Echoes of Imperialism


Sathnam Sanghera, Empireland:

How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain

(Viking Press)

The mighty British empire at one point spanned a quarter of the globe and included a substantial portion of the world’s population.  Sometime after World War II, that empire ceased to exist, although there’s no consensus on the end date –– some argue that the British empire ended in 1947 with Indian independence; others cite the disastrous 1956 British-French-Israeli incursion into Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal; still others contend for the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese.  But whenever the sun might have finally set on the British empire, it continues to shape 21st century Britain.  In Empireland; How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, documentary film maker and journalist Sathnam Sanghera undertakes to identify how, why and in what ways the once mighty empire lives on in British hearts and minds.

The subject of empire in Britain today, Sanghera writes, is a “veritable industrial oven of hot potatoes” (p.41), enmeshed in quarrels and polemics involving such interlocking issues as multi-culturalism, immigration, racism, and Britain’s role in slavery.  There is a rough political divide to the contemporary polemics over empire, he indicates, with Conservative Party politicians and their supporters tending to be strong defenders of empire, whereas those from the Labour Party have “generally felt the need to apologize for it” (p.120), although there are plenty of exceptions on both sides.  It is a subject that cannot be discussed casually: “you need to take sides” (p.41).   What people think about empire often says more about their politics than their knowledge of history.

Actual knowledge of imperial history in Britain is very low, Sanghera contends, despite upticks in interest when issues like whether statues of individuals with ties to the colonial period need to be torn down or defended.  A form of nostalgia often dilutes historical knowledge, leading to the routine accusation that any commentary on the darker aspects of British empire is “anti-British” (p.195).  But, as one writer whom Sanghera quotes stated, “It is probably only possible to be nostalgic for empire if you forget most of its history”  (p.197).

Sanghera doesn’t set out all the dark moments that punctuate British imperial history.  He does not intend his work to be another history of the British empire, typically long and dense.  But he provides enough examples to explain why Britons might be uncomfortable with this history.  These include the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in British India, when Brigadier General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire upon a crowd of peaceful protesters thought insufficiently loyal, killing at least 1,000; and the 1959 Hola massacre in Kenya, when guards at a detention camp for resisters to British rule clubbed to death 11 detainees, with the camp’s remaining 77 detainees sustaining permanent injuries, followed by an elaborate cover-up scheme.

At one point, Sanghera suggests that British colonial history may be “just too painful to digest” (p.208), much like dark family secrets, which for psychological reasons are often better left in the closet.  If it is important for one’s own mental health to forget those secrets, the same “might be true for nations” (p.208).  Yet, Sanghera rejects his suggestion.  The darkest moments of British colonial history cannot be left in the closet, he contends.  His broadest argument is that Britain needs to reckon with the full history of its empire.  Without facing up to the uncomfortable facts of British imperialism, Britain will “never be able to navigate a path forwards . . . If we don’t confront the reality of what happened in British empire, we will never be able to work out who we are or who we want to be” (p.215).

Sanghera confesses that like most of his fellow citizens, he was woefully ignorant of the history of the British empire before he started working on this book.  Although he attended a highly competitive, multi-cultural secondary school in his hometown, Wolverhampton, his education “taught me nothing about the history which would have explained why there were so many brown people in Wolverhampton” (p.76).  What little he learned about empire and colonialism was almost invariably presented from the perspective of the colonizers, rarely if ever from the perspective of the colonized.   Much of his education about empire came from a single trip he made to India’s Punjab province in 2019, part of his preparation for writing this book.

Sanghera provides extensive detail on this trip, and throughout explains how his background and experiences have shaped his perspective, giving the book the feel of a memoir.  Born in Britain, he recounts growing up in Wolverhampton in a family of Punjabi Sikh parents who immigrated to Britain in the 1960s.  Although thoroughly British – he cannot conceive of his identity as anything else – he is fully aware that because of his Indian Sikh ancestry and his skin color, many fellow citizens do not see him that way.  But writing in an often-lighthearted way on ultra-serious subjects, Sanghera pokes fun at those not ready to acknowledge his full Britishness – that’s their problem, he seems to respond.  Having faced his fair share of racial discrimination — and anti-immigrant sentiment even though he was born in Britain — Sanghera brings a powerful lens through which to view the complex ways in which today’s Britons think about their empire.

That lens, moreover, is rigorously objective.  Sanghera goes out of his way to temper some of the more extreme arguments about the malign character of the empire, emanating most often from the political left.  But he does not shy away from providing the facts that bolster the critiques of empire and, after considered evaluation, most frequently comes out on the left side of the ongoing, often-frenetic contemporary debate.   Despite the many advantages and attractions that Britain offers to her citizens, “our imperial legacies and the ways we fail to see them are a burden,” he writes.  We can progress “only if we confront them” (p.221).

* * *

There is a prosaic and entertaining side to Sanghera’s analysis, in which he sets out hidden or less evident legacies of empire in today’s Britain.  Over 1,000 familiar English-language words come from India, including “bungalow,” “dam,” “jungle,’ “sandals” “pepper” and “shampoo.”   He also expounds upon how empire has affected and enhanced British cuisine.  India understandably gets special attention: curry is close to the national English dish, and it is “hard to imagine modern Britain functioning without its thousands of Indian restaurants” (p.85).  Among the drinks with imperial origins, British gin and tonic “became popular among the British abroad when they learned that the quinine in tonic had anti-malarial properties” (p.11); and there is “nothing more imperial than the most British drink of all: a cup of sweetened tea” (p.11).

Free school meals and many other social reforms that underpin the modern welfare state can be attributed to the empire, coming about because politicians “worried that the poor health of the newly urbanized working classes was endangering Britain’s ability to maintain an empire and hold its own against growing competition from Germany, America, and Japan”  (p.9).  The idea behind the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1908 was to turn a generation of boys into “good citizens or useful colonists” (p.11).  For similar reasons, Britain’s elite independent boarding schools, known as “public schools,” are another legacy of British empire – “many of them thriving during the Victorian age, and in some cases being established, because they serve as preparation, even training, for a role in empire” (p.172).

Thomas Cook pioneered Western tourism in tandem with the expansion of the British empire, making mass travel for leisure arguably another legacy of empire.  Empire helped establish London as one of the world’s great financial centers.  Policing methods used in Britain were often derived from colonial practices, on the trial-and-error method; fingerprinting, for example, was developed in India to control the local population.  But these tidbits illustrating the ubiquitous vestiges of empire in everyday British life, interesting as they are, serve primarily as a foundation for a deeper examination of the contemporary public debate over empire and the cluster of ideas that animate that debate – the “hot potatoes” in the industrial oven, to reprise Sanghera’s metaphor.

* * *

Among these hot potatoes, Sanghera gives extensive treatment to “multi-culturalism” and the role and perception of immigrants in today’s Britain.  A dictionary which Sanghera cites defines multi-culturalism as the recognition that “all the different cultural or racial groups in a society have equal rights and opportunities, and none is ignored or regarded as unimportant” (p.30).   This anodyne definition misses the point for today’s Britain, Sanghera argues, where multi-culturalism is largely the “consequence of our having once colonized a quarter of the world” (p.14).   Contemporary Britain is a multicultural, racially diverse society quite simply because it “once had a multicultural, racially diverse empire” (p.71).

The narrative that brown people imposed themselves on Britain is “so powerful that I absorbed it myself, as a young brown Briton,” ” (p.76), Sanghera writes. The persistence of the idea that black and brown people are “aliens who arrived without permission, and with no link to Britain, to abuse British hospitality” is the “defining political narrative of my lifetime”  (p.75).  Britain could transform all conversations about multi-culturalism if it could simply acknowledge that much of its non-white population has deep ties to the country as the consequence of centuries of imperialism.  Or, as the Sri Lankan writer Ambalavaner Sivanadan once succinctly put it, “we are here because you were there” (p.71).

In today’s debates about multiculturalism and immigration, Sanghera observes, “almost all the pressure is put on immigrant communities, to integrate, to pass citizenship tests, to learn English and to accept certain national values” (p.79), none of which he considers illegitimate or out of place.  But the “host” country has responsibilities too.  In Britain, foremost among them is to acknowledge that black and brown people are present in the country “because Britain, at best, had close relationships with its colonies for centuries, which included millions of the colonized putting their lives on the line for Britain during two world wars, or because Britain, at worst, violently repressed and exploited its colonies for centuries” (p.79).

Sanghera attributes much of that centuries-long violent repression and exploitation to what we would today call racism, perhaps the hottest of the potatoes in the industrial oven of empire.  While the terms “race” and “racism” might not have had quite the same meaning during the colonial era, the inescapable bottom line for Sanghera as he looks at the era’s history is that the British empire, as it grew during the 19th and 20th centuries, “morphed into nothing less than a willful, unapologetic exercise in white racial supremacy” (p.157).  But does this historic white racism have any relevance to contemporary Britain?  This single question, Sanghera writes, “provokes more anger, when it comes to empire, than any other” (p.160).

The question of relevance may be provocative, but for Sanghera it is not a difficult one.  Unlike many of his fellow citizens, he hears “echoes of imperialism” in the “almost daily headlines highlighting racial injustice and inequality” (p.169), including the dearth of ethnic minorities on the boards of major companies, in senior academic leadership roles, and in high civil service positions.  Black and brown young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than their white peers and end up disproportionately in a criminal justice commonly recognized as treating minorities more harshly than whites.  In facing up to nearly every racial controversy in Britain, governments of all stripes consistently fail to acknowledge “centuries of slavery, exploitation, state racism, cultural connections and economic ties” (p.76).  While not every racial injustice can be explained in terms of the British empire and the legacy of colonialism, the endurance of institutional racism in today’s Britain should be no mystery: “our society grew out of the racist institution of British empire” (p.169).

Britain’s historic involvement in slavery and the slave trade may constitute the imperial era’s starkest manifestation of racism.  Britain wasn’t the first nation to engage in the slave trade, and slaves were not for the most part taken from what was then the British empire.  But during the 150 years that Britain engaged in the slave trade, it carried as many slaves to the New World as all other slave-shipping countries combined.  The triangular Britain-Africa-Caribbean slave trade sustained British colonies in the Caribbean throughout the 18th century, “dehumanizing black people on a super-industrial scale” ((p.157; Sanghera likes the term “industrial”).  According to the Financial Times, 18th century slave-related business in Britain “accounted for about the same proportion of GDP as the professional and support services sector does today” (p.xi).  Another survey found that almost a third of 300 leading English country houses and gardens were “tainted by wealth from slavery or have treasures plundered from overseas” (p.132).  There were also instances of black slavery in Britain.

But Britain’s historic involvement in slavery and the slave trade may also constitute modern Britain’s most acute case of “selective historical amnesia,” a key term in Sanghera’s analysis.  Britain’s involvement ended in the first third of the 19th century, with Parliament abolishing slave trading in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833.  Since that time, abolition has supplanted Britain’s centuries-long engagement in slavery and the slave trade as the primary theme in the national narrative, “almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it” (p.205), as Eric Williams, an eminent scholar of empire who also served as Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, wrote in 1964.  “Few acts of collective forgetting have been as thorough and successful as the erasing of slavery from Britain’s ‘island story’” (p.209), opined historian David Olusoga.

Sanghera refers approvingly to the New York Times’ 1619 project developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a historical analysis of how slavery has shaped American political, social, and economic institutions.  University College London has developed “Legacies of British Slave Ownership,” which might be considered the counterpart to the 1619 Project.  Several British universities are following in the footsteps of UCL, seeking to shake historical amnesia by highlighting the role that slavery has played in Britain.  Some are even looking at the extent to which they themselves profited from the slave trade.

* * *

Ending on an altogether positive note, Sanghera sets out other developments that give him hope that Britain may be on the cusp of reckoning with its imperial past.  There’s a movement in private school education to add fuller histories of the British empire to their curricula.  Several museums have undertaken to restitute plundered artworks, artifacts and other cultural items to former colonies.  Sanghera applauds former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s apology to Ghana’s president for Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.  And he notes several instances in which, rather than tearing down statutes of former colonial notables, statutes of former colonized or notable people of color appear alongside colonials.

These developments, Sanghera concludes, augur well for an ameliorated public debate in Britain over empire and “how the present is connected to the past”  (p.232).  Sanghera’s own even-handed work, both eloquent and witty, should serve as a major contribution to that debate.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

April 20, 2023










Filed under Uncategorized

The Day World War II Really Started


Brendan Simms & Charlie Laderman,

Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War

(Basic Books)

Why did Adolph Hitler declare war on the United States, the world’s mightiest industrial power, on December 11, 1941, four days after a surprise Japanese attack had obliterated the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7th?  That  question has puzzled many historians in the decades since December 1941.  It is also the question that Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, history professors at Cambridge University and King’s College London, respectively, wrestle with throughout Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbor and Germany’s March to Global War. 

The two authors challenge what they term the “dominant narrative” that considers Hitler’s declaration an “inexplicable strategic blunder” (p.x).  Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, an official in the administration of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, for instance, characterized the declaration as “totally irrational” (p.356).   Both at the time and in the years hence, many have considered the declaration little more than the impulsive outburst of megalomaniac dictator with illusions of controlling ever larger swaths of the planet.

Simms and Laderman proffer convincing reasons to reconsider the dominant narrative.  They readily admit that Hitler’s declaration of war was a “strategic blunder,” yet in their interpretation it is fully explicable in rational terms.  Hitler was convinced that war with the United States was inevitable.  In his mind, Nazi Germany was already at war unofficially with the United States, which through its Lend Lease program was openly assisting Great Britain and the Soviet Union, which the Nazis had invaded in June 1941. Given his conviction that war with the United States was inevitable, the Führer made a “deliberate gamble” (p.x) to strike America first.

Hitler declared war on the United States “out of fear that, if he did not, the United States would overwhelm Germany at a time of its choosing” (p.359), the authors write.  Hitler anticipated that for the foreseeable future after the Pearl Harbor attacks the United States would be distracted by the conflict in the Pacific and kept from interfering in the European theatre.  He was driven by “his geopolitical calculations, his assessment of the balance of manpower and matériel, and, above all, his obsession with the United States and its global influence” (p.x).  The authors describe this strategy as a “catastrophically mistaken one, as it turned out, but one that made sense to him given the information available and the lens through which he interpreted that knowledge” (p.x).

Between December 7th and 11th, the world’s attention was focused at least as much on American president Roosevelt as on Hitler.  The day after the attacks, Monday, December 8, 1941, the United States Congress by a nearly unanimous vote granted Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war against Japan.  But Roosevelt did not mention either Germany or its European ally Italy in his famous “day of infamy” address to Congress, leaving unanswered the question whether the United States would join the on-going European conflict.

Roosevelt had long considered Nazi Germany a far greater threat than Japan to the United States, and to democracy and world stability.  But even after the Japanese attack, large portions of the public and the Congress remained isolationist, unwilling to support American involvement in a European war, and Roosevelt was reluctant to take the country into a war without strong public support.  As the world learned on Thursday, December 11th, Hitler, not Roosevelt, made the next move.

By all accounts, Hitler had no advance knowledge when or where  the Japanese would strike and was genuinely “surprised” and “ecstatic” (p.127) once he received word of the Pearl Harbor attack.  But until he delivered an address before party faithful at the Reichstag in Berlin on December 11th, no one other than his closest confidants knew how he planned to react to the attack.  In what the authors consider the most important speech of Hitler’s career, both ideologically and strategically, the Führer returned to themes and obsessions that had dominated his thinking for over twenty years: the “supposed power of international Jewry, the evil of plutocracy, the hostility of Roosevelt, the centrality of race and space” (p.280). He then went on to announce that Germany would join its allies, Japan and Italy, in waging a war that he maintained had been forced upon them by the United States and Great Britain.

Simms and Laderman contend that Hitler’s declaration of war on December 11th makes that day “arguably the most important twenty-four hours in history” (p.354).   On the morning of the 11th, they write, the Asian and European conflicts were “essentially siloed in their separate theaters” (p.x).    Later that day Hitler instantly transformed the conflicts into a fully conjoined world war, in which the United States would “deploy its preeminent economic power to create the most powerful military machine in global history”  (p.398).  More than Pearl Harbor, Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States “created a new global strategic reality and, ultimately, a new world”   (p.357).

After an extensive and useful introductory background chapter, Simms and Laderman develop these macro points through an intense micro account of the five-day period, from December 7 to December 11, with each day meriting separate chapter.  Each chapter moves seamlessly between the actions and reactions of the major protagonists of the drama, often on an hour-by-hour and even minute-by-minute basis.  In addition to Germany and the United States, the protagonists include Japan, the catalyst for the drama; Great Britain, which declared war on Japan a few hours prior to the United States; the Soviet Union, which the United States and Britain encouraged to join the war in the Pacific against Japan; Italy, Germany’s underperforming ally; and China, already fighting Japan.  There is also a final chapter, an epilogue entitled “The World of December 12, 1941.”

Hitler’s American Gamble is the “first study to investigate this critical period in such extensive detail” (p.xvi), Simms and Laderman claim.  They seek to recreate the “uncertainty of these five crucial days in global history” (p.xvi) — among the 20th century’s “most fraught” yet “least understood” (p.ix) moments — to get “closer to the truth of these moments as they were lived” (p.xiv).    How Hitler and Roosevelt might react to the Pearl Harbor attacks constitutes the main dramatic thread running through the granular day-by-day narrative, but hardly the only one.

Germany, Italy and Japan, known as the Axis powers, were working feverishly during the five-day period to finalize the terms of an agreement designed to formalize verbal commitments Hitler had made earlier in the year to Japanese diplomats that Nazi Germany would “intervene immediately” (p.35) should Japan find itself at war with the United States.  Japan did not fully trust Hitler and was anxious to hold the Führer to his verbal commitment.  On the Allied side, both Britain and the Soviet Union were deeply concerned about interruptions to their receipt of armaments, equipment, and materials from the United States under the Lend-Lease program as the United States turned its attention away from Europe to focus on Japan and the Pacific.

Stepping back from the day-to-day recounting of events and looking at the five-day narrative as a whole, the most striking theme of Hitler’s American Gamble is the degree to which different forms of racism infected the views and moves of all major actors.  Hitler’s omnipresent anti-Semitism stands out, a far more central factor in his decision to declare war on the United States than is commonly realized.  But the authors detail flagrant racism on all sides of the conflict.

* * *

The agreement which German, Italian and Japanese diplomats were working on during the five-day period was intended to update the defensive Tripartite Pact of September 1940, in which the three powers had agreed to support the others militarily if they were attacked by a “power at present not involved in the European War or in the Japanese-Chinese conflict” (p.23), commonly understood to mean the United States.  The updated agreement went beyond the defensive terms of the Tripartite Pact.  The three Axis powers agreed to wage war against the British Empire and the United States to a successful conclusion.  They also promised not to enter into separate peace negotiations without the agreement of the other two and committed  to “collaborate closely after the end of the war for the purpose of establishing a just new order”  (p.323).

The German language version of the updated agreement was signed by the three parties at 11:00 am on Thursday, December 11th, the day of Hitler’s Reichstag speech, with the Japanese and Italian versions not signed until after the speech.  Hitler referred to the agreement in his speech, an indication that his commitment to Japan played a significant role in his decision to declare war on the United States.

The agreement reflected the Axis powers’ shared hatred and resentment of the “Anglo-Saxons,” as they called the United States and Great Britain, and what they termed the Anglo-Saxon “plutocratic” capitalist system, which in their view controlled the world.  The Axis countries considered themselves the world’s “have nots,” living at the mercy of the Anglo-Saxon “haves,” who were “denying Berlin, Rome, and Tokyo – the three have-nots – their rightful place at the world table” (p.15), as Simms and Laderman put it.  Hitler claimed that he had been a “have-not all my life,” a dig at Roosevelt’s patrician origins, and that he was acting as the world’s “representative of the have-nots” (p.27).  The Pearl Harbor attack was interpreted in the Axis countries as part of a “wider struggle of the have-nots against the Western haves, and of the Japanese and German peoples against the Anglo-Saxons” (p.170).

Another crucial part of the five-day drama for which the authors provide regular updates is how badly the war was going for Germany on its Eastern Front during that week.  Nazi Germany had broken a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in June 1941 – “Hitler’s Soviet Gamble” – and invaded the country, making stunning initial advances through Ukraine and Western Russia in the summer of 1941.  But by early December 1941, the German incursion that was headed to Moscow had ground to a halt.  With the Soviet army clearly on a roll, a “seismic change in the course of the war lay directly ahead”  (p.83).  Much of the bad news apparently did not make it to Hitler.  Only in the aftermath of his momentous Reichstag address did the Führer became aware of how bleak the situation actually was in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet successes in the late fall 1941 were due in no small part to the Lend-Lease program, which Hitler considered his proof that the United States was already at war with Germany. The program, which had officially gone into effect in May 1941, allowed the United States to remain formally non-belligerent while supporting both Britain and the Soviet Union in their war efforts.  The United States was already behind in its commitments under the program in early December when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor.

While American officials tried to assure both Britain and the Soviet Union that the flow of supplies under Lend-Lease would continue unabated after the attacks, the reality was that the United States had shifted from the “arsenal of democracy” to a “besieged wartime belligerent with its own vital munitions needs” (p.296).   Immediately after Pearl Harbor, some adjustments were made to previously agreed-upon schedules, with allocations for a short time made on an ad-hoc, day-by-day basis.  But by the end the week, it was clear that Lend-Lease would “not only continue but be greatly expanded” (p.379).

* * *

If Hitler’s decision to strike the United States preemptively has some indicia of rationality, given the lens through which he interpreted information, as the authors contend, that lens was grotesquely distorted by his anti-Semitism.  In Hitler’s twisted mind, “world Jewry” and “international Jewish finance” were Germany’s implacable enemies, pulling the strings of the plutocratic Anglo-Saxon capitalist system.  Political leaders like Roosevelt and Churchill were essentially puppets of Jewish financiers, making European Jews bargaining chips which Hitler thought he could use against Roosevelt.

“Inspired by his conspiratorial view of worldwide Jewish influence,” the authors write, Hitler believed that the “threat of further violence against European – especially central and western European – Jews would deter their supposed agent, Roosevelt, from intervening directly in the European war”  (p.xiii).  Throughout the autumn of 1941, Hitler had made the connections between US policy and the fate of European Jewry increasingly explicit.  But if Hitler thought that threatening European Jewry with destruction would deter American intervention, there is “no evidence that the situation was understood in these terms in Washington” (p.56), the authors note.

Jews lost their value as bargaining chips once Germany declared war on the United States.  The authors characterize the declaration as a death sentence for the Jews of western and central Europe.  Whether the entry of the United States into the war was the “decisive factor or merely an accelerant” (p.362), Hitler’s war of annihilation against western and central European Jewry entered a new and more deadly phase after December 11, 1941.  In the authors’ view, the systematic murder of European Jews in the months and years after December 11th was “primarily, though not exclusively, driven by Hitler’s anti-Semitic antagonism toward the ‘plutocratic’ powers” (p.387).

But the authors also emphasize repeatedly how far along the deadly war of annihilation of European Jewry already was during the five-day period.  On Monday, December 8th, the first Jews were gassed to death at a camp in Poland.  Wednesday the 10th brought an effective end to the Crimean Jewish community.  During the week, Jews in Latvia were systematically murdered, and a train from Dusseldorf loaded with Jews headed east, one of the earliest deportations of German Jews.  The infamous Wannsee conference, where top Nazi leadership decided upon an official policy of extermination of European Jews, was originally scheduled for this five-day period but was postponed because of Hitler’s Reichstag address and took place one month later, in January 1942.

On the Allied side, the authors emphasize repeatedly how Anglo-American policy makers viewed Japan through a lens of deeply engrained racial bias, leading to a “systematic underestimation of Japanese capabilities” (p.43).  Reflecting “underlying racist assumptions,” there was widespread reluctance to believe that the Japanese could “build and deploy sophisticated weaponry, and there was widespread skepticism about their fighting qualities” (p.43).   This led to recurring assertions that Japan had attacked the United States at Hitler’s request, acting as his “cat’s-paw in Asia” (p.209).  The suggestion that “German planes, and even Nazi pilots, had led the Japanese assault” was an indication of the “long-standing racially charged insinuations that the Japanese were incapable of perpetrating such sophisticated operations” (p.209).

President Roosevelt himself, the authors indicate, did not “credit the Japanese with agency of their own” (p.358).   If Hitler saw Roosevelt as the agent of the Jews, the American president “portrayed the Japanese as a mere instrument of Hitler” (p.69).   Roosevelt told his cabinet, hastily convened on the evening of the attacks, that the Japanese had responded to “pressure from Berlin” to “divert the American mind, and the British mind from the European field.”  (p.153).   In a nationally broadcast “fireside chat” on Wednesday, December 10th, Roosevelt, trying to focus the country on the danger which Nazi Germany posed, accused Germany of “instructing Tokyo to attack the United States in order to share the spoils of war” (p.262).

Much like the “Anglo-Saxons,” Hitler considered the Japanese a “second class race.”  But for a white racist he nonetheless entertained a “remarkably positive” (p.9) view of Japan.  His admiration for Japan’s militancy in the Pacific led him to term the Japanese the “Prussians of the Far East” (p.229).    In Japan, the conflict was widely perceived as a “war with white people”  (p.365)

Challenging white imperial rule in East Asia, the Japanese appealed to the “racial solidarity of the rest of the world and to the anti-colonialism of the Indian and Asian nationalists resisting Western imperialism” (p.365), the authors write.  But after Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, out of deference to their European allies, Japanese journalists and intellectuals were instructed to drop references to “whites” and the “yellow race,” and write instead of “Britain and America” or, simply, the “Anglo-Saxons.”  The Japanese also launched what they called “Negro Propaganda Operations” to exploit historical discrimination in the United States against African Americans.

* * *

In their deeply researched and lucidly written work, Simms and Laderman demonstrate that Hitler lost his American gamble in no small measure because of Roosevelt’s restraint after the Pearl Harbor attacks.  Hitler’s declaration of war on Thursday, December 11th solved Roosevelt’s most urgent problem, how to unite the country in combatting Nazi Germany.  By plunging his country into an “unwinnable war against the greatest industrial power on earth,” the authors write, Hitler landed “exactly where he did not want to be” (p.358) and exactly where Roosevelt wanted him.  Although the United States had “long stood on the cusp of world power,” it was Hitler’s declaration, the authors conclude, that “supplied the final push” (p.398).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 13, 2023





Filed under European History, History, World History

Taking Refuge in Natural Places


Rebecca Solnit, Orwell’s Roses

(Viking Press)

“In the spring of 1936, a writer planted roses.”  Thus begins Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses.  Six other chapters in this quirky work begin with nearly the same sentence.  The writer who planted those roses was of course George Orwell; 1936 was the year the writer moved to a rented cottage in the idyllic rural English town of Wallington, Hertfordshire.  In June of that year, he married Eileen O’Shaughnessy, an Oxford graduate then studying for a master’s degree in educational psychology.  The months in Wallington following the wedding were among the happiest of Orwell’s life, Solnit writes.  He was “settling down for the first time, at an address he would keep longer than any other,” where for the first time he would “live the life he wanted, with a garden and a wife, in the countryside, making his living primarily as a writer” (p.21).

Solnit suggests that gardening and roses — and nature and the natural world more generally — sharpened Orwell’s political views and nourished his contemplations on the meaning of beauty and how it might be cultivated and sustained in a turbulent world.  After taking refuge in natural places, she writes, Orwell would emerge to “go to war on lies, delusions, cruelties, and follies”  (p.96).  But in a work that goes in multiple directions, this initial promise of Orwell’s Roses is unfulfilled.  The links between Orwell’s political views and his appreciation of nature and search for beauty remain murky throughout the book, more implicit than explicit.

If Solnit falls short in linking Orwell’s political thinking to his appreciation of nature and search for beauty, she nonetheless provides an arresting portrait of the writer as a descendant of Henry David Thoreau, the 19thcentury American naturalist, essayist and philosopher, as manifested by his planting and tending roses in Wallington.  He sometimes “feels like a nephew of Thoreau” (p.31), she writes.  Nearly every one of Orwell’s books contains “evocations of rural English scenery” and the delight taken in the “places he wandered, fished, botanized, birdwatched, cultivated, and played in as a child, a youth, and a young man” (p.27).  The pleasures of animals, plants, flowers, natural landscapes, gardening, and the countryside “surface over and over again in his books” (p.24).  In 1940, in response to a questionnaire, Orwell wrote that outside of his work as a writer, the “thing I care most about is gardening, especially vegetable gardening”(p.24).

Solnit makes clear at the outset that Orwell’s Roses is not another Orwell biography.   Rather, she describes her work as a “series of forays from one starting point, that gesture whereby one writer planted several roses.  As such, it’s also a book about roses”  (p.15).   Solnit’s forays are wide-ranging, giving the book a meandering quality.  Many have thin links to either Orwell or roses, such as how Silicon Valley became a global superpower, the fate of an obscure French resistance fighter, the June 1989 massacres in Tiananmen Square, the centuries-long enclosure of rural commons in England, and the popular appeal of Ralph Lauren’s fabrics.  Large portions of the book read like a personal memoir, with Solnit‘s own views and experiences among its  major forays.  One extensive foray details Solnit’s visit to Colombia, where she observed the exploitive conditions under which roses are produced on a massive scale at a partially US-owned agri-business conglomerate.

Orwell’s Roses is thus indeed about roses, at least as much as it is about Orwell – roses as a “member of the plant kingdom and as a particular kind of flower around which a vast edifice of human responses has arisen, from poetry to commercial industry” (p.15).   Solnit captures the ubiquity of roses in modern life.  She provides a scientific overview of the process by which a rose becomes a rose and highlights the early 20th century women’s rights slogan “Bread and roses,” a “fierce argument that more than survival and bodily well-being were needed and were being demanded as a right” (p.87).

But the recurrent chapters that begin by referring to the writer planting roses in Wallington in 1936 serve as a reminder that the book is also interstitially about Orwell.  If not quite a biography, Orwell’s Roses’ nonetheless presents shrewd insights into Orwell and the evolution of his thinking, especially on the potency of lies in political life and how totalitarian forms of government are threats “not just to liberty and human rights but to language and consciousness” (p.268).  A self-described socialist, Orwell’s searing critiques of left-wing dictatorships, starting with the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and the Western intellectuals who supported him, have rendered the writer who planted roses, as Solnit aptly puts it, a “totemic figure claimed by people across the political spectrum” (p.141).

 * * *

Orwell, whose birth name was Eric Arthur Blair, was born in 1903 in India, where his father Richard Walmsley Blair was a civil servant.  The Blair family, as Solnit observes, were descendants of “colonists and servants of empire who lived off the fat of others’ land and labor” (p.168).  Charles Blair, the writer’s great, great grandfather, made money through the immensely profitable sugar trade, the result of “extraordinarily brutal slave labor” (p.159).  As a civil servant, Orwell’s father worked in the opium business in India, overseeing the farming of poppies and production of the drug in a process that “impoverished, coerced, and sometimes brutally punished the Indian peasants doing the growing and refining”  (p.67).  While still a teenager, the young Eric Blair served as a policeman in Burma, bullying locals into “submitting to an unwanted colonial authority” (p.22).

The writer who planted roses in Wallington in 1936 was thus rooting himself not only in a particular soil, Solnit stresses, but also in “ideas and traditions and lineages that whether he loathed them or not were his and were all around him” (p.183).  By 1936, Orwell, who assumed that name in 1933, had two moderately successful books to his credit.  In Down and Out in London and Paris, he described his life impersonating a tramp in London and washing dishes in Paris.  In The Road to Wigan Pier, he provided a sympathetic account of England’s Northern mining communities.  Both reflected the writer’s deliberate choice to become “downwardly mobile” by spending time among the poor, as a “kind of expiation of [his] colonial phase and an engagement with the classes he had been taught to shun” (p.22).  What he saw in the coalmines had impressed him “not just as subject matter for a book but as a harrowing encounter with suffering and exploitation that furthered his transformation into a political writer” (p.72-73).

At the end of 1936, Orwell set out with Eileen for Spain where, for about three months, he fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, during which he was injured and nearly killed.  Driven to Spain by his hatred for fascism and Nazism, Orwell’s brief participation in the conflict led him to conclude that communism under Stalin threatened individual liberty at least as much as the ideologies of Mussolini and Hitler.  His war experiences and observations informed Homage to Catalonia which, although only moderately successful at the time, completed Orwell’s transformation to a political writer.  The Spanish Civil War, Solnit writes, sharpened his “ordinary loathing of hypocrisy and evasiveness” into a “focus on the power of lies in political life that only grew stronger in his 1940s essays and in Animal Farm and in what is perhaps the twentieth century’s most significant book about systematic lying, Nineteen Eighty-Four”  (p.224).

Orwell himself, Solnit notes, held many prejudices common to his social class about race, homosexuality, gender, and nationality, with gender being one of his “most significant blind spots” (p.222).  He almost never reviewed books by women or mentioned women in his literary essays.  He never appeared to consider how marriages and families can become “authoritarian regimes in miniature, down to the suppression of truths and promulgation of lies that protect the powerful”  (p.222).  Orwell was “part of an age that was (with some notable exceptions) strategically oblivious to inequalities we have since worked hard to recognize” (p.222), Solnit writes.

Eileen died unexpectedly from complications from a hysterectomy in 1945. The couple had recently adopted a son, Richard Blair.  Animal Farm was published later in 1945, six months after Eileen’s death.  In June 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four appeared, roughly six months prior to Orwell’s own death from tuberculosis in January 1950.  Much of the work on Nineteen Eighty-Four took place on a remote tip of the island of Jura, off the western Scottish coast, where Orwell renewed the connection to the land he had established in Wallington, writing while maintaining what amounted to a farm, with livestock, crops, fruit trees, a tractor, and an abundance of flowers.  Solnit describes the writer’s premature death in terms that evoke the Wallington rose garden and the Jura farm: the tuberculosis bacteria, she writes, had “made a garden of his lungs and were flourishing there, feeding on him as though the soft tissue of his lungs was fertile topsoil” (p.260).

 * * *

Among Orwell’s Roses’ many forays, the story of Russian botanists Trofim Lysenko and Nikolai Vavilov links most directly to Orwell’s thinking.  Solnit describes the story as the “triumph of a liar over a truth teller and the immense cost of those lies” (p.132), a story which served as a source of inspiration for Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Lysenko was a bogus scientist but brilliant political strategist who triumphed bureaucratically over Vavilov, a “magnificent agronomist” (p.132) without Lysenko’s political survival skills.  Both men sought to improve Russian food production.  Both worked on producing hardier and more productive strains of wheat, but Vavilov’s methods required several years, while Lysenko promised “impossibly quick results” (p.136).

Vavilov established the world’s largest seed bank in Leningrad.  His institute offered the “possibility of food security through biodiversity” (p.132).  Lysenko’s pseudoscience aligned with Marxist ideology and Soviet aspirations, convincing Stalin that wheat, like the individual, was “malleable, and that he could breed wheat that would inherit acquired characteristics” (p.135).  A journalist for The Atlantic likened Lysenko’s theories to “cutting the tail off a cat and expecting her to give birth to tailless kittens.”  Yet, Stalin had complete faith in Lysenko, decreeing that biologists opposing him should be “dismissed,” with all that that term implied in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

Lysenko’s practices prolonged and exacerbated the food shortages that led to the infamous famines in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which killed as many as 7 million people, a large portion of whom lived in Ukraine.  According to The Atlantic journalist, Lysenko may bear responsibility for killing “more human beings than any individual scientist in history.” Vavilov was arrested and died in captivity in 1943.  Lysenko’s career continued to rise after World War II.

Orwell became aware of the Lysenko-Vavilov story at a 1944 PEN symposium in London on freedom of expression in the USSR.  He was riveted by the talk of biologist John Baker, the only participant to speak up about the violent repression of scientific inquiry in the Soviet Union, then a wartime ally of Great Britain and the United States.  Baker explained how the Soviets under Stalin had done “horrific things against both the facts of biological science and those who espoused and advanced them” (p.134).  For Orwell, Soviet scientific repression served as an “occasion to contemplate large questions about truth and fact, lies and manipulation, and their consequences” (p.129).

 * * *

Orwell was ahead of his time in perceiving how these large questions were playing out in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  In a perverse way, Stalin was Orwell’s “principal muse,” Solnit writes, “if not as a personality, then as the figure at the center of a terrifying authoritarianism wreathed in lies” (p.129).  Beginning with his short experience in the Spanish Civil War, Orwell exposed the acquiescence of the political left and Western intelligentsia in the “extraordinary dictatorship of lies that was Stalin’s USSR and its outposts and supporters around the world” (p.224).

This acquiescence “often meant swallowing or spreading lies and denying facts” (p.110).  Beginning with ideals of freedom, equality and anti-capitalist revolution, a stunning number of Western intellectuals came around to supporting “one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has ever seen” (p.110), in no small part because the USSR was seen as a bulwark against Hitler’s dictatorship.  The playwright George Bernard Shaw, for example, was among those who denied that famines had occurred in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

With Stalin’s Soviet Union as his immediate example, Orwell conveyed powerfully that “one of the powers tyrants hold is to destroy and distort the truth and force others to submit to what they know is untrue” (p.139).  The writer’s signature achievement in Solnit’s view was to pinpoint as no one else had how totalitarian forms of government threatened language and consciousness as they threatened liberty and human rights.  In 1944, Orwell observed that the “really frightening thing about totalitarianism” was “not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future” (p.145).

Language for Orwell was thus the source of both much of the world’s ugliness and  its beauty.  He was “passionately committed to language as a contract crucial to all our other contracts.  Words should exist in reliable relationship to what they describe, whether it’s an object or an event or a commitment” (p.221), Solnit writes.  For Orwell a lie was more than a falsehood, representing a broken contract which gradually erodes our “capacity to know and connect” (p.221).  In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell argued for language that was “clear but evocative,” with the integrity of “honored contracts” (p.229).   In his own writing and that of others, Orwell celebrated language that endeavors to “reach out and make whole through the use of words that connect, empower, liberate, illuminate” (p.229).

In another 1946 essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell confessed that in more peaceful times, he might have written more ornately or merely descriptively, and “might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties.  As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer” (p.230).  Solnit’s own credo comes from this essay.  “Clarity, precision, accuracy, honesty and truthfulness are aesthetic values to him, and pleasures,” she writes. These values are beautiful because “in them representation is true to its subject, knowledge is democratized, people are empowered, doors are open, information moves freely, contracts are honored” (p.230).

 * * *

Solnit avoids what she terms the “popular feat of connecting phenomena that Orwell described and deplored” to the “crimes and travesties of our own times” (p.267).  The task is “too easy” and the relevant topics “too abundant and obvious,” although she does allow that the “age of Trump and climate denial are of course over-the-top Orwellian” (p.267).  But insights into Orwell and his thinking seem likely to remain relevant to political discourse for the foreseeable future – we are still far from a post-Orwellian age, where political lies and manipulation of language have become quaint relics of an earlier time – and Solnit manages to provide many such insights.

Readers unfamiliar with Orwell’s Thoreau side, connected to the land and nature, will welcome Solnit’s presentation of this side of the writer. The forays that dot Solnit’s sweeping tour, extending far beyond Wallington, Orwell and his roses, are usually interesting and frequently provocative, if often distracting.  But working out how the disparate threads of this multi-directional, idiosyncratic work fit together will likely to prove elusive for most readers.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

February 21, 2023





Filed under Biography, Language, Literature, Political Theory, Politics

Combining Tenacity with Optimism

Martha Jones, Vanguard: 

How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

(Basic Books)

In their relentless quest for full equality in the United States, Black women have confronted the daunting challenges of racism and sexism over and over, generation after generation. Their history is powerful, fascinating, and inspiring, and it can be approached from many angles.  In Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, Martha Jones, Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, angles in on Black women’s pursuit of the vote, the principal pathway to political power in a democracy and arguably the most critical sub-set of the general quest for full equality.

Voting, as Jones eloquently puts it, “resides at the core of a democracy.  Legitimate governance rests upon a mythical people who nominate, deliberate, and finally elect those who carry a sacred trust and bear a collective responsibility for the well-being of all” (p.233).  The word “Vanguard” in her title, she explains, is intended to show how Black women repeatedly pointed the nation “toward its best ideals,” (p.11).  The political power they sought through the vote was “redemptive, transformative, and a means toward realizing the equality and dignity of all persons” (p.11).

But in pursuing the vote to “further what they termed the interests of humanity, meaning the rights of women and men alike” (p.196), Black women’s concerns were not confined to the single issue of voting.  While fighting for the right to vote and other political rights, they were also advocating for “temperance, education, prison reform, and the labor rights of working people. They especially attended to the troubles that arose at the crossroads of race and gender” (p.196).

Vanguard revolves around portraits of Black women who found themselves at this crossroads throughout American history, roughly forty of whom receive short biographical descriptions.  Some will be familiar to most general readers, from Harriet Tubman in the 19th century to Rosa Parks in the 20th and Stacey Abrams in the 21st.  But most are likely to be unfamiliar.  Their common denominator is that all combined extraordinary tenacity with a rarely faltering optimism that the future could be better than the past and the present.   Particularly captivating are Jones’ depictions of first-time women voters, in some ways the stars of her narrative.

Gaining the right to vote after it has been denied constitutes an “affirmation and recommitment to the ideals of representative government,” Jones writes.  Each such vote is a “new expression of faith in the nation.  Blacks have enacted this act of political faith – they have cast first votes – for generations” (p.233-34).  One heartwarming example is seventy-year-old Joe Ella Moore, who was captured in the iconic 1965 photo that appears above, raising her hand to take an oath.  Moore became an official registered voter in Prentiss, Mississippi after trying unsuccessfully seven times to get her name onto the state’s voter rolls.  Black Mississippians like Moore breathed life into America’s commitment to equality.  “Each one understood the import of her raised hand” (p.236), Jones writes.

Yet, these and the other “firsts” whom Jones highlights built upon the work of predecessors.  Again and again, she emphasizes, “the torch was passed from mother to daughter . . .  The first generation linked arms with the next to build a momentum that carried Black women forward” (p.83).  Jones presents her portraits chronologically, starting in earnest in the early decades of the 19th century, the early years of the American Republic and the period of slavery, a time too early to speak directly of women’s rights or “anything as distant as the vote” (p.19).

She then takes her readers through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the modern Civil Rights movement, and up through the 21st century’s first two decades.  The chronology has three key hinge points: the ratification of the 15th amendment in 1870, which sought to assure that the right to vote would not be denied or abridged on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude;” the enactment of the 19th amendment in 1920, removing barriers to voting rights based on sex; and passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, designed to eliminate discriminatory barriers to voting.

The 15th amendment, Jones argues, was at best a “half victory only” (p.128), never intended to convey the vote upon women and, once the Reconstruction era ended, leaving Black men still effectively disenfranchised throughout much of the country.   “Half victory” is also an apt description of the 19th amendment, whose ratification found Black women “grappling with how its passage left too many disfranchised” (p.179).   Equality after ratification of the 19thamendment seemed to mean that Black women and men were “equally disadvantaged by state laws designed to keep African Americans from the polls” (p.184).

For Jones, the Voting Rights Act marked the boldest affirmation in the United States since the adoption of the 15thamendment that racism “must not compromise membership in political culture” (p.261).  But although her narrative goes well into the second decade of the 21st century, she does not mention the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a decision which, as a journalist for The Atlantic put it, “defanged” federal enforcement of the act, paving  the way for many of the voting restrictions enacted by states over the past ten years, such as imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls.

These measures, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, place “special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters” in exercising their right to vote, raising the question whether the VRA might also be considered at best a half-victory.  Vanguard’s focus on the precarious pursuit of the vote throughout American history appears discomfortingly relevant at a time of renewed resistance to expanded voting rights in the United States.

 * * *

By the 1820s, slavery had been abolished in the northern United States.  But the 1820s also saw the retrenchment of the voting rights of free Black men, with some states taking away rights which they had once enjoyed at the very moment those same states were lifting previous obstacles to voting for white men, such as property qualifications and literary tests.  The abolition of slavery in those states where it continued to exist also became a potent political force in the 1820s and 1830s.  Abolitionist advocacy focused particularly on women.  “Editors and speechmakers alike,” Jones writes, “thought middle-class women to be particularly susceptible to pleas grounded in slavery’s immorality – its corruption of women and scuttling of family ties.  White women saw their own oppression in the plight of the enslaved” (p.45-46).

In most major northern cities in the 1820s, free Black communities were developing distinctive institutions that are key threads in African American history, especially Black churches, but also fraternal orders, mutual aid societies, political clubs, libraries, and guilds.  Serving as channels for enhancing Black political power, these institutions played vital roles in the process that led to passage of the 15th amendment decades later, and to the 19th amendment nearly a century hence.

Freedom’s Journal, a New York-based publication run by former slaves, recognized in 1827 that Black women brought “grace, piousness, virtue, modesty, gentility, and peaceableness” to Black institutions, qualities that that the editors hoped would “counterbalance the wild excesses of men.”  But the same article went on to caution that within these institutions “women should remain subservient companions” (p.20).  Jones provides several examples of early 19thcentury Black women who were unwilling to remain subservient companions, pushing back “against anyone who deemed them merely men’s helpmeets” (p.15).

Jarena Lee, born in Cape May, New Jersey, in 1783, became the first woman authorized to preach within the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, the first independent Protestant denomination founded by Black people.  Charismatic in her preaching, the “tireless” and “fearless” (p.26) Lee demonstrated how women could “transform the lives of individual believers” (p.28).  Her “spiritual memoir,” Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, suggested that the “rights of women preachers were women’s rights” (p.28).

Maria Miller Stewart, born in Connecticut in 1803, became a fiery abolitionist after her husband, a successful Black businessman in Boston, died and his creditors stripped her of the wealth he had bequeathed to her.  Stewart’s writings awakened the “consciousness of men and women, Black and white, to the evils of racism” (p.31).   Urging women to get involved in politics while not neglecting their domestic duties, Stewart sought to utilize “moral suasion” (p.44) to turn the national tide against slavery.  Her words “rocked Black Boston, and she immediately became a household name” (p.31).

As the battle over slavery intensified and the nation lurched toward civil war, free Black women in the 1840s and 1850s wrestled with “where they fit in the new antislavery politics…They clashed with men, Black and white, in their efforts to champion the antislavery cause” (p.46).   For these trailblazers, it was self-evident that women’s rights and abolitionism were “two parts of a whole” (p.64), even if not all Black men and not all white women saw the two causes as closely linked.

Facing continued opposition to their exercise of power in the 1850s, Black women “increasingly created their own associations, spaces from which they began to tell their own stories of what it meant to call for women’s rights” (p.47).  By the 1850s, Jones writes, no one was surprised that Black women had “made themselves visible at public gatherings – church conferences, political conventions, benevolent society meeting. They still served meals or attended to the comfort of a speaker or delegate.  But they also insisted on claiming their own time at the podium and during deliberations” (p.93-94).

The “fury and scope” (p.95) of the American Civil War surprised even those who had anticipated a breakdown within the United States in the 1850s.  At the heart of the conflict, Jones makes clear, was the future of slavery, “no matter how politicians may have spun the Civil War to be about other matters” (p.97).   But Jones spends only a half-dozen pages on this defining event. Her focus instead is on the war’s aftermath, the period termed Reconstruction, the nation’s “first experiment in interracial democracy” when four million people, “once claimed as the property of others, became members of a political culture”  (p.101).

Freedom from involuntary servitude was no guarantee of political rights, but if the country was to reunite after the brutal conflict, it had no choice but to address “who could vote and hold office going forward” (p.101).  While the rights of Black men “came first to mind for many” (p.101), debates about the rights of women also arose.  The years of Reconstruction opened a door, Jones writes, and “many Americans who had long been excluded from polling places and legislative chambers vied for their chance at power” (p.101).  Most of the women who took up the cause of women’s suffrage in the Reconstruction era had been active in the antebellum Abolitionist movement and had aided the Union during the war.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet and renowned antislavery lecturer who had worked as a teacher before she entered politics, read and criticized early drafts of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. After the Civil War, Harper became what Jones describes as the “conscience for the entire country, instructing her listeners – Black and white, men and women – about what it meant to reconstruct the nation” (p.113).

Along with white leaders of the women’s suffrage movement like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Harper helped establish the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), committed to securing “equal rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex” (p.115).  At the AERA’s first national convention in 1866, Harper, the only Black person to speak, told the audience: “we are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity,” to which she added a stinging admonishment: “You white women speak of rights.  I speak of wrongs” (p.95).

Those wrongs had metastasized when the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was founded in 1895, a time when the Jim Crow regime of rigid segregation and racial terror had replaced the optimism of the Reconstruction era.  The NACW created an institutional channel for Black women’s perspective to be heard on the question of universal suffrage, demonstrating how they were “firming up their place in political culture” (p.152) at the very moment the Jim Crow regime was purging Black men from public life.  The motto of the NACW was “Lifting as We Climb,” an acknowledgement that some women were in need of help and others “in a position to provide it” (p.153).

Mary Church Terrell, the NACW’s first president, was the late 19th and early 20th century’s “most prominent Black suffragist” (p.152).  Terrell was a “child of privilege, born in Tennessee to parents once enslaved who gave their daughter a cosmopolitan upbringing filled with travel, clothing and ideas” (p.155).  Yet, as Jones delicately points out, it “wasn’t always clear where Terrell’s sense of confidence ended and her sense of superiority began” (p.155).    She was a woman of what W.E.B. DuBois termed the African American “talented tenth,’” who “spoke earnestly for all women and still, sometimes talked down to those who were ‘ignorant and poor’” (p.155).

Terrell used the NACW to organize a national network of Black women dedicated to combating lynching, securing civil rights, and working toward the vote. Only when a woman holds the ballot, Terrell counselled in a landmark 1901 address, “The Justice of Women Suffrage,” to be used for her “protection and self-defense can she hope to secure the rights and privileges to which she is entitled” (p.195).   Terrell won a decisive victory in 1908, when the NACW established a “woman suffrage department” (p.161).   She was one of the few Black women engaged in the founding in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which became the 20th century’s leading civil rights organization, “best known for its long legal campaign against Jim Crow” (p.151).   

Although Terrell “never shied away from alliances with white women, especially when it suited her aims” (p.155), the distance within the suffrage movement between Black and white women broadened during the first decades of the 20thcentury.  Black suffragists were “uncertain about whether their distinct interests should be served in an umbrella organization that reduced their power to a minority vote” (p.182).   Their doubts intensified after the19th amendment went into effect in 1920, when “too little changed for Black women” (p.179).

In much of the South, Black women faced many of the same obstacles to voting after the 19th amendment went into effect that had been put in the path of Black men, through state laws that “schemed to disproportionately disenfranchise Black men and women” (p.184), such as grandfather clauses, literary tests, and poll taxes.  In many Northern and Western states, by contrast, Black women “successfully cast ballots in 1920, voting for the very first time alongside their husbands, fathers, and sons” (p.182).

In the following decades, Black women discovered that their voting rights, though “partial and oftentimes denied,” nonetheless gave them a “new platform upon which to build influence” (p.202).  They were at the forefront of a “new movement – one that linked women’s rights and civil rights in one great push for dignity and power” (p.202).  Although the struggle for voting rights appeared to resurface in the 1960s as part of the Civil Rights Movement, Jones reminds us that the struggle was “as old as any cause.  It was the latest chapter in the two-hundred-year-long story of how Black Americans had fought against laws and customs that kept them from the ballot box” (p.230).

Passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965 required “all the vision, organizing, and risk-taking that Black Americans could muster.  Black women were on the front lines, as they always had been” (p.230-31).  Among the many heroes and heroines on the front lines, Fanny Lou Hamer stands out.  Born in rural Mississippi in 1917, Hamer was the youngest of 20 children.  She left school at age 12 to support her family by picking cotton.  Focusing her activism on voting rights as the key to all other rights, Hamer contended that without the power of the vote, Black women “could not expect the state to address their concerns or take up their interests in fair wages and equitable work conditions, along with decent housing, public schools and municipal services” (p.256).

Returning to Mississippi in 1963 after completing a voter registration campaign in South Carolina, Hamer was the victim of a vicious beating and sexual assault by local police, leaving her with the loss of one eye and permanent kidney damage.  The injuries she sustained were her “first form of testimony about the price that Black women paid for the vote” (p.259), Jones writes.  Hamer helped organize Freedom Summer in 1964, which brought hundreds of college students, Black and white, to help with African American voter registration in the segregated South. That same year, she also co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).

Hamer rose to national prominence when she and other MFDP members went to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, seeking to displace the all-white Mississippi delegation.  As she spoke before the Credentials Committee, President Lyndon Johnson held a televised press conference, intended to draw attention away from her testimony.  But her spellbinding account of the terror provoked by her assertion of voting rights was televised later that same evening.  With a national audience viewing her testimony, Jones writes, Americans were “tuned in to the struggle for voting rights as never before, and had Hamer to thank for it” (p.261).

* * *

Vanguard constitutes ideal reading for Black History Month, which begins today in the United States and Canada.   Not only is it inspiring history, although it is assuredly that.  With many American states seemingly intent upon making voting more rather than less onerous, it is also a reminder that the extraordinary combination of tenacity and optimism which drove the women Jones portrays remains much in need today.  The story of Vanguard, she concludes, is “still being written” (p.268).


Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

February 1, 2023





Filed under American Politics, American Society, Gender Issues, Politics, United States History

So Much in Common, So Little Common Ground

Kei Hiruta, Hannah Arendt & Isaiah Berlin:

Freedom, Politics, and Humanity

(Princeton University Press)

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) and Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), two of the 20th century’s most influential intellectuals, had much to say that still resonates today on such big picture subjects as the human condition, the conflict between good and evil, the nature of freedom, and how modern democracy can go off the rails.  Arendt and Berlin’s writings on these and related subjects are “often found close to each other in libraries and bookstores across the world” (p.198), observes Kei Hiruta, presently Assistant Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark, in Hannah Arendt & Isaiah Berlin: Freedom, Politics, and Humanity, a work which  examines both the background and thinking of the two.  Arendt and Berlin, Hiruta demonstrates, rose to prominence from similar backgrounds.

Both were born into Jewish families in the first decade of the 20th century, Arendt in Germany, Berlin in Riga, Latvia, then a part of the Russian Empire.  Berlin fled Russia with his family as a boy in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Arendt left Nazi Germany as an adult in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. Both lost family and friends in the Holocaust; both considered themselves Zionists; and both made their professional reputations far from Central and Eastern Europe, Arendt in New York, Berlin at Oxford, where English was an acquired language for each.

Although deeply schooled in traditional philosophy, moreover, by mid-career Arendt and Berlin both felt they had left behind the abstract philosophical world.  Arendt began to consider herself a political theorist, Berlin an historian of ideas. Hiruta characterizes his two protagonists as “political philosophers” whose common discipline was the history of political thought.  In the often-provincial Anglophone world, he writes, both Arendt and Berlin were “multilingual Europeans” and “cultured cosmopolitans” whose foreign backgrounds “boosted their reputation as intellectuals with broad horizons” (p.200).

Despite similarities in background, the two were polar opposites in disposition and temperament.  Arendt was, in Hiruta’s words, “brave, charismatic, upright, assertive, impulsive, tactless and argumentative;” Berlin “skeptical, ironical, humorous, charming, good-mannered and thin skinned” (p.199).  As far as we know, the two found themselves together in direct face-to-face encounters only twice, even though they had many mutual friends and acquaintances.  Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a friend of Berlin and an acquaintance of Arendt, arranged one encounter in 1949, which he later described as a “disaster from the start” (p.1).

Schlesinger attributed the disaster to the “sheer difference between the personalities and dispositions” (p.17) of the two.  Arendt was “too solemn, portentous, Teutonic, Hegelian for him,” Schlesinger wrote.  She “mistook his wit for frivolousness and thought him inadequately serious” (p.17).  In the only other recorded meeting, which occurred in 1941, Berlin had found Arendt overly intense in her Zionist commitment — “too much for me” (p.15), he said shortly afterwards. He remembered her in the 1949 meeting, by contrast, as seeming to have cast aside her Zionist convictions entirely, attacking the new Israeli state which had come into existence the previous year.

But if the two had few face-to-face encounters, there is no shortage of instances where Berlin expressed hostility toward Arendt in strikingly vitriolic terms. He once wrote that he had an “allergy” to Arendt that was “absolute and her mere presence in a room gives me goose-flesh” (p.45).  On another occasion, he described himself as a “profound non-admirer of both her work and her personality” (p.9).  She “produces no arguments, no evidence of serious philosophical or historical thought” (p.2), he wrote.  He described his loathing for Arendt as so intense that he was unwilling to “enter into any relations with [her], not even those of hostility” (p.6).  In 1991, 16 years after Arendt’s passing, Berlin reaffirmed that she remained in death a “real bête noire to me . . . I really do look upon her as everything that I detest most” (p.2).

Arendt for her part never expressed anything remotely similar about Berlin. She was probably at least vaguely aware of his hostility through her friend, the American writer Mary McCarthy.  But Arendt knew she was a lightning rod for criticism, a role she assumed willingly.  Among her many critics, she did not rank Berlin as an “especially important or worthy one” (p.2), Hiruta writes. Arendt appears to have considered Berlin a learned scholar, especially in Russian intellectual history, and a moderately important member of what she called the “Jewish establishment.”  But for the most part, Arendt reciprocated Berlin’s animosity toward her with indifference to him, “accompanied by occasional skepticism” (p.3).

Neither Arendt nor Berlin was an armchair philosopher detached from the world about which they wrote. For both, the personal and the intellectual consistently intertwined as they grappled in their different ways over how to make sense of the murderous 20th century.  Hiruta deftly links the personal to the intellectual in his compact and tightly argued book, presenting Arendt and Berlin’s differences over the pressing issues of their time as outgrowths of their differing personal experiences.  He explores Arendt and Berlin’s divergent interpretations of the nature of freedom (or liberty; the two used the two words interchangeably), totalitarianism, the Holocaust, nationalism, imperialism, the founding of Israel in 1948, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and the 1968 student rebellion.

But Arendt and Berlin for the most part argued past one another on these issues, approaching them from entirely different perspectives.  Neither engaged the other directly.  To contrast their thinking, therefore, Hiruta constructs a sort of hypothetical dialogue between the two, building, as he puts it, “interpretive bridges” which allow the ideas of the two thinkers to “speak to each other” (p.32).  Their substantive differences begin with the different philosophical traditions with which each identified from their university days onward.

* * *

The minds of Arendt and Berlin were “nurtured in very different cultures and schools of thought” (p.31), Hiruta writes, on opposite sides of what is sometimes termed philosophy’s “analytic-Continental” divide.  Arendt came of age on the Continental side, a circle of primarily German philosophers influenced by the Phenomneology of Edmund Husserl and his student Martin Heidegger.   Arendt absorbed this tradition first-hand as a student of Heidegger, with whom she also had a now well-documented romantic relationship from her first year of university onward.  Berlin was grounded in the analytic side of the divide, a distinctly Anglophone tradition, albeit with Viennese roots.  Sometimes termed “empiricism,” this side is associated with Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and A.J. Ayer.  Like adolescents from rival schools, each looked down upon the philosophic school on the other side of the divide.

Berlin’s “unwillingness to concede the significance of the phenomenologists’ work was matched by Arendt’s unwillingness to appreciate the Anglophone empiricist tradition” (p.30), Hiruta writes.  Britain for Arendt was “something of a philosophical desert” (p.2).  She took for granted the “superiority of German philosophy over its Anglo-American counterpart,” seeing “little merit in the analytic movement inaugurated by Russell, Moore and others” (p.2).  Berlin for his part was generally unwilling to engage seriously with contemporary European thinkers because he thought they were “bogus, hollow and ‘metaphysical’” (p.29).  This difference in philosophical grounding looms in the background as Hiruta explores the thought of the two on a host of substantive issues.

* * *

 Hiruta considers the alternative visions of freedom which Arendt and Berlin proffered as the “most fundamental” among their substantive differences because, as he puts it, “to be free is to be human in the full sense of the term, and to deprive one of freedom is to deny one’s humanity” (p.49).  Because Arendt and Berlin disagreed on the “most satisfactory meaning of freedom” (p.80), their views of the human condition were bound to differ significantly.  Berlin was known for his famous – although not entirely original – distinction between “positive” and “negative” freedom, outlined in his influential 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty,” in which he argued that  negative freedom was more compatible with modern liberalism.

Negative freedom for Berlin had different dimensions but can be reduced to the proposition that freedom involves the ability to choose among multiple options without interference – one is free to the extent that one’s ability to act is unimpeded by others.  Positive freedom is a more elusive concept, entailing “self-mastery,” a form of rational control of one’s life, but not including freedom to do “what is irrational, or stupid, or wrong” (p.58).  Positive freedom was troublesome for Berlin because some of its iterations can be linked to the notion that there is a single path to freedom, a linkage that reflected utopian thinking which tyrants and dictators could all too easily appropriate.

Berlin traced positive freedom to the 18th century Genevan philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose notion of the General Will encapsulated the “grotesque and hair-raising paradox, whereby a man is told that to be deprived of his liberty is to be given a higher, nobler liberty” (p.116) – “forcing men to be free” (p.60), as Rousseau wrote in The Social Contract.  The excesses of the French and Russian Revolutions were for Berlin graphic manifestations of positive freedom at work.

Although negative freedom was less vulnerable to abuse than its positive counterpart, Berlin’s strongest argument in its favor was anchored in “value pluralism,” his “flagship idea” (p.62).  Berlin argued that the human beings pursue and live according to a plurality of values, neither infinite nor singular, and that these values are often irreconcilable.  Humans must often choose between competing notions of the good — between, for example, liberty and equality, or efficiency and spontaneity.

Arendt also delivered an important statement on freedom in 1958, in a lecture which she later turned into an essay, “What is Freedom,” from which she distilled her guiding principle as: the “raison d’être of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action” (p.48).  Arendt was no value pluralist in the Berlinian sense. For Arendt, pursuit of political freedom was the only choice that distinguishes the free from the non-free.  One is politically free in Arendt’s sense when one is “acting and interacting, and speaking and deliberating with others about matters of public concern in a formally or informally institutionalized public realm” (p.66).  Political theorists since Arendt’s time have argued that her notion of political freedom could be seen as a subset of Berlin’s notion of positive liberty.

Political freedom for Arendt began with citizenship, a status which she lacked from the time she left Nazi Germany in 1933 until she became an American citizen in 1951.  Citizenship for Arendt “makes people equal for political purposes,” enabling citizens to “construct public personae to appear before and among fellow citizens” (p.66).  Those who do not have citizenship, for example, slaves, women and manual laborers in the ancient Greek city states, and refugees and the stateless in modern times, are “excluded from an established public realm” (p.66)  and hence lack the bedrock condition for political freedom.

The phenomenon which both Arendt and Berlin termed “totalitarianism” might be considered freedom’s antithesis.  In analyzing totalitarianism, Berlin’s starting point and primary frame of reference was Soviet Russia, whereas Arendt’s model was Nazi Germany.  Arendt’s seminal 1951 work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, which established her reputation in the United States, argued that totalitarianism was an unprecedented 20th century phenomenon, unknown prior to the emergence of Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and thus something more than an extreme form of authoritarianism or tyranny.

Totalitarianism for Arendt was simultaneously a lawless and lawful form of government: lawless in that it “dismisses the principle of the rule of law and defies all positive laws,” yet lawful in that it “strictly follows a purportedly ‘higher’ law, such as the law of nature in Nazism and the law of history in Stalinism” (p.89).  Domination achieved through terror exercised over “harmless citizens without political opinions” (p.91) was the “immoral heart of totalitarianism” (p.101).  Ideology in a totalitarian system “determines over whom terror will be exercised, paying no attention to victims’ behavior or feelings” (p.91).  Individuality and spontaneity are to be “destroyed to the extent possible” (p.97).  Concentration camps, where the objective is to “eradicate the concept of the human being” (p.95), represented for Arendt the epitome of total domination and hence of totalitarianism.

Arendt entertained what Hiruta considers an odd view that neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia was totalitarian at the outset but morphed into totalitarian states at some point in their histories, points she never identified. Lenin gets a complete pass in Arendt’s totalitarian analysis and even Stalin was not in her view a full-fledged totalitarian at the outset.  As World War II ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany, Arendt considered the primary totalitarian danger to be over.

For Berlin, by contrast, who traveled to Moscow in 1945-46 on behalf of the British government, the menace of totalitarianism was “only beginning to grow” (p.122) as the Second World War ended..  He considered the totalitarian system that emerged in the Soviet Union to be a manifestation of utopian thinking – and thus positive liberty – taken to its logical end point.  Berlin rejected Arendt’s notion that totalitarianism was a unique 20th century phenomenon, categorically different from its tyrannical precursors. He perceived a continuity between the late 19th and early 20th century thinkers frequently termed the Russian “intelligentsia” and the Bolshevik regime that came to power in 1917.

In their “enthusiasm for ideas,” late 19th century Russian thinkers like Alexander Herzen were “prone to an extremism” that in Berlin’s view “gradually undermined their original humanist outlook and paved the way for Bolshevism” (p.118).   Like the 19th century intelligentsia, the Bolsheviks, Berlin’s “archetypical totalitarians,” were “idea-driven fanatics” (p.119).  Lenin’s paranoia turned the Russian intelligentsia’s “moral integrity” and “intellectual seriousness” (p.118) into fanaticism and dogmatism and transformed its passion for social reform into an “indifference to the human costs deemed necessary for realizing the communist goal.” (p.119).

Totalitarianism in Germany is inescapably associated with the Holocaust, the Nazi project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.  After Israeli operatives captured Adolph Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, Arendt and Berlin came close to a direct clash over the import of the Holocaust.  Eichmann, Hitler’s loyal apparatchik who was responsible for moving approximately 1.5 million Jews to Nazi death camps, was brought to trial in Jerusalem, where he was charged with crimes against humanity and the Jewish people, all committed prior to the founding of the Israeli state, and executed in 1961.

The series of articles which Arendt wrote for The New Yorker on the 1961 Eichmann trial became the basis for another of her best-known works, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963.  Probing the nature of evil itself, Arendt portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology.  Eichmann demonstrated that one did not need to be extraordinarily evil to commit extraordinarily evil acts.   Arendt’s term “banality of evil” became commonplace after the trial.  Many interpreted the phrase as devaluing the seriousness of Eichmann’s crimes, often forgetting, as Hiruta notes, that Arendt unambiguously supported the execution of the mass murderer, whereas Berlin lobbied Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion against the death penalty for Eichmann.

Arendt compounded her difficulties with the separate argument in Eichmann in Jerusalem that the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied countries cooperated in their own annihilation.  She was vilified for the rest of her days for the notion that she was blaming the Jews for their own persecution. Even if Arendt was blaming only Jewish leadership, not the Jewish people, in the eyes of her critics her tone was “utterly inappropriate, showing disrespect for and even cruelty towards the victims of the Holocaust” (p.38).

Berlin attended a few trial sessions (even Arendt did not witness them all) where he too was struck by Eichmann’s “ordinariness and mediocrity” (p.35), but he was not a central player in the ensuing controversy.  Berlin doubted that the trial benefited Israel’s national interests and feared that imposition of the death penalty would worsen Israel’s international standing. He wholeheartedly endorsed the widespread accusation that Arendt, “sitting safely in New York,” (p.131), as he put it, had “arrogantly and patronizingly blamed the victims of the Holocaust.” (p.2).   In the aftermath of the controversy, Hiruta writes, Berlin “began using ‘Arendt’ as a general noun to refer to something like perversity and deformation” (p.160).  He suggests that Berlin might not have seen Arendt as his “‘real bête noire’ had she not written Eichmann in Jerusalem” (p.160).

Arendt felt “gravely misunderstood” (p.39) by the controversy and came to be convinced that the “Jewish establishment” had carried out an organized campaign to distort her work.  She suspected Berlin had played a role in the manipulation of public opinion, especially in Britain. But Hiruta notes that Arendt lived under Nazism both in Germany and occupied France, whereas Berlin never set foot on the continent during World War II.  Berlin claimed after the war to have been unaware of the Holocaust until late in 1944 or early 1945, for which he said he felt “ashamed” (p.140).  One does not have to be a psychoanalyst, Hiruta astutely observes, to see that Berlin’s “troubled conscience stiffened his attitude towards the outspoken survivor who wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem.” (p.141).

* * *

If Arendt and Berlin agreed upon little substantively, they shared what Hiruta describes as a determination to “face up squarely to the most urgent challenges of their times and think them through, unhindered by intellectual cowardice” (p.203).  Each produced works that have “immediacy, urgency, integrity and authority” (p.202) – reason enough for readers of this thoughtful volume to appreciate both figures, even though neither appreciated the other.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

December 22, 2022





Filed under Biography, European History, German History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Russian History, Soviet Union

A New Form of Autocracy


Moisé Naím, The Revenge of Power:

How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century

(St. Martin’s Press)

Less than a week before the recent mid-term elections in the United States, President Joe Biden delivered an address in which he declared that democracy itself was on the ballot in the upcoming elections.  Invoking both the assault on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, and an attack the previous week on the husband of the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi by a hammer-wielding assailant seeking to kidnap the speaker herself, the president traced the violence in each case to what he termed the “Big Lie” of former president Donald Trump that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. Biden’s immediate concern was the large number of “election deniers” running for state and federal office who would not commit to accepting the results of their upcoming electoral contests.  He asked his fellow citizens to “make the future of our democracy an important part of your decision to vote and how you vote,” warning that we “can’t take democracy for granted any longer.”

So, with (most of) the votes now tabulated, did democracy win in the 2022 American mid-term elections?  The emerging consensus:  it didn’t lose.  Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, opined that the American constitutional system “looks to have come through — a little dinged up, but OK . . . [W]e may have just dodged one of the biggest arrows ever aimed at the heart of our democracy.”  American democracy, Tom Nichols wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “now has some breathing room.” Iin the view of a commentator for Vox, there is “no question that the forecast for American democracy is looking better today than it was heading into the election.”

But no one seems ready to pronounce the United States’ democratic crisis over, and with good reason.  The United States remains one of a startlingly high number of nations around the world where democracy, measured by objective criteria, is ceding ground to various forms of authoritarianism.  Autocracy, as President Biden put it, is the “opposite of democracy. It means the rule of one, one person, one interest, one ideology, one party.”

It should therefore be no surprise that an ever-growing number of books seeking to explain this global trend are competing for bookstore shelf space.   Among the most imaginative and wide-ranging is Moisé Naím’s The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century, which places special emphasis upon how 21st century autocrats differ from their 20th-century predecessors.  One of the many strengths of Naím’s account is that it draws upon a broad array of autocrats from all points across the political spectrum and from all parts of the globe to support its theorizing.  And like most y books in this genre, The Revenge of Power supplements its analysis with proposed solutions for checking the rise of autocracy and strengthening democratic institutions.

Naím brings extensive and varied experience to this all-too-timely subject.  He is presently a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.   Previously, he served as editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, was an executive director at the World Bank, and a cabinet minister in Venezuela, his native country. Although he writes in a breezy, informal style that will appeal to general readers, Naím also brings an unmistakable sense of urgency to his subject.  Free societies around the world, he declares at the outset, now face an “implacable new enemy” which he describes with his own emphasis as “power, in a malignant new form” (p.xi) — a form of executive power which arises in democratic contexts but “mimics democracy while undermining it, scorning all limits” (p.xi).

This new form of power relies upon a “compact core of strategies to weaken the foundations of democracy and cement its malignant dominance” (p.xii).   Naím reduces these strategies to what he terms the “3Ps”:  populism, polarization, and post-truth which, working together, enable what he terms “3P autocrats” to “gain, wield, and keep power” (p.xv).  Although 3P autocrats arise in different political contexts, “their playbooks look uncannily similar,” (p.xiv).  Their  innovations have “deeply altered the way power is conquered and retained in the 21st century.” (p.xiii).

Contemporary autocrats frequently wield power by stealth rather than openly and brutally, Naím argues, in a manner that might be termed the “boiled frog” approach: according to popular understanding, a frog dropped into boiling water will jump out immediately, while one placed in lukewarm water gradually heated to a boil will fail to realize what is happening.  Although “zoologically suspect,” the boiled frog approach has “real psychological underpinnings” (p.66-67) in explaining modern autocratic power consolidation.  3P autocrats “cloak their autocratic plans behind walls of secrecy, bureaucratic obfuscation, pseudo-legal subterfuge, manipulation of public opinion, and the repression of critics and adversaries. Once the mask comes off, it’s too late” (p.xv).

While we usually think of contemporary autocracy as a phenomenon of the political right, Naím’s eclectic perspective accords ample space to left-wing autocrats, particularly the regime of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro in his native Venezuela. He returns frequently to such familiar names as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Turkey’s Recept Tayip Erdogan.  Autocratic practices if not their practitioners from countries as diverse as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Argentina, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, along with China and multiple African countries, also buttress Naím’s points.  But the most regularly cited practitioners of 21st century autocracy are Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and Vladimir Putin.

Berlusconi and Trump exemplify how 21st century autocrats exploit modern entertainment techniques to advance their political fortunes, blurring the lines between celebrity culture and politics.  Orbán offers a textbook example of the boiled frog approach, which he proudly terms “illiberal democracy,” pursuing in small steps, often cloaked in stealth, “some of the most comprehensive programs of 3P autocracy in recent memory” (p.25), with the effect of undermining Hungary’s fragile democratic institutions.  Orbán, however, is merely the star pupil of Vladimir Putin, who represents 21st century autocracy in its rawest and most brutal form.  Writing before this year’s invasion of Ukraine, Naím contends that more than any other 3P autocrat, Putin has turned his country into a gangster state.

* * *

What unites today’s autocrats is that all “want power with no strings attached, and they want it for keeps”  (p.xiv).  The 3Ps constitute Naím’s framework for explaining the strategies they employ in their quest for no-strings-attached power.  Taken together, the 3Ps “sketch out a recipe for pursuing and maintaining power” that Naím describes as “fundamentally undemocratic, uncontained by constitutional principles or institutional restraint” (p.xix).

Populism, the first of the 3Ps, is a versatile, anti-elitist strategy that champions the cause of the “people” – “noble and pure” yet “betrayed and aggrieved” (p.xvi) — whose problems can be attributed to the decisions, invariably corrupt and often conspiratorial, of a venal elite. Rather than being an ideology like socialism or liberalism, populism can be made compatible with “virtually any governing ideology or no ideology at all” (p.xvi).  Populism fuels polarization through a politics of resentment and grievance, dividing the political realm into “us” and “them,” with little middle ground between the two.

But resentment, Naím argues, is only a euphemism for revenge, the “longing to hurt those you believe have wronged you” (p.70), making revenge the central source of modern political polarization (as well as the source of the book’s title).  As polarization advances, “political rivals come to be treated as enemies” (p.xviii).  The enemy can be a rival political leader or party, or a social, racial, or ethnic group.  Polarization generally feeds on the collapse of the political center, pulling societies apart and solidifying 3P autocrats’ grip over their followers. Both populism and polarization have long histories, “amply documented by scholars dating back to antiquity” (p.158). The third ‘P’, post-truth politics, by contrast, is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon, one that goes beyond traditional propagandizing and lying.

Post-truth politics center on the uses that can be made of the internet and related technologies to sow misinformation that “deepens the polarization that divides societies” (p.130).  Rather than getting lies accepted, post-truth politics aim at “muddying the waters to the point where it is difficult to discern the difference between truth and falsehood in the first place” (p.xix).  This “strategic use of confusion” (p.159), as Naím phrases it, makes post-truth politics:

much darker than the run-of-the-mill mendaciousness of the powerful. It is not about the spread of this lie or that lie but about destroying the possibility of truth in public life.  By shaking our shared sense of reality, post-truth elevates populism and polarization from a normal kind of political nuisance into something different and more fundamental: an existential threat to the continuity of free governments and free societies (p.159).

* * *

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 proved to be itself an existential threat to the continuity of democratic institutions across the globe, offering autocrats an unparalleled opportunity to enhance their hold on power.  For entirely legitimate health reasons, the use of emergency state powers increased during the pandemic. But as issued by 3P autocrats, declarations of a state of emergency “all but openly trumpeted their authoritarian intent” (p.237).  In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s declaration of emergency, limited in neither time nor scope, provided a justification to shut down parliament and gain full control of the state apparatus, allowing him to rule by decree.

There were an unusually high number of election postponements in 2020.  Some of course were motivated by genuine health concerns, precisely why the pretext is “credible enough to be useful to those exploiting the pandemic for political gain” (p.234).  The early months of the pandemic also saw its own “global pandemic of censorship,” with autocratic governments around the world “cracking down on dissent under the guise of banning disinformation about the virus” (p.235).

In every case, Naím notes, governments “claimed to be moving in the interest of public health to snuff out untrue stories about the virus. In a suspiciously high proportion of cases, those ‘untrue stories’ happened to unveil the ineptitude of the government’s handling of the crisis” (p.235).   In the United States and Brazil, public statements made by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro were “riddled with scientific denial, appeals to magical thinking, and straight-up lies” (p.241).   Unlike the blatant falsehoods propagated by the Chinese and Russian governments, Trump and Bolsonaro “appeared personally convinced of some of the most far-fetched conspiracy theories they peddled” (p.242).

More than their 20th century predecessors, today’s autocrats gain and maintain power by utilizing what Naím terms the “entertainment values of our age” (p.31).   What is new in the 21st century, he argues, is the extent to which people now look at politics as spectacle, relating to their political leaders in the same way they relate to their favorite entertainers and sports stars.  Politics as spectacle “devalues mastery of policy details, expertise, the ability to strike bargains and to move toward messy pragmatic compromise” (p.55).  These basic democratic values “lose space to their opposites: invectives, demonization of opponents, maximalism, and intolerance” (p.56),

Silvio Berlusconi, who served three terms as Italy’s Prime Minister from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011, provided one of the earliest demonstrations of how entertainment values can be leveraged for political gain.  Berlusconi first built a media empire, transforming Italian television into a “crassly commercial profit engine,” then “did the same to the country’s politics” (p.41).  Once Italian voters had a taste for politics that shared the look and feel of show business, there was “no going back” (p.50).  Italian politics were no longer boring.  “[E]xtreme  positions and made-for-the-camera antics came to be the stock in trade of the political realm – just what the voting public expected”  (p.50).

Donald Trump picked up where Berlusconi left off in his improbable bid for the presidency in 2015-16 and the chaotic presidential term that followed from 2017-2021. Trump’s world was “shot through with entertainment values” where “ratings are everything” (p.35).  Having been “steeped for four decades in celebrity culture and the entertainment industry,” Trump had developed an “unrivaled sixth sense for what it took to get noticed, written about, talked about, covered” (p.32).  Unlike other entertainers who entered politics, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Franken, Trump never saw a need to remake himself as a serious politician.

Less well known is the extent to which Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez also adeptly utilized the politics of fandom “in the service of full 3P strategy to grab and maintain power” (p.50).  Usually treated as an archetypal 20th-century left wing strongman, Chávez’s political style owed more to Berlusconi than Fidel Castro, Naím contends.  Chávez grasped that ideology matters less than celebrity status and that folksy television performances could create a world where style was substance.  He used his star power to dismantle the checks and balances at the heart of Venezuela’s constitution.

Naím, who grew up in Venezuela and had served in its government in the pre-Chávez era, initially dismissed Chávez as merely “another populist demagogue, a clown too hapless to do any real damage,” failing to grasp how his fandom had “set the stage for the logic of tribalism that drives polarization” (p.52).  Years later, he watched Donald Trump’s quest for the presidency in the United States with a “horror suffused in déjà vu… I had seen this movie before. Just never in English” (p.52).

Berlusconi, Trump and Chávez relied upon a “debased charisma emptied of genuinely political content,” propelled by the “same thirst for entertainment that saturates the rest of our culture”  (p.42-43).   Where the line between power and spectacle “vanishes completely,” Naím warns, “freedom cannot hold out for long” (p. 45).  Mafia states, predicated upon a “criminal takeover of the state” (p.186), may seem like anything but politics as entertainment. But they pose similar dangers.

Mafia states are “designed to allow its leaders maximum latitude to enrich themselves with impunity”  (p.189).  Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Putin has created what Naím considers the world’s “most ambitious, ruthless, and effective mafia state” (p.194).  In Putin’s Russia, the entire economy is for all intents and purposes beholden to him. “Criminality and racketeering aren’t departures from the norm: they are a central feature of the system that Putin built” (p.197).  Democracy cannot work, Naím warns, in “mafia states that rely on organized crime’s strategies, tactics, and methods and have the backing of a sovereign state.” (p.252).  Even more perniciously, the mafia state operating out of the Kremlin uses relatively inexpensive online communications technologies to undermine and destabilize democracies abroad.

The Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election was merely one in a long line of Russian online interventions outside its borders. The Russian government has also been accused of meddling in the 2017 Spanish elections and the Catalonian separatist movement’s ill-fated independence referendum of the same year, working with the government of Venezuela.  Catalonian independence was “precisely the kind of social fault line the Kremlin loves to expose and exploit” (p.212), Naím writes. For Russia, “manufacturing reality is a tool of statecraft” (p.166), he observes. He terms this relatively inexpensive form of meddling abroad “sharp power,” which he considers perhaps the “most unprecedented and insidious” (p.254) among the 21stcentury forms of disruption discussed in his book and one of the principal reasons that a mafia state “anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere” (p.252).

But Naím now needs to consider whether Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine earlier this year represents the natural extension of the autocratic tendencies he describes.  Putin’s pre-2022 incursions into Ukraine were coated with what Naím terms a “paper-thin patina of pseudo-legal legitimacy to what everyone could see was a Russian military land grab” (p.220).  In the 21st century, he argues, it is “diplomatically untenable for a country to project its military power into a neighbor’s territory openly” (p.221).

This year’s Ukraine invasion lacked even these thin pretenses, recalling Mussolini’s incursion into Ethiopia and Hitler’s attacks on Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s. The glorification of war and conquest was a key element of 20th century Fascism but until now has not been a central part of 21st-century 3P autocracy.  Is naked military conquest the logical next step for autocrats once they have fully consolidated power in their own countries?  Or is Putin’s Ukraine incursion the result of one autocrat’s idiosyncratic megalomania working overtime?  These are among the many Ukraine-related questions that Naím and other theorists of autocracy will hopefully address in future works.

* * *

Naím cautions democrats to pick their battles carefully if they are to be effective in countering 3P autocrats.  The most critical battle for Naím involves post-truth politics, the battle against strategic uses of misinformation.  Focusing intently on Donald Trump and his denial of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, Naím argues that informed and responsive citizens are the “first line of defense against the Big Lie” (p.251).  Any strategy to defend democracies and ensure that the political system works for the good of society “hinges on restoring the ability of citizens to differentiate truth from lies… No democracy can survive if the propagation of Big Lies is consistently rewarded with power” (p.247).

Most of the election deniers whom President Biden targeted in his speech lost their bids for public offices in this month’s midterms.  Can Americans now permit themselves to think they’ve turned the corner in this crucial battle to safeguard democracy?   My guess is that Naím would answer that question with a definite maybe, to which he might add, as he does throughout The Revenge of Power, that democracy’s survival is never guaranteed.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

November 22, 2022





Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics

Restitution of African Artworks as a Moral Imperative


Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums:

The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto Press)


Bénédicte Savoy, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art:

History of a Postcolonial Defeat, translated by Susanne Meyer-Abich

(Princeton University Press)

Should European and North American museums return to their places of origin those artworks, artifacts, and other cultural items in their collections that originated in former European colonies? This is the “restitution question,” a question that Western museum officials face increasingly today.  It is a question enmeshed in the broader debate over how European states should reckon with the legacies of imperialism and what former colonial powers might owe to the descendants of those they once colonized. Two recent books shed needed light on the restitution question: Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution; and Bénédicte Savoy, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat, originally in German and ably translated by Susanne Meyer-Abich.  Although approaching the question from entirely different angles, the two authors reach identical conclusions:  restitution is a moral imperative, a step that former colonial states need to take to acknowledge and make amends for the racism, exploitation, and violence that underlay colonialism.  As Savoy writes, “Restitution, decolonization, social justice and the question of racism go hand in hand” (S.3).

Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford and curator at Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum, focuses on a single episode, the British invasion in February 1897 of the City of Benin, located in today’s Nigeria.  In what was officially called a “punitive expedition,” British soldiers leveled the city in retaliation for the killing of as many as nine British officials the previous month.  They and their commanding officers took with them more than 10,000 items that came to be known as the “Benin Bronzes,” a treasure trove of sculptures, plaques and cultural items, ivory as well as bronze. Hicks estimates that works taken from Benin City in 1897 can now be found in 161 museums, galleries and private collections across Europe and North America.

Savoy, professor of Art History at the University of Berlin and former professor at the College de Francein Paris, details the formative years of the restitution debate, the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when newly independent sub-Saharan African states began requesting that former European colonial powers return African artworks.  These restitution requests attracted some sympathetic reaction in Europe but also precipitated fierce resistance, with West German museums in particular stridently opposing restitution.  By the mid-1980s, the restitution debate had gone into hibernation with little tangible progress – hence Savoy’s subtitle History of a Colonial Defeat – only to be revived in almost identical form in the second decade of the 21st century.  “Nearly every conversation today about the restitution of cultural property to Africa already happened 40 years ago” (S.139), she writes.

Hicks describes his passionately written account as “self-consciously ‘anglo-specific’” (H.xiii), concentrated almost exclusively on Great Britain and the Benin Bronzes.  His central argument is that museums that retain and display artworks and artifacts taken from formerly colonized communities remain complicit in and perpetrate the original injustice, making them the “brutish museums” of his title.  Their display of stolen goods is enduring damage that is “renewed every day that the museum doors are unlocked, and these trophies are displayed to the public” (H.xiv).  Savoy focuses primarily on the restitution debate in West Germany during the Cold War, although Britain and the Benin Bronzes also figure in her analysis.  Her prose is less fiery and more measured, but she echoes Hicks’ central argument in describing museums with non-European art in the heart of Europe as “walk-in show cases of colonial approbation practices. There is no way around it” (S.140).

* * *

The Brutish Museums places the 1897 punitive expedition in the broader context of late 19th century British colonialism, from roughly the 1884 Berlin Conference, when European powers sought to set the terms for what was famously termed the “scramble for Africa,” until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  During this period, Hicks argues, widespread looting of artworks and cultural artifacts became common practice, one aspect of the appalling violence European powers unleashed while claiming to advance what were sometimes termed the “3 Cs,” civilization, Christianity, and commerce.

The official justification for the 1897 punitive expedition was as a retaliation for the killing of nine British officials who had tried to meet with the Oba (king) of Benin City to negotiate more favorable trade terms. Britain further claimed that the mission had been designed to help suppress slavery, the slave trade, cannibalism, and other forms of barbarism.  Hicks demonstrates convincingly that these justifications were pretextual.  The attack on Benin City had been “planned for years,” he argues, part of a “wholly new phase of colonial violence” (H.84), in which large-scale, high-profile British military interventions in Africa focused on regime change and the “active removal of long-standing powerful kings” (H.81) who posed unacceptable impediments to trade.

Hicks’ “smoking gun,” the most persuasive item of proof that regime change for more favorable trade terms was the driving force behind the punitive expedition, is a letter of mid-November 1896 from the Acting Counsel of the Niger Coast Protectorate to the British Foreign Office calling explicitly for the Oba’ s removal.  “I am convinced,” the Acting Counsel wrote, that “pacific measures are now quite useless.” (H.89).  He therefore asked permission to “depose and remove the King of Benin and to establish a native council in his place and to take such further steps for the opening up of the country as the occasion may require” (H.89-90).  The Foreign Office approved the request in December 1896, two months before the punitive expedition.

The punitive expedition unleashed not just pillaging and looting but also the indiscriminate massacre of civilians, including women and children, through the “bombardment of towns and villages from the air and thus … across the whole of the Benin Kingdom, scorching the earth with rockets, fire and mines” (H.123).  Tellingly, in the aftermath of the attack, no official or informational reports were compiled on matters such as prisoners of war, injured African casualties, the spread and effect of diseases, or hospital operations for Africans.  The 1897 mission was an “act of vandalism and cultural destruction,” Hicks concludes, which possessed “no logic of salvage, or of saving culture for the world,” (H.142), rising to the level of a “crime against humanity” as that term would be defined just two years later in the 1899 Hague Convention.

Pillaging and looting of artworks in late 19th century colonialism should not be dismissed as merely an unfortunate “side effect of empire,” (H.23), Hicks argues.  Yet, in the century and a quarter since 1897, the scale of British violence and the loss of native life have too often been minimized, “as if these misrepresentations were themselves a sacred and delicate artifact demanding our conservation.” (H.40).  This minimization of violence underpins one of the primary arguments against restitution, that items were taken in accordance with the values of the time, thereby rendering present ownership legitimate.  No, Hick counters, the violence endures; it is not some past relic to be “revisited on the curator’s own terms” (H.164).

More recently, institutions like the British Museum have contended that they are “world culture museums,” tasked with caring for a “universal, supranational material heritage … for the people of every nation” (H.200).  But this notion, which Savoy dismisses as a  “generalized form of Eurocentrism” (S.110), is for Hicks another form of license for pretending that “this violence and loss is in the past,” and avoiding the reality that it is “here in front of us in debts that need to be paid for things that were taken” (H.215). Resistance to restitution also relies upon arguments that Africans do not have the capacity to care for their own cultural items, thus endangering them, and that claims for such items are themselves “political.”

Going forward, Hicks hopes to see museums in Britain use their status as “unique public spaces” to “change the stories that we tell ourselves about the British Empire, while taking action in support of communities across the Global South in building museums on a totally new kind of model” (H.35).  Such reconfigured museums should bring “other ways of seeing, knowing, living and making into the Euro-American consciousness, including an awareness of the universal importance of material cultural in human lives.”  But they can fulfill this function only when nothing on display is present “against the will of others” (H.228).

* * *

Savoy’s work is derived in large measure from documentation she uncovered while co-authoring a highly acclaimed report, “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics” with the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr.  French President Emanuel Macron commissioned the report in connection with his ground-breaking address at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in November 2017, in which he acknowledged that many if not most African artworks and cultural artifacts held in French museums had been stolen during France’s colonial period and should be returned to their places of origin.

The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage consists of 16 short chapters, each using a year as its title.  Most are centered on an event that occurred in the particular year, such as a speech, conference, published paper, or film.  Collectively, the chapters reveal a stark dichotomy emerging during the 1970s as increased calls for restitution, particularly from newly independent African nations, were met with efforts by administrators at influential museums to prevent the return of stolen artworks.   Especially in West Germany and secondarily in Great Britain, key museum administrators deliberated behind closed doors to oppose restitution and stifle public debate.  The West German opposition, Savoy reveals, included former members of  Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist party who had moved seamlessly into influential positions in post-war West Germany.

Intense closed-door deliberations began in West Germany in 1972 after the Government of Nigeria asked the West German Foreign Office for a “permanent loan” of some of the Benin Bronzes held in West Berlin’s Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbeseitz (SPK, the Foundation for Prussian Cultural Heritage), the world’s second largest collection of the bronzes after the British Museum in London.  Desiring good relations with Nigeria and other recently independent African countries, the Foreign Office looked favorably upon the request, which it passed to SPK senior management.  But SPK had an altogether different view, as set forth in an extensive letter from SPK Director-General Hans-Georg Wormit to Carl Gussone, head of the West German Ministry of Interior’s Matters of Cultural Conservation, who had played a key role in the founding of SPK in 1957.

Wormit described the request as “dangerous” and “facile” (S.23), stressing how SPK was competing for rank and reputation in the Cold War world of the 1970s not only with its counterparts in London and Paris but also with East German museums.  German museums, he argued, had suffered enough from World War II, and could not afford to return anything from their collections.  He advocated a strategy of delay that worked: the German public “never heard anything about this [Nigerian] request and its outcome” (S.28), Savoy writes.  Wormit and Gussone, she notes, were among those high-level West German officials who had been members and fervent supporters of the Nazi party during its time in power. Was their hardline resistance to restitution related to the racist thinking of the Nazi regime? Without hazarding a direct answer, Savoy notes that this is a “legitimate question” (S.22).

If Wormit and Gussone were able to circumvent the restitution issue in 1972, it came to the attention of the German public and the world at large the following year, when Zaire’s President Sese Seko Mobutu placed restitution on the global agenda through an address at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).  The address, which Savoy characterizes as a “legendary full-frontal attack on the Western industrial nations” (S.31), articulated the moral basis for restitution:

During the colonial period we suffered not only from colonialism; slavery, economic exploitation, but also and above all from the barbarous, systematic pillaging of all our works of art.  In this way the rich countries appropriated our best, our unique works of art, and we are therefore poor not only economically but also culturally. Those works of art, which are to be found in the museums of the rich countries are … the finished products of our ancestors. Those works, which were acquired for nothing, have increased in value so much that none of our countries has the material means to recover them (S.31).

Later that year, the UNGA adopted Resolution 3187, “Restitution of Works of Art to Countries Victims of Expropriation,” with 113 countries voting in favor.

Mobutu’s address prompted enough interest in Germany that the West German Foreign Office asked leading museums to present their views on restitution, giving rise to another round of opposition to restitution claims that Savoy characterizes as “fundamental and harsh, both in tone and in content” (S.37).   She focuses on the response of Stephan Waetzoldt, Director General of Staatlich Museen zu Berlin (Berlin State Museum), who wrote that he had difficulty understanding the rationale for what he described as the “absurd demand for the return of practically the entire collection holdings which come from the Third World and are now in Western museums” (S.37).  Waetzoldt cited the “appalling condition” of “Third World” museums, which were incapable of preserving their own heritage.  Cosmopolitan West German collections, he contended, constituted the “main reason why the German public was interested in foreign cultures at all” (S.38).  Waetzoldt thus recommended that West German museums treat the Foreign Office request “as dilatorily as possible” (S.38).

But by the mid-1970s, a pro-restitution voice had surfaced in the West German museum microworld, that of Herbert Ganslmayr, Director-General of the Übersee-Museum in Bremen.  Born in 1937 and belonging to a younger generation than Wormit, Gussone and Waetzoldt, Ganslmayr came to public attention through a 1976 article in the American newspaper Christian Science Monitor entitled “German Debate: Should Art Return to Former Colonies?” The article quoted Ganslmayr as arguing that Germany had both a legal and moral obligation to “hand things back” (S.48).  Full enjoyment of cultural heritage, he contended, was “for each people an indispensable condition for its self-realization” (S.48).

Later that year, Ganslmayr presented a paper, entitled “Return of Cultural Property,” which inspired a journalist from Bremen to produce a hard-hitting radio documentary on restitution which probed museum officials on what they meant when they contended that African artworks in their possession had been “acquired correctly” (S.52).  The radio program attracted the attention of leading West German museum officials, who formed what Savoy describes as a “clear front” (S.55) against Ganslmayr, conspicuously excluding him from further meetings and agreements.  Moreover, she notes, Ganslmayr also received threatening letters.  Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, this clear front remained “smug” and “uncompromising” (S.81) in its assertions of ownership of cultural assets from formerly colonized countries.

Savoy also identifies an “almost unbearable institutional smugness” (S.113) in the way the British Museum systematically rejected restitution requests in the same time frame.  She zeroes in on Nigeria’s request that the museum release one of its most highly valued Benin Bronzes, the Queen Idia mask, in connection with the renowned 1977 Pan-African World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture.  Known simply as “Festac ’77,” the month-long festival took place in Lagos, Nigeria and is now regarded as “one of the greatest cultural events of the twentieth century on the African continent” (S.58).  The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), like its counterpart in West Germany, wanted to cultivate good relations with Nigeria and supported the request for the return of the mask.

But without any indication of overt collaboration between British Museum principals and their hardline West German counterparts, the museum raised strikingly similar arguments in response to the request.  An FCO official who met with British Museum officials noted that they “do not entirely trust the Nigerians to return [the mask]” (S.62).  They anticipated that the Nigerians “would not treat it with the care it demands, especially since the Nigerians would tend to think of it as their own property” (S.62).  That the Nigerians might dare to think of the mask as “their own property,” and therefore neglect to care for it, Savoy wryly observes, “speaks volumes about the self-perception of Western institutions” (S.62).

Savoy documents a spell of restitution-fatigue in the aftermath of Festac ’77, with African elites losing faith in the “capability of the ‘possessing’ countries to recognize the cultural needs of poorer nations” (S.89).  By 1982, she writes, the first postcolonial restitution debate was “long over” from an African perspective, even though the tide seemed to have turned in most of Europe in favor of restitution.  The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy all took positions favoring restitution at a UNESCO-sponsored “World Conference on Cultural Policies,” held in Mexico City in 1982, a conference which represented the “peak of the restitution debate of the 1970s and ‘80s” (S.118).  Only West Germany and Great Britain adhered to their hardline positions.

Greek actress Melina Mercouri drew attention at the conference when she pled for return of the famous Elgin Marbles from Great Britain to Greece, a plea  supported for a time by then Oxford Union President and future British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  The restitution issue, which “until then had been publicly perceived mainly as an issue for ‘undeveloped’ countries – and for that reason often dismissed – now touched the Parthenon at the heart of Europe” (S.121).   It remains an open question, however, whether Mercouri rekindled the restitution flame or simply refocused the question away from Africa and on Greece.  Either way, Mercouri’s plea marked the “final end of European solidarity against restitution claims from the “‘Third World,’” (S.121), Savoy writes.  Sometime thereafter, the restitution debate “fizzled” (S.1), only to resurface with renewed intensity within the last ten years.

* * *

Both Savoy and Hicks acknowledge that restitutions have taken place with increasing frequency in recent years (last month, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. agreed to return a substantial number of  its Benin Bronzes to Nigeria).  Restitution claims nonetheless continue to trigger “compulsive instances of institutional defense,” Savoy cautions, “as if the search for an equitable approach to collections created in an inequitable contest was one of the greatest threats to European cultural heritage” (S.142).  The time is now ripe, she concludes, to “assume responsibility and to finish the work that museums directors and culture officials of the 1970s and ’80s deliberately left undone: a sincere and swift restitution of objects bought to Europe in a context of wrongdoing during colonial occupation” (S.140).  Hicks for his part exhorts his readers to “stand up from their chair[s], walk out of the door, and take action to make the 2020s a decade of restitution” (H.242).  Although presenting compelling cases for restitution in their complementary works, both authors thus foresee additional battles ahead.  Neither is ready to declare victory.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

October 27, 2022








Filed under Art, European History, German History, History

When Paris Was Full of Russians


Helen Rappaport, After the Romanovs:

Russian Exiles in Paris From the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War

 (St. Martin’s Press, 2022)

Paris is “full of Russians at present.” That was how a recently-minted European correspondent for the Toronto Starbegan his report that appeared on February 25, 1922— by an odd coincidence almost exactly one hundred years prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack upon neighboring Ukraine on February 24 of this year.  The correspondent, an eager young journalist and writer from the American Midwest, Ernest Hemingway, had only arrived in Paris the previous December. He went on to inform his readers that the Russians were “drifting along in Paris in a childish sort of hopelessness that things will somehow be all right … No one knows just how they live except by selling off jewels and gold ornaments and family heirlooms that they brought with them to France.”

Most of the Russians whom Hemingway had encountered were refugees fleeing the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the civil wars that ensued after the Bolshevik takeover in Russia.  Many arrived without jewels, ornaments, heirlooms, or much else.  Describing “just how they lived” in Paris is precisely the task British freelance-writer Helen Rappaport sets for herself in After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War.  Rappaport’s work revolves around a series of portraits of the personal lives of several dozen Russians who found themselves in Paris during the first four decades of the twentieth century, with key personalities appearing and reappearing across a loosely chronological narrative.    

Between October 1917 and mid-1921, Paris became the destination of choice for thousands of refugees from Russia.  By 1930, according to one source, the Russian community living in Paris reached about 43,000 members, with another 9,500 living in the suburbs.  Yet, as her sub-title suggests, Rappaport starts well before the post-1917 surge in Russian refugees, during Paris’ “belle époque”— the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, up to the outbreak of World War I, when vibrant manifestations of Russian cultural life flourished in Paris.  It was also a time when ostentatious Russians—Romanovs as well as others of aristocratic stock and the just plain wealthy—made the city their personal playground.

After early chapters on the Russian impact on belle époque Paris, Rappaport’s middle chapters, the heart of her story, show how the wave of émigrés arriving in Paris in the years following the 1917 revolution transformed the city and its Russian community. Although arriving “penniless and traumatized but grateful to have escaped the Russian civil war,” most Russians fared better during the 1920s than the 1930s. During the latter decade, the worldwide economic downturn not only fragilized the émigrés’ already fragile circumstances but also gave rise to the view that they were stealing jobs from native French.  Rappaport’s story ends with the German occupation of 1940, as the lights in the City of Lights went out— or at least dimmed considerably.

Broadly speaking, the émigrés Rappaport portrays fall into three groups: 1. the Romanov family and other aristocrats and nobles; 2. artistic, intellectual, and cultural figures; and 3. ‘everyday’ Russians.  Russians in Paris were known for being disputatious, turning “quarreling into an art form” (p.45), Rappaport writes. They were too diverse to be labeled “White Russians” in the sense of being uniformly monarchists, political reactionaries or counter-revolutionaries who favored the restoration of the Tsar.  But one of the few threads linking the heterogenous community was that almost all Russian émigrés were vehement and outspoken anti-Bolsheviks.

Many Russians were otherwise apolitical.  Some were socialists and liberal democrats who had supported the 1905 Revolution in Russia and the Provisional Government that came to power in March 1917, after the abdication of Romanov Tsar Nicolas II. Despite internal differences, moreover, Russian émigrés in Paris remained culturally and emotionally attached to Mother Russia, even though in the eyes of most the Bolshevik regime had rendered their country unrecognizable.  Furthermore, almost all émigrés found themselves in difficult financial straits.  Rappaport gives special attention to the plight of former aristocrats and nobles forced to eke out a living, a favorite subject of the press at the time.

The book’s individual portraits are the fruit of Rappaport’s dazzling excavation of a wide array of original source material, much of it focused on the Romanovs and others from Russia’s highest social strata.  Rappaport also draws on the extensive paper trail created by Russian writers, artists, and cultural figures, leaving a source gap for the everyday Russians who found themselves in Paris—“few voices of ordinary Russians have been recorded” (p.269), Rappaport indicates.  In what is probably the book’s most original contribution, she valiantly seeks to fill this gap.

Rappaport’s narrative sometimes succumbs to the ‘TMI’ syndrome: ‘Too Much Information,’ the often-irresistible tendency of authors to utilize too many of the details they unearth, giving much of the book a gossipy flavor.  But her book gained unanticipated resonance earlier this year after Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, which triggered another wave of emigrants out of the Russian neighborhood and into Western Europe, including France—a century after Hemmingway reported on the exiles who had arrived in Paris fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

* * *

Rappaport’s initial focus on Russians during the Parisian belle époque of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century serves as valuable contrast to the émigrés who arrived more precariously in the years  following the 1917 Revolution.  The belle époque was, Rappaport writes, a “golden age of rapprochement” (p.3) between Russia and France, with Russian literature and culture attracting great interst and attention throughout France.  For Russian aristocrats and those with considerable wealth, Paris in 1900 was the “capital of Russia out of Russia,” a “home way from home, a safe haven in winter from the bitter cold of the northern Russian climate and the rising threat of revolution that was increasingly targeting their class” (p.1-2).

Romanov grand dukes gained notoriety during the belle époque for taking advantage of all that Paris had to offer, with the gossipy French press eagerly following their salacious adventures and misadventures.  Grand Duke Vladimir—Tsar Nicholas II’s most senior uncle—stood out among them, earning the sobriquet “Le Grand Duc Bon Vivant” for indulging in what Rappaport terms “libidinous and sometimes violent behavior” while making little effort to hide his “colossal appetite for food and wines, and his extravagant spending habits” (p.6), which included lavish tips.  But Grand Duke Vladimir was also a generous patron of the arts.

In a city considered Europe’s cultural capital, Vladimir’s best-known beneficiary, Sergey Diaghilev, dominated the Parisian cultural scene during the twentieth century’s first two decades.  In 1906, Diaghilev pulled together an unprecedented cross section of Russia’s best artwork since the eighteenth century.  Until that time, icon painting had been the primary Russian artform known in France.  Diaghilev also set out to familiarize Parisian audiences with innovative new Russian music beyond Tchaikovsky, “the only Russian composer with whom they were familiar” ” (p.24).

But Diaghilev was best known for creating the magnetic dance company Ballets Russe, which stormed the citadel of high Parisian culture by introducing an exotic form of dance frequently described as “crazy” or “mad” (p.28).  Diaghilev hired his former teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as a conductor for the Ballets Russe and introduced the Parisian public to Vaslav Nijinsky.  Imparting a “new direction and style” to the art of ballet with his “soaring flights” (p.30), Nijinsky elevated the male dancer to an equal footing with the ballerina. His 1910 performance for The Firebird Suite drove audiences into “raptures,” Rappaport writes. The next day, Paris talked of nothing but the “soaring angel” (p.33).

Russian writers and artists of the belle époque era, forced to flee Tsarist Russia in search of greater freedom of expression, frequented the legendary cafés of Montparnasse more than a decade before Hemingway made Montparnasse his personal playground.   Dubbed “penny universities” which taught “bohemian lifestyle, contempt for the bourgeois, sense of humor and heavy drinking” (p.47), Montparnasse cafés were refuge points for the impoverished Russian writers whom Rappaport describes as “rebels, misfits and down-and-outs;” and for creative artists “long on talent but short on money and struggling to become established” (p.42).  According to a popular view at the time, the more “Bohemian” a Montparnasse patron looked, the more likely he was to be Russian.

Paris before World War I was also full of rival anti-Tsarist political groups and factions: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, social revolutionaries, and Jewish trade unionists. Vladimir Lenin, unlike the stereotypical disheveled Russian revolutionary, lived conventionally with his wife and mother-in-law in Paris from 1909 to 1912, where he kept a low profile and stayed away from Montparnasse cafés.  Focused obsessively on the cause of revolution in Russia, Lenin “despised the sloppy, bohemian lifestyle of some of his fellow political exiles” who in his view had allowed Paris to divert them “too easily” from the cause (p.44-45).

After World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, many aristocrats, writers and artists headed back to Russia. Artist Marc Chagall left so quickly that he was unable to lock his studio, leaving a stack of paintings inside which he never saw again. A substantial number of the émigrés who remained behind in Paris sought to enlist in the war. But it was the events of 1917 in Russia, beginning with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in November and ensuing civil wars, that precipitated the sweeping transformation of the émigré community in Paris at the heart of Rappaport’s story.

 * * *

The wave of refugees arriving in Paris between November 1917 and March 1921 came from a “much wider cross-section of [Russian] society, with loyalties to a wide range of political parties, social classes, and religions” (p.89), Rappaport writes. Most had left Russia through Odessa, in Crimea, sailing under abysmal conditions to Constantinople. Those who made it to Paris were hopeful that the city would offer something better than harsh Bolshevik rule and civil wars back home. But survival in the early 1920s was hard.  The ‘help wanted’ ads in the French press were “full of menial jobs that required none of the skills that the cream of the former intelligentsia had to offer” (p.130).  A “great deal of valuable Russian talent and expertise failed to find an outlet” (p.133).

Because of French employment regulations and the requirement of French nationality, only a small portion of Russian doctors, dentists, lawyers, and university lecturers were able to find work in their professions in Paris. Some circumvented the rules by working exclusively for the Russian émigré colony.  French-speaking Russians sometimes managed to find jobs in banks and offices as clerks and bookkeepers. Those with English language skills were able to work in hotels and department stores with English-speaking clientele.  An esteemed Russian general worked as a valet, opening car doors for rich Americans.   One of the more enterprising Romanovs, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, suddenly destitute, found a way to exploit his single remaining asset: he was a “handsome, seductive ladies’ man, and women fell for him with predictable regularity” (p.115).

One of those women was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who was then dominating the Paris fashion world.  The gossipy French press followed the affair closely while dismissing Chanel as a “little shop girl” (p.116).  Chanel No. 5, Coco’s most famous brand, took off while she and Dimitri were linked romantically, making a fortune for Coco.  Dimitri’s lack of money probably doomed the relationship. He was just like other dispossessed Russian grand dukes, Coco concluded, “diminished, almost emasculated by their poverty in exile … tall and handsome and splendid, but behind it all—nothing; just vodka and the void”  (p.118).

Most male refugees were forced to take “fairly low-grade and drab jobs” (p.136), such as washing dishes, waiting tables, cleaning windows, working in factories or, especially, driving a taxi.  In an environment where just about everyone needed to find new means to survive, Russian taxi drivers were the “aristocrats of the émigré work force” (p.136); many were actual aristocrats. For women, sewing, millinery and knitting proved to be the “quickest, easiest and most immediate route of out of poverty” (p.127).  The economic plight of the émigrés arriving in Paris in the early 1920s was reduced to an aphorism: “The men drive taxis and women sew for a living” (p.130).

Taxi driving was “greatly to be preferred for the autonomy and independence it allowed”  (p.136).  The French public, Rappaport indicates, perceived Russian taxi drivers as more dependable than their French counterparts.  The French automotive assembly line became a mainstay for those Russian men not lucky enough to land taxi-driving opportunities, especially at the Renault factory at Billancourt. Paid only about two dollars a day in the late 1920s, at a time when Ford workers in the United States were earning a stunning five dollars per day, many Russian auto workers saw the assembly line as “only a stopgap on the way to something better—in most cases, taxi driving” (p.147).

Women gravitated to all levels of the fashion trade. One of the most enterprising was Grand Duke Dimitri’s sister, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. Although destitute, Maria was skilled at needle working and started fashioning clothes. After her brother introduced her to Coco Chanel, she opened a shop with its own brand name, and for a while sold exclusively to Chanel. Younger Russian women, especially those from an aristocratic background, became fashion models. But scores of Russian women earned a “pittance doing piecework at home” (p.127).   In his 1933 work Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell described one such woman living in the hotel where he resided who “worked sixteen hours a day, darning socks at twenty-five centimes a sock, while [her] son, decently dressed, loafed in the Montparnasse cafés” (p.127-28).

In 1924, France officially recognized the Bolshevik Regime, by then known as the Soviet Union, much to the dismay of the Russian émigré community. Russian writers and intellectuals were further dismayed that their French counterparts, whose support and patronage they needed in their “fight against the communist suppression of freedom of expression,” were all-too-often “fascinated by the new, and politically fashionable, socialist experiment in Russia and keen to champion what they saw as its progressive policies” (p.170).   By the late 1920s, Russian writers, in a “constant battle between a longing for the inspiration of Russia and the need to be free,” encountered a “tide of indifference” in which their work was viewed as “rooted in the past and reactionary” (p.171).

The most prominent Russian writer in Paris was Ivan Bunin, a master of the short story in the tradition of Anton Chekov, whose stories of “aging, solitary people in emigration” (p.176) distilled the grim realities of everyday life in Paris.  In 1933, Bunin won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Russian to do so.  It was undoubtedly the “single most important event in the cultural and literary life of the Russian emigration” (p.228), Rappaport writes, but an event that infuriated Soviet authorities back in Moscow. Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, a popular female satirist who wrote short stories under the name Teffi, tuned into the “sense of abandonment and despair shared by so many newly arrived Russians” (p.150).  Teffi ‘s writings expressed her “dismay at how the emigration had divided rather than united people, how hardship and uncertainty about their status had eaten away at them like a malady and eroded the grandeur of spirt once admired in them” (p.150).

By 1930, the “charm and seductive romance of ‘Russianness’ had begun to wear thin”  (p.230). The economic downtown following the 1929 stock market crash not only reduced the need for foreign labor in Paris but also precipitated a “xenophobic backlash” (p.234) against émigrés, with right-wing, nationalist French politicians assailing Russians as a “drain on resources at a time of economic hardship” (p.234). A volatile period of strikes and demonstrations in 1930s Paris, followed by food shortages, brought “painful reminders” of 1917 to the fearful emigrants, who “prepared for another Armageddon” (p.234).  Rappaport documents a wave of suicides which overtook some of the community’s most vulnerable members in the latter portion of the 1930s, the “only answer to dealing with the wounds of separation and cultural disinheritance that stubbornly refused to heal” (p.248).

The German occupation of Paris, which began in June 1940, was a grim time for the Russian emigrant community, marked by “extreme poverty and hunger for most” (p.264).  By August 1940, “all the old émigré life of Russian Paris had been closed down with the enforced disbanding of cultural, educational and charitable bodies” (p.268).  Some Russians remained but more sought to flee again, with Spain and the United States being the preferred destinations. A few even went to Berlin to fight against Stalin’s Soviet Union.

* * *

Rappaport’s account belies Hemmingway’s notion of a “childish sense of hopelessness” prevailing among the Russians who found themselves in Paris in the period between the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the German invasion of France.  Rappaport uses the term “stoic endurance” (p.231) to describe how everyday Russians survived during their Paris years. “Stoic endurance” also aptly describes both the resourceful adaptations of many Romanovs and the painful reflections of the writers, poets and artists depicted in this fascinating account.


Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 24, 2022

NOTE:  A  nearly identical version of this review has been posted on the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville 21 blog.



Filed under French History, History, Russian History

Liberal Democracy’s Pragmatic Advocate


Kati Marton, The Chancellor:

The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel

(Simon & Schuster, 2021)

Many can plausibly claim to have had a hand in Germany’s remarkable transition from pariah state of the first order in 1945 to what British scholar Timothy Garton Ash termed in 2013 “about as solid a liberal bourgeois democracy as you can find on earth. . . civilized, free, prosperous, law abiding, moderate and cautious.”  But on any list of contributors to Germany’s transformation, Angela Merkel would surely be at or near the top.  A consistent and firm defender of the European Union and NATO, Merkel has also been arguably the 21st century’s most consequential advocate for “liberal bourgeois democracy,” to use Ash’s phrase.  In December 2021, Merkel stepped off the national and world stage as Germany’s first female Chancellor after holding her position continuously since 2005.

In the first biography to assess Merkel’s 16 years in power, The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, Kati Marton portrays Merkel as the personification of the Germany Ash described.  No leader on the world stage in our era “protected the post-World War II liberal democratic order as fiercely as [Merkel] did,” Marton contends, transforming Germany “into the leader of Europe – not just an economic leader but a moral one too” (p.xii).   In her sixteen years as Chancellor (roughly the equivalent of a Prime Minister in Germany’s parliamentary system), Merkel pursued liberal democratic ideals pragmatically: she learned from her own mistakes, was “not wedded to ideology or dogma, in politics or in economics,” and was “open to new ideas regardless of their source – as long as they work” (p.285).

Marton seems ideally situated to offer a comprehensive picture of Merkel.  She was born and spent her early years in Hungary, until her parents were forced to flee the country in 1956 when the Soviet Union invaded the country to squelch an apparent liberal democratic uprising.  Marton’s childhood experience with Eastern European communism undoubtedly looms in the background as she seeks to cast light on how Merkel’s upbringing in the altogether undemocratic German Democratic Republic, as communist East Germany was officially termed, shaped her character and approach to governance.  Freedom of expression and movement are “more than hackneyed phrases for a politician who spent her first thirty-five years lacking both,” (p.77), Marton observes.  Surviving the East German police state unbroken is an “accomplishment in itself and offers the key to her personal and political resilience”  (p.xvi).  Merkel’s “deepest conviction” is that democracy is “fragile and if treated carelessly, can slip away” (p.302).

To a degree unusual among contemporary politicians, Merkel guarded her privacy zealously and for the most part successfully throughout her years in the political limelight, a practice that can be attributed at least in part to her East German background.   Characteristically, Merkel refused Marton’s request for an interview for the book.  With no pretense of producing a “tell all” exposé, Marton nonetheless makes some headway in peeking behind Merkel’s personal iron curtain, providing her readers with a fuller picture of the woman who dominated German and European politics for a decade and a half.

Marton follows a generally chronological approach in her easy-to-read biography.  She starts with Merkel’s youth and early adult years as a professional scientist in East Germany, then tracks her rise in politics in the 1990s after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.   In the last two thirds of the book, Marton zeroes in on the defining events of Merkel’s Chancellorship years, 2005-2021.  Although plainly impressed with her subject, Marton does not hesitate to point out Merkel’s weaknesses and missed opportunities along with her strengths.  The “supremely rational scientist” frequently failed to appreciate the “irrational, emotional elements behind human behavior” (p.245), Marton notes.

Marton gives Merkel highest marks for her handling of the 2015 refugee crisis, when Germany admitted close to a million people fleeing from wars in the Middle East.  Less praiseworthy are the austerity policies which Merkel insisted upon to deal with the 2008-10 economic downtown, often termed the Great Recession, and the accompanying crisis of the euro, the European common currency.  Merkel became the West’s lead negotiator in dealing with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded two provinces of Eastern Ukraine in what now appears almost as a dress rehearsal for its full-scale invasion of February 2022.  Writing a few months before this year’s invasion, Marton concludes that Merkel, although far from fully successful if one is to judge by results, did about the best she could under the circumstances.

Marton provides much insight into Merkel’s relationship with Putin, who rates an entire chapter, “Dictators.”  There are also full chapters on George W. Bush (“Her First American President”), Donald Trump (“Enter Trump”), and Emmanuel Macron (“A Partner at Last!”).  To round out her portrait, Marton adroitly weaves in observations about Merkel’s unique leadership style and her methodical, understated and sometimes perplexing character.

* * *

Merkel’s father, Horst Kasner, was a Lutheran pastor whom Marton describes as an “austere, demanding man of God” (p.2).    Shortly after his oldest child Angela was born in Hamburg, West Germany, in 1954, he moved his family to officially atheist East Germany to further the church’s mission on the other side of Germany’s iron curtain.  Although young Angela was a precocious and exceptionally high-performing schoolgirl, excelling in math, science and Russian, she faced many forms of petty discrimination at her primary and secondary schools because of her family’s “bourgeois” background.  Even after earning a PhD in physics and establishing unquestioned brilliance in that field, Merkel found prestigious university level teaching positions closed to her because of the same “bourgeois” background.

Merkel’s start in politics followed in short order after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  Bored with her position in a Leipzig research laboratory and attracted to the opportunities which open political life seemed to offer, she abandoned physics for politics.  Fueled by “self-control, strategic thinking and, when necessary, passive aggression” (p.49), Merkel and a handful of fellow East Germans formed an Eastern center-right party, the Demokratischer Aufbruch (DA, Democratic Awakening).  The fledgling party went on to merge with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a mostly male, Catholic and conservative organization.  After Germany reunited in 1991, Merkel as an Easterner and a woman proved to be precisely what Kohl was looking for in his cabinet.

Kohl, the primary architect of German unification who had been Germany’s chancellor since 1982, considered Merkel a “trophy” or “talking point” from East Germany.  What the “garrulous and normally shrewd Kohl did not calculate,” Marton writes, was that “his ‘trophy’ had plans and ambitions of her own and was willing to bide her time to realize them” (p.59).  Kohl nominated Merkel initially to the position of Minister for Women and Youth and subsequently to the higher-visibility Minister for Environment and Nuclear Safety.  In the latter position, at age 41, she presided over a 1995 Climate Conference held in Berlin which attracted representatives from 160 nations and produced the foundation for the landmark Kyoto Protocol two years later.  This was Merkel’s debut on the world stage.

In 1998, Kohl was defeated in his 5th run for Chancellor after 16 years in office (as it turned out, his term of office was one week longer than that of Merkel).  When he was caught a year later in a financial scandal, Merkel, in “one of the boldest acts in contemporary German politics” (p.68), wrote in a Frankfurt newspaper opinion piece that Kohl’s actions had damaged the party and that it was time for him to step aside as party leader.  Merkel, the only one within her party willing to take on the man who had jumpstarted her political career, thereby demonstrated that “beneath her stolid façade lay a fierce will”  (p.68).  Two years later, at age 45, Merkel nominated herself for CDU chairmanship and was elected without opposition.  When Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for early elections in 2005, Merkel was the CDU’s unanimous choice as the party’s standard bearer.

As a fresh political face, Merkel appealed to the German public for her “humility, her plain but direct style, her absence of theatrics, and the fact that she had made the transition from East to West with seeming ease,” Marton writes.  “Little more was really known about her beyond the remarkable sangfroid with which she had dispatched Kohl”  (p.73).  In an election that turned out to be closer than early polls predicted, Merkel’s CDU edged Schröder’s Social Democrats with barely enough votes to control the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, and form a government for Merkel to lead.

Rather than a program of specific policies, Merkel brought to the Chancellorship her steadfast character and a singular leadership style, “working sideways,” as Marton puts it, “indirectly and without calling attention to herself”  (p.xiii).  She repeatedly demonstrated “how much a leader can get done quietly, without boasting of her achievements” (p.xiv).  The Chancellor’s public allocutions were anything but inspiring.  Marton characterizes Merkel as an “almost aggressively dull speaker.  Her relationship to words is one of wariness: the fewer the better; it’s results that matter.  Thus, she sometimes fails to capture a distracted world’s attention, however urgent her message” (p.140-41).

But if less than inspiring at the podium, Merkel was a fearsome negotiator, almost invariably the best-informed person in the room whose grasp of minutiae was her own form of intimidation.  A master of face-to-face diplomacy, she was highly skilled at careful reading of unspoken cues, body language, and silences.  Her “near-photographic memory, her trained scientific ability to break down problems to their component parts, and her ravenous appetite for work” (p.xvi) all helped her gain or hold the upper hand in meetings and negotiations.  But the Great Recession of 2008, Merkel’s first major international test, demonstrated the limits to these qualities in dealing with the messy realities of politics and economics on a global scale.

At the time of the 2008 economic downturn, Germany, like Merkel herself, believed deeply in the “virtues of hard work, thrift, and living within one’s means” (p.156), one of the reasons Europe’s wealthiest country and its Chancellor were ill equipped to help the continent’s lesser economies, especially Greece.  Merkel thought a bailout for Greece would build dependency and prescribed belt tightening instead, with no financial assistance until the country demonstrated more responsible behavior. When she went to Athens, she was met with overt hostility – and Nazi swastikas.   Her “stern mien and her pieties sent exactly the wrong signal to Europe’s hardest hit economies” (p.160), Marton writes.

Merkel’s insistence on austerity seemed oblivious to the role of the banks in the crisis.  Her policies appeared to punish ordinary people for the wrongs of their governments and the international financial system.  Merkel and her hyperactive French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy — an “impulsive publicity hound” who seemed to “embody everything Merkel scorned” (p.160) — finally worked out a series of bailouts for Europe’s most beleaguered economies.  But she had “dawdled as millions suffered and took too long to appreciate the human cost of the global recession” (p.161).   Her excess caution “gave the impression that she was impervious to human suffering” (p.161).

By contrast, Merkel’s “breathtakingly bold decision” (p.185) in 2015 to admit close to one million refugees, mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq and Afghanistan, transformed Germany into what Marton terms the “moral center of the world” (p.185).  No other leader in Europe or elsewhere “spoke with such moral clarity about the West’s obligation toward the causalities of its never-ending wars”  (p.189).  With nations across the globe increasingly succumbing to xenophobia, Merkel’s three-word explanation of why she had gone against the current in a refugee-weary Europe became famous worldwide: “Wir schaffen das,” “We can handle this,” which Marton characterizes as “pure Merkel in its undramatic, calming tone” (p.195).

Germans turned out the welcome mat for arriving refugees in numbers that surprised even themselves.  But not all Germans were welcoming.  The German Alternative Party, Alternative für Deutschland or AfD, a party with neo-Nazi tendencies, arose in response to the Syrian immigrant crisis.  In parliamentary elections of 2017, AfD gained a previously unthinkable 94 seats in the Bundestag, enough to make their voices difficult to ignore.  Merkel ruled out any collaboration with AfD, even if her party needed its support on a particular issue.  But the AfD “did not vanish just because she refused to acknowledge its presence” (p.239).  AfD’s followers were among the hardest hit by the 2008 economic crisis.  By insisting that the AfD’s rise required no change of approach, Merkel missed an opportunity to “connect with people whose grievances – imagined and real – made them ripe for populist exploitation” (p.238), Marton writes.

It was no coincidence, moreover, that AfD was concentrated geographically in the former East Germany.  AfD’s rise highlighted the extent to which the two Germanies were still separate and unequal.  Until late in her tenure, Marton indicates, Merkel underestimated how rocky the road since unification had been for many of her fellow East Germans.  In her relationship with the former East Germany, she appeared “cut off from a segment of her population and unwilling or incapable of dealing with the emotional content of their dissatisfaction” (p.238-39).   But the Covid pandemic of 2019-2020, which she described as her country’s “greatest crisis since World War II” (p.280), provided an opportunity to clip AfD’s wings.

Merkel insisted that rapid and coordinated transnational relief was the only way to confront a contagion that had no respect for international borders.  She seized the global health crisis to “forge a new solidarity among European nations” (p.286), sending a powerful message to authoritarians, populists and nationalists around the world.  Her competence in fighting the Covid-19 crisis “temporarily silenced the AfD’s empty bluster” (p.286).  A party fueled by rage “found little political traction in indignation against a virus” (p.286),   Marton suggests that Merkel’s handling of the Covid pandemic sealed her legacy for calm, fact-based leadership.

Today, however, assessments of Merkel’s legacy gravitate inescapably to her handling of the 2014-15 Ukraine crisis and her relationship with Vladimir Putin.  The two are contemporaries, less than two years apart, with similar backgrounds but opposite world views.  Each speaks fluently the language of the other.  In one of the pair’s earliest meetings on the Black Sea, Putin seemed to have sensed that the German Chancellor would be a tough match for him.  Having learned of her childhood fear of dogs (she was bitten twice), Putin brought his Labrador retriever to the meeting. The childish maneuver annoyed but did not intimidate Merkel.  “He has to do this, to show his manhood,” she reportedly told her staff subsequently.  “Russia has no successful politics or economy” (p.109).

Merkel became the West’s lead negotiator on Ukraine in 2014 after American president Barack Obama concluded he could no longer deal effectively with the duplicitous Putin (Merkel’s uneven relationship with Obama is one of the book’s more surprising revelations).  It was not a role Merkel sought for herself or Germany, but one she pursued doggedly.  During Russia’s 2014 offensive in Ukraine, Merkel spoke to Putin several times a week. “Seething quietly” on each call, she was nonetheless “determined to provide Putin with an off-ramp from what she saw as a fundamentally nefarious and unprovoked war” (p.171).

Merkel ruled out the use of force and resisted growing calls for increasing arms shipments to Ukraine.  Her main weapons in dealing with Putin were her own “focus and steely determination” (p.173), as Marton puts it.  By talking, she felt she might “eventually bring Putin back to reality” (p.171).   Merkel’s resistance to more bellicose measures was influenced in part by the German public’s pacifist streak and its memory of the dark consequences of militarism.  But Merkel was even more influenced by Germany’s Cold War experience, in which the West “ultimately defeated the Soviet Empire through containment, patience and strategy” (p.173).   Yet pursuit of a bargain with Putin revealed the limits of Merkel’s negotiation skills in an “increasingly lawless, authoritarian era” (p.165).

Merkel expended considerable political capital to talk German businesses into imposing sanctions on Russia, at a significant cost to the German economy, and persuaded all EU members except Hungary and Italy to join in a coordinated sanction effort.  Two major agreements, the “Minsk Accords” and “Minsk II,” sought to end the fighting in Eastern Ukraine and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity but were never fully implemented and failed to put an end to the conflict.  In Marton’s estimation, Merkel nevertheless emerged from the 2014-15 Ukraine crisis as the West’s “most determined defender of established democratic norms,” proving that she could “stand up to Putin when others would not (or could not)” (p.165), an unsubtle dig at Obama.  In a passage that she would probably excise were she writing today, Marton writes that Putin “seems to have learned his lesson, so for now, at least, the other countries that made up the former Russian Empire are safe” (p.180).

In June of this year, in her first public interview since leaving the Chancellorship, Merkel reflected upon the lessons she learned from her Ukraine experience in 2014-15.  Relying upon her penchant for understatement when a little more emotion might have been warranted, she described the 2022 invasion as a “big mistake on Russia’s part.”  Asked whether she should apologize for having been too soft on Putin seven years earlier, the ex-Chancellor responded, “I tried to work toward calamity being averted, and diplomacy was not wrong if it doesn’t succeed . . . It is a matter of great sorrow that it didn’t succeed, but I don’t blame myself now for trying.”  The sanctions imposed in 2015 “could have been stronger,” the ex-Chancellor conceded, but added that there was no majority sentiment for strengthening them at the time.

* * *

The world, Marton writes in conclusion, is in many ways a “much rougher place than the one [Merkel] inherited as chancellor in 2005” (p.301).  After Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the world seems to be a rougher place still than the one Merkel left when she stepped down in December 2021 after 16 years of battling in her methodical, understated manner for democratic norms and values, internationally and domestically.  More Merkel biographies are likely to follow what Kati Morton has produced here, some longer and more granular.   Merkel might even provide an interview to a fortunate future biographer and, with or without a Merkel interview, a 900-page Robert Caro-type doorstopper may see the light someday.  Until then, Morton’s initial effort to assess the ex-Chancellor’s full tenure and pierce her personal space will serve as the lodestar for readers hoping to gain more insight into this still-enigmatic figure.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 17,  2022




Filed under Biography, European History, German History

Our Word


George Makari, Of Fear and Strangers:

A History of Xenophobia (W.W. Norton and Company)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “xenophobia” as a “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.”  As a university student and young adult, psychiatrist and historian George Makari considered xenophobia to be a term applying mainly to the past, at least in the comfortable New Jersey world in which he grew up as the son of Lebanese immigrants.  The young Makari assumed that the proverbial long arc of history was tilting, slowly perhaps but still surely, away from the irrational fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners that the word xenophobia appeared to refer to.

Makari maintained this reassuring view well into his adult years, as he forged his career as a psychiatrist and academic.  Then came Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, two illusion-shattering events which, as he writes in Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia, “seemed to contradict assumptions I had held for most of my adult life” (p.247).  Trying to make sense out of these events led him to reassess his own thoughts about the word xenophobia, dig into the word’s history, and consider its implications and ramifications.  The result is a wide-ranging, erudite work that combines intellectual history, psychological analysis, and social commentary.

Makari starts with a study of how the word xenophobia emerged, in French in the late 19th century, then in English and other European languages, and the settings in which it has since been used.  French print journalism initially linked the two Greek words, xénos and phobos, in a manner that seemed to be associated with medicine and science, but actually referred to a “new kind of political antipathy,” a “malady called ‘nationalism’” (p.41), arising in the context of European colonization and closely related to racism and hostility toward foreigners.

Makari then dons his psychoanalytic hat to explore whether the cluster of attitudes and habits that we group under the word xenophobia tells us anything meaningful about the human character: are there generalizations we can make about why people fall into a fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners?  And what about the objects of that fear and hatred — what psychologists and social commentators often lump together as “The Other.”  Here, Makari ambitiously presents his own synthesis of the diverse explanations about the nature of xenophobia.  In the book’s final portion, he zeroes in on how the word’s history and its psychological implications might assist us in understanding Brexit, Trump, and related contemporary phenomena.

No reader should be surprised to learn that the Merriam-Webster definition provides us with at best only a partial understanding of the word xenophobia.  Digging deeply below the surface of the dictionary definition, as Makari has done here, reveals a surfeit of complexity.  New words gather new meanings over time, Makari notes.  They “grow and mutate . . . words transform . . . they suddenly travel and pop up amid new signs and symbols . . . The story of xenophobia has been of a word that has gone through a series of alternations and migrations” (p.246).

As he guides us through these alterations and migrations, Makari provides short biographical sketches of numerous thinkers who have in one way or another contributed to our understanding of the word xenophobia.  These include such familiar 20th century figures as Sigmund Freud, Walter Lippman, Richard Wright, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Franz Fanon.  But the lead figure among the luminaries whom Makari portrays is Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th century Spanish Dominican priest.

Las Casas gained notoriety in his time by calling attention to the barbarity committed on the island of Hispaniola and elsewhere in the Caribbean in the name of the fledgling Spanish empire.  His best-known work, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which came out at a time when religious wars were tearing Europe apart, reached a startling conclusion: “everyone should be judged by the same principles; therefore, strangers were not necessarily the enemies of righteousness. We, the Christians, may be” (p.30).

* * *

As he started his etymological dig, Markari was surprised to learn that the word xenophobia could not be traced to the ancient Greeks, even though it is derived from Greek components, xénos and phobos.  Xénos in ancient Greek means “foreigner” or “stranger,” but mostly in a relational sense to a host, like “guest;” phobos means “fear” or “dread.”  But Malaki could find no indication that the Greeks or their counterparts ever put the two words together.  Although much ancient literature has been lost, those who assume that our word xenophobia descended from ancient Greece are “simply wrong” (p.10; of course, there are ample examples of Greeks acting in ways we would today describe as xenophobic, many ascribed to Aristotle).

Rather, the emergence of the word xenophobia can be pinpointed to the last third of the 19th century.  At a time when medicine was beginning to affix the word “phobia” to a host of disorders, such as “agoraphobia,” which came into use in 1871, and “claustrophobia,” which appeared in 1879, a medical dictionary from this decade defined xenophobia as the “morbid dread of meeting strangers” (p.40).  But this early usage never caught on.  As a medical diagnosis, “xenophobia was a flop, perhaps due to the proliferation of phobias that brought many others into disrepute” (p.48).

The triggering event linking the word xenophobia to its modern usages was the “Boxer Rebellion” in Northern China, an uprising that took place between 1899 and 1901.  The work of young Chinese began as what Makari terms a “loose cluster of thugs who indulged in looting and thievery” (p.56) with the announced mission of attacking and destroying foreigners (they were called “Boxers” because their mastery of Chinese martial arts seemed to Westerners similar to the sport of boxing).  In 1900, Makari discovered, a French newspaper reported from Shanghai on an ominous xénophobie movement afoot in China.  Three days later, future French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau used the term.  French newspapers were soon all over the idea that xénophobie was out of control in China.

In less than a year, the word xénophobie became “part of the French vocabulary” (p.50).  As news of the Boxer uprising spread, “xénophobie” migrated to English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and other languages, with readers throughout the West suddenly aware of a “new kind of beastly hatred for foreigners” (p.62) emanating from China.  The Boxers “promoted a violent hatred of all those from other lands and made no effort to distinguish the beneficent from the rapacious ones”  (p.63).

Several European nations joined with the United States and Japan to crush the uprising and topple the Chinese government, but the memory of the rebellion persisted in the age of Western imperialism.  It was, Makari writes, “as if cognoscenti around the world awoke from some confusion, and all at the same time fastened to a clarifying word that spelled out something they had vaguely suspected but never named” (p.62).  In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, xenophobia now referred to an “overheated hatred” (p.43) of Western foreigners, immigrants, strangers, and travelers.

By the early 1900s, as European empires stretched across the globe, seeking new markets, cheap resources and forced labor, xenophobia had become a “powerful biopolitical tool tied to science and race” (p.67).  The term defined who was “primitive” and who was “civilized.”  Discrimination against immigrants or minorities was “not based on the ancient notion that the ‘stranger is my enemy’; this was not a phobia, tribalism, or emotional partiality.  It was predicated on cold, hard facts” (p.100).  Thus, the concept of xenophobia “went to work for expanding Western empires” (p.70).

As powerful Western nations spread across the globe, journalists, diplomats, and racial scientists linked xenophobia to a “kind of primitivity that afflicted only the colonized, non-Europeans” (p.67).   In this “up-is-down” world, as Makari aptly terms it, the “primitive hosts were mistreating the civilized immigrants – that is, the Western missionaries, traders and colonists” (p.67-68).  Primitive “races,” so the conventional wisdom held, were “instinctively fearful of outsiders and perceived all strangers as enemies” (p.66).  Xenophobia was said to be ingrained in Africans, Asians, and other non-Westerners.  But the age of imperialism also gave rise to attacks upon these legitimizing narratives of colonialism.

Writers as diverse as Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain played lead roles in undercutting the notion that xenophobia was a primitive reaction by non-Westerners.  Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce asked whether the problem was not the yellow or black peril, but the “white peril” (p.97).  A journalist writing in The Nation coined the term “xenophobic imperialism” (p.85).  As World War I approached, those seeking to justify beneficent white rule over hostile communities “began to lose their credibility, and were thrown open to accusations of deception, hypocrisy, and the justification of rapacious cruelty” (p.81).  Much of the world knew by then what Las Cassas had emphasized in the 16th century, that “behind the moralizing cliches and race science, evil of stunning proportions had transpired” (p.80).

Xenophobia thus mutated again, from “being a convenient accusation by Westerners against foreigners to the failure of the ethic of toleration among those Westerners themselves” (p.98).  The tribulations of minorities and immigrants in Great Britain, France, and the United States, the “supposed standard bearers of liberalism, toleration, and individual rights,” exposed xenophobia as a phenomenon that “thrived in these Western democratic lands” (p.96).   The term came to be pressed into service, Makari writes, to “make sense of British and French anti-Semites, French haters of Italians, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Chinese Americans, and others who, while championing equality for themselves, seemed all too eager to deny it to others” (p.98).

Xenophobia became official state policy when the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the 1930s, wrapping into an ideology the virtues of “treating minorities like serfs, or finding ways to dispossess and eliminate them” (p.115).  As the crimes committed pursuant to this ideology were revealed in all their immensity after the Nazi defeat in 1945, the word xenophobia appeared infuriatingly inadequate.  The Nazi crimes seemed to have “broken the back of language itself” (p.118), Makari observes.  Dismissing Nazi crimes as xenophobia “simply would not do.  This was not some mere act of bias against strangers” (p.119).

Yet, the Holocaust raised innumerable discomforting questions about human nature, with something akin to xenophobia seeming to be part of every answer: what was the source of the malicious desires that led to mass murder on an unprecedented scale? Where did such inhumane hate come from?  Was it something that remained latent in most of us most of the time, but surfaced at times of strain and stress?  When and where would it start again?  Despite numerous efforts to provide answers to these and related questions, the word xenophobia in the post-World War II era seemed to lurk in the “cracks of history” (p.124), Makari writes.  The “nature of this beast remained elusive” (p.124).

Three major lines of inquiry sought to pin down the elusive beast: the nature of human identity, its relation to emotions like fear and aggression, and the nature of groups.  But the three lines became siloed in the post-World War II era; they were separate areas of research and thought, with little interaction between them.  There was no theoretician, no one to tell us why or provide “explanations that might make sense of this trouble’s origins and menacing power” (p.129).  And so it remains.  “No grand synthesis or novel paradigm has since emerged” (p.232).

* * *

Makari seeks fill the void by constructing a synthesis of the diverse explanations about the nature of xenophobia.  Drawing upon a host of 20th century thinkers who proffered their own interpretations, Makari’s proposed synthesis turns on distinctions between Other anxiety, overt xenophobia and covert xenophobia.  Other anxiety is a normal and familiar human reaction, one that “can be managed” (p.240).  Social mixing and integration can diminish conditioned reflexes; unconscious biases can be reworked through relearning.  “Dialogue with the Other can restore the capacity for empathy and the possibility of mutual recognition” (p.240),  he writes.  But Other anxiety can slip into overt xenophobia, in which “fear and hatred of the Other has solidified into more than an errant anxiety or a cognitive error” (p.241).

Overt xenophobes, Makari notes,need their villain; they hate the xénos so as to stabilize themselves” (p.241).  Overt xenophobia is marked by stereotypes that are more rigid than those of Other anxiety, and more difficult to alter.  Signs that suggest that an individual’s Other anxiety may be heading toward overt xenophobia include a vanishing capacity to consider interim positions; an inability to tolerate ambivalence; and the loss of a capacity for guilt.  In between arguments are “swept aside as weak.  Shaming the offender only provokes rage.  Sadism is prominent in overt xenophobia” (p.241).  If the social conditions are right, xenophobic groups can grow quickly.  The “ameliorative effects that quell Other anxiety fail here .  . . Exposure and habituation with this population go nowhere” (p.242).

Makari cites the famous pediatrician and Vietnam war critic Dr. Benjamin Spock as having found a promising potential answer to overt xenophobia.  Social groups that emulate Spock’s call for less harsh, shame-driven forms of child rearing, Makari suggests, “may be less prone to authoritarian solutions” (p.242-43).  Radical egalitarianism, he goes on to argue, poses the greatest threat to xenophobia.  Toleration must be a rule for all, not simply a liberal value.  We “therefore confront bigotry while offering acceptance to all, except those who, as Karl Popper argued, would destroy toleration” (p.243).

Covert xenophobia, by definition, “operates in the shadows” (p.243).  One of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s principal insights was that highly socialized and accepted forms of xenophobia “disappear into norms, conventions, and discourses” (p.243) of any given society.  Resistance to change then becomes a defense of xenophobia.  No individual need take responsibility for covert xenophobia.  “Rule-based dictums inscribe hierarchies, logical relations and differentials, all of which support discrimination against the degraded group” (p.244).  The trap of covert xenophobia ensnares “not just France’s anti-Semites, American racists, colonizers, patriarchal men, and homophobes but, in ways hard to acknowledge, you and me” (p.227).

Makari does not need to embrace the full implications of covert xenophobia to reach his conclusion – the synthesis of his synthesis — that xenophobia is a “form of darkness” that lurks in the “most destructive corner of the everyday mind” (p.232).  Xenophobia is “not literally an illness;” it cannot be reduced to “some genetic defect or neural pathology”; it is not “hardwired in some subset of the human population” (p.237).  Rather, and more disturbingly, it is “part of the psychic violence of everyday life” (p.237).

The word xenophobia, Makari finds, is sufficiently sturdy – both broad enough and specific enough — to embrace such manifestations of stranger hatred as ethnocentrism, ultranationalism, racism, misogyny, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia.  By recovering the word’s rich past, he argues, and by “examining the numerous concepts of stranger hatred to which it is linked, we may repurpose this term so that it serves to organize and promote attempts at synthesis” (p.237).

Makari’s intrepid effort to construct a synthesis around diverse interpretations of the word xenophobia might have seemed like an interesting academic exercise in the 1990s.  But the election of Donald Trump in 2016, a “would-be demagogue” who seemed to be “searching for whatever negative stereotypes of the Other would stick” led Makari and many others to discover “to our shock that a startling number had done just that” (p.262).

Makari’s suggestion that 2016 was the year when he awoke to realize that xenophobia had not been confined to the dustbin of history need not be taken literally.  Events such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the worldwide economic downturn of 2008, and the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, he acknowledges, allowed overt xenophobes to emerge from the shadows to vilify minorities and vulnerable groups as the alien Other.

* * *

If the words racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment does not quite capture what has been happening in the 21st century,  the word xenophobia may suffice, Makari suggests, in no small part because it is not “some antiquated, classical term.”  Rather, xenophobia is “our word” (p.270), a point he drives home convincingly in this deeply serious yet eminently readable work.

Thomas H. Peebles

Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré, France

July 13,  2022



Filed under History, Language, Science