Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Steverereads: Iron Kingdom!

One of my many guilty reading pleasures is regularly re-reading things, and one of my favorite things to re-read is new books. I read them first when they come out as obscenely overpriced hardcovers, but then a year or so later, when they're issued as still-expensive trade paperbacks, I like to revisit them and see, as Mark Twain once ribbingly put it, how they've changed.

Like all good jokes, it's got a kernel of truth to it; of course the printed words don't change (although sometimes, very rarely, they do), but everything else does - everything about a book's paperback release feels different to me from its initial hardcover appearance. In the intervening months, I've more than likely followed any press the book garnered; I've probably read something else on the subject; and I've certainly grown and changed myself, as a reader and a person. Re-reading things after only a year or so is a little revelation, like looking over a diary from twelve months ago.

Longer than that, in this case, since I first wrote about Christopher Clark's graceful, pre-eminent history of Prussia, Iron Kingdom, way back in October of 2006. I loved it then, and I love it now, although having recently re-read it, I couldn't help but notice all the different things I paid attention to this time around. Back in 2006, I was most struck by Clark's portrayal of the two larger-than-life Prussians in his story, Bismarck and Frederick the Great. This time, I found myself more drawn to comparatively minor figures (not that anybody wouldn't be minor compared to those two), figures such as Karl August von Hardenberg, who spent his entire public career trying to make Prussia less, well, German:

During his ministry in Ansbach and Bayreuth, he did his best to meet security needs without undermining 'the freedom to think and to express one's opinions publicly.' His famous Riga Memorandum of 1807 stressed the value of a cooperative, rather than antagonistic, relationship between the state and public opinion, and argued that governments should not shrink from 'winning over opinion' through the use of 'good writers.' It was Chancellor Hardenberg who in 1810-11 pioneered the regular, annotated publication of new legislation, arguing that this departure from the secretive practice of earlier governments would strengthen trust in the administration.

Hardenberg also spearheaded liberal reforms aimed at easing the restrictions placed on Jews in all levels of Prussian society, and that couldn't help but arrest my attention in contrast to the other thing that I particularly noticed this time through: Clark's expert evocation of the weird relationship Hitler had with the Prussian aristocracy and nobility that encrusted the Germany he appropriated when he seized power. Here, as elsewhere in his book, Clark clears away as many misconceptions as he can:

Characterizing the relationship between the Hitler regime and the Prussian traditional and functional elites is difficult. There has to date been no systematic study of attitudes and conduct within the German regional nobilities throughout the life of the Third Reich. But one thing is clear: the conventional picture of the landed nobility haughtily withdrawing to the splendid isolation of their estates and waiting for the Nazi storm to pass is misleading. There was hardly a single East-Elbian noble family that did not have at least one party member. The ancient lineage of the Schwerins supplied no fewer than fifty-two members, the Hardenbergs twenty-seven, the Tresckows thirty, the Schulenbergs forty-one, of whom seventeen had already joined the party before 1933. Many nobles were attracted to the NSDAP because they saw an alliance with the Hitler movement as the key to securing their traditional social leadership role on new terms. But others joined because they found the party's ideology and ambiance congenial - the attitudinal gap between noble circles and the National Socialist movement was narrower than as often been supposed.

I'm relieved to say I can still whole-heartedly recommend Iron Kingdom just as I did two years ago (a significant portion of the time, re-reading dims my enthusiasm somewhat); this is sober, heavily-detailed, elegantly-constructed history of the first order, now in a solid paperback from the good people at Harvard University Press. Treat yourself to it as a holiday present!

1 comment:

Jeffrey.Eaton said...

Wow, October 2006 eh? I took you up on Iron Kingdom at the time but, as good as it was, I don't think I can be talked into rereading it now. It was, like its subject, something of a solid, blocky tome.

By the by, I particularly liked the pair of entries on air travel. The juxtaposition of "more gadgets" vs "less gadgets" was fascinating. The interesting takeaway is that there is an optimal level of gadgetry.

It was pretty harsh to be plunged into a serious article on a plane crash after seeing the opening picture of the super-hot Tina Fey. In the end it worked out because I never would have otherwise found Maureen Dowd's article on said super-hot (but, it turns out, disappointingly martinet) Ms. Fey.