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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On a troubled century that defined the nation

And you think we're a politically fractured nation now?

The Los Angeles Times has posted my review of Brenda Wineapple's fine new history, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, which explores the national mood in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. You could fill a library with the volumes that have been written about those turbulent and violent days, but Wineapple's book stands out as a broad cultural history. It's light on battle details - incorporating the major, pivotal moments while eliding the incremental skirmishes - and deep on politics and cultural collisions.

I've argued in the past that one of the propellants of our current cultural frictions is a failure to acknowledge that different races, cultures, and economic strata have different views of our national history. That has infused the debate around Detroit and its economic collapse. But it crops up elsewhere, too, as we saw with Paula Deen and a recent survey in which Georgia Republicans thought more highly of her than Martin Luther King Jr. Same country, different views. Same as it ever was.
It's hard in an era of voter suppression efforts in minority neighborhoods, with a Supreme Court that devalues the Civil Rights Act, and when an armed Florida vigilante can spark a confrontation and then claim self-defense, to not measure past against present. Especially given the argument streaming through conservative America that this is a post-racial society in which blacks no longer need special protections from the legal system.

Whites and blacks have a different history in these same United States, and it behooves us to recognize that. And to sense — in the present — the weight of the past. Wineapple's Ecstatic Nation does a laudable job of bringing to life not just the Civil War but the society in which it occurred — and has evolved into the present.
It's a good book. It can take patience in places, with a wide cast of characters and quotes that can make for burdensome reading. But it's well worth the effort. Read More 
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On Kristallnacht, and the teenage gunman who precipitated it

It's a bicoastal weekend of book reviewing for me. As the Los Angeles Times prints my review of Brenda Wineapple's Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877, the Washington Post carries my review of Jonathan Kirsch's The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris.

Both are fascinating reads for different reasons (I explore the Wineapple book here). I was vaguely familiar with the Grynszpan case, but not to the detail that Kirsch provides. Fascinating slice of history:
On the morning of Nov. 7, 1938, a troubled teenager walked into an embassy in Paris, lied his way past some rather nonchalant guards, was granted a private meeting with an attache and then shot the man dead. The boy was Jewish, the victim was a low-level Nazi diplomat, and the killing was quickly seized upon by Hitler and his agents of darkness to accelerate their campaign to drive Jews from Germany. Within hours of the attache’s death, Hitler unleashed the infamous Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass,” a rather poetic name for a savage orgy of murder, rape, arson and vandalism in which more than 200 Jews were killed, 1,300 synagogues were burned and 7,500 Jewish-owned shops were attacked.
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The history surrounding those events has been scoured for decades and subjected to wide-ranging debates over how much of Kristallnacht was planned and how much was spontaneous. Kirsch seems to split the difference. He believes that plans for a broad pogrom were in the works and that Grynszpan’s assassination of Ernst vom Rath gave the Nazis the pretext to unleash what propagandist Joseph Goebbels called “the justified and understandable outrage of the German people.”

As Kirsch points out, Grynszpan was one of the first Jews to strike a violent blow against the regime that would work with such savage efficiency to exterminate the Jewish race. Yet Jewish history and culture have not been kind to Grynszpan, in large part viewing him as a deranged, immature youth who put his lust for personal revenge ahead of the safety of his people. That’s a fair assessment in Kirsch’s eye, though he thinks it’s time to reconsider Grynszpan and the two bullets he fired in that Parisian office 75 years ago. To blame Grynszpan for the violent racism of the Nazis, he writes, “is not merely unsupported by the facts of history, but is also morally bankrupt.” Rather, Kirsch argues, Grynszpan, like others once described as “premature antifascists,” read the Nazis for what they were and “seemed to perceive the existential threat that Nazi Germany posed to the Jewish people” at a time when most of the world, including Jews, sought to appease Hitler or wait him out.
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