Monday, April 19, 2010

Books, wine, war, talk

TAKING A BREAK from reading about Sicily, on Lindsey's advice, I've just read two books touching on World War II, a subject that's never really attracted me. (Lindsey's mother was a WWII buff, watching all the documentaries, reading all the books; and Lindsey herself recently read William Shirer's mammoth The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.)

The Twentieth Century was a violent one. Militarily I suppose it began in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War; Central and Western Europe wasn't to see much peace from then until 1945, and the reconstruction of Western Europe was hardly complete until the 1960s. I used to think of World War II as a terrible interruption in the century; in fact, it was a termination.

(A termination of one kind of terror, perhaps followed by the beginning of another kind — not military but economic. Jury's out on that; we're in the midst of it, and can't see the forest for the trees.)

Lately World War II has been too much in mind, as if we knew, somehow, that we were on the cusp of another such trial. There's been a lot of discussion, for example, of honor and culpability, a lot of blame thrown at people whose own trials we can never really know. I'm thinking, for example, of Janet Malcolm's treatment of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007), a book that annoyed me considerably when it appeared. We must investigate; we must document; we must discuss: but we must never cast judgment backward on the past; it's hard enough to practice it on the present.

We can, however, learn. This is what Robert Mnookin does in his book Bargaining with the Devil. It's written as an argument for negotiation, even at times negotiation with enemies, even those one might think of as evil (or at least as having done evil things); but in support of that thesis Mnookin recounts two examples drawn from the period of World War II: Winston Churchill's refusal to negotiate with Hitler in May 1940 — there are times when even Mnookin agrees it's wrong to negotiate — and Rudolf Kasztner's decision to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann over the release of Jews from Hungary in the waning days of the war.

A third example, the Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky and his refusal to negotiate with the KGB, contrasts vividly with Nelson Mandela's negotiations with F.W. de Klerk — negotiations that contributed to the end of apartheid in the Union of South Africa. (De Klerk himself is not examined in any great length, but appears as a sympathetic character emerging from an evil system: it would be interesting to hear a conversation between him and Mikhail Gorbachev.)

Mnookin's book appears at the right historical moment, when some of the American Right is vilifying the State Department's evident embrace of negotiation and diplomacy as the right course, even with potential enemies. Beyond its immediate political value, though, Bargaining With the Devil is an interesting book and one offering useful application to everyday life: I'm glad I read it.
  • Bargaining With the Devil: Simon & Schuster, 2010

  • A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT DESCRIPTION of World War II experiences informs Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, by Donald and Petie Kladstrup. I like "delphica"'s review of it on
    This is a collection of personal stories about the French wine makers and their experiences during Vichy, and many of them are simply remarkable, such as Jean Huet's (Clos du Bourg) time as a POW, Bernard de Nonancourt (Laurent-Perrier) joining the Resistance, and the Miailhe family (Pichon-Lalande) indeed harboring Jewish families in a hidden annex. And for wine-lovers, there are still plenty of anecdotes about French wine culture. It's a very patriotic book, from reading it one would get the impression that every man, woman and child in France was actively and cheerfully involved in sabotaging the Reich -- it's a little light on the complexity and ambiguity of the occupied France.
    It's not meant to cover that complexity, of course, though it does touch enough on the ambiguities — of the sort that exonerate Stein and Toklas, I feel — to set any intelligent reader to thinking.

    Even more, it makes me think about the difference between the wealthy French vintners of the period before World War II — men (and women!) who farmed, maintained their books, supervised the winemaking, and dealt with marketing — and the corporate structure of specialized management and globalized ownership of our own time. Much has grown Too Big Not to Fail, I think: and how would today's counterparts deal with an encompassing evil like Nazism?

    (And to what extent is Nationalism, with all its dubious accoutrements, a requisite to any Resistance of such an evil? Hmmm. Think on José Bové; think on the Slow Food movement.)
  • Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure: Random House (Broadway Books), 2002
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