Category Archives: Biography

Formidable Thinker, Reluctant Politician, President of Two Countries

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Michael Žantovsky, Havel: A Life

     In our time of rising xenophobia, ethnic nationalism and raging populism, Václav Havel, if he is remembered at all, seems anachronistic, a quaint figure from a bygone era. The first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, Havel (1936-2011) was elected during the “Velvet Revolution” in December 1989, barely a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall and just days after Soviet control of Czechoslovakia collapsed.  After the 1992 “Velvet Divorce” split the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Havel served as Czech Republic president from 1993 to 2003.

     Although both Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first, Havel was more than just president of two countries. He was also a towering moral symbol in Eastern Europe’s remarkable transition to democracy in the 1990s after decades of communist rule.  Michael Zantovsky demonstrates in his engaging biography, Havel: A Life, how Havel was instrumental in bringing about the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, “one of the most dramatic social transitions of recent history” (p.1). As president of two countries, Havel should be credited with “finally putting to rest one of the most alluring utopias of all time” (p.1).

     Havel may fairly be paired with Nelson Mandela, the most visible and best-known engineer of late 20th century transitions to democracy. Before becoming political leaders, both Mandela and Havel were jailed on account of their dissident activities.  Like Mandela, Havel advocated non-violence “not only as a matter of moral principle but as a weapon of political struggle” (p.437). But unlike Mandela, who was a man of action par excellence – a boxer as a young man, then a civil rights lawyer – Havel was an intellectual par excellence.

    Zantovsky describes Havel as a “formidable thinker, who consistently attempted to apply the results of his thinking process . . . to his practical engagement in the realm of politics” (p.1-2).  Havel’s deep thinking on the individual in the modern state is as much a part of his legacy as his actual steering of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic through the post-communist years.  Havel was already known as a playwright when he became a dissident challenging the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. If he had never entered politics, we would likely remember him as one of the 20th century’s most noteworthy  playwrights, on par with the likes of Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Berthold Brecht.

     Zantovsky’s book divides into two roughly equal parts: Havel the playwright and dissident in the first half; Havel the politician in the second. Zantovsky himself is an important figure in his story. A clinical psychologist by training, a correspondent for Reuters, and once an aspiring rock music lyricist, Zantovsky served as a primary advisor and press secretary to Havel during the early transition years. Later, he received appointments as Czech Ambassador to both the United States and the United Kingdom. Zantovsky admits to having shared with Havel “many laughs, moments of sadness, quite a few drinks and some incredible moments together, both before and after he became president” (p.5).  Zantovsky’s insider’s view, seen only rarely in biography, does not preclude him from presenting a balanced portrait of his one-time boss that includes Havel’s shortcomings and failures. Zantovsky also indicates that this is his first book in English. His crisp, straightforward style, coupled with wry observations and humorous digressions, reveals a high comfort level not only with his subject but also with the English language.

* * *

     Havel’s early years coincided with the critical events that marked the life of his country and indelibly shaped his adult perspective. In 1938, when Havel was two, France and Great Britain abandoned the defense of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in the infamous Munich accords of 1938, the “prime trauma of modern Czechoslovak history” (p.336). The Nazis invaded the country in March 1939. After their defeat in World War II, Stalinists in 1948 seized control of the Czechoslovak government in a non-violent putsch and instituted a communist regime that lasted four decades, until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 (these events are set forth in Prague Winter, the memoir of Madeline Albright, a fellow Czech native and prominent contemporary and friend of Havel, reviewed here in May 2013).

      Havel grew up in comfortable circumstances, but his moderately wealthy bourgeois background was not an asset once the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia. Havel’s privileged upbringing left him feeling “’alone, inferior, lost, ridiculed’ and humbled” (p.21). This feeling of being outcast, isolated and unfairly privileged, Zantovsky writes, “remained with Havel throughout his life. In his own thinking it endowed him with a lifelong perspective from ‘below’ or from the ‘outside.’” (p.21). From his teens onward, Havel was a “leader, setting agendas, walking at the front, showing the way. . . [but] with a diffidence, kindness and politeness so unwavering (and often unwarranted) that Havel himself caricatured it some of his plays” (p.3). At age 19, when he fell in love with his life-long partner and wife Olga Šplichalová, Havel already had the “gravitas of really believing what he was saying” (p.53).

     Havel’s bourgeois background precluded him from being accepted in an arts and science faculty at a Czech university. He was able to gain admission to a program in the economics of transportation, an arcane field that did not interest him, and he dropped out to join the Czech military. After completing military service, Havel became a playwright and an established member of the “shadow, non-conformist, bohemian underworld” (p.41) of the Prague intellectual class. Whatever he did  in the future, Zantovksy indicates, Havel’s loyalties always remained with this shadowy underworld.

     Havel’s plays explored how inauthenticity, alienation, the absurd, social isolation and depersonalization affected individuals in Czechoslovakia and totalitarian societies generally.   In one of his best known plays, “The Memorandum,” Havel posed the question of “passive participation in evil” (p.93), a question that he would return to repeatedly. Havel sought to demonstrate how totalitarian control drives individuals to “isolation, and makes them fear, suspect and avoid others” (p.95). But the human capacity to “’live the truth,’ to reaffirm man’s ‘authentic identity’” constitutes in all of Havel’s plays what Zantovsky terms the “nuclear weapon” that “gives power to the powerless. As soon as the system is no longer able to extract the ritual endorsement from its subjects, its ideological pretensions collapse as the lies they are” (p.200).

     In the 1960s, Havel gradually became associated with dissident opposition to the Communist regime. With his principal themes of identity, responsibility and the elusive notion of “living in truth” by this time fully formed, Havel came to the hazardous conclusion that rather than “waste time by hopelessly tinkering with the [communist] system in the effort of making it livable and sustainable, it was necessary to replace it as a whole” (p.96). Havel became a full-fledged leader of the dissident movement at the time of the “Czech spring” of 1968, when the Czechoslovak government sought to institute modest reforms under the guise of “socialism with a human face.” In August of that year, the Soviet Union brutally suppressed the fledgling reform movement in one of the “most massive overnight military invasions in European history” (p.115). Twenty oppressive years of what the communists termed “normalization” followed.

     The early years of so-called “normalization” following suppression of the Czech Spring were for Havel a period of “shapeless fog” (p.132). But by the mid-1970s, Havel had become the driving force behind the Czechoslovak dissident movement.  His essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” dissected the nature of the communist regime and argued that sustained opposition on the part of ordinary citizens could eventually topple it. Havel became one of the principal authors of Charter 77, written in late 1977 in response to the imprisonment of members of  Czech psychedelic rock band.  Charter 77 became the defining document of the Czech dissident movement and helped raise awareness in Western countries of human rights behind the Iron Curtain. The charter criticized the Czechoslovak government for failing to implement human rights provisions in its constitution and in a host of international instruments that it had signed.

     During his dissident years, Havel landed in prison on multiple occasions, the longest being nearly four years, between 1979 and 1983. While imprisoned, Havel wrote an extensive series of letters to his wife Olga, later published as “Letters to Olga” — “hybrids of creative writing, philosophy and political prose” (p.3). Although in jail when Czech dissident activities surged in the early 1980s, Havel was nonetheless directly or indirectly linked to these activities, as an “instigator, an inspiration, a spectator or as a friend. It almost appears as if he were a spider at the center of a web, spinning and waiting” (p.275). Around this time, Havel “must have realized himself that he was on a transitional trajectory from being an artist and dissident to becoming a politician” (p.275). His prison experience had made him “uniquely well prepared for the single-minded focus towards the tasks ahead, culminating with his leadership of the Velvet Revolution” (p.231).

     A dizzying six weeks after the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, Havel, leading a disparate group termed Civic Forum, became his country’s first freely elected president since the legendary post-World War I leader Tomas Masaryk.  Havel “probably never dreamt about being president, nor did he particularly wish to assume the office. Throughout his life he thought of himself primarily as a writer; what people thought about his writing affected him much more personally than what they thought about him as a politician” (p.317). But in what Zantovsky terms the “reality play of his life,” Havel had “set the stage in such a way that, when the final act arrived, the logic of the piece inexorably led him to assume the leading position” (p.317) as the newly independent state set upon an uncertain transformation away from totalitarian rule and toward democracy.

* * *

     Both as a protester and as a politician, Havel advocated what Zantovsky terms “socialist humanism,” an idealized version of the social welfare states of Western Europe. Despite his voracious reading and self-education, when Havel became president he was “ignorant of the fundamentals of economic theory” and “totally unfamiliar with the practical workings of a real economy” (p.392-93). Only “grudgingly” did Havel come to “acknowledge, and even to respect the role of political organizations as agents of change and condensers of political energy” (p.204). In an interview after he left office, Havel said that his most serious mistake as president was that he had “not more energetically promoted his vision of a humanistic and moral society during his time as president.” To many people, especially his detractors, Zantovsky wryly notes, “he had done little else” (p.459).

     Havel seemed embarrassed by the power that his political position yielded, “always wary of trying to elevate himself or of exaggerating his own importance” (p.405). In leading the transition away from communism and toward democracy, one of Havel’s strengths, but arguably also a weakness, was that he rejected the “concept of the Enemy.” He consistently went out of his way to “understand rather than to demonize the motives of the other side and, if at all possible, always to extend to them the benefit of the doubt” (p.108-09). Havel’s conciliatory approach “led to accusations that he was soft on the exponents of the previous regime, or even that there was possible some secret collusion between them” (p.109).

     The most significant issue Havel had to deal with as President of Czechoslovakia was the Velvet Divorce, when a Slovak independence movement split the country in July 1992 into a new Czech Republic and a southern and eastern neighbor, Slovakia. Havel could not endorse separation, which “ran against the grain of his conviction, his philosophy, his understanding of democracy and his sense of responsibility” (p.419). But neither could Havel take a “heroic stand” against separation, “in view of the risks and uncertainties this would pose for 15 million of his fellow citizens” (p.419). It was better to have two functioning countries than a single, dysfunctional one, Havel reasoned. Havel resigned as president of Czechoslovakia after Slovakia’s official July 1992 declaration of independence.  He had no involvement in the working out of details of the separation over the following six months. But he was persuaded to run for the presidency of the new Czech Republic and became its first president in January 1993.

     As Czech President, Havel had a complicated relationship with Vaclav Klaus, his Prime Minister who went on to succeed Havel as Czech President in 2003.  Klaus was in many ways the opposite of Havel. A free-market economist, Klaus battled with Havel over the “character of Czech society and over the values and principles it should abide by. For Klaus, these values could be reduced to individual economic and political freedom and a vague allegiance to the national community as the conduit of history, culture and traditions” (p.456). Klaus was a Eurosceptic, whereas Havel “emphasized time and time again the great opportunity that the process of European integration offered for ‘civilizational self-reflection,’ and promoted the idea of ‘Europe as a mission’” (p.449). Havel’s relationship with his Polish counterpart Lech Walęsa, another hero in Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy, was less complicated, in no small measure because Walęsa shared Havel’s dedication to European integration for former Warsaw Pact  countries.

     Walęsa embodied the “heroic past of the Polish nation, with its brave if sometimes futile resistance to foreign oppressors,” whereas Havel “exemplified the fundamental unity of Central Europe with the rest of the West in terms of culture, philosophy and political thinking” (p.444). But despite differences in the two men’s character and outlook, they were a forceful single voice for expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe and accession of former Iron Curtain countries into the European Union, which both US President Bill Clinton and major Western European leaders initially opposed. Havel and Walęsa “complemented each other as well as any pair since Laurel and Hardy. It is hard to imagine that the enlargement would have occurred without either of them,” Zantovsky contends. “If most of Europe today is safer than at any time in its history, it is not least thanks to the vision of statesmen like Bill Clinton, Lech Walęsa. . . and Václav Havel” (p.444-45).

     When Havel left the Czech presidency in 2003, he was a widely known and respected figure worldwide, and he traveled extensively throughout the world.  His wife Olga had died in 1996 and Havel married an actress (Havel had more than his fair share of extra-marital affairs while married to Olga, which Zantovsky mentions but does not dwell upon). Havel became a Visiting Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington, where he wrote a memoir, “To the Castle and Back,” which Zantovksy describes as an “existential mediation on the meaning of life, politics and love, for which the presidency is not much more than a backdrop” (p.504). He also wrote a play, “Leaving,” that seemed to foreshadow his own death. After several years of declining health, brought about in part by a lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking, Havel died at his country home in December 2011, age 75.

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     Zantovsky summarizes the “remarkable balance sheet” of his former boss’ presidency by noting that Havel should be given credit for the “peaceful transformation of the country from totalitarian rule to democracy; [and] for building a stable system of democratic and political institutions, comparable in most respects, flaws included, to long-existing systems in the West” (p.497). Further, Havel “successfully brought the country back to Europe and made it an integral part of Western political and security alliances; and he remained an inspiration and identifiable supporter in the struggle for human rights and freedoms around the world” (p.497). Even the Velvet Divorce, Havel’s greatest setback as a political leader, was mitigated by its “peaceful and consensual character” (p.497).

    Yet Zantovsky also notes in his affectionate portrait that Havel “conspicuously failed at making the society at large adhere to his ideals of morality, tolerance, and civic spirit, but that said more about society than about him. Arguably, he had never expected to succeed fully” (p.497). Today, the ideals of this enigmatic, brilliant man and reluctant politician seem far more elusive than in Havel’s time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 19, 2016

5 Comments

Filed under Biography, Eastern Europe, European History, History

Blithe Optimist

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Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge:

The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

     Rick Perlstein has spent his career studying American conservatism in the second half of the 20th century and its capture of the modern Republican Party. His first major work, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, was an incisive and entertaining study of Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican Party nomination for the presidency and his landslide loss that year to President Lyndon Johnson. He followed with Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, a description of the nation at the time of Richard Nixon’s landslide 1972 victory over Senator George McGovern  — a nation divided by a cultural war between “mutually recriminating cultural sophisticates on the one hand and the plain, earnest ‘Silent Majority’ on the other” (p.xix). Now, in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Perlstein dives into American politics between 1973 and 1976, beginning with Nixon’s second term and ending with the failed bid of the book’s central character, Ronald Reagan, for  the 1976 Republican Party presidential nomination.

     The years 1973 to 1976 included the Watergate affair that ended the Nixon presidency in 1974; the ultra-divisive issue of America’s engagement in Vietnam, which ended in an American withdrawal from that conflict in 1975; and the aftershocks from the cultural transformations often referred to as “the Sixties.” It was a time, Perlstein writes, when America “suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history” (p.xiii). 1976 was also the bi-centennial year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which the nation approached with trepidation. Many feared, as Perlstein puts it, that celebration of the nation’s 200 year anniversary would serve the “malign ideological purpose of dissuading a nation from a desperately needed reckoning with the sins of its past” (p.712).

     Perlstein begins by quoting advice Nikita Khrushchev purportedly provided to Richard Nixon: “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.” Perlstein does not return to Khrushchev’s advice and, as I ploughed through his book, I realized that I had not grasped how the notion of an “invisible bridge” fits into his lengthy (804 pages!) narrative. More on that below. There’s no mystery, however, about Perlstein’s sub-title “The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”

     About one third of the book addresses Nixon’s fall in the Watergate affair and another third recounts Reagan’s rise to challenge President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican Party presidential nomination, including the year’s presidential primaries and the maneuvering of the Ford and Reagan presidential campaigns at the Republican National Convention that summer. The remaining third consists of biographical background on Reagan and his evolution from a New Deal liberal to a conservative Republican; an examination of the forces that were at work in the early 1970s to mobilize conservatives after Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 defeat; and Perlstein’s efforts to describe the American cultural landscape in the 1970s and capture the national mood, through a dazzling litany of vignettes and anecdotes. At times, it seems that Perlstein has seen every film that came to theatres in the first half of the decade; watched every television program from the era; and read every small and mid-size town newspaper.

     Perlstein describes his work as a “sort of biography of Ronald Reagan – of Ronald Reagan, rescuer” (p.xv) — rescuer, presumably, of the American psyche from the cultural convulsions of the Sixties and the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam that had shaken America’s confidence to the core. Perlstein considers Reagan to have been a gifted politician who exuded a “blithe optimism in the face of what others called chaos” (p.xvi), with an uncanny ability to simplify complex questions, often through stories that could be described as homespun or hokey, depending upon one’s perspective. Reagan was an “athlete of the imagination,” Perlstein writes, who was “simply awesome” at “turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-heartedness and certainty” (p.48). This power was a key to “what made others feel so good in his presence, what made them so eager and willing to follow him – what made him a leader. But it was why, simultaneously, he was such a controversial leader” (p.xv).   Many regarded Reagan’s blithe optimism as the work of a “phony and a hustler” (p.xv). At bottom, Reagan was a divider and not a uniter, Perlstein argues, and “understanding the precise ways that opinions about him divided Americans . . . better helps us to understand our political order of battle today: how Americans divide themselves from one another” (p.xvi).

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     In a series of biographical digressions, Perlstein demonstrates how Reagan’s blithe mid-western optimism served as the foundation for a long conversion to political conservatism.  Perlstein begins with Reagan’s upbringing in Illinois, his education at Illinois’ Eureka College, and his early years as a sportscaster in Iowa. Reagan left the mid-west in 1937 for Hollywood and a career in films, arriving in California as a “hemophiliac, bleeding heart liberal” (p.339). But, during his Hollywood years, Reagan came to see Communist Party infiltration of the film industry as a menace to the industry’s existence. He was convinced that Communist actors and producers had mastered the subtle art of making the free enterprise system look bad and thereby were undermining the American way of life.   Reagan became an informant for the FBI on the extent of Communist infiltration of Hollywood, a “warrior in a struggle of good versus evil – a battle for the soul of the world” (p.358), as Perlstein puts it. Reagan further came to resent the extent of taxation and viewed the IRS as a public enemy second only to Communists.

     Yet, Reagan remained a liberal Democrat through the 1940s. In 1948, he worked for President Truman’s re-election and introduced Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey to a national radio audience. In 1952, Reagan supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s bid for the presidency. His journey toward the conservative end of the spectrum was probably completed when he became host in 1954 of General Electric’s “GE Theatre,” a mainstay of early American television. One of America’s corporate giants, GE’s self-image was of a family that functioned in frictionless harmony, with the interests of labor and management miraculously aligned. GE episodes, Perlstein writes, were the “perfect expression” of the 1950s faith that nothing “need ever remain in friction in the nation God had ordained to benevolently bestride the world” (p.395). Reagan and his blithe optimism proved to be a perfect fit with GE Theatre’s mission of promoting its brand of Americanism, based on low taxes, unchallenged managerial control, and freedom from government regulatory interference.

     In the 1960 presidential campaign, Reagan depicted the progressive reforms which Democratic nominee John Kennedy advocated as being inspired by Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler. Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s rival, noted Reagan’s evolution and directed his staff to use Reagan as a speaker “whenever possible. He used to be a liberal” (p.374). By 1964, Reagan had become a highly visible backer of Barry Goldwater’s presidential quest, delivering a memorable speech in support of the candidate at the Republican National Convention. Reagan went on to be elected twice as governor of California, in 1967 and 1971.

     While governor, Reagan consistently argued for less government.  Our highest national priority, he contended at a national governors’ conference in 1973, should be to “halt the trend toward bigger, more expensive government at all levels before it is too late . . . We as citizens will either master government as our servant or ultimately it will master us” (p.160). Almost alone among conservatives, Reagan projected an image of a “pleasant man who understands why people are angry” (p.604), as one commentator put it. He gained fame if not notoriety during his tenure as governor for his hard line opposition to student protesters, particularly at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, attracting scores of working class Democrats who had never previously voted for a Republican. “Part of what made Berkeley [student unrest] such a powerful issue for traditionally Democratic voters was class resentment – something Ronald Reagan understood in his bones” (p.83).

     Early in Reagan’s second term as California’s governor, on June 17, 1972, four burglars were caught attempting to break into the Democratic national headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office and apartment complex. Throughout the ensuing investigation, Reagan seemed indifferent to what Time Magazine termed “probably the most pervasive instance of top-level misconduct in [American] history” (p.77).

* * *

     Watergate to Reagan was part of the usual atmosphere of campaigning, not much more than a prank.  Upon first learning about the break-in, he quipped that the Democrats should be happy that someone considered their documents worth reading. Throughout the investigation into corruption that implicated the White House, Reagan maintained a stubborn “Christian charity to a a fallen political comrade” (p.249). The individuals involved, he argued, were “not criminals at heart” (p.81). He told conservative commentators Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that he found “no evidence of criminal activity” in Watergate, which was why Nixon’s detractors were training their fire on “vague areas like morality and so forth” (p.249-50). Alone among political leaders, Reagan insisted that Watergate “said nothing important about the American character” (p.xiv).

     Thus, few were surprised when Reagan supported President Gerald Ford’s widely unpopular presidential pardon of Nixon for any crimes he might have committed related to Watergate, issued one month after Nixon’s resignation. Nixon had already suffered “punishment beyond anything any of us could imagine” (p.271), Reagan argued. Ford’s pardon of Nixon dissipated the high level of support that he had enjoyed since assuming the presidency, sending his public approval ratings from near record highs to near new lows. Democrats gained a nearly 2-1 advantage in the House of Representatives in the 1974 mid-term elections and Reagan’s party “seemed near to death” (p.329).

     As Ford’s popularity waned, Reagan saw an opportunity to challenge the sitting president. He announced his candidacy in November 1975. Reagan said he was running against what he termed a “buddy system” in Washington, an incestuous network of legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists which:

functions for its own benefit – increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker, who supports it with his taxes. . . I don’t believe for one moment that four more years of business as usual in Washington is the answer to our problems, and I don’t believe the American people believe it, either (p.547).

With Reagan’s bid for the 1976 Republican nomination, Perlstein’s narrative reaches its climatic conclusion.

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     The New York Times dismissed the presidential bid as an “amusing but frivolous Reagan fantasy” and wondered how Reagan could be “taken so seriously by the news media” (p.546). Harper’s termed Reagan the “Candidate from Disneyland” (p.602), labeling him “Nixon without the savvy or self pity. . . That he should be regarded as a serious candidate for President is a shame and embarrassment” (p.602). Commentator Garry Wills responded to Reagan’s charge that the media was treating him unfairly by conceding that it was indeed “unfair to expect accuracy or depth” from Reagan (p.602). But, as Perlstein points out, these comments revealed “more about their authors than they did about the candidate and his political prospects” (p.602), reflecting what he terms elsewhere the “myopia of pundits, who so frequently fail to notice the very cultural ground shifting beneath their feet” (p.xv).

     1976 proved to be the last year either party determined its nominee at the convention itself, rather than in advance. Reagan went into the convention in Kansas City as the most serious threat to an incumbent president since Theodore Roosevelt had challenged William Howard Taft for the Republican Party nomination in 1912. His support in the primaries and at the convention benefitted from a conservative movement that had come together to nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, a committed “army that could lose a battle, suck it up, and then regroup to fight a thousand battles more” (p.451) — “long memoried elephants” (p.308), Perlstein terms them elsewhere.

     In the years since the Goldwater nomination, evangelical Christians had become more political, moving from the margins to the mainstream of the conservative movement. Evangelical Christians were behind an effort to have America declared officially a “Christian nation.” Judicially-imposed busing of school students to achieve greater racial balance in public schools precipitated a torrent of opposition in cities as diverse as Boston, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky – the Boston opposition organization was known as ROAR, Restore our Alienated Rights. Perlstein also traces the conservative reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which recognized a constitutional right to abortion. The 1976 Republican party platform for the first time recommended a Human Rights amendment to the constitution to reverse the decision.

     Activist Phyllis Schlafly, who died just weeks ago, led a movement to derail the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, intended to establish gender equality as a constitutional mandate. Schafly’s efforts contributed to stopping the proposed amendment at a time when approval of only three additional states would have officially adopted the amendment as part of the federal constitution (“Don’t Let Satan Have Its Way – Stop the ERA” was the opposition slogan, as well as Perlstein’s title for a chapter on the subject). Internationally, conservatives opposed the Ford administration’s intention to relinquish to Panama control of the Panama Canal; and the policy of détente toward the Soviet Union which both the Nixon and Ford administrations pursued.

     Enabling the long-memoried elephants was Richard Viguerie, a little known master of new technologies for fund-raising and grass roots get-out-the-vote campaigns. Conservative opinion writers like Patrick Buchanan, former Nixon White House Communications Director, and George Will also enjoyed expanded newspaper coverage. A fledgling conservative think tank based in Washington, the Heritage Foundation, became a repository for combining conservative thinking and action. The Heritage Foundation assisted a campaign in West Virginia to purge school textbooks of “secular humanism.”

     With the contest for delegates nearly even as the convention approached, Reagan needed the support of conservatives for causes like these. But Reagan also realized that limited support from centrist delegates could prove to be his margin of difference. In a bid to attract such delegates, especially from the crucial Pennsylvania delegation, Reagan promised in advance of the convention to name Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate. Schweiker came from the moderate wing of the party, with a high rating from the AFL-CIO. But the move backfired, infuriating conservatives — North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in particular — with few moderate delegates switching to Reagan.   Then, Reagan’s supporters proposed a change to the convention’s rules that would have required Ford to announce his running mate prior to the presidential balloting, forcing Ford to anger either the moderate or conservative faction of the party. Ford supporters rejected the proposal, which lost on the full floor after a close vote.

     The 150 delegates of the Mississippi delegation proved to be crucial in determining the outcome of the convention’s balloting. When the Mississippi delegation cast its lot with Ford, the president had a sufficient number of delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot, 1187 votes to 1070 for Reagan. Ford selected Kansas Senator Robert Dole as his running mate, after Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whom conservatives detested, announced the previous fall that he did not wish to be a candidate for Vice President. Anxious to achieve party unity, Ford invited Reagan to join him on the platform following his acceptance speech. Reagan gave an eloquent impromptu speech that many thought overshadowed Ford’s own acceptance address.

* * *

     Perlstein includes a short, epilogue-like summation to the climatic Kansas City convention: Ford went on to lose to Democratic governor from Georgia Jimmy Carter in a close 1976 general election and Reagan emerged as the undisputed leader of his party’s conservative wing. But as the book ended, I found myself still asking how the notion of an “invisible bridge” fits into this saga. My best guess is that the notion is tied to Perlstein’s description of Reagan as a “rescuer.”  Reagan’s failed presidential campaign was a journey across a great divide – over an invisible bridge.

     On the one side were Watergate, the Vietnam War, repercussions from the Sixties and, for conservatives, Goldwater’s humiliating 1964 defeat. On the other side was the promise of an unsullied way forward.  Reagan’s soothing cult of optimism offered Americans a message that could allow them to again view themselves and their country positively.  There were no sins that Reagan’s America need atone for. Usually dour and gloomy conservatives — Perlstein’s “long memoried elephants” — also saw in Reagan’s buoyant   message the discernible path to power that had eluded them in 1964.. But, as Perlstein will likely underscore in a subsequent volume, many still doubted whether the blithe optimist had the temperament or the intellect to be president, while others suspected that his upbeat brand of conservatism could no more be sold to the country-at-large than the Goldwater brand in 1964.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

October 2, 2016

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Biography

Becoming FLOTUS

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Peter Slevin, Michelle Obama: A Life 

             In Michelle Obama: A Life, Peter Slevin, a former Washington Post correspondent presently teaching at Northwestern University, explores the improbable story of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, now Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States (a position known affectionately in government memos as “FLOTUS”). Slevin’s sympathetic yet probing biography shows how Michelle’s life was and still is shaped by the blue collar, working class environment of Chicago’s South Side, where she was born and raised. Michelle’s life in many ways is a microcosm of 20th century African-American experience. Michelle’s ancestors were slaves, and her grandparents were part of the “Great Migration” of the first half of the 20th century that sent millions of African-Americans from the rigidly segregated south to northern urban centers in search of a better life.  Michelle was born in 1964, during the high point of the American civil rights movement, and is thus part of the generation that grew up after that movement had widened the opportunities available to African Americans.

            The first half of the book treats Michelle’s early life as a girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago and her experiences as an African-American at two of America’s ultra-elite institutions, Princeton University and Harvard Law School.  The centerpiece of this half is the loving environment that Michelle’s parents, Fraser Robinson III and his wife Marian Shields Robinson, created for Michelle and her older brother Craig, born two years earlier in 1962.  The Robinson family emphasized the primacy of education as the key to a better future, along with hard work and discipline, dedication to family, regular church attendance, and community service.

            Michelle’s post-Harvard professional and personal lives form the book’s second half. Early in her professional career, Michelle met a young man from Hawaii with an exotic background and equally exotic name, Barack Hussein Obama. Slevin provides an endearing account of their courtship and marriage (their initial date is also the subject of a recent movie “Southside With You”). Once Barack enters the scene, however, the story becomes as much about his entry and dizzying rise in politics as it is about Michelle, and thus likely to be familiar to many readers.

            But in this half of the book, we also learn about Michelle’s career in Chicago; how she balanced her professional obligations with her parental responsibilities; her misgivings about the political course Barack seemed intent upon pursuing; her at first reluctant, then full throated support for Barack’s long-shot bid for the presidency; and how she elected to utilize the platform which the White House provided to her as the FLOTUS.  Throughout, we see how Michelle retained the values of her South Side upbringing.

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        Slevin provides an incisive description of 20th century Chicago, beginning in the 1920s, when Michelle’s grandparents migrated from the rural south.  He emphasizes the barriers that African Americans experienced, limiting where they could live and work, their educational opportunities, and more. Michelle’s father Fraser, after serving in the U.S. army, worked in a Chicago water filtration plant up to his death in 1991 from multiple sclerosis at age 55. Marian, still living (‘the First Grandmother”), was mainly a “stay-at-home Mom.”  In a city that “recognized them first and foremost as black,” Fraser and Marian refused to utilize the oppressive shackles of racism as an excuse for themselves or their children.  The Robinson parents “saw it as their mission to provide strength, wisdom, and a measure of insulation to Michelle and Craig” (p.26). Their message to their children was that no matter what obstacles they faced because of their race or their working class roots, “life’s possibilities were unbounded. Fulfillment of those possibilities was up to them. No excuses” (p.47).

     The South Side neighborhood where Michelle and Craig were raised, although part of Chicago’s rigidly segregated housing patterns, offered a stable and secure environment, with well-kept if modest homes and strong neighborhood schools. The neighborhood and the Robinson household provided Michelle and Craig with what Craig later termed the “Shangri-La of upbringings” (p.33).  Fraser and Marian both regretted deeply that they were not college graduates. The couple consequently placed an unusually high premium on education for their children, adopting a savvy approach which parents today would be wise to emulate.

      Learning to read and write  for the two Robinson children was a means toward the even more important goal of learning to think. Fraser and Marian advised their children to “use their heads, yet not to be afraid to make mistakes – in each case learning from what goes wrong” (p.46).  We told them, Marian recounted, “Make sure you respect your teachers, but don’t hesitate to question them. Don’t even allow even us to say just anything to you” (p.47). Fraser and Marian granted their children freedom to explore, test ideas and make their own decisions, but always within a framework that emphasized “hard work, honesty, and self-discipline. There were obligations and occasional punishment. But the goal was free thinking” (p.46).

       Both Robinson children were good students, but with diametrically opposite study methods. Michelle was methodical and obsessive, putting in long hours, while Craig largely coasted to good grades. Michelle went to Princeton in part because Craig was already a student there, but she did so with misgivings and concerns that she might not be up to its high standards. Prior to Princeton, Craig and Michelle had had little exposure to whites. If they experienced animosity in their early years, Slevin writes, it was “likely from African American kids who heard their good grammar, saw their classroom diligence, and accused them of ‘trying to sound white’” (p.49). At Princeton, however, a school which “telegraphed privilege” (p.71), Michelle began a serious contemplation of what it meant to be an African-American in a society where whites held most of the levers of power.

       As an undergraduate between 1982 and 1986, Michelle came to see a separate black culture existing apart from white culture. Black culture had its own music, language, and history which, as she wrote in a college term paper, should be attributed to the “injustices and oppressions suffered by this race of people which are not comparable to the experience of any other race of people through this country’s history” (p.91). Michelle observed that black public officials must persuade the white community that they are “above issues of race and that they are representing all people and not just Black people” (p.91-92). Slevin notes that Michelle’s description “strikingly foreshadowed a challenge that she and her husband would face twenty two years later as they aimed for the White House” (p.91). Michelle’s college experience was a vindication of the framework Fraser and Marian had created that allowed Michelle to flourish. At Princeton, Michelle learned that the girl from blue collar Chicago could “play in the big leagues” (p.94), as Slevin puts it.

            In the fall of 1986, Michelle entered Harvard Law School, another “lofty perch, every bit as privileged as Princeton, but certainly more competitive once classes began” (p.95). In law school, she was active in an effort to bring more African American professors to a faculty that was made up almost exclusively of white males. She worked for the Legal Aid Society, providing services to low income individuals. When she graduated from law school in 1989, she returned to Chicago – it doesn’t seem that she ever considered other locations. But, notwithstanding her activist leanings as a student, she chose to work as an associate in one of Chicago’s most prestigious corporate law firms, Sidley and Austin.

       Although located only a few miles from the South Side neighborhood where Michelle had grown up, Sidley and Austin was a world apart, another bastion of privilege, with some of America’s best known and most powerful businesses as its clients. The firm offered Michelle the opportunity to sharpen her legal skills, particularly in intellectual property protection and, at least equally importantly, pay off some of her student loans. But, like many idealistic young law graduates, she did not find work in a corporate law firm satisfying and left after two years.

        Michelle landed a job with the City of Chicago as an assistant to Valerie Jarret, then the City of Chicago’s Commissioner for Planning and Economic Development, who later became a valued White House advisor to President Obama. Michelle’s position was more operational than legal, serving as a “trouble shooter” with a discretionary budget that could be utilized to advance city programs at the neighborhood level on subjects as varied as business development, infant mortality, mobile immunization, and after school programs. But working for the City of Chicago was nothing if not political, and Michelle left after 18 months to take a position in 1993 at the University of Chicago, located on Chicago’s South Side, not far from where she grew up.

    Although still another of America’s most prestigious educational institutions, the University of Chicago had always seemed like hostile territory to Michelle, incongrous with its surrounding low and middle-income neighborhoods. But Michelle landed a position with a university program, Public Alliance, designed to improve the University’s relationship with the surrounding communities. Notwithstanding her lack of warm feelings for the university, the position was an excellent fit.  It afforded Michelle the opportunity to try her hand at bridging some of the gaps between the university and its less privileged neighbors.

          After nine years  with Public Allies, Michelle took a position in 2002 with the University of Chicago Hospital, again involved in public outreach, focused on the way the hospital could better serve the medical needs of the surrounding community. This position, Slevin notes, brought home to Michelle the massive inequalities within the American health care system, divided between the haves with affordable insurance and the have nots without it.  Michelle stayed in this position until early 2008, when she left to work on her husband’s long shot bid for the presidency. In her positions with the city and the university, Michelle developed a demanding leadership style for her staffs that she brought to the White House: result-oriented, given to micro-management, and sometimes “blistering” (p.330) to staff members whose performance fell short in her eyes.

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       While working at Sidley and Austin, Michelle interviewed the young man from Hawaii, then in his first year at Harvard Law School, for a summer associate position. Michelle in Slevin’s account found the young man “very charming” and “handsome,” and sensed that, as she stated subsequently, he “liked my dry sense of humor and my sarcasm” (p.121). But if there was mutual attraction, it was the attraction of opposites. Barack Obama was still trying to figure out where his roots lay. Michelle Robinson, quite obviously, never had to address that question. Slevin notes that the contrast could “hardly have been greater” between Barack’s “untethered life and the world of the Robinson and Shields clans, so numerous and so firmly anchored in Chicago. He felt embraced and it surprised him” (p.128; Barack’s untethered life figures prominently in Janny Scott’s biography of Barack’s mother, Ann Dunham, reviewed here in July 2012).  For Barack, meeting the Robinson family for the first time was, as he later wrote, like “dropping in on the set of Leave It to Beaver” (p.127).  The couple married in 1992.

        Barack served three 2-year terms in the Illinois Senate, from 1997 to 2004. In 2000, he ran unsuccessfully for the United States House of Representatives, losing in a landslide. He had his breakthrough moment in 2004, when John Kerry, the Democratic Presidential candidate, invited him to deliver a now famous keynote address to that year’s Democratic National Convention.  Later that year, he won  a vacant seat in the United States Senate  by a landslide when his Republican opponent had to drop out due to a sex scandal.  In early 2007, he decided to run for the presidency.

       Michelle’s mistrust of politics was “deeply rooted and would linger long into Barack’s political career” (p.161), Slevin notes.  Her distrust was at the root of discernible frictions within their marriage, especially after their daughters were born — Malia in 1998 and Sasha in 2001. Barack’s political campaigning and professional obligations kept him away from home much of the time, to Michelle’s dismay. Michelle felt that she had accomplished more professionally than Barack, and was also saddled with parental duties in his absence. “It sometimes bothered her that Barack’s career always took priority over hers. Like many professional women of her age and station, Michelle was struggling with balance and a partner who was less involved – and less evolved – than she had expected” (p.180-81).

        Michelle was, to put it mildly, skeptical when her husband told her in 2006 that he was considering running for the presidency. She worried about further losing her own identity, giving up her career for four years, maybe eight, and living with the real possibility that her husband could be assassinated. Yet, once it became apparent that Barack was serious about such a run and had reached the “no turning back” point, Michelle was all in.  She became a passionate, fully committed member of Barack’s election team, a strategic partner who was “not shy about speaking up when she believed the Obama campaign was falling short” (p.219).

         With Barack’s victory over Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Michelle became what Slevin terms the “unlikeliest first lady in modern history” (p.4). The projects and messages she chose to advance as FLOTUS “reflected a hard-won determination to help working class and the disadvantaged, to unstack the deck. She was more urban and more mindful of inequality than any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt” (p.5). Michelle reached out to children in the less favored communities in Washington, mostly African American, and thereafter to poor children around the world. She also concentrated on issues of obesity, physical fitness and nutrition, famously launching a White House organic vegetable garden. She developed programs to support the wives of American military personnel deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, women struggling to “keep a toehold in the middle class” (p.293).

        In Barack’s second term, she adopted a new mission, called Reach Higher, which aimed to push disadvantaged teenagers toward college. Throughout her time as FLOTUS, Michelle tried valiantly to provide her two daughters with as close to a normal childhood as life in the White House bubble might permit. Slevin’s account stops just prior to the 2014 Congressional elections, when the Republicans gained control of the United States Senate, after gaining control of the House of Representatives in the prior mid-term elections in 2010.

       Slevin does not overlook the incessant Republican and conservative critics of Michelle. She appeared to many whites in the 2008 campaign as an “angry black woman,” which Slevin dismisses as a “simplistic and pernicious stereotype” (p.236). Right wing commentator Rush Limbaugh began calling her “Moochelle,” much to the delight of his listening audience. The moniker conjured images of a fat cow or a leech – synonymous with the term “moocher” which Ayn Rand used in her novels to describe those who “supposedly lived off the hard work of the producers” (p.316) — all the while slyly associating Michelle with “big government, the welfare state, big-spending Democrats, and black people living on the dole” (p.315).  Vitriol such as this, Slevin cautiously concludes, “could be traced to racism and sexism or, at a charitable minimum, a lack of familiarity with a black woman as accomplished and outspoken as Michelle” (p.286). In addition, criticism emerged from the political left, which “viewed Michelle positively but asked why, given her education, her experience, and her extraordinary platform, she did not speak or act more directly on a host of progressive issues, whether abortion rights, gender inequity, or the structural obstacles facing the urban poor” (p.286).

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       Slevin’s book is not hagiography. As a conscientious biographer whose credibility is directly connected to his objectivity, Slevin undoubtedly looked long and hard for the Michelle’s weak points and less endearing qualities. He did not come up with much, unless you consider being a strong, focused woman a negative quality. There is no real dark side to Michelle Obama in Slevin’s account, no apparent skeletons in any of her closets. Rather, the unlikely FLOTUS depicted here continues to reflect the values she acquired while growing up in Fraser and Marian Robinson’s remarkable South Side household.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 17, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

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

Mid-Life Embrace of Judaism

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Steven Gimbel, Einstein: His Space and Time 

            In Einstein: His Space and Time, Steven Gimbel, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College, offers a highly compact biography of Albert Einstein (1879-1955), well under 200 pages. With numerous Einstein biographies already available, Gimbel’s special angle lies in his emphasis upon Einstein’s Jewish roots – fittingly, since the work is one in the Yale University Press series “Jewish Lives” (and I can’t help wondering whether the editors of the series might be tempted to rename the series “Jewish Lives Matter”). Einstein was born into a Jewish family that Gimbel describes as “anti-observant” rather than simply “non-observant” (p.8). In 1896, as a 17 year old, Einstein repudiated his Jewish heritage at the same time that he renounced his German citizenship. But he embraced Judaism enthusiastically in the 1920s, when he was over 40 years old, realizing that his Jewish heritage was an “inalienable part of who he was and who he was perceived to be” (p.4). As an adult, Einstein lived in Switzerland, Germany, and the United States — along with a short stint in Prague – but disdained the notion of national identity and was never really at home anywhere. In Gimbel’s account, Einstein’s midlife embrace of Judaism provided him with a sense of rootedness he failed to find in national identity or the places he lived.

     Gimbel provides a sharp chronological structure to his overview of Einstein’s life, dividing his book  into four major segments: Einstein’s  early years, from his birth in Ulm, Germany in 1879, to 1905, when he received his PhD degree in physics while working as an examiner in Switzerland’s patent office in Bern; 1905 to 1920, when he rose from the obscurity of a patent officer to international acclaim through his breakthrough theories altering the way we look at space, time, and the universe, to borrow from Gimbel’s subtly clever sub-title; 1920 to 1933, when Einstein embraced Judaism during the Weimar Republic, Germany’s experiment in liberal democracy established after the shock of its defeat in World War I; and 1933-55, beginning with Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and Einstein’s decision to leave Germany for the United States, where he remained until  his death.  Gimbel’s discussion of the major theories in physics that made Einstein a world famous scientist in his own day and a nearly mythological figure today is limited and laudably designed to be understandable to the average reader. Some readers may nonetheless find these portions of this concise volume slow going. But few should experience any such challenges in absorbing Gimbel’s highly readable account of how Einstein’s Jewish heritage shaped his views of the world and the universe.

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    Einstein’s father, Hermann Einstein, was a salesman and engineer.  His mother,  Pauline Koch, was a “stay-at-home mom” in today’s parlance whom Gimbel describes as “[s]trong-willed, strong-minded, and sharp tongued” (p.7-8).  In 1880, when Albert was one year old, his parents moved from Ulm to Munich, where young Albert entered a Catholic school a few years later. He began to play the violin at age six and throughout his life considered music “spiritual in the deepest sense” (p.13). When Einstein was in his teens, his family left Munich to pursue business opportunities in Italy. Einstein finished  secondary school in Aarau Switzerland, at the Arovian cantonal gymnasium.

     To avoid military service, Einstein renounced his German citizenship and surrendered his German passport in 1896, ostentatiously renouncing Judaism at that same time.  Later that year, he enrolled at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH in German) in Zurich, studying math and physics. Zurich in Einstein’s university days was a “cosmopolitan playground filled with young people from across the Continent,” where radical new ideas were “in the air, and a sense of openness abounded” (p.22).

     Einstein’s future wife, Mileva Marić, a Serbian national, also enrolled at ETH in 1896. Mileva was the only woman in the math and physics section of the school. She was somewhat like Einstein’s mother, Gimbel indicates, “smart, sarcastic and strong willed” (p.23), with a passion for physics that rivaled that of Einstein. Her friendship with Einstein transformed into romance during their four years together at ETH. Unlike Einstein, however, who was awarded his degree in 1900, Mileva, did not achieve a sufficient level in her studies to warrant a degree. Gimbel describes the Einstein who left ETH in 1900 as a “complicated personality,” brimming with self-confidence and a “strange combination of arrogance and empathy” (p.73). But the young physics graduate searched for work for nearly two years before securing a job as an assistant examiner in the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern, where he evaluated patent applications.

     Sometime prior to 1903, Mileva became pregnant and went back to Serbia to have the baby, named Liserl. It is not clear what happened to Liserl. As Gimbel explains:

The custom at that time was for the children of unmarried parents to be adopted, usually by a family member or a close friend.  This seems to have occurred, as news of Liesrl continued in correspondence for a little while.  Mileva moved back to Zurich, where she received word that Liersrl had contracted scarlet fever.  We do not know whether she survived. . . but we do know that Einstein never met his daughter (p.30).

Einstein and Mileva married in 1903, and the couple had two sons, Hans Albert and Edouard.

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     While working in the patent office, Einstein studied at the University of Zurich for the PhD degree, which he earned in 1905. In a chapter entitled “The Miracle Year,” Gimbel explains how, in March, April and May of 1905, Einstein published three groundbreaking papers which provided new, revolutionary ways to view matter, light and space. At that time, Issac Newton’s late 17th century mechanical view of the universe as composed of space, time, motion, mass and energy was the entrenched bedrock of physics upon which to build and expand. Newton’s laws of motion and universal gravitation had “explained the falling of apples and the orbits of planets, the motion of comets and the rising of the tides” (p.59). His work was considered the “highest expression of the human mind in all recorded history” (p.59).

     Einstein demonstrated in 1905 the centrality of the atom to all of physics. Many physicists in the early 20th century did not accept theories of physics based on the atomic view of matter. Einstein’s work on atoms “got to the basic constituents of matter and accounted for the concepts of heat in thermodynamics” (p.67). In addition, Einstein presented a new picture of light as a force of constant speed. He contended that physics must “take as a starting point that the speed of light in a vacuum is always the same for all observers, no matter their state of motion with regard to the source” (p.54). The speed of light is “not only a constant, it is also a limiting velocity. Nothing can move faster than this speed. . . moving faster than the speed of light would require an infinite amount of energy, and that is not possible. Nothing can move faster than light in a vacuum” (p.57).

     Einstein’s work on light “revolutionized optics” (p.67). It led Einstein to establish the equivalence of mass and energy, as captured in the famous equation E = MC2, where the mass of the body is a measure of its energy content. Einstein’s three 1905 papers, Gimbel writes, left “no single part of the study of physics, the oldest and most established science, which Eistein did not seek to completely overhaul” (p.59).   Yet, the papers of Einstein’s miracle year failed to attract significant attention, in part because they came from an obscure 26-year-old patent examiner, not a recognized academic physicist.

     Einstein spent the succeeding years looking for a teaching position and over the course of the next decade became an academic vagabond. He found positions in Bern, Zurich, and Prague before returning to Germany in 1914, where he became director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics and professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin.  1914 was also the fateful year when World War I broke out. At the start of the war, Einstein saw his “worst fears regarding the German character coming true. Not only was there a sense that offensive military adventures were justified in the name of German ascendance, but there was near universal support for them” (p.91).

     Yet, the World War I years were among Einstein’s most productive. One hundred years ago this year, in 1916, Einstein published “The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity,” in which his signature theory of relativity jelled — a “radical revision of our understanding of the nature of the universe itself” (p.89). At the heart of the theory was the notion that the “laws of physics should be the same for all observers who are moving at a constant speed in a straight line with respect to each other” (p.54). Gimbel terms Einstein’s insight a “triumph of elegance and imagination . . . Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation, space, time, and motion had dominated physics for three hundred years, standing as the single greatest achievement in the history of science. Here was its successor” (p.89).

     Einstein’s theory of relativity attracted world attention in a way that his 1905 papers had not quite done. With the European powers at war with one another, Einstein’s theories of space, time and the universe “caught the fancy of a world tired of thinking about mankind as barbarians and eager to celebrate its creativity and insight. And at the center of it was this curious, unkempt, wisecracking figure who seemed to stand for a different side of humanity” (p.100).

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     As the European powers fought World War I, Einstein began an affair with his cousin, Elsa Löwenthal, a divorced mother of two daughters. Mileva returned to Zurich with the couple’s two sons after discovering the affair, and she and Einstein divorced in 1919. Months later, Einstein married Elsa. In Elsa, Einstein saw the opposite of Mileva. Whereas Mileva sought to be a gender-barrier-breaking pioneer and Einstein’s intellectual partner, Elsa, with her “simple charm” and “sunny disposition” put her cousin on a pedestal, “never invading his work but instead caring for his more basic needs” (p.95). Until her death in 1936, Elsa assumed a role which Gimbel describes as Einstein’s “business manager,” serving as his gatekeeper and screening the many people “clamoring to have face time, interviews, and collaboration”with  her husband (p.95).

     In Weimar Germany in the 1920s, Einstein became what Gimbel describes as a symbol of “scientific cosmopolitanism. He was adored, inspiring poems and architecturally bizarre buildings. His science, combined with his politics during the war, gave him the status of the wise elder statesman among young rebels. The fact that people did not understand his theory of relativity did not diminish his social capital; to the contrary, it increased it. By being the keeper of the mystery, he was considered the high priest of modernism” (p.113). But a toxic anti-Semitism plagued Weimar Germany from the beginning, from which even non-observant Jews like Einstein were not immune.

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     During the Weimar years, Einstein began to “view his Jewishness in a new light” (p.109). He was able, as Gimbel puts it, to “become Jewish again in his own mind without having to surrender the scientific world view, the personal ethic, or the metaphysical foundations upon which he rested his physical theories. Being Jewish became . . . an inalienable aspect of his being” (p.109). Weimar anti-Semitism no doubt played a role in leading Einstein to the view that the experiences of Jews everywhere had “core commonalities that united them into a nation” (p.121). Einstein’s rediscovery of his Jewish roots in the early 1920s thus awakened his interest in Zionism, with its aspiration for a Jewish community in Palestine, an aspiration which Einstein had previously resisted.

     Zionism was “not a natural fit for Einstein, who, to the core of his being, opposed every form of nationalism” (p.121). Einstein worried that Zionism would “rob Judaism of its moral core. . . If Zionism became a movement that was focused on the idolatry of a particular piece of land, then the emergence of all of the evils that have plagued Jews across the globe for thousands of years would find a new source in Jews themselves” (p.124). But Einstein seemed to modify his views after a trip to Tel Aviv in the 1920s.  The “accomplishments by the Jews in but a few years” in Tel Aviv, Einstein wrote, elicited his “highest admiration. A modern Hebrew city with busy economic and intellectual life shoots up from the bare ground. What an incredibly lively people our Jews are!” (p.137). Unlike many Zionists of the day, however, Einstein emphasized the importance of achieving parity between the Arabs and Jews living in Palestine.

       Einstein’s first trip to the United States took place in 1921, where he traveled with Chaim Weizmann, the famed Zionist leader who later became the first President of the State of Israel.  Unbeknownst to Einstein, Weizmann was using Einstein not only to raise money for the Zionist cause but also to ward off a challenge from American Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis for leadership in the worldwide Zionist movement. Einstein’s trip to America failed to raise anywhere near the amount of money that Weizmann had hoped, but an “unintended result” of the trip was to “strengthen Einstein’s identity as a Jew” (p.130). Einstein wrote that it was in America that he “first discovered the Jewish people. . . [coming] from Russia, Poland, and Eastern Europe generally. . . I found these people extraordinarily ready for self-sacrifice and practically creative” (p.130).

      Einstein visited the United States frequently during the Weimar years and took part time positions at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, in the early 1930s. Teaching at Cal Tech when Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein chose to remain in the United States. In 1935, he obtained a research position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he remained until his death in 1955.

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    Einstein’s years at Princeton are treated cursorily in this short volume, almost as an epilogue.  Gimbal discusses how Einstein’s concern that the Germans might develop an atomic bomb prompted him to co-sign a letter to President Roosevelt, urging Roosevelt to pre-empt the German effort. This led to the Manhattan Project, in which Einstein was not directly involved. Horrified by the actual use of nuclear weaponry in Japan in 1945, Einstein came to regret his limited role in unleashing this awesome force. Supposedly, he remarked, “I could burn my fingers that I wrote that letter to Roosevelt” (p172), although this quotation has not been verified. Gimbal also notes that Einstein became an ardent supporter of civil rights, seeing similarities between the treatment of African Americans in the United States and Jews in Europe. His support for civil rights prompted J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to open a file on him.

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     Einstein’s last years at Princeton were spent writing and speaking for pacifistic causes, working to help Jewish refugees flee Europe, and continuing to work on a grand unified theory of the universe.  On his deathbed, Einstein uttered a single sentence in German, his native tongue, before he passed away.  An American nurse heard his words but could not understand them.  “In death  as in life,” Gimbel concludes, “Albert Einstein left us a mystery” (p.177).

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 5, 2016

4 Comments

Filed under Biography, Religion, Science

Remarkable Life, Remarkably Sad Ending

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Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx, A Life

     Karl Marx’s third and youngest daughter Eleanor, born in 1855, became the successor to her father as a radical analyst of industrial capitalism. But she was also an instrumental if under-appreciated force in her own right in the emergence of social democracy in Victorian Britain and internationally in the late 19th century. Her remarkable life, as Rachel Holmes writes in her comprehensive biography, entitled simply Eleanor Marx, A Life, was “as varied and full of contradictions as the materialist dialectic in which she was, quite literally, conceived . . . If Karl Marx was the theory, Eleanor Marx was the practice” (p.xvi). Holmes, a cultural historian from Gloucestershire, England, who specializes in gender issues, characterizes Eleanor as the “foremother of socialist feminism” (p.xii).  She emphasizes how Eleanor supplemented her father’s work by defining for the first time the place of women in the working class struggles of the 19th century.

     But in conventional (Karl) Marxist thinking, the personal and the political are never far removed and they are ever so tightly intertwined in Holmes’ account, which focuses heavily on interactions within the Marx family circle. In the last third of the book, Holmes provides heartbreaking detail on how the three closest men in Eleanor’s life betrayed her: her father Karl; her father’s collaborator and Eleanor’s life-long mentor, Friedrich Engels; and her common law husband, Edward Aveling. The collective burden of these three men’s betrayal drove Eleanor to an apparent suicide in 1898 at age 43.

     Adhering to a chronological format, Holmes writes in a light, breezy style that, oddly, is well suited to bear the book’s heavy themes. Nearly everyone in the Marx family circle had nicknames, which Holmes uses throughout the book, adding to its informal flavor. Eleanor herself is “Tussy,” her father is “Möhr,” and her mother Jenny is “Möhme.” Eleanor had two sisters, Laura and Jenny, the latter referred to as “Jennychen,” little Jenny.  Jennychen died two months prior to father Karl in 1883. Two older brothers and one sister failed to survive infancy.

     The Marx family’s inner circle also included Engels, “the General,” and its long-time and exceptionally loyal servant, Helen Dumuth, “Lenchen.” Engels, the son of a rich German industrialist with substantial business interests in Manchester, was Marx’s life-long partner and benefactor and akin to an uncle or second father to Eleanor. Lenchen, whom Holmes describes as “history’s housekeeper” (p.342) and the keeper of the family secrets, followed the Marx family from Germany to Britain and shared the progressive values of Eleanor’s parents. Lenchen and Eleanor’s mother Jenny were childhood friends and remained remarkably close in adulthood.

    Lenchen had a son, Freddy, four years older than Eleanor, who “grew up in foster care with minimal education” (p.199). As Eleanor grew older, she gradually intuited that Engels was Freddy’s father, although Freddy’s paternal origins were never mentioned within the family, least of all by Engels himself, who always seemed uncomfortable around Freddy. Freddy resurfaced in the tumultuous period prior to Eleanor’s untimely death, when he became Eleanor’s closest confidant — almost a substitute for her two brothers whom she never knew.

* * *

    By the time Eleanor was born in 1855, her father Karl was already famous as the author of important tracts on the coming Communist revolution in Europe. Banished from his native Germany as a dangerous radical, Marx took refuge in Britain. The household in which Eleanor grew up, “living and breathing historical materialism and socialism” (p.47), was disorderly but still somehow structured. Father Karl was notorious for being unable to balance his family’s budget, and was consistently borrowing money. Much of this money came from Engels.

    Eleanor came of age just prior to the time when British universities began to admit women, and she was almost entirely home-schooled and self-educated. Yet, the depth and range of her learning and intellectual prowess were nothing short of extraordinary. With her father (and Engels) serving as her guides, Eleanor started reading novels at age six, and went on to teach herself history, politics and economics. She also had an amazing facility for languages. The only member of the family who could claim English as a native language, Eleanor mastered German, her parents’ native language, then French, and later other European languages, most notably Russian. She became a skilled translator and interpreter, producing the first English language translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

    By her early twenties, Eleanor had demonstrated exceptional organizing skills that her father lacked, along with genuine empathy for the plight of working families (which her father also lacked). The more pragmatic Eleanor seemed to be in all places where workers gathered and sought to organize. She supported dock and gas workers’ unions and their strikes. She became actively involved in London education policy, Irish Home Rule, the evolution of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, and the campaign in France for amnesty for the revolutionaries of the 1870-71 Paris Commune.

     Eleanor’s work in mobilizing trade unions provided impetus to the emergence of the Independent Labor Party in the early 1890s, Britain’s first democratic socialist political party. Her work clarified that for Eleanor and her socialist colleagues Marxism was a revolutionary doctrine in the sense that it demanded that people think in boldly different terms about capitalism, the industrial revolution, and the workers who fueled the capitalist system.  But it was also a doctrine that rejected violent revolution in favor of respect for the main tenets of liberal (“bourgeois”!) democracy, including elections, parliamentary governance and the rule of law.  Her views crystallized as she and her colleagues battled with anti-capitalist anarchists, who did not believe in any form of government. Eleanor saw “no way of squaring anti-democratic anarchism with democratic socialism and its commitment to work within a representative parliamentary system” (p.397), Holmes writes. Eleanor Marx was more Bernie Sanders than Bolshevik.

     While involved in organizational activities, Eleanor maintained an abiding interest in the theatre.  Unlike her first class talent for organizing workers, her acting abilities were modest. Shakespeare and Ibsen were Eleanor’s particular interests among major playwrights, whose works contained messages for her on going organizing activities. Given her organizational skills, Holmes thinks that Eleanor would have made a brilliant theater director. But such a position was closed to women in her day. Instead, her “theatre for creating a new cast of radical actors in English art and politics” was the recently opened British Museum Reading Room, “its lofty dome a metaphor for the seat of the brain, workplace for writers and thinkers” (p.182). Here, in the aftermath of her father’s death in 1883, Eleanor wrote books and articles about her father, becoming his “first biographer and posthumous exponent of his economic theory” (p.195). All subsequent Marx biographers, Holmes indicates, have based their accounts on the “primary sources supplied by Eleanor immediately after her father’s death” (p.196).

     The Reading Room was also the venue where Eleanor first met Edward Aveling, an accomplished actor from comfortable circumstances who became a socialist and Eleanor’s common law husband. Aveling proved himself to be a monstrous villain whose malevolence and treachery dominate the last third of the book, with Aveling the central character in a story that has the intricacy of a Dickens plot coupled with psychological probing worthy of Dostoevsky,

* * *

      Holmes describes Aveling as an “attractive, clever cad who played a significant role in popularizing Darwin and steering British secularists towards socialism. It’s easy to see why his anti-establishment, anti-religious, anti-materialist turn of mind appealed to Eleanor” (p.195). But Aveling was also a con artist and the author of a seemingly endless series of scams, stunningly skillful in talking people — Eleanor among them — into loaning him money that was rarely if ever repaid. Eleanor “failed to recognize that his character was the projection of a consummate actor” (p.195), Holmes argues.

     Aveling was further a first rate philanderer, with a steady stream of affairs, most frequently with young actresses or his female students. Although these dalliances made Eleanor “emotionally lonely,” she came to accept them. Eleanor and Edward were proponents of what was then termed “free love,” but the freedom was all on Edward’s side.  The net result, Holmes writes, was that Eleanor took on the “aspect of conventional stoical wife and Edward of conventional philandering husband” (p.238).

    Marx and Aveling jointly published a seminal work on women in the social democratic movement, “The Woman Question: From A Socialist Point of View,” probably the only positive product of their relationship. “The Woman Question” made “absolutely clear,” Holmes writes, that the “struggle for women’s emancipation and the equality of the sexes is a prerequisite for any effective form of progressive social revolution” (p.262). Marx and Aveling aimed in their landmark essay to show that “feminism was an integral necessity, not just a single aspect or issue of the socialist working-class movement, and that sexual inequality was fundamentally a question of economics” (p.260). Aside from their genuine collaboration on “The Woman Question,” just about everything in the fourteen-year Aveling-Marx relationship was negative.

     Holmes documents how Eleanor’s family and friends privately expressed doubt about Aveling and his suitability for Eleanor. Toward the end of her shortened life, they were expressing these doubts directly to Eleanor. The couple did not marry because Aveling reported to Eleanor that he was still legally married to another woman who was “emotionally unstable, difficult, vindictive and refused to divorce him” (p.420).  In fact, Aveling schemed to preserve the marriage to inherit his wife’s estate should she die. When she died, Aveling hid this fact from Eleanor over the course of five years. Finally, Aveling simply walked away from Eleanor and the house they kept together, “without explanation, pocketing all the cash, money orders and movable values he could find” (p.415), to marry a young actress named Eva Frye.

     When Eleanor learned of Aveling’s marriage sometime during the final days of March 1898, she was “confronted by the fact that Edward, after all his fine words about free love and open unions being as morally and emotionally binding as marriage under the law, was simply a liar. And she was a gull, a fool who had willingly suspended her disbelief – because she loved him” (p.420). One of the books’ most puzzling mysteries is why Eleanor, with her keen awareness of women’s vulnerability and their potential for mistreatment from men in what she saw as a rigidly patriarchal society, stayed so long with Aveling. Holmes finds an answer in the deeper recesses of what she terms Eleanor’s “cultural ancestry,” which presented her with the:

questionable example of loyal, dutiful wives and mothers. The formative examples of her Möhme and “second mother” Lenchen, both utterly devoted to her father, shaped her attitude to Edward. Unintentionally, Tussy’s mothers were dangerous, unhelpful role models, ill-equipping their daughter for freedom from subordination to romantic illusions (p.227).

     Eleanor’s frentic final weeks were marked by  desperate correspondence with Freddy, Engels’s putative son. Realizing that a codicil to a will she had executed a few years earlier left most of her estate to Aveling, Eleanor wrote to Freddy that she was “so alone” and “face to face with a most horrible position: utter ruin – everything to the last penny, or utter, open disgrace. It is awful; worse than even I fancied it was. And I want someone to consult with” (p.418).

     Eleanor executed a second codicil, reversing the earlier one and leaving her estate to her surviving sister, nieces and nephews. The codicil was in an envelope addressed to her lawyer, undelivered on the morning of March 31, 1898. That morning, after a vociferous argument with Edward, Eleanor sent her housekeeper Gertrude Gentry to the local pharmacist with a sealed envelope requesting “chloroform and small quantity of prussic acid for dog” (p.431-32).  The prescription required a signature to be returned to the pharmacy.  Aveling was in the house when the housekeeper left to return the signature to the pharmacy, Holmes asserts, but when the housekeeper returned the second time, she found only Eleanor, lifeless in her bed, wearing a summer dress she was fond of.  Aveling had by then left the premises.

    What Aveling did that day and why he left the house are among the many unanswered questions surrounding Eleanor’s death. The death was officially ruled a suicide after a slipshod coroner’s hearing, the second codicil was never given effect, and Aveling inherited Eleanor’s estate. Many, including Aveling’s own family, were convinced that Aveling had “murdered Eleanor by engineering her suicide” (p.433). Calls for Aveling to be brought to trial for murder, theft and fraud followed  him for the following four months, but were mooted when he died of kidney disease on August 2, 1898.

* * *

      If Aveling’s duplicity was the most direct causative link to Eleanor’s apparent suicide, the revelation in Eleanor’s final years of an astounding betrayal on the part of her long-deceased father and Engels, at a time when Engels was dying of cancer, almost certainly contributed to Eleanor’s decision to end her life. But I will refrain from divulging details of the dark secret the two men had maintained with the hope that you might scurry to Holmes’ thoroughly-researched and often riveting account to learn all you can about this remarkable woman, her “profound, progressive contribution to English political thought – and action” (p.xi), and the tragic ending to her life.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 28, 2016

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, British History, English History, History, Politics

The Man Himself, Far From Banal

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Bettina Stangeth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem:
The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,
Translated by Ruth Martin

      Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann is sometimes euphemistically described as a “transportation specialist.” During much of Hitler’s Third Reich, Eichmann, born in 1906, held the official title of “Advisor for Jewish Affairs” and in that capacity facilitated and managed the logistics required to move Jews to Nazi death camps.  He was famously kidnapped by Israeli security forces in 1960 in Argentina and taken to Israel to face trial on genocide charges.  Found guilty, Eichmann was executed in Jerusalem 1962.  His trial is often credited with refocusing world opinion on the horrors of the Holocaust, after years in which there seemed to be little interest in revisiting the details of Nazi Germany’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.  In Eichmann Before Jerusalem, The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, Bettina Stangeth explores Eichmann’s years in Argentina, after World War II and his escape from Germany with help from the Vatican and the Red Cross, up to his capture in 1960.  Stangeth, an independent writer and historian from Hamburg, Germany, does not address Eichmann’s life prior to the Third Reich, which includes his youth and upbringing in Linz, Austria, not far from where Hitler was born, and his early adult years prior to joining and rising in Hitler’s National Socialist party.

      Stangeth’s title alludes to Hannah Arendt’s famous analysis of the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, first published in book form in 1963.  In her seminal work, Arendt portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology. Arendt’s analysis also gained notoriety for its emphasis upon Jewish leaders’ complicity in the Holocaust.  One of Stangeth’s purposes is to free Eichmann from Arendt’s provocative portrait, based on extensive additional material on Eichmann that was unavailable to Arendt when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, a time when “Holocaust research was in its infancy” (p.xxiii). “One cannot help but feel that the story of the trial has stopped being about Eichmann,” Stangeth writes, and that today we would “rather talk about the debate and various theories of evil [which Arendt’s work engendered] than try to discover more about the man himself” (p.xxiii-xiv).

     Stangeth intends for her readers to discover much more about the man himself.  She makes comprehensive use of the broader Eichmann record now available, several thousand pages of “manuscripts, transcribed statements, letters, personal dossiers, ideological tracts, individual jottings, and thousand of marginal notes on documents” (p.381).  From this record, Stangeth reveals an Eichmann with an unrestrained propensity for self-promotion and what she terms a “talent for self-dramatization” (p.xvi), a complex and perversely talented bureaucrat who wrote prolifically.  Stangeth’s Eichmann is also more ideological and more explicitly anti-Semitic than Arendt had allowed, a man with a frighteningly precise grasp upon how his work fit into the larger picture of the Nazi extermination project.  The man himself in Stangeth’s account is far from banal.

      Eichmann made the revelations about himself and the Nazi project in 1957 and 1958 in recorded and transcribed group sessions organized by Willem Sassen, a Nazi collaborator from the Netherlands who also found refuge after World War II in Argentina, where he became a well-known journalist and led a group of unrepentant anti-Semitic Nazis.  Sassen sought to develop a project that rehabilitated Nazi Germany in the world’s eyes, primarily by debunking as “international propaganda” – by which Sassen and his colleagues meant “Jewish propaganda” – the notion that the Nazi regime had exterminated six million Jews and other undesirables.  Unfortunately for Sassen, he invited Eichmann to participate in the project.  Rather than exposing the six million figure as a desperate lie, Eichmann provided the group with the facts, figures and specificity that left no doubt that Hitler’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population had reached the scale imputed to the Nazi regime.  Eichmann’s contribution to the Sassen group constitutes the core of Stangeth’s story of his Argentina years.

      Stangeth tells this story from the perspective of an historian seeking to summarize and interpret the transcripts of the Sassen interviews and Eichmann’s writings from Argentina and his final two years in captivity in Israel.  She emphasizes that she is interested in presenting all the recently available sources on Eichmann, “in detail for the first time, and the route they have taken through history, in the hope that it will enable further research and prompt more questions” about Eichmann (p.xxiv).  She focuses especially upon “what people thought of [Eichmann] and when; and how he reacted to what they thought and said” (p.xvii).  Herein lies both the book’s greatest strength and its most formidable obstacle for general readers.

      Strangeth pursues the historian’s perspective with an intensity and comprehensiveness that will appeal to scholars interested in amplifying or building upon her portrait of Eichmann.  But this perspective is likely to discourage most general readers.  There is far more deliberation here than the general reader needs about how to evaluate the copious Eichmann record.  The result is a ponderous narrative that makes for slow reading.  At one point, Stangeth surmises that her readers may have “lost sight of the bigger picture amid all these names and connections” (p.130), and I had this sense often throughout her otherwise invaluable, groundbreaking work.

* * *

      Stangeth begins with basic background facts on Eichmann’s role in Hitler’s Third Reich.  Contrary to the impression Arendt left in her analysis, Eichmann was well-known during the Third Reich’s heyday.  From 1938, he was the “face of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy” (p.9-10), involved with the “leading experiments” which can now be seen as “prototypes” for genocidal practices that “later became standard” (p.27).  At the notorious 1942 Wannasee Conference, generally acknowledged to be the place and time where Hitler’s subordinates drew up their “Final Solution” to Europe’s “Jewish problem,” Reinhard Heydrich, chairman of the conference, “officially enthroned Eichmann as the coordinator of all interministerial efforts toward the ‘final solution of the Jewish question.’ It was the next step for his career.  A lunatic project like this required someone who had experience in unconventional solutions, someone who wouldn’t get caught up in the usual bureaucratic formalities” (p.27).

     In 1950, Eichmann fled to Argentina with the help of a “chain of German helpers, Argentine public officials, Austrian border guards, Italian records offices, the Red Cross, men from Vatican circles, and influential shipping magnates” (p.79). Like many other Nazis going into exile:

Eichmann used a system supported by a number of different parties, not least the professional people smugglers employed by the Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón.  Argentina had an interest in German professionals who could help to drive forward the transformation of an agrarian country into an industrialized nation, and assisting their escape seemed like a solid investment . . . Argentina was not the only country trying to convince well-educated men to emigrate, but it was one of the few that also provided this opportunity to criminals like Eichmann (p.88).

      In 1953, Eichmann moved his family from rural Argentina to Buenos Aires, where he went to work for a newly formed company that was a “Perón-sponsored cover organization for Third Reich technocrats, which existed mainly thanks to a large government contract for developing hydroelectric plants,” with Eichmann’s work a “kind of occupational therapy for those who had recently arrived, only very few of whom were qualified for their jobs” (p.106).  In the Argentine exile community, Eichmann had a reputation for being the “only surviving Nazi with any reliable information on the scale of the Holocaust, and on how the extermination process had worked, which made him increasingly sought after” (p.160).

      It thus did not take long for Eichmann to meet Nazi collaborator and journalist Willem Sassen, who gathered a group of Nazis at his home on Sundays for recorded sessions intended to establish the raw material for his Nazi rehabilitation project. Prior to Eichmann’s arrival, all the participants in the group had “clearly been so convinced that the systematic mass murder of the Jews was a propaganda lie that they really expected that a closer inspection would only confirm their view.  Sassen figured that if ‘the Jews’ were forced to provide lists of names, to prove exactly who had been killed, then it would emerge that the dead would be only a tiny proportion” (p.299) of the six million figure.  But Sassen and his colleagues “hadn’t reckoned with anything like the major insight they received into the National Socialists’ extermination operation. Adolf Eichmann confronted them with the magnitude and, above all, the face of the horror” (p.277).

    Eichmann demonstrated in the group’s recorded sessions that he had an unusual ability to recall facts and especially figures, revealing with unassailable specificity the “monstrous scale of this German crime and the immeasurable suffering of the people who had fallen victim to the German mania” (p.145). In a “discussion group with a tape recorder in the room,” Eichmann provided a “monstrous confession” (p.306) that mass murder and gas chambers “had happened, they were part of German history, and Nationalist Socialists like Eichmann had played a decisive role in creating them, out of their dedication to the cause” (p.308-09).  The “striking accuracy” of Eichmann’s figures on the number of people who fell victim to the Nazis’ murder operations, Stangeth contends, “shows how well informed Eichmann was about the scale of the genocide and how deceitful were his later attempts, in both Argentina and Israel, to feign ignorance” (p.301-02).  Whether he was in the Third Reich, Argentina, or Israel, Eichmann “gave detailed and well-informed accounts of the murder of millions.  He simply adjusted the account of his own role, and his attitude toward the murders, to his changing circumstances” (p.382).

     In his taped interviews for the Sassen project, Eichmann further demonstrated his unrestrained capacity for self-promotion and a “pronounced need for recognition” (p.367).  Although Eichmann could have been a silent, conscientious servant of the German Reich, attracting no attention, that “wouldn’t have been enough for him: he wanted to be a man of importance” (p.125). He worried about his reputation and how he would be perceived by history. He liked to drop names of the high level Nazis to whom he had had access, especially Henrich Himmler, his direct boss during his most productive years working for the Nazi death machine.

     The Eichmann contributing to Sassen’s project was also both more ideological and more anti-Semitic than in Arendt’s account.  Stangeth emphatically rejects as “insupportable” Arendt’s focus upon Eichmann’s “inability to speak” and his “inability to think” (p.268).  What Eichmann told the Sassen group in Argentina was not “thoughtless drivel but consistent speech based on a complete system of thought” (p.268), Stangeth argues.  Throughout the Sassen interviews, Eichmann assumed as axiomatic that “the Jews” – a diabolical, monolithic force in the world, by then represented by the State of Israel— remained the implacable foe of Germany, bent upon its destruction.  For Eichmann, therefore, “ideology was not a pastime or a theoretical superfluity but the fundamental authorization for his actions” (p.221).

      Eichmann “completely rejected traditional ideas of morality,” in favor of the “no-holds barred struggle for survival that nature demanded.”  He “identified entirely with a way of thinking that said any form of contemplation without clear reference to blood and soil was outdated and, most of all, dangerous . . . The very idea of a common understanding among all people was a betrayal” (p.218).  Eichmann’s only criticism of the National Socialist project was that “we could and should have done more” (p.306).  Eichmann was a National Socialist and “for that reason,” Stangeth argues with emphasis,  a “dedicated mass murderer” (p.307).

     Stangeth devotes minimal space to Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and his execution in May 1962 (Deborah Lipset’s incisive analysis of the proceedings, The Eichmann Trial, was reviewed here in October 2013).  She finishes with a section entitled “Aftermath,” which traces the paper trail of the Sassen transcripts and Eichmann’s own writings in Argentina and Israel up to the present day.  Now, she concludes, scholars need to “put Eichmann where he belongs, rather than be struck dumb by his torrent of words.”  The “curse of a man who was desperate to write and to explain himself is that this urge has put others in a position to read his every word, more thoroughly than he could ever have imagined” (p.422).

* * *

      With her probing dissection of the extensive written now record available, Stangeth’s Eichmann seems likely to supplant that of Arendt as the accepted consensual version of the man himself.  Eichmann Before Jerusalem therefore represents a momentous contribution to our understanding of the enigmatic mass murderer whom Hannah Arendt introduced to the reading public a full half-century earlier.  But readers will need patience and persistence in teasing out Stangeth’s Eichmann.  In her quest for a comprehensive evaluation of the written record, Stangeth allows too many trees to obscure her forest.  My sense is that a book about half this length would have sufficed for general readers interested in learning the basics about Eichmann’s Argentina years.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 17, 2016

3 Comments

Filed under Biography, European History, German History, History, World History

Sophomore Reading List

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Lawrence Friedman, The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet 

            If your undergraduate years coincided with the tumultuous 1960s or early 1970s, as you exercised your newly-found freedom you could not have escaped Erich Fromm. His books seemed to be everywhere, and he seemed to have answers for a generation more than a bit despondent about where the world appeared to be heading. His first major work, Escape from Freedom, published during World War II, was a penetrating study of why people may prefer authoritarianism to democratic government. His later works, notably The Art of Loving and The Sane Society, expressed the ideals and growing pains of those angst-ridden 20 somethings who saw all too well the imperfections of the world they were poised to inherit from their parents.

              If Fromm was everywhere then, he seems to be nowhere now. Escape from Freedom remains a cogent statement of what Fromm’s native Germany had become, and transformed itself after the war into a critique of post-war consumerism and materialism. The Art of Loving and The Sane Society, although published in the 1950s, seem like relics of the tumult of the 1960s, psycho-babble speaking to readers who were also lapping up Charles Reich’s fatuous The Greening of America, a work that now reads almost as a caricature of that era. Fromm’s works can’t be ridiculed in quite the same way, although from a perspective of 40 years later, they strike me as sophomoric. But, let’s face it, many of us reading them back then were more than a little sophomoric ourselves, even if we had evolved into juniors, seniors or young graduates.

           Now, for those of us who haven’t thought much about Fromm in recent decades, Lawrence Friedman has produced The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, a penetrating biography of the man behind those books for a generation of sophomores. Digging deeply into his many books, Friedman accents Fromm’s “remarkable capacity to convey complex thoughts in psychoanalysis, ethics, theology, political theory, social philosophy, cultural creations and much more in simple, direct prose that appealed to the latent ideals and fears of his time” (p.xxi-ii).

                Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1900, into a middle-class German-Jewish family. He was an only child and never felt particularly close to his parents. His mother in particular was distant. Looking back on his childhood, Fromm found her uncaring — she had not mastered the art of loving was probably a thought that passed through Fromm’s adult mind, perhaps at the moment when the title of his future book crystallized for him. Although his immediate family was not religious, from his earliest years prophetic Jewish teaching had much influence on his writings and thinking, an influence that never vanished as Fromm drifted away from formal Judaism. Throughout his adult life, Jewish law and ethics proved to be an anchor for Fromm, an illustration of universal human needs and experiences.

              Fromm became a psychoanalyst and began to make a name for himself at the Frankfurt Institute in the 1930s. But the 1930s were not among Germany’s better years and, with Hitler in power, most of the Frankfurt Institute moved to Columbia University in New York. Fromm migrated to the United States in 1934, and made what seems to have been a seamless transition to becoming an American in all senses of the term. Unlike most of his German colleagues at Columbia, Fromm was very comfortable in America and in using the English language, which he mastered in an amazingly short time.

          Fromm’s field, psychoanalysis, was one which Sigmund Freud had essentially invented during Fromm’s early years. As a young psychoanalyst, Fromm developed views that set him apart from Freud. Fromm regarded Freud’s view of human beings as too dark, too focused on libidinal impulses. Fromm “modified but did not eliminate [Freud’s] centrality of instinctive life” (p.225). In some senses, Fromm’s life-long mission was to replace libido theory, the “underpinning of Freudian orthodoxy” (p.60), with a view of humans as “social beings whose lives are shaped by social structure and culture” (p. xii), and in this sense Fromm never seriously wavered from his counter-views of Freud.

            The other central figure in defining Fromm’s professional career and shaping his views was Karl Marx. Early in his career, having deviated from Freudian orthodoxy, Fromm became convinced that the correct psychoanalytic view of man could be found through a synthesis between Marx’s rigidly materialistic emphasis on social-economic conditions and Freud’s focus on the inner psyche. While at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany, Fromm stumbled upon an early, unpublished manuscript Marx had written in 1844, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (also called the Paris Manuscripts), in which Marx had emphasized the estrangement that capitalism inflicted upon the human psyche. Blending this younger and “more psychologically compelling Marx” (p.188) with the insights of Freud, Fromm developed his notion of “social character structure,” a notion based on the interplay between individuals’ “impulsive energy, religion [and] political ideologies” and the “economic organization of society” (p.60).

        Fromm’s first major work, Escape from Freedom, which Friedman terms “one of the most profound and captivating books ever written on the conflict between freedom and authoritarianism” (p.62), came out in 1941, with war raging in Europe. Escape was one of the first works to merge psychology and history although, Friedman notes, most critics found that Fromm’s psychology “outshone his history” (p.107). The central thesis which Fromm articulated in Escape was in many senses the central thesis of his writings for the remainder of his career:

[M]odern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man (p.99).

              Although the future for liberal democracy appeared exceedingly bleak at the time of publication, Escape ended on an upbeat note. Fromm predicted the eventual spread of humanistic values, “almost as historical inevitability” (p.115). Friedman attributes Fromm’s optimism in part to his Jewish heritage and learning, noting that the Jewish prophetic tradition burst forth at the end of Escape from Freedom and helped make it a classic. As Fromm wrote the book, he was preoccupied with the rescue of family members and others from a “Holocaust in the making,” indicating that “much of his daily life was deeply embedded in the fabric of the book” (p.97). “The force and clarity of the work,” Friedman concludes, was “surely influenced by his almost daily interventions for émigré assistance” (p.76).

              With the defeat of the Nazis and the onset of the Cold War, Escape from Freedom demonstrated its versatility by evolving into a book speaking to the conformist tendencies of the 1950s in the United States. Friedman argues that Escape can be fitted into the same niche as David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, works which also addressed the comfortable middle class materialism that seemed to characterize 1950s America. Escape from Freedom had a wider focus than The Lonely Crowd, which was centered on the United States. In Friedman’s interpretation, one can see a 20th century version of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in Escape from Freedom, a statement of the perils of democracy in which people “dread their own free agency [and] fear themselves” (p.66-67).

              In 1950, Fromm relocated to Mexico and a post at the National Autonomous University, where he taught until 1965, although he retained substantial ties with the United States throughout his time in Mexico. During the 1950s, Friedman contends, Fromm ceased to write as a scholar and “evolved into a best-selling author” and “icon of popular culture,” particularly in the United States (p.155). In an unremitting series of books — rarely supported, Friedman wryly notes, with “much logic or evidence” (p.155) — Fromm advanced emotionally powerful ideas about the importance of love, the dangers of nuclear war, and the insipidness of consumerism and materialism.

             The Sane Society, published in 1955, focused on the Cold War culture of consumerism. Here, Fromm argued that love was the only force capable of counterbalancing narcissism and social conformity. A society achieved sanity where its citizens were “self-directed,” depending upon “their own capacities to love and to create, to think and to reason, to feel connected to themselves and to others” (p.188). Fromm relied heavily upon Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which he had discovered while at the Frankfurt Institute in Germany. “We consume, as we produce,” Fromm wrote in The Sane Society, echoing Marx, “without any concrete relatedness to the objects with which we deal; we live in a world of things, and our only connection with them is that we know how to manipulate or to consume them” (p.189).

             The following year, 1956, saw the publication of The Art of Loving, Fromm’s best selling book. With few footnotes or quotations and no index, the slim, 120 page volume was “quite short on scholarly paraphernalia,” as Friedman puts it (p.173). Here, Fromm posited that loving others starts with loving one-self. Self love opens an “entry way to the love of another and human kind” (p.175). Much to his chagrin, The Art of Loving was often paired with 1950s “self-help” best-sellers such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, works which “valued material acquisition and enhanced popularity as the avenues to happiness” (p.174). Quite unlike these works, The Art of Loving contained a scathing indictment of market capitalism and consumerism that emphasized the “severe limitations on love inherent in modern capitalist society and its focus on materialist acquisitiveness” (p.181), helping to explain the book’s appeal in the 1960s, when Carnegie and Peale seemed conspicuously out of step with the times.

               In these and his other books written in the 1950s and 1960s, Fromm became what we might term today a “public intellectual,” speaking out on the issues of the day and engaging actively in politics. Fromm’s signature issue centered on the threat that nuclear weapons posed, a threat he considered more serious than the dictatorships of the 1930s. Fromm was a co-founder of the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy (usually referred to as “SANE,” a reference to The Sane Society). Fromm advised a wide range of American public officials during this time on the dangers of nuclear weapons, including John F. Kennedy, William Fulbright, Adlai Stevenson, and Eugene McCarthy.

                 Throughout his time of activism and engagement, Fromm continued to write prolifically, with his search for the ideal synthesis between Freud and Marx continuing. His 1959 work Sigmund Freud’s Mission: An Analysis of His Personality and Influence invoked Marx as a “remedy” to Freud, but From still asserted that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious had struck a blow to conventional rationalists. More an “extended philippic than a closely reasoned or well-researched manuscript,” Sigmund Freud’s Mission nonetheless represented Fromm’s “most explicit reckoning with Freud” (p.221). Marx’s Concept of Man, published in 1961, relied again on Marx’s 1844 Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts to portray Marx as “deeply sensitive to inner, often unconsciousness psychological motivation” (p.223). Beyond the Chains of Illusions, published in 1962, represented Fromm’s “fullest effort to present his thoughts on Freud and Marx between two covers” (p.224). Unlike Freud, Fromm found that Marx had “delineated the psychologically crippling effect of class exploitation inherent in capitalism” (p.225). Marx thus helped Fromm establish an essentially social-democratic position as an alternative to a “repressive, class-based society” (p.226).

             Fromm termed his social-democratic position “socialist humanism,” a creed that sought to elevate individual self-fulfillment as the centerpiece for structuring human institutions. Fromm utilized his socialist humanism project to connect like-minded humanists in the United States and Western Europe with Eastern European dissidents in Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Poland. In 1965, Fromm edited a volume of essays entitled Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium, which became “perhaps the most cited and celebratory global expression of 1960s third world socialism, providing an international context to the increasing number of works by members of Fromm’s expanding circle of colleagues” (p.245-46).

            In the 1960s, Fromm also began to explore what he termed “necrophilia,” a predilection for death, force, and destruction. Fromm posited “biophilia” as the counterpoint to necrophilia, a “heightened sense of aliveness” through which man “confirmed his powers and his sense of self” (p.215). This binary theme underscored Fromm’s 1973 work, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Here, Fromm argued that the authoritarian character type he had been describing since Escape From Freedom and the necrophilic character type “operated in tandem, forming a partnership between the two most evil potentialities of the human condition” (p.308). To illustrate this lethal partnership, Fromm delved briefly into the character of Adolph Hitler and more fully into that of his notorious lieutenant, Heinrich Himmler, a sadist who “sought total control over others and enjoyed inflicting misery” (p.309). Fromm’s analysis of Himmler provided concrete details for “some of the generalizations about the authoritarian personality that he had simply outlined in Escape from Freedom. It was Fromm at his peak as an intellectual and scholar in his last decade,” (p.310), Friedman concludes.

            To Have or To Be, published in 1976, Fromm’s last major work, synthesized Fromm’s “most important ethical and psychological observations over the decade” on authoritarianism, necrophilia, consumerism and a depleted sense of self (p.318). The book presented another binary contrast, between “having” and “being” modes, across a wide range of human experience. Fromm suggested that the world would transition from having to being when such qualities as relatedness, love, and solidarity “permeated society’s current bureaucratic, greedy, materialistic, and unhappy existence’” (p.327). To Have or To Be enjoyed only modest success in the United States but was exceedingly popular in Europe, particularly with young Germans and Italians who were speaking out for “less materialist and consumer driven lifestyles” (p.327). Some Europeans characterized the book as a “counterpoint to problematic American values” (p.327).

              While probing Fromm’s many writings, Friedman does not neglect the emotional and romantic side of the man. Friedman lets the reader decide whether Fromm the man adhered in his personal relationships to the principles which Fromm the writer had articulated. Fromm’s generally cold and distant relationship with his mother prompted him to seek emotional closeness in a wide variety of women. Fromm’s first wife, Frieda Reichman, whom Fromm married at age 26, was nearly 11 years older, and already a prominent psychoanalyst. After Fromm’s divorce from Reichman and shortly after his arrival in New York, Fromm had a long affair with prominent American psychoanalyst Karen Horney, also considerably older than Fromm; and another with an African-American dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham. Fromm’s second wife, Henny Gurland, committed suicide in 1952. The next year Fromm married Annis Freeman, to whom he stayed married for the rest of his life.

             Fromm retired with Annis to Locarno, Switzerland in 1976. He continued to write up to his death in 1980. While his works after Escape from Freedom may have lacked the rigor that would endear him to academics, Fromm nonetheless struck a responsive chord with an anxious reading public in the United States and throughout the world. Benjamin Friedman’s splendid interpretative biography provides those of us who are no longer sophomores with an opportunity to take another look at Fromm’s critiques of consumerism and materialism and reflect upon his formulations for achieving happiness.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 7, 2015

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, United States History

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

MK

Daniel Maier-Katkin, Stranger from Abroad,

Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger: Friendship and Forgiveness

            Daniel Maier-Katkin’s “Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness” explores the life-time relationship between Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger.  When Arendt was a precocious 18 year old, in her first year at Marburg University in 1924 Weimar Germany, philosopher Martin Heidegger was one of her teachers.  Married with a son and twice Arendt’s age at 36, Professor Heidegger took a shine to the young student and – violà — a campus romance ensued.  Although few self respecting parents would be comfortable with their daughter in such a relationship, campus liaisons between starry eyed undergraduates and older teachers are probably more commonplace than parents of college-aged daughters would care to admit — I’m willing to bet that there might even be a present-day example at one of our institutions of higher learning here in the United States.  But the Heidegger-Arendt relationship has historical interest for two reasons: both Heidegger and Arendt would go on to become formidable 20th century intellectuals  — Heidegger was already a rising star in 1924 in the world of academic philosophy; and Heidegger would enthusiastically embrace the Nazi party when it came to power in 1933, while the Jewish Arendt was forced to flee the Nazis and Germany later that year, and would never again live in the country of her birth. 

            Arendt’s flight took her first to France, then to New York in 1941, where her professional career flourished.  Her first major work was “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” published in 1951, an analysis of Communism and Nazism that found parallels in the way the two systems exerted control over their populations.  But Arendt is probably best known for her writings on the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann for the New Yorker magazine, a series of articles that evolved into Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.  Arendt found the mass killer Eichmann to be distinguished only by his ordinariness and stunning mediocrity, far more a proficient bureaucrat than a cold-blooded killer.  Arendt’s phrase “banality of evil” has itself become commonplace in our language.  Maier-Katkin suggests that Arendt’s conclusions about the ordinariness of Eichmann may have been consistent with inchoate views she had already formed of Heidegger, and help explain a subsequent reconciliation with her former teacher, notwithstanding his embrace of Nazism.   

            Arendt’s university affair with Heidegegger began shortly after her arrival at Marburg University.  For Arendt, the air around her brilliant professor “seemed to crackle with ideas and questions” (p.29). Arendt “seems to have loved him from the very first day, and he seems to have been drawn to her immediately” (p.29).  Although Heidegger made clear at the outset of their affair that he would never leave his wife, his family, or the respectability of his university position, Arendt was “confident that the love between them deserved to be preserved and nurtured independently of any social convention or competing obligation” (p.36).  Heidegger’s personal life was already awash in prevarication and deceit, but these characteristics did little to lessen Arendt’s admiration and love for the man.  “Even after Hannah began to understand that he [Heidegger] was a liar who said whatever was necessary to manage a moment, she always believed that Martin loved her more than he loved anyone else” (p.44-45).   

            Through Heidegger, Arendt “began a lifetime of thinking, including a persistent line of thought about thinking, about what we are doing when we are thinking” (p.28).  For Heidegger “meditative thinking,” the term he used to describe thinking about thinking, had the “potential to lead us toward an understanding of the significance or meaning of existence” and “nothing was more powerful than questions about the meaning of existence . . . why should anything exists, why should there not be just nothing” (p.29).  Meditative thinking is surely a fine exercise for philosophers seeking to understand the meaning of existence.  But if one were to judge by Heidegger, such thinking does not necessarily lead to sound political choices. 

            Although Heidegger’s political views prior to the Nazi era are difficult to pin down, he was “no democrat,” plainly anti-Communist, and was drawn to German “’ways of being,’ often thought to contain a degree of authoritarianism” (p.76).  When the Nazis came to power, Heidegger collaborated with party officials in order to be named Rector at Freiberg University, where the incumbent refused to fire Jewish faculty members.  Once Heidegger obtained the post at Freiburg, he signed off on the dismissal of all Jewish faculty members, including his former mentor and world famous philosophy professor Edmund Husserl. If not an anti-Semite,” Maier-Katkin contends, Heidegger was “certainly an opportunist” (p.94).   “Grandiosity, arrogance, pride, provincialism, and ambition” all contributed to Heidegger’s readiness to embrace the Nazi cause (p.80).  But Heidegger’s embrace went beyond “foolish grandiosity.”  His intellectual stature “helped to legitimize the Nazi seizure of power at a time when ordinary Germans were still wondering whether the Nazis had the sophistication and intelligence to govern Germany.  It was no small thing that Martin Heidegger had confidence in them” (p.100).    

            By 1936, Heidegger had fallen out of favor with the Nazis, in part because he was deemed insufficiently dedicated to the cause.  He nonetheless continued to pay party dues for several years thereafter.  After the war, Heidegger minimized his involvement with the Nazi regime and academically was entirely rehabilitated, “without apologia or mea culpa” (p.244).  In seeking reinstatement at Freiburg University,  Heidegger argued that he had joined the Nazi party because it “facilitated his efforts to protect the university” and because he “hoped that the participation of intellectuals would deepen and transform National Socialism” (p.171).  He had dismissed Jews from the university “reluctantly and passively only to keep the university from being closed” (p.171).  He too had been a victim of Nazism, “spied upon, marginalized in academic and intellectual circles, his work denied the national and international visibility it deserved” (p.172).  In 1950, the Freiburg University Senate reinstated Heidegger’s right to teach. 

            Arendt followed Heidegger’s career while she was forging her own outside Germany, a “stranger from abroad.” After an unsuccessful marriage in 1929, Arendt married Heinrich Blücher in 1940, and the couple remained married until Blücher died in 1970.  Arendt and Heidegger corresponded after Arendt fled the Nazis and Germany in late 1933.  Maier-Kotkin documents several instances after the war when they met.  The first, in 1952, was a “joyous moment of reconciliation, an instant recognition of continuity of interest, affection, and attraction in a shattered world” (p.183).  Heidegger and Arendt met on several occasions in the 1960s and, for the last time, in August 1975, a few months prior to Arendt’s death and less than a year before that of Heidegger.   

             Arendt appears to have forgiven Heidegger’s embrace of Nazism.  In a speech she delivered in 1968, in honor of Heidegger’s 80th birthday, Arendt came closely to saying so publicly.  Here, she termed Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation an “escapade” which she ascribed to a need to avoid the “reality of the Gestapo’s secret rooms and the torture cells of the concentration camps” (p.304-05).   Seeking to understand why Arendt seemed so untroubled by Heidegger’s “escapde” with the Nazis, Maier-Katkin suggests that the views Arendt expressed in her Eichmann writings may afford a clue.  

             Arendt’s experience with Heidegger may have “prepared her to comprehend, when she saw Adolf Eichmann, that a ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’ man – or even a man of extraordinary intelligence like Martin Heidegger – might be transformed by the total moral collapse of society into an unthinking cog in the machinery of totalitarianism” (p.286).  While the notion of the “banality of evil” seemed to be a shocking epiphany which came to Arendt while covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Maier-Katkin surmises that Arendt may have developed the notion “intuitively and without clear articulation in [her] relation to Heidegger” – he too was “at the epicenter of evil” but was motivated “less by racial ideology than by careerist opportunities” (p.286).  Arendt’s observation that Eichmann was human and not a devil, Maier-Katkin argues, could be seen as a

 logical corollary of her earlier understanding of totalitarian systems: that they secure the complicity of whole populations – the Eichmanns and the Heideggers – through the use of terror, propaganda, and largesse to undermine any moral compass and to manipulate culture, language, and all the affiliative herd impulses so that average, normal citizens and even truly exceptional people become confused about right and wrong (p.286-87).

           After her husband’s death in 1970 and that of another key mentor, Karl Jaspers, Heidegger became Arendt’s “only remaining link to the world she had known in her youth” (p.314).  In her solitude, Arendt became “increasingly absorbed in her effort to comprehend the relationship between thinking and moral judgment; and she was never far from her gratitude to Martin Heidegger, the ‘hidden king of thinking’ with whom she had first been introduced to the life of the mind” (p.314-15). 

            For Maier-Katkin, the central question in assessing Arendt’s reconciliation with Heidegger ought to be “whether Heidegger was so deeply associated with the Nazis as to be among the Germans with whom reconciliation was inappropriate, or whether Arendt was correct to judge him as a flawed human being with redeeming virtues” (p.346).  Unfortunately, I found this important question for the most part unanswered in this otherwise well-written and easy-to-read work, part of my disappointment that it doesn’t delve deeply enough into Arendt’s psyche to explain adequately her continued affinity for the “hidden king of thinking.” 

            Maier-Katkin’s supposition that Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil could be applied to Heidegger in the manner she had applied it to Eichmann is intriguing but not demonstrated here, notwithstanding an extensive written record left by a woman who wrote prolifically and candidly.  Absent the probing analysis into Arendt’s psyche, I couldn’t put aside the naïve suspicion when I finished the book that her reconciliation with Heidegger might represent the simple but powerful triumph of Eros, the continuation of a school-girl crush that even the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust were unable to dispel.   

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

October 8, 2013

 

3 Comments

Filed under Biography, European History, German History, History, Uncategorized

Sovereignty of the Self

Bismarck

Jonathan Steinberg, Bismarck: A Life

 

            In “Bismarck: A Life,” Jonathan Steinberg has produced a masterful biography of a mercurial figure, Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck, almost certainly the most important diplomatic figure of the second half of the 19th century.  Steinberg shows how Bismarck went from a “shallow country squire” (p.2) to the man who, between 1862 and 1890, unified the disparate German kingdoms, duchies and fiefdoms into the most powerful country on the European continent.  In stitching together modern Germany, Bismarck put the pieces in place for the new powerhouse to lead Europe into two murderous 20th century wars, then transform itself late in the century into what Timothy Garton Ash recently termed “about as solid a liberal bourgeois democracy as you can find on earth. . . civilized, free, prosperous, law abiding, moderate and cautious” (“The New German Question,” New York Review of Books, August 15, 2013, at 52).  

 

           Steinberg acknowledges at the outset that his biography is another in a series about Bismarck.  What Steinberg adds is a powerful understanding of Bismarck’s volcanic personality, and how that personality affected his public life.  Never have I read a biography that gets into the head and psyche of its subject to the degree that Steinberg does here.  The keys to Bismarck’s character lie in his “deep dualism” and “powerful contradictions” in his nature (p.173), Steinberg argues: “[f]alsehood and honesty, kindness and vengeance, gargantuan energies and hypochondriac frailty, charm and cold remoteness, frankness and deceit” (p.183).  Bismarck’s’ three greatest attributes were a “wonderful flexibility of strategy and tactics, shirking responsibility for what went wrong, [and] rage and brutality to his enemies”  (p.412). 

 

           These attributes made Bismarck a rare political genius, a “manipulator of the political realities of his time” (p.5).  The power he exercised “came from him as a person, not from institutions, mass society or ‘forces and factors.’  The power relied on the sovereignty of an extraordinary, gigantic self” (p.4).  Bismarck’s “sovereignty of the self” combined an “ice-cold contempt for his fellow human beings” with a “methodical determination to control and rule them . . . [and an] extraordinary double ability to see how groups would react and the willingness to use violence to make them obey, the capacity to read group behavior and the force to make them move to his will” p.466).

 

           Born in 1815 in Schönhausen, in the kingdom of Prussia, Bismarck, came from an old Prussian family and personified and accentuated many of the “darkest characteristics” of the landowning Junker class (p.18).  Junker values included fierce loyalty and militarism but also anti-Semitism, a “visceral hatred of Jews” (p.388).  Bismarck bought into the Prussian notion that equated liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism with Judaism “Anti-Semitism in the nineteenth century became a surrogate for everything that the Junkers, churches, peasants and artisans most feared and distrusted,” (p.475) Steinberg writes.  While Bismarck “certainly did not create [German] anti-Semitism, which was “universal at all levels of German society,” the anti-Semitism and anti-liberalism of his time “passed into the bloodstream of Germany to become virulent in the overheated atmosphere of the First World War and to become lethal in its aftermath.  This too was a Bismarckian legacy” (p.477). 

           

           Bismarck was elected to the Prussian diet in 1844, at age 29, with “no real qualifications beyond his outsized personality” (p.70).  But from his first foray into politics, he proved to be unusually gifted in the dark art of legislative maneuvering, a “brilliant, persuasive and overwhelmingly convincing parliamentary politician” (p.72), His first political speech revealed what would become his characteristic style, delivered with “sparkling prose” and “easy conversational tones” that hid his “complete contempt” for fellow parliamentarians (p.77).    

 

           Bismarck raged at his enemies, and was consistently vindictive.  “Nobody ever indulged himself so utterly in vehement or violent anger as Otto von Bismarck . . . He lost his temper at the slightest provocation” (p.467-68).  Anyone who “said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing in Bismarck’s opinion would finish in outer darkness” (p.183).  Bismarck “never considered compromise a satisfactory outcome.  He had to win and destroy the opponents or lose and be destroyed himself” (p.472).  His “destructive urges and rages, his need for revenge, his paranoia and sleeplessness had psychological origins,” Steinberg writes.  They “lay in the dark recesses of his colossal and complex nature” (p.415)    

 

           Physical sickness seems to have been one of Bismarck’s most effective tools.  No statesman of the nineteenth or twentieth century “fell ill so frequently, so publicly, and so dramatically as Otto von Bismarck,” (p.238) Steinberg recounts.  He “trumpeted his suffering and all his symptoms to everybody” (p.238).  But in Steinberg’s view, Bismarck’s sickness “lay primarily in the mind [and] not the body” (p.238).  His health, temper and emotional life “deteriorated the more successful he became” (p.34).   It was Bismarck’s tragedy and that of Germany, Steinberg concludes, that Bismarck never learned “how to be a proper Christian, had no understanding of the virtue of humility and still less about the interaction of his sick body and sick soul” (p.155).  

 

           After stints as a Prussian diplomat posted to Frankfurt, Moscow and Paris, Bismarck served as “Minister President” of his native Prussia from1862 to 1890.  Throughout this period, Bismarck’s fate was almost entirely dependent upon King Wilhelm I, who ruled Prussia, then Germany, from 1861 until his death in 1888.  Bismarck “never had any other foundation for his achievements.  No crowds followed him and no party acknowledged him as a leader” (p.84).  The most powerful figure of the 19th century, Steinberg argues, “had on real parliamentary support and still depended on the person, the emotions, and the attitudes of a very old monarch” (p.261).  Bismarck ruled by the “magic he exerted over the old man.”  He needed “no majorities in parliament; he needed no political parties. He had a public of one” (p.7).  

           Bismarck’s famous “blood and iron” speech, a blueprint for German unification under Prussian leadership, was one of his first public statements in his capacity as Prussia’s Minister-President.  Bismarck told the Budget Committee of the Prussian parliament in September 1862 that Prussia must: 

 

build up and preserve her strength for the advantageous moment, which has already come and gone many times.  Her borders under the treaties of Vienna are not favorable for the healthy existence of the state.  The great questions of the day will not be settled by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by blood and iron (p.180-81).

 

 Bismarck then provoked three wars between 1862 and 1871 that led to Prussian dominance over continental rivals Austria and France, and over the other German states that ultimately united into modern Germany.  In 1867, after a war with Austria, Bismarck became Chancellor of the North German Confederation; then, after the war with France, he became the first “Reich Chancellor” of a united Germany, a position he held until 1890. 

 

            The first of the three wars was with Denmark, over two provinces, Schleswig and Holstein.  In this brief — and to many “incomprehensible” (p.210) — short war, Bismarck wrenched the two provinces away from Denmark and into the Prussian orbit through shrewd diplomatic maneuvering and brute military force.  The Schleswig-Holstein affair was followed by a war with Hapsburg Austria, which eliminated an obstacle to a German confederation.  Against the wishes of King Wilhelm, Bismarck did not annex any Austrian territory and declined a victory parade in Vienna.  Bismarck was thus able to unite much of Germany into the North German Confederation without having to contend with an unruly Austria as part of the confederation, and without provoking France’s intervention on behalf of Austria, thereby leaving the door open for an eventual reconciliation with the Hapsburg Monarchy — in retrospect, uncannily shrewd decisions, marking a “complete transformation of the European order” (p.258). 

 

           But Bismarck also “needed a crisis with France and possibly even a war to overcome the resistance of the Southern German States to a final unification under Prussian leadership” (p.281-82).  With more uncanny shrewdness, Bismarck maneuvered Napoleon III of France into declaring war against Prussia.  The southern German states saw France as the aggressor, and enthusiastically supported Bismarck’s campaign against Napoleon III.  With a series of surprising and smashing victories, Prussia shocked the world by rapidly overcoming France in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war and annexing Alsace and much of Lorraine.  The war culminated with the full unification of Germany, as Bismarck brought the southern German states into what came to be known as the German Empire, with King Wilhelm as its Emperor and Bismarck as its Chancellor. 

 

           Steinberg considers the unification of Germany between 1862 and 1871 to be the “greatest diplomatic and political achievement by any leader in the last two centuries” (p.184).  The victory over France and the foundation of the new Reich “marked the high points of Bismarck’s career.  He had achieved the impossible and his genius and the cult of that genius had no limits” (p.312).  The new European state that emerged seemed to be without limits as well:

 

Between 1871 and 1914 the German Empire would become an economic superpower.  Its coal, steel, and iron production grew larger than the entire production of its continental rivals put together.  Whereas in 1871 Germany and France had roughly the same population, by 1914 Germany had half again as many people, better educated, better disciplined, and more productive than any in the world . . . [By 1914] Germany had achieved a supremacy in Europe which only the French Empire of Napoleon had reached at a few moments but Germany had a much more powerful industrial and technological foundation (p.313). 

 

           “No permanent allies, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests” might well describe Bismarck’s domestic policies and how he played the factions in Prussia, then Germany, against one another, with Bismarck’s permanent interest being Bismarck.  He launched an anti-Catholic “cultural struggle,” kulturkampf, that raised echoes of Revolutionary France. “The Roman Church and all its traditional pastoral and ecclesiastical activities challenged the growing power, competence and intrusiveness of the modern state” (p.319).  Bismarck’s kulturkampf followed the Vatican Council’s 1870 declaration of papal infallibility.  In 1872, Odo Russell, formerly British Ambassador to Prussia, wrote that Bismarck considered himself “more infallible than the Pope” and could not “tolerate two infallibles in Europe” (p.334).  

 

           Bismarck fought rising socialism just as vigorously as he fought the Catholic Church, but in no small part by instituting reforms designed to keep socialism out of Germany.  A landmark accident insurance program went into effect in 1884.  An old age and disability insurance bill passed in 1889.  This system of social security, Steinberg indicates, “gave Germany the first modern social welfare safety net in the world and still forms part of the modern German social security system, a significant achievement and entirely Bismarck’s doing” (p.417). 

 

           Devoid of core principles, Bismarck was able to pursue other liberal ends when it served his interest.  He steered a bill through the parliament introducing freedom of trades and crafts, a “very contentious issue, because it broke the historic restrictions on the practice of a trade, an evil which Adam Smith had condemned in Wealth of Nations” (p.279).  He granted full emancipation to Germany’s Jews, lifting “[a]ll existing restrictions on civil and national rights which arise from the diversity of religious confessions” (p.279).  And, in “one of his most brilliant and fateful ploys, Bismarck announced in 1863 that the new Germany would have universal manhood suffrage.  He used the people to undermine and tame the German princes, whose power and intransigence he grossly overestimated” (p.474).   

 

           Bismarck continued to rule the new Germany until 1890, when he fell irreparably out of favor with the new ruling monarch, Wilhelm II, after the death of Wilhelm I in 1888, just short of his 91st birthday, and his son Frederick III, less than 100 days later.  This accident of history “undid Bismarck because he had always depended on royal favour, and favour no longer sustained him” (p.425).  Now Bismarck had to cope with  Wilhelm II, the Kaiser who would lead Germany into World War I, but in 1888 a 29 year old “headstrong young man who from the beginning intended to rule in his own name and not as an agent of the great Bismarck” (p.436).  After Bismarck’s resignation in 1890, Wilhelm II wrote in a private letter that Bismarck’s “lust for power had taken a demonic hold on this great, noble man” (p.450).  In what Steinberg terms an “impotent retirement,” the 75-year-old Bismarck undertook an “absolutely ruthless settlement of grievances” (p.452), which continued until his death in 1898. 

 

           Bismarck’s personal and family life seem somewhat slighted in this volume.  Steinberg spends some time showing how Bismarck’s wife Johanna was his second or “fall back” choice, after a woman he courted and coveted jilted him.  The relationship between husband Otto and wife Johanna was not warm, Steinberg suggests.  She was ill suited as a spouse in the circles in which Bismarck moved and seemed to remain on the sidelines as Bismarck’s career took off. 

 

           Steinberg provides detail of one instance involving Bismarck’s son Herbert, in which the father cruelly nixed a potential marriage for the son because of political grudges he held against the families into which the prospective bride’s two sisters had married.  But Steinberg offers this example mostly to illustrate further the dark side of Bismarck’s character.  “Bismarck’s infinite capacity to hate his enemies, indeed anybody who contradicted him, destroyed his eldest son and added to the long list of victims of the distorted and disturbed personality that his genius had allowed to go unchecked” (p.409). 

 

          Although the picture that the reader gains from this book of the personal side of Bismarck is largely by inference, an egotistical, mercurial, narcissistic figure in public is unlikely to be soft, cuddly and caring in private.  But Steinberg leaves little to inference concerning the public manifestations of Bismarck’s sovereign self, which are covered in rich and illuminating detail in his one-of-a-kind biography. 

 

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

September 15, 2013

6 Comments

Filed under Biography, German History, History

Into Thin Air

Schiff

Stacy Schiff, Saint-Exupery: A Biography

           When I was in the 9th grade, I had a charismatic English teacher who, in addition to requiring his pupils to memorize 3,000 vocabulary words and diagram sentences – even then, very unfashionable teaching approaches – introduced us to the world of serious literature. Among the authors we met were Dickens (“Great Expectations”), Faulkner (“The Bear”), and Shakespeare (“Julius Caesar”). But the centerpiece of our 9th grade literary experience was Antoine St. Exupéry‘s “The Little Prince,” which my teacher considered one of the best books ever written – my recollection is that he said it was the best book. Since then, I have often asked myself whether this lofty elevation of St. Exupéry’s iconic work was anything more than hyperbole spooned out to gullible 9th graders. In posing that question over the years, I realized that I knew next to nothing about the author of this work. So when I saw Stacy Schiff’s biography of St. Exupréy on sale at my favorite second hand bookstore, I pounced, hoping to learn a little about the man considered one of France’s greatest 20th century authors, and not solely for “The Little Prince.”

           Throughout this volume, Schiff shows herself to be a sophisticated biographer, tying a mind-boggling amount of detail into a coherent whole (skills which worked for her more recently when she received a Pulitzer Prize for her best-selling biography “Cleopatra”). She portrays St. Exupéry as a towering figure, 6 feet 4 inches, yet a “marvelous child” (p.325) with the “sensibility of a little girl” (p.76). He was an accomplished if somewhat eccentric aviator in aviation’s early days, demonstrating a “remarkable aptitude for mechanics” (p.132). As an aviator, Schiff contends that St. Exupéry was as popular among his peers “as John Glenn initially made himself among the early astronauts” (p.214). One friend summed up St. Exupréy the aviator: “When the flight is normal Saint Exupréy is dangerous; given complications, he’s brilliant” (p.330).

           St. Exupéry spent several formative years in the Sahara desert as a pilot for Aéropostale, one of France’s first overseas airmail services. He worked as an author during off hours, constantly scribbling drafts on scraps of paper. During his time in the desert, St. Exupéry pondered the “importance of responsibility, the fellowship it nurtures among men, the priority of an interior life” (p.29). The Sahara formed a backdrop in the 1930s, for several works that helped make him one of France’s leading 20th century literary figures, especially “Night Flight” and “Wind, Sand and Stars.” These works raised questions that St. Exupéry grappled with throughout his life:

how to reconcile an individual’s thirst for profit with some social good; how to allow for maximum liberty in a world prone to tyranny; how to apply the happy lessons of Aéropostale to a social structure; how to nourish and motivate man in a machine age (p.289).

           St. Exupéry was also what the French call a châtelain, with nobility in the blood, little in the bank account, and a certain “helplessness with financial matters” (p.77). On several occasions, he was forced to return to France, more specifically Paris, where he was a generally unhappy member of the Parisian café intelligentsia, mingling uneasily with Sartre, de Beauvoir and others at the Café des Deux-Maggots and Brasserie Lipp. He fell deeply in love with a woman he did not marry and married a woman one can only characterize as a fruitcake. Schiff suggests that the Little Prince’s painful attempt to figure out the elusive rose was an expression of St. Exupréy’s fractious relationship with his wife. During World War II, St. Exupréy joined many other French literary figures in New York.

           “The Little Prince” was written largely during St. Exupréy’s New York years. Schiff describes the work as a “satire for the adult world” at war (p.389), by far St. Exupéry’s “most popular and enduring work” — even if usually found on bookshelves “alongside Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and the Wizard of Oz” (p.449). “The Little Prince” has been translated into more languages – nearly 80, Schiff indicates – than any other original work in French, and still sells over 100,000 copies annually in the United States and in France.

           Although St. Exupréy was not on de Gaulle’s good side, he yearned to fight for his country and left New York to fly missions for the Free French. On the last day of July 1944, St. Exupréy took off on a solo mission and simply disappeared, “into thin air,” the title of Schiff’s chapter on his death. Even today, there is no certainty and few serious theories on how St. Exupréy met his end. But Schiff shows that he was despondent in the weeks and months immediately preceding his last mission. She does not state that he perished in a suicide mission, but the enigma that surrounds his death seems consistent with such an end. St. Exupréy was the “most celebrated French man of letters to die in the war,” Schiff notes wryly, “for the simple reason that most French men of letters did not see active combat after the fall of France in 1940” (p.438).

           In her biography of St. Exupréy and his world, Schiff portrays an author as beguiling, enchanting and mystifying as the Little Prince: “too broad for any category” and “fated to be misconstrued” (p.446). St. Exuprey’s work, she concludes, was “rich in spirit” and “makes us want to overreach ourselves. It makes us dream” (p.447) — a conclusion which I think my 9th grade English teacher would be happy to endorse.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
June 5, 2013

2 Comments

Filed under Biography, French History, Literature, Uncategorized