Friday, October 29, 2010

First of the 'Mohicans'

This post is part of ongoing series about, or related to, the films of Daniel Day-Lewis, part of a work-in-progress.

There are a lot of reasons I can think of to like Michael Mann's 1992 version of the James Fenimore Cooper novel Last of the Mohicans. (I plan to watch the 1920, 1936, 1947, and a couple other versions shortly.) Among them: the vast improvements to the novel (from plot to dialogue); the quality of the acting (Daniel Day-Lewis, of course, but also an exceptionally fine cast whose most shining star may be Wes Studi's portrayal of the villain, Magua); the extraordinarily vivid locations (set in Appalachian colonial New York, it was shot in 20th-century North Carolina); and the scrupulous attention to period detail. One other great feature: the soundtrack, which blends native drums with Scottish reels to tremendous effect. There's not better music for driving on an autumnal day.

But what I've been thinking about lately is an aspect to the movie that derives from the source material but which comes across with great impact here, and that is a tremendous sense of historical possibility. Mohicans is set on the New York frontier in 1757, one of the truly contingent turning points in American history. The French and Indian War, a world war that stretched from from the colonies to India, had been underway for three years, thanks to the callowness of a Virginia errand boy named George Washington, who didn't realize that the Indian guides who he thought were helping him inform a French detachment that they were trespassing instead killed those soldiers for their own reasons.

The early years of the war went  badly for the British empire, as French forces under the great Louis-Joseph de Montcalm drove down that great American highway known as the Hudson River and captured a strong of British checkpoints, among them Fort William Henry (epicenter of the plot of the movie). The five nations of the Iroquois were allied with the British; Huron peoples, among them the Ottawa, were allied with the French. The startling complexity this multicultural conflict comes into sharp focus during the sequence illustrated above, in which a Huron sachem speaks French to a captured British soldier, who then translates his words into English for the British-born but adoptive Mohican played by Day-Lewis, who bargains for the lives of two sisters by offering a wampum belt of his people. To gain the right do so, he had to endure the ritual abuse in entering the Huron village, part of a shared understanding of due process that bound sworn enemies.

Everything was up for grabs in 1757. Outnumbered demographically, the French nevertheless had the upper hand militarily, and a French victory -- complete or partial, negotiated at the bargaining table or achieved force of arms -- was by no means an implausible outcome. The permutations among Native Americans were even more dizzying. By this point, they had been parrying Europeans for a 150 years, and while the threat of a decisive victory by either side endangered their ability to play the white powers against each other, any number of outcomes could strengthen a particular people or specific figures within a people. As for the colonials, well, Cooper and his successors gave signs that these natives were growing restless with British rule too. But any imagined revolution would be impossible to seriously contemplate as long as there were French and/or Indians positioned in their rear.

With a couple years, a dramatic reversal of fortune that would culminate on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec would, in effect, decide the fate of the North American continent. The set of arrangements that followed were certainly not inevitable, and a big part of what I understand the job of a historian to be is to recapture the sense of strangeness, of contingency, in our contemporary lives. But that's hard to do, in large measure because the sheer vastness of the world in Last of the Mohicans seems irretrievably lost. Our horizons, seem so much smaller, and dimmer. Where we once looked west with hope, we now look east with fear.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bound by Choice

In The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz explore the complexities of setting, and settling, apart

The following review was posted last week on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

My initial reaction to encountering a book with this title was to be be reminded of Randy Newman's camp-classic song "It's Lonely at the Top": a smug alert went off in my head. Turns out, however, that it's a deft little (192-page) piece of scholarship that takes up resonant questions in a notably fair-minded way. The book deserves wide consideration in a variety of contexts, and I will not be surprised if it turns out to be a fixture on undergraduate syllabi for many years to come.

After a brief -- and necessary -- introduction that notes many people throughout history have considered themselves chosen, the authors perform an elegantly simple piece of exegesis on the Book of Genesis, in which they tease out the many ambiguities that lurk in the covenants God made with Abraham and Moses. This analysis includes discussions of the repeated failures on the part of the Israelites to keep up their part of the deal, as well as the burdens, psychological as well as political, that being a chosen people imposed on them. Gitlin and Leibowitz note that Zionism emerged both as an ethnic alternative to the assimilationist thrust of post-Napoleonic emancipation as well as a secular alternative to diaspora Judaism.  But the post-1948 fusion of people, faith and land created a spiritual cocktail that even the most hard-bitten pragmatists found impossible to resist after the Israel's territorial gains in 1967. The authors consider this a bad bargain, and criticize those who unstintingly embrace it as indulging in worship of "a golden calf," though they do not repudiate the idea of a Jewish homeland.

Gitlin and Leibovitz then shift their gaze to the United States. In some ways, the analysis is familiar -- we hear lots about the Puritans, of course -- but we also hear some surprising accents. Despite his religious skepticism, the authors show Thomas Jefferson as a full-throated exponent of the United States as a Promised Land, evident in his famous assertion that "those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his substantial deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." Though it's possible to discern latent heterodoxy in Jefferson's use of the word if (there are any chosen people) Gitlin and Leibovitz make a compelling case that a covenant sensibility shaped Jefferson's approach to the Louisiana Purchase, and that this sensibility coursed through the psyches of his successors.

The title of this part of the book, "His Almost Chosen People," comes from a single reference in speech Abraham Lincoln delivered on his way to Washington in 1861.  Gitlin and Leibovitz stint the degree to which the word "almost" decisively checks Lincoln's embrace of the idea, notwithstanding that the Great Emancipator famously described the United States as the "last, best, hope of earth" (a phrase, curiously, that they do not quote). In any case, it remains true that the language of the chosen people recurs through the rhetoric of politicians ranging from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush. As in the parallel case of Israel, that language can be alternatively sacred and secular, invoked in the name of principle or real estate, and those who reject such language understand they operate in a discourse saturated in it.

From here, the authors then turn their attention to the so-called "unchosen." The core of their analysis is an arresting juxtaposition between the Jews' relationship with the indigenous population of Palestine, and that of the U.S. with Native American peoples. Gitlin and Leibovitz also take a critical look at those who react to the claims of the chosen by fashioning counter-narratives of their own chosenness; while typically a minority impulse, compounds difficulties for just about everybody. They note that the majority of Palestinians, for example, reject the extremism of Hamas.

The Chosen Peoples concludes with a look at the U.S.-Israeli relationship itself, one Gitlin and Leibovitz  assert has transcended self-interest and the seeming contradiction of a harmonious tie rooted in separate claims of primacy. Again, they specifically reject the proposition that either nation can disown its chosen identity; instead, they regard it as something that must be grappled with in an ongoing and creative way.

In the acknowledgments that follow the main text of the book, the authors thank "Columbia University, which gave Todd Gitlin the opportunity to teach several sections of Contemporary Civilization." It's not often that a senior scholar expresses gratitude for the privilege of teaching standard service courses, even courses as storied as those in Columbia's CC program. But the experience was clearly invigorating in allowing a powerful thinker -- one who has spent most his time grappling in twentieth century U.S. history -- to engage a new set of discourses. The Chosen Peoples is a worthy testimonial for teaching and writing grounded in foundational sources and clear-eyed prose.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jim is on the road with about 150 students and a dozen colleagues on the so-called "Boston Trip," which is a misnomer, in that it's really a Massachusetts trip. We'll be making our first stop in Salem, to visit the exuberantly kitschy Salem Witch Museum, whose creaky mannequins seem themselves to be historical artifacts of a city's attempt to reinvent itself through tourism. From there, we'll tour sites such as the Salem Custom House (famously featured in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter), and the elegantly austere memorial to the victims of the witch trials of 1692. After a night in nearby Waltham, we will the proceed to Lexington and Concord, where we'll have a look at where the American Revolution began. While in Concord, we'll take a walk around Walden Pond, visiting the site as well as a replica of Henry David Thoreau's humble abode. We'll also visit the Old Manse, a storied home belonging to Ralph Waldo Emerson's family. Residents at the house included the newly wedded Hawthorne and his wife Sophia, who rented it in the 1840s. After lunch at Faneuil Hall, we'll take a ferry ride to Charlestown to visit the Bunker Hill monument, and then swing back into Boston proper, where if time permits, we'll see the site of the Boston Massacre and/or other sacred ground.

This is the tenth time Jim has made the trip. In previous years, the Boston/Concord core has been supplemented with Old Sturbridge Village and the Pequot Museum in southeastern Connecticut, but this is now the third iteration of the trip in which Salem has been the first leg, and our routine has been honed to a relatively high degree of efficiency. It's a nice experience for the kids, and one those who plan it would like to think it a rite of passage. Certainly there are few better ways to integrate history and literature into a compelling package (our reading in recent weeks has included The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, "Civil Disobedience," and the Declaration of Independence) and to fuse the life of the classroom with that of material culture and a departure from school routine. Such is the stuff of which memory -- personal and collective -- is made.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Revolutionary silence

There's a surprising dearth of movies, let alone good ones, about the nation's founding

As part of my ongoing research on the film career of Daniel Day-Lewis, I recently watched the 1939 John Ford movie Drums Along the Mohawk, a great popular success at a moment in American history when American history itself was in vogue. (Gone with the Wind and Young Mr. Lincoln were released the same year.) You may wonder why such a movie would be relevant to Day-Lewis, and I must say I don't have all that compelling an answer, but I'll begin to render one by observing Drums is really one of very few movies -- The Howards of Virginia, released in 1940, comes to mind, along with the musical 1776 (1972), Revolution (1985), and The Patriot  (2000) -- that feature the American Revolution as a historical setting. This is not exactly an honor roll; 1776 has its partisans, and Revolution seems to have received critical reappraisal recently, but none of these movies have exactly found a deep and lasting place in the American imagination. The recent HBO miniseries John Adams might attain such durability, but as a multi-part television show, it is arguably a different species.

Drums Along the Mohawk, based on the successful -- and unlike this movie, scrupulously documented -- novel by Walter Edmonds, stars a young Henry Fonda and a not-so young Claudette Colbert as newlyweds trying to navigate the rigors of life on the frontier of upstate New York, which would be hard enough without a war going on. A British-backed Indian raid, orchestrated by an ominous, eye-patch donning Brit played by John Carradine, drives them from their home. The couple takes refuge with a flinty widow played by Edna May Oliver, who walks away with the movie and indeed garnered an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. (Oliver was a direct descendant of John Quincy Adams, and there's something marvelous about watching a nineteenth century woman playing eighteenth century character in a twentieth century movie that you're watching in the twenty-first.) Fonda joins a militia and gets wounded in the American victory at the Battle of Oriskany,  which he incorrectly hopes will settle matters for good in their corner of the world. Instead, the community is literally besieged in a final attack on the fort it has built to protect itself, saved only at the last minute in a fictional rescue made possible by a daring run by Fonda, who runs Iroquois pickets in a successful bid to procure reinforcements.

As a cinematic experience, Drums is a mixed bag. The narrative pace goes slack in long sequences like the birth of the couple's child (which might have better if it wasn't so sentimentalized). But Arthur Shields is quite funny as a minister, and Ward Bond -- has any actor been in so many great movies? -- has some terrific mock-sexual banter with the elderly Oliver. Director John Ford made lemonade out of lemons when bad weather reputedly kept him from staging the battle of Oriskany, instead improvising a powerful scene of wounded combatants returning to town. And the final sequence is undeniably dramatic. All told, this is a movie that deserves to be better remembered than it has been.

All that said, I still think the best movie about the Revolution is Last of the Mohicans, which is something of an inaccurate statement, because on any obvious level it's about the French and Indian War (which has gotten even less attention than the Revolution). But it's a movie full of Revolutionary foreshadowing, a big part of the reason why it works -- and part of James Fenimore Cooper's intention from the start. This is something I'll try to explain in a later post.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Spirit of Science

In Lincoln & Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science and Religion, James Lander continues -- and deepens -- a new trend in tracing lines between parallel lives.

The following review was posted yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

"Seek and ye shall find"
--Matthew 7:7

The bicentennial of Charles Darwin's and Abraham Lincoln's births on February 12, 1809 has prompted a flurry of comparisons in the lives of two men who on the surface would not seem to have much in common, notwithstanding the fact that Darwin certainly knew of Lincoln and Lincoln, we can safely extrapolate, knew of (but probably didn't read) Darwin. Perhaps the best of the lot is Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages, recently published in paperback (see my review here). Gopnik's book was a marvelously evocative meditation on how the power of good writing allowed both men to achieve gigantic aims. But if your interest lies in more systematically tracing the similar, and even shared, frames of reference that shaped the lives of the two men, James Lander's deeply researched and elegantly executed study will likely become the standard work.

At the core of Lander's study, as with many who have studied the two men separately and together, is a shared dilemma.  Lincoln and Darwin were two men who almost miraculously rejected the racial prejudices of their time as well as conventional ideas about religion, and yet practiced a savvy pragmatism in remaining as diffident as possible on their personal feelings even as they advanced public discourse in terms of principle. Lander no less than Gopnik is attentive to the sculpted prose that made this possible, but Lander goes a good deal further in providing a rich sense of context in recreating the mens' shared world. Many Lincolnphiles are aware, for example, that he was a tinkerer and inventor who is the only president to hold a patent. It is nevertheless startling to learn, as one does here, that Lincoln's interests extended to geology -- of course a crucial field of inquiry in the articulation of a theory of evolution -- and to have multiple accounts of Lincoln reading the same 1844 study that had a significant impact on Darwin. Conversely, it's a little surprising to learn just how avidly Darwin followed the Civil War in the London Times, articulating a very clear and consistent abolitionist position that was as deeply informed, passionate (and disappointed by Lincoln's slow pace on emancipation) as one could find on the streets (er, make that parlors) of Boston.

But what may be even more interesting here is the degree to which Lander brings the state of mid-nineteenth scientific discourse to life in discussing the state of public conversation in the Atlantic world generally. Though it has been noted before, one sees with new clarity here just how quickly the educated classes galloped to (sometimes erroneous) conclusions about On the Origin of Species in 1859, particularly as they extended to race relations.  I never realized until reading this book just how quickly and assiduously some Southern apologists for slavery actually abandoned biblical justifications for slavery in favor of scientific ones that came from people who argued in Darwin's name and against him. As such, the book is a sobering reminder to those who forget that the progress of science marches in lockstep with the progressive politics.

But Lander makes his argument in terms of form no less than content. Carefully conceptualized chapters with titles like "Campaigning" and "Delegation and Control" capture the way Lincoln and Darwin grappled with similar problems in their life cycles. Both men were politicians; both men had agendas. And both men had powerful rivals. For Lincoln, it was Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas; for Darwin it was the Swiss-born American Louis Agassiz, whose polygenetic notions of race, which insisted black people belonged to a different species, dominated science in a way comparable to that by which Douglas dominated U.S. politics. (As someone who has often crossed paths with Douglas in a lifetime of reading, it was startling to bump into him here attending a lecture by Agassiz.) Such execution makes the book pleasurable as well as informative.

I don't agree with Lander on every particular; I'm among those, for example, who believe a deep vein of spiritualism marked Lincoln's religious evolution, which is largely stinted here. But this is a provocative and edifying book that serves its principals, and readers, well.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The dawn of Day-Lewis

On re-encountering an artist's work half a lifetime later

In March of 1986, I was a recent college graduate living in Manhattan on a $12,000 salary at a New York publishing house and migrating from sublet to sublet. I didn't have any money, but I had lots of time -- time to read the books that were always floating around; time gain discounted admission to exhibitions and the theater; time, above all, to go to the movies. I was of a mind to self-consciously turn myself into a cosmopolitan. So the idea of going to a movie about upwardly mobile Pakistanis in London -- and one that featured a gay romance -- was my idea of uplift. That's why I went to see My Beautiful Laundrette.

And that's how I first encountered Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis played a working-class gang member, Johnny, who runs into an old school mate, Omar, and falls in love with him. My Beautiful Laundrette is a fascinating document of Thatcherite Britain, and the varied attitudes people of the same ethnic group may hold toward what might be termed the English Dream. But the most riveting thing about the movie at the time was Day-Lewis, whose performance I found overpoweringly compelling.

Less than a week later, I went to see another British film, an adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel Room with a View by the famed team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory (along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala). I had already read some of Forster's fiction before seeing the movie, and I so coveted the cover of the reissued novel, which used a still from the final scene of the movie, that I bought and read it on that basis alone. (I think I liked the typography almost as much as I did the profile of Helena Bonham Carter.) I was also aware that Daniel Day-Lewis was in this movie as well, this time playing the impossibly priggish Cecil Vyse. It was dazzling to see the same man was playing both of these people, particularly in two wildly divergent films, one a brash independent production and the other a stylish period piece. There was much commentary about this juxtaposition at the time, and I felt joy at being present at the start of a great career, much in the way one feels vicariously pleasure at the success of one's sports team or having been present for a major historical event.

I didn't quite become a Daniel Day-Lewis groupie -- I was unaware of some of his subsequent movies -- and while I greatly admired his performance in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (a novel I had also read as part of my ongoing Education) and  his Oscar-winning turn in My Left Foot in 1989, I spent the Academy awards night the following spring rooting for Glory, a film I was about to write about as part of my doctoral dissertation. It was not until the release of Last of the Mohicans in September of 1992 -- a date I remember because my first child had just been born I had believed my regular moviegoing days were about to end -- that I embraced Day-Lewis as my favorite actor and as an artist whose work I would follow with great interest. (It helped that in the next few years he'd be making movies with American historical settings at a time I had settled into becoming an avowed American provincial.)

Earlier this week I watched My Beautiful Laundrette and Room with a View back-to-back, neither of which I'd seen since 1986. I was less awed by them now than I was then, and Day-Lewis's performances seemed more like experiments in boundary-testing than fully three-dimensional characters. I also discerned a surprising vein of gender continuity in the two roles, as Vyse seemed more like a painfully closeted homosexual when juxtaposed against Johnny's liberated one.

It's a curious doubleness when works of art are joined to one's autobiography, and another curious doubleness to be the same person and experience the same works of art differently at separate moments in one's life. Sometimes I think it's miraculous when a work outside our lifetime manages to transcend it and speak across time, or that we continue to be moved by works in our lifetime when our circumstances change. I'm now aware that the quality of Daniel Day-Lewis's work has varied in the last quarter-century, and I have a fuller understanding of how that work is as much a product of his influences (like Robert De Niro, who in turn owes a debt to Marlon Brando) as it is an original contribution. In a weird way, it's the fallibility and limits of such work that makes me savor it more. We're all engaged in such a struggle with our mortality. It cheers one so to see flickering persistence in the dying light.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hitler's (non) Great War

In Hitler's First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War, Thomas Weber uncovers some lost history -- and advances a controversial interpretation of German history

The following review was posted yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Early on in reading this book, I showed it to a colleague who teaches a course in Nazi Germany, offering to pass along the galleys when I was through. "No thanks," she said. "I'm kinda Hitlered out." It's an understandable reaction, even among those with a professional stake in the topic. Like his virtual antithesis, Abraham Lincoln, Hitler can be historiographically exhausting.

Yet this study is worth some attention for two reasons. The first is that it reconstructs, in a tour de force of scholarly research, an oft-noted, but dimly documented, chapter in Adolf Hitler's career. The second is that it uses this account of what happened -- or, more accurately, didn't happen -- in Hitler's wartime experiences of 1914-18 as a means of making a larger point not only about his political trajectory, but that of Germany generally. It's this second point that may result in some serious controversy.

Though it's a fixture of virtually all accounts of his life, including his own, situating Private (later Corporal) Hitler in the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment -- sometimes referred to the "List Regiment," after its first commanding officer, Julius von List -- is in fact quite difficult. Partly that's because much of the documentary record has been lost, whether by design or in the destructive final days of the Second World War, when much of Germany was reduced to rubble. It's also because Hitler's wartime record has been the subject of a series of conflicting aims by friend and foe alike, both of whom have distorted it. In some cases, Thomas Weber of the University of Aberdeen, whose own grandfather volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1943, is actually able to disprove minor points of conflict through extrapolation. He begins the book, for example, with a close reading of a famous crowd photograph taken on the first day of the war in which Hitler appears, a photograph which would seem to show both popular enthusiasm for the war and the future Fuhrer's place at the heart of the demonstration. But Weber documents the way it is in fact deceptive and that Hitler's position in the frame may have been doctored.

The core approach of the book is to provide a collective profile of the men who served in the List regiment along with Hitler during the war by sifting through previously unsorted and unanalyzed documents, and in so doing to create a collective portrait of the men (probably about 15,000 or so) who served in it over the course of the war.  This methodology is reminiscent of that of Christopher Browning in his now-classic Ordinary Men (1992), which attempted to understand the motivations for the Holocaust on the part of those who actually executed it. (It's worth noting that both Browning's 101st Police Battalion and the List Regiment consisted of reservists, not crack troops.) The difference here is that the demographic and anecdotal evidence is being used to determine to what degree Hitler was typical of the men with whom he served. Weber's answer: for the most part, no.

There are a series of reasons why. The most basic, of course, is that Hitler could not be a typical German recruit because he wasn't German, having left Austria to volunteer in Bavaria instead. The fact that Hitler served in the regiment for the entire war is also unusual -- and, given casualty rates that could go well over 50% in engagements like the First Battle of Ypres and the Somme  -- fortunate for him. Hitler was injured twice in his service, including a temporary blindness after a poison gas attack at the end of the war that may have been psychosomatic. But that he was twice decorated, and committed to the cause for which he fought, appears to be beyond dispute.

That said, there may be less to this than meets the eye. Hitler's job for most of the war was that of a regimental dispatch carrier, running messages between headquarters and the front. There's no doubt that this exposed him to danger -- and that he experienced considerably less than comrades who spent weeks at a time in rat-infested trenches. As Weber says flatly, "The popular claim that Hitler [in the words of one scholar] 'knew what it meant to live in the mud and the slime of the Western Front' is quite wrong."

Although this is of course difficult to establish conclusively, Weber believes that Hitler was considerably more ardent about the German cause than most in his adoptive country, particularly as the war dragged on. He carefully traces the role of the List Regiment in the famed Christmas Truce of 1914, an episode of fraternization by the rank and file that was frowned upon by the officers with whom Hitler identified. (That said, Hitler developed a durable respect for British and colonial fighting ability, and visited a Canadian war memorial during the interwar years.) For at least the first half of the war, German troops got along reasonably well with civilians in Belgium and France where Hitler was based, and resisted a late-war scorched-earth strategy formulated in Berlin. Contrary to frequent claims that the First World War was a brutalizing experience for the soldiers that fought in it, Weber asserts that the experience of total war was no more permanently scarring than that of the American Civil War, for example -- a searing ordeal, certainly, but not one that sowed irreparable hatred of former enemies.

Moreover, even while Hitler himself would insist that the morale of his regiment and that of the army was considerably higher than that of civilians and the nation's political leadership -- key ingredients for ideologically crucial Nazi legend of "the stab in the back" -- Weber asserts that not even Hitler came out of the war with the obvious, permanent hatreds that would mark his later political career. It's only one of many telling indications of this that it was a Jew, Hugo Gutmann, who proposed that Hitler be awarded his second Iron Cross in 1918.  (Weber notes that this decoration was "less as sign of bravery than of his position and long service within regimental headquarters").

So if it wasn't the war that curdled Hitler -- or Germany -- what did? Weber's answer is the brief revolutionary upheaval of 1918-19 in which radical leftist elements seized control of Bavaria and established the Munich Soviet Republic -- in which, ironically, Hitler actually briefly served as a guard. This murky episode has been understood in a series of ways, including those that assert Hitler was actually a double agent. In any case, Weber asserts that Hitler came out of the Great War "unsure about his future and his identity. He was a man who even now could have been swayed in different directions." That he would find a home on the radical right German Worker's Party and eventually as a Founding Father of the Nazis is a tragic contingency of history -- not, as Lucy Dawidowicz has asserted, part of a fully crystallized vision on Hitler's part that had taken shape by 1918, or, as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen would have us believe, a viral eruption of specifically German hatred of Jews.

Emphasizing the lack of deep electoral support Hitler prior to 1932, Weber argues that "most Germans did not take Mein Kampf seriously, at any rate not his anti-Semistism. Hitler was to come to power not because of, but in spite of his crude and virulent anti-Semitism." Hitler was disappointed that so few of his compatriots of the List Regiment -- who, Weber is at some pains to demonstrate, were a reasonable microcosm of German society at large -- rallied to his cause, and in that frustration both rewrote its history and destroyed anyone who would challenge his fictionalization of it. So it is, for example, that when Weber mentions Kristallnacht, what he sees is less a populist pogrom than a top-down murderous rage unleashed by a Nazi regime frustrated that ordinary Germans were not anti-Semitic enough.

Dismissing historic anti-Semitism or the cataclysm of world war as direct causes of the Nazi triumph of course begs the question as to how an epiphenomenal event like the Munich Soviet Republic would be more decisive. Weber's answer is that Germany's Bolshevik moment spooked an essentially moderate German people whose basic political instincts remained more or less intact from 1890 through 1920. The frightening destabilization caused by radical left opened a tear in the social fabric in which the radical right could opportunistically incubate and remain latent long enough to break through a political immune system badly weakened by Versailles, the Great Depression, and totalitarian microbes coursing through the world at large.

Yet if one assumes this to be true, one might well wonder why such an explanation has been largely overlooked until now. Weber's answer, essentially, is (generational) political correctness. In a key sentence about two-thirds of the way through the book, he writes: "There has long been a taboo against discussing the degree to which the attitude of Germans toward National Socialism and other radical right-wing movements was centrally driven by anti-Bolshevism and the experience of radical Socialist revolutions across Central and Eastern Europe, lest historians were seeking to exculpate 'ordinary' Germans for their support of the Third Reich and trying to provide an apologia for the crimes of National Socialist Germany." He goes on to say that "to explain is not to excuse; to empathize is not to sympathize." Let's face it, he's saying: Communism was something one could be legitimately scared of, even if the "cure" proved worse than the disease. Now that the people who lived with the shame of that cure are dying off, and now that the failure of the Soviet way is unambiguously clear, we can begin (again) to grapple with that truth.

By this point, we've come a long way from the wartime service of Private Hitler. With each analytic brick Weber stacks on top of it, the structure he builds grows steadily less solid. But it's an edifice worth regarding with some attention, because the implications are so vast. As my colleague, who about a year from now will be teaching her course on Nazi Germany again, well knows, we can't long remain"Hitlered out" while explanations for the disaster remain so vivid and contested.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A pilgrim's progress

What are you working on? I'm sometimes asked. This is my attempt to answer that question in 300 words or less. There's still a lot to be worked out. But this is the state of play in October 2010. --JC

Sensing History: Hollywood Actors as Historians

My current project looks at the way trajectories of American history are embedded in the careers of movie stars. Rather than looking at the interpretation of a particular event in one or more movies, or an interpretation in the acting performance in a movie, it surveys the output of six actors and how each body of work as a whole offers a coherent vision of U.S. history. These versions are not necessarily conscious, are never incontestable, and indeed may be marked by any number of contradictions. But for better and worse they both reflect and project collective understandings that are quite powerful and often independent of academic historians, whether or not these actors are influenced by them.  The six subjects that will be the focus of this inquiry are Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jodie Foster, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep.  For all their obvious differences, each came of age in the second half of the twentieth century, inheriting a skepticism about national institutions that is both characteristic of American history as a whole and particularly intense when their careers crested in the second half of the twentieth century.  In an important sense, they are the most important people of our time in making sense of our national experience.

There are some secondary themes here as well. One is to question to what degree the written word must or should be the primary vehicle of historical analysis, and to what degree other elements, like gesture or emotion, function as legitimate vehicles for historical understanding.  This study also implicitly questions a sometimes presumed difference between history and myth, a distinction that is as often ideological as it is methodological. By focusing on the degree to which both cinematic acting and historical writing are matters of choice that involve winnowing information to its essence, it invites a reconsideration of history as an art rather than a (social) science, and posits the question of what it would take that truth seriously, in terms that are as likely to be moral as they are intellectual.