THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE by Stephen Kinzer

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(Mark Twain)

Stephen Kinzer is a prolific writer and historian among whose books include ALL THE SHAH’S MEN an excellent study that explains the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and the origins of our conflict with that country.  Other books; THE BROTHERS, a fascinating dual biography of Allen W. and John Foster Dulles, men who significantly impacted American intelligence gathering and foreign policy throughout the 1950s; and OVERTHROW, a study that explains how Washington conducted a series of coups from Hawaii to Iraq to install governments that it could control.  If there is a theme to Kinzer’s books it is that the United States has conducted a series of forays into foreign countries that reek of imperialism and have not turned out well.  His latest effort, THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE follows the same theme and tries to bring about an understanding of why and how the United States began its journey towards empire.

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(President Theodore Roosevelt)

From the outset Kinzer describes a conflicted American approach toward foreign policy.  It appears that Americans cannot make up their minds on which course to follow: Should we pursue imperialism or isolationism?  Do we want to guide the world or let every nation guide itself?  This inability to decide has played itself out from the end of the nineteenth century until today as we try and figure out what avenue to take following the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its ramifications.  Kinzer argues that “for generations every debate over foreign intervention has been repetition,” however, “all are pale shadows of the first one” that began in 1898 is developed in THE TRUE FLAG.  Kinzer zeroes in on one of the most far reaching debates in American history that was fostered by the Spanish American War, not the Second World War as most believe; should the United States intervene in foreign lands, a debate that is ever prescient today.

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(Henry Cabot Lodge)

Following the results of the war against Spain, the United States found itself in possession of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and was about to annex the Hawaiian islands, leading to a fever of empire among many Americans in and out of government.  Kinzer traces the political machinations that resulted in the new American Empire.  He also takes the reader behind the scenes that resulted in decisions that led to what President McKinley termed “benevolent assimilation” for the Philippines, or a more accurate description, a race war to subdue Filipino guerillas led by Emilio Aguinaldo.  Kinzer has full command of the history of the period politically, militarily, and economically.  He has extensive knowledge of the secondary and primary materials, and writes with a clear and snappy prose that maintains reader interest.

What separates Kinzer’s narrative and analysis from other studies dealing with this topic is his focus on the debate over American expansionism that created the Anti-Imperialist League to offset the arguments of the imperialists in and out of Congress.  He provides a blend of both arguments integrating a great many heated speeches and articles that the protagonists engaged in and produced, even describing a fist fight in the Senate between the senators from South Carolina over a vote that ratified the Treaty of Paris.  Kinzer focuses on a number of important historical characters that include; Theodore Roosevelt who used the Spanish-American War as a vehicle to advance politically; Henry Cabot Lodge, a strong believer in the “large policy” of imperialism as the Senator from Massachusetts; William Randolph Hearst whose newspaper helped incite the war, and would later turn against imperialism as he sought a political career; President William McKinley who supposedly received divine guidance to pursue his expansionist agenda; Mark Twain, writer and satirist who initially favored expansion, then became the “eviscerating bard” against empire; William Jennings Bryan, the “free silver” commoner from the Midwest who was defeated three times for the presidency; Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in America, but opposition to imperialism for him was almost a religious cause; and Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who fought in the Civil War and served as Secretary of the Interior among many important positions during his career.

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(Andrew Carnegie)

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Kinzer’s narrative discusses the two opportunities that Bryan had to stem the imperialist tide.  Bryan was an avid opponent of expansion from the moral perspective, but he would cave to political ambition on two occasions.  The first, during the debate in Congress over the Treaty of Paris which would cap America’s territorial aggrandizement from the war.  At the last minute Bryan decided to support the treaty and America’s possession of the Philippines.  Second, as the Democratic candidate for president in 1900 he refused to leave out his “free silver” plank from the convention platform and concentrate on the anti-imperialist message.  By not doing so he scared away eastern business opponents of expansion and a number of allies in the Democratic Party.  The result was the passage of the treaty and the reelection of McKinley.

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(President William McKinley)

Another fascinating aspect of the book is Kinzer’s treatment of Mark Twain.  Kinzer offers a detailed discussion of Twain’s arrival from Europe on October 15, 1900 in the midst of the imperialism debate and his transition to his anti-imperialism stance.  A number of Twain’s writings and comments are presented and analyzed and compared with those of Theodore Roosevelt, whose ascendancy to the presidency after McKinley is assassinated, effectively kills the Anti-Imperialism League.  Twain’s writings detail his disgust for events in the Philippines and the disaster that ensued.  Twain is presented along with other famous writers and poets whose anger at expansion and its results knew no bounds.   However, the work of Finley Peter Dunne and his Mr. Dooley character, written with an Irish workman’s accent is probably more important in that it reached the illiterate masses, while others appealed to the social and political elite.

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Kinzer’s narrative packs a great deal into 250 pages and it is a fast read.  However, do not   evaluate this book by its length because it presents an excellent synthesis and analysis of the important events, personalities, and policies of the 1898-1902 period as America debated if it should become an empire, the type of debate that was missing in the United States as we contemplated invading Iraq in 2003.  A war that we are still paying for today.  In the end many of the predictions set forth by the anti-imperialists have come to pass, just examine American foreign policy since the end of World War II.  We as Americans must answer the question: “Does intervention in other countries serve our national interest and constitute global stability, or does it undermine both?” (229)

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(Mark Twain)

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A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

The majority of Americans of my generation are aware of the Vietnam War that resulted in the death of 58,315 soldiers and a 153,303 wounded, with the loss of between 1.1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese.  Further, they are aware of American bombing of Cambodia and various military incursions that helped bring about Pol Pot and the “Killing Fields,” that resulted in the genocide of over 3 million Cambodians.  However, that same generation was probably not aware of the civil war that raged in Laos and the American role in that conflict that witnessed 15-20 air sorties a day against that small Southeast Asian country between 1960 and 1968, that was raised to 300 sorties a day once Richard Nixon took office, resulting in the death of over 200,000 Laotians and 700 Americans.

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By January 1961 Laos appeared to be on the precipice of falling to communism.  Bill Lair, a ten year CIA operative flew up to the central highlands to inaugurate a bold plan labeled, Operation Momentum.  The plan called for the operation and training of Hmong tribesmen, led by Vang Pao, an anti-communist officer in the Laotian army who would lead these men against the Pathet Lao who were supported by North Vietnam.  The civil war in Laos had been raging on and off since the French were vanquished by North Vietnam in 1954, and Laos was declared a neutral country by the Geneva Convention of that year.  Even though Laos was a small country the Eisenhower administration, firm believers in the domino theory, and that a pro-western state in Laos could serve as a buffer between Vietnam and Thailand, an American ally.  Further, Laos would make it easier for the US to assist South Vietnamese forces that could help bleed Hanoi’s troops as they continued to fight the Vientiane government, and lastly it would block any communist threat to India and Southwest Asia.  Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: AMERICA IN LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA chronicles Operation Momentum and its impact on the region and the implications for American strategy to deal with communism for decades.  In addition, it raises the specter of a CIA run war through para military operators, something that continues today.

Operation Momentum was the first secret covert run war by the CIA in American history.   Laos provided the CIA with the opportunity to increase the agency’s powers.   According to Kurlantzick, it saw the Laotian situation as an inexpensive war in terms of money and lives to create a template for proxy wars around the world as presidents looked for ways to continue the Cold War without going to Congress for funding or involving American troops.  For the CIA, after Laos, paramilitary operations would become an essential part of the agency’s mission.

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(North Vietnamese troops fighting South Vietnamese troops on Laotian territory)

Kurlantzick presents a balanced and interesting narrative as he provides the background history that led to the Laotian civil war involving the Royal Laotian Army, smaller armies of different Laotian tribes, Vang Pao’s 30,000 strong Hmong army, North Vietnamese troops, and American bombing and supplying and training of anti-communist forces.  As the narrative is developed the reader is introduced to a number of important characters.  First of which is Bill Lair, a career CIA operative who believed the key to helping the fight for democracy in Indochina was to allow the Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese to do their own fighting.  The US could assist them with equipment and training, but should not be out front and appear to replace the French as a colonial power.  Lair and his CIA cohorts were thrilled with the success of Vang Pao’s army in that they finally found an indigenous force that would take it to the communists.  Pao was a loose cannon, but Lair knew how to control him.  This relationship was successful until Washington decided to expand its operations in Laos and Vietnam under leadership of Ted Shackley who arrived as CIA Laos Station Chief in July 1966.  Lair was against an increased ground war with massive bombing as he correctly believed that it would be unsuccessful in interdicting North Vietnam’s supply efforts to South Vietnam through Laos.  The author’s presentation of Lair’s story is invaluable in understanding what transpires in Laos until he resigns from the CIA in August 1968.  Once Lair resigns no one can control Vang Pao, and his forces who pursue a reckless strategy that has grave consequences.

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(North Vietnamese troops moving supplies through Laos to South Vietnam)

Other important figures that Kurlantzick introduces are Tony Poe, a career soldier who trained and recruited Hmong tribesmen going back to 1961.  After Lair resigned he developed his own 10,000 man force made up of an amalgam of tribes who he could not hold together because tribal ethnic conflict and as a result were not an effective fighting force.  Perhaps the most important character in this drama was Ambassador William Sullivan, an American Foreign Service career officer who was Ambassador to Laos between 1964 and 1969.  Sullivan was sent to Laos to organize the war against the Pathet Lao and became the first American ambassador to run a war from his office.  Sullivan reigned in the CIA and made all operatives report to him what their plan of action was.  He would approve, and even choose targets for the war, something no ambassador had ever done before.  If someone did not comply, because of his relationships in Washington, they would be transferred out.  Once Shackley came aboard, Sullivan supported an expansion of the war and a massive increase in bombing which was further expanded once Richard Nixon entered the White House, as Nixon had his own realpolitik for Indochina involving Communist China, and the Soviet Union in achieving the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

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(William Lair, CIA operative in Laos after he retired)

Kurlantzick tells a fascinating story that at times reads like fiction.  There is some repetition of information, and a few factual errors, i.e.; the Viet Minh did not sign the 1954 Geneva Accords, and according to historian Fredrik Logevall, he misstates the number of American military advisors in Vietnam at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and he offers no evidence that Kennedy “repeatedly told aides he would not tolerate the loss of South Vietnam during his presidency. (Fredrik Logevall, “Laos: America’s Lesser Known Human Political Disaster in Southeast Asia,” Washington Post, February 2, 2017)

The most disturbing aspect of the war that Kurlantzick brings out has to do with the surreptitious American bombing of Laos.  According to the author by 1969 the United States had dropped more bombs on Laos than it had on Japan during World War II.  Further, by “1973, when the bombing campaign ended, America had launched 580,000 bombing runs in Laos.  A high percentage of these bombs were antipersonnel or fragmentation bombs—which exploded into hundreds of small, deadly metal pellets on impact—antipersonnel mines, and bombs that caused widespread fires.” (177)  Kurlantzick uses the massive bombing of the Plan of Jars during the summer of 1969 to highlight the devastation that resulted in the deaths and maiming of Laotian civilians.  The overall bombing campaign killed civilians in disproportionate numbers and what is even more damning was the American policy of dropping excess ordinance over Laos when they could not find targets in North Vietnam and did not want to return to Thai bases with undropped bombs.  In addition, Kurlantzick describes how Laos was used as a training site for bomber targeting and the indiscriminate dropping of bombs to be rid of them.  America’s disdain for the Laotians can also be seen in the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam as Henry Kissinger and company sacrificed its Laotian allies in order to achieve a semblance of peace with Hanoi.  By the time the Americans left Saigon, a similar withdrawal occurred in Vientiane, as by 1973 Washington had washed its hands of its former ally with devastating consequences for the tens of thousands of refugees and the poor people left behind.

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(William Sullivan, American Ambassador to Laos, and later to Iran)

Despite the fact that it appears that Operation Momentum was a failure when the Pathet Lao was victorious, the CIA saw it as an unqualified success.  The CIA argued that the operation occupied over 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans.  Further, it allowed the CIA to develop its war fighting skills to the point where paramilitary operations equaled intelligence gathering as its joint mission.  The paramilitary component could be seen during the Reagan years in arming the mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and arming and training of the Contras to fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  After 9/11 paramilitary operations seem to have become the center of CIA activities.  Today these operations are involved in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria, and Pakistan.  Whether through drone attacks under the aegis of the war on terror or training and supplying weapons, Operation Momentum created the CIA template for its paramilitary wars in the 21st century.

Kurlantzick offers a well-researched narrative that helps fill the vacuum of historical monographs pertaining to the war in Laos.  Recently, we were reminded of the cost of that war when Barak Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and announced an increased funding to clean up unexploded ordnance that is still plaguing the Laotian countryside.  Kurlantzick has written an important book that fills in a number of gaps when one thinks back to the events in Southeast Asia between 1960 and 1975 which sadly younger generations seem to be ignorant of.

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

THE WEAPONS WIZARDS: HOW ISRAEL BECAME A HIGH TECH MILITARY SUPERPOWER by Yaacov Katz and Amir Bohbot

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(Iranian nuclear reactor)

On February 6, 2017 Israelis living in the south were once again reminded of the threat of Hamas rockets being launched from the Gaza Strip, when one landed in an uninhabited area.  During the summer of 2014 in its war against the Palestinian terrorist group Israel absorbed over 4000 rockets launched against its territory.  Since that time Hamas has been trying to replenish its stockpile and prepare itself for the next round of warfare against Israel which will surely come in the not too distant future. Along with Hezbollah’s stockpile of over 100,000 rockets provided by Iran and Syrian dictator, Bashir el-Assad the appearance of a new book entitled, THE WEAPONS WIZARDS: HOW ISRAEL BECAME A HIGH-TECH MILITARY SUPERPOWER by veteran Israeli military correspondence Yaakov Katz and Amir Bohbot is especially timely.  The authors provide a unique perspective on how threats and changes in the Middle East political and military landscape have impacted military research and development to try and bring about a degree of security for the Israeli public.  Katz and Bohbot discuss a number of weapons systems in detail and reflect how the dangerous neighborhood in which Israel lives influences policies and what had to be done to insure that the continued existence of the Jewish state.

We live in a world where technology continues to evolve at an amazing rate of speed.  This has impacted how wars have been fought recently and will continue to impact the battlefield in the future.  With the advent of satellites, drones, cyber warfare and other systems, Israel finds itself at the cutting edge of all of these new technologies because if it does not, it may not survive.  The question is how a small nation of 8 million people maintains its commitment and implementation of new military technologies on par with superpowers like the United States and Russia.  Today, Israel’s exports are electronics, software, and medical devices with weapon systems being 10% of all exports.  Israel invests 4.5% of its GDP in research and development, with 30% of that figure geared toward the military.

From its inception in 1948 Israel was forced to develop critical tools – the ability to improvise and adapt to changing realities to survive.  According to the authors, Israel is a country with an absence of structure and social hierarchy which spurs innovation.  This stems from mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), an army dependent upon its reservist system.  The end result is that defense company employees meet soldiers during their reserve commitments where they can examine new weapons designs and other ideas. Israeli engineers have battlefield experience, and their training in the reserves assists them in understanding what the IDF requires in the next war, and how to develop it.  Further, the IDF is a melting pot that allows for social integration and the development of an élan that does not necessarily exist in other countries.

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(Israeli satellite)

The authors do a good job in offering insights into Israeli attitudes toward technology as they relate developments to past events.  The psychological impact of the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a preemptive war against Israel was a major catalyst in the Israeli defense community’s change in its military approach, thinking, and training.  For Israel “solutions that cross bureaucratic borders and technological limits” are the keys to survival.  For Israel certain things are a given; they are always in a state of conflict, combat experience is used to satisfy immediate operational needs, and they are an innovative people who do not stand on ceremony.

The authors recount major events and crises in Israel’s history dating back to the pre-1948 landscape.  They recapitulate what has transpired, then focus on how military planners  pursued critical self-examination, lessons learned, and how the strategy moving forward prepared the military for the next crisis that would surely come.  The Israeli military doctrine was fostered by its first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion in 1948 in that to offset the demographic disadvantage, Israel must seek a qualitative military advantage.  Israel had to make sure it always has superior quality weapons, not necessarily more of them.

Katz and Bohbot focus in on a number of important figures in the development of Israel’s military technology.  Individuals such as former Defense and Prime Minister Shimon Peres who began his career in the early 1950s procuring weapons from France is one of the individuals most responsible for Israel’s defense establishment over a career that ended with his death late last year.  Each technological success was fostered by Israelis who had the foresight to carry through with their ideas and beliefs no matter what bureaucratic obstacles lay before them.  IDF Major Shabtai Brill of the Military Intelligence Directorate was a driving force in the development of drone technology.  Lt. Colonel Effie Defrin an armored brigade commander was intricately involved in the development and upgrading of the Merkava tank program.  Colonel Haim Eshel helped foster the creation of Israel’s satellite program, and Brigadier General Danny Gold was a prime mover in bringing on line the Iron Dome Missile Defense System.  In all cases these individuals realized that Israel could not rely on other countries for their weapons systems, as procurement was influenced by geo-political strategies and events worldwide.

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(Israeli soldier outside the entrance of a Hamas tunnel from Gaza on the Israeli side)

Israeli officials learned early on when to cooperate and develop joint programs with other nations and when to go it alone.  For example, the partnership with the United States in creating the Iron Dome Missile System dates back to the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq launched 39 Scud missiles into Israel.  Further impetus was provided as Hamas launched its first rocket attack against Israel in April, 2001, and the 2006 war with Hezbollah that witnessed over 4300 rocket attacks against the Jewish state.  This resulted in a joint effort with the United States, which provided most of the funding and some technology, as it used its financial support as a means of lessening Israeli security concerns by promoting the missile system in return for negotiations with the Palestinians.  This strategy was employed by the Obama administration early in its tenure in office, but since the Iron Dome went operational in March, 2011, with a 90% kill ratio, its peace strategy failed.

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(Iron Dome Missile on the way to shoot down Hamas rocket in 2014)

Recently cyber warfare has begun to dominate the news relating to Russian activity trying to influence the 2016 presidential election.  From Vladimir Putin’s perspective it has been very successful, and one wonders about the future of a full scale cyber war and what it portends.  The authors discuss one of the most successful cyber-attacks in recent years as Israel and the United States tried to derail Iran’s nuclear program.  Once the world learned of Iran’s Natanz facility that housed tens of thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium in August, 2002 Israel immediately began a program of killing Iranian scientists, sabotaging deliveries of important materials to Iran, and developing Stuxnet, a dangerous virus that would set back the Iranian nuclear program for about two years.  The Iranian threat fostered the reorganization of Israel’s cyber warfare capabilities creating Unit 8200, a military cyber command and resulted in the creation of over 100 high tech companies and startups as the military and the private sector allied to face the cyber threat.   The authors also explore how Israel destroyed the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, and the implications of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu constant threats to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.

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Katz and Bohbot provide an excellent chapter dealing with the integration of Israeli military technology and diplomacy.  Since its inception defense ties and arms sales played a significant role in bringing billions of dollars into the Israeli economy.  Not only did weapons sales bring in enormous profits for the Israeli defense industry, it also furthered diplomatic ties with certain countries.  The authors detail arms diplomacy with China, India, and Singapore reflecting on its successes and failures.

The authors repeatedly reiterate that the key to Israel’s survival is its ability to innovate and solve problems during military conflict that was unexpected.  The most recent cases deal with Gaza and Russia.  During the 2014 war with Hamas, the major new problem was tunnels that were used to attack Israeli Kibbutzim.  Israel was aware of the tunnel problem, but not the sophistication and interlocking pathways underground.  It took Israel over 50 days and the death of dozens of Israeli soldiers and hundreds of Palestinians to solve the problem and shut down over 30 tunnels.   As new technology was applied to resolve the threat it showed “that Israel’s experience during the Gaza War showed the IDF that as prepared as it might think it is for war, it can always be surprised.”  Another situation evolved with Russia in applying the leverage of drone sales to Moscow to block the sale of sophisticated missiles to Iran that could protect their nuclear facilities.  Israel thought it had the situation in hand when more sophisticated missiles turned up in Syria as Putin did his best to retain Assad in power.  Once again showing that arms diplomacy and war cannot be totally predicted.

For Israel, the neighborhood they live in is not some virtual threat, but it’s a daily reality that the authors constantly focus upon as each official, scientist, or engineer are constantly concerned about what crisis is right around the corner.  Katz and Bohbot detail how Israel has achieved their preeminent position in the techno-warfare world, but also scenarios for the future, that are out right scary.

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(Iranian nuclear facility)

RASPUTIN: FAITH, POWER AND THE TWILIGHT OF THE ROMANOVS by Douglas Smith

The other day I heard a talking head quip that Steve Bannon was Donald Trump’s Rasputin.  Recently I have brought myself up to speed on Mr. Bannon and there really does seem to be some similarities, i.e., access to a person with autocratic tendencies, belief in alternative reality and truth, but the rumors of debauchery do not really match up.  All in all I decided that a read of Douglas Smith’s new biography RASPUTIN: FAITH, POWER AND THE TWILIGHT OF THE ROMANOVS was in order.

Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin’s life has produced numerous myths concerning his influence on the Romanovs; his religiosity, or lack of it; his sexual prowess, and his mystical hold on large segments of the Russian population.  According to Smith these myths have been formulated and put forth in numerous biographies that have created an echo chamber for their constant retelling.  Therefore, the question must be asked, why another biography?  The year 1991 is the key in that the Soviet Union collapsed and as a result the Russian archives have become more accessible which Smith takes wonderful advantage of by uncovering a number of documents that reformulate many storylines in Rasputin’s vita.  Smith cleverly points out that there really is “no” Rasputin without all the stories about him.  Smith’s goal is to uncover and investigate the most important myths, and to a large degree he is remarkably successful.  In achieving his goal Smith has written an almost encyclopedic narrative that seems to cover all aspects of his subject delivering the final word on every scrap of evidence in newspapers and memoirs.  The book will become a wonderful research tool because of Smith’s prodigious research and facility with a number of languages.  In creating his narrative, at times, Smith goes a little overboard the result is a book that is “overlong, overcrowded with names and details, serious and earnest (there are a few jokes), but a valuable corrective to the more sensational and fanciful biographies available in English.”*

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(Nicholas and Alexandra, 1894))

The first thirty years of Rasputin’s life is like a black hole of which we know almost nothing, making it much easier to create myths.  Rasputin was never formally educated and remained illiterate until his early adulthood.  Up until the age of twenty eight, Rasputin appeared to be headed toward the life of a typical Siberian peasant; farming, church, and married with children.  In 1897 he seemed to have experienced some sort of vision and began a series of pilgrimages.  His religious quest appears sincere as local priests could not adequately answers his questions about God and religion.  He became a “Strannik,” a holy wanderer which was very common in Tsarist Russia.  Rasputin was atypical from most pilgrims in that he retained a home in Pokrovskoe, and was married with three children as he went about developing his own version of peasant religious orthodoxy.  According to Smith, Rasputin’s years of wandering were his university education and he developed a broad knowledge of the Russian social order and a strong understanding of human psychology, with a special talent for reading people.  Rasputin learned how to talk to people and he could “speak freely about Holy Scripture and the meaning of God in a way unlike the priests with their book learning.  His language was direct, personal, unmistakably alive, and earthy filled with references to daily life and the beauty of the natural world.” (27)  This talent goes a long way to explain how he developed his own personality cult.

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(Nicholas and Alexandra with their daughters)

Smith’s portrayal of Nicholas II and his German Tsarina, Alexandra is very perceptive and accurate.  One of Alexandra’s major shortcomings was that she needed to control her privacy and shut out everyone but her immediate family.  The feckless Nicholas could not get her to change her belief that the Russian people had an obligation to the Romanovs, not that the crown had an obligation to its subjects.  The royal couple had a long history of dealing with “mystical types” before Rasputin arrived on the scene.  The most important of which was Philippe Nazier-Vachot, or Monsieur Philippe a charlatan introduced to Alexandra by Militsa, who was married to a Grand Duke who was Nicholas’ cousin.  These two are just the tip of the iceberg of the characters who believed in mysticism and the occult that Smith introduces us to that influence how the Tsar governed his people. Nicholas had a firm belief in the medieval notion of the mystical connection between the Tsar and the masses.  Alexandra had been seeking a “holy man” before Rasputin arrived due to her own personal insecurity and perhaps awareness of her husband’s flaws which would undermine Nicholas’ power, prestige and effectiveness once Rasputin replaced Philippe.   Alexandra needed to have blind trust in a spiritual advisor who spoke of higher truths and prophecies that satisfied her inner religiosity, and help instruct Nicholas on how to rule.  This would lead to mistrust and machinations within the royal family, create intense gossip that tarnished the image of the monarchy, and repeated investigations into Rasputin life and actions as a number of people tried to open the Tsar’s eyes to what was transpiring right before his very eyes.Smith captures the intensity of Alexandra’s loyalty to Rasputin no matter what evidence investigations by the Duma (Russian parliament created by the October Manifesto during the 1905 Revolution) or the Ohkrana (Tsarist Secret police) produced.  Stories of lewdness, debauchery, rumors of unacceptable behavior on the part of Rasputin could not shake Alexandra’s confidence and dependence on her “friend.”  Historians have conjectured on how Rasputin was able to manipulate the Tsarina.  It has generally been accepted that it was due to his ability to help Tsarevitch Alexei who suffered from hemophilia.  It is agreed that Rasputin was able to calm the boy and get him to relax which allowed a decrease in capillary blood flow and aid the healing process.  There were a number of occasions when Alexei’s doctors made his condition worse by constant prodding, while Rasputin reassured the boy and calmed him.  However, Alexandra’s neurotic insecurity needs outweigh Rasputin’s calming effect on Alexei in explaining Rasputin’s hold on the monarchy.

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(the royal family)

Smith takes the reader through the intricacies of eastern orthodoxy and the characters it produced as some priests support Rasputin, but eventually most do not and see him as the devil and an anti-Christ.  The views of politicians and royal family members are examined and historical figures such as Prime Ministers Pytor Stolypin, Sergei Witte, and Vladimir Kokovstov are examined as they attempt to convince Nicholas of the effect Rasputin is having on the decline in popularity of his reign because of policy decisions that Alexandra’s “friend” influenced.  The narrative unveils numerous plots some perpetuated by Rasputin and some by former acolytes that have turned against him to the point that some of these stories could be from an FX cable channel drama.  The problem is many of them have a degree of truth and it reflects how low the Romanov dynasty had fallen in the eyes of its people.

Smith also delves into Rasputin’s battles with the press, the Duma and the Holy Synod.  He provides careful analysis of the strategies that were designed to separate Rasputin from the royal family and exile him to his home village in Siberia.  Official after official, religious leader upon religious leader, and family members all approached Nicholas about the damage that the rumors about Rasputin, including those linking him to an affair with Alexandra, were having on his reign, but he just brushed them off.  A number of high officials would lose their positions as Nicholas removed them upon the advice of Rasputin, and these battles would seal the break between the Duma and the Tsar.  Nicholas became increasingly frustrated as his officials could not control newspapers whose reporting was so damaging.  This problem was exacerbated once Russia was at war with Germany.  Once the war broke out Nicholas would leave St. Petersburg for the front a good deal of the time, leaving Alexandra alone under the influence of her “friend.”  As war news worsened, more and more rumors were publicized that Rasputin and the Tsarina were working with the enemy.  It wasn’t just peasants and soldiers who began believing these rumors as Smith points out but foreign diplomats who feared a separate peace between Russia and Germany, making a revolution against the Tsar a patriotic act.

Similar credence was given to the rumors of sexual scandals at court.  It was said that the Tsarina was the mistress of Rasputin and the lesbian lover of Anna Vyrubova, her lady in waiting, who took part in orgies with both of them.  Alexandra’s sexual corruption became a kind of metaphor for the diseased condition of the monarchy,” even though none of them had any bases in fact.**  Smith provides unparalleled detail in all areas that the narrative ventures, which separates his biography from all others.  But one must ask the question; is there too much detail, after all does the reader need to know the personalities, motivations, and actions of every scandal that existed?

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(Prince Felix Yusopov, Rasputin’s murderer)

The outbreak and conduct of World War I sealed the fate of Rasputin and the monarchy.  Perhaps Nicholas II’s worst decision was to replace Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich as Commander and Chief.  Rumors persisted at court that Nikolaevich was the center of a movement to replace the royal couple and they feared he was providing the enemy Nicholas’ movements at the front.  However, once Nicholas II took command he was away from Alexandra a great deal of the time providing Rasputin greater access and would have greater influence on decisions.  Smith argues against this premise as the malleable Nicholas would be under greater influence by his officers and staff who were critics of Rasputin and the Tsarina.  As these events unfolded during the spring of 1915 newspaper attacks against Rasputin reached new heights of absurdity and with it the reputation of the monarchy reached new lows. As to whether Rasputin dominated the crown and possessed unlimited power, Smith maintains a large degree of that power only “existed in the minds of others.” (440)

The final third of the book deals with plots to kill Rasputin.  Many believed and historians have conjectured as to whether Rasputin and Alexandra were German spies.  Smith, as he does with many the myths he debunks puts this one to rest also arguing that there is no concrete evidence that Rasputin and Alexandra were tools of the Hohenzollerns.  Smith then details more scandals and the ministerial merry go round that Nicholas’ government became during the war, as those who opposed Rasputin were replaced by people he approved of.  This aggravated a number of people, most prominent of which was Price Felix Yusopov who organized a scheme to assassinate Rasputin, and with his co-conspirators carried out the murder during the evening of December 16-17, 1916.

The book is brought to a conclusion discussing the investigation of Rasputin’s murder and setting aside the myths associated with it.  Further, Smith explores the collapse of the Romanov dynasty which resulted in a wave of propaganda depicting Rasputin as the incarnation of evil and that the Russian people were finally set free.  Smith is to be credited with the most comprehensive and up to date biography of Rasputin.  At times difficult to plow through because of its detail, however, if you seek knowledge pertaining to Nicholas and Alexandra’s special “friend,” Smith’s effort will satiate you.

PS.   Rasputin was not as mean spirited as Steve Bannon seems to be!

*Orlando Figes. “A Very Close Friend of the Family,” New York Review of Books, December 8, 2016.

** Figes.

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An Ode To Books

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This morning when I checked the weather forecast it called for another 18-24 inches on top of the 12 plus we got on Friday.  For me it calls for snuggling up with the New York Times and New York Post (let no one think I am one of those liberals) and reading the book review and sports sections.  In the NYT BOOK REVIEW I came across a wonderful article by James Atlas entitled, “Headed for the Graveyard of Books.”  In it I found one of the best answers to a question I have thought about for decades.  Three years ago my wife Ronni and I moved from the Hanover, NH area down to the seacoast.  I faced a major crisis, how do I move a personal library of over 8000 books.  After careful consideration and much prodding by the love of my life I gave 2000 away.  Today I am left with the remaining items, a blend of historical monographs, historical fiction, biography, literature, mysteries, and sports.  When people visit or hear about my collection the question always comes up, “have you read them all?”  Of course the answer is no, as there are only 24 hours in a day, and you must sleep for a significant block of that time.  The next question that arises is “why not go the library and/or why do you have so many?”

In Atlas’ article he quotes Anatole France, who is “asked if he has read all of the books in his library, [he] is said to have replied: “not one-tenth of them.  I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?”*  This is the answer I have been searching for.  Friends will show off their Kindles or Nooks and say why not them?  Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately I cannot adjust to the backlighting on these consumer items, and as a wanna be Luddite I will not use them.  I realize that my addiction to books whether it is their texture, the snap of their spines, or the type of print presented it is something I cannot or will not try and cure myself of.  I realize that when I travel or go to a doctor’s office or any number of places I carry extra pounds, but I do not question the wisdom of carrying a laptop, I pad, smart phone, large purses, attaché cases, and backpacks, so why should people question me?    Choosing a book from your own “stacks” or sharing them with friends, neighbors, and students is a behavior that never gets old.  So the next time someone asks the question, “have you read them all?” I will smile inwardly and contemplate my next journey that presents itself on the written page, because people continue to write wonderful books!

 

*https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/10/books/review/headed-for-the-graveyard-of-books.

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“I have difficulty looking at the news lately, among other areas of political and social conversation……”

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Last night I had the pleasure of going to the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and being entertained by the “Capitol Steps,” a satirical group of entertainers and political commentators.  They were funny, talented and iconoclastic.  I went with friends who do not always agree politically, but it was an enjoyable evening.  All spectrums of of the political world were lampooned, left, right, and middle.  Imitations of Hillary, Bernie, Obama, Schumer, McConnell, “W,” and the Donald were all presented.  After almost two hours of laughing, it dawned on me that this is not just comedy, but serious, especially when they did their skit on “The Supremes,” reflecting the upcoming debate in the Senate.  What is scary is that this is where we are as a nation, where the “truth does not set us free.”  We need to grow up as a people, especially those who supposedly represent us in government.  If all we want is to pass our agendas and make points against our opposition then we are in trouble.  Damn it America, grow up, from the President, Congress, down to the general public.  Because unless we do we will become the laughing stock of the world, if we haven’t done so already.  If we continue on our path the “art of the deal” will become “the art of the steal” as America’s reputation is demeaned and stolen, and rides off into insignificance, with everything that possible contemplation will bring.

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THE PLOTS AGAINST HITLER by Danny Orbach

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(July 20, 1944, bomb damage from a plot to kill Adolf Hitler)

One of the most consistent questions asked by historians about watershed historical events is “what if?”  Counterfactual history may be an interesting intellectual exercise, but speculating when an “Adolf Hitler” could have been stopped, thus avoiding the carnage of World War II does not alter events.  However, reviewing and analyzing actual attempts to kill or overthrow the German Fuhrer is not counter factual but a valid attempt to see how close conspirators actually came to removing Hitler.

There are many other questions that are associated with attempts to remove individuals who are deemed to be dangerous to society.  At what point do people turn against their government?  What motivates people to resist?  Is it ideological, moral, or some other reason that drives individuals to say enough is enough and resort to violence to unseat an existing regime?  These questions are very important when applied to the opponents of Adolf Hitler.  Why did certain people oppose Nazism?  Why did they wait so long to try and depose Hitler?  Did some plotters of the resistance to Hitler actually participate and support genocide against the Jews and other inhumane actions?  Did they try and rid the world of Hitler when they realized that the war was lost?  Finally, did they find Nazism morally repugnant so they decided to strike?  These questions and a discussion of those who tried to remove Hitler are examined fully in Danny Orbach’s new book THE PLOTS AGAINST HITLER.  Orbach examines the full breath of available documents in a number of languages and argues that the answers to these questions are complex and conclusions cannot be considered black or white.

By late 1934 Hitler and his henchmen having taken advantage of the Reichstag fire were the sole masters of Germany.  After crushing the Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, and centrist parties, the most important source of legal opposition to the Nazis ceased to exist.  The Nazi Gleichschaltung (bringing into line) would swallow local governments, trade unions, and any possible opposition as they cemented their hold over Germany.  Even military leaders who looked down on the former corporal supported a regime whose rhetoric promised to fulfill their goals of rearmament and a more aggressive foreign policy.  A number of military leaders did question the idea of Hitler in power, but they, like the politicians felt they could control him.  Any dissenters were silenced or forced to retire, and Hitler sealed the deal with the military by destroying the SA, his private army during the “Night of the Long Knives” (also known as the Roehm putsch) when the SA leadership was massacred.  With the accession of the SS and the Gestapo, all opposition ceased.

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(Lt. Col. Hans Oster)

Orbach traces the origins of the most famous attempt to remove Hitler on July 20, 1944 to the purge of the military leadership in late 1937 and early 1938.  It began with the removal of Field Marshall Werner von Blumberg, the Nazi Minister of War, and General Werner von Fritsch, the commander of the army.  Both were brought down through the machinations of Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering as one was married to a former prostitute, the other was framed as a homosexual.  The vacuum was filled by lackeys like General Wilhelm Keitel who were deemed loyal to Hitler,  but an outgrowth of these events was the development of a network that opposed Nazism and wanted to change the government led by Lt. Colonel Hans Oster, an anti-Nazi and a rising star in the Abwehr; Hans Bernd Gisevius, a Gestapo agent who became Oster’s eyes and ears inside the Nazi Security Service; and Dr. Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, the former land mayor of Leipzig who resigned his office when a statue of Felix Mendelssohn was removed from the town square.  These men and others eventually found the violence against the Jews repugnant, were distraught over the persecution of the church, and felt that Hitler’s dangerous foreign policy would lead to war and the destruction of Germany.

Orbach outlines clearly the characteristics of a strong network or clique to foment a coup.  He points to the recruitment of members based on previous friendship and acquaintances.  Further, they must be relatively autonomous and protected from suspicion by the security services, i.e., the officer corps was autonomous from civilian authorities.  Lastly, they are dependent upon networks of kinship, marriage, social ties, joint schooling and military service.  This would lead to the evolution from being a social network to a conspiratorial one.

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(Colonel Ludwig Beck)

The network would expand to include Ulrich von Hassel, the former ambassador to Italy, Ewald von Kliest, an aristocrat and major land owner, Colonel Ludwig Beck, the Chief of the General Staff, General Erwin von Witzleben, the commander of greater Berlin, and on the periphery Colonel Wilhelm Carnaris, the head of German intelligence.  This network is described in one of Orbach’s most interesting chapters as he describes how they organized and planned a coup de tat for September 28, 1938.  For Orbach this was one of the best chances for success because following the Anschluss with Austria, Hitler ordered Operation Green, the invasion of Czechoslovakia to obtain the mineral rich Sudetenland, an area of over three million Germans.  If this could be achieved then the Czech state would effectively be destroyed.  A number of leading military and civilian figures opposed the operation believing that Germany was not ready for war and would be defeated.  The coup was set, but the conspirators did not count on the fecklessness of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the intercession of Benito Mussolini that brought about the Munich Conference and the ceding of the Sudetenland to Germany peacefully.  Once the fear of war with Britain and France was off the table, the conspirators were finished.  However, Hitler would continue his aggressive actions that eventually resulted in the events of early September, 1939 with the invasion of Poland and the official beginning of World War II.

The Oster, Goerdeler, and Beck network was too small to stage a successful coup especially with higher echelons of the Nazi regime intoxicated with events up to the invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941.  The expansion of the German resistance movement was a direct reaction to Operation Barbarossa, and with it the only option seemed to be the assassination of Hitler.  The movement expanded and its tentacles reached further into the army, foreign office with improved connections between cells.  Many like Hermann Kaiser, a former history teacher, and reserve officer; and Lt. Col. Henning von Tresckow, a senior operations officer in the Army Group Center on the eastern front reacted to the carnage and slaughter in the east perpetrated by SS Einsatzgruppen.  In 1941 and 1942 there was little that could be done to stop it, but with the fall of Stalingrad the resistance was emboldened and a number of assassination attempts against Hitler were planned but failed due to a change in the Fuhrer’s schedule, bad luck or other unforeseen problems.

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(Admiral Wilhelm Carnaris)

One of the most surprising aspects of the book was Orbach’s discussion of the role of Admiral Wilhelm Carnaris, a conservative nationalist who could not accept the brutality of the Nazi regime.  Carnaris disgusted by what he saw in Warsaw worked to save over 400 people including Rabbi Joseph Schneersohn, the Lubacitche Rabbi.  Carnaris worked further to smuggle Jews out of Germany using the excuse he was planting spies abroad.

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(Count Claus von Stauffenberg, attempted to kill Hitler with a bomb on July 20, 1944)

By 1943 leadership of the resistance fell, almost, by default to Count Claus von Stauffenberg, a romanticist and elitist whose career would bring him to Hitler’s General Staff.  Orbach presents an in depth chapter dealing with von Stauffenberg’s evolution in finally becoming the leader of the movement and deciding that only he had the courage and position to kill Hitler.  Orbach carefully explains the organization of the conspirators, how they planned, communicated, recruited, and compartmentalized their networks from each other.  Orbach’s analysis included the personality clashes within the movement and the shadow government that was created designed to govern Germany after the Nazis were removed.  All their plans failed as Hitler survived the July 20, 1944 bomb blast and Orbach explains that none of the conspirators had any training in the art of the coup de tat which in part explains why it was not successful.  Orbach drills down in reviewing mistakes that were made and the fate of the perpetrators once the plot was uncovered.

Orbach’s conclusions are well supported by his ambitious scholarship and research.  I believe the most important question explored in the narrative is what led people to oppose Hitler.  Was is a combination of their hostility toward murder, genocide, fear that Germany could not win a world war, opportunism, or the dechristianization of Germany?  Orbach further argues that it “perhaps comes down to the elements composing motive, the aggregate of psychological processes and factors pushing one across the Rubicon into the shadowy world of revolutionary conspiracy.  It may well be difficult to define the elusive mix that constitutes such an imperative.  The best I can do is to suggest three necessary components: its foundation, substance, and impetus.”  The foundation seems to be empathy, the substance is a system of values, and the impetus was exceptional courage.

Orbach’s narrative, at times, reads like a murder mystery, as well as a historical monograph. Orbach should also be given credit for presenting then debunking numerous myths associated with events which makes the book a useful contribution to the increasing number of studies dealing with the German resistance.  Because of Orbach’s approach and smooth writing those who are interested in the topic should not be disappointed.

Orbach compares the recent attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey with those against Hitler in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, November 28, 2016.  http://www.haaretz.com/middle-east news/turkey/.premium-1.755427

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(July 20, 1944, bomb damage from a plot to kill Adolf Hitler)

VICTORIA: THE QUEEN by Julia Baird

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(Queen Victoria)

The current airing of PBS’ Masterpiece Theater of VICTORIA and its popularity has created great interest in the British monarch who ruled her kingdom and the world’s largest empire between her accession to the throne in 1837 and her death in 1901.  The program is written by Daisy Goodwin who has recently published her novel VICTORIA a fictional account of the early years of Victoria’s reign.  For a full and intimate biography Julia Baird has filled that void with VICTORIA: THE QUEEN which is an in depth study of the queen focusing on what it was like to be a female monarch in a world dominated by men.  Baird takes a somewhat feminist approach to her subject and based on years of research and mastery of primary and secondary material, the reader will learn what it was like for the teenage girl to suddenly assume the throne in 1837, her views on Parliament, Prime Ministers, attitudes toward the poor, foreign policy ranging from the Crimean War to the Boer War, but also the effect of her reign on society and women in particular.  The approach Baird takes is informative, well thought out, provides impeccable analysis, but at times she takes her intimate approach a bit too far.  I understand the importance of Victoria’s multiple pregnancies that produced nine children, but I do not need to know the details of her menstrual cycle and her reproductive anatomy.  Details about her life with Prince Alfred are fascinating, but at times, here too, she goes overboard.  However, despite some flaws the book is beautifully written and an important contribution to the historiography of the Queen.

During her reign Victoria steered her people through the social and economic changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and oversaw her kingdom as the European balance of power was radically altered through nationalism and imperialism.  The Queen’s reign was the longest in British history until it was recently surpassed in 2015 by Queen Elizabeth II.  Baird points to the many myths associated with Victoria relating to her marriage to Prince Albert, her use of power as queen, her treatment of her subjects, and her personality traits.  Baird accurately concludes that “Victoria is the women under whose auspices the modern world was made.”   Further, Baird does an exceptional job analyzing her subject in the context of mid to late 19th century socio-economic change and her impact on European society and the larger world especially for the role of women.  In a sense Baird has created an ode to the development of the women’s movement with Victoria’s situation seen as a primary motivator behind it.  Baird correctly argues that Victoria fought for her independence, prestige, and respect for her reign from the time she was a teenager, and did so mostly on her own.  For the author, she “worked until her eyes wore out, that she advised, and argued with, ten prime ministers, populated the royal courts of Europe, and kept the British monarchy stable during the political upheavals that shook Europe in the nineteenth century.”

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(William Lamb, Lord Melbourne)

Baird gives Victoria a great deal of credit but then she backtracks as she discusses the queen’s relationship with Lord Melbourne, who she leaned on for support in dealing with her mother, John Conroy, certain members of her family, Parliament, and policy decisions. Baird describes a young woman infatuated with an older man, who thankfully does not seem to take advantage of his positon.  According to Baird, Victoria will eventually concede powers to Prince Albert in most major social, political, and foreign policy areas.  Granted, Victoria was pregnant a great deal of the time during her marriage to Albert, and suffered from postpartum depression and other ills that made her involvement in decision making less of an issue, but Baird herself points out the differences in approach between Victoria and Albert.  The Prince was more of an intellectual than his spouse and was greatly interested in the problems of the poor and working classes.  Albert was a cultured and well educated person who did not want to crush public dissent like Victoria and it appeared he wanted to bring about reform in order to lessen that dissent.  According to Baird, “the role of the monarchy under Albert’s leadership, then, was a forceful influence, which urged the government to exercise restraint in foreign policy and democratization, to erode the authority of the aristocracy and exert influence through a web of royal connections that spanned Europe in a network of carefully planned and delicate backdoor diplomacy.”  Victoria on the other hand was not as empathetic toward her subjects.  A case in point is her approach to the Irish famine where she started out criticizing tyrannical landlords, but once a few landlords that she knew were murdered, her sympathy for Irish tenant farmers waned.  Baird argues that it was a stretch to blame Victoria for the famine, but there was a great deal she could have done to mitigate their effects.  It is clear that from the time of her marriage to Prince Albert in 1839 until his death in 1861 England may have gone through an Albertine Age as Baird suggests, and it took until the Prince died for Victoria to seize the reigns and create the Victorian Age.

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(Queen Victoria and Prince Albert)

For Victoria until Albert’s passing life was a balancing act; how to be a good mother, wife, and reign over her kingdom.  Baird does her best to show the Queen as a loving and doting mother, but then in the next sentence she will point out that she was rarely involved in certain aspects of her children’s care. Victoria possessed a quiet stubbornness that forced many who opposed her wishes to underestimate her, particularly when she ruled by herself.  Lord Melbourne did school her well on how to be an effective Queen, and she learned from Albert certain sensibilities that a monarch needed to possess.

Baird does an effective job dealing with Victoria’s views and impact on events.  Her role in the Crimean War debate is discussed in full, her fears of revolution in 1848 and why the social upheaval throughout Europe did not cross the English Channel, her distaste for the Russians in the Eastern crisis that led to war and the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, and her opposition to Home Rule for the Irish.  Further, Baird’s discussion and analysis of Victoria relationship with her Prime Ministers is top drawer particularly her negative relationship with Lord Palmerston when he was Foreign and Prime Minister, and her up and down relationships with certain Prime Ministers, particularly William Gladstone, Lord Derby and Lord Russell.  Her relationship with Lord Salisbury was excellent but nothing compared to her relationship with Benjamin Disraeli as he was the only Prime Minister to realize that the lonely queen wanted to be “fettered, flattered, and adored.”  As Victoria aged she moved on from her Whiggish liberalism under the influence of Melbourne to outright conservativism due to her close relationship with the Tory, Disraeli.  The last twenty years of her reign Victoria, who never acted as an impartial monarch, became greatly involved in politics, especially when the man she loathed, William Gladstone had defeated Disraeli in parliamentary elections in 1881.

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(Prime Minister William Gladstone)

It can be argued that 1861 was a watershed year for Europe and the world because of its impact on the United States and across Europe.  It witnessed the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, the supposed emancipation of serfs in Russia, and the death of Prince Albert.  Her husband’s death became the greatest test for Victoria’s reign.  She seemed to succumb to an extreme depression and many wondered if mental illness would overtake her as it did George III.  Her depression would last for a number of years where she had doubts about how to proceed with policies and felt extremely alone.  During that time a number of major events in Europe would draw the attention of the British Foreign Office.  The Polish Revolt against Russia and the controversy over Schleswig-Holstein would lead to the Danish War between Denmark and Prussia.  English influence in this 1863 crisis was marked and if Albert had been alive he might have influenced events more than his mourning widow.  By the late 1860s it appeared that Victoria was emerging from her depressive state, and as she overcame her loss she would go on to be a strong monarch in her own right making a deep impact on her kingdom as well as Europe.

The key individual in Victoria’s emergence from her widowed state was John Brown, a Scottish Highlander who had been Albert’s outdoor attendant at Balmoral who became her most intimate friend.  Her children despised him and nicknamed him the “Queen’s Stallion.”  There are many rumors and myths about their relationship that Baird addresses, whether they were lovers and what impact he may have had on policies, as one writer referred to him as “Rasputin with a kilt.”  No matter what the truth may be, one thing is certain is that the Queen came to rely on him and he helped fill the void created by Albert’s death.  In fact, Victoria would spend eighteen years in his company, almost as long as she spent with her beloved Albert.

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(Wilhelm II of Germany, Victoria’s grandson)

Baird spends a great deal of time discussing royal genealogy and its impact on Victoria’s life and policy decisions.  Using the marriage of her children for diplomatic need had been a tradition of European and English monarchies for centuries, but in her case the result can be considered quite disastrous as her lineage connects her to Wilhelm II of Germany, and Nicholas II of Russia who both bear a great deal of the blame for the outbreak of World War I and the carnage that followed.  Her children were placed throughout Europe as a means of extending English influence, but in reality that goal was rarely met.

There is no doubt that no one person dominated her kingdom the way Victoria had, particularly from the 1870s onward as she applied the political lessons learned over the decades, especially working in the shadows to achieve her goals while her subjects thought she was romping in Scotland as any monarch would do.  Baird creates an absorbing picture of a fascinating life.  Despite a few flaws Baird should be commended for producing the most comprehensive analysis of Victoria and her importance in history, and it should remain the most important secondary source on Victoria’s life for years to come.

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(Queen Victoria)