Tag Archives: History_horrible_history


The Wind Rises: Childhood’s End

I finally got to see my first Miyazaki film in the theater when I took the kids to see The Wind Rises this weekend. I’m still kicking myself for missing The Secret World of Arietty when it passed through town as that has since become my most deeply felt Miyazaki film – I hesitate to use words like “favorite” with my darlings – and that would have just killed on the big screen.  Hayao Miyazaki has stated that this is his last film, and even though he’s retired before, I should not be messing around with being “too busy”. The Wind Rises is the biography of plane engineer Dr. Jiro Horikoshi who designed planes before and during WWII. As a last film, this is both a departure and right in line with Miyazaki’s body of work, a puzzling, deeply personal biopic about a childhood hero that elides as much as it informs. It it both gorgeous and strangely inert.

This isn’t going to be a review, btw; it’s more going to be a collection of impressions. I don’t have a mind for the visual, and I’m no film scholar.

There are two Ursula K. Le Guin novels I haven’t read: Malafrena and Always Coming Home. (Note: Ursula K. Le Guin is my heart, and the writer whose works are most important to me on every single level.) I’ve only taken one run at Malafrena, and I suspect it was mostly wrong timing, as her other Orsinian tales – Orsinia is the fictitious country in which a collection of her stories occur – worked for me entirely. (She’s coming to terms with Virginia Woolf, on some level, in those stories. I know!) I’ve crashed on the rocks of Always Coming Home at least twice, making it a third of the way in before I just set it down and walked away. I posted a non-review of my failure at some point, and a fellow ursine reader sent me this just transcendent explication of the book, calling it her most personal work, this deeply felt but also surface-placid recollection and exploration. I still haven’t read it, despite circling around the book-with-cassette-tape edition I have on my shelves. I have a discomfort about it, like watching something too personal.

There’s something to that here, in The Wind Rises. My husband and I had a long conversation about works we thought fit this strange format: undisputed masters of their craft creating art that ultimately fails (on some level) because the artist has an audience of one: the artist. We can piggyback into this audience, or worm our ways in using biography or the tabs on the personal that align in some feeling way, but the art itself is ultimately impressionistic in a way that defies that external logic. You can hang on by the skin of your teeth or the teeth of your skin, but you will never get it on some visceral level, even if your viscera responds. This can seriously fucking piss off viewers or readers, as evidenced by a lot of nasty, false-populist reviews like Rex Reed‘s for To The Wonder:

To the Wonder is the kind of fiasco that keeps film-festival programmers salivating and discriminating audiences stampeding toward the exit doors. It’s a simpering yawn that makes The Tree of Life seem like an action thriller with Bruce Willis. It is about … nothing.”


Which, look, I’m not going to say that To The Wonder is approachable or even worthwhile to a lot of people, nor am I going to say that those people are either idiots or “discriminating”, Rex. But it’s not about nothing. We’ve been hacking our way through Malick’s To The Wonder over months now, stopping for tirades from my husband – what is this shit? – and conversations with friends – hi, Eric! – about the individual, national and cultural response to a work that’s clearly, clearly, as much about personal mythos and national narrative as it is about, like, telling a story. There is no story that can tell me. There’s no story for anyone. It’s all memory or recording. My husband made peace with To The Wonder when he realized the film depicts all the interstitial moments – just after that conversation, just before that realization – a collection of boring connective moments that are the troughs between the high heights, the slack edge of feeling. But that’s an intellectual response, in the end, to a stark emotional landscape. That’s what we’ve got, I guess.

A lot of The Wind Rises bores me in the same way that To The Wonder does – these vistas where I consider the shape of the light or the angle of the sky more closely than I should, knocking myself out. Huh, you don’t see animated characters smoke anymore, and that smoke is gorgeous. Look at the ripples on the water. Look at the fluid dynamics of the clouds. But then there’s the moments that poleaxe me, like when Marina’s daughter asks her, “Why are you sad?” and she says, “I’m not sad.” There’s no reason on earth that should freak me out, but it does. The moment when I realized that all of the machine noises in The Wind Rises were made by people, which is occasionally funny and sometimes alarming. The 1923 Tokyo earthquake was made by human voices as well; yeesh.

It felt important to me that Hayao Miyazaki was born in January of 1941, about a month after Pearl Harbor, just weeks before my grandparents married and my grandfather enlisted in the Navy, which would send him to the South Pacific where he would encounter Jiro Horikoshi’s planes, at the very least in their effects. Miyazaki is not a Boomer but a War Baby, living through this profound upheaval as a pre-linguistic person; the war more a series of impressions and conversations remembered over dinner or around the doorjamb. I remember these times of my pre-personhood myself – Nixon impeached, the end of the Vietnam war – but I remember them more from my relationships with Viet and Hmong children who began peopling the elementary school, or the conversations overheard but not actually listened to, in the way of children, as my parents talked. Miyazaki is dealing with a part of his life that cannot be accessed through memory.

That The Wind Rises works best in its soaring, physics-defying dream sequences makes perfect sense to me, in this context: Miyazaki painting these watercolor vistas – like the landscapes Jiro’s wife paints en plein air during their courtship? The goofy, childish authorial voice of the Italian engineer intoning with its almost easily-dismissed gravitas as a bedtime story about the worst things there are, and the ugly, logical conclusions of the engineering war machine. There’s a lot of criticism of The Wind Rises because it never exactly owns the effects of Jiro’s engineering in the war effort, but then also some real anger in Japan about its pacifist message. I get the impression that a man of Miyazaki’s generation cannot win, in artistic portrayals of his generation and the gauzy childhood memories of the one before, a rock and a hard place of national narrative and the you lost mentality of the post-Allies. I’m aware of my dislocation as a viewer because I am not Japanese; here I felt the generational disconnect as well.

One of the things I noted as I watched was the strange convergence between Jiro Horikoshi’s marriage and the one between Richard and Arline Feynman when Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. (The wiki article on Jiro has exactly zero about his personal life. I honestly don’t know how much Miyazaki bent here, in terms of life story, and it would be interesting indeed if this was fictional. Also, bearing in mind I’m getting most of my information about Feynman’s marriage from Feynman’s anecdotal memoirs and the film starring Matthew Broderick. I refuse to google, because on some level this has more to do with how biography is created than dreary facts.) The sick woman of Jiro’s wife is something of a thing in Miyazaki’s films, from the absent mother in My Neighbor Totoro to the boy in Arietty. The sequence where Jiro holds his wife’s hand while working slayed me, slayed me like the harsh breaths in Arietty. There’s a lot of his signature characters – the dwarfish superior played for comedy like the mean housekeeper in Arietty; Jiro’s sister who is so like Ponyo in her chubby, brutal girlishness, even when she is grown. I can see the war machines from Howl’s Moving Castle or the thrill of flight from Kiki’s Delivery Service.

The Jiro Horikoshi of the film has the same courtship as Feynman with a tubercular woman, a marriage despite filial objections, and the same divided loyalties as he works unceasingly and tirelessly for a dubious purpose.  The same dislocated relationship to the war effort – tangible, but indirect – the same lonely death of the wives. And the same transcendent belief of the unflinching beauty of their arts as they practice them. There is something wrong with the world that intellects like Feynman’s and Horikoshi’s are spent on things that florescence and then explode. “None of my planes came back,” Horikoshi tells his soul-body in the end. It is left to the viewer to see them driven to debris and the end. Feynman’s creation rains down on Japan in a hellfire. That Miyazaki inserts himself in a wand-breaking sequence like Prospero’s, the authorial acknowledgement that talent and mastery come to their end, hellfire or not, lends a tragic sweetness to the film. Is this the end? Does it have to be? Oh, God, no, please.


Forget everything you THOUGHT you knew about the Imperial court of 6th century Byzantium


NEW! From the mild-mannered historian who brought you The History of the Wars series, Procopius’s disillusioned tell-all The Secret History gives you the lowdown on what was REALLY going on in the palace of Emperor Justinian!

Constantinople’s most-lauded historian pulls off the kid gloves and tells it like it was: the depravity, the corruption, the scandal; NO HOLDS BARRED! Don’t trust the official party-line histories, or an outsider’s opinion; take it from somebody who knew and lived among these rulers, and saw them warts-and-all every day!


Emperor Justinian

Official History says: Nephew of Emperor Justin, and successor to him on the Imperial throne. Best known for the beautiful and enduring buildings he commissioned throughout the capital city, as detailed in Procopius’s adoring book On Buildings.

Procopius says:
Take every bad habit and character failing you can think of, ball them all up into one man, and that’s basically this guy. He acts without thinking, he makes decrees before he has all the facts, he talks about things he doesn’t know, he swears oaths and then doesn’t keep his word, he takes bribes, he always withdraws money from the Treasury and never once makes a deposit to grow the Imperial wealth… he’s just about the worst person you could pick to be an emperor.
His favorite hobbies, apparently, include fucking up anything that’s working correctly, shitting all over Roman traditions, and devising new ways of stealing the choicest estates of the nobility for himself.
He invaded Libya and killed, like, a third of the people FOR NO GOOD REASON!  Those people could have paid taxes, yo!
On another occasion (p.130), he started an unneccessary conflict against the Vandals, in which -by my rough estimate- one million million (i.e. a trillion) innocent persons lost their lives.
Under his administration, the streets of Byzantium aren’t safe. He pretty much doesn’t give a fuck if roving gangs steal the beautiful brooches from upper crust ladies, or threaten fair-minded men and the elderly with daggers. “WTF do I care? I’m JUSTINIAN, bitches! Ain’t no skin off my nose.”
Also: For some reason- God only knows why- he has a particularly devoted following among partisans who call themselves “The Blue”. They’re a bunch of lawless hoods, who fuck other men’s’ wives and sons, but Justinian could give a rat’s ass about that. It’s easy to spot Blues on the street, because they are known by their favored hair style. Here, let me describe it to you (p.72):

”The hair  on the front of the head they cut right back to the temples, allowing the growth behind to hang down to its full length in a disorderly mass, like the Massagetae. That is why they sometimes called this the Hunnish style.”

Sound familiar?

Yeah, that’s right; Justinian was huge with the mullet crowd.




Empress Theodora

Official History says: Loving wife of Justin, and a strong co-ruler of the Empire, Theodora was also possessed of a legendary beauty which was admired throughout the known world.  (Admittedly, it doesn’t come across so well in mosaic.)

Procopius says:
When she gets in one of her moods, clear out, because she’s been known to have servants’ tongues cut out for no reason. She had her best friend’s son tortured just because it suited her fancy. She had a dungeon constructed beneath her living quarters, where she had numerous people- citizens off the street, former friends, government advisors- you name it- detained… some of them for years.  One of her husband’s trusted councilors was locked up in a pitch black maze there for two years. Servants would occasionally throw meat inside, like he was some kind of animal, but everybody was forbidden to speak with him.  She forbade anybody to ask about his whereabouts, or how he was doing, so after a while, people kind of assumed he died down there. Then, one day –out of nowhere- she commanded the Master at Arms to go down and find him, and if he was still living, to give him his freedom. The poor guy was filthy and emaciated, and nearly insane from the isolation, malnourishment, and the general way he had so suddenly been mistreated. The palace staff washed him off, gave him fresh clothes, and sent him home- where he died two weeks later.
Theodora pretty much co-ruled with her husband Justinian, and was every bit as corrupt and capricious. She and he used to have a sort of good cop/bad cop act they’d do, where if they wanted to steal a nobleman’s land, one of them would call him to the palace, and say “[my spouse] is furious with you! I don’t know what you did. [s]he wants to have you hanged this very afternoon! Arrange your affairs, because this is your last day on Earth.”  The nobleman would be crazy with fear, wondering what he did, and would beseech them to go find out what the misunderstanding was. They’d come back and say [s]he is mad with rage, but I convinced him[/her] to spare your life if you donate to him[/her] your lovely villa on the lake (or whatever). The nobleman would gladly sign it over, and even thank them for sparing his life. Then Justinian and Theodora would have a good laugh over what a sucker the nobleman was, and set about impounding his estate.
Oh, did I mention what a slut Theodora was?  Yeah-  Antonina had nothing on her!  Judge for yourself, here are some excerpts from the book:
True except:

“There was not a particle of modesty in the little hussy, and no one ever saw her taken aback: she complied with the most outrageous demands without the slightest hesitation, and she was the sort of girl who if somebody walloped her or boxed her ears would make a jest of it and roar with laughter; and she would throw of her clothes and exhibit naked to all and sundry those regions, both in front and behind, which the rules of decency require to be kept veiled and hidden from masculine eyes.
She used to tease her lovers by keeping them waiting, and by constantly playing about with novel methods of intercourse she cold always bring the lascivious to her feet; so far from waiting to be invited by anyone she encountered, she herself by cracking dirty jokes and wiggling her hips suggestively would invite all who came her way, especially if they were still in their teens. Never was anyone so completely given up to unlimited self indulgence. Often she would go to a bring-your-own-food dinner party with ten young men or more, all at the peak of their physical powers, and with fornication as their chief object in life, and would lie with all her fellow diners in turn the whole night long, reducing every last of them in copulation to exhaustion, even if they be thirty or more; and even so she could not satisfy her lust.”

Later in the text…

“And though she brought three openings into service, she often found fault with Nature, grumbling because Nature had not made the openings in her nipples wider than is normal, so that she could devise another variety of intercourse in that region.”

Um…. yeah.
…Still, I have to admit: she was pretty hot.




Official History says: Badass Roman General, sometimes called the “Last Roman General”, he was first councilor and eventually heir to Emperor Justinian.

Procopius says:


Here’s the man who showed it’s possible to be a tough-guy Roman General and STILL manage to catch the late train to Loserville! He adopts a son,  Theodosius, whom his slut wife Antonina immediately proceeds to fuck in every room of the palace, even giving the servants a free sex show. (Trust me; watching Antonina get it on goes with the territory of living in the palace. I think we’ve all been extras in her personal porno shows, at one time or another.)  When the cuckold General CATCHES HER IN THE ACT, she explains it away to his satisfaction!

WAAA?!?!? How do you find mother and son naked between incestuous sheets, and allow it to be “explained away”?!!???  What could she have possibly have said?  “He was just helping me measure the inside of my vagina????” Nope. No way.

Sad to say, the ball-less wonder Belisarius would do any, any, ANY thing to avoid confrontation with Antonina. As a result: he plays her fool as she rides bone with every willing dick in Byzantium.

In one particularly horrible incident, a servant has sympathy on him, and shows him proofs of another infidelity. When he comes to Antonina with the evidence, she twists his mind with magic, to the point that he agrees to have the servant’s tongue ripped out and ground into fish food, for telling him such lies. I don’t need to tell you: the servant was honest.

Later, once General Beliserius had been completely sissified, Empress Theodora and Antonina devised a plan to strip him of his wealth. Theodora made it known he had fallen into her ill favor, and that she was resolute he should be executed. He hid in his chambers, shaking like a child and crying. Then she dispatched a letter to him, saying that Antonina had interceded on his behalf, and convinced her (Theodora, that is) that he should be allowed to live. Theodora says she reluctantly agreed, but on the condition that he becomes Antonina’s slave, and sign all his wealth over to her. With tears of gratitude for his life, the pathetic shell of a once-great man eagerly did so.  How do you respect something like that?

Ultimately, his circumstances in marriage were so well known, even slaves and eunuchs would laugh and mock Belisarius to his face, so he volunteered to resume his services as a General, and went off to  fight the Ostrogoths in Italy. He did so at great peril to himself, just to be away from the embarrassment of life in the Imperial court. Sadly, his skills as a General  had eroded, from the many years living in luxury in the capital city, so he had little success.  In five years trying, he achieved not a single victory.

Oh, and he was a shitty father too: he let his adopted son Theodosius harass and belittle his biologic son Photeus, to the point Photeus left town.




Official History says: Adoring wife and faithful advisor to General Belisarius.

Procopius says:

This ungrateful little gold digger was a prostitute from the earliest possible age, and gave herself up to no less than three of the most obscene vices imaginable… two of which I can not even profane these pages to describe to you!  Given her kaleidoscope of sexual depravities,  it should be no surprise to find incest on her menu as well. That’s right; she whiled away many an afternoon in the palace, balling her stepson, Theodosius. But of course her infidelities extended well beyond him; by all accounts, she saw more ass than Mick Jagger.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the little hussy was a comedienne! That’s right; her parents were in the theater, and she used to get on stage and tell JOKES for the audience’s pleasure!  If popular rumor is to be believed, she was also friends with magicians. What does THAT say about a person’s character?!



Emperor Justin

Official History says: A swashbuckling adventurer, folk hero, and maybe-pirate in his younger days, he trod an unlikely course to the Imperial crown. Uncle to Emperor Justinian, his successor.

Procopius says:


Couldn’t even write his own name on official documents.

A doddering old fool by the time he finally attained the imperial throne; his best days were WAY behind him. They shoulda’ given it to somebody else…

PLUS: married to a former slave… and not even just any slave, but a FOREIGN SLAVE, Lupicinia!!

Is this the best we can do for Emperor? Gimme a fuckin’ break.




From Classical Antiquity.





Requiem for a Republic

Plutarch is the opposite of Isaaic Asimov. Foundation portrays history only in terms of massive predictable, quantifiable and eminently understandable trends. There is little accounting for individual personalities; only stochastic movements of people, information, money, and resources.

On the other hand, Plutarch writes history in the form of biographic essays, showing us one unique, sometimes inconsistent, often inscrutable man at a time. To explore how the Roman Republic (509 B.C.- 27 B.C.) collapsed and became reinvented as the Roman Empire, Plutarch examines the lives and personalities of six key figures, who were the major political and military leaders of their day.

The Fall of the Roman Republic (also sometimes called Six Lives) was written around 120 A.D., roughly 150 years after the Republic fell. I think it helps show that while the Empire was sexier than the Republic, the Republic may have more to teach us… Its history is the cautionary tale of a prosperous, learned society with codified rights (for some), and elements of representative governance, which proceeded down a path to dictatorship. Some understanding of how this happened may be gleaned from the six lives Plutarch examines:

GAIUS MARIUS parlays success as a General into a legendary political career, becoming the first man to be elected Consul seven times. He is responsible for the slaughter on the Capitoline Hill, demonstrating an arrogance and ruthlessness which makes him plenty of enemies and few friends. He spends his last few unhealthy years fleeing political rivals and seeking sanctuary wherever he can find it, much as Mohammad Reza Pahlavi “the Shah of Iran” did in 1979. I’m not sure why Gaius was included on this list; he seems less impressive than the others.

SULLA is a little Roman Joseph Stalin. Turning on the public who elected him Consul, he maneuvers himself into a position of Dictator, and then proceeded to butcher over 12,000 citizens, political opponents, personal enemies and their families for the slightest real or perceived transgressions. Through sheer dumb luck, Sulla was asked to receive the surrender of notorious outlaw Jogurtha on behalf of Rome. Sulla hadn’t contributed anything to Jogurtha’s defeat and capture, but that didn’t stop him from commissioning statues in Rome depicting him standing triumphally over the humbled outlaw. His peers were particularly miffed by a giant gold ring he had custom made, bearing the surrender scene. I guess he wore it under their noses, like bad bad LeRoy Brown. That must have been some outrageous piece of jewelry, to get mention Plutarch‘s book, written 150 years later! I wish somebody who saw it would have drawn a picture! Sulla died, incidentally, of a gruesome intestinal worm infestation. (Ascaris??)

CRASSUS (Triumvir #1) is best known as the General who defeated Spartacus, and in his day: the richest man in Rome. His for-profit fire company used to show up at burning homes to negotiate a bargain sale of the house. If the owner refused, the firemen turned around and went home! He comes across as the weakest of the Triumvirs, with no realistic shot at coming out on top over Pompey or Caesar. Brutal ending for Crassus: a beheading when his military adventures in Parthia go bad.

POMPEY (Triumvir #2) is the military strategy whiz-kid, who becomes General at twenty-two, and gets his own Triumph (victory parade) without the normally required rank of Praetor. His career as statesman is less impressive. When Crassus’s death ends the Triumvirate, the Republic descends into civil war. Pompey snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, and loses to Caesar. Shortly after, he seeks asylum in Egypt, and is murdered by King Ptolmey’s agents, in an example of cold-blooded Machiavellian politics which Plutarch explains well on page 239. Side note: while reading this section, I couldn’t help feeling Pompey’s nemesis, the renegade king Mithridates, was a much more intriguing personality.

JULIUS CAESAR (Triumvir #3) is the best known of these men, so I won’t elaborate. No matter; there is so much overlap of events in the personal histories of Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar, that reading them in succession starts to feel a bit like Rashomon. If you have read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the preceeding chapters on Crassus and Pompey, this section has little new to offer.

CICERO is the lone intellectual of the group. It’s nice to know that political power wasn’t completely limited to generals, but Cicero wasn’t nearly as powerful as the others on this list. I like him better in his own work: On the Good Life Penguin Classics. Plutarch thinks Cicero is a too-clever-by-half smartass, but does grudgingly admit his brilliant oratory skills, and his impressive legal career. When Antony, Octavian and Lepidus formed the “Second Triumverate”, Cicero became an enemy of the state and was executed as he sat out by the pool in his villa. (really!) Sadly, his life illustrates that being right or just or smart was not enough to get by during the Republic. Without question, political connections and/or military might ruled the day.

Parting Advice
1) Get a good Atlas of the Roman World for reference when you read this. There are plenty of places mentioned in this book, and no maps. This is a setup for much confusion: what the Romans called “Albania” is in present-day Georgia, while what we now call “Albania”, the Romans called Dyrrhachium; what the Romans called “Iberia” is in present-day Armenia… etc.

2) If you go to Rome, be sure to seek out some of the ruins of the Republic:

Temple of Hercules Victor, and

the Temple of Portunus.

Slightly less boring than you might think.


So first of all: did you know  there used to be an English king in the  4th century by the name of Sexwulfe?  SEXWULFE?!  That’s probably the coolest name ever.  How did I get so far in life, not knowing this was a real name?  And why aren’t more people (David Bowie, specifically) changing their names to SEXWULFE?

Putting that aside, this book was an interesting mix of history and fiction. Written by the monk Bede in the 7th century, it gives readers a general feel for what was going on in Great Britain at the time.  I say “general feel” because you really can’t go by the letter of what Bede is saying here, because he sprinkles the narration with accounts of miracles designed to impress and astound pagans with the power of the Christian God.

The dubious history of some of these chronicles doesn’t spoil anything for me. As long as I’m clear that I’m not reading straight-up history, I don’t mind reading about holy daggers that cure illness, magical wooden posts which don’t burn, and holy men who drive out demons. That Bede wrote any of this down (and maybe even believed it) is just part of the picture of England in 600’s A.D.  Christianity was still competing with assorted pagan religions for the hearts and minds of …well, mostly of the regional rulers. Once you had them in pocket, it seems the public was compelled to follow. That’s why so there are so many tales in here of pagan kings who embraced Christianity, and whom Heaven rewarded with drastically improved fortunes (usually on the battlefield). About half of these stories show the king then lapsing back into paganism and suffering for it, only to save the day by re-embracing Christianity –this time permanently. It does get a bit repetitive.

As far as actual history goes, the book faithfully describes a lot of bloody warfare between English, Angles (immigrants from Denmark), Picts in the North (modern day Scotland), the Irish, British, and assorted lesser others. I assume the names of kings, and the lineages described are accurate, but I’m not sure why I think that, given the other liberties Bede has taken.

An historical map of Britain may make this read a little easier. I love the key on this map BTW. Why is such importance placed on swampland in a map of the British peoples?
There are quite a lot of people named Egbert, Cuthbert, Ekelbert, and other things that sound like that. It can be confusing, trying to keep track of them all.

If you’re trying to develop a broad view of British history, this book does a nice job picking up where John Morris’ Londinium leaves off.  Julius Caesar first set foot on British soil in 55 B.C. From that date on, Roman power grew in fits and starts, with London a center of first military and eventually economic power. While Rome suffered repeated humiliation in wars with the Huns and Vandals, Britain remained safely remote from these, and in fact benefitted economically as a reliable supplier of materiel for Roman armies in Gaul and Germania. The gravy train ended, of course, with the complete destruction of the Western Empire in the 5th century.  England might have been on its own after that, but it was really the Christian church which maintained cultural ties between Britain and Rome. That’s what this book illuminates so well. Although Roman soldiers could no longer be relied on to defend the Northumbrians from the Picts, the Vatican still had spiritual authority over monks like Bede, and through the many active and robust monasteries, members of the British congregation could learn Latin, and become versed in the classics of history and literature. The church even had an active hand in shaping politics in the British Isles (see above). Thus, the picture which emerges is that the Catholic Church seamlessly supplanted the Romans as the framework on which England was now (loosely) integrated with other components of the former empire in language, architecture, political thought, religion, science, history, and philosophy.

Good stuff.


Interesting note: Bede is apparently the subject of an indie comic.  Who’d-a guessed it?


Monsters’ Ball


Don’t be intimidated by this hefty 1100 page tome; it’s very readable. Results will vary, of course, but “Hitler and Stalin- Parallel Lives” did a fantastic job exploring the big question I’ve always had about World War II: why did Hitler attack the Soviet Union before he managed to beat Great Britain into either surrender or alliance?

This was probably the biggest strategic blunder of the war, and one that had never been explored to my satisfaction before. Alan Bullock does an amazing job here showing how this went down:  it starts with the showtrials and political purges of the 1930s. Stalin consolidated his dictatorship with this ever-expanding circle of accusation and self-incrimination. One of the side effects of this is that he completely gutted the Soviet military’s officer corps of its most experienced high ranking officers. Thus, when the Soviets got into a border conflict with Finland in the 1939 “Winter War”, the Soviet Union was beaten to embarrassment, leading Hitler to underestimate the difficulty of his long-term plans to seize and annex the entire Western third of Russia. Obviously, things didn’t go according to plan, but Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 is a bit easier to understand in that context.

A second reason Bullock cites for the June ’41 timing of Barbarossa is the idea that a quick win in Russia would remove the Russian threat from Japan’s western front, freeing them to attack the United States. This would- the reasoning goes- keep America too busy to come to British aid when Hitler then turned his full attention on beating England into submission (either by conquest, or –as Hitler hoped- convincing them to ally with him). I guess it is sound enough reasoning, but of course it contains within it the fatal flaw of assuming that the Russian invasion would go well, and would be completed in a single season. Germany’s “one at a time” strategy, as well as its blitzkrieg tactics had worked so well in Austria, the Sudetenland and Poland- I’m not sure whether the assumption represents hubris, optimism, or just an unaccounted-for bias.

Fascinating stuff. In a way, one might say Stalin unintentionally constructed the circumstances which lured Hitler into the ill-fated attack. As Bullock describes, while the war’s start may have been unintentional, there was nothing unintentional about the factors which eventually led to a Soviet victory.

Once Stalin had secured his place at the pinnacle of Soviet power, he recognized the need to legitimize himself. His predecessor Lenin cemented his place in history as the Father of the Russian Revolution, but what gave Stalin a mandate to rule?  How could he justify his leadership? For better or much worse, Stalin found an answer in industrialization and collective agriculture. Just as he lived in the shadow of Lenin, Russia had for centuries lived with an inferiority complex in the shadow of Western Europe. Peter the Great had hoped to elevate a nation of illiterate peasants by copying Western European (predominantly French) arts and letters, engineering, and science. His success was limited, but important, and well-received domestically.

Stalin cast himself in Peter’s role as the man who would bring “backwards Russia” into the industrialized era that capitalism had enjoyed at the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout the 1930’s, the Soviet planned economy uprooted millions, built enormous and inefficient complexes for power generation, manufacturing, mining, oil drilling and refining, and collective farming. Completely unrealistic production schedules were set, and middle managers who failed to meet expectations were frequently exiled, imprisoned, or shot.

The entire birth of Soviet industry was a traumatic national controlled chaos. Starvation, upheaval, and misery followed, and the entire economic system it supported eventually failed in 1989… BUT, during a crucial window of time in the 1940’s and 50’s, the Soviet Union was able to produce a huge volume of tanks, railways, troop transport vehicles, aircraft, munitions, and other materials which helped it defeat German invaders. The Holodomor notwithstanding, there is a broad (and completely unfeeling) historical view that suggests the horrors of Stalin’s drive to rapid industrialization were at least partially justified by Hitler’s defeat.

Stalin probably saw it that way; when Germany invaded, to preserve Soviet industrial capacity, Stalin ordered entire factories deconstructed, shipped hundreds of miles east- safely beyond Third Reich supply lines- and rebuilt. It’s the sort of grand gesture you might expect from a massive, centralized State economy, but it just happened to work this time.  This is really the only book I’ve come across to devote itself to such extensive analysis of the connection between rapid Soviet industrialization in the 30’s and Soviet military experience in the 40’s. Obviously the two are directly related, but it took Bullock to make me see that.

Another area where “Hitler and Stalin- Parallel Lives” really came to the table with something new was the extensive details it fills in about Hitler’s long-term vision. What exactly was he trying to build? Don’t get me wrong… he was a power-obsessed dictator with a fetish for German culture, but what exactly did the world he wanted look like? I mean, how was it supposed to work? Did he want to kill everybody else on the planet and repopulate the whole world with Germans, or what? Well, it turns out he left exhaustive notes about what he wanted.

Pretty much he wanted Germany to occupy all of Western Europe, Scandinavia and the western third of Russia. He was (genuinely, it seems) going to let a friendly, Mussolini-led Italy occupy the Mediterranean (a sort of resurrection of the old Roman imperial borders, it seems), and Japan’s co-prosperity sphere would include all of East Asia, Australia and the Pacific. The Americas would be divided in some way with Japan, and the rest of the world, I guess would be enslaved and have their natural resources plundered. Without a doubt, it would be an Orwellian hell-on-Earth, but it was interesting to know what the plan was. (Of course who are we kidding? We all know it would only be a matter of time before he turned on Italy and Japan, and altered his dream to a pan-global German world-rule.)

I guess I should throw in a few notes about the parallels between Hitler and Stalin. That is supposed to be the main point of this book, after all.  The similarities weren’t as interesting as the differences. It’s not hard to imagine the similarities to be drawn between the two biggest monsters of the twentieth century. They were both sociopaths. They both worshiped power and materialism, and little else. They both felt aggrandized by sending other people to their deaths –and made no secret of this.  And they both turned on people who had helped them advance, once they were no longer useful. This is all well known.

More interesting to me was the contrast of Hitler’s flighty, capricious and grandiose “big picture” scheming in stark opposition to Stalin’s slow but incessant, methodical, patient, details-oriented approach to obtaining and holding power. Over the course of the book, it gradually became clear to me that Hitler’s rise to power was almost a fluke- a tragic confluence of weird circumstances. There is any number of single points in history where Fate might not have broken his way.

With Stalin, it seems very different. Once he secured the (Communist Party) Secretary General’s position after V. I. Lenin’s cerebral hemorrhage, there is a sort of inevitability to his ascent to absolute dictator. He really left no detail unconsidered, no contingency unplanned for. His vulgar peasant’s upbringing, his aloofness, and his failure to appreciate anything remotely artistic or refined- all masked a reptilian evil genius brain, who seemed to always know what lever to pull or what button to press, to overcome the obstacles and competitors in his way. There were some uneasy chapters for me, in which I found myself simultaneously horrified by the vast scope of human suffering he caused, but also impressed with the skill he displayed in manipulating the world around him. Please don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing sympathetic or praiseworthy about the man, but his political facility is just a bit aweing. It may also be that this book unintentionally stacks the deck for Stalin’s reputation, by comparing him to possibly the only person in history whom he might actually look good in comparison to.

These were the big take-home lessons I got from this book. There is of course much, much more. It’s an 1100 page book after all; I couldn’t possibly do it all justice. To throw a few teasers out, the book provides thorough accounts of both men’s’ rise to power; quite a bit of analysis of secondary characters like Molotov, Trotsky, Beria, Ribbentrop, Goering, and Himmler; an interesting diversion about Tito in Yugoslavia; and detailed exploration of third parties such as Mussolini, Churchill, Roosevelt and Franco.

World War II has always been a ripe topic for positing “what if’s”, and this book is quite good with that as well. The most intriguing is “What if Hitler had followed Mussolini’s plan in the Mediterranean?” While Hitler drew up plans to attack Russia, Mussolini was trying to convince him to dedicate German forces to control the Mediterranean. Naturally Italy’s interest in this was obvious, but Bullock points out that if Axis Powers ruled the Mediterranean, England could only get natural resources from her Asian and Middle Eastern colonies by traveling all the way around Africa. It is quite possible the strain on British supply lines –especially in those two years when England was committed to war, but America had not yet joined in- could have been decisively crippling.  In fact, if Hitler had been willing to defer his dreams of German “Lebensraum” in the Ukraine, Germany might have teamed up with Russia to create a massive land force which would have completely obviated Great Britain’s greatest strategic asset: her unopposable navy.

Whether Stalin would have gone along is doubtful; he was well aware of Hitler’s long-term ambitions in Russia. Still, it is interesting that –through either grandiosity or a simple failure of imagination- Hitler never seriously considered the merits of this obviously-superior strategy. Thank God.

This is probably as good a place as any to end. Hopefully you get the idea that Bullock has written something very special here: an enormously informative book, vast in scope and deep in detail, which manages to say something new about World War II, and which is a pleasure to read. I not only give it 5 stars, but include it in the top 3 history books I’ve ever read, in the honored company of Carroll Quigley’s “Tragedy & Hope” and Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”.


Raven Maniac

Up until 9/11/2001, the mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978 held the record as the single greatest loss of civilian American lives (913) in our history. We all know Rev. Jim Jones was a creepy, skeevy, manipulative narcissist, and history is rife with those, but it’s worthwhile digging a little deeper to examine the specific details of how he so bamboozled and brainwashed his followers that they gladly followed him to their deaths. (And to the deaths of their children, even.)

This book delivers it all: a fascinating historical account of the Rev. Jim Jones from childhood, through his early adulthood as a charismatic pastor in suburban Indianappolis, to political wheeler-dealer in Northern California, and ultimately to suicidal cult leader in British Guyana. The author is one of the San Francisco Chronical reporters who accompanied Congressman Leo Ryan down to “Jonestown” in his fateful trip of November 1978, which resulted in a shootout killing 5, and Jim Jones’ psychological meltdown which culminated with the ritualistic mass-suicide of his entire congregation.

Several points are very well-explored here: 1) Jones’ very gradual transition to become a paranoid autocrat with God-delusions;  2) the mechanisms with which he took over his followers’ finances, got them to take responsibilites for his crimes (extortion, election fraud, kidnapping, etc),  how he even took legal guardianship and custody of followers’ children to prevent them from leaving the cult;  and 3) the shocking relationship between Jones and several figures in high office in the 1970s. Apparently Jones’ “Peoples’ Temple” voted as a massive block, which got Muscone elected mayor of San Francisco in ’76. The Peoples’ Temple also had sway with the California governors, and even got Jones an audience with First Lady Ros Carter.


The tragedy of Jonestown is straight out of a horror movie, but it is really just the culmination of three decades of manipulation, deception and intimidation by Jones on everyone’s life whom he touched. He was a first-order psychopath, similar to Hitler, Stalin or Mao in character; different only by how much power he had access to.