Wednesday, August 27, 2008

of hedgehogs and foxes

Isaiah Berlin warned against sweeping generalizations. He inoculated whole populations of readers against abuse of the golden rule of historians and journalists: "simplify and then exaggerate." But the temptation concoct a coherent but somewhat fictitious story out of a body of messy facts is a powerful one. I'm one thus afflicted. I love history on a grand scale, the stories that answer big questions, and resent intrusion of nuancing details that detract from the push of narrative. For example I want to know about Hitlerism -- how it came about, why it succeeded so long as it did, how a modern state could become and sustain itself as a killing machine, why it was that a coalition dominated by another tyranny finally overcame it -- and though I want good answers, I suspect that none are as simple as I'd like.

And so,...

It intrigued me that two authors cite Berlin in essays which are

1. broad and sweeping, close to excessive in their simplifying and exaggerating
2. on topics that really matter
3. pleasingly scattered with paradoxical facts
4. bold in asserting their main points.

And which, as essays should, work through the simplifications and exaggerations to conclusions that are more thought provoking than imperative. What's more, they're both by Yale professors who teach modern history with an emphasis on the Second World and Cold Wars.

Ending Tyranny , by John Lewis Gaddis in The American Interest, subtitled Jefferson’s eternal hostility to tyranny should be our guiding light today. On reading this I thought back to my high school years when I took pride in the idealism of American foreign policy (e.g., the Monroe Doctrine), and then to my college years when I came to realize that the facts didn't quite fit this comforting view (e.g., Manifest Destiny, gun boat diplomacy, and the Spanish-American War). Now, I think first that Gaddis both warns against single-mindedness in forming policies and urges a single-minded attack on tyrannical regimes. And I think second, that economic policies matter at least as much as diplomatic ones; a fact he glosses over.

Nazism's dialectic of death, by Timothy Snyder in the Times (UK), subtitled How Hitler tried to form an empire by killing rather than converting. This essay left me perplexed. He seems to be saying that as Hitler's idealism (kill all Jews and -- one way or another -- eliminate everyone else in conquered territories to the East) gave way to pragmatism (make slaves out of conquered people) when his plan quickly to carve out a huge new German state in the East began to fall apart. He says he expected the West to go along with his plan (Britain and the US accepting -- practically welcoming -- an Central and Eastern Europe ruled by Germany. But it's my understanding that Hitler wasn't nearly so consistent in his thinking. He certainly viewed Churchill as the devil, no way a potential ally. And, as I recall, he didn't really know where to stop once he sent the German armies East. Snyder's imaging of Hitler a (20th-century anti-) Napoleon doesn't seem to fit the facts. It also seems to make victims of the Eastern populations (including those that welcomed Germans as Russian killers) in the way that the Jewish populations were victims. Not so, I think.


Regarding my subject line, see Bill Keller's blog post in the NYT Sunday Book Review Reading Room: Ich Bin Ein Berliner.

Image source: Project Gutenberg

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