Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Recent Reads

I admit I have strayed a little off the Gilded Age/Progressive Era/Environmental topics lately in my reading. Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman. Ok this is really off topic, and I am not surely entirely why I picked it up in the first place. SPOILER ALERT!!!.... The answer is yes Jesus existed, but Ehrman, an admitted agnostic, argues that the historical Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic preacher and not the Messiah of Christian Faith. Ehrman takes up his cudgel against an almost conspiratorial group of deniers (he refers to them as "mythicists") who claim that early Christians invented Jesus. I won't go into their arguments, but Ehrman effectively counters their assertions. He shows that much of their scholarship is based on poor reading of the sources. As an historian I found Ehrman's methodology most interesting. There are few sources outside the Gospels that can corroborate Jesus's life. He reads deep into the Gospels, letters, and Book of Acts, extrapolates sections of the missing "Q" gospel, to construct an oral tradition that can be dated to the mid-30s when Jesus was crucified. I don't know if I will ever have much of a reason to use this methodology in my own work, but it was neat to see a demonstration of it. Moreover, it does show how historians can squeeze yet more evidence from existing sources. The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. I love to read and I do enjoy reading books about reading. In this delightful book Jacobs makes the case for "whim." He asks us to read for pleasure and to pick those books we enjoy reading. Go young man to the world of print and get lost in a good story! It made me realize that as an historian I tend to read almost exclusively for information. Books are tools. I scavenge them for the data I want, their interpretations, arguments, and the like, and then move onto the next topic. I take copious notes and store them in a file cabinet. It must be admitted that the notes assist my understanding of the book, but I seldom consult them after I file them away. There are thousands of pages. All of the books I have read are catalogued in Zotero. For reasons that are not entirely clear even to myself, I also record most them in Mendeley, especially if I have a pdf download. Mendeley has the advantage of allowing me access this list from my cell phone (if I should be in a library without my laptop). Its great disadvantage is that it does not have Chicago Manual of Style for citations and is useless to me without it. Anyway, Jacobs reminded me that long ago I read only for pleasure. I started on page one, became absorbed in a story, and read to the last page, never thinking of skimming ahead or searching for reviews in numerous databases. Once in a while I still pick up some pleasure reading fiction, but Jacobs reminded me how long ago that was. I realized how much I miss that form of reading and I vow to add whim to my reading diet. The End by Ian Kershaw. As readers of this blog are aware, I find nazi era Germany a fascinating study in human behavior. Why did the German people follow Hitler? Was it something that could only happen at a particular time and place under extraordinary circumstances, or can that sort of insanity reoccur elsewhere? A corollary question is why didn't the German people see that the war was unwinable and that great pain awaited them? Especially when one considers that most of the German civilian and a disproportionate number of German military casualties came after the failed July 20th plot of 1944. Of course, the answer is complicated. Kershaw argues the Nazi regime, or at least the leader, remained fairly popular right up to early 1945. Perhaps there was a secret weapon? Perhaps his military genius would bring about a sudden victory (ala a successful outcome to the Battle of the Bulge)? Maybe people were terrified of challenging a brutal regime? All of these played some part in their loyalty, but there were two other factors. First, the regime, from the top to the bottom, realized there was no future for them in post-war Germany. They were as good as dead and they knew it. There was no incentive to change course. In fact, their desire to prevent their domestic enemies from enjoying any victory increased the violence inside the reich. Second, the nazi myth that the great stab in the back led to defeat in World War I deeply inculcated the population and military with an intense loyalty. No one wanted to be equated with the great villains of the prior generation. The failed July 20 bomb plot against Hitler only increased loyalty. This exposes as a lie the common claim by Germans after the war that the Allied doctrine of unconditional surrender prevented an early end to the war. That had nothing to do with it. On a more humorous note, I found the moment of surrender, when Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel stopped to salute the Allied delegation with his raised baton only to receive icy stares and silence. Maybe Hitler was correct when he once commented that the Field Marshal did not have the brains of a cinema usher. At the least he was delusional. Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz was even more delusional. He really thought he could remain as leader of the reich even after the surrender.

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