Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ category

Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking, by Deborah Cadbury

June 5, 2018

Upon a great adventure he was bond,
That greatest Gloriana to him gave,
That greatest Glorious Queene of Faerie lond,
To winne him worship, and her grace to have,
Which of all earthly things he most did crave.
The Faerie Queene, I, i, 19-23

Rather than telling the story of Victoria and Albert’s nine children, the author makes this book about some of their forty-two grandchildren. From the author’s surname and surveying the latest streaming offerings, one might expect a confection of costumery and crowns. There is some of that. But the Prologue begins with a bang–the assassination by bomb of Czar Alexander II, father and grandfather of two men who would marry into Victoria’s family. The queen’s ambition to spread her influence throughout Europe and encourage a peaceful civilization through inevitable whiggery was blown apart by revolutions and the weak or misdirected character of her own offspring.

Some of these stories are familiar. Prince Albert Victor (“Eddy”) was the oldest son of the future Edward VII and so expected to be a future king, but his frail health and indecision caused concern in the family and the British government. Decades later, he was even rumored to have been the real Jack the Ripper. In any event, Eddy died before marrying Princess Mary (“May”) of Teck. May then settled on his brother Prince George, who became George V, and so became Queen Mary after all. Princess Alexandra (“Alix”) of Hesse married Nicholas of Russia and was doomed with him to deposition and a firing squad.

Less well known is the fate of Princess Elisabeth of Hesse, or “Ella,” sister of Alexandra, who married Grand Duke Sergei of Russia, uncle of Nicholas II. In 1905, Sergei was blown to bits outside the gates of the Kremlin. Ella heard the noise and ran to the scene: “A slight figure in a blue dress stained with blood, she ‘rummaged around in the snow, which for a long while afterwards continued to give up small bones and bits of cartilage, pieces of body and splinters from the carriage’ . . . . Sergei’s rings were on his severed hand and now she carefully removed them. All that ran through her mind, she told her sister, Victoria, was that she must ‘hurry, hurry’ since Sergei ‘hates blood and mess.'” The widowed Grand Duchess turned to her adopted Orthodox faith, founding a religious order. She had an opportunity to escape the revolution but swore that “she would never leave her convent, or Russia, of her own free will.” The Communists pulled her out and dragged her to a forest with other Romanovs. A blow from a rifle butt and a shove into a 60-foot mine shaft should have finished her off quickly. One of her religious sisters was pushed in after her. The killers heard voices and so threw down a grenade, and then another. The story is that hymns were heard from below, but then it got quiet. The Russian Orthodox now call her “New-Martyr Elizabeth.”

The last grandchild to see Queen Victoria was the most disappointing of all–Wilhelm II, who had dashed the hopes of his parents, Frederick III and Princess Victoria or “Vicky,” for a liberal Germany that would ally with England. Wilhelm from the beginning was “violent,” “arrogant,” and “destructive.” Yet on hearing about his grandmother’s last illness, he insisted on being by her side. Whether she knew that her least favorite grandchild was there is not really clear, though he held her as she passed away. “The emperor is very kind,” she said.

Breaking news of March 16, 1917

Breaking news of March 16, 1917


On Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Day

March 15, 2018

Red granite and black diorite, with the blue
Of the labradorite crystals gleaming like precious stones
In the light reflected from the snow; and behind them
The eternal lightning of Lenin’s bones.
–Hugh MacDiarmid, “The Skeleton of the Future”

This book is Day’s diary from the year 1947 and is republished from the original printing in 1948. There is an extended introduction by Mark and Louise Zwick on “Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement.”

The reader will remember the first three months of the year most vividly. Dorothy was visiting her daughter and grandchildren in West Virginia. There is a great deal of detail on the things of every day–cooking, cleaning, gathering firewood, fixing the car, etc. They were sufficiently far removed from town that they were often snowed in and couldn’t get to the store or church. Still, it was a peaceful time away from the Catholic Worker House in New York City.

The book was originally published in 1948 (as a money-making venture for the Catholic Worker house), so there is the question of how honest the diary is, how much of a performance or a presentation of how she wanted the world to see her. Every writer puts on a show of some kind.

Many entries are her reflections on writings of the saints. Her constant prayer is evident in almost every entry and inspirational:

“I thought of Margaret Bosco, the mother of St. John Bosco, today, and how she helped him in his gigantic work of caring for boys, and how she prayed while peeling potatoes and mending, etc., but with little children tugging at your apron strings, it is hard to pray. I manage to get in the psalms of Matins every day (next week I’ll try Laud), and Vespers in the evening. I vary the hours in order to get more familiar with all the psalms.” (Jan. 31, St. John Bosco’s day.)

“I used to wish I could get away from my habit of constant, undisciplined reading, but in the family one certainly is cured of it. If you stop to read a paper, pick up a book, the children are into the tubs or the sewing machine drawers. And as for praying with a book–there has been none of that this Lent for me. Everything is interrupted, even prayers, since by nightfall one is too tired to pray with understanding. So I try to practice the presence of God after the manner of Blessed Lawrence, and pray without ceasing, as St. Paul advised. He might even have had women in mind.”

We’re not all the same. Day hadn’t left Communism fully behind at this point. Even while recognizing the likely “blasphemy,” she recalled the good of “Papa Marx” and of Lenin that “at times he had no fixed abode.” This is foolish writing and irresponsible in some way. Day had her project of the Catholic Worker house, newspaper, and farm and encouraged small collective movements. That won’t be for everyone or even most people. Her pacifism would prevent remaking society by force, so these economic theories aren’t threatening. Whether they make sense is another question. What if we all lived on farms and grew our own food and made our own clothes and tools? Would books be as available as they were to her in 1947 in New York City? Would children growing up on those farms, especially girls, become as educated as she did? Did she ever ask the poor whether they wanted to be better off, or do you have to be educated to see poverty as a lifestyle choice?

Enough of easy criticism. Dorothy Day had some real integrity, that’s sure. We all have too much stuff, and Day reminds you that you don’t need it all, if (maybe) more than she admits.


Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a New Field (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


The Nightmare Years 1930-1940, by William L. Shirer

November 17, 2017

It is a cramped little state with no foreign policy,
Save to be thought inoffensive.
–Richard Wilbur, “Shame”

Imagine being invited, in November 1934, to a Bierabend hosted by the Nazi party’s closest thing to an expert in what they called racial theories. Alfred Rosenberg hosted these monthly gatherings of foreign correspondents to put on a good face for the movement to readers abroad. Goering, Hess, Ribbentropp, and Himmler joined in, though Goebbels, who preferred to spend his time chasing movie actresses, did not. His talent for propaganda was missed, and the evenings did not make a positive impression on Shirer.

You might have read Shirer’s Berlin Diary or his very large Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This book is a memoir of his time as a foreign correspondent in Europe (with a stint in India as well) during the Thirties. He pays considerable attention to the personalities of the Nazi party, who made an effort to cultivate him in order to get a favorable picture of themselves out into the world. He describes the Berlin Olympics of 1936 as a triumph. The party halted persecutions for the duration, and Hitler had a “dazzling success.” Shirer’s attempts to make visiting Americans see beneath the surface came to nothing. One such visitor was Charles Lindbergh, who later received the Service Cross of the German Eagle with Star, the highest German decoration that could be conferred on a foreigner. This was three weeks before Kristallnacht.

Edward R. Murrow recruited Shirer to do radio reporting for CBS. (Once Shirer was on board, though, he found out that the Chairman of CBS, William Paley, expected Murrow and Shirer to be managers, not the on-air reporters.) This kind of reporting was new. The how of it had to be worked out. Shirer describes in detail the first “radio news round-up” on Sunday, March 13, 1938. “All our engineers in New York had to do was to pick up the various European shortwave transmitters we employed and feed them into the network, as they had been doing for years. Murrow in Vienna and I in London had, on short notice and on a Sunday evening when the offices of the European broadcasting companies were closed, to arrange for shortwave transmitters, studios, telephone lines linking them, and, of course, reporters in four or five countries, in which the officials we were dealing with spoke only foreign languages and, what is more, had never before been asked to handle such a thing, not to mention at such short notice and on their day off. This turned out to be more time-consuming than I had imagined. . . .” But it came off all right.

Looking back fifty years later, Shirer reveals no doubts about the regime. He was never taken in and never admired the new Germany for its efficiency or public spirit. Shortly after he arrived in Germany in summer 1934, he covered the Nuremberg rally, where he saw Hitler in the flesh for the first time. “The frenzy of the crowds fascinated me that evening even more than my first glimpse of the dictator. I had seen vast throngs in India moved by the sight of Gandhi and in Rome by Mussolini. But this German horde was different in a way I could not yet comprehend. Later that evening, I got caught up in a mob of these frenzied people, who jammed the moat [sic!] in front of Hitler’s hotel. They were swaying back and forth, like the Holy Rollers I had once seen in the back country of Arkansas and Louisiana, with the same crazed expression on their faces. They were shouting in unison: ‘We want our Führer!’ When he appeared on the balcony for a moment and waved, they went mad. Several women swooned. Some, men and women, were trampled as the crowd surged toward the hotel to get a closer look at their Messiah. For such he appeared to be to them.” Without sympathizing in any way, Shirer tried to explain why this was happening. Hitler had unified the country in a way that the Prussian confederation and the Weimar Constitution had never done. The roar of union was enough to drown out any whispers of conscience in most.

Some leaders in the Protestant and Catholic churches spoke out against some abuses of the state, especially the treatment of the disabled. Looking back, Shirer wonders whether he paid too much attention to these criticisms in his reporting. They seemed important at the time, but he wonders now whether the statement of some church leaders ever filtered down to many of the believers. Based on the continued support for the regime, especially through 1941, he doubts it.

He got away on a boat to New York in December 1940 but returned for the war-crimes trials in Nuremberg.

This is a memoir, so there is much of the first person singular. Shirer does come across as a bit of a know-it-all, which is useful for an omniscient narrator of history, but (sometimes) tiresome in a memoirist.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

The Legend of the Middle Ages, by Rémi Brague

September 13, 2017

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade . . .
Yeats, “Byzantium”

In an essay, “The Denial of Humanity: On the Judgment ‘Those People Are Not Men’ in Some Ancient and Medieval Texts,” Brague invites philosophers (including himself) “to a historical and corporative examination of conscience.” The translator’s choice of “corporative” is not delightful, but to get to the point, Brague reads medieval Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophers for their treatment of certain human beings as “not men.”

Aristotle writes in the Politics, “A man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal (therion) or a god.” Cicero writes that men who are “on a level with the beasts of the field,” meaning that they have “no thought except for sensual pleasure,” “are men only in name, not in fact.” Seneca says the same thing–“There is no difference between the one [beasts of the field] and the other [men who act without use of their reason].” Epictetus: “Here is one whose sense of self-respect (to aidemon) has grown numb; he is useless (akhrestos), a sheep, anything but a human being.”

In his interpretation of Ezekiel 34:31, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the Babylonian Talmud says to the Israelites, “You are classified as man, and gentiles are not classified as man.”

Boethius writes that “evil men . . . by turning to wickedness . . . have by that same act lost their human nature . . . So he who having left goodness (probitas) aside has ceased to be a man, since he cannot pass over into the divine state, turns into a beast (bellua).”

The Koran: “For the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are the deaf and the dumb–those who do not understand.”

The Muslim Spanish philosopher Ibn Bajja (Avempace) writes, “And for that reason also, the one whose animal soul dominates the rational soul to the point that it lets itself always get carried away by its passions, contrary to what his reason dictates to him, is indeed a man, but the worst of beasts is better than he. And it is even just to say that he is a beast . . . .”

Maimonides writes in the Guide for the Perplexed that those who are far from knowledge of God have a status “like that of irrational animals. To my mind they do not have the rank of men, but have among the beings a rank lower than the rank of man but higher than the rank of the apes. For they have the external shape and lineaments of a man and a faculty of discernment that is superior to that of the apes.”

Brague concludes his brief, admittedly non-exhaustive survey with some reflections on the texts:

“Within the works of these philosophers, such texts are not the product of a slippage due to the intrusion of biographical elements that can be charged to the man rather than the thinker–supposing that to be a legitimate distinction, of course. They can be deduced from the very act by which the philosopher defines himself as such–that is, as a man of reason, hence the man most worthy of his own humanity. And in fact it is indeed the philosopher, in the polarization of humanity he proposes, who occupies the summit of a pyramid, the base of which (or perhaps the basement) is represented by those whose humanity he values least . . . .

“These texts are in fact the direct consequence of the classic definition of man by the closest genre (animal) and a differentiation of species (reasonable). If the specific difference is absent, we return to the close genre alone: a non-reasonable animal is not a man, or is one only by abuse of language.

“More generally, and even more disquieting, one might wonder just what purpose a definition of man might serve.”

Brague adds some tantalizing, brief questions about the importance of the body in the definition of humanity. If the definition of man is reduced to reasonableness alone (which would seem to make all social and ethnic distinctions irrelevant), then those without reason (as judged by the philosophers) are not human at all. “It is possible, on the other hand, that the body, in that which makes it human and cannot be reduced to the intellectual, can take the role of an ultimate guarantee before attitudes such as those displayed in the examples I have taken from the philosophers.”

He is as much as advocating the Christian view of the person as a unity of body and soul, with the soul as the seat of reason. In our world, there is no soul (not even Plato’s) without a body, and no living body without a soul. One forgets these things when other people are incomprehensible.


Dying Gaul


Duty Well Performed: The Twenty-First Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, by Bradley Quinlin & Joshua Haugh

June 11, 2017

I awoke under the bronze of winged monuments,
Under the griffins of a Masonic temple
With the dying ash of a cigar.
–Czeslaw Milosz, “The Spirit of the Laws”

This short bit of history records the activity of an Ohio Regiment in the Civil War. A few months of garrison duty around Nashville in late 1862 was the preparation for the Battle of Stones River. They recovered in Murfreesboro for six months before marching south and taking part in the Battle of Chickamauga. There were some months of rest near Chattanooga before invading Georgia and serving minor roles in the Atlanta campaign. Some members reached the end of a three-year term in September 1864 and went home, while the others marched to Savannah in time for Christmas.

When the war ended, the Twenty-First Ohio was somewhere near Bentonville, North Carolina. A grateful nation called them to the capital for the Grand Review, and they did their duty, marching to Alexandria, Virginia, in twenty days. This was a little harder work than the annual visits of national champion athletes to D.C. for a group photo.

The Grand Review took two days. The last General Order of Lt. Col. Arnold McMahan began, “Comrades:–Our services are no longer required.”


Horseshoe Ridge, Chickamauga


“The Concept of History, Ancient and Modern,” by Hannah Arendt

June 6, 2017

–All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
–Mr. Deasy, Ulysses

To Herodotus, history’s purpose was “to preserve that which owes its existence to men.” The subject of history is the outstanding deed that breaks the circular motion of life. It keeps alive what otherwise would fade away.

“Greatness was easily recognizable as that which by itself aspired to immortality–that is, negatively speaking, as a heroic contempt for all that merely comes and passes away, for all individual life, one’s own included. This sense of greatness could not possibly survive intact into the Christian era for the very simple reason that, according to Christian teachings, the relationship between life and world is the exact opposite to that in Greek and Latin antiquity: in Christianity neither the world nor the ever-recurring cycle of life is immortal, only the single living individual. It is the world that will pass away; men will live forever.”

The achievements of science have transformed history. Man’s power over nature has led to dominion over history: “We know today that though we cannot ‘make’ nature in the sense of creation, we are quite capable of starting new natural processes, and that in a sense therefore we ‘make nature,’ to the extent, that is, that we ‘make history.'”

Arendt does not believe that Christianity created a new view of history. The death and resurrection of Christ is treated as a singular event, but other human events remained as before–great men come and go, empires erupt and crash, and life goes on. The world will end someday at Christ’s return.

Our modern view of history begins with Hegel and has its source in the consciousness, not in events out there in the world. History is separated from the immortality of great deeds (the ancient view) and the immortality of the soul (the Christian view). History is what is useful. Marx pushed history beyond Hegel, transforming meaning and meaningfulness into ends. “But neither freedom nor any other meaning,” Arendt writes, “can ever be the product of a human activity in the sense in which the table is clearly the end-product of the carpenter’s activity.”

One wonders how much of an audience she ever really had for her style of political analysis. To really take her on, you would need to be able to judge her use of classic sources. With Unicode, we can all write Greek, even if we don’t understand it literally or in context.

This essay is in a collection entitled Between Past and Future. Other essays in the collection are worthwhile, especially Truth and Politics. This story that she tells there gets back to the question of history:

During the twenties, so a story goes, Clemenceau, shortly before his death, found himself engaged in a friendly talk with a representative of the Weimar Republic on the question of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War. “What, in your opinion,” Clemenceau was asked, “will future historians think of this troublesome and controversial issue?” He replied, “This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.”


Vermeer, “The Art of Painting,” with model as Clio, Muse of History

The Von Hassell Diaries, by Ulrich von Hassell

December 22, 2016

You had enough of sorrow before death
Yeats, “To A Shade”

These are the notes of a Prussian who talked for years about finding some alternative to Hitler, but never succeeded.

Starting soon after his recall by Hitler from his posting as ambassador to Italy (1932-38), Hassell kept this diary of his meetings over the next six years with those of similar feeling. His position with the Mitteleuropäischer Wirtschaftstage (Middle-European Economic Conference) enabled him to travel to other countries and keep track of current events. The impression on the reader is of an old German, one who tried to accommodate with the existing regime (he joined the Nazi party when he became ambassador) while remaining true to the best traditions of his country as he saw them. The diary also records extremely valuable impressions of events as they were occurring, though filtered through the author’s own limitations of bias and opportunity to investigate. From the beginning, the diary records the beliefs of many that the Nazi regime could never last because of its official proclamation of “immoral principles.” (11) Hassell was not yet of this mind.

After Kristallnacht, he wrote on November 25, 1938: “Not since the World War have we lost so much credit in the world. But my chief concern is not with the effects abroad, not with what kind of foreign political reaction we may expect–at least not for the moment. I am most deeply troubled about the effect on our national life, which is dominated ever more inexorably by a system capable of such things.” (20) On December 20, 1938, he wrote that Goering had “condemned the progrom most sharply and openly before all the Cabinet ministers and Gauleiters,” but would not take a public stand against the SS. (25)

Throughout 1938 and 1939, a constant theme is the financial precariousness of the regime. The annexation of the Sudetenland brings in “Czech gold,” (41) but economic conditions worsen. In July, Hassell visited with former Cabinet ministers and discussed “the necessity of preparations in the event of a Nazi collapse.” (51) There were shortages of gasoline, raw materials, and food. (55) In August, he wrote: “Some people believe we must go through the catastrophe of a world war, in which the chances of defeat are 80 per cent, in order to achieve healthy conditions here at home. I cannot share this view, and consider the whole business an irresponsible adventure, both from the National Socialist point of view and from that of an enemy of the Nazi regime.” (58)

When war came, Hassell blamed England, France, and Poland itself for failing to avoid it. Remarkably, he writes that “Mussolini did all in his power to avoid war. His mediation proposal of September 2 offered no more hope of success because England no longer could or would back down.” (71) Hassell saw as early as October 11, 1939, that Hitler “secretly plans to attack Russia later.” (72) At this stage, Hassell was meeting to discuss a possible coup by the generals, Brauchitsch the most involved, with Goering as the replacement head of government, at least for a temporary period. (72) Reports of atrocities were immediately circulating, as early as October 1939. “When people use their revolvers to shoot down a group of Jews herded into a synagogue one is filled with shame.” (76)

Hassell records jokes that circulated, as always under an oppressive state: “Why doesn’t the Fuehrer visit the front any more? Because on his departure the soldiers would cry: ‘Fuehrer, we will follow you!'” (104) “[T]he temperature is still being measured according to the foreign standards of Celsius and Réamur. Hitler orders that in the future measurements be made according to the ‘German’ Fahrenheit. We thereby gain 65 degrees of heat and automatically solve the coal shortage!” (159)

In February 1940, Hassell took the audacious step of meeting with an Englishman and handing him a memo with a statement of principles for a negotiation of peace and “reconstruction of Europe,” including “principles of Christian ethics,” “justice and law as fundamental elements of public life,” and “liberty of thought, conscience, and intellectual activity,” all of which were of course lacking under Nazi control. (111)

Hassell deplores “[t]he systematic and uncontrolled killing of the so-called ‘criminally insane'” as early as November 1940. (147) In April 1941, he writes, “The Army is an incredibly brilliant instrument, with all the stronger characteristics of the German people, and filled with absolute self-confidence. It is tragic! With this magnificent instrument the destruction of Europe is being accomplished to perfection.” (171)

He records the conflict among church leaders about how to react to the attacks on religion and whether to speak out against atrocities. Bishop Galen of Münster and other “proponents of drastic action” were in the minority; the majority were opposed to open struggle. (203) Hassell’s view in 1941 was that protests had an effect, citing a protest by the Evangelical Pastors’ Association against a decree that would expel all clerics from the Red Cross because of its “interconfessional nature.” (203) Still, “The morals of the people have deteriorated through the battle against Christianity as well as through the spreading corruption and various other sinister phenomena.” (204)

Things turn personally grimmer for Hassell with the diary entry for April 27, 1942, where he records a meeting with Foreign Minister Ernst von Weizsäcker, who “carefully closed the windows and doors, and announced with some emphasis that he had a very serious matter to discuss with me. . . I had no idea, he said, how people were after me (the Gestapo). Every step I took was observed. I should certainly burn everything I had in the way of notes which covered conversations in which one or another had said this or that. Apparently he meant himself.” (232) By April 1943, Hassell knew that his phone was tapped. (269)

June 1943: “[T]he unhappy remnants of the Jews prepared to defend themselves, and there is heavy fighting which will certainly lead to their complete extermination by the SS. It is Hitler’s achievement that the German has become the most loathed animal in the whole world.” (272)

His last diary entry is July 13, 1944. He was rounded up in the investigation of the plot of July 20, 1944, and sent to Ravensbrück. His case went before the People’s Court of the notorious Judge Roland Freisler. Hassell was hanged on February 2, 1945, along with Johannes Popitz and Jesuit Fr. Delp, none of whom were directly involved in the plot.

St. Ulrich of Augsburg

St. Ulrich of Augsburg, first saint to be officially canonized