Monday, May 29, 2006

BOOK: David Clay Large, "Where Ghosts Walked" (cont.)

[Continued from last week.]

David Clay Large: Where Ghosts Walked: Munich's Road to the Third Reich. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997. 039303836X. xxvi + 406 pp.

The Nazi putsch of 1923 started with the Nazis interrupting a meeting (where the conservative politician von Kahr was the chief speaker) in one of Munich's large beer halls. At some point during the putsch, the crowd started growing restless; Göring tried to reassure them that von Kahr would not be harmed, “ ‘And anyway,’ he added, ‘you've got your beer. What are you worrying about?’ ” (P. 177.) “The Bürgerbräu management later presented the Nazi Party with a huge bill for its activities that evening. In addition to charges for heroic quantities of beer and food, the statement demanded compensation for the breakage or disappearance of 143 steins, 80 glasses, 98 stools, 2 music stands, and 148 sets of cutlers.” (P. 182.) Interestingly, Hitler was quite indecisive and on the verge of giving up on several occassions during the putsch (pp. 182, 187); Ludendorff, on the other hand, was much more determined and energetic, and if it wasn't for his initiative, the putsch might have collapsed even sooner than it did.

After the putsch, the Nazi party went into decline, partly because the economy picked up and the people were no longer as desperate for extreme political solutions, and partly because Hitler had been in prison for a while and there was no other suitable leader during his absence. Eventually the Bavarian government even lifted the public speaking ban on Hitler, thinking that the party is now so insignificant as to be harmless. This was probably a mistake, however: since Hitler was such a charismatic speaker, the fact that he was allowed to address public gatherings again was very helpful in the Nazi party's efforts to recover its fortunes (pp. 215–6).

During the mid- to late twenties: “[I]ts demographic base was more diverse than many thought. Audiences at rallies might have looked overwhelmingly lower middle-class, but in reality only about one third of the Munich membership came from this socioeconomic group. One fourth was comprised of workers, and the rest belonged to the solid middle and upper classes.” (P. 218.)

Apparently, expediency played a major role in the origins of the SA uniform: initially, the brown shirts “were leftovers from the defunct German colonial service, purchased on the cheap” (p: 216).

By the time the WW2 ended, Mein Kampf had been translated into sixteen languages and sold ten million copies. “Yet within months of the end of the World War II the book had become so rare in German ythat the American occupation government had difficulty finding copies for its Amerika Haus libraries. In 1949 the Bavarian government, which took over the copyright, prohibited further publication or dissemination of the book in Germany, making the remaining copies quite valuable on the black market.)” (P. 198.)

“Dwarfish, clubfooted, and full of venom, Goebbels was like a personification of Thomas Hobbes's definition of life: ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ ” (P. 198.)

After the Nazis came to power in 1933, they settled many old scores, often quite soon, not just against leftists but also against their conservative critics. Fritz Gerlich, a conservative journalist, complained indignantly while being beaten by the SA: ‘You beat me? A founder of the patriotic movement?’ Gerlich's shock that the Nazis could thrash a patriot encapsulated the dleusions that many Bavarian conservatives harbored regarding the events of 1933.” (P. 240.) Similarly, the leaders of the conservative Bavarian People's Party (BVP) “believed that their party could function in the new order as a kind of loyal opposition, protecting regional and religious interests through gestures of goodwill toward the regime.” And yet in a few months, their party was simply banned, many of its functionaries placed in ‘protective custody’. “So much for the conservative dream of cooperation with National Socialism.” (P. 243.)

So many Nazi bigwigs had bought villas at Lake Tegern that it became known as Lago di Bonzi (p. 252). :-)

By the time of Hitler's purge of the SA in 1934, president von Hindenburg was so senile that “he addressed Hitler as His Majesty when the latter patiently related how he had just saved Germany” (p. 255); he died a few weeks later.

It is well-known that the Nazis opposed modern art, and organized a famous Exhibition of Degenerate Art in 1937. But interestingly, “Nor were the Nazis alone in this practice; in 1937 the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow mounted an exhibition of ‘degenerate’ Russian art. (As is well known, the Communists and Nazis had many qualities in common, including similar tastes in art and architecture; this had been graphically evident in their monumental pavilions at the 1937 Paris World's Fair.)” (P. 264.)

On the other hand, here's an example of an artist that did find favour with Hitler: Adolf Ziegler, whose “favorite genre [. . .] was recumbent nudes of startling verisimilitude, a specialty that won him the sobriquet Reichsschamhaarpinsler (official pubic hair painter of the Reich).” (P. 264.)

Chapter 8 is about the social life of Munich under the Nazi era. “[D]uring the 1930s Munich reasserted its claim to being Germany's capital of good times, a distinction it had ceded to Berlin in the Weimar period. [. . .] Munich's brown bosses [. . .] believed that if their city could not be the most powerful, it could be the most lively.” (P. 268.) This seems to agree well with the impression I got from reading Ernest Pope's 1941 book Munich Playground. In fact Large mentions Pope several times in this chapter.

Regarding Pope's claim that Unity Mitford “denounced so many people that she became known as ‘the most dangerous woman in Munich’ ” (p. 272; and see p. 133 in Pope's book), Large comments that “as another commentator has pointed out, there is no concrete evidence that she ever denounced anyone at all” (p. 272). Here he quotes David Pryce-Jones, Unity Mitford: A Quest (1976), p. 95. (Pryce-Jones' book, incidentally, apparently caused quite a stir among Unity's sisters, most of whom complained that it was too harsh on her; see Mary Lowell's The Mitford Girls, pp. 494–8.)

Jessica Mitford, Unity's radical leftist sister, also failed to shoot the Führer, thouch she later claimed to have made his acquaintance through Unity just for this purpose. If retrospective claims were bullets, Hitler would have been dead a dozen times.” (P. 271.)

Hitler “despised hunting and called the hunting fraternity a ‘green Freemasonry’ ” (p. 276). But some other Nazi leaders were enthusiastic hunters, e.g. Göring and the Munich party bigwig, Christian Weber. “While Göring, ‘Master of the German Hunt,’ was a relatively responsible hunter who sought to protect as well as to kill game animals, Weber simply slaughtered as many beasts as he could. He established the Hunting Museum partly to show off his trophies.” (P. 276.) Large doesn't mention or comment on the rumour reported by Pope, namely that Göring occasionally hunted people that had been released from prisons especially for that purpose (Munich Playground p. 133). As for Weber, Pope has several other splendid anecdotes about him (“His name is the only christian part of these 350 pounds of degenerate fat”, Pope p. 30).

“Speer is wrong in his memoirs when he says that Hitler planned to be buried in Linz” — apparently he opted for Munich instead, and even “drew a sketch of his mausoleum” (p. 282).

P. 295 mentions some of the ridiculous bits of quasi-paganism promoted by the Nazis “as alternatives to traditional religiosity. [. . .] While such pagan rites never entirely supplanted traditional Christian customs, not even among the SA and SS, they succeeded in horrifying the Munich clergy”.

From the late 1930s, the authorities organized frequent air-raid drills for the population. “[T]o make people keep their eyes to the skies, the authorities suspended dummy bombs from streetlamps, like air age swords of Damocles.” (P. 301.)

After the first allied air raids reached Munich, the population vented its anger in the form of jokes against Göring, who as commander of the Luftwaffe failed to protect them from enemy bombers. “Another joke had Labor Front leader Robert Ley admonishing Göring to speak to the Münchners to lift their spirits. ‘I can't do that,’ says Göring, ‘because I haven't been able to prevent enemy planes from braching our defenses. Your lot is much easier, Ley, for you've promised the people sunny and open dwellings, and that's what they're getting.’ ” (Pp. 320–1.)

After a large air raid in 1942, Thomas Mann (who had lived in exile abroad for several years by then) commented: “ ‘The idiotic place has historically deserved it. [. . .] [Munich] is a citadel of stupidity.’ ” (P. 325.)

“[M]any of the books sent from home [to the Eastern Front] met an even less dignified fate; as one soldier put it, they ‘performed the most necessary of services’ in field latrines.” (P. 323.) This reminds me of a fine old limerick: “There was a young fellow named Chivy/ Who, whenever he went to the privy,/ First solaced his mind,/ Then wiped his behind,/ With some well-chosen pages from Livy.”

In 1943, Goebbels began “closing down businesses that he thought were not important to the war effort”, starting with gourmet restaurants, as they catered only to the wealthy. Göring tried to prevent his favourite restaurant from being closed, but Goebbels “put it out of business by sending SA squads to smash its windows” (p. 336).

There's an interesting section about the White Rose resistance group, which was active in Munich in 1942. Apparently religious impulses were a stronger part of their motivation than I was aware of (pp. 326–333).

When allied soldiers liberated Dachau in late April 1945, the horrors they saw there led them to act in a way that I cannot find entirely commendable. “Driven to a frenzy of hatred by such sights, the GIs lined up more than a hundred German guards and mowed them down point-blank with their machine guns. They shot other guards in the legs to hobble them while prisoners hacked at them with bayonets.” (P. 345.)

After the war, George Patton became the U.S. military governor in Bavaria. “Patton became convinced that denazification was ill advised under the circumstances. Like Scharnagl [the mayor of Munich], he believed that ex-Nazis no longer presented a danger in comparison with the Communists. Postwar Allied policy, he declared, was persecuting a ‘pretty good race’ and opening German lands to ‘Mongolian savages.’ ” (P. 350.) He made efforts to slow down the denazification process, and eventually his Nazi-friendly statements drove Eisenhower to remove him from his position.

“[I]t took time to eliminate all the signs of the recent times; in early 1946 one could still see advertisements for Stürmer magazine and the Sparkasse der Hauptstadt der Bewegung on some walls, while a few streetcars still carried signs warning, ‘Be careful what you say! The enemy is listening in!’ ” (P. 353.)

Interestingly, Large always refers to the inhabitants of Munich by the German term ‘Münchners’ rather than the English one, ‘Munichers’ (which is the term used e.g. by Pope). Actually, ‘Münchners’ seems a bit curious — it's a German word with an English plural suffix attached to it; if I understand correctly, in German the plural form would be the same as the singular, i.e. ‘Münchner’.

One annoying thing about the endnotes: there isn't a separate list of books cited; instead, the first endnote that refers to a particular book mentions its bibliographic details, while subsequent endnotes refer just to the title. The problem is if you don't read all the endnotes and then come upon one that has just the title, and then you have no idea where to look for the other details (as you don't know where that book was first cited).

This is not a bad book, and you can see that the author is making reasonably successful efforts to write in a pleasant and readable style; but nevertheless reading it was a bit of an effort for me: I find that I'm simply not that interested in the history of Nazi Germany from a specifically Bavarian perspective. For me, the early chapters about the pre-WW1 cultural life of Munich were the most interesting, but overall I didn't really feel that they contributed much to my understanding of the origins of Nazism. If you just want an entertaining book about Munich under the Third Reich, I recommend you to read Pope's Munich Playground instead.


  • David Clay Large's earlier book, Between Two Fires: Europe's Path in the 1930s, is mentioned here on the dust jacket and sounds interesting. But I recently saw in a bookshop another book about the 1930s, which sounds even more interesting: A Low Dishonest Decade: The Great Powers, Eastern Europe, And the Economic Origins of World War II, 1930–1941, by Paul H. Hehn.

  • Ernest Pope's Munich Playground, which I read last year; a very pleasant and readable book. Pope spent much of the pre-WW2 period in Bavaria as a newspaper correspondent. Large quotes several of his anecdotes in Where Ghosts Walked (see chapter 8). Actually the fact that I'd read Pope's book was part of the reason why I now wanted to read Large's as well; I was curious if he would mention Pope and how a modern historian's view of Nazi-era Munich would compare with Pope's contemporary description.

  • There are several interesting-sounding books about the occult roots of Nazism, i.e. its early connections with various more or less bizarre and utterly silly little cults, occult groups, secret societies, etc.; see the list in the comments of this post.

  • Ernst Toller, one of the leaders of the Bavarian soviet republic in 1919, later moved to the U.S. and wrote an autobiography, I was a German (1934). Cited here on pp. 370, 374.

  • G. H. Horstmann: Consular Reminiscences (Philadelphia, 1886). Apparently the memoirs of the American consul in Bavaria. Cited on p. 363.

  • Modris Eksteins: Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (Boston, 1989). Cited on p. 370. The title and the description on amazon sound extremely interesting.

  • Lion Feuchtwanger: Success: Three Years in the Life of a Province (1930). A 781-page “roman à clef of Munich in the early twenties” (p. 123), it “contained cutting caricatures of Hitler and his followers” (p. 207). By the author of Jew Süß.

  • Unheard Witness (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1957), the “(not always reliable) memoir” (p. 150) of Putzi Hanfstaengl. Among the early Nazi supporters, Putzi was a rarity in being an upper-class cosmopolitan rather than a lower-middle-class beer-hall brawler. He later fell out with Hitler, and ended up working for Roosevelt during the last years of the war. (It seems that the British edition was titled Hitler: The Missing Years; London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1957; New York: Arcade, 1994, 1559702788.)

  • Friedrich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen: Diary of a Man in Despair. New York, 1970. How can one resist a book written by someone with a name like that? The anti-Nazi author “encountered Hitler at the Osteria [Bavaria, his favourite restaurant in Munich] in 1934 when he, Reck, was carrying a loaded pistol”. Hitler, as often at that time, was without bodyguards, and Reck says that “ ‘If I had known the role this piece of filth was to play [. . .] I would have [shot him] without a second thought’ ” (p. 371). See also the related passage on Jessica Mitford, quoted above. As for Osteria Bavaria, apparently it still exists, under the name Osteria Italiana.

Monday, May 22, 2006

BOOK: David Clay Large, "Where Ghosts Walked"

David Clay Large: Where Ghosts Walked: Munich's Road to the Third Reich. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997. 039303836X. xxvi + 406 pp.

I probably wouldn't have bought this book if I hadn't had the opportunity to get it so cheaply, only $9 from an eBay seller (from whom I bought several other books at the same time and had the whole lot shipped by surface mail M-bag, so that shipping was dirt cheap too). Yes, yes, I can see you muttering under your breath right now, ‘look at the damned philistine, the first thing he has to say about the book is the price’; but the reason for this is that I'm trying to better explain (to myself, above all) why I bought and read this book. It's not a bad book, nor uninteresting, nor poorly written; but if I had to pay amazon's price for it ($20 currently, plus shipping), I wouldn't have bought it (nor missed it), or if I had bought it nevertheless, I would be somewhat disappointed and would think the money poorly spent. I just didn't find it that interesting or that pleasant a read.

I am, in principle, interested in the origins of Nazism and of the Third Reich. I read Richard Evans' Coming of the Third Reich with great interest some time ago. I am particularly interested in the cultural milieu that made the population of Germany so susceptible to Nazi ideology; and not just the masses, the lower middle class, but also the solid middle class and the elites. This, I think, is the chief reason why I decided to read this book, for its dust jacket promises: “Large's account begins in Munich's ‘golden age,’ the four decades before World War I, when the city's artists and writers produced some of the outstanding works of the modernist spirit. But there was a dark side, a protofascist cultural heritage that would tie Hitler's movement to the soul of the city. Large prowls this volatile world, its eccentric poets and publishers, its salons and seamy basement meeting places. In this hothouse atmosphere attacks on cosmopolitan modernity and political liberalism flourished, along with a virulent anti-Semitism and German nationalism.”

Perhaps it was this paragraph from the back flap of the jacket that led me to expectations which were then a little disappointed. The first few chapters of the book do indeed tell the story of Munich's cultural scene from the turn of the century onwards, and there are many interesting things there, but after reading all that I don't feel that I understand the origins of Nazism any better than before. Perhaps, as often, I should have read more carefully. Anyhow, the rest of the book is mostly a history of Munich (and Bavaria) during the WW1, the Weimar Period, and the Third Reich; and the book ends with a few pages about Munich's post-WW2 attitude to the Nazi period. It's a perfectly decent work of narrative history, I just happened to find that I'm not really that interested in reading yet another book about the rise of the Third Reich merely because it has a specifically Bavarian perspective.

The first few chapters are about the artistic and bohemian aspects of Munich in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; as can be expected, there are many curious and pleasantly weird things here. “Not without reason was the Stefanie known as Café Grössenwahn (Café Grand Illusion)” (p. 4). There are several brief sections presenting the various notable and eccentric personalities of that scene. The psychiatrist and writer Oskar Panizza wrote “a mock detective story featuring garden plants practicing nightly masturbation. When word reached Panizza's military superiors that their unit physician had written a story about Pflanzen-Onanie, they ordered him to give up his literary avocation. He refused, and they cashiered him.” (P. 10.)

Alfred Schuler, a poet fond of silly quasi-pagan ideas, ‘racial renewal’, Nietzsche, etc., etc., “could fall into semiorgiastic transports simply by seeing a swastika design on an ashtray. ‘Swastika! Swastika!’ he would stammer, his eyes bulging.” (P. 29.) He planned to cure Nietzsche's insanity “by subjecting the thinker to the Dionysian powers of ancient corybantic dance as interpreted by a band of virile young men wearing nothing but copper bracelets’ (p. 29, but Nietzsche's sister vetoed this plan). He “became guru to some of Munich's most prominent rightists’ (p. 29).

Another notable figure of the period was the poet Stefan George; evidently very much a fin-de-siecle figure, anxious to set himself above the crowd, “he thought that poetry should be a secret code open only to the elect. [. . .] The young men who made up George's circle were subjected to a tyrannical order. They had to respect the Master's edict that all nouns be set in lowercase. They were required to recite his works by memory in a ghostlike chant.” (P. 31.)

Schuler, George and one or two others formed the ‘Cosmic Circle’, a “coterie of self-absorbed intellectuals whose views were authoritarian and protofascist” (p. 25). Thomas Mann commented on the spirit of this group: “these cosmic evenings revealed an intriguing mixture of uncompromising absolutism, hunger for grand solutions, hero worship, and eagerness for self-sacrifice in the name of purification and redemption. [Later] Mann was to locate the spiritual origins of the German catastrophe in just this kind of all-consuming megalomania.” (P. 33.)

A few observations on Spengler's Decline of the West: “Its length and turgidity may have helped make it popular in Germany, [. . .] where profundity was (and often still is) thought to be incompatible with brevity and lucidity. But the Decline's main appeal was undoubtedly its very gloominess. Because the first of its two volumes appeared in 1918, at the end of the great slaughter, it harmonized perfectly with the dominant mood.“ (P. 57.) It gained “quick and universal popularity” (ibid.).

I learnt a new word on p. 61. Thomas Mann's son Klaus remembered the lack of food during WW1: “But in trying to carry the eggs home in his numb hands, Klaus dropped them on the sidewalk. ‘It was bitter beyond description to watch the beautiful yolks, a mucilaginous rivulet, oozing away between the paving stones. [. . .]’ ” (P. 61.) The word is sort of self-explanatory — surely as soon as you see mucilage, you think of mucus, which, according to, is in fact the correct root — but still I can't help feeling somewhat fascinated by the existence of such a word. Surely it must be the perfect thing for the poser or the grandiloquent language snob (and for nobody else). Why say ‘slimy’ when ‘mucilaginous’ is so much more impressive!

There are some interesting speculations that the wartime cold, scarcity, and famine influenced some of the notable literary works of that period, not only Thomas Mann's but also the Decline of the West: “if ever a book bore the mark of having been written on an empty stomach, it was this one.” (P. 61.) Due to the lack of better foodstuffs, the Dotsche (turnip) became the staple food during the war, prompting bitter jokes about ‘Dotchland über Alles” (p. 62).

There are also a few interesting chapters about the turbulent years immediately after the end of the first world war. A socialist Council of Workers and Soldiers, led by Kurt Eisner, briefly came to power and proclaimed a republic. However, “Eisner was no Lenin. [. . .] he was entirely unprepared to advance the revolution by liquidating ‘class enemies’ or by establishing a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Nor, unlike some of the Schwabing bohemians who initially backed him, did he welcome the prospect of anarchy.’ (P. 81.) “Eisner's problem, however, was not just that he was an outsider but that he was an incompetent outsider. He was unable to shift from the world of theatrical journalism and coffeehouse philosophizing to the complex realities of political adminisration. Moreover, he was excessively tenderhearted for his new responsibilities.” (P. 84.) After losing an election, he was assassinated by a young aristocrat, count Arco auf Valley, just as he was about to resign from his post of the prime minister (p. 91). The murderer was treated quite leniently by the courts. And this is not the only such example; later in the Weimar period, Nazis who had caused trouble were much more likely to be treated leniently by the court system than when the same sort of trouble had been caused by communists. It's a sad but probably quite natural fact that judges, lawyers, and policemen are more likely to be authoritarian and conservative rather than democratic and progressive. There should be some systemic effort against this, perhaps some kind of quota system to ensure a sufficiently unbiased operation of the courts and police system. As for Eisner, “middle- and upper-class citizens were happy to see him out of the way” (p. 92), and a member of the Thule Society “desecrated Eisner's shrine [that had been set up by Eisner's followes at the site of his death] by sprinkling it with the urine of a bitch in heat; soon every male dog from miles around was lifting his leg on the sacred spot.” (P. 103).

“Ironically, if Eisner had managed to resign as he had intended, parliamentary government might have been introduced.” (P. 103.) Instead, several months of chaotic politics followed, with much bickering among various left-wing groups, efforts to establish a soviet system, etc. The 25-year-old Ernst Toller, who became the prime minister following a proclamation of the soviet republic of Bavaria, found himself besieged by “legions of cranks offering advice for the betterment of humanity. Variously, they proposed that the world's evil resided in cooked food, the gold standard, unhygienic underwear, technology, the lack of a universal language, department stores, or birth control. A Swabian shoemaker submitted a voluminous pamphlet proving (in Toller's words) that ‘modern man owed his moral sickness to the fact that he satisfied his elementary needs in closed rooms and with the need of artificial paper [. . .].’ ” (p. 111).

Although they ignored these cranks, Toller and his cabinet colleagues came up with lots of pleasantly bizarre ideas anyway. Gustav Landauer, the education commissar, “required newspapers to print the poems of Hölderlin and Schiller on their front pages” (p. 111). “The housing commissar froze all rents, ordered that unused lofts in the city be turned over to artists for studio space, and decreed that henceforth all houses must be built with the living rooms above the kitchen.” (P. 112.) And “someone in the government found time to decree that henceforth the German name for Bavaria, Bayern, should be spelled with an i rather than a y.” (P. 112.) Actually, most of these ideas sound splendid — I wish I lived in a country like that! But actually all of this is nothing compared to the antics of the commissar for foreign affairs, one Dr Lipp, who was actually insane and sent telegrams to Lenin and the pope complaining that “the ‘fugitive Hoffmann took the toilet key to my ministry with him [. . .] the hairy gorilla hands of Gustav Noske [. . .] are dripping in blood’ ” :-)))

After the war and the revolutionary years immediately following it, “Berlin emerged as one of the world's cosmopolitan cities, [while] Munich embraced virulent nationalism, racism, and provincialism” (p. 123). This was partly due to a reaction to the bohemian and modernist heritage of the previous decades (which were never universally popular with Munich's population), but partly it was an amplification of tendencies present in that heritage itself: “Munich's bohemian culture itself harbored darker admixtures of racism, insularity, and hero-worship. Now war and revolution had generated a climate of hatred and anxiety in which the darker dimensions of Munich's prewar culture and society could come to the fore.” (P. 124.) Munich “combined extreme conservatism with a defensive parochialism” (p. 195); many right-wing forces joined hands in this attack on modernism, liberalism, cosmopolitanism, etc.: “In matters of the intellect, Nazis and Bavarian conservatives found plenty of common ground” (p. 196). The Nazis appointed themselves Munich's “unofficial guardians of family and national values. [. . .] Favourite tactics included setting loose packs of rats in theaters and throwing stink bombs during performances.” (P. 207.) The campaign against the Jewish actress Tilla Durieux: “on the advice of the conservative Bayerische Kurier, some members of the audience emptied chamber pots in the hall” (p. 207). In 1924, a Berlin newspaper proclaimed Munich “ ‘The Dumbest City in Germany’ ” and semi-jocularly blamed it on the beer: “ ‘Hitlerism, von Kahr, hate-filled judges, the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten—all these are easily explained by 500 liters of beer [i.e. the yearly consumption by an average Munich male].’ ” (P. 210.) Many artists and intellectuals left Munich and its poisoned atmosphere. A notable exception was Thomas Mann, but then he seems to have been quite a political conservative during the WW1 and immediately afterwards; and even he was increasingly unhappy with the course of events, though he still hoped that Munich may change for the better (p. 212–3).

The 1920 right-wing putsch led by Wolfgang Kapp was rather a failure: “like so many putschists before and since, Kapp and his allies were unprepared to govern what they had so boldly seized. [. . .] President Ebert's officials, in a cruel but brilliant act of sabotage, had hidden all the rubber stamps before fleeing.” (P. 136.)

Here's another anecdote illustrating the pro-right-wing sympathies that were so widespread among the police and other parts of officialdom. “When one citizen came to [Police Chief] Pöhner and asked if he was aware that there were “political murder gangs” operating in Munich, he replied, ‘Yes, but not enough of them.’ ” (P. 141.) But admittedly, if we can disregard for a moment the fact that this statement supports right-wing murder gangs, we must admit that it's really splendid: there's marvellous sort of let-them-eat-cake cynicism about it, just the sort that I like best.

There are a few interesting anecdotes about the 1923 hyperinflation on p. 159: a 100-trillion-mark banknote was issued in November; the American consul commented on his poker games: “ ‘It was quite a thrill to raise a trillion’ ”; and “A woman waiting in line to pay fo groceries with a basket of money turned her back to chat with a neighbor; when she turned around, she discovered that someone had tipped out the money and stolen her basket.”

[To be continued in a few days.]

Sunday, May 14, 2006

BOOK: Charles Seife, "Alpha and Omega"

Charles Seife: Alpha and Ωmega: the Search for the Beginning and the End of the Universe. Bantam, 2004. 0553814699. ix + 296 pp.

I'm usually not a terribly avid reader of popular science books, but I'm glad that I made an exception in this case. Cosmology is, after all, a fascinating topic, and the subjects it studies are truly awe-inspiring. What sorts of things are to be found in our universe, and in what proportions; what are the basic laws of physics; what was going on in the earliest few moments of the universe's existence, and what will the ultimate fate of the universe be — surely one can hardly help finding these questions at least a little bit intriguing, even though they admittedly don't seem to have much bearing on our every-day life.

Anyway, I have for some time been considering to buy something on cosmology, so when I noticed this book in the bookstore, offered at a 50% discount, I bought it and read it over the next few days.

It's a very nice book; it is readable, not too long, and as accessible to the lay reader (such as myself) as I guess one can reasonably expect a book about such a subject to be. Of course, since I have never been particularly interested in physics and never learnt it above secondary-school level, I'm not fit to comment on its scientific accuracy, but seeing as the author has a degree in mathematics and has made a serious effort to acquaint himself with cosmology, reading papers and interviewing many researchers in that field, I guess it's not unreasonable to suppose that he hasn't committed any terrible blunders — at least not such as would matter to a lay reader such as me.

One thing I particularly enjoyed is how the author is very good at giving metaphors and analogies that illustrate various complicated cosmological phenomena with something that we are familiar with from everyday life. Most of the time this works very well; only in the last few chapters did I find his writing difficult to follow. I was particularly impressed by his explanations of the clever reasoning and experiments that led to the discovery of dark matter (p. 96), exotic (or nonbaryonic) dark matter (p. 107), and dark energy (due to which the universe's rate of expansion is increasing rather than decreasing, p. 187).

Apparently cosmology has been making quite rapid progress over the last ten or so years. In fact the author suggests that we are in the middle of a ‘cosmological revolution’ (p. 51) comparable to the one in the 16th century when the heliocentric model replaced the geocentric one, and the one in the 1920s when Hubble discovered how huge the universe really is, and that it is expanding (pp. 39, 42). This book was first published in 2003, and the author often refers to very recent discoveries, as well as pointing out things that haven't yet been cleared up but likely will be in the next few years (perhaps by now some of them have already been). On the one hand, it's of course very exciting to be reading about such recent and impressive discoveries so soon after they have been made; but on the other hand, I sometimes couldn't help wondering if it wouldn't have been better for the author to wait a few more years and then publish a book with fewer loose ends and fewer tantalizing references to future discoveries. But it would be silly to really complain about this; undoubtedly someone will write a new popular book about cosmology sooner or later (or maybe Seife will issue an updated edition of his present book).

Ptolemy's model of the Solar System is actually more accurate than the one published by Copernicus (but it is also much more complicated); pp. 16–7.

In Copernicus' time, “the case of the heliocentric system was not yet airtight” and the Church didn't persecute it yet; Copernicus even dedicated his book to the Pope. “But Copernicus was a prudent man. He took the precaution of publishing it while on his deathbed.” (P. 18.)

“The noble, Tycho Brahe, was a sybaritic Dane. Born in 1546, he was a glutton. (Overeating led to his death half a century later.) For his amusement, Brahe kept a dwarf whom he fed with table scraps” (p. 19).

“All stars (and not just the Hollywood variety) are essentially balls of hot gas.” (P. 39.)

There is an excellent description of the current understanding of the big bang and the early history of the universe on pp. 65–70.

“The center of a hydrogen bomb is as hot as the first few minutes after the big bang.” (P. 117.)

“[. . .] this sticky force is incredibly strong. Physicists, in a rare outburst of creativity, dubbed this force the strong force.” (P. 122.)

RHIC's magnets are so powerful that some hysterical protesters feared that scientists using them would inadvertently end the universe.” (Pp. 127, 194.)

“The funamental tenet of supersymmetry is that every particle in the standard model has a supersymmetric twin. (The supersymmetric electron is known as the selectron; supersymmetric quarks are squarks. There are sneutrinos, photinos, gluinos, winos, and zinos.) Each sparticle is related to its twin particle, but it is not the same.” (P. 154.)

P. 155 mentions an amusing “apocryphal story” that “physicists were declared personae non grata and have not been allowed ot hold another conference in Vegas” after they refused to gamble during a conference there (knowing as they did that the odds are against them).

Each chapter begins with an epigraph, some of which are really good. There is a splendid one by Arthur Eddington on p. 162, a pastiche of one of my favourite rubaiyat (see e.g. this page).

“In 1967, Jocelyn Bell, a graduate student at Cambridge University,” discovered pulsars; “In 1974, her adviser, Anthony Hewish, was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery”!!! (P. 200, and see also the followup to the story on p. 202.)

There is also a good glossary with explanations of the various technical terms from physics and cosmology that frequently occur in the text.

All in all, this was a very pleasant read, and probably as good a popular introduction to cosmology as I can reasonably expect to find. Heartily recommended to anyone interested in this topic.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


(1.) Some places have a law for everything:

New York is a “Top-Free State” meaning women can be topless in public anywhere men can be, so long as it isn’t for any commercial benefit. [source]

(2.) A pair of modern-day Maries Antoinettes, from the excellent collection of bad album covers at