Book Review: Blood and Iron

Katja Hoyer’s new history of the German Empire is a fantastic primer on an understudied political entity, as well as a cracking good read.

The imperial dreams of more than half of Europe were crushed by the carnage of the First World War, a conflict which saw the destruction of several long-lasting imperial states. The Tsardom of Russia had survived, in one form or another, since the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century; the Habsburg monarchy, represented in 1914 by Austria-Hungary, was around in the 13th century; and the Ottoman Empire, still hanging on by a thread at the turn of the 20th century, famously conquered its capital in 1453. None of these long-lived historic empires survived the Great War. Still, perhaps the most interesting imperial loss seen in the aftermath of that conflict was that of the most recent imperial creation – the German Empire. For too many years, the Second Reich (the First being the Holy Roman Empire) has been seen primarily through the lens of its eventual successor: the Nazi regime which promised an eternal Third Reich. This presentation is reductive, unfairly tars Imperial Germany with the stain of Nazi crimes, and flattens a truly fascinating and multi-dimensional polity into a cardboard cutout version of the real thing. Katja Hoyer’s new book, Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire, 1871-1918, serves as a long-overdue corrective to that dominant narrative and fleshes out Imperial Germany in a readable yet detailed fashion.

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Book Review: The China Nightmare

This monograph on the China threat is a must-read for anyone interested in the defining challenge of the 21st century.

The rise of a militarily and economically aggressive China and its impact on global politics is the biggest issue in all of international relations. This impacts the United States significantly, as China is a clear and present challenge to American global hegemony and the liberal world order that was cemented after the Cold War. Dan Blumenthal’s book The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State is an excellent primer on the China challenge, delving into the history of Chinese imperialism, the political theories of Chinese Communists, and the impacts of those ideas and events on the policies and actions embraced and promulgated by the Chinese government today. It is a fantastic overview of the problem and how America should respond, and – while quite detailed – it still retains an accessibility that other modern policy books can lack.

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Did Six Million Really Die? – Yes

The Earth is flat. Dinosaurs lived alongside humans. Aliens built the Egyptian pyramids. Elvis is still alive on another planet. The Holocaust never happened.

All of the aforementioned statements are unequivocally false, conspiratorial pablum; still, some people in modern America believe each one of them. The most painful and despicable of these lies is the final one presented, that of the falsity of the Holocaust. True believers in the ‘Holocaust hoax’ conspiracy theory are, thankfully, few and far between, but the lack of Holocaust knowledge within the American population is stunningly high. According to a 2018 survey, “Nearly one-third of all Americans (31 percent) and more than 4-in-10 Millennials (41 percent) believe that substantially less than 6 million Jews were killed (two million or fewer) during the Holocaust” and “While there were over 40,000 concentration camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust, almost half of Americans (45 percent) cannot name a single one – and this percentage is even higher amongst Millennials.”[1] This lack of historical knowledge around the Holocaust plays directly into the hands of those who wish to deny it and provides an opening for denialist rhetoric and ‘information’ to fill the gaps.

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Book Review: This Gulf of Fire

This detailed & readable history of the Great Lisbon Earthquake is well worth your time.

On November 1, 1755 – All Saints Day in the Catholic Church – the greatest natural catastrophe in the history of modern Europe took place: the Great Lisbon Earthquake. The earthquake, one of the largest ever recorded, completely destroyed the glittering capital of the Portuguese Empire and claimed victims on four continents. The tremors, along with the resulting tsunami and firestorm, turned Lisbon, previously a cosmopolitan masterpiece of a city replete with imperial grandeur, into a hulking collection of burnt-out ruins. Yet most of us interested in history (even European history) may not have heard of this cataclysmic event or had only heard of it in passing. A 2015 book by historian Mark Molesky seeks to right that wrong and give the Lisbon earthquake its proper historical due as a key event in the European Enlightenment. [Sidebar: Dr. Molesky is one of my professors at Seton Hall University and I have studied under him.]

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The End of History or a Familiar Refrain?

The River of Time

From the very beginning of recorded history through the modern day, humans have experienced radical fluctuations in our political systems, our personal ideologies, our liberties, and the way we live our lives. We have embraced the idea of change as a species, and writers and thinkers throughout the course of history have reflected this obsession. Heraclitus of Ephesus, one of the earliest ancient philosophers, saw the reality of change as universal in nature and among mankind; his idea that the only constant in life is change has echoed through the millennia that have elapsed since he lived.[1] One of the trademark opaque phrases of Heraclitus that illuminates this idea states that “All things come into being through opposition and all are in flux like a river”[2]; this image of the river is useful in understanding change and our human perception of it. For as much as we can see the change that is occurring through the flow of the river, we also perceive the river as unchanging so long as it remains flowing and within its banks. This perception of change reflects a deeper reality in human affairs, as we often recycle or rediscover older ideas or paradigms and see them as novel inventions of our own time. Our language and idioms have reflected this for quite some time; the phrase ‘everything old is new again’ is common in English-speaking societies, but the feeling it expresses is universal. The French use – in their stereotypically pessimistic and existential manner – the idiom ‘plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose’, which translates roughly as ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’.[3] This phrase captures a key sentiment in humanity which has been repeated through history – that of the fact that constant change generally does not truly reverse the basic order of things or change human nature. This is true for historical change in ideologies and political systems as much as it is for anything else; the only constant, which remains the same throughout time, is that things are always in a state of flux and humans tend to repeat older ideas or cycles in newly updated ways. If this is true, we should expect human societies to always be in a state of change and conflict; yet some theorists throughout history have taken an opposite approach, claiming that history itself has an endpoint or goal. Historians and thinkers who fall into this teleological camp – from Augustine and Bossuet to Hegel and Marx – vary wildly in their ideas about history, but all agree that history is progressing towards a specific end. Still, few of these thinkers saw their own time as representing the ‘end of history’, only predicting that it would come at some point in the future. For most of the human past, the idea that history had ‘ended’ would have seemed ridiculous, especially given the inexorable reality of change and the often-drastic upheavals that surrounded it. But apparently unique historical circumstances only a few decades ago led many to embrace this old philosophy anew and claim that their era was indeed the realization of the ‘end of history’.

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