Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Some Late Summer Reading

I read more history and philosophy than anything else. Other topics of interest include psychology, astronomy, baseball, and classical literature. Every summer, usually in August, the History Book Club has a really terrific sale on books. So, I take advantage of the prices and inexpensive shipping to broaden my private library.

Last Friday - just in time for the weekend - my recent order arrived. One way to tell that the Great Recession is still with us is that "standard" shipping gets to you as fast as "expedited" shipping. Nothing is in the delivery systems. There are comparatively few packages moving around. Consumers aren't buying.

Anyway, this year I ordered four books - all military history (which is by far my favorite kind of history). The shipment included the third and final volume of
Richard J. Evans' history of the Third Reich entitled The Third Reich at War. I immediately started reading this one and discovered that it is just as difficult to put down as the previous two volumes.

Evans began the series in 2004 with The Coming of the Third Reich which largely dealt with the Weimar Republic and the fractured, chaotic political landscape that Germany found itself in after World War One. Hitler and the Nazis are prevalent but by no means dominant in this work. The Social Democrats, the Communists, the Centerists, and the Catholic Church (among others) are all equally analyzed. Evans carries the reader up to the moment Hitler assumed power in Germany in early 1933, even though the Nazis never got more that 37 percent of the popular vote. A reluctant coalition between the Nazis, the industrialists, and the military formed out of fear of an impending Communist revolution in a democratically weak Germany ultimately placed Hitler on top.

The second volume, The Third Reich in Power, came out in 2005 and covered the years between the 1933 Nazi takeover up to just before the invasion of Poland in September 1939. It is filled with details of how the Nazis created an effective police state, how all opposition was crushed, how the masses of Germans were indoctrinated with Nazi ideology, how wildly popular Hitler became with the way the Great Depression was handled in Germany as well as with his bloodless expansionism in the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. In the aftermath of Germany's humiliation following World War One, these developments brought to the surface a fierce amount of German nationalistic pride. Germany felt "imperial" again. The beginnings of discrimination and violence against various segments of the German population such as Jews, Gypsies, the mentally ill, the physically incapacitated etc. are given in great detail.

The Third Reich at War completes the Evans' trilogy with details of how Germany entered into a war of aggression, how Germans were initially ecstatic at the quick victories against Poland, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. July 1940 marked the height of Hitler's popularity. The prolongation of the war against Britain and the eventual war against the Soviet Union, however, brought about the disasters at El Alamein and Stalingrad. Coupled with the widespread devastation due to Allied bombing of German cities and the deprivations experienced by ordinary Germans in the economic shift to "total war", faith in the Nazis and Hitler faded rather quickly in 1943-1944. Still, the nation was held together by fear of the police state, by the habits of recent glory, by continuing fear that the bolsheviks would destroy German culture, and by hope that another miraculous victory might be achieved. Meanwhile, the Nazis arrived at the "Final Solution". Mass murder became almost a science.

I'm about halfway through the tragic final volume of Evans' work. Taken collectively with the previous installments of the trilogy, this is truly a monumental achievement in historical writing. Evans will likely take his place alongside other great historians whose work has held up very well through the test of time. Authors like William Shirer, John Toland, and - more recently - Ian Kershaw.

Simultaneously - I rarely read just one book at a time - I am reading John Ferling's Almost A Miracle. This is quite a contrast to the massive, horrific scale of Nazi Germany's rise and fall. It deals with American Revolution, a subject I know comparatively little about. Instead of millions of troops and countless tons of bombs wrecking unimaginable death and destruction on a Wagnerian scale, you have basically two sides struggling just to keep respectable armies in the field.

For example, according to Ferling, the Continental Congress authorized George Washington to raise an army of 75,000 troops in 1777. The army, in fact, peaked at a strength of just under 40,000 in October of that year. The colonists would fight, but only for short tours of duty. Meanwhile, the British, with their better trained and more disciplined troops, encountered great difficulties in keeping adequate forces in America and Canada tethered to the end of a 3,000 mile supply line.

The title is really an excellent one. It truly is almost a miracle that the American fight for Independence survived. We can thank a series of British mistakes, largely trying to do too much with too few resources and failure by various commanders to follow-up upon rather frequent British victories, for assisting our cause.

Interestingly, the book is critical of George Washington early in the war. Washington had a tendency to think like the British and spread his meager forces far too thin. His army was more often than not beaten by the Brits but he managed to keep it in the field and in the end that was all that mattered.

The author does point out Washington’s flash of brilliance at the Battle of Trenton, which rejuvenated the still fledgling American revolt. I’m only about 200 pages into the work so far, so I’m sure Washington did more things right as the war continues. We’ll see.

Although the book probably won't make such comparisons, in my mind the similarities between the strategic realities of the American Revolution and the Vietnam War (with the role of the Americans reversed) are striking. The British maintained control of the ports while the Americans had success in surviving and garnering support further inland. The British more often than not defeated their American adversaries, but by keeping an army in the field the Americans eventually wore down the British will to fight.

At any rate, Jennifer and I are planning a trip to Boston in October, so Almost A Miracle is timely reading as I get ready to venture up to where the Revolution for Independence actually began.

The other two books that arrived in my shipment await later reading. Frederick W. Kagan's The End of the Old Order covers Napoleon's rise to power in the period from 1801 - 1805, culminating with the Battle of Austerlitz. Apparently, this book is rather controversial in that it argues that it was incompetence by the Third Coalition forces rather than brilliance by Napoleon that led to the French Empire of that time. That is not a new perspective. Another book in my library, Blundering to Glory, made the same point back in the 1990's. Regardless, the more recent research in Kagan's work is supposed to be top-notch and I look forward to learning something from it.

The final book is The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam's interpretation of the Korean War. Korea is another subject I know very little about and I hope to fill in the gaps a bit with this volume. Halberstam has the reputation for being one of the great historians of the last century, though a bit of a controversial one. His work The Best and the Brightest was required reading during my college days and still has an outstanding reputation. Tragically, Halberstam was killed in a automobile accident just after finishing this book on Korea, which took him many years to complete. I will set it aside until probably this winter.

Seems like a more appropriate time to read it.

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