Archive for March 2014

The Great Debate, by Yuval Levin

March 26, 2014

How so e’er, my man
Shall reade a piece of VIRGIL, TACITUS,
LIVIE, or of some better booke to us,
Of which wee’ll speake our minds, amidst our meate . . . .
–Ben Jonson, “Inviting a Friend to Supper”

I have an edition on the shelf that packages Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France with Paine’s Rights of Man. This is a natural pairing, especially for the classroom, to compare and contrast. This book by Yuval Levin provides a discussion of the writings of Burke and Paine, not only the Reflections and Rights of Man, but also Burke’s letters and speeches and Paine’s Common Sense.

Burke is often invoked by contemporary American conservatives as their inspiration, but Levin makes clear that Burke never renounced his Whiggery. Recoiling emotionally from the cold logic of the French Revolution, Burke attempted most famously in the Reflections, but also in his letters, speeches, and other works, to articulate a political philosophy of small “c” conservatism–appreciating what the culture had inherited because it was inherited, while admitting incremental change where necessary. Paine, on the other hand, was ready to make a new world order and had no patience. They are the bookends of American revolutionary thought and practice–America continued the legal system and terminology that had come with Englishness (did the courts of the Revolution consider themselves bound by a Gallic Rule in Shelley’s Case?), even keeping the outlines of the colonies for the new states, while at the same time breaking the claims of the British Crown. Contrast this to France, where units of measure were digitized, provinces were suppressed in favor of departments, and for a time, even the days of the week and months of the year were relabeled. The American method never let the novel entirely have its way.

What may be new to the reader familiar with the major works is the personal relationship between the two men, who if not friends, were at least well acquainted and exchanged some correspondence. Paine, especially, wrote several articles that were specifically in response to Burke. In Levin’s telling, despite the chasm that yawned between them regarding how the world was and should be, they got along tolerably well, and each maintained some esteem for the other. Levin holds them up as an example to the talkers of today–it may really be possible to have great disagreements without wishing the other person the worst. As for the substantive influence of his subjects, Levin writes that the Democrats have more of Paine in them than the Republicans do of Burke.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the book resembles a Ph.D. thesis between covers, what we used to call a “close reading of the text.” Levin needed to put Burke and Paine in context for their own times (with discussion of other contemporary philosophers and politicians, which he never really does in any detail) and today (which he finally does in the last chapter). This is disappointing, in that Levin’s articles are always very good. Expanding to book length requires other kinds of writing–the digression, the colorful anecdote, varying tone to maintain interest, etc.  He lets loose a bit in the footnotes, where there is some textual discussion, though not quite in a law-review style.

 

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The End, by Ian Kershaw

March 16, 2014

It was not dying–no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”
–Randall Jarrell, “Losses”

This book does not look at the big picture.

Taking Nazi Germany as the historical subject, The End chronicles its last ten months, from the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, to the imprisonment of Reichspräsident Dönitz and his cabinet on May 23, 1945. Germany is the center of gravity of the story, so that what is outside (the strategy and tactics of the Allies, the hardships of civilian populations in occupied countries, even the casualties of the opposition) gets no treatment. Looking at Nazi Germany as a dying entity, this book examines how it died and what it pulled with it on the way down.

Hitler’s determination not to repeat the “stab in the back” of World War I, along with the decision of the Allies at Casablanca to accept nothing but unconditional surrender, meant that the last year of the war was especially deadly. Kershaw calculates that 49 percent of German battlefield deaths occurred during the last 10 months of the war. At the very end, German casualties numbered 300,000-400,000 per month.

The book corrects some matters of conventional wisdom. Dönitz was a devoted Nazi, not a mere career Navy man doing his duty. The picture emerges of a large portion of the Wehrmacht officer corps who, having taken a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler (and seen the reaction to Stauffenberg’s July 20 attempt), never seriously considered insubordination. It was only when the Red Army was about to overrun their men and Hitler was giving nonsensical orders without any realistic view of the battlefield situation that any of the generals would seek a modification of orders from Berlin.

Most strikingly, the book lowers the deaths from the fire-bombing of Dresden on February 13-14, 1945, from 250,000 to perhaps 25,000. The larger figure originated in Nazi propaganda: “Goebbels magnified the number of victims, by the simple device of adding a ‘0’ onto the official figure. Instead of 25,000 dead–itself a vast number–Goebbels created a death toll of 250,000. From horrific reality, he created even more horrific–and long-lasting–myth.” In and endnote, Kershaw describes an historians’ commission that came to the 25,000 figure in 2010, agreeing with the official investigations of 1945-46.

The totality of the German state was devoted to the war effort and would not cease until Hitler was dead (and not even then). No one was allowed to slip away from his ranks, no matter how close an overwhelming invading force may have been; no civilians could put out a white flag to try to protect themselves from the opposition; no mercy could be shown to prisoners, taken on the road by their jailers for no coherent purpose, except that they might be useful some day; no criticism of the Führer would stand. To all such sensible ways of dealing with the coming end, the response was a “flying” (summary) court-martial and prompt hanging for the servicemen, and a bullet in head for the civilians.

To his credit, Kershaw addresses the obvious objection that The End focuses disproportionately on the hardships borne by the Germans themselves in the war’s last year, when they were entirely to blame for the war itself. He does not give them that way out, observing that many of them accused themselves and could say, “We had it coming for what we did or let happen.”

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