Book Review: Die Geier-Wally

Von Hillem, Wilhelmina Die Geier-wally Kindle Edition.

This isn’t the sort of book I’d usually read in English, but it is well-known in German literature as an example of a Heimatroman and Alpenroman. And it was inexpensive, so I got a copy. The novel, about a young woman in the Ötztal in southern Austria in the 1870s proved to be an intriguing book, in part because of how differently a modern author would  probably depict some of the characters. But von Hillem’s landscape descriptions are spectacular, and her writing engrossing enough that I plowed through. Continue reading

Book Review: The River, the Plain, and the State

Zhang, Ling. The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) Print edition.

Chinese imperial management of water has been one of the critical keys to following the history of imperial after the Zhou Dynasty. Some of the bedrock work in US environmental history took as its starting point Karl Wittfogel’s “Hydraulic empire” thesis, looking at state control of water and society and how that relates to the development of both the US government and the American West. Because Chinese records are so copious, a lot of work can and has been done looking at how the Chinese lived with and coped with their major rivers and the hydraulic “systems” that developed over thousands of years. This book focuses on a small space in time and shows how the complicated interactions of state, environment, and society caused, then reacted to, and were shaped by, the Yellow River changing course between 1048 and 1128. Continue reading

Dialectic, Trialectic, or Just Tell the Story?

I’m in the process of reading a fascinating environmental history of the Yellow River valley during late Song Dynasty China (AD 1048-1128). The author does a very good job telling the story and putting all the environmental, social, and governmental pieces into place leading up to the Big Flood Disaster. But oh, the theoretical jargon and the footnotes! The author handles it well as such things go and does not get lost in the thickets of theories and analyses at the expense of telling the story, unlike some. But still, I’m reminded of the gulf that can exist between academic historians and history readers, even when it is unintentional. Continue reading

What the Author is Currently Reading – 5/17 edition

So, I had grand plans for a photo post today. Life intervened.

Non-fiction: Robert Gellately Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler  A very good, albeit depressing because of the time-span and subject matter, study of the three dictators of the 1910s-1950s.

Peter H. Wilson Heart of Europe A cultural and social analysis of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations. An excellent book but having a little chronological background helps, because it is a topical history.

Joachim Whaley Germany and the Holy Roman Empire A different take on the balances and politics inside and around Central and northern Europe from the 1400s- on.

Joachim Radkau Wood A history of mankind’s use of wood and how different cultures view forests and wood products. A top-notch environmental history.

Helmut Neubolt  Die Staufer von 1025-1268 a history of the dynasty. Important in the settlement history of northwest Germany.

C. S. Lewis The Abolition of Man essays about religion and society. Written in the early 20th Century but still timely. Not easy reading, but good reading.

Philip Jenkins Decade of Nightmares A history of the 1968-1980 period in the US.

Jeffro Johnson Appendix N A look at the books that influenced Gary Gygax’s early ideas for Dungeons and Dragons. Interesting takes on different books, some I’ve read, some I had not.

Sheilagh Ogilvie Institutions and European Trade a very academic history about merchant guilds and social capital. Very academic.

Continue reading

Book Review: Death in Hamburg

Evans, Richard J. Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years (London: Penguin Books, 2005, originally London: Oxford University Press, 1987)

Asiatic cholera reached Europe via trade routes in the 1800s. By 1890 it had become dreadfully familiar, and a topic of medical argument and debate. Was it spread by miasmas, by contagion (person to person) or through contaminated water? Was it evidence of moral laxity as shown by dirty houses, or a disease of foreigners (Russians and Poles), or an act of G-d, or the fault of human authorities? Richard Evans’s magisterial book places the Hamburg cholera outbreak of 1892 in the full political, economic, medical, and environmental context, revealing how Hamburg’s traditional government proved woefully inadequate when the disease exploded in the city.

This is a very thorough book. That is both its great strength and, for the general reader, its dreadful weakness. You will learn far more about the politics and economic policies of the city-state of Hamburg and its fraught internal civil relations than you will about who lived and who died. It takes almost 2/3 of the book to get to cholera and the 1892 outbreak. Politics, economics, class relations, the environment, and medical history take up much of the work, and if you are interested in seeing how historians use statistics and mapping, it is fantastic. If you want an entertaining read about a disease, this is probably not what you are interested in.

Hamburg remained a city-state, independent of the rest of the increasingly centralized German states until the late 1860s, and even then had certain exemptions and exceptions that set it apart. The whole focus of Hamburg, per Evans, was making money. The municipal government was run by members of high merchant families and their lawyers, and as little as could possibly be spent on infrastructure was spent. The port was an exception, and it was expanding the port that started the chain of events that led to the epidemic, because it diverted funds away from constructing a water-treatment facility and forced many more people into slums along the canals, or “fleets.” Evans argues that it was commercial concerns that led the leaders of Hamburg to first ignore and then deliberately obfuscate the first signs of cholera, until all of Europe and the US knew about the disaster, leading to a major economic crisis in the city.

I was somewhat interested in the politics and how unusual Hamburg was. I really wanted to get to the environmental history part and the plague itself. All the historical theories, class relations a la Marx, nods to Foucault, and other academic aspects of the work reminded me why I dislike and grow so impatient with historical theory. Those passages read like a doctoral dissertation.

In general the book is easy to read, and when Evans is doing straight narrative history, the book sings. He is an excellent writer, knows his material inside and out, and can catch the reader very well. Alas, those narrative sections are outnumbered by longer sections on government, statistics, economics, and class-relations. And for academic historians, those theoretical sections are a little dated, which fits the original 1987 publication date.

If you are interested in how city government worked or failed to work in late 19th Century Germany, this is a great book. If you are curious about the politics of Wilhelmine Germany and the Social Democratic impulse in Europe, again, good book. If you are looking for a German setting for John Barry’s The Great Influenza or other gripping medical histories, this is not the book, unless you read only those chapters focusing on the disease outbreak itself.

I’m glad I read it. It is useful in many ways for what I’m interested in and where I’m going this summer. But I confess, at one point, I set it aside and started reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks in German just for something lighter and different.

TL;DR: A well-written, dense, political history of the last independent German city-state that uses a cholera epidemic to show the weaknesses of the system. Probably not for the casual or less-than-seriously-interested reader.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or publisher for this review.