Review of “George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father” by David O. Stewart

An experienced biographer, historian David O. Stewart focuses on how George Washington became a “master politician,” and how this skill helped him navigate the very treacherous shoals of the early years of the American Republic. The increasingly poisonous atmosphere, especially during Washington’s second term in office, won’t sound so foreign to the current audience.

Stewart devotes most of his attention to Washington’s early years, and especially to those events that defined his later character. He recounts Washington’s experiences in the French and Indian War; his terms of office in the Virginia House of Burgesses; service as a judge on Fairfax County Court; and commander of armed forces in the American War of Independence. Stewart documents how, over time, Washington gained control over his apparently fierce temper, and learned the importance of building political coalitions and avoiding controversies whenever he could.

Washington, Stewart reports, never minced words about what he wanted: his goal was renown. Moreover, he craved “the regard and esteem” of fellow countrymen. He had a lifelong dread of any smudge on his reputation, and therefore of failure in any of his endeavors. As he wrote to a relative in 1775, “reputation derives it principal support from success.”

Because he needed success to make a good impression, some controversies were more difficult to avoid than others, especially as they directly would determine the outcome of his biggest challenges. One was the matter of getting colonists to cough up money. The Revolution was tied to Americans’ hatred of taxes, a dislike that has never in fact been dented much. And yet, at the same time, Americans wanted much that depended on government funding, such as an army that could repel the British; protection by an army from Natives increasingly unhappy over the usurpation of their land; and roads and other infrastructure that crossed state boundaries. Washington, who spent so many years leading soldiers who had little food, clothes, equipment, and wages, knew firsthand that a resistance to taxation and demand for services were incompatible desires.

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

Washington’s awareness of the country’s need for money carried over into his presidency, during which he aligned with Alexander Hamilton on fiscal policies that would retire the war debts and get a standardized currency approved. These unpopular measures needed to have the force of law behind them. As Washington observed back in 1778, “Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good.” He went on to aver that no institution relying on that faulty premise would succeed.

Washington had several factors that worked in his favor in the early republic. One was that Americans then, like now, “craved a hero.” It was generally easier to find someone to fill that need who played a military role, in spite of the fact that Washington’s military victories were few and far between. Much of his success in the Revolution could be attributed just to outlasting the British, who were fighting far from home. But as Stewart points out, it was political savvy, rather than military prowess, that was central to Washington’s success. In the internecine battles for control over the army and influence in Congress, Washington was often just the last man left standing.

Washington always wanted to make sure that everyone knew he didn’t want all these responsibilities (a claim belied by his pursuit of them). Thus if he failed, it wasn’t really his fault because he kept trying to turn down all these positions to which he was unanimously elected.

Once he did accept a position, however, he exerted tight control over that institution. Today he would be called a “micro-manager.” He was deeply involved in every aspect of his army and with all the deal-making under his presidential administration, in spite of his seeming reticence publicly. In fact, one interesting passage in this book deals with the famous compromise over war debt assumption by the new country and the location of its capital. Most histories claim that Jefferson somehow engineered the deal at a dinner party; Stewart contends this was largely a re-writing by Jefferson of what happened. It was a long-term process, Stewart avers, and Washington manipulated all of it.

By Washington’s second term, however, Washington was no longer seen as someone who could do no wrong. The country had grown, and dissent had grown along with it. Opponents launched bitter and often untrue attacks on him. Stewart explores the factors that led to this increase in factionalism, including French interference in American politics; the growing rivalry of Jefferson, who co-opted Madison, a former ally of Washington’s, to his cause; and of course, taxes. Washington couldn’t wait to escape the growing acrimony of political life. On the day John Adams was inaugurated as the second president, Adams later wrote that Washington looked “as serene and unclouded as the day.” He added, “Methought I heard him say, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which one of us will be happiest!’”

President John Adams

Washington died in 1799 after a difficult illness that started out as a cold. In his will he freed what slaves he could (some were owned by Martha’s estate and not his to free), and provided for care of others. He never made a public condemnation of slavery, however. Stewart speculates that Washington knew how controversial slavery was and didn’t want to damage his standing any further. Stewart also thought Washington must have known he would have sounded hypocritical if he spoke out against slavery. [That consideration never stopped other Founding Fathers, such as Jefferson.] Moreover, Washington never seemed to have awareness of how awful the state of being “owned” must be to another person. When he was younger, for example, traveling to Barbados with his older half-brother Lawrence in 1751, he gushed in his diary about being “ravished” by the beauty of Barbados, the gorgeous mansions, and the great meals, but evinced no awareness of the harsh lives of the slaves there who made all that possible, especially the short-lived workers in the sugar-cane fields. And much later in life, when Martha’s favorite slave Ona Judge ran away, Washington fumed in a letter:

“. . . however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.”

The Washingtons were incensed and offered a reward for Ona’s recapture.

In Washington’s view, Ona, who was money walking out his door, was “ungrateful.” What about a desire for freedom? It seems that for Washington, that wasn’t a relevant or legitimate desire for African Americans.

His blindness about “life, liberty, and happiness” for all extended to Native Americans. When fighting against them on America’s then western border, he reported how upset he was over “barbarous” Indians killing settlers – “poor innocent babes and helpless families.” He never considered why they might have acted that way, insofar as they were being evicted from their homelands, and subject to barbarous murders themselves by settlers covetous of Native property.

Stewart doesn’t make these flaws in Washington’s perception and character central, however, choosing to focus instead on Washington’s self-reinvention and political genius, and how he accomplished the former and developed the latter. In that respect, he does a fine job.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Dutton Books, 2021

April 19, 1775 – Battles of Lexington and Concord Kick Off the American Revolution & Review of “The British Are Coming” by Rick Atkinson

The poem “Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson paid tribute to the famous Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first official military engagements between Britain and the colonies in the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). Tensions had been building for many years between residents of the thirteen American colonies and the British authorities, particularly in Massachusetts. Emerson’s poem describes “the shot heard round the world” fired by Patriots at the North Bridge in what is now Charlestown, in northwestern Boston, Massachusetts.

Rick Atkinson, in his first magisterial volume of the planned “Revolution” trilogy, The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, describes just how those tensions developed and the early years of the war. In his Prologue, while summarizing the events that led to the Revolution, Atkinson writes:

“The odds were heavily stacked against the Americans: no colonial rebellion had ever succeeded in casting off imperial shackles. But, as Voltaire had observed, history is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.”

The results of the 3,059 days of the American Revolution were “tectonic,” Atkinson avers. The first was the reduction of the British Empire by about one-third. [Ironically, one rationale for the British wanting to suppress the American rebellion was preservation of the empire, fearing it would encourage insurrections in other British colonies.] The second was “epochal and enduring: the creation of the American republic.” Unlike the creation myths about America, the war, Atkinson argues, was “both grander and more nuanced, a tale of heroes and knaves, of sacrifice and blunder, of redemption and profound suffering.”

He then goes into a great deal of detail about the early years of the Revolution, especially about the personalities involved in the conflict.

He describes the patriots as “disputatious and litigious, given to violence on the frontier and in the street: a gentle people they were not.” Furthermore, they were accustomed to tending to their own affairs, and resented the arrival of the British in Massachusetts who intended, per orders of the king, to enforce obedience to the laws. As Atkinson notes however, all the talk of freedom by whites in America and outrage over what they viewed as an encroachment on freedom was accompanied by a robust slave trade in blacks and Native Americans.

Much like current times, Americans in the 1770s were anxious about the future, nostalgic for the past, and angry about the present. The leadership in Britain had many misconceptions about these colonists. Most portentously, Britain was convinced resistance was largely confined to Boston, with the American colonies too scattered and diverse for effective collaboration. Therefore, it was assumed, the Regulars would make short work of the problem, and respect for British authority would be reestablished.

Britain’s military commander in chief in America, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, sent warnings to London about the “wild and ungovernable” Americans, and pleaded for conciliatory measures, but he was derided as an “old woman.” The Americans, meanwhile, knew nothing of Gage’s attempts to improve their situation. On the contrary, he was seen as the face of Britain, and Gage effigies were burned in bonfires, while effigies of British soldiers were hung by nooses from roadside trees.

Portrait of Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley, c. 1768

Although some of the British army and navy regulars were eager to wreak “chastisement” on the “villainous” Americans, most were bored, apt to be continually drunk on the cheap and plentiful rum, and inclined to desertion. In fact, the navy desertion rate was so high, particularly in Boston, that ships started to remain at anchor rather than risk mass defections on land.

There was also a good deal of friction between Patriots and Loyalists, or Tories. (Recent scholarship has estimated that roughly 20 percent of the 2 million white Americans in the Colonies during the Revolution remained loyal to the Crown.) The antagonism became so intense that the Tories felt need for protection, for good reason. The Patriots terrorized the Loyalists, with Anglican churches and clergymen singled out for even more abuse, because they prayed for the British king. Churches were smashed and priests tarred and feathered or covered with excrement. Extralegal Patriot “committees of safety” policed members of their own towns, encouraging neighbor to turn against neighbor, and not discouraging vigilante and/or mob violence.

Separate colonial governments made preparations for a possible war, even as the authorities did back in London. The Provincial Congress also took measures in anticipation of armed conflict, including the establishment of a courier system.

When the fighting finally began, Atkinson describes it poetically:

“Now the Lexington bell began to clang in the wooden tower, hard by the meetinghouse. More gallopers rode off to rouse half a hundred villages. Warning gunshots echoed from farm to farm. Bonfires flared. Drums beat. Across the colony, in an image that would endure for centuries, solemn men grabbed their firelocks and stalked off in search of danger, leaving the plow in the furrow, the hoe in the garden, the hammer on the anvil, the bucket at the well sweep. This day would be famous before it dawned.”

Battle of Lexington and Concord 1775

Atkinson brought me to tears with that passage. Not only is it one of many beautifully written and evocative descriptions of the founding of the country, but it reminds the reader of all that was at stake, with the fight to establish a democracy rather than an autocracy, a fight that may yet be lost some 240 years later.

The rest of the story proceeds in a similar vein. Atkinson has done meticulous research, and he is a consummate storyteller. I sat on the edge of my chair during many of the battle descriptions, even though I knew their outcomes quite well.

And as for that “shot heard round the world”? Atkinson tells us that scholars have calculated that at least seventy-five thousand American rounds were fired in the opening battles, but only one bullet in almost three hundred found its mark. As he wryly notes: “The shot heard round the world likely missed.”

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2019

Review of “Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show” by Jonathan Karl

This excellent book details the ways in which, in the last months of the his administration, Donald Trump betrayed supporters, advisers, norms, laws, and most importantly, the country he was elected to serve in 2016.

Karl avers that he attempted to write the book with “objectivity and balance” from a journalistic standpoint. Yet, he observes, “But the first obligation of a journalist is to pursue truth and accuracy. And the simple truth about the last year of the Trump presidency is that his lies turned deadly and shook the foundations of our democracy.” The Trump that emerges from Karl’s objective and balanced reporting is a demented, raging, utterly deceitful and unscrupulous maniac.

Karl delves into the activities of Johnny McEntee, a 29-year-old former college football player who was hired by Trump as Director of the Presidential Personnel Office in which capacity he was responsible for hiring and firing of more than 4,000 political appointees across the federal government. McEntee apparently got his playbook from Stalin, using the office to purge anyone deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump and his policies.

It was McEntee who encouraged Trump to fire Defense Secretary Mark Esper, because he was, inter alia, committing the sin of “actively pushing for ‘diversity and inclusion.” It was also unclear if Esper would support a military takeover of the country if Trump called for it. Thus on November 9, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper via tweet in his inimitable manner, replacing him with Christopher C. Miller, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Joining Miller as chief of staff was Kash Patel, formerly top aide to Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. Both Esper and Miller come across more favorably in Karl’s account than they have been portrayed in the liberal press: neither would support using the military in controlling the election.

Karl focuses on the *established* fact that Trump lost the November 3, 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden, but then launched a violent insurrection (or as Ronna McDaniel, chair of the RNC, called it, “legitimate political discourse”) to overturn the results.

Instead of concerning himself with mitigating the effects of COVID-19, Trump was laser-focused on staying in power (for a job he didn’t seem interested in doing), and got a distressing number of people to go along with his efforts.

Karl reviews many of the conspiracy theories and rafts of misinformation bruited about by Trump’s inner circle about the “stolen” election (explaining just how and why they were absurd) and claims that these same people confided in him that they were telling Trump the truth in private. However, Trump knows the issue of what his knowledge and intentions were is critical and he continues to take steps [see his statement on February 4, 2022 for example] to counter that narrative with an assertion that he believed there was fraud and “large scale irregularities,” and therefore his behavior was “appropriate.”

Karl reviews Trump’s multiple meetings with Michael Flynn and attorney [sic] Sidney Powell, who argued for seizing the country’s voting machines; his calls to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demanding that he “find” more votes (that were, he insisted, legitimately his); his efforts to get Republican legislators in other key states to substitute the Biden slate of electors with those certifying Trump as the winner instead; and his bullying and threatening of his vice president, Mike Pence.

Karl concludes with a limited bit of good news that “Democracy prevailed” in the end, but stops the story (by necessity) a bit too soon. He doesn’t deal with all the steps the Republicans have taken *since* January 6 to make sure Democracy won’t prevail again if they can help it. Another bit of good news, [pardon my schadenfreude], reading between the lines, we can infer that this egomaniacal menace is not a happy man: he may be monumentally delusional, and in any event, he is exceedingly frustrated.

Karl’s book should be read with fear and trepidation by all those who love Democracy, the rule of law, and the primacy of reason.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Dutton Books, 2021

Book Review of “The Triumph of Christianity” by Bart D. Ehrman, a History of Early Development of Christianity

Jesus died around 30 CE., at which time he had only a handful of followers, all of whom considered themselves to be Jews. But by the late third century, Christianity had split off from Judaism, and attracted enough followers that the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, felt it threatened the stability of the state and vigorously persecuted it. Despite the persecutions, by 313, it had grown sufficiently powerful and significant that the new Emperor (Constantine) even converted to Christianity himself. He then issued the Edict of Milan, which granted official tolerance to Christianity. And in 380, Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, making it the only authorized religion in the Empire. How could the religion have grown so fast?

Bart Ehrman, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, attempts to answer that question in The Triumph of Christianity.

Ehrman points out that the Romans were generally very tolerant of all religions. When new peoples entered the empire (usually by conquest) the Romans simply added and adopted the gods of the new people to their pantheon (with a lower case ‘p’). In fact, they did not even have a word for “pagan,” since virtually everyone in the empire recognized some or all of the Roman gods. The Romans tolerated the Jews, who worshipped only one god, probably because the Jews did not proselytize.

But the Christians were different. They proselytized vigorously. Moreover, they were exclusive in that they taught that the worship of gods other than their own was sinful. There was no room for other gods in their society. Each new convert to Christianity reduced the number of believers in the traditional Roman deities.

Ehrman argues cogently that Saul of Tarsus, better known as Saint Paul, was the most important convert in history. Although a Jew by birth, Paul fundamentally changed early Christianity from an inward-looking Jewish cult to a cosmopolitan, outward-looking, proselytizing organization.

Conversion of St. Paul, Michaelangelo, Sistine Chapel

What arguments did the early Christians use to convert others? To the Jews, the Christians asserted that Jesus fulfilled Jewish prophesies of a Messiah. This argument required a rather radical reinterpretation of those prophesies since most Jews expected the Messiah to create a formidable Jewish earthly kingdom. The argument had limited success.

To the pagans, the Christians claimed that Jesus worked many miracles. Although few if any Christians had actually witnessed the miracles, many had heard about them and repeated the tales with great conviction.

Ehrman also notes that Christianity as a community resource was very attractive to Roman pagans: it emphasized the church as an accepting family that would care for all of its members; it welcomed women; and as a bonus, guaranteed life after death.

Finally, the Christians in essence threatened nonbelievers with the prospect of eternal damnation and hellfire. That argument was strong enough to convince even the brilliant philosopher, mathematician, and gambler Blaise Pascal (albeit many centuries later) that it paid to hedge one’s bets and practice Christianity.

The actual growth rate of Christianity was not as staggering as it may first appear. Ehrman shows that the church had to grow by only about 3% per year to reach 10% of the population – 2.5 million people – by the year 300. By 380, it had reached majority status.

Emperor Constantine I

The second most important convert of all time after Paul was probably Emperor Constantine I. Although many historians have argued that he may have feigned his conversion, Ehrman argues that it was genuine. He had little to gain politically from converting since Christianity was a distinct minority at the time. Moreover, he took an active part in shaping Christian doctrine, calling for the historic Council of Nicaea in 325 to settle various theological issues. His conversion was especially significant not only because of the example he provided, but since all of his successors (except Julian, who ruled only from 361 to 363) espoused Christianity as well.

The story of the first two centuries of Christianity is open to a lot of speculation because the cult was too small to attract the attention of contemporary secular historians. The accounts in the apocryphal gospels are too fantastic to merit credibility. Even the canonical gospels are hard for nonbelievers to accept. Thus it is important for serious modern historians like Ehrman to piece together and interpret what is actually known about that time.

Evaluation: As usual, Ehrman doesn’t break any new ground, but repackages what is already known into a non-academic, reader-friendly format. His subject matter happens to be endlessly fascinating and consequential, which also helps.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2018

Review of “The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps” (A History) by Ben Coates

This delightful and entertaining book, part history and part travelogue, was written by a British transplant to the Netherlands who decided to follow the Rhine River along its 800 [ish] mile-route from its mouth on the North Sea coast at Hoeck van Holland to its source in the Alps. Along the way, Coates imparts interesting bits of history and local anecdotes, and shares his “contributions to the economies of cities along the route” by eating and savoring local delicacies. I laughed out loud throughout his guide to the Rhineland region.

As Coates points out, some 50 million people live in the Rhine watershed. It has served as a key artery of Europe’s trade system since the time of the Roman Empire.

The Rhine and the Danube formed most of the northern inland frontier of the Roman Empire. Coates tells us that the Limes Germanicus (Latin for Germanic frontier) was a line of frontier (limes) fortifications that bounded the ancient Roman provinces of Germania Inferior, Germania Superior and Raetia, dividing the Roman Empire and the unsubdued Germanic tribes from the years 83 to about 260 AD. At its zenith, the limes stretched from the North Sea outlet of the Rhine to near Regensburg (Castra Regina) on the Danube.

Roman forts along the limes

Much of Coates’ insights on Roman times comes from his use of Tacitus (c. 56 – c. 120 AD), the great Roman historian, as a source. The Germania, written around 98 AD was a historical and ethnographic work on the Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire.

[To digress, I love the descriptions of the role of women in Tacitus’s Germania. Tacitus writes that they often accompany the men to battle and offer encouragement. He says that the men are highly motivated to fight for the women because of an extreme fear of losing them to captivity. Further, he observed (favorably) that the Germans are mainly content with one wife, except for a few political marriages. He also noted that adultery was very rare, and that an adulterous woman is shunned afterward by the community “regardless of her beauty.” You can read an English translation online, here.]

In more recent times, the Rhine became a symbol of German nationalism. The Rhine was adopted as the symbol of German purity, strength, and unity. In this way it inspired some of history’s most famous writers, poets, artists, diplomats and statesmen. In particular, Coates observes, “the movement known as Romanticism took the Rhine as one of its major recurring themes.”

Students of history may be familiar with “The Watch on the Rhine,” a German patriotic anthem which was one of the most popular songs in Germany from World War I through 1945. The song’s title was even used as the codename for the German offensive in 1944 known today as the Battle of the Bulge.

Thus does Coates expound on one of his themes, which is exposing how the Rhine had shaped – and continued to shape – the countries it flowed through, and the people who lived there.

Rhine Romanticism: Kaub and Gutenfels Castle (1824) by William Turner

To that end, he not only shares history, but scores of fascinating anecdotal stories related to the Rhine, from the development of Baedeker’s guide books for rich young travelers making “Grand Tours” down the Rhine, to the fact that Dutch women along the river were employed at one time by herring companies to lick the eyeballs of “any colleagues who were unfortunate enough to get fish scales lodged there.”

Some of the other things I learned about in this book include:

  • When Bonn served as the capital of Germany (1949 – 1990), the defense ministry built on the banks of the Rhine became known as the “Pentabonn.”
  • John le Carré worked and wrote in Bonn for a while. His description of of the city “helped establish many of the tropes of the modern espionage thriller: gloomy bridges and thick river mists, lamp-lit cobbled streets and morally dubious heroes.”
  • The national anthem of France, “La Marseillaise,” was written in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg after the declaration of war by France against Austria, and was originally titled “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” (“War Song for the Rhine Army”).
  • In the early 1800s, there was a shortage of horses (for reasons ranging from the Napoleanic wars, to lack of food because of disruption of global weather after the explosion of the Indonesian volcano Tambora). People still wanted to get around, however, and it was an inventor from Mannheim along the Rhine who, in the summer of 1817, came up with a new invention to replace the horse: a bicycle. Later in the same area, Karl Benz (with significant but rarely acknowledged assistance from his wife Bertha) came up with the world’s first car.
  • Rhinestones actually began from the use of sparkly stones near the Rhine in Alsace. While the riverside rock collection business died out, the production of fake crystals soared worldwide, and became “beloved of low-key dressers like Elvis and Dolly Parton.” Coates writes: “The Rhine link was lost, but the original name of the shiny river stones stuck: rhinestones.”

Airships were another Rhine invention. Count Zeppelin was born in Konstanz along the Rhine and spent a great deal of time “tinkering with flying technology on, next to and over the waters” of Lake Constance (a lake on the Rhine at the northern foot of the Alps). Of most interest, however, was the fact that each dirigible made by Zeppelin was constructed with the intestines of 250,000 cows. In fact, the U.K. Independent reports:

“Cow intestines used to make sausage skins were such a vital component in the construction of Zeppelin airships that the Kaiser’s military chiefs were prepared to sacrifice bratwurst and other types of sausage in the pursuit of victory.

Rather than permitting the intestines to be eaten, they were used to create special bags to hold the hydrogen gas used to keep Zeppelins aloft.”

Well, who knew?

And in fact, while reading, voicing that expression was my most common reaction besides laughing.

It is also worth noting that although the book is literally studded with metaphors, they are almost all well-done – both entertaining and evocative:

“The riverbanks were so thickly forested that they looked as if they could have been knitted from bright green wool.”

“. . . . a cluster of thick chimneys smoked like cigars thrust upright on the riverbank.”

“. . . walls of shipping containers tacked like cereal boxes in the supermarket.”

“High-rise towers stretched away from the water like a bar graph.”

“At sunset, the old quarter [in Strasbourg] was . . . spectacularly lit, the ancient townhouses reflected I the rivers like dolls’ houses on a mirror.”

And then there are his descriptions, also entertaining and evocative:

Gentrification in Rotterdam: “areas where it had once been impossible to buy a croissant were now seething with kale and quinoa.”

Rhine cruise ships are “essentially mobile retirement homes.”

Evaluation: The Rhine is a quirky book that could hardly be classified as serious history, although it contains a lot of factual information on an important topic, i.e., the culture of Germany. Perhaps “travelogue with historical and sociological background” might be a more apt description. The writing is sprightly and entertaining, and the book presents an often delightful and decidedly unique guide to the region.

Heartily recommended both for those planning to travel abroad, and those who just enjoy learning about food and customs around the world. (Most humorously, the author frequently reports buying gifts of food for his wife and friends, and then eating them practically before he leaves the stores, as he “rolls on” to the next place.)

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.K. by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2018

Review of “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson

This book is illuminating, depressing, infuriating, and crucial to our understanding of what is happening in America today.

“Racism” has become such a contested word lately, with the definition itself becoming an important factor in calls for change in America. Thus Wilkerson’s new book is all the more critical, as she posits that the main organizing principle in American life is better described as “caste” rather than “race,” although they intersect.

She characterizes a caste system as:

“an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoriting the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.”

Importantly, she notes of caste:

“It is about power – which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources – which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence – who is accorded these and who is not.”

She compares three caste systems that have stood out in modern history: the one used in Nazi Germany to distinguish, with lethal effect, “Aryan” from others; India’s caste system, which is among the world’s oldest form of surviving social stratification; and “the shape-shifting, unspoken, race-based caste pyramid in the United States.”

Her discussion of Nazi Germany is particularly chilling, because she describes how the Nazis studied race laws in the United States to get ideas for their own caste system, and were “astonished” by both the extent of race legislation in America to keep the population segregated, and the fact that they could get away with it “yet retain such a sterling reputation on the world stage.” Even more shocking is the fact that, at first, some of the rules used by Americans seemed “too harsh” to them. Eventually, she observed, the more radical Nazis prevailed, in part, one historian wrote, because they did not want to seem less rigorous than the Americans!

She then analyzes what she sees as “the eight pillars of caste,” such as dehumanization and stigma, using terror as enforcement, and control of marriage and mating. She also discusses “the tentacles of caste” – i.e., how difficult it is to escape the system. In her poignant and sad chapter “The Intrusion of Caste in Everyday Life,” she details how norms and stereotypes associated with caste constantly affect the lives of families at the bottom. And finally she talks about blowback – what happens, for example, when a black man is elected President of the United States. Unfortunately, we are now living with the results of that blowback, as well as the long-term effects of centuries of racism. As Siri Hustvedt writes in “Tear Them Down: Old Statues, Bad Science, and Ideas That Just Won’t Die”:

“Murder, rape, as well as physical and psychological torture were instruments of terror inherent to the institution of slavery, and they did not end with the defeat of the Confederacy. The enduring legacy of slavery in the US is essential to the Black Lives Matter message. If George Floyd’s murder constitutes a breaking point in US history it is because the image of a white man with his knee on a black man’s neck as he slowly suffocates his victim to death is understood as part of centuries of domination and cruelty rooted in a pernicious racial ideology that has permeated all our institutions.”

Wilkerson also recounts the long-term effects of discriminatory housing policies. In another timely essay detailing Wilkerson’s points, this Washington Post essay demonstrates how the practice of redlining (the steering of blacks and whites into different neighborhoods by both banks and realtors) had secondary long-term deleterious effects of wealth disparities and educational achievement gaps.

In her last chapter, Wilkerson asks, “How dare anyone cause harm to another soul, curtail their life or life’s potential, when our lives are so short to begin with?” She writes, “Caste is a disease, and none of us is immune.” But it is not a hopeless situation. She avers:

“Once awakened, we then have a choice. We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate. We can be born to a subordinated caste but resist the box others force upon us. And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedestals.”

A world without caste, she argues, would set everyone free.

Evaluation: This brilliant book should be an essential part of history and instruction. Sadly, because of the very factors she discusses, it probably will only be read by a handful of citizens. If you are disinclined to read non-fiction, but are willing to read shorter articles that encapsulate what she is writing about, please consider the essays linked to above, as well as this poignant essay by Caroline Randall Williams published in the New York Times, which begins:

“I have rape-colored skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.

If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument. My skin is a monument.”

Rating: 5/5

Published by Random House, 2020

Review of “The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life” by David Quammen

Think of the most famous invaders of all time–Attila, Genghis Kahn, Napoleon, to name just three. Pretty important, but none nearly as significant or historically momentous as the invaders described in David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, an engrossing tale of invasions over time and inside the cells of all living things. If you doubt biology can be fascinating, this book may change your mind.

David Quammen, an award-winning science writer, has written about Darwin before. Now he turns to scientific discoveries in just the past forty years that constitute a revolutionary revision of Darwin’s “tree” of life (although not, importantly, a repudiation of it). Because of both the electron microscope and the development of methods to sequence genes and compare genomes, we have become aware of aspects of life Darwin couldn’t even dream about. Much of this new knowledge is thanks in part to the seminal thinking of Dr. Carl Richard Woese, whose life and work forms the scaffolding upon which Quammen unfolds the story. It was Woese who upended theories relating to the definitions of a species, an individual, and whether the history of life does or does not resemble a tree.

As most people know, Darwin postulated that evolution occurs as traits descend from parents to offspring and are very gradually modified based on mutations favorable for survival. The process resembled a tree, to Darwin’s thinking.

A page from Darwin’s Notebook B showing his sketch of the tree of life

But now we understand that, as Quammen explained on NPR, “innovation in genomes doesn’t always come gradually. Sometimes it comes suddenly, in an instant, by horizontal gene transfer. And that represents the convergence, not the divergence, of lineages.” This discovery means all the domains of life are much more interrelated than we thought.

In fact, we didn’t even know about the existence of one of the main domains of life, the archaea, until recently! (Scientists now divide all life into three domains: bacteria, archaea, and eukarya. Bacteria you are probably familiar with. Eukarya are organisms that have cells with a nucleus, and include plants and animals and human beings. Awareness of archaea, discovered by Carl Woese, is the first of the three big developments highlighted by Quammen, and will be expanded upon below.)

Woese with an RNA model at G.E. in 1961. CreditAssociated Press via NYT

The discovery of Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT, also called Lateral Gene Transfer or LGT) as a pathway to heredity, and its importance in the process of evolution, is an astounding development. This means cells can acquire genes from other cells around them, “horizontally” rather than only vertically from a previous generation. In fact, gene sequencers have been astonished at just how much HGT has been going on. This does not mean gradual evolution through previous generations did not and does not occur, but rather, that over time evolutionary change takes the shape of a tangled web more than a stereotypical looking tree.

Revision of Darwin’s tree by evolutionary biologist Carl R. Woese

More specifically, HGT has been responsible for some of the biggest developments in plants and animals. Both mitochondria and chloroplasts, those organelles helping animals and plants harness and process energy critical for cell survival, originated as bacterial cells that migrated across species to live inside primitive hosts. How do we know?

Mitochondria and chloroplasts resemble bacterial cells more than cells of animals and plants. They even have separate DNA! They use their own DNA, not that of their hosts, to produce the proteins and enzymes they need to carry out their energy-producing functions. Cells without these organelles lack the nuclear genes to encode all of the proteins they need to survive. The organelles replicate their own DNA, as bacteria do, and are each surrounded by a double membrane, further emphasizing their difference and separation.

Endosymbiosis from bacteria. Illustration by biology pioneer Lynn Margulis

We are all, that is to say, “composite creatures” – “mosaics” made up of all possible domains of life. When Walt Whitman said “we contain multitudes,” little did he know we in fact contain multitudes – of bacteria, archaea, and viruses that are an integral part of us. What “human” means involves different organisms that have formed symbiotic associations inside us, and can be passed on to our progeny.

[Wait, you may be thinking: to which domain do viruses belong? A tricky question! Whereas all of the three main domains of life replicate by cell division, viruses do not. Believe it or not, viruses are considered non-living, or at least, in a gray area somewhere between living and non-living, since they cannot reproduce on their own. Viruses are basically ultramicroscopic intracellular parasites. They can replicate only within other cells. Nevertheless, they play a large role in living organisms, especially through the mechanism of retroviruses, a whole area of research beyond the scope of this review. But suffice it to point out that it is thanks to retroviruses that animals have workable placentas to protect fetuses.]

Back to the living domains, the archaea are very odd but interesting. Like bacteria, they are microbial species (living things too small to see with the naked eye). But archaea and bacteria are made up of very different genetic material. Archaea tend to live in extreme environments, whether super hot, acidic, alkaline, deep in the ocean, or super cold. [Oh yes, and in the human colon, but if that’s not extreme, what is?]

Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, where the surrounding water can reach over 300° Celsius, are home sweet home for some archaeal species. Image adapted from: NOAA Photo Library

The reason archaea are exciting is that their ability to function in extreme environments gives us a glimpse of what earliest life on the earth was probably like, as well as what life on other planets might be like. Here’s another strange thing: archaea possess both DNA and RNA that work much more similarly to that of eukaryotes (i.e., us) than bacteria. As Jennifer Frazer in “Scientific American” writes:

“These compelling similarities . . . between archaeal and eukaryotic cells has led some to suggest that in addition to the bacterial engulfment/symbiosis that created mitochondria and chloroplasts, some other more mysterious symbiosis or chimerism may have occurred between an ancient archaeon and bacterium to produce the first proto-eukaryotic cell. Or it may suggest that eukaryotes, in fact, evolved from archaea.”

You can read more about our possible ancestry from archaea here, in an article asking whether archaea are best viewed as our “sisters” or our “mothers.”


There is a lot more just waiting to be discovered in the field of molecular phylogenetics, which is the study of evolutionary relationships among biological entities by analyzing data at the molecular level. Quammen not only provides adequate background for you to follow along (at least at the “popular science” level) but to get you excited enough to do so.

He will have you pondering, along with scientists, how we can possibly define an “individual” given what we now know? Among other ideas, he will introduce you to “zooids,” or as writers of science fiction say, “hive beings.” Zooids are multicellular beings that exist only in reference to their group. Think of bees: they form a colony of organisms each of which has a specialized function, and whose members cannot survive independently. Another familiar zooid is the quaking Aspen tree. This species of tree lives in forests of clonal trees that all belong to a single root system and thus are physiologically characterized as belonging to one single individual.

Quammen also sets you up with enough background to understand the current debate about CRISPR, a section of the genome that can be used for “editing” genetic codes. The days of heritable diseases could be ending, if the use of editing is found to be safe, effective, and ethical. (You can read about how CRISPR works, here.)

How CRISPR works, via Cambridge Univ. Press

I had only one criticism. Quammen very briefly raised the complexity theory topic of emergent phenomena as a possible explanation for DNA, but then dropped it. Although the book already covered so much, I wanted to hear more about those theories. [You can read an excellent short article on this subject in “Nature Magazine,” here. Among other things, the article explains: “Life itself is an example of an emergent property. For instance, a single-celled bacterium is alive, but if you separate the macromolecules that combined to create the bacterium, these units are not alive. Based on our knowledge of macromolecules, we would not have been able to predict that they could combine to form a living organism, nor could we have predicted all of the characteristics of the resulting bacterium.”]

Evaluation: Overall, I loved this book. Quammen is an excellent storyteller. In addition, it’s so full of exciting information that I felt compared to share with everyone I met while listening to it!

Rating: 4.5/5

Note: Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and A New York Times Notable Book of 2018

Published in hardcover by Simon & Schuster, 2018

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

This book was narrated admirably by Jacques Roy. I think it is a challenge to imbue a non-fiction science book with enthusiasm and emotional range, but he managed to do it nonetheless.

Published unabridged on 11 CDs (approximately 14 listening hours) by Simon & Schuster Audio, 2018

Review of “Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II” by Sean McMeekin

In Stalin’s War, distinguished historian Sean McMeekin has produced a decidedly revisionist history of World War II. He argues convincingly that Stalin wanted WWII at least as much as Hitler did. Moreover, Stalin was far more successful than Hitler was in that war, hence, the title of the book.

McMeekin analyzes the war from Stalin’s perspective. The Soviet Union was the world’s first communist country and it considered all capitalist countries as enemies. A primary goal of Russian diplomacy was to infiltrate capitalist governments with the goal of providing support Russia’s interests and to foment animosity among capitalist states. There were literally hundreds of Russian paid agents in the Roosevelt administration. Indeed, Harry Hopkins, FDR’s most trusted advisor, although not directly paid by the U.S.S.R., was certainly what Lenin would call a “useful idiot.”

Importantly, before World War II, Stalin encountered the same risk of a two-front war that Germany had in 1914. In 1938, not only were the Germans aggressive to his west, but Japan was busily grabbing large chunks of China to his east. In fact, the Japanese Army in Manchuko (today’s Manchuria) was fighting several hundred thousand soldiers of the Red Army and threatening Vladivostok, Russia’s only port on the Pacific. Still, Germany posed a greater threat, being much closer to the bulk of Russia’s population.

To secure his eastern flank, Stalin executed a non-aggression pact that granted terms very favorable to Japan. In fact, he honored that agreement throughout the coming world war. One aspect of that treaty affected American airmen who had attacked Japan and had to bail out or crash-land in Russia to avoid capture by the Japanese. Russia treated them as hostile prisoners of war even though they were fighting for a country that was supplying the Russians with vital supplies. On the other hand, American merchant marine seamen fared much better — the Japanese navy did not attack American commercial ships bound for Vladivostok, which allowed safe passage for enormous amounts of war materiel to be supplied for Russia’s war with Germany.

Stalin did not feel not fully prepared for war with Germany despite the fact that the principal thrust of the Soviet Union’s Five Year Plans of the 1930s was the “mass manufacture of modern military hardware.” Consequently, he jumped at the chance of a non-aggression pact with Germany, which resulted in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. During the negotiations for the pact, Stalin suggested to Hitler the partition of Poland.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Hitler attacked Poland in September 1939 and quickly conquered the western half of the country. Stalin waited only a few days after Hitler’s invasion to launch his own invasion of Poland which ended up with the Russians controlling more of Poland that Germany did.

Stalin’s fondest hope was that Germany would star a war with France and England, and that Russia could watch from the sidelines as the capitalists mauled each other. Russia would then find itself the dominant power in Europe without having to expend blood or treasure. Unfortunately for him, Germany did start such a war, but won it so quickly and at such low cost that the Soviet Union found itself in great peril from Hitler.

After the successful attack on Poland, Hitler turned west and attacked and occupied France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway. Meanwhile, the Russians quickly conquered Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Moldavia. The Russians also tried to take Finland, but met effective and heroic resistance and had to settle for a small slice of the southeastern part of the country.

A Red Army tank rolls in Finland. This and other great photos from the Winter War at

The stage was now set for Germany’s massive invasion of Russia. Here McMeekin tells a story quite different from what has come down from most western historians. The Russians may have been surprised by the timing of the attack, but they had been preparing for it for years. Contrary to popular opinion, the Germans did not have an advantage in tanks and artillery — the Russians had far more. Moreover, they greatly outnumbered the invaders.

McMeekin argues that the Russians maintained its advantage in armor and number of soldiers throughout the war, even in the early stages when they were clearly losing. In fact, the Germans were not as thoroughly mechanized as many western historians described — they relied on millions of horses rather than trucks for much movement of materiel. Ultimately, the Russians were able to out-maneuver and surround the Germans because they had enormous supplies of trucks and fighter planes that had been furnished at no charge by the United States.

Another myth that McMeekin counters is that the Germans had the vast majority of their troops on the Eastern Front. In fact, once Hitler had redeployed many divisions to the west for the famed Battle of the Bulge, there were more German soldiers in France and Italy than there were on the Eastern Front.

McMeekin is highly critical of Roosevelt and, to a lesser extent, Churchill regarding their dealings with Stalin. If the point of the war was to save Poland and Eastern Europe from foreign subjugation, then the war was an abysmal failure for the West. Churchill gets particularly low marks for abandoning Mikhailovich and the Chetniks in Yugoslavia so that Tito’s Communists could prevail there. The end of the war found Stalin in charge of all of Eastern Europe.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta conference, February 1945. Universal Images Group/Getty Images

McMeekin argues that “the most lasting consequence of Stalin’s victories in 1945 was the impetus they had given to Communist expansion in Asia, above all in China.” Russia did not enter the war against Japan until the final weeks when the results were clear. However, Stalin was able to position many divisions in East Asia. From there, they could supply Mao’s communist forces with tanks, artillery, and other materiel. At the same time, the western powers soured on Chiang Kai-shek (the Chinese Nationalist politician, revolutionary and military leader who served as the leader of the Mainland Republic of China from 1928 until 1949, and then in Taiwan) and ceased helping him against Mao. McMeekin says, “the mystery is not that Mao won the Chinese Civil War, but that it took him three more years to do so.”

McMeekin concludes with several acerbic observations:

“By objective measures of territory conquered and war booty seized, Stalin was the victor in both Europe an Asia, and no one else came close.”

“The notion that a great American victory was achieved in 1945 is hard to square with the strategic reality of the Cold War, which required a gargantuan expenditure over decades merely to hold the line at the Fulda Gap before the USSR finally collapsed in 1991.”

“The ultimate price of victory was paid by the tens of millions of involuntary subjects of Stalin’s satellite regimes in Europe and Asia, including Maoist China, along with the millions of Soviet dissidents, returned Soviet POWs, and captured war prisoners who were herded into Gulag camps. . . . For subjects of his expanding slave empire, Stalin’s war did not end in 1945. Decades of oppression and new forms of terror were still to come.”

Evaluation: This is an unnerving book, beautifully written and forcefully argued.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, 2021

Review of “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution” by Eric Foner

Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Foner is recognized as America’s leading expert on the history of the period immediately after the U.S. Civil War, known as Reconstruction, during which the North tried to build an egalitarian society. The title of his latest book, The Second Founding, encapsulates his thesis that the changes to American society effected during Reconstruction were so profound they amounted to a new beginning, indeed, a second founding, of the nation.

The principal purpose of the original ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill Of Rights, was to protect individuals from the power of the new central government. Though the original authors of these documents (often hallowed as “the Founders”) wanted a national government more formidable than the one established by the feckless Articles of Confederation, they sought to limit the power it could exercise over its citizens. But those constraints did not apply to individual states. For example, many of the states continued to have established religions even though the first Amendment forbade the national government from establishing any single religion.

Foner argues convincingly that the Civil War was fought over the southern states’ efforts to preserve the institution of slavery. [Although the declarations of secession by Southern states clearly articulated that the protection of slavery was the paramount impetus for “the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution” per Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, enough later Southern history revisionists averred that secession was actually about “states’ rights” that the argument has to be constantly re-litigated.] But even though the North had won the war, there was no immediate legal basis for eliminating slavery or for protecting the newly freed slaves from the depredations or their former masters. Ironically, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had “freed” only those slaves still under the control of the rebel armies, leaving slaves in the northern and border states in a legal no-man’s-land concerning servitude.

The legal scaffolding for reorganizing the country took the form of three transformative amendments to the Constitution: the 13th, 14th, and 15th. The 13th abolished slavery. The 14th established birthright citizenship for any person born in the United States “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” along with requiring the states to provide “due process” and “equal protection” to all “persons within their jurisdiction.” The 15th prohibited the states from denying the right to vote to any person on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The effect of these amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was to attempt to put into practice the ideal of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence. To that end, the amendments invested substantially more power in the national government and provided the means to make the national government the protector of individuals against discrimination and unfair treatment by states or local governments.

This indeed was revolutionary.

Discussion: Foner is not only superb historian, he is an excellent legal analyst. As an historian, his description of the political maneuvering behind the adoption of the amendments is riveting. But what really stands out in his narration is his explication of the legal niceties behind the language adopted. [Well, maybe that’s just the lawyer in me enjoying some good legal writing.]

Unfortunately, the story of the second founding does not end with the adoption of praiseworthy amendments. As Foner recounts, the language of the amendments left enough wiggle room for malevolent racists in the postwar South to reestablish white race-based hegemony. With the end of U.S. Grant’s presidency in 1877 (Grant was dedicated to ensuring that freed blacks realized their newly legislated rights), national commitment to Reconstruction ended as well. Northern troops were withdrawn from the South. “Jim Crow” laws taking rights away from blacks were enacted in one state of the South after another. The Klan was given free rein to exercise police power over blacks without fear of reprisal. Schools and other public services for blacks were defunded. History textbooks used in southern schools were designed to teach white superiority and black backwardness, so that children imbibed these ideas from the earliest age. These practices persisted until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but did not end entirely. Rather, they took on new shapes; the battle for racial justice continues to this day.

A cartoon from a U.S. newspaper from 1880 reads: ‘Terrorism in the South. Citizens beaten and shot at.” (Granger, via Smithsonian Magazine)

Foner recapitulates the sorry history of how a complicit United States Supreme Court abetted racist politicians and lower court judges in their efforts to eviscerate the original intent of Civil War Amendments for almost 100 years after their enactment. Again, his legal skills come to the fore as he takes us through the intricacies of numerous cases that constitute the corpus of civil rights jurisprudence.

Evaluation: This book is surprisingly brief (only 176 pages) considering the depth with which it treats a complex subject. It’s principal thesis, that the Civil War and Reconstruction completely overhauled the Constitution and the society it governed, is ably and cogently argued. I very highly recommend it for all American citizens.

Rating: 5/5

Published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2019

July 2, 2016 – Death of Elie Wiesel and Review of “Elie Wiesel: An Extraordinary Life and Legacy” edited by Nadine Epstein

This moving collection of speeches by Wiesel, pictures of him, and essays about him by others pays tribute to the life of Elie Wiesel, who died on July 2, 2016.

Eliezer Wiesel was born in 1928 in Romania, and was deported to Auschwitz in Poland by the Nazis in 1944. There his mother and sister were immediately sent to the gas chambers. He and his father were put in a work camp, and later sent on a death march to concentration camps in Germany in advance of the Allied armies. They ended up in Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. Elie’s father died in late January, 1945. His last word was “Eliezer.”

His father missed his freedom by three months. The Soviet Allies had reached Auschwitz eleven days earlier, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. On April 11, American tanks arrived at the gates, and Buchanwald was liberated by the United States Army. Elie was 16.

Elie Wiesel (circled) in Buchenwald a few days after the camp was liberated

In 1955 Elie wrote a book about his experiences in the concentration camps, first in Yiddish and then translated (by him) into French. An abridged version of the memoir was published in English in 1958, called Night. The book would eventually be translated into 35 languages. He went on to write 56 more books, as well as to deliver talks around the world in defense of human rights.

In the Foreword to this tribute, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:

“Whatever he did and wherever he went, Elie carried with him six million fragments of our people. He was the voice of memory when others sought to forget.”

It may seem like too much of a burden for one man, but as essayist and Wiesel biographer Joseph Berger observed, Wiesel told him “I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead. That was their obsession, to be remembered.” More than anyone else, Berger averred, Elie Wiesel made sure the six million would be remembered.

But he had another message to impart as well.

Sara Bloomfield writes:

“If you wanted to boil down everything to its essence with Elie, the biggest sin was indifference. He felt that indifference was a bigger sin than hate and evil. So he himself had to lead his life that way. That meant speaking truth to power. . . for him, voice was action.”

Ronald S. Lauder said he still hears Elie’s voice, “telling us what he would say to anyone who would listen: that people of good conscience have a moral obligation to speak out, be heard and fight bigotry.”

Many of the essays about Wiesel are testimonials from people who were influenced by him to choose the career paths they took, or to take actions different than they might have otherwise taken. They felt embraced by him, inspired by him, and gained courage from his example.

People looked to Wiesel to deliver some insights into the nature of evil in the world and how to understand it. Where was God during the Holocaust? Where is God in the face of all the other suffering in the world? Michael Berenbaum said that it took Wiesel until the 1990s to make peace with God. But he did so; the cantor who conducted his funeral service said that “Elie was a man of profound faith and sincerity…”

Weisel, in an interview with Nadine Epstein in 2013, included in the book, spoke about his relationship with God, saying:

. . . with God, the question, ‘Where is God?’ has obsessed me for many years and still does without an answer.’ But, he explained, he remained profoundly attached to his parents and grandparents and thought ‘What good do I do them if I say goodbye to God?’”

In a 1972 commencement address he urged graduates to have faith in spite of the mystery of God. He said:

“. . . anyone who tells you he has the answers to the questions — with all apologies to your teachers — I do not believe them. There are no answers to true questions. There are only good questions, painful sometimes, exuberant at others. Whatever I have learned in my life is questions. And whatever I have tried to share with friends is questions.”

As “The Economist” pointed out in its obituary for Wiesel, the questions about God never stopped for him:

“His Talmud-studying childhood had been devoted to God, but where had God been in the camps? Why had He allowed Tzipora, the little golden-haired sister, to die for nothing? Why had He caused old men to fall down from dysentery on forced marches, when they might have died peacefully in their beds? Why had God created man, if only to abandon him? What exactly did God need man for?

. . . He railed at God, and yet still strapped on his tefillin and recited his prayers as fervently as he had done on the day of his bar mitzvah. For ritual, too, was part of memory. And besides, how could he ever get closer to the mystery of God, unless he battered Him with his doubts?”

He may not have had answers about God, but he did have opinions on mankind. In an interview with David Axelrod in 2013, Axelrod asked him how he still believed in God in light of the Holocaust. Wiesel replied in effect, “Why look at God?  Why not look at man?”

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel speaks with David Axelrod at the University of Chicago in 2013. (University of Chicago Institute of Politics / YouTube)

Elie Wiesel seemed to reflect that school of Jewish thought that holds that God created mankind, gave them rules by which to live, and then left them to it. In the face of evil, the emphasis should not be on asking “Where is God?” [i.e., “passing the theological buck” to a deity who has given us free will, per Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg] but on putting the responsibility for evil on human beings. Rabbi Ruttenberg points out, just as Elie Wiesel might have said himself, that it is human beings who have the power to build gas chambers or dismantle them, or to stand idly by and do nothing.

In a speech he gave at the White House on April 12, 1999 reproduced in this book, Wiesel said that indifference was more dangerous than anger and hatred:

“…indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor – never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. . . . in denying their humanity we betray our own.”

Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, at which time the Committee called him a “messenger to mankind”, stating that through his struggle to come to terms with “his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps,” as well as his “practical work in the cause of peace,” Wiesel had delivered a message “of peace, atonement, and human dignity” to humanity.

An Afterword by Ted Koppel sums up Wiesel’s character by way of explaining why he would never have made a good President of the United States:

“He would have been incapable of the shallowness, the sheer nastiness. Elie Wiesel could never have adjusted to the constant demands of moral compromise. He was, simply, an unwavering symbol of uncompromising decency.”

Discussion: Perhaps there is no better time for this book to be published. It is not only that the incidence of anti-Semitic acts been on the rise. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported an increase of nearly 60 percent in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016 and 2017. During the Trump-instigated insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Nazi Holocaust imagery and rhetoric could be seen and heard among the participants. Antisemitic incidents reported to the ADL increased sharply during the 2021 Israel-Hamas conflict.

In addition, alarming figures reported by CNN document widespread lack of knowledge about the Holocaust:

Ignorance about the Holocaust is growing, particularly among young people. In the United States, a 2018 survey showed that 66% of millennials could not identify what the Auschwitz concentration and death camp was.

A recent CNN poll in Europe revealed that about a third of the 7,000 European respondents across seven countries knew “just a little or nothing at all” about the Holocaust. In France, nearly 20% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 said they had never heard of the Holocaust.”

This shocking amount of unfamiliarity with what happened in the not too distant past puts not only Jews at risk, but even the idea of what civilization should be, and how different right is from wrong (as opposed to, say, the amoral assessment of Neo-Nazis versus protestors as consisting of “good people on both sides.”)

We desperately need the reminder provided by this book about the twisted ideologies, fear, and prejudice that led to this horrifying lapse of humanity. Elie Wiesel, as Rabbi Sacks stated, “was the voice of memory when others sought to forget. …” There is so much danger in forgetting. In honoring Wiesel, we honor memory just as we honor life more than its destruction from hate.

Evaluation: It would be hard to exaggerate how inspirational this book is. Elie Wiesel, as Ted Koppel said, converted pain, injustice, and horror into love, compassion, and tolerance. This tribute does not focus on the horror, however, but on the steps Wiesel took to fight silence and indifference, and to advocate for compassion and justice. Wiesel was a living embodiment of what humanity can mean. This book would make an excellent gift for everyone you know, but especially, for everyone you love.

Rating: 5/5

Published by MomentBooks, an imprint of Mandel Vilar Press, 2019