Category: History

How to Give a Great Speech: A Master Class with Winston Churchill

Literary ChurchillChances are good that you have been asked to speak in public before and will need to speak in public again. Giving a compelling speech is no easy task at any level, be it giving a TED Talk in front of hundreds or just summarizing a novel at school. You may wonder how anyone ever managed to do it with even a modicum of style. Jonathan Rose‘s new biography of Winston Churchill  shows how one of the greatest orators of all time conquered the challenge of winning over an audience. The Literary Churchill considers the politician as an author, a reader, and an actor, explaining how his favorite plays and books formed the foundation of his public persona. Rose’s analysis fits the man particularly well since, as The Daily Beast puts it, Churchill would be famous today on the strength of his writing alone. Churchill remains the only British Prime Minister to have won a Nobel Prize in Literature, and he published as a war correspondent, a biographer, a historian, and, less successfully, as a novelist.

It is one of Churchill’s unpublished pieces, however, that will come to your aid as you prepare to give a speech. In 1897, he wrote “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” a guide to oratory and a reflection on the nature of the craft. Rose interprets the essay as an indication of Churchill’s hushed enthusiasm for Oscar Wilde, and you can read an excerpt on the subject via Biographile. The guide has become useful to the scholar, but Churchill intended for the following topics to serve the beginning orator.


Churchill writes that “there is no more important element in the technique of rhetoric than the continual employment of the best possible word.” As Rose notes, this is bit of a truism. Of course one should choose the most effective words, but which words are the most effective? Churchill says that, contrary to popular assumptions, short, common words are better than long, uncommon ones. He cautions against puffing up one’s rhetoric with Greek and Latin, suggesting that punchy, Anglo-Saxon words “appeal with greater force to simple understandings.” Rose admits that this passage tempted him to write “e.g. blood, sweat, tears” in the margin.


One must also attend to the way the words flow together, Churchill advises. He reminds the reader of the power of sound, and says that the sentences of the best orators become “long, rolling and sonorous,” with “a cadence which resembles blank verse rather than prose.” Rose offers a biographical insight here, noting that Churchill tended to write his speeches in something like vers libre, poetry based on speaking patterns, rather than continuous paragraphs.

Churchill V

Churchill, one week after his “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech


Churchill discusses the way careful repetition and modulation can help build an argument toward its climax. A speaker can encourage enthusiasm by employing a variety of images and facts “all pointing in a common direction” such that the audience can anticipate the conclusion before it is reached. Churchill’s “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech again rings in one’s ears as the speaker follows his own advice to great effect.

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal.


A speaker, Churchill writes, can use apt comparisons to produce conviction in an audience. He says that analogies can “translate an established truth into simple language” or “aspire to reveal the unknown.” The passage goes on to suggest that analogies are “among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician” and that “the effect upon the most cultivated audience is electrical.” Churchill quotes some examples, but to 21st century readers they testify to the imperialism, sexism, and racism of 19th century British politicians rather than to their rhetorical talent. Churchill’s own prose, however, displays some flair for analogy, as he uses the phrases “formidable weapons” and “electrical” to conjure the word “power” without using it outright.


Churchill writes that in emotional speeches one may use language “so wild that reason recoils.” The most persuasive orators sweep their audiences off their feet with phrases that hit upon the group sentiment and amplify it to an extreme. In political oratory, these phrases “become the watchwords of parties, and the creeds of nationalities.” Rose notes that Churchill used this kind of hyperbolic register often, and one can see him employing it at the end of the “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech, in which he moves swiftly from country to empire to millennia of human progress.

Chances are good that your next public speaking opportunity will not decide the fates of empires. Nevertheless, you will want to speak accurately and beautifully. You will want to convince and inspire. You will want your audience to remember your message and how impressively you delivered it. In this pursuit you will find no example more memorable, more inspiring, or more literary than Winston Churchill.


A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (Author Interview Video)


On the night of November 9, 1938, now known as Kristallnacht, the Nazis burned the Hebrew Bible everywhere in Germany. In the video below, Alon Confino explains why this act, among the other horrors committed that night, was particularly unusual. There is not a direct connection between the Nazi’s racist ideology and the burning of religious holy objects. The act can only be understood as part of the Nazi’s effort to build a new civilization independent of previous religious ideas and morality. Confino explores the thoughts and ideas that led the Nazi’s to the belief that Jews and Judaism had to be eradicated to build this new society in A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide. Watch Confino’s eloquent responses to the questions of why we should strive to understand the Nazi imagination,  and why historical storytelling is important.

“The main issue in explaining the holocaust is not what happened in Auschwitz, but is about the imagination that made Auschwitz possible to begin with.”Alon Confino

Five Reads for Father’s Day

Father’s Day is this Sunday, and to celebrate we bring you five books about fathers and family. These are books about American Revolutionaries, innovative photographers, domestic Victorians, virtual currencies, and literary Jews for any family to enjoy.

Founders as Fathers

Founders as Fathers: The Private Lives and Politics of the American Revolutionaries by Lorri Glover

Even if you are an American history buff, you may not know the intimate details of the founders’ home lives. Lorri Glover describes the sacrifices made and the challenges faced by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Virginians. As the Revolution transformed the country’s political institutions, it profoundly affected family life as well.

Family in the Picture

Family in the Picture, 1958-2013 by Lee Friedlander

Photo enthusiasts might appreciate this chronicle of the family life of one of the most inventive photographers in the U.S.  The book contains over 350 photos, most of them newly released from the artist’s personal archive. Most families try to preserve their memories in one way or another, but, as the New York Times put it, “When your husband or father is the accomplished photographer Lee Friedlander, the family photo album can’t help becoming a work of art.”

A Man's Place

A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England by John Tosh

Fathers taking on a greater share of the domestic load might seem like a 21st century phenomenon, but John Tosh describes how men in the 19th century came to place new value on the home. Case studies on married life and fatherhood from the 1830s and onwards show the domestic trend emerging as men react urbanization and Evangelical Christianity.  By the 1870s, domesticity held less appeal, and Tosh’s gender history explains how that waning interest set the stage for the next century.

Wildcat Currency

Wildcat Currency: How the Virtual Money Revolution is Transforming the Economy by Edward Castronova

The 21st century economy is changing rapidly, and the currency used is changing too. Edward Castronova delves into the world of virtual finance, discussing everything from credit card perks like airline miles to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. The researcher considers how we conceive of money itself, how we relate to it emotionally, and how virtual currencies could affect our legal and political futures.

Jews and Words

Jews and Words by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger

This father/daughter, writer/historian team investigate and describe the profound relationship between Jews and the language they use, arguing that words provide the link from generation to generation. The book traces central Jewish themes through important names, canonical texts, ancient arguments, and memorable quips. The authors ultimately synthesize those words into an essay, a story, a history, and a collaboration.

Have a happy Father’s Day!

Thoreau: Fully Annotated

Walden JacketIn a month, it will have been ten years since Jeffrey S. Cramer published Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Cramer has had a prolific and successful decade, editing numerous volumes on Henry David Thoreau and racking up awards and praise. In 2012, radio host Jim Fleming said that Cramer “may know more about the bard at Walden Pond than anyone else alive.” He has earned that reputation, at least in part, on the basis of his annotations.

Cramer has published three fully annotated volumes by Thoreau: Walden (2004), The Maine Woods (2009), and Essays (2013). To begin to understand why these books are “fully annotated” and not merely “edited,” one need only take a quick glance at Walden. Thoreau’s text occupies the half of the page closest to the spine and Cramer’s copious annotations run along the outside. Between the transcendentalist’s prose and the scholar’s commentary, most of the pages are, indeed, completely full. There are only a handful of places where Thoreau’s text proceeds without Cramer’s accompaniment, and rarely for longer than a few paragraphs. Far more commonly, Cramer’s annotations outstrip Thoreau’s chapters.

The fullness of the fully annotated edition comes not only from the volume of the commentary but also from its breadth and depth. Cramer provides the expected historical, philosophical, and geographical contexts for Walden and goes well beyond their bounds. He explains the writer’s puns, calls him on his exaggerations, and knowingly undercuts his more bombastic pronouncements. When Thoreau declares that “Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race,” Cramer chimes in to say that “Although Thoreau could read Greek, he did not always read the Greek authors in the original, but would use Latin, French, or English translations.”[1]


Cramer annotates Walden with the care and thoroughness usually reserved for Shakespeare plays or the Bible, and one might ask why the scholar feels compelled to explicate Thoreau so fully. Perhaps it is simply Cramer’s passion that leads him onwards. Most people will expound upon their favorite subject to an attentive audience for hours if given the opportunity. Indeed, some of that spirit comes through in Cramer’s interviews. In 2012, he was asked what three scenes from Thoreau’s life he would include in a biopic. The scholar begins carefully, selecting major life events, but quickly finds himself on a roll, listing scene after scene, finishing with “and— and— how long can we make this movie?”

Benjamin_D._Maxham_-_Henry_David_Thoreau_-_RestoredYet even as Cramer’s interviews imply that his breathless enthusiasm may be the impetus for the full annotations, his introduction hints at a justification rooted in Walden itself. Cramer quotes Thoreau’s claim that “The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.”[2] Thoreau, Cramer argues, is suggesting a way of approaching Walden. To “seek the meaning of each word and line” is precisely the task of the annotator, who identifies the precise significance of each moment. At the same time, the annotator expands the language beyond its common use, and does so with “wisdom and valor and generosity.” Cramer’s wisdom lies in his paramount knowledge of the bard at Walden Pond, his valor in his perseverant attention, and his generosity in the abundance of his commentary. It is in this sense, in fulfilling a need Thoreau himself seems to recognize, that Cramer’s editions are fully annotated.


[1] Thoreau, Henry. Walden. 1854. Ed. Jeffrey Cramer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 101.

[2] Jeffrey S. Cramer. Introduction. Walden. By Henry D. Thoreau. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. xx.

Analyzing Freud, the Master of Psychoanalysis

“Biographers, Freud knew even as a young man, spoke on other people’s behalf—like parents, doctors, rabbis, and politicians. Psychoanalysis was to be a medical treatment which enabled people to speak on their own behalf.”—Adam Phillips, Becoming Freud


In his biography of Sigmund Freud’s early life, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psycholanalyst, Adam Phillips acknowledges the awkwardness of documenting Freud’s life when Freud himself hated biography. Freud angrily rejected offers to from hopeful biographers. He believed that biographies could reveal no truths about a life. He even went so far as to destroy personal documents from his young life in order to confound future biographers.

Freud’s vehement opposition to biography and, in particular, his own biography, says a great deal about his life and his character. His preemptive destruction of documents to keep them from the hands of “biographers” (he specifically used the plural) shows his sense of self-importance and his need to control his biographical record. It should not be surprising that the father of psychoanalysis—the “treatment which enabled people to speak on their own behalf”—desired to tell his own story of his life.

Though he stops short of actually psychoanalyzing Freud, Phillips’ displays a fine understanding of the tenets of psychoanalysis. His sensitive descriptions of Freud’s personal development, invite the reader to make parallel comparisons to the development of his work in psychoanalysis.

Don’t miss your chance to win a copy of Becoming Freud. Enter our Goodreads giveaway before next Thursday, June 5th.

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Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips

Becoming Freud

by Adam Phillips

Giveaway ends June 05, 2014.

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Adrian Goldsworthy Documents the Lives of the Greatest Romans: Caesar, Antony, and now Augustus

augustusAdrian Goldsworthy, an award-winning biographer and historian, has brought ancient Rome to life through a trilogy of biographies of the leaders of the greatest empire of all time. In Caesar: Life of a Colossus and Antony and Cleopatra, Goldsworthy cut through the traditional stories told of these well-known figures, exposing the complexity of their political maneuvers and providing more human portraits to balance the legends. His new book, Augustus: First Emperor of Rome, to be released this August, holds up the same revealing lens to a character who is less well-remembered, but equally—if not more so—influential in the history of Rome.

Yale University Press: Although Augustus is far less well-known than his great uncle, Julius Caesar, you find that he was actually a much more compelling figure. Why is that so?

Adrian Goldsworthy: Julius Caesar’s career was conventional until he reached middle age. But Augustus broke all the rules and was a master of re-inventing himself. There are more surviving images of him than anyone else in the ancient world. Augustus boasted that he had given the Romans peace after decades of chaos and violence, and yet at the same time he presided over the most intensive period of Roman imperial expansion.

YUP: One of the fascinating overarching themes of your book is how Augustus transformed the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. What were his tactics and why were they so effective? Why is his reign of such immense historical importance?

AG: Augustus claimed to have restored the res publica—the state—but in reality he monopolized military power and was a military dictator in all but name. On the other hand he worked hard to justify his supremacy, spending more than half his reign touring the far-flung provinces, and, wherever he was, devoting a great deal of attention to petitioners who came to him from all over the world. The new system was less democratic but it worked, not only during his lifetime but also in the centuries to follow, when the empire was more stable and prosperous than ever before.

Adrian Goldsworthy is a leading historian of the ancient world and author of acclaimed biographies of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra among many other books. He lectures widely and consults on historical documentaries produced by the History Channel, National Geographic, and the BBC. He lives in the Vale of Glamorgan, UK.

Five Reasons Louisa Catherine Adams Should Make the Top First Ladies List

Louisa_catherine2Abigail Adams’ name often comes up on lists of the top ten First Ladies of all time. She achieved popularity thanks to her political influence, earning the nickname “Mrs. President”. Her success has relegated Louisa Catherine Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams to that of “The Other Adams” the subtitle of Margery Heffron‘s recently published biography of Louisa. Despite possessing many of the characteristics that brought her mother-in-law and other favorite First Ladies popularity, Louisa Catherine has been an under-appreciated First Lady. Heffron’s biography of Louisa finally does justice to this remarkable woman.

1. Style and Poise: A thus far unavoidable criteria for judging First Ladies, style and poise have earned several First Ladies like Jackie O and Michelle Obama the love of the American public. Raised in London and France, and long experienced in royal courts, Louisa was admired for her grace in political circles. Her success in this area was not merely due to wealth or privilege. On more than one occasion she constructed ball gowns from draperies, lacking the personal funds to purchase appropriate attire for European royal courts.

2. Statesmanship: Hillary Clinton’s political work gained her the respect of the American public; she is widely considered the First Lady they could most imagine serving as President. Louisa was similarly skilled in diplomacy. Though her husband was not as open to discussing politics with her, she played a significant role in his political fortunes. She used her diplomatic talents to help smooth over other’s perception of John Quincy Adams as cold and superior.

3. Feminism: First Ladies have had a unique influence over the history of women’s rights. Abigail Adams earned the esteem of historians for her powerful feminist writing and attempts to build women’s rights into the new government her husband was forming. Louisa continued in her mother-in-law’s footsteps, writing eloquently and assertively on the subject of women’s rights.

4. Human Rights: Eleanor Roosevelt, who regularly tops the lists of popular and influential First Ladies, shaped the role of the First Lady with her outspoken support of civil rights and other social issues. Her active work to further human rights gained her admiration both domestically and internationally. Louisa Catherine was similarly ahead of her time in her stance on social issues. In addition to her early feminist writing, Louisa was an active champion of Native American’s rights years before the issue was debated politically.

5. Personal Resilience: Louisa had perhaps the most personal tragedy of any First Lady to deal with. Her relationship with her husband and his family was extremely challenging. She handled nine miscarriages in addition to the early childhood death of a daughter and the suicide of a son. She escaped from Russia to France in the winter of 1815 following Napoleon’s disastrous retreat with only her son, maid and two servants. Though the challenges she faced lead her to occasional bouts of depression, frustration, and temper, she possessed a strength that enabled her to deal with the continuous struggle of American politics.

Louisa Catherine Adams had all of the qualities that make a great First Lady. Despite her talents, she was constantly self-deprecating. Her diary is full of vented frustrations and personal disappointment that have put off previous biographers. Heffron has drawn a more complete picture of the complex woman in Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams, giving her the credit than she withheld from herself.


First Ladies of the United States, via

Wilfred Owen: WWI’s Peter Pan Poet

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

– from “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1917)

Wilfred OwenAs a fourteen-year-old boy, Wilfred Owen wore a crest that combined a globe with a cross, and underneath ran the motto “To Observe the World.” Guy Cuthbertson, author of the new biography Wilfred Owen, writes that this crest could have served Owen as a badge for life. Owen led a short life but was constantly on the move. As a child, he lived near the Welsh border in Oswestry, Shropshire, before moving back and forth between Birkenhead near Liverpool and Shrewsbury. As a young adult, he spent time in Dunsden, Reading, and London before leaving for the Continent. Despite having moved around a lot, Owen’s tight-knit relationship with his mother provided him with emotional stability throughout his life.

Unlike her husband, Susan Owen encouraged his interest in poetry. In her youth, she wished to become an artist, but her dreams were crushed by her difficult living circumstances. Neither a starving artist nor a well-off gentleman, Owen also struggled with his lower-middle-class socioeconomic status that prevented him from pursuing higher goals. He grew up without a nanny, a boarding-school education, and without a comfortable home. He had little money to travel and socialize with fellow artists and cultured society. And he could not go to university because he could not afford the school fees and did not have high enough grades to qualify for scholarships (which he bitterly blames on the fact that he had to work so hard outside of school at his jobs). His dream of following his literary predecessors’ footsteps to Oxford was never realized.

He did study English and botany at University College, Reading, but in the end Owen provided himself with the literary education he sought. He had a deep devotion to poets of the past, such as Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson. Cuthbertson writes that Owen felt closer to dead writers than to living people; according to Owen, Keats’ home in Hampstead was “one of London’s most holy spots.” In general, he loved being in London because of its wide range of cultural offerings and because he got the sense of being somewhere necessary, somewhere where it all happens and where he can walk the same streets as great men of yore.

Similar to the titular character in Chateaubriand’s René, Owen felt he was born in the wrong era. His head was in the 20th century but his old soul wandered in the worlds of centuries past. If the present was ugly, Owen would find happiness in the past, an attitude that differed from the Victorian emphasis on Progress and the future. But the real world around him was also on the cusp between the old and the new. During Owen’s childhood in England, the motor car was a rare sight, horses still plowed the fields, and planes did not yet adorn the night sky (Owen would see his first plane in 1912). It was not until he left to teach English in Bordeaux that he managed to enjoy a life more similar to the one he dreamed of, even if it meant fabricating aspects of his identity to mesh with the social and cultural elite of the area.

Wilfred Owen was not a man for fighting in the trenches and facing the horrors of World War I. But ever the poet since childhood, Owen grew up intensely aware of the visual beauty of war and how it was a source of inspiration to many writers. However, Cuthbertson emphasizes that Owen was not naïve about the realities of war and had been previously exposed to war and death: he ministered to the sick and dying in as a lay assistant in Dunsden, he had seen wounded soldiers while living in Bordeaux, and he participated in military training for a year before being sent to the Front. He put off enlisting for some time because he knew, unlike many young lads his age, that war was not all about exciting heroics. Eventually, Owen joined the Artists’ Rifles in October 1915, a Special Forces regiment of the British Army Reserve that comprised of creative types and those from a public-school/Oxbridge background. While in the trenches in France, he felt a need took an archaeological approach to writing about the War and his poetry reflects a keen sensual understanding of the violence that surrounded him. He met a tragic end, dying on one of the last days of the First World War, at just 25 years old, and his family was informed of his death on Armistice Day. It is indeed very sad for such a young talent to leave us so soon, but given that Owen never wanted to grow up and had a fear of growing old, one might say that he would appreciate the pathos to his death.

Cuthbertson’s narrative feels very up to date with contemporary references to help readers understand World War I’s famous poet. He compares Owen to fellow Scouser John Lennon because of their mutual roots near Liverpool while also comparing him to Humbert from Lolita because of his deep interest in young children. Despite making these comparisons, Cuthbertson ultimately demonstrates that Owen is hard to define. He always tiptoes on the border of being something different. While born in England to an English family, his connections to Wales and Welsh culture had some wondering whether or not he could considered a Welsh poet. While raised in an evangelical Christian family, Owen was so enchanted by the art of Catholicism that some thought he perhaps became a Catholic in secret. His sexuality also remained less than clear; Owen expressed an admiration for certain young men and women, but many admirers thought him to be almost sexless.

Even in death, Wilfred Owen’s identity is still a mystery, still constantly in motion. Like Peter Pan, Owen never grew old in his own life nor in our imaginations.

Book Excerpt: A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide

Alon Confino‘s A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide centers itself around an important question: Why exactly did the Nazis burn the Hebrew Bible everywhere in Germany on November 9, 1938? The events of Kristallnacht have not been adequately accounted for by historians in their large-scale assessments of how and why the Holocaust occurred, Confino argues. He draws on an array of archives across three continents to propose a penetrating new assessment of one of the central moral problems of the twentieth century; tracing the stories the Nazis told themselves about their past and destiny, Confino proposes a penetrating new assessment of the Holocaust, showing how a world without Jews was conceivable and imaginable before and during the war. Below you can read an excerpt on the book as a primer for our further discussion of the book when we post more for Jewish American Heritage Month in May.

The imagination of a Germany without Jews links anti-Semitic actions and ideas in the prewar and war years because it describes Nazi anti-Semitism as a work in progress, built gradually over the years between 1933 and 1945. I thus challenge the mainstream view in popular and scholarly understanding of the Holocaust that the mass murder of the Jews during the war had not been anticipated, that victims and perpetrators alike scarcely believed what was happening, that it was unimaginable and unrepresentable. Primo Levi expressed this idea in one of the twentieth century’s most profound statements: “Today, at this very moment as I sit writing at the table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened.”8 The sentiment cannot be denied. At the same time, historians know that all that happened was, in some way, somehow, imagined, not literally, not exactly, but it was put into images and words that made it possible. No historical event springs from thin air, none is unique, because this implies having no links to context, past, and present. Of course, on November 9, 1938, no one could imagine the gas chamber of Auschwitz, not even Hitler himself. But on that day one could imagine a German world in which Jews and Judaism were terminated by fire and violence. Our aim is to seek patterns of meaning and purpose in a world of fantasies that made the extermination possible precisely because it was, somehow, imaginable and representable.

The Nazis imagined the Jew by using anti-Semitic ideas from their present-day German society. This statement may seem obvious, but it has consequences for our understanding of the Holocaust. A key approach to the Holocaust has been to focus on anti-Semitism as the primary motivation of the Nazis and to view Nazi racial ideology as the modern form of the old hatred. On one level, this argument is unassailable, for any account of the Holocaust that denies or minimizes anti-Semitism is bound to be unsatisfactory. But beyond this broad agreement, my argument here is in some respect fundamentally different from some trends in the anti-Semitism approach to the Holocaust. A central tenet of many studies of this approach, explicitly or implicitly, has been that an accumulation of the ancient hatred through the centuries paved the way and ultimately produced the Holocaust. I argue the opposite. It is not that the past (of anti-Semitism) produced the present (of the extermination), not that the ancient hatred led to the Holocaust, but that the Nazis interpreted anew the past of Jewish, German, and Christian relations to fit their vision of creating a new world. The Nazis, as we shall see, told a story of national origins at the center of which were the evil Jews. But in telling this story they picked and chose from the history of Jewish, German, and Christian relations elements that fit their narrative while creating anew their own present. It is the Nazis who made sense of, and gave new meaning to, past anti-Semitism, not so much the other way around. It is always people in the present who give meaning to the past, while the past itself can never give meaning to a future not yet born.

At the same time, the Holocaust cannot be understood without consideration of the history of European colonialism. Colonial genocides of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were part of a process of accelerated violence related to nation-building at home and imperial territorial expansion abroad. The Nazi notions of race and of inferior groups who had no right to live belonged in the tradition of European colonialism, which, long before 1933, provided popular, “scientific,” and political legitimacy to British, French, Dutch, Belgian, and others to rule over and kill millions around the world. What set the stage for the Nazi genocides were the broken taboos of earlier decades: the Holocaust was thinkable because, to give but one example, of the prior German extermination of the Herero and the Namaqua between 1904 and 1907 in South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) and the realization that wiping out peoples was a possibility.

Similarly, the enmity against and extermination of the Jews was part of Nazi universe of racial enemies and exterminations. The Jewish genocide was bound up with a set of racial ideas that produced other Nazi mass killings and genocides of, among others, mentally ill patients, Ukrainians, and Russians. The Nazis were determined to build an empire, extending from the Atlantic in the West to the Pacific shores of Siberia in the East, devoted to expansion and the annihilation of entire populations. The Holocaust was only one in a series of genocides committed by the Nazis, and it can be understood only when placed within the comparative history of modern genocides.9 It belongs squarely within the genre of genocides and was not an exceptional, stand-alone historical event. (That said, it has its own particularities because not all genocides are identical, though they all share certain common denominators that group them together as genocides.)

But in themselves the European traditions of modern colonialism and racial ideas cannot account for the Holocaust, and at some point I part way with the scholarship on comparative genocides and on the Nazi empire. Some scholars question in various ways the extent to which the Holocaust was central to understanding National Socialism. In making the Nazi empire, some argue, the Holocaust was a result rather than a goal of Nazism, growing out of the specific circumstances of the war.10 Others integrate the Holocaust into a history of totalitarian genocides committed by Hitler and Stalin in eastern Europe, implying that the Holocaust was a result of the linked policies of the two dictators as they pushed each other to commit ever-worsening crimes.11

The limits of these arguments should also be made clear. If the Holocaust was a result of mass murders in eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin, why did the Nazis choose to exterminate the Jews of Corfu, and by extension of western Europe, who had no direct relation to this conflict? If the Holocaust was essentially only part of mass murders such as the premeditated starvation of Ukrainian peasants by Stalin in the early 1930s, then why was it that the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, did not seek to kill all Ukrainians in the Soviet Union or indeed the world, whereas the Gestapo searched for every single Jew in occupied Europe to be murdered and, beyond that, asked the king of Bulgaria and the sultan of Morocco to hand over to the Nazis “their” Jews in order to send them to Auschwitz (both rulers refused)? The genocides in eastern Europe by Stalin and Hitler were bounded by territory, space, and time and had political, social motivations in the mind of the perpetrators. Why did the Nazis target the Jews as the only group that was hunted all over the Continent, as a sort of a spaceless and timeless enemy, whereas other victims of genocide in this period, such as, for example, mentally ill or asocial groups, were not considered existential threats that demanded deportation to Auschwitz from Athens or Rome? The problem with the arguments that the Holocaust was not central to understanding National Socialism is that they view a close description of the circumstances of the Second World War—that is, of what happened—as an explanation to what people believed and imagined—that is, of why things happened. According to these views, implicitly and at times explicitly, anti-Jewish sensibilities were not of major importance in the making of the Holocaust. I wonder about that. Empire building, multiple genocides, and other wartime circumstances cannot account for Germans’ culture and motivations, much as the Nazi immigration policies to push the Jews out of Germany before November 1938 cannot account for burning the Bible.

My view is different. The Holocaust should be placed within a history of Nazi war and occupation, empire building, and comparative genocide. The Holocaust was not unique. But it was perceived during the war as unique by Germans, Jews, and other Europeans, and if we want to understand why the Holocaust happened, we ought to explain this. The comparative approach to genocide sharpens the similarities but also the differences between the Holocaust and other genocides. On the one hand, the idea of exterminating racial groups had been building in European culture and politics for a century before the Third Reich. But on the other hand, it is evident that for the Nazis the persecution and extermination of the Jews was more urgent and historically significant than other genocides they committed. Although they set out to kill all the Jews immediately during the war, they did not have a similar policy for other groups of victims. This only begs the question: Why did the Nazis view the extermination of the Jews as so urgent and fatal to their survival? Why did Germans, Jews, and Europeans perceive during the war the extermination of the Jews as unlike any other genocide perpetrated by the Nazis?


Excerpted from A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide. Copyright © 2014 by Alon Confino. All Rights Reserved.

Dispatches from Faith: Radiant Truth and America

Radiant TruthsSome stories are best told in fragments, built like mosaics from pieces brought together. The story of American religion, what belief can look like since the early years of this nation, is one of those complex histories that benefits from a multiplicity of disparate voices. In Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief, Jeff Sharlet compiles works of literary journalism with thoughtful introductions that take us through, if not the full of scope of American religion, a vast swath of it. From Mark Twain to James Baldwin, from wounded soldiers to Christian music festivals, these stories lend insight how belief can function in diverse lives.

Literary journalism is a slippery genre, as Sharlet explains, and as such it is able to cross boundaries fitting for an examination of religion, blending narrative and poetry. “Literary journalism’s only essential truth – the impossibility of perfect representation of reality, visible and otherwise – makes it uniquely suited for the subject of American religion,” he writes, “so often struggling to be one or the other, pious or democratic, communal or individual, rooted or transcendent.”

Below are excerpts from the diverse accounts Sharlet brings together, arranged chronologically.

Walt Whitman from Specimen Days, 1863/1882

I open’d at the close of one of the first books of the evangelists, and read the chapters describing the latter hours of Christ and the scenes at the crucifixion. The poor, wasted young man ask’d me to read the following chapter also, how Christ rose again. I read very slowly, for Oscar was feeble. It pleased him very much, yet the tears were in his eyes. He ask’d me if I enjoy’d religion. I said, “Perhaps not, my dear, in the way you mean, and yet, may-be, it is the same thing. He said, “It is my chief reliance.”  He talk’d of death, and said he did not fear it. I said, “Why, Oscar, don’t you think you will get well?” He said, “I may, but it is not probable.”

Zora Neale Hurston from Hoodoo, 1935

The terrified chickens flopped and fluttered frantically in the dim firelight. I had been told to keep up the chant of the victim’s name in rhythm and to beat the ground with a stick. This I did with fervor and Turner danced on. One by one the chickens were seized and killed by having their heads pulled off. But Turner was in such a condition with his whirling and dancing that he seemed in a hypnotic state. When the last fowl was dead, Turner drank a great draught of wine and sank before the altar. When he arose, we gathered some ashes from the fire and sprinkled the bodies of the dead chickens and I was told to get out the car. We drove out one of the main highways for a mile and threw one of the chickens away. Then another mile and another chicken until the nine dead chickens had been disposed of. The spirits of the dead chickens had been instructed never to let the trouble-maker pass inward to New Orleans again after he had passed them going out.

Mary McCarthy from Artists in Uniform, 1953

This period in his life, in which he had thrown off the claims of the spiritual and adopted a practical approach, was evidently one of those “turning points” to which a man looks back with pride. He lingered over his story of his break with the church and his parents with a curious sort of heat, as though the flames of his old sexual conquests stirred within his body at the memory of those old quarrels.

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, from Arguing with the Pope, 1994

The Church has always been at war with the world, which it simultaneously loves; it is in this coincidence of opposites that the spiritual wealth of the Church lies. I went to Denver to see – I needed to see, in the flesh – the demanding old Pope, a man wedded to the past, a man who calls the earth a “vast planet of tombs,” and the buoyant young people in whom the future lives so vividly. Stasis and energy, the old and the young: perhaps another coincidence of opposites, two halves of the equation meeting and (like the lion and the lamb) providentially joining. One is something immensely grateful to the Church for espousing eternal values and sometimes inclined to regard it as fossilized. One’s equilibrium, such as it is, rests shakily on the apparent dichotomy between spirit and flesh… the instructive flesh.