The Hunt for History

I am not a collector of anything in any meaningful sense of the word.* I am certainly not a collector of historical ephemera. Which means that I had my doubts when my stack of books to consider for review for Shelf Awareness for Readers included The Hunt for History: On the Trail of the World's Lost Treasures—from the Letters of Lincoln, Churchill, and Einstein to the Secret Recordings Onboard JFK's Air Force One by rare documents dealer Nathan Raab. At best, I hoped for a glimpse into a subculture of which I know little.

While I, in fact, got at a look at (and greater understanding of) the world of collecting historical documents (broadly defined), The Hunt for History was more than I had expected.

Raab tells spellbinding stories of tracking down and identifying rare historical documents and artifacts—the announcement of Napoleon's death from a British admiral stationed on St. Helena, an outraged letter from Susan B. Anthony to a clueless autograph dealer,** and, yes, previously unknown recordings made on Air Force One on November 22, 1963. (He also shares heartbreaking stories of telling someone their family treasure is neither valuable nor authentic.)

But despite its title, The Hunt for History is more than a series of treasure hunts. Writing in a light, conversational style, Raab uses the stories of individual documents to illustrate both his education as a documents dealer, and his growing fascination with history. Working alongside his father, he learns to authenticate documents, to identify forgeries, and to recognize whether an authentic document has the historical significance of a major find. At the same time, he comes to understand how a piece of the past can provide an attachment to history. That understanding becomes deeply personal in the penultimate chapter of the book, in which Raab describes a historical discovery that changed him —the letters and library of a Jewish scientist smuggled out of Germany prior to WWII.

In the end, The Hunt for History is a delightful account of one man's engagement with the past.

* Even my growing collection of reference books  is entirely random, with no organizing principle beyond “this would be useful” and “that looks interesting".

**From my perspective, this story made the book worth reading all by itself.


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

Wrapping My Head Around the Weimar Republic, Pt 2: Born in Revolution

As I mentioned in a previous post, I went into my newest project a year ago with an astonishing degree of ignorance about the Weimar Republic. As I got into the reading, I was both shocked and embarrassed about how little I knew. And one of the things I didn’t know was how the Weimar Republic began. My best guess, had someone asked me, would have been that the Republic was established as part of the Versailles Treaty. (After all, both the Austrian and Ottoman empires were dissembled in the peace talks, creating the modern states of Austria and Turkey. Why not the Hohenzollern empire?*

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In October, 1918, Germany’s old absolute monarchy was effectively dead, though Kaiser Wilhelm was still on the throne. The (relatively) liberally minded Prince Maximillian, appointed Imperial Chancellor, joined forced with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to alter Germany’s constitution. Together they were in the process of creating a true constitutional monarchy and reforming electoral law. (In theory Germany had universal male suffrage before the war, but the man in the street wasn’t allow to vote for anything that mattered so it wasn’t worth much.)

On October 29, the hope of an orderly transfer of power blew up in their faces when sailors in the port city of Kiel mutinied. Several days later, delegations of sailors traveled by railroad to big cities across the country, spreading the word of their revolt against the officers, stupid orders, the war, and the empire. By November 7, the mutiny turned into a rebellion, as striking workers and mutinous soldiers joined forces with the sailors. Borrowing from the Russian Revolution, the workers and servicemen elected councils that negotiated with local authorities. It was grassroots democracy in a country in which most people had no experience of political participation.

On November 9, Prince Maximillian, hoping to restore order, turned over the position of chancellor to Friedrich Ebert, the head of the SPD. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated.**

The old Reich was dead, but the new Republic was on shaky ground. At 2 o’clock that afternoon, Philip Schiedemann, speaking for the new provisional government, proclaimed the end of the empire from the balcony of the Reichstag building to cheering crowds. Several hours later, Karl Liebnecht, a radical socialist leader, stood on the balcony of the royal palace, and proclaimed the creation of a socialist republic.

On November 11, Ebert and his colleagues formed a new government in coalition with the more radical Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). (You caught that, right? Two governments in two days.) Despite the shaky start, the new republic began with a rush of political reforms. Spurred by the energy of the mass movements in the streets, they passed laws guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, suffrage reform (include suffrage for women!) and amnesty for political prisoners.

The Weimar Republic was on its way and things were looking good.

*Did I mention that the depth of my ignorance was embarrassing? I’m not even sure that old stand-by “not my field” is an excuse.

**Possibly with his fingers crossed behind his back. Royal attempts to regain power in Germany are a recurring theme in newspaper articles of the 1920s.

The Women With Silver wings

My Own True Love is an aviation history bugg, which means I have tiptoed around the edges of the subject. It’s probably not surprising to any of you that the aviation stories that catch my imagination the most strongly are the ones where aviation history and women’s history overlap.  I'm always delighted when a good book on the subject crosses my path. Case in point:  The Women with Silver Wings: The Inspiring True Story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II by pilot and historian Katherine Sharp Landdeck .

Landdeck. tells the thrilling, and sometimes heartbreaking, story of the female aviators who flew for the United States in World War II More than 1100 women served as pilots in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Despite initial doubts as to whether women could do the job, they successfully trained male pilots for military service, transported planes across country and served as test pilots. As the war drew to an end and male pilots came home, they were forced to give up the jobs they had done so well and immediately forgotten by the country they served. Landdeck tells their story with empathy and academic rigor.

Landdeck brings more than intellectual curiosity to the task. The WASP community welcomed her into their circle, as both a pilot and a historian. Drawing on interviews with surviving pilots and their unpublished letters and journals, she uses the personal stories of individual women—why they enlisted, where they learned to fly, and what happened to them after the war—to enrich her account of the creation, growth and dismantlement of the service.

The end result is an eye-opening account of the first American women to fly for their country--and their subsequent fight to be recognized for their role in history. The Women with Silver Wings will appeal to fans of women's history, aviation enthusiasts, and WWII buffs.

Most of this review appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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Today’s news from 1929: The tiny* but strategically important island of Heligoland, which commanded access to Hamburg and Bremen, revolted against German rule and tried to re-join Great Britain. Heligoland had been British until 1890, when Britain traded it to Germany in exchange for Zanzibar. Germany had turned the island into an important naval base and, more importantly, built a huge concrete sea wall to protect the island from storms. The Treaty of Versailles required Germany to demolish its fortifications. In Heligoland, that meant demolishing not only the naval base but the sea wall. The island was disintegrating a bit more with every storm. Surely, the islanders reasoned, Britain would jump at the chance for a strategic naval base , and build a sea wall as part of the fortifications. According to my girl Sigrid Schultz, the revolt began with hundreds of Heligoland’s 3400 inhabitants marching on the newspaper office while singing Britannia Rules the Waves “with gusto, in a broad German accent.”

The problem with learning history from the newspaper is that you don't always find out what happened next. But my guess is that Britain took a pass.

*Roughly 1/5 of one square mile