Stopping for a Moment to Count My Blessings

It’s Thanksgiving here in the United States, and I’m trying hard to count my blessings.

Several years ago in my Thanksgiving post I wrote: “As is true of all the best traditions, it is always the same and always different.” My first reaction when I read that was “Not this year. This year it is not the same.” And yet, perhaps, it is. It is still about reaching out to families—those we were born into and those we chose. About creating a feast that celebrates the fruits of the harvest, whether it is turkey for forty or squash risotto for two. About giving thanks.

For several years, I’ve made a daily practice of writing down five things I’m grateful for as I wait for the water to boil for my morning cup of tea. Over the course of this difficult year, I let that practice drop. That was a mistake. Because taking a moment to be thankful is even more important when things are hard.

Earlier this week, I started making my gratitude list again. (And checking it twice.) One thing I’m grateful for, whether I’m making my list or not, are those of you who read History in the Margins. You share my posts, send me comments and ideas, ask hard questions, point out the typos, and cheer me on.  Without you, I’d be talking to myself.

Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I

I must admit, Alexander Watson’s Ring of Steel has been sitting on my To-Be-Read shelves since 2014. I received it from a publisher who hoped I would review it. I was in over my head on a writing project that had nothing do with World War I. Read a 500+ page book with no immediate application to the task at hand? Nope!

But there is a reason I seldom weed non-fiction from my shelves. Six years later, Ring of Steel turned out to be just the book I need.* It also turned out to be a wonderful read.

I dipped into Ring of Steel because I wanted to know what life was like in Berlin during World War I. The short answer? Not good. Watson takes a deep dive into food shortages, the black market, and largely unsuccessful government attempts to manage them in both Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. He looks at how people tried to supplement their food, from urban gardening, food cooperatives, and “hamstering” —the name for city people traveling into the countryside to forage. He looks at the impact of conscripting men and animals on the ability of farms to produce crops. He also makes clear how dependent Germany was on imported food and, more importantly, on imported fertilizer. (Reading this in the days leading up to Thanksgiving has certainly made me it easier to count my blessings.)

Watson answered the questions I knew I had, and many that I hadn’t known to ask. For instance, Britain implemented a long-range, ever-tightening blockade of Germany that was illegal according to international law of the time.** Something I certainly didn’t know.

I found it particularly interesting to look at familiar events, such as the U-boat campaign and the infamous Zimmermann telegram, from the German perspective. It is worth remembering that there is always another side to the war.***

Ring of Steel is an excellent example of military history that moves beyond the battlefield and armaments to look at the the society, culture, and ideas that surrounded them. If that’s your stein of beer, I highly recommend it.

*With a hat tip to Elizabeth Lunday, who recommended it in the notes to an episode of her The Year That Was podcast.  It is one of the best and most unusual history podcasts around: an extraordinary look at 1919 from many angles. I just finished re-listening to the episode on the Spanish Flu, which she recorded in October 2019. It came a bit too close to home.

** A technique the Germans borrowed with great success in World War II?

***In the case of the Zingermann telegram, there is a third side to the story that is often overlooked: Mexico’s response.

Shin-Kickers From History:Celebrate People’s History

The Celebrate People’s History project began in 1998. In the dead of the night, activist Josh MacPhee, aided by a half-dozen co-conspirators, pasted images of Malcolm X on boarded-up storefronts in Chicago's West Side. Ten minutes after they started, they had attracted a small crowd of neighborhood residents. Some of them helped put up posters. Others asked for copies.*

Since then, the CPH project has become a multi-voiced conversation about history, social justice and public space in visual form using posters drawn from a wide variety of political traditions. Building on their experience in Chicago, the CPH project has pasted posters on the streets in more than a dozen American cities and exhibited them in more than 100 exhibitions. More important, at least from my perspective, teachers hang copies of the posters in their classroom and use them to kickstart poster-making projects.

The second edition of Celebrate People's History: The Poster Book of Resistance and Revolution shares more than two hundred posters celebrating and illustrating successful moments in the history of social justice, from the succession of Roman plebes in the fifth century BCE to protests against the Confederate Soldiers Monument in Durham, North Carolina, in 2017. Some of the actions and people they depict were familiar to me: Eugene Debs, the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance group, the Rani of Jhansi (a long-time personal favorite).** Other posters sent me scrambling to learn more. I suspect that is MacPhee’s intention.

In short, it is an entire book of what I call shin-kickers.  This makes me very happy.

The posters are visually stunning and as diverse as the political traditions and historical moments they illustrate. Celebrate People's History is a feast for the eyes, the mind, and the heart

*Can you blame them? This is a seriously cool poster:

**To list only a few. If you write a global history of socialism, you learn a lot about the history of social justice movements

The bare bones of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.