Boooks

So, some stuff I’ve been reading lately.

A Mind at Play, Jimmy Sori and Rob Goodman. This is a sound biography of Claude Shannon. It’s heavily researched and does a decent job of explaining the science, which is after all the point, although on that score it’s oddly better on Hawtrey and Nyquist than on Shannon’s own work. It has some great anecdotes – I had no idea Shannon and Claude Lévi-Strauss were neighbours in New York City in the 1940s – but it could have said a whole lot more precisely about that one.

This blog post is lousy with the cooties theory of the history of technology, but it makes the really fascinating point that both Norbert Wiener and Shannon’s work was received very strongly and very early in France, where it had enormous influence on all kinds of intellectual research projects. The reason might be something to do with the way France considers maths and civil engineering to be the ideal preparation for the elite, which after all is a long term consequence of Louis XIV’s gunners needing to hit things and people at quite a long way away, closing a nicely recursive loop. As for Sori and Goodman, they probably didn’t follow up on this because the book is terribly American, to the extent of thinking MIT invented radar.

Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth is an extended historical essay on the Holocaust that emphasises two issues: the role of the state, and the need to centre our understanding of it geographically in the places where it mostly happened. Snyder argues that we have Nazism all wrong if we see it as a mighty overweening bureaucratic state that chose to exclude some groups of people from the rights of citizenship. Instead, we should see it as a project to destroy the state as a law-governed entity with a monopoly of violence and a defined citizenship, to strip everyone’s rights away and then favour selected people on a contingent basis.

This requires a slightly different reading of Carl Schmitt to the usual one, treating his idea of the state of exception and critique of legality as the mask of power as a normative program for action rather than a positive description. But Snyder has the quotes for that! Also, I can see this being controversial in Germany, where historians since the 1990s have been at pains to deny that anywhere was a “rechtsfreies Raum”, a lawless zone. Their justification for this is a normative one. Germany had international legal obligations, and indeed those in its own lawbook, and therefore Germans should have behaved like citizens of a state governed by law, like they do now and like they should now. You can see the point. Snyder’s point, though, is a positive one – Nazis certainly aimed to destroy states and create zones without law and they carried the project out. After all, the ultimate Nazi institution, the concentration camp, was technically a zone outside the laws of Germany. There is no necessary conflict here but it might take some arguing to get there.

This project was achieved most completely in Poland, where the Nazis had as much of the state apparatus as they could track down murdered and then declared that in fact there had never been a state. Snyder points out that the Holocaust was also achieved most completely in Poland, and that across occupied Europe, the more state institutions survived, the more Jews survived. This was even true of Germany. Even damaged, compromised, occupied states were some help. Also, where a state still existed it could be subject to deterrence – Western threats of strategic air war did seem to influence Hungary’s various efforts to get out of its alliance with Germany.

Snyder is often criticised from the Left as a horseshoe theorist arguing for the totalitarian equivalence of Nazism and Communism, but I think this is wrong. For one thing, his reading of Nazism as a kind of racist anarchy makes a strong case that Nazism was, indeed, something radically new and qualitatively different from anything else. Also, if anything is a statement of totalitarianism theory, it’s the idea that Nazism and Stalinism are both just examples of the government share of GDP going too high. Snyder also notes that the related idea that Nazism was somehow explained by bureaucracy seems to have originated in none other than Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski’s defence testimony, rather in the way that most of the people who blamed it on technology seem to have been enthusiastic Nazis.

The rub is his decision to centre his account in Poland. This requires dealing with the Nazi-Soviet Pact and its consequences. He argues that it wasn’t so much Soviet intent that converged with Nazism, as the strategies of survival adopted by people abandoned to their fate in the newly created unstate. Lessons learned about how to survive a state-destroying occupier the first time around were re-used the second time around. On the ground, the occupation might have been a lot more like this than we imagine, especially once multiple partisan groups, rival German power bases, and pseudo-police got going:

He also covers the fascinating detail, which I had no idea about, that the pre-war Polish government was a major supporter of both the Haganah and Irgun.

Thomas Harding’s Blood on the Page is an investigation into the 2006 murder of Allan Chappelow in Hampstead. This is the case that became famous as the first murder trial in decades to be held partly in secret, for reasons you, me, and the gatepost are legally forbidden to even discuss. One thing I liked about this was that Harding brings out the deeply local character of the whole thing; Chappelow was the Ww2 conscientous objector son of an Arts & Crafts Movement decorator and WW1 pacifist who was a descendant of a Nonconformist preacher jailed for protesting about factory conditions in the early 19th century. That kind of old school radicalism, with its deep historical links to North London, permeated his life.

Another thing that struck me about it: I get the impression Wang Yam’s lawyers, despite all their efforts, served him poorly. There is literally no forensic, witness, or documentary evidence placing him at the scene of the crime – there is even DNA evidence placing another unidentified man there – and he was cleared on appeal of the burglary that was meant to be his motive for the murder. The barristers seem to have put a hell of a lot of effort into the glamorous question of principle about the in camera chunk of the trial that might have been better used challenging the facts of the case. Harding queries whether the police were subject to confirmation bias, but the exchanges he quotes are more about confirmation fantasy – whole complicated theories thought up on the spur of the moment to dismiss evidence, that were then treated as if they had some weight.

Forgot this one. Joe Maiolo’s Cry Havoc is a history of the arms race into the second world war. This is really interesting on a couple of scores – first, the cross-links between the arms race and different political economy solutions to the problems it posed. He argues that Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union all intensified internal violence and control over the public in an effort to hold down real wages and support the investment boom arming required. Germany did something similar but also promised the spoils of conquest. The UK eventually transformed its political economy to get the buy-in required.

Another interesting point is that he makes Italian foreign policy much more central to the narrative than I was expecting, arguing that Italy chose to drive events ahead in the hope of controlling them precisely because Italian leaders knew they couldn’t afford to let Germany do so. Italian Fascists may have been the only fascists ever to support arms control, precisely because Italy didn’t have the industries, and also because they were often very austeritarian on the economy.

Yet a third: Maiolo argues you can see British policy of the time as a kind of cold war deterrent strategy. Everyone was obsessed with the pseudo-nuclear threat of the knock-out blow from the air. Chamberlain differed from Baldwin in that he didn’t believe that the bomber would always get through, not least because the technology changed, and he chose to spend on air defence precisely in order to maintain a second-strike capability. If there was no chance of avoiding the retaliation, nobody would dare start anything The reasoning is familiar, the problem was that the retaliation wasn’t all that.

1 Comment on "Boooks"


  1. re Nazi Germany, Ze’ev Sternhell wrote an excellent book (The Birth of Fascist Ideology) on the development of the political theories underpinning fascism (syndicalism, Sorel, Pareto…), but was at pains to make it clear that nazism was a quite different beast. I think he is right – it was like an attempt to actualise Spencer’s social darwinism.

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