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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

“France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror”, by Jonathan Fenby

576 pages, St. Martin's Press, ISBN-13: 978-1250096838

France: A Modern History from the Revolution to the War with Terror by Jonathan Fenby frames the past 200-years-or-so of French history within the context of the current waves of terrorism which, in case you’ve forgotten, began with the killings at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and culminated with the series of November attacks in Paris; to date, the threat of terrorist incidents in Europe continues to pose a danger to inhabitants and visitors alike, and it is against this background that the author sets out to show that “more than most nations, France carries the weight of its history in its view of itself. Here…the past is…vitally present, making its modern history crucial to understanding the past of today.” Fenby’s ambitious chronicle shows how France came of age, in spite of recurring cycles of revolution, empire, kingdom, corrupt democracy and occupation. Liberté, égalité, fraternité were never truly achieved, yet these ideals continue as republican tradition (in his concluding chapter entitled “The Weight of History,” Fenby asks, “Was French democracy ‘unfinished’, as the historian Sudhir Hazareesingh has put it, and the republican tradition far less…rooted than the popular consensus believed?”)

The great conundrum of French history is the French Revolution – or rather, the sequence of revolutions, coups and insurrections during which the nation was repeatedly destroyed and recreated. How is it that a heap of cobblestones, furniture and overturned vehicles – handcarts in 1848, 2CVs in 1968 – erected at particular points on the Left Bank of Paris can bring down a régime whose domain extends from the North Sea to the Mediterranean? (Baudelaire observed that when Napoleon’s nephew conducted a coup d’état in 1851 and installed himself as supreme leader, it seemed that “absolutely anybody, simply by seizing control of the telegraph and the national printing works, can govern a great nation”). In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo was thinking of this discrepancy between the mass of political power and the lever of popular unrest when he described a barricade in the 1832 insurrection as “at once Mount Sinai and a pile of rubbish”. Some greater narrative seemed to preside over the chaos, a tale of freedom wrested from a tyrant by dint of pure Enlightenment reason, momentarily abetted by frenzied bloodletting. It is this so-called narrative that the nation still recounts to itself like a favorite bedtime story, demanding that large parts of its history be dismissed as aberrations and sections of its population as enemies of the fatherland.

This narrative at least makes it possible to walk a steady path through the gun smoke, the tear gas, the barricades and the decapitated bodies. France: A Modern History is primarily a reminder of the chief political events of modern French history; as such, it is inevitably concentrated in Paris. In 1832, with its 800,000 inhabitants, Paris contained less than 1/13th of France’s population, but it was the fulcrum of events that determined the fate of national regimes, its newspapers shaping opinion. Fenby’s guiding argument, however, is applicable to the nation as a whole. France, says Fenby, has never “fully digested” its “revolutionary and republican legacy” because “it has never wanted to shed its other, more conservative character”. Torn between radical fervor and fear of change, “the French have become prisoners of the heritage of their past”. With only ten pages on the Revolution, there is not much food here for analysis, but Fenby does provide plenty of concrete examples of the unresolved conflict: the bitter intransigence of the Dreyfus Affair, the enthusiastic cooperation of the Vichy régime with Nazi Germany, the brutal treatment of Algerians and the callous abandonment of the white colonists. Since the fall of the Bastille, every national debate has been tinged with extremism; the Enlightenment, it seemed, required an enemy, and so the furrows of the fatherland (says the Marseillaise) must be “fed and watered with impure blood”.

The key figure in Fenby’s account is Charles de Gaulle, who tried to transcend the cleavages born of 1789 by becoming an incarnation of une certaine idée de la France (a typical cumulonimbus of a phrase in which everyone could see whatever they liked). Faced with the chaos of events, de Gaulle adopted what is still widely seen in France as the only reasonable philosophical stance of the enlightened citizen: total cynicism. After de Gaulle, the nation’s leaders looked increasingly like chancers, crooks, philanderers and windbags. Fenby uses his long experience as a foreign correspondent to paint a picture of dodgy politicians presiding over the decline of a once-proud nation in which there are now more psychiatrists than priests, where 43% of the population claims to know nothing about wine, 80% of croissants are made in factories, and most snails and frogs’ legs are imported. Sacre bleu.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

“A Fatal Passion: The Story of the Uncrowned Last Empress of Russia”, by Michael John Sullivan

473 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-0679424000

A Fatal Passion: The Story of the Uncrowned Last Empress of Russia by Michael John Sullivan is a biography of Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Edinburgh, the third child and second daughter of Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, as well as a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and Emperor Alexander II of Russia. Victoria’s siblings were Alfred, Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the only son and heir apparent of Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha who died aged 24 under circumstances still not entirely clear; Marie Alexandra Victoria, who became the last Queen of Romania as the wife of King Ferdinand I; Alexandra Louise Olga Victoria who, upon her marriage to Ernst II, became the Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg; and Beatrice Leopoldine Victoria who married Alfonso de Orleans y Borbón, Infante of Spain, a first cousin of Alfonso XIII of Spain (got all that?).

While it didn’t take long for the marriage of the Duke and Grand Duchess to go south, Marie managed to raise the girls to be smart, cultured and independent women for their times. Victoria Melita wound up marrying Ernst Ludwig Karl Albrecht Wilhelm, the last Grand Duke of Hesse and by Rhine and who was also the brother of the last Tsarina of Russia, Alexandra – and then divorcing the same, whereupon she married Grand Duke Kirill (Cyril) Vladimirovich of Russia, a son of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia, a grandson of Emperor Alexander II and a first cousin of Nicholas II, Russia’s last Tsar (don’t worry; my head is spinning, too). This was a huge scandal at the time since divorce was almost unheard of, especially amongst the nobility, most of whom were content to stay trapped in loveless marriages and conduct a series of empty affairs.

All of these European dynastic entanglements are fascinating, and all, but ultimately this is a rather frustrating biography as we learn so little of Victoria Melita herself. What were her principles? What did she stand for? What were her hopes and dreams, and so forth? Sullivan would have it seem that her body and soul went from being controlled first by her parents, and then by first one husband and then another. Are we forgetting that this was a fabulously wealthy woman with connections to the most important people in the world in her day? Oh, the author’s writing style is enjoyable enough as it flows so easily from topic to topic, and his interjections of relevant background stories, talks about the times, and chapter-ending cliffhangers – which, worry not, get explained in the next chapter – are all well and good.

But it seems from this book that Victoria Melita was an empty shell of a person without decisiveness or a will of her own. The image it casts is of a Royal Victim, swept along in a tide over which she had no control her entire life. This is plainly untrue, and plainly a matter of her own choice and her own decisions, as any member of royalty who pursued a divorce in the 18th Century must have had a backbone of steel, but we see none of that in this book. Where is the spunk? Where is the determination? How were other royal divorcees treated by society at large? Was she snubbed? Did it hurt her? Or was she just the perennial mournful martyr and victim? Surely that can’t be true of the real person behind this facade.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

“The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House”, by H.R. Haldeman, introduction and afterword by Stephen E. Ambrose

718 pages, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0399139628

The historian Theodore Draper once wrote that “[i]f an historian had had a fantasy of knowing all that one man nearest to Nixon had known, he would have chosen Haldeman”, a fantasy that came true, for when H.R. Haldeman died, he left behind a chronicle of the four years he was Chief of Staff for President Nixon. This fascinating book, The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House, sheds light on virtually every aspect of the Nixon presidency. Many of the entries are priceless as his diaries offer a fascinating portrait of the major events of this era, including the Cambodia bombings, the Kent State shootings, the fall of Spiro Agnew, the Watergate scandal and new insights on Richard Nixon himself.

We are treated to a litany of enlightening quotes from the Nixonian inner circle, such as: “[Nixon] must be totally ruthless inside the Oval Office, but firm and human outside” from John Connally, who served as Nixon’s Secretary of the Treasury, advice that, on the evidence of these diaries, Nixon seemed often to invert; or “[r]ight after he hung up the P[hone] [Nixon] heaved a deep sigh, looked out the window, and said it would be goddamn easy to run this office if you didn’t have to deal with people” from Nixon himself after placing the disagreeable call to then-Secretary of State William Rogers, the man who had been cut out of Kissinger's “back channel” negotiations with Soviet diplomat Anatoly Fyodorovich Dobrynin.

But perhaps the most touching quote comes from the preface, in which Haldeman’s widow, Joanne, recounts how her husband recorded his impressions of each day’s work before going to bed, a thought made even more poignant by the fact that such diaries could not possibly be prudently kept today by any public servant. This situation, dramatically confirmed by every political scandal in the Republic since Watergate, is not only a gross invasion of the privacy of public figures – who are no longer allowed the asylum of a confidential journal – but, as is amply demonstrated by this book, is a terrible loss to future historians.