Tag Archive: history

Eyewitness to the Rise of Evil

It was 1933, and the head of the University of Chicago’s history department, William Dodd, was dispatched as the American Ambassador to Germany. He took his wife and grown children with him to a country that was witnessing the rise of Hitler. Nobody wanted to believe that things were as perilous as they seemed. Including Dodd. This is the premise of Erik Larson’s latest work of nonfiction In the Garden of Beasts, which details the life of one American family in Berlin, and the horror that they watched unfold.

Ambassador Dodd was not your typical American ambassador. A self-made man, an academic, and hailing from a modest background, he was unlike the wealthy men of privilege that usually filled out the diplomat corps. He took the job believing it would give him time away from the stresses of academia and allow him to finish his magnus opus on Southern history. He had no idea of what he stepped into. No one did. At the time the world was inclined to ignore the rumblings from German, the stories of the oppression of Jews and the nationalist fervor that was building up. Including Dodd and his family, even during the first year that they lived there.

Larson’s work focuses on Dodd and his adult daughter Martha– a free spirit, who was a bit of a bohemian who took a multitude of lovers while in Germany, including members of the Nazi party and Soviet agents. Let’s just say that Martha loved living on the edge, and living on the edge she did– initially, she refused to believe the reports of the horrors that were beginning to come to the surface in Germany, instead preferring to believe it to be a country that was trying to get back on its feet after a devastating war. Dodd was also inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, to the consternation of a select few diplomats that also served with him– he preferred to not worry about the “Jewish Problem,” believing that Hitler could not possibly last while in power.

The book is wonderfully written and moves along at a crisp pace– it weaves a web of  with intrigue surrounding the main characters. It builds and builds up to the “Night of the Long Knives” which is when Hitler launched a massive and terrifying attack against his enemies and took total power over Germany. From that moment on Dodd (and his daughter) began to speak out against Hitler and Germany, but no one would listen. No one wanted to hear them, even after they returned to the US four years later and Hitler’s aggression was apparent. The government instead followed a model of appeasement.

Larson is a fantastic writer– this is a historical book that is paced as a novel, and it is as tense and thrilling as any spy thriller–but it is for real. The book is really thought-provoking. Why did the government just look the other way? Why was the world not willing to confront the truth? How could we just let a madman run amok, and deny that he was violating human rights while the US’ s own ambassador was frantically cabling for the government to just listen to him? Of course,  these sorts of things continue to happen, governments continue to look the other way as madmen slaughter their own people–but this book gives yo a fantastic look into how an entire country (Germany) could willfully deceive itself, and the historical and social circumstances that surrounded Hitler that allowed him to rise to power.

This is a great book, one of the best nonfiction works I have read this year. Do yourself a favor, go read it and have your eyes opened, because we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C


A Great Patriot

John Adams was a great reader himself, no doubt he might have appreciated this blog project. So, in honor of our country’s independence, I picked up John Adams by David McCullough this weekend, and ploughed right through it… finally.

My mom had given me this book years ago, and I read about half of it, but never finished. Life got in the way. Well, that is no longer an excuse, so I started all over again and finished it in about five days, surprising myself, because it is an enormous book. Thick, dense, and chock full of information.

McCullough’s masterwork is a gem for history nerds like myself. It is a popular autobiography that is written much like an academic book, meaning that McCullough combines popular writing with serious history and created a masterwork. No wonder it won the Pulitzer.

The book covers the entire span of Adams’s life, from his early years as a humble lawyer, to his work on independence, to his time as a diplomat in Europe, his vice-presidency, the Presidency, and his old age. It is loaded with detail, most of it gleaned from Adams’s own papers and letters. Adams was a prolific letter-writer– and extraordinarily self-aware and self-critical, and because of that, we know what he thought about almost everything. (Note to important world figures: keep an interesting diary and leave someone else to write your biography.) The book is so huge that there isn’t much that I can cover here, but a few major themes.

The first is the myth of the founding. Lately, all kinds of misinformation has been spread on America’s independence– and much of this is for political ends, which, would have no doubt exasperated Adams (and his friend Jefferson.) The fact is, that as McCullough’s book shows, independence from Great Britain and the founding of a new country was messy, fraught with peril, and that we got through it at all was due to not only great leadership, but also a measure of luck.  The Founders were often making it up as they went along, they did not agree on many things (in fact they agreed on very little) and slavery was a massive problem already for the young country. It was not some mythical moment of a newly formed, shining America rising out of rebellion. More like it was a mess, but a mess that sorted itself out, slowly, sometimes painfully and at times awkwardly. This, I think, is important to remember.

Adams was a man, who was religious, but who also believed in reason. He felt that religion and intellectual curiosity went together– there was no reason for them not to. He also believed in serving his country– he always did what was asked of him, even when he was put in miserable diplomatic situations, even with so many disparaged him, even when it seemed that everyone was against him– he put his country (not politics) first. We could learn a bit from this mentality.

Politics was as ugly then as it is now. A sensationalistic press came after Adams when he was VP and later President. His own friends (Jefferson) turned on him in the name of politics. Political parties began to determine where people stood, and Adams did not like this one bit. The sections on his Vice-Presidency and Presidency are amazing for how utterly modern they feel. Some things never change– party politics remains brutal. Presidents continue to be viciously criticized for their ideas and policies. Some things have not changed one bit.

His marriage to Abigail was extraordinary for its times. In fact, with would be extraordinary now. It was a marriage of equals, and without her, it is doubtful he could have achieved what he did. She was an incredibly smart woman, a brave woman, and his best friend. This is so apparent from their letters– their friendship is what carried them through life through thick and thin forever, and they survived some exceedingly trying times.

Finally, Adams’s emphasis on friendship. Adams remained friends with those closest through him through thick and thin, even when his friends did horrible things to him. His relationship with Jefferson is the best example of that– as young diplomats they were incredibly close, only to have the friendship torn to shreds when Jefferson ran against Adams for President. Yet, later in life Adams forgave his friend and struck up a close, but steady correspondence with him, and they became friends once more as old men in the twilight of their lives. To me, this was the most striking part of the book. Adams clearly valued people, he valued his friends, and he maintained those relationships even when at times it was painful.

This is a wonderful book– there is so much more I could  say, but I would just go on and on forever. Read it. It is not necessarily easy to read, but it is well worth the effort. It is a rich exploration of a great patriot’s life.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

Lions and Tigers and Spinsters, Oh My!

So before I launch into my book review (not really a formal review, more like a reflective review… oh hell I don’t know what exactly to call it)  I want to address the changing nature of the blog.

Dear Reader, you can tell from the last post  that I now have a co-blogger, a partner in crime, er, books, someone who has joined the 52 books in a year adventure with me. My friend J (as he details in his post) has decided to come along for the ride, so I imagine that this will be great fun as we go through this year, as J and I will have different tastes in books and therefore will cover a broad range of topics.

Okay, so onto the first book. This book was chosen in a rather haphazard fashion. Before I got the idea for this project I caught up with an old friend from college on Facebook. She offered to do a book swap with me where I would send her a book I had read but didn’t want to keep around and she would do the same. Curious as to what I would receive in the mail, I agreed to the swap.

After coming back from my Christmas holiday the book was on top of my pile of accumulated mail that the mailman dropped off. Curious, I unwrapped it and upon seeing the cover I fell back on my sofa, laughing hard. The book is “Spinsters Abroad, Victorian Lady Explorers” by Dea Birkett. So why did I laugh so hard? Well, first of all, as a 30 something single woman who actually owns a spinning wheel that I make yarn on, I am a spinster, so to speak. The term, by the way, came (in America anyway, I imagine it was the same in Britain) into use because in the pre-Revolutionary colonies there was a wool tax. Each family had to produce so many pounds of spun wool a year, and since the task of spinning wool for an entire household was a full-time job (I know, it takes hours of work to make enough yarn to knit a hat- I cannot imagine the work it took to make enough to weave cloth for an entire household) it was a job that often went to a young unmarried female member of the household. (And in case you think that all of this type of work was only women’s work, you are wrong. In England the master knitters and weavers were men who belonged to guilds and in the colonies it was the little boys in the family who would knit socks and mittens while they were out watching the sheep, but I digress.) Anyway, that is where the term “spinster” came from- the unmarried women who spun and spun and spun…

So as an unmarried woman who spins my own yarn, I started to read “Spinsters Abroad” as my first book for the challenge. It is essentially a light women’s studies/history sort of book. The author (who is British) focuses mainly on Victorian women who set out to travel in the glory days of the British Empire. These women were middle-class, white women who used travel as a way to escape their feminine roles in Victorian Britain.  Many of them ended up unmarried because they were forced (as youngest daughters) to care for ailing family members. Others were considered “plain” and could not make a good “match.” (Thank God those days are behind us.) A few were widowed after short and often unhappy marriages. All of these women approached the idea of marriage with trepidation, because the ones that they saw around them (and experienced themselves, in some cases) were difficult and unfulfilling. Upon being freed by the deaths of elderly parents or of a cantankerous husband, these women (who had the means) fled Victorian England for Africa, the Americas, the Far East, The Middle East and Eastern Europe.

The book, which is written from an academic point of view, considers many themes, such as colonialism  and gender roles (perhaps the two largest and overriding themes) patriarchy, women’s roles in politics and professional societies. All of these chapters in the work are interesting and important but what struck me about the book is how much sadness shaped the women’s lives and haunted them all the way to their exotic jaunts. Restless, living as contradictions, (they were women who often were addressed by the local natives, as “men” because of their roles as travellers) without a real sense of home, belonging, or intimate love, these women rebelled against their roles in society and also embraced them. (Many of these progressive travellers were against women’s suffrage for example- some of the contradictions that Birkett uncovers are startling.) They are women who fit neither here nor there, and  the society that they lived among (actually, often outside of) regarded them as a curiosity–similar to how the women regarded the faraway lands that they visited.

The book is rich, and well worth looking at if you are interested in women’s history, and I have left many, many details out. I, however, felt a big relief when I finished this book–not at actually having finished the book, but relief because I am a spinster in the 21st century, not in the 19th. While society, in some ways, would regard me as a bit outside the norm, there is now a place for women who are unmarried, educated, like to travel, and challenge conventions. It is not a total ideal (and the number of times I have been grilled by people I don’t know as to why “a nice girl like you isn’t married” is beyond me. Like the time the car dealer was loath to sell me a Honda Civic because surely “I would get married soon and want something to haul kids around in.” I think the look I gave him clued him in because he shut up and sold me the red Civic.) but society has come much further in regards to the variety of roles for women, and that is something that gladdens my heart.

Lots of food for thought in this book, and I am glad that my old friend S (who was famous for sitting in the dining hall reading the New Testament in Greek while were in college. For no particular reason, mind you, just to understand the text in its original language–J, you would have gotten a kick out of her) sent the book. I enjoyed it, throughly. The book is, however, a bit academic in its style, so a warning out there for those of you who are not used to academic writing.

The next book will be a novel. Something really different from this particular work. I am also excited to see what J is reading and what he thinks of his book.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C