A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

This is the interesting story of the Cambridge Five, five graduates of Cambridge University who worked for the British government from the 1930s to the 1950s while they spied for the Soviet Union. Kim Philby was the most successful of the group and is the author’s principal subject. Philby was a double agent for 20 years, working for the British security services while delivering massive amounts of information to the Russians. The secrets he passed to the Russians resulted in many operations being blown and lots of people being killed. Eventually, he fled to the Soviet Union (although it’s very possible that Britain’s MI-6 encouraged him to leave in order to save the British government a great deal of embarrassment).

Philby and his fellow spies (Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross and Anthony Blunt) all became convinced at Cambridge that the Soviet Union had the best available political system. That made it relatively easy to recruit them in service of the Russians. Three of them lived out their lives in Moscow. None of them were ever prosecuted for spying.

The principal theme of the book is that the Cambridge Five were able to remain undiscovered for so long because they were comfortable members of the British ruling class. The security services and the Foreign Office were primarily run by other members of the upper class who presumed that the men they worked and drank with were gentlemen and would never betray their country.

After Philby confessed to spying for the Russians, he could have been returned to England for prosecution or even assassinated. But he was permitted to circulate freely until he defected one night, boarding a freighter bound for Odessa. Other spies weren’t treated so gently:

I mention the fate of less favored traitors who did far less than Philby but spent years in prison for it.

“Ah well, Vassall –well, he wasn’t top league, was he?”

(John Vassall, homosexual son of an Anglican parson and clerk to the naval attaché at the British Embassy in Moscow, was sentenced for eighteen years for spying for the KGB.)

Mr. Vassall had not attended Eton or Cambridge, as Mr. Philby had, and never belonged to the right gentlemen’s club.


Simply Napoleon by J. David Markham and Matthew Zarzeczny

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the most important people who ever lived. I’ve been curious about him but haven’t wanted to read an 800-page biography. That’s why I got a copy of this brief one. It’s part of the “Simply” series of short biographies for the general reader. Other titles in the series include Simply Freud, Simply Dickens and Simply Tolstoy.

I now have a better understanding of Napoleon’s life, but do not recommend this book. It’s a second-rate production. It covers the major events in Napoleon’s military and political career, but provides little insight into his thinking or character. It lists precise statistics for the losses in battles that happened more than 200 years ago but never indicates that the numbers aren’t necessarily to be trusted. For example, it’s stated that 243 Spaniards were killed and 735 were wounded, while some 2,200 Frenchmen were killed, 400 wounded and 17,635 were captured in the same battle. Is it plausible that almost 10 times as many Frenchmen were killed while almost twice as many Spaniards were wounded? A number of illustrations appear as black splotches.

Furthermore, the subjects emphasized are sometimes bizarre. One paragraph covers Napoleon’s seizure of the French government and the creation of a new constitution in 1799. That’s immediately followed by almost nine pages devoted to the slave revolt in Haiti and its repercussions.

If you want to read something short about Napoleon, you might try Napoleon: A Very Short Introduction and A Very Short Introduction to the Napoleonic Wars. I haven’t read those two, but the “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press tend to be quite good.

To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism by Rob Riemen

The author is a Dutch writer and “cultural philosopher”. The dust jacket says To Fight Against This Age was an international best seller. The book has two parts: “The Eternal Return of Fascism” and “The Return of Europa”.

The first part argues convincingly that fascism is a recurring tendency in Western civilization. The second argues that a united Europe could be much more than it has turned out to be, which is “nothing other than an Economic Union, where the terms soul, culture, philosophy, and live in truth are as impossible as a palm tree on the moon” [167].

The situation in the United States being more urgent, I found the discussion of fascism more engaging. We hesitate to apply the word “fascist” to the right-wing extremists who have gained ground in America (and in some parts of Europe),  mainly because they haven’t taken total control of society and spread bloodshed in the manner of Hitler and Mussolini. Rieman, however, says we should use the term to make clear how extreme these movements are and also make it easier to stop them:

… the fascist bacillus will always remain virulent in the body of mass democracy. Denying this fact or calling it something else will not make us resistant to it…. If we want to put up a good fight, we first have to admit that it has become active in our social body again and call it by its name: “fascism” [34].

In the twenty-first century, no fascist would willingly be called a “fascist”. Fascists aren’t that stupid, and it fits with their mastery of the skill of lying. Contemporary fascists are recognizable partly through what they say, but just as important is how they operate…. Fascist techniques are identical everywhere: the presence of a charismatic leader; the use of populism to motivate the masses; the designation of the base group as victims (of crises, or elites, or of foreigners); and the direction of all resentment toward an “enemy”. Fascism has no need for a [small “d”] democratic party with members who are individually responsible; it needs an inspiring and authoritative leader who is believed to have superior instincts (making decisions that don’t require supporting arguments), a faction leader who can be obeyed and followed by the masses [83-84].

Sound familiar?

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America by Garry Wills

The brilliant author Garry Wills did a public service when he wrote this book about Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”. Chapters on 19th century oratory, the “rural cemetery” movement and Lincoln’s choice of words provide context, but those aren’t the parts of the book that make it important.

Wills’s principal thesis is that Lincoln’s focus on the idea of equality as stated in the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) changed our understanding of the Constitution and America itself:

The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it. It is this correction of the spirit, this intellectual revolution, that makes attempts to go back beyond Lincoln so feckless. The proponents of states’ rights may have arguments, but they have lost their force, in courts as well as in the popular mind. By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people, dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America (146-147).

As originally written, the Constitution not only accepted the existence of slavery but gave preferential treatment to the slave states. Lincoln, however, forcefully proclaimed that “our new nation” was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. Furthermore, he challenged us to continue “our unfinished work” to insure that America’s government would truly be, by implication, of all the people, by all the people and for all the people. Lincoln’s brief remarks at the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a few months after the cataclysmic Battle of Gettysburg, helped make our country a different and better place. Garry Wills’s excellent book explains why and how that happened.

Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant (1822 – 1885) rose to become the commanding general of the Union forces in the Civil War. In 1865, after defeating Robert E. Lee, he accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. In 1869, he became the 18th president of the United States. He served two terms. In 1884, he was diagnosed with cancer. To provide for his family, he immediately began writing this memoir. He died a few days after finishing it. From Wikipedia:

Grant’s memoirs treat his early life and time in the Mexican–American War briefly and are inclusive of his life up to the end of the Civil War. The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was a critical and commercial success. [His wife] Julia Grant received about $450,000 in royalties….The memoir has been highly regarded by the public, military historians, and literary critics…. He candidly depicted his battles against both the Confederates and internal army foes. Twain called the Memoirs a “literary masterpiece.” Given over a century of favorable literary analysis, reviewer Mark Perry states that the Memoirs are “the most significant work” of American non-fiction.

Grant was a wonderful writer. His language is elegant but easy to understand. The book should be of interest to anyone who wants to learn about the Civil War, but also to anyone who wants to appreciate the complexities involved in leading a massive army. Grant’s comments on the nature of the Southern rebellion are especially interesting. He appreciated the skill and bravery of his opponents, but makes it clear that they were fighting for a terrible cause.

The only problem I had with the book is that there are lengthy descriptions of large and small-scale troop movements. Grant describes how troops were deployed in individual battles as well as the movement of armies containing as many as 80,000 soldiers. The problem is that it’s hard to understand what’s happening without being familiar with the geography of both individual battles and the Southern states. The maps in this edition were useless. I would have loved to hear Grant’s words while watching an animated video showing what he was describing.

Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939 by Volker Ullrich

This is the first part of a two-part biography of Hitler. It takes him up to his 50th birthday in 1939, a few months before he started World War 2. I came away with a much clearer understanding of who he was and what his goals were (although the book covers German politics in more detail than I needed).

In a sense, therefore, the book “humanizes” or “normalizes” him. For example, he could be charming. He wasn’t an ignoramus. He could be a spellbinding speaker. He doesn’t appear to have been monstrous or even especially anti-Semitic from the beginning. He was certainly a ruthless demagogue even in the 1920s and 1930s as he gained power. Maybe being worshiped by millions of Germans helped turn him into a monster.

I guess what I’m saying is that if he had become a dictator; seized the Rhineland; negotiated Germany’s absorption of Austria and the Sudetenland (the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia) without a shot being fired; and brutally forced the emigration of millions of Jews from Germany, he might have been considered an especially ruthless but successful leader. There have been dictators in the past and will be more in the future. It seems that he descended into the absolute abyss in the six years not covered by Hitler: Ascent 1889 – 1939. Presumably, Ullrich’s second volume will be called Hitler: Descent 1939 – 1945.

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick

There are two principal topics in this book: time travel and time. Since time travel is fiction, the history of time travel presented in the book is the history of ideas about time travel, mostly ideas expressed in novels like H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, short stories like Robert Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and movies like The Terminator. Time travel can be fun to think about, and ideas about time travel are suggestive of what people have thought about time, but I quickly lost interest in the topic. So I ended up skimming those sections of the book.

On the other hand, Gleick’s discussion of time itself was worth reading. He covers both physics and philosophy, and does an excellent job explaining complex, competing ideas about time. For example:

You can say Einstein discovered that the universe is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. But it’s better to say, more modestly, Einstein discovered that we can describe the universe as a four-dimensional space-time continuum and that such a model enables physicists to calculate almost everything, with astounding exactitude, in certain limited domains. Call it space-time for the convenience of reasoning….

You can say the equations of physics make no distinction between past and future, between forward and backward in time. But if you do, you are averting your gaze from the phenomena dearest to our hearts. You leave for another day or another department the puzzles of evolution, memory, consciousness, life itself. Elementary processes may be reversible; complex processes are not. In the world of things, time’s arrow is always flying.

It’s an interesting question whether the calculations of the physicists are so accurate because the universe really is a four-dimensional space-time continuum. And is the passage of time some kind of illusion, like many physicists believe? Gleick leans toward time being quite real and physicists taking their models a bit too seriously. I think this would have been a better book if he spent more time on the physics and philosophy and less time on the fiction.