Jul 31, 2007

Culture Shock

(Three Rivers, MI) While biking out in an isolated rural area I came upon these shotgun shells. Being someone born and raised in the city, they seemed an oddity.

In deer country, though, shotgun shells are as common in the woods as horse flies.

Of course, when I see empty shotgun shells side-by-side with crushed beer cans, I am glad that my travels rarely take me into areas heavily populated with November's deer hunters. Nearly as common as empty 12-gauge shells are signs declaring a particular stretch of woods as private property, so I guess I am not alone in my wariness of those drunken hunters who give the sport a bad name. I'll just make sure not to invest in outdoor chandeliers should I ever move to the country.

Kalamazoo Citizens Speak Out About Upcoming White Power Event

(Kalamazoo, MI) Over the past few days I had the opportunity to speak with dozens of residents in and around Kalamazoo, MI. I was interested in finding out the answers to several questions:

1. Are you aware that there will be a rally on Saturday, August 4 by white supremacists and neo-Nazis to protest what they claim is "black gang terrorism" and "the genocide of whites?"

2. What is your opinion of the rally?

3. Is black-on-white crime a serious problem in Kalamazoo?
In general, about one-third of the respondents expressed some knowledge of the upcoming rally. Of those who knew of the rally, none of the respondents could correctly name any of the scheduled speakers at the rally, but several volunteered such answers as "the KKK" or "The Klan." Responses tended to be along the lines of "Steve" (names changed to protect anonymity):

"Well, I guess they have freedom of speech, but no one with any sense is going to listen to them," he said. "It's a shame that these idiots who don't even live here have to come and try to start trouble here."

No respondents expressed positive views of the rally, and not one person out of 33 interviewed said that black-on-white crime was a problem, despite the efforts by New Jersey white supremacist Hal Turner to exploit the issue. Answers from the respondents generally mirrored those of "Jackie," a middle-aged white woman:

"There's crime here, but criminals don't single out people based on their race," she said. "If you live in a neighborhood with higher crime, you could be a victim, whether you are black or white."

Left: Image of dowtown Kalamazoo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Several respondents agreed that gangs were a problem in Kalamazoo, but argued that street gangs accounted for only part of the city's crime problem.

"There's gang-bangers on my street, but they pretty much keep to themselves, selling dope or just hanging out," said "Larry," an older white man. "If you don't bother them, they won't bother you. But it was a white dude who stole my car a few years back - a**holes come in all colors."

The general trend in crime in Kalamazoo has been downward over the past twenty years, although there was a slight uptick in 2006 in overall recorded offenses. Rape and larceny declined in 2006, while there were increases in arson, burglary, auto theft, assault, and robbery. The number of murders increased from three to five in Kalamazoo in 2006.

None of the people with whom I spoke planned to attend the rally.

"I think it's a good day to go fishing," explained one man. "No sense in making it harder for the police to keep a lid on things."

Book Review: Machiavelli and Guicciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence

Francesco Guicciardini Gilbert, Felix
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965, 349 pages

Left: Francesco Guicciardini

Gilbert’s work examined the writings of Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini from several interrelated perspectives. Both men held important positions in the government of Florence, but more importantly, the views of both men reflected to some extent the people with whom they associated. In addition, Gilbert considered the interplay between politics and history, both as subjects of inquiry and as tools by which a state could be effectively governed; he believed that “history moved closer to politics” in post-Laurentian Florence. The author argued that the Machiavelli and Guicciardini should be best understood as being products of, as well as participants in, the turbulent state of affairs of the late 15th and early 16th commune of Florence, rather than by the traditional method of exegesis-through-biography.

While the author split the book into sections entitled, simply enough, “Politics” and “History,” the text does not reflect this one-dimensional outline. Nor does the assignment of Machiavelli to “Politics” or Guicciardini to “History” imply that Gilbert believed that the two men could be squeezed into narrowly-defined categories; one gets the sense that this structure was an act of editorial appeasement. Instead, Gilbert used the arbitrary divisions to set up the respective milieu of each thinker as a means of separating what was innovative theory from what was conventional belief in the writings of Machiavelli and Guicciardini.

Gilbert argued that Machiavelli should not be viewed as an abstract theorist whose writings on politics somehow spontaneously burst onto the scene. Instead, the author believed that Machiavelli combined classical knowledge with contemporary wisdom born from experience in the war-torn Italian peninsula:
Machiavelli intended to do for politics what others had done for art, jurisprudence, and medicine: to clarify and to codify the principles which the ancients had followed. Machiavelli only wanted to state that he was applying to politics those methods which had been successful in other areas.
Gilbert was also successful in reconciling the autocratic leader of Machiavelli’s The Prince with the ideal republic of his Discourses, arguing that Machiavelli believed that both forms of government could be successful if they possessed the important characteristic of virtù.

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli Left: Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli

The author argued that the genius of Guicciardini, like Machiavelli, was to be found in the pioneering manner in which he critically examined the works of classical writers. While he lived in a period when the antiquities were venerated, Guicciardini nonetheless did not assume that everything ancient was ideal:
The existence of particular laws or institutions in classical times was not in itself a proof of their exemplary value; the question which concerned Guicciardini was how they had functioned and what effects they had had.
Moreover, Gilbert argued that Guicciardini did not ascribe to the humanist belief that general principles about human behavior could be derived from history, but rather that “history appeals to man to become conscious of his own intrinsic value.”

Gilbert’s book introduced new archival material, but one of its strongest features is the way in which he reexamined previously-critiqued material. Records of the various Florentine government organs were scoured to demonstrate that Machiavelli and Guicciardini incorporated many ideas into their respective works that were held by the patricians. The author also included several bibliographic essays at the end of the book that scholars new to the field will find informative. The result is a book that informs, piques, and challenges the reader on a level that few authors can successfully reach.

Conditions on an English Slave Ship

Colored engraving of the slave deck of the Wildfire, a slaving ship captured by the USS Mohawk off the coast of Cuba and brought to Key West, Florida, on April 30, 1860.

Alexander Falconbridge, a surgeon aboard slave ships and later the governor of a British colony for freed slaves in Sierra Leone, provided this account of the Middle Passage. The following are excerpts from his original text

From the time of the arrival of the ships to their departure, which is usually about three months, scarce a day passes without some Negroes being purchased and carried on board; sometimes in small and sometimes in large numbers. The whole number taken on board depends on circumstances. In a voyage I once made, our stock of merchandise was exhausted in the purchase of about 380 Negroes, which was expected to have procured 500...

The men Negroes, on being brought aboard the ship, are immediately fastened together, two and two, by handcuffs on their wrists and by irons riveted on their legs. They are then sent down between the decks and placed in an apartment partitioned off for that purpose. The women also are placed in a separate apartment between the decks, but without being ironed. An adjoining room on the same deck is appointed for the boys. Thus they are all placed in different apartments.

But at the same time, however, they are frequently stowed so close, as to admit of no other position than lying on their sides. Nor with the height between decks, unless directly under the grating, permit the indulgence of an erect posture; especially where there are platforms, which is generally the case. These platforms are a kind of shelf, about eight or nine feet in breadth, extending from the side of the ship toward the centre. They are placed nearly midway between the decks, at the distance of two or three feet from each deck. Upon these the Negroes are stowed in the same manner as they are on the deck underneath.

In each of the apartments are placed three or four large buckets, of a conical form, nearly two feet in diameter at the bottom and only one foot at the top and in depth of about twenty- eight inches, to which, when necessary, the Negroes have recourse. It often happens that those who are placed at a distance from the buckets, in endeavoring to get to them, tumble over their companions, in consequence of their being shackled. These accidents, although unavoidable, are productive of continual quarrels in which some of them are always bruised. In this distressed situation, unable to proceed and prevented from getting to the tubs, they desist from the attempt; and as the necessities of nature are not to be resisted, ease themselves as they lie. This becomes a fresh source of boils and disturbances and tends to render the condition of the poor captive wretches still more uncomfortable. The nuisance arising from these circumstances is not infrequently increased by the tubs being too small for the purpose intended and their being emptied but once every day. The rule for doing so, however, varies in different ships according to the attention paid to the health and convenience of the slaves by the captain...

Upon the Negroes refusing to take sustenance, I have seen coals of fire, glowing hot, put on a shovel and placed so near their lips as to scorch and burn them. And this has been accompanied with threats of forcing them to swallow the coals if they any longer persisted in refusing to eat. These means have generally had the desired effect. I have also been credibly informed that a certain captain in the slave- trade, poured melted lead on such of his Negroes as obstinately refused their food...

On board some ships the common sailors are allowed to have intercourse with such of the black women whose consent they can procure. And some of them have been known to take the inconstancy of their paramours so much to heart as to leap overboard and drown themselves. The officers are permitted to indulge their passions among them at pleasure and sometimes are guilty of such excesses as disgrace human nature....

The hardships and inconveniences suffered by the Negroes during the passage are scarcely to be enumerated or conceived. They are far more violently affected by seasickness than Europeans. It frequently terminates in death, especially among the women. But the exclusion of fresh air is among the most intolerable. For the purpose of admitting this needful refreshment, most of the ships in the slave trade are provided, between the decks, with five or sick air- ports on each side of the ship of about five inches in length and four in breadth. In addition, some ships, but not one in twenty, have what they denominate wind- sails. But whenever the sea is rough and the rain heavy is becomes necessary to shut these and every other conveyance by which the air is admitted. The fresh air being thus excluded, the Negroes' rooms soon grow intolerable hot. The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies and being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and fluxes which generally carries of great numbers of them...

Source: Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa (London, 1788).


No, I am not a prude, but I do find some items to be of questionable value in my life. Take for example the garment known as the crotchless panty, which a site sponsor asked me to review.

It seems to me that if you need such a garment, this might be an indication that your love life is a bit too rushed. Perhaps one's passion could wait just another ten seconds until traditional undergarments have been removed - that's all I am saying.

Then again, perhaps the grey hairs on my head are indicative of my increasing lack of relevance to persons who might purchase such an item. I should probably retire to the nearest rocking chair and read a good book.


Jul 29, 2007

Quick Blog Note

I may be away from Internet access for the next few days, in case any of my MILLIONS OF DEDICATED READERS wonder why the blog is not updated.


Or not, if there is access at my destination near Kalamazoo, MI. It seems to be a happening city over the next wwek, and poor Kalamazooans will have quite a few unusual visitors beyond my neurotic self.

The Fall of the Weimar Republic

This is an unpublished essay that I decided to dust off and publish on the Web.

Left: 1919 image of the Weimar National Assembly


The fall of the Weimar Republic in 1933 is often depicted as some sort of inevitable series of events, or as if the simultaneous rise of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP - commonly known as the Nazi Party) was a simple matter of cause-and-effect. Yet both of these scenarios reflect a multiplicity of influences, and furthermore the failure of German democracy and the ascension to power by the Nazis were by no means consequential or directly causative occurrences.

This essay is particularly focused on historiographical explanations for the collapse of democracy in the Weimar Republic. The author’s goal is to produce a brief overview of some of the major interpretations of the movement away from a democratic republic toward the totalitarian dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. While this essay is by no means an exhaustive summary of the literature on the Weimar Germany, readers will gain a greater appreciation for the wide variety of opinions on the failure of democracy to thrive in post-World War I Germany. For those readers seeking a comprehensive overview of the Weimar period, an excellent start is Richard Evans’s impressive The Coming of the Third Reich, while works by Eberhard Kolb and Ruth B. Henig contain historiographical essays for those seeking greater depth in the historiography of Weimar Germany. Readers interested in the cultural history of Weimar would be well advised to start with Walter Lacqueur’s Weimar: A Cultural History, 1918-1933 and Alex de Jonge’s Weimar Chronicle: Prelude to Hitler.

In one sense the Nazis themselves served as the first interpreters of the legacy of Weimar Germany, as marked by the fascist propaganda efforts during the elections of the 1930s and in the years following Hitler’s ascension to the positions of Reichskanzler and Führer. The Weimar Republic, declared the Nazis, was an alien “system” foisted on an unwilling German population by the so-called "November criminals.” The NSDAP made significant use of the Dolchstoßlegende, or “stab-in-the-back legend,” which was based upon the myth that Jews and Marxists instigated strikes among workers in key industries that deprived German soldiers of necessary supplies, and which supposedly caused Germany to lose the First World War via this internal decay. Moreover, Nazi propaganda created a mythology that these same Jews and “cultural Bolsheviks” ruled over Germany during the country’s “time of struggle” (i.e., Weimar), and that only National Socialism could save Germany from destruction by its purported foes. Thus, historians after the Second World War faced a daunting task of both separating propaganda from fact and overcoming biases honed by the relentless Nazi propaganda machine.

Historians of the Weimar Republic have approached the topic from a variety of perspectives, and one of the few consistent trends that has emerged since the Second World War has been a movement away from single-cause theories of the fall of Weimar democracy toward the approach used by this author of a multiplicity of causative factors. This essay is thus grouped into sections related to political, cultural, and economic contributors to the fall of the Weimar Republic.

Weimar: Destined for Failure by a Weak Constitution and Poor Popular Support?

A thread that runs throughout many analyses of the legacy of theWeimar Republic contains the idea that the fledgling German democracy was somehow doomed from the start. With a constitution that contained items such as Article 48 – a constitutional provision that permitted the Weimar President to rule by decree without the consent of the Reichstag – and a clause that allowed the Reichskanzler to assume office in the event of the death of the President, there were certainly structural inadequacies that, in hindsight, may not have been the wisest choices by the framers of the Weimar Constitution. Craig took aim at the consttutional inclusion of proportional representation (Verhältniswahlrecht) in elections to the Reichstag, arguing that the resultant plethora of German political parties “made for an inherent instability that manifested itself in what appeared to the bemused spectator to be a continuous game of musical chairs” in the near-constant shuffling of Weimar coalitions and ministries. Eyck described the enormous number of political parties under proportional representation as “these many cooks [who] brought forth a broth which was neither consistent nor clear.” Mommsen, however, disagreed that proportional representation was a root cause of Weimar political instability, calling Verhältniswahlrecht “at most a symptom” of the problems, and adding that the “reluctance to assume political responsibility” by Weimar political parties was the source of instability.

Left: Weimar President Friedrich Ebert

Other historians have pointed to the seeming lack of enthusiasm many Germans felt for the new government as contributing to a “doomed” Weimar. Erdmann argued that Germans faced a difficult dilemma in 1918-1919, faced with the choices of “social revolution in alliance with the forces pressing for a proletarian dictatorship,” or “a parliamentary republic in alliance with conservative elements such as the old officer corps.” McKenzie, while acknowledging that the new Republic did not have broad support, nonetheless maintained that the motivations of most Germans remained simply “the restoration of law and order and return to peacetime conditions.” Fritzsche, arguing against the idea that Germans were anti-democratic, argued that “the hostile defamations of the president of the republic were as indicative of democratization as the presidency of the good-willed Fritz Ebert himself.” Brecht disputed the notion that Germans, as a people, have somehow always been totalitarian, and cautioned against such the creation of such simplistic stereotypes to exlain the failure of Weimar democracy:
…nothing can be more devious than the opinion that the Germans have always been totalitaran and that the democratic regime served only as a camouflage to conceal this fundamental fact. The overwhelming majority of the people at the end of the imperial period and during the democratic regime were distinctly anti-totalitarian and anti-fascist in both their ideas and principles.
The rise of a culture of political violence in Weimar Germany should certainly be considered as a contributory factor in the Republic’s political instability. Beginning with the emergence of the Freikorps units immediately after the declaration of the Republic, this tendency toward violence became entrenched in Weimar politics after the 1919 assassinations of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Evans argued that “gun battles, assassinations, riots, massacres, and civil unrest” prevented Germans from possessing the “stability in which a new democratic order could flourish.” Moreover, noted Evans, all major political parties employed groups of armed loyalists whose purposes were to protect their political compatriots and to contribute to the waging of low-grade civil war:
Before long, political parties associated themselves with armed and uniformed squads, paramilitary troops whose task it was to provide guards at meetings, impress the public by marching in military parades, and to intimidate, beat up, and on occasion kill members of the paramilitary units associated with other political parties.
Thus, the rise of militant extremists such as the NSDAP should viewed within the context of the Weimar history of political paramilitary forces as a “normal” phenomenon. Groups such as the Stahlhelm, the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold, and the Rotfrontkämpferbund had memberships much higher than did the Ordnertruppen in the early to mid-1920s, and the rise of the Sturmabteilung as the muscle behind the NSDAP reflects the recognition by the Nazis of the unwritten rules of politics in Weimar Germany.

Weimar Culture and Challenges to Tradition

The personal freedoms often associated with Weimar culture – whether seen as an inevitable, pendulum-like reaction after decades of Wilhelmine authoritarianism, or as a flowering of postwar expression – led to a period of unparalleled vibrancy in literature, the arts, architecture, and philosophy. Kolb described the period as “the eruption of a new vitality, the liberation of creative forces in a short decade of unbounded intellectual and artistic freedom.” Moreover, the Weimar period witnessed significant leaps forward in the emancipation of women, and it is not without considerable merit that many pundits have described Weimar Germany as the first modern culture.

Left: Image of cabaret production of the Haller Revue in Berlin

Yet these sudden cultural changes were far from being universally accepted by the average German, and groups on the right as well as the left decried what was perceived by many as the power of destructive internal forces. Leftists tended to focus on the bourgeois infatuation with base materialism, while many conservatives believed that republican Germany was becoming a morally decrepit nation. Hitler himself played off such sentiments in his speeches, using widespread perceptions of decadence and disaffection with modernity as springboards for his anti-Marxist and anti-Semitic philosophies. In his first public speech after accepting the post of Reichskanzler, Hitler blasted those whom he believed to have quickly led Germany to moral decay:
Communism with its method of madness is making a powerful and insidious attack upon our dismayed and shattered nation. It seeks to poison and disrupt in order to hurl us into an epoch of chaos.... This negative, destroying spirit spared nothing of all that is highest and most valuable. Beginning with the family, it has undermined the very foundations of morality and faith and scoffs at culture and business, nation and Fatherland, justice and honor. Fourteen years of Marxism have ruined Germany; one year of bolshevism would destroy her.
Chief among the evidence for the supposed moral decline cited by contemprary critics of Weimar culture was the open sexual freedom proclaimed by many younger Germans, especially in the larger cities. Berlin, in particular, became something of an international destination for people seeking its wide variety of sexual subcultures. Henig argued that the “bright lights and avant-garde cultural attraction of Berlin incurred the hostility of traditional communities in rural areas.” The Weimar era, maintained Mommsen, was a period “that was characterized by the tension between extreme modernity in a few cultural centers and the relatve backwardness of life in the provinces.” Kolb noted that “confrontation in cultural matters still further exacerbated the basic political discord among Germans in the Weimar period.” Lacqueur observed that many German artists were seemingly clueless of just how far removed their work was from the sensibilities of the average German citizen:
Strange as it may appear in retrospect, they were genuinely unaware of the fact that the distance between the avant-garde and popular taste had grown immeasurably and that the dctrines preached by the right were much more in line with popular taste.
Those who emphasize the cultural decadence of Weimar Germany, of course, run the risk of sounding prudish, or even worse, as apologists for the fascist regime that followed the demise of the Weimar Republic. Still, it is important to note that the perception of moral decay by many comtemporary Germans – on both the political right and left – was a contributing factor in the moving away from mainstream political parties by German voters and toward extremist factions such as the NSDAP and KDP. Combined with political instability and – most importantly – deleterious economic conditions, the concerns of many Germans about moral decline and social decay began to be expressed in the electoral results of 1930-32 and the eventual collapse of the republic-supporting Weimar Coalition.

Hyperinflation, Depression, and Politcial Opportunity

One of the consistent themes that underscores the period of Weimar Germany is that of economic instability, and the economic calamities that occurred throughout the history of the Republic mirror periods of political upheaval. The Weimar government, at various times, faced food shortages, hyperinflation, massive unemployment, and an unprecedented economic depression, and any analysis of the failures of democracy in Weimar Germany needs to take into account these inherently disruptive economic phenomena. Craig succinctly summed up the economic problems facing the new republic with this comment: “Its normal state was crisis.”

Left: German children playing with worthless banknotes in 1923

The debts incurred by the German government during the war and the economic downturn that followed the transition away from a wartime economy weighed down the fledgling Weimar Republic. Industrial production in 1919, noted Evans, was only 42 percent of what it had been in 1913, and grain production had fallen by over 50 percent from prewar figures. These economic factors, however, paled in comparison with the effects of the reparations demanded and received by the Allies in the Versailles negotiations. In addition, Germany suffered significant territorial losses as a result of Versailles, including Alsace-Lorraine, West Prussia, Posen, Upper Silesia, and the Saar. The terms of the Treaty called for the new German government to make an initial payment of 20 billion gold marks to the Allies by May, 1921, and the Reparations Commission eventually settled on a total reparations bill to Germany of 132 billion gold marks. John Maynard Keynes – a participant in the Versailles negotiations – accurately predicted that the onerous terms of the Treaty of Versailles were far beyond the means of the new republic:
The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness should be abhorrent and detestable,—abhorrent and detestable, even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilized life of Europe.
The initial German economic losses due to the Treaty of Versailles were staggering. Germany lost about 13.5 percent of its territory, approximately 13 percent of its industrial productivity, and slightly more than 10 percent of its population. In addition, the loss of important mining areas such as the Saar and Upper Silesia resulted in a loss of 74 percent of German iron ore, 41 percent of the country’s pig iron supplies, and approximately 25 percent of its coal reserves.

Historians and economists have long debated the actual effects of the Treaty of Versailles on economic conditions in Weimar Germany. Fraser argued that the Treaty “was in no sense the unjust and cynical imposition that the propagandists alleged it to have been.” Eyck held that many Germans believed “that they had been duped by the armistice,” and that the effect of the heavy reparations served mostly to reinforce the Dolchstoßlegende. Craig argued that the economic conditions that followed the burden of the reparations bills resulted in ordinary Germans suffering “deprivations that shattered their faith in the democratic process and left them cynical and alienated.” Kolb noted that most of the reparations that were paid ultimately were sent by the debtor nations of Britain and France to the United States, which in turn reinvested this capital in the German economy. Webb called into question the very process of analyzing post-Treaty German economics, arguing that the effects of inflation in the early 1920s make calculations especially difficult, as inflation “altered the real value of all financial flows and confounded their measurement.”

Yet it would be naïve to dismiss the idea that reparations payments were a heavy burden on the new Weimar government. With a sputtering economy, high unemployment, and weak tax revenues, the government of Ebert found itself trying to balance the needs of German citizens with the additional debt load from the reparations bills. Moreover, to a German population that was experiencing widespread poverty and food shortages – not to mention the wartime sacrifices – reparations that were being sent to recent wartime enemies came as a shock.

The period of hyperinflation that hit the Weimar Republic in 1922-23 was on a scale seemingly without historical parallel. The mark traded at 4.2:1 to the dollar prior to the outbreak of hostilities in July 1914, and at the end of the First World War was trading at a rate of 8.9:1. By July 1921 the ratio had risen to 76.7:1, and prices more than doubled again by January 1922, as the ration of marks to the dollar climbed to 191.8:1. By the time that the Weimar government introduced the Rentenmark in November 1923, the exchange rate had risen to 4.2 trillion marks to the dollar. It comes as no surprise, then, that Hitler’s unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch of 8-9 November 1923 came at the height of hyperinflation; in the midst of such a staggering economic crisis, the NSDAP likely hoped that Weimar economic instability would be a launching pad for the attempted coup d’etat.

Assessing the causes and effects of the Weimar hyperinflation has been the subject of innumerable historical, sociological, and economic analyses, and there is far from a consensus among researchers on the short-term and long-term consequences of the astronomical price increases in 1923. One of the few areas of agreement among historians and economists is the recognition that the period of hyperinflation was part of a longer trend dating back to the start of the First World War. There has also been a shift away from the interpretation that the French invasion of the Ruhr on 11 January 1923 was the primary cause of hyperinflation; while this act certainly accelerated the the catastrophic decline in the value of the mark, the period of hyperinflation dates back at least to the fall of 1922, several months before French soldiers even set foot in Duisberg, Essen, and the other major industrial cities of the Ruhr. Eyck argued that an earlier event – the 24 June 1922 murder of foreign minister Walther Rathenau – could also be considered to be the “launching point” of Weimar hyperinflation:
But as great as was the impact of Rathenau’s death upon German domestic politics, it left an even greater mark upon the economic scene. Now the tumble of the mark could not be stopped. The dollar, still under 350 on the day of the murder, climbed to 670 by the end of July, to 2000 in August, and to 4500 by the end of October.

Left: Murdered German foreign minister Walter Rathenau

Diehard Anglophile Fraser was among those who early on suggested that the German government deliberately induced the period of hyperinflation, arguing that German finance officials “may perhaps have thought [emphasis in original] that this [inflation] was just a spectacular means of demonstrating to the Allies the impossibility of paying reparations.” While agreeing that the period of hyperinflation was “at least partly of their own making,” Evans dismissed the idea that there was a conscious effort to undermine the mark as a means of avoiding reparations payments. Craig was among those historians who understood the period of hyperinflation to owe its source to a variety of factors:
The troubles in which the country was involved were the result of the lost war and the treaty that was its price, and, if they were complicated by mistakes made by the republican governments, that contribution was insignificamt in comparison with the self-interest and irresponsibility of German business, which was known for its anti-republican posture.

Measuring the longer term effects of the years of hyperinflation is equally difficult, and it is important to avoid broad generalizations when discussing groups that may have most suffered during this time. Lacqueur held that “the middle classes who had invested their funds in state loans, shares accounts and such, like the pensioners and the working classes, suffered from the steep decline in the real value of their income.” Mommsen argued that hyperinflation also had a deleterious effect on wage earners, and that “this favored a gradual shift of power within the economy to the employers.” Widdig noted that postwar rent control policies made the financial crisis especially difficult for “those who depended on rental income.” Craig noted another pair of demographics especially hard hit by the period of hyperinflation:
The persons, however, who proved most vulnerable to the effects of the inflation were the sick and the young. The mounting cost of hospital care and the increase in doctors’ fees placed adequate medical treatment beyond the capacity of millions at a time when the ballooning price and frequent shortage of essential foodstuffs were causing widespread malnutrition and the reappearance of diseases that had been common during the worst days of the Allied blockade.
The analyses of those who gained or lost during the period of German hyperinflation is of critical concern to Weimar and NSDAP researchers, argued Kolb, given the events of the next decade:
It is of great importance since, in the opinion of many historians, a direct or indirect connection exists between the traumatic experience and social consequences of hyperinflation on the one hand and, on the other, the rise of National Socialism and Hitler’s victory. A direct connection, since the inflation turned part of the middle class into a proletariat, politically disoriented and susceptible to Nazism; and an indirect one, since during the world depression the German government dared not take the necessary measures to alleviate unemployment for fear of causing another inflation.
It was the worldwide Great Depression, however, that brought about both extreme economic catastrophe as well as political opportunities for extremist political parties in Weimar Germany. The causes of the economic collapse are the topic of another essay altogether, but of critical relevance to Weimar history was the New York stock exchange crash in 1929; investors – predominately American – who had deposited short term funds in German stocks and bonds suddenly withdrew their money to cover debts on Wall Street. Within months German firms began to declare bankruptcy, and the numbers of unemployed German workers began to skyrocket. From a level of 1.5 million in May 1928, unemployment rose to 3.1 million in September 1930, and peaked at about 5.5 million workers by July 1932. Over 30 percent of German workers were unemployed at the height of the Great Depression; Evans remarked that out-of-work Germans, however, were but a component of the larger picture of misery:
These terrifying figures told only part of the story. To begin with, many millions more workers only stayed in their jobs at a reduced rate, since employers cut hours and introduced short-time work in an attempt to adjust to the collapse in demand. Then many trained workers or apprentices had to accept menial and unskilled jobs because the jobs they were qualified for had disappeared…The problem seemed insoluble.
The collapse of the German economy created conditions ripe for those on the Weimar political extremes. The experiment in representative democracy, in the eyes of many Germans, seemed a dismal failure, and voters began to turn to groups whose presence in the Reichstag had previously been inconsequential.


There were inherent weaknesses in the political structure of the Weimar Republic that facilitated the rise to power of the NSDAP, and hindsight offers the modern observer plenty of areas in which the unintended consequences of constitutional provisions such as Article 48 came back to haunt the centrist creators of the Weimar Constitution. Yet it is important to remember that the unfortunate gambles of Franz von Papen and Paul von Hindenburg in 1933, the passage of the Reichstag Fire Decree, and the Enabling Act might never occurred had the German economy not gone into freefall as a result of the Great Depression.

From a mere 12 seats in the Reichstag in September 1928, the NSDAP’s fortunes grew with the continuing hardships of the Great Depression. The Nazi Party won 107 seats in the July 1930 elections, and climbed to 230 seats by March 1932. While it would be a logical fallacy to claim a cause-and-effect relationship between unemployment and Nazi gains in the Reichstag, it is clear that German voters had become disenchanted with the ability of the mainstream parties to address the economic woes of the nation. More importantly, while the unemployed themselves tended to be stronger supporters of the KDP, Hitler’s message clearly resonated across broad segments of the German electorate.

The Weimar Republic, created in the aftermath of the First World War with the idealistic hopes of creating a truly representative Germany after decades of authoritarian monarchy, was born in an environment of economic struggle. These economic woes continued to reappear in different forms throughout the duration of the 14-year republic, and even the so-called “Golden Years” of Gustav Stresseman seemed more like a reprieve between catastrophes. In the midst of unprecedented misery, the rantings of a certain ex-corporal that once seemed maniacal found receptive ears among many weary German voters.

Jul 28, 2007

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The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.
-- Maimonides

Jul 27, 2007

Book Review: The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Geschichte der Renaissance in ItalienBurckhardt, Jacob
West Stockbridge, MA: Hard Press, 2006, 254 pages

Swiss-born Jacob Burckhardt, with his The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), attempted to expand the discourse on the late medieval city-states that dominated the Italian peninsula. Burckhardt described his work as a “history of civilization” rather than the traditional collection of narratives on great men and military battles; it is no surprise that this effort – history as it really was – came from a former student and protégé of Leopold von Ranke. The book covers topics as wide-ranging as music, etiquette, and gender relations, and Burckhardt skillfully switched throughout the text from microhistorical vignettes to sweeping vistas.

Burckhardt began the book with a section entitled “The State as a Work of Art,” which provided a political backdrop to the rest of the work. He surveyed the major rulers of the Renaissance city-states, concentrating largely on those of the 14th through 16th centuries. Like his contemporary Karl Marx, Burckhardt utilized a quasi-Hegelian analysis to describe the larger forces that, in his opinion, moved history. Unlike Marx, though, economic forces were not the primary causative agents; one might argue that Burckhardt was a proponent of dialectic culturalism, rather than the materialist orientation of his esteemed counterpart.

The author, while certainly well-read, nonetheless made a number of overgeneralizations that do not hold up well to closer scrutiny. He argued that “[a] popular radicalism in the form in which it is opposed to the monarchies of later times, is not to be found in the despotic states of the Renaissance”; this statement patently disregards such popular uprisings as the Ciompi revolt (although, admittedly, Florence was a nominal republic at the time). He also argued that “the deliberate adaptation of means to ends” was a uniquely Italian phenomenon, and that “no prince out of Italy had at that time a conception” of such pragmatic politics. This suggests a cultural bias on the part of Burckhardt, who ignored the many examples of non-Italian Machiavellianism in this period, such as that exhibited by Henry VIII in his decision to completely sever ties with Rome in 1534.

Burckhardt next argued, in his section entitled “The Development of the Individual,” that the Italian Renaissance was a period in which individuals no longer saw themselves as members of a particular “race, people, party, family, or corporation,” and that the “the ban laid upon human personality was dissolved.” Perhaps this may have been true for the writers, artists, and politicians that Burckhardt cited to bolster this argument, and the author may be correct in his identification of the Italian city-states as birthplaces of nascent individualism, but what may have been true for the social elites did not necessarily hold factual for the Renaissance-era masses of the Italian peninsula. The “wealth and culture” and “municipal freedom” that Burckhardt proposed as influences on the growth of individualism were largely the province of those at or near the top of the social hierarchy, and such devices as sumptuary laws were wielded by aristocrats with considerable effectiveness to limit the ability of lower classes to express individuality.

Left: Nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt

Burckhardt made a stronger argument for the cultural contributions of Renaissance Italy in the section entitled “The Revival of Antiquity.” The author postulated that it was not merely the reintroduction of classic forms and philosophies, but “its union with the genius of the Italian people” that led to this cultural regeneration and its subsequent influence on western European thought. This “modern Italian spirit” , argued Burckhardt, was a model for the rest of the Western world to emulate. He delineated in this section the vast contributions of the Italian humanists, and he believed that, unlike their northern European contemporaries, the Italians did not engage in “mere fragmentary imitation” of the classics but rather an active dedication to “the special growth and development of the Italian mind.” The only real weakness in this analysis is Burckhardt’s faith in sources that claim there was “nobody in Florence who could not read” during the Renaissance; the brilliance of a Dante or a Ficino, however, would be lost upon an illiterate peasant or a merchant with a rudimentary education.

The book’s next section, “The Discovery of the World and Man,” describes the scientific achievements of Renaissance Italians. Part of this Burckhardt attributed to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Mediterranean, in which Italians were exposed to Islamic, African, and Asian influences. Burckhardt, however, considered this to be a matter of geography; there is little mention of the role of commerce in the development of “mental impulses different from those which governed people of the North.” Of matters scientific, Burckhardt acknowledged a lack of expertise, saying that “no one is more conscious than the author of the defects in his knowledge on this point.” He spent the rest of this section developing an interesting argument that the Italian fascination with the beauty of the external world was, in itself, an influence on the development of scientific inquiry.

In his fifth section, which Burckhardt titled “Society and Festivals,” the author argued that “social intercourse in its highest and most perfect form now ignored all distinctions of caste,” although he qualified this broad generalization later in the same paragraph with the caveat that any “mediæval distinctions” that manifested themselves were “a means of maintaining equality with the aristocratic pretensions of the less advanced countries of Europe.” He also exhibited a romantic naiveté with regard to the relations between men and women in Renaissance Italy, making claims that “women stood on a footing of perfect equality with men” or that “there was no question of ‘woman’s rights’ or female emancipation, simply because the thing itself was a matter of course.” To back up these claims, Burckhardt cited the examples of such illustrious Italian nobles as Vittoria Colonna and Caterina Sforza, women whose experiences can hardly be called typical. While Burckhardt was certainly a product of his times, this section in particular suffers from a dated patriarchal bias.

Drawing of Vittoria Colonna, marchioness of Pescara, by Michelangelo

Burckhardt, in the sixth and final section, turned his attention to “Morality and Religion,” and he began his analysis of Italian morality with the stern remonstrance that “the more plainly in these matters our evidence seems to speak, the more carefully must we refrain from unqualified assumptions and rash generalizations.” Yet the author frequently fell into the very trap with which he warned others, claiming that in Italy “marriage and its rights were more often and more deliberately trampled underfoot than anywhere else.” According to Burckhardt, the noble Italian woman “disposes of herself with a freedom unknown in Northern countries,” and that “after the briefest acquaintance with her future husband, the young wife quits the convent or the paternal roof.” To his credit, Burckhardt acknowledged that “we may… be misled by the fact that we have far fuller details on such matters here [Renaissance Italy] than elsewhere.” Nonetheless, he summed up Italian morality as a function of the uniquely individual nature of the Italian Renaissance: “the fundamental vice of this [Italian] character was at the same time a condition of its greatness, namely, excessive individualism.”

This individualism, according to Burckhardt, also carried over to matters of religion. He believed that religion, to the highly individualistic Renaissance Italian, was an “altogether subjective” proposition. In addition, its close proximity and relations with “Byzantium and the Mohammedan peoples” led, in Italy, to a “dispassionate tolerance which weakened the ethnographical conception of a privileged Christendom.”

Burckhardt’s work, in all fairness, should be recognized as a pioneering effort; while the book has shortcomings, it significantly advanced historical discourse. He foreshadowed Braudel and the Annales school with his attempt to present what would later be referred to as “total history.” He also brought the analysis of cultural, philosophical, and intellectual history to a more prominent place in historiography. Finally, his ideas of the state as a work of art and the Renaissance trend of the rise of individualism set him apart from his contemporaries.

This is a previously unpublished book review. There are many online transcriptions of Burckhardt's seminal work, and here is one of the better Burckhardt translations.

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People without firmness of character love to make up a fate for themselves; that relieves them of the necessity of having their own will and of taking responsibility for themselves. -- Ivan Turgenev

Jul 26, 2007

Possible Return of Neo-Nazis to Toledo

Dowtown Toledo, OH as seen from the High-Level Bridge A site that promotes itself as "The Best Pro-White Group in Kentucky" is announcing that the neo-Nazi group ANSWP will be rallying in Toledo August 17.

ANSWP stands for the American National Socialist Workers Party, and it is headed by Bill White, who was once one of the leading lights of the National Socialist Movement before the breakup of the NSM in 2006. White was also the architect of the failed 2005 rally that sparked the North Toledo riot.

Here is the text of the post from the website purporting to speak for the Kentucky branch of ANSWP:
N**gers, beware – the ANSWP is coming to your city on August 17th. People are getting sick of your primitive behavior. Unlike the average white too coward to speak up, the ANSWP are not them. We will march in your town and you won’t stop us.
Odd, though, that the group is picking a Friday for a protest, although there have been murmurings of another ANSWP rally in Michigan on Saturday, August 18. Perhaps the group is planning a mini-tour of the Midwest, and loading up their dingy minivans for a weekend full of race-baiting, roadside diners, and cheap motels.

Or perhaps this is just another of those moments of bluster and fascist bravado that never pan out. ANSWP rallies, in general, have managed to attract few attendees, as the majority of NSM members remained with the original group. White's online ANSWP Yahoo group lists 354 members, but there is no telling how many of those avatars are antifa or law enforcement keeping watch.

Typically ANSWP "events" consist of one- or two-man protests, or the passing out of flyers on streetcorners or in mailboxes. A much-ballyhooed ANSWP event in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine district failed after the disclosure that state leader Justin Boyer is wanted on an arrest warrant for domestic violence in the state of Washington. The word on the street is that White did not want to be seen with a pathetic turnouut, and called off the march.

At any rate, I will continue to pass along on this site any information that gets forwarded to me. Feel free to leave any additional information in the comments section.

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How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong -- because someday you will have been all of these.
-- George Washington Carver

"Crying Indian" Public Service Announcement, 1971

You know that you are a geezer if you can recall seeing this video on television:

I was a wee lad of seven when this came out, but it is one of those memories that is etched into my head. This is probably in part responsible for my compulsion to want to pick up trash when I see it on the ground.

Unfortunately, the Urban Legends website indicates that the star of the spot - "Chief" Iron Eyes Cody - was not of Native American extraction, and even the tear was faked.

Go figure...

Jul 25, 2007

Financial Rape - A Credit Card with 62.59% Interest

Left: Usurious "Tribute Gold MasterCard" summary of terms; click to enlarge details.

(Toledo, OH) A young person I know, who shall remain nameless, applied for and received his first major credit card. Upon closer inspection of the terms, though, I was shocked to find that First Bank of Delaware - through its agent CompuCredit Corporation - will be exacting at least 62.59 percent interest on this $500 Tribute Gold MasterCard.

CompuCredit describes itself as a "provider of financial products and services to the underserved market" and as having a corporate culture that is "focused on providing the underbanked with the credit they deserve."

The annual percentage rate on this preposterous credit card is 29.99 percent, and they tack on a whopping $85 annual fee. In addition, there is a $6.50 "account maintenance fee" per month, which is $78 per year.

Let's see. If this person only charged $250 worth of goods and services today, in 12 months they would be paying 65.2 percent interest just on the annual and monthly fees, plus 29.99 percent in actual interest. That becomes 94.19 percent interest on the $250 balance.

And then there are other assorted goodies, like the $35 late payment fee, the $35 overlimit fee, and the cash advance fee of 5 percent over and above the 29.99 percent basic rate.


Now, admittedly, this young person has little in the way of financial savvy, and there is an important lesson here in financial responsibility that needs to occur. Still, a part of me begins to question the point at which loans to people with little or no credit (or poor credit) become outrageously usurious.

This card seems to have gone far beyond the level of acceptable standards in consumer finance, and I hope that there will one day be a day of reckoning for those who fleece the unsuspecting and the financially naïve.

And - for those of you who just stumbled across this post - be sure to read the terms and conditions of every financial document you sign. There are far too many devious corporations like First Bank of Delaware and CompuCredit Corporation that will be more than happy to rip you off.

A Termite Tale

When I was a retail business owner I bought some units that were owned by another franchisee, and in passing they mentioned that I would want to "keep up the termite spraying" at one of the stores. Having never previously experienced the phenomeon of termite infestation, I filed this piece of information in the back of my head.

Unfortuately, I did not follow the advice, and I got a call from a panicked employee one day that the termites were swarming. When I got there I couldn't believe my eyes; the critters had infested the south wall of my building, and were buzzing all over the store. After $1,000 in repairs and two days being closed, we reopened, and I was much the wiser.

Homeowners and property owners need to keep aware of the dangers of termites and their ability to destroy a real estate investment. Follow the above link to learn more about ways in which you can take control of termites before they eat the wood that keeps your building together. This was a sponsored post.

On YouTube Debates and the Commodification of the Presidency

There has been much self-congratulatory hoopla in the blogosphere today in the aftermath of the first CNN/YouTube debate. I have seen euphoric phrases like "this is a watershed moment in American politics" and "the rise of virtual democracy" and "electronic citizen activism" and "the new politics" and other such pablum.

I did like Billiam the Snowman with the global warming question, though.

Yes, this was an opportunity for average citizens to be heard, and for politicians to be forced to take seriously the concerns expressed by these video participants. Yet ignored in much of the post-debate analyses was the certainty that the eventual winner of the 2008 presidential election will simply be the candidate who can extract the most campaign cash from his or her well-heeled donors.

Races for elective office at most levels of politics have degenerated into contests of cash-grabbing, and the concept of "buying" elective office is taken for granted by many Americans. No office, however, carries a higher price tag than that of the Presidency, a position that has become especially commodified in the last decade. Most of the major 2008 candidates have already foregone federal matching funds, knowing that the MSRP sticker for the next presidential election will likely be something on the order of $500 million dollars.

So while we twitter about "virtual democratization" during the warm afterglow of the first CNN/YouTube debate, let us not forget that the contestants are being financed in large part by corporations, political action committees, and groups whose agendas might not mirror those of last night's enthusiastic submitters of video questions.

Jul 24, 2007

Book Review: Understanding Imperial Russia

Understanding Imperial Russia, Marc Raeff Raeff, Marc (translated by Arthur Goldhammer)
New York: Columbia University Press, 1984

Marc Raeff received his doctorate from Harvard in 1950, and from 1961 to 1988 he was a professor of Russian history at Columbia University. The author was one of the leading experts on pre-Revolutionary Russia, and his books remain important contributions in the historiography of Imperial Russia. Based on a series of Raeff’s lectures, Understanding Imperial Russia is the author’s attempt to describe some of the social and political forces that shaped the evolution of the Russian autocracy and, ultimately, led to the Empire’s downfall in 1917. The social and political forces at work in Russia, maintained Raeff, should be thought of as an ellipse, with the autocratic sovereign on one pole and Russian society on the opposite side of the ellipse. This concept of oppositional poles runs throughout Raeff’s work, and he uses this idea to describe the ways in which Russian society and the monarchy gradually pulled apart from one another.

The author began with an examination of mid-seventeenth century Muscovy, and he described a series of factors that led to late-century decline in Muscovite society. Chief among these, argued Raeff, was the religious schism between the Old Believers and ecclesiastical reformers led by Patriarch Nikon; this split created an isolated demographic subset in Russian society that became an “enormous human potential that was allowed to go to waste” until the nineteenth century. Raeff believed that seventeenth century rebellions – especially those in 1648, 1662, and 1682 – reflected deep economic and cultural unrest in Muscovite society, and that the resultant imperial repression forced increases in government expenditures and heavy tax burdens on Russian peasants. The rise of foreign trade, argued Raeff, brought an increased awareness of Western cultural norms, and led to a tendency by Russian elites to reject traditional values. Finally, noted the author, expansionist tendencies of seventeenth-century Russian monarchs – especially the extension of Muscovite dominion to the Ukraine – led to an infusion of Western values as Ukrainian nobles assimilated into the imperial hierarchy. Due to these factors, Raeff argued that interpretations of Peter the Great’s Westernization and modernization efforts as “revolutionary” fail to consider the historical context of earlier movements away from traditional Muscovite cultural and political customs.

Russian Tsar Peter the GreatRussian Tsar Peter the Great

Moreover, argued Raeff, Peter was not alone in his attempts to model a reformed Russia on Western and Central European models. Members of boyar families joined the Tsar in his modernization endeavors, as did members of the burgeoning service nobility, who owed their continued livelihood to Peter’s efforts. Other important, though often overlooked, contributors to the dispersion of the ideas of Westernization and modernization included army and navy officers, military provisioners, and other state suppliers.

Yet it was these very Westernization and modernization efforts, argued Raeff, which led to a furthering of the distance in the conceptual ellipse between the Tsar and the Russian population, and this took the form of “psychological insecurity” among members of the various social groups in eighteenth century Russia:
Should the culture of the elite be Russian (i.e., Muscovite) or European? Until this question was resolved, members of the ruling elite wavered between two worlds and two systems of value and hence felt psychologically insecure and intellectually in disarray. The ravages of this situation proved traumatic for many intelligent, cultivated, and enlightened individuals who saw clearly enough that Muscovite culture was done for and yet, even though they took on Western ways, ideas, and values, continued to feel different from other Europeans – to feel, in a word, Russian, if only by dint of their religion.
The 1825 Decembrist uprising, argued Raeff, has been viewed by many historians as “a definitive repudiation of the state by educated public opinion.” Despite the fact that this thinking might dovetail with his ellipse theory, Raeff remained skeptical that the Decembrists represented a full-blown breach between Russian society and the government. Instead, the rebellion symbolized “the end of attempts by the educated elite to carve out for itself a useful public role.” This began the rise of an alienated intelligentsia that would prove to be a segment of Russian society both influential and difficult for nineteenth-century Russian autocrats to reconcile.

Russian Tsar Nicholas IRussian Tsar Nicholas I

Under Nicholas I, argued Raeff, there occurred an irreparable divide in the nobility. The Decembrist revolt, he maintained, “alienated a segment of the nobility from the government and raised again the old specter of tyranny and autocracy.” The growth of agriculture in the South – especially in grain – caused many nobles to drift away from the traditional centers of power in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Finally, noted Raeff, the growth of a professional bureaucratic class created a new social group that, conversely, rejected “the class into which they had been born” :
The result was a split in the nobility, which exacerbated the feeling of nobles living on their estates that they were cut off from the government, bottle up within their own families, confined to the provinces. The middling nobles felt more and more acutely that the conflict of interest had become irreconcilable and, worse, that they had been betrayed by their own brothers, who had gone over to the state: by and by, this feeling became a settled conviction. Relations between the governmental apparatus and the provincial nobility that lived by its ownership of land became increasingly acrimonious…
Following an approach that is both chronological and thematic, Raeff provided occasional footnotes in the text, but the emphasis in this work is on the theoretical models the author developed to explain trends in the history of imperial Russia. Included are categorized bibliographies of aspects of the Russian Empire as well as a useful chronological table of important dates, and readers will find valuable Raeff’s index to the book.

There is much to recommend in Understanding Imperial Russia, as the author’s willingness to reexamine long-held assumption about Russian history – as well as his ability to develop insightful explanations for seemingly disparate phenomena – makes this book an essential read for anyone desirous of understanding the period. Yet there are throughout the text a number of annoying factual errors, such as his crediting of the quote “Es ist der Geist ser sich den Körper baut” to Goethe (it was actually Schiller), or his comment that “the decree of February 18, 1762, whereby Peter II freed the nobility from the obligation to serve the state” (this was Peter III). Finally, there is a sense of disconnection in the text, as Raeff moved from theme to theme with the briefest of transitions. This makes Understanding Imperial Russia difficult to recommend to readers who lack a basic knowledge of Russian history, though students in the field would most certainly benefit from reading this challenging and perceptive text.

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We don't want lower bread prices, we don't want higher bread prices, we don't want unchanged bread prices - we want National-Socialist bread prices! -- Party speaker at a 1931 Nazi rally to German farmers, as recorded by Peter Drucker

Jul 23, 2007

On Grudgingly Becoming an iPod User

Despite my previous concerns about iPods and the decline in human interaction, I have become a member of the electronically isolated world. My wife picked up a 20 GB iPod on eBay for a ridiculously low price, and I now have the ability to create a soundtrack for every waking moment in my life (hyperbole alert).

Still, there is something to be said for both commercial-free media and the ability to listen to music that can inspire you. As I write this post, the random iPod generator switched from REM's "Radio Free Europe" to Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." Where else on the planet can you find this sort of variety?

And the iPod is certainly a more efficient use of my time than rummaging through my CDs to look for the music I crave, as my teenagers - who generally consider me to be quite clueless in most matters - nonetheless raid with annoying frequency my CD collection. I once owned every major release of the Beatles on CD, but at the present moment Revolver, Help!, and Let it Be have grown legs and disappeared.

Thus, it is with a combination of reluctance and anticipation that I join the rest of the world's iPoddians, but if I start seeing Neo and Morpheus skulking around in black leather trenchcoats, rambling about DNA and matrices, I'm out of here.

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Man is fond of counting his troubles, but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it. -- Fyodor Dostoevsky

Book Review: Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform, 1801-1881

Alexander I of Russia, Александр I ПавловичSaunders, David
London: Longman, 1992, 386 pages

Russian Tsar Alexander I

David Saunders is a Professor of Russian history at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform reflects the author’s lengthy interest in the history of the Russian Empire. The period in question, argued Saunders, is less attractive to historians due to its lack of a “linear theme,” and he also suggested that Soviet-era scholars faced political pressure to avoid researching the idea that Romanov rulers ever sought practical solutions to the social and political problems of the Empire. Saunders also noted that he toyed with the idea of titling the book with the phrase “Reform, Reaction, and Reform” to illustrate the pendulum-like swings of political activity in Russia during the nineteenth century.

After a brief discussion of the legacies of the reigns of Catherine II and Paul I, Saunders began his analysis of the reign of Alexander I. In general Saunders mirrored traditional accounts of the “enigmatic Tsar,” illustrating the contradictions inherent in a liberal-minded monarch who also exhibited reactionary streaks. The author attributed Alexander’s inability to achieve substantial social and political reforms to the “sheer complexity of the social problems facing” the Russian monarch.

One of the factors cited by Saunders for the political stagnation of Alexander was the instability in a nation with a history of palace coups and assassinations, and the Tsar had only look at the fate of his own father to see how quickly political winds might change in St. Petersburg. Moreover, argued the author, Alexander came to the throne during the ascendancy of Napoleon, and this fact caused the Russian tsar to focus much of his time and energy on military matters. Finally, an important consideration in the evaluation of Alexander’s accomplishments, argued Saunders, was the relative backwardness of Russia in 1801. The Russian state, despite its historical reputation for an imperious bureaucracy, contained less than one-third as many civil servants as Prussia per capita. By 1800 only 70,00 students were receiving education in primary schools, and at best literacy rates in 1797 among Russians ten and over was slightly under seven percent of the entire population.

Alexander’s reign, though, should not be viewed as an abject failure simply because sweeping reforms never occurred, maintained Saunders. The author lauded Alexander’s four-tier education system in 1803-1804, especially in the “devolution” of power to local educational authorities. Alexander’s Free Agriculturalists Law of February 1803, which granted serfs the right to buy their freedom and to purchase land, while only benefiting some 47,000 serfs, nonetheless gave weight to the precedent that emancipated serfs needed land to survive. While Russia suffered considerable military setbacks during the Napoleonic campaigns, Saunders noted that Alexander nonetheless eventually triumphed over the French emperor, and he argued that Russian authority in 1815 “was so great that they could have imposed their blueprint for the post-war world on their allies.” Finally, while the constitutional reforms for Russia pondered by Alexander were not enacted, Saunders argued that Alexander gave momentum to the idea that there should be legal limits placed on Russian absolutism.

Portrait of the Decembrist revolt, 14 December 1825Portrait of the Decembrist revolt, 14 December 1825

The Decembrist uprising of 1825 provided Saunders material for an intriguing look at the transition from the reign of Alexander to Nicholas I. The author assigned some of the blame for the failed revolt in part on Alexander, both for his failure to make public the manifesto transferring succession rights from Konstantin to Nicholas as well as to the late tsar’s role in the “broadening of the country’s horizons and the growth of Russian self-confidence in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.” Alexander, argued Saunders, brought Russia fully into European affairs and promoted modernization and Western political traditions, but did not comprehend the level to which these actions would inspire domestic reformists and radicals.

Saunders argued that, while some historians have overstated the importance of the Decembrist revolt, the failed coup did bring lasting effects. Nicholas, noted the author, learned more about Russia in the months of investigations than other tsars had learned during the entirety of their reigns. Moreover, argued Saunders, the threat of revolution forced Nicholas to make some concessions, and the Decembrists brought into public view ideas that had largely remained below the surface of Russian politics. Finally, the Decembrists understood the directions in which Russia was moving, and their actions set an example for the “next generation of thinking Russians.”

Saunders took a somewhat contrarian position on the legacy of Nicholas II, whose reign has been roundly criticized by historians and contemporaries as repressive and belligerent:
Yet Nicholas was not a blind reactionary. Though hostile to dramatic change, he thought seriously about the country’s administrative and social structure. The energy he displayed at the beginning of his reign was far from wholly destructive. The investigation of the Decembrist uprising had positive as well as negative ends in view.
Nicholas, argued Saunders, showed a willingness to put order into Russian law, a subject in which his reformist predecessors had expressed interest. His acceptance of an 1846 statute for St. Petersburg became the basis for the general municipal reforms of Alexander II in 1870. Despite a historical legacy suggesting that Nicholas did little for the plight of the serfs, Saunders held that his reign saw some significant initiatives toward mollifying conditions for those in servitude; among the accomplishments of Nicholas I included an 1827-28 constraint on the right of the gentry to send serfs to Siberia, the 1834 reduction in serfs’ terms of military service from twenty-five to fifteen years, and 1845-46 regulations limiting the rights of the gentry to subject serfs to corporal punishment.

Russian Tsar Alexander IIRussian Tsar Alexander II

Similarly, Saunders seemed less than willing to accept the historical legacy of Tsar Alexander II as the Great Emancipator. The Russian tsar was a cautious conservative, argued the author, who only begrudgingly came to recognize that serf emancipation was the only way to avoid social upheaval, and if Alexander II was truly a radical reformer, he would have immediately freed the serfs in the midst of the domestic crises following Russian losses in the Crimean War. Pont by point, Saunders addressed the precursors to emancipation often cited as evidence that Alexander II fully intended to free the serfs from the day of his coronation:
His speech to the representatives of the Moscow gentry in 1856 was tame, his creation of a secret committee in 1857 was the traditional way to sweep calls for change under the carpet, the Nazimov Receipt envisaged a form of emancipation that would have severely damaged the peasantry, the relaxation of censorship in January 1858 was short-lived and the provincial tour of 1858 represented yet another futile attempt to persuade nobles to accept a measure they were bent on resisting.
Moreover, argued Saunders, the eventual terms of emancipation mitigated the positive social effects associated with the freeing of the serfs; the author pointed to high rents paid by the “temporarily” obligated peasants to the gentry, the 49-year peasant mortgages to the state, and the practice of “trimming” peasant landholdings as evidence of the lack of benevolent intentions toward the serfs among the Tsar and his advisors.

The author organized the text in a thematic fashion, while following a roughly chronological approach to the individual chapters. The material contains extensive endnotes for each chapter, and Saunders provided a cross-referenced index that is quite comprehensive for the period covered in the book. Illustrations are limited to a handful of maps and a family tree of the Romanovs, and clearly the author’s focus was on providing historical summaries and an introduction to the historiographical debates surrounding the themes of the individual chapters. Much of the source material for Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform is from document collections and secondary texts, though Saunders made use some primary archival sources in his research.

Russia in the Age of Reaction and Reform is ideal for advanced non-specialists and informed general readers, but casual students without much background in Russian history might get lost in this book. Still, the book is to be recommended especially for its inclusion of an excellent chapter on nineteenth-century Russian intellectual history, as well as for the author’s ability to weave throughout the text thematic threads like the evolution of Russian attitudes toward serf emancipation.