Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson

102B1280-1D11-4621-BBAA-F47CE042B218The largely now forgotten World Fair in Chicago in 1892 changed the world. Amongst other things it gave us the first large scale testing of electric lighting from alternating current, a vision of how beautiful cities could be instead of the squalid, dirty things they often were, and the Ferris wheel. 

Devil in the White City is a compelling account of how the Head of Works for the Fair, Frank Burnham, a Chicago architect, marshalled the resources of the city to overcome an overwhelming set of organisational, technical and bureaucratic obstacles to deliver this world changing event.

If the book were only about Burnham and the World Fair it would be a compelling, though perhaps niche interest, work. Everyone who was anyone, except Mark Twain, seems to have been involved somehow with the Fair: President Grover Cleveland opened it. Buffalo Bill Cody put on a show there attended by Susan B Anthony; Theodore Dreiser escorted a party of schoolteachers who had won their trip from his newspaper. And amidst the crush of new visitors to Chicago, a doctor and pharmacist by the name of Herman Webster Mudgett, murdered and robbed dozens of innocent men, women and children, unbeknownst to the Chicago Police Department.

Devil in the White City is a combination of social and architectural history interwoven with a tragic and horrific story of a murderer and his desperately sad, trusting victims.  It is an extraordinary work quite unlike anything else I have ever read. 

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Apollo 8: the mission that change everything, by Martin W Sandler

Summary: up close to the raggedy edge of human exploration

In 1968 a rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Its crew were tasked with testing if Jack Kennedy’s ambition of putting a human on the moon before the end of the decade was at all feasible. So untried was the technology they were using and so enormous was the task they had been set, no one was quite sure if everyone on board was going to come back alive.

Human beings at the cutting edge of exploration is a recurrent theme of Marty Sandler’s work, and Apollo 8 is a gripping addition to his oeuvre. It tells the story of the first humans to break the ties of Earth and travel to the orbit of another planet. It is, as one might imagine, filled with incredible drama. But it is also, as Sandler very convincingly argues, a journey which changed the course of human history.

For many space programmes, such as Apollo, seem extravagant wastes of money given the challenges of hunger and poverty that face so many on Earth. Jack Kennedy’s own brother Edward made this very observation in the early 1970s. But, as they orbited the moon the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, became the first humans in history to witness the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon. The photos they took of this captured the public imagination and conveyed in a way that words could not, the fragility of human existence in the vastness of the universe. Consequently it became an impetus for the environmental movement.

Apollo 8 tells the whole story of this extraordinary journey and its implications in Sandler snappy prose style. And the photographs that accompany the text are glorious.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Summary: a profoundly moving American meditation on the war in Vietnam, rightly regarded as a classic

The Things They Carried is an extraordinary book. An exquisitely written, deeply moving, sometimes extremely funny, sometimes simply horrifying, collection of linked short stories revolving around the soldiers in “Alpha Company”, including one called Tim O’Brien, who after the war becomes the author of this book.

The Vietnamese are generally only minor characters in this book. But while the book is a tender portrait of American troops in Vietnam, it does nothing to glorify the US engagement in that war, which is clearly seen as pointless and immoral. O’Brien’s first encounter with a dead Vietnamese is with an old man killed by an indiscriminate air bomardment of a village called in reprisal for a brief and ineffective sniper attack on O’Brien’s own platoon.

The terrorism that the Americans practice upon the Vietnamese is so routinised that it is almost unremarked upon, frequently considered by the troops as little more than youthful hi-jinks. O’Brien reminds the reader that those doing this, the American GIs, are just kids, mostly conscripts barely out of high school, unleashed from the bounds of civilisation and morality, desperate just to survive and unconcerned about those who die in order to ensure their survival.

But of course not all survive. Vietnamese action repeatedly bleeds the Americans, and vice versa. In one chapter O’Brien meditates on the humanity of a dead Vietnamese soldier, killed in his ambush, and, like his killers, someone who probably wished he was somewhere else, living his own young life rather than being involved in ending the young lives of others.

The Things They Carried, since its publication, has come to be regarded as a classic of American literature and O’Brien as one of the finest writers of his generation. The accolades are deserved.

Turbulence, by Giles Fodden

Summary: Weather as a metaphor for war as a metaphor for weather

It’s 1944 and the Allies are preparing for the largest amphibious assault ever mounted to retake Europe from Nazi tyranny. What might thwart their cunning plans though, even more than the Germans, is the weather. A sufficient period of decent weather is essential to land all the troops and equipment necessary to establish a robust beachhead on the coast of North-Western France. Hence inordinate pressure falls upon the weather forecasters to provide the necessary information to the generals to make a decision upon which the lives of untold thousands and the future of Europe itself depends.

Giles Fodden’s novel follows, in flashback, a brief portion of the career of its fictional protagonist, Henry Meadows. Meadows a physicist turned metrologist in wartime service, is sent to Scotland to try to extract the secret to a more accurate forecasting method from a brilliant reclusive, and pacifist, metrologist, opposed to giving any assistance to the war effort.

Meadows, an intellectually brilliant but socially naïve character, is our guide through both the complexities of the science and the chaos of the war. It’s an engaging read, even though some of the discussions of weather forecasting can be confusing. It conveys the awful weight that the planners of the D-Day landings had to bear and how in brutal ways the randomness of war echoes the randomness of the weather.

Inglorious Empire: what the British did to India, by Shashi Tharoor

 

World’s Best Taoiseach

Summary: a scathing reminder that treating people with racism and brutality does not generally make a country many friends

A while ago I had a conversation with a South Asian friend about Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister. “It’s noticeable”, my friend said, “how Leo is being much tougher with the British than his predecessor. Do you know why that is?”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s because Leo is also Indian,” which indeed he is – his father is from Mumbai. “So when he talks about famine, he is not just thinking of the Irish Famine but also of the British manufactured famines though the history of the Raj, including the appalling one in East Bengal in 1943. When he talks about partition, he is not just thinking of Irish partition, but the much, much, much bloodier British engineered division of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan.”

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Refugees during the Partition of India

Whether or not Leo is thinking about these things as he tries to negotiate with an increasingly disfunctional British government unfettered by reality, Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and intellectual certainly is. He details all these atrocities, and more, in his book Inglorious Empire, based upon a celebrated speech to the Oxford Union that he gave in 2015, in which he exposed some of the fundamental truths of Empire that the British conspire so aggressively to forget.

At the time at which the British first began their invasion, India represented over one-quarter of the global economy, dwarfing the UK. Over the subsequent centuries Britain reversed this through systematic transfer of India’s wealth to Britain through an undisguised looting of the sub-continent (“loot” being an Indian word). Violent theft and punitive taxation were the order of the day. Britain also employed an aggressive policy of deindustrialisation, destroying the competition from, among others, India’s shipping, textile and metallurgy industries which, at the beginning of the 18th Century were the most advanced in the world.

Tharoor does acknowledge certain benefits of British colonialism: “tea, cricket, and the English language.” But otherwise his book is a forthright repudiation of the deceitful arguments of hard-Right ideologues such as Niall Fergusson who seeks to recast the brutal, racist project of colonialism as some sort of philanthropic endeavour.

This book must also be a warning to the fantasists of the Brexit movement whose warm fuzzy beliefs about the British Empire are unconstrained by facts or any imaginative understanding of what it meant to those subjugated by its depredations. In the years to come, as Britain becomes the sort of third-rate power that its exit from the European Union entails, ordinary Britons can only hope that, now the boot is on the other foot, India will act towards Britain in future trade and others dealings with a measure of justice that Britain never showed India.

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Bengal famine, 1943

Brexit, Trump and Vladimir Putin’s assault on European and US democracy: The Road to Unfreedom, by Timothy Snyder

img_1459Summary: A terrifying and convincing account of the assault of Russian fascists and their useful idiots upon Western democracy 

Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, like Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, is a book that makes you fundamentally rethink your understanding of history. With The Road to Unfreedom Snyder makes us fundamentally rethink our understanding of the present.

The recent political success of far Right elements in the UK, Poland, Hungary and the US are not mere fluctuations in normal politics, Snyder argues. Nor are they solely a product of domestic political turmoil. They are also a consequence of a deliberate and aggressive foreign policy pursued by Vladimir Putin in order to undermine the systems of rule of law that underpin the democracies of the US and the European Union.

Synder argues that since 2010 Vladimir Putin has embraced a particularly Russian brand of fascism, with its pronounced homophobia, as a way in which to entrench in Russian society the kleptocracy over which he presides. Richard Evans, the distinguished British historian takes some issue with this, noting that Putin’s favorite thinker, Ivan Illyin, was a conservative ultra-nationalist rather than a fascist.  However the authoritarianism that Putin has established, like fascist regimes of the past, defines itself by its enemies, and for enemies Putin has chosen the European Union and the United States. Snyder notes that this is not because of anything that these have done, but rather because of what they are. The EU in particular stands as a telling contrast to the Russian Federation. Russia’s thieving oligarchs have made it the most unequal country on earth. On the other hand the EU has provided a better standard of living for its people within the frameworks of human rights and the rule of law, ideas anathema to Russian fascism.

Authoritarianism arrives, Synder notes, “not because people say that they want it, but because they lose the ability to distinguish between facts and desires.” Hence much of Putin’s assault has been in the realm of cyber-space: weaponising systems like Facebook to direct focused, usually fictional, racist, homophobic and anti-democratic propaganda to the users in a way that distorts their perceptions and bolsters their prejudices; or surreptitiously hacking vital information systems, such as those underpinning the US and Ukrainian electoral systems. These cyber-warfare processes are assisted by an array of corrupt “assets” and “useful idiots” who publicly advocate Russia’s desired outcomes even while Putin is attacking their own countries. These include former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Czech President Milos Zeman, former Polish Defence minister Antonio Macierewicz, Marin le Pen, the French Far Right leader, Nigel Farage, the disgusting former leader of the UKIP, Seumus Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s current communications and strategy director, and, of course, Donald Trump and many of his inner circle.

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Putin and his boy

The success of Russian disinformation can be seen in the pages of even the Guardian, which has published puff-pieces for Putin by supposedly Left-wing journalists such as Milne and John Pilger, whose opinions have been untroubled by actual reporting. It is enabled further by the refusal of British and US Republican political leaders to acknowledge the effectiveness of Putin’s undermining of their democracy.

Carol Cadwalladr’s investigations for the Guardian have turned up probable corrupt links between, in particular, the Brexit establishment and Russia. Robert Mueller‘ s investigation in the US hints at exposing further, perhaps treasonous, criminality. But, Synder notes, much of the information about Putin’s web of influence, and his destructive intent is publicly available. Putin has not made his embrace of fascism a secret, frequently citing Ilyin in his speeches, passing aggressive homophobic laws, trampling roughshod over rule of international law with this invasion of Ukraine, and his sneering attitude toward the corruption of the US election.

The invasion of Ukraine is something of a pivotal event in this book. The Russian processes of disinformation and cyber warfare that corrupted both the Brexit vote and the 2016 US elections, bringing the neo-fascist Trump to power in spite of the popular vote against him, may have come into sharp focus with Mueller’s and Cadwalladr’s investigations. But the warning signs were there to be seen with the Russian invasion of Ukraine – a warning that most of Europe and the US failed to heed.

That so much of this has been missed and mis-reported must arise from a lack of proper journalism commissioned by editors with sufficient international awareness to understand emergent trends and geo-politics, and conducted on the ground by investigative journalists fluent in the languages of the countries they are reporting on. Synder dedicates this book to reporters, and it is the investigative journalists of Russia, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere who have provided much of the raw material upon which Synder constructs this vital history of our times.

The Shortest History of Germany, by James Hawes

img_1450Summary: A spectre is haunting Europe and it is the spectre of Prussia

In this book James Hawes argues there are two Germanys. One is in the West, orientated towards Paris, Brussels and the rest of Western Europe. This part of Germany conforms to the part that was Romanised, and subsequently formed part of Charlemagne’s empire. This part is substantially Catholic and was notably resistant to Nazism in the past and the far Right and far Left in the present.

On the other hand there is Prussia: Protestant and Russian-orientated, it formed in territory that was conquered and colonised, and which, under Bismarck, conquered Western Germany to establish the German Empire. The rump of this state, which the Allies tried to bury beneath modern Poland at the end of the Second World War, still persists in the East.

To this day, Hawes argues, many of the inhabitants of Prussia continue to bear the racist attitudes of colonisers, regarding themselves as somehow “special” compared to the ordinary mass of human beings. Prussia more than any other part of Germany facilitated the rise of militarism and Nazism in the late 19th and 20th Centuries, and provides fertile ground for extremists to this day.

The reunification of Germany in the 1990s brought together again these two quite different countries to restore the borders of Bismarck’s Empire. This reunification, Hawes argues, was not undertaken for any carefully considered reasons regarding how these two German states should best grow and develop. Rather Helmut Kohl saw that Christian Democrat support in the East would guarantee him a further term as Chancellor so he went full steam ahead for that with little thought of anything else.

The consequence has been something of a return to the pre-war arrangements between West and East: Since reunification the West subvents the impoverished East to the tune of trillions of Euros with little sign of obtaining any change in those repellent aspects of Prussian culture that have caused so many problems for Germany and the rest of Europe over the past 200 years.

Hawes notes that “what makes people vulnerable to wild scares and promises isn’t just income but culture.” And it is the culture of the peoples of the old colonial and imperial powers of Europe, such as Prussia, such as Britain, clinging to their notions of superiority and exceptionalism, that prove most susceptible to the promises of political snake-oil salesmen. Recognising this, and confronting such prejudices in Britain, Germany and elsewhere offers a more promising prospect of eroding them than the pusillanimous approach of pandering to them and insisting they must be respected when presented as “the will of the people”.

The Shortest History of Germany is a fine, lucidly written and thought-provoking account of German history covering over 2,000 years from Caesar to the present day. It packs a startling amount into a very short text, and is essential reading for all Europeans