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Modern History

This category contains 9 posts

How West Point and Annapolis are like East Berlin

At a commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, last month, U.S. President Obama hit all the right notes: he complimented the military on remaining “the most trusted institution in America”, he vowed to eradicate sexual assault, which is rife in the armed forces, and he encouraged the graduates to “live with integrity and speak with honesty and take responsibility and demand accountability”. Of the military academies themselves, and their system of values — perhaps best expressed in the class motto “Surrender to Nothing” — Obama said “our nation needs them now more than ever”. Recent books, such as Lance Betros’s ‘Carved from Granite: West Point Since 1902′, tend to provide the historical background narrative to such rhetoric. But do the military academies deliver? Do they deserve their unique status as federally funded institutions of higher learning, for the purposes of training military officers? Bruce Fleming, Professor of English at Annapolis, begs to differ. The academies encourage a misguided sense of entitlement, drain public funds, and do not deliver intellectually. Worst of all, they are about as historically outdated and oblivious to their anachronistic existence as East Berlin in the year 1989.

American Foundations and the Politics of Philanthropy

In his book ‘Foundations of the American Century’ (Columbia University Press 2012), Inderjeet Parmar provides a wide-ranging study of the influence American philanthropic foundations have exerted on world politics and the ‘soft power’ that comes with cultural hegemony. The mutual penetration of state and society, notest Parmar, is ‘so deep and comprehensive – physically, politically, ideologically, psychologically, and organizationally – that it is almost impossible to say where one ends and the other begins’. Parmar’s book succeeds, writes reviewer Houman Barekat, because he studiously avoids the trap of implying an unmediated vertical relationship between the philanthropies and the political and economic elites whose goals they ultimately served. Nuanced and well-researched, Parmar’s study provides a healthy antidote to simplistic critiques of US ‘elites’, while bringing out – through case studies of Indonesia and Chile – how the initiatives of ‘philanthropic’ organizations dovetailed with and complemented those of the American state.

A Plea for Multireligious Self-Confidence

Nilüfer Göle’s book “Interpénétrations: L’Islam et l’Europe”, recently translated as “Islam in Europe: The Lure of Fundamentalism and the Allure of Cosmopolitanism”, makes a strong case that Islam must be acknowledged as having become part of the fabric of European modernity. As reviewer Mohammed Khallouk points out, the experience and lifestyle of a generation of young Muslim women in Europe occupies a central place in Göle’s argument. While the values they adopt in their personal lives may differ from those of their (non-Muslim) peers, their non-confrontational fusion of Western modernity and Muslim spirituality showcases what a self-confident multireligious Europe might look like.

Tales From a Dystopic Camelot

In his book ‘Mumbai Fables’ (Princeton 2010), Gyan Prakash unfolds the rich tapestry of the city’s cultural history. From the grand colonial architecture to more recent land reclamation projects, he traces the spatial dimensions of the city and their cultural meanings. Like all great cities, Mumbai has more than one fable in its story. But for all of Mumbai’s historical glamour, the situation of shanty-town dwellers is not overlooked — even though reviewer Katrina Gulliver has some doubts about whether the plotline of a comic book (to which Prakash devotes considerable space) is the right literary device.

The Great Rubber Robbery: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis

In ‘Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis’, Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer tell a meticulously researched story of how entrepreneur Julius Fromm, who had built a lucrative enterprise around a series of inventions and improvements of latex production techniques, lost his ‘condom empire’ in the process of ‘Aryanization’ in Nazi Germany. However the injustice persisted until well after the fall of the Nazi regime. Following Julius’s death in 1945, the Fromm family attempted to regain possession of their property, yet in 1951 they were merely offered a settlement that required the Fromms to pay (!) 174,300 West German marks to Otto Metz-Randa who, as a profiteer of the ‘Entjudung’ had gained ownership in 1939. Why then, asks reviewer Leon Rocha, did the American publisher tone down the original title of the book, ‘Wie der jüdische Kondomfabrikant Julius F unter die deutschen Räuber fiel’ (‘Fromms: How the Jewish Condom Manufacturer Julius F. Fell Prey to German Robbers’)?

The Fame Game

Every Friday morning, postmasters in the United States send out over a million copies of ‘US Weekly’ to subscribers. ‘US Weekly’ is only one of many periodicals that report, and sometimes fabricate, events in the lives of the rich and famous. Where does this cult of celebrity come from? Fred Inglis, in his ‘Short History of Celebrity’, traces the historical origins of celebrity in the modern sense to eighteenth-century London — according to Inglis, ‘the first city to construct itself as a city in a form that would prove recognizable to modernity’. Inglis’s narrative quickly moves from London’s aristocracy and the arcades of Paris to the money- and gossip-obsessed New York of the Gilded Age. Somewhat problematically, according to reviewer Alex Prescott-Couch, he extends his analysis of ‘supreme celebrities’ to the quintessential 20th-century dictators Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. While he may have overshot the mark in this respect and while some attempts at conceptual disaggregation might have been in order, Inglis manages to draw the reader into tales of the rich and fabulous, while at the same providing much elegantly written material for a closer analysis of the phenomenon of celebrity.

Tracing the Origins of Islamophobia

Recent polls conducted by a number of polling institutes indicate that, in the minds of Germans and Europeans, Islam – more than any other religion – is associated with negative feelings. A recent edited volume, ‘Islamfeindlichkeit – Wenn die Grenzen der Kritik verschwimmen’ (roughly: ‘Islamophobia: When the Limits of Criticism become Blurred’), traces the origins of these negative connotations, along with more recent expressions of resentment towards a visible presence of Muslims in Western societies. But, argues reviewer Mohammed Khallouk, the book may also be read as a manifesto for cultural dialogue, with the goal of finding a consensus on values.

What Can Be Learnt From Piracy

What drives the recent resurgence of piracy, especially in the Gulf of Aden and along other major trade routes? In a recent book, Peter T. Leeson argues that by examining the piracy that reached its peak between the end of the seventeenth and the early eighteenth century, and preyed on the major trade routes, one may hope to get a clearer understanding of modern piracy. Leeson, writes reviewer Daniele Archibugi, adopts a thoroughgoingly economic perspective, according to which pirates have historically aimed at obtaining the maximum result with the least effort and above all minimum risk. The prospect of high profits, together with strict rules for social organisation and a striking commitment to principles of equality, made piracy a lucrative and attractive profession in the arly 18th century – with one important downside: when captured, pirates would almost always be hanged.

God’s Executioner

A sixteenth-century journal kept by Frantz Schmidt, a Nuremberg executioner, affords a rare insight into the gruesome world of early modern retribution. But, says author and historian Joel Harrington, beyond the facticity of all the deaths caused by “Meister Frantz”, the journal also throws light on early modern concepts of identity, social status, and the human body as well as on the development of both the picaresque and autobiographical genres. As Meister Frantz grows in both professional and storytelling experience, his accounts of the various unfortunates he encounters become both more colourful and more revealing of his inner world. Consequently, the journal unveils not so much a detailed portrait as a vivid sketch of the moral cosmology of a sixteenth-century executioner.