Archive for the ‘nazi germany’ tag
This billboard, which is on rotation in my town in East Tennessee, pretty well embodies the fringe movement in this nation and their ludicrous and desperate attempts at scaring people into distrusting and even hating the Democratic Party or progressives. Following the logic of the sign, we are supposed believe that either President Obama or our leaders in Washington as a whole are secretly plotting to take over the nation by enacting stiffer gun control laws, as if we actually live in a dictatorship like Nazi Germany circa 1942. This is beyond absurd, of course, but I’m starting to think that the fringe right in this nation are about on par with the 9/11 conspiracy theorists and the supposed UFO abduction victims, and as such, should be treated with as much contempt and mockery for first, failing to seriously advance any viewpoints that may actually improve this nation and the world, and second, by actively working to keep us slavishly in the dark ages and so far behind parts of Europe, China and Japan that we may never be the greatest country again … whatever that means.
Within the last year or so, I decided that I wanted to try to read at least one book on each of the major wars this country has been involved in since the American Revolution. In recent months, I have undertaken David McCullough’s elegantly written “1776″ and James McPherson’s expansive “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era”. After just finishing John Keegan’s 1999 book, “The First World War,” I will probably continue and read his other one, “The Second World War.”
On the back cover of Keegan’s account of WWI, a review by The Boston Globe reads,
Keegan has the rare ability to view his subject from a necessarily Olympian height, and then swoop down to engage the reader with just the right detail or just the right soldier’s voice…. In the field of military history, this is as good as it gets.
Other reviews have described the book as “magisterial,” “quietly heart-rending” and “a masterpiece.” The New York Times got it right when it called the book, “omniscient.”
As history books go, I sometimes find myself being frustrated by being supplied with vastly more detail than I often require. I stopped midway through The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade for this reason. And for another reason: it was pretty dryly written. I’m vastly interested in that particular subject, but on page after page, the reader is inundated with, for example, the number of pints of rum on board such-and-such ship or the record of how many bushels of corn, etc. The number of slaves on certain ships is important, for instance, but not how much liquor the crew had on board. At least I can’t imagine how that would be important information. I hope to try the book again in the future. Perhaps I’ll do some “smart” reading and sort of skim over the minutiae.
Regardless, Keegan’s book, as well as McPherson’s 800-page volume, while offering us some of those types of “omniscient” details that we may or may not want, suffer not from such tediousness. Keegan, in a masterfully written style, takes us through Austrian archduke and heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, Serbia’s “complicity,” the Austrian empire’s declaration of war, Germany’s entrance and straight to the trenches and no man’s land through four years of fighting that would eventually lead to revolution in the Soviet Union and Germany, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, the formation of modern Europe and, of course, the end of 10 million lives.
WWI was called The Great War, in my view, because it not only was waged by all of the vast empires of the world at the time (the United States played a limited, but important part in 1918 by overwhelming the German military conscious with millions of fresh troops that would prove too much for the often underfed and tramped down Triple Alliance forces), but because it was a decisive moment in history that carved up what we know of Europe today and razed the very idea of vast and sprawling empires that had so gripped most of the world for thousands of years prior. Hitler, of course, would attempt to resurrect this idea two decades later.
In recounting all this in a masterful literary style, Keegan gives us maps of the major battlefields, photos of sinking ships and lumbering soldiers and head shots of some of the key players on both sides of the conflict that in the first sentence of the book, he dubs “tragic and unnecessary.” Ending with a chapter titled, “America and Armageddon,” he sums up that much of the commanders’ actions, particularly on the alliance’s side, was a mystery. For instance, the Kaiser’s attempt to contend with Britain, a clear naval superpower at the time, for seas between Norway and the United Kingdom. On the Kaiser, Keegan notes,
Had he not embarked on a strategically unnecessary attempt to match Britain’s maritime strength, fatal hostility between the two countries would have been avoided; so, too, in all possibility, might be been the neurotic climate of suspicion and insecurity from which the First World War was born.
He goes on to describe the mystery of Ludendorff and other German officials insisting on continued military operations despite troop conditions and being outnumbered as “selfish and ultimately pointless military ambition.”
The legacy of the war’s political outcome scarcely bears contemplation: Europe ruined as a centre of world civilisation, Christian kingdoms transformed through defeat into godless tyrannies, Bolshevik or Nazi, the superficial difference between their ideologies counting not at all in their cruelty to common and decent folk.
At 427 pages and with often challenging vocabulary, this is not an easy or quick read, but one well worth the effort. Of course, Keegan ends by looking forward to what would become another episode of egregious loss of life during World War II and backward to the trenches, in which he notes, with untold irony, soldiers existing where love and compassion were all-but vacant, the friendships that inevitably developed as soldiers fought with, and for, each other:
Comradership flourished in the earthwork cities of the Western and Eastern Fronts, bound strangers into the closest brotherhood, elevated the loyalties created with the ethos of temporary regimentality to the status of life-and-death blood ties.
Indeed, for many soldiers, their fellow men in arms would be the last family, and sometimes, only family they would know.
Men whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into bonds of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self stronger than any of the friendships made in peace and better times. That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War.
When thinking of military history, or history at all, one often thinks of tedious and an uninspired presentation. And indeed, while readers may feel the need to re-read more than one sentence in this book because of sometimes complex structures, this is the anti-thesis to dry historical studies. If not for its obvious factual nature, I would be inclined call this historical-literature, the difference between literature and mere fiction being that literature is art. And that’s how I would describe this work.
Because we here in the South have few listening options when it comes to talk radio, I tuned in to Sean Hannity’s radio program on the way to work yesterday, which is aired on one of the few talk radio stations in town, with conservative voices being the only options to which one can listen.
Anyway, he was talking about the election and specifically, about how the Republican Party had slipped off the track in seemingly losing the excitement and support of its formative years. In part, he suggested McCain and company, and the party in general, had failed to represent the most important American ideal, which was to spread democracy and freedom throughout the world.
And this is where I want to camp out for a minute. Regardless of whether he said “spread” or “promote” (“spread” carrying a more active connotation) matters less because the premise is largely the same: folks like Hannity seem to support us taking an active role in helping create as many democracies around the world as possible.
But why? Why should this be the highest calling of our country? Should not helping our own people have better lives be the highest calling? Or perhaps throwing more money into medical research? Or research into clean technologies to help quell climate change, which would truly benefit humanity since we produce 1/4 of the world’s greenhouse gases.
Historically, one can see that it’s quite ironic that many think spreading democracy should be this country’s clarion call, when this country was one of the late bloomers in abolishing slavery among the industrialized nations. (England abolished it in 1772, and in 1883 in the colonies, while France did away with it in 1793 on the mainland and 1794 in its colonies. America: 1865) That said, I don’t want to undercut the importance of the election of Barack Obama in coming closer to healing our still-lingering racial divides. Though, clearly, he’s not wholly black, it was a momentous step, one in which Britain has not yet taken. Chalk that up to another ironic twist.
But back on point, why this march to the sea for democracy? Clearly, every civilization of the world is not dead-set on obtaining democracy for itself. If those countries were, they would take the necessary steps to raise up coups and overthrow their oppressors. In nearly every case of tyranny on this planet, the oppressed always, always outnumber the oppressors (except, perhaps, in the case of Nazi Germany, where Hitler was brilliant in his attempts to propagandize the entire movement so as to enlist supporters from the bulk of society) and by vast majorities. It would take massive mobilization techniques, but no one can convince me that if the Russian people during the Communist years really wanted to overthrow the government, 100 million people (current census estimates are at 141 million) marching on Moscow couldn’t do the job. The city’s government would be laid to waste, even if the forces amounted to men with basic rifles and ball bats. Or, people unhappy with a country’s leadership could simply leave en masse. Not only would that amount of people be an impossible force to stop, but by their very absence, the infrastructure of the government would fail to sustain itself. I’m not suggesting or advocating that any of this should take place, but simply pointing out that the American government talks a lot about helping those who are oppressed in other countries out of tyrannical situations. But I argue there is much that those folks could do to help themselves (A government army would be no match for an entire country’s population rising up against it.), but they simply don’t do it, for whatever reasons. In these regards, we often give petty dictators too much credit. Against the mass of an entire country, they could be rendered obsolete.
Regardless, this notion that we are to be the beacons of freedom and democracy for the entire world is absurd because some peoples don’t want the type of democracy we enjoy. If some do, they don’t take the steps to make it happen. Moreover, our bombastic imperialism has gone a long way in eroding our favor with the rest of the world. John McCain and Sarah Palin may have described themselves as mavericks and would have supported the spread of democracy, but in world affairs, being a maverick means being a Yahoo (race of brutes), which means being the typical, gung-ho, manifest destiny American, bent on penning our signature on everything good and right with the world. When in fact, much that is bad, self-destructive and not right with the world also bears our shiny John Hancock. Who woulda thunk it?