A Mind @ Play

random thoughts to oil the mind

Tag: History

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History

This entry is also available in English.Nathaniel's Nutmeg

In ähnlicher Weise zu Dava Sobels Buch „Longitude“ dreht sich im „Nathaniel’s Nutmeg“ alles um die Erfahrungen eines der unsichtbarsten Protagonisten der Geschichte. Obwohl es sich um die Geschichte eines kleineren Maßstabes handelt, stimmt das Ziel des Werks überragend mit einem Zitat des Historikers E. P. Thompson überein, geschichtliche Figuren „from the enormous condescension of posterity“ zu retten. Die Hauptakteure dieses Buches werden den meisten Lesern unbekannt, sowie viele der Ereignisse, dennoch bleibt deren Auswirkung für die Gegenwart für jeden ersichtlich.

Doch der Titel dieses Buches ist meiner Meinung nach komplett misslungen. Das Werk ist sehr ambitiös im Umfang und beschäftigt sich mit dem Gewürzhandel und der Segelschiffära, mitsamt Abschweifungen über die Amerikas und die Versuche, die Nordwestpassage durch den arktischen Ozean und dadurch einen kürzeren Seeweg nach Ostindien zu finden, sowie den Kriegen, den Erfolgen und den politischen Machenschaften der englischen und niederländischen Ostindien-Kompanien. Im Grunde versucht Milton mit diesem Buch die Heldentaten von einem Offizier der englischen Ostindien-Kompanie namens Nathaniel Courthorpe mit dem Schiksal Neuamsterdams/New Yorks zu verbinden. Jedoch bleibt dieser Versuch etwas oberflächlich und mager, dadurch, dass er sein Leben aus jedem Blickwinkel zu betrachten versucht. Im Endeffekte erscheint der namensgebende Nathaniel nur flüchtig am Ende des Buches. Mehr Platz hat der Autor dem angeblichen Hauptthema nicht einräumen können. Schließlich wirft das Buch jede Menge interessante Fragen auf, durch seine umschweifende Behandlung der Gesellschaften, deren Offiziere und des Gewürzhandels usw. Trotz der fast 400 Seiten bleiben diese Fragen jedoch leider größtenteils unbeantwortet.

Trotz dieser Mankos ist das Werk nicht ohne Stärken. Der Autor hat die Geschichte trotz der mangelnden Quellenlage offensichtlich sehr sorgfältig recherchiert, und man muss ihm auch hoch anrechnen, dass er der Versuchung widerstanden hat, in Hinblick auf die etwas dürftigen Beweise wild darüber zu spekulieren. Da die Zielgruppe dieses Buches unter dem Fußvolk zu finden ist, ist es wie ein Schmöker aufgebaut, mit vielen Deutungen auf spätere Kapitel, die den Leser durch das Buch locken und begleiten. Die Charaktere und die Ereignisse stellen die Kulissen dar, so dass es auch für unterwegs ein geeignetes Buch ist, das man mit vielen Unterbrechungen und Ablenkungen leicht lesen kann. Trotzdem, dass der Stoff für ein Buch dieser Länge eigentlich zu breitgefächert ist, konzentriert sich Milton zumindest lediglich auf die holländischen und englischen Abenteuer, und schenkt dem zur gleichen Zeit stattfindenden portugiesischen und spanischen Treiben wenig Platz.

„Nathaniel’s Nutmeg“ ist eine kurzweilige und interessante Lektüre, die auch für Leute geeignet ist, für die die Geschichte normalerweise kein Interesse weckt. Dank der ausgiebigen Recherchen ist das Buch sehr informativ, auch wenn des Buches Gegenstand eigentlich zu groß ist. Trotzdem hinterlässt das Buch ein Gefühl ähnlich dem eines Abends in einem chinesischen Restaurant: Bald nach dem Verzehr hat man wieder einen leeren Magen. In seinem Versuch, das Schicksal New Yorks mit der Lebensbahn Couthorpes in Verbindung zu bringen, hat Milton einen Stoff ausgesucht, dem er in diesem Werk einfach nicht gerecht werden konnte, und somit bleibt die Botschaft irgendwie seicht und unkonzentriert. Anders betitelt, mit einem weniger anspruchsvollen Ziel oder einem strengeren Redakteur wäre dieses Buch eine umso befriedigende Lektüre geworden.

Citizen Soldiers: U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge, to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944 to May 7, 1945

Citizen SoldiersThis is the only Stephen Ambrose book I’ve read, spurred on by recently rewatching Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers. A look at the American soldiers in the European theatre from D-Day to the end of the war, the book is based on oodles of research and countless memoirs, oral and written, from the people who were actually there. It doesn’t go into the actual events of the war in any detail, so it would behoove readers to have some background knowledge, but Ambrose does a decent job of sketching out the general situation.

Technically, this book should have been easy to whole-heartedly recommend. Ambrose has sewn together an extremely important collection of memories, thoughts and feelings of the troops on the front lines of the last war, allowing the people who were actually there to tell their stories. Whilst some have criticised the relative paucity of attention to the other Allies, other theatres, the Germans etc., that is precisely because they fall outside this book’s remit. Concentrating on the written and oral memories of US soldiers, Ambrose nevertheless weaves them into the course of the war, so even people relatively unfamiliar with events on the Western front should not get lost.

One particular strength of the book is its organisation. The different campaigns during the war are dealt with separately, as one might expect, but there is also a whole part dedicated to different groups and aspects of the war. It is very welcome that chapters are dedicated to such oft ignored facets as the ‘Medics, nurses and doctors’, ‘Prisoners of war’ and especially a chapter on the uglier side of war, on the criminals, profiteers and racists. Aside from these specific chapters, there are plenty of other interesting titbits of information scattered throughout the book, such as the reports of dud ammunition (sadly not researched, but backed up in a letter to the author from a Jewish slave labourer in a German concentration camp in the afterword), the fanaticism of some of the SS troops (one is mentioned dying after refusing a transfusion from a US medic, on the chance it might contain Jewish blood), or the German soldier executed for spying when caught with forged papers (the original reading “Not a Pass–For Indentification Only”, and the forger having corrected the spelling mistake).

Sadly, for all this the book is not without its flaws. Another reviewer, when trying to come up with a single word to sum up the book decided on ‘frustrating’, and I think this rather hits the nail on the head. This book is well written, well compiled, well researched, but unfortunately it isn’t a great piece of history, when if very much should have been. Ambrose writes with an agenda, one that is seldom disguised, seldom explored, rarely supported. He seems to have a personal vendetta against Montgomery, and on numerous occasions quotes sources to the effect that he was responsible for much of the mishandling of the war effort. Granted, the work is entirely concentrated on the US army’s endeavours, but such focus is also combined with a very dismissive attitude to the soldiers of the other nations. The one great hypothesis that Ambrose seems wont to flaunt is that the greatest capitalist democratic economy simply produced the best soldiers in the world, despite the very same book deriding the army’s lack of training, the system of replacements, the ignorance of the army commanders, the poor or unsuited equipment etc. Given the otherwise relatively sober portrayal of events from the eyes of those who fought, such jingoist conclusions are unfitting and unnecessary.

Rumours of plagiarism aside (Ambrose states clearly in the introduction that his aim was to “let [his] characters speak for themselves by quoting them liberally”), there is also call to believe that some of his quotes are taken well out of context to further his agenda. I don’t believe for a second that this is particularly warranted, but his openly opinionated comments unfortunately lead to such nagging suspicions. Finally, there were apparently also numerous obvious inaccuracies in the book, the sort of figures and facts which most WW2 enthusiasts soon spot, and which also detract from its overall image (I think these errors were corrected in the version I read, which included an afterword dealing with the many letters the author had received).

Ultimately, as a testament to the people who fought, this book is an important and engaging work, and well worth reading for anyone with an interest in the Second World War, the US army, or wartime and soldiering in general. It is well organised, well structured and relatively readable, despite occasionally having too many different opinions and quotes tied into a handful of paragraphs. The accompanying maps and pictures are also a welcome complement to the stories and eyewitness accounts. But unfortunately the author’s reputation and his rather opinionated style detract from all of this, and leave something of a sour aftertaste to what is otherwise a very mature and sobering story.

Knowing Your History

There are plenty of videos like these, usually decrying the stupidity of Americans, but as anyone who’s actually considered it knows, you could do the same anywhere in the world with similar results. Only yesterday I saw a number of Germans being interviewed, who believed that the sun revolves around the Earth, and even a couple that thought the sun is so hot because it is being shined upon by so many planets.

Yet this little viral video series actually has an aim, aside from simply highlighting blissful ignorance for cheap laughs, being to get more young people to visit the South African Apartheid Museum. As their motto goes, “a history forgotten is a history lost.” But it also says a lot about the influence of US culture around the world, and how surprisingly gesticulatory answering questions in South Africa can be!

Click for the full series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

[Via African Politics Portal]

Conversations with Stalin

Ranković, Tito and Đilas

Ranković, Tito and Đilas

It’s probably about time I got around to finally writing about some of the books that I read, a little in the vein of the 52-in-52 meme. This probably won’t start a trend, but Milovan Đilas’ Conversations with Stalin is full of sufficient tidbits to make it worth writing about, albeit unfortunately a little on the short side.

Đilas (pictured, right) was one of the key figures in the Yugoslavian Partisan movement during the Second World War, and maintained an influential position in the post-war government alongside Josip Broz Tito (centre), Aleksandar Ranković (on the left), and Edvard Kardelj. He started to write his memoirs in the mid-50s and decided to set his encounters with Stalin aside for separate treatment, but his outspoken criticism of the Yugoslav system resulted in his arrest and imprisonment in 1956. He restarted this work in 1961, which eventually brought about his re-internment.

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Katyń

Caught Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń this week as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and have to say I was fairly impressed. It will probably be the only film I’ll see since the prices go up at this time of year, and indeed I was quite lucky to catch this one since the first showing sold out with over a week to go, no doubt in large part due to the significant number of Polish people living in Dublin. Sadly, being sat right at the front didn’t give a particularly good vantage point for flicking between the pictures and the subtitles, and this is one film I’ll have to watch again on DVD before I can fully make up my mind, but the screenplay was well written and easy to follow despite the amalgam of different plotlines. Unfortunately, some of the character portrayals were rather wooden and to some extent detracted from the film’s message, if there is one beyond the plain Rankean historical analysis.

Nevertheless, Krzysztof Penderecki provides a beautiful score to underline the images, with a smattering of Tchaikovsky and Chopin thrown in during some of the propaganda scenes. As a piece of cinematography the film probably deserves its Oscar nomination, though it is difficult to tell whether it will be remembered more for that or its political implications. That the film does not get caught in a loop of nationalist propagandism is important in light of the tendencies in Moscow and elsewhere. Power is not what comes from the end of a gun but the ability to make people believe ones lies. Certainly disturbing news from Putin’s Russia.

The film’s climax is a rather visceral, and to some extents shocking visual of what the film is after all about. However it does offer an interesting juxtaposition for those taken by the irrationality of mankind—as officer after officer is dispatched in the name of political idealism, these same go to their deaths with a prayer on their lips. Absurd or simply tragic? One thing however is for certain, and that is that my quest for the non-melancholy Polish film continues…

For a brave new future.

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