Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A New Round Of Books

Last evening Joshua and I went out to dinner after work, and then we went shopping for my father’s birthday gifts. It did not take us long to select our gifts, because we already knew, more or less, what we would get for my father. We think he will absolutely love the colorful stuffed toy animals we picked out for him!

It was very nice, going out to dinner on a Monday night. We had a very nice time.

Joshua and I have started reading a new round of books, of no particular theme.

We are reading “The Franco-Prussian War” by Geoffrey Wawro, which my father read a few weeks ago. It is the best of the books we are reading, by far, and it is a genuine scholarly analysis of this little-studied conflict, full of new insights and new information.

The Franco-Prussian War’s outcome was not a certain victory for the Germans, as is commonly believed today. The War could easily have gone either way, as Wawro makes clear.

One thing I have learned from the book—to my surprise—is that French weapons technology of the time was superior to German weapons technology. I would never have guessed that.

Another thing I have learned from the book is that a dramatic difference in education levels, in large part, determined the outcome of the war. Over 70% of the French population was illiterate in 1870. The German population, by contrast, was the most highly-educated, not only in Europe, but worldwide. This vast difference in education levels was reflected in the performance of the armies and officers from both sides of the conflict.

Josh and I are also reading “Twelve Days: The Story Of The 1956 Hungarian Revolution” by Victor Sebestyen, a British journalist who, along with his family, escaped Hungary in the Revolution’s aftermath. Sebestyen was only six months old at the time he and his family fled Hungary, but he clearly views himself as an Hungarian Brit.

Sebestyen’s book is fairly interesting, but it is not on the same exalted level as Wawro’s book. It is a journalist’s book, with all of the strengths and all of the weaknesses that that term implies.

Sebestyen sometimes gets his facts wrong, and he is brutally and unjustifiably hard on the U.S. for not intervening in the conflict. The Hungarian Revolution occurred at the same time as the Suez Crisis, an event of far greater significance, and the world’s diplomats and statesmen, understandably, had to devote their primary focus to the Suez Crisis, not to Hungary.

Khrushchev knew this, of course, and he took advantage of the situation to reassert Soviet authority in Hungary. The rest of the world stood by, helpless, in the face of the U.S.S.R.’s brutal and bloody termination of the revolution.

However, there was no way that President Eisenhower was going to provoke a world war over the situation in Hungary, even if the Suez Crisis had not been underway. I cannot believe that Sebestyen does not understand this.

Josh and I are also reading “Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains Of The 1930’s” by Donald Worster. Recently re-published, this award-winning publication of a quarter century ago does not deserve its acclaim, in my opinion. Worster’s writing is very dry—it lacks vividness, and historical sweep, and richness—and he simply cannot meld the presentation of detail into the larger picture, something all successful historians must learn to master. The book strikes me as something based upon a mediocre television documentary.

I am also reading “Kristallnacht: Prelude To Destruction” by Martin Gilbert, a book Josh read a few weeks ago. It is not necessarily a scholarly book, but it is a very fine one.

It is based, in large part, upon interviews Gilbert conducted with survivors of Kristallnacht. Because the interviews were conducted only a few years ago, all of the persons interviewed had been children at the time of the event, and their memories may not be reliable or accurate. Further, the stories these witnesses tell do not necessarily reveal the kinds of detail that an adult’s memory might provide, nor do the stories place these experiences within the context of the overall series of events.

The book is nevertheless very moving, and very difficult to put down.

Germany’s Jewish population was never large. In 1933, Germany had 500,000 Jewish residents. By 1938’s Kristallnacht, 150,000 German Jewish residents had already left Germany. In the next nine months prior to the outbreak of war, another 120,000 German Jewish persons succeeded in getting out of Germany. Of the millions of Jewish persons murdered by the Germans during World War II, only 200,000 were actually German.

In his book, Martin is ruthless in his criticism of the U.S.’s failure to admit German Jewish citizens in the late 1930’s. He contrasts U.S. actions unfavorably with those of Britain, which opened its doors fairly widely in the months immediately before the war. It is hard to refute his criticism of U.S. immigration policy in the late 1930’s (although in the early 1930’s, the two nations’ respective immigration policies had been reversed).

Tonight, Joshua found an online review of “Kristallnacht” that contained an astounding and hysterical remark in its “comment” section. Reading it, both of us were doubled up, laughing uncontrollably for over an hour.

A woman in Waterloo, Ontario, Janelle Martin, had reviewed the book on a book-review website, Her review was entirely unremarkable.

Then, in response to a reader comment, she stated, “Arnold Schoenberg [in] 1899 wrote a work entitled ‘Verklarte Nacht’ about the events of that night but I don’t believe it was an opera.”

No, Janelle, it was indeed not an opera—at least you got that part right—but you might want to check those dates again, and perhaps have another peak at your German/English dictionary. Arnold Schoenberg indeed WAS ahead of time, I readily admit--but not quite in the way you propose!

While we were laughing like maniacs, Josh and I sent my father an email with a link to Janelle’s review, and we sat back, waiting for his response.

We got a phone call back almost immediately, and my father was laughing hysterically, laughing so hard that he could barely speak. Josh and I could hear my mother laughing in the background, too, and we could hear the dog barking, excitedly, in sympathy with my parents’ laughter and excitement.

Finally, when he was able to gather himself and talk clearly, my father told us “Thank you for the early birthday present!”

And thank you, Janelle. You made our and my father’s evening a very special one.


  1. Martin Gilbert is one of the greatest lving scholars on the subject of the holocaust.

    Children's memory of unspeakable events are as accurate as those of adult's, if not more so. My father's niece, who was 12 years old when she was taken to the Czestochowa Ghetto in Poland and later the Hasag labor camp are as vivid and accurate as they were at the time it happened. From my own experience, my father, who was a holocaust survivor had a tendency to romanticize and dumb down the events because he did not want his family or anyone else to know how terribly he was treated and how much he suffered. In fact, older holocaust survivors describe the events less accurately than younger ones. I grew up in a community of at least 3,000 Holocaust survivors. As a a member of the second generation, I consider myself and expert on the subject.

    Helen Kamioner

  2. In re-reading my comments on your posts, I find that I often relate my own experiences rather than responding to yours. That comes from a lifetime of being uncertain about the validity of my own thoughts and opinions (not a problem with you, I've noticed). Be that as it may, here goes again.

    I was 11 years old when the Hungarian Revolution took place. This event was enormously exciting and we followed it avidly in the papers and on TV (this was one of the years we were in the States rather than Taiwan). Having been driven out of China by the Communists, I was thirsting for revenge. I was very disillusioned and confused when the U.S. didn't intervene. Couldn't understand why Eisenhower didn't order in our troops to save the good guys. In contrast, Suez seemed boring and distant. At age 11, I didn't understand the geopolitical issues involved (or that there were any such issues).

    Anyway, a few months later, in early 1957, a Hungarian refugee boy (Ferenc/Frank) showed up in my 7th grade class. He seemed so heroic and romantic. We did our best to be friendly, but lost interest when he didn't respond as we expected him to (with gratefulness?). Actually, he turned kind of surly after a time. I'm sure he felt lost and at sea in a new culture, learning a new language. Seventh graders are seldom sensitive to that kind of thing.

    That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

  3. David, I have a friend whose parents escaped from Hungary in 1956.

    They taught him Hungarian, and he is a fluent speaker of that very, very difficult language.

    However, he did not enter a career in which he has occasion to use his language skills.

    He became a stockbroker.

    Oddly, he recently bought an apartment in Budapest, although he goes to Budapest less than once a year.

    He thought it would be a good investment.

    He rents it out, but he has the right to evict his tenants, short-term, whenever he wants to use the apartment.

    This right is enshrined in Hungarian law.

    It dates back to the days of the ruritanian aristocracy, when the ruritanian aristocracy lived on country estates for most of the year but needed a place to stay in Budapest a couple of months a year during the season.

    The old Austro-Hungarian Empire resulted in many, many odd laws that strike us Anglos as perverse.

    Did you know, for example, that Austria still uses primogeniture as the cornerstone of its estate laws?

    Of course, the rationale is a good one: to prevent breaking up the old estates into increasingly tiny and unsustainable pieces.

    So, in Austria, to this day, the first son inherits the estate. The second son enters the army or the civil service or the diplomatic corps. The third son enters the priesthood.

    It actually makes sense, given that nation's unique circumstances.

  4. Goodness, I thought Ruritania was a fictional kingdom - Prisoner of Zenda and all that.

  5. Ruritania WAS a fictional kingdom.

    However, the term is also used to refer to the old stateless aristocracies, now defunct, more or less, whose old estates (and whose old titles) were part of the ever-shifting political mildew of Central and Eastern Europe until World War I, when their countries ceased to exist.

    Count Seilern of Austria (long a resident of London) was the quintessential example of the ruritanian aristocracy.