Thursday, October 10, 2013

Stein Ringen

Stein Ringen is professor emeritus of sociology and social policy at Oxford University.

His latest book is Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience.

A few weeks ago I asked the author about what he was reading. Ringen's reply:
I’m interested in how governments rule, and even more in misrule. What more natural then, than to go back to the First World War, this colossal calamity that resulted from government failure all around. In The Sleepwalkers, the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark explains in great detail the politics of the involved countries: Serbia, Austria, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and others. War spread through Europe, he finds, because what no one wanted was not prevented. It’s a book packed with learning, and also with gems. Here is one about Freud, who was delighted that Austria was manning itself up for war: ‘For the first time in thirty years, I feel myself to be an Austrian, and feel like giving this not very hopeful empire another chance. All my libido is dedicated to Austria-Hungary.’

Clark does not put as much blame on Germany as has been usual in recent history, but spreads it more around. Among the bad leaders of the time, the one who stands out from the others is Clemenceau, the French president, a man of monumental vanity and stupidity who was unable to think two steps ahead of his instincts. As war was in the balance, he travelled to Russia and pushed the impressionable Russians to aggression, which came to pass. Clemenceau survived to war and became the chief architect of the vengeful Treaty of Versailles that cleared to ground for Hitler in Germany. Now, that’s some historical responsibility for one man to carry!

Along with The Sleepwalkers, I’m reading The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth’s masterpiece about the end of the Central-European culture that had flourished within the Austrian-Hungarian empire. The story is told through the life of Lieutenant von Trotta, the grandson of the hero of Solferino who had saved the emperor’s life at that eventful battle for Austria in 1859. The dashing young emperor had then put himself in the line of fire. Now he is old and dotty and keeps getting the Lieutenant, his father the District Commissioner and his grandfather the hero muddled up.

Joseph Roth was an Austrian-Jewish author and journalist who reported on the rise of Hitler in Germany and died drinking himself to death in Paris in 1939. You can visit him today in a restaurant dedicated to his memory in Berlin, Joseph Roth Diele (Joseph Roth’s sitting room). Here are his books to read and buy, and his life is commemorated in hundreds of photos and mementos along the walls. Good honest German food.

The Radetzky March is longish and worth every page, but of you want something shorter go to The Emperor’s Tomb, which is in the same spirit and equally beautiful. Both are available in brilliant English translations by Michael Hofmann.
Learn more about Nation of Devils at the Yale University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Nation of Devils.

--Marshal Zeringue