Monthly Archives: September 2015

War Literature as a Medium of Separation, Unity and History

The idea that war literature – insofar as the genre truly exists – can contain powerful invocations of separation and unification is largely correct, though it is rather general. Tales of separation and unification are often part of war literature, but they are frequently a secondary or tertiary theme, serving as a subplot or an auxiliary. In The Kite Runner, a novel by Khaled Hosseini which has achieved tremendous prominence among general readers and those interested in contemporary Afghanistan, the unification of Amir – the protagonist – and Sohrab (a boy, the son of Amir’s childhood friend and half-brother Hassan, whom he has to rescue in order to achieve redemption) is prefaced with, and set within the context of, the latter’s being sexually abused. This situation is a demonstration of the power of war to create a climate which contains the destruction of morality and the exploitation of the weak. Effective war literature is acute in observation, truthful in judgement, and imparts, as Hosseini himself wrote in an article for Time, some moral message or sensation. The theme of unity and separation can conform to all of these elements; but it is frequently overshadowed by other narrative elements, which collectively serve to drive works of war literature and give the genre its moral force. Continue reading

Who Gained More From the Dual Alliance: Germany or Austria-Hungary?

The 1879 Dual Alliance between Austria-Hungary and Germany proved initially fortuitous for both signatories; Austria-Hungary gained validation and support, and the new German nation gained a vital ally in its ever-complicated quest to isolate the revanchist French and garner international standing. But after the removal of Otto von Bismarck from the Chancellorship in 1890 – commemorated in Punch with the famous illustration entitled ‘dropping the pilot’ – this balance began to go awry. Bismarck’s successor, Caprivi, referred to the alliance as the ‘cornerstone of our foreign policy’ and this state of affairs began to favour Austria-Hungary more than her northern neighbour. Finally, the alliance served to damage and destroy both powers in the European maelstrom of the First World War. Continue reading

Money on His Mindfulness: The Real Dalai Lama

There is no greater demonstration of the weaknesses of our culture than the honorifics we attach to unworthy individuals. The pope is always called ‘His Holiness’ by willing sycophants, regardless of whether or not he or his predecessors knew about – and covered up – crimes against children perpetrated by the priesthood. Even a terror-happy Islamist militant may be a “Sheikh” and a gay-bashing evangelical “Reverend”. Continue reading

What Are a Historian’s Most Important Skills?

The purpose of history (at least according to Leopold von Ranke) is ‘to show how things actually were’. There is much debate about the exact meaning of this phrase – does it provide a warrant only for literalism and the stating of fact, or does it give license, for example, for historians to write about how the past was in essence? – but much of the central tenets of Ranke’s own empirical history have been broadly accepted. What is not so concrete, however, is the question of what skills and traits a historian ought to exhibit. After all, it takes a certain skill to write empirically, and it takes a certain knack to assemble facts into the form of historical writing, but true skill in the writing of history is something less easy to define; it contains something higher, something nobler – and something infinitely more subjective. But the best historians – in short, those who master both substance and style – can achieve something greater than the result of Ranke’s rather prosaic observation; their works can contain and aspire to the literary – and they can attract the permanence of true art in the process. Continue reading

Was British Foreign Policy Before the First World War Truly Concerned with the Balance of Power in Europe?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the British Empire was one of the largest the world had ever seen. With the Japanese alliance of 1902, Britain, it could be suggested, ended the tradition of ‘Splendid Isolation’ as it was categorised by Lord Salisbury. Debate exists over the intention of the following years. Continue reading

Barack Obama: The Imperilled President

According to the ‘Imperial President’ theory as put forward by Arthur M. Schlesinger, the office of President of the United States has been steadily and repeatedly accruing powers towards its own advancement. A modern president has increasing control over the federal bureaucracy, for instance, and his orders on extra-judicial matters are likely to be stronger now than they have been in a long time. The imperial president gains many of his powers in times of war; and as the United States has spent most of the last half-century fighting one war or another (in various guises), it is suggested that this has led to increasing powers for the presidency in our own times. But there is a flipside to this famous declaration: presidents may also eschew matters imperial, and instead of that particular moniker, they may have the sobriquet of ‘imperilled’ – in the words of Shakespeare’s Malvolio – ‘thrust upon ‘em’. Barack Obama is one such president.
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Europe Before the First World War: What Were They Thinking?

Review – The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War by Margaret MacMillan

Amid a rash of volumes attempting to detail and explain the origins of the First World War, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace stand out. Both represent holistic, almost global attempts to analyse the various causes of the war; and both contain very thorough and very acute investigations into the character of the time before the continental conflagration broke out. MacMillan assessed European society before the war which nearly brought about its collapse, whereas Clark focuses on an analysis which takes in nation-states, alliances, diplomacy and the ever-present prospect of force (but these forces were not impersonal; as will be elucidated, much of European diplomacy in those days was built and conducted on the basis of personality and thoroughly personal reactions). Continue reading

A Betrayal of the Left

The Left in Britain used to be in favour of secularism and against the politicisation of religion. The lives of Thomas Paine, Bertrand Russell and many others attest to this proud history. They campaigned against and opposed the domination of any one religious group – and they did so even when it was dangerous, both to their careers and even their lives. (The burning down of Joseph Priestley’s laboratory was not an entirely isolated event; and the sentiments expressed were not those of a minority. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in his “Religious Musings”, ‘priests idolatrous / By dark lies maddening the blind multitude / Drove with vain hate’.) Continue reading

What Was the Significance of the Federal Government in Helping or Hindering the Development of Civil Rights in America?

When examining the significance of federal action in the progress of African-American civil rights, it is important to acknowledge that this is not a narrative which climbed inexorably upward. As well as great instances of advancement, there were times when the lot of African-Americans deteriorated, or when progress was lessened, by the actions of the federal government. Similarly, it is also vital to remember that said government consists of three branches: Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court, and that this means talking of the federal government as a unitary authority presents a lack of both understanding and nuance. Continue reading

Seeking Refuge in Hypocrisy

Syria and its neighbours have borne witness to many horrors over the years. These have intensified of late, and the country has seen its citizens brutalised, its economy and infrastructure deliberately and cynically degraded, and its population trapped between the twin horrors of Bashar al-Assad and ISIS. None of this is new; none of it is novel. The roots of this current tragedy are the brutal repression by the Assad regime and the emergence of a civil war, the first acts of which took place in early 2011. The current refugee crisis – which stems inexorably from this first act of repression – is the obvious end result of a civil conflict in which over 9 million have been made refugees and over 200,000 have been killed. Continue reading