History off the press (December ’11 edition)
Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books, and these are previews not reviews).
I’m currently reading William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and one of among many striking things about Nazi Germany is how easily a multitude of religious leaders in that country kowtowed to Hitler’s religious decrees (which needless to say were staggering in their impiety—replacing the Bible in pulpits with Mein Kampf, for instance). Religions like Christianity derive their power from writing and oratory. But if those mesmerizing words are not backed by deeds when the going gets rough (i.e. when the Gestapo will kill you if you continue practicing authentic Christianity) then such sermonizing appears in hindsight like idle chatter.
That’s why I can’t help but admire a guy like Sam Childers. After he converted to Christianity, he traded a life of drugs, motorcycle gangs, and chasing women in America to become a machine-gun armed protector of orphans and other destitute children in violence-ravaged Sudan. That’s some tough, in-your-face Christianity and not of the “Have you heard the Good Word? Here, take a pamphlet” variety. Childers has published a memoir of his experiences.
Fr. John Kaiser, a priest raised in Minnesota who was killed in Africa while standing up to government authorities on behalf of the poor, had a similar mission as Childers. Journalist and author Christopher Goffard has just published an account of Fr. John’s life in Africa called You Will See Fire: A Search for Justice in Kenya. These life stories of hard-bitten Christians exhibiting physical courage while helping others are just the thing to read for suburban Christians experiencing ennui in the faith.
Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008. Henry Louis Gates Jr. A prominent scholar musters the latest research to chronicle the varied experiences of blacks in America.
Seven years ago, I read memoirs of Russians who lived through World War I in the city of Petrograd. I realized how hard it was to pick apart the truth from varied and contradictory accounts of the past. The Russian history professor who was supervising my project was scathingly critical of Tsar Nicholas II’s leadership. The autobiography that I read of a commander in the tsarist White Army, though, praised the deposed monarch to no end. A historian needs to form his own opinions by looking at the facts, which is the most challenging and also the most ennobling part of the profession. And one of the most confounding mysteries in recent history–one that requires the historian to marshal her utmost skills–is the cause and culprit of World War I.
Recent research in this area of Russian history has focused on the political climate of the capital of Tsarist Russia: Petrograd. Professor Mark D. Steinberg of the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign has just published a book examining the works of writers in that fateful city between the two revolutions of 1905 and 1917.
But the most stunning contribution to the subject is the salvo delivered by Sean McMeekin across the bow of the academic history community with his publication on November 30th of The Russian Origins of the First World War. His thesis that Russian politicians’ aggressive drive toward annexing territories from the Ottoman empire was the primary cause of World War I flies in the face of the accepted wisdom (championed by 20th century historian Fritz Fischer) that Germany was the culprit of 1914. This book is sure to ruffle some feathers and unnerve some minds, but I think McMeekin’s work is worth reading to understand the complexities of the diplomatic fiascoes that precipitated worldwide catastrophe.
The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement. Nathaniel Deutsch. An expedition before WWI documented the life of Jews living in shtetls in the Tsar’s empire before those communities vanished.
It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past. David Satter. Satter examines Russia’s Communist past—a rare project today—because authoritarianism rears its ugly head there again.
If you’re really into some natural object, there’s probably a history book out there about it. Coffee, fruit, cod, salt, spices, tobacco, chocolate, and many other resources have been featured in cultural histories over the past couple of decades. Other well-known contemporary works, such as Guns, Germs, and Steel and 1493, focus on the effects of biology on history and vice versa. My hunch is that this trend in historical writing may be inspired by the environmentalist and foodie movements.
The most recent addition to the collection of books glorifying the fruits of the earth is Tom Mueller’s Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. Anyone who has read about or travelled to that cradle of Western civilization—the nations around the Mediterranean Sea—knows the symbolic importance of the olive and its juice. From cleaning the naked torsos of the Greek Olympic heroes to anointing the bodies of the Jewish and Christian faithful, this oil of the craggy trees that lend the Mediterranean landscape its senescent and unruly forms has become a fixture in Western culture. Mueller’s new book not only explores the history of the oil but also the current state of the olive oil industry, which apparently is filled with deception and corruption.
Stone of Kings: In Search of the Lost Jade of the Maya. Gerard Helferich. The story of how two prospectors searched for the source of the Mayans’ elaborate jade stone carvings and reignited a lost art in Central America.
Pricing the Future: Finance, Physics, and the 300-year Journey to the Black-Scholes Equation. George G. Szpiro. A book about the origin of the mathematical financial model that transformed finance from an art into a science.
Saladin. Anne-Marie Eddé. A lengthy biography—translated from the French—takes a hard look at existing sources to peel back the centuries of effusive mythology about the Arab warrior and sketch a balanced portrait of the man.
American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen. A virulent critic of modern society, Nietzsche lived a tragic life. His pronouncements live on, and this book is about their influence in America.
A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism. Phyllis Goldstein. The Nazis would never have risen to power if the culture of Weimar Germany wasn’t first poisoned by centuries of hatred. This is the story of a sentiment.
Paul on Homosexuality. Michael Wood. This book marshals historical context to help Christians baffled by the Apostle Paul’s seemingly brazen homophobia understand what exactly he was criticizing in his letter to the Romans.