Category Archives: History

The Common Law in Colonial America

law

The Common Law in Colonial America –
Volume III, The Chesapeake and New England, 1660-1750
By William E. Nelson
Oxford University Press – £35.99

As the Professor of History and Professor of Law at Washington University in St. Louis, David Thomas Konig has written: ”This volume continues a multi-volume history of the common law in America by our greatest authority on the foundations of the American legal system. Like his other work, it is the product of unmatched meticulous research into the archival record of legal institutions as they affected the lives of ordinary Americans – male and female, white and black, powerful and weak. It is as much a human study as it is an institutional one, and it takes its well-earned place as a classic in legal history.”

Food for thought? Debate? Incendiary discussion?

The line ”it is as much a human study as it is an institutional one,” does, to my mind, trigger a myriad of legalise speak and divine, humanistic thought analysis; the combination of which, really isn’t that easy to decipher.

There again, The Common Law in Colonial America – Volume III, The Chesapeake and New England, 1660-1750 was never going to be easy to decipher – which may partially explain why William E. Nelson has now reached his third volume of a clearly dense, and highly convoluted subject matter.

‘Convoluted,’ being among many of the pertinent key words throughout these ten, intrinsically (very) involved chapters.

In fact, amid one of the many sub-sections of The Common Law in Colonial America, chapter five’s ‘The Substance of Virginia Law’ leaps forth like no other: ”Slavery was not a major phenomenon in Virginia before the late seventeenth century. Existing scholarship agrees that Africans and descendants of Africans constituted only some 3 percent of the population in 1660 – fewer than one thousand blacks out of a total population of some twenty-five thousand.”

”Only 3 percent?”
Well that obviously makes it alright then…

Nelson continues: ”Most drudge work was performed by indentured servants,who were mainly young men and teenage boys from the British Isles. Although the few blacks present in the mid-seventeenth century on average served longer terms of servitude than whites, including terms for life, many blacks ultimately did become free, and no clear distinctions separated black servants from white ones during the periods of time during which they served. African servants lived with European servants, performed the same work as Europeans, and were subject to the same disciplinary rules and punishments as Europeans. Finally, if they became free, Africans and their descendants could buy and own land, indentured servants, and slaves, just as Europeans could.”

Does the question: why was there an indelible need for servants to begin with – not need to be asked here?

Was it not enough that many a white, young American, slaughtered many a red, native Indian? Did inexorable servitude really need to be imported into the so-called, New World as well?

Clearly it did, for which, in round-a-bout kind of way, The Common Law in Colonial America substantiates some kind of considered reasoning.

To be sure, this third volume begins where volume one ended and traces legal developments within the sphere of the New England colonies – from the years 1660 to the mid-eighteenth century. The fundamental claim of these 134 pages (not including Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) is that the ‘Glorious Revolution’ altered England’s policy toward its colonies.

Prior to said revolution, Charles II and James II sought to centralize power in the English empire, and the means by which they executed thus, was within the realm of centralization – whereby they continued to govern such young American states as Maryland and Virginia through the common law (a law they were to further impose on Massachusetts and the rest of New England).

As such, the trajectory of England’s (legal) imposition, still reverberates throughout much of the United States to this very day; of which this book qualifies as something of a Byzantine blueprint.

To once again quote Konig: ”It is as much a human study as it is a classic in legal history.”

David Marx

The War Within

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The War Within –
Diaries From The Siege Of Leningrad
By Alexis Peri
Harvard University Press – £23.95

Surely, the only instance one can akin to the methodically mortifying siege of Leningrad – in recent times at least – is Sarajevo.

Having initially been besieged by the forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army on 5 April 1992, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina continued to lie in siege before the very eyes of the world might I add, by the Army of Republika Srpska until 29 February 1996. A total of 1,425 days; which, in the big scheme of things (such as radio, television and media) still baffles me to this very day.

How could a modern, cosmopolitan European city – a mere hour and a half away from Paris by plane – have been allowed to suffer, day after day after day, to the appalling degree that it did?

Did the world not learn anything from Leningrad blockade?

An epic disaster, which the historian, John Barber, has since described as ”the greatest demographic catastrophe ever experienced by one city in the history of mankind.”

A blockade of humanity, that already on page four of this altogether groundbreaking study, The War Within – Diaries From The Siege Of Leningrad, paints a picture of the most harrowing persuasion: ”The Leningrad blockade was one of the most horrific events of world War II. The city was a centrepiece of a 1,127-day battle and an 872 day siege. That siege, which lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, was one of the lengthiest and deadliest of the modern era. All told, the battle for Leningrad took between 1.6 and 2 million Soviet lives, including roughly 800,000 civilians or 40 percent of the city’s pre-war population. This staggering death toll is about equal to the total number of American military who died in all wars between 1776 and 1975 […]. Most civilians died of starvation, but tens of thousands perished from enemy fire and disease.”

Other than making for rather depressing reading, what is interesting in the above is some of the terminology of language used; where authoress, Alexis Peri, declines to describe the Leningrad blockade as one of the most horrific battles of World War II, but rather, one of the most horrific events. A terminology, which to all historical intents and academic purposes, is fundamentally spot on.

The Siege of Leningrad was indeed an event.
An event, that like the Holocaust, was so profoundly cruel and calculated, if not utterly sadistic, it continues to remain almost impossible to fathom.
If not the actual manifestation of the catastrophe itself, then that of the behaviour it allowed.

A psychological quality upon which Peri shines a great deal of literary light throughout. For instance, in chapter four (‘Family Life and Strife’), she captures perfectly, the self-confessed trauma of the schoolboy, Iura Riabinkin:

”Two days ago I was sent out to get sweets. It was bad enough that instead of sweets I bought sweetened cocoa (counting on Ira not wanting to eat it and so increasing my share), but also that I helped myself to half of the total amount – a miserable 600 grams that is supposed to last us for the whole ten days – and invented a story about how three packets of cocoa had been snatched from my hands. I acted out the whole comedy at home with tears in my eyes, and I gave Mother my word of honour as a Pioneer that I have not taken a single packet of cocoa for myself… and later on, watching with a hardened heart mother’s tears and distress at being deprived of something sweet, I ate the cocoa surreptitiously.

[…]I have slid down into the abyss called depravity, where the voice of conscience is totally silent, where there is dishonesty and disgrace. I am an unworthy son to my mother and an unworthy brother to my sister. I am an egoist, a person who, in a moment of adversity. forgets all about his nearest and dearest […]. I am a ruined person. Life is over for me. The prospect that lies ahead of me is not life.”

Could you ever imagine writing such words?
Let alone writing such words for others to read in a diary?

As the authoress of Lenin Lives!, Nina Tumarkin has since stated, these 252 pages (excluding Notes, Selected Bibliography, Acknowledgements, Illustration Credits and Index) are: ”Vivid, true, and magnificently crafted. Peri has peeled away layer after layer of the human record to its core – physical, mental, spiritual.”

Indeed she has.
What’s more, as mentioned earlier, The War Within is a groundbreaking study. The sort of which, questions the very nature of human nature. It inadvertently asks how we might behave under similar circumstances.

Luckily, we haven’t, and hopefully never will be in a position to find out.

Apart from gazing at the collection of black and white, poignant photographs herein, the closest any of us will ever get (is again, luckily), reading this exceedingly nuanced, majestic and very important book – wherein Alexis Peri has without doubt, fulfilled a literary quest of the most revelatory, regal design.

Simply brilliant.

David Marx

Out of Ashes

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Out Of Ashes –
A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century
By Konrad H. Jarausch
Princeton University Press – £32.95

     Hitler’s dictatorship rested not only on repression but also on popular gratitude for the economic recovery, for which he claimed credit. Economists still dispute which of the policies actually worked, but it is undeniable that full employment returned fairly rapidly. In grapeshot fashion, the Nazis launched numerous measures, ranging from the public works such as building the high-speed Autobahnen to subsidies for regular construction and reviving industrial investment. Wages initially remained frozen, but the return to work raised the living standards of households that had barely survived the depression and made the Fuhrer popular.

                                                                                   (‘Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft’)

The above quote from chapter ten of this all persuasive and penetrating book, renders any uninitiated reader of twentieth century German history at something of a surprising loss; especially with regards Adolf Hitler’s euphoric rise to penultimate power.

For it would seem in order to gain a country’s trust (and vote), one need only put food on the table and be seen to openly rebuild a country’s infrastructure. But were one to fast forward to 2017, it would seem such essentially simplistic thinking has been seductively replaced by rampant ambivalence, nationalism, xenophobia, greed and political swashbuckling. The sort of which hasn’t been seen since, well; Hitler’s actual rise to power itself.

What with Donald Trump in the US, Theresa May in the UK and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela – not to mention the many serried ranks of delusional crack-pots that perhaps not so patiently wait amid the wings of seething world domination and destruction – Out Of Ashes – A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century, ought to be made compulsive reading throughout many of the world’s prime corridors of intrinsic power.

That it won’t, is further testament to how utterly insane the world in the early part of the twenty-first century appears to have unfortunately (d)evolved.

Indeed, rather than coming together and building bridges, Trump, May, and the rise of the Far-Right throughout many parts of Europe, appear utterly determined in the full-on promotion of division and the building of walls. An unquestionable folly, upon which Konrad H. Jarausch shines a more than humanistic light – throughout many parts of this most readable and excellent of books.

In relation to the immediate above for instance, one need only traverse the second paragraph of chapter nineteen’s ‘Economic Integration,’ to ascertain where common sense has gone so horribly wrong. Quite possibly, politically diluted beyond the point of all and any reason – let alone return: ”The founding of the Common Market was a concerted attempt to prevent a repetition of the disasters of the first half of the twentieth century. Its central purpose of laying ”the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe” intended to achieve multiple aims: By linking the economies of France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, the treaty sought to to make future war impossible by eliminating ”the barriers which divide Europe.” At the same time the agreement tried to ban the spectre of another depression by striving for ”the constant improvement of the living and working conditions” of European citizens.”

These 788 pages (excluding Preface, Acknowledgements, Notes and Index) are literally littered with such grounded commons sense as that exemplified above.

As the author Peter Fritzsche (whose Life and Death in the Third Reich I also reviewed upon publication) has since said: Out of Ashes is an extremely well-conceived and highly ambitious book. What Jarausch has pulled off is a fully balanced, elegantly integrated history of a long twentieth century in which the pre-1914 era and post-1989 years are vital parts of the interpretation.”

To be sure, Out of Ashes penetrates all the wayward and distorted untruths of current day, blame-game-ideology; by simply laying bare what needs to be told. And perhaps re-told.

David Marx

Charlemagne

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Charlemagne
By Johannes Fried
(Translated by Peter Lewis)
Harvard University Press – £25.00

No act of remembering can bring back yesterday; rather, every remembered past is a half-conscious, half-unconscious memory constructed from a present state with all its attendant joys, worries, enmities, and fears, with its totality of experiences, with its knowledge and its evaluation of information that has flowed to it from the past, and with its wishes, goals, and hopes. Nor can remembering hope to reproduce anything that was once experienced without distorting it in the recollection.

Upon reading this bona fide, weighty, tomb of a book, one is regally reminded of just how much of an influential dude the King of the Franks (from 768), King of the Lombards (from 1774), and Emperor of the Romans (from 800) Charlemagne, truly was. Not only was he the first recognised emperor in Western Europe since the fall of the Roman Western Empire (nigh three centuries earlier), he actually united much of Europe during the early Middle Ages.

All things considered, such was absolutely no mean feat.

Especially during his fourteen year reign (800-814) as the author of this most high-calibre of reads, Johannes Fried, makes perfectly clear almost immediately: ”[…] both the common people and the ruling elites were in the habit of demonizing all opponents, heretics, or anyone who thought differently. Nor was irony common or intellectual currency in this period. One notable feature of the time was the king’s claim to exclusive sovereignty over interpretation of the past. This ”authoritative memory” was evident throughout society and yielded to different perceptions and interpretations only in the rarest of cases.”

Oft referred to as Pater Europae (Father of Europe), Charlemagne’s life, is throughout these 554 pages (excluding Preface, Maps, Abbreviations, Notes, Selected Biography, Illustration Credits and Index) most interestingly and compellingly brought to bear.

Clearly investigated and written in an intuitive manner, ultimately amounts to the reader coming away from Charlemagne with an altogether alternative, if not slightly different view of a man, we have until now, known very little about: […] the image of Charlemagne continues to change. Admittedly, academic knowledge cannot be equated with the kind of historical knowledge current among the ”general public” of central and Western Europe or the United States. If Charlemagne continues to live on at all in popular consciousness, it is as some vague, shadowy figure often consigned to a timeless realm of legend […]. Or in the meeting or clash of a plethora of cultures with their own traditions and a high degree of self-awareness, to whom a distant hero figure means very little? Or in people’s incapacity to fathom the depths of the globalization process? (Epilogue)”

Humongous food for historical thought simply drips from the pages of this most inspired and readable of books. Not only does it pack an at times perplexing punch, it inspires as well as makes one think.

This is directly due to Johannes Fried – who, until his retirement, was Professor of Medieval History at the University of Frankfurt – not equating any pre-ordained notion with any form of trickle-down, (mis)conceived absolutism: ”History flows incessantly onward because it is rooted in human memory; it must constantly be rethought and recounted afresh since it is constantly called on to inform and educate younger generations of people. It does not convey some eternally unchanging message that ”this is the way things were;” indeed, the most it can hope to do is to preserve a dried-out skeleton of inconsequential facts, which the ”visionary” historian alone can then make sense of. History possesses a past that can be recalled only in a fragmentary way and is scarcely manageable, and a future as opaque as the future of humanity in general.”

Along with eight, full-colour plates, these eight chapters (along with a Prologue and an Epilogue) is a rather astonishing book for all the right reasons.

If you’re into medieval history and a roundabout conception of the Europe we (sort of) know it today, then Charlemagne’s definitely for you.

As Dan Jones has since written in The Sunday Times: ”Fried defends the whole culture of medieval Europe, which he characterizes, contra Kant, as ’eminently creative’: original, revolutionary, mature, artistic, inquisitive, and wise… Fried’s breadth of knowledge is formidable and his passion for the period admirable.”

Couldn’t agree more. An altogether terrific book.

David Marx

A World Gone Mad

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A World Gone Mad –
The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939/45
Pushkin Press – £18.99

     God help our poor planet in the grip of this madness.

Amid so many of my reviews, I’ve so often felt both the need and the inclination to write that history continues to unfortunately repeat itself. The above opening quote, along with the title of this book, do absolutely nothing whatsoever to make me feel anything otherwise.

With a madman in the White House, France deliberating whether or not to vote for the out-and-out, Nazi-Crazed-Nationalist this coming Sunday, and an overtly spineless, dithering Theresa May in Downing Street, we do indeed live in a world gone mad.

Yes: God help our poor planet in the grip of this madness.

To add further fuel to a fire already out of political control, two of the above are women; which, when placed alongside the authoress of this fine book, Astrid Lindgren, does make one either quake with frustration or wonder what society has come to. There again, so far as Britain is concerned, there really is no such thing as society – an ideology set in inexorable place by another (altogether wretched) woman, Margaret Thatcher. And boy, has her vision come true.

As Britain is falling apart at the seams.

All the more reason that May’s cabinet should readily take heed of A World Gone Mad – The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45 most readable, vivid and intensely personal chronicle of a Europe on the precipice of self-annihilation: ”What a world, what an existence! Reading the papers is a depressing pastime. Bombs and machine guns hounding women and children in Finland, the oceans full of mines and submarines, neutral sailors dying, or at best being rescued in the nick of time after days and nights of privation on some wretched raft, the behind-the-scenes tragedy of the Polish population (nobody’s supposed to know what’s happening, but some things get into the papers anyway), special sections on the trams for ‘the German master race,’ the Poles not allowed out after 8 in the evening and so on […]. What hatred it will generate! In the end the world will be so full of hate that it will choke us.”

Sound familiar?

What with Isis, terrorists and the deplorable Nigel Farage spouting forth with more nationalistic bile than ought to be allowed, the world is already on the verge of choking. Choking on it’s nigh unquenchable embrace of ignorance, greed and cowardice. Three areas this brave, and according to Die Welt, ”breathtaking read,” touches on throughout its yearly titled chapters (1939 to 1945).

Implausibly regal and refreshing to read, these 220 pages (excluding Glossary of Names) are a Swedish civilian and mother’s account of a dark and incendiary world – which more than anything else, ought to act as some kind of literary warning.

David Marx

Germaine de Stael

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Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait
By Biancamaria Fontana
Princeton University Press – £24. 95

          It is a cult, but one yawns in church.

What I particularly like about Germaine de Stael – A Political Portrait, is the fine fact that it addresses the very nitty-gritty, head-on, a mere few pages into what is clearly, a most well-researched thesis. There’s no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

To be sure, some might readily argue that Germaine de Stael’s idiosyncratic independence of mind was a reaction to the fractious events taking place in France at the time. As Richard Bourke, author of Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke states, this book is ”a captivating portrait of a fascinating figure caught up in the whirlwind of events.”

Quite possibly best known (today) as a novelist and literary critic, lest it be said it was Stael’s political outspokenness that perhaps best captures her all-round milieu within the parameters of the French Revolution.

The banker’s daughter who became one of Europe’s best-connected intellectuals, Stael was an exceptionally talented woman who achieved a degree of public influence to which not even her ”wealth and privilege would normally have entitled her.” Indeed, when the lives of so many around her were destroyed, she succeeded in carving out a unique path for herself, thereby ensuring her views and thoughts were heard – initially by powerful men within her immediate vicinity, and later by the European public at large.

All of which the Professor of the History of Political Ideas at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Biancamaria Fontana, has instinctively captured. That her previous books include Montaigne’s Politics, Benjamin Constant and the Post-Revolutionary Mind and Rethinking the Politics of Commercial Society, such instinctive writing ought hardly come as a surprise.

Each of Germaine de Stael’s nine chapters (as well as Introduction and Conclusion) are written with a knowledge that nigh borders on the very dissection of the subject’s ideological belief(s).

A most pertinent example of this being Stael’s mode of necessary compassion within the general gambit of revolution, which Fontana captures perfectly in chapter six (‘Condemned to Celebrity’): ”In a revolutionary crisis it is claimed over and over again that compassion is a childish sentiment, opposed to those actions that are necessary to the general interest, and that it must be set aside, with all effeminate emotions, unworthy of men or state or chiefs of parties; it is on the contrary during a revolution that pity must become a rule of conduct. Where justice is well established, one can do without mercy; but a revolution, whatever its aim, suspends social order, and it is then necessary to go back to the source of all laws, in a moment in which legal power means nothing.”

Again, no particular elaboration, no flim-flam nor skirting around the edges of what was a resoundingly feisty and exceedingly independent thinker.

In the words of Ruth Scurr (author of Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution): ”An important and original book about a prominent female intellectual who took the measure of the French Revolution in both theoretical and practical terms. Fontana argues convincingly that Stael’s political ideas have been overlooked or underrated in previous treatments of her life and work.”

David Marx

Scorched Earth

9780300136982

Scorched Earth – Stalin’s Reign of Terror
By Jorg Baberowski
Yale University Press – £25.00

The Bolsheviks prevailed. They broke the military resistance of the Whites, crushed the unrest and strikes of the peasants, and even restored the multi-ethnic empire, which, in the early months of revolution, had largely fallen apart. In spring 1921, when the Red Army marched into Georgia, the Civil War was officially over. For the Bolsheviks, however, military victory was not the end but rather the beginning of a mission, not simply to shake the world but to transform it.

                                                                                        (‘Pyrrhic Victories’)

And transform it they did.

To this very day, Russia remains at the vanguard of inexorable convulsion and change; the social and political ramifications of which continue to effect the rest of the world. For better for worse. For richer for poorer. For sickness and utmost of unusually bad health; the trajectory of Russian upheaval, which let’s face it, is exactly what it is, continues to influence the West in more ways than one might care to imagine.

For instance, one need look no further than the relatively recent election of the American President, Donald Trump.

Scorched Earth – Stalin’s Reign of Terror might well be one of the most in-depth accounts of the Stalin era I have ever read. To be sure, the German scholar Jorg Baberowski has to be one of the leading experts in his field, although his work – has up until now – seldom been translated into English. A quality which is hard to fathom, considering the scholastic precision and soaring honesty with which the author writes: ”Since 2003 I have spent several years explaining to myself how it was possible for so many millions of people in the Soviet Union under to Stalin to have been killed, displaced, imprisoned in camps, or allowed to starve to death. Back then in 2003, I still believed that the theses of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman could provide an answer. The pursuit of certainty, the overcoming of ambivalence, and the obsession with order in the modern ”gardening state,” wrote Bauman, had led to the monstrous exterminatory excesses of the twentieth century […]. The communist experiment of the New Man gave Stalin and those in power the justification they needed to murder enemies and outcasts. It did not, however, prescribe mass murder. Stalin and his companions did not speak of the brave new world when they discussed what to do with the supposed enemies of this new order. They talked instead about techniques of violence.”

It is such blatant, factual dissemination, that sets this book apart from a plethora of others on very same the subject.

To talk ”about techniques of violence,” is somewhat akin to UKIP’s twisted excuse for a human being, Nigel Farrage, to talk about England’s only friends being those who ”talk English.” A sly, calculated, yet flippant remark made just last week, which will undoubtedly do much to trigger yet more unprovoked violence on the streets of Engerland – much to the unfortunate dismay of innocent bystanders. Many of whom might happen to speak Polish.
Or Spanish.
Or dare I say it, common sense; a quality which partially explains why segments of this exceedingly well written and well researched book, wholeheartedly lends itself to the current crisis in which the world finds itself.

Obviously, what happened in Russia is incalculably idiosyncratic of among the most deplorable murder and mayhem ever known. So much so, it is hard to imagine.
BUT, much of the essence was, and remains a direct response to a tempestuous climate of fear, paranoia and scapegoatism. Sound familiar?: ”Only in a state of emergency did it become possible for a psychopath like Stalin to let his malevolence and criminal energy reign free. The dream of communist salvation was drowned in the blood of millions because the violence became detached from the original motives, and eventually was subject to the purposes of the dictator alone. In the end all that mattered was the recognition of total power, of Stalin’s total power, as master over life and death. Had it not been for the atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, the despot would never have been able to force his will on others or make his world the one that everyone had to live in.”

While reading these words, one cannot help but think of the power obsessed and egotistically driven Donald Trump, which in and of itself, substantiates that history does indeed repeat itself. As the author of Stalin’s Genocides, Norman M. Naimark has written: Jorg Baberowski’s Scorched Earth skillfully guides the reader through the nightmarish reality of Stalin’s brutal rule of the Soviet Union. The smartly crafted narrative is full of interesting, important, and horrifying details that illustrate the diverse character of the killing. Baberowski tells a veracious story of fear and terror among Soviet citizens that is hard to forget.”

For a sure fire qualification of the truth, these 437 pages (excluding Preface, Notes and Index) are a more than complex and combustible read – which, apart from being hard to forget, equates with that of a literary memorial to the millions who died.

David Marx