The Holy Roman Empire by Peter H Wilson

Subtitled A Thousand Years of Europe’s History, this impressive but difficult work does pack a millennium and quite a bit of detail into seven hundred or so pages.  When I was younger, dazzled by Medieval Total War, I quite fancied the idea of a single volume history of the HRE.  Later I realized that that could be a quite hefty prospect (like the dry and extensive The Dutch Republic by Jonathan Israel), but then this book came out – and superficially seemed to be promising that.  Hopes were raised by the easy going cover, blurb and subtitle.

51fcnp9kqvl._sx322_bo1204203200_They were then scattered by the restaurant-tasting-menu style table of contents.  Single word chapter titles like Association and Governance for chapters spanning seventy pages.  No sub-divisions listed here.  And indeed some of the chapters are heavy going – particularly the opening ones on ideology and the relationship between church and state.  Sorting the history thematically means that each chapter crosses back and forth between that thousand years of history in a baffling way unless you are familiar with the events and characters of the empire.

Some later chapters do flow more chronologically, but even they rely on a lot of pre-existing knowledge.  Major events are brushed over in a few words, new people appear without introductions.  The ending tacks on a short bit on the legacy that verges between the interesting (changing views amid the rise of 19th century nationalism) and the unfortunately outdated (lessons to be learned in EU comparisons).  To give these topics the attention needed would really be a whole other book, so it feels like an inessential finale.

To say some positives about it – Wilson clearly has a great command of the material, and doesn’t lower his level for the reader.  By taking the focus away from the great men of history and from material culture, he really gets to deal with things on the level of ideas, justice, identity.  He gets to deal with mis-conceptions about the weakness of the empire or the push and pull of (de)centralisation.  It’s fascinating, in a very involved sort of way

PS. It’s page 2 before Wilson uses the Voltaire quote, if you were wondering (as I was).

Bits of Gibbon (Vol. 1 Chap. 9)

Strong beer, a liquor extracted with very little art from wheat or barley and corrupted (as it is strongly expressed by Tacitus) into a certain semblance of wine, was sufficient for the gross purposes of German debauchery.

He’s been to Oktoberfest then…

And The Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis

27384105Yanis Varoufakis was the Greek Minister of Finance for five months in 2015,  for the left wing anti-austerity party Syriza, before resigning over the result of a referendum on a further financial bailout (he was against).  More than that, he was and is a successful academic economist.  He had already thrown his oar into the EU debt crisis with what he called A Modest Proposal, co-written with a former British Labour party MP and an American ecnomist.  That proposal appears in the appendix of this book.  While he was writing up a popular account of the crisis and his proposal, he suddenly found himself elected and playing a much more active role in the proceedings.

With all that in mind, this is hardly an unbiased account, and Varoufakis does plenty of the dramatics and grandstanding that he is known for.  At times in the book he presents himself as naive and well-meaning, but you feel he would have to be impossibly so (and completely unaware of the history he describes in the book).  Aside from this dis-ingenuousness, he is a very compelling writer.  The topic is dry but his graphic style of writing makes it exciting – for instance, he describes Greece’s series of debts and forced loans as “fiscal waterboarding”.  It is over the topic, but he’s a passionate man.

He starts, after a childhood story, with an explanation of the Nixon Shock and Bretton Woods.  Both of which were new to me.  From there he builds a picture of inter-country finance and the problems with currency exchange (more interesting than it sounds).  He then traces the history of the Euro through the antagonism and scheming between the French and German governments, and between the German government and the Bundesbank.  There are plenty of broad brush statements, which would be an interesting discussion in and of themselves – for example, suggesting that the removal of powers from democratic organisations to technocratic ones is the cause of our current poor crop of politicians.

With the ongoing news of Trump’s economic moves against Turkey, one thing that stood out was that all this financial “co-operation” so often read like war by other means.  The author plays up to this, of course, taking his title from Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War.  It was a bit depressing to read about the open anger and plans to “punish” countries as an example to others.  I know these are generalisations and there are factions and factions within the EU and within national governments.  Varoufakis is very much on one side of the argument and I kept thinking that it would be interesting to read a book from the other point of view; but perhaps it wouldn’t.  Varoufakis is a very, very good writer.

HHhH and Memoirs of Hadrian

220px-hhhh_bookcoverRecently I read two quite different works of historical fiction by French authors, both obsessed in their own way with a kind of authenticity.  In the post-modern HHhH (from 2010) the author Laurent Binet inserts himself and his writing process into a story about the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich.  Uncomfortable about straying from historical fact or even inventing dialogue with real characters, Binet will intersperse the narrative with his thoughts on his own writing and his experiences researching the book.  I’m not sure whether this quirk is inventive or not; but it is wasn’t quite as well done as this the book would be unreadable.  The reticence against invention leads to the characters that a flat and, although the story still has its drama, it feels like Binet could have made more of it.  His interventions do add to the build up, but it’s a gimmick that I enjoyed but wouldn’t particularly care to see again.  In all, I enjoyed the book as a one off; and I’m tempted to break through my usual aversion to WW2 histories and find a real book on the assassination.

51fbcpndyjl-_sx323_bo1204203200_In 1951’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Margeurite Yourcenar tries to strip her own personality and touch away from the writing; through detailed research and critical editing (a number of earlier attempts were scrapped entirely) she produces what reads like a real set of memoirs.  This sometimes leaves the book more admirable than enjoyable but at it’s best it can be moving, especially as Hadrian deals with the death of his favourite Antinous.  His internal struggles show a character with real depth, as a man who fundamentally believes that peace is the best way forward but throws himself wholeheartedly into his military role.  Compared to another recent read, Julian by Gore Vidal, the emperor feels genuine and subtle; the themes seem to occur naturally from the story.  It’s a very gentle work, and you can feel the time and effort that have went into it.

As far as authenticity goes, Yourcenar definitely has the better balance of research and narrative; I could probably stand for a little less realism, but I think it’s a good model for fictionalised biography.  Binet self-reflects on his failure to do justice to the narrative, and in a way that deprecation makes the book work, gives it a source of humour on a grim topic.  I don’t think even close to a model of how to write, but it is however a very enjoyable book.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

the-prague-cemetery-u-ecoIn 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.

Iron Kingdom by Christopher Clark

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.

Pergamon Museum, Berlin

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).

Ishtar

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.

Post 61: The Devil’s Doctor

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

Post 40: Exhibiting Germany

PlacardI’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.

Tor! The Story of German Football

CoverSometimes 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 Tor! The Story of German Football