This Department features reviews and summaries of new books that link history and current events. From time to time we also feature essays that highlight publishing trends in various fields related to history.
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SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
There's probably nobody alive today who knows more about the rise and fall of the Third Reich than Michael Burleigh. His 2001 book The Third Reich was a landmark history, one notable in describing Nazism as a kind of religious experience. In the years since, he has explored similar currents in the history of other regimes and among terrorists. In his new book, he returns to his original grounding in the Second World War, and widens his scope beyond Germany, and indeed beyond Europe.
Much of Moral Combat is fascinating. Burleigh is particularly good at teasing out the nuances and dilemmas in the choices of people forced to dwell in collaborationist states like France and Denmark. And his regrettably brief chapter on resistance fighters -- regrettable because it leaves one wanting more, but also, as Burleigh makes clear, because such people were lamentably rare -- is superb.
But for all scope and unquestioned value, this is a flawed and distended book. And one whose vices seem to grow out of editorial arrogance.
The biggest, and immediately apparent, problem is the lack of a conceptual infrastructure through which to guide a reader through Burleigh's 500+ page narrative. He's clear at the outset that this is not meant to be a work of philosophy, and that the volume is meant to offer a moral map, not a moral compass. Fine. But how about at least offering a working definition of the word"moral?" How does he understand its relationship to religion or ethics? Is there a distinction to be made between individual or collective morality? Given the different value systems between Eastern and Western societies, does morality transcend cultures? Without such coordinates, it's easy to get lost, even when the map is richly detailed as this one is.
One suspects that Burleigh would react to such criticism with impatience. That's because there's a truculent subtext in the book, a desire to settle scores -- as in sneering references to"moral relativists" -- that is at best distracting and at worst alienating. For example, in his attempt emphasize the degree to which Stalin's USSR was at least as evil as Hitler's Germany, he writes that for Communist propagandists,"the concepts of good and evil were replaced by 'liquidation' and 'expropriation,' words that petit-bourgeois apologists continue to use, to show how progressive they are." Or that French resistance fighters often began their work with"statements of principle and right conduct under German occupation that would appall a modern moral relativist." Really? Could he give an example of such a principle, and a person who would be appalled? Are such people actually dominating the contemporary discourse of resistance? The intelligent but general reader that is presumably the audience for a book published by a trade house might well like to know.
Burleigh doesn't only take such sideswipes at the academic left. Though he is often impressively passionate in his moral fervor both in anatomizing and denouncing the Final Solution, he can come off as snarky in referring to others with a stake in the matter. So, for example, in talking about the horrific death rate of non-Jewish Russians, he writes that those who were taken prisoner"were largely doomed as a matter of policy, with scarcely any of the kind of attention that has been, enormously, devoted to the Holocaust." It's a good point. But in this context, the word"enormously," set off in commas, comes off as a gratuitous potshot. Did he really need to add it, to imply that too much attention has been devoted to the Holocaust? I don't think Burleigh means to suggest this. But I do think that his writing sometimes lacks -- dare I say? -- the kind of moral discipline one would like in dealing with such sensitive subjects without distinctions that can sound invidious.
Moral Combat lacks discipline in other ways, too. It's too long -- an assertion rooted in the observation that many of the topics Burleigh deals with, particularly on the Eastern Front, were traced in some detail in The Third Reich. The book also seems imbalanced. It is perhaps understandable that a British writer would spend a lot of time looking at England in general and Winston Churchill in particular (about whom Burleigh is notably approving), particularly since Britain was in the war for years before the United States formally joined the struggle. And Burleigh is quite good in looking his description and analysis of the U.S. Air Force firebombings of Germany and Japan and the sequence of events leading up to the decision to drop the atomic bomb. But anyone looking for an assessment of the moral character of the G.I., an evaluation of how U.S. race relations did or didn't compromise aims, or comparisons between figures Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, or George Patton are likely to be disappointed. Burleigh has virtually nothing to say, one way or the other, about Japanese internment. Or, for that matter, the Bataan death march.
If you're willing to take Burleigh on his terms, and listen to him talk about what he wants to talk about, you're going to learn a lot, whether or not you agree with him, and that surely counts for something. But it's hard not to finish this book feeling like it could have been better.
SOURCE: Special to HNN ()
[Bell Clement is an attorney and public historian based in Washington, D.C. Her dissertation, “Measuring Liberalism: Creative Federalism, Empowered Citizens, and Shaping the Great Society City” explores interactions between federal policymakers and grassroots activists in efforts of the 1960s to establish new forms of governance for urban communities.]
John Fairfield is concerned about the health of the American body politic and the state of our national conversation. His new book, The Public and Its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City (Temple University Press, 2010) aims to improve both, offering a synthesis of the secondary literature on the idea of the public in American life. An urban historian and director of the Institute for Politics and Public Life at Cincinnati’s Xavier University, Fairfield’s subtitle suggests that the American city is the hero of this story, but in fact it serves simply as scene-setting for the battles he describes.
The source of our public malaise, argues Fairfield, is in American liberalism itself. In celebrating the majesty of the human individual and making personal liberty its primary concern, liberalism forgets that the elevation of the individual can only occur within a culture that recognizes the reciprocal responsibilities that connect citizen and society. Failing to replenish the cultural resources which sustain it, liberal society starves itself. We eat our own seed corn.
Fairfield’s strategy is to bring the historian’s resources to bear on this failure of vision, retrieving traditions of cooperative action on behalf of public good from the American past in order to “rekindle our political imagination.” His goal is to redirect American efforts toward “the great unfinished tasks of American civilization . . . the construction of an economy and a culture that complement our civic aspirations.”
Alas, the retelling of the American past offered here is one of a more-or-less consistent decline from a less-than-promising beginning. In its founding, the Republic was based on “checks and balances,” not civic virtue; the Framers sought to distance, not engage, the mass of citizens. Through succeeding centuries, economic crises and imperial wars have provided opportunities for consolidating business interests, but somehow not for improving the lot of American workers.
Fairfield finds one bright patch in this dark picture in the early decades of the republic. In these years Americans still entertained the notion, embodied in “citizen proprietor” and “free labor” formulations, that they were connected to each other and to society by their participation as citizens rather than as cogs in a vast economy. But this brightness dimmed with the onslaught of the Gilded Age, and its reduction of the relationship between citizen and society to simple economics. The solitary hopeful glimmer offered by the twentieth century, in this telling, is the Progressive-era effort to revive the public sphere ideal as a counterweight to the laissez-faire rapacities of the industrializing age.
Fairfield’s stated intentions notwithstanding, there is little in his story on which present-day defenders of the public realm might build. Fairfield doesn’t grapple head-on with the question of why Americans have fallen short in attempts to build a robust public sphere, but some of the villains can be inferred from his tale.
For starters, it seems that Americans are easily gulled. Fairfield retells the story of how Jacksonian rhetoric seduced citizens into abandoning Henry Clay’s “American System” of public infrastructure investment. It is an inveiglement that has worked time and again: being persuaded that government economic intervention benefits only the privileged, citizens rally against it and succeed, handily, in preventing government action directed to the general welfare. Arrangements channeling federal resources to private benefit proceed unabated.
Fairfield argues that the people also fell victim to a cultural snookering. Reconstruction-era elites grew anxious over the possible impact of the great urban masses upon American governance. Having failed to restrict suffrage by statute, the nation’s privileged brought out the stealth weapons of cultural hegemony. A “cult of gentility” emerged, which discouraged boisterous challenge to authority, civic or otherwise. The rowdy delights of the Bowery theaters were replaced with sedate “museum culture,” raucous irreverence with a rule of “silence and deference.” The “cultural confidence of the people” was sapped and with it any sure sense that it is the people which rules by right in a democracy.
Then there were the forces of modernity to contend with. Industrialization, capitalism, and mass society overwhelmed civic effort. Fairfield cites the fate communications media as illustrative. Ever since Morse offered his telegraph patents to the federal government and was turned down, emerging communication technologies have begun as hopeful instruments of enhanced civic engagement only to meet the same sad fate. Privatized, the public airways are made profitable—and irrelevant to advancing civic discourse.
Finally, there is… let’s call it “false consciousness.” Wrestling with the complexities of democracy in the context of demographic diversity, Americans mistake their own self-interest. Fairfield points to the consequences of working people’s failure to rally to the anti-slavery cause. If the nation was to be defined as a civic polity, it would have to recognize the participation of all its citizens. The choice to exclude women and freedmen forced a retreat into a market definition of the republic: economic, not civic engagement would thenceforth define participation in the nation.
Perhaps Fairfield frames his story as he does in order to warn activists that they are up against much more powerful opponents than previously recognized, and should gird themselves accordingly. But why doesn’t he make a stronger case for his claim that there is a long tradition of American participation in defense of the public realm for these activists to draw on? A wealth of available evidence goes untouched. How is it, to name just one example, that populism, that model grassroots effort to redirect economic arrangements to the people’s service, goes unmentioned?
But the fundamental difficulty here is not with evidence omitted, but in how this “new narrative” is structured. Although in introducing his argument Fairfield recognizes liberalism’s self-destructive tendency to cut itself off from the reservoirs of community which alone sustain it, he nonetheless presents his story of the American battle for the public realm as if it were simply a class war, “The People” vs. “The Interests.” There are grounds for believing that it will require class war to fix what needs fixing in America. But civic engagement in defense of the public realm is not a weapon for that battle. If the question is rather how liberal society may be reinvigorated, then attention must be focused rather on how to better balance the tension inherent in liberalism between individual and polity—a tough problem on its own.
Fairfield’s book opens up this conversation. We have a lot to talk about.
SOURCE: HNN ()
Sometimes I think Garry Wills writes faster than I can read. For half a century, with over 40 books, plus countless articles and reviews in the “New York Review of Books” and the like, to his credit, Wills has been a constant, valuable, original participant in conversations about American political history, philosophy, and religion. His highly readable interpretations of political figures from George Washington to Ronald Reagan all command respect (for my money his “Nixon Agonistes,” published in 1970, is still the best single volume on that complex, conflicted president); his “Lincoln at Gettysburg” won the Pulitzer Prize. And his writings on the Bible and Christianity, particularly his own Roman Catholicism (“Why I Am a Catholic”), bring energy and vitality to a topic that is too often dismissed by more secular scholars.
Wills’ latest book is not his first memoir, but it is his most personal and revealing. He at least partially undermines his book’s title by telling anecdote after anecdote about his encounters and friendships with notables in politics, journalism, and show business: he gets too far into their worlds to be entirely an outsider. But a part of him always remains the “observer”—his analytical eye never sleeps.
In the book’s introduction, “A Bookworm’s Confession,” Wills portrays himself as the proverbial “constant reader” even as a child. Plunging into higher education, he trained as a classicist, then was lured away from academia by William F. Buckley, Jr., who launched him into the pages of “National Review.” A decade of friendship and immersion in the Buckley way of life--filled with intellectual excitement, parties, and sailing--ended in bitter disagreement over the Vietnam War and the social movements of the ‘60s. But by then Wills was well on his way to establishing himself as a unique combination of academic (with appointments first at Johns Hopkins, then at Northwestern) and journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications. (After 30 years, Wills and Buckley renewed their friendship, and one of the best pieces in this book is a warm appreciation of his early conservative patron. With Wills, the personal often trumps mere politics.)
Looking to the other end of the political spectrum, Wills provides an engaging portrait of Chicago’s prickly icon, the radio personality and oral historian Studs Terkel. The very personal, generous, and vivid chapters on Buckley and Terkel—along with Wills’ amusing and touching narrative of his courtship and marriage, and a commentary on his complicated relationship with his father—are also the only extended essays in the book. The remaining chapters dispense anecdotes on loosely defined topical themes (“Voices,” for instance, is about opera singers; we also get “Carter and Others” and “Clintons”). But the stories are all well told, interesting, and telling. One of the few villains of the piece, Mark Lane, the JFK assassination conspiracy theorist, comes across, not surprisingly, as a bully. On the other hand, Wills was prepared to dislike movie director Oliver Stone--he considers Stone’s movie “JFK” a “laughable distortion of history”--but Stone won him over with “Nixon” because it presented “the picture of an emotionally wounded man who rises to power without ever becoming a full human being.”
An opera buff, Wills liked soprano Beverly Sills from the start—and the pride he takes in his friendship with her is palpable. How he has time for opera, in light of his staggering productivity, is hard to figure. And how somebody who doesn’t follow sports closely can come away with something worth reporting from a conversation with Raymond Berry, Johnny Unitas’ favorite receiver, is even harder. But Wills brings it off.
This book, discursive and feather-light but entirely charming, has something for virtually anyone interested in recent American culture. Think of it as an aperitif. If you’re not already familiar with Wills’ writing, it will whet your appetite. And if, like me, you’ve read much, but hardly all, of his oeuvre, you will welcome the chance to get better acquainted with the man behind 50 years of shrewd analysis and lively prose.