1913: The Eve of War–Paul Ham (Kindle Single)

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Paul Ham at times sounds like he’s writing German apologetics in 1913: The Eve of War.  Germans, he argues, had been left behind in the colonial race for prestige and power and countries like Britain, France, and Russia should be faulted for aggressively denying Germany any place on that colonial stage.  The Triple Entente, in effect, pushed Germany into the arms of Austria and Italy. France’s loan to Russia for expanding their railways understandably excited German fears, for example.  Chapter Four is titled, “English Germanophobia v. Germany’s King Neptune.”  Ham argues repeatedly that the German government was not warmongering prior to 1914, but his evidence seems to contradict this claim in several places, such as when he writes that the German government and “its press poodles overtly managed the people’s expectations” with regards to nationalistic possibilities.  The warmongers, he argues, were generals and the press across Europe.  The Germans had legitimate concerns about blockades by the British navy, but lost the naval race despite huge financial expenditures.  The French come under heaviest fire for racist attitudes.  The French president, Poincaré’s “governing animus,” Ham says, “was hatred for, and fear of, Germany, gleaned in his youth in 1871” (the year the Prussians defeated France and completed Bismarck’s program for unification of Germany.  This is starkly contrasted later with Bismarck’s “guiding animus” to acquire power peacefully, an odd characterization for a man who led Prussia into three wars, at least two of which he manufactured to further his nationalist and economic goals.  Britain and Russia eyed the chance for war as an opportunity for distraction from internal conflicts brought about by gross disparities in the distribution of wealth.  Ham repeatedly characterizes the Belle Epoque as soft, ineffective, and elitist, touching very few ordinary people, who were increasingly concerned about God and country.  Indeed, Ham criticizes cultural historians for paying too much attention to this elitist movement.  “Nostalgia-laden hindsight has imposed on the pre-war years,” Ham writes, “the notion of an artistic revolution that touched everyone.  It did not.”  Ham must have hated the attention to the centennial of the Arsenal Exhibition, which focused on the culture shock of 1913, as done in the splendid set of programs by the Fishko Files, Culture Shock: 1913. This argument, too, seems contradicted elsewhere in the work, such as when Ham says that Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia saw the world they knew under serious political and social threat.  

In the end, Ham attributes the war to passive politicians buoyed along by a nationalist press, personal animus, and the need to squelch internal conflicts.  Young men wanted glory and discounted the warnings of their elders from the decadent Belle Epoque (which, again, had no significant impact on anyone).  

In a 2011 interview with the Sydney Herald, Ham says he does not consider himself a historian.  In fact, his training is in economic history and political science (M.A. London School of Economics) and his professional experience is in journalism.  He also says he does not start a book with the end in mind, but does the research, weighs the evidence, then reaches his conclusions.  That is sound practice, but how one reads the research is key and, in this case, Ham’s conclusions about what led to war sound more like a commentary on our own times (he has chastised American foreign policy in other works) than on the early twentieth century.  History teaches us lessons, but there is a danger in mining history to teach the lessons we want it to give.  

Ham’s short work is thought-provoking and offers an interesting place in which to play with ideas, but its internal logic does not hold for me and makes me suspicious of its methodology and goals.  To be fair, however, I may read his longer work, 1914: The Year the World Ended, to see if this is a function of the compressed format or a characteristic of his work generally.  If you are interested in WWI and want a quick read, try out Ham’s 1913: The Eve of War, but keep your critical thinking cap on.

Finished 1/5/14

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The Hangman’s Daughter–Oliver Pötzsch (Kindle)

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I read a review of this book several years ago and it’s been on that subtext list of books that I want to read some day.  When my husband bought me a Kindle for Christmas and this book was on their Deals page, I thought it was time to move it up on the list.  That decision proved to be a great one.

The Hangman’s Daughter is based on the hangman ancestors of the author, the Kuisl family from Bavaria.  Seventeenth-century hangmen not only were executioners, but torturers, and this adds further spice to the drama, which opens with young Jakob Kuisl trying to wake his drunk father for what becomes the botched execution of a young woman accused of murdering her newborn.  Jakob’s role in this tragedy causes him to swear he will not follow in the family trade.  That’s the prologue.  Open chapter one and Jakob is the town of Schöngau’s hangman with a prosperous home and family.  He is widely read, owns more books than the town “doctor” and is a famed herbalist and healer.  The son of the town “doctor,” Simon, is a dandy with an incomplete university education and a yearning for something more, some of which might be Kuisl’s daughter, Magdalena.  Enter the social problem.  Hangmen families are thought to be unlucky, tainted by the death and pain they are commissioned to bring into the world, and so generally relegated to intermarriage with other hangmen families.  Magdalena is also unusual in knowing how to read and having been taught by her father during an extended childhood illness.  

The mystery enters when a young boy is found in the river with multiple stab wounds and, upon closer examination, what seems to be a witch’s mark on his shoulder.  The murder of other children, also with these marks, heightens the town’s certainty that the town midwife is guilty of witchcraft.  

The actual mystery itself, however, is incidental to Pötzsch’s story.  What matters are the characters and the social web Pötzsch creates as they work to resolve the mystery of the children’s deaths and save the midwife from death at the stake.  The hangman’s moral complexity is beautifully drawn as he must torture the same woman he works to save and as he partners with the young man who is making his daughter the subject of town gossip.

Too often authors of historical mysteries set in the premodern world draw that world as cartoonish, superstitious and clearly irrational.  While irrationality plays a role in a story of witchcraft persecution, Pötzsch respects the time in which he has set his story, perhaps in part because it is the time of people who, for him and his son, whose room is adorned with their images and writings, are real.

Hangman’s Daughter was a holiday treat with no calories and I am looking forward to the second in the series, which I have already downloaded onto my Kindle.

Finished 1/7/14

Gutenberg the Geek–Jeff Jarvis (Kindle Single)

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Jeff Jarvis is interested in internet freedom and that, ultimately, is his point in writing Gutenberg the Geek.  He begins his Kindle single with a look at Gutenberg as an entrepreneur.  He quickly analyzes the traits of and actions taken by Gutenberg that facilitated his success.  He then turns to his real point, which is internet freedom.  Gutenberg was able to print indulgences to fund his enterprise and yet print media, which he worked to make accessible to all once he lost proprietary control in the courts, led to the Protestant Reformation, which opened with a critique of the selling of indulgences.  Print, he follows many scholars in arguing, was a disruptor to accepted cultural practices and its disruptions, unforeseen by Gutenberg or those around him, changed our world.  The internet, he argues, has the same potential, a potential we cannot see because we are bound by the very cultural practices it disrupts.  

I was very curious about what Jarvis would have to say and, while his message was economically delivered and easy to grasp, I walked away feeling this single was, more than anything, an invitation to read his longer works and follow his extended argument about internet freedom.  Gutenberg was not his passion, but his tool.  I can’t help but think Gutenberg deserved better.

Finished 1/5/14