recollects many of the conversations she had with German friends and acquaintances. Most of the conversations involve Germans who dislike Nazism to some degree, ranging from unease to outright hatred. This seems to be an attempt to help understand and humanize the enemy to some degree, looking forward to the day when the war is over and people will have to coexist again…perhaps hoping that this will not end in another bitterness-inducing Treaty of Versailles.

Additionally, these conversations provide a sober warning of how difficult it can be to resist once a brutish totalitarian regime has consolidated power. Many of them feature regret that people waited too long to stand up to the Nazis coupled with fear, bewilderment, and/or resignation regarding the seeming futility of making any kind of stand now. For example:

“Of course, our real guilt lies in our slowness and in letting these gangsters get the whole country in their grip sufficiently to paralyze all collective opposition. So many people were so relieved to see any kind of order emerge out of the uncertainty and chaos that they said ‘Certain  things the Nazis are doing are good,’ and left it at that, without inquiring on what this new order was based or what was the spirit of the movement that was sweeping the land.” (p. 20)

Throughout the book Hitler and his cronies are characterized as upstart “gangsters” whose ham-handed foreign policy can lead only to war. For instance:

“It is also, I gather, true that Hitler is completely ill at ease with the more cultured and conventional diplomats, and looks upon them as quite unsuitable agents for putting over his policy with vigour and determination. The groveling insincerity of von Ribbentrop with his horde of keen and fanatical young men, together with the high tension atmosphere of No. 63 [the Nazi Foreign Office], gave Hitler the kind of setting and support he felt he needed.” (p. 69)

and

“And finally there was the von Ribbentrop and Hewel type who had never held power, men who had very little integrity to suppress and who loved the power that was so new to them. They  cheated, bullied and would even murder, I suspect, to gain their ends. All the tricks of the dishonest commercial traveler were in use among this crowd.” (p. 93)

Quite a bit of space is also devoted to exploring how Nazism became widely accepted because it had a religious appeal to those who had drifted from traditional spirituality (especially Christianity).

“The whole world today is full of false gods, and it is not surprising that in Germany they have chosen particularly brutal and violent gods. That makes it easier to see what is happening but there are also other false gods being followed in America and England.'” (p. 157)

The recently written introduction to the book is unnecessary (any relevant information on Buller is presented again and better in the afterward) and goes a bit “Godwin’s Law.” I would strongly recommend skipping it and deciding for yourself what kinds of warnings the sobering history contained in this book has for our own time.

Music, Madness, & Mephistopheles

Image result for Doctor Faustus book cover Knopf

Title: Doctor Faustus:
The Life of German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend
Author: Thomas Mann
Translator: H. T. Lowe-Porter
Genre: Classic
Pages: 510
Rating: 3 of 5

Despite the review title, don’t expect Mephistopheles to show up much in this modern retelling of the Faust legend. The suave devil (who never actually gives a name) doesn’t put in an appearance until about halfway through the book, if he’s real at all. Mann leaves it up to the reader whether the devil is actually there or is a product of syphilitic madness …or whether it even matters one way or the other.

To Mann, the important thing seems to be exploring a variety of philosophical themes. Most central to the plot is the connection between artistic genius and suffering, especially in the form of madness & alienation. Other themes includes the character and history of the German people (especially as it relates to losing both World Wars), avant garde art, apocalyptic imagery, and highly detailed music theory.

As the subtitle indicates, the novel is presented as a biography of the tragic life of (fictional) composer Adrian Leverkuhn. The narrator sounds agitated, apologizing for his poor organization, jumping around in the story, and digressing into his own personal life (he, like the author, is a German living through World War II). I found the style believable but somewhat irritating. Leverkuhn himself is presented as a sociopathic genius whose musical masterpieces are only fully appreciated by the few truly cultured people. As in any Faust story, in the end, there’s a price to be paid when you make a deal with the devil (or contract syphilis).

Overall, there were a lot of interesting ideas in this book, but after 500+ pages it felt overblown and pretentious.

Additionally: I’ll be using this for my 20th Century Classic category at the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Dated & Overgeneralized

Title: They Thought They Were Free:
The Germans, 1933-45
Author: Milton Mayer
Genre: History / Anthropology
Pages: 384
Rating: 2.5 of 5

From reading the Amazon reviews and blurbs for this (which is what piqued my interest), you would assume that every page drips with parallels to the current political climate of the US. While there were certainly some troubling similarities in the first half of the book, the book as a whole was overgeneralized and very dated.

The author spent a year in early-1950’s Germany getting to know ten average, unimportant men  who had been members of the Nazi party. His goal was to try to understand how seemingly normal people could be party to the atrocities of the Nazi regime and how they felt about it now that it was over. The author (who is Jewish, though his German friends didn’t know it) is extremely gracious in how he presents the thoughts and attitudes of these men and tries to understand where they are coming from.

By his account, most of them looked back on Hitler’s rule with nostalgia (they had jobs and stability, anything really bad wasn’t Hitler’s fault but other people sabotaging his good intentions, at least Hitler wasn’t a politician or an academic, the Jews might’ve been treated too harshly but they were outsiders who hurt the real Germans economically, etc.). The two or three who showed some regret spoke of the steps toward evil being so gradual that it was hard to notice or object…how would you stand up against such small steps that were supported by so many people (especially when it would cost you your job and you didn’t know for sure that bad things were happening)?

Unfortunately, once he has finished describing his fascinating (in a sad/disturbing kind of way) conversations with these men, he spends the last half of the book making sweeping generalizations about the “national character” of Germans and the doom that is likely to follow for Europe and the world once they are rearmed. Many of these condescending generalizations don’t even seem to follow from what he has presented up to that point, and history certainly hasn’t borne them out.

The book ends with an afterward, written in 2017, that calls into question a lot of his methodology and conclusions (arguing, in part, that neither Marburg nor these ten men were particularly representative of the average German experience and attitude). I was already a bit disillusioned with the book before getting to the afterward, and it put the cap on a fairly disappointing reading experience.