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Writing Worth Reading

Chinese Shadows: Bureaucracy, Happiness, History

Pierre Ryckmans, writing as Simon Leys, was one of the great China-watchers of the later Communist era. He died on August 11th. This extract comes from his 1977 book Chinese Shadows, which he wrote after serving at the Belgian embassy in Beijing. Leys blamed the Ming dynasty for plunging China into despotism, and the “barbarians” of the Qing dynasty for making it worse. Mao continued the tradition (9,500 words)

David Ben-Gurion: Prophet In The Wilderness

From the archives. A 1955 profile of David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of Israel and, with Chaim Weizmann, the country’s founding father. “If it had not been for Ben-Gurion’s obsession with the Negev, the Jewish armies might have cleared the hills of Samaria and removed that bulge which nearly divides Israel. Instead he insisted on pushing south to conquer a desert which never figured in pre-Israel maps of Palestine” (1,590 words)

Putin’s War And The Hitler Thing

It’s a good rule never to draw analogies with Hitler. But for Putin the comparison is instructive. “In both cases, you’ve got a kinda-elected dictator who has successfully stoked powerful ethno-nationalism to remain popular, while bringing the economy back from the dead after a huge national defeat, and focusing attention on the fate of your co-nationals who have been cruelly left outside your borders by the last war” (2,270 words)

Why America Fought

The United States entered the Great War in 1917 “with its eyes wide open”. There could be no illusions about the horrors ahead. The “mechanical slaughter” in Europe had already killed millions. There was no direct threat to US territory. Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected in 1916 partly on the basis that he had kept America out of the war. So what could explain America’s swift decision to go to war after all? (3,360 words)

The Enemy’s Enemy

The two-year alliance between Hitler and Stalin, from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 to German’s invasion of Russia in June 1941, is a relatively understudied part of the Second World War, and perhaps with good reason. How to understand the dynamics of a relationship between two regimes that hated one another so fundamentally, and yet had so much to gain from acting together? (1,200 words)

Sleepwalkers And The Germans

Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, an account of the Great War, is a best-seller in Germany. Why? Because Clark does not blame the war primarily on Germany, but on the European political system as a whole. “The German trajectory looks very much like that of the others.” Clark’s book thus gratifies “a subcutaneous feeling in Germany of being unjustly held to blame by history in general and by Europeans in particular” (1,770 words)

August The Fourth 1914

Diary of a literary critic on the eve of World War One. A walk through night-time London. The air is full of excitement. The streets are buzzing. The public is thrilled. “I caught the idea which had been peeping at me, and the irony of it was enough to make one cry: few people experience so genuinely the sense that life is worth living which a feeling of brotherhood gives as when they are banded together to kill their fellow men” (1,100 words)

Britain Enters The War

First in a series of short weekly essays charting the course of the Great War; from our new sister publication, The Browser Looks Back. Each day The Browser Looks Back posts news and comment from the newspapers and magazines of 1914, beginning today with The Times’s editorial on Britain’s entry into war against Germany. Experience all the excitement of the Great War with none of the inconveniences (900 words)

How To Ruin A Country: Kaiser Bill

Review of the third huge volume of John Röhl’s “awe-inspiring biography” of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was “anachronistic, racist and militaristic even by the standards of his day”. He believed a “final struggle between Germans and Slavdom” was inevitable. He got his war in 1914, but only because other European leaders were at least as belligerent. Afterwards, in old age, he urged the Nazis to exterminate Jews (1,350 words)

Life On The Eve Of War

Tour d’horizon of English bourgeois life in 1914 drawing on the Telegraph’s archives: Fashion, culture, cars, food, and — perhaps incongruously — women’s suffrage, described by the Telegraph of the day as “a hopeless exercise”. Cars were already popular. Planes were a novelty, and safety was improving. Only 3% of pilots died in 1912. “Six years earlier, with just five pilots in the world, one had been killed” (4,900 words)

First World War, The Battle Of Historians

We will get a more accurate picture of the First World War, now that the last participants are dead. While they lived, historians writing about the war paid “a natural deference” to their memories and sensibilities. But as history comes to be written entirely from documents, “there can be, paradoxically, far more rigour in the analysis, as sources are tested against each other, and the unreliability of active memory ceases to intrude” (3,600 words)

The Difficult Bequest: A History Of The Smithsonian

America’s national museum was “foisted on the country” in 1826 by “an obscure British mineralogist” called James Smithson who had never set foot in America nor shown any particular liking for the country. He was “a wealthy apolitical dandy” who saw a new museum as his chance for immortality. John Quincy Adams, who argued for accepting the bequest, “concurred that James Smithson was probably insane” (4,300 words)

Thomas Piketty’s “Capital In The 21st Century”

Another review, but another fine one, and perhaps the interval since peak Piketty last month has restored your appetite. This is a piece by and for the intelligent general reader, summarising Piketty’s narrative with generous quotation, and drawing some political and moral inferences. The paragraphs mapping the dynamics of international finance on to World Wars One and Two are particularly recommended (5,126 words)

World War One: Impossible, Then Inevitable

Nobody expected world war until it happened, from obscure beginnings, in 1914. The situation is similar in 2014: “Two key features of early 20th-century geopolitics created the necessary conditions for the sudden spiral into all-consuming conflict: the rise and fall of great powers, and the over-zealous observance of mutual-defense treaties. These features are now returning to destabilise geopolitics a century later” (1,027 words)

A Walk Along Hadrian’s Wall

Compared to a walk across Afghanistan, 40 miles along the English borders is a mere hop. But what the region lacks in exoticism it makes up in history. “This fort contained Frisian soldiers from Holland. Further west at Carvoran were Syrian archers. Each unit would have brought their own languages, some their gods; all their cuisine. One African unit had left the remains of an African casserole dish in the ground” (1,890 words)

The Invention Of Iraq

For 400 years prior to World War One the territory which is now Iraq consisted of three autonomous provinces within the Ottoman Empire — one Sunni, one Shiite, one Kurdish. After WW1 the British forced the provinces together into a new country, which had the misfortune to strike oil, while the French delineated Syria and Lebanon. A century later, America strives to preserve Europe’s geopolitical errors (1,430 words)

The War That Changed Everything

Historian looks back at the outbreak of World War One a century ago. “The conflict changed all the countries that took part in it. Governments assumed greater control over society and have never entirely relinquished it.” It brutalised societies and leaders. Germany’s course was fatally inflected; so, too was that of Russia, which without the war and associated revolution might have joined an evolution towards liberal democracy (2,800 words)

Surviving The Black Sea

Eight hundred Jewish refugees flee Nazi-occupied Romania by ship across the Black Sea towards Palestine. The engines fail off Istanbul. The Turks refuse permission to land. The British refuse permission to proceed. The passengers almost starve. After a month the ship is towed out and cut loose. A Soviet submarine mistakes it for a German boat and sinks it. One man survives. He died last month in Oregon. This is his story (2,560 words)

What Really Happened in Iran

A BROWSER BONUS: Our content partnership with Foreign Affairs allows us to bring Browser subscribers the full text of selected FA articles. This piece from the July-August issue draws on newly declassified papers to argue that the CIA’s role in overthrowing Mosaddeq was exaggerated; domestic politics and MI6 played larger parts. (Our link takes non-subscribers to the Foreign Affairs website, which has a metered paywall) (4,850 words)

Where Did Yiddish Come From?

If Yiddish did indeed arise as the Jewish dialect of the medieval Rhineland, an offspring of German, spoken by a small minority of European Jews, how and why did it become the lingua franca of older and bigger Jewish communities across Europe? Perhaps because that conventional account of the origins of Yiddish is entirely wrong. The history of the language may need to be rewritten, and that of Ashkenazi Jews also (6,295 words)

What Really Happened In Congo

A BROWSER BONUS: Thanks to our content partnership with Foreign Affairs, we can bring Browser subscribers the full text of selected Foreign Affairs articles. This piece from the July-August issue draws on newly declassified papers to trace how the CIA managed the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba and the rise of Joseph Mobutu. (Our link takes non-subscribers to the Foreign Affairs website, which has a metered paywall) (4,720 words)

The Temptation Of Despair

Review of “The Temptation of Despair” by Werner Sollors, a “melancholy, disjointed, awkward, but deeply powerful book” about the aftermath of World War II in Germany. Sollors tells of “a society in ruins and a people at the edge of psychic collapse”. He attempts no apologia for Nazism, quite the reverse; but his point is that deserved suffering hurts just as much as undeserved suffering (2,880 words)

Wikipedia Mining

Primer in the limitations of big data. Researchers rank the most influential figures in history using a million Wikipedia articles in 25 languages. “Depending on the ranking algorithm, the most influential figure in human history is either Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish botanist who developed the modern naming scheme for plants and animals, followed by Jesus; or Adolf Hitler followed by Michael Jackson” (1,120 words)

Tiananmen At Twenty-Five

Eyewitness accounts of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 were so plentiful at the time, that “publishing houses worldwide were rejecting them, citing the saturation of the market”. But now within China the event has been airbrushed from public history. If the violence is mentioned at all, it is portrayed as something “insignificant in the grand scheme, because it came amid broader gains in human development” (1,350 words)

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