Category Archives: History

Agrarian Crossings

crossings

Agrarian Crossings –
Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside
By Tore C. Olsson
Princeton University Press – £27.95

At first glance, Tom Watson and Emiliano Zapata appear to have inhabited impossibly distant worlds. The former was a white country lawyer from rural Georgia, born in 1856; the latter a mesitzo horse trainer and small landowner, twenty-three years Watson’s junior, from central Mexico. The political vocabulary and cultural milieu of one would undoubtedly have been foreign to the other. Yet unpredictably, in the heady decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, both young men would champion daring revolts of country people against the entrenched powers that dispossessed and impoverished them.

               (‘Parallel Agrarian Societies – The US South and Mexico, 1870s-1920s’)

Fast forward to the 1930s and the 1940s, rural reformers in the United States and Mexico waged further unprecedented campaigns to remake their countrysides in the name of agrarian justice along with agricultural productivity. This book regales that story. Of how these campaigns were conducted in dialogue with one another, as reformers in each nation came to exchange future plans, models and strategies with their counterparts across the border.

Could you imagine such co-operation between the US and Mexico happening today?
Amid Donald Trump’s overtly tremulous White House?
Wherein a revolving door policy of abhorrent, right-wing fundamentalism has taken hold?

Methinks very much not, which just goes to show the degree to which dialogue betwixt the two countries has almost broken down. And if it hasn’t already broken down in its entirety, it is definitely no longer taken (remotely) seriously as a form of statesman-like-currency.

Might this constitute where Agrarian Crossings – Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside fundamentally takes hold?
If not makes its mark?

In shining a quintessential, organic light upon a truly hideous, current political stalemate of a situation, Tore C. Olsson herein brings farming history right up to date. As Chris Boyer, of the University of Illinois in Chicago makes clear: ”Agrarian Crossings is a path-breaking history of the American and Mexican reformers who reinvented farming in the shadow of World War II. This impressive and scrupulously researched book is required reading for historians of agriculture, technocratic interchange, and the invention of development in the Americas, as well as for anyone interested in the surprisingly entangled origins of the green revolution.”

That, it most definitely is, and a whole lot more besides. The focus on the US-Mexican border in particular: ”Borders matter. Borders regulate the flow of people, the movement of commodities and capital. And the exchange of ideas. Borders separate citizens from aliens, the familiar from the foreign, and those belonging from those unwanted. And perhaps no border in recent history is more iconic in its power of partition than the line bisecting the United States and Mexico.”

Suffice to say, one could contend this argument with the mere word, Israel, but perhaps this is another, highly contentious issue altogether.

Moreover: ”In the century and a half since it was mapped onto the desert and water, the US-Mexico border has become a powerful visual representation of the strikingly unequal relationship between the two nations it anchors.”

Too right, one can without any shadow of a doubt, say that again.
The rampant inequality between these two great nations is as inexorably striking; as is the fact that it is surely only a matter of time before he who promotes the preposterous idea of a wall between them, is impeached.

Impeached beyond redemption might I add!

Here’s hoping this most rich and transnational of books will only accelerate its coming to fruition.

David Marx

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Triumph and Disaster

triumph

Triumph and Disaster – Five Historical Miniatures
By Stefan Zweig
Pushkin Press – £9.99

Enthusiasm, unlike a pickle/Does not keep well, but may prove fickle.

                                                                                                                          Goethe

Hmm, now there’s food for thought; or should I say, enthusiasm?

Although, whichever way one decides to look at it, the all round philosophical comprehension of this fine book ought to serve as some sort of sign – rather like so much of Stefan Zweig’s work.

Indeed, to quote Clive James: ”Zweig’s accumulated historical and cultural studies remain a body of achievement almost too impressive to take in.”

What accounts for Triumph and Disaster – Five Historical Miniatures being such a formidable read, is the acute degree to which Zweig grapples, and then ultimately comes to terms with the five very differing subject matters at hand – the titles of which are: ‘The Field of Waterloo,’ ‘The Race to Reach the South Pole,’ ‘The Conquest of Byzantium,’ The Sealed Train’ and ‘Wilson’s Failure.’ All of which are written so deftly and so remarkably well, James’s words linger with all the literary aroma of a fine wine.

For instance, writing of Captain Scott in the second short story, Zeig states: ”Scott writes English as Tacitus writes Latin, as if carving it in unhewn stone. You sense that he is a man who does not dream, fanatically objective, in fact a true blue Englishman in whom even genius takes the crystalline form of a pronounced sense of duty. Men like Scott have featured hundreds of times in British history, conquering India and nameless islands in the East Indian archipelago, colonizing Africa and fighting battles against the whole world, always with the same iron energy, the same collective consciousness and the same cold, reserved expression.”

Herein is a mere tip of Zweig’s investigative clarity, which, if (objective) truth be known, still roundly resonates today.

The following words being the perfect and most pristine example: ”A single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity.”

David Marx

Alexander Gardner

s-l225

Alexander Gardner –
Visionary Photographer of the American Civil War
By Keith Steiner
Matador – 25.00

How does a camera lie? In this naming of parts, the ways are legion. Most would not question the facts of the doctoring, editing, adjusting of photographs in the modern age of sophisticated airbrushing. The term to ‘photoshop’ is synonymous with contemporary photography in the same manner as to ‘hoover’ is synonymous in domestic management. The alteration of photographs either pre or post exposure is now commonplace, and is not broadly regarded as a breach of ethical standards. The new trope takes its place in a world teeming with smartphone and tablet authored photographs. These photographs engage in stylised composition and promulgate a number of common tropes. Their number renders their imagery indistinct and sometimes invisible.

                                                                                                        (‘The Fallen Man’)

With the advent of fake-news currently marauding the airwaves like an out-of-control tyrant from fake-hell; just as much could readily be applied to photography – could it not?

Along with every schism and trajectory thereof.

Just two, highly in-depth qualities which Keith Steiner address, head on might I add, throughout  Alexander Gardner – Visionary Photographer of the American Civil War.

 

A rather lavishly put together book, which takes both the reader as well as the fan of the photograph on something of a magical mystery tour that’s deeply embedded within some of the most perplexing confines of politics, psychology and photography.

The above quotation ought to send many a curious mind unto perpetual motion; the final terminus of which, as Steiner reminds us in the chapter ‘Reflections on a Looking Glass: The Tragedy of Lewis Payne: The Enigma of Identity,’ invariably reads: ”At risk are the very notions of personhood, selfhood, integrity, identity and personal agency. Readers may recall the blood freezing discarnate incantation which transfixed Orwell’s Winston Smith in Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949) at his moment of greatest intimacy, privacy and personal realisation – ”You are dead.”

From the tragic Rose Woods of Gettysburg to the equally tragic destruction of New York’s Twin Towers, this book’s powerful assimilation of photographs (and I do mean powerful within the catafalque like context of poignancy), truly are something to behold.

If not believe.
If not try and eventually come to terms with.

As such, the 165 pages of Alexander Gardner – Visionary Photographer of the American Civil War are unsurprisingly special.

As Elizabeth Rigby (later Lady Eastlake) once said in 1857: ”Photography has become a household word and a household want… is found in the cell of the convict… and on the cold brave breast on the battlefield.”

David Marx

The Fourth Reich

reich

The Fourth Reich –
The EU – An Emerging German Empire
By Sara Moore
Jollies Publishing – £10. 50

Like a literary purveyor of intrinsic blame, this book reads as if a linear dissertation of all things fundamentally wrong with Germany; which, according to Sara Moore, is nigh everything.

With not only the trajectory of the Second World War to contend with, but the more recent austerity measures placed on Greece by Germany (among others might I add); it is indeed, unsurprisingly easy, to perhaps view Europe’s economic powerhouse with considered disdain.

Although The Fourth Reich – The EU – An Emerging German Empire reads as if it really isn’t that considered.

Admittedly, its twelve chapters do start at the beginning (‘Bismarck: Unifier or Conqueror of Germany’) and conclude with a chapter entitled ‘Germany and the Lehman Brothers Crash,’ but the all-round tonality of the writing is underlined with a simmering persuasion of incessant culpability.

For instance, in the aforementioned opening chapter, Moore writes: ”Bismarck was tall and powerfully built. He had thinning auburn hair, sported a red-blond moustache and enjoyed dispensing malice towards his opponents. He had always been candid about his disdain for parliament, declaring: ‘I am no democrat and cannot be one,’ and ‘We shall bring honour and glory to the name of Junkerdom.’ He caused further dismay by declaring: ‘The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions… but by blood and iron.”’

Reading such words, does make one feel inclined to side with the authoress; but the era in which said words were said, does need to be placed into some sort of political perspective – if not balance.

Furthermore, Otto von Bismarck said a great many other things, much of which added to the eventual reunification of Germany in 1871 by way of instilling social order amid the varying states of colossal discontent. None of which is mentioned within these 303 pages (excluding Notes and Index).

Even in the book’s penultimate chapter ‘How Reunification was Achieved,’ Moore again refers to the First World War – as if the many wars that have taken place since then (Vietnam and Iraq to name but two ) never happened: ”How did Germany get away with causing so much misery and bloodshed in the First World War? And why had it caused its citizens such suffering and unemployment in its Great Inflation when it had emerged from the war in a far better state than the Allies and paid practically ‘no’ ‘actual cash’ in reparations?”

Hmm., if you’re going to write a book of such political and influential magnitude as this, at least know what you’re talking (and writing) about.
And get your facts right.

I’m not even going to respond to the above. It’s so demeaning and utterly ill-informed, it’s way beyond embarrassing.

David Marx

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

war

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

ashes

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