Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Michael S. Neiberg

Michael Neiberg, a native of Pittsburgh, is an historian who specializes in the ways that societies interact with war and military institutions. His latest book, Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of War in 1914, analyzes the events of that fateful year from the perspective of “ordinary” Europeans. He has been a Guggenheim fellow, a founding member of the Société Internationale d’Étude de la Grande Guerre, and the Harold K. Johnson Visiting Professor of History at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
My next book is about the dramatic liberation of Paris in 1944, so I am reading everything I can find about the city. I’ve visited Paris many times and had the opportunity to enjoy a couple of extended research visits there, but I still find it a hard city to really know. To me, Paris is best summed up not by its monuments or by its beautiful architecture, nor even by its people (so many of whom are not from Paris), but by its doorways. Normally uninviting on the outside, they sometimes open up to reveal beautiful courtyards, hidden green spaces, and opulent foyers. They have always suggested to me two truths about Paris: first, that its secrets will never fully reveal themselves and second, that there is always more to this magnificent city than meets the eye.

A city with more than 2,000 years of history behind it has a lot of tales to tell. The book I am currently reading, Graham Robb’s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, tells some of the most fascinating. Included are stories not only of Parisians themselves, but of some of the more famous visitors to the city, including Napoleon, who lost his virginity to a working girl in the Palais Royal; Hitler, who came for a few hours to pronounce his amateur artist’s condemnation of Sacré Coeur and the Panthéon; and Charles de Gaulle, who walked calmly out of Notre Dame the day after the liberation as shots from a sniper landed at his feet. Also detailed are some of the macabre and bizarre stories that have given the history of Paris its distinct character, such as the tale of the young cobbler arrested on his wedding night for a crime he did not commit. Years later and in possession of a great fortune, he took his grisly revenge in a tale that may well have inspired Dumas to write The Count of Monte Cristo.

Robb’s book (and his even better book on rural France, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography) will entertain anyone who has ever been to Paris. Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps is for those who know – or think they know – the city. The story of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s redesign of Paris under Napoleon III is normally celebrated for creating the parks, sewers, and modern boulevards that made the French capital the envy of the world. Hazan, however, takes aim at Haussmann (and at other periods of urban renewal as well), leveling a savage critique at the human costs of such massive transformations. Working his way around the city outward in a spiral to match the layout of the city’s neighborhoods, his work is opinionated, savage, and a sympathetic look at a Paris that no longer exists.

I also recently read Agnès Humbert’s harrowing yet uplifting Résistance. Written in 1946, it reappeared in France in 2004, and in 2008 the first-ever English translation was published. Humbert was part of the first true resistance group in Paris. Working with other staff members of the Musée de l’Homme in the Trocadéro, she distributed anti-Nazi leaflets and began to organize people who refused to sit idle while the Germans martyred their beloved Paris. While visiting her ailing mother in the hospital she was arrested and imprisoned in some of the city’s most notorious prisons before being sent to Germany to perform dangerous forced labor. She remained in Nazi captivity until rescued by the Americans in 1945, whereupon she helped her saviors hunt war criminals and reorganize German society. After the war she returned to her beloved Paris, where she died in 1963.

The three books reveal three different versions of Paris. To Hazan, a native Parisian, it is a place where the spirit of “progress” and the power of capitalism have let nothing stand in their way, even if entire communities needed to be destroyed in the process. To Robb, an Englishman, it is a place that forever enchants and mystifies its visitors. To Humbert, the daughter of a French senator and a woman of extraordinary courage, it was home to the best and worst of human nature. To me, an American historian, it is still a place that tries as stubbornly as it can to keep its secrets.
Learn more about Dance of the Furies at the Harvard University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Dance of the Furies.

--Marshal Zeringue