Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century

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Alistair Horne’s Hubris – The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century focuses on the dangers of over-confidence in the military arena.  He begins with a brilliant quote from the German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck:  “A generation that deals out a thrashing is usually followed by one that receives it.”

While focusing on the fateful decisions made by various admirals and generals, Horne provides a useful history of warfare in the Twentieth Century.  This is no history of the Korean War or of the Russo-Japanese War, but I learned a lot about both from this very readable book.  Again and again Horne shows how prior victories gave outstanding tacticians unfounded confidence in their ability to keep winning.  At some point, they stopped reflecting and accounting for worst case scenarios and just got carried away by feelings of invincibilty.

Horne’s study of why wars unfolded as they did is well told.  Plainly there are a myriad of factors, but I’d much rather focus on individuals and their fateful decisions.  There were plenty of fundamentally evil players on the battlefields of the Twentieth Century, but Horne also shows how more thoughtful and nuanced individuals also got carried away and just kept pushing until they seized defeat from the jaws of victory, as one of my colleagues used to say.

I recommend this book for its focus on the folly of hubris and also because it provides a lucid tour of warfare in the Twentieth Century.

 

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A Mighty Fortress — A New History of the German People

Steven Ozment has written a sweeping history of the German people since the time of the Romans in a mere 325 pages  —  A Mighty Fortress – A New History of the German People.  I just read this book, which was written in 2004, before the Angela Merkel era, so an update might  be in order.  Nonetheless this is a useful book.   I was put initially put off by the language, which seemed unnecessarily dense at the beginning.  Clearer language and a few timely references for some of the more obscure figures would have been helpful in the dense narrative.

However, the story of all the different regions coming together was impressive  —  if only it hadn’t ended up with the machinations of Bismarck, the awful comedy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the utter horror of the Third Reich.  The discussions of Hitler’s coming to power, the Third Reich and the Holocaust were particularly interesting.

Today, it is beyond terrifying to see the parallels between Hitler’s appeal and the current state of American politics.  After the thumping defeat in World War I, many Germans were scared, humiliated and looking for anyone who claimed to be strong.  They seem to have decided that they were in such a state of crisis, that extreme action (and extreme rhetoric) were absolutely necessary.  And, of course, they were susceptible to a candidate targeting scapegoats.

In Hitler’s case, this led to unprecedented tragedy.  The people in a position to oppose him didn’t take him seriously until it was too late.  It is hard not to hold the Germans who voted for him to account, because Hitler pretty much did what he said he was going to do.   With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, there was nothing inevitable about Hitler, but he was nonetheless voted into power.  Fortunately for the world, Hitler considered himself a military genius (despite his paltry military record), and made a number of fatal strategic mistakes that brought the war to an end.  Unfortunately this defeat came only after the deaths of millions upon millions.

Americans like to think that such tragedy couldn’t happen here, but the current election seems to be testing the theory.   Today, a substantial number of American voters seem untroubled by candidates’ lack of foreign relations and military experience.  It is enough for candidates to declare that American will regain its power and be strong, and then to trumpet the candidates’ lack of experience, common sense and humanity as virtues.  Being a boor has somehow become an asset.  Similarly the blanket targeting of Muslims, the bullying of opponents and a determined disregard for factual accuracy all hark back to tactics prevalent in Hitler’s rise to power.

The German people’s response to the Nazi genocide is inevitably unsatisfying.  Even where guilt is acknowledged and reparations are paid, I’m left with the feeling that so many Germans, past and present, really don’t understand or accept that horrific crimes were committed in the name of the German people.  There is  a distancing and a lack of accountability.  Hitler wasn’t just some curse Germany had to endure  —  he was elected and then supported for a very long time.  As with many accounts of this period, this section of the book left me disappointed and unconvinced.  My qualms aside, Germany has taken important steps to quash Anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi revivals.

The reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War brought the book to a close.  The conclusion felt anticlimactic, and certainly didn’t anticipate Angela Merkel or Germany’s current role as one of the more humanitarian countries in Europe.  I can’t help thinking how furious Hitler would be about all the immigrants flocking to Germany, and of course he would be even more furious about the welcome they have received.  The scenario calls for a Mel Brooks treatment.

I did think A New History of the German  People was an interesting book, and it probably deserves a second look.   A lot of important material was set out in remarkably concise fashion.

 

 

In Which Abraham Lincoln Tries to Inspire His Generals to Win the Civil War

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Tried by War  —  Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, by James M. McPherson, persuasively tells one of the more interesting stories of the Civil War.  A beleaguered Abraham Lincoln had a heck of a time getting his generals to wage an offensive war.  Lincoln was famously more aggressive than most of his generals, who were generally more terrified of losing a battle than they were anxious to win the war.  With the outstanding exception of Ulysses S. Grant and a few others, Lincoln’s generals seemed to have an imperfect understanding of what it would take to win the war and save the Union.

At their worst, as personified by George McClellan, these generals cultivated unbelievable arrogance and condescension, mixed with a willful blindness to their superior odds and resources.  They persisted in denial about the need to engage Lee’s army and kept behaving as if the war were going to end in some sort of compromise between the parties.  Not so!.  They either didn’t grasp or didn’t care that Lincoln was determined to achieve a complete victory.

The most striking thing for me was the effort Lincoln undertook to teach himself military strategy.  It is a good thing that Lincoln was good at educating himself, because it seems that he had few contemporary tutors.  As the war began, Lincoln hit the books and read up on military history and strategy, and fortunately proved to be an excellent pupil.  He was profoundly educable and leaned whom to trust.  This was is just part of what made Lincoln THE best possible president for his time.

If you don’t know much about the Civil War’s specifics, this very readable book presents excellent background on the military strategy and battles.  The character sketches of the participants are strong and insightful.  If you do happen to know a lot about the Civil War, this book is also welcome, because of McPherson’s masterful focus on Lincoln’s struggles in the face of the unremitting obstruction from so many of the generals under his command.  I strongly recommend this book!