I have little patience for overreaction to political gaffes or misstatements, but usually this lack of patience takes the form of dismay at the blatant cynicism involved in such overreactions. In the case of the upset over President Obama's reference last night to "Polish death camps," I'm left with more mystification than dismay, because the uproar of sensible people like David Frum and Michael Tomasky is genuine.
Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and NationsBy Norman Davies (Viking, 830 pp., $40) There is a well-worn story that is told in one form or another in all European history textbooks. In 824, ten years after the death of Charlemagne, Agobard, Archbishop of Lyon, hailed a new Christian imperial ambition to unite all the peoples and lands of the Western Holy Roman Empire by reformulating Galatians 3:28: “There is now neither Gentile nor Jew, Scythian nor Aquitanian, nor Lombard, nor Burgundian, nor Alaman, nor bond, nor free.
Poland in the postwar era was a supremely unlucky nation, but in one respect (and perhaps one only) it was among the world’s luckiest. This unassuming country, generally admired not for its scenery nor its cuisine nor its architecture, produced three of the greatest European poets of the last half-century. The first was Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), born in Lithuania to a Polish family, who defected to France in 1951 and emigrated to the United States in 1960; he was Poland’s geopolitical poet, befitting his perch in exile, and its first poet Nobelist.
The Village Voice gives out theater awards called the Obies (for Off-Broadway), and during the 1980s the Voice’s theater department voted to bestow one of those prizes on the distinguished absurdist Václav Havel, who dwelled in the faraway absurdistan known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. In their New York productions, Havel’s plays ran at the Public Theater, and everyone who kept up with the downtown scene knew them well. The plays were splendidly mordant.
It was 1988 presidential primary time in New York, and I was on the press bus going from Manhattan to Boro Park in Brooklyn where Al Gore was scheduled to meet Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, the Bobover Rebbe, the Grand Rabbi of Bobov, Poland. Of course, there are no Jews in Bobov—and hardly any in Poland. But, despite the fact that the Lubavitcher and Satmar Hassidim are the most well-known sects (and the latter notorious, too), the Bobover are the largest Jewish faction in New York.
In the Jewish struggle around Zionism there were at least three strands in opposition so fierce that it was evident that the very meaning of “the people Israel” was at stake. The first of these was a vast religious cohort, at once immensely learned or purported to have such learning and having, as well, the authority of the sages. Or the ages. While ongoing study and “trust in the Lord” constituted their program, they practiced a politics that was fundamentally anti-political. God was both their instrument and their end.
Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems of Tadeusz Rózewicz By Tadeusz Rozewicz Translated by Joanna Trzeciak (W.W. Norton, 364 pp., $32.95) New Poems By Tadeusz Rozewicz Translated by Bill Johnston (Archipelago Books, 259 pp., $16) They Came To See A Poet: Selected Poems By Tadeusz Rozewicz Translated by Adam Czerniawski (Anvil Press, 268 pp., $22.95) “The Survivor” And Other Poems By Tadeusz Rozewicz Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert Maguire (Princeton University Press, 160 pp., $30.95) In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable.
The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945 By Ian Kershaw (Penguin, 564 pp., $35) It can be harder to lose a war than to win one. Nazi Germany won quick victories in 1939 and 1940 against its eastern and western neighbors, Poland and France. Many Germans who had doubted the wisdom of war came around with enthusiasm to the sound of German boots on the Champs Elysées. Warsaw and Paris fell more quickly and with fewer complications than anticipated. Their conquest convinced many Germans, including army officers, that further campaigns could be won by strokes of genius.
Queens, New York—In the midst of increasing excitement around the 2012 presidential race, the special election in New York’s ninth congressional district to elect a replacement for Representative Anthony Weiner (the dick-pic guy) quickly became cast as a referendum on President Obama’s policies. The surprising victory for GOP candidate Bob Turner, a former cable television executive who defeated Democratic State Assemblyman David Weprin by 6 points last night, only reinforces that perception.
I’m in London, having arrived on Saturday evening. The Sunday morning papers had absolutely nothing about the enormous riot in Tottenham the night before. But the online press had plenty—except who exactly was doing the rioting. I got all my news all day from this—shall we say incomplete?—source. The front pages of the print press on Monday, however, had almost nothing else. (Except, de rigueur,the disastrous news of advanced capitalism in further collapse.) The headlines were a bit different Tuesday morning.