Category Archives: Biography

A Defense of Truth

 

Dorian Lynskey, The Ministry of Truth:

The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 

                           George Orwell’s name, like that of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka, has given rise to an adjective.  “Orwellian” connotes official deception, secret surveillance, misleading terminology, and the manipulation of history.   Several terms used in Orwell’s best known novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, have entered into common usage, including “doublethink,” “thought crime,” “newspeak,” “memory hole,” and “Big Brother.”  First published in June 1949, a little over a half year prior to Orwell’s death in January 1950, Nineteen Eighty Four is consistently described as a “dystopian” novel – a genre of fiction which, according to Merriam-Webster, pictures “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.”

This definition fits neatly the world that Orwell depicted in Nineteen Eighty Four, a world divided between three inter-continental super states perpetually at war, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, with Britain reduced to a province of Oceania bearing the sardonic name “Airstrip One.”  Airstrip One is ruled by The Party under the ideology Insoc, a shortening of “English socialism.”  The Party’s leader, Big Brother, is the object of an intense cult of personality — even though there is no hard proof he actually exists.  Surveillance through two-way telescreens and propaganda are omnipresent.  The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a diligent lower-level Party member who works at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites historical records to conform to the state’s ever-changing version of history.  Smith enters into a forbidden relationship with his co-worker, Julia, a relationship that terminates in mutual betrayal.

In his intriguing study, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, British journalist and music critic Dorian Lynskey seeks to explain what Nineteen Eighty-Four “actually is, how it came to be written, and how it has shaped the world, in its author’s absence, over the past seventy years” (p.xiv). Although there are biographies of Orwell and academic studies of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s intellectual context, Lynskey contends that his is the first to “merge the two streams into one narrative, while also exploring the book’s afterlife” (p.xv; I reviewed Thomas Ricks’ book on Orwell and Winston Churchill here in November 2017).   Lynskey’s work is organized in a “Before/After” format.  Part One, about 2/3 of the book, looks at the works and thinkers who influenced Orwell and his novel, juxtaposed with basic Orwell biographical background.  Part II, roughly the last third, examines the novel’s afterlife.

But Lynskey begins in a surprising place, Washington, D.C., in January 2017, where a spokesman for President Donald Trump told the White House press corps that the recently-elected president had taken his oath of office before the “largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.”  A presidential adviser subsequently justified this “preposterous lie” by characterizing the statement as “alternative facts” (p.xiii).   Sales of Orwell’s book shot up immediately thereafter.  The incident constitutes a reminder, Lynskey contends, of the “painful lessons that the world appears to have unlearned since Orwell’s lifetime, especially those concerning the fragility of truth in the face of power” (p.xix).

How Orwell came to see the consequences of mutilating truth and gave them expression in Nineteen Eighty-Four is the focus of Part I.  Orwell’s brief participation in the Spanish Civil War, from December 1936 through mid-1937, was paramount among his personal experiences in shaping the novel’s worldview. Spain was the “great rupture in his life; his zero hour” (p.4), the experience that lead Orwell to the conclusion that Soviet communism was as antithetical as fascism and Nazism to the values he held dear (Lynskey’s list of Orwell’s values: “honesty, decency, fairness, memory, history, clarity, privacy, common sense, sanity, England, and love” (p.xv)).  While no single work provided an intellectual foundation for Nineteen Eighty Four in the way that the Spanish Civil War provided the personal and practical foundation, Lynskey discusses numerous writers whose works contributed to the worldview on display in Orwell’s novel.

Lynskey dives deeply into the novels and writings of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and the Russian writer Yevgeny Zamytin.  Orwell’s friend Arthur Koestler set out what Lynskey terms the “mental landscape” for Nineteen Eighty-Four in his 1940 classic Darkness at Noon, while the American conservative James Burnham provided the novel’s “geo-political superstructure” (p.126).  Lynskey discusses a host of other writers whose works in one way or another contributed to Nineteen Eighty-Four’s world view, among them Jack London, Aldous Huxley, Friedrich Hayek, and the late 17th and early 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift.

In Part II, Lynskey treats some of the dystopian novels and novelists that have appeared since Nineteen Eighty-Four.  He provides surprising detail on David Bowie, who alluded to Orwell in his songs and wrote material that reflected the outlook of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  He notes that Margaret Atwood termed her celebrated The Handmaid’s Tale a “speculative fiction of the George Orwell variety” (p.241).  But the crux of Part II lies in Lynskey’s discussion of the evolving interpretations of the novel since its publication, and why it still matters today.  He argues that Nineteen Eighty Four has become both a “vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future” (p.228), and an “all-purpose shorthand” for an “uncertain present” (p.213).

In the immediate aftermath of its publication, when the Cold War was at its height, the novel was seen by many as a lesson on totalitarianism and the dangers that the Soviet Union and Communist China posed to the West (Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania in the novel correspond roughly to the Soviet Union, China and the West, respectively).  When the Cold War ended with the fall of Soviet Union in 1991, the novel morphed into a warning about the invasive technologies spawned by the Internet and their potential for surveillance of individual lives.  In the Age of Trump and Brexit, the novel has become “most of all a defense of truth . . . Orwell’s fear that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ is the dark heart of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It gripped him long before he came up with Big Brother, Oceania, Newspeak or the telescreen, and it’s more important than any of them” (p.265-66).

* * *

                            Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903 in India, where his father was a mid-level civil servant. His mother was half-French and a committed suffragette.  In 1933, prior to publication of his first major book,  Down and Out in Paris and London, which recounts his life in voluntary poverty in the two cities, the fledgling author took the pen name Orwell from a river in Sussex .  He changed names purportedly to save his parents from the embarrassment which  he assumed his forthcoming work  would cause.  He was at best a mid-level journalist and writer when he went to Spain in late 1936, with a handful of novels and lengthy essays to his credit – “barely George Orwell” (p.4), as Lynskey puts it.

The Spanish Civil war erupted after Spain’s Republican government, known as the Popular Front, a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists and communists, narrowly won a parliamentary majority in 1936, only to face a rebellion from the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco, representing Spain’s military, business elites, large landowners and the Catholic Church.  Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy furnished arms and other assistance for the Nationalists’ assault on Spain’s democratic institutions, while the Soviet Union assisted the Republicans (the leading democracies of the period, Great Britain, France and the United States, remained officially neutral; I reviewed Adam Hochschild’s work on the Spanish Civil War here in August 2017).   Spain provided Orwell with his first and only personal exposure to the “nightmare atmosphere” (p.17) that would envelop the novel he wrote a decade later.

Fighting with the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (Spanish acronym: POUM), a renegade working class party that opposed Stalin, Orwell quickly found himself in the middle of what amounted to a mini-civil war among the disparate left-wing factions on the Republican side, all within the larger civil war with the Nationalists.  Orwell saw first-hand the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the Stalinist left at work in Spain, nurtured by a level of deliberate deceit that appalled him.  He read newspaper accounts that did not even purport to bear any relationship to what had actually happened. For Orwell previously, Lynskey writes:

people were guilty of deliberate deceit or unconscious bias, but at least they believed in the existence of facts and the distinction between true and false. Totalitarian regimes, however, lied on such a grand scale that they made Orwell feel that ‘the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world’ (p.99).

Orwell saw totalitarianism in all its manifestations as dangerous not primarily because of secret police or constant surveillance but because “there is no solid ground from which to mount a rebellion –no corner of the mind that has not been infected and warped by the state.  It is power that removes the possibility of challenging power” (p.99).

Orwell narrowly escaped death when he was hit by a bullet in the spring of 1937.  He was hospitalized in Barcelona for three weeks, after which he and his wife Eileen escaped across the border to France.  Driven to Spain by his hatred of fascism, Orwell left with a “second enemy. The fascists had behaved just as appallingly as he had expected they would, but the ruthlessness and dishonesty of the communists had shocked him” (p.18).  From that point onward, Orwell criticized communism more energetically than fascism because he had seen communism “up close, and because its appeal was more treacherous. Both ideologies reached the same totalitarian destination but communism began with nobler aims and therefore required more lies to sustain it” (p.22).   After his time in Spain, Orwell knew that he stood against totalitarianism of all stripes, and for democratic socialism as its counterpoint.

The term “dystopia” was not used frequently in Orwell’s time, and Orwell distinguished between “favorable” and “pessimistic” utopias.   Orwell developed what he termed a “pitying fondness” (p.38) for nineteenth-century visions of a better world, particularly the American Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward.  This highly popular novel contained a “seductive political argument” (p.33) for the nationalization of all industry, and the use of an “industrial army” to organize production and distribution.  Bellamy had what Lynskey terms a “thoroughly pre-totalitarian mind,” with an “unwavering faith in human nature and common sense” that failed to see the “dystopian implications of unanimous obedience to a one-party state that will last forever” (p.38).

Bellamy was a direct inspiration for the works of H.G. Wells, one of the most prolific writers of his age. Wells exerted enormous influence on the young Eric Blair, looming over the boy’s childhood “like a planet – awe inspiring, oppressive, impossible to ignore – and Orwell never got over it” (p.60).  Often called the English Jules Verne, Wells foresaw space travel, tanks, electric trains, wind and water power, identity cards, poison gas, the Channel tunnel and atom bombs.  His fiction imagined time travel, Martian invasions, invisibility and genetic engineering.  The word Wellsian came to mean “belief in an orderly scientific utopia,” but his early works are “cautionary tales of progress thwarted, science abused and complacency punished” (p.63).

Wells was himself a direct influence upon Yevgeny Zamatin’s We which, in Lymskey’s interpretation, constitutes the most direct antecedent to Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Finished in 1920 at the height of the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (but not published in the Soviet Union until 1988), We is set in the undefined future, a time when people are referred to only by numbers. The protagonist, D-503, a spacecraft engineer, lives in the One State, where mass surveillance is omnipresent and all aspects of life are scientifically managed.  It is an open question whether We was intended to satirize the Bolshevik regime, in 1920 already a one-party state with extensive secret police.

Zamyatin died in exile in Paris in 1937, at age 53.   Orwell did not read We until sometime after its author’s death.  Whether Orwell “took ideas straight from Zamyatin or was simply thinking along similar lines” is “difficult to say” (p.108), Lynskey writes.  Nonetheless, it is “impossible to read Zamyatin’s bizarre and visionary novel without being strongly reminded of stories that were written afterwards, Orwell’s included” (p.102).

Koestler’s Darkness at Noon offered a solution to the central riddle of the Moscow show trials of the 1930s: “why did so many Communist party members sign confessions of crimes against the state, and thus their death warrants?” Koestler argued that their “years of unbending loyalty had dissolved their belief in objective truth: if the Party required them to be guilty, then guilty they must be” (p.127).  To Orwell this meant that one is punished in totalitarian states not for “ what one does but for what one is, or more exactly, for what one is suspected of being” (p.128).

The ideas contained in James Burnham’s 1944 book, The Managerial Revolution “seized Orwell’s imagination even as his intellect rejected them” (p.122).  A Trotskyite in his youth who in the 1950s helped William F. Buckley found the conservative weekly, The National Review, Burnham saw the future belonging to a huge, centralized bureaucratic state run by a class of managers and technocrats.  Orwell made a “crucial connection between Burnham’s super-state hypothesis and his own long-standing obsession with organized lying” (p.121-22).

Orwell’s chronic lung problems precluded him from serving in the military during World War II.  From August 1941 to November 1943, he worked for the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service, where he found himself “reluctantly writing for the state . . . Day to day, the job introduced him to the mechanics of propaganda, bureaucracy, censorship and mass media, informing Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth” (p.83; Orwell’s boss at the BBC was notorious Cambridge spy Guy Burgess, whose biography I reviewed here in December 2017).   Orwell left the BBC in 1943 to become literary editor of the Tribune, an anti-Stalinist weekly.

While at the Tribune, Orwell found time to produce Animal Farm, a “scrupulous allegory of Russian history from the revolution to the Tehran conference” (p.138), with each animal representing an individual, Stalin, Trotsky, Hitler, and so on.  Animal Farm shared with Nineteen Eighty-Four an “obsession with the erosion and corruption of memory” (p.139).  Memories in the two works are gradually erased, first, by the falsification of evidence; second, by the infallibility of the leader; third, by language; and fourth, by time.  Published in August 1945, Animal Farm quickly became a best seller.  The fable’s unmistakable anti-Soviet message forced Orwell to remind readers that he remained a socialist.  “I belong to the Left and must work inside it,” he wrote, “much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence of this country” (p.141).

Earlier in 1945, Orwell’s wife Eileen died suddenly after being hospitalized for a hysterectomy, less than a year after the couple had adopted a son, whom they named Richard Horatio Blair.  Orwell grieved the loss of his wife by burying himself in the work that culminated in Nineteen Eighty-Four.   But Orwell became ever sicker with tuberculosis as he worked  over the next four years on the novel which was titled The Last Man in Europe until almost immediately prior to publication (Lynskey gives no credence to the theory that Orwell selected 1984 as a inversion of the last two digits of 1948).

Yet, Lynskey rejects the notion that Nineteen Eighty-Four was the “anguished last testament of a dying man” (p.160).  Orwell “never really believed he was dying, or at least no more than usual. He had suffered from lung problems since childhood and had been ill, off and on, for so long that he had no reason to think that this time would be the last ” (p.160).  His novel was published in June 1949.  227 days later, in January 1950, Orwell died when a blood vessel in his lung ruptured.

* * *

                                    Nineteen Eighty-Four had an immediate positive reception. The book was variously compared to an earthquake, a bundle of dynamite, and the label on a bottle of poison.  It was made into a movie, a play, and a BBC television series.  Yet, Lynskey writes, “people seemed determined to misunderstand it” (p.170).  During the Cold War of the early 1950s, conservatives and hard line leftists both saw the book as a condemnation of socialism in all its forms.  The more astute critics, Lynskey argues, were those who “understood Orwell’s message that the germs of totalitarianism existed in Us as well as Them” (p.182).  The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 constituted a turning point in interpretations of Nineteen Eighty-Four.  After the invasion, many of Orwell’s critics on the left “had to accept that they had been wrong about the nature of Soviet communism and that he [Orwell] had been infuriatingly right” (p.210).

The hoopla that accompanied the actual year 1984, Lynskey notes wryly, came about only because “one man decided, late in the day, to change the title of his novel” (p.234).   By that time, the book was being read less as an anti-communist tract and more as a reminder of the abuses exposed in the Watergate affair of the previous decade, the excesses of the FBI and CIA, and the potential for mischief that personal computers, then in their infancy, posed.  With the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of communism between 1989 and 1991, focus on the power of technology intensified.

But today the focus is on Orwell’s depiction of the demise of objective truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and appropriately so, Lynskey argues, noting how President Trump masterfully “creates his own reality and measures his power by the number of people who subscribe to it: the cruder the lie, the more power its success demonstrates” (p.264).  It is truly Orwellian, Lynskey contends, that the phrase “fake news” has been “turned on its head by Trump and his fellow authoritarians to describe real news that is not to their liking, while flagrant lies become ‘alternative facts’” (p.264).

* * *

                                 While resisting the temptation to term Nineteen Eighty-Four more relevant now than ever, Lynskey asserts that the novel today is nonetheless  “a damn sight more relevant than it should be” (p.xix).   An era “plagued by far-right populism, authoritarian nationalism, rampant disinformation and waning faith in liberal democracy,” he concludes, is “not one in which the message of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be easily dismissed” (p.265).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 25, 2020

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, European History, Language, Literature, Political Theory, Politics, Soviet Union

Lenny as Paterfamilias

 

Jamie Bernstein, Famous Father Girl:

A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein (Harper)

 

In Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, Jamie Bernstein, daughter of legendary conductor, composer and overall musical genius Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), sheds light upon how she grew up in the shadow of the legend.  In Jamie’s early years, her family looked outwardly conventional, or at least conventional for the upper crust Manhattan milieu in which she and her two siblings were raised.  Jamie, the oldest child, was born in 1952; her brother Alexander followed two years later, and their younger sister Nina was born in 1962.

Their mother Felicia Montealegre – “Mummy” throughout the memoir — was a native of Chile and a Roman Catholic from a semi-aristocratic background, a contrast to her American-born Jewish husband from a first-generation immigrant family.  Felicia was an accomplished pianist and aspiring actress, an elegant and insightful woman who was highly engaged in the lives of her children and served as the family “policeman” and “stabilizer” (p.100).   But Felicia died of cancer in 1978 at age 56.

In 1951, Felicia married Jamie’s father, most frequently referred to here as “Daddy,” but also as “Lenny,” “LB,” and “the Maestro.”  Felicia’s husband was already a world-class conductor and composer when they married, and became ever more the celebrity as the couple’s three children grew up.  Jamie’s portrait of Bernstein the father and husband conforms to what most readers passingly familiar with Bernstein would anticipate: a larger than life figure who quickly filled up any room he entered; ebullient, exuberant, and eccentric; a chain smoker, a prodigious talker as well as music maker; and a man who loved jokes,  spent much time under a sunlamp, and had a proclivity for kissing on the lips just about everyone he met, male or female.  The insights into Bernstein’s personality and how he filled the role of father and husband are one of two factors that make this memoir . . . well, memorable.

The other factor is Bernstein’s sexuality. Despite the appearances of conventional marriage and family life, the bi-sexual Maestro leaned heavily toward the gay side of the equation.  Jamie’s elaboration upon how she became aware of her father’s preference for other men, and the effect of her father’s homosexuality on her mother and the family, constitute the memoir’s backbone.  Although she provides her perspective on her father’s musical achievements, she spends more time on Bernstein as paterfamilias than Bernstein as music maker.  Jamie also reveals how she struggled to find her own pathway through life as an adolescent and young adult, feeling stalked by her family’s name and her father’s fame.

* * *

                        Jamie became aware of her father’s sexual preferences as a teenager.  She had landed a summer job at the Tanglewood Summer Music Festival in Western Massachusetts, where her father conducted.  People at Tanglewood talked freely about her father and the men he was involved with:

They talked about it quite casually in front of me, so I pretended I knew all about it – but I didn’t. I mentally reviewed past experiences; had I sensed, or observed, anything to indicate that my father was homosexual?  He was extravagantly affectionate with everyone: young and old, male and female. How could I possibly tell what any behavior meant? And anyway, weren’t homosexuals supposed to be girly? . . . Yet there was nothing I could detect that was particularly effeminate about my father. How exactly did he fit into this category?  I was bewildered and upset.  I couldn’t understand any of it – but in any case, my own existence seemed living proof that the story was not a simple one (p.123).

Thereafter, Jamie wrote her father a letter about what she had learned at Tanglewood.  When she joined her parents at their weekend house in Connecticut, her father took her outside.   He denied what he described as “rumors” that were propagated, he said, by persons who envied his professional success and hoped to jeopardize his career.  Later, Jamie wondered whether her mother had forced her father to deny everything.  After her confrontation with her father, she began to discuss her father’s sexual complexities with her siblings but never again raised the subject with either parent.

Jamie learned subsequently that prior to her parents’ marriage, Felicia had written to her future husband: “You are a homosexual and may never change . . . I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr and sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar” (p.124).  Her clear-eyed mother had entered into her marriage knowing full well, Jamie concluded, that she was “marrying a tsunami – and a gay one at that” (p.172).  Her  parents may have reached an agreement, perhaps tacit, that her father would confine his philandering to the time he was one the road.  At home, he was to be very conventional.

But that agreement came to an end in in 1976, when Leonard took a separate apartment in New York to spend time with a young man, Tommy Cothren, with whom he had fallen “madly in love” (p.188).  Her father, Jamie writes, was “starting a new life – so he was cheerful, acting exuberantly gay and calling everyone ‘darling’” (p.188).  In the rift between her parents, her brother Alexander seemed to be taking Felicia’s side while Jamie worried that she was not being sufficiently supportive of her mother.  She was “trying so hard to be equitable.  I wanted my father to find his true self and be happy with who he was . . . but I couldn’t help being ambivalent over how gracelessly he was going about it, and how much pain he was inflicting on our mother . . . Sometimes I wondered if I should have been taking sides.” (p.187).

These wrenching family issues became moot two years later, when Felicia died of breast cancer. Jamie notes that her father was quite attentive to her mother as her condition worsened.  The loss of Felicia “ripped through our family’s world with a seismic shudder.   She was so adored, so deeply beautiful . . . and gone so unbearably too soon, at fifty-six” (p.218).  In the absence of Mummy, Jamie writes, her father became “as untamed as a sail flapping in a squall. The family’s preexisting behavioral boundaries were gone; now anything could happen” (p.233).  Her father’s “intense physicality and flamboyance had always been there, but now, in the absence of Felicia’s calming influence, it became a beast unleashed” (p.235).  After Felicia’s death, Leonard spent an increasing amount of time in Key West, in the Florida Keys, where the sunshine and gay intellectual culture attracted him.

Bernstein himself died in 1990, at the relatively young age of 72, from a form of lung cancer associated with asbestos exposure rather than his life-long cigarette habit (a habit which his wife shared and one which Jamie detested from an early age).  The Maestro’s final years were ones where sexual liberation combined with physical and mental decline.  He suffered from depression and “hated getting older, hated his diminishing physicality.  But the other part of the problem – and the two were inextricably intertwined – was that he was continuing to put prodigious quantities of uppers, downers, and alcohol into a body that was growing ever less efficient at metabolizing all those substances” (p.258).  His “decades of living at maximum volume appeared to be catching up with him at last” (p.316), Jamie writes.

At a concert at Tanglewood just months prior to his death, Bernstein had trouble conducting Arias and Baracollees, a piece he had written.  “[H]is brain was so oxygen-deprived by that point that he couldn’t track the complexities of his own music” (p.319).  When he came out afterwards for his bow, he was “tiny, ashen, and nearly lost inside the white suit that now hung so loosely on him, it looked as if it had been tailored for some other species” (p.319).

One shining exception to Bernstein’s downward spiral in his final years occurred at concerts in Berlin during the 1989 Christmas holiday season, the month following the fall of the Berlin wall.  Bernstein conducted a “mighty ensemble comprising players volunteering from various orchestras around the world who, along with four soloists and a local girls’ chorus, gave a pair of performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: one in East Berlin and one in West Berlin.”  And to make the performances “extra-historic,” Bernstein changed Schiller’s text in the final “Ode to Joy” movement: “now it was ‘Ode to Freedom.’ “Freiheit!’ The word rang out again and again, wreathed in Beethoven’s harmonies, and the world watched it on television on Christmas Day” (p.313).  The Berlin concerts were in Jamie’s view her father’s “peak performance,” the “pinnacle” of his lifelong advocacy for world peace and brotherhood, “never more eloquently expressed, and never to so many, than through Beethoven’s notes in that historical Christmas performance” (p.313).

But Bernstein’s progressive political orientation did not always play so well at home.  In 1970, Felicia hosted a fundraiser at their Park Avenue apartment which Leonard attended, designed to assist the families of 21 members of the Black Panther party who were in jail with inflated bail amounts, “awaiting trial for what turned out to be trumped-up accusations involving absurd bomb plots” (p.109).  The Black Panthers advocated black empowerment “by any means necessary” and were anti-Zionist, making them scary even in liberal New York.  No journalists were invited to the fundraiser, but somehow two snuck in, the New York Times society writer and an upcoming journalist, Tom Wolfe (deceased subsequent to the memoir’s publication).

An article in the Times the next day heaped scorn on the event.  “Everything about this article was loathsome,” Jamie writes, “and my parents were both aghast. But that was just the beginning” (p.112).  The Times followed a few days later with an editorial chastising the couple for mocking the memory of Martin Luther King.  The militant Jewish Defense League organized pickets in front of the Bernstein’s building and the couple became the “butt of ridicule” (p.113) in New York and nationally.  Then, weeks later, Wolfe came out with an article in New York magazine entitled “That Party at Lenny’s,” followed by Radical Chic, a book centered on the event.  “My mother’s very serious fundraiser had become her celebrity husband’s ‘party’” (p.116), Jamie writes.

Wolfe’s works had the effect of setting in stone the misinterpretation and mockery of the Panther event.  Jamie contends bitterly that Wolfe never comprehended the depth of the damage he wreaked on her family.  Unlike her father, Felicia had no work to back her up in the aftermath of the Panther debacle and grew increasingly despondent.  Four years later, she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a mastectomy.  Four years after that, she was dead of the disease.  Even when Jamie wrote her memoir, a time when Wolfe himself was near death, “my rage and disgust can rise up in me like an old fever – and in those nearly deranged moments, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to lay Mummy’s precipitous decline, and even demise, at the feet of Mr. Wolfe” (p.117).

Nor did Wolfe comprehend, Jamie further argues, the degree to which his “snide little piece of neo-journalism rendered him a veritable stooge for the FBI.”  Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover “may well have shed a tear of gratitude that this callow journalist had done so much of the bureau’s work by discrediting left-wing New York Jewish liberals while simultaneously pitting them against the black activist movement –thereby disempowering both groups in a single deft stroke” (p.116).  With the Panther incident, the FBI became “obsessed with Leonard Bernstein all over again. Hoover was deeply paranoid about the Black Panthers” (p.305).  But Jamie reveals how, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request for files on her father, the family learned that Hoover had been “obsessing on Leonard Bernstein since the 1940s, when informers started supplying insinuations that Bernstein was a Communist” (p.315).  The 800-page Bernstein file “substantially increased in girth during the Red Scare years in the 1950s, when my father had even been briefly denied a passport” (p.305).

Well before Felicia’s death, it was clear to Jamie that her father had become a “Controversial Person – a long, complex evolution from his wunderkind public persona of the 1950s” (p.296).  But in addition to her father’s story, Jamie’s memoir also provides her perspective on her own challenges “growing up Bernstein,” the memoir’s  sub-title.

* * *

                      Jamie grew up with so many of the trappings of Manhattan wealth that this portion of the story seems stereotypical, bordering on caricature.  Her family lived in fancy Manhattan apartments, eventually the famous Dakota, where John Lennon was a neighbor until he was killed in front of the building (he was killed shortly after Jamie had walked past the shooter, seemingly just one of many groupies waiting to get a glance of the singer).  The Bernstein family had a life-long South American nanny, Julia Vega, who was a major part of the family and is a presence throughout the memoir.  The three children relied primarily upon chauffeurs and limousines for local transportation. They enjoyed a secondary residence for weekend and summer getaways, first in Connecticut, then in East Hampton.  The children traveled all over the globe with their father as they grew up.  They attended elite Manhattan private schools, and all three attended Harvard, the school from which Leonard had graduated prior to World War II.  Jamie indicates that admission to Harvard brought little elation for herself or her two siblings; they always had “crippling doubts” (p.148) whether they gained admission on their merits or because they were Leonard Bernstein’s children (at Harvard, Jamie’s first year roommate was Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Pakistan’s prime minister who was assassinated when she became Pakistan’s prime minister).

As a young adult, Jamie followed her father into the music world, although her particular niche was more popular than classical music (a niche her father deeply appreciated; he too loved the Beatles). She was hardly surprised that she enjoyed considerably less success than her father. “Sure, I was musical, but I really was a very poor musician” (p.277).   She stopped fretting about comparisons to her father when she stopped trying to be a musician herself. “It turned out that if I just refrained from making music with my own body, I was much calmer . . . [M]aking music with my own body had mostly made me a mess” (p.362-63).

Jamie had her share of boyfriends as a teenager and young adult, and she manages to tell her readers quite a bit about many of them.  Her first date was with Marlon Brando’s nephew.  She smoked a lot of marijuana, experimented with a host of other mind-expanding substances, and spent a good portion of her early adulthood stoned – with her brother Alexander seemingly even more of a pothead as a young man.   She also partook of Erhard Seminars Training, aka “EST,” a “repackaging of Zen Buddhist principles for Western consumption” (p.175) and a quintessential 1970s way of “getting in touch with one’s inner feelings,” as we said back then.

Late in the memoir, a few years before her father’s death in 1990, Jamie married David Thomas, a man she had met several years earlier at Harvard.  By the end of the memoir, she has given birth to two children, a boy and a girl, and is a devoted mother — but one either separated or divorced from her husband.  She writes that her marriage had centered on David’s ability to relate to her father and fit into the family.  The thrill was gone after Leonard died.  Although the marriage “hung on for another decade,” the “deep harmony we experienced while Daddy was alive never returned” (p.337).   After the detailed run through so many boyfriends, readers will be disappointed that Jamie provides no further insight into why her marriage floundered.

Jamie found her professional niche in preserving her father’s legacy by chance, after volunteering to help her daughter’s preschool start a music program.  “It was the one and only regular music gig I ever had” (p.336), she writes.  Finding that she had a knack for bringing music to young people, a forte of her father, she devised The Bernstein Beat, a project modeled after her father’s Young People’s Concerts but focused on her father’s music.  Jamie presented The Bernstein Beat across the globe, in places as diverse as China and Cuba (in Cuba, she surprised herself by narrating in Spanish, her mother’s native tongue).  She also co-produced a documentary film, Crescendo: The Power of Music, on a program she had observed in Venezuela designed to use music as a way to reach at risk young people and keep them away from street violence.  The film, first presented at the Philadelphia Film Festival, won several prizes and Netflix bought it.

Around 2008, Jamie’s long-time friend, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, asked her to design and present educational concerts for adults with his Miami-based orchestral academy, the New World Symphony. It turned out to be “the best job ever” for her, to the point that she felt she had become the “poster child for life beginning at fifty” (p.361).  She also began to edit a Leonard Bernstein newsletter, apprising readers of Bernstein-related performances and events.  Preserving her father’s legacy has been a “good trade-off,” she writes: “leading a musician’s life minus the music–making part” (p.362-63).

* * *

                        Jamie writes in a breezy, easy-to-read style, mixing candor – her memoir is nothing if not candid — with ample doses of humor, much of it self-deprecatory.  But without the connection to her father, Jamie’s story is mostly one of a Manhattan rich kid’s angst.  The memoir’s real interest lies in Jamie’s  insights into the character and complexity of her father.

Thomas H. Peebles

Washington, D.C.

January 25, 2020

 

 

 

11 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, Music

Uncovering Hair and Corruption in Iran

 

Masih Alinejad, The Wind in My Hair:

My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran (Little, Brown & Co.,)

              Masih Alinejad, an Iranian national now living in Brooklyn, is recognized internationally as an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and human rights.  She is best known for supporting Iranian women’s right to decide for themselves whether they wish to wear the hijab, the veil covering a women’s hair that is mandatory attire for women and girls as young as seven in contemporary Iran.  She has amassed an impressive string of awards, including the United Nation’s International Women’s Rights Award, the Association for International Broadcasting’s Media Excellence Award, and the Swiss Freethinker Association’s Freethinker Prize.

The title of Masih’s autobiography/memoir, The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, captures her objective for herself and for women who wear the hijab not by choice: all women should have a right to feel the wind in their hair, if that’s what they desire.  From an early age, Masih explains, she looked at her hair as “part of my identity, but you couldn’t see it.  When I was growing up, my hair was no longer part of my body. It had been hijacked and replaced with a head scarf” (p.30).  Before challenging the compulsory hijab, Masih was an investigative journalist in Iran, exposing corruption within the most powerful spheres of the country’s political elite.

Masih was born in 1976, three years prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ending nearly two millennia of rule by Persian kings.  She describes herself as a child of that revolution, one who has “lived nearly all my life under its shadow.  My story is the story of modern Iran, the tension between the secular tendencies of its population and the forced Islamification of the society, and the struggle of women, especially young women, for their rights against the introduction of Sharia law, against violations of human rights and civil liberties” (p.23).  The Shah had reformed Sharia law to allow women many basic rights, with the hijab being largely a matter of personal choice.  But the Shah’s reforms were reversed after the revolution and the state extended increasing control over women’s lives, including the compulsory hijab.  The changes “didn’t happen overnight,” Masih writes, and Iranian women “resisted and put up a fight, especially over the issue of compulsory hijab, which set the tone for how women’s rights would shape up” (p.29).

Through a Facebook page that she established while in exile, entitled “My Stealthy Freedom,” Masih provided a platform for widespread resistance to the compulsory hijab.  On a whim, she posted a picture of herself with no hair covering and cherry blossoms in the background. Exalting in how free she felt, she says she was no longer a “hostage,” a loaded word in Iran. “That simple photograph and message changed my life” (p.308).   Critics complained that she was exploiting a freedom available to her only because she was not in Iran.  Even her reform-minded friends back in Iran thought this was the wrong fight to pick.  To many , the hajib was at best a minor irritant in a country where so many things were wrong.

True enough, Masih responded, but she was sure that, given “half a chance, millions of Iranians would remove their hijab, especially in the privacy of their own cars” and that “every Iranian woman had picture like this, taken in private moments, alone or with friends” (p.311-12).  Even though they could be arrested for showing themselves without covered hair, Iranian women proved eager to show they were “free, powerful, and not ashamed of their bodies” (p.315).  In numbers that astounded her, Iranian women posted photos capturing the “guilty pleasure of breaking unjust rules that allow us a modicum of dignity” (p.313).  Her campaign against the compulsory hijab attracted the attention of super-executive Sheryl Sandberg, who encouraged her to write this memoir.

Masih traveled an improbable path to international fame.  She was born and spent her early years in a dirt-poor rural village in northern Iran, Ghomikola, population 650 — “as far away from the country’s elites as possible,” she notes (p.9).  Parents raising children in this traditional Shiite Muslim village hoped above all that their children would conduct t themselves with  honor and avoid bringing shame to their families.  Young Masih, mischievous and rebellious, fell well short of these overriding parental expectations.  She was expelled from her high school after stealing books from a local bookstore and incurred a jail sentence for the seditious activity of organizing a book club of high school age students.  She found herself pregnant without being married, and gave birth to a son after entering into a hurried if not quite arranged marriage. When the marriage floundered shortly thereafter, she divorced and lost custody of her son.

But divorced and without her son, Masih almost miraculously landed a job as a journalist with a reform-oriented newspaper in Iran, where her professional career took off.  Tensions surrounding the controverted 2009 re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad forced Masih into exile, first in the United Kingdom, then in the United States.  In exile, she regained custody of her son, completed a university degree, met the man to whom she is presently married, and undertook her campaign against the compulsory hijab. 

Masih’s effervescent personality shines through all phases of her memoir.  She has an audacious streak that often borders on recklessness. She is frequently absent-minded and disorganized. She has difficulty wearing matching sox, and is always losing apartment and car keys.  Yet, she has an uncanny ability to concentrate when the moment requires intense concentration.  In her frequent face offs with authority figures, among them the omnipresent religious and security police in Iran, along with ayatollahs and political leaders, almost always male, she is breathtakingly quick on her feet.  Her sharp responses to authorities are often leavened with irony that borders on wisecracking. She is someone most of us would like to know.

Masih’s memoir can be broken into three portions: 1) her youth and early adulthood, including her imprisonment, pregnancy and divorce; 2) her years as an investigative reporter in Iran; and 3) her exile years, when she achieved international stardom.  Surprisingly, the last portion, detailing her most highly visible accomplishments, is the least engrossing; it seems disjointed and scattershot, as if written hurriedly to meet a publication deadline.  But the first two sections, charting her unlikely pathway to stardom, make for engrossing and often compelling reading.

* * *

                Masih was the youngest of six children; all slept in the same room. Their house lacked indoor plumbing, a kitchen and a place to bathe or shower (but did include a television).  The family grew most of its own food.  Despite grinding poverty, Masih seemed to have had a happy childhood.  She loved to climb trees and pick pears and walnuts. Her family spoke a local dialect and Masih didn’t learn to speak Persian until she went to school.

Masih’s parents were religiously observant Shiite Muslims, a trait that they somehow failed to pass to their youngest daughter.  Neither was formally educated, but both believed in education for their children.  They wanted their daughters to complete high school before they married, whereas many Ghomikola families saw no advantage to educating girls.  Masih’ s father, AghaJan, was a peddler who sold fruits and vegetables.  He was a fervent believer in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  His highly traditional views of appropriate roles for girls and young women placed him increasingly at odds with his youngest daughter.  Masih found less and less to talk about with her father as a teenager and, in her adult life, the two stopped communication altogether.

Masih experienced no such break with her mother, Zarrin.  Functionally illiterate and barely five feet tall, Zarrin married AghaJan when she was 14.  But she had skills as a tailor and worked on clothes for people in the village, sometimes offering sewing classes.  It was unusual in Ghomikola for a married woman to earn her own money, rather than being entirely dependent upon her husband.  Her mother was also the source of a decidedly non-traditional expression that guided Masih throughout her adult life: “If they lock the front door, go in through the back door. If the doors are barred, go through the windows. If they shutter the windows, climb through the chimney. Never let them lock you out. Always try to get in” (p.156). Yet, as much as Masih loved and respected her mother, she seemed to know from an early age that she wanted a different life for herself.  “For Mother, family and reputations had special meanings that were lost on me.  Her days were predictable, while I wanted mine to be full of surprises” (p.78).

Thanks to her mother’s intervention with local school authorities, Masih was reassigned to another high school when she was apprehended stealing books from a local bookstore, which she rationalized as necessary to feed a voracious reading habit in a family that could not afford to buy books.  At her new school, Masih and a classmate started a book club that featured leftist literature about human rights, freedom and the meaning of democracy.  The group also drafted and distributed an underground pamphlet advocating freedom for political prisoners,  activities considered seditious in Iran.  The group included a young man, Reza, who seemed interested in Masih, telling her that he was writing poetry for her.

Although Reza turned out to be Masih’s first romantic interest, the romance was placed on hold when first Reza, then Masih, were arrested and sent to prison for anti-revolutionary activities.  While in prison, Masih learned that she was pregnant with Reza’s child.  After appearing in a “Revolutionary Court, ” with secret proceedings and no right to a lawyer, Masih received a five-year sentence, suspended on condition of what amounted to “good behavior.” But she did not graduate from high school and still had to deal with her pregnancy.

“I had dreams of traveling and exploring the world,” Masih writes, “and now before I had even left Ghomikola I was trapped. My destiny was already set. . . I had to explain away another mark of shame to my parents – I was pregnant before being properly married” (p.100). Abortion proved not to be an option and she bore the child she carried, her son Pouyan, who in different ways remains part of his mother’s story for the rest of the memoir.  Although she was not ready for being either a wife or a mother, Masih married Reza.  It was not the usual sequence in Ghomikola, where “very few women get pregnant before their wedding night . . . I was bringing dishonor to my family” (p.107).

With Reza unable to find a job, the couple set out for Tehran.  Masih worked briefly as a photographer while Reza wrote poetry. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Reza returned to their apartment one day to announce that he was in love with another woman, whom he wanted to marry.  He found their marriage too confining for his poetic ambitions and needed a divorce – he couldn’t write and she was holding him back. “Once again, I had notched a family first,” Masih writes despondently: “The first woman in our family to be arrested, the first to be jailed, and the first to be pregnant before her wedding. I would now be the first in all of Ghomikola to be divorced. It didn’t matter that Reza was leaving me; everyone would think that it was somehow my fault” (p.134).

Masih had no chance of retaining custody of the couple’s son under Iranian law.  AghaJan urged her to return to Ghomikola where he would help her find a new husband, leading her to the realization that divorced women in Iran have “no identity of their own. My father was not unique; he was a reflection of Iranian culture.  In many villages and small cities, there is an expectation that a divorced woman should sit at home and wait for her next husband” (p.144). As she turned 24, Masih’s short marriage was over, she had lost custody of her son and she had a prison record but no high school diploma.  Yet, she says she “blossomed” after her divorce and loss of custody. “It was painful,” she writes, “but I was suddenly free to grow and be myself. I wasn’t looking for new directions in my life, but I had little choice. The hardships I went through forged me” (p.143).

* * *

                     By sheer audacity, Masih landed an interview with Hambastegi, a daily paper associated with reform politics. She volunteered to work without pay at the outset, to see how it worked out.  She was assigned to cover Iran’s parliament, the Majlis.  She memorized the phone numbers of relevant parliamentarians and called them at all times of day or night, playing up her status as a neophyte woman reporter.  She knew the parliamentarians’ personal histories, had a loud voice, and understood how male politicians “can be relied upon to be patronizing to women,” thereby providing her with “great quotes” (p.157).  Iran’s conservative newspapers referred to her as “the Ugly Duckling,” which she considered a badge of honor.

In her most sensational scoop, using carefully cultivated sources – shades here of Watergate and “Deep Throat” – Masih exposed how lawmakers routinely lined their pockets with secret bonus payments above and beyond their salaries.  Through tough talk and more than a little bluffing –Masih says she became a master of the art of bluffing — she extracted a pay stub from a deputy that showed the equivalent of about $1,100 US for “consideration of Deputies’ Expenses.” Suddenly, she had hard evidence of a slush fund to make undeclared payments to the deputies. “There’d be no going back,” she writes. “I would be marked, but the story was worth it. It was for moments like that that I had rebelled against my family and endured all sorts of hardships. I wasn’t naïve. I knew there’d be a price to pay later” (p.195).  Conservative newspapers claimed she had stolen the pay stub, and some indicated that she had obtained it through “flirting.”

Masih “loved being a Majlis reporter . . . [H]olding politicians accountable and exposing their lies were all part of a day’s work,” she writes.   As disorganized as she was in her private life, when it came to covering politics, it was “as if a switch had been turned on” (p.190). Not surprisingly, Masih became persona non grata at Parliament and in 2005 achieved another first: the first journalist to be expelled from the Majlis.  But her expulsion sparked a latent interest in issues particular to women.  “Feminism was taboo in Iran,” she explains. “As a parliamentary journalist, I couldn’t risk being seen to be involved in feminism and women’s rights activism. To be honest, I didn’t have the time; nor did I want to risk another black mark against my name” (p.211).

* * *

                      Masih had vigorously opposed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since his first election to the Iranian presidency in 2005, in an election probably abetted by voter fraud.  As the 2009 elections approached, Masih, like many younger Iranians, thought the country was poised to elect a genuine reform candidate.  But the election resulted in Ahmadinejad being declared the winner, again amidst credible allegations of voter fraud, precipitating massive post-election demonstrations in June 2009 and a savage crackdown.  Masih was advised to leave Iran for her own safety, and to this day has not returned.

She landed in Britain, where she pursued a degree in communications at Oxford Brooke University, and regained custody of her son, who was then a teenager.  She began producing documentaries focusing on the families of victims killed in the post-election crackdown.   She also pursued a quixotic idea to interview newly elected American president Barack Obama, and surprised herself by how close she came to being granted an interview. She received a visa to enter the United States, but in the aftermath of the contested 2009 Iranian presidential election, the White House decided that strategically the timing for her interview was not right.  While in the United States, Masih made the acquaintance of an Iranian-American journalist for Bloomberg News, Kambiz Foroohar, who became an increasing presence in her life. From the time of their initial meeting, the unflappable Kambiz served as an invaluable check on Masih’s enthusiasm and her tendency to get too far out in front of herself.  The couple married in 2014.

After Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg mentioned Masih’s “My Stealthy Freedom” page at the “Most Powerful Women Summit,” an event sponsored by Fortune magazine, she and Masih exchanged emails.   Sandberg then invited Masih to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.  During the visit, Sandberg suggested to Masih that she write a book about her life’s experiences for English-language readers (she had already published a handful of works in Persian).  While in the United States, as a follow up to “My Stealthy Freedom,” Masih also established #WhiteWednesday, which encourages Iranian men and women to wear white on Wednesdays to protest against the compulsory hijab.  She has tried, without much success, to convince high-level women visitors to Iran not to cover their hair.  Almost all, to Masih’s dismay, contend that they need to show sensitivity to local customs.

In the summer of 2016, Masih came out firmly against the ban in some French towns of the burkini, the full-body swimwear used by some Muslim women. “The police in France were behaving just like the morality police in Iran,” (p.367), she writes.  Both had “problems with choices made by women, and both acted as if women’s bodies were the territory of lawmakers and law enforcement, who alone knew what was best” (p.367). But she nonetheless found it more than ironic that Iran, which denies its own women the freedom to choose, called on France to “respect the human rights of Muslims who chose to dress in Islamic fashion” (p.367).

Masih presently works today for the Voice of America’s Persian Service.  Recently, her brother and two siblings of her first husband were arrested, and even her mother was called in for questioning by security officials, all part of what Masih considers an effort to intimidate her into silence from abroad.  Like Masih’s memoir itself, this recent heavy-handedness constitutes a reminder of how little has changed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  Iran remains a repressive religious dictatorship, with few secular spaces and no tolerance for notions like due process and the rule of law.  The place of women is still determined by, as Masih puts it, laws “devised by misogynists who find guidance and precedent in the seventh century” (p.141)..

* * *

                         Assiduous readers of this blog will see many resemblances between Masih Alinejad and Manal al-Sherif, the Saudi Arabian woman of about the same age who wrote a memoir about her championing the cause of women driving in her native land, reviewed here in October 2017 (that review also included a work by Sherin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer who was the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Prize; Ebadi makes brief appearances in Masih’s memoir).  Notwithstanding the geopolitical and religious rivalries that divide their two countries, it is striking how similar the two women’s stories are.  Each mobilized Facebook and other social media to launch a campaign designed to eliminate a state-imposed obstacle to women’s rights.  Each endured a jail sentence.  The personal stories of the two women also align.  Each was raised in poverty by uneducated parents who nonetheless valued education for their children.  After unsuccessful early marriages in countries where the husband-wife relationship is far from equal, both became divorced mothers of young sons.  Each pursued a career and advanced study after divorce, and both now appear to be happily married.  While both continue to be active in issues involving women’s rights and human rights in their native countries, each must do so from afar, with al-Sherif now living in Australia.  How I’d love to put these two women in the same room together, then assume a fly-on-the-wall posture as they exchange war stories.

Saudi Arabia recently lifted its ban on women driving, while the hijab remains obligatory attire in today’s turbulent Iran.  But anyone reading this memoir will come away convinced that, at a minimum, no one should ever underestimate what Masih Alinejad is capable of achieving, for herself and for her country.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

December 29, 2019

 

3 Comments

Filed under Biography, Gender Issues, Middle Eastern History

Stirring Rise and Crushing Fall of a Renaissance Man

 

 

Jeff Sparrow, No Way But This:

In Search of Paul Robeson (Scribe)

            If you are among those who think the term “Renaissance Man” seems fuzzy and even frivolous when applied to anyone born after roughly 1600, consider the case of Paul Robeson (1898-1976), a man whose talents and genius extended across an impossibly wide range of activities.  In the 1920s and 1930s, Robeson, the son of a former slave, thrilled audiences worldwide with both his singing and his acting.  In a mellifluous baritone voice, Robeson gave new vitality to African-American songs that dated to slave plantations.  On the stage, his lead role as Othello in the play of that name gave a distinctly 20th century cast to one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters.  He also appeared in a handful of films in the 1930s.  Before becoming a singing and acting superstar, Robeson had been one of the outstanding athletes of his generation, on par with the legendary Jim Thorpe.  Robeson  further earned a degree from Columbia Law School and reportedly was conversant in upwards of 15 languages.

Robeson put his multiple talents to use as an advocate for racial and economic justice internationally.  He was among the minority of Americans in the 1930s who linked European Fascism and Nazism to the omnipresent racism he had confronted in America since childhood.  But Robeson’s political activism during the Cold War that followed World War II ensnared the world class Shakespearean actor in a tragedy of Shakespearean dimension, providing a painful denouement to his uplifting life story.

Although Robeson never joined a communist party, he perceived a commitment to full equality in the Soviet Union that was missing in the West.  While many Westerners later saw that their admiration for the Soviet experiment had been misplaced, Robeson never publicly criticized the Soviet Union and paid an unconscionably heavy price for his stubborn consistency during the Cold War.  The State Department refused to renew his passport, precluding him from traveling abroad for eight years.  He was hounded by the FBI and shunned professionally.  Robeson had suffered from depression throughout his adult life.  But his mental health issues intensified in the Cold War era and included a handful of suicide attempts.  Robeson spent his final years in limbo, silenced, isolated and increasingly despairing, up to his death in 1976.

In No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, Jeff Sparrow, an Australian journalist, seeks to capture Robeson’s stirring rise and crushing fall.  The book’s subtitle – “In Search of Paul Robeson” — may sound like any number of biographical works, but in this case encapsulates precisely the book’s unique quality.  In nearly equal doses, Sparrow’s work consists of the major elements of Robeson’s life and Sparrow’s account of how he set about to learn the details of that life — an example of biography and memoir melding together.  Sparrow visited many of the places where Robeson lived, including Princeton, New Jersey, where he was born in 1898; Harlem in New York City; London and Wales in Great Britain; and Moscow and other locations in today’s Russia.

In each location, Sparrow was able to find knowledgeable people, such as archivists and local historians, who knew about Robeson and were able to provide helpful insights into the man’s relationship to the particular location.  We learn for instance from Sparrow’s guides how the Harlem that Robeson knew is rapidly gentrifying today and how the economy of contemporary Wales functions long after closure of the mines which Robeson once visited.  Sparrow’s travels to the former Soviet Union take him to several locations where Robeson never set foot, including Siberia, all in effort to understand the legacy of Soviet terror which Robeson refused to acknowledge.  Sparrow’s account of his travels to these diverse places and his interactions with his guides reads at times like a travelogue.  Readers looking to plunge into the vicissitudes of Robeson’s life may find these portions of the book distracting.  The more compelling portions are those that treat Robeson’s extraordinary life itself.

* * *

            That life began in Princeton, New Jersey, world famous for its university of that name.  The Robeson family lived in a small African-American community rarely visited by those whose businesses and lives depended upon the university.  Princeton was then considered,  as Sparrow puts it, a “northern outpost of the white supremacist South: a place ‘spiritually located in Dixie’” (p.29).  William Robeson, Paul’s father, was a runaway former slave who earned a degree from Lincoln University and became an ordained Presbyterian minister.  His mother Maria, who came from an abolitionist Quaker family and was of mixed ancestry, died in a house fire when Paul was six years old.  Thereafter, William raised Paul and his three older brothers and one older sister on his own.  William played a formidable role in shaping young Paul, who later described his father as the “glory of my boyhood years . . . I loved him like no one in all the world” (p.19).

William abandoned Presbyterianism for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of the oldest black denominations in the country, and took on a much larger congregation in Somerville, New Jersey, where Paul attended high school.  One of a handful of African-American students in a sea of whites, Robeson excelled academically and played baseball, basketball and football.  He also edited the school paper, acted with the drama group, sang with the glee club, and participated in the debating society.  When his father was ill or absent, he sometimes preached at his father’s church.  Robeson’s high school accomplishments earned him a scholarship to nearby Rutgers University.

At Rutgers, Robeson again excelled academically.  He became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and was selected as class valedictorian.  As in high school, he was also an outstanding athlete, earning varsity letters in football, basketball and track.  A standout in football, Robeson was “one of the greatest American footballers of a generation,” so much so that his coach “designed Rutgers’ game-plan tactics specifically to exploit his star’s manifold talents” (p.49).  Playing in the backfield, Robeson could both run and throw. His hefty weight and size made him almost impossible to stop.  On defense, his tackling “took down opponents with emphatic finality” (p.49).  Twice named to the All-American Football Team, Robeson was not inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame until 1995, 19 years after his death.

After graduation from Rutgers in 1919, Robeson spent the next several years in New York City.  He enrolled in New York University Law School, then transferred to Columbia and moved to Harlem.  There, Robeson absorbed the weighty atmosphere the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing of African-American culture, thinking and resistance in the 1920s.  While at Columbia, Robeson met chemistry student Eslanda Goode, known as “Essie.”  The couple married in 1921.

Robeson received his law degree from Columbia in 1923 and worked for a short time in a New York law firm.  But he left the firm abruptly when a secretary told him that she would not take dictation from an African-American.  Given his talents, one wonders what Robeson could have achieved had he continued in the legal profession.  It is not difficult to imagine Robeson the lawyer becoming the black Clarence Darrow of his age, the “attorney for the damned;” or a colleague of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the 20th century’s legal battles for full African-American rights.  But Robeson gravitated instead toward singing and acting after leaving the legal profession, while briefly playing semi-pro football and basketball.

Robeson made his mark as a singer by rendering respectable African-American songs such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” that had originated on the plantations — “sorrow songs” that “voiced the anguish of slavery” (p.81), as Sparrow puts it.  After acting in amateur plays, Robeson won the lead role in Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, a play about inter-racial sexual attraction that established Robeson as an “actor to watch” (p.69).  Many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance criticized Robeson’s role in the play as reinforcing racial stereotypes, while white reviewers “blasted the play as an insult to the white race” (p.70).  An opportunity to star in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones on the London stage led the Robesons to Britain in 1925, where they lived for several years.  The couple’s  only child, Paul Jr., whom they called “Pauli,” was born in London in 1927.

Robeson delighted London audiences with his role in the musical Show Boat, which proved to be as big a hit in Drury Lane as it had been on Broadway.  He famously changed the lines to “Old Man River” from the meek “I’m tired of livin’” and “feared of dyin'” to a declaration of resistance: “I must keep fightin’/Until I’m dyin'”.  His rendition of “Old Man River,” Sparrow writes, transported the audience “beyond the silly narrative to an almost visceral experience of oppression and pain.”  Robeson used his huge frame, “bent and twisted as he staggered beneath a bale, to convey the agony of black history while revealing the tremendous strength forged by centuries of resistance” (p.103).

The Robesons in their London years prospered financially and moved easily in a high inner circle of respectable society.  The man who couldn’t rent a room in many American cities lived as an English gentleman in London, Sparrow notes.  But by the early 1930s, Robeson had learned to see respectable England as “disconcertingly similar” to the United States, “albeit with its prejudices expressed through nicely graduated hierarchies of social class.  To friends, he spoke of his dismay at how the British upper orders related to those below them” (p.131).

In London, as in New York, the “limited roles that playwrights offered to black actors left Paul with precious few opportunities to display any range. He was invariably cast as the same kind of character, and as a result even his admirers ascribed his success to instinct rather than intellect, as a demonstration not so much of theatrical mastery but of an innate African talent for make-believe, within certain narrow parameters” (p.107). Then, in 1930, Robeson received a fateful invitation to play Othello in a London production, a role that usually went to an actor of Arab background.

Robeson’s portrayal of Othello turned out triumphal, with the initial performance receiving an amazing 20 curtain calls.  In that production, which  ran for six weeks, Robeson transformed Shakespeare’s tragedy into an “affirmation of black achievement, while hinting at the rage that racism might yet engender” (p.113).  Thereafter, Othello “became central to Paul’s public persona,” (p.114), providing a role that seemed ideal for Robeson: a “valiant high-ranking figure of color, an African neither to be pitied nor ridiculed” (p.109).

While in London, Robeson developed sensitivity to the realities of colonial Africa through friendships with men such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Jomo Kenyatta, and Kwame Nkrumah, future leaders of independence movements in Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, respectively.  Robeson retained a keen interest in African history and politics for the remainder of his life.  But  Robeson’s commitment to political activism seems to have crystallized through his frequent visits to Wales, where he befriended striking miners and sang for them.

Robeson supported the Welsh labor movement because of the “collectivity it represented. In Wales, in the pit villages and union lodges and little chapels, he’d found solidarity” (p.149).  Robeson compared Welsh churches to the African-American churches he knew in the United States, places where a “weary and oppressed people drew succor from prayer and song” (p.133).  More than anywhere else, Robeson’s experiences in Wales made him aware of the injustices which capitalism can inflict upon those at the bottom of the economic ladder, regardless of color.  Heightened class-consciousness proved to be a powerful complement to Robeson’s acute sense of racial injustice developed through the endless humiliations encountered in his lifetime in the United States.

Robeson’s sensitivity to economic and racial injustice led him to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which he visited many times and where he and his family lived for a short time.  But a stopover in Berlin on his initial trip to Moscow in 1934 opened Robeson’s eyes to the Nazis’ undisguised racism.  Nazism to Robeson was a “close cousin of the white supremacy prevailing in the United States,” representing a “lethal menace” to black people.  For Robeson, the suffering of African Americans in their own country was no justification for staying aloof from international politics, but rather a “reason to oppose fascism everywhere” (p.153).

With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Spain became the key battleground to oppose fascism, the place where “revolution and reaction contested openly” and “Europe’s fate would be settled” (p.160).  After speaking and raising money on behalf of the Spanish Republican cause in the United States and Britain, Robeson traveled to Barcelona, where he sang frequently.  Robeson’s brief experience in Spain transformed him into a “fervent anti-fascist, committed to an international Popular Front: a global movement uniting democrats and radicals against Hitler, Mussolini, and their allies” that would also extend democracy within the United States, end colonialism abroad, and “abolish racism everywhere” (p.196-97).

Along with many progressives of the 1930s, Robeson looked to the Soviet Union to lead the global fight against racism and fascism.  Robeson once said in Moscow, “I feel like a human being for the first time since I grew up.  Here I am not a Negro but a human being” (p.198).  Robeson’s conviction that the Soviet Union was a place where  a non-racist society was possible “sustained him for the rest of his political life” (p.202).   Although he never joined a communist party, from the 1930s onward Robeson accepted most of the party’s ideas and “loyally followed its doctrinal twists and turns” (p.215).  It is easy, Sparrow indicates, to see Robeson’s enthusiasm for the Soviet Union as the “drearily familiar tale of a gullible celebrity flattered by the attentions of a dictatorship” (p.199).

Sparrow wrestles with the question of the extent to which Robeson was aware of the Stalinist terror campaigns that by the late 1930s were taking the lives of millions of innocent Soviet citizens.  He provides no definitive answer to this question, but Robeson never wavered publicly in his support for the Soviet Union.  Had he acknowledged Soviet atrocities, Sparrow writes, he would have besmirched the “vision that had inspired him and all the people like him – the conviction that a better society was an immediate possibility” (p.264).

Robeson devoted himself to the Allied cause when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on the same side fighting Nazi aggression during World War II, “doing whatever he could to help the American government win what he considered an anti-fascist crusade” (p.190).  His passion for Soviet Russia “suddenly seemed patriotic rather than subversive” (p.196-97).  But that quickly changed during the intense anti-Soviet Cold War that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Almost overnight in the United States, communist party members and their sympathizers became associated “not only with a radical political agenda but also with a hostile state.  An accusation of communist sympathies thus implied disloyalty – and possibly treason and espionage” (p.215).

The FBI, which had been monitoring Robeson for years, intensified its scrutiny in 1948.   It warned concert organizers and venue owners not to allow Robeson to perform “communist songs.”  If a planned tour went ahead, Sparrow writes, proprietors were told that they would be:

judged Red sympathizers themselves. The same operation was conducted in all the art forms in which Paul excelled.  All at once, Paul could no longer record music, and the radio would not play his songs.  Cinemas would not screen his movies. The film industry had already recognized that Paul was too dangerous; major theatres arrived at the same conclusion. The mere rumor that an opera company was thinking about casting him led to cries for a boycott.  With remarkable speed, Paul’s career within the country of his birth came to an end (p.216).

In 1950, the US State Department revoked Robeson’s passport after he declined to sign an affidavit denying membership in the Communist Party.  When Robeson testified before the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC) in 1956, a Committee member asked Robeson why he didn’t go back to the Soviet Union if he liked it so much.  Roberson replied: “Because my father was a slave . . . and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here, and have a part of it just like you.  And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” (p.228). Needless to say, this was not what Committee members wanted to hear, and Robeson’s remarks “brought the moral weight of the African-American struggle crashing down upon the session” (p.228-29).

Robeson was forced to stay on the sidelines in early 1956 when the leadership of the fledgling Montgomery bus boycott movement (which included a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) concluded that his presence would undermine the movement’s fragile political credibility.  On the other side of the Cold War divide, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered a not-so-secret speech that winter to party loyalists in which he denounced Stalinist purges.   Sparrow hints but doesn’t quite say that Robeson’s exclusion from the bus boycott and Khrushchev’s acknowledgment of the crimes committed in the name of the USSR had a deleterious effect on Robeson’s internal well-being.   He had suffered from bouts of mental depression throughout his adult life, most notably when a love affair with an English actress in the 1930s ended badly (one of several Robeson extra-marital affairs). But his mental health deteriorated during the 1950s, with “periods of mania alternating with debilitating lassitude” (p.225).

Even after Robeson’s passport was restored in 1958 as a result of a Supreme Court decision, he never fully regained his former zest.  A broken man, he spent his final decade nearly invisible, living in his sister’s care before dying of a stroke in 1976.

* * *

                     Sparrow describes his book as something other than a conventional biography, more of a “ghost story” in which particular associations in the places he visited form an “eerie bridge” (p.5) between Robeson’s time and our own.  But his travels to the places where Robeson once lived and his interactions with his local guides have the effect of obscuring the full majesty and tragedy of Robeson’s life.  With too much attention given to Sparrow’s search for what remains of Robeson’s legacy on our side of the bridge, Sparrow’s part biography, part travel memoir comes up short in helping readers discover Robeson himself on the other side.

 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

October 21, 2019

 

 

6 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, European History, History, Politics, United States History

Surviving Modernity

Surviving Modernity

 

 

 

David Brown, Paradise Lost:

A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Belknap Press/Harvard University Press) 

                A half century ago, most American college students had read at least one F. Scott Fitzgerald novel by the time they graduated, most likely The Great Gatsby.  Fitzgerald may not be found so readily in college and secondary school curricula these days; he was, after all, a white male and, since 1940, a dead one.  But Fitzgerald remains one of the most written about American writers of the 20th century, on par with his sometimes pal Ernest Hemmingway.  With many general readers, especially those of my generation, more than vaguely familiar with the contours of Fitzgerald’s  life, and with several Fitzgerald biographies available, a biographer faces a challenge in bringing a fresh perspective to any portrait of the intense and often unruly novelist.  In Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Brown, Professor of History at Elizabethtown College, seeks to find that perspective by emphasizing Fitzgerald’s credentials less as a novelist and more as a social and cultural commentator – “one of the more important cultural commentators America has produced”  (p.5-6), Brown writes. 

               In a handful of novels, but also in an abundance of notes, letters, essays and short stories, Fitzgerald produced “penetrating descriptions of the Western world’s leap from feudalism to capitalism, from faith to secularism, and from the tradition oriented to the flux oriented” (p.5).  Fitzgerald’s historical sensibilities “leaned toward the aristocratic, the pre-modern, and the romantic” (p.2).  Brown identifies affinities between Fitzgerald’s social thought and that of numerous other thinkers, among them Thorstein Veblen, Frederick Jackson Turner, and H.L. Mencken.  But he finds historians Henry Adams and the German Oswald Spengler to be Fitzgerald’s “truest intellectual contemporaries.”  Like Adams and Spengler, Fitzgerald “doubted whether older, pre-Enlightenment notions of art, creativity, paternalism, and worship would survive the onset of what we have since come to call ‘modernity’” (p.6). 

              The Fitzgerald who opined on the perils of modernity was very much an “America first” social commentator.  Although he spent limited but highly publicized time in Europe, the Old World entered into Fitzgerald’s commentary primarily as a gauge for measuring America.  Fitzgerald saw in America a “continent of possibilities, a place to escape the Old World’s rigidly enforced class structures and adopt new identities” (p.6), yet he shared the pessimism of Spengler and Adams.  In Fitzgerald’s view, the virtues he ascribed to America had all but expired during the so-called Gilded Age, the last three decades of the 19th century following the American Civil War.  The industrialization of the Gilded Age brought the “rise of vast industrial fortunes that blotted out an earlier idealism,” replaced by a “soulless materialism” (p.6).  Depicting an America “unusually thick with fallen heroes, martyrs to a powerful social-mobility mythology,” Fitzgerald’s writings were fused with the “disquieting notion that we have drifted far from our inheritance as the children of pioneers to fashion a culture that teaches its young to love too much the privileges and protections of wealth” (p.344).

              Although Fitzgerald considered himself politically on the left – he self-identified as a socialist in the 1921 Who’s Who in America — his critique of capitalism was conservative and sentimental, Brown contends, based on nostalgia for a bygone agrarian and small town era.  Much like Mencken, Fitzgerald refused to vest much faith in “the people.”  Brown also sees a linking of common concerns between Fitzgerald and the historian Frederick Jackson Turner.  A generation older than Fitzgerald, Turner became famous for his thesis that the closing of the American frontier around 1890 had indelibly shaped American democracy.  Both men, Brown writes, were “motivated by romantic impulses, and each observed the settlement of once-open territory as an enclosure of imagination as well as property” (p.176).  Fitzgerald asked in his own way the same question that Turner had raised: if the unsettled lands of the American frontier had created a “‘democratic’ personality type – independent, inventive, egalitarian – then what was the future of an America without frontiers?” (p.176).   

            Brown deftly weaves Fitzgerald’s social commentary into an erudite, chronologically arranged biography, situating Fitzgerald in three historical periods, each a separate section: 1) “Beginnings,” 1896 -1920, his early years and youth, ending with his famous  — perhaps infamous — marriage to Zelda Sayre in 1920; 2) “Building Up,” 1920-1925, the “Jazz Age” (a term that Fitzgerald is credited with coining) that was his  triumphant period; and 3) “Breaking Down,” 1925-1940, when Fitzgerald’s world began to fall apart prior to and during the global economic collapse of the 1930s, up to his death in 1940.  Brown finishes with a final section, “Ghosts and Legends,” addressing Zelda’s life after Fitzgerald, up to her own tragic death in a fire in 1948, and the rise of a Fitzgerald legend which began unexpectedly after World War II. 

* * *

             Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the upper Mid-West, and spent his earliest years there.  His mother Mollie, of Irish immigrant stock, was the daughter of a successful immigrant wholesale grocer.  His father Edward, also of Irish descent, came from an entrenched landowning family that counted Francis Scott Key as an ancestor; Scott’s birth name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.  Edward had grown up in Maryland, a border state during the American Civil War.  But his  family’s loyalties were unreservedly with the Confederacy during the war.  As an adult, Edward failed in many businesses.  Mollie and Edward, Brown writes, embodied “distinct sides of the American experience – the rising immigrant in Mollie’s case, the vanishing southern aristocracy in Edward’s,” all the while sharing a tendentious marital life “burdened by an inexorable slide into polite poverty” (p.9).

            The young Fitzgerald absorbed from his father much of the ethos and mythology of the Confederate “lost cause” and “doomed nobility,” retaining vaguely southern sympathies throughout his adult life.  But as Brown points out, Fitzgerald entertained an idealized notion of “Dixie,” chivalric, refined, and cavalier.  Like most white Americans of his day, Fitzgerald “never really considered the question of slavery and its aftermath as anything more than an abstraction, and thus he never wrestled with its deep ethical implications.  Consequently, he handled somewhat clumsily the few black Americans and Europeans who turn up in his novels and stories” (p.190).

            Bland St. Paul offered Fitzgerald a “wide avenue of exploration into the American character and its relationship to place and tradition” (p.26).  Fitzgerald’s St. Paul embodied “solidity and stability, a city of neighborhood hardware stores, spruced up Main Streets, and a few first families to establish tone” (p.26).  But Fitzgerald left St. Paul as an adolescent to attend the Newman School, a boarding school outside Hackensack, New Jersey, which styled itself as the “Catholic Andover.”   The young man played football, a rough contact sport that was relatively new at the time.  Although a mediocre player, he wrote about football frequently in future novels and short stories.  Despite poor grades and his share of fistfights, Fitzgerald manifested a talent for writing while at Newman.  When his maternal grandmother died and left his mother a small fortune, Fitzgerald determined that Princeton University, also in New Jersey, was the next place for him. 

              Princeton’s proximity to New York, its opportunities for literary output, and its aristocratic mien attracted Fitzgerald.  But he twice failed the entrance exam, after which he scheduled an appointment with the Admissions Committee.  Somehow the 17-year-old lad sold himself to the Committee (what a pity there is no record for posterity of that meeting), and he entered Princeton in the fall of 1913.  Then known as the Ivy League school for Southern gentlemen, Princeton was a place where callow, wealthy young men “basked in the superiority of their superiority” (p.44), as Brown puts it.  At best a mediocre student at Princeton, Fitzgerald never graduated. 

               Yet, Princeton shaped Fitzgerald profoundly.  He befriended future literary critic Edmund Wilson as an undergraduate and showed considerable promise as a writer.   Many of Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories, Brown notes, “bear the indelible impress of the Princeton years and more broadly his experiences within the privileged world of the Ivy elite” (p.48).  From Princeton onward, wealth became a subject of intense interest to Fitzgerald “primarily as an entry to experiences otherwise denied.” (p.43).  His “complex reactions to the leisure class,” dating from his undergraduate years, can be bluntly reduced to his view that “wealth was wasted on the rich”  (p.44).   

              Fitzgerald drank a lot as a Princeton undergraduate, but so did many of his schoolmates.  Excessive drinking was written off as “nothing more than a rite of passage, part of the collegiate experience as much as athletics, course work, and clubs” (p.49).  From his Princeton days onward, however, Fitzgerald was a “functional alcoholic” in an era when alcoholism was considered a character defect or a matter of personal weakness rather than an illness.  Fitzgerald came to view drinking as an “almost indispensable part of the writer’s world.  Occasions on which to discuss books, publishing, and composing were invariably occasions to drink” (p.116-17).  Hard spirits for Fitzgerald were the “due of an Irish novelist,” with excessive drinking serving as a “necessary precondition to composition” (p.228).

              Halfway through his sophomore year at Princeton, Fitzgerald fell head over heels for Ginevra King, a debutante from a prominent Chicago banking family.  Brown characterizes Scott’s courtship of Ginevra as a “fool’s errand, a case of begging for inevitable disappointment” (p.59).  But Ginevra proved to be a model for many female characters in his forthcoming novels, a “composite of flapper, flirt, and baby-vamp, the temptress who stands for wealth and irresponsibility in relation to a man situated precariously between his work and his woman” (p.59).  Fitzgerald’s courtship of Ginevra, Brown continues, “tells us something important about his mixed attitude toward women.  Even a cursory perusal of his published writing reveals a penchant for dividing the genders between female realism and male romance.  In the Fitzgerald canon, women are often wreckers of men, taking their dignity, extracting their vitality, and dulling their work habits” (p.63). 

               Fitzgerald left Princeton for the military after the United States entered World War I, but was never sent into combat.  While stationed at Camp Sheridan, Alabama, near Montgomery, he met Zelda Sayre.  An Alabama Belle, as Brown repeatedly terms her, Zelda was four years younger than Fitzgerald.  Her father, then serving as a justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, traced his family’s roots to the planter class of the Old South.  Zelda thus spoke to the side of Fitzgerald enamored of the “lost cause” and taken in by ostensible Southern gentility.  Scott’s interest in Zelda intensified after he learned of Ginevra’s engagement to another man.  But Zelda had doubts whether the aspiring writer had the means to support her.  By November 1919, however, he had proven himself to be a sufficient money-maker after he sold his first short story to the Saturday Evening Post, and the couple married the following April in a small, rushed ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

              Eight days prior to the wedding ceremony, This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, was published.   The novel, which he had worked on while stationed in Alabama, “touched on the social permissiveness of the era, increasingly candid attitudes toward sexuality, and the general coming down of prewar cultural taboos” (p.5).  A coming-of-age novel in which the main character “achieves a hard-earned insight . . . no love goes unpunished, no creed escapes unscathed” (p.85), This Side of Paradise established Fitzgerald’s reputation as an authoritative cultural commentator.  The novel in Brown’s interpretation demonstrated Fitzgerald’s particular affinity to radical economist Thorstein Veblen, offering a “penetrating commentary on the American failure to transcend the cash nexus that sustained, as Veblen had put it, the country’s peculiar loyalty to its glittering if rapacious ‘leisure class”” (p.86).

              The Fitzgeralds’ earliest days as a married couple coincided with Scott’s rising celebrity, due primarily to the early success of This Side of Paradise.   Despite strains that were evident early in the marriage, Scott and Zelda formed what Brown terms a “productive if one-sided partnership” (p.78).  But rather than simply enjoy the moment, they seemed “determined to push it forward, prolonging its intensity and exhausting its possibilities.  As if performing, they played up several personalities (the writer, the belle, the flapper, the moralist, the drunkard . .  . ) before attentive audiences.  What they lacked was a stretch of time off the society pages to develop a deeper rapport, though in fact neither seemed to want this” (p.77). 

              The nomadic couple was famous for living in Paris and the French Riviera (where Scott befriended fellow novelist Ernest Hemmingway, who never got along with Zelda); and in Manhattan and Great Neck, on Long Island.  But they also had stints in Connecticut, Delaware, Alabama and a return period in St. Paul.  Wherever they went, they rented.   Whenever they could, they rang up high hotel bills, kept cooks and nannies, and threw lavish parties.  Their only child, daughter Frances, always called “Scottie,” was born in 1921.  Fitzgerald also formed a long-standing relationship during this high-visibility period with Scribner, the distinguished New York publishing firm, and he earned steady money by selling imaginative short stories to the Saturday Evening Post. 

              Then, in 1925 and not yet 30 years old, Fitzgerald saw the publication of The Great Gatsby.  Written primarily while in France, The Great Gatsby brought Fitzgerald to the “summit of American letters” (p.11).  The novel takes place in the fictional Long Island towns of East and West Egg and portrays the mysterious Jay Gatsby and his obsessive passion for Daisy Buchanan (whose father was modeled after Ginevra’s father).  Gatsby, Brown writes,  “stands in a long line of Fitzgerald types – flawed heroes, poor boys – who smash against the collective might of their well-to-do tormentors” (p.125).  

              Fitzgerald’s portrait of Gatsby presented what Brown terms a “stunning interpretation of historical progression, commencing with the age of European discovery and concluding with the closing of the American frontier.  In place of the virgin land that once attracted European settlers stood a nation whose grandest dreams had run to a dull materialism” (p.172).  In his ruminations on the “restless nature of the human spirit in tension with a taming ‘civilization’” (p.179-80), Fitzgerald echoed the thought of Frederick Jackson Turner.  Brown also finds The Great Gatsby to be in line with Sinclair Lewis’ satiric Babbitt, and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, with their “sharp and unsparing” criticism of the “strong association of success with materialism” (p.169).

              Writing The Great Gatsby “marked the high point of Fitzgerald’s restive years abroad” (p.183).  In the years following their return to the United States,  Scott’s increasing alcohol abuse and recurrent financial difficulties coincided with Zelda’s hospitalization for what was diagnosed as schizophrenia.  She spent time in institutions in Switzerland, Maryland and North Carolina, and never fully recovered.  Scott, “once the embodiment of twenties excess,” (p.12) seemed to be wrestling in the disorderly 1930s with what Brown describes as the “loss of a romantic idealism that had once served as the rock on which he rested – both emotionally and artistically” (p.281).  He came to recognize the cultural consequences of modernity:  the “volatile merging of capitalism, secularism, rationalism, and industrialism that had become the dominant impulse propelling Western civilization” (p.282).  Brown emphasizes affinities between Fitzgerald’s thinking and that of contemporaries also questioning the efficacy of modernism, among them philosopher George Santayana, poet James Russell Lowell, and art critic Bernhard Berenson.

             After The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald did not publish another novel until 1934, when Tender is the Night — in Brown’s view Fitzgerald’s finest novel — appeared.  Within the narrative framework of a dying marriage, Tender is the Night analyzes the “collapse of the old Victorian universe and its replacement by a brave new world dominated by hardened ‘survivors’ who had managed to pass through the carnage of the Great War seemingly without regret or reflection,” only to inherit a “diminished social order bereft of compassion, sentimentality, or even the comforting consistency of . . . ‘middle class love’” (p.11).  In its criticism of a capitalist system in which money was the arbiter of power, prestige, and morality, Tender is the Night captured Fitzgerald’s historical vision “more completely than anything else he ever wrote” (p.263). 

              With Zelda hospitalized, Fitzgerald ventured to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter.  Hollywood seemed like an ideal location for Fitzgerald, a modern place with a special role in portraying and shaping American culture, as well as the geographic end point of the American frontier.  Fitzgerald had an intimate relationship in Hollywood with Sheilah Graham, a British-born gossip columnist.  Decidedly more stable than Zelda, Graham “may well have constituted a relationship of atonement for Fitzgerald.  Accordingly, he both loved and begrudged her as the devoted caregiver whose mere presence affirmed his fallen star” (p.301).  Fitzgerald “never liked living in California and found it impossible to mute his deeply ingrained aversion to the business-first mentality of the studio bosses,” contributing further to a “sense of alienation on the West Coast” (p.12).     

              In the last portion of the book, Brown brings into focus Fitzgerald’s relationship with his daughter Scottie.  We don’t learn much about Scottie’s youth, but she must have had an exceedingly difficult childhood, given her mother’s mental health problems, her father’s alcoholism, and the tumultuous existence her parents lived together.  While not discounting these factors in shaping Scottie’s life, Brown emphasizes the depth of affection between father and daughter (he spends little time on the mother-daughter relationship).  In passages from several letters which Brown quotes, Scottie shows an awareness of the degree to which she was denied a normal childhood.  Yet, love plainly bound her to her father.  Fitzgerald, for his part, was determined that Scottie be “self-sufficient, an equal partner, and to carry her share – all the things he had wished for in Zelda” (p.312).

               Fitzgerald suffered a heart attack in late November 1940, as he was seeking to finish what would be his last novel, The Last Tycoon. He died amidst little fanfare on December 21, 1940, with The Last Tycoon appearing the following year.  Zelda died in a fire in 1948 at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she was institutionalized. 

               Surprisingly, Fitzgerald’s works sold far better after World War II than they had during his lifetime.   His friend Edmund Wilson wrote that a cult had grown up around Fitzgerald after his death, which had “gone beyond mere admiration for the author of some excellent books.  He had taken on the aspect of a martyr, a sacrificial victim, a semi-divine personage” (p.337).  Several biographies on Fitzgerald appeared in the post-World War II period.   In 1958, however, Sheilah Graham came out with Beloved Infidel, which disparaged all prior works on Fitzgerald.  “This is not the Scott I knew” (p.343), she wrote.  Approaching Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and other demons with compassion, Graham emphasized his humor, humanity, and efforts to finish his last novel while ill.   Wilson found her book to be by far the best on Fitzgerald.  In Graham, he wrote, Fitzgerald had found an “effective advocate, just as the debate over the ‘meaning’ of his life was beginning to take shape” (p.344).   

* * *

               In this complex yet highly readable biography, Brown shines intriguing light upon Fitzgerald as a social commentator and cultural historian, the “annalist as novelist who recorded the wildly fluctuating fortunes of America in the boom twenties and bust thirties” (p.1).  Fitzgerald was able to write as powerfully as he did about historical change in America because, as Brown ably  demonstrates, he identified with the country in an intensely personal way. 

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

August 13, 2019

10 Comments

Filed under American Society, Biography, Literature

Medieval Scholar On the Front Lines of Modern History

 

Robert Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz:

A Life (Princeton University Press)

          Potential readers are likely to ask themselves whether they should invest their time in a biography of a medieval historian, especially one they probably had never heard of previously.  Ernst Kantorowicz (1895-1963) may be worth their time because he was more than just one of the 20th century’s most eminent historians of medieval Europe, a scholar who changed the way we look at the Middle Ages, although for many readers that alone should be sufficient to warrant their time.   But Kantorowicz’s life story is only in part that of an academic.  It also encompasses some of the 20th century’s most consequential moments.

             A German Jew, Kantorowicz fought in the Kaiser’s army in World War I, then took up arms on three separate occasions on behalf of Germany in the chaotic and often violent period immediately following the war.  After the Nazis took power, Kantorowicz became one of the fiercest academic critics of the regime.  Forced to flee Germany in 1938, Kantorowicz wound up in the United States, where he became, like Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and scores of others, a German Jewish émigré who enriched incalculably American cultural and intellectual life.  He landed at the University of California, Berkeley.  But just as he was settling comfortably into American academic life, Kantorowicz was fired from the Berkeley faculty when he refused to sign a McCarthy-era, Cold War loyalty oath – although not before distinguishing himself as the faculty’s most vocal and perhaps most eloquent opponent of the notion of loyalty oaths. 

          In Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life, Robert Lerner, himself a prominent medieval historian who is professor emeritus at Northwestern University, painstakingly revisits these turbulent 20th century moments that Kantorowicz experienced first hand.  He adds to them his analyses of Kantorowicz’ scholarly output and creative thinking about medieval Europe, by which Kantorowicz earned his reputation as one of the “most noted humanistic scholars of the twentieth century” (p.387).  Lerner also demonstrates how Kantorowicz transformed from a fervently conservative German nationalist in the World War I era to an ardently liberal, anti-nationalist in the post-World War II era.  And he adds to this mix Kantorowicz’s oversized personality and unconventional personal life: urbane, witty, and sometimes nasty, Kantorowicz was a “natty dresser, a noted wine connoisseur, and a flamboyant cook” (p.4) who was also bi-sexual, alternating between men and women in his romantic affairs.  Lerner skillfully blends these elements together in this comprehensive biography, arranged in strict chronological form.

          Although Kantorowicz’s life’s journey encompassed well more than his time and output as an academic, he was a student or teacher at some of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions: Heidelberg in the 1920s, Oxford in the 1930s, the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1940s, and the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, in the 1950s.  His stints in Heidelberg and Oxford produced the two major influences on Kantorowicz’s intellectual life: Stefan George and Maurice Bowra.  In Heidelberg, Kantorowicz fell under the spell of George, a mesmerizing poet and homoerotic cult-like leader who espoused anti-rationalism, anti-modernism and hero worship.  In the following decade at Oxford, he met Maurice Bowra, a distinguished classicist, literary critic, and part time poet, known for his biting wit, notorious quips, and “open worship of pleasure” (p.176).  George and Bowra are easily the book’s two most memorable supporting characters. 

          Kantorowicz’s life, like almost all German Jews of his generation lucky enough to survive the Hitler regime, breaks down into three broad phases: before, during and after that regime.  In Kantorwicz’s case, the first may be the most captivating of the three phases.

* * *

          Ernst Kantorowicz was born in 1895 in Posen, today Poznań and part of Poland but then part of Prussian Germany.  The son of a prosperous German-Jewish liquor manufacturer, Kantorowicz volunteered to fight for the Kaiser in World War I.  Wounded at Verdun, the war’s longest and costliest battle, Kantorowicz was awarded an Iron Cross for his valiant service on the Western Front.  In early 1917, Kantorowicz was dispatched to the Russian front, and thereafter to Constantinople.   In Turkey, he was awarded the Iron Crescent, the Turkish equivalent of Iron Cross.  But his service in Turkey came to an abrupt end when he had an affair with a woman who was the mistress of a German general. 

          In the immediate post-war era, Kantorowicz fought against a Polish revolt in his native city of Posen; against the famous Spartacist uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (the uprising’s 100th anniversary last month seems to have passed largely unnoticed); and later that year against the so-called Bavarian Soviet Republic in Munich.  In September 1919, Kantorowicz matriculated at the University of Heidelberg, ostensibly to study economics, a sign that he intended to take up his family business from his father, who had died earlier that year.  But while at Heidelberg Kantorowicz also developed interests in Arabic, Islamic Studies, history and geography.  In 1921, he was awarded a doctorate based on a slim dissertation on guild associations in the Muslim world, a work that Lerner spends several pages criticizing (“All told it was a piece of juvenilia . . .  [C]oncern for proof by evidence and the weighing of sources were absent.  Nuance was not even a goal;” p.65). 

          Kantorowicz in these years was plainly caught up in the impassioned nationalist sentiments that survived and intensified in the wake of Germany’s defeat in the war and the humiliating terms imposed upon it by the Treaty of Versailles.  In 1922, he wrote that German policy should be dedicated to the destruction of France.  His nationalist sentiments were heightened in Heidelberg when he came under the spell of the poet-prophet Stefan George, one of the dominant cultural figures in early 20th century Germany.

          George was a riveting, charismatic cult figure who groomed a coterie of carefully selected young men, all “handsome and clever” (p.3).  Those in his circle (the George-Kreis in German) were “expected to address him in the third person, hang on his every word, and propagate his ideals by their writings and example” (p.3).  George read his “lush” and “esoteric” poetry as if at a séance (p.69).  Since George took beauty to be the expression of spiritual excellence, he often asked young men to stand naked before the others, as if models for a sculptor. 

          George was “firmly antidemocratic” and rhapsodized over an idealized leader who would “lead ‘heroes’ under his banner” (p.80).  By means of George’s teaching and influence, the young men of the George-Kreis were expected to “partake of his wisdom and become vehicles for the arduous but inevitable triumph of a wonderfully transformed Germany,” (p.72), a land of “truth and purity” (p.3).  George urged Kantorowicz to write a “heroic” biography of 13th century Holy Roman emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), at various times King of Sicily, Germany, Jerusalem and the Holy Roman Empire.  George considered Frederick II the embodiment of the leadership qualities that post-World War I Germany sorely lacked.

          Kantorowicz’s esoteric and unconventional biography came out in 1927, the first full-scale work on Frederick II to be published in German.  Although written for a popular audience, the massive work (632 pages) appeared at a time when German scholars recognized that the work had filled a void.  Out of nowhere, Lerner writes, along came the 31 year old Kantorowicz, who had “never taken a university course in medieval history” (p.107), offering copious detail about Frederick II’s reign.  Although the book lacked documentation, it was obviously based on extensive research.  The book proved attractive for its style as much as its substance.  Kantorowicz demonstrated that he was a “forceful writer, taken to employing high-flown rhetoric, alliteration, and sometimes archaic diction for dramatic effect” (p.101). Moreover, he utilized unconventional sources, such as legends, prophecies, manifestoes, panegyrics, and ceremonial chants.

           But Kantorowicz’s work was controversial.  Being published without footnotes led some to charge that he was making up his story, a charge he later rebutted with copious notes.  Others found the biography too enthusiastic, and insufficiently dispassionate and objective.  To many, it seemed to celebrate authoritarianism and glorify German nationalism.  Kantorowicz portrayed Frederick as a tragic hero and the idealized personification of a medieval German nation.  Although not religious, Lerner finds that Kantorowicz came close to implying that the hand of God was at work in Frederick’s achievements.  Early versions of the book carried a swastika on the cover, and the Nazis seemed to like it, even though written by a Jew.  Their affinity for the book may have been one reason Kantorowicz later sought to put distance between himself and the work that established his scholarly reputation.

          In 1924, while preparing the biography, Kantorowicz traveled to the Italian portions of Frederick’s realm, where he was deeply impressed with the remains of the ancient Greeks.  The journey converted him into a Hellenophile, a lover of ancient Greek civilization.  From that point forward, even though Kantorowicz’s publications and his academic life continued to center on the Middle Ages, his emotional commitment lay with the ancients, another indication of George’s influence. 

          In 1930, Kantorowicz’s work on Frederick II earned him a teaching position at the University of Frankfurt, only 50 miles from Heidelberg but an altogether different sort of institution.  Prosperous merchants, including many Jews, had founded the university only in 1914, and it was among the most open of German universities to Jewish scholars.   In the winter of 1932, Kantorowicz acceded to a full professorial position at Frankfurt.  But his life was upended one year later when the Nazis ascended to power, beginning the second of his life’s three phases.

* * *

          Ever an elitist, Kantorowicz looked down upon the Nazis as “rabble” (p.159), although there is some indication that he initially approved of the Nazis’ national-oriented views, or at least found them substantially co-terminus with his own.  But by the end of 1933, his situation as a Jewish professor had become “too precarious for him to continue holding his chair” (p.158), and he was forced to resign from the Frankfurt faculty.  He found plenty of time for research because he could no longer teach, comparing himself to Petrarch as a  “learned hermit” (p.185).

            After resigning from the faculty at Frankfurt, Kantorowicz gained a six-month, non-paying fellowship at Oxford in 1934.  The fellowship transformed Kantorowicz into a life-long anglophile and enabled him to improve his English, a skill that would be vital to his survival when he had to flee Germany a few years later.  Almost everyone Kantorowicz met at Oxford was on the political left, and the German nationalist began unmistakably to move in this direction during his Oxford sojourn.  Renowned French medievalist Marc Bloch was at Oxford at the same time.  The two hit it off well, another  indication that Kantorowicz’s nationalist and anti-French strains were mellowing. 

            But the most lasting relationship arising out of Kantorowicz’s fellowship at Oxford was with Maurice Bowra, as eccentric in his own way as George.  An expert on ancient Greek poetry, Bowra was famous for his spontaneous, off-color aphorisms.  Isaiah Berlin termed Bowra the “greatest English wit of his day” (p.176). Bowra was as openly gay as one could be in 1930s England, and had an affair with Kantorowicz during the latter’s time at Oxford.  Although their romance cooled thereafter, the two remained in contact for the remainder of Kantorowicz’s life.  Lerner sees Bowra replacing George as the major intellectual influence upon Kantorowicz after his stint at Oxford.   

            Back in Germany by mid-1934, Kantorowicz received the status of “professor emeritus” that provided regular payments of a pension at full salary “as if he had retired at the end of a normal career” (p.186).  That Kantorowicz remained in Germany in these years demonstrated to some that he was a Nazi sympathizer, a view that Lerner vigorously rejects.  “No German professor other than Ernst Kantorowicz spoke publicly in opposition to Nazi ideology throughout the duration of the  Third Reich” (p.171),  Lerner insists. But Kantorowicz barely escaped arrest in the wake of the violent November 1938 anti-Semitic outburst known as Kristallnacht.  Within weeks, he had fled his native country  — thereby moving into the third and final phase of his life’s journey.

* * *

            After a brief stop in England, Kantorowicz found himself in the fall of 1939 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he gained a one-year teaching appointment.   Until he was awarded a full professorship in 1945, he faced unemployment each year, rescued at the last minute by additional one-year appointments.  The four years from June 1945 until June 1949, Lerner writes, were “probably the happiest in Ernst Kantorowicz’s life.”  He considered himself to be in a “land of lotus-eaters . . . Conviviality was unending, as was scholarly work”  (p.294).  He was smitten by the pretty girls in his classes, and had a prolonged affair with a cousin who lived with her husband in Stockton, some 50 miles away, but had a car.  By this time the fervent German nationalist had become, just as fervently, an anti-nationalist well to the left of the political center who worried that the hyper-nationalism of the Cold War was leading inevitably to nuclear war and identified strongly with the struggle for justice for African-Americans.     

            Substantively, Lerner characterizes Kantorowicz’s scholarly work in his Berkeley years as nothing short of amazing.  He began to consider Hellenistic, Roman and Early Christian civilizations collectively, finding in them a “composite coherence” (p.261), perhaps a predictable outgrowth of his affinity for the ancient civilizations.  Kantorowicz’s perspective foreshadowed the late 20th century tendency to treat these civilizations together as a single “world of late antiquity.”  He was also beginning to focus on the emergence of nation states in Western Europe.  In part because of uncertainty with the English language, Kantorowicz wrote out all his lectures, and they are still available.  Browsing through them today, Lerner writes, “one can see that they not only were dazzling in their insights, juxtapositions, and sometimes even new knowledge but also were works of art, structurally and rhetorically” (p.273). 

            If the years 1945 to 1949 were the happiest of Kantorowicz’s life, the period from July 1949 through August 1950, one of the hottest periods in the Cold War, was almost as trying as his time in Germany under the Nazi regime.  Berkeley President Robert Sproul imposed an enhanced version of a California state loyalty oath on the university’s academic employees, with the following poison pill: “I do not believe in, and I an not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means” (p.313).  The oath affected tenured as well as non-tenured instructors — it was no oath, no job, even for the most senior faculty members.

           Kantorowicz refused to sign the oath. One Berkeley faculty member recalled years later that Kantorowicz had been “undoubtedly the most militant of the non-signers” (p.317).  Invoking his experience as an academic in Hitler’s Germany, Kantorowicz argued that even if the oath appeared mild, such coerced signing was always the first step toward something stronger.  He termed the requirement a “shameful and undignified action,” an “affront and a violation of both human sovereignty and professional dignity,” requiring a faculty member to give up “his tenure . . . his freedom of judgment, his human dignity and his responsible sovereignty as a scholar” (p.314). Professional fitness to teach or engage in research, Kantorowicz argued, should be determined by an “objective evaluation of the quality of the individual’s mind, character, and loyalty, and not by his political or religious beliefs or lawful associations”  (p.326).

             In August 1950, Kantorowicz and one other survivor of Nazi Germany were among several Berkeley faculty members officially expelled from the University.  Their dismissals were subsequently reversed by a state court of appeals in 1952, but on the technical ground that the university couldn’t carve out separate oaths for faculty members.  The California Supreme Court affirmed the decision in October 1952, which entitled Kantorowicz to reinstatement and severance pay.  But by that time he had left Berkeley for the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey (technically separate from Princeton University).

          The Princeton phase of Kantorowicz’s life seems drab and post-climatic by comparison. But in 1957, while at Princeton, Kantorowicz produced The King’s Two Bodies, his most significant work since his biography of Frederick II more than a quarter of a century earlier.  Using an “astonishing diversity of sources” (p.355), especially legal sources, Kantorowicz melded medieval theology with constitutional and legal history, political theory, and medieval ideas of kingship to generate a new vision of the Middle Ages. 

          Kantorowicz’s notion of the king having two bodies derived from a Tudor legal fiction that the king’s “body politic” is, in effect, immortal.  In The King’s Two Bodies, Kantorowicz found a link between the concept of undying corporations in English law and the notion of two bodies for the king.  Because England was endowed with a unique parliamentary system, Kantorowicz maintained that it was “only there that the fiction of the king never dying in the capacity of his ‘body politic’ was able to take shape” (p.351).  With new angles to legal history, political theory, and ideas of kingship, The King’s Two Bodies constitutes one of Kantorowicz’s “great historiographical triumphs” (p.355), as Lerner puts it. Appreciation for Kantorowicz’s last major — and most lasting — contribution to medieval scholarship continued to increase in the years after its initial publication.  

            Kantorowicz’s articles after The King’s Two Bodies revolved in different ways around the “close relationship between the divinity and the ruler, and about the vicissitudes of that relationship” (p.363).  In late 1962, he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm, yet  went about his affairs as if nothing had changed.  He “carried on earnestly with his dining and imbibing.  As usual he drank enough wine and spirits to wash an elephant” (p.376).  He died in Princeton of a ruptured aneurysm in September 1963 at age 68.

* * *

            Some readers may find that Lerner dwells excessively on academic politics – a dissection of the letters of recommendation on behalf of Kantorowicz’s candidacy for a position at Berkeley spans several pages, for example.  In addition, the paperback version is set in small type, making it an eye-straining experience and giving the impression that the subject matter is denser than it really is.  But undeterred readers, willing to plough through the book’s nearly 400 pages, should be gratified by its insights into a formidable scholar of medieval times as he lived through some of the most consequential moments of modern times.  As Lerner aptly concludes, given Kantorowicz’s remarkable life, a biography “could not be helped” (p.388).

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

February 13, 2019

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, European History, German History, History, Intellectual History, United States History

Just How Machiavellian Was He?

 

Erica Benner, Be Like the Fox:

Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom 

            Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the Florentine writer, civil servant, diplomat and political philosopher, continues to confound historians, philosophers and those interested in the genealogy of political thinking.  His name has become a well-known adjective, “Machiavellian,” referring to principles and methods of expediency, craftiness, and duplicity in politics.  Common synonyms for “Machiavellian” include “scheming,” “cynical,” “shrewd” and “cunning.”  For some, Machiavellian politics constitute nothing less than a prescription for maintaining power at any cost, in which dishonesty is exalted and the killing of innocents authorized if necessary.  Machiavelli earned this dubious reputation primarily through his best known work, The Prince, published in 1532, five years after his death, in which he purported to advise political leaders in Florence and elsewhere – “princes” – on how to maintain power, particularly in a republic, where political leadership is not based on monarchy or titles of nobility and citizens are supposed to be on equal footing.

            But to this day there is no consensus as to whether the adjective “Machiavellian” fairly captures the Florentine’s objectives and outlook.  Many see in Machiavelli an early proponent of republican government and consider his thinking a precursor to modern democratic ideas.  Erica Brenner, author of two other books on Machiavelli, falls squarely into this camp.  In Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom, Benner portrays Machiavelli as a “thorough-going republican,” and a “eulogist of democracy” who “sought to uphold high moral standards” and “defend the rule of law against corrupt popes and tyrants” (p.xvi).   Brenner discounts the shocking advice of The Prince as bait for tyrants.

            Machiavelli wore the mask of helpful advisor, Benner writes, “all the while knowing the folly of his advice, hoping to ensnare rulers and drag them to their ruin” (p.xv).  As a “master ironist” and a “dissimulator who offers advice that he knows to be imprudent” (p.xvi), Machiavelli’s hidden intent was to “show how far princes will go to hold on to power” and to “warn people who live in free republics about the risks they face if they entrust their welfare to one man” (p. xvi-xvii).   A deeper look at Machiavelli’s major writings, particularly The Prince and his Discourses on Livy, nominally a discussion of politics in ancient Rome, reveals Machiavelli’s insights on several key questions about republican governance, among them: how can leaders in a republic sustain power over the long term; how can a republic best protect itself from threats to its existence, internal and external; and how can a republic avoid lapsing into tyranny.

            Benner advances her view of Machiavelli as a forerunner of modern liberal democracy by placing the Florentine “squarely in his world, among his family, friends, colleagues and compatriots” (p.xix).  Her work has some of the indicia of biography, yet is unusual in that it is written almost entirely in the present tense.  Rather than setting out Machiavelli’s ideas on governance as abstractions, she has taken his writings and integrated them into dialogues, using italics to indicate verbatim quotations – a method which, she admits, “transgresses the usual biographical conventions” but nonetheless constitutes a “natural way to show [her] protagonist in his element” (p.xx).  Benner’s title alludes to Machiavelli’s observation that a fox has a particular kind of cunning that can recognize traps and avoid snares.  Humans need to emulate a fox by being “armed with mental agility rather than physical weapons” and developing a kind of cunning that “sees through ruses, decent words or sacred oaths” (p.151).

            Machiavelli’s world in this “real time” account is almost Shakespearean, turning on intrigue and foible in the pursuit and exercise of power, and on the shortsightedness not only of princes and those who worked for them and curried their favor, but also of those who worked against them and plotted their overthrow.  But Benner’s story is not always easy story to follow.  Readers unfamiliar with late 15th and early 16th Florentine politics may experience difficulty in constructing the big picture amidst the continual conspiring, scheming and back-stabbing.  At the outset, in a section termed “Dramatis Personae,” she lists the story’s numerous major characters by category (e.g., family, friends, popes), and readers will want to consult this helpful list liberally as they work their way through her rendering of Machiavelli. The book would have also benefitted from a chronology setting out in bullet form the major events in Machiavelli’s lifetime.

* * *

               Florence in Machiavelli’s time was already at its height as the center of the artistic and cultural flourishing known as the Renaissance.  But Benner’s story lies elsewhere, focused on the city’s cutthroat political life, dominated as it was by the Medici family.  Bankers to the popes, patrons of Renaissance art, and masters of political cronyism, the Medici exercised close to outright control of Florence from the early 15th century until thrown out of power in 1494, with the assistance of French king Charles VIII, at the outset of Machiavelli’s career. They recaptured control in 1512, but were expelled again in 1527, months before Machiavelli’s death, this time with the assistance of Hapsburg Emperor Charles V.  Lurking behind the Medici family were the popes in Rome, linked to the family through intertwining and sometimes familial relationships.   In a time of rapidly shifting alliances, the popes competed with rulers from France, Spain and the mostly German-speaking Holy Roman Empire for worldly control over Florence and Italy’s other city-states, duchies and mini-kingdoms, all at a time when ominous challenges to papal authority had begun to gather momentum in other parts of Europe.

           The 1494 plot that threw Piero de’ Medici out of power was an exhilarating moment for the young Machiavelli.  Although Florence under the Medici had nominally been a republic — Medici leaders insisted they were simply “First Citizens” — Machiavelli and other Florentines of his generation welcomed the new regime as an opportunity to “build a republic in deed, not just in name, stronger and freer than all previous Florence governments” (p.63).  With the Medici outside the portals of power, worthy men of all stripes, and not just Medici cronies, would be “free to hold office, speak their minds, and play their part in the great, messy, shared business of civil self-government” (p.63).

             Machiavelli entered onto the Florentine political stage at this optimistic time.  He went on to serve as a diplomat for the city of Florence and held several high-level civil service positions, including secretary – administrator – for Florence’s war committee.   In this position, Machiavelli promoted the idea that Florence should abandon its reliance upon mercenaries with no fixed loyalties to fight its wars and cultivate its own home grown fighting force, a “citizens’ militia.”

         Machiavelli’s civil service career came to an abrupt halt in 1513, shortly after Guiliano de’ Medici, with the assistance of Pope Julius II and Spanish troops, wrestled back control over Florence’s government. The new regime accused Machiavelli of participating in an anti-Medici coup.  He was imprisoned, tortured, and banished from government, spending most of the ensuing seven years on the family farm outside Florence. Ironically, he had reconciled with the Medici and re-established a role for himself in Florence’s government by the time of the successful 1527 anti-Medici coup, two months prior to his death.   Machiavelli thus spent his final weeks as an outcast in a new government that he in all likelihood supported.

         The Prince and the Discourses on Livy took shape between 1513 and 1520, Machiavelli’s period of forced exile from political and public life, during which he drew upon his long experience in government to formulate his guidance to princes on how to secure and maintain political power. Although both works were published after his death in 1527, Benner uses passages from them — always in italics — to illuminate particular events of Machiavelli’s life.  Extracting from these passages and Benner’s exegesis upon them, we can parse out a framework for Machiavelli’s ideal republic.  That framework begins with Machiavelli’s consistent excoriation of the shortsightedness of the ruling princes and political leaders of his day, in terms that seem equally apt to ours.

                To maintain power over the long term, leaders need to eschew short-term gains and benefits and demonstrate, as Benner puts it, a “willingness to play the long game, to pit patience against self-centered impetuosity” (p.8). As Machiavelli wrote in the Discourses, for a prince it is necessary to have the people friendly; otherwise he has no remedy in adversity” (p.167).  A prince who thinks he can rule without taking popular interests seriously “will soon lose his state . . . [E]ven the greatest princes need to deal transparently with their allies and share power with their people if they want to maintain their state” (p.250).  Governments that seek to satisfy the popular desire are “firmer and last longer than those that let a few command the rest” (p.260).   Machiavelli’s long game thus hints at the modern notion that the most effective government is one that has the consent of the governed.

           Machiavelli’s ideal republic was not a democracy based upon direct rule by the people but rather upon what we today would term the “rule of law.”  In his Discourses, Machiavelli argued that long-lasting republics “have had need of being regulated by the laws” (p.261).  It is the “rule of laws that stand above the entire demos and regulate the relations between ‘its parts,’ as he calls them,” Benner explains, “so that no class or part can dominate the others” (p.275).  Upright leaders should put public laws above their own or other people’s private feelings.  They should resist emotional appeals to ties of family or friendship, and punish severely when the laws and the republic’s survival so demands.  Arms and justice together are the foundation of Machiavelli’s ideal republic.

            Several high-profile executions of accused traitors and subversives convinced Machiavelli to reject the idea that when a republic is faced with internal threats, “one cannot worry too much about ordinary legal procedures or the rights of defendants” (p.121.)  No matter how serious the offense, exceptional punishments outside the confines of the law “set a corrupting precedent” (p.121).  Machiavelli’s lifelong dream that Florence should cultivate its own fighting force rather than rely upon mercenaries to fight its wars with external enemies arose out of similar convictions.

             In The Prince and the Discourses, Machiavelli admonished princes that the only sure way to maintain power over time is to “arm your own people and keep them satisfied” (p.49).  Cities whose people are “free, secure in their livelihood, respected and self-respecting, are harder to attack than those that lack such robust arms” (p.186). Florence hired mercenaries because its leaders didn’t believe their own people could be trusted with arms. But mercenaries, whose only motivation for fighting is a salary, can  just as easily turn upon their employers’ state, hardly a propitious outcome for long-term sustainability.

               During Machiavelli’s time in exile, the disputatious monk Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses onto a church door in German-speaking Wittenberg, challenging a wide range of papal practices.  Luther’s provocation set in motion the Protestant Reformation and, with it, more than a century of bloody conflict in Europe between Protestants and Catholics.  The Prince became an instrument in the propaganda wars stirred up by the Reformation, Benner contends, with Machiavelli demonized “mostly by men of religion, both Catholic and Protestant” (p.xv), who saw in the Florentine’s thinking a challenge to traditional relations between church and state.

              These men of religion rightly perceived that the  church would have little role to play in Machiavelli’s ideal republic.  In the Discourses, Benner explains, Machiavelli argued that the Christian “sect,” as he called it, had “always declared war on ideas and writings that it could not control – and especially on those that presented ordinary human reasoning, not priestly authority, as the best source of guidance in private and political life” (p.317).  Men flirt with disaster when they purport to know the unknowable under the guise of religious “knowledge.”  For Machiavelli, unchanging, universal moral truths can be worked out only through a close study of human interactions and reflections on human nature.  Instead of praying for some new holy man to save you, Machiavelli advised, “learn the way to Hell in order to steer clear of it yourself” (p. p.282).   These views earned all of Machiavelli’s works a place on the Catholic Church’s 1557 Index of Prohibited Books, one of the Church’s solutions to the heresies encouraged by the Reformation, where they remained until 1890.

* * *

              The ruthlessly  duplicitous Machiavelli – his “evil double” (p.xiv), as Brenner puts it — is barely present in Benner’s account.  Her Machiavelli, an “altogether human, and humane” (p.xvi) commentator and operative on the political stage of his time, exudes few of the qualities associated with the adjective that bears his name.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 25, 2018

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Biography, European History, History, Italian History, Political Theory, Rule of Law

School Daze, Halycon Haze

 

Charles A. Hobbie, Days of Splendor, Hours Like Dreams:

Four Years at a Small College in the Still North (1963-1967)

            Charles “Chuck” Hobbie has written a loving memoir of his undergraduate experience at Dartmouth College from 1963 to 1967, Days of Splendor, Hours Like Dreams: Four Years at a Small College in the Still North.  Hobbie’s recollections of his undergraduate days more than a half-century ago are shrouded in what he terms a “halcyon haze” (p.19), and that haze infuses his memoir: it is an unabashedly joyful account of a young man’s four year odyssey, utterly free from the angst and anxiety that frequently underlie personal memoirs.  Hobbie’s recollections were shaped in a time that seems quite different from the present, at an institution very different then from what it is today.

            Dartmouth, founded in 1769 to educate Native Americans – “Indians” was the term used freely in those days — is located in Hanover, New Hampshire, on the Connecticut River in Northern New England, a serious drive away from anything resembling a mid-size city, yet minutes from largely unspoiled wilderness. Dartmouth in Hobbie’s time was a single sex, all male institution, although that changed in 1972, five years after his graduation.  As a point of disclosure, I was a classmate of Hobbie’s but did not know him as an undergraduate, even though we lived in the same dorm during our freshman year, 1963-64. I have come to know him in recent years through alumni activities.

       Hobbie majored in English literature at Dartmouth, one of the most demanding fields of undergraduate study.  Plainly a globalist before that term had come into vogue, with an affinity for learning about other cultures and countries that far surpassed most of his classmates, Hobbie also studied French and German as an undergraduate and participated in what was then a small overseas study program in Montpelier, France.  He spent two transformative summers in Uppsala, Sweden, and had other enriching international experiences. He further found time to partake of a wide variety of extra-curricular activities during his undergraduate years, and developed a deep reverence for the Northern New England wilderness.

            Hobbie’s memoir throws much light upon the mid-1960s, a period when the culture and mores in American society as a whole were undergoing rapid change, but just prior to what might be considered the quintessential “sixties” year, 1968.  Hobbie provides his readers with a good sense of what single sex education was like in that by-gone era, when the Northeast United States was dotted with numerous single-sex institutions, male and female.  Most charmingly, Hobbie provides his readers with an insider’s view of how young men between 18 and 22, suddenly free from parental boundaries, pursued the opposite sex from their remote all-male institution.  Dartmouth did not provide easy terrain for this time-honored and always challenging pre-occupation, but Hobbie proved unusually adept at it.  His endearing descriptions of a relentless pursuit of a bevy of young women throughout his undergraduate years furnish momentum and gusto to his affectionate memoir.

* * *

            Hobbie came to Dartmouth from Buffalo, New York, after excelling in secondary school.  Although he gained admission to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Colgate, as well as his father’s alma mater, Cornell, Dartmouth was his only serious choice.  His brother had graduated from the college six years previously, and as a high school student Hobbie had fallen in love with the pristine New Hampshire wilderness while working as a counselor in a summer camp in Northern New England.  Hobbie entered Dartmouth aiming to become a doctor, and thus spent his early undergraduate years in the ultra-rigorous biology and chemistry courses that were an obligatory part of what was termed the “pre-med” curriculum.  Like many of his classmates, Hobbie discovered after a heavy dose of these courses that maybe he didn’t aspire to be a doctor after all.  Quite late in his undergraduate career, he selected English literature as his major field of study.

            Hobbie can still recall the many English literature courses he wrestled with at Dartmouth, on Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, and the English and American novel, among others.  He provides his readers with glimpses into the worlds that opened to him in these courses.  He also recounts one of the more quaint features to being an English major at Dartmouth that had no counterpart in other academic departments.  The English department was (and still is) located in Sanborn House, an adjunct to Baker Library, the College’s main library, and was built at about the same time, in the 1920s. But even more than Baker Library, Sanborn House was made to look like it had been built in the 1820s or even the 1720s.  It had aged wooden panels, stacks of old looking books, and an inviting fireplace; it felt slightly musty, in a cozy way.  Hobbie imagined that Sanborn House had been “modeled on some seventeenth-century library in a stately English castle” (p.175).

            Weekdays at 4:00 pm, the faculty held tea at Sanborn House, to which undergraduates were cordially invited.  You didn’t have to be an English major to attend, but must of the attendees were.  Through the “enchanting tradition” (p.174) of afternoon teas, as well as through his course work, Hobbie came to know several of the school’s impressively learned English literature professors on a personal level, and he kept in touch with a handful after his undergraduate years.

            Hobbie joined freshman crew during his first year at Dartmouth, and describes learning to coordinate strokes with fellow crew members during early morning and late afternoon practice sessions on the Connecticut River.  “There is nothing quite so thrilling as silently gliding down a river,” he writes, “cutting like a knife through the reflections of the autumn colors, sunset, and sky in the water, with the only sounds those of the wind, the straining of the oars, and the rhythmic calls of the cox and stroke” (p.64).  But he gave up crew in later years for the Dartmouth Glee Club, a singing group that traveled far and wide delivering stirring concerts to audiences across the United States, along with some stops in Canada.

            Hobbie also learned to ski at the ski run located on the edge of the Dartmouth campus.  Throughout his undergraduate years, he worked part-time cleaning dishes in Dartmouth’s dining hall. And he spent much time as an undergraduate hiking in the woods, frequently spending nights at the College’s wilderness retreat at Mt. Moosilauke. In some of the memoir’s most affecting passages, Hobbie expresses his ever-deepening appreciation of the Northern New England wilderness – its “stately mountains, vast forests, and pristine lakes and rivers” (p.158) — and how that wilderness shaped the outlook he would take with him upon graduation.

          Hobbie channeled in several directions his international bent and his curiosity about cultures different from his own.    His two summers in Uppsala, Sweden, where he worked  with his older brother who was a university research assistant there, began what he terms a lifelong love affair with Sweden.  Hobbie describes himself as having been mesmerized by Uppsala’s “ancient museums, cathedral, and academic structures, intimate charm, student cafes and clubs, narrow cobblestone streets, and old-world aura” (p.116; he was also mesmerized by more than a handful of young Swedish women – see below).  During a semester at the University of Montpelier, in Mediterranean France, Hobbie lived with a French family and prepared a long thesis – what the French call a “memoire” – analyzing, in French, Balzac’s Human Comedy. He developed a deep affection for his French family, especially his “brother,” Alain, a young man of Hobbie’s age who provided the American with valuable insights into the mysterious world of French women.

          During his final year at Dartmouth, Hobbie arranged to room with a first year student from the Netherlands, for whom he seems to have been an outstanding mentor.  Late in his undergraduate career, Hobbie immersed himself in the study of German.  Then, in his final trimester, he met with a Peace Corps recruiting officer, and was plainly captivated with the mission of this then-fledgling institution that was the brainchild of President John F. Kennedy. Upon graduating from Dartmouth, Hobbie went on to join the Peace Corps after studying English literature at the University of Wisconsin and served three years in Korea.  Today, over 50 years after graduation and armed with a law degree, Hobbie works as Associate General Counsel at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C.

            Throughout his undergraduate years, Hobbie pursued young women with zeal and zest, and he shares with his readers what is presumably only a small fraction of his amorous adventures.  Before he left home for Dartmouth, Hobbie’s older sister told him to be kind to his dates, “if I ever had any. I wondered what she meant by that,” he tells his readers, “but I hope that I fulfilled her wish” (p.34). His sister need not have worried.  Hobbie had plenty of dates as an undergraduate, and appears to have been unfailingly kind to all.

                In these pages, Hobbie introduces us to, among others, Lindsey (“[s]mart, personable, athletic and sensitive. . . a long-legged, longhaired, gorgeous, blue-eyed blonde, with full lips and a nice figure;” p.61); Judy (“not only a wonderfully fun, intelligent, and interesting woman but also one of the prettiest girls I had ever met, whose exotic face and long, dark hair completely enchanted me” p.176); Diana (a woman with a “very distinctive and attractive voice, as well as a unique and charming way of laughing that had the cadence of the love song of a chickadee”; p.188); and Connie (the “prettiest blush I ever saw”; p.184).

              Not all Hobbie’s relationships ended to his liking.  Lindsey, his high school sweetheart, left him for some guy named Doug, whom Hobbie considered unworthy of the young lady’s attention.  With no fanfare, Judy abandoned Hobbie for her high school sweetheart.  And after Diana had told Hobbie that she couldn’t see him on a particular weekend because she had the flu, Hobbie crossed paths with her on campus in the company of another student. But a young lady named Alice, a student at Simmons College, a women’s school located near Boston, provided Hobbie with what is probably the memoir’s most painful lesson of the heart.

             After an initial encounter in Hanover, Hobbie and Alice exchanged flowery letters.  Alice’s letters gave Hobbie “some hope that she was interested in becoming a closer friend” (p.109).  One weekend, Hobbie traveled to Simmons unannounced, in the hope of surprising Alice.  But when he entered her dormitory, he had his own surprise.   On the bulletin board in the front hall he saw a “familiar letter – the letter I had written to Alice several weeks before.” Alice had not merely posted the young man’s letter on the bulletin board. To his chagrin, the letter had been “covered with mocking, annotative comments from her Simmons dormitory mates” (p.109). After his visit to Alice’s dorm, the now far wiser Hobbie says he remembers only “being dazed and more humiliated than I had ever been before. That was it for Alice and for Simmons College . . . I also learned to be more careful in the future with candidly expressing my feelings” (p.110).

            Readers should not be surprised that Hobbie earnestly sought to bridge cultural divides while overseas.  He found Swedish women “tremendously alluring, with their lilting accents, European clothes, elegant but subtle makeup and hairstyles, and confident but innocent sexuality” (p.119). In his first summer in Uppsala, he struck up a short-lived but intense friendship with a “lovely, doe-eyed blond girl” named Leena, who “in many ways personified my ideal girl” (p.118).  But Hobbie fell harder that summer for Anna, a mathematics student and a “jewel . . . strikingly beautiful with long blonde hair and blue eyes” (p119-120).

               It was “pure heaven” to be with Anna, Hobbie informs us.  When he left Uppsala by train at the end of the summer, “[n]o other woman looked attractive or interesting anymore,” although, he quickly adds, “there were lots of very enticing young women on the train” (p.121).  The following summer, by accident, he ran across Anna in Stockholm. It seemed liked “divine intervention” (p.165), and the pair had a joyous reunion, although he never saw her again after that evening, much to his regret.  While in Sweden, Hobbie also had occasion to dance with American popular singer Eartha Kitt, and befriended Anna Tolstoy, the great novelist’s granddaughter.  No wonder young Hobbie found Sweden alluring.

                It may come as a disappointment to his readers that Hobbie reveals no French girlfriends from his time in Montpelier.  But he frequently went to the beach with Nadia, a German student also studying at the university, an “extremely attractive, dark-haired beauty [who] spilled out of the tiniest bikini I had every seen” (p.168). In his language laboratory exercises at the university, moreover, Hobbie was fortunate to have as an instructor a “lovely blonde student about twenty-five years old with one of the sexiest voices I have ever heard” (p.168).

               But if Hobbie came up short in his quest for a French girlfriend while in Montpelier, he tantalizes his readers with Madame Colette Gaudin, his French teacher in his second year at Dartmouth, for my money the memoir’s most intriguing female figure.  Hobbie first spotted Madame Gaudin on the Dartmouth ski slopes – a “stunning, exquisitely graceful skier” (p.54) – and signed up for her class almost immediately thereafter. The “gorgeous” Madame Gaudin, with a “husky, seductive voice like the actress Lauren Bacall” (p.53), proved to be an excellent teacher.

            Hobbie’s new French teacher “often wore a black, loosely knitted sweater . . . and semed to slowly remove it, stretching it over her head, at least once in each class’ (p.54).  Hobbie reveals that he entertained a “secret daydream that a faculty member might wish to have an affair with a reverential man a dozen years younger,” adding that he will be “grateful forever to Madame Gaudin for her excellent French instruction” (p.53).  Hobbie barely hints at what he learned from Madame Gaudin’s instruction, leaving his readers yearning for more particulars (readers will be reassured to know that Hobbie found the elusive true and lasting love of his life while serving in the Peace Corps in Korea after graduation, where he met his future wife Young Ei; today he and Young are the proud parents of two adult children and a recently arrived grandchild).

               While detailing how he pursued women on two continents, studied literature and sang around the country in the Glee Club, Hobbie weaves into his memoir his growing awareness of the changes that were sweeping the country at large during his undergraduate years.  In the fall of 1963, when both Hobbie and I arrived in Hanover, John Kennedy was President; it was in many ways an extension of the 1950s.  Haircuts were short, ties, when they were worn (almost never at Dartmouth after the first week, up until graduation), were narrow.  Alcohol flowed freely – way too freely, in retrospect – but marijuana was a rare indulgence and few if any undergraduates could have told you what LSD was. War protest did not yet exist, although the United States already had limited involvement in Vietnam’s civil war.

                     In the winter of 1964, our first winter term in Hanover, there were signs across the country that “the times, they were a changin’,” to borrow from rising singer Bob Dylan.  John Kennedy had been killed the previous fall – a traumatic and defining moment for all of us in the first term of our first year.  Although we certainly didn’t realize it at the time, the 1950s were giving way to the 1960s.  Four guys from Liverpool, who called themselves the Beatles, had taken the country by storm with a new genre of music.

                 By the time we graduated in 1967, psychedelic drugs were competing with alcohol in many corners of the campus and weekly protests against the Vietnam War had become part of standard campus activity, seeming to increase in intensity each week.  Hobbie relates how his opposition to the Vietnam War crystallized in Sweden through intense discussions with students during his summers there (the war also led to Hobbie’s opportunity to dance with Eartha Kitt, who was singing professionally in Sweden because her anti-war activities had undermined her career in the United States).

                   But nothing to my mind better illustrates the changes of our undergraduate years than two visits of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace to the campus, the first in 1963, during our freshman year, the second in 1967, weeks prior to graduation. Wallace’s first visit precipitated a firm but modest and fully civil protest.  When Wallace reappeared on campus for a second visit in the spring of 1967, he was met with a far more unruly reception, with demonstrators seeking to shout him down when he attempted to deliver a speech in a campus auditorium, then blocking and ultimately jumping on his car as Wallace sought to leave the campus.  Hobbie, a strong supporter of civil rights from his earliest undergraduate days,  recounts how he happened to be in the vicinity when he spotted the crowd impeding Wallace’s departure and, more or less spontaneously, joined in the excitement of the moment.

                 Not unexpectedly, Hobbie befriended one of the few African-Americans in our class – one of three, Hobbie indicates.  That friendship leads Hobbie to reflect upon the near-total lack of what we would now term diversity: our class consisted of close to 800 white boys.  There were no women in the class, to be sure, and at best only a handful of non-Caucasian men.  Hobbie seems to have found and become friends with all of them.  As he further notes, not all our classmates were spirited heterosexuals like himself.  But “gay” was not yet a term in use in those days to refer to one’s sexuality, and the young men whose objects of desire were other young men stayed more or less in a dark closet. One example was Hobbie’s African-American friend, who was also a gay man – a fact I learned only after reading his obituary when he died of AIDS in the 1980s.

* * *

                 Dartmouth is of course a very different institution today from what it was in Hobbie’s time, with women adding immeasurable richness to the school, and both the faculty and student body achieving demographic diversity beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings in the mid-1960s.  But in the era when he attended Dartmouth, Hobbie was quite plainly in the right place.  Although perhaps not his objective, his relentlessly upbeat memoir reveals how he maximized the advantages that Dartmouth offered its undergraduates in the mid-1960s.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 27, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Biography, Gender Issues

The Full Six-Pack

 

Laura Thompson, Take Six Girls,

The Lives of the Mitford Sisters 

            Is there anything more or original left to say about the Mitford sisters, those six girls born into the English upper class between 1904 and 1920 and became household names in the fraught 1930s, achieving both fame and notoriety that would endure throughout World War II and the entire post-war period, up until the last died in 2014? Freelance author and journalist Laura Thompson thinks so. Adding to a long list of works about the Mitfords — enough to fill a mid-size library if you include the many books by the sisters themselves – Thompson seeks to capture a collective Mitford spirit rooted in the times in which the sisters lived and their inter-family relations — a “veritable morass of female rivalries, shifting and reconfiguring throughout their lives” (p.25), as she puts it in Take Six Girls, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters.

            Thompson says the Mitford girls were like a “social experiment, the results of which would have staggered even the most imaginative scientist” (p.1). Oldest daughter Nancy (1904-1973) became a highly acclaimed novelist and writer.  Second daughter Pamela (1907-1994) married a brilliant but eccentric physicist and accomplished horseman, who had five additional marriages; when her marriage broke up, she took up with an Italian horsewoman.  Diana (1910-2003) left what from the outside looked like the perfect high society marriage for Oswald Mosley, the demagogic leader of Britain’s fascist party, and she and Mosley spent time in jail during World War II as potential traitors to Britain.  Unity (1914-1948) in her early 20s became a particular favorite of Adolph Hitler, meeting with the Führer on more than 100 occasions, and thereby made herself the object of thoroughgoing public revulsion as relations between Britain and Germany worsened in the late 1930s.  Jessica ((1917-1996), a fervent communist, went to Spain to support the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War, and ended up in the United States, where she became a leading American progressive.  Only Deborah (1920-2014), the youngest sister, managed to live something akin to a conventional aristocratic life.   And then there was brother Tom (1909-1945) , born between Pamela and Diana, an integral if outmatched part of the family.

            The term “Mitfordian” has a meaning, Thompson contends, much like Dickensian or Proustian, although that meaning never quite emerges in these pages.  The sisters’ complexity and their feisty individualism would likely thwart any attempt to provide a tidy definition to the term.  Still, Thompson identifies some commonalities between the six Mitford sisters.  The  sisters were “never going to be ignored,” she writes. “Being what they were, they did not want to be. They had a feel for the limelight, a desire to prance in the in the glow” (p.10).  They were “naturally and comfortably shameless” or at least “shame free” (p.9).  A “blend of formality and anarchy that is impossible now to achieve,” with an “indestructibly feminine way of breaking the rules,” the sisters “always operated within certain boundaries” (p.24).

         Thompson arranges her book in approximate chronological order, in four parts: Part I, family background and early years; Part II, the 1930s; Part III, World War II; and Part IV, post-war.   But the parts are unnamed, with no titles, leaving readers on their own to figure out the focus and direction for each. Thompson writes in a breezy, informal style that at times becomes too cute.  We can imagine that we the readers are seated next to her on a couch as she goes through a family photograph album and provides commentary, caustic and defensive in equal doses, while showing us family photos.

        Eldest daughter Nancy and third daughter Diana loom larger than the rest in Thompson’s account, the two centerpieces to the story of six sisters.  “When people talk about the ‘Mitford Girls,’” Thompson writes, it is Diana and Nancy whom they really mean, “because without the separate components of Diana and Nancy the spell of the whole would never have been created” (p.11).  Nancy and Diana were the two queens “who dominated the rest, and who each would have dominated outright had it not been for the other” (p.113).

          Thompson draws freely upon Nancy’s novels as keys to understanding the family.  The Pursuit of Love, Nancy’s 1945 best seller that Thompson compares to Brideshead Revisited, “contains the genesis of the Mitford myth” (p.12). It was Nancy’s “mythologizing skills” and the way she marketed herself, her family and her social class that gave rise to the sustained public interest in what Thompson terms the “full six-pack” (p.19). Without these mythologizing skills, the girls would have been looked at individually, with most focus on Unity and her friendship with Hitler.

          The Mitford girls were born into the early 20th century English aristocracy, at a time when its wealth was diminished and its influence increasingly under question. The girls’ upbringing manifested many of the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities that go with generations of inherited privilege. While brother Tom went off to Eton, the girls were educated at home, at the three different country houses they inhabited. Home education was handled partially by governesses, but more by giving the girls access to the family library, full of books of all genres, and being told to read.  And read they did, voraciously.

         The head of the household, David Mitford, was the 2nd Baron Redesdale, a loving father by the standards of the times but at a loss as to how he should react to his “bright and mischievous and competitive” daughters (p.77).  Like many of his social class, David, a peer in the House of Lords, was hopeless with money.  David’s wife, Sydney Bowles, the girls’ mother, was cold, reserved, judgmental, miserly with praise – “not innately maternal” (p.64), as Thompson delicately puts it.  Unlike her husband, however, Sydney was fastidious when it came to money.   But in Thompson’s account, David and Sydney are mostly perplexed parents, not quite sure what to make of or do with the seven children they brought into the world.

          Whereas many English aristocratic families identified culturally with France, David and Sydney entertained an affinity for German culture.  They were attracted to the writings of Goethe and Schiller, the music of Bach and Brahms, the operas of the Wagners.   This affinity proved problematic in the 1930s, after Hitler came to power.   Like many in the English upper classes, David and Sydney saw Hitler and the Nazis as a bulwark against communism, which they considered by far the greater menace.  David in the 1930s became one of Britain’s most outspoken proponents of appeasement of Hitler.  Of the seven Mitford children, all but Nancy and Jessica shared this generally benign view of Hitler and the Nazis prior to World War II.

          Thompson notes that oldest daughter Nancy’s debutante ball at age 18 was in 1922, the year Mussolini came to power in Italy. Deborah, the last sibling, had her coming out ball in 1938, just after Hitler’s Anchluss with Austria. The Mitford girls thus came of age during “one of the most politically explosive periods in history” (p.1). In this tense period, politics became “ever more openly polarized and extreme.  Communism and Fascism stood at each end of the global chessboard like clumsy monoliths. Democracy seemed a feeble little beast by contrast, bleating of moderation in the face of the aftermath of war and the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression and mass unemployment” (p.5). While the book covers the sisters into the 21st century, the Mitford phenomenon finds its origins in the tumultuous period  prior to World War II.  The “nature of the girls, the nature of the world at that time: such a configuration can never happen again” (p.3).

* * *

            Eldest daughter Nancy was not the only talented writer among the sisters, but she was the unofficial family raconteur and scribe.  She was also the token Francophile in a family drawn to German culture.   By the standards of the time, she married quite late, at the ripe age of 28, to Peter Rodd, after having pursued a dashing homosexual who was more interested in brother Tom.  Her marriage to Rodd proved unsatisfactory.  Like most of the men who entered the Mitford women’s lives, Rodd chased numerous other women during the marriage (he purportedly proposed to several others on the night she accepted his marriage proposal).  But in the end, Rodd was “simply too boring” for Nancy (p.150).  During World War II, Nancy struck up a relationship with Gaston Palewski, a Free French officer close to Charles de Gaulle, and followed him to Paris after the war.  Palewski was even more proficient than Rodd in pursuing multiple women simultaneously. They never married, but Nancy’s affection for Palewski  remained unwavering during the post-war years, which she spent in Paris, writing prolifically.  Through it all, her relationship with Diana was riddled with tension.

            Diana was in Thompson’s view the most physically attractive of the sisters, “beautiful as a goddess” (p.8).  At age 19, she married Bryan Guinness, heir to a family fortune derived in part from the beer of that name.  Although Bryan was a “worshipping husband” and the couple had two young sons together, Diana left her life of “picture book perfection” (p.8) with Guinness for Oswald Mosley, head of Britain’s Fascist Party, the British Union of Fascists, and 14 years Diana’s senior.  Married at the time, Mosley too was a serial womanizer.  But he continued to live with wife during his affair with the 22-year-old Diana, while pursuing other women.  Diana lived for nearly two years in a separate residence, an outcast in her family, waiting for Mosley’s attentions.  Her conduct seems mad, Thompson writes.  She had walked out on a man who had “given her everything, to face a future of absolute uncertainty” with “London’s worst philanderer” (p.136-37).   In 1932, open adultery of this kind was “scandalous beyond comprehension” (p.137).  Thompson describes Diana’s otherwise inexplicable attraction to Mosley as the “unfathomable paradox” within Diana: “a woman of the most intensely civilized values . . . was, in her deepest soul, attracted to something dark, harsh, dictatorial and violent” (p.140).

          Only after Mosley’s wife died did he and Diana marry – at the home of chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, with Adolph Hitler as the guest of honor.  Although Mosley’s philandering did not end with the marriage, they stayed married for the remainder of their lives. The Mosleys actually came closest together as a couple during World War II, after  both were interned as wartime security risks, without charges or trial.  When public authorities sought to intern Mosley, Nancy suggested that his internment would be “quite useless if [Diana] is still at large” (p.244).  After three years’ imprisonment, the couple was released in November 1943 because of Mosley’s ill health. Jessica stated in an open letter to Prime Minister Churchill that their release betrayed “those who have died for the cause of anti-fascism” (p.249).

            Diana’s sister Unity, four years younger, introduced Diana to Hitler after the two sisters had attended a major Nazi rally in Nuremberg.  Unity was most likely conceived in a small Canadian mining town called Swastika, Thompson indicates, when Sydney accompanied David on an otherwise unsuccessful mining venture. Cynics might therefore contend that the Nazi symbol remained embedded in her genes from that point forward.  In early 1934, at age 20, Unity went to Munich, with the crazy schoolgirl dream of meeting Hitler.  Thompson speculates that this was her way of competing with older sister Diana, who was by then with Mosley.  Somehow, she did meet the Führer, and spent substantial time in his presence between 1936 and 1940, with 140 documented meetings.

                Unity was treated “like an honored guest at rallies, [and] at events such as the Berlin Olympics of 1936 and the Bayreuth Festival; she was twice invited to [Hitler’s] retreat at Berchtesgaden . . . Effectively Unity was admitted to Hitler’s inner circle” (p.168).  Her relationship with Hitler, Thompson indicates, was most probably platonic.  There’s no clue that Unity was a romantic rival to Eva Braun, the Führer’s official mistress (see my review of two books on Hitler’s relationship with Braun, reviewed here in March 2013). Thompson describes Hitler’s attraction to Unity as “light relief, a combination of younger sister, court jester and talisman . . . [Hitler] was impressed by Britain, fascinated by its ability to command an empire, and like so many people he was compelled by the British aristocracy” (p.169). For her part, Unity in her early twenties came to consider herself an intermediary between Britain and Germany, capable of steering the two countries away from war.

               More than Diana, Unity was vilified in the public eye for her coziness with the Nazis as Britain and Germany inched toward war. In August 1939, just before the war’s outbreak, Unity attempted unsuccessfully to take her own life, leaving her with substantial brain damage from which she never recovered.  The bullet lodged itself at the back of her head, in a position too precarious to allow its removal, “causing her to become wholly childlike in her moods, her lack of co-ordination and her incontinence. Yet somehow she remained very much herself” (p.209).  Unity was the first of the Mitford sisters to die, in 1948, at age 34.

           Although always under the spell of her older sister Diana, Unity somehow remained close to her sister Jessica, the family’s official lefty, a communist who unlike most of the rest of the family looked upon Hitler as a grave threat.  While Jessica never wavered in her dislike for Diana, and saw her only rarely in adult life, she considered her Nazi-loving sister Unity “easily my favorite sister” (p.255), an innocent, led astray by Diana.

            Jessica’s embrace of communism was for her parents almost completely beyond comprehension. Jessica created her own family scandal, akin to Diana leaving her marriage for Mosley, when she eloped with a fellow communist, Esmond Romilly, the nephew and rumored son of Winston Churchill, whom she had met in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Romilly was an Alpha male, much like Mosley in that regard — “Mosley with a red flag” (p.182) – and still another man who did not attach a high priority to marital fidelity.

            The pair traveled to the United States as war loomed, owning and running a bar in Miami purchased with the assistance of Washington Post owner Phillip Graham.  Esmond joined Canadian Air Force in 1940, and was lost in action after a bombing raid over Germany in 1941.  Jessica stayed in Washington during the war, where she worked for the government.  She eventually remarried, to American civil rights lawyer Phillip Truehart, a leading American progressive and also – surprise – a serial philanderer.

        Jessica and Truehaft were actively engaged in the civil rights struggles of the late ‘40s and 1950s, and both came under suspicion for their Communist Party affiliations during the McCarthy era.  She and Truehaft left the Party in 1958.  In the 1960s, Jessica became a best-selling author with her The American Way of Death, an exposé of the exploitative practices of the American funeral industry.  She continued investigative journalism and the pursuit of liberal causes in the United States and wrote prolifically for the remainder of her life.

       Pamela and Deborah are the sisters most difficult to decipher in this account, seeming to get lost amongst their flashier sisters. Second-oldest Pamela married the eccentric Derek Jackson, a brilliant physicist and accomplished horseman, with a colorful personal life who married six times. Thompson contends that Jackson was at one time or another in love with all the Mitford girls except Nancy, as well as with brother Tom.  After her divorce from Jackson in the 1950s, Pamela took up with an Italian horsewoman, Giuditta Tommasi, in what turned out to be a lasting partnership.

          The last daughter, Deborah, had the life that most closely conformed to whatDavid and Sydney had in mind for all their daughters.  As a young woman, she became friendly with the Kennedy family.  At a party at the United States Embassy, she not only danced with the future American president, she also met Andrew Cavendish, the nephew of future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (Andrew’s brother Billy married Kathleen Kennedy in 1944, but was killed in the war shortly thereafter; Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948). Deborah married Andrew in 1941 and became the Duchess of Devonshire.  Her marriage proved to be the most stable by far among the sisters.  Thompson describes Deborah as “emollient. She really was the only Mitford girl to retain good relations with all the others and to receive, and deftly juggle, all their confidences” (p.65). The last of the Mitfords to die, in 2014, Deborah’s most conspicuous eccentricity was that she was an inveterate fan of Elvis Presley and filled her stately country home with memorabilia of America’s king.

            Brother Tom, growing up surrounded on all sides by female energy and intensity, seems to have been a decent chap, good looking and likely gay.  Tom was the one person in the family “whom everybody both respected and liked” (p.71). His affection for Hitler and the Nazis rivaled that of Diana and Unity. He died in World War II, fighting Japan, after refusing to fight in Europe against Germany.  Tom’s loss was felt deeply by all his sisters. They were “united in the fact that they all loved Tom: a man who had known Mosley and Romilly and had found the respect and liking of both” (p.283-84).

* * *

             Whether Thompson’s book contains any breakthrough revelations that might lead to a new and different understanding of the six sisters is a question for more seasoned Mitford readers and scholars.  The book may not produce a lasting collective notion of the sisters and what made them so . . . Mitfordian.  But readers who are new to the Mitfords will find Thompson’s work a thorough introduction to the sisters, while seasoned Mitford readers are likely to marvel anew at the sheer implausibility of the six sisters’ stories. You can’t make this stuff up!

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 16, 2018

 

 

 

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Filed under Biography, British History, English History

Apolitical Technocrat or War Criminal?

 

Martin Kitchen, Speer: Hitler’s Architect 

            Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s chief architect who also served as Nazi Germany’s Minister of Armaments from 1942 up to the end of World War II, was one of 24 high level officials placed on trial by the victorious allies at the International Military Tribunal, which met from November 1945 to October 1946 in Nuremberg, Germany.  The Nuremberg defendants were charged under a common indictment with four general counts: 1) participating in a common plan or conspiracy against peace; 2) planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; 3) war crimes; and 4) crimes against humanity.  Ten of Speer’s fellow defendants received the death penalty.  In a compromise verdict among the court’s eight judges — two each from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union — Speer was acquitted on the first two counts, found guilty on the last two, and sentenced to a 20-year prison term, which he served at Berlin’s Spandau Prison until 1966.  Speer considered his sentence outrageously severe: he had seen himself as a primary candidate to lead the effort to rebuild a New Germany after the war and felt that he was being punished for the honesty and candor he had demonstrated at Nuremberg.

            That apparent honesty and candor had made a strong initial impression upon the British and American interrogators who had interviewed Speer prior to the trial, including Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Speer impressed his interrogators with what seemed like genuine remorse for his participation in the Nazi war effort.  He offered his assistance to Great Britain and the United States in bringing the war against Japan to a quick conclusion and expressed his willingness to work with the British and American governments to prevent valuable inside information on the German armaments industry from falling into the hands of the Soviet Union.  But Speer also impressed his interrogators by being the antithesis of the stereotypical Nazi official: he was articulate and refined, with a sense of culture and history, anything but the boorish, psychopathic thug that most people outside Germany associated with Nazi leadership.

              At the Nuremberg trial, Speer cast himself as an apolitical technocrat thrust into a role in the armaments industry which he had not sought, and emphasized how untamed technology was more responsible for the catastrophe of World War II than the Western Allies had realized.  He explained how, as Armaments Minister, he had concluded by late 1943 that the war was lost, and that in late 1944 and early 1945 had courageously countered Hitler’s order that German soldiers destroy everything in reach as they retreated – sometimes referred to as Hitler’s “Nero Order” – thereby saving many lives and substantial property.

          Perhaps because of his refined personal qualities and his refreshing differences from the stereotypical Nazi, neither his interrogators nor the prosecutors who presented the case against him probed in any depth into the labor conditions in the armaments operations that Speer controlled, or what he had or had not done to counter the Nazi project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population. Speer professed to have had no knowledge of the appalling mistreatment of the hundreds of thousands of unfortunates who had worked for him and to have been unaware of the fate of the European Jews.  He told the Nuremberg judges that he was willing to accept “responsibility” for his role in Nazi war crimes, but not “guilt.”  He admitted that he should have known about the Holocaust and the extent of other Nazi crimes, but he did not. His were errors of omission rather than commission, which he maintained were less reprehensible.

            If Speer was incensed by the harshness of the 20-year sentence he received at Nuremberg, British-Canadian historian Martin Kitchen considers the sentence almost unconscionably lenient.  In Speer: Hitler’s Architect, Kitchen, who has written extensively on Germany, World War II and the Cold War, contends that Speer was fortunate to escape the death sentences that befell many other members of Hitler’s inner circle, including Martin Bormann, Herman Göring and Fritz Sauckel, who had worked hand-in-hand with Speer in recruiting the labor force for the armaments industry during the war.  Kitchen writes throughout this exhaustively researched biography with the fervor of a man on a mission: to deflate what might be termed the “Speer myth” that Speer successfully cultivated at Nuremberg and afterwards as a refined and repentant former Nazi with no knowledge of the appalling labor conditions in the armaments industry or of the fate of European Jewry.  To the contrary, Kitchen argues, Speer was an “active participant in Nazi crimes” (p.364), one of the Third Reich’s leading criminals.

              It is “utterly inconceivable,” Kitchen writes, that a man in Speer’s position “knew nothing of the persecution of the Jews or the ill-treatment of the slave laborers that had the misfortune to work under him” (p.334).  Speer’s attempt to cast himself as a “conscience-stricken prophet in a technological wilderness” was a “sham” (p.364). Speer was “particularly frightening” because he was not a thuggish and boorish Nazi.  A “hollow man, resolutely bourgeois, highly intelligent, totally lacking in moral vision, unable to question the consequences of his actions and without scruples,” Speer was the “outstanding representative of a widespread type that made the regime possible.” The Third Reich “would never have been so deadly effective had it relied on the adventurers, thugs, half-crazed ideologues, racist fanatics and worshippers of Germanic deities that people the public image of the regime” (p.371).

          Readers hoping to glean an understanding of Speer’s character through information about his childhood or as the father of six children are likely to be disappointed by Kitchen’s account. Speer’s personal life barely figures in Kitchen’s 350 plus pages.  His book is almost exclusively about what Speer did after he said good-bye to the wife and kids in the morning and went off to work.  After an initial chapter on Speer’s early life, the book’s remaining 13 chapters can be divided into three parts: 1) Speer’s role as Hitler’s architect; 2) his work as Armaments Minister; and 3) his post-war life up to his death in 1981. The chapters on the German wartime armaments industry are by far the most extensive, with considerably more about bureaucratic in fighting and the manipulation of production statistics than most general readers will feel they need to know.

          But the chapters on Speer the architect and as Armaments Minster serve as a predicate for Kitchen’s assessment of Speer in his post-war life and his protracted effort to reinvent himself, at Nuremberg, during his twenty-year prison term, and in the 15 years that remained to him until his death in 1981.  The chapters on the post-war Speer have much of the tone and flavor of a prosecutor’s closing argument, where Kitchen seems to ask his readers to serve as jurors and render a judgment for the court of history on Speer and his carefully cultivated self-image in light of the facts presented about the man’s work in Hitler’s Third Reich.

* * *

         Albert Speer was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1905 into a Protestant family of comfortable means.  At age 22, he married Marguerite (“Gretel”) Weber, to whom he stayed married for the rest of his life. Although the workings of the marriage are almost entirely absent from Kitchen’s account, we learn in the initial chapter that Speer’s parents, who had a distant and generally cold relationship with their son, did not approve of his relationship with Gretel and did not meet her until seven years into the marriage. The couple had six children together, but we learn almost nothing about Speer’s relationship with any of them, other than that it was cold and distant, much like his relationship to his own parents.

            In March 1931, Speer joined Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party as Party Comrade 474,481. There is ample evidence that Speer’s attitude toward National Socialism was “far from being lukewarm” (p.22).  Although neither an ideologue nor anything more than an “instinctive anti-Semite,” Speer was an opportunist who utilized his party connections to make his rise to power possible. “In this too he was typical of the well-educated and skilled middle class that gave the Third Reich its compliant support, despite some reservations and occasional feelings of remorse” (p.24), Kitchen writes.

               Through chief Nazi Party propagandist Joseph Goebbels, Speer met Adolph Hitler in early 1933, shortly after Hitler had come to power. Over the course of the next twelve years, Speer remained a particular favorite of the Führer, forming with his boss the “closest thing to a friendship that Hitler ever managed to enjoy” (p.42).  When Paul Troost, Hitler’s architect, died suddenly in 1934, Hitler appointed the 28 year old Speer to succeed Trost.

            Speer was in Kitchen’s estimation at best a mediocre architect, lacking in creativity.  But Hitler sought a conversational partner to listen attentively to his grandiose ideas about architecture: “massive atavistic cult monuments that were a defiant rejection of modernity” (p.33), and “vast monuments to his boundless imperial ambitions” (p.34).  Speer filled that role perfectly. He gave “precise and direct answers to all his [Hitler’s] many questions. He never made the slightest attempt to curry favor. He appeared not to be intimidated by his immense power and prestige. Hitler admired his impeccable manners and self-confidence. He was a pleasant contrast to the toadying courtiers, adulating acolytes and heel-clicking automata in his customary entourage” (p.41).

        Speer was initially charged with designing a vast new chancellery in Berlin, a structure “designed to overawe and intimidate by its sheer size” (p.4). Then, in 1937, he was appointed General Building Inspector (GBI) for Berlin, with the task of drawing up plans for a New Berlin, grandiosely termed “Germania.”  In that capacity, Speer coordinated the seizure, exploitation and allocation of Jewish assets after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938. The GBI handed over some 10,000 Jews to Heinrich Himmler’s SS, “to be shipped to what was delicately described as ‘the East’” (p.96). An essential part of Speer’s plans to rebuild Berlin involved the creation of new concentration camps to quarry the stone and make the bricks for the Germania project.  In close collaboration with the SS, Speer ruthlessly exploited the labor of concentration camp inmates working in inhumane conditions. “There is no evidence that Speer and his colleagues showed the slightest sign of concern or even interest as to their fate” (p.95), Kitchen writes. National Socialist monumental architecture was thus “inextricably linked to the oppression, terror and murderous intent of Himmler’s SS” (p.73). From at least the time when he became GBI, Speer and his team of planners and architects were “intimately involved in the ‘Final Solution’” (p.100).

           Speer stepped into his position as Minister of Armaments when Fritz Todt, the minister at the war’s outset,  was killed  in an airplane accident in February 1942 under mysterious circumstances.  That Speer had no expertise in the armament field was a plus for Hitler, who “detested experts” and considered Speer a “loyal vassal, who would never dare step out of line” (p.121). Kitchen credits Speer with having exceptional organizational talent and being a generally effective bureaucrat, with a flair for besting rivals in inter-agency turf wars.  He “knew how to pick a team, delegate responsibility and deliver the goods” (p.35).  Speer was aware that with “virtually unlimited access to Hitler he held the key to power in the Third Reich. . . His closeness to Hitler enabled him to show scant concern for established rules of procedure or legal constraints” (p.122). Within a few weeks of becoming Minister of Armaments, Speer had made himself into “one of them most powerful figures in the Third Reich” (p.133-34).

        Hitler gave Speer authority to shut down all branches of industry that were not directly or indirectly connected to armaments and supported him in almost all instances.  By mid-1943, Speer had acquired “virtually dictatorial powers over the economy at home and in the occupied territories. . . His powers extended from the Soviet Union, Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to Luxembourg, Alsace Lorraine, Carinthia, Carniola and Lower Syria” (p.177-78).  Although Speer may have concluded in this time frame that the war was hopelessly lost, as he subsequently claimed at Nuremberg, this was not the message he was delivering to those working under him and to the Führer himself.

      Speer continually emphasized how will power could overcome all obstacles to victory, aided by forthcoming “miracle weapons.” The worse the situation on the ground became, the “greater the emphasis on ‘miracle weapons’ that would soon become operational and turn the tables on the enemy. Speer did all he could to raise expectations, even appointing a special propaganda section within his ministry to trumpet future wonders” (p.253).  Kitchen has no doubt that Speer “did indeed help to prolong the war longer than many thought possible, as a result of which millions were killed and Germany reduced to a pile of rubble” (p.364-66).

            Kitchen contends that Speer’s resistance to Hitler’s “Nero Order,” in which the Führer ordered the destruction of areas not likely to be regained in light of the Allied advances in both the East and West, was far less courageous than Speer made it seem at Nuremberg.  A “scorched earth policy was never a viable option. The Germans lacked the time, the manpower and the explosives to carry out demolition on this scale” (p.255).   Industrialists, bankers and the business elite, along with substantial portions of the military and the civil administration, all “refused to accept the preposterous notion that there was no alternative to national suicide” (p.265).  Speer had the support of the vast majority of the German people, who wanted “nothing more than an end to all the misery and suffering. He also had the distinct advantage that the communications network had broken down.  Orders from Hitler’s bunker seldom reached the front line” (p.265).

           In close collaboration with Fritz Sauckel, Speer used laborers, including POWs, as needed in his armament operations.  As in the projects for Berlin, Himmler once again supplied Speer and Sauckel with much of the labor they needed from the slave labor camps his SS maintained. Himmler viewed the camps as instruments of oppression to punish the state’s enemies and eliminate undesirables — “annihilation through work” (p.39) was his mantra.   Speer took the more pragmatic view that starving workers to death was “not an effective way to run a business” (p.153). But Speer “needed workers, which Himmler had in ample supply” (p.73).

        At Nuremberg, Speer pointed the finger at Sauckel as being responsible for the inhumane working conditions in the armaments industry. Sauckel was “crude and uneducated, lacked style and had a grating personality.” He stood in sharp contrast to Speer, “handsome, suave, polite, cultured and solidly bourgeois” (p.311). These differences, in Kitchen’s view, account for the difference in sentencing of the two men: the death penalty for Sauckel versus 20 years in Spandau prison for Speer.

          Kitchen describes Speer’s defense at Nuremberg as “masterly,” presenting himself as a “diligent minister who stuck to the immediate tasks at hand, leaving politics to others” (p.286). Speer’s decision to accept “overall responsibility” for Nazi crimes but not “guilt” – which Kitchen terms an “empty formula” (p.363) — was contrary to what his lawyer wanted but turned out to be a “brilliant move that saved him from the hangman’s noose” (p.286). Speer remained calm throughout the trial, “convincing all who witnessed his performance that he stood apart from his more unsavory colleagues” (p.286-87).  But the reason he did not receive the death penalty at Nuremberg was that “no mention was made of his treatment of the Jews in Berlin” and that his “close cooperation with Himmler, the SS and the concentration camps was overlooked” (p.312).

          After he left Spandau prison in 1966, Speer continued to reinvent his past, claiming to have been victimized by an evil system and by the “phantom of technology that had enslaved him.” It was an “extraordinary achievement for a man who was responsible for so many deaths to present himself to the world as a guiltless innocent,” Kitchen concludes, “and to have been so astonishingly successful in getting away with it” (p.328).

* * *

      Kitchen presents a highly-convincing case that Speer was indeed lucky to have escaped a death sentence at Nuremberg.  The self-image which Speer so carefully cultivated — an “apolitical penitent, unaware of the crimes committed by the regime he served, an innocent victim of a remorseless technocratic age” (p.9), as Kitchen phrases it — had begun to crumble well before Kitchen’s fervently argued book.  But with Kitchen’s assiduous compilation from a more complete factual record than what had previously been available, there is little likelihood that  Speer’s implausibly benign self-image will be taken seriously anytime in the foreseeable future.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

March 26, 2018

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Biography, European History, German History