The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth

The good news is I had a blast taking part in this year’s inaugural Thanksgiving Readathon. I’m sure all the participants enjoyed the week’s flurry of blog posts and Twitter updates. The bad news is unlike everyone else who took part in the Readathon I finished only one book. But alas, all is not lost because the one book I did manage to finish, Robert Gerwarth’s The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End I thoroughly enjoyed. As a matter of fact, I can easily see The Vanquished making my year-end Best Nonfiction List.

Europe emerged from the ravages of World War I a shattered continent. Hunger and influenza stalked the land. Millions of men, most of them in the prime of life were either dead, maimed or emotionally damaged. But perhaps worst of all, the mightiest empires of modern Europe, specifically Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire had fallen, each one collapsing like a house of cards. From the ruins of these once proud empires arose a host of new nations, each one eager to assert its dominance. Frequently, those quests for nationhood resulted in yet more rounds of armed conflict.

It’s cruelly ironic the above-mentioned nations all marched to war in 1914 expecting to enlarge their respective empires only to stripped of their territory five years later. (Even Italy, which wound up on the side of the eventual victors suffered huge losses in men and material only to receive relatively minor land gains.) Out of the ashes of empires arose Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Finland broke completely free from Russia as did the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

Cruel irony would rear its head once again, since Poland and Yugoslavia, spin-offs from large multi-ethnic empires would be left with significant minority populations of their own. The resurrected nation of Poland would be roughly two-thirds Polish with sizable numbers of Germans, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. Meanwhile, newly created Yugoslavia would begin life as a Serb-dominated kingdom of Croats, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Kosovo Albanians and Montenegrins as well as home to fairly large communities of ethnic Germans and Hungarians. In effect both countries become mini empires of their own. Even smaller nations like Czechoslovakia would face challenges with its Sudetenland Germans as would Romania after absorbing the former Hungarian province of Transylvania. Ethnic solidarity frequently clashed with national will as all sides saw their actions justified according to newly proclaimed rubric of National Self-Determination, as proclaimed in American President and statesman Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points.

World War I was a knock-out blow not only to Europe’s land-based empires but also its traditional political structures. Russia’s absolute monarchy and the shaky provisional government that followed was replaced by Communist dictatorship, inspiring the establishment of short-lived Red regimes in Hungary and Bavaria, insurrection in Germany and bloody civil war in Finland. (And even a bloodier and more extensive civil war in Russia.) The leaders of Italy’s constitutional monarchy, unable to placate the masses in the wake of the county’s “mutilated victory” opened the door to Fascism. Elsewhere in Europe, military coups toppled both monarchs and elected leaders, especially in newly established countries. Lastly, in Germany far-right hooligans, (many of them anti-Semites) and bitter war veterans angry the war was lost not by the military but the nation’s Weimar leaders rioted and seethed. Over the next dozen years this nationwide rage coalesced into the Nazi Party, with disastrous results not only for Germany but the entire world.

The Vanquished an outstanding book, wonderfully complimenting other excellent history books like The Sleepwalkers, October, Paris 1919 and Savage Continent. Please consider The Vanquished highly recommended.

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Filed under Arab World, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Middle East/North Africa, Turkey

Five Bookish Links

I haven’t done a Five Bookish Links post in a month. While I sit here digesting my Thanksgiving leftovers I think it’s time to post a new one.

  1. If you’re like me, you’re curious when it comes to the reading preferences of great authors. If that’s the case, check out this posting on Brian Pickings “The Greatest Books of All Time, As Voted by 125 Famous Authors.”
  2. Speaking of famous authors, according to the Guardian it looks like the personal library Richard Adams, the author Watership Down is up for sale.
  3. Meanwhile, Elon Musk claims he was “raised by books” and credits his success to these eight books.
  4. Personally, I think the concept of “leaderless revolution” is bunk but Carne Ross’ book recommendations on leaderless revolution intrigues me.
  5. Lastly, how can anyone resist an article entitled ‘Ten Books that Changed the World?”

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Wordless Wednesday

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November 22, 2017 · 2:29 pm

Thanksgiving Readathon 2017

At first I wasn’t going to take part in the inaugural Thanksgiving Readathon but the more I thought I about it, the more I realized I needed to participate. And for several reasons. One, its co-hosts Ottavia from Novels and Nonfiction and Jackie B. from Death by Tsundoku are simply adorable and if my taking part in the Readathon promotes their blogs in any way I’m all for it. Two, by doing the Readathon perhaps I can expose my blog to a new reader or two. Three, just like Nonfiction November this is great opportunity for me to discover new book blogs. Four, if I publicly commit to reading a few selected books who knows, maybe I’ll make some significant reading progress.

Currently, it feels like there’s a mountain of books I want to finish before the end of the year. Making this worse is my nasty little habit of adding additional books to this tower, either from the pubic library or my personal collection. I’m also going to be distracted over the long holiday weekend. Not only will I be partaking in my family’s annual Thanksgiving Feast of Epic Proportions but I’ll also be enjoying a busy social calendar consisting of an evening of post-Thanksgiving adult beverages with wonderful friends, more adult beverages with friends at a local English-style pub and college football on Saturday hopefully watching my alma mater’s beat-down of our in-state rival.

Below are the six books I’ll be reading for the Readathon. Trust me, if I’m able to achieve any reading progress, let alone finish one or two of these books considering my many distractions it’ll be a major miracle. Wish me luck! I’ll need it.

The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End by Robert Gerwarth – To feed my addiction to 20th century history.

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers by Simon Winchester – I love Simon Winchester. This one has been on my list to read for at least a year.

In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond by Robert D. Kaplan – Kaplan’s 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power is huge favorite of mine, easily making my year-end Best Nonfiction List in 2011. This one is for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge.

Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra – In order to explain today’s religious-based violence and far-right extremism Mishra looks to the past, specifically the 19th century for answers.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz – One of two novels on this list. Another one for the European Reading Challenge.

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova – The other novel on my list. This one is also for the European Reading Challenge.

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Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

It was hard to resist Jonathan Rabb’s novel Among the Living when I came across a copy last week at my public library. What could be more intriguing than a 30-something Holocaust survivor thrust into the Jim Crow world of Savannah, Georgia?

Among the Living begins in 1947 with the arrival in Savannah of Czech Jew Yitzhak Goldah. After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust he comes to live with his American relatives, Abe and Pearl Jesler, a middle-aged childless couple. Despite their initial awkwardness the Jeslers welcome Yitzhak with open arms, not only providing him with employment but also introducing him to their friends, business associates and fellow members of city’s Jewish community. Thankful nonetheless for the Jesler’s hospitality and with it a chance to restart his life, Yitzhak soon learns the city is riven both racially and religiously. As an outsider who’s experienced firsthand the racist atrocities of the murderous Nazis he must learn how to navigate the circumscribed worlds of white and black. If that isn’t challenging enough, even Savannah’s Jewish population is fractured with the city’s Conservative and Reform communities having little, if anything to do with each other. This animosity becomes apparent when he attracts the attention of an intelligent and beautiful young widow from the city’s Reform congregation.

Overall, I enjoyed Among the Living and now I want to read more of Rabb’s fiction, especially his historical thriller Rosa. (Come to think of it, for that matter his entire Nikolai Hoffner series.) It’s also rekindled my interest in reading Ghita Schwarz’s 2010 novel Displaced Persons because it also features Holocaust survivors. Perhaps sometime in the near future you’ll see a few of these novels featured on my blog.

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October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville

When my book club chose China Miéville’s October: The Story of a Revolution as our November selection I was a bit surprised. You see, our club only reads nonfiction. Miéville’s body of work encompasses science fiction, fantasy and graphic novels.(His writing has been labeled by some as “New Weird”) He’s definitely a writer of fiction. But when I went to buy a copy of October I was surprised to learn it’s not a work of fiction but nonfiction. Yes, the multiple award-winning author of Perdido Street Station and Scar has truly branched out.

Published in May of this year, October is a month by month account of the tumultuous events of 1917, beginning in February when an unlikely alliance of workers, soldiers and women (many of them war widows) drove out the Romanovs and ending in November when the shaky Provisional Government was overthrown by Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks.

I thought I knew more than the average person when it came to the Russian Revolution but after reading October I learned the surprising degree of my ignorance. Heck, the stuff about Lenin alone could make for an interesting book in the hands of a gifted writer like Miéville. Perhaps most important of all, as several member of my book club pointed out how quickly these events unfolded and considering the contingent nature of those developments how easy it could had been for someone other than the triumphant Bolsheviks to have seized lasting control of Russia. General Kornilov and his conservatives, the Mensheviks or the teetering Provisional Government with only a lucky break or two could have wound up masters of Russia. All while the German Imperial Army stood a stone’s throw from Petrograd poised to deliver the final knock-out blow.

As I mentioned earlier, of all the historical figures portrayed in October, I found Lenin the most fascinating. (Provisional Government leader Alexander Kerensky could be a close second.) Fortunately for me, on this 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution two books about Lenin recently hit the bookstores, both by talented authors. Some of you might remember a few years back when I reviewed Catherine Merridale’s 2006 book  Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945. Her new book is Lenin on the TrainLast March I reviewed Tariq Ali’s novel A Sultan in Palermo. His latest book The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution was also released this spring. After reading October I can’t wait to get a crack at these two new books.

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The Magdalen Girls by V. S. Alexander

I know I’ve said it a million times but Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of my favorite reading challenges. Because the rules of the challenge state each book must be by a different author and set in a different country it inspires participants to read books set in countries from across Europe. I don’t know about you but I think that’s pretty cool.

I’ve made pretty good progress up to this point, reading and reviewing about a dozen books representing countries from the United Kingdom to Russia and everything in between. However, there’s still plenty of work to be done before the challenge wraps up on January 31, 2018. Last weekend, while searching my library for books to apply towards the challenge I came across a novel set in Ireland. Published late last year, The Magdalen Girls looked like a nice departure from the “deep thinker’s” diet of books like Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present and Peter Watson’s The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century I’ve been reading of late.

The year is 1962 and the place is Dublin, Ireland. After 16-year-old Teagan Tiernan is wrongly accused of having improper relations with a young Catholic priest she’s promptly sent away to the Sisters of the Holy Redemption’s laundry house. Forced to work in the laundry as “penance” for her “sins” she and the other imprisoned girls endure malnourishment, back-breaking labor, and physical and emotional abuse. Teagan soon realizes she needs to escape before she’s reduced to a broken shell of a human being like the rest of girls in the laundry. Passionately proclaiming her innocence she secretly conspires with two of the girls to escape.

Sad and maybe a tad melodramatic at times, nevertheless I enjoyed The Magdalen Girls. I found it fast-paced, decently written and possessing a few plot twists that I never saw coming. I needed something light and entertaining and The Magdalen Girls did not disappointment me.

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