Category: non-fiction

Short Breaks in Mordor (75 Books – XXXIII)

Reading e-books is, for me, an act of desperation. As I’ve written before, I love books as physical objects, and only resort to my Kindle if there’s no other feasible way to read something. So, this is how I read Short Breaks in Mordor, the newest book from Peter Hitchens, published exclusively in digital format.

His difficulty in finding a traditional publisher is unfortunate, because Short Breaks, which collects many of the author’s articles on his travels around the world, is well worth picking up and I’d love to have a physical copy of it. Destinations vary from Moscow, Russia to Moscow, Idaho, and in each place Hitchens speaks to as wide a variety of people as he can meet to give readers a good sketch of the people who live there.

For example, in Iran he does speak with the type of religious fundamentalists one expects the country to be full of based on its portrayal in Western media. However, he also finds several examples of quiet resistance to the Islamic Republic, and finds a wide variety of opinions on the West and on their own country, and the resulting articles give a much more complex idea of what the country is like. On Iran’s dress codes, for instance, he observes, “Clothes intended to be shapeless have been carefully nipped in and adapted to emphasize the waist, contrary to regulations. Headscarves are placed so far back on the head that they are barely there at all. Heels are high, and many walk and stand like Parisians. Every so often, squads of morality police still descend on the streets to try to enforce compulsory modesty. But the battle is undoubtedly lost. And that is important because it symbolizes the way in which the regime has failed to hold the hearts of the people in so many other ways as well.”…

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Robert E. Lee (75 Books – XXX)

Ever since I first took an interest in history back in middle or high school, I’ve occasionally gone to the local library or bookstore and there confirm something that is, unfortunately, unsurprising: most American’s aren’t interested. A look at the shelves would turn up a few things on Greece or Rome, maybe the Cold War or China, and if you wanted to know about, say, the unification of Italy, you’re totally out of luck.

There are, however, a few exceptions. It’s easy to find Americans knowledgeable and passionate about the Kennedy assassination, and the Second World War certainly receives plenty of attention, to the extent that back when the History Channel had any history at all it was basically the “World War II Channel.” The one other major event of broad interest, especially in the South, is the War Between the States, and deservedly so, since this was such a pivotal moment in the American narrative. However, I don’t know as much about the events and people involved as I probably should, beyond what I remember from high school (which was, fortunately, better than many high school history courses) and Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln.

Of course, one problem with all history books is determining which historians are trustworthy. One can have a passionate but reasonable argument about, say, who bears responsibility for starting the First World War; suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was less than a saintly martyr or more than a despicable tyrant, well, those are fightin’ words in many quarters. I don’t really expect authors to be completely free of bias; in fact, I generally trust those who are open about their opinions more than those who claim a distant objectivity. My general approach, then, is going to be to read a small handful of well-known modern historians, provided they don’t go full retard on whatever their ideological opinions are, but to stick primarily to primary sources when I can.

So, to begin this project, I read Noah Andre Trudeau’s biography Robert E. Lee. This is a fairly short (214 pages) overview of Lee’s life, with most of the book focusing on the war years; unsurprisingly, it’s about as much military history as biography. While I don’t value strict disinterestedness as much as many readers do, I do think that Trudeau does a good job treating his subject even-handedly; he obviously respects Lee, but avoids hagiography. He also avoids editorialising on the causes of the war or who was right or wrong. Rather, he focuses on what Lee himself said and did. In this, it reminds me of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, which I read recently, and which also avoided the temptation to signal ideological approval or disapproval (with a few exceptions), but instead approached the subject like a craftsman evaluating a peer’s work.

The book is short and straightforward, more of a sketch than a portrait, so those who have already read a good deal about the war or Lee himself can probably safely skip it, but it does serve as a decent introduction to the topic. That’s fine with me, of course, since this is basically an appetiser for the main course. Next, I’ll read Shelby Foote’s popular three-volume history to get an overview of the war as a whole, then I’ll try to stick to primary sources. I do have a recommendation for Raphael Semmes’s memoir. Of course, I’ll also continue to read other things between books on this subject.…

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Notes on the Third Reich (75 Books – XXVIII)

As one can easily guess, Notes on the Third Reich is Julius Evola’s follow-up to Fascism Viewed from the Right. Both books are similar in their structure and approach, and though both are well worth reading I think only the earlier one is really essential, because it’s more thorough and touches more on the general principles that define the Right. Evola’s criticisms of National Socialism are similar to those he made of Fascism, e.g. its populism, totalitarianism, and racialism, though each of these is much greater in Nazism than its Italian cousin. In fact, one notable difference between the books is the tone; Evola was moderately supportive of Fascism, finding several things to praise, albeit with multiple reservations. Here, though, he is relentlessly critical.

A large part of this criticism is due to Hitler’s obsession with race. Evola clearly does believe that race is real and significant, and comments that “even from the point of view of the Right, a certain balanced consciousness and dignity of ‘race’ can be considered as salutary.” However, he qualifies this by saying that this is “on the condition that we do not excessively emphasise the biological aspect in this ideal, but only if we particularly stress the ‘race of the spirit.’” National Socialism, though, focused almost entirely on the biological aspect of race and never really developed a fully formed worldview, despite some attempts, especially from Himmler and the SS, to do so. On anti-Semitism specifically, while Evola recognises that Jews are well-represented among anti-traditional thinkers and activists, he says that “this activity would never have been possible, unless the terrain had been prepared for quite some time, not by Jews, but by ‘Aryans,’ and often in irreversible terms.”

Related to this is Evola’s criticism of Hitler’s populism. The racial aspect of National Socialism made anyone and everyone who happened to be German out to be an elite of some sort, deservedly or not. This brought about a sense of levelling all Germans of whatever status. While he does praise some aspects of Nazism’s concern for the common man, especially in its protections for small landowners, he also writes, “The presence of a proletarian aspect in Nazism is undeniable, as in the figure of Hitler himself, who had none of the traits of a ‘gentleman,’ of an aristocratic type di razza. This proletarian aspect and even vulgarity of National Socialism was often noticed, especially in Austria after its annexation to the Reich and after the phase of a rash ‘national’ infatuation of Austrians for ‘Greater Germany.’”

Before this turns into another post where I mostly just quote Evola, I’ll just say to go read Fascism Viewed from the Right, then read this. Both books are fairly short and are best read together.…

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Fascism Viewed from the Right (75 Books – XXVI)

The American “Right” is a strange beast. The more one looks outside the bubble of the United States of the past five minutes, the stranger it looks, because what Americans usually call the “Right” is simply the Republican Party, an incoherent coalition of neoconservatives, social conservatives, Tea Partiers, and right-libertarians. What these groups have in common besides opposition to the various groups that make up the Democratic Party’s coalition isn’t at all clear to me. Indeed, it’s not at all clear how most of these are meaningfully “right-wing” at all, except in the relativistic sense of “less liberal than the faculty of Harvard.”

Admittedly, part of this confusion comes from American history (a “Conservative” wants to preserve his country’s traditions, American traditions stem largely from the Founding generation, but the Founding Fathers were Liberal revolutionaries). However, a similar confusion over what exactly constitutes a “right-wing” position seems to exist throughout the Western world. So, how does one figure out a definition of the Right more coherent than “yesteryear’s liberal?” One good method would be reading through Julius Evola’s short book Fascism Viewed from the Right.

Now, obviously the main focus of Evola’s work is an analysis of fascism, which is absurdly, but often, used as a shorthand for the Right as a whole. Since this assumption that the Right simply is fascism is so common, I would strongly recommend reading this just so one can clear up any confusion about what exactly fascism is. Nonetheless, Evola examines Mussolini’s speeches and policies, especially from his twenty years in power, to determine what the fascists did right and wrong from a Rightist perspective (and for those curious, he does occasionally comment on National Socialism, but covers that more thoroughly in another book, Notes on the Third Reich). Evola is difficult to summarise, so I’ll try to give an idea of the work by sharing a few excerpts.…

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Diplomacy (75 Books – XXI)

Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, published in 1994, looks at diplomatic history from Richelieu up to the early 1990’s, focusing on Europe and the United States and especially on the Cold War era. Overall, the book is excellent, and very useful to anyone looking for an introduction to how diplomacy is, and generally ought to be, conducted. Kissinger takes a point of view that reminds me of a craftsman looking at his peers’ work; he avoids moralising for the most part, and instead focuses on whether a particular policy worked or not, and why. For example, while discussing Joseph Stalin, he does mention the enormous death toll of his purges, but is primarily concerned with his relations with the Western powers and analysing his personality and domestic terror only insofar as it affected his foreign policy.

Now, as great as the book is, at 836 pages it’s also a project to get through. By far the best chapters are those covering events up through the Second World War, especially the first few that cover the basic theories of how nations ought to conduct foreign policy, with Richelieu and Bismarck’s Realpolitik and how this compares to Wilsonianism, and the three dealing with the Vietnam War. Of course, Kissinger was personally involved with some of the events he describes, and some of the personal anecdotes he provides are interesting in themselves. The rest of the book isn’t bad, but by then most of the basic conceptual points have been made and illustrated, and how interesting one finds these chapters depends largely on how interested one is in the history of the Cold War.

I should also mention that those of us who prefer a generally non-interventionist style of foreign policy may be annoyed at Kissinger’s occasional implicit and explicit dismissals of that position, mainly by his obvious admiration for Franklin Roosevelt. There are also a few comments that strike me as flattering his mostly American audience by seemingly approving of American Messianism, even though in the other places he criticises this attitude and clearly favours a more realistic approach to foreign policy based primarily in national interest, as was practiced by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. For instance, at the end of his final chapter on Vietnam where he says, “[T]he sadness of the memories of Indochina should serve to remind us that American unity is both a duty and the hope of the world.”

Those criticisms aside, though, Diplomacy is essential reading for anyone who wants to comment intelligently on foreign policy issues.…

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Propaganda (75 Books – XIX)

So, take a look at this passage:

Who are the men who, without our realizing it, give us our ideas, tell us whom to admire and whom to despise, what to believe about the ownership of public utilities, about the tariff, about the price of rubber, about the Dawes Plan, about immigration; who tell us how our houses should be designed, what furniture we should put in them, what menus we should serve at our table, what kind of shirts we must wear, what sports we should indulge in,what plays we should see, what charities we should support, what pictures we should admire, what slang we should affect, what jokes we should laugh at?

If we set out to make a list of the men and women who, because of their position in public life, might fairly be called the molders of public opinion, we could quickly arrive at an extended list of persons mentioned in “Who’s Who.” […]

Such a list would comprise several thousand persons. But it is well known that many of these leaders are themselves led, sometimes by persons whose names are known to few. Many a congressman, in framing his platform, follows the suggestions of a district boss whom few persons outside the political machines have ever heard of. Eloquent divines may have great influence in their communities, but often take their doctrines from a higher ecclesiastical authority. The presidents of chambers of commerce mold the thought of local business men concerning public issues, but the opinions which they promulgate are usually derived from some national authority. A presidential candidate may be “drafted” in response to “overwhelming popular demand,” but it is well known that his name may be decided upon by half a dozen men sitting around a table in a hotel room.

In its insistence that Americans’ opinions are largely controlled by only “several thousand persons,” it sounds like something from the patriot movement. It’s not quite conspiratorial, though, so perhaps it was written by some other part of the Right, or even certain parts of the Left? However, the tone is not at all polemical, or even critical of what it describes. Indeed, elsewhere the author considers this propaganda to be a positive thing.

The passage comes from Propaganda, written in 1928 by Edward Bernays, a public relations counsel who worked for a number of corporations, as well as for the U.S. Committee on Public Information during the First World War (he was also a nephew of Sigmund Freud; make of that what you will). Throughout the book, Bernays details what propaganda is, how it works, who uses it, and who creates it. Now, in 1928 the term “propaganda” had only relatively recently acquired its negative connotation, and Bernays uses it in a neutral sense throughout; at one point he explains “propaganda is simply the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group.” At a glance, this definition seems reasonable, and this is certainly Bernays’s idea of what propaganda ought to be, but despite the author’s attempt to portray the practice in a neutral light, the actual content of the book clearly describes subtly manipulating public opinions, often in ways that appear rather insidious.…

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The Guns of August (75 Books – XIV)

I hate to say it, but for me the main takeaway from Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is that I don’t find military history as interesting as I used to. This surprised me, since I used to read a lot of it – back in middle school and high school, I read several books on the World Wars, as well as several other military histories from around the Napoleonic Wars on. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t read Tuchman’s book earlier.

There’s nothing wrong with the book itself, of course; it’s brought up every time there’s a discussion of the First World War, and deservedly so. It’s well-written all around, and I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to know about the beginning of the war. Even those with only a small interest in the subject might find it engaging simply from a narrative perspective, and I did find several memorable passages that made the book worthwhile. For example, while I knew that the Germans’ plan for invading France, the Schlieffen Plan, was meticulously worked out in every detail years prior to the war, I did not know much about French or Russian plans. The Russians seem to have intended to mobilise as fast as they could and then march in the general direction of German and Austro-Hungarian forces, while France had only slightly more detail:

Its motivating idea, as expressed by Foch, was, “We must get to Berlin by going through Mainz” … That objective, however, was an idea only. Unlike the Schlieffen plan, Plan 17 contained no stated over-all objective and no explicit schedule of operations. It was not a plan of operation but a plan of deployment with directives for several possible lines of attack for each army, depending on circumstances, but without a given goal. … Its intention was inflexible: Attack! Otherwise its arrangements were flexible.

I especially liked Tuchman’s description of some of the participants of the war, like this anecdote about Count Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of Germany’s plans (though he did not live to see the war itself):

Of the two classes of Prussian officer, the bullnecked and the wasp-waisted, he belonged to the second. Monocled and effete in appearance, cold and distant in matter, he concentrated with such single-mindedness on his profession that when an aide, at the end of an all-night staff ride in East Prussia, pointed out to him the beauty of the river Pregel sparkling in the rising sun, the General gave a brief, hard look and replied, “An unimportant obstacle.” So too, he decided, was Belgian neutrality.

Finally, on Sir Winston Churchill:

Asquith had, however, a particularly active First Lord of the Admiralty. When he smelled battle afar off, Winston Churchill resembled the war horse in Job who turned not back from the sword but “paweth in the valley and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha.” He was the only British minister to have a perfectly clear conviction of what Britain should to and to act upon it without hesitation.…

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What’s the Appeal of Mishima Yukio?

SFA222007830A while back, while visiting a friend of mine, I mentioned having recently re-watched Paul Schrader’s fascinating biographical film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. He had never heard of Mishima Yukio, and after explaining that he’s famous as one of Japan’s greatest novelists and infamous for committing suicide in spectacular fashion in 1970, he asked why I had such obvious admiration for a man who committed suicide, which, being a faithful Catholic, I consider to be an inherently evil action.

It’s a fair question, and one that I could have dodged by saying I just like his novels. I certainly do love his novels, but that isn’t what first attracted me to his work. Rather, my first exposure to him came in my days as a college-age delinquent. He was one of a handful of authors in the university library’s small section for Japanese language and literature, and since I didn’t have a lot of time I grabbed the shortest book there, Sun and Steel.…

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A Critique of Democracy (75 Books – XII)

Is “anything and everything” too broad of a topic for a web log? I suppose that’s what my blog name implies, but after writing mostly about animation and the occasional novel or graphic novel for a couple years, I’ve felt odd writing about works of history in the last month, and now I’m branching out even further.

Well, I’ll consider starting a second blog or something if people complain.

Anway, the twelfth book of the year is the rarest thing of all for me to cover: a new release. Michael Anissimov published his e-book A Critique of Democracy: A Guide for Neoreactionaries only about a week ago. Since I’ve already finished books on the Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, and an e-book collection of Sir Robert Filmer’s works, it seemed on-topic enough to take a detour from The Guns of August.…

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The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815 (75 Books – XI)

More history, this time The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815, by Charles W. Ingrao, which I read as a complement to A.J.P. Taylor’s book on the monarchy in the century after this.

Ingrao is, unsurprisingly, more positive in his judgements than Taylor. Of course, this is partly because he covers the empire at its height whereas Taylor covers its decline and fall, but Ingrao does a good job treating his subjects even-handedly, but Taylor was relentlessly critical to almost comical proportions, to the point of describing Rudolph II’s suicide as “fortunate.” That said, he does show some Liberal bias in a couple places, like his assessment that the French Revolution was worse than a “mixed blessing” because it prompted a conservative reaction against the Enlightenment across much of Europe. Frankly, when an ideology’s strongest proponents preside over an era known as the “Reign of Terror,” a good dose of skepticism is quite appropriate. For the most part, though, he consistently gives credit where it’s due and avoids judging his subjects entirely by modern, Liberal standards.

At 247 pages, the book can’t get into too much detail on any one subject, but Ingrao does spread his attention evenly across the two centuries he covers. Material on domestic issues and foreign policy is split roughly 60/40.

One consistent theme I noticed across the different reigns was the interesting mix of idealism, like the embrace of the Catholic Reformation or Joseph II’s enlightened despotism, with a sense of realism in the Habsburgs’ willingness to compromise when these ideals weren’t feasible. Actually, the book itself could be used as an argument for monarchism, and late Eighteenth Century Austria looks like the very picture of a great civilisation. As with the events in Taylor’s history, some of Austria’s problems went unresolved because the monarchy wasn’t powerful enough, though this would be more clear under Franz Joseph. Not that Ingrao intended this interpretation; though he treats the emperors fairly, he clearly takes the superiority of republicanism, or at least representative government generally, for granted.

In any case, I’d highly recommend this one to anyone curious about the Habsburgs or, really, to anyone who wants to know how real, historical monarchies actually functioned.

Up next on the 75 books project is a foray into Japanese Japanese comics, then even more history, probably Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.…

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