Category: History

Claims about Richard Wagner

The truth is that Wagner’s popularity was already in relative decline during the Weimar Republic and simply fell further, more quickly, under the Nazis.  During the last years of the Kaiser’s Germany (and despite the cost and privation of the First World War), the Master’s works were still hugely popular, accounting for over eighteen per cent of all opera performances, a share no other composer came to matching.  By the mid-1920s, though, the figure had dropped to around fourteen per cent.

After Hitler took power, Wagner’s share plunged to well below ten percent.

The truth is that many Nazis, in high and low places, were bored to tears by Wagner.

That is all from Jonathan Carr’s excellent book The Wagner Clan.

Three areas where you never run out of great books to read

Those three areas are:

1. The history of the British Isles

2. The history of the Jews, and

3. The history of World War II

Each area has attracted remarkable talent, mostly in English I should add, and you can always read yet another great book in these areas, even if you already have consumed many stellar offerings.

Whether you should double down in these areas, or strike out and diversify into the many other areas with lower quality expected return, is in fact a key question when it comes to how to read.

(Of course, a small number of books cover all three areas, though I would not suggest that they get triple credit.)

Are there any other such areas I am missing?  Somehow American history does not do it for me — too much stupidity, repetition, and needlessly “clampdown patriotic” perspectives.

Claims about Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir

Viking society wasn’t homogeneous. They had dealings with many different cultures and they lived in varied environments, from Danish and Swedish pasture to the sub-Arctic tundra of Norway and Iceland. In the early 11th century the best-travelled woman in the world must have been Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, whose remarkable journeys demonstrate the great distances the Vikings covered. She gave birth to a child in North America, met people of the First Nations and ate grapes in Vinland, made a pilgrimage to Rome and drank wine in Italy, and died as a nun in Iceland. Vikings lived in close contact with the Sámi people, whom they called Finns. In his earlier book, The Viking Way, Price pointed out that Norwegians and Swedes, at least, might be regarded as in some ways similar to the ‘circumpolar’ cultures which stretch from Greenland to Siberia, notably in what looks like shamanistic behaviour.

That is from Tom Shippey’s excellent LRB Vikings book review, interesting throughout.

*Missing: The Need for Closure after the Great War*

That is the new and excellent book by Richard Van Emden, and it covers how the British bureaucracy handled the reporting and identification of soldier corpses during and after the First World War.  Here is the author’s summary:

Here is the story of the army’s hunt for legions of missing men.  How were they sought?  How many were found and identified and what were the implications for families when that search was wound down?  tens of thousands of British people felt compelled to visit France and Belgium to see where their loved ones died; here we will explore what happened to the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium in the immediate post-war years…In telling the story of Britain’s military cemeteries on the western Front, this book will look at their design and horticulture, and examine the extraordinary lengths to which the gardeners of the Imperial War Graves Commission went to create an Eden for their dead comrades.

It turns out the British Army searched for remains for about three years, and after that the efforts pretty much dwindled to zero.  I also enjoyed reading about how these efforts, and the building of on-the-site graveyards, intersected with French and Belgium law and property rights.  And this:

An important question had been posed: to whom did the dead belong?  Did families own them?  Or did the bodies of servicemen and women remain in passive, eternal servitude to the army and, by extension, the government?  They were, after all, in military service and under military law when they died.  Did death release a body from continued service only to be automatically re-enlisted into the ritual of state-organised and state-controlled remembrance?

Among its other virtues, this book is also an interesting look at some of the efficiency properties of the earlier 20th bureaucracies.  The fact that they didn’t have the ability to make things too complicated often was a great virtue.

Recommended, you can order the book here.

Why was modernism for so long so inexhaustibly creative?

Piet Mondrian moved to Hampstead on 20 September and lived in a studio opposite Ben [Nicholson] and Barbara [Hepworth] for almost two years.  Mondrian’s studio in Paris had become a kind of pilgrimage site for modern artists across Europe in the 1930s.  With no means of viewing art unless it was exhibited, the way to see new work was to visit the artist.  Alexander Calder moved to Paris from New York in 1926, aged twenty-seven, and his visit to Mondrian’s studio gave him what he described as the ‘shock that started things’.  He likened it to being slapped like a baby to get its lungs working.

That is from Caroline Maclean’s new and noteworthy Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists, a good book to read to think about the roots of artistic creativity.  Creators back then, by contemporary standards, had so few “means,” and yet they — perhaps unlike us?? — were quite capable of being shocked by new styles and thus revolutionized and awoken from their slumbers.  Is there any way to recreate those feelings?  Or will that happen only in tech areas and not so much in the arts?  What in music today could possibly shock you at this point?  Or in painting?

There is plenty of gossip in the book as well, in this case a plus.

That was then, this is now, micro-states and empires edition

Monaco was granted sovereignty in the 1860s by Emperor Napoleon III of France, deposed a few years later. San Marino received its independence from the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, while Andorra was split off from the long forgotten Kingdom of Aragon in the 13th century. None of these great potentates would ever have imagined that the tiny stubs of countries they took pity on would have legacies much longer than their own. Yet today, San Marino competes in Eurovision and the Roman Empire does not.

Here is more on Monaco by Ned Donovan, via Ben Southwood.

That was then, this is now, Chinese bond edition

In chess, new context empowers previously redundant pieces. And one such piece could turn out to be some $1tn-plus (when compound interest is accounted for) of yet-to-be-cancelled pre-People’s Republic of China debt ranging from the Hukuang Railways Sinking Fund Gold Loan of 1911 and the Reorganisation Gold Loan of 1913, to the so-called Liberty Bonds of 1937.

Long forgotten, these bearer bonds — denominated in sterling, Swiss francs, Russian roubles, Deutsche marks or US dollars — exist mostly in people’s private collections or attics. The most relevant were issued either by the former Republic of China or the preceding Imperial Chinese state to raise money for big development and infrastructure projects. Some were secured against revenues from Chinese natural assets like salt resources.

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, its leaders broke with the tradition of maintaining the debt obligations of previous regimes. But they never formally de-recognised the debt. The bonds instead went into default, taking on mainly antique value.

Mitu Gulati, a professor of law at Duke University who has been studying the bonds, believes a legal argument could be made to revive some of the claims. Some of the old obligations include legal clauses that suggest new Chinese debt cannot be issued until old debt has been dealt with.

The 1912 and 1913 issues continued to trade speculatively on the London Stock Exchange until 1987, when some investor bets appeared to pay off…

George LaBarre, a specialist vintage financial paper dealer, says the price of the 1911 Hukuang bond has gone from $75-100 to about $450.

Here is more from the FT, via Malinga Fernando.

My Conversation with Nathan Nunn

Here is the transcript, audio, and video.  Here is part of the summary:

Nathan joined Tyler for a conversation about which African countries a theory of persistence would lead him to bet on, why so many Africans live in harder to settle areas, his predictions for the effects of Chinese development on East Africa, why genetic distance is a strong predictor of bilateral income differences and trade, the pleasant surprises of visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, the role of the Catholic Church in the development of the West, why Canadian football is underrated, the unique commutes of Ottawans, the lack of Canadian brands, what’s missing from most economic graduate programs, the benefits of studying economics outside of the United States, how the plow shaped gender roles in the societies that used it, the cultural values behind South Korea’s success, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you try to think, say, within Africa, what would be some places that you would be modestly more optimistic about than, say, a hedge fund manager who didn’t understand persistence? What would a few of those countries be? Again, recognizing enormous noise, variance, and so on, as with smoking and lung cancer.

NUNN: If I’m true to exactly what I was just saying, then southern Africa or places where you have a larger population of societies that historically were more developed. South Africa, you have the Afrikaans, and they have a different descent than others. That’s if I’m true to what I was saying. But that’s ignoring that, also within Africa, you had a very large number of successful, well-developed states, and that was prior to European colonialism and the slave trade. So one could look at those cases.

One area that I worked at, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you had the great Congo Kingdom, the Kuba Kingdom, a large number of other kingdoms, the Luba for example — that would probably be one country. That country today is pretty much as low as — in terms of per capita income — as you can be, right at subsistence. But if we’re predicting just based purely on persistence and historical state formation, that would be one to pick.

COWEN: What do you find to be the most convincing account of Botswana’s relative economic success?

NUNN: A few things. One is, Botswana is pretty small in terms of population. Anytime you have smaller countries, you can have more extreme outcomes. That’s one, that it’s small. But then related to that, it’s, in general, ethnically homogenous, particularly compared to other countries within Africa. The Tswana are the predominant ethnicity. They also have a historical social structure, and I think that was pretty well maintained and left intact. That’s a big part of the explanation.


COWEN: Is it fun to visit Democratic Republic of Congo?

NUNN: Yeah, it’s great. Yeah.

COWEN: Tell us what’s fun. I need to go once I can.

NUNN: Yeah, it’s really, really great. The first time we went as a team — this is James Robinson, Sara Lowes, Jonathan Weigel in 2013 — we were pretty apprehensive. You hear a lot of stories about the DRC. It sounds like a very unsafe place, et cetera. But one thing we didn’t realize or weren’t expecting was just how lovely and wonderful the people are.

And it turns out it’s not unsafe in general. It depends on different locations. In the east, definitely near Goma, it’s obviously much, much less safe. But I think what, for me, is wonderful is the sense of community. Because the places we go are places that haven’t been touched, to a large extent, by foreign aid or NGOs or tourism, I think we are treated just like any other individual within the community.


COWEN: What’s your favorite movie and why?

NUNN: Oh, favorite movie. [laughs] That’s a good question. Favorite movie — in the past it was Dazed and Confused. I must have watched that in university about a hundred times.

COWEN: A wonderful film.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Ocean Grove, New Jersey travel notes

Having not visited the New Jersey shore since I was a kid (and then a very regular visitor), I realized you cannot actually swim there with any great facility.  Nor is there much to do, nor should one look forward to the food.

Nonetheless Ocean Grove is one of America’s finest collections of Victorian homes, and the town style is remarkably consistent and intact.  Most of all, it is an “only in America” kind of place:

Ocean Grove was founded in 1869 as an outgrowth of the camp meeting movement in the United States, when a group of Methodist clergymen, led by William B. Osborn and Ellwood H. Stokes, formed the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to develop and operate a summer camp meeting site on the New Jersey seashore. By the early 20th century, the popular Christian meeting ground became known as the “Queen of Religious Resorts.” The community’s land is still owned by the camp meeting association and leased to individual homeowners and businesses. Ocean Grove remains the longest-active camp meeting site in the United States.

The pipe organ in the 19th century Auditorium is still one of the world’s twenty largest.

Ocean Grove, New Jersey - Wikipedia

The Auditorium is closed at the moment, but they still sing gospel music on the boardwalk several times a night.

The police department building is merged together with a Methodist church, separate entrances but both under the same roof.

Ocean Grove remains a fully dry city, for the purpose of “keeping the riff-raff out,” as one waitress explained to me.  To walk up the Ocean Grove boardwalk into nearby Asbury Park (Cuban and Puerto Rican and Haitian in addition to American black) remains a lesson in the economics of sudden segregation, deliberate and otherwise.

Based on my experience as a kid, I recall quite distinct “personae” for the adjacent beach towns of Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach, Seaside Heights, Lavalette, Belmar, Spring Lake, and Point Pleasant.  This time around I did not see much cultural convergence.  That said, Ocean Grove now seems less the province of the elderly and more of a quiet upscale haunt, including for gay couples.  As an eight-year-old, it was my least favorite beach town on the strip.  Fifty years later, it is now striking to me how much the United States is refusing to be all smoothed over and homogenized.

*Buying Gay*

…what I found as I traveled around the country researching was that the notion of a “gay market” was already enjoying wide currency nearly a decade before Stonewall.  It was most clearly visible on the nation’s newsstands.  A social scientist who examined the largest newsstand in Dayton, Ohio, in 1964 found twenty-five magazines targeting a gay audience — so many that the salesperson had established a special section for what he called his “homosexual magazines.  He mixed the magazines of the homophile political organizations, ONE and Mattachine Review, with the far larger cache of physiques.  With twenty or more “little queer magazines” on American newsstands, each selling between twenty thousand and forty thousand copies, physique magazines represented a major industry.

…Editors of tabloid and mainstream magazines realized the extent of this market whenever they published an article on homosexuality and saw their sales soar.  Homophile leaders, too, saw how putting the words “the Homosexual Magazine” on their otherwise demurely titled ONE magazine increased sales.

That is from the recent and quite interesting book by David K. Johnson, Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs sparked a Movement.  Remind me again, this earlier media landscape was a) worse than the internet, or b) better than the internet.  Which one was it again…?  In any case, this book is an excellent reminder of just how much the early gay political movement was tied to markets and consumer capitalism.

What should we infer from a much older migration to the New World?

This news is important in its own right:

Surprisingly old stone points found in a Mexican cave are the latest intriguing discovery among many to raise questions about when humans really arrived in the Americas.

For most of the 20th century archaeologists generally agreed that humans who had crossed the Beringia land bridge from Siberia to North America only ventured further into the continent only when retreating ice sheets opened a migration corridor, about 13,000 years ago. But a few decades ago, researchers began discovering sites across the Americas that were older, pushing back the first Americans’ arrival by a few thousand years. Now, the authors of a new study at Mexico’s Chiquihuite cave suggest that human history in the Americas may be twice that long. Put forth by Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas (Mexico), and his colleagues, the new paper suggests people were living in central Mexico at least 26,500 years ago.

Ardelean’s work was published in Nature and paired with another study that presented a broader look at 42 known early human sites across North America from the Bering Strait to Virginia. Data from those sites were used to model a much earlier peopling of the Americas, and help scientists reimagine not only when but how the first people reached and populated the New World. The model features a number of archaeological sites, including Chiquihuite cave, which are intriguing but controversial enough, as experts disagree whether the sites actually evidence human occupation.

Here is the Smithsonian article.  Of course I also wonder what is the rational Bayesian update?  That it takes longer to build a civilization than we had thought?  That people are more mobile than we had thought?  How much mobility precedes civilization?  All seem to be true.  Perhaps the truly scarce input in human history is “conceptual categories, understood properly in the relevant context.”  If those categories are very difficult to come by, it would help explain why the flowering of civilizations indeed did not follow immediately from these migrations, or indeed from the origin of mankind.  So this is partly a victory for Paul Romer’s theories, noting that the necessity of context may mean these ideas are not pure public goods in any simple sense.  You can’t just drop into Mexico, circa B.C. 3000 and bark out “here’s what the Mayans and Aztecs did!”.  Arguably the context as the scarce part is more important than the idea proper.

Brazil fact of the day

Considering the limited infrastructure routes, high rate of wear and tear, and the need for various input materials, per-mile Brazilian infrastructure costs are typically quadruple those of a flat, arable, temperate territory — with additional premium for the roads that must pierce the Escarpment.

That is from Peter Zeihan’s quite interesting Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in a Disunited World.  The Escarpment, by the way, refers to the cliffs that run along Brazil’s coastal zones and have kept Brazil so long from integrating their cities and building a truly stable nation-state.  The lack of navigable rivers throughout most of the country does not help either — North America was blessed in this regard.

Here is Zeihan’s take on Rio:

…its decline will be emblematic of several of the country’s coastal cities.  It’s too far from the Northern Hemisphere to be involved in manufacturing supply chains, too isolated to serve as entrepot or processing center, and too densely populated to be safe.

Zeihan likes to solve for the equilibrium.

How Canada was populated, and depopulated

Americans were the first major population group to settle permanently in Canada in more than token numbers, and they dominated Canada’s population for six decades.  From the 1770s until the 1830s, the majority of English-speaking Canadians were U.S.-born…

Over the preceding decades, most ambitious and inventive immigrants to Canada had quickly departed for the United States.  The colonies were left with a self-selected group who didn’t want much from life: an agrarian, very religious, austere population of peasants and labourers who tended to see change and growth as a threat rather than an opportunity and a consumer economy as generally sinful excess.

That is from Doug Saunders, Maximum Canada: Toward a Country of 100 Million, in addition to its positive programme this is also a useful book for understanding Canadian history.

George Mason’s critique of the American Constitution

Not long ago someone tweeted this part:

The President of the United States has the unrestrained Power of granting Pardons for Treason; which may be sometimes exercised to screen from Punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the Crime, & thereby prevent a Discovery of his own Guilt.

And that led me to wish to read the whole thing.  Mason of course was an anti-Federalist, and in his short piece he lays out why he opposes the proposed new constitution.  Here is what I found striking:

1. He feared that the President would become a tool of the Senate or of his own cabinet.

2. He feared the Senate would not be directly accountable to the people.  Of course, in due time we changed that through constitutional amendment.

3. He feared the federal judiciary would end up taking over state and local judiciaries.

4. The Senate can excessively legislate through the use of treaties — quite a contemporary objection by the way.

5. The individual states won’t be able to levy tariffs on trade across state borders.

6. Federal and state legislatures won’t be able to pass enough ex post facto laws (the strangest worry to me).

7. He made various claims that ended up being made obsolete by the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

8. The southern states would end up systematically outvoted.

9. The Vice President could end up becoming too powerful through his role in the Senate.

It is striking to me in these early writings how much people worry about the evolution of the Senate, and how little attention they pay to the Supreme Court, which at the time was viewed as not slated to be so powerful.

The problem of “Congress will toss away its legislative and war-making roles, and give up a lot of effective control of the budget” was also nowhere to be found in the words of the early critics, as far as I can tell.  Nor did they have much of a notion of the rise of the administrative state.

Mason was a forceful writer, but the broad lesson is simply that the future is very difficult to predict.