Germania- book review

For a country that is both Europe’s most prosperous power and arguably the worst villain nation of the 20th century, Germany does not get much mention in the English-language world, especially when compared to say, France or Italy. Germania- A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern attempts to remedy this by showcasing the history and landscape of the country. Author Simon Winder is a self-confessed Germanophile whose affinity for the country began in a childhood holiday to Alsace-Lorraine, followed by dozens of visits as an adult. In Winder’s own words, Germany is a sort of “dead zone” for British visitors, so he attempts to rejuvenate the country’s image in a jaunty retelling of Germany’s history, places and landscapes that is at odds with the country’s predominantly serious image.

Germania is not a conventional history book nor travelogue. It tells the story of Germany from Roman times, with the opening battle scene of the movie Gladiator mentioned, to 1933 in a non-linear way, both in history and travel, as each chapter groups together related themes and topics. It took me a while to get used to this but eventually the book turned out to be a very fascinating read.

What Germania makes clear, amplified by Winder’s lighthearted writing, is that Germany was for most of its history an unwieldy and chaotic collection of kingdoms, states and cities that fiercely clung to their independence. For hundreds of years, these entities, which indeed numbered in the hundreds, were part of the Holy Roman Empire, itself more of a collection of states than a unified entity, where later they’d come to be part of the Hapsburg Empire. Only in the late 19th century would Germany come into being as a unified entity, driven by powerful Prussia which itself had to fight a war with Austria to assert control.

Winder takes readers to obscure towns and villages such as Wolfenbuttel and Anhalt-Zerbst (from where Catherine the Great hailed from), that existed as tiny kingdoms for hundreds of years, as well as more well-known historic cities like Mainz, Bremen, and Cologne. Winder enjoys highlighting the quirky aspects of these towns and cities such as former eccentric rulers, old town halls, and exotic regal collections or “wonder cabinets” of animal specimens and miniature art.

As a result, Germany is full of towns and villages that still retain some character, albeit not as old as some people would think. Culturally speaking, especially in music and art, Germany was a European powerhouse, though this aspect has been overshadowed by its role as the aggressor in the two World Wars of the 20th century.

There is also a lot about France, which, contrary to its popular contemporary reputation as a nation not good at fighting wars, used to terrify the German states until the late 19th century, and Italy, whose art and culture Germans had a strong fascination for. Naturally, Austria, which is a German-speaking country that used to be the most powerful German state as it ruled the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, also plays a role in the book.

While the modern-day convention is that Germany terrified France due to having attacked it during both world wars in the 20th century and having defeated it in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the French actually had their way with the Germans during the preceding centuries. In fact, Winder says one of the main factors pushing German unification in the mid-19th century was for the individual Germanic states and kingdoms to come together to stand up to the French.

Winder also claims that Germany’s formidable warlike reputation is exaggerated since outside of three wars against Denmark, Austria, and France in a seven-year stretch in the late 19th century, Germany has never ever won a war. Of course, one must keep in mind that Germany never existed as an entity until the 19th century.

However, one of the most poignant parts is the leadup to World War I. Though Germany is often portrayed as being the aggressor of the war, Winder says that tensions with Britain led to an arms race and mutual distrust in the preceding decades. As most people know, World War I was sparked by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian, which led to the Austro-Hungarian Empire targeting Serbia, whose ally Russia was compelled to get involved. As France was an ally of Russia and would also intervene, this meant Germany had to step in to help its ally, the Austro-Hungarians, which thus meant that Britain ended up entering the war to aid France.

Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire suffered defeat in World War I, leading to the imposition of huge reparations, as well as the breakup of the latter. This financial burden was worsened by economic woes and inflation in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to the rise of Hitler. The 1930s is where Winder stops the book, lamenting that from that point on, things would not be the same for Germany as the terror of Hitler and Nazism would happen.

Winder’s light-heartedness and occasional facetiousness might not be for everyone, as it wasn’t for me at first, but if you stick with it, chances are you will gain a memorable impression of Germany. In the end, Germany still turns out to be a strange nation, but one with a lot of character, tragedy, and culture.

The China conundrum

Happy belated Chinese/Lunar New Year to everyone. In Taiwan, we are almost near the end of a seven-day holiday similar to China, which is the country this post will be about. We are also hopefully past the worst of a terrible coronavirus pandemic that has been raging for over a year. However, whenever the pandemic eases and gets under control worldwide, the world will not be back to normal, as it was before the pandemic.

This pandemic started in China in 2019, but it went under the radar for a while thanks to a government more intent on covering it up than allowing it to be reported, lack of media coverage, the questioning of several “whistle-blower” doctors and the delayed realization of how infectious and harmful it was. By the time the world had become aware of it in January 2020, the disease had already spread throughout the Chinese province of Hubei, whose capital is Wuhan, and from there regionally and internationally.

Even now, while a WHO team has been in China investigating how the coronavirus started, it has faced delays and obstructions such as lack of access to data. The Chinese government seems intent on not taking any responsibility for the coronavirus, even claiming that it came from elsewhere.

Besides the pandemic, China also faces criticism over its actions in Xinjiang, where it has placed a large number of Uyghurs into camps, and its crackdown in Hong Kong, as well as its belligerent stances towards neighbors like India and Japan. The most critical point is over Taiwan, which China claims as its territory and has threatened to invade if Taiwan formally declared independence. China has indeed been ramping up tensions by dialling up official rhetoric, rapidly building naval ships and running large-scale military exercises.

It seems as if a new Cold War is likely to happen (if it hasn’t already), pitting the US, and its allies, against China. And for many people in Taiwan, including the government, having the US intervene in case of a future attack from China would be ideal. However, the picture is not so clear when one looks at the pandemic.

The US is by far the worst affected in both cases and deaths – I sincerely hope that none of you reading this have suffered any infections or deaths among your families and friends from the coronavirus (I know two people in the US who got COVID and recovered, although one person I follow on Instagram, also in the US, actually lost her mother to it).

For all the suspicions of China having suspiciously low coronavirus cases (around 90,000 in total), even if China was under-reporting cases by 100, China would still have less than one-thirds the cases of the US (which are over 27 million). In the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, as well as Wuhan, which was the epicenter of COVID, life returned to near normal last year. While outbreaks and clusters have happened from time to time, such as in Hebei province in January, sudden lockdowns have resulted in relatively quick resolutions.

Furthermore, the events of January 6 when the US Capitol building was stormed by Trump supporters was a big shock, resulting in deaths, arrests, and the unprecedented sight of congresspersons and staffers having to flee for safety. This was followed by the stationing of thousands of National Guardsmen in DC during the inauguration of Joe Biden. Before the US can confront China in any sort of conflict, it will need to fix its problems at home, starting with getting the coronavirus under control.

Meanwhile, the world needs to decrease its economic reliance on China as a trading partner, export market, and manufacturer. Even Taiwan depends on China for 40 percent of its trade which presents a weird state of affairs in which its biggest economic partner is also the one threatening to invade it. In 2020, China was the only large economy to register a full-year increase (as did Taiwan), whereas the US, the EU, Japan, India and Brazil all saw decreases.

It pains me to say this but as much as China might be a rogue nation that may have caused the pandemic, the US and its allies are in no shape to confront it unless they fix themselves first.


France- A History from Gaul to de Gaulle- book review

France is a special country known for romance, culture and cuisine, but after reading France- A History from Gaul to de Gaulle, revolution and war definitely should be added to the mix. A compact read that highlights French history over 2,000 years from 58 BC to the end of World War II, this book is full of memorable and notorious characters, conquests, civil conflicts, military campaigns and tragic defeats.

The book tells the illustrious story of France in straight linear fashion with periods like the illustrious reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King; the French Revolution; and the reign of Napoleon III, nephew of the great Bonaparte, receiving longer treatment than others. It is interesting to see how France grew from a small territory around Paris to conquering states westwards, eastwards, and the south to become its current form over a millennium. Meanwhile, the easternmost territories of Alsace-Lorraine are taken, lost and eventually recovered from Prussia (Germany).

The book surprisingly features lots of war, as well as civil strife. Contrary to popular (mainly Anglophone, I suppose) notions of the French as being bad at fighting, France was a mighty power that was arguably Europe’s strongest during the 17th and 18th centuries. At one point, France used to scare the Germans and ravage Italy, specifically its separate city states long before they came together under unification in the 19th century.

France’s heyday as a mighty military power would come during Napoleon Bonaparte and end with his final defeat at Waterloo. After that, France would suffer defeat and invasion from Prussia (Germany), lose the aforementioned Alsace-Lorraine, and then later suffer terribly in the two 20th century World Wars. As such, we see France at the peak of her power and at her lowest, through glorious periods and turbulent ones.

In particular, the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War by the Prussians stands out as a traumatic event that saw starvation and the desperate consumption of not just cats and dogs, but even mice and zoo animals. Not surprisingly, for a nation that has a reputation of proud protest, there are numerous instances of civil strife besides the French Revolution, with fearsome death tolls and instability.

The book features a huge “cast” that includes powerful leaders like Napoleon Bonaparte, great kings like the Sun King and Francis I (France’s most loved king according to Norwich), weak kings, cruel kings, cunning statesmen like Cardinal Richelieu, and revolutionaries like Maximilien Robespierre.

The book’s breeziness comes at the cost of leaving out a lot of details. I felt it would have been better if there had been more focus on famous people who weren’t kings or generals, and scientific and industrial achievements. That said, the book still tells the fascinating story of how France came into being and its moments of glories, humiliations, and resilience.

Gun Island- book review

Amitav Ghosh’s most recent novel combines climate change with Indian myths and adventures scattered over three continents. On his annual visit to his native Kolkata, New York antique books seller Deen learns about a strange legend of a gun merchant in the Sundurbans from his elderly aunt. He is invited to visit the Sundurbans, a vast coastal swamp along the Bay of Bengal, where a shrine built by the merchant is located. At first he is reluctant, but a sudden call from Cinta, a Venetian historian friend, makes him change his mind. On the trip, Deen meets Piya, who heads his aunt’s environmental NGO, and Tipu, the son of one of Piya’s coworkers who is a tech expert and hustler.

Deen returns to the US, but later goes to Venice, Italy, to work on a project for a relative of Cinta. Amid a refugee influx, he encounters a community of Bengali refugee laborers and an improbable reunion with Tipu, who has traveled all the way from India as a refugee. Cinta meets him in Venice, where she helps Deen solve the mystery of the gun merchant legend. A final adventure ensues when Deen and company set off to a large ship carrying refugees that is being denied entry by indignant Italian authorities.

Ghosh, one of many talented Indian Bengali writers, is my favorite author of fiction. His Burmese epic Glass Palace might be my favorite novel, while his Opium War trilogy was also fantastic. However, his recent work has focused on climate change and environmental disasters, including a nonfiction book, so Gun Island furthers this trend.

I enjoyed Gun Island, but I felt it was a little too brief at 309 pages. It could have done with more fleshing out of the characters and events, especially given its scope which involves events in India, Italy and the US. The brevity means that the plot moves along quickly and is a little confusing at times, making it hard to care too much about the characters and plot twists.

The novel has intriguing themes, especially that environmental changes and disasters will become more adverse and destructive to mankind if nothing is done. This is already apparent with all the terrible wildfires, floods and droughts that have happened in recent years. In that sense, Gun Island is truly a novel fit for the times.

Revenge of Geography- book review

The role of geography in the fate of countries and geopolitics is still as vital as ever, despite advances in modern technology. This is what Robert D. Kaplan makes a convincing case for in Revenge of Geography- What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate. Kaplan introduces key geopolitical strategists and their ideas, then takes an in-depth look at major countries like China, India, and the EU (not a country, I know), as well as the US, and what the future holds for them.

Due to advances in technology, especially air power, in the latter 20th century, there had been a tendency to overlook the role of geography in geopolitics due to the belief that it could be overcome. For instance, the use of air power by the US to defeat Iraq in the first Gulf War and against Serbia in the Balkans in the mid 1990s achieved victories without requiring large land forces and long campaigns. However, as the 2000s showed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Syria in the 2010s, air power and technology were no substitute for defeating local forces or overcoming local conditions and cultural factors.

Among the key ideas Kaplan introduces is that of the World-Island and its centrality to global geopolitics. Eurasia (Europe and Asia) and Africa together make up the World-Island, and whoever controls this area will rule the world, according to British geography Halford Mackinder, the “father of modern-day geographers.”

Geography is everything, according to Nicholas Spykman, and a favorable location is why the US is the world’s superpower, not its ideas as many Americans might think. For Alfred Thayer Mahan, sea power was the key to global dominance.

However, the real meat of the book is the compelling look at the world’s major powers – China, Europe, India, and Russia and how geography has affected them historically and in contemporary times, such as their terrain, resources and their neighbors. While the book came out in 2012, it is still very much relevant during these times.

Europe’s fortunes were enabled by its varied coastlines, rivers and peninsulas that fostered an outward shipping and entrepreneurial mindset that also contributed to the fostering of many different states. India obviously dominates South Asia but its central mountains and its east-west oriented rivers hindered internal cohesion historically. Meanwhile, its northwest flank is vulnerable due to its border with Pakistan not having any geographic barriers. Afghanistan presents a major security quandary with Taliban domination potentially leading to more radicalized Islamic societies and a “Greater Pakistan.” In a sense, India is boxed in by its neighbors despite being the top regional power.

For China, Kaplan sees it possessing favorable geographical advantages such as long eastern coast, which is understandable. Kaplan also thinks China does not pose an “existential threat” and that the chances of war with the US are remote, which is something he might want to take back now. Russia’s huge landmass straddles Eurasia but its vast plains and lack of maritime coasts providing easy access to oceans means it is also vulnerable. Meanwhile, the Middle East is a region of turbulence and disorder due to historical and geopolitical factors. While the Arabic nations like Iraq and Syria flounder, Iran and Turkey continue to be the regional powers due in part to their advantageous positions in the Iranian Plateau and Anatolia respectively. But the latter’s shift away from secularism to an Islamist regime is a major concern to the West.

If you’re wondering where the US is in all this, that’s because the final chapter focuses on the US. Kaplan provides an interesting notion that relations with Mexico are key for America’s future destiny, due to factors like a rising Mexican immigrant influx, driven by geography and historical events, and the growing use of Spanish. Kaplan cites experts who see the country as a potential trouble zone due to its drug war. The US’ involvement in the Middle East has diverted attention from this potential flashpoint, and this might be to its detriment, with Kaplan wondering what if the US could have used all the time, money and resources it had spent in the Middle East to help “fix” Mexico instead. In any case, the future result of the US’ growing merging with Mexico in terms of demographics and culture is that the US will emerge as a “Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization,” orientated from north to south rather than east to west.

Revenge of Geography is a fascinating and useful book that helps readers greatly understand the world in terms of geography, geopolitics and international relations.

Notes on a Foreign Country- book review

After what happened in the US Capitol this past week, I really hope that that shocking and terrible event isn’t an omen for the rest of 2021. I think it’s fitting that for my first post in 2021 here, I’m putting up a review of a book about the US, written by an American living in Turkey who comes to some striking conclusions by looking at her country from the locals’ point of view.

After winning a writing fellowship that sends young Americans abroad for two years, journalist Suzy Hansen decides to move to Turkey, a country she had never been to, in 2007. She made her choice ostensibly due to Turkey’s historical significance as the base of the Ottoman Empire, when it was for some time an equal of the European powers and ruled the Middle East for centuries. However, her real reason was that James Baldwin, her favorite writer, had lived in Istanbul in the 1960s and said he felt more comfortable there as a black gay American man than in New York. As such, Hansen headed to Turkey not just to expand her horizons, but to understand whether the US really is that exceptional.

Hansen would end up spending over seven years in Turkey, working as a foreign correspondent reporting on events such as civil conflict with the Kurds and coal mine fires. Living in Istanbul, Hansen familiarized herself with Turkish culture and customs, visited different parts of the country, and most importantly, developed a sense of the world, and the impact of US influence, from a non-American viewpoint. Notes on a Foreign Country is the result of Hansen’s time in Turkey.

Hansen also looks at contemporary Turkey and its Ottoman history and US-Turkey relations, then expands her focus to Greece, the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Notes on a Foreign Country is full of contemplation on what it means to be American, the historical and modern role of the US in the world, and being an American abroad in the 21st century, a period which she thinks of as an era of American decline. Hansen also references Baldwin’s time in Istanbul and his view of US “exceptionalism” and racial relations. For instance, Baldwin believed that Americans had no sense of tragedy, which fuelled a self-confidence that extended towards pushing American ideals towards the world.

Hansen believes that Americans are not aware enough of foreign affairs, especially the many ways how the US has operated in other countries, often adversely affecting local affairs. The impact of American influence is always significant, whether providing millions in aid or pushing economic plans onto nations, or supporting coups and conflicts.

Towards the end, Hansen visits rural Mississippi, where she sees first-hand the dire state of local healthcare and describes the attempts of a local health expert to study and transplant a public health system in Iran. The point is poignant – despite the US’ global influence, it could and should do more to fix domestic issues, not to mention learn from other countries (something which has more resonance during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic).

I got to say that as a non-American who grew up in a very small country, there are certain aspects of Hansen’s narratives that I can’t identify with or fully understand. I felt that there was a strong guilt-ridden tone in the book that didn’t apply to me and hindered my appreciation of it.

That said, Hansen makes a very important point that Americans really need to understand the world better, not only to be more worldlier but also to understand their own country better and why it arouses the emotions it does among people in other countries.