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This week, as I followed reports about the threat of imminent war between Russia and Ukraine, I found myself thinking about history’s prequels. Some wars and catastrophes seem inevitable in hindsight; about others, historians obsess endlessly over what led up to them and what might have been done differently. A just-released Netflix adaptation of the 2017 Robert Harris novel Munich: The Edge of War—about the eponymous 1938 conference that gave Hitler a green light to annex the Sudetenland—captures the jittery will-they-won’t-they vibe of recent days. (Indeed, the principals in our current crisis just announced they will convene in Munich this weekend for one more diplomatic push.)
You can visit yet another ominous prewar Munich in Robert Siegel’s piece “The Ripples Before the Storm,” a review of Michael Brenner’s In Hitler’s Munich: Jews, the Revolution and the Rise of Nazism, in Moment’s winter issue. It’s a Munich that hindsight makes bizarre, almost unrecognizable: the chaotic years just after World War I, when politics were wide open and socialists, Communists and right-wing proto-Nazis battled for influence. In 1918, socialist revolutionaries toppled the Bavarian monarchy, and their party leader, a Jewish journalist named Kurt Eisner, became—this really happened!—Bavaria’s first prime minister. Eisner sought moderate social reforms but was greeted with savage antisemitic backlash. He was caricatured, targeted, and—not exactly to the reader’s surprise—assassinated after a mere four months in office.
Eisner, a largely forgotten figure, is one of a diverse gallery of Jewish characters the book showcases among Munich’s pre-World War II community of some 11,000 Jews. “All dealt in their own ways with the ominous trends surrounding them; no strategy fended off the ultimate catastrophe,” Siegel writes. Prosecutors treated Eisner’s murderer with almost loving leniency; five years later, the same treatment was accorded Adolf Hitler after the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, a failed attempt to seize power by force that actually paved the way for the Nazis to return in greater strength. From there, history took the course we recognize. (Brenner wrote a Washington Post op-ed after the events of January 6, drawing the obvious parallels and warning of the dangers of less than vigorous prosecution.)
Going back to the roots of the news isn’t always this depressing. It brings a special brand of pleasure in Vivian Gornick’s review of Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom. The book is Carl Bernstein’s memoir of his formative years on Washington’s long-defunct but legendary Evening Star. In it, he lovingly recreates a vanished journalism—“a world of tactile intensity,” Gornick writes in her review, “as opposed to the bloodlessness of online reality.” The Star, which also nurtured such later journalistic giants as Mary McGrory, was the perfect place for a young man obsessed with becoming a real reporter and someday getting a really big story. As we know, he did.
For a different kind of back story, reviewer Marcela Sulak takes the long view of poet-translator Barbara Goldberg in her review of Goldberg’s collected work, Breaking and Entering: New and Selected Poems. Sulak, a poet herself (her latest work, City of Skypapers, is a National Jewish Book Award finalist) limns a beautiful appreciation of Goldberg’s poetry of “grief and desire.” Goldberg’s poems draw on a background of instability, Sulak writes, starting with her family’s flight from the Holocaust (she was the only sibling born in America) and extending through a life of long-distance relationships.
Finally, if you’re tired of delving into the past, you can reach for the future with Anita Diamant, who spoke with me about her forward-looking book about menstrual activism, Period. End of Sentence. A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice. The full Zoominar can be heard here.