2017 was, by any measure, an extraordinary year. There was a lot to catch up on, and before one could take stock of an ongoing crisis, there was another one looming. If these preceding sentences sound dramatic, consider this: two bestselling books of 2017 were dystopian novels from 30s and 40s (Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here). In general, there was a rightward shift in political attitudes, which, in and of itself is not a bad thing, but somehow this shift manifested itself in unpleasant (and unexpected) ways.
My reading choices were shaped partly by what publishers had to offer, and partly by my quest to make sense of what was happening.
Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ulrich: Knee-jerk reactions to overwhelming political changes are understandable, but diagnostically inaccurate. Many people – both political pundits and Averages Joes – have tried to invoke Hitler to explain populist attitudes in different countries. This copiously referenced biography of Hitler should prove all of those people wrong. To read it is to understand that most liberal democracies provide a robust bulwark against the rise of racism. But, it also explains how an ultimately well-meaning volk could be blinded by rhetoric and allow prejudice to overrule common sense. In doing so, it provides a valuable lesson and teaches us to be wary of politicians whose stock-in-trade is “personality”, not policy.
Here is a portion from the book that I liked.
The cultish worship of the Führer took on some fairly bizarre forms. The East Prussian village of Sutzken, for instance, requested permission to rename itself “Hitler Heights,” and a Düsseldorf Nazi Party member tried to name his daughter “Hitlerine.” (The authorities suggested Adolfine as an alternative.) “Hitler oaks” were planted, “Hitler cakes” baked, and “Hitler roses” were bred. The Reich Association of Dog Owners applied for permission to mint a commemorative coin with the image of “our beloved Führer, who is himself a breeder and lover of pure-bred dogs.” The senate of the Eberswalde Academy of Forestry awarded Hitler an honorary doctorate in recognition of his support “for the culture of our native soil, the promotion of the agricultural classes and the encouragement of timber cultivation and the timber industry”; Hitler refused to accept the honour as a matter of “principle.” A lively trade in Hitler busts developed, and the image of the Führer adorned beer steins, porcelain tiles, ashtrays, playing cards, fountain pens and other banal everyday objects. The selling of Hitler kitsch and devotional trifles grew so quickly that as early as April 1933 the government announced it was taking measures to rein in the commercial exploitation of the Führer’s likeness.
Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra: There are multiple reasons to read this book. It does a great job of explaining the linkages between the past and the present. One may conclude that the cliché “the more things change, the more they remain the same” applies to political preferences as well. It also explains how and why reliance on unfettered markets is strategically improper; the sort of inequality (and eventually, rage) that unregulated capitalism can produce is to nobody’s advantage. Lastly, there’s Mishra’s prose – it is difficult to write about subjects such as these without coming across as hectoring and polemical. To his credit, Mishra avoids such a tone and chooses a style that is elegant, gentle and convincing. Sample this:
In the absence of reasoned debate, conspiracy theories and downright lies abound, and even gain broad credence: it was while peddling one of them, ‘Obama is a foreign-born Muslim’, that Donald Trump rose to political prominence. Lynch mobs, assassins and mass shooters thrive in a climate where many people can think only in terms of the categories of friends and foes, sectarian loyalty or treason. The world of mutual tolerance envisaged by cosmopolitan elites from the Enlightenment onwards exists within a few metropolises and university campuses; and even these rarefied spaces are shrinking. The world at large – from the United States to India – manifests a fierce politics of identity built on historical injuries and fear of internal and external enemies.
The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide by Azeez Ibrahim: Recent reports have revealed that as many as 10,000 Rohingyas have been killed and over 500,000 are now living as refugees. Their future looks bleak; their past has been irremediably destroyed. Many of the refugees can speak no language other than their own; most of them are not well-educated – suffice it to say that there are no real opportunities for them to earn their living and rebuild their lives. The roots of the current dispute (a mild word to the point of being euphemistic) can be traced to the consolidation of the Arakan and Burma region by the British. What happened since, and how the fear and loathing of the “other” led to the present situation, is the story that that this book narrates.
The systemic misery of the Rohingyas’ lives is fuelling a massive refugee crisis with many seeking to escape by sea to neighbouring countries. This outflow of people has been a regular response to periods of systemic persecution and has become a regular feature of the spring post-monsoon period in recent years. This regular event briefly attracted international press attention in May 2015. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the refugee crisis from the point of view of ordinary observers was that in early summer 2015, when the crisis finally came fully to our attention, there was no obvious immediate trigger in the internal situation in Myanmar. The 2015 refugee crisis was not a direct outcome of a particular policy decision, or even of a new outburst of violence. It is quite simply what happens when human beings are expected to live in intolerable conditions.
Many Rohingyas seem to have themselves accepted that there is no place for them in Myanmar. To give just one example as to why they have done so, the level of persecution and exclusion has been normalised to the point where hospitals in Rahkine refuse to treat Rohingya people, especially if they have been beaten up by the police or army. Steven Kiersons of the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention summarises: ‘There is an utter loss of hope for the future, and people are risking their lives whether they stay in Burma or go abroad’.
During the year, I also discovered Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel Go, Went, Gone which is about a retired classics professor wanting to find out more about African refugees in Germany. Despite being a man of learning, he realizes that he knows almost nothing about Africa or its varied countries, languages and customs.
It’s hard to make a generalization about the author’s writing style, because from other reviews I have read, this book is a “departure” from her usual writing mode. Nonetheless, it’s the plot that drew me to the book. I will certainly read more of her next year.