Review of: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark

I came to read The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark, under somewhat unusual circumstances: it was pressed upon me by an elderly business client with similar historical interests, fresh from his very recent diagnosis with a terminal illness. With remarkable equanimity, he told me of his grim prospects while passing me the volume. “I tried but I couldn’t really get into it,” he confessed. I flipped through it while we chatted and at first blush it was indeed daunting: the trade paper edition he handed me was packed with 562 pages of dense, small type, not including the nearly 150 pages more of notes and index.

World War I – the “Great War” before they started numbering them – has only lately come to intrigue me, as it recedes ever deeper into the distant past and its centennial is upon us. I have read something of the causes of the conflict – most recently To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild and Europe’s Last Summer by David Fromkin – but I have much to learn. So I started on Sleepwalkers, driven also by a kind of obligation to read it, despite its intimidating format and size, due to the context of how it came to me.

The author has divided Sleepwalkers into three distinct parts. After the “Introduction,” “Part I” opens with a brutal regicide and coup that sees the king of Serbia and his queen ruthlessly murdered and immediately supplanted by a rival royal family, one far more antagonistic to their giant though somewhat wobbly neighbor, the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire, a mammoth if somewhat archaic collection of nations and nationalities that dominates central Europe in sheer immensity if not political power. The exciting launch turns almost at once into a somewhat dull narrative pregnant with detail of names and places and events that explores the history of the troubled relationship between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in the context of Balkan entanglements. I was interested enough to persevere, but I could well understand why others might at this stage abandon the book, for while the material is encyclopedic the prose is less than compelling. Still, patience pays off as Clark does a truly masterful job as a historian recreating the complex background and the interplay between a conservative Habsburg monarchy that resists change in the interest of stability and an essentially radical Serbian regime that dreams of a “Greater Serbia” to dominate the Balkans with a fervor that seems to welcome any cost to suit that end.

There truly is much to learn about. For instance, I knew that the “Dual Monarchy” that united Austria and Hungary only dated back to the mid-nineteenth century, but I did not know much about how it worked – or often failed to work! I never knew that there was a Cisleithania as well as a Transleithania – the historic Austrian and Hungarian environs respectively – nor that the empire had eleven official nationalities: “Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ruthenians, Poles and Italians.” [p.66] (I never heard of a Ruthenian before!) The roots of pre-war instability as well as postwar fragmentation are all represented here in details that are mostly overlooked in other accounts to the lead up to the war. The most significant event here – the annexation in 1908 by Austria-Hungary of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Ottoman province already administered by the Habsburgs for three decades – is addressed by most treatments of this era yet it is Clark’s painstaking portrait that reveals why this is such an explosive catalyst to all that is to follow.

In his introduction, Clark announces that “Part II,” which represents the bulk of the volume, “. . . breaks with the narrative approach to ask four questions in four chapters: how did the polarization of Europe into opposed blocs come about? How did the governments of the European states generate foreign policy? How did the Balkans – a peripheral region far from Europe’s centres of power and wealth – come to be the theatre of a crisis of such magni­tude? How did an international system that seemed to be entering an era of detente produce a general war?” [p. xxviii] In response to these rhetorical challenges he succeeds superlatively and the narrative – freed from self-imposed chronology and other restraints – rebounds from its sometimes plodding course in the first part to take on with an exceptional verve the greater themes of how Europe managed to tumble into a war which all prepared for diligently while failing to anticipate the scale of catastrophe that was to follow, which is why the meticulous account Clark produces of pre-war Europe becomes so magnetic for the reader whose interest is piqued.

Often, my greatest complaints with books of history are a dearth of maps and the attendant referenced place-names in the narrative that are conspicuous in their absence on any chart of frame of reference. Sleepwalkers is no different in this regard, but Clark redeems himself admirably with the few maps he does include, such as the pair [p. 122] at the start of “Part II” that in one contrasts graphically the loose and evolving relationships among the Great Powers in 1887 – there is a “Reinsurance Treaty” between Germany and Russia! – with the more structured and inflexible Alliance Systems that had been carved out by 1907 and were to imprison these same Great Powers by obligations to friends that concomitantly ensured resultant enmities. Every student of the war should study these maps: even without accompanying text it becomes clear that the powers – trapped by their treaty commitments – had lost the free will of diplomacy that once prevented a general war from breaking out in Europe.

Even more dramatic are the three maps [p. 254-55] that illustrate the Balkans in 1912 and their transformation after the two Balkan Wars of 1912-13. There is a kind of epiphany for the reader contained here: one glance at the first map reveals that in 1912 a vast swath of southern Europe north of Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire; in map three only a tiny corner hugging Constantinople remains. In between, two opportunistic wars dismantle what remains of Ottoman Europe and these bits and pieces become part of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece – and give birth to the newly independent nation of Albania. Add to this mix the recent declaration of independence by Bulgaria in 1908 after thirty years of autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, and the previously mentioned ill-advised Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina that same year, and it becomes increasingly clear why instability was inherent in the Balkans — and by extension all of Europe – after these Balkan Wars which, quite curiously, earn hardly more than a passing reference in most texts about this era. Such a radical redrawing of the Balkan map is naturally a recipe for turmoil, even aside from the prevailing strains of nationalism, yearnings for ethnic identity and historic antipathies of one group for another.

More than a chronicle of territorial churnings, “Part II” treats the reader to a comprehensive survey of the governments of the Great Powers on the eve of the war years as well as their complicated history of diplomatic entanglements. The complexity at the top levels of each nation’s governing body is quite surprising, especially since it comes to seem that with the truly critical life-and-death strategies that determine war or peace, the constitutional democracies of France and Britain turn out to be little different than their authoritarian monarchial counterparts in Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. On all sides, the most significant policy seems to be guided by shadowy members of cabinets, advisors and diplomats rather than the actual heads of state. In Serbia, of course, there actually was a clearly defined powerful shadow arm of the government known as the “Black Hand” which wielded enough authority to serve as architect to the famous assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 that was to give spark to the by then well-dried tinder of great power political hostilities.

Clark’s narrative also nicely resurrects the key players and policies in the often overlooked Russian and Ottoman empires, as well as the tension between these two that is rarely referenced even tangentially. It is fascinating to see how the other European states sought to keep the Ottomans – known as the “Sick man of Europe” – afloat in order to ensure stability and the balance of power, often to the detriment of Russian interests. Moreover, it is remarkable how both friends and enemies alike misjudged the pace of modernization and what they perceived as the rapidly emerging strength of Russia, which later proved to be quite illusory. Nevertheless, “Part II” is sometimes clumsily encumbered by a crushing weight of data and detail, names and places, dates and events. This tends to underscore the great shortcoming to this otherwise magisterial work: a biographical index of the enormous cast of characters that populate this work is in my opinion absolutely essential for the reader’s ready reference to track these figures, their titles and their roles in the drama. Less critical but also helpful would be additional maps and a detailed timeline.

Sadly, “Part III” – which takes us from the assassination in Sarajevo to the start of hostilities – is the weakest segment of the book, especially as the narrative winds up. It is as if the author, who has said so much over so many pages, has run out of steam. Whereas most other historians roundly place the blame for starting the war on Austria-Hungary and what has long been perceived as her malevolent instigator, Germany, Clark clearly wants to spread the responsibility more evenly and in that he generally succeeds. But if all of the nations shared some element of culpability does it then follow that such accountability should likewise be shared equally? Here I would unequivocally say no.

Perhaps in overcompensation for the past sins of others, Clark places far less responsibility on Germany and far more on Serbia, the catalyst. As such, he actually takes on the consensus both of historians and contemporaries that Serbia could not possibly retain sovereignty and accept the Austrian ultimatum that led to war. Instead, Clark downplays the latter, making what I consider a wildly illogical contrast to NATO’s ultimatum to Serbia-Yugoslavia in the 1999 “Rambouillet Agreement” some eighty-five years hence by way of arguing that Austria’s demands in 1914 were not nearly as harsh. I suppose it would be no less ludicrous to compare these to Alexander’s demands upon Thebes before his siege and sack of that city in 335 BCE, but it would be no more helpful either.

But the real central blame, Clark seems to argue, should be placed upon Russia, whose machinations behind the scenes in her rivalry with the Ottomans, hostility to the Hapsburgs, alliance with the French and encouragement of Serbian revanchism provoked the greater instability that finally was to tinder the conflagration of the Great War. Here too, I remain less than convinced. Most historians of the era focus upon the aggressive intrigues and paranoia that lived in the German court, but with all of the dizzying detail included in this thick book, Clark spends less time on Germany than its key rivals, and whether he means to or not the result serves as a kind of apologist for the German role in waging total war at the outset of what might have been contained as a regional conflict. Unfortunately, more is implied by way of the concluding chapters than is categorically asserted by the author in support of a distinct argument.

Clark does succeed brilliantly by reminding the reader again and again that European alliances and enmities existed over ever shifting ground. Pre-war events in our mind are often frozen in 1914 because we know what came next, but had the Archduke’s untimely end came a year earlier or a year later the subsequent repercussions might well have been very different. Indeed, in the early 1890s it seemed more probable that England would form an entente with Germany rather than France. Clark argues quite convincingly that: “Crucial to the complexity of the events of 1914 were rapid changes in the international system . . . These were not long-term historical transitions, but short-range realignments.” [p.557] And in a digression on Balkan geopolitics in 1913, Clark tellingly points out that: “Given time, the new Balkan alignment might just as quickly have made way for further adjustments and new systems. What matters is that this particular pattern of alignments was still in place in the summer of 1914.” [p.279]

A century after the Great War detonated Europe’s long nineteenth century and inaugurated decades of bloody horror in the twentieth, Clark’s outstanding book on its roots should remind us of the intricate linkage between nation states in a global environment and how delicate and fragile coexistence can be amid such complexity. This is an especially chilling thought, I would suggest, because a hundred years after Sarajevo, we remain so much like these people and states of those days, except for the styles of clothes we wear and the nuclear weapons we now stockpile.

Postscript: This review is dedicated to Don Burke of Somers CT who gave me this book and died on March 18, 2015, one week after I finished reading it.

Review of: Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, by Eric Foner

In Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Eric Foner sets out to rescue the legendary “Underground Railroad” from both oblivion and revisionism, and generally succeeds in this effort. Long a staple of antebellum tales of daring-do inside and out of the classroom, Foner’s overview of its historiography reveals that the Underground Railroad has been both extolled as an effort largely by white abolitionists to help fugitive slaves to freedom and pilloried as a myth that unfairly deprives credit to the overwhelming numbers of self-emancipating African-Americans who made it entirely on their own or with the random assistance of the free black population along the way. Most recently, some have argued that the entire concept of an Underground Railroad was nothing more than romanticized myth. In this well-written, well-documented history, Foner first demolishes the latter allegation as without basis and then neatly demonstrates – in a narrative frequently peppered with personal accounts — that not only was the Underground Railroad very much a reality that was indeed responsible for ensuring the freedom from recapture for thousands of escaped slaves from the upper South over many years, but that it was deftly piloted both by dedicated white abolitionists and free blacks who worked closely together far more often than has been revealed in previous accounts.

While the geography of Gateway to Freedom surveys locales like Pennsylvania, Boston and upstate New York, it is set primarily in New York City in the final decades leading up to the Civil War, a largely unfriendly atmosphere for fugitive slaves due to the strong economic ties between the port city and the slave south. Yet, there was a vibrant network of free blacks and white abolitionists who approached the task of rescuing slaves seeking their freedom with an almost religious fervor. The state of New York – more sympathetic to the cause than the city – enacted laws that declared any non-fugitive brought to the state by their owner automatically set free, and evolving personal liberty laws that guaranteed a role for the courts in rendition, which acted as a certain kind of uneasy shield against an overtly hostile city government unwilling to damage trade ties by turning New York City into an escape hatch for runaways.

The personal liberty laws, not always ironclad, did when enforced offer some unwelcome legal hoops for slavecatchers to jump through – which was essential since it turns out that Solomon Northrup of Twelve Years a Slave fame was not an isolated victim as free blacks, especially children, were frequently kidnapped and then sold into slavery in the south with little or no questions asked on the receiving end. For the most part, though, these laws were typically employed by abolitionists and their allies as legal obfuscations – like a contemporary defense attorney might game the system to aid a guilty client – to delay rendition or effect release of runaways on a technicality to gain time to spirit the defendant away to another state more friendly to fugitives or, in many cases, to Canada, where they would be both free and safe. Not surprisingly, the south howled in unison in protest of such legal shenanigans. But slave state ire rose to new levels of outrage especially at the provision that slaves “in transit” – not uncommon in the hub of a great port city like New York – were if not escapees immediately to be liberated once their feet touched free soil. (Free blacks were certain to promptly share this with their newly-arrived enslaved brethren if they were heretofore unaware of the law.) This made for some sticky situations, most notably (this time in Pennsylvania) when North Carolina politician John Hill Wheeler – newly appointed ambassador to Nicaragua and fresh from dinner with President Franklin Pierce – was on a stopover in Philadelphia on his way to New York with his slave Jane Johnson and her young children when they were “liberated” by a team of white and black abolitionists, with the support of five black dockworkers. This created quite an uproar, of course, but the law upheld it since by statute Johnson and her progeny ceased to be slaves the moment they stepped on Philadelphia’s free soil. It is telling that Wheeler remained convinced that they were instead abducted, incredulous that Jane would want to free herself because presumably she was so well cared for while his property. This of course was a recurring theme in the antebellum south, where the suspicion was often voiced that well-treated slaves would not seek freedom if not for the influence of evil abolitionists – somehow oblivious to the oxymoronic pairing of the terms “slave” and “well-treated.”

Of course, as Foner relates with some detail, many slaves destined to run away were not treated well by any definition. Indeed, a good number fled simply for an opportunity to be free rather than enslaved, but tales of brutality abound, including beatings and deprivation of food and basic needs. There is an account of one stripped naked and flogged severely. Another who witnessed his own brother shot dead by their owner for resisting a beating. Many women became fugitives to spirit their children to safety when word leaked out that an impending sale of their offspring was on the horizon. In one poignant story, we learn of Eliza Manokey, a forty-two year old slave from Delaware who was often deprived of food and clothing and routinely flogged, who witnessed her four year old son being presented as a gift to the owner’s nephew for transit to Missouri: “… the boy clung frantically to his mother … but in vain.” Apologists for the south who rally to the myth of the “Lost Cause” notwithstanding, cruelty seems to have been institutionalized in the slave states, even if every owner was not a monster. This is most apparent in the punishments for recaptured runaways, as in the case of a successful rendition that returned a fugitive to his master, who subsequently had him tied and whipped in a public forum before selling him. It is difficult not to hold the witnesses to this brutal treatment unashamedly meted out in public – and by extension the entire slave south – complicit in such unspeakable acts that clearly put the lie to such unbelievable claims as that by the Richmond Whig that slaves in the south “. . . are the happiest and best cared for laboring population in the world.” If slaves were not, like Uncle Tom — the eponymous protagonist of the Stowe novel – routinely beaten to death, there seemed to be little shelter from arbitrary treatment in a system that at its core and on its best behavior was inhumane.

All of this – in Gateway to Freedom as well as the many other books I have read on slavery in the antebellum south – cannot help but lead the reader to vehement objection when contemporary apologists try to give the south a pass for their euphemistic “peculiar institution,’ with the polite fiction that we cannot judge them from the vantage point of today. Okay, let us then judge them by their times: with the exception of Brazil, slavery had essentially been abolished throughout the globe – the United States was the notable holdout. The founding elite planters four score years before had agonized over its moral blemish, and even if Jefferson and his generation did not have the will or the courage to let go “the wolf by the ears,” as he so aptly put it, they hardly celebrated it as a virtue. So if you lived in the 1840s or 1850s it is difficult to believe that you could have been unaware that the practice of institutionalized human bondage was universally condemned or that it was branded a great evil – unless you were delusional. Clearly, many in the south were indeed delusional victims of their own propaganda that over the years provided handy justification for going forward with something so repugnant. But delusional is no defense against culpability. As Lincoln said, “If slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong.”

White abolitionists and particularly their free black associates took tremendous risks, especially in making forays to the south to effect escapes of slaves rather than only assisting them once they had already made their way to free soil. Gateway to Freedom reveals acts of tremendous courage by these intrepid engineers of the Underground Railroad. On the other hand, Foner like any fine historian brings nuance and complexity to the narrative, uncovering the bickering, disputes and even fracturing of the abolition movement which at last led to a schism between those loyal to the often volatile famous Boston pacifist William Lloyd Garrison and those in New York’s abolitionist camp with wealthy elite businessman Lewis Tappan, who took a somewhat more vigorous approach to assisting fugitive slaves. In retrospect, some of their squabbles seem so banal as to be reminiscent of the ludicrous hostility of the “People’s Front of Judea” for the “Judean People’s Front” in the Monty Python comic masterpiece, Life of Brian, but these men were driven by ideological and moral imperatives, so even if hardly sensible under the circumstances, we must forgive their quarrels if only because their mutual intentions were indeed admirable.

Gateway to Freedom is so pregnant with detail as to run dry in parts, although the account is often rescued by stirring tales of the enslaved struggling to be free and their saviors, white and black. Yet, the sheer number of escapees cited only further swells an already large cast of characters dominated by abolitionists on and off stage. An appendix with an alphabetical list would be helpful to the reader. Also, more of a quibble than a complaint, I suppose, the narrative is not nearly as compelling as it might have been if it was not written both for an academic and a popular audience, so the flow of the storyline is frequently and unevenly interrupted by commentary in quotation marks which adds pauses the reader might wish were not present. Still, Foner has done a masterful job with his subject: anyone interested not only in the Underground Railroad but also in slavery and abolition in the antebellum era should be encouraged to read this fine work.

Review of: Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia by Susan Dunn

If you have ever wondered, as I have, what possibly could have happened to the Virginia of the Founders’ generation that saw it fall from prominence and then emerge some several decades later hosting the capital of the Confederacy, then I would highly recommend that you read Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison & the Decline of Virginia, by Susan Dunn. In a very well-written account of these bookends to Virginia’s history, Dunn brilliantly traces the path from Virginia’s dominance of the national stage through its slow decline into a provincial backwater mired in bad roads, a regressive state constitution, sub-standard schools and intellectual decay that finds itself clinging to a proud celebration of an imaginary past rooted in an agrarian paradise while shrilly whining about northern industry and growing increasingly paranoiac about the advance of federal power. For anyone who has devoted time to a study of the antebellum south, it should come as no surprise that the centrality of slavery is the chief culprit in Virginia’s unravelling, but Dunn’s scholarship stands out in her exploration of the complexity and nuance that reveals beyond this a multiplicity of competing forces that seem to doom the “Old Dominion” to its humiliating tumble from eminence.

Once upon a time, Virginia and Massachusetts took the lead in forcing a divorce from their colonial mistress and, when independence was achieved, creating the new Republic from a league of states jealous of their own individual sovereignty that almost miraculously was transformed into a nation founded upon both representation and the rule of law. When it came to the forging of a new nation, Virginia truly was a land where giants walked. Three of the six key Founders – Jefferson, Madison and Washington — were Virginian, as well as a larger cast of prominent fellow citizens: Patrick Henry, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, Peyton Randolph, and James Monroe. Madison was one of the chief architects of the Constitution. Four of the first five Presidents hailed from the Old Dominion, as well as the highly consequential Chief Justice John Marshall who by defining judicial review essentially carved out the critical role of the Supreme Court as arbiter of constitutional law that it has played ever since. Could anyone have guessed that after James Monroe ended his second term as President in 1825 Virginia would essentially abdicate its central role in the nation? What could possibly have occurred to transform the Virginia of these larger-than-life figures that championed liberty to one some thirty-six years later that would take it out of the Union on a perilous course of secession to preserve and protect not liberty but the institution of slavery?

It turns out that the seeds of its decline were present at the creation. While Thomas Jefferson took the critical lead to turn Enlightenment Thought into statute – abolishing medieval anachronisms like entail and primogeniture that perpetuated hereditary wealth in the hands of a few, and passing truly progressive legislation that disestablished a state church and promoted freedom of religion – he and his spiritual kin were less successful with drafting a state constitution that was even close to democratic. As Dunn details, the Virginia state constitution that supplanted the colonial charter was cruelly regressive; long after other states had abandoned such requirements, the Old Dominion extended suffrage to only a very narrow band of property holders, so that most residents had literally no say in their government. Moreover, law was clearly tilted to favor not only the rich slave-owning plantation elite, but by virtue of that construction it placed virtually all authority in the Tidewater planters of the eastern portion of the state. As such, not only were less affluent whites excluded, essentially the entire western half of the state was disenfranchised. If you have ever wondered why the western geography of Virginia seceded from the state in the early days of the Confederacy and then joined the Union, the roots of it are right here. Yet, it was not simply the state constitution, but the fact that it empowered that Tidewater elite to ensure that tax laws favored them, that it resisted and forestalled any improvements to education or transportation or anything that might benefit anyone but their interests. And what were their interests? Basically, self-preservation and an almost bizarre fantasy of an idealized way of life that in fact never really existed except in their collective historical imagination. On the one hand, the rich slave-owning planter aristocracy saw no need to fund roads, canals or railroads to connect the more industrious western part of the state with the Tidewater, or to the predatory markets of the northern states they decried, even as their land lost value, their population hemorrhaged into fleeing emigrants, their schools succumbed to provincialism, their intellectual strength radically contracted as their book and journal publishing diminished. Both Jefferson and Madison decried the state constitution and ever hoped it would be rewritten as more democratic. It was a long time coming and Jefferson did not live to see the day, but a new state constitutional convention was convened in 1829. Although eighteenth century icons Madison and Monroe attended – Monroe colorfully still dressed in eighteenth century attire – it was tragically too late: despite his earlier jeremiads against the old regressive constitution, when it got down to the wire Madison caved and sided with the planters of his class so that the new vital organ of state government offered little but ineffectual saccharine reforms and power was retained by the same forces that had held the state back for decades.

For those who rightly recognize the centrality of slavery in the coming rebellion but fail to pay proper attention to simmering hostilities over states’ rights and tariffs, Dunn properly restores the balance. She wisely underscores that tariffs were likely unfair to agrarian Virginia and the south, and that all fears of an encroaching federal government were not fully unfounded, yet when she deconstructs their concerns it seems clear that much of their hyperbolic rhetoric lacked substance once again because they were acting in defense of a world that really never was. And in the real world, Virginia became simply a place most people did not want to remain in, even for the extended families of the planter elite who had such a romantic attachment to the land, a kind of feudal society ever oddly out of place for the revolutionary generation and beyond. So they left for schools in the north for a time, or they left permanently. Dunn also reminds us that Washington and Marshall – and Madison most of the time – were nationalists who rather than abandoning Virginia sought to further amalgamate her into the federal fabric they had helped to weave at the dawn of the Republic. Yet, in this they were left mostly disappointed.

That Madison and Jefferson are cited in the book’s subtitle is not a fanciful flourish to sell more copies: these two – in life and posthumously – are etched deeply into the historical record of Virginia from 1776 to 1861. From the start, there seems as if there were ever two competing political philosophies: the yeoman farmer with his plot of land jealously guarding his own sovereignty and that of his “country” — Virginia — free from the encroachments of others; and, the citizen of the Enlightenment that demanded liberty, equality, and democracy for all in a league with others to guarantee these rights as part of a nation that secured them. For those who have read his biographies – especially the magisterial American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis – it should come as little surprise that these two rival perspectives could not only be held by one person but sometimes could be held simultaneously by that same person, within the often brilliant intellectual schizophrenia of none other than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a genius beset by contradictions, who championed liberty while excusing slavery, celebrated provincialism while calling for unity, demanded perpetual union while idealizing bloody revolution for each new generation. To this day, Jefferson – like the Bible – can be cited by just about anyone to support just about any cause. Madison, while often Jefferson’s right-hand man, was more circumspect and far more nationalistic. Both men were to leave an indelible stain in the record for those who claimed the right for nullification and secession as they took their respective turns authoring the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions in heated resistance to the hated Alien and Sedition Acts that were creatures of the Adams Administration in the 1790s. Madison, ever loyal to the union he helped forge, was to spend the rest of his life trying to live down his role in this affair. Meanwhile, other prominent Virginians like Washington and Marshall were unwavering Federalists who sought to strengthen that Union by attaching Virginia and the other states more firmly to its purposes.

The elephant in the room in Virginia, as in the rest of the antebellum south, was slavery. The very reason why the Jeffersonian vision of the independent yeoman farmer in an agrarian paradise was really so much smoke-and-mirrors was because it was only the wealthy planter elite of Jefferson’s class who could hope to make it work and only with legions of slaves and – most critically – it usually failed for them, as well. Jefferson was in debt and on the verge of ruin most of his life, as were much of his contemporaries. It was simply not a viable economic model, and — deep down, as their writings reveal — they knew it! Meanwhile, the despised northern states of free labor zoomed ahead with wealth and industry and canals and trains and factories and booming cities – while even the richest planters had to routinely navigate ruined roads to get from point A to point B, their children were educated in New England colleges, and both their wealth and their numbers declined. Still, they not only stubbornly clung to this lifestyle but celebrated it as much as they resented their brethren in the north and they disrespected their labor. Here, as Dunn points out, Virginia had much in common with the rest of the slave states of the south: the nature of slavery as a cherished institution was that free labor among whites came to be despised.

And yet … from the start Jefferson and the Virginia Founders – slave-owners all – recognized the evils of their peculiar institution and sought to find a way to divest themselves of it. In his first draft of the Declaration, Jefferson termed slavery an “abominable crime,” and later famously framed the conundrum of hating slavery yet owning slaves to an analogy of holding a “wolf by the ears” – afraid of what might follow if you let it go. Like the state constitutional convention, Jefferson did not live to see the state debate ending slavery in its House of Delegates sessions of 1831-32, but his grandson was there along with a host of others decrying slavery and seeking gradual emancipation, albeit through colonization to Africa for all blacks, free and enslaved, to avoid a mixing of the races. Still, this was a historic moment for Virginia even more potentially consequential than the failed constitutional reforms of two years before. It is difficult to imagine how a Virginia without slaves could have later served as the seat of the Confederacy. Again, there was mighty rhetoric and high hopes. Again, all of it was dashed as the delegates ultimately chose to do nothing. As it was, it was a turning point of sorts, but of the wrong kind. As Dunn notes: “Indeed, the slavery debate had legitimized pro-slavery arguments, making it socially, intellectually, and morally acceptable to condone, defend, and even extol slavery.” Ironically, the tables had turned from the days when the Founders made excuses for participating in a great evil; from now on slavery would be advertised as a virtue. Madison later came to blame it on the abolitionists, presciently foreseeing that talk of abolition “. . . would have the reverse effect and incite southerners to speak out even more passionately in favor of slavery.” Of course, in retrospect, the Virginians – and the rest of the south – can only blame themselves.

As a new generation of pseudo-historians on the right have made strong attempts to resurrect the “Lost Cause” Myth of the Confederacy to falsely assert the chief cause of the war as a loyalty to states’ rights rather than the centrality of slavery, Dunn’s book is an especially useful tool for scholars willing to explore peripheral causes without losing sight of the fact that despite various clashes over policy, north and south, had there not been slavery there never could never have been a Civil War.

Dunn, a professor at Williams College, has written an outstanding book that anyone with an interest in the antebellum years should read, although it should be noted that some background in the subject is requisite in order the make the most out of it. As the last pages are turned, the reflective reader cannot help but sense a certain shadow descending as the tragedy of Richmond burning and Appomattox looms ahead, a dire penumbra clearly anticipated by brilliant minds like Jefferson and Madison who were despite their iconic genius just as clearly incapable of forestalling it.

Review of: North Korea: State of Paranoia by Paul French

Despite my own conceit that I possess a fairly broad understanding of international politics and geography, the truth is that like most Americans I know next to nothing about North Korea, a bitter enemy of the United States for more than sixty years and perhaps the final remaining domino of the Cold War era. Thus, I was pleased when North Korea: State of Paranoia by Paul French came to me through an early reviewers program. (Note: the copy I read is actually a pre-publication edition of uncorrected page proofs.)

Paul French is a British author of books of Chinese and North Korean history, and is considered a leading expert on North Korea. I am not familiar with his previous works, but North Korea: State of Paranoia reads much like a highly-detailed government report, albeit an extremely well-written one, focused almost entirely on the economic history of North Korea, which is essentially an account of decline and descent to economic collapse and ruin. His thesis argues that it is this failed economy that has defined North Korea’s relationships with friends and foes alike throughout its existence and in the contemporary world serves as the pivot point for its nuclear brinksmanship. I feel that it is definitely the quality of the prose that carries the book, for the overwhelming amount of data presented by French in the course of more than four hundred pages would otherwise be a terrible burden for all but the most dedicated students of the topic.

French neatly traces the history of North Korea under its multigenerational dynasty of the three Kim’s, its unique guiding ideology known as “Juche” – an unlikely and sometimes conflicting blend of Marxist-Leninism, Maoism and Confucianism – and its stubborn adherence to an economic model unwaveringly devoted to a planned, centralized economy that yet has never paid dividends to a nation ever on the brink of widespread famine and disaster. It is also a history of Cold War alliances with the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, and hostility to the United States and South Korea — the other half of a divided nation that it once tried to conquer and absorb in the Korean War that brought the Americans and Mao’s China in on opposite sides. The USSR is now a memory, China has gone capitalist, South Korea is an Asian economic giant, but some six decades after that conflict went from hot to mostly cold, rifles still point warily at one another across the no man’s land of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and North Korea recklessly and inconsistently rattles a nuclear saber under the nervous glare of the United States, which still has thousands of American boots on the ground on one side of the DMZ. The failed economy, tenaciously clinging to a long obsolete planned socialist model, remains according to French the core of North Korean woes and the key to understanding its isolation, its rigidly closed society, its paranoia and its advertised nuclear threat.

The author reveals that not only do few outsiders know more than a very little about the almost inaccessible nation, the North Koreans themselves have been sequestered from the world for so long that they have nothing to juxtapose against their own bleak hardscrabble existence. French makes the point that whereas the economically disadvantaged and politically controlled citizens of the former USSR and the eastern European socialist republics could clearly glean that life was far better and freer in the West, the average North Korean has scant exposure to anything beyond the closed borders of their pariah nation.

We learn also from French that North Korea has been, at least since the uneasy truce that brought the Korean War to its close, largely an afterthought in American foreign policy characterized by benign neglect at best — that has only loomed large briefly from time to time as one of the various dysfunctional Kim’s has surfaced to threaten open hostilities to various neighbors.  As famine and the chronic brink of absolute collapse of the state into mass starvation has become the status quo, North Korea has learned that the only way to successfully engage the international community is through an ever-lengthening shadow of belligerence that essentially results in a temporary backing off in exchange for food relief from the outside. The reader is reminded of a dog who only gets fed if he bares his teeth. Amazingly, this strategy has continued to bear fruit – pun fully intended – through a string of administrations in Washington, although there were some attempts at longer-range engagement during the Clinton years that offered certain unrealized potential. It should surprise no one that as bad as things were in the North Korean-American relationship, it was the Bush Administration’s tactless approach that derailed whatever hoped-for agreements had lurked tenuously on the horizon. George W. Bush and his team of incompetents – who could hardly carry a cup of coffee across a carpet without spilling it – in another uninspired celebration of the boneheaded, provoked the North Koreans, by branding them as one of the hyperbolic “axis of evil” triad, to abandon their inflammatory rhetoric and actually detonate a nuclear weapon, in response to which the resolute Bush team did … well … nothing. Under Obama, it seems that our current foreign policy is to ignore Kim3, so the more things change the more they stay the same. It is a bit disappointing that French does not devote more time to the contemporary political climate and to address that detonation of a bomb as a certain game-changer, but perhaps because it has failed to manifest itself as such in international politics he feels it unworthy of special attention. In this, I am not sure that I agree.

French’s analysis does make clear that there are really very few options available to policymakers. Kim’s habit of holding the international community hostage with nuclear threats in order to obtain food for a near-starving population seems ludicrous on the face of it, but it is not entirely irrational. I recall reading of British anger in World War I at the American sponsored program led by the young Herbert Hoover to feed the famished in occupied Belgium; the Brits noted coldly but accurately that this benefited the German belligerents, as well. While right-wingers can decry propping up a hostile regime with food, would it serve anyone’s interests if the mass-starvation of millions of people was allowed to come to pass – especially because that regime is both paranoid and nuclear-armed, and therefore potentially unstable?

As noted earlier, this book reads very much like an institutional report, so it is pregnant in details. Conspicuous in its absence is any human element to the narrative. There is a little bit more than a biographical sketch of the first Kim — Kim il-sung, the founder of this bizarre nation — but beyond that it is difficult to get a feel for the North Korean people, the elite or the peasantry. It is an isolated society, to be sure, but there have been refugees and defectors, so it should have been possible to add real people to the plot. What is not lacking throughout the book are acronyms — hundreds of acronyms — of agencies, organizations, and the like, which underscores that sense of reading a report. Perhaps these acronyms are essential to this type of study, but I found at least some of these superfluous and could not help feeling that French delighted a bit too much in their use. Fortunately, a convenient alphabetical index of translated acronyms is included at the front of the book, but there are after all far too many to memorize and even a handy key such as this cannot help but disrupt the narrative flow.

Certain shortcomings aside, French is to be credited as a fine writer whose narrative is never permitted to turn dull even though it contains all of the ingredients of the potentially ponderous. As I turned the final pages, I was pleased that I had read it and would definitely recommend it. I owe a debt to French: because of his reasoned analysis I now feel capable to form opinions and hold an intelligent conversation about North Korea with some sense of confidence.

(reviewed 2-1-15)

Review of: River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War, by Andrew Ward

I might not have chosen to read River Run Red: The Fort Pillow Massacre in the American Civil War by Andrew Ward had I suspected that it would turn out to be the exhaustive study of the incident that it proved. I sought, perhaps, more of an overview of the controversy that was born shortly after reports that Confederate forces under General Nathan Bedford Forrest overwhelmed the poorly defended Western Tennessee Fort Pillow in April 1864 and essentially slaughtered hundreds of surrendered Federals – especially blacks found in Union garb. Having completed Ward’s magisterial study, however, I am grateful that I took the time because his scholarship has not only put to rest some of the wilder assertions about Fort Pillow by both sides, but has successfully delivered layers of nuance to the events of that day and its aftermath as well as provided a deeper understanding of the conflict in this western part of the theater of war.

The historiography on the Fort Pillow massacre, especially for those in sympathy with the south, has often resembled a latter day climate change debate: there are those who claim it did not exist, and a slightly more moderate group that is willing to concede that it did but that it was greatly exaggerated. On the other side, there is little debate about the carnage, but much in dispute as to whether it occurred by the order of – or at least with the blessings of – Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest is the key to the argument on both sides, a remarkable general by all estimations — north and south, then and now — who yet had a past as an antebellum slave trader and a future as a founder of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. Of course, there is a long history of allowing admiration for courage and military prowess on the battlefield to become conflated with the character of the subject and spawning an otherwise undeserved adulation: think of Alexander the Great, Caesar and Napoleon, or more recently, MacArthur and Patton. Southerners still tend to lionize Forrest as the intrepid general that gave the Yankees one of the best runs for the money in the entire war. In the marvelous Ken Burns television documentary, The Civil War, historian Shelby Foote – who should have known better – reveals an almost embarrassing boyish idolatry for this hero of the Confederate cause. On the other side, Forrest is seen — despite his well-deserved laurels as a military commander — as a violent, brutal, uneducated man whose contempt for African-Americans ran so deep that he essentially denied their humanity in word and deed.

Ward takes all sides to task as he brilliantly deconstructs the “Wizard of the Saddle” and the world of poverty and struggle that he emerged from to become one of the Confederacy’s preeminent generals, uncritically revealing a man who seems hardly deserving of the exaltation of his admirers any more than the demonization of his foes. Still, in his effort at impartiality, Ward may have gone too far, for in this biography there is indeed much of the demon in place: simply, for instance, the fact that he was a slave-trader as opposed to simply a slave-owner, a particularly odious way to make a living. It does not appear that Forrest was especially harsh to the human beings — men, women and children – that he retailed to the highest bidder, nor was he especially kind. It is clear that those who claim Forrest treated his slave property well under the circumstances seem oblivious to the inherent oxymoron in “slave property” and “treat well.”

Ward can be commended for setting the stage for the events that led up to Fort Pillow. While Tennessee seceded from the Union, it had more in common with border states that did not like Missouri, for it remained deeply split between Unionists and Confederates. Much of the state fell to the Federals early the war and future President Andrew Johnson became the military governor, but the conflict continued sporadically for years, marked by both set battles and guerrilla warfare. And then there was West Tennessee – the extreme corner of the state defined by the borders of the Mississippi River on one side and the Tennessee River on the other – which became a microcosm of the bitter “brother-against-brother” struggle between those loyal to Washington or Richmond.   It is this environment that was the breeding ground for Fort Pillow.

Ward also succeeds masterfully in bringing to life the three groups of people who were to commingle that fateful day: “colored troops,” white Unionists, and Confederates. Especially admirable is the treatment of blacks – slaves, civilians and soldiers – who are usually sidelined in such histories. Ward even explores the slave mentality that runs the gamut from those who stayed loyal “. . . even as their masters galloped off to sustain their bondage . . .” to the poignant elderly escaped slave sobbing over his wife who has died of exposure during their flight who confesses wistfully to his master upon recapture “. . . but then you see she died free.” As such, his history restores a humanity often absent even in sympathetic treatments of the African-American experience.

Perhaps the least admirable characters are the “homegrown Yankees” that make up a portion of the Federals at Fort Pillow: whites loyal to the Union, many who have switched sides more than once for convenience, and a good number who have deserted Confederate Tennessee regiments to don blue uniforms. These men, often ignored in the studies of Fort Pillow, turn out to be one of the chief causes for Confederate rage upon storming the fort, along with the atavistic horror of former slaves bearing arms against them.

If this review is taking its time getting around to the massacre, it is because Ward’s book does, as well. When it reaches that point, however, the reader is grateful for the delay because it has made manifest that the elements are in place that lead to a confluence of competing forces to create the perfect storm for the bloodthirsty rage that victorious Confederates inflict upon the survivors, both black and white, who are slaughtered by bullets, bayonets and bludgeoning while attempting to surrender. Some are also burned to death or buried (intentionally or unintentionally) alive. Neither wounded soldiers in hospital tents nor civilians are spared, in an orgy of slaughter that sickened some of the rebels who witnessed it. Once and for all, Ward’s book confirms that a terrible massacre did indeed take place and he spares no details – based upon detailed corroborating eyewitness testimony. Ward refutes some of the more extreme charges made by the north after the fact – that men were nailed to boards and set afire, for instance, or that Forrest was on the field urging the butchery on – but the thoroughness of his research demonstrates conclusively that much of what was originally reported was not hyperbole but that terrible, almost unimaginable crimes indeed took place on that day.

And what of Forrest? The book gives him sort of a pass, to some degree, but not much of one, for it turns out that he was not on the killing fields as is sometimes alleged, and he does, finally, arrive on the scene to vehemently bring it to an end – alas, too late for most of the victims. Yet, several of the Confederate officers engaged in the wanton murder are overheard repeating that it is Forrest who has ordered that no prisoners be taken. It seems hard to believe that the Wizard was ignorant of what was occurring even if he was physically removed from the field. He certainly takes no action to punish the perpetrators, and he is known to brag of that day on more than one subsequent occasion. The title of Ward’s book is derived from one of these boasts: “The river was dyed [SIC] with the blood of the slaughtered for two hundred yards. . . . It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”

The aftermath of Fort Pillow led to much recrimination, but neither Forrest nor his men were ever held accountable for the events of that day. Still, it proved to be a watershed: some Confederates took it as an unstated approval of the policy of shooting captured black Union soldiers, while others lived in fear ever after of being executed if taken prisoner by colored troops that now had “Remember Fort Pillow” signs sewn to their uniforms. Fort Pillow further exacerbated the breakdown in parole and prisoner exchanges between the two sides, of which the unintended consequence was the deaths of thousands of Union prisoners in overcrowded Andersonville and elsewhere.

The one disappointment in this otherwise fine history is Ward’s failure to write a strong concluding chapter summing up his research and underscoring his own thesis. There are hints here and there, but the reader cannot help but look for a tidier end after being bombarded with so much material. But perhaps this is deliberate. In any event, I highly recommend River Run Red as an outstanding work of Civil War scholarship and perhaps the final word on the egregious events at Fort Pillow.

(reviewed 1-25-15)

Review of: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

It is fitting that The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan — the first book I read in 2015 — is actually the first book I purchased in the new year: on New Year’s Day, at a quaint little book shop in the quaint center of Mystic CT. I had read Tasmanian author Flanagan before: Gould’s Book of Fish, which I consider one of the greatest works of literature of our time; and more recently, The Unknown Terrorist, a fine novel also but not quite up to the same superlatives.

I cannot recall the last time a novel left me stunned and nearly breathless, but that was my state when I let the covers close on The Narrow Road to the Deep North. As in all great works of fiction, the quality of the writing is extraordinary. Moreover, the narrative flow is so well crafted that there exists not a single moment where the reader might be bored or distracted. Flanagan leaves behind the phantasmagoria of the magical realism (an Australian version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez!) characteristic of Gould’s Book of Fish this time as the central theme of this novel is based upon firm historical events: the punishing misuse of allied prisoners of war by the Japanese in World War II to construct the famous “Burma Railway” – also known as the “Death Railway” because the brutal forced labor condemned about one fifth of the captives to death and much of the survivors scarred for life by what was essentially a mobilized concentration camp.

As in Gould’s Book of Fish, we find Flanagan at his best exploring the cruelties that human beings can inflict upon each other and the omnipresence of evil, even while yet locating and identifying the clarity of unexpected acts of kindness and the essential goodness that can sometimes be found within an otherwise common individual. In this there is an echo of Cormac McCarthy perhaps, although Flanagan is generally less cynical and many of his most frightfully morally corrupt characters guilty of the most atrocious horrors seem unwilling or unable to believe that they are doing anything but their duty to a greater cause. In this, Flanagan revives an older genre of ordinary people committing extraordinary crimes but breathes a new life into it as he juxtaposes these fiends with their correspondingly ordinary victims. Also unlike McCarthy but possibly more in step with Sebastian Faulks, there lies at the root an unrequited love story that is so well told and incrementally revealed that it resonates heartache without sentimentality.

It should come as no surprise that The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the prestigious literary recognition of the Man Booker Prize in 2014, which is no small achievement. This is an outstanding novel that should stand with the very best literature of our day.

(reviewed on 1/22/15)

Review of: Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement, by Ousmane K. Power-Greene

An unexpected dividend to my habit of attending random author events is the occasional and remarkable encounter with a fascinating new perspective. Such was the case when I took my seat at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley MA one evening in November 2014 for a reading and signing of Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement by Ousmane K. Power-Greene, Associate Professor of History at Clark University, and left with a signed first edition.

I am fairly well read on the American Civil War, especially in its socio-political manifestations, as well as on slavery in the antebellum period. In the course of my studies, the topic of the colonization of blacks back to Africa has surfaced from time to time, but only in the framework of an alleged best recourse for emancipated slaves in what was of course a hostile white society both north and south at the time. I knew this notion was sometimes embraced by Abraham Lincoln and that it met with vehement opposition by Frederick Douglass. While I recognized that colonization was certainly racist and paternalistic, I yet viewed it within a context of benevolence, as least with regard to Lincoln’s intentions. I even sometimes wondered if perhaps such an idea was not so misplaced, given the horror of Southern “redemption” at the end of Reconstruction and the struggle for basic civil rights by African-Americans in the century that followed.

Imagine my surprise when I learned from Power-Greene and his marvelous well-researched scholarly book that the actual origins of the colonization movement go back to the 1816 founding of the American Colonization Society, that it was championed by no less of a national figure than Henry Clay, and that its intention was primarily to relocate free blacks to an “African homeland!” I suspect this is a little-known fact for most students of the period and it certainly places a loud exclamation mark on both the concept of colonization and its furious opponents, such as Douglass.  The topic serves as a timely reminder that the Free Soil movement in the north was, while indeed hostile to slavery, hostile to blacks as well, and adds a striking dimension to what we already know about the deeply-seated racism of a north that largely went to war to preserve the union rather than free the slaves. Most prominently, it rescues from obscurity the vocal anti-colonization movement peopled by free blacks like Douglass and white abolitionist allies like William Lloyd Garrison.

In Against Wind and Tide – the latest installment to the Early American Places series — Ousmane Power-Greene does an admirable job of tracing the roots of the colonization movement and its resistance, carefully plotting the course of the two opposing forces over the nearly half-century that preceded the Civil War. But more than that Power-Greene resurrects a largely forgotten free African-American community of well-educated statesmen, sometimes at odds with one another, who argued for inclusion in the American experience rather than exile to a faraway shore where they could find nothing but skin color in common. I can recall pejorative comments by a fellow white student in the 1970’s wondering aloud what we would study in our “Black History” course after we had covered it all in the first two weeks! Such a statement underscores ignorance more than racism although it contains elements of both: in those days we really had little knowledge of African-American figures beyond the few that briefly dotted our textbooks. At the same time, it is a pointed reminder that outside of those scholars pursuing the subject this remains a large vacuum among most historians. Power-Greene’s book offers a welcome remedy to a gap most of us are not even aware we need to fill.

The story of the anti-colonization movement is, like much of history, deeply complex and nuanced. While there were relatively few African-Americans who embraced colonization to the manufactured West African nation of Liberia that sought to serve as a homeland to American free blacks who chose to relocate, they did represent a select minority – and they were frequently castigated by their anti-colonization brethren. At the same time, the anti-colonizationists contained elements of “emigrationists” – almost entirely forgotten by history – who felt defeated by prospects for justice in the United States and saw a thriving future for blacks in Haiti, Canada and elsewhere where they could construct their own communities free from oppression. The larger majority was led by Douglass, whose stubborn allegiance to “stand-and-fight” often led him to deliberately and unfairly conflate the emigrationists with the colonizationists to discredit the former. Interestingly, even Douglass came to briefly ponder emigration in the late antebellum period as hope for any kind of justice for African-Americans in the United States came to seem ever more remote. Douglass’s sagging spirit was reborn during the Civil War, and he famously openly criticized Lincoln for his ongoing flirtation with colonization.

If there is a weakness to this book it is that it is a scholarly history book rather than a popular one. It is obvious that it has its roots in a well-developed thesis paper. While Ousmane Power-Greene is a far better writer than the vast majority of scholarly historians in print, the confining structure of style imprisons him to some degree, so themes do not carry as gracefully as they might have had he been writing for a popular audience. But that is a quibble. Moreover, this is a slender volume that focuses upon the somewhat narrow manifestation of the anti-colonizationists. There is a much larger story to tell: about the emigrationists and their communities in Haiti, for instance; about the successes and failure of Liberia; about the many personalities in the free black community who have faded into anonymity. There is a lot more that could be told in a popular history for a larger audience if Power-Greene opts to take on that challenge. In the meantime, I would urge anyone with interest in the antebellum era to pick up and read Against Wind and Tide – you will not regret it!

(reviewed 1-2-15)