Thursday, February 28, 2008

This Week at the Library (28/2)

The History of the S.S. (G.S. Grabel)
Washington's Secret War (Thomas Fleming)
The Trial of Madame Caillaux (Edward Berenson)
Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. (Christopher Hitchens)
How Few Remain (Harry Turtledove)
Naturalist (E. O. Wilson)
The Great War: American Front (Harry Turtledove)


The first book I read this week I found purely by accident. During a blackout a week or so ago, I walked to the university library, hoping that they had power. They did have emergency lights, so I walked upstairs and began to roam the shelves. I found myself in German history, and picked up a book entitled The History of the S.S., by G.S. Graber. The book is short -- 212 pages -- but thoroughly enjoyable, given the subject matter. Graber explores the S.S. -- its creation, the men who ran it, and its demise. The S.S. constituted Hitler's real power base. The "Schutzstaffel" grew from a protection detail (protection from the S.A, or stormtroopers) to a major organization in Nazi Germany. They oversaw the Holocaust (Rudolf Höß, the commandant of Auschwitz, held a high rank in the S.S) and some of the fighting on the eastern front, through the Waffen S.S., or "armed SS".


While I knew a lot of the general information presented in this book (courtesy of my German history course and a historical interest in both World War 2 and Germany), I was still surprised by much of the information within. Graber offers miniature biographies of men like Hendrich Himmler to illustrate the disturbing fact that the S.S. were not madmen twisted by wretched childhood -- they were ordinarily people who managed to twist their own minds. Graber's book covers the SS from its inception to its dominance over all other Nazi organizations (I've read elsewhere that Himmler intended for the S.S to be a state within a state, with sovereignty in the east) to its demise. Graber also mentions the fascination many people in the United States have with the S.S. (and posits that "It may mean nothing, of course, but perhaps it helps to illustrate how a previous generation could have been entranced by the paraphernalia of the SS, its mystic signs, its banners, and ultimately its special mission." (Page 212.) Were I to write a paper on the S.S., I think that The History of the S.S. would serve well as a key source.

The next book I read, Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge, is by Thomas Fleming. As I wrote this current paragraph on Presidents' Day, I turned on C-Span to find the author moderating a panel of historians as they discussed the relationship between General Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. Timely! While I knew that Washington was not popular with some politicians (like John Adams), I was unaware of the extent of his unpopularity. In fact, it's rather hard for me to grasp, still. Washington is one of those figures of American history who is treated with veneration, so much so that he becomes a legendary figure, disassociated with the faults of real people. Robert E. Lee is treated the same way in the American south. The result of this (in Washington's case) is that it is hard to contemplate the fact that he had to put up with the same kind of politics that our current politicians have to deal with. This fact was demonstrated as I continued reading the book, and amused me for some reason. It was also encouraging in a strange way, I suppose. The political game, it seems, hasn't degenerated. The feud between Senators Clinton and Obama is tame, in fact, compared to the feud between Presidents Adams and Jefferson -- and petty defamations of character have apparently been a staple of American elections since there have been elections. Washington's Secret War was a thoroughly informative read.

The third book I read was The Trial of Madame Caillaux, by Edward Berenson. The title trial happened in France, in 1914. The wife of a French politician grows weary of a newspaperman's continual campaign against her husband and opts to shoot him. The murderer (Madame Caillaux) is put on trial for the murder, and thus the book begins. The book is divided into five chapters, each examining the role of a particular person in the trial and at the same time a part of French society that that person's case exemplifies. For instance, the chapter on Gaston Calmette (the unfortunate newspaperman) focuses on the role of the French press played in shaping popular opinion while looking into Calmette's motives for attacking Mr. Caillaux in the first place. In my opinion this was a splendid approach, and very well done. The book offered a look at life was like for Frenchmen in 1914, and I would recommend it heartily.

A few weeks ago I watched The Four Horsemen on Google Video, which is a conversation between the "Four Horsemen" of rational thought today (R. Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom have written books on rationality v. religion recently). I thought it would be funny if I were to write a library post where I read a book from each of the "horsemen". I went to my university library's website and found books for three of them, the exception being Mr. Harris -- and that was no problem because I've already read both of his books. When I went to the library to fetch these tomes, my plans quickly changed. There is a reason I have never read one of Daniel Dennett's books, and that reason is that his books are intimidating. Perhaps one day if I find myself stranded on a desert isle I'll have the time it would take to read and comprehend one of his books, but not this week.

While looking for one of the Dennett books, though, I happened upon E.O. Wilson's Naturalist. E.O. Wilson is a name I know from one of my skeptic podcasts; Point of Inquiry, perhaps. After poking around in the book, I decided to give it a go. The library had one of Dr. Dawkins' books that I hadn't read, Climbing Mount Improbable. I have watched him give an excellent lecture on the same title, though, so I hoped I would have a head start on this book. As much as I like reading Dawkins, I don't have a head for biology and find it difficult to finish some of his works-- like The Selfish Gene, which I've tried twice with no success. Christopher Hitchens is considering one of the "Horsemen" because of his work God is Not Great: How Religion Ruins Everything, but he has written on other subjects. The book I chose to read by him -- and the first book I would read out of my "horsemen" selection -- was Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.




Hitchens' work focuses on President Jefferson's role in shaping American history, particularly his influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase. While the subject matter was generally interesting, Hitchens' tone is a bit stuffy. This is the first book I've read by him and I failed to read any reviews of the book before I read the book itself, so I don't know if this is a common aspect of Hitchens' work or if anyone else picked up it. My lack of historical enthusiasm for the Revolutionary War may also interfere with my enjoyment of the book -- but then, I did enjoy George Washington's Secret War. Read the book (if you are so inclined) and judge for yourself.

I then started on Naturalist but a friend of mine recommended I read Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain. Dr. Turtledove writes historical fiction -- alternative history, in fact. I have read a book by Turtledove before -- Guns of the South. In Guns of the South, Turtledove depicts the Confederacy winning the Civil War after they are assisting by time-traveling white supremacists who equip the rebels with AK-47s. In How Few Remain, he again proposes an alternate history where the Confederacy wins -- this time, by taking care of one of Lee's mistakes. Lee's orders for his 1862 invasion of Pennsylvania were intercepted by Federal troops, which allowed Gen. George McClellan to not lose the battle of Antietam. In How Few Remain, the intercepted orders are NOT intercepted, and Lee manages to deal the Army of the Potomac a fatal blow. England and France recognize the Confederacy as a legitimate nation, and the United States loses. This is a rather unfortunate turn of events for the slaves.

The above is actually the prelude to this book. The actual plot of this book concerns a second war between the states. The Confederacy, led by President James Longstreet, buys two of Mexico's northern provinces. The United States objects by declaring war, and that is what the book is about. This book is actually the prelude to a series of books that build off of the premises established. The viewpoint characters are historical figures -- Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and so on -- whose characters have been shaped by this interesting new history. Lincoln is not offed by a disgruntled ex-Confederate, and survives to become a Marxist, universally despised in the United States for losing the war and half the country. Teddy Roosevelt doesn't lead the Rough Riders up San Jan Hill -- he instead invades Canada. Despite my distaste for the idea of the Confederacy winning the Civil War, I enjoyed the book. It is as I said the prologue to Turtledove's alternative history series, and I've decided to read the series through.

After reading How Few Remained, I returned to my planned reading. Naturalist, by E.O. Wilson, is an autobiography of E. O. Wilson's life and career as a zoologist. I didn't realize that Dr. Wilson is from Alabama, but he grew up in the Mobile area during the depression. I haven't read any accounts of growing up in Alabama during that time, and so enjoyed that first part of the book the most. There are some parts of the book that weren't quite so interesting to a non-biologist like myself -- but in general it was an enjoyable read. Wilson is a good writer, and even when I wasn't sure what he was talking about I wanted to keep plowing through. Wilson has had a long and interesting life -- traveling the world over while doing his research and meeting people like James Watson.

Naturalist took me longer to read than it should have, because I was distracted by the next book in that alternate history series I began this week -- The Great War: American Front. The United States has managed to lose two separate wars against the Confederacy at this point, and has been abandoned by the two greatest powers of the world at that time -- Britain and France. One of How Few Remain's viewpoint characters was Alfred von Schlieffen, author of the German plan for fighting a two-front war. Turtledove is evidently a fan of Germany's General Staff (the elite core of officers that determined military policy in Germany until Hitler and his goons arrived), as he has von Schlieffen elaborate on how careful Germany is when planning for war -- as opposed to the United States' and Confederacy's prewar planning, which is negligible. The Great War: American Front picks up on a promise made by American (that is, northern) officers to go to Germany and learn their ways of conducting a war.

The book begins in 1914. The United States and Germany are bosom buddies, as the U.S. is a member of the Triple Alliance, along with Germany and Austria. The Confederacy is part of the British-French entente. Socialism is taking hold in the United States, and the two Americas despise one another. The Great War begins the same way in this book as it did in real life -- with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The United States and the Confederacy declare war on the other's alliance and thus begins the book. The viewpoint characters in this book are apparently going to be the staple core of characters used for the rest of the series, and they're all new. None of them are historical figures, not that I've seen anyway. There are historical figures in the books -- the U.S. President is Theodore Roosevelt, and the Confederate president is Woodrow Wilson -- but the story is never told from their point of view.

The evolution of warfare is the same in this version of the Great War as it is in real life -- US and German offensives lose steam and then settle into bloody trench warfare. Airplanes are used to gather intelligence, and then used as fighters -- which fits the pattern I've observed while studying the rise of air forces in various countries during the Great War. While the book (and the entire series, I think) is dominated by warfare, both books have been about more than war. They've been about how these societies develop, their economies, how their very cultures are fashioned by the differing chain of events. While I do have a number of quibbles, overall the series has been enjoyable and I find the connections he makes to be generally plausible. I am not convinced that Britain and France would have sided with the Confederacy in the first place, though.

That concludes this week's reading.

Pick of the Week: The History of the S.S. was extremely well-written and quite informative.

Next week, I will finish R. Dawkin's Climbing Mount. Improbable, and will continue my reading of the Turtledove series. I think my next history paper will be about France's role in forging the European Union, so I might read something along those lines.

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