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.

Yom HaShoah

Today, at sundown, begins Yom HaShoah. It is the day set aside on the Jewish calendar to remember the Shoah, the Holocaust. The thing “the world” swore would never happen again, a promise that failed to take into account human tribalism and the excuses that history provides to people who want to do evil acts in the name of “righting past wrongs.” Continue reading

The U.S. in WWI – Part 2

Author’s note: This is a very broad overview. Please bear in mind that the Eastern Front is my specialty. US participation in WWI is a topic that can be a blog in and of itself, and there are several very good web sites on the war.

The United States declared war on Imperial Germany a hundred years ago last week (April 6, 1917). We had: no army; an air force of 30 planes give or take, the majority of which were used to supply parts for the others; a minimal navy; and some experience with fighting – in northern Mexico, or tropical climates. Granted, we had been supplying things to Britain and France, and US citizens had been serving as volunteers in the Entente armies since 1914, but we weren’t exactly ready for all-out war Over There. And a goodly number of the residents and citizens of the US were not entirely in favor of fighting for Britain. A smaller number opposed our fighting against Germany, and a number, mostly socialists, communists, and trade-union organizers recently immigrated from Europe, were opposed to our doing anything to help anyone in the war. And a number of US citizens read the proclamations of “Fighting to make the world safe for democracy” and wondered who was kidding whom, because they had limited rights at best – African-Americans, Indians, and women. Continue reading

One Hundred Years Ago… The US in WWI Part 1

Welcome Instapundit readers! Thanks for stopping by.

We don’t have a dog in the fight. We have to make the world safe for democracy. We have to defeat the Hun. England deserves to lose because of what she’s done to Ireland. The US should be a model for world peace and stay out of the war. The US has a duty to defeat Imperial Germany because we owe France and  because of what the Hun have done to Belgium.

The US entry into WWI was a strange moment in history, and one that historians still wonder about. Continue reading

Farm Fun!

There’s just something cool when you turn a bunch of history-minded people loose in a museum. I earned serious street creds from a group of professors in Oklahoma City by helping them identify which theme went to which Western TV series. I’ve heard interesting stories while lurking behind the next display, pretending not to be listening in. And this was no exception. After all, it is not often that you can spend time looking at something like this, and talking to people who grew up riding on them or working on them, or yes:

First came tanks, then tractors, then more tanks. You’ll still see large treaded tractors on the northern plains.

Continue reading

White Cliffs of Dover

“There’ll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover/ Tomorrow, when the world is free.”

That’s one of those songs that makes me choke up every dang time I hear it. I can’t sing it through without crying. I think it is because of all the hopes and might-have-beens in the lyrics, of just how strongly the singer wants everything to be better, for the bad guys to be gone, and for Johnny to be home again. Continue reading