In the Prague Cemetery, Eco creates a rambling book of tangents and bluffs, with the slimy Italian Captain Simonini, who makes a living throughout the nineteenth century hoaxing and forging his way through political movements and intelligence agencies in the nineteenth century – eventually culminating in the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. We learn all this from his diaries – confused and unreliable as they may be.
In research for the book Eco seems to have delved into all sorts of unsavoury sections of nineteenth century literature. Some are obvious, some are more obscure, some are surprisingly mainstream (Alexandre Dumas, Disraeli). He constantly seems to be saying “This actually happened. Someone did this. Someone wrote this. People believed it.” and sometimes he lets his amazement overwhelm the story. In this sense, he is at his best when he shows the borrowing, the twisting of old tropes for new audiences, the closed loops when a story is used to confirm itself.
He has covered conspiracies plenty of times before, but this does feel slightly different. The stories feel grubbier. The spectre of the Nazis, an eventually peak of anti-semitism, hangs over the book. For me, it also called up Conrad’s Secret Agent with its murky world of spies, informers and anarchist bombs. Fear of the Masons, Jesuits and satanists is there too. All the lunatic fringes are present. Although Eco does pull a surprise by largely steering away from The Dreyfus Affair.
At times the book can be funny, at times it can be interesting; but at other points it is difficult – it’s not just that it gets quite dry; but that it is an unpleasant read. Some of these movements, some of these writings, feel lost in history and it’s easy to wish they would stay there. Perhaps there’s a more general point than that, Eco’s russian agent Rachovsky (a real historical figure, most of them are in this book) sets out his case that his government don’t care for the truth of not of Simonini’s anti semitic rambling, they want to provide an enemy, a distraction. People need someone to hate, and it is in the interests of the powerful to find groups to demonize. Despite this gloom, I enjoyed it – it feels like one of Eco’s most purposeful books.
I picked this up from my local library recently for a holiday to Berlin. As it turns out, there’s maybe not a whole lot of relevancy for such a city break – Berlin has been so rebuilt from the time of old Prussia in both physical form and outlook; and, in any case, the history of Prussia was always dominated by the fringes. The eastern Dukedom that provided the name and the old military Junker families is now back in Polish hands, and the rest of German has found an easier, less Prussian, form of German unification. It was however a fascinating book.
With the reputation that Prussian has, I was expecting fairly blunt military history but Clark delicately covers the social, religious and economic aspects of history too. We don’t just get the monarchs (inevitably called either William or Frederick, sometimes both) and the aristocrats, but also the working people – both native Prussians and minorities, often Polish or Jewish. Packing all this in, the book is a big one. It is not, however, heavy going – Clark writes accessibly, even on the more difficult topics.
As Prussia forms and leads a unified Germany, the book could become more of a standard history of the World Wars. Thankfully, Clark finds his own angle on this. Alongside the main narrative of the rise of the Nazi Party, for instance, we see the Prussian state dominated by the Social Democrats. Throughout the book, there were a lit of similar bits, previously unknown to me, that came together to help explain the path that Prussia took through history. It may not have quite been the perfect holiday book, but I really enjoyed this.
On a weekend away in Berlin a fortnight back (part of the reason there have been so few posts on here recently), we wandered onto Museum Island and took a walk around the Pergamon Museum. In short, it is fantastic! The early 20th century Germans seem to have just transplanted or reconstructed parts of ancient cities through the Mediterranean and Middle East. Whatever the ethics of this may be, the sheer scale of these exhibits is astonishing (the photo below shows me being dwarfed by the Ishtar Gate of Babylon).
The Pergamon Altar that the museum is actually named after is currently closed for remodelling, but the Market Gate of Miletus, the Processional Way (also from Babylon), and a room from Ottoman Aleppo impress on an epic scale. The so-called Aleppo Room has a particular poignancy, with a display outside showing the damage to the original district of the Syrian city.
Other exhibits are on a smaller scale, but displays from Assur, Sumer, and a dozen locations throughout the islamic world (in the Museum fuer Islamische Kunst in the same building) are engrossing. With each culture or location house in their own separate display, it highlights these unique cultures a lot more than other museums – where one can seem to blend into another around time and space.
I am definitely looking forward to returning in a few years for the updated and reopened Pergamon exhibit.
Why is Paracelsus1 important? It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in this 2006 biography by Philip Ball. He didn’t actually discover anything (in any case, not so far as can be deciphered from his often cryptic writing). None of his theories have lasted (most were dismissed under even basic experimentation). Although he was a practical and skeptical man, he never really had a system for his work and it would be stretching the term to labelled it as “science”.
Continue reading Post 61: The Devil’s Doctor
I’m been reading more and more about Germany recently – between the History of Germany Podcast and learning German, it seems like the thing to do. Therefore I’m quite pleased to pass on the news that The British Museum is soon to start a new exhibition on the story of Germany. I went to their big Viking one earlier in the year and heard good things about their recent Ming dynasty one, so I’m sure this will be of a very high standard.
2014 coincides with a number of big anniversaries for German history and German-British relations – 100 years since World War One, 300 since the Hanoverians came to the UK and 25 since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s a lot to cover so the curators have limited themselves to the 15th century onwards, but there’s still more than enough fascinating stories and history to tell. There is more information on the British Museum blog (which is well worth following btw) at http://blog.britishmuseum.org/2014/09/11/exhibiting-germany/.
Tickets can be booked online at http://www.britishmuseum.org/germany
And, as if that wasn’t enough, there will be an accompanying radio show by the director of the museum on BBC Radio. It should be worth checking out come the start of October.
Sometimes I don’t think this blog through well enough. I read this book months ago and reviewing it would have obviously sat perfectly with the world cup final that helped to mark the current dominance of German football, but alas – here it is, a few months later, just as attentions are focused on the new Premier League season.
Anyway … this sporting history written by the German journalist Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger is aimed at a non-German audience. People who won’t necessarily know the ins and outs of football in that country. It does not however act as a cultural, social or political history of Germany and would be next to useless as a tourist guide. There are many other books which do this for other countries, Morbo by Phil Ball, Brilliant Orange by David Winner – and it generally works rather well; but Ulrich H-L sets his stall out bluntly and immediately, he’s here to talk about football and you should look elsewhere for a tour guide.
Once that’s out of the way, the fascinating story of German football begins. It has sometimes had the image of an efficient and professional machine that lumbers along steamrolling the opposition in a dour way (largely because of the 80’s, which we’ll come to later). The truth couldn’t be further from that for the early days of German football; it was very much a regional and amateur sport. The Bundesliga didn’t come about until 1963 and even the 1954 World Cup winning team was made up of amateurs. Other nations had also been resistant to professionalism at the start of the twentieth century, but it is pretty shocking to find Germany still in that state fifty years later. Of course, that wasn’t the only problem – it’s hard to ignore the wars and dramatic political changes that Germany took part in during the first half of the twentieth century.
Continue reading Post 35: Tor! The Story of German Football
Just a quick note here. I had previous written a post on the History of Alchemy podcast by Travis Dow and Pete Collman, two americans based in the Czech Republic who had also worked on a show on Bohemian life. I loved aspects of the show – it was relaxed, informal, and threw up great anecdotes – but at times it could be a bit piecemeal with lots of one off biographical episodes on esoteric characters. I’m therefore pleased to find out that Travis Dow is looking to start a series on the history of Germany!
Continue reading Post 33: The start of the History of Germany Podcast