It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part D.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part D.



Louis Armstrong; The Master of Modernism by Thomas Brothers. W.W. Norton, 2015 paper. A discussion mostly of Armstrong’s music, rooted in African music and the blues.  Pulitzer Prize.


Stalin; Volume l: Paradoxes of Power, 1878 to 1928 by Stephen Kotkin. Penguin Press, 2014. From where did Stalin’s power come? Kotkin looks at the Bolshevik regime’s inner geography for the answer. Pulitzer Prize


No Good Men Among the Living; America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal. Picador, 2015 paper. A devastating critique of our intervention of the Afghani civil war against the Taliban. Pulitzer Prize.


Age of Ambition; Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015 paper. Hope and despair, idealism and crassness, mass social action and chaotic individual scheming: China’s gilded age. Pulitzer Prize.


Just Mercy; A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Spiegel & Grau, 2015 paper. The tragic character of incarceration in this country, both of the guilty and the innocent, most of them poor.  National Book Critics Award.


Thirteen Days in September; The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace by Lawrence  Wright. Vintage, 2015 paper. In September 1978 Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and President Jimmy Carter came up with an agreement that has become the basis of a shaky but enduring truce.


Becoming Ottomans; Sephardic Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era by Julia Cohen. Oxford University Press, 2014. An account of the Jewish political integration into this modern Islamic state beginning with Jewish emancipation, a series of reforms between 1839 and 1876.  National Jewish Book Award.


Coming to Pass; Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change by Susan Cerulean. University of Georgia Press, 2105. The genesis of Florida’s Gulf Coast islands and their genesis, which is tied to the Apalachicola River. Florida Book Awards.  


George Merrick; Son of the South Wind; Visionary Creator of Coral Gables by Arva Parks. University of Florida Press, 2015. Merrik transformed his family’s citrus grove outside Miami into a planned community in the ‘Mediterranean Style’ using local stone and investing in substantial infrastructure. Florida Book Awards.


Defining Duty in the Civil War; Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front by J. Matthew Gallman. University of North Carolina Press, 2015. How the North understood the meaning of duty and citizenship in a long civil war. Florida Book Awards.


Factory Man; How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town by Beth Macy. Back Bay, 2015 paper. The Bassett Furniture Company, once the world’s biggest wood furniture manufacturer and the center of work in Bassett, Virginia, finally lost its battle with Asian imports. Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part C

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part C



Doomed to Succeed; The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama by Dennis Ross. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.  An active participant, he sees no usefullness in the distance that the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama Administrations kept  from our Isareli allies. National Jewish Book Awards.

Killing a King; The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel by Dan Ephron. W.W. Norton, 2015. The killing of Rabin by a Jewish fanatic helped destroy the Middle Eastern peace process; Israelis and Palestinians have never again been so close to an agreement. National Jewish Book Awards.

The Crime and the Silence; Confronting the Massacre of Jews in Wartime Jedwabne by Anna Bikont & Alissaq Valles, trans. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, paper. This slaughter in a small Polish town of its Jews was revealed only after the end of the Cold War. Here is an account of the public debate generated in Poland since 1989. National Jewish Book Awards.

KL; A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nickolaus Wachsmann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, paper. An account of the German camp system from its inception in 1933 to its collapse in the spring of 1945. National Jewish Book Awards.

What’s Divine about Divine Law? Early Perspectives by Christine Hayes. Princeton University Press, 2015. The first century debate on divine law, untangling the classical and biblical roots of the Western idea that included early Christians but also Hellenistic Jewish writers. National Jewish Book Awards.

The Burdens of Brotherhood; Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France by Ethan Katz. Harvard University Press, 2015. Jewish/Muslim relations in Franc-a-phone France from WWI to the present. National Jewish Book Awards.

Somewhere There is Still a Sun; A Memoir of the Holocaust by Michael Gruenbaum with Todd Hasak-Lowy. A young boy’s growin up in the Jewish ghetto in Prague. For young readers. Hasak-Lowy is a former Gainesvillian.  Aladdin, 2016, paper. National Jewish Book Awards.

Empire of Cotton; A Global History by Sven Beckert. Vintage, 2015, paper. The cotton and cotton textile trade in Europe was instrumental in the emergence of capitalism and also slavery in the Americas and Africa. Bancroft Prize.


The Empire of Necessity; Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World by Greg Grandin. Picador Press, 2105 paper. An experienced seaman comes upon an apparently a ship in distress carrying a cargo of West African slaves. It was discovered that they had seized the ship and killed most of its crew and passengers.  Bancroft Prize


Encounters at the Heart of the World; A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth Fenn. Hill & Wang, 2015 paper. Their teeming, busy towns on the upper Missouri were a vital part of the economy of the western plains. Louis and Clark spent a winter with them.  Pulitzer Prize


The Pope & Mussolini; The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David Kertzer. Random House, 2015 paper. Both came to power in 1922; how their interactions shaped fascist Italy. Pius’s death in 1939 may have removed an ultimate opponent. Pulitzer Prize. National Book Award.


The Sixth Extinction; An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert Picador, 2015 paper. Pulitzer Prize. National Book Critics Circle. By burning fossil fuels, humans are changing the atmosphere, the oceans, and the climate causing massive extinctions. This sixth extinction is of a much different character than that of the first five.


Empire on the Edge; How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker.  Vintage, 2015 paper. Money, it turns out that money or lack of drove what turned out to be a limited interest in colonial Britain on the part of the public. Imperial Britain had no plan or guiding vision. Pulitzer Prize.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part B.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part B.


The Transformation of the African-American Intelligentsia, 1880 to 2012 by Martin Kilson. Harvard University Press, 2014. A modern African-American intelligentsia evolved in the face of institutionalized racism. The contrasting approaches of W.E.B. Du

Bois and Booker T. Washington to black intellectual leadership. American Book Award


This Changes Everything; Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein. Simon & Schuster, 2015, paper. Not just another issue brought to our attention by well-meaning environmentalists, climate change is effecting an array of issues confronting late capitalism – widening inequalities, vast amounts of money entering the system of democratic election, and faltering local economies among others. American Book Award


The Universal Tone; Bringing My Story to Light by Carlos Santana, with Ashley Kahn & Hal Miller. Back Bay Press, 2015, paper. The journey of Santana from his teens playing in Tijuana through his appearance at Woodstock and an illustrious career that followed. American Book Award


Southside Buddhist by Ira Sukrungruang. University of Tampa Press, 2014, paper. Personal essays about his growing up on Chicago streets that contemplate the complexities of the Thai immigrant life. American Book Award


The People’s Platform; Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor. Picador Press, 2015, paper. Hailed as a democratizing force, the Internet amplifies the real-world inequalities as much as it ameliorates them. A handful of giant companies, recently made fabulously rich, remain our gatekeepers. American Book Award


Negroland; A Memoir by Margo Jefferson. Pantheon Press. Mostly upper-class black ways of being and performing. A warning: she wants nothing from the reader but their attention: you don’t have to like what you read. National Book Critics Circle.


Romantic Outlaws; The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelly by Charlotte Gordon .A dual biography of this mother-daughter pair responsible for A Vindication of the Rights of Women. National Book Critics Circle.


Dreamland; The True Talk of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. Bloomsbury, 2016, paper. The spread of OxyContin addiction has been compared to the crack cocaine phenomenon of the 1980s but the difference is that it arose from the prescription pad and the marketing machine of its maker.

Roads Taken; The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way by Hasia Diner. Yale University Press, paper. 2016. They entered the homes of our great-grandparents to convince them of their need for possessions; they knew their customers well. National Jewish Book Awards


Young Lions; How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel by Leah Garrett. Northwestern University Press, 2015, paper. A tour of this literary terrain so familiar and yet gone unnoticed is its chapter in American Jewish cultural participation. National Jewish Book Awards.


Lincoln and the Jews; A History by Jonathan Sarna & Benjamin Shapell. Thomas Dunne Books. By the 1860s Jews from central Europe were finding new lives in eastern cities, and Lincoln embraced they as refugees but also valuable citizens. National Jewish Book Awards.

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part A

It Has Come to My Attention; Book Prizes and Finalists, 2015. Part A

Rain; A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett. Crown, 2015. Gainesville’s Cynthia Barnett begins four billion years ago and marches us through our always tenuous relationship with this natural phenomenon. National Book Award. Florida Book Award.

Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Spiegel & Grau, 2015. Letters to a teenaged son who grew up in a tough Baltimore neighborhood, from there to Howard
University, then New York and Paris. National Book Award.

Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes. Yale University Press, 2015. His death and the deep national mourning that followed was complicated by the end of the Civil War and the possibility of Southern complicity. National Book Award.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery. Easy enough to observe the intelligence of crows, dogs, and chimpanzees, but Octopi. National Book Award.

Love and Other Ways of Dying by Michael Paterni. Dial Press, 2015. Essays about interesting people he meets from Ukraine to Dodge City, Kansas. National Book Award.

Paradise in the Pacific; Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015. Many arrivals from the early Polynesians to the flotsam of Europe. National Book Award.

If the Oceans Were Ink; An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Powers. Holt, 2015 paper. Friendship with a Moslem helped her confront stereotypes and misperceptions that too often inform attitudes toward their communities. National Book Award.

Ordinary Light: a Memoir by Tracy Smith. Knopf, 2015. Coming of age in a world of uncertainties. National Book Award.

Travels in Vermeer; A Memoir by Michael White. Persea Books, 2015.Decides to drown his miseries by a pilgrimage to six world cities to see a Vermeer painting. National Book Award.

Hold Still; A Memoir by Sally Mann. Little, Brown, 2015. When sorting through family papers, you can sometimes find more than you bargained for, and that is particularly true if the family is Southern. National Book Award.

Rebel Music; Race, Empire, and the New Muslim Youth Culture by Hirham Aidi. Vintage, 2015, paper. The musical subcultures that have emerged among Muslim youth around the world and over the last decade: hip-hop, reggae, and rock, among others. American Book Award

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Beacon Press, 2015 paper. Euro-Americans have convinced themselves that we have been divinely chosen to impose free-market capitalism on the rest of the world, dumping the detritus of that industrial cultural on the land they once cared for. American Book Award

Forbidden City, USA; Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936 to 1970 by Arthur Dong. Deep Focus Productions, 2014, paper. Asian-American performers who defied racial and cultural barriers to reveal a sassy, daring and vibrant popular culture in the nightclub scene in San Francisco. American Book Award.

Leningrad; Siege and Symphony; The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich

Leningrad; Siege and Symphony; The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich by Brian Moynahan.  Grove Press, 2015, paper.

In 1942 while Dmitri Shostakovich was composing his Seventh Symphony, his native city, Leningrad, was surrounded by German armies. The Germans, wishing to avoid a street-by-street battle for the city, had instead determined to starve the city into submission.


The terror referenced in Brian Moynahan’s title had been unleashed in the 1930s by Josef Stalin and the NKVD headed by Lavrentiy Beria. Leningrad was Russia’s second largest city and its Bolshevik establishment and intelligentsia rivaled that of the Soviet capital, Moscow.


The author illustrates the character of Bolshevik ‘party politics’ in Soviet Russia with the murder of Sergi Kirov in 1934. Kirov had been the popular chief of the Leningrad Bolsheviks, and his assassination may have been ordered by Stalin. In any case, Stalin took the opportunity to liquidate those delegates who, while attending the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934, had made clear Kirov’s popularity over Stalin’s.


That murdering campaign then moved on to other victims: many of Leningrad’s artists, musicians, composers, dancers, and film-makers, a favored class of ‘creatives,’ who had made the city a great cultural center in Soviet Russia, as it had been in Imperial Russia. Stalin was an art enthusiast, but he knew what he liked – and didn’t like. Shostakovich had watched Stalin walk out of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Opera, Shostakovich concluded, was too dangerous and henceforth he concentrated on symphonic music, string quartets, and smaller orchestral pieces.


Moynahan provides us with descriptions of the interrogation techniques of the NKVD. Boris Izvekov, head of geophysics at Leningrad Technical University, was arrested in February 1942. Likely his name had been obtained earlier from a mathematics professor who, under interrogation, had fingered him as an active participant in a German spy ring within the faculty. Izvekov was a son of a priest – not good, but he had had nothing to do with the “anti-Bolshevik” Whites. His interrogation went on for days until he confessed and also incriminated colleagues for counter-revolutionary activities. He then was shot.


Moynahan considers whether Stalin knew about Operation Barbarossa before it was launched in 22 June 1941. It is difficult to believe that he wasn’t informed of the 3.2 million German soldiers marshalling on his borders. Warnings of German preparations were dismissed as “Allied provocations.”


Stalin counted on the German invasion of the Low Countries and France taking more time and a greater toll of German military strength. And in the meanwhile Soviet war production was expanded and factories dismantled and moved toward the Urals. Were the Russians stalling for time?


The German Army overran Poland and the Baltic states and by August 1941 had reached the Leningrad area. Another German/Finish army approached the city from the north. The residents remained patriotic and even heroic in their resistance. Yet food failed to reach the city and their bread ration continued to be reduced.


There were favored groups: Russian defenders of the city of course but surprisingly the musical community. Live broadcasts of orchestra music was considered vital to the city’s optimism. The state-owned radio stations in Russia had their own orchestras. Each Russian army unit its band. There were orchestras attached to different performance spaces. Many of these musicians including, Shostakovich and his family, were evacuated to inland cities, including Kuibyshev (modern-day Samara), designated to be the Russian capital should Moscow fall.


The fourth movement of his Seventh Symphony was finished at Kuibyshev. (The first three had been composed in Leningrad during the siege.) And the world premiere of the Seventh was performed there on March 1942. The Leningrad premier was in August of that year. The score was smuggled out and performed in London and New York.


Moynahan’s narrative, a month-by-month account, switches abruptly from starvation – even cannibalism – in Leningrad to the fortunes of the Russian army in 1941-1943. Bad news kept coming: the fall of Sevastopol and Kharkov and the ever tightening grip on Leningrad. The staggering German defeat before Stalingrad from August 1942 and February 1943 is beyond the scope of this book. And hence the reader cannot celebrate it alongside the citizens of Leningrad.


Moynahan mentions an important event that should also have cheered Leningrad had the city been able to foresee its outcome.  On 8 December 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and aimed their armies at Southeast Asia. Russia would not have to fight a war in its Far East. Hitler declared war on the U.S. and American weaponry and munitions began flowing through the port of Murmansk. But it wasn’t until January 1943 that the Russian army broke the siege of Leningrad, establishing a corridor that allowed food to reach the starving city.

How the Other Half Banks; Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy

How the Other Half Banks; Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy by Mehrsa Baradaran. Harvard University Press, 2015.

Mehrsa Baradaran’s book is part of the growing conversation about inequality. The American banking system, rescued in 2008 from a near collapse, has not been serving the banking needs of the less well off. And what Baradaran calls “fringe lenders” have stepped in to fill that gap, with mixed outcomes.


A relatively small number of American banking conglomerates have become private/public enterprises whose continued existence (‘too big to fail’) is guaranteed by a public entity, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. However, their responsibilities – whom they serve and how they serve them – are left to be determined by the baking sector itself. Their regulation is, for the most part, limited to protecting them from adverse economic emergencies. At the same time, the big banks have abandoned what Baradaran calls their historic “social contract with the American people”


Community banks could once be found in almost every U.S. town, receiving deposits, making small loans, and generally meeting the banking needs of that community. The financial crisis that preceded the Great Depression in 1933 resulted in runs on these banks and bank failures. Measures were taken by the Roosevelt Administrations to shore up the remaining community banks. But the crisis had made banks, state and federal governments, and bank customers cautious; the FDIC, backed by the credit of the federal government, was able to reassure the banking public.


This banking crisis fostered a conversation about the future of banking. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was one of many who argued that banks should be thought of as public utilities. Most agreed about the importance of what they called unit banks, a bank operating in a single region only. This precluded the conglomerate banks of today’s banking world with their many branches.


After WWII these bank branches followed their customers and the housing construction industry out to the suburbs, leaving older neighborhoods without banking services. Into this void came what Baradaran calls “banks with souls,” banks committed to providing the services that traditional banks were no longer doing.


Credit unions grew out of the cooperative movement. They pooled community deposits and lent them out to that same community. Often they were sponsored by large employers; the U.S. Postal Service, for example, created a credit union for its employees in 1923. They financed automobile and other large purchases. Their purpose was to encourage the saver and help finance the consumer.


Savings and loan associations were more specifically for helping with mortgages. They prospered with the post-war building boom and home ownership. However, their long-term mortgage loans were at fixed interest rates but those loans were funded by more volatile interest rates on shorter-term deposits. Trouble came when the interest rates paid to the latter began to exceed the interest they charged. Thus the Savings and Loan Crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.


Most recently internet lenders have cropped up. They will likely be considered “fringe lenders” by Baradaran and other critics.  They join an array of credit institutions that supply short-term loans: pay-day lenders, title loans for car buyers, pawn-shop loans, and tax refund anticipation loans. Much maligned these days, she points out that these fringe lenders are the only options for the seventy million individuals (estimate) who do not have access to other sources of short-term credit. Because these loans are frequently rolled over they are expensive. (The interest rates may be as high as 300%: Annual Percentage Rate). Prepaid cards are the newest form of credit and may be the most expensive with substantial fees for activation and ATM use built into the purchase price of the card.


But o.k., Baradaran points out that the $35.00 draft overcharge that most banks levy add up to even higher credit costs. Banks can and do arrange the order of the returned checks so as to maximize the overdraft charges. To amend Baradaran’s phrase, we might call them ‘banks with no souls.’


Banking in the absence of traditional banking services can be expensive. She estimates that this conversion of money from paycheck, to cash, to electronic currency, and often back to cash again may absorb as much as 10% of an individual’s annual income.


Baradaran contends that a good solution would be the return to postal banking, revising an older institution established in the early twentieth century. (One can still purchase postal money orders at our thousands of post offices. Branch banking?) Since 1968 Congress has repeatedly determined that the postal service should be profitable and, despite its long history of service to the American public, no longer dependent on revenue from the federal government. Postal banking might be the opportunity to solve its deficit problem.


There would be opposition to the reestablishment of postal banking, especially from payday loan operations, now also organized into big conglomerates. And we have recently had the experience with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government sponsored enterprises that failed at public expense. Nor would postal banking be the community banking that Mehrsa Baradaran praised earlier in her useful book.


Black Earth; The Holocaust as History and Warning

Black Earth; The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder. Crown Publishing, 2015.

Timothy Snyder is the author of the prize-winning Bloodlands; Europe between Hitler and Stalin. His new book attempts to understand the murderousness of both the Russian and German occupations of Eastern Europe during the Second World War. And how the slaughter in each state was conditioned by their political environments in the 1930s


His thesis is that the trajectory of atrocities can be explained by the presence or absence of states, that is governments and bureaucracies and their civil codes. Where those states were annihilated, alternatively by the Russians and the Germans, they became place names. Nationality – Polish Jewry, for example, – was transformed into race – Jewish.


Snyder introduces the notion of “double occupation.” He first looks at the German-Russian negotiations which led to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in September 1939. Less well known are the German-Polish negotiations which preceded that Pact. The two governments conspired to co-operate in remaking the map of Eastern Europe and European Russia. They failed to come to an agreement, Snyder maintains, because the Poles realized that although they would receive territory, they would remain a minor partner in Germany’s plans for the Ukraine and Belorussia and the destruction of Russian Bolshevism. Poland instead opted for an alliance offered them by Britain and France.


Part of that German-Polish negotiations was a plan for the forceful removal of Jews from Eastern Europe. Adolf Hitler was no ordinary German anti-Semite. He believed that the Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe were the remnants of wondering Asiatic tribes and were “poisonous.” There were, however, as of yet no solid plans about how to eliminate Jewish populations, nor yet any death camps. The German did hope, however, that the Poles would carry out spontaneous pogroms.


When talking to the Poles, his diplomats would not have revealed another design, Hitler’s plan to create slave populations out of the Slavs that would serve the master race of Germans. Superfluous Slavic populations would be starved to death.


Snyder argues that Hitler had some early ideas about the planet’s ecological future in which there would be food shortages and starvation. He hoped, however, to ‘allocate that hunger.’ He could not envision anything like the post-World War II ‘Green Revolution’ which has at least postponed starvation.


The Nazis were motivated by the Judeobolshevik myth: Russian Jews were responsible for the Bolshevik Revolution and hence, the German view, doubly damned.


Snyder takes us through the several instances of Germans destroying nations and creating statelessness: Austria (March 1938), Czechoslovakia (March 1939), and eastern Poland (June 1941.) The earlier Russian occupation of Eastern Poland (September 1939), Snyder argues, had produced “resources” that would facilitate the subsequent German occupation. Economic resources: the Soviets had appropriated land and other forms of capital, including Jewish wealth, which the Germans could subsequently seize. Political resources: cadres of Poles had been stripped of their civil rights and expelled from civil society, leaving them to be rounded up by the Germans.  Psychological resources: once an individual or group had collaborated with one occupier, it was easier for the second perpetrator of the “double occupation” to enlist those compromised individuals.


Eastern European Jewish communities were transported to ghettoes and work camps but mostly survived the early years of the war, according to Snyder. Polish Jews were an exception, though there were more Polish Catholics killed by Germans than Polish Jews. Perhaps the most notorious was the 21,892 Polish officers and political elites killed by the Russians in April 1940 in the Katyn Forest and other sites. Snyder argues that the mass killing of Jews began with Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, when Russian Jews became “stateless” in the areas of Russia occupied by the Germans. But even then he points out, the Germans were killing vastly more Russian prisoners of war than Jews.


Snyder would agree with Daniel Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners; Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.)  The Einsatzgruppen and the SS were primarily responsible for the killing. However, the Wehrmacht assisted them; German paramilitary groups and auxiliary police units participated. And the Germans were joined in their slaughter by other nationalities: Poles, Lithuanians, and Russians. Local participation was encouraged!


Thousands of Jews and gypsies were shot by an executioner facing his victim. That took its emotional toll of the Wehrmacht, particularly during the Russian campaign. Carbon Monoxide was tried, piping automotive exhaust into the tightly packed vans. Eventually Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide) was used in the death camps. Of course the least technological solution was simply to allow people to starve to death; the fate of Russian prisoners of war and citizens of Leningrad.


The title of a final chapter entitled “The Righteous Few” is telling. Snyder gives instances of the bravery associated with hiding or in other ways assisting Jews. The penalty, if caught, was generally immediate execution. Hence those “few” are justifiability celebrated in Europe and America after the War.

The Empire of Necessity; Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

The Empire of Necessity; Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World by Greg Grandin. Picador, 2015, paper.

In 1817 Amasa Delano, a New Englander involved in the seal skin trade, published an account of his years at sea, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. His ship, a schooner, was called the Perseverance; New Englanders named their ships after virtues. The Perseverance sailed up and down the “sealing archipelago” that stretched along the Pacific side of Spanish America. Most of the catch supplied the Chinese market, in such quantities that the ups and downs of the Chinese market could affect both demand and price.


The author of this interesting book, Greg Grandin, has used Narrative of Voyages and Travels as his primary source, but he includes other travel narratives and the rich administrative archive of the Spanish New World. Mostly the book is about the seal trade, but Delano was also involved in the “middle passage,” the transport of West Africans to New World slavery.


Perhaps as many as ten million West Africans were brought to the New World on slave ships between 1514 and 1866. The reader sails on those slave ships and examines a particular phenomenon, slave uprisings. Between the early 1500s and 1860s there were, Grandin claims, 493 slave revolts. Most of them failed; the slaves were killed in the shipboard fight, or tossed overboard, or committed suicide by jumping into the sea.


It happened that the Perseverance came upon a slave ship, the Tryal, which appeared to be in distress. Maritime law required an assist to a ship in distress, though the decision to do so was rarely humanitarian only. Delano sent a boarding party, but they decided that there was nothing amiss and left the ship. Only to have the captain of the Tryal, Benito Cerraňo, leapt into their dinghy. He explained that the slaves on his ship had seized control and orchestrated a subterfuge in which the crew had agreed to participate in return for their lives. Cerraňo was the real world inspiration for the character of a similar name in Herman Melville’s short novel “The Bell-Tower.”


The author describes the squalor of the slave quarters below deck. The weeks at sea resulted in high death rates caused by disease: scurvy, consumption, dropsy, malaria, yellow fever, typhoid fever, and gonorrhea. Rarely do historians of the Atlantic slave trade mention that these illnesses were also aggravated by displacement, melancholia, and mourning.



It is estimated that 10% of Africans from the Niger River Valley were Moslem. They were often not allowed to face east to prey. Islam justified resistance against oppressive owners; Christianity never did.  Did this make Moslems from West Africa more likely to revolt?


In addition to African slavery, we meet up with other shades of servitude. The liberty of the sailors on Delano’s Perseverance and the Tryal that he commandeered was limited by their agreements with the ship owner and its captain. Sailors on these ships of sail experienced one of the last vestiges of the Old Regime’s unmitigated tyranny. Many of these forms of servitude were the result of desperate poverty.


There is also some interesting time-traveling in The Empire of Necessity. We visit Buenos Aires and Montevideo, boomtowns on the Río de la Plate. We accompany shackled slaves as they are marched across the Argentine Pampas and then over the rugged Andes. The city of Mendoza, which was on this land route to the Pacific via Santiago. On to Lima which Grandin describes as the great imperial capital of Spanish America. We catch glimpses of the islands on which the seal rockeries were located. They were also home to castaways with whom ship captains replaced depleted crews and to escaped slaves.


Grandin makes a strong case for the argument that the slave trade is important to the origins of industrial capitalism. We know the story of industrial development in Liverpool and Manchester based on slave-produced cotton in the American South. Factories in Montevideo and Buenos Aires were also centers of this emerging industrial economy, producing leather goods analogous to the cotton textile trade in England. Here is another arena in which capitalism evolved out of the practice of purchasing stock in a trading or slaving venture. The author even claims that slavery was the engine of Spanish America’s capitalist development.


Greg Grandin has woven together an array of stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth- century Atlantic world when it was the center of a trade in commodities as well as the West African slaves.




India at War; The Subcontinent and the Second World War

India at War; The Subcontinent and the Second World War by Yasmin Khan . Oxford University Press, 2015.

The South Asia’s contribution to World War II has tended to drop out of post-war histories of that long, global conflict. India’s gaining its independence two years later, in 1947, overshadows the war years. Yasmin Khan’s India at War; The Subcontinent and the Second World War is not about the battles that the Indian army fought in North Africa, the Middle East, Malaya, and Burma. Rather describes the impact of that war on a largely agricultural country fielding an army to fight in mechanized warfare.


The story that Khan tells of the Indian home front during the war is similar to stories of other countries in or near the war zones. But there are differences. The Indian military was all-volunteer. Numbering 2.5 million when World War II ended, it was recruited from the ‘warlike Indian races’: the Jats, Rajputs, Pathans, Sikhs, and Gurkhas (Nepal) and particularly from the province of the Punjab. Service in the Indian army during the British period had always been considered an admirable life; enlistment went well.


The domestic food supply, on the other hand, was always dubious and made worse by the war-time situation. In the absence of rationing, distribution was left to the usual channels. Rising prices produced disparities, which gave the appearance of a country not pulling itself together to fight a threat to its future. Government of India revenues, in war or peace, were dependent on the level of prosperity in the agricultural economy.


Things did not go well on the food front. There was a famine in Bengal in 1943 and from 1.5 to 4.0 million of the peasantry starved to death. Weather was the primary cause. But to prevent the Japanese from utilizing the fleet of Bengali boats should they invade Bengal, the British had thousands of boats destroyed in what Khan refers to as a “scorched-earth strategy.” Boats were the principle means of conveying the rice crop in this watery environment. So there was no means of shipping rice into the province This was an instance, Khan contends, where the Government of India failed, undermining public confidence in the British administration.


This food problem was particularly true of the war years because, in addition to the Indian army, there were sizeable numbers of British and American troops stationed in India to protect the subcontinent from a possible Japanese invasion. India had to feed these soldiers, and also the Chinese troops that were trained in India and prisoners of war from the European front – particularly Italians captured in North Africa. Plus the refugees that arrived from Burma and Southeast Asia.


The Government of India was staffed by well-trained British career civil servants. In the inner-war period the British, responding to nationalists’ demands, had agreed to Indianize the civil services, Always intended to be gradual steps toward self-government, few Indians felt that admitting Indians into the Indian Civil Service came close enough to their notions of national independence.


Indian nationalists had competent, fervent leadership, the two most prominent being Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi (the Mahatma). Nehru saw the opportunity presented by the war to wring promises of independence after the war. Gandhi, on the other hand, found supporting the military anathema to his ‘satyagraha,’ or passive resistance. He was prepared to confront Japanese invaders with his non-cooperation. The launching of his ‘Quit India’ agitation was ill-timed, in the midst of the Japanese occupation of Malaya and the fall of Singapore. The British looked upon this blindness to the character of Japanese warfare with disbelief and anger.


The arrest and imprisonment of the Congress leadership in August 1942 for the duration of the war seemed like yet another failure on the part of the ICS, this time to convince the nationalists that they shared a common vision of India’s future.


Trouble enough, but there were also divisions within the Indian nationalists’ ranks. Muhamad Ali Jinnah and the Moslem League saw the opportunity to champion their demands for the partition of India and the creation of the state of Pakistan after the war.


There were more than 70,000 Indian prisoners of war held by the Japanese as a result of warfare in Malaya and Southeast Asia. They were fed by the Japanese and not ill-treated.  The Bengali nationalist, Subhas Chandra Bose (Netaji) was allowed to persuade them to join his Indian National Army.


Bose had visited Berlin in early 1942 and offered to align his movement with Europe’s fascist regimes. The Germans were, however, ambivalent about Bose’s call for immediate independence. Visiting Tokyo, he found the Japanese skeptical of the rag-tag army that he had formed from the ranks of the Indian P.O.Ws. His appeals to Berlin and Tokyo were cut short by his death in an airplane crash.


The Government of India had no plan for the demobilization of India’s vast army and their return to civilian life. Had they fought the war and died (89,000) for a crumbling Raj and a country that didn’t work? These Indian soldier had experienced the world outside India; they returned to an India that now seemed like another world.