The Archers, Histories of Colonial Town Planning, Germany, plus Books of the Year 2002–and more

By Benjamin Schwarz

December 2002 ATLANTIC

 

IKWIG-Hiller

Fires of Hatred
by Norman M. Naimark
Harvard

Revealing, often in spite of itself, this study, originally published last year, deserves a wider readership, and might get it thanks to this recently issued paperback edition. A lot is wrong with the book: in an ostensibly objective examination of five cases of ethnic cleansing in twentieth-century Europe, Naimark inserts his indignant demand that in future cases “the international community” (whatever that is) must “act promptly and decisively.” He ought to separate his history from his policy advocacy: such sloganeering in what should be a dispassionate analysis leads him to ignore all the hard questions that would perforce confront those policymakers whom Naimark rather jejunely expects to “act.” (These questions are, of course, all the harder after last September 11, when it became clear that at least some of America’s national-security resources must be devoted to countering real and present dangers.) But Naimark’s book is significant because it contains the most easily accessible detailed account of the worst instance of ethnic cleansing in postwar Europe: the expulsion of about 11.5 million ethnic Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia after World War II, which claimed the lives of as many as 2.5 million. In his thorough case study Naimark unwittingly demolishes much of his book’s overarching thesis. He subscribes to what could be called the Very Bad Man theory of ethnic cleansing, embraced by human-rights activists and many academics, which holds that only the unsophisticated would consider ethnic cleansing the product of what he derisively caricatures as “ancient hatreds.” Rather, Naimark asserts, it is “ignited by the warped ambitions of modern politicians.” But, as Naimark points out, the campaigns of ethnic cleansing in Czechoslovakia and Poland were presided over by democratic regimes (in Czechoslovakia the mild-mannered, impeccably liberal Edvard Benes was the head of state), supported by all the major political parties, and even endorsed by the United States and Britain. In his introduction Naimark singles Poland out as one of the “few success stories” in formerly communist Europe, and he would presumably include the Czech Republic as another. But he ignores an obvious if unsettling question: Are those states today stable, prosperous, and democratic largely because of their brutal removal of their former German minorities?

 

Film Studies

I Know Where I’m Going!
by Pam Cook
BFI Publishing/California

A recent addition to the BFI Film Classics series, in which landmark works of cinema are treated to graceful and precise analyses (such as the one Salman Rushdie gave The Wizard of Oz), this elegant exegesis of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1945 movie I Know Where I’m Going! illuminates one of the most shimmeringly intense films ever made. Starring Wendy Hiller, who managed to be simultaneously winsome and knowing, the movie itself is so haunting largely because of its oppositions. Jaunty yet deeply romantic, playful yet elegiac, it maintains an ironic tone (thanks in part to its many visual and auditory puns) even as it depicts its protagonist losing her jaded self to True Love. Above all, the film juxtaposes a simple romance with an exploration of the dark, even violent, nature of sexual desire. Cook puts the movie in a wide perspective—assessing the astonishing partnership of Powell and Pressburger (they shared directing, producing, and writing credits), the ways in which wartime attitudes toward marriage influenced the story, and the depopulation of Scotland’s western islands, where the movie was set and largely filmed. Superbly selected still photos (the book’s best attribute) inform Cook’s discerning analysis of the movie’s most striking feature: the cinematography of Erwin Hillier, which is—as suits a film dominated by juxtaposition—characterized by the interplay of light and shadow.

 

History

America’s God
by Mark A. Noll
Oxford

A comprehensive history of American Christian theology and its social context from the Revolution to the Civil War, this book is exasperating because it is at once important and impenetrable. Over the past thirty years an unusually creative body of scholarship has explored a crucial question concerning antebellum society, culture, and politics: How is it that although nearly none of the Founding Fathers had subscribed to traditional Christianity, and although the churches had suffered an enormous decline by the end of the eighteenth century, evangelical Protestantism had by the 1830s so permeated America that Tocqueville would correctly call this country “the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls”? No historian is more qualified than Noll to synthesize this scholarly work. Focusing specifically on the complex relationship between evangelicalism and republican political ideology, and on the central role that evangelical theology played in both the defense and the condemnation of slavery, Noll has an astounding command of the vast literature, and his understanding of the ways in which evangelicalism influenced the values, institutions, ideology, and self-conception of the new nation is always intricate and often astute. Given his subject, Noll can’t be faulted for the denseness of this 602-page work, but his arguments are often imprecise and riddled with the jargon of the academy (“outworking,” “construct,” and, inevitably, “discourse” infect its pages). Although this is almost certainly the most significant work of American historical scholarship this year, too many readers will justifiably shy away from it.

The Battle for Leningrad, 1941-1944
by David M. Glantz
Kansas

The clash between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army was the largest and most ferocious war in history. The main scene of the Nazis’ defeat, the Eastern Front claimed 88 percent of all German casualties in the Second World War, and the death of as many as 35 million Soviet civilians and 14.7 million Soviet soldiers. The armies struggled over vast territory, in a seemingly unremitting series of battles of unprecedented scope: in a single battle, at Kursk (the largest in history), at least 1.5 million Soviets and Germans fought. The Red Army’s 1944 Operation Bagration, a stunning sequence of multi-front strategic offensives, remains a feat unmatched in the history of warfare. In short, the Russo-German war constitutes the most important chapter in world military history. Astonishingly, however, the number of authoritative books in English on any aspect of the Soviets’ “Great Patriotic War” can be counted on two hands. They include John Erickson’s sweeping two-volume history (The Road to Stalingrad and The Road to Berlin), and the more recent works by the editor of the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, retired U.S. Army Colonel David M. Glantz, now indisputably the West’s foremost expert on the subject. Glantz is fully exploiting perhaps the most significant development ever in military historical scholarship—the opening of the enormous Soviet archives. He has already written a masterly general operational history of the Eastern Front, and a huge and detailed account of the Battle of Kursk, along with other studies. This more than 600-page book meticulously chronicles the operational history of the Battle of Leningrad—the nearly three-year German siege of the city, and the Soviets’ often disastrous attempts to lift it—which cost the USSR close to two million civilians and soldiers. Glantz is a sober scholar and a painstaking researcher. His books are definitive, though very heavy going. They will be an essential resource when the epic struggle in the East finally finds its Tacitus or its Parkman.

God’s Playground
by Norman Davies
Columbia

What makes this two-volume history of Poland, first published in 1979, such a great book? This edition, available in the new year, will be the standard work on the subject in English, but it’s much more than a reliable chronicle. Davies, a University of London professor and the author of the quirky, sparkling, and gigantic Europe: A History, writes with commanding dexterity and a confident, at times almost swaggering, intelligence as he balances narrative and analysis. (Between his chronological chapters he intersperses lengthy thematic essays on, for example, “The Vicissitudes of Urban Life,” the Catholic Church, the Jewish community, and “The Modern Polish Frontiers”; this last, which he elucidates with ease, is a topic as controversial and convoluted as it is vital to understanding twentieth-century European diplomatic and military history.) Davies is opinionated and biased (he could be characterized as a Polophile), and he argues cogently—if not, for me, convincingly—for the most charitable interpretation possible concerning such subjects as the Polish government’s policies toward Jews in the interwar period, and its ethnic cleansing of Germans and Ukrainians after the war. Given Davies’s bias, it’s an impressive mark of his scholarly honesty and comprehensiveness that both times I’ve read his book it has led me to a conclusion its brilliant author would find uncongenial. A.J.P. Taylor’s remark about the Germans applies equally to the Poles: “[They] have never found a middle way of life, either in their thought or least of all in their politics. One looks in vain in their history for juste milieu, for common sense.”

Architecture and Town Planning in Colonial North America
by James D. Kornwolf
Johns Hopkins

A monument of scholarly publishing, this three-volume, 1,823-double-column-page work is the first thorough history of its subject. It ranges from Russian Alaska to French Quebec, Michigan, Missouri, and Louisiana; from Spanish New Mexico, California, and Florida to the British and Dutch cities and settlements on the Atlantic seaboard. Comprehensive and detailed, it examines—in unusually brisk and intelligent prose, and with almost 4,000 aptly chosen illustrations—the public and private buildings; the forts and harbors; the squares and greens; the streets, towns, and cities; and the gardens and landscapes of the New World. Throughout, Kornwolf calls attention both to the ways all these things fit into general patterns and to their flourishes and idiosyncrasies. A remarkable work of both art history and social history, these volumes keenly assess the aesthetic triumphs of town planning and landscape design in Philadelphia, Charleston, and Williamsburg, and the architectural feats performed by the housewrights and bridge builders of Essex County, Massachusetts —but they also reveal how structures and designs reflected North America’s disparate cultural, environmental, and religious characteristics. (Divergences in building traditions between New England and the South, for instance, already firmly established in 1700, embodied the differences in class structure, mortality rates, and family relations between the two regions.) Thank God for university presses; these beautiful books are of lasting importance, but no publishing house with responsibilities to shareholders could take on such a time-consuming, expensive, and unremunerative project.

The Last Days of Hitler
by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Macmillan UK/Trafalgar Square

Yes, yes, I’m sorry—another book about the Second World War. But everyone should read this half-century-old masterpiece of historical literature, and now its final, seventh edition, published in Britain in 1995, is at last available here. The author, who would become a historian of seventeenth-century England, was a British intelligence officer assigned the task in September 1945 of determining what, precisely, had happened to Hitler. (In the immediate aftermath of the war many versions of the Führer’s death or escape had become current.) Trevor-Roper’s report and this book, which grew out of it, were based on his deft and meticulous analysis of captured German papers and diaries and above all on his incisive investigation and interrogation of often unreliable witnesses. From this fragmentary and contradictory evidence he fashioned a compelling narrative that remains definitive in its essentials. For this alone the book would be a triumph. But from his first chapter, with its brilliant collection of pen portraits of the members of Hitler’s court, which he used to limn Nazism’s history and aims, through his analysis of the intricate ramifications of the failed plot to kill Hitler in 1944, to his vivid evocation of the claustrophobic psychosis of the final days in the bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery, Trevor-Roper—with a sharp eye for ironic detail, a mordant sense of humor, and a cool, epigrammatic style—produced one of the most elegant and penetrating works of modern history ever written.

Biography

Frederick the Great
by David Fraser
Penguin UK/Trafalgar Square

Frederick II of Prussia was an autocrat of the Enlightenment: tolerant (he was generous to Prussia’s Jews) and widely—astonishingly—accomplished. He wrote perceptively about history, diplomacy, military affairs, French literature, religion, philosophy, law, and government. He was a close friend and correspondent of Voltaire’s. An excellent flutist, he composed three symphonies and seventy solo flute pieces. He was the most brilliant general and strategist of the eighteenth century. (After defeating Prussian armies at Jena and Auerstadt in 1806, Napoleon took his marshals to visit Frederick’s tomb, in Potsdam. “Hats off, messieurs,” he said. “If he were alive we would not be here.”) He is among the three greatest German diplomats in history (the other two being Bismarck and Gustav Stresemann). He endured a brutal upbringing at the hands of his sadistic father (who forced him at the age of 18 to watch the beheading of his best friend, who had tried to help him escape to England), but he emerged a charming and witty, if somewhat aloof, adult. In short, Frederick is a great subject for a great biography. Nancy Mitford wrote a characteristically sparkling and superficial life of the King, but alas, Carlyle’s wacky, idolatrous multi-volume biography seemed to have cast a pall over serious efforts in English—until now. Fraser, a retired British general and the biographer of Rommel, is especially trenchant on the potentially dull and complicated subjects of eighteenth-century warfare and Central European geostrategy, but he writes commandingly, and with panache and sensitivity, on all aspects of Frederick’s life and multifaceted world. This magnificent biography was published in the United States last year, but its publisher soon went out of business, so the book has been frustratingly difficult to find. Happily, now Trafalgar Square is distributing the British paperback edition.

Books of the Year

Suggestions for Giving and Getting

Nonfiction

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
by Janet Browne
Knopf

Master of the Senate
by Robert A. Caro
Knopf

Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet
by Joseph Frank
Princeton

The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
by David Thomson
Knopf

Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self
by Claire Tomalin
Knopf

Fiction

Achilles
by Elizabeth Cook
Picador USA

Atonement
by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

Family Matters
by Rohinton Mistry
Knopf

Mercy Among the Children
by David Adams Richards
Arcade

Hotel World
by Ali Smith
Anchor Books

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