Friday, December 30, 2011

A Parting Quote for 2011

"Dresden, royal residence of dukes and kings of Saxony since the Middle Ages, whose Baroque skyline had inspired painters such as Canaletto, where Friedrich Schiller had written 'Ode to Joy' and which Napoleon had seized for his imperial command, greeted the 150 POWs trudging into the city on January 12, 1945, with a billboard proclaiming TRINK COCA-COLA."

From Charles Shields's new biography of Kurt Vonnegut, And So It Goes (New York, 2011), p. 62. The sentence above is a good sample of Shields' prose, which is lively, perceptive, and humorous. The biography as a whole is first-rate, and doesn't pull any punches.

Vonnegut's experiences as a prisoner-of-war, particularly his witnessing the firebombing of Dresden, shaped the author's most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. For all that book's strengths (and it is a masterpiece), Vonnegut was a novelist, not a historian, and his account of the Dresden bombing is not the most accurate. His famous summary of the attack, to the effect that it only benefited one person and that person was Vonnegut - and that "one way or another, I made five bucks for every person killed" - is doubly incorrect. The author's sardonic estimate of the profit he made from the dead assumes that 135,000 people died in the attack, an assumption based on David Irving's 1963 book on Dresden. Irving has a habit, shall we say, of playing fast and loose with the truth, and he overstated German casualties by at least 75,000.

Vonnegut's other observation, that he was the only beneficiary of the Dresden raid, is also untrue, though few people know the truth of the matter: that the attack on Dresden saved the city's tiny surviving Jewish population from deportation to the death camps, was originally scheduled to take place three days after the raid. Among the survivors was Victor Klemperer, whose harrowing diary remains one of the best primary sources on Jews' experiences in Germany during the war.


Happy New Year, everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

10 Centuries, 10 Links

1100s: Here's a recent Slate article on the 12th-century Lewis Chessmen. (The shield-chewing berserker rook is probably my favorite, with the pensive queen a close second.)

1200s: A blog entry, lavishly illustrated, on the geological and strategic importance of the town of Stirling during the wars of William Wallace. Look closely enough and you can see a tiny figure of Mel Gibson, mooning his adversaries.

1300s: The 14th-century Arab traveler, Ibn Battuta, who journeyed 75,000 miles during his lifetime, is being honored with a videogame. Apparently, there are zap guns.

1400s: While we're on the subject of guns, want to watch a short video demonstrating the use of the Hussites' early 15th-century handguns, the pistala (pipe gun) and hakovnice (hook gun)? Of course you do. (The clip is about halfway down the page).

1500s: Double-entry bookkeeping was first used in Europe in the 14th century, but the first popular text on the practice, Quaderno doppio col suo giornale, wasn't published until 1540. A webpage from the AMS follows the narrative of this 16th-()century textbook and finds that it is still a useful explanation of this accounting practice.

1600s: Sarah Underwood and Kathleen Brown try to guess what the 17th-century Pilgrims must have smelled like at the first Thanksgiving. Best not to read this one before dinner.*

1700s: Lynn Hunt, one of the world's experts on the 1789 French Revolution, recommends the five most influential books on the subject. Looks like I'm going to have to read R.R. Palmer's opus fairly soon.

1800s: The U.S. Mint will issue two coins in March 2012 honoring the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The coins will refer to the two images that most Americans associate with the war: the Star-Spangled Banner, and unnamed warships firing desultory broadsides at each other.

1900s: Did the French build a fake Paris during the First World War to fool German aerial bombers? Apparently so.

2000s: And Hungary has apparently decided that the best way to start the second decade of the 21st century is to slide back into fascism...

(Update, 12 July 2018: The Underwood and Brown piece is no longer available, but this more recent essay by Ruth Goodman suggests the Pilgrims didn't smell as bad as one might think.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

President Antichrist, Jr.

Writing in Slate Magazine, Forrest Wickman observed that would-be presidential assassin Oscar Ortega-Hernandez was hardly displaying originality when he called President Obama the "Antichrist." Other adversaries of the 44th president, including his 2008 election opponent John McCain (in a commercial called "The One" that was tailored to fans of the Left Behind novels), have either directly or indirectly called Obama the Antichrist, and a variety of ministers, politicos, and garden-variety crackpots have leveled the charge against twentieth-century presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. In his wonderful blog Goblinbooks, author Paul Bibeau argues that FDR wasn't the first American chief executive to earn this distinction, noting a famous Punch cartoon that depicted Abraham Lincoln as the "devil's minion," and quoting a Samuel Padover biography of Thomas Jefferson to the effect that many New Englanders regarded Jefferson as Antichrist. Since Padover provides no direct quotes, however, it seems that no-one actually went on record (in a region where record-keeping was obsessive) calling T. J. the Antichrist or Devil. Instead, Jefferson's religious critics seem to have regarded him as another "devil's minion," guilty of moral indecency and religious infidelity.

During the contentious 1800 presidential election, some Federalist editors warned pious New Englanders to "hide their Bibles should Jefferson be elected" (John Ferling, Adams vs. Jefferson [Oxford UP, 2004], 154), and one overwrought political cartoonist portrayed Jefferson trying to sacrifice the federal Constitution on a Satanic "altar of Gallic despotism" - a reference to the anticlerical, Deistic, and frequently despotic French Republic that Jefferson had supported.* In the cartoon, Jefferson is stopped by a "federal eagle" under the watchful gaze of God Almighty, who appears to have taken the form of a cloud with a giant eye. In reality, neither imaginary eagles nor amorphous deities stopped Jefferson from becoming president, and Jefferson's election apparently did not stop Federalists from calling him an atheist monster.** Somehow, though, the Devil managed to avoid eating the Constitution, and the republic, as it usually does, survived.

* The document near Jefferson's right hand in this cartoon is his famous 1796 letter to Phillip Mazzei, in which he called the Federalists the "Anglican monarchical aristocratical party" (not entirely untrue) and intimated that the very highest Federalist officials, "men who were Samsons in the field and Solomons in the council...have had their heads shorn by the harlot England." (Merrill Peterson, ed., The Portable Thomas Jefferson [Viking Penguin, 1975], 470.) Piled up at the base of the altar, meanwhile, are bags of treasure from various small countries that Revolutionary France has plundered, including the United States.

** This despite Jefferson's well-publicized attendance of at least one church service while in office and his opening of Treasury and War Department offices for religious services (James Hutson, "Thomas Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists: A Controversy Rejoined," William and Mary Quarterly 56 [Oct. 1999], 775-790).

Update, 13 December: The redoubtable Susan Frey has located a political cartoon, "Office Seekers of 1834," portraying Andrew Jackson as the Devil; it may be found here. Since Jackson's critics had already denounced him as a murderer, bigamist, despot, and would-be monarch, we shouldn't be surprised that one of them added "Oh, and he's the Antichrist, too. Just sayin'."