Review: The Assassination of Europe: 1918-1942 by Howard Sachar

the assassination of europe 1918 1942, howard sachar, history, communism, germany, rosa luxemborg, jews, nazi, adolf hitler
The Assassination of Europe 1918-1942
I do sometimes like reading books which strip history of all its pretensions and view it through a one-dimensional lens. Like Pankaj Mishra solely focused on the lives of three great men in From the Ruins of Empire and linked their influences to each other and and weaved an elegant narrative. However it does feel that such a constricted viewpoint with an intense focus on a single aspect does miss out on the larger picture. Howard Sachar's The Assassination of Europe announces its focus on how assassinations have featured in European historical context. But descriptions can be misleading, because Sachar does start with an assassination in most of the chapters, but covers history in a broader way as well, unlike Pankaj Mishra.

The book starts with the fiercely intellectual Rosa Luxemberg, whose "partly decomposed body was spotted in one of the locks of Berlin's Landwehr Canal". She was "youngest of the five children of a middle-class Jewish timber merchant" and born in Lublin province of tsarist Poland. She comes in contact with Karl Liebknecht and August Bebel, signifying her reach into the inner circles of communist Germany. Sachar credits her with formulating the term "imperialism" before John Hobson. The assassination of Rosa by Lieutenant Kurt Vogel by putting a pistol to her head is followed by that of, first, Kurt Eisner and then Erhard Auer. Sachar, as mentioned earlier, doesn't entirely focus only on the assassination but gives a fairly brief overview as well of the political cauldrons simmering away on the woods of revolution. Next is Benito Mussolini.

It recalls the events of an era in which Fascists had a shot at power. Mussolini, after an agreement was reached between Vittorio Emanuelele III and him, even though earlier he "lingered in his Milan office, his chauffeur prepared to speed him across the Swiss border should the king exhibit a last-minute access of courage and summon the army", "disdaining to change his party's trademark black shirts and boots, or even to stop off at his reserved hotel suite for a quick bath, he and his party escort sped off at once for the palace". Sachar credits him with accomplishing the feat "without provoking a civil war". Mussolini's early years of penury in Switzerland where he scaveged for food in trash cans and slept in public lavatories stand in sharpt contrast with the tinge of refine and taste he mustered during his time as a ruler. His rise from being a teacher, anti-clerical, and later editor - when once he even took a 100,000-lire loan from the French for supporting the cause of Italy joining the First World War - is nothing less than stupendous. The chapter actually is about the abduction and killing of Giacomo Matteotti, secretary of Italy's far-leftist "Unitary" Socialist Party (PSU). Matteoti earlier had attacked Mussolini verbally in the parliament for two hours and "concluded by accussing Mussolini personally of orchestrating the Fascist compaign of "holliganism"", to which Mussolini shouted "you deserve a charge of lead in the back". The political storm that ensued did give him lot of troubles but he went to rule for a lot more years than he would have expected.

             Execution of Mussolini (from Wikipedia)

The chapter on assassinations of Matthias Erzberger and Walther Rathenau is elegiac in beauty and vivid in description. The depth of Sachar's research and width of coverage sometimes would overwhelm the reader - he surely would be aghast at the copious amounts of interlinking he would have to do amongst different chapters and within them as well. Though the title of book somewhat misleads the reader as if trying to focus solely on assassination as an aspect removed from the vestiges of politics and everyday life, but, as mentioned earlier, is a wide-spectrum study of political manoeuvrings of an restive period. Brilliant would be too trite a word to be used to describe this work of academic perfection and evocative prose; if only words were to do justice then magnificent does come close though. The chapter on the killing of Sergei Kirov by Leonid Nikolaev is an essay in itself on the revolutionist fervour in Russia from the October Revolution of 1905 till the late 1930s. Trotsky, Bukharin, Lenin, Stalin and many others feature in it. It is nothing short of an exquisitely woven story and probably is the best of the lot. The next one starts with the life of a young Adolf Hitler and his influences, which Sachar is sure of, namely - Nietzsche, Treitschke, Eugen Duhring, Hermann Ahlwardt, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Karl Lueger, Georg von Schonerer and others. The invariable fate descends upon Ernst Röhm, courtesy of an obstinately hungry Hitler. Later it is Engelbert Dollfuss, Carlo & Nello Rosselli, Leon Trotsky and Georges Mandel. And at last is the story of suicide of Stefan Zweig and Charlotte Altmann Zweig. Their picture of lying dead on a bed together captures a moment which words can seldom describe.

Sachar, an acclaimed historian, is at his weaving best in each of the chapters and I wouldn’t be surprised if his work does get a few awards here and there. Splendid in every sense, it leaves you with a sense of an impending lull and intellectual breathlessness once you reflect on what all you have read in this elegant historical prose.


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