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New books about revolutionary Russia, part 2 (2015-16)

Posted in Books, Russian, War by Alex L. on March 6, 2016

History off the Book header

After a hiatus, here’s finally the second part of the post I started in January, this time about the violence that befell Russia during and after the First World War. The books below are ones that sparked my curiosity; I have not read them yet.

The first is Joshua A. Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire, which was published last November. This work is particularly important because it was Russia’s failures in WWI that opened the door for the Bolshevik Revolution and hence subsequent developments (the Soviet empire, the Cold War, etc.).

Next up is a book for the enthusiast and specialist, The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 by David R. Stone. This work is valuable because scholarship about the eastern front conflict during WWI is scarce, and it essentially seems like a monogram about Russian efforts in that theater of war. Undoubtedly some of the recent works that have been published about WWI–even about the more obscure topics–are because right now is the centennial anniversary of that conflict.

Finally we have The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916-1926: Ten Years That Shook the World by Jonathan Smele, which came out last month. Speaking of obscure, the traumatic events of the Russian Civil War are not well known in the West, but they laid the foundation for Communist tyranny during the rest of the 20th century. The subtitle is a pun on the book, Ten Days that Shook the World, by reporter John Reed, a classic which sparked my interest as of late in the subject of the Russian Revolution after I read it a few months ago.

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A generation passed away

Posted in European, War by Alex L. on February 9, 2012
Photos of the last veterans of World War I

From left to right: Florence Green (d. 2012; UK), Claude Choules (d. 2011; UK), Frank Buckles (d. 2011; US), and Erich Kästner (d. 2008; Germany)

The last surviving veteran of World War I, Florence Green, died last Saturday. The last American to have served in the war, Frank Buckles, as well as the last veteran to have actually seen combat, Claude Choules, died last year. Their generation saw the accumulation of European culture and technology–the hope of the world–burn for four years on the pyre of war. Theirs was also the first generation to sweep away the ashes and sculpt new strains of Western culture. But almost everything that they (and others after them) wrote, painted, said, and filmed bore the mark of the trauma of World War I.

With the death of these last veterans, we have lost the eyewitnesses to these events. All data now about that time will be secondhand. And collective memory fades quicker when individual memories are stored on hard drives, manuscripts, and film than in human heads.

But there are important lessons to be learned from the experiences this generation recorded. These lessons are best not forgotten, as the men and women would once have told us, who witnessed the radiant procession of humanity in the brilliant summer of 1914 unwittingly march to their oblivion.

History off the press (December ’11 edition)

Posted in African, Books, Christianity, Russian, War by Alex L. on January 3, 2012

New history books header, December 2011

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).

Africa

Book coverI’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. (more…)

Driving at the speed of flight

Posted in Blogs, European, Just for Fun, Technology by Alex L. on November 4, 2011

Instrument panel for Jay Leno's 1915 Hispano-Suiza Aero Engine CarI can’t say I enjoy Jay Leno’s jokes as much as I do the work of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and David Letterman. But man does the guy have an awesome car collection.

I know next to nothing about vintage car restoration, but I can appreciate a sleek-looking and rumble-producing automobile. When I came across Jay Leno’s video of his 1915 Hispano-Suiza Aero Engine Car restoration (see part 1, part 2 and part 3), though, I almost started drooling. The reason is because the restored car combines in an engaging package some things that, well, just make me salivate like a dog sensing dinner: aviation, World War I history, craftsmanship, and speed.

The 1915 machine is no ordinary automobile. It’s fitted with an engine taken from a World War I fighter airplane. As Wikipedia informed me, after the First World War ended, surplus airplane engines were relatively cheap and vastly more powerful than what cars were then using. Some auto engineers decided not to let this opportunity pass and created cars with automobile chassis and airplane engines. Such aero-engined cars were a brief trend in auto racing during the inter-war period.

The Hispano-Suiza engine is the motor that was used to power the S.E.5, a British fighter plane during World War I. This was the primary aircraft of No. 56 Squadron RFC (Royal Flying Corps), the famous unit of expert flyers and warriors—such as James McCudden, Albert Ball, and Cecil Lewis (the last of whom wrote a now-rare but fascinating and honest memoir of his war years, titled Sagittarius Rising)—who helped defeat the imperial German air force. (more…)

History off the press (June ’11 edition)

Posted in Academia, American, Books, European by Alex L. on June 13, 2011

The Greater Journey coverThere are perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of books about historical subjects published every month. This is counting neither the books in foreign languages nor the voluminous scholarly and journalistic articles about history. Trying to follow almost any trend in our well-connected world is a laborious process, and keeping track of newly-published history books is no exception.

What helps me is keeping in mind that history books are not published in a cultural vaccuum. Behind almost every good history publication, there is a continuation going on of a fragmented communal dialogue about the subject. That is, the author is responding to some ideas and stories that previous authors had written about the same historical topic. Sometimes the author may present an argument that contradicts most of what other authors had written before him. At other times, history books are written more in an expository rather than a persuasive style. But all too many history publications are dreadfully boring because the communal discussion about a topic – especially in the community of professional historians – has taken a turn for the “who cares?”

Personally, there are two main qualities that I really prize in a book of history. These are when an author:

  1. Chooses in writing his book to respond to a historical discussion that is intriguing and insightful, and
  2. Writes in a style that makes a skillful and effective use of narrative.

In this post, I will feature some history books published in May and early June of 2011 that seem like good reads. I came up with this list by browsing the Web for new releases and then evaluating their quality based on the books’ description and reader reviews. I found samples from new books rarely available online, so admittedly some of these authors’ writing styles may actually turn out to be terrible. Needless to say this list is subjective and not comprehensive, but my goal is to add some kinds of grains of context to new first-editions of history. Let’s begin with books about a topic I’ve written about recently: travel and exploration. (more…)

World War I and the unconscious

Posted in Culture, European, Psychology, Reading by Alex L. on April 9, 2011

Photo of an iceberg (source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Iceberg_Antarctica.jpg)I was in Barnes & Noble earlier today and, intrigued by the cover of the latest Time magazine (which oddly featured a full-page photograph of Abraham Lincoln), I realized that the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War is coming up in three days (April 12, 2011). Such numerically-significant anniversaries are rare occasions for the national discourse to turn and (briefly) examine the significance of history to contemporary life. I always seem to miss these kinds of precious discussions. Currently, I’m working through Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and am still on the early-20th-century wavelength (oh! where was the 150th anniversary of the firing on Ft. Sumter when I was reading Paul Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and was on my Civil War “kick”?).

Fussell’s book, though, is yielding too much nutritious food for thought to put aside. In the chapter titled “Adversary Proceedings”, Fussell quotes 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung for whom the First World War was such a such a strong influence that it crept into his dreams after (and, if we are to believe his enigmatic Red Book, even before) the war:

[Jung] dreamed that he was ‘driving back from the front line with a little man, a peasant, in his horse-drawn wagon. All around us were shells exploding, and I knew that we had to push on as quickly as possible, for it was very dangerous [. . .] The shells falling from the sky were, interpreted psychologically, missiles coming from the “other side.” They were, therefore, effects emanating from the unconscious, from the shadow side of the mind [. . .] The happenings in the dream suggested that the war, which in the outer world had taken place some years before, was not yet over, but was continuing to be fought within the psyche.’

Reading this quote by Jung made me think of something that has fascinated me about psychology for some years. Specifically, it’s been a mystery to me how widely the ideas of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis and an iconic figure, were taken up by the Western world and how deeply ingrained some of them have become even though many of his theories were not very scientific. (more…)

The death of “high” diction

Posted in Culture, European, Reading by Alex L. on April 4, 2011

(Image links to Amazon.com) Photo of a soldier during World War ILike anyone who reads a lot of books written before one’s grandparents were born, the imaginary world of literature and history begins in the mind to contend with the perception of the immediate world of real life. Outmoded words begin to enter the vocabulary, and must be consciously prevented from escaping into the daylight of ordinary conversation. One instinctively knows that words like “valor”, “comradeship”, and “foe” have no place in everyday language (“How was your basketball game today?” “Oh, it was a great! My comrades and I vanquished the foe 3-1.”) though words such as these crop up in older writings all of the time. Like chivalry, these “high” forms of speaking are now dead. But what killed them?

This week, I started reading The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) by Paul Fussell, which describes the traumatizing shock that the First World War delivered to the Western psyche. To die with the millions of soldiers in combat was a European idea about the perfectibility of mankind and society. The effect of this collective experience lasts to this day, even in America.

The summer before the war, the summer of 1914, was memorable for its picnic-perfect weather. During these warm summer months, Europe (especially Britain, which hadn’t really seen war for a hundred years) breathed the air of chivalry, romanticism, and boundless self-confidence for the last time. The shock of the war to come contrasted so sharply with the idyllic season before it (Fussell describes at length in the first chapter how this dichotomy created a sharp and enduring impression of the irony of life on the Western psyche), that “the summer of 1914” would for many decades become synonymous with astonishing naiveness.

To illustrate how this change took place, Fussell relates a handful of the countless ironic (meaning, having one’s optimistic hopes about the future punished with exaggerated misery instead) experiences that soldiers witnessed during the war. Fussell quotes one instance from another author’s memoir: (more…)