A room without books is like a body without a soul.
History & Politics
Human beings are inherently selfish, bad, and cruel. Constantly, we’re on the lookout for personal gains and will instantly sacrifice the wellbeing of others whenever it suits us. That, broadly speaking, has been a very prominent view of human nature for a long time. Psychological experiments which apparently demonstrated just how bad we really are have been all over the place, particularly in the 1960s and 70s. The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment are just to widely publicized examples which get cited over and over again to this day. Needless to say, this view of human nature also helped to underpin the neoliberal consensus that individuals in an economic system can be reduced to “gain-maximizing machines”.
But how, asks Rutger Bregman, can this theory account for the endless amounts of kindness, compassion, and unconditional help that is evident wherever we look—if we only dare to look, that is? The answer is quite simple: It can’t, because it’s fundamentally flawed. Humans beings, according to Bregman, are inherently good. Left to our own devices, we’re eager to cooperate with each other, to help out those in need, and to sacrifice our own pleasure for the benefit of others.
In “Im Grunde gut”, Bregman follows an extremely thorough approach: One by one he picks apart the most prominent historical examples used to demonstrate our innate selfishness, and counteracts them with facts. The Standford Prison Experiment for instance? As it turns out, the guards were actively incentivized by the scientists who ran the experiment to act as cruel as possible. Attempts to replicate its findings in unbiased environments have not only failed, but they yielded the exact opposite results: After a couple of days, guards and prisoners turned into friends rather than mortal enemies.
Bregman tracked down countless academic studies as well as “real-world experiments”, such as the case of a group of boys stranded on a remote, desert island. Rather than a “Lord of the Flies”-ish nightmare, it turned out that without parental supervision they quickly developed a cooperative society which helped them survive on their own for years—as opposed to tearing out each others throats.
He finishes the book with a rather drawn-out chapter on the implications of his findings: If we were to fully adopt the view that humans are good by default, how would that change the design of our education and healthcare systems? Our prisons? The economy? Bregman showcases inspiring examples in each category that demonstrate that a shift in our basic assumption about human nature will drastically alter how we should construct our societies. Let’s hope that his book, as well as the semi-related but more historically focused “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, will be read not only by social scientists and historians, but also by policymakers and industry leaders.
While centenarians do occasionally pop up as protagonists in literature, it’s a rare occasion to see one actually writing a book themselves. Henry Kissinger however, at age 99, begs to differ: In Leadership, he’s not only looking back on a centrury of world politics (which he himself shaped to no small degree). But more importantly, he examines what made some of the epoch’s most influential leaders so effective.
Starting at the end of World War II, Kissinger first shines the spotlight on the personality of Konrad Adenauer and his “Strategy of Humility”. Germany had lost the war and public morale was at an all-time low. But thanks to Adenauer’s characteristic combination of a stoic acceptance of reality and a positive vision for his country’s future, he managed to set Germany on a path towards prosperity. Furthermore, Adenauer slowly and steadily built trust throughout the world in the fact that an economically thriving Germany would no longer pose a threat to global security.
The approach of Charles de Gaulle, the second leader Kissinger selected for his book, is as far from humility as one could imagine. What Kissinger termed the “Strategy of Will” rather resembles either ignorance or a complete negation of reality. When the little known French military general in exile proclaimed himself “Leader of Free France” at the height of his country’s occupation by Nazi Germany, he walked a tightrope between audacity and madness. But either or both of these qualities made such an impression Winston Churchill that he chose to put Britains’s full support behind de Gaulle, which ultimately culminated in the allied victory in 1945.
The book’s most controversial chapter covers the one leader that Kissinger himself was most intimately familiar with: Richard Nixon, who today is most famously remembered for his resignation over the Watergate Scandal. Kissinger served first as his National Security Advisor and then as Secretary of State. During Nixon’s one and a half terms in office, Kissinger and Nixon together significantly changed the world order in ways that are not as often highlighted. Most prominently, Nixon ended the war in Vietnam. But he also established diplomatic relations between the U.S. and communist China and successfully negotiated nuclear arms control measure with the Soviet Union. Reading the chapter on Nixon, one can almost feel Kissingers’ regret that these important positive contributions of the Nixon administration are largely overshadowed by domestic controversy in recent memory.
Kissinger then turns his attention to a lesser known, but no less influential personality: Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt from 1970 to 1991. His time in office was colored by the repercussions of the Six-Day War in 1967 and the ensuing Yom Kippur War (1973) between Israel and ist Arab neighbor states. Sadat’s contributions to world peace in that challenging environment can hardly be overstated: He brought the era of armed Israeli-Arab conflict to a halt, an effort for which he received the Nobel Peace Price but which also cost him much credibility in the Arab world and ultimately his own life. Sadat was murdered in 1981.
Next, Kissinger draws the reader’s attention as far away from Europe as possible—namely to South East Asia: In the chapter on Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s defining leader, he draws a picture of a man who imprinted his own impressive personality deeply and unmistakably on his country. The “Strategy of Excellence”, underpinned by discipline and willpower, is deeply present in the city state’s culture to this day. Following the era of British decolonialization and a failed attempt of merging the small island nation with ist larger neighbor Malaysia, Lee willed a country into existence in the most harsh of circumstances: A population that consists of three ethnicities without a common culture or language, a landmass so small that agriculture was hardly an option, and an absence of minable natural resources. Nevertheless, over the course of one generation Lee transformed a swampy island at the southern tip of Asia into an economic powerhouse like the world had seen few others. But while Kissinger doesn’t entirely sidestep the thorny question of democratic vs. autocratic rule in Singapore, his take on the topic feels more apologetic than critical.
Finally, the book returns to Europe and to another controversial, yet striking, personality: Margaret Thatcher. Her “Strategy of Conviction” can be almost be interpreted as a historic parallel to Charles de Gaulle’s relentless perseverance. But with Thatcher, that very same quality that led to her greatest successes (such as Britain’s victory in the Falkland conflict or her ending of the miners’ strikes) also paved the way to her demise. The project of increasing European integration (and thus ceding national power to Brussels) was favored at the time by many even among her own party, yet was always met with her infamous “No, no, no!”.
Summing up, Kissinger’s latest book is a impressive on many levels. The fact that the man was personally familiar with each of the protagonists adds a layer of intimacy that few other historic accounts which cover such a long timespan can provide. That impact is most prevalent in the chapter on Richard Nixon, but reverberates throughout the others as well. The important role Kissinger played in Anwar Sadat’s negotiations with Israel for example is neither exaggerated nor is it downplayed.
Kissinger’s account of the six different personalities and leadership styles is a very worthwhile read, both for the historically curious as well as for the student of political strategy.
When Gavrilo Princip pulled the trigger of his gun on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, the world changed forever. The war that broke out thereafter was one of unprecedented destructiveness, claimed millions of lives, and would shape the history of the entire 21st century. But how, exactly, was it possible that a singular event like this one would result in something as catastrophic as the First World War?
Christopher Clark’s 700 page epos makes one thing clear: Any monocausal explanation, such as “German Expansionism”, “Austrian Revanchism”, or “Russian Ambitions on the Balkan”, will fall tremendously short of depicting what actually happened. The historian rather begins by tracing the the European power structure back to the early 19th century, details how former multipolar relations slowly crystallized into opposing blocs, and how legal treaties, moral obligations, and strategic interests confounded into an explosive device which was practically waiting for its fuse to be light in 1914.
But Clark also cautions against the simplistic assumptions that each country involved acted as a single, unified entity. Instead, he goes to great lengths to explain how the different levels of political, military, and monarchic leadership in Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, and Russia interacted in—often in ways that contradicted or reinforced each other. He furthermore outlines the roles of mass media, public opinion, and the need for popular approval that helped to raise the tide of particular individuals and policies, even if they were at odds with their countries’ best interests.
On some level, Clark concludes, the problem with the origins of WWI is not the lack of information available to the historian. It’s the abundance. Making sense of all the different streams of data, ranging from newspaper reports to diary entries to the official records of the nations involved is a sisyphean task. The author does his best though to draw a nuanced, yet clear picture of the events that lead up to the declaration of war of July 28, 1914, and how each country participating in the ensuing struggle came—almost rightfully—to view itself as being involuntarily dragged into it.
However, the author does not exculpate any of the individuals in question. Quite to the contrary, he shows how time and time again, ambassadors, ministers, and even monarchs would have had the possibility to avert the looming crisis with the stroke of a pen, but then chose no to do so for various reasons.
In this regard, Clark’s book is enlightening above and beyond mere historic interest. It shows how complex political and economic systems can interact in ways that end up being detrimental to all parties involved. In the final chapter, Clark himself draws up a comparison between the events of 1914 and those at the brink of the European financial crisis almost a century later. More recent examples, such as the Coronavirus pandemic or the Russian war against Ukraine, will undoubtedly come to the readers’ minds as well. Interpreting these episodes as the results of complex, interconnected systems interacting with each other, rather than through a lense of simplistic black-and-white thinking, is surely a helpful exercise for which Clark and his analysis of the events that led Europe to war in 1914, provides an excellent blueprint.
In August 1980, Reinhold Messner achieved a feat as outstanding as controversial: As the first human ever, he climbed the worlds tallest mountain in solitude, not even connected with the rest of humanity through a radio link, and neither aided by artificial oxygen. Armed only with a backpack containing the barest essentials, the final ascent to Mount Everest’s summit at 8,848 meters took him three days of superhuman struggles which he describes in painstaking detail in his 1989 book. During that time, his sole accomplice, then-girlfriend Nena Holguin, awaited his return at their makeshift basecamp about 2,000 meters below, unsure if she would ever see him again.
Messner’s story is intriguing, fascinating, mesmerizing, and repulsive, all at the same time. He covers not only the infamous last few days of the expedition, but describes in great detail the events that lead up to it, including his journey through a post-Cultural Revolution China and a Tibet caught between tradition, occupation, and modernity. In that regards, the book can also be read as a travelogue in the tradition of Heinrich Harrer, Sven Hedin, or Alexandra David-Néel.
What struck me the most about his tale was the great level of private detail Messner shares with his readers. He goes so far as to (publicly!) question his own motives for this somewhat arbitrary challenge, as well as his approach to life in general. The sense of intimacy thus created is further enhanced by excerpts from Nena Holguin’s personal diary, which are sprinkled throughout the book. The impression we get of the person Reinhold Messner in this way is a multi-faceted one: Driven, relentless, harsh, but also loving, funny, and, more often than not, struggling with himself as much as with the mountain ahead.
Calling Ai Weiwei’s monumental story merely a “memoir” is a borderline misnomer. This epic tale covers more than a century of Chinese contemporary history, starting at the birth of his father, poet Ai Qing, in 1910. Ai Weiwei thoroughly traces his family’s mixed story full of fame, resistance, suppression, banishment, and internment, which culminates in his own forced emigration to Europe in 2015.
Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to the life of his father and its intertwinement with historical events such as the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45, the Chinese civil war, the rise to power of the CCP under Mao Zedong, the devastation caused by the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. Slowly, the story segues towards how Ai Weiwei himself developed into the artist and activist he is today. His formative years in New York, his return to China, and the time he spent there interned for alleged political crimes are covered in much detail, but never told in a long-winded or boring manner. Finally, he talks about why and how he decided to go into exile and what motives him to continue his fight for liberty and justice, both in China and elsewhere in the world.
To be honest, I didn’t expect too much of this book, but was immediately capture by it. Ai Weiwei gives us a rare glance inside the Chinese soul, always grounded in reality but told in a personal, at times even shockingly intimate, manner. Regardless if you’re a follower of his artistic work or just interested in China and its turbulent 21st century history, 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows won’t disappoint.