Category Archives: Biography

Managing Winston

Clementine.1

Clementine.2

Sonia Purnell, Clementine:

The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill 

            Biographies of political spouses run the risk of being overwhelmed by the politician once he or she enters the scene. Sonia Purnell’s Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, by far the most comprehensive biography to date of Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine, does not quite succumb to that risk.  But Purnell, a freelance British journalist and historian, provides a fresh look at the familiar ups and downs in Winston’s career, recounting them from Clementine’s perspective, from the time the couple first met in 1904 and married in 1908 through Winston’s death in 1965.  Although comprehensive in its cradle-to-grave coverage of Clementine herself, the book shines in its treatment of the couple during World War II.  When Winston became Britain’s wartime Prime Minister in 1940, Clementine functioned as her husband’s closest advisor. She was, Purnell writes, Winston’s “ultimate authority, his conscience and the nearest he had to a direct line to the people.”  Without Clementine sharing his burden, “it is difficult if not impossible to imagine [Winston] becoming the single-minded giant who led Britain, against almost impossible odds, to victory over tyranny” (p.391).

            But if World War II was the couple’s own “finest hour,” to borrow from Winston’s famous speech to Parliament in June 1940, many of the qualities that enabled them to survive and thrive during that trial can be traced to the testing they received during World War I.  War, it seems, served as the force that bound their marriage together.  We know a great deal about the workings of that marriage because the couple spent an extraordinary amount of time apart from one another. They corresponded regularly when separated, and even communicated frequently in writing when they were together under the same roof. By one count, the couple sent about 1,700 letters, notes and telegrams back and forth over the course of nearly six decades of courtship and marriage, many of which survive.

          The Churchills’ correspondence and the other portions of the record that Purnell has skillfully pieced together reveal a marriage that had its share of difficult moments, bending but never breaking. Both spouses had volatile and frequently volcanic personalities.  Although her husband was known for his bouts of depression, referred to informally as “Black Dog,” Clementine had an actual case of clinically diagnosed depression, and more than her fair share of mood swings and temperamental outbursts. Further, both spouses were surprisingly indifferent parents, more devoted to each other than to their children. Clementine, tormented that Winston might abandon her as her father had abandoned her mother, clearly placed Winston’s needs over those of her children. Yet, on more than one occasion she seems to have contemplated leaving the marriage.  Nonetheless, over the course of 57 years, the marital glue held.

* * *

         Clementine, born in 1885, had an unorthodox upbringing. Her mother, Lady Blanche Hozier, of aristocratic origin but limited means, was trapped in a bad marriage to Colonel Henry Hozier, who left his wife and children during Clementine’s early childhood. To this day, historians debate whether Hozier was indeed Clementine’s biological father, and the matter is unlikely ever to be settled conclusively. Clementine’s two sisters, Kitty and Nellie, may have been her half sisters – their paternity has not been conclusively established either. After Colonel Hozier’s departure, the three girls lived a peripatetic life with Lady Blanche, who took her children frequently to Northern France and allowed herself to be pursued by a wide number of suitors. Kitty seemed to be her mother’s favorite among the three daughters, but she died a month before her 17th birthday and her mother “was never the same again” (p.21). Lady Blanche never provided Clementine with a steady, loving childhood, a loss which likely affected Clementine’s subsequent relationships with her own children.

         Clementine was first introduced to rising political star Winston Churchill at a society ball in the summer of 1904, when she was 18 and he was 29.  She was far from impressed with the “notorious publicity seeker” (p.29) who had recently defected from the Conservative Party to join the upstart Liberal Party over his opposition to a Conservative proposal to impose protective tariffs on goods imported into Britain.  Inexplicably, the usually gregarious and supremely self-confident young man clammed up, unable to make the requisite small talk. The next encounter occurred four years later, in 1908, when Clementine happened to be seated next to Winston at a dinner party. This time, Clementine “found his idealism and brilliance liberating” (p.31).  Winston was impressed that Clementine, herself more mature at age 22, knew “far more about life than the ladies of cosseting privilege he normally met, and she was well educated, sharing his love of France and its culture” (p.31). After a courtship conventionally aristocratic, if short, the couple married later that year (the courtship, marriage and Winston’s early political years, from 1900 to 1915, are the subject matter of Michael Seldin’s Young Titan, reviewed here in May 2015).

            The marriage was “never destined to be smooth” (p.54), Purnell writes. The man Clementine married was “demanding, selfish and rash” (p.54), emotionally needy, lacking in empathy, and a workaholic with a tendency to bully.  But Clementine could be “rigid and unforgiving” (p.4) and brought an “explosive temper” to the marriage, where the “slightest setback, such as cold soup or a late delivery, could send her into a fury” (p.53). Plagued throughout life by a pattern of “severe listlessness alternating with near-hysterical outbursts” (p.148), Clementine, not Winston, had the couple’s only case of clinically diagnosed depression. Throughout their first three decades of marriage, the couple was united in the goal of making Winston Prime Minister. But they pursued this goal at no small cost to their offspring.

            Between 1909 and 1922, the couple had five children, four daughters and one son. Daughter Marigold, born in 1918, died at an early age. The four surviving offspring — Diana, b.1909; Randolph, b.1911; Sarah, b.1914; and Mary, b.1922 – “saw little of either parent, even by the standards of British upper-class families of the period” (p.184). Winston outwardly adored his children. He gave them silly nicknames and, when available, enjoyed playing games and roughhousing with them. But he was only infrequently available.  Clementine in this account seemed to lack even this level of intimacy. She was distant and not particularly warm with any of her children, and also frequently absent, either traveling with her husband or away on recurring travel and adventures on her own.

          Randolph, Diana and Sarah went on to lead turbulent adult lives. Randolph drank heavily, gambled frequently and acquired a reputation for boorish behavior.  One of the book’s most surprising – indeed stunning – episodes occurred during his 1939 marriage to Pamela Digby, later Pamela Harrington. It was not a good marriage. Randolph was abusive in many ways, physically and otherwise.  In their troubled  marriage, Randolph’s parents plainly sided with their daughter-in-law over their son. After war broke out, with Randolph serving in the army and the couple living apart, Pamela pursued affairs with several leading figures from the United States, including famed journalist Edward R. Murrow and wealthy businessman Averill Harriman, whom she later married.

            In Purnell’s account, both Winston, by then Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, and Clementine encouraged these romantic liaisons for their intelligence gathering potential in furtherance of the war effort. Pamela “fast became one of the most important intelligence brokers in the war” (p.275).   She provided information to her parents-in-law on “what the Americans were thinking” (p.274) and boosted Britain’s case for more American assistance.  Randolph never forgave his parents for condoning the liaisons, and it is not difficult to understand why. Randolph died of a heart attack in 1968, at age 57.

            Randolph’s sisters Diana and Sarah also struggled through adult life.  Diana had two bad marriages and suffered repeatedly from nervous breakdowns.  She likely took her own life from an overdose of barbiturates in 1963, at age 54.  Sarah had a moderately successful acting career, but was plagued throughout much of her adult life by alcohol abuse, “drinking herself to her grave by slow stages” (p.387). She married three times. Her termination of an affair with American Ambassador John Winant likely contributed to his suicide in 1947. With Sarah on the brink of filing for divorce from her second husband, he too committed suicide. Sarah died in 1982, five years after Clementine, at age 68.

            Only the youngest Churchill, Mary, “always the perfect daughter” (p.387), achieved something akin to normalcy as an adult.  She married but once, had five children, served in numerous public organizations, and wrote the first (and seemingly only other) biography of her mother.  In the 1960s, she was quoted as saying that, based on her own childhood experience, she “made a conscious decision to put my children first because I did feel something had been. . . yes, missing at home” (p.359).  Alone among the Churchill children, Mary lived to an old age, dying in 2014 at age 92.

            Purnell documents several points between the two wars, and after World War II, when Clementine appeared to be on the brink of exiting the marriage.  Bitter rows between the parents over Randolph’s behavior as a young adult led in the 1930s to hints that the Churchills’ “ever more regular separations might become permanent” (p.196). After the war, perfect daughter Marry sought to mediate the couple’s differences.  Worried that her parents’ marriage again seemed on the verge of falling apart, Mary acknowledged her mother’s “occasional yearning for ‘the quieter more banal happiness of being married to an ordinary man’” (p.354).

          Another sign of the marriage’s sometimes fragile character came in the 1930s, when Clementine, traveling without her husband on a four-month cruise of the East Indies, fell under the charms of Terence Philip, an art dealer with a reputation for “passing flirtations” (p.203).  Phillip was “tall, rich, suave, an authority on art and unburdened by driving ambition – unlike Winston, in fact, in almost every respect” (p.201). It is unclear whether Clementine’s relationship with Phillip was adulterous. Phillip was “thought not to be that interested in women sexually. . . Nevertheless his open and ardent admiration shook Clementine to her core” (p.203-04). Purnell also describes an incident where Winston was invited to take tea with his cousin’s fiancée, only to learn upon arrival at her apartment that the barely clad woman had a purpose other than tea in mind for his visit.  Upon discovering that purpose, Winston “insisted he had left immediately” and recounted the incident to Clementine, who “appears to have been surprisingly relaxed about the encounter” (p.132).

* * *

            Purnell neatly weaves these soap opera details of the Churchill family into the familiar story of Winston pursuing his political ambitions and the less familiar story of Clementine playing an indispensable role in that pursuit. Shortly after the couple’s marriage, Winston became Home Secretary, charged with keeping internal order in the country.  In 1911, he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, head of Britain’s Royal Navy, and held this position when Britain found itself at war in 1914.  In this capacity, he oversaw the failed 1915 attack on Ottoman Turkey at the Dardanelles straights, a calamitous failure for which Winston became the scapegoat, “held liable for one of the bloodiest British military failures in history” (p.81). Purnell suggests that Winston’s marriage saved him from self-destruction at the time of this grim setback. Only Clementine “could repeatedly tell him why he was deemed untrustworthy and why he had made so many enemies”(p.118).

             With Clementine’s support, Winston slowly crept back into politics. He lost his seat as a Liberal Member of Parliament in 1922. At a time when the Liberal Party was fading into irrelevance, he rejoined the Conservative Party in 1924, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. In that capacity, he oversaw Britain’s return in 1926 to the gold standard, another decision that proved disastrous for him politically, resulting in deflation and unemployment and leading to the General Strike of 1926. With the defeat of the Conservative government in 1929, Winston was out of politics and entered what he later termed his “Wilderness Years.” In the 1920s, he had earned a reputation as somewhat of a crank, railing incessantly about the Bolshevik menace to Europe.  In the 1930s, he shifted his rhetorical target to Germany and the threat that Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party posed, which the public perceived initially as little more than another example of his crankiness. But in May 1940, Winston became his country’s Prime Minister, charged with leading the war against Nazi Germany which had broken out the previous September.  Winston and Clementine’s “true life’s work” then began,  and she “would barely leave his side again until it was done” (p.234).

            By the time Winston became Prime Minister, Clementine was already an “amalgam of special advisor, lobbyist and spin doctor” — or, as David Lloyd George put it, an “expert at ‘managing’ Winston” (p.94). At each juncture in Winston’s career, Clementine developed an “astute judgment of the characters involved, the goals that were achievable and the dangers to be anticipated” (p.57). She closely reviewed drafts of Winston’s speeches and coached him on effective delivery techniques.   Campaigning for his seat in Parliament bored Winston, and he frequently sent Clementine to rouse his constituents as elections approached.   In a time before political optics and images were given over to full-time professionals, Clementine was Winston’s optics specialist. With her “surer grasp of the importance of public image” (p.3), she frequently raised questions that the more impulsive Winston hadn’t fully thought through about how a course of action would look to the voters or be perceived internationally.

            During World War II, Clementine assumed an unprecedented role as Winston’s aide.  It is unlikely, Purnell contends, that “any other prime ministerial spouse in British history has been so involved in government business, or wielded such personal power – albeit entirely behind the scenes.  She did not duplicate what Winston was doing, or cross it; she complemented it and he gave her free rein to do so” (p.246-47).  When Winston was in Teheran in December 1943 meeting with Roosevelt and Stalin, for instance, Clementine was busy putting out fires and easing tensions within Winston’s cabinet.  At the same time, she “reviewed reports on parliamentary debates, read the most secret telegrams, kept [Opposition leader and Deputy Prime Minister] Clement Attlee informed of the prime minister’s progress, dealt with constituency matters, and sent back to Winston digests of public reaction to the war “(p.314).

          Yet, paradoxically, Winston and Clementine did not see eye-to-eye on many of issues of their time, with Clementine’s instincts conspicuously more liberal than those of her husband.  Despite her aristocratic background and lofty position as a politician’s’wife, Clementine was unusually adept at establishing links and relations with average citizens. Her relatively impoverished childhood and limited work experience while unmarried “fostered in Clementine an instinctive sympathy for the worker’s point of view” (p.103).  Even before World War I, she was a fervent advocate of women’s voting rights, “just the first of many issues on which she would part ways with her husband’s more conservative political views” (p.56). Later she would champion co-education at Cambridge University’s Churchill College and abolition of the death penalty.

          During World War II, Clementine frequently visited injured military personnel and otherwise sought out everyday citizens to encourage them to continue to support the war effort.  She also prevailed upon her husband to create opportunities for women to serve in auxiliary military roles. Winston was “initially unenthusiastic at the idea . . . but Clementine persevered and he became one of the first to appreciate that the country could not win through the sacrifice of its menfolk alone” (p.241).

         A tale within the tale of World War II is Clementine’s relationship with American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The two met on several occasions during the war. Clementine did not care for Eleanor’s husband Franklin, who had taken the unpardonable liberty of calling her “Clemmie,” a “privilege normally reserved for the most deserving and long-serving friends” (p.310); and there was no love lost between Winston and Eleanor.  Eleanor felt Winston “romanticized war” (p.281), while Winston found Eleanor to be a busybody “who did not conform to [his] ideas of an ‘attractive’ woman” (p.285).  Nonetheless, the two women “enjoyed each other’s company” (p.296).  They were of a similar age and upper class backgrounds, and each had endured a difficult childhood.  Both demonstrated uncommon concern for the poor and their countries’ least favored citizens.  Each lost a child as a young mother, and had children who struggled through adult life.  Purnell notes that the four Roosevelt sons racked up 18 marriages between them, while Clementine’s four children blundered through a mere eight.

          But the Roosevelts were living almost entirely separate lives during World War II, with Eleanor reduced to the role of a second-tier political advisor, in the dark on most of the key war issues that her husband was dealing with.  She sometimes criticized or questioned her husband’s decisions or policies in a newspaper column she wrote. Such public airing of differences between Clementine and Winston was unthinkable for either spouse.  As Purnell notes, Clementine “never even hinted publicly about her private disagreements with Winston. But then [unlike Franklin Roosevelt] he kept nothing from her” (p.306).

          Roosevelt died in April 1945, less than a month prior to the end of Europe’s most devastating war.  A few short months later, Winston, himself in poor health, saw his Conservative party voted out of office, as Clement Atlee and his Labour Party won a general election in July 1945.  Improbably, Winston returned at age 77 as Prime Minister to lead the Conservatives from 1951 to 1955, his final and generally unsatisfactory years as government leader.  He remained a Member of Parliament until the October 1964 general election, and died just months later in January 1965.

* * *

         Purnell ends her substantive chapters with Winston’s death, covering Clementine’s final years as a widow, up to her death in 1977 at age 92, in an “Epilogue.” This was a period of “almost ethereal calm” (p.387) for her.  With Randolph’s death in 1968, she had outlived three of her five children. Her husband’s towering reputation across the globe was secure and, as Purnell puts it, “if her light was fading, so be it” (p.388).  Purnell’s thoroughly researched and highly readable work constitutes a major step in assuring that Clementine’s light continues to shine.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 4, 2017

 

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Filed under Biography, British History, English History, History, Uncategorized

Living Philosophy

 

 

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café:

Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails 

            Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails takes a deep but refreshingly casual look at the philosophical way of thinking termed existentialism, giving the term an historical treatment grounded in the actual lives of existentilist philosophers.  Part philosophy, part history, part biography, her  work is also part autobiographical.  Bakewell, a British writer and teacher who is the author of a highlyacclaimed book on Montaigne, endearingly details her own journey in learning about existentialism and explains how major existential writings influenced her personally.  Philosophy, she contends,  “becomes more interesting when it is cast into the form of a life.” Likewise, “personal experience is more interesting when thought about philosophically” (p.32).  Quite so.

More than just about any other form of philosophy, existentialism cannot really be understood without digging into the day-to-day lives of existential philosophers themselves. The existentialist, Bakewell emphasizes, seeks to capture the “quality of experience as we live it rather than according to the frameworks suggested by traditional philosophy, psychology, Marxism, Hegelianism, structuralism, or any of the other –isms and disciplines that explain our lives away” (p.325). Bakewell acknowledges that existentialism is difficult to define more precisely, with no consensus definition. For some, it is “more of a mood than a philosophy” (p.1). Her definition is itself a page long, and she invites her readers to skip over it.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex and elusive term, existentialism in Bakewell’s interpretation might best be thought of as a way of thinking about existence for human beings. It focuses upon how humans  live the moments large and small in the time allotted to them, i.e., how they exist. Humans are unique beings in that they are free to choose how they live and are responsible for their choices, but only within what Bakewell describes as a “situation,” which includes a person’s own biology and psychology as well as the “physical, historical and social variables” of each human being’s situation.  The existentialist therefore sees human existence,  Bakewell emphasizes, as  “ambiguous: at once boxed in by borders and yet transcendent and exhilarating” (p.34).

Bakewell’s hardcopy cover features sketches of four individuals: Jean Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir at the center, flanked by Albert Camus on their left and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to their right. Sartre and Beauvoir are not only at the center of the cover: they are also the center of Bakewell’s story, occupying the main table at her Existentialist Café, a “big, busy café of the mind” (p.33). Existentialism is above all the story of Sartre and Beauvoir, philosophy’s ultimate power couple, defined by their writings and their lives. Because Sartre and Beauvoir famously lived those lives in Paris, the story’s main setting is France and the Parisian intellectual milieu from the late 1920s until Sartre’s death in 1980 and Beauvoir’s six years later (almost to the day), in 1986.

The Existentialist Café is thus a Parisian café, probably located somewhere on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris’ 6th arrondissement, much like the actual cafés where Sartre and Beauvoir wrote, drank, met friends and acquaintances, and thrashed out their existential ideas over the course of a half-century. Sartre and Beauvoir became a couple in 1929, when they were 23 and 21 respectively. From the beginning, their relationship was explicitly open-ended, allowing both partners to pursue amorous digressions. But their relationship was also what Bakewell terms a “philosophical demonstration of existentialism in practice, defined by the two principles of freedom and companionship” (p120). Although the bourgeois ideal of marriage held no appeal for either, their “shared memories, observations and jokes bound them together just as in any long marriage” (p.120).

Camus and Merleau-Ponty, not quite existentialists in the sense that Bakewell uses the term, were Sartre and Beauvoir’s contemporaries who drank frequently with them and thought, wrote and argued – often vehemently — about many of the ideas that animated Sartre and Beauvoir.  Merleau-Ponty, far less well known than Camus, Sartre and Beauvoir, merits a full chapter in Bakewell’s work, part of her effort to introduce him to English language readers. Camus and Merleau-Ponty both had fallings out with Sartre and Beauvoir, partially over Cold War political differences and partially because Sartre’s outsized personality led naturally to fallings out with just about everyone he befriended, save Beauvoir. Camus and Merleau-Ponty’s fluctuating relationships with Sartre and Beauvoir constitute one of the book’s two main threads.

The other is the influence exerted upon the couple  by Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, Germans of an older generation associated with an approach to philosophy termed phenomenology, existentialism’s direct antecedent. Heidegger, infamous for embracing Nazism in the 1930s and remaining steadfastly unrepentant thereafter, is a brooding, almost villainous presence throughout Bakewell’s study — a scary guy when he drops in at the Existentialist Café, unlikely to be telling many jokes. Some of the 20th century’s foremost thinkers, writers and intellectuals also make short appearances at Bakewell’s café, including Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

* * *

            Existentialism may be a difficult term to define, but its origins are easy to pinpoint in Bakewell’s account: a conversation during the 1932-33 Christmas holiday season, involving Sartre, Beauvoir and Raymond Aron, Sartre’s classmate at France’s renowned Ecole Normale Superièure.  The conversation  took place at Paris’ Bac-de-Gaz café on Boulevard Montparnasse, about a mile from the Boulevard St. Germain cafés Beauvoir and Sartre later made famous.  Sartre, 27, and Beauvoir, 25, were then teaching high school in separate locations in Normandy and were back home in Paris enjoying the holiday break. Aron had just returned from studying philosophy in Berlin, a city then on edge, with Adolph Hitler’s unruly National Socialist party enjoying a surge in representation in Weimar Germany’s Parliament. The three 20 somethings exchanged banter and the latest gossip as they drank apricot cocktails, the Bac-de-Gaz’s specialty.

Aron recounted to his friends his discovery in Berlin of phenomenology, then considered a new approach to philosophy.  He explained how eminent philosophers  Husserl and  Heidegger were turning away from the often-contorted abstractions of traditional philosophy to concentrate on things as they are – being was the key word. Husserl and Heidegger were asking questions such as: what is it for a thing to be? What does it mean to say you are? Looking at the apricot cocktails on the table, Aron told his friends, “If you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!” (p.3). Although Sartre and Beauvoir were familiar with the works of Husserl and Heidegger, in Bakewell’s account this moment at the Montparnasse café was an epiphany for both, the moment when the approach to the philosophy hat we now call existentialism came into being.  Together, over the course of nearly a half-century, Sartre and Beauvoir went  on to transform some of the basic ideas of phenomenology into their own distinct way of thinking.

Sartre subsequently studied  in Germany under Husserl. But the roots of existentialism in Bakewell’s interpretation may be found even further back than Heidegger and Husserl, in the work of 19th century philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard. The “heralds of modern existentialism,” Nietzsche and Kierkegaard “pioneered a mood of rebellion and dissatisfaction, created a new definition of existence as choice, action and self-assertion, and made a study of the anguish and difficulty of life. They also worked in the conviction that philosophy was not just a profession. It was life itself – the life of an individual” (p.20).

20th century phenomenology built upon and systematized Nietzsche and Kierkegaard’s iconoclastic way of thinking. It sought, as Bakewell puts it, to give a “formal mode of access to human experience,” allowing philosophers to “talk about life more or less as non-philosophers do, while still being able to tell themselves they are being methodological and rigorous” (p.43). This mode of access to human experience flourished amidst the turmoil of post-World War I Germany under Hussserl,  considered to be the “father” of phenomenology, and Heidegger, Husserl’s student and subsequently his colleague at the University of Freiburg.  For Husserl, phenomenology meant “stripping away distractions, habits, clichés of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return to what he called the ‘things themselves’” (p.40). As Hitler’s virulent form of xenophobic nationalism took hold in Germany, Husserl, born into a Jewish family, sought to retain the Enlightenment spirit of shared reason and free inquiry (p.132). He died in 1938 at age 79.

Heidegger took phenomenology in a different direction in the 1930s. His appeal to students was that he sought nothing less than to “overturn human thinking, destroy the history of metaphysics, and start philosophy all over again” (p.62). His writings revealed a yearning to go back “into the deep forest, into childhood innocence and into the dark waters from which the first swirling chords of thought had stirred. Back . . . to a time when societies were simple, profound and poetic” (p.131). Heidegger urged his students to exercise   “vigilance,” to transcend the human tendency to become stuck in habits, received ideas, and a narrow-minded attachment to possessions.

But vigilance for Heidegger in Hitler’s Germany “did not mean calling attention to Nazi violence, to the intrusion of state surveillance, or to the physical threats to his fellow humans. It meant being decisive and resolute in carrying through the demands history was making upon Germany, with its distinctive Being and destiny. It meant getting in step with the chosen hero” (p.87). Heidegger “set himself against the philosophy of humanism, and he himself was rarely humane in his behavior” (p.320), Bakewell contends. She notes an instance where Heidegger went out of his way late in life to welcome the Jewish poet and concentration camp survivor Paul Celan to Freiburg. Bakewell terms this the “single documented example” she found in her research of Heidegger “actually doing something nice” (p.304-05).

Sartre was hardly more likeable — “monstrous . . . self-indulgent, demanding [and] bad tempered” (p.321-22). But behind these less commendable qualities, Bakewell finds an endearing man with powerful ideas bursting out “on all sides with energy, peculiarity, generosity and communicativeness” (p.322). Unlike Heidegger, Sartre “moved ever forwards, always working out new (often bizarre) responses to things, or finding ways of reconciling old ideas with fresh input. . .  He was always thinking ‘against himself,’” and he “followed Husserl’s phenomenological command by exploring whatever topic seemed most difficult at each moment” (p.322). Freedom became the great subject of Sartre’s philosophy during the Nazi occupation, central to almost everything he wrote from that point onward.

The connection between description and freedom  fascinated Sartre. “A writer is a person who describes, and thus a person who is free – for a person who can exactly describe what he or she experiences can also exert some control over those events. Sartre explored this link between writing and freedom again and again in his work” (p.104).   Bakewell is impressed by Sartre’s radical atheism, so different from that professed by Heidegger, who “abandoned his faith only in order to pursue a more intense form of mysticism.  Sartre was a profound atheist, and a humanist to his bones. He outdid even Nietzsche in his ability to live courageously and thoughtfully in the conviction that nothing lies beyond, and that no divine compensations will ever make up for anything on this earth.” For Sartre, Bakewell writes with emphasis, “this life is what we have, and we must make of it what we can” (p.323).

Beauvoir in Bakewell’s view was a better fiction writer than Sartre, exploring in her writings how the forces of constraint and freedom play themselves out in everyday lives. One of the 20th century’s “greatest intellectual chroniclers” (p.326), with a “genius for being amazed by the world” (p.109), Beauvoir is best known today for her landmark 1949 feminist tract, The Second Sex, a work “revolutionary in every sense”(p.208) which addressed the “complex territory where free choice, biology and social and cultural factors meet and mingle” (p.226).

How to be a woman was for Beauvoir the “existentialist problem par excellence” (p.215).  Bakewell terms The Second Sex a “confident experiment in what we might call ‘applied existentialism,’” in which Beauvoir “used philosophy to tackle two huge subjects: the history of humanity – which she reinterpreted as a history of patriarchy – and the history of an individual woman’s whole life as it plays itself out from birth to old age” (p.208). The Second Sex in Bakewell’s view is the “single most influential work ever to come out of the existentialist movement” (p.210).

Left-wing politics were a huge part of the existentialist agenda for both Sartre and Beauvoir, with Sartre the more overtly political.  Sartre was never a Communist party member, and his relationship to communism is not the mirror image of Heidegger and Nazism. But Sartre adopted some outlandish left-wing ideas.  He embraced anti-colonialist Franz Fanon’s rejection of Gandhi’s notion of non-violent change, considering violence essential to political progress.  His embrace,  Bakewell writes, was so enthusiastic that he “outdid the original, shifting the emphasis so as to prize violence for its own sake. Sartre seemed to see the violence of the oppressed as a Nietzchean act of self-creation. Like Fanon, he also contrasted it with the hidden brutality of colonialism” (p.274).

Sartre was the direct target of Raymond Aron’s classic 1955 work, The Opium of the Intellectuals, in which his Ecole Normale classmate accused Sartre of being “merciless towards the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worse crimes as long as they are committed in the name of proper doctrines” (p. 266).   Sartre was troubled by the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary but it was not until the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the “Prague Spring” that he definitively rejected the Soviet model, “only to praise people like Mao Tse-tung and Pol Pot instead” (p.293).

Cold War differences also upended Sartre and Beauvoir’s friendship with their contemporaries and formerly close companions Merleau-Ponty and Camus. Bakewell describes Merleau Ponty as the “happy philosopher of things as they are” (p.326), the sole thinker at Bakewell’s Existentialist Café who seemed to have had a happy childhood. Beauvoir once considered Merleau-Ponty, born months before her in 1908, potential boyfriend material before concluding that his sunny bourgeois outlook was a poor fit with her more combative disposition. On the cover, Merleau-Ponty is the only one of the three men dressed in a suit and tie, and he seems in this account a little out of place at the Existentialist café — the fellow who joins the gang for a few drinks after a day’s work, then catches the train back to a suburban home to spend the rest of the evening with the wife and kids.

But if the non-Bohemian Merleau-Ponty was out of place at the Existentialist Café, Bakewell considers him the “intellectual hero” of her story for providing the fullest description of “how we live from moment to moment, and thus of what we are” (p.325). Merleau-Ponty brought the insights of psychology and cognitive science to the study of philosophy, and in particular elevated child psychology as an essential component of philosophy, an “extraordinary insight.” Apart from Rousseau, Bakewell notes,  few philosophers before Merleau-Ponty had taken childhood seriously.  Most “wrote as though all human experience were that of a fully conscious, rational, verbal adult who has been dropped into this world from the sky – perhaps by a stork” (p.231).  Very favorable to Communism in the 1940s, Merleau-Ponty became disaffected with its ideological rigidity in the 1950s, at  the time of the Korean War. He laid out his case against Communism in a 1955 book, Adventures of the Dialectic, which included a chapter entitled “Sartre and Ultrabolshevism” that criticized Sartre’s political writings for their inconsistencies and lack of practicality. The work prompted a rift between the two men that healed only upon Merleau-Ponty’s death in 1961 from a heart attack at age 53, when Sartre wrote a glowing obituary about his one-time friend.

Camus is the “new kid on the block” at Bakewell’s Existential Café, a brash outsider from Algeria unwilling to be intimidated by Sartre (although quite willing to be charmed by Beauvoir). Camus’ vision was embodied in his 1942 piece, The Myth of Sisyphus where he argued, as Bakewell puts it, that we must “decide whether to give up or keep going. If we keep going, it must be on the basis of accepting that there is no ultimate meaning to what we do” (p.150). Sartre and Beauvoir rejected Camus’ vision. For them, Bakewell emphasizes, “life is not absurd . . . Life for them is full of real meaning, although that meaning emerges differently for each of us” (p.151).  Camus’ 1951 essay The Rebel laid out a theory of rebellion and political activism that Sartre viewed as an attack upon Soviet Communism and its fellow travelers, notably himself. Dismissing The Rebel as an apology for capitalism, Sartre never forgave Camus for “playing into the hands of the right at a delicate historical moment” (p.257). But when Camus died tragically in an automobile accident in 1960 at age 43, Sartre wrote a glowing obituary, as he did the following year for Merleau-Ponty.

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            Throughout much of history, Bakewell notes, philosophy has been primarily the purview of scholars who “prided themselves on their discipline’s exquisite uselessness” (p.17). Bakewell demonstrates how Sartre, Beauvoir and the other thinkers at her Existentialist Café broke that mold, shaping what she terms “philosophy as a way of life” (p.17).  She further demonstrates how a skillful writer can bring philosophy as a way of life to life through a narrative exquisitely engaging for general readers and specialists alike.

     Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 20, 2017

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Biography, France, French History, Intellectual History

Portrait of a President Living on Borrowed Time

Joseph Lelyveld, His Final Battle:

The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt 

            During the last year and a half of his life, from mid-October 1943 to his death in Warm Springs, Georgia on April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidential plate was full, even overflowing. He was grappling with winning history’s most devastating  war and structuring a lasting peace for the post-war global order, all the while tending to multiple domestic political demands. But Roosevelt spent much of this time out of public view in semi-convalescence, often in locations outside Washington, with limited contact with the outside world. Those who met the president, however, noticed a striking weight loss and described him with words like “listless,” “weary,” and “easily distracted.” We now know that Roosevelt had life-threatening high blood pressure, termed malignant hypertension, making him susceptible to a stroke or coronary attack at any moment. Roosevelt’s declining health was carefully shielded from the public and only rarely discussed directly, even within his inner circle. At the time, probably not more than a handful of doctors were aware of the full gravity of Roosevelt’s physical condition, and it is an open question whether Roosevelt himself was aware.

In His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, seeks to shed light upon, if not answer, this open question. Lelyveld suggests that the president likely was more aware than he let on of the implications of his declining physical condition. In a resourceful portrait of America’s longest serving president during his final year and a half, Lelyveld considers Roosevelt’s political activities against the backdrop of his health. The story is bookended by Roosevelt’s meetings to negotiate the post-war order with fellow wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, in Teheran in December 1943 and at Yalta in the Crimea in February 1945. Between the two meetings came Roosevelt’s 1944 decision to run for an unprecedented fourth term, a decision he reached just weeks prior to the Democratic National Convention that summer, and the ensuing campaign.

Lelyveld’s portrait of a president living on borrowed time emerges from an excruciatingly thin written record of Roosevelt’s medical condition. Roosevelt’s medical file disappeared without explanation from a safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital shortly after his death.   Unable to consider Roosevelt’s actual medical records, Lelyveld draws clues  concerning his physical condition from the diary of Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, discovered after Suckley’s death in 1991 at age 100, and made public in 1995. The slim written record on Roosevelt’s medical condition limits Lelyveld’s ability to tease out conclusions on the extent to which that condition may have undermined his job performance in his final months.

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            Daisy Suckley, a distant cousin of Roosevelt, was a constant presence in the president’s life in his final years and a keen observer of his physical condition. During Roosevelt’s last months, the “worshipful” (p.3) and “singularly undemanding” Suckley had become what Lelyveld terms the “Boswell of [Roosevelt’s] rambling ruminations,” secretly recording in an “uncritical, disjointed way the hopes and daydreams” that occupied the frequently inscrutable president (p.75). By 1944, Lelyfeld notes, there was “scarcely a page in Daisy’s diary without some allusion to how the president looks or feels” (p.77).   Lelyveld relies heavily upon the Suckley diary out of necessity, given the disappearance of Roosevelt’s actual medical records after his death.

Lelyveld attributes the disappearance to Admiral Ross McIntire, an ears-nose-and-throat specialist who served both as Roosevelt’s personal physician and Surgeon General of the Navy. In the latter capacity, McIntire oversaw a wartime staff of 175,000 doctors, nurses and orderlies at 330 hospitals and medical stations around the world. Earlier in his career, Roosevelt’s press secretary had upbraided McIntire for allowing the president to be photographed in his wheel chair. From that point forward, McIntire understood that a major component of his job was to conceal Roosevelt’s physical infirmities and protect and promote a vigorously healthy public image of the president. The “resolutely upbeat” (p.212) McIntire, a master of “soothing, well-practiced bromides” (p.226), thus assumes a role in Lelyveld’s account which seems as much “spin doctor” as actual doctor. His most frequent message for the public was that the president was in “robust health” (p.22), in the process of “getting over” a wide range of lesser ailments such as a heavy cold, flu, or bronchitis.

A key turning point in Lelyveld’s story occurred in mid-March 1944, 13 months prior to Roosevelt’s death, when the president’s daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger confronted McIntire and demanded to know more about what was wrong with her father. McIntire doled out his “standard bromides, but this time they didn’t go down” (p.23). Anna later said that she “didn’t think McIntire was an internist who really knew what he was talking about” (p.93). In response, however, McIntire brought in Dr. Howard Bruenn, the Navy’s top cardiologist. Evidently, Lelyveld writes, McIntire had “known all along where the problem was to be found” (p.23). Breunn was apparently the first cardiologist to have examined Roosevelt.

McIntire promised to have Roosevelt’s medical records delivered to Bruenn prior to his initial examination of the president, but failed to do so, an “extraordinary lapse” (p.98) which Lelyveld regards as additional evidence that McIntire was responsible for the disappearance of those records after Roosevelt’s death the following year. Breunn found that Roosevelt was suffering from “acute congestive heart failure” (p.98). He recommended that the wartime president avoid “irritation,” severely cut back his work hours, rest more, and reduce his smoking habit, then a daily pack and a half of Camel’s cigarettes. In the midst of the country’s struggle to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, its leader was told that he “needed to sleep half his time and reduce his workload to that of a bank teller” (p.99), Lelyveld wryly notes.  Dr. Bruenn saw the president regularly from that point onward, traveling with him to Yalta in February 1945 and to Warm Springs in April of that year.

Ten days after Dr. Bruenn’s diagnosis, Roosevelt told a newspaper columnist, “I don’t work so hard any more. I’ve got this thing simplified . . . I imagine I don’t work as many hours a week as you do” (p.103). The president, Lelyveld concludes, “seems to have processed the admonition of the physicians – however it was delivered, bluntly or softly – and to be well on the way to convincing himself that if he could survive in his office by limiting his daily expenditure of energy, it was his duty to do so” (p.103).

At that time, Roosevelt had not indicated publicly whether he wished to seek a 4th precedential term and had not discussed this question with any of his advisors. Moreover, with the “most destructive military struggle in history approaching its climax, there was no one in the White House, or his party, or the whole of political Washington, who dared stand before him in the early months of 1944 and ask face-to-face for a clear answer to the question of whether he could contemplate stepping down” (p.3). The hard if unspoken political truth was that Roosevelt was the Democratic party’s only hope to retain the White House. There was no viable successor in the party’s ranks. But his re-election was far from assured, and public airing of concerns about his health would be unhelpful to say the least in his  re-election bid. Roosevelt did not make his actual decision to run until just weeks before the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

At the convention, Roosevelt’s then vice-president, Henry Wallace, and his counselors Harry Hopkins, and Jimmy Byrnes jockeyed for the vice-presidential nomination, along with William Douglas, already a Supreme Court justice at age 45. There’s no indication that Senator Harry S. Truman actively sought to be Roosevelt’s running mate. Lelyveld writes that it is tribute to FDR’s “wiliness” that the notion has persisted over the years that he was “only fleetingly engaged in the selection” of his 1944 vice-president and that he was “simply oblivious when it came to the larger question of succession” (p.172). To the contrary, although he may not have used the used the word “succession” in connection with his vice-presidential choice, Roosevelt “cared enough about qualifications for the presidency to eliminate Wallace as a possibility and keep Byrnes’s hopes alive to the last moment, when, for the sake of party unity, he returned to Harry Truman as the safe choice” (p.172-73).

Having settled upon Truman as his running mate, Roosevelt indicated that he did not want to campaign as usual because the war was too important. But campaign he did, and Lelyveld shows how hard he campaigned – and how hard it was for him given his deteriorating health, which aggravated his mobility problems. The outcome was in doubt up until Election Day, but Roosevelt was resoundingly reelected to a fourth presidential term. The president could then turn his full attention to the war effort, focusing both upon how the war would be won and how the peace would be structured. Roosevelt’s foremost priority was structuring the peace; the details on winning the war were largely left to his staff and to the military commanders in the field.

Roosevelt badly wanted to avoid the mistakes that Woodrow Wilson had made after World War I. He was putting together the pieces of an organization already referred to as the United Nations and fervently sought  the participation and support of his war ally, the Soviet Union. He also wanted Soviet support for the war against Japan in the Pacific after the Nazi surrender, and for an independent and democratic Poland. In pursuit of these objectives, Roosevelt agreed to travel over 10,000 arduous miles to Yalta, to meet in February 1945 with Stalin and Churchill.

In Roosevelt’s mind, Stalin  was by then both the key to victory on the battlefield and for a lasting peace afterwards — and he was, in Roosevelt’s phrase, “get-at-able” (p.28) with the right doses of the legendary Roosevelt charm.   Roosevelt had begun his serious courtship of the Soviet leader at their first meeting in Teheran in December 1943.  His fixation on Stalin, “crossing over now and then into realms of fantasy” (p.28), continued at Yalta. Lelyveld’s treatment of Roosevelt at Yalta covers similar ground to that in Michael Dobbs’ Six Months That Shook the World, reviewed here in April 2015. In Lelyveld’s account, as in that of Dobbs, a mentally and physical exhausted Roosevelt at Yalta ignored the briefing books his staff prepared for him and relied instead upon improvisation and his political instincts, fully confident that he could win over Stalin by force of personality.

According to cardiologist Bruenn’s memoir, published a quarter of a century later, early in the conference Roosevelt showed worrying signs of oxygen deficiency in his blood. His habitually high blood pressure readings revealed a dangerous condition, pulsus alternans, in which every second heartbeat was weaker than the preceding one, a “warning signal from an overworked heart” (p.270).   Dr. Bruenn ordered Roosevelt to curtail his activities in the midst of the conference. Churchill’s physician, Lord Moran, wrote that Roosevelt had “all the symptoms of hardening of arteries in the brain” during the conference and gave the president “only a few months to live” (p.270-71). Churchill himself commented that his wartime ally “really was a pale reflection almost throughout” (p.270) the Yalta conference.

Yet, Roosevelt recovered sufficiently to return home from the conference and address Congress and the public on its results, plausibly claiming victory. The Soviet Union had agreed to participate in the United Nations and in the war in Asia, and to hold what could be construed as free elections in Poland. Had he lived longer, Roosevelt would have seen that Stalin delivered as promised on the Asian war. The Soviet Union also became a member of the United Nations and maintained its membership in the organization until its dissolution in 1991, but was rarely if ever the partner Roosevelt envisioned in keeping world peace. The possibility of a democratic Poland, “by far the knottiest and most time-consuming issue Roosevelt confronted at Yalta” (p.285), was by contrast slipping away even before Roosevelt’s death.

At one point in his remaining weeks, Roosevelt exclaimed, “We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta” on Poland (p.304; Dobbs includes the same quotation, adding that Roosevelt thumped on his wheelchair at the time of this outburst). But, like Dobbs, Lelyveld argues that even a more physically fit, fully focused and coldly realistic Roosevelt would likely have been unable to save Poland from Soviet clutches. When the allies met at Yalta, Stalin’s Red Army was in the process of consolidating military control over almost all of Polish territory.  If Roosevelt had been at the peak of vigor, Lelyveld concludes, the results on Poland “would have been much the same” (p.287).

Roosevelt was still trying to mend fences with Stalin on April 11, 1945, the day before his death in Warm Springs. Throughout the following morning, Roosevelt worked on matters of state: he received an update on the US military advances within Germany and even signed a bill, sustaining the Commodity Credit Corporation. Then, just before lunch Roosevelt collapsed. Dr. Bruenn arrived about 15 minutes later and diagnosed a hemorrhage in the brain, a stroke likely caused by the bursting of a blood vessel in the brain or the rupture of an aneurysm. “Roosevelt was doomed from the instant he was stricken” (p.323).  Around midnight, Daisy Suckley recorded in her diary that the president had died at 3:35 pm that afternoon. “Franklin D. Roosevelt, the hope of the world, is dead,” (p.324), she wrote.

Daisy was one of several women present at Warm Springs to provide company to the president during his final visit. Another was Eleanor Roosevelt’s former Secretary, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, by this time the primary Other Woman in the president’s life. Rutherford had driven down from South Carolina to be with the president, part of a recurring pattern in which Rutherford appeared in instances when wife Eleanor was absent, as if coordinated by a social secretary with the knowing consent of all concerned. But this orchestration broke down in Warm Springs in April 1945. After the president died, Rutherford had to flee in haste to make room for Eleanor. Still another woman in the president’s entourage, loquacious cousin Laura Delano, compounded Eleanor’s grief by letting her know that Rutherford had been in Warm Springs for the previous three days, adding gratuitously that Rutherford had also served as hostess at occasions at the White House when Eleanor was away. “Grief and bitter fury were folded tightly in a large knot” (p.325) for the former First Lady at Warm Springs.

Subsequently, Admiral McIntire asserted that Roosevelt had a “stout heart” and that his blood pressure was “not alarming at any time” (p.324-25), implying that the president’s death from a stroke had proven that McIntire had “always been right to downplay any suggestion that the president might have heart disease.” If not a flat-out falsehood, Lelyveld argues, McIntire’s assertion “at least raises the question of what it would have taken to alarm him” (p.325). Roosevelt’s medical file by this time had gone missing from the safe at Bethesda Naval Hospital, most likely removed by the Admiral because it would have revealed the “emptiness of the reassurances he’d fed the press and the public over the years, whenever questions arose about the president’s health” (p.325).

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           Lelyveld declines to engage in what he terms an “argument without end” (p.92) on the degree to which Roosevelt’s deteriorating health impaired his job performance during his last months and final days. Rather, he  skillfully pieces together the limited historical record of Roosevelt’s medical condition to add new insights into the ailing but ever enigmatic president as he led his country nearly to the end of history’s most devastating war.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 28, 2017

 

 

 

3 Comments

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

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.

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     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.

* * *

     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).

* * *

     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.

* * *

     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.

* * *

        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.

* * *

       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).

* * *

       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.

* * *

    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.

* * *

     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).

* * *

     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.

* * *

     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.

* * *

    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.

* * *

     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