Saturday, January 15, 2011

January's Histories

I generally try to stay away from anything resembling a resolution around the New Year, because resolutions tend to be best kept in their breaking. I will admit, however, to an urge to pause, reflect, and reinterpret some things around January every year. This time around one of the outcomes of this exercise was a determination to post here at least once a week, even if the post is short, or nothing more than a book review. Today, Readers Mine, you get at least one of those options.

I’ve started off the semester with some histories, beginning with Michael K. JonesThe Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat. Jones styles himself as a “battle psychologist” who uses firsthand accounts to reconstruct not only the historical events he is concerned with, but also the psychological effects of these events on the people involved. The first of Jones’ works: Leningrad: State of Siege was a truly remarkable work, and his second, Stalingrad pretty much insured that I would read anything the man writes. That being said, The Retreat, dealing with the German retreat from the outskirts of Moscow in the face of determined Soviet counterattacks in the winter of 1941/42, doesn’t match Jones’ earlier works in either clarity of historical presentation or emotional verisimilitude. Part of the problem lies in the fact that the book is – rightly – approaching things mostly from the perspective of the German army and the accounts of individual German soldiers. It is difficult to really feel distressed at the hardships of people who early in the book are exulting in their success as invaders, and who throughout demonstrate a disturbing lack of concern for both captured prisoners of war or the civilian population around them. In short, we’re more than a little glad that the Nazi’s found themselves repeating Napoleon’s mistake, and rather happy to see them suffering defeat and general misery. Jones does not quite manage to hide his own pro-Russian bias in the book, and one gets the feeling that he perhaps didn’t really try as hard to humanize the Germans as might have, and that he is enjoying their failures quite as much as the reader is. Still, it is a valuable addition to any library dealing with the Soviet-German war, and Jones does deliver source material previously unpublished. Like many writers on the Great Patriotic War, however, he is somewhat defeated by the sheer scale of the events he describes. Military movements occur across literally hundreds of miles of front, and literally millions of soldiers are involved. It is a difficult subject, and may well defy Jones usual, wonderfully intimate approach to history.

Next up is The Reconstruction Presidents by Brooks D. Simpson, a work detailing the administrations of Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, and Hayes as they dealt with the various processes and phases of post-American Civil War reconstruction. The book is divided into four sections, and Simpson does a good job of demonstrating that Reconstruction was as much a matter of national policy from Washington D.C. as one of specific policies for the several states. This is a period that has come to hold great interest to me of late. I think sometimes we forget how easy it is to destroy something, especially in war, and how difficult thereafter to try and rebuild or repair it. From 1865 to roughly 1876, the United States was faced with the problem of reinventing itself as a united nation, and for the first time a nation without slavery. The questions surrounding black freedom and suffrage that arose during Reconstruction haunt the nation to this day, and the answers reached by white Americans of the time represent something like the failure of national will in the greatest of causes, and something like the creation of the cornerstones upon which tremendous structures of liberty would later be built. It is a bit of both in the whole, and on the whole, a sad time in our history. I’m only about a quarter of the way into Simpson’s book, but thus far it is detailed, meticulously researched, and knowledgeable while being a powerful read. I’m looking forward to knowing more at its end that I did at its beginning.

So that’s about it for my current reading. Amidst all of this a new term has begin that promises to be very full of assigned reading, writing, and general knowledge building, all of which is good but will undoubtedly make posting here from time to time difficult. If you stick with me, however, I’ll stick with you, and continue to scribble along.

In the meantime, be well.

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