Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947

400 years, more or less. That is how long Prussia existed as an independent political unit. Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom: the rise and downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 explores the history, so full of incident and drama, of this north German state.

So what is Prussia?  The dates featured in the title are somewhat arbitrary. The Duchy of Prussia existed since 1525 morphing in the proceeding centuries into a modern state that was essentially shattered after World War I though it took until 1947 (post World War II) for the official abolition. I mentioned it is located in northern Germany but to be specific it was the lands in and around Berlin (historically called the March of Brandenburg—a Roman thing) which united with the Duchy of Prussia. Why did Brandenburg and the Duchy of Prussia unite? For an explanation I need to introduce another name, the House of Hohenzollern. The Hohenzollern was a royal dynasty first mentioned in the record books in 1061. The Hohenzollerns eventually went on to become the hereditary kings of Prussia and later Emperors of the united German lands (with Austria as a notable exception).   Prussia didn’t have much going for it in the early days. Impoverished of natural resources and with lots of sandy soil in and around Berlin making farming a challenge, Prussia had the deck stacked against it. To add to its national anxiety Prussia also had lots of potentially dangerous neighbours like Pomerania (another interesting and little known, once upon a time, country that hugged the Baltic Sea), an aggressive and sometimes expansionist Sweden, a haughty France and Austria both of whom looked upon the checkerboard patch of German lands as their military playground and the always massive Russia to the east.

Part of what makes any country, and Prussia is no exception, fascinating are the individuals who lead it and the funny quirks of history that shaped it. Prussia’s history is rich in both famous people and in the auspicious, almost fated, twists and turns in its national narrative. I will mention just two events—perhaps national ideas would be a better term—that shaped the north centre of Europe: the idea of union and the idea of a powerful military.

The idea of a united Germany was in the air since at least the Napoleonic age. The major stumbling block was the question of who would lead the union. Bavaria, Saxony and others mistrusted Prussia. A lot of Prussia’s history can be told with an eye on this idea of influencing and ultimately binding all the various small German states under its guiding hand.

Prussia’s keen desire to create a sophisticated and modern military was a result of its location on the map of Europe. It is this martial tradition that has bequeathed to the world the stereotypical idea of the Prussians as a warrior society, something like a modern day Sparta. The enthusiasm for the art of war would be its downfall. At least this is the common narrative. What I enjoyed about Clark’s Iron Kingdom is that it goes some ways in correcting this overly simplistic chronicle. Prussia was not the whole of Germany, though it was one of its principle voices. Perhaps one of its great gifts to Germany was its military prowess, but it would be a mistake to think that this tradition necessarily lead to Germany’s subsequent involvement as a major protagonist in the two world wars. As Otto Von Bismarck (one of Prussia’s great statesmen) argued, diplomacy and the ability to formulate alliances so as not to go to war is the best policy;  that is, keep the peace by keeping a healthy balance of aligned states that can check each other’s aggrandizing desires. When he died his shrewd advice seemed to die with him. The terrible events that followed only proved to underscore his very sage advice.

Why read the Iron Kingdom? It is first and foremost a dramatic story. Here you have the birth, life and death of an entire country in 688 pages. There are big names in this story that someone who prides him or herself on knowing a thing or two about world history should recognize, names such as Frederick William ‘the Great Elector,’ Frederick II ‘the Great’ and Otto Von Bismarck to name a few of the more notable figures. In many ways countries, nations, states are like people full of hopes and dreams, they strive to face challenges, succeed sometimes and fail at other times and because they are big their impact can be big. Prussia had an immense impact on the history of Europe (and the world) completely out of measure given its smallish size and humble beginnings. Its legacy like a colossal black eagle—an icon featured prominently on all of its flags—looms large across the heart of that continent. To this day whenever there is a reorganization of the electoral boundaries in north eastern Germany, or when a new building or street needs an appellation Germans debate whether to resurrect the term Prussia. The debates are heated. This book goes a ways towards explaining why there is still so much oomph behind that name.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator

I'd never have thought that I would find a book about elevators so interesting. Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator by Andreas Bernard, translated by David Dollenmayer, made the technical aspects of elevators as well as their cultural importance a page-turner. I must commend the translator Dollenmayer, as the text flowed as naturally as if the original text was English. It was a beautiful read. The key to the book's success was its specific reference to the cultural history of elevators. For sure, Bernard talked about how elevators worked and the evolution of lift mechanics. But the focus was the impact of the elevator in culture, especially urban culture, from city planning, the reconstitution of building floor plans, to elevator references in literature and popular culture. Bernard asks early on:

"What effect did the technical apparatus have on the conceivability and expressability of what happens inside the buildings, about the distribution of spaces and people?"

From the late nineteenth century on, the elevator had a profound effect on building construction. Suddenly a central shaft was designed as the centerpiece of all new buildings, and the interiors radiated from this vertical passageway:

"The stairway as means of access to the various levels had to now compete with a vertical shaft cutting a breach through the center of the building: this in turn had far-reaching consequences for the floor plans of new buildings since, as Robinson insisted, the linearity of the transport channel was to be applied to the entire organization of interior space. In office buildings equipped with elevators, the old winding corridors and labyrinthine stairwells replete with blind corners and dead-ends were replaced by a clear distribution of space comprehensible at a glance."

Flowing Scarlett O'Hara staircases, the eye-catching feature in stunning foyers designed to impress the visitor were now architecturally superfluous, primitive even. Suddenly, their central focus as one entered a building disappeared:

"How strongly floor plan configuration was focused on the elevator's conduit from the 1870s on was particularly apparent in the changing status of the stairwell in American buildings. In the course of only one or two decades, this traditional means of vertical access was pushed into the background, downgraded from a grandiose structural element occupying the center of a floor to a mere escape route."

The elevator was regarded with fear at first, at least in the United States. The first elevators were nothing more than platforms enclosed by ornate metallic meshwork. They likely instilled fear in those who stepped into them and slid the doors shut. In the beginning elevators had an on-board operator, whom passengers got to know and trust. With the introduction of push buttons (and the unfortunate en masse unemployment of all elevator operators) passengers were afraid to use the first buttons. But after the period of timid toes and fingers had passed, people learned to like the elevator, and it grew to have a sense of exclusivity. Companies which occupied single buildings relocated their head offices to the top floor (instead of the second floor in the age before elevators). Company executives worked among the clouds, and soon after this, people wanted to live there too. Needing to use an elevator developed into a matter of personal importance, and the higher you lived, the more you needed an elevator to get there. Thus after only a couple decades the top floors of apartments--which were, before elevators, limited to only six storeys with only stairs as the means to ascend to the top--went through a transformation in the organization of living space. No longer were the top storeys reserved for the servants. With so many stairs to climb, the wealthy let the hired help climb them. Now with the elevator, building height could reach skyward, and the rich wanted to be as far away as possible from the ground. Thus was born the exclusive penthouse suite.

The Dakota apartments in New York, perhaps best known as the residence of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, took the elevator to an extra degree of exclusivity. In any other apartment building up until the Dakota was built, the rich had to ride in the same elevators with everybody else. The claustrophobic space of an elevator car kept the passengers standing closely together, too closely together for some. The Dakota offered a solution for its exclusive clientele:

"The Dakota initiated the history of the private elevator, the installation of a vertical passage that made movement in a multistory residential building completely independent of public spaces. This transportation option was so essential to the development of the image of New York because it prepared the way for the final phase of the transformation of Manhattan in the first two decades of the twentieth century: the willingness of the most wealthy class to sell their remaining mansions on Fifth Avenue, together with their building lots, and move into the apartment houses rising in the same location."

Thus many rich families, notably the Vanderbilts and Huttons, were persuaded to sell their downtown mansions provided their new apartments in the luxury buildings going up on their former properties gave them exclusive use of an elevator.

The most interesting part of Lifted was the section on elevators in books and film. In the chapter section entitled "The Moment of Truth: The Stalled Cab as Secular Confessional", I realized that what Bernard wrote was so true:

"In novels, films, and commercials, elevators get stuck with a frequency that bears no relation to official statistics. As Nabokov's Mary and Fechter's Der Ruck im Fahrstuhlshow, elevators tend to appear in big-city stories precisely, and only, at the moment they stop working. Although malfunctions have been infrequent exceptions since the development of safety mechanisms in the early twentieth century, they seem to be the rule in fictional narratives. The reason for this statistically indefensible preference is undoubtedly that, while one can (with difficulty) ignore uncomfortable physical proximity for the length of a normal ride, it becomes oppressively unavoidable in the case of a malfunction."

Isn't it? He elaborates:

"The 'unease' that Lethen says arises 'when the traffic flow is suddenly interrupted or backed up for a long time' is intensified in the elevator, where fiction and film can portray it more sharply than in any other means of transportation. The crises that unfold in the cab are one sign among many that the elevator is a paradigmatic site of modernity."

I can recall many TV episodes I have seen--even commercials--which have taken place in elevators. At the sign of a crisis--like a stuck elevator--the passengers who wouldn't dare glance your way five minutes ago are now confessing their innermost secrets. A stuck elevator is eerily threatening. To be stuck in a box without an escape route can lead to a panic, or a feeling of impending doom:

"If we seek to understand why the elevator is still such a popular location in novels, films, TV series, and advertisements with urban settings, we need to keep in mind the latent threat embodied in this unobservable intersection of individual lives."

Bernard wrote about many feature films with chilling elevator scenes, including a German film which takes place entirely within the claustrophobic confines of the metal box, "Abwärts". I am going to order a copy on-line.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission

Jo Piazza’s If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission is a profile of ten American Nuns, (though as Piazza states in her introduction, they are technically Sisters), who are changing the world through charity, activism and political protest.  At the same time these women are challenging the restrictive and generally negative stereotype of what it means to be a Catholic Sister.  The Sisters that Piazza profiles in this book are not disapproving schoolmarms or uptight nurses, they are working to abolish slavery, have gays and lesbians recognised in the Church, to eliminate nuclear weapons and many other causes.  Despite the good these Sisters are doing they are, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, radical feminists who are challenging key doctrines. According to the Sisters they are working in the spirit of the bible in order to make the world a better place for people on the margins of society, these viewpoints lead to clashes between the established male church hierarchy and the Sisters about what it means to be a good Catholic. What started out as a Master’s thesis on how nuns use social media by Piazza, transformed into a book profiling the lives of ten inspiring and forward thinking women who use their religion to make the world a better place.

The book itself is divided into ten chapters, each profiling and interviewing a different Sister.  These interviews detail the Sister’s specific cause or concern, their history and how they came to join the ministry. Many of the chapters also contain information on how Piazza came to meet them and on their interactions over the course of the interviews. Some are conventional interviews over tea; others are less expected, like a six hour road trip with a Sister who may be incarcerated for political protest, or a movie screening of Eden with a Sister who runs a home from women escaping slavery in New York. Piazza’s history as an entertainment reporter can be seen in her interview style, Piazza says in her introduction that “I want to tell the stories of these nuns as if they were rock stars or Hollywood royalty.”  To a large extent she succeeds, the profiles feel very natural and flow well and like stories of rock stars of Hollywood royalty I longed to know more about each of the Sisters. Every section seemed too brief, even if the book had been twice as long I probably would have wanted to know more about them.  One interesting criticism I read about the book in another review is that Piazza usually describes what each of the Sister’s looks like and what she is wearing. The reviewer found this to be distracting and negative; I however enjoyed this as it further removes Sisters and Nuns from their habits which have not been required uniform since the 1960’s.

Potential readers may be turned off of the book by the religious subject matter, afraid the book is full of Catholic doctrine or written in such a way as to convert people to Catholicism. As a (very) lapsed Roman Catholic I had many of the same reservations. While the book does talk about the spiritual lives of these women and their faith and relationship to the Christian God it does not make any pitches to convert readers or to tout Christianity as any kind of ‘true religion.’ When Piazza, also a non-religious though raised Catholic, does mention faith she is mainly interested in what drew these women into life in a religious order, a life she notes is devoid of “many of the things Americans think of as the trappings of a good and “normal” life: marriage, kids, a sex life.” She is interested in how they use faith to drive their actions. With so many negative portrayals of faith in the world, especially of the Roman Catholic Church it is relieving to a positive example of religion inspiring people to help others.

While the profiles on the Sisters are all fascinating, the reactions from other Catholics as well as the Church Hierarchy are also interesting, though not in the same uplifting and positive sense. Sister Simone Campbell who toured America in 2012 to protest the Republican “Path to Prosperity” budget with the ‘Nun’s on a Bus’ was called a feminazi by Rush Limbaugh and was protested by people calling her a ‘fake nun.’ Others like Sister Jeannie Gramick, who is fighting for a more LGBT friendly church has been threatened with excommunication from the Church itself.  Piazza notes that it is interesting and troublesome that a Church that has been so plagued with scandal in recent years has had a fixation with correcting the behaviour of Nuns, even going so far as to launch a formal investigation into the behaviour of American Nuns in 2008 without any prior allegations of wrongdoing. The male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church does not come across as particularly accepting in this book and stands in stark contrast to the more progressive nuns. This is not particularly surprising, though it is upsetting to hear a Sister who tried to speak with a Bishop about allowing women to be ordained was literally laughed at. This section hit me particularly hard since my much more devout eight year old self wanted to be a Catholic Priest and received a similar condescending reaction from a Deacon.

I hadn't intended to read or even review this book, but the title jumped out to me while going through new books and I am glad I picked it up. Positive stories about faith are not front and center in the modern world, neither are stories about people doing good deeds. This book covers both of these as well as profiling ten amazing women that are helping to change what the Catholic Church means in a modern context and helping people who need it the most. To paraphrase Piazza in her introduction she says that she may not believe in God, but she does believe in nuns. After reading about these incredible women, I feel much the same way.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth

Pope Joan is alleged to have reigned for two years during the ninth century. She kept her identity hidden until the truth of her sex was revealed when she gave birth in the middle of the street. Her story is told by Peter Stanford in The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth. I had long been interested in this cross-dressing pope and was hoping for a story that would leave me spellbound. One does not need tabloid journalism to tell a story as sensational as this. Unfortunately I found Stanford's story quite boring, and this slim book of only 200 pages took me twelve days to finish. Stanford travelled to Rome to conduct his research and accessed mediaeval documents in libraries and museums. He discovered quite soon how difficult it was to research a pope from over a millennium ago. Often the only surviving sources were from a time four hundred years after Joan's alleged reign, leaving much room for the original writers' reinterpretations or worse--time to excise Joan from the public record. Stanford did not rely solely on the most well-known texts, and strove to find their sources--some of which were not lost after all.

The main theory for the promotion of Pope Joan's existence was that she was created by the Protestant church in order to cast the Catholic church in a disparaging light. A certain way to turn followers away from Catholicism would be to promote the idea that they elected an unchaste woman as pope and were all too blind to notice. The story becomes sensational when she is said to have given birth--on the street no less. It smacks of a mediaeval urban myth, according to Stanford. However Joan does have her defenders:

"The fall-back of harder-hearted, less fanciful defenders of Joan has been to dwell on the fact that this was the Dark Ages, a period of political turmoil, illness, famine and marauding armies across Europe, when for many life hung by a thread. There was little time for scholarship or keeping records for posterity. Moreover, the argument goes, if the lack of a contemporaneous written record is taken as sufficient in itself to damn any story or character, Jesus himself is in trouble."

Stanford raises the issue of the scant information about many mysterious popes throughout history, such as Lando, about whom hardly anything is known. The names at least of male popes are recorded for all history, yet prominent women figures have been ignored. Could Pope Joan have been ignored merely because she was a woman, or could her biographies have been excised from all church records once the truth about her sex was revealed? Could the Catholic church have rewritten its own history?

The church did not always bar women from high office. There were women bishops prior to the Reformation. There was thus already a precedent, and in the ninth century a woman could have risen within the Catholic hierarchy. But to the position of pope? The pope back then had not yet assumed the powerful and influential worldly title of an international head of state. There were many pretenders to the throne--the antipopes--and popes were deposed by being either imprisoned or murdered. The papal seat was a highly volatile position and it does seem possible that Joan could have existed and risen to the throne.

Stanford covers the theory that Pope Joan was a fantastic manifestation of the sexless and celibate priesthood. Priests, years after having taken the vows of celibacy, might have fantasized about women being under the priestly robes. Joan could have been an all-encompassing priestly sexual fantasy.

The jury is still out about Pope Joan. I am led to believe that Stanford considers her to be a real figure who was in fact pope. Stanford concludes the book with the following questions:

"Did she, or didn't she? Could a German woman of English parentage pull off one of the greatest deceptions of all time and rise, disguised as a man, to the pinnacle of the Catholic church in the ninth century? If so, did the Catholic church then achieve a remarkable triumph by putting this embarrassing skeleton back in the cupboard in the post-Reformation period? Or is Pope Joan an empty and malicious legend promoted by generation after generation of anti-Catholics and anti-clerics? Perhaps, though, the truth is less clear-cut. Could Pope Joan be a significant myth or an allegory for some other historical happening? Or a bit of both?"