Robert K. Massie, 1929-2019

From the New York Times:

Robert K. Massie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who wrote gripping, tautly narrated and immensely popular books on giants of Russian history, died on Monday at his home in Irvington, N.Y. He was 90.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, the literary agent Deborah Karl.

In monumental biographies of Peter the Great (1672-1725), Catherine the Great (1729-96) and Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra, who were assassinated with their five children and others in 1918, Mr. Massie captivated audiences with detailed accounts that read to many like engrossing novels.

I’ve read only one of his books: Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (1991), which I enjoyed. The article claims that:

Some criticized Dreadnought as lacking disclosures from original materials — a regular criticism of Mr. Massie’s reliance on secondary sources — but others praised his dramatic description of a grand failure in crisis management.

But that was not the impression I got when I read the book; in fact, I thought that he relied too much on extended quotations from letters, speeches, or telegrams, etc. (Yes, primary sources are important, and some of these make for good reading, but I’ve always thought that it’s bad form to quote them repeatedly and at length – exert some power over your sources and incorporate their ideas into your own prose.) Otherwise, the book was quite compelling, and it was fascinating to learn about such people as Kaiser Wilhelm, Bismarck, Holstein, Eulenburg, or Hohenlohe; and on the other side Queen Victoria, Lord Salisbury, Joseph Chamberlain, Cecil Rhodes, the young Winston Churchill, Herbert Asquith, Jacky Fisher, or David Lloyd George, and about the process by which Nelson’s Victory was transformed into Fisher’s Dreadnought. Those two strands never really come together, and the book doesn’t even end with the Battle of Jutland, but it remains an engaging portrait of that important period of European history parallel to Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower (1966). 

Brian Tierney, 1922-2019

Brian Tierney, former Goldwin Smith Professor of Medieval History at Cornell University and the first Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies, has died at the age of 97. 

Wikipedia says that “his speciality was medieval church history, focusing on the structure of the medieval church and the medieval state, and the influences of the interaction between these on the development of Western institutions. He was widely recognized as a leading authority on medieval church law and political thought. His work in these fields also proved relevant to some of the modern debates about Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Tierney’s most recent book was Liberty and Law: The Idea of Permissive Natural Law, 1100-1800 (2014). He continued to work on medieval history until the time of his death.”

Robert Mugabe, 1924-2019

From The Times (hat tip: Daniel Mattson):

The first time I fully realised that Mugabe did not care what he did to his people to stay in power was in May 2005. I had driven in from Botswana and arrived to see plumes of smoke and lines of bedraggled people clutching a few possessions. They looked like refugees from war. “Mugabe’s thugs are smashing up our homes,” they told me. This was Operation Murambatsvina, literally “clear the filth”. Mugabe was demolishing townships because they had voted against him.

I was so shocked that I ignored the fact I was in the country illegally (British journalists had been banned and I had been declared an “enemy of the state”) and drove to Mbare, the biggest township, clutching nothing but a Lonely Planet guide in a pathetic attempt to look like a tourist.

I could not believe what I was seeing. Police and thugs with bulldozers and axes were smashing homes, shops and beauty salons as stunned residents sat on the roadside, watching everything they had worked for being destroyed; 700,000 people lost their homes. At one point I saw police ask a man to help destroy his own house because it was taking too long. Only one man protested.

When people ask which of my assignments have given me the most nightmares, they are surprised when I reply Zimbabwe. Surely, they say, the worst places must be war zones — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, where so many people have been killed? Or the aftermath of terrorist attacks? Yes, I have witnessed some of the darkest deeds known to man, but they usually were done in the name of a wider cause — however much one might disagree with it. In the case of Zimbabwe, the death and destruction were because of one man’s determination to remain in power, not caring whether he brought down his country in the process. And he pretty much did.

He presided over the biggest contraction of any economy in peacetime and the world’s highest inflation rate as well as one of the most repressive states on earth. So much so that all day on Friday after his death was announced, I was sent memes by Zimbabwean friends suggesting he would run again as a ghost candidate in the next election, a reference to his use of “ghost voters” — manipulating results by using electoral rolls that included the dead.

Read the whole thing

Tony Horwitz, 1958-2019

From The Vineyard Gazette (hat tip: David Parker):

Author, Historian Tony Horwitz Dies

The West Tisbury author and historian Tony Horwitz died suddenly in Washington, D.C., on Monday, his wife Geraldine Brooks confirmed.

Mr. Horwitz was 60. He had been on tour for his new book, Spying on the South.

He was a longtime journalist and Pultizer Prize winner who wrote acclaimed historical nonfiction, including the best-selling Confederates in the Attic and Midnight Rising.

He lived year-round in West Tisbury, and was scheduled to appear at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival this summer, among other things.

John Lukacs, 1924-2019

From the New York Times (hat tip: Bruce Patterson):

John Lukacs, Iconoclastic Historian, Dead at 95

NEW YORK — John Lukacs, the Hungarian-born historian and iconoclast who brooded over the future of Western civilization, wrote a best-selling tribute to Winston Churchill, and produced a substantial and often despairing body of writings on the politics and culture of Europe and the United States, has died.

Lukacs died of heart failure early Monday at his home in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, according to his stepson, Charles Segal. He was 95 and had lived in Phoenixville since the 1950s.

A proud and old-fashioned man with an eminent forehead, cosmopolitan accent, and erudite but personal prose style, Lukacs was a maverick among historians. In a profession where liberals were a clear majority, he was sharply critical of the left and of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. But he was also unhappy with the modern conservative movement, opposing the Iraq war, mocking hydrogen bomb developer Edward Teller as the “Zsa Zsa Gabor of physics” and disliking the “puerile” tradition, apparently started by Ronald Reagan, of presidents returning military salutes from the armed forces.

“John Lukacs is well known not so much for speaking truth to power as speaking truth to audiences he senses have settled into safe and unexamined opinions,” John Willson wrote in The American Conservative in 2013. “This has earned him, among friends and critics alike, a somewhat curmudgeonly reputation.”

Lukacs completed more than 30 books, on everything from his native country to 20th century American history to the meaning of history itself. His books include “Five Days in London,” the memoir “Confessions of an Original Sinner,” and “Historical Consciousness,” in which he contended that the best way to study any subject, whether science or politics, was through its history.

More at the link.

George Rigg, 1937-2019

From the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto:

We acknowledge with deep sadness the death of Professor A.G. Rigg on Monday, January 7. George, as he was known universally to friends, colleagues, and generations of admiring and grateful students, died peacefully at home after a period of declining health.

George was born on 17 February 1937 at Wigan, Lancashire, where he received his secondary education at Wigan Grammar School, which was known for its strong reputation in Classics. As an undergraduate he attended Pembroke College, Oxford from 1955 to 1959 leading to a B.A. in the English School. He wrote his D.Phil thesis, under the supervision of Norman Davis, on Trinity College, Cambridge MS O.9.38, leading to his publication of A Glastonbury Miscellany of the Fifteenth Century in 1968. Concurrently with his doctoral work he taught at Merton College, Oxford as well later at Balliol College. From 1966 to 1968 he held a Visiting Assistant Professorship in the Department of English at Stanford University. In 1968 he took of the position of Assistant Professor in the newly formed Centre for Medieval Studies and the Department of English at the University of Toronto, where he taught until his reluctant retirement (still mandated by law at 65) in 2002. As an emeritus, his generous and energetic mentorship of graduate students continued for many years thereafter.

His exacting philological standards secured his international reputation as a scholar of medieval Latin as well as of Middle English. His editions included the poems of Walter of Wimborne (1978), his controversial edition of the Z-Text of Piers Plowman (1983, with Charlotte Brewer) and a glossed epitome of Geoffrey of Monmouth, A Book of British Kings (2000). The latter was published as volume 30 of the Toronto Medieval Latin Texts, a series that George established and for which he served as general editor for its first thirty volumes. His many articles included a signal series of codicological studies of medieval Latin poetic anthologies which appeared in Mediaeval Studies. Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide, co-edited with Frank Mantello, remains an invaluable resource for students of the field, while his magisterial survey, Anglo-Latin Literature, 1066-1422, published in 1992, will remain the definitive reference work for decades to come.

His passionate advocacy for reading competence in medieval Latin as a central feature of serious advanced training in medieval studies led to the creation of the Committee for Medieval Latin Studies, which he chaired from its inception until his retirement, and to the system of examinations that remains a hallmark of a Toronto training in the field. It was his tireless and exacting but endlessly patient encouragement of students in their pursuit of a notoriously rigorous standard that exposed the greatest number of Toronto graduate students to his teaching over the years. Those who took his seminars, and above all those who benefitted from his kindness, enthusiasm, and bonhomie as their doctoral supervisor experienced even more abundantly his rare combination of extraordinary erudition, good humour, genuine humility, and quiet empathy.

We are all of us the poorer for the loss of this kind, good, and brilliant man.

I second this. Prof. Rigg’s Latin course (which I took as a master’s student in 1994-95) was a very valuable experience for me.

George Bush

(I refer to him as he was referred to at the time of his presidency. Having to insert “H.W.” as his middle initials is proleptic.)

In our culture, one does not speak ill of the dead, but public figures usually merit some sort of even-handed evaluation. However, most of the obituaries I have read about George Bush, 41st President of the United States (1989-1993), have been rather hagiographic in tone, praising Bush’s class, civility, and devotion to public service. This is, of course, a deliberate and pointed jab at the current administration, whose leader is the cultural antithesis of the patrician Bush, and who has made a lot of enemies through his abrasive boorishness. But by no means was Bush praised for his class when he was in office! Back then, he was the Skull and Bones son of privilege, out of touch with how ordinary Americans actually lived. I thought of this as recently as July, when during one of his rallies President Trump said:

You know all the rhetoric you see here, the “thousand points of light” – what the hell was that, by the way? The “thousand points of light.” What did that mean? Does anyone know? I know one thing: “Make America Great Again” we understand. “Thousand points of light” – I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? Ay. And it was put out by a Republican.

Some earnest CNN talking heads took issue with that, saying that it was about volunteerism and civic mindedness, obviously, and who could have a problem with these most American of values? They were shocked that Trump would run down a fellow Republican and war hero. And I was reminded how, when in power, Republicans are evil incarnate, but when they’re no longer in power, they become respected elder statesmen. For I remember the “Thousand Points of Light,” and how, to Doonesbury at least, it was a disturbing abdication of responsibility. Since Republicans hate poor people, you see, they gut social programs and then offload the function to private charity, which is a weak substitute with no guarantee that anything will be delivered. But the CNN folks apparently forgot that critique.

(It’s obvious to me what Trump was doing: signaling that it’s not the Bushes’ party anymore! In addition to pointing out that his slogan is more straightforward, and thus more inspiring, than Bush’s “poetic” one, Trump was simply playing to the base that elected him, and that had been disaffected by establishment Republicanism, most notably over the issue of illegal immigration.)

So I must say that I appreciated this article on The Intercept, shared by a couple of Facebook friends, about Bush’s legacy, even if I disagree with some of it. For instance, I fail to comprehend what was so bad about the Willie Horton ad. But his actual role in the Iran-Contra scandal, his pardoning of some of the perpetrators, and the dishonest case his administration made for the war against Iraq, all deserved to be remembered. (Along with the ADA and NAFTA of course.)

I do like revisiting the time when he overcame the “wimp factor” with Dan Rather in 1988:

I want to talk about why I want to be president, why those 41% of the people are supporting me. And I don’t think it’s fair to judge a whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York. Would you like that? I have respect for you but I don’t have respect for what you’re doing here tonight.

But he wasn’t always so deadly with his words. Everyone knows about George W. Bush’s “they misunderestimated me” or “Is our children learning?”; people tend to forget that Bush himself committed a few verbal infelicities, e.g.:

“For seven and a half years I’ve worked alongside President Reagan. We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex – uh – setbacks.” —in 1988

“We’re enjoying sluggish times, and not enjoying them very much.” —in 1992

“I just am not one who – who flamboyantly believes in throwing a lot of words around.” —in 1990

“Please don’t ask me to do that which I’ve just said I’m not going to do, because you’re burning up time. The meter is running through the sand on you, and I am now filibustering.” —in 1989

“I put confidence in the American people, in their ability to sort through what is fair and what is unfair, what is ugly and what is unugly.” –in 1989

“You cannot be President of the United States if you don’t have faith. Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff. You can’t be. And we are blessed. So don’t feel sorry for – don’t cry for me, Argentina. Message: I care.” —speaking to employees of an insurance company during the 1992 New Hampshire primary

“I’m not the most articulate emotionalist.” –in 1989

“It has been said by some cynic, maybe it was a former president, ‘If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.’ Well, we took them literally—that advice—as you know. But I didn’t need that because I have Barbara Bush.” —in 1989

“Please just don’t look at the part of the glass, the part that is only less than half full.” –in 1991