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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

“Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac”, by Stephen W. Sears

896 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN-13: 978-0618428250

Like many amateur historians of the American Civil War, amongst the first books I read were the trilogy on the Army of the Potomac written by Michigan’s own Bruce Catton: For Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Glory Road and A Stillness at Appomattox in the guise of their 1988 reissue as Bruce Catton’s Civil War, after my Dad had taken us on our first Historic Odyssey way the hell back in 1982. I’ve since read a few more volumes on this hard-luck army and its travails since then, and as far as dedicated Army of the Potomac histories go, Catton’s work has largely been superseded as serious history due to their anecdotal style and lack of footnotes, along with the utterly awful or nonexistent maps – but there has been no real replacement of impeccable quality, either. Enter Stephen W. Sears, who has written several excellent campaign histories of the American Civil War’s Eastern Theater (Antietam, Peninsula, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg), as well as much about General George Brinton McClellan. Besides being an old hand at this stuff, at this point Sears has also covered a lot of background details about the much-despised and much-maligned Army of the Potomac in his other books…how could he possibly add anything new to this endlessly rehashed subject?

Well, he dood it in Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac, in which Sears focuses more on high command interactions, personalities of the generals and their staffs and the (often dysfunctional) institutional structure of the Army of the Potomac. This sort of material is usually the background to campaign studies, but here Sears inverts the usual approach and the campaigns are instead background to the institutional history. This may sound dull but it is not, as Sears is a graceful and highly skilled writer, and his campaign and battle descriptions are well done and, of course, occurs frequently enough to make things interesting (his descriptions of troop formations and organizational shakeups, however, are as dry as sand on toast). More significantly, Sears makes the info on the generals seem fascinating: between flamboyant characters like Dan Sickles and Phil Kearny, intriguing failures like Franz Sigel and Samuel Heintzelman, and even McClellan’s cadre of sycophants like Fitz John Porter and William Franklin, Sears has an eye for telling detail and interesting (well-documented) anecdote. Sears also ranges into interesting topics like the reasons why McClellan, a cavalry officer by training and inclination, presided over such an awful cavalry arm when he was commander in chief, and contrasts Union and Confederate handling of artillery organization. To an American Civil War reader like me who has been hearing peripherally about these matters in numerous campaign studies, it’s intriguing to finally get the full story covered with all the details illuminated. What you won’t find in Lincoln’s Lieutenants is any description of what life was like for either Billie Yank or Johnny Reb: no life in the trenches stuff, no snippets or quotes about the grunt’s eye view of battle experiences, no descriptions of suffering, hunger or homesickness. But considering the title of this book, that should come as no surprise (also missing was nay comparable descriptions of what was going on in the high command of the Army of Northern Virginia; but again, I refer you to the book’s title).

I have only one real criticism, but it’s an important one: the maps are almost, but not quite, useless: while nicely produced and full of information – I mean, damn near every town name, road, river etc., seems to be included – BUT no troop movements, starting formations, or even handy read-or-blue arrows to help you figure out what in the hell is going on. The troop movements mentioned in the texts have to be puzzled out by the reader, and if you don’t know that the Union was moving in such-and-such direction at a given battle, it can be hard to figure out what is going on. This is no minor omission, as part of Sears’ theme is that Howard was a good general because he did X at Y battle, while Keyes was not so good because he did Y at X battle, instead. If you can’t track the maneuvers on the map, it makes it tough to see Sears’ points. I assume most persons reading a 900+ page history on the Army of the Potomac are probably pretty familiar with the American Civil War to begin with, and so can probably follow along on the maps from memory or can dig out other books and use those as references.

With that said, I learned a lot from this volume and feel Sears has outdone himself here. This is his longest book by far, and his readable style, fair-minded objectivity and ability to master a huge amount of material and convey it to the reader without making the process a dull slog remain fully intact (plus, he gives hell to McClellan, and deservedly so). As mentioned, Sears is advanced in years at this point (84-years-old at time of writing) so this may be his last book. I hope not, as I always hoped for one or more Overland Campaign studies from him, but if this is indeed his swan song, he is ending his career on the highest possible note. For new readers of the American Civil War, I will say only that this is a fine book for anyone with an interest in the subject as long as they have a reasonable familiarity with the overall subject War in the East. I would not recommend coming to this large detailed volume cold, though; that is, with no prior reading done on the war. Maybe read the above-mentioned Catton books for starters. Not necessarily for newcomers, and needs better maps, but experienced readers will love this, as the story of the tragic Army of the Potomac is an utterly fascinating one. Sears is maybe the finest American Civil War writer alive at present, and he does a great job telling an important and interesting story here.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

“The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany”, by Jane Kramer

293 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0679448723

In The Politics of Memory: Looking for Germany in the New Germany, Jane Kramer surveys the moral and political landscape of modern-day Germany, where the reunification of East and West has brought into conflict two vastly different memories of what it means to “be” German. A series of essays rather than a coherent narrative, Kramer cuts straight to the heart of Europe’s most politically and economically influential country, covering any number of people and places, such as:

  • The self-styled anarchists that destroy a filmmaker’s Berlin restaurant to protest its so-called “bourgeois” nature, but whose ruthless call for “freedom” is simply German fascism repackaged
  • The young East German who escapes to the West but doesn’t know what to do with himself once he gets there, an example of the deep passivity that is perhaps the Communists’ most troubling legacy to the new Germany
  • The German holocaust memorial that reveals a revisionist desire to portray the country as a victim of World War II by, in Kramer’s words, “turning the twelve dark years of Hitler into twelve years of resistance to and occupation by Hitler; an abandonment, for the sake of settling the past into ‘history’, of the very plain historical truth that Germany had chosen Hitler”.

Kramer is a wonderful storyteller and an excellent reporter, but her greatest handicap is that she is basically an outsider reporting on a country she doesn’t even live in which leads, in turn, to her overcompensating in the form of inserting an “insider’s” tone into her essays (I could pay off my student loan if I had a nickel for every time she referred to “the kids” and “the scene” – as if she really knew anything but hearsay about German kids and scenes – or for the occurrences of “a lot of people say [X]” and “so-and-so likes to say [X]”). Meanwhile, Kramer’s lack of familiarity with Berlin comes out in embarrassing goofs such as placing the KaDeWe – that would be the Kaufhaus des Westens, Department Store of the West – on the Kurfürstendamm rather than on the Tauentzienstraße, or referring to Germany’s most important literary publishing house, Suhrkamp Verlag, as Surkampf. Too bad, for there is much important social and political history gathered in these essays. The book is definitely worth reading, but its weaknesses do begin to annoy one after a while.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

“Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin”, by Alexandra Richie

1168 pages, Carroll & Graf Publishers, ISBN-13: 978-0786706815

Before reviewing this book I have a statement for the previous owner: you filthy, inhuman, grotesque reprobate. I bought this book for a mere $5 from 2nd & Charles, and I still feel I overpaid because of all of the damage you’d done to it: to underline as often and haphazardly as you did is to defile a fine book; but to dog-ear the hell out of it to the point of disfiguring it is to desecrate knowledge itself. Your disrespect and disregard for this book makes you worse than the offal found at the bottom of the worst toilet in Calcutta.

Okay, with that out of my system…

Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin by Alexandra Richie is that rare thing: a monumental history on a huge subject that is also accessible to a mass audience. “Crude” was how Goethe described the city of Berlin in 1778, while Stendhal wondered why anyone would construct a city in such a desolate place, but even worse was when it was named the capital of the new nation in 1871 and other Germans grumbled that Berlin was too Prussian, too militaristic, too Protestant and, perhaps most damning of all, too new. Lacking the shine of Paris or the glory of Rome, Berlin nonetheless has been at the center of European history no less than its more alluring cousins, although more often than not for less glamorous reasons. Although remembered more for Bismarck and Hitler (the ghosts of whom still hover over the city), Berlin was also the home of the Enlightenment in Germany and for a creative art scene in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, until such pursuits were stamped out by National Socialism. This is an engrossing read, history on a sweeping scale, but while reading I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that this book is not so much a history of the city of Berlin as a history of Germany from a Berliner’s (or Berlinerin’s) perspective – not that this is a bad thing as any history of Berlin needs must be a history of Germany, as well.

Richie, a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, is a descendent of the von Moltke family, which has been a major protagonist in Germany’s and the city’s history. Critical to understanding Berlin is the municipality’s conception of itself as the City of German Destiny, a conception that has perhaps done more damage to the metropolis than any foreign occupying army. Equally critical for modern Berlin has been the way German unification was achieved, through “blood and iron” in Bismarck’s memorable phrase, rather than through any nobler, less violent ideals. All-too-appropriate epigraphs from Faust by Goethe open each chapter, and Richie dwells at length on the many, trials, tribulations and triumphs of this city throughout its long and contested history: it’s founding in 1163 by Albert the Bear; it’s destruction during the Thirty Years’ War (and the reason so many early documents were destroyed); its creation as the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1701; its first-time (but not last) as the focus of world attention during the Seven Years’ War; the spiraling and out-of-control expansion during the 18th Century’s Industrial Revolution; its newfound role as the capital of Imperial Germany in 1871; its eruption during the fall of the Empire in 1918; its role as the capital of the (sadly) failed Weimar Republic; the focus if German Expressionism, architecture, cinema, theater; the capital of the demonic Third Reich; its flattening during the second World War; its symbol as the frontline between Western Democracy and Eastern Tyranny with the building of the Berlin Wall; its symbol as the rebirth of Europe with the falling of the wall…but all this is merely part of a sweeping canvas that succinctly covers several centuries of changing politics, economics and social conditions, from absolutism to romanticism; from nationalism to socialism and, tragically, National Socialism. Richie weaves a colorful tapestry and, in the process, adroitly separates fact from fiction, myth from history.

Richie’s overall theme that Berlin has been the engine that has driven Germany for the past several centuries is, I believe, well substantiated. The story of a backwater town in the small Electorate of Brandenburg emerging suddenly in the 19th Century as the center of the German universe is extremely well documented. From the perspective of the serious German history student this book is a good summary and the footnotes lead to worthy sources. From the reader’s perspective it is a book that you have trouble putting down. I even found myself looking forward to returning home from work each night to begin reading the next chapter, each one better than the one before. I was also gratified that Richie, a Canadian by birth who has lived can Europe for several decades now, was not a bleeding heart moral equivocator: she describes the eveils of Nazism, but also the evils of Communism, as well, and isn’t afraid to call out the hypocrisies and shortcomings of those on the left all over the world who made their peace with this monstrous system. Historians should take note: THIS is the way to reach a mass audience.