Taner Akçam Announced Co-Winner of 2013 Albert Hourani Book Award

Taner Akçam – The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire
Co-Winner of the 2013 Albert Hourani Book Award, Middle East Studies Association

The Albert Hourani Book Award was established in 1991 to recognize outstanding publishing in Middle East studies. To see all of the winners from the Middle East Studies Association, click here.

The Young Turks' Crime against HumanityIntroducing new evidence from more than 600 secret Ottoman documents, this book demonstrates in unprecedented detail that the Armenian Genocide and the expulsion of Greeks from the late Ottoman Empire resulted from an official effort to rid the empire of its Christian subjects. Presenting these previously inaccessible documents along with expert context and analysis, Taner Akçam’s most authoritative work to date goes deep inside the bureaucratic machinery of Ottoman Turkey to show how a dying empire embraced genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Although the deportation and killing of Armenians was internationally condemned in 1915 as a “crime against humanity and civilization,” the Ottoman government initiated a policy of denial that is still maintained by the Turkish Republic. The case for Turkey’s “official history” rests on documents from the Ottoman imperial archives, to which access has been heavily restricted until recently. It is this very source that Akçam now uses to overturn the official narrative.

The documents presented here attest to a late-Ottoman policy of Turkification, the goal of which was no less than the radical demographic transformation of Anatolia. To that end, about one-third of Anatolia’s 15 million people were displaced, deported, expelled, or massacred, destroying the ethno-religious diversity of an ancient cultural crossroads of East and West, and paving the way for the Turkish Republic.

By uncovering the central roles played by demographic engineering and assimilation in the Armenian Genocide, this book will fundamentally change how this crime is understood and show that physical destruction is not the only aspect of the genocidal process.

Taner Akçam, the first scholar of Turkish origin to publicly acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, holds the Kaloosdian and Mugar Chair in Armenian Genocide Studies at Clark University. His many books include A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility (Metropolitan Books).

“Peasants under Siege” Wins 2013 SRS Book Prize

Gail Kligman & Katherine Verdery - Peasants under Siege: The Collectivization of Romanian Agriculture, 1949-1962
Winner of the 2013 SRS Book Prize, The Society for Romanian Studies

The prize selection committee appreciated the scope and rigor of the research undertaking upon which Peasants under Siege is based. The book builds upon the authors’ decades of experience doing field research in rural Romania. Kligman and Verdery make use of multiple types of sources, including archives, the communist press and extensive interviews, to analyze the relationship between the collectivization of agriculture in Romania and the process of party and state building that transformed the countryside and Romanian society as a whole… This beautifully conceived and clearly written work of history, anthropology and sociology shows how fruitful it can be to ignore the boundaries between disciplines in the interest of gaining insight into the fraught nexus between society and state. Peasants under Siege will provide a valuable guide to scholars seeking to understand rural transformation in the region for years to come, and serve as a primary reference point for those wishing to understand what really happened in the long decade of the 1950s in Romania, and what it meant for those who lived it.
To learn more about the award, click here.

k9615In 1949, Romania’s fledgling communist regime unleashed a radical and brutal campaign to collectivize agriculture in this largely agrarian country, following the Soviet model. Peasants under Siege provides the first comprehensive look at the far-reaching social engineering process that ensued. Gail Kligman and Katherine Verdery examine how collectivization assaulted the very foundations of rural life, transforming village communities that were organized around kinship and status hierarchies into segments of large bureaucratic organizations, forged by the language of “class warfare” yet saturated with vindictive personal struggles.

Drawing on archival documents, oral histories, and ethnographic data, Peasants under Siege sheds new light on collectivization in the Soviet era and on the complex tensions underlying and constraining political authority.

Gail Kligman is professor of sociology and director of the Center for European and Eurasian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Katherine Verdery is the Julien J. Studley Faculty Scholar and Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

“Aftermath”, a Polish Film Based on Jan T. Gross’ “Neighbors” Is Released

aftermath_us_poster_1_lgAftermath, a Polish film based on the historical book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan T. Gross, was recently released in limited showing in the United States, including New York City and Los Angeles (with Boston, Chicago and more to come shortly).

The official website for the film can be found here on Menemsha Films’ website, which includes a short synopsis, a trailer, photos from the film, and reviews. It also has links to locations and showtimes for the film in the United States.

The film was reviewed by The New York Times, which can be found here.


k7018One summer day in 1941, half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half, 1,600 men, women, and children, all but seven of the town’s Jews. Neighbors tells their story.

This is a shocking, brutal story that has never before been told. It is the most important study of Polish-Jewish relations to be published in decades and should become a classic of Holocaust literature.

Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts and other evidence into an engulfing reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but forgotten by history. His investigation reads like a detective story, and its unfolding yields wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism. It is a story of surprises: The newly occupying German army did not compel the massacre, and Jedwabne’s Jews and Christians had previously enjoyed cordial relations. After the war, the nearby family who saved Jedwabne’s surviving Jews was derided and driven from the area. The single Jew offered mercy by the town declined it.

Most arresting is the sinking realization that Jedwabne’s Jews were clubbed, drowned, gutted, and burned not by faceless Nazis, but by people whose features and names they knew well: their former schoolmates and those who sold them food, bought their milk, and chatted with them in the street. As much as such a question can ever be answered, Neighbors tells us why.

Regina Grafe Wins the 2013 Gyorgy Ranki Biennial Prize

Regina Grafe - Distant Tyranny: Markets, Power, and Backwardness in Spain, 1650-1800
Winner of the 2013 Gyorgy Ranki Biennial Prize, Economic History Association

The Gyorgy Ranki Biennial Prize is awarded for an “Outstanding Book on the Economic History of Europe,” and includes a $1200 prize.

For more information about the Ranki Prize, click here. For the official list of winners, click here.

Distant TyrannySpain’s development from a premodern society into a modern unified nation-state with an integrated economy was painfully slow and varied widely by region. Economic historians have long argued that high internal transportation costs limited domestic market integration, while at the same time the Castilian capital city of Madrid drew resources from surrounding Spanish regions as it pursued its quest for centralization. According to this view, powerful Madrid thwarted trade over large geographic distances by destroying an integrated network of manufacturing towns in the Spanish interior.

Challenging this long-held view, Regina Grafe argues that decentralization, not a strong and powerful Madrid, is to blame for Spain’s slow march to modernity. Through a groundbreaking analysis of the market for bacalao–dried and salted codfish that was a transatlantic commodity and staple food during this period–Grafe shows how peripheral historic territories and powerful interior towns obstructed Spain’s economic development through jurisdictional obstacles to trade, which exacerbated already high transport costs. She reveals how the early phases of globalization made these regions much more externally focused, and how coastal elites that were engaged in trade outside Spain sought to sustain their positions of power in relation to Madrid.

Distant Tyranny offers a needed reassessment of the haphazard and regionally diverse process of state formation and market integration in early modern Spain, showing how local and regional agency paradoxically led to legitimate governance but economic backwardness.

Regina Grafe is associate professor of history at Northwestern University.

Steven Barnes Shortlisted for the 2013 Central Eurasian Studies Society Book Award

Steven A. Barnes - Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society
Shortlisted for the 2013 Central Eurasian Studies Society Book Award

Each year the CESS Book Award and a monetary prize of $500 is presented to the author of the research monograph, published in the preceding two years, that represents the most important contribution to Central Eurasian studies, or that holds the greatest potential for furthering scholarship on the Central Eurasian region.  Although Barnes’ book did not win, it was one of a “very strong shortlist of six books.”

Death and RedemptionDeath and Redemption offers a fundamental reinterpretation of the role of the Gulag– the Soviet Union’s vast system of forced-labor camps, internal exile, and prisons– in Soviet society. Soviet authorities undoubtedly had the means to exterminate all the prisoners who passed through the Gulag, but unlike the Nazis they did not conceive of their concentration camps as instruments of genocide. In this provocative book, Steven Barnes argues that the Gulag must be understood primarily as a penal institution where prisoners were given one final chance to reintegrate into Soviet society. Millions whom authorities deemed “reeducated” through brutal forced labor were allowed to leave. Millions more who “failed” never got out alive.

Drawing on newly opened archives in Russia and Kazakhstan as well as memoirs by actual prisoners, Barnes shows how the Gulag was integral to the Soviet goal of building a utopian socialist society. He takes readers into the Gulag itself, focusing on one outpost of the Gulag system in the Karaganda region of Kazakhstan, a location that featured the full panoply of Soviet detention institutions. Barnes traces the Gulag experience from its beginnings after the 1917 Russian Revolution to its decline following the 1953 death of Stalin.

Death and Redemption reveals how the Gulag defined the border between those who would reenter Soviet society and those who would be excluded through death.

Steven A. Barnes is associate professor of history and director of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Mason University.

Daniel B. Schwartz Named Co-Winner of 2012 Salo Wittmayer Baron Prize

Daniel B. Schwartz – The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image
Co-Winner of the 2012 Salo Wittmayer Baron Prize, American Academy for Jewish Research

The American Academy for Jewish Research is pleased to announce the winners of its annual Salo Baron Prize for the best first book in Jewish studies published in 2012…The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image [is a] commanding piece of intellectual history that traces the image of Spinoza in a number of different geo-cultural contexts. The prize committee found Schwartz’s authoritative grasp of each of them, from Spinoza’s own time, to eighteenth-century Germany, nineteenth-century East Central Europe, and twentieth-century Palestine, truly remarkable for a scholar for whom this is a first book. The book rests on careful and precise terminological apparatus, as well as on a graceful and compelling writing style.

The Baron Prize honors the memory of the distinguished historian Salo W. Baron, a long-time president of the AAJR, who taught at Columbia University for many decades. It is…one of the signal honors that can be bestowed on a young scholar in Jewish studies and a sign of the excellence, vitality, and creativity in the field.

The First Modern JewPioneering biblical critic, theorist of democracy, and legendary conflater of God and nature, Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) was excommunicated by the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam in 1656 for his “horrible heresies” and “monstrous deeds.” Yet, over the past three centuries, Spinoza’s rupture with traditional Jewish beliefs and practices has elevated him to a prominent place in genealogies of Jewish modernity. The First Modern Jew provides a riveting look at how Spinoza went from being one of Judaism’s most notorious outcasts to one of its most celebrated, if still highly controversial, cultural icons, and a powerful and protean symbol of the first modern secular Jew.

Ranging from Amsterdam to Palestine and back again to Europe, the book chronicles Spinoza’s posthumous odyssey from marginalized heretic to hero, the exemplar of a whole host of Jewish identities, including cosmopolitan, nationalist, reformist, and rejectionist. Daniel Schwartz shows that in fashioning Spinoza into “the first modern Jew,” generations of Jewish intellectuals–German liberals, East European maskilim, secular Zionists, and Yiddishists–have projected their own dilemmas of identity onto him, reshaping the Amsterdam thinker in their own image. The many afterlives of Spinoza are a kind of looking glass into the struggles of Jewish writers over where to draw the boundaries of Jewishness and whether a secular Jewish identity is indeed possible. Cumulatively, these afterlives offer a kaleidoscopic view of modern Jewish cultureand a vivid history of an obsession with Spinoza that continues to this day.

Daniel B. Schwartz is assistant professor of history at George Washington University.

Jeremy Adelman’s “Worldly Philosopher” One of Financial Times Econ Books of 2013

Jeremy Adelman – Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman
One of Financial Times (Alphachat)’s Econ Books of the Year for 2013

Diane Coyle and Tyler Cowen of Alphachat, a podcast of Financial Times Alphaville, listed their top picks for economic books published in 2013. They both placed Worldly Philosopher:The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman at the top of their lists of five books.

Worldly PhilosopherWorldly Philosopher chronicles the times and writings of Albert O. Hirschman, one of the twentieth century’s most original and provocative thinkers. In this gripping biography, Jeremy Adelman tells the story of a man shaped by modern horrors and hopes, a worldly intellectual who fought for and wrote in defense of the values of tolerance and change.

Born in Berlin in 1915, Hirschman grew up amid the promise and turmoil of the Weimar era, but fled Germany when the Nazis seized power in 1933. Amid hardship and personal tragedy, he volunteered to fight against the fascists in Spain and helped many of Europe’s leading artists and intellectuals escape to America after France fell to Hitler. His intellectual career led him to Paris, London, and Trieste, and to academic appointments at Columbia, Harvard, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He was an influential adviser to governments in the United States, Latin America, and Europe, as well as major foundations and the World Bank. Along the way, he wrote some of the most innovative and important books in economics, the social sciences, and the history of ideas.

Throughout, he remained committed to his belief that reform is possible, even in the darkest of times.

This is the first major account of Hirschman’s remarkable life, and a tale of the twentieth century as seen through the story of an astute and passionate observer. Adelman’s riveting narrative traces how Hirschman’s personal experiences shaped his unique intellectual perspective, and how his enduring legacy is one of hope, open-mindedness, and practical idealism.

Jeremy Adelman is the Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor of Spanish Civilization and Culture and director of the Council for International Teaching and Research at Princeton University. His books include Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World and Sovereignty and Revolution in the Iberian Atlantic (Princeton)

T.J. Clark to Speak in London Kings Place

picassoAt the Kings Place (90 York Way, London, N1 9AG) on October 5th at 3:30 PM, internationally acclaimed art historian T.J. Clark will be explaining how his new book Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica establishes Picasso as the artist of the 20th century, stripping away the gossip and the hero-worship. He takes us through the logic of his paintings as an account of modernity.

How did an art rooted in feeling for the human world react to an epoch of mass violence and social disintegration? Was Picasso’s imagery of horror an act of desperation, or a solution to an artistic and ethical impasse?

In what sense did the new extremism of Picasso’s art around 1930 lead on to the tragic vision of Guernica?

To learn more about the event at their website, click here.


T.J. Clark is an internationally acclaimed art historian, who has taught at UCLA, Leeds, Harvard and Berkeley.

He is the author of several books on the social character and formal dynamics of modern art, including the highly influential volume, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers, Farewell to an Idea, Episodes from a History of Modernism and The Sight of Death, An Experiment in Art Writing.

Strategy & Business Gives “Mass Flourishing” A Thumbs Up

Mass FlourishingTheodore Kinni of Strategy & Business reviewed Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change this week, saying:

“I…find his values-driven view of national prosperity fascinating—and applicable to corporate and personal prosperity. If innovation and the prosperity it yields stem from the values to which we subscribe as individuals, organizations, and nations, it stands to reason that we should be paying a great deal of attention to the particular values we adopt and espouse.”
― Theodore Kinni, Strategy-Business.com

To check out the full article, click here.
In this book, Nobel Prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps draws on a lifetime of thinking to make a sweeping new argument about what makes nations prosper–and why the sources of that prosperity are under threat today. Why did prosperity explode in some nations between the 1820s and 1960s, creating not just unprecedented material wealth but “flourishing”–meaningful work, self-expression, and personal growth for more people than ever before? Phelps makes the case that the wellspring of this flourishing was modern values such as the desire to create, explore, and meet challenges. These values fueled the grassroots dynamism that was necessary for widespread, indigenous innovation. Most innovation wasn’t driven by a few isolated visionaries like Henry Ford; rather, it was driven by millions of people empowered to think of, develop, and market innumerable new products and processes, and improvements to existing ones. Mass flourishing–a combination of material well-being and the “good life” in a broader sense–was created by this mass innovation.

Yet indigenous innovation and flourishing weakened decades ago. In America, evidence indicates that innovation and job satisfaction have decreased since the late 1960s, while postwar Europe has never recaptured its former dynamism. The reason, Phelps argues, is that the modern values underlying the modern economy are under threat by a resurgence of traditional, corporatist values that put the community and state over the individual. The ultimate fate of modern values is now the most pressing question for the West: will Western nations recommit themselves to modernity, grassroots dynamism, indigenous innovation, and widespread personal fulfillment, or will we go on with a narrowed innovation that limits flourishing to a few?

A book of immense practical and intellectual importance, Mass Flourishing is essential reading for anyone who cares about the sources of prosperity and the future of the West.

Edmund Phelps was the 2006 Nobel Laureate in economics. He is director of the Center on Capitalism and Society at Columbia University. His many books include Designing Inclusion, Rewarding Work, and Seven Schools of Macroeconomic Thought.

“Europe and the Islamic World” offers a crucial and poised evaluation of a momentous meeting

Europe and the Islamic World: A History is commended in a review by Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s first English-language newspaper founded in 1975:

Understanding complex ties between Muslim states, Europe

Lisa Kaaki
Wednesday 17 July 2013

This detailed history of Europe and the Islamic world is the latest of a series of attempts to understand the complex relations between Muslim countries and Europe. Co-authored by a trio of French historians, this book not only highlights the common roots between Islamic and Western cultures but it also maintains an impartial profile until the very end.

This history of Europe and the Islamic world is divided in three distinct parts. In the first five chapters, John Tolan tackles, “Saracens and Ifranj: Rivalries, Emulation, and Convergences.” In the second part, Gilles Veinstein introduces us to “The Great Turk and Europe” and Henry Laurens in the last part focuses on “Europe and the Muslim World in the Contemporary Period.”

John Esposito sets the tone of this scholarly work in his excellent foreword. Known for his objective and unbiased thinking, the American scholar presents a remarkable and clear summary of the book’s main points.

He is quick to underline the common political and religious struggle for power, waged by both, the West and Islam. The Muslims claim to have the final revelation threatened directly the role of Christianity to be: the only means to salvation. Moreover, Christendom also saw the rapid expansion of Islam as a “political and civilizational challenge to its religious and political hegemony.”

To view the rest of this article, head over to ArabNews.com:
http://www.arabnews.com/news/458230


Europe and the Islamic World: A History by John Tolan, Henry Laurens & Gilles VeinsteinEurope and the Islamic World sheds much-needed light on the shared roots of Islamic and Western cultures and on the richness of their inextricably intertwined histories, refuting once and for all the misguided notion of a “clash of civilizations” between the Muslim world and Europe. In this landmark book, three eminent historians bring to life the complex and tumultuous relations between Genoans and Tunisians, Alexandrians and the people of Constantinople, Catalans and Maghrebis–the myriad groups and individuals whose stories reflect the common cultural, intellectual, and religious heritage of Europe and Islam.

Since the seventh century, when the armies of Constantinople and Medina fought for control of Syria and Palestine, there has been ongoing contact between the Muslim world and the West. This sweeping history vividly recounts the wars and the crusades, the alliances and diplomacy, commerce and the slave trade, technology transfers, and the intellectual and artistic exchanges. Here readers are given an unparalleled introduction to key periods and events, including the Muslim conquests, the collapse of the Byzantine Empire, the commercial revolution of the medieval Mediterranean, the intellectual and cultural achievements of Muslim Spain, the crusades and Spanish reconquest, the rise of the Ottomans and their conquest of a third of Europe, European colonization and decolonization, and the challenges and promise of this entwined legacy today.

As provocative as it is groundbreaking, this book describes this shared history in all its richness and diversity, revealing how ongoing encounters between Europe and Islam have profoundly shaped both.

John Tolan is professor of history at the Université de Nantes. His books include Saracens and Saint Francis and the Sultan. Gilles Veinstein (1945-2013) was professor of history at the Collège de France. He is the author of Merchants in the Ottoman Empire. Henry Laurens is professor of history at the Collège de France. He is the author of L’empire et ses ennemis: La question impériale dans l’histoire.

Foreign Affairs magazine: “The Frankfurt School at War: The Marxists Who Explained the Nazis to Washington”

The Frankfurt School at War:
The Marxists Who Explained the Nazis to Washington
William E. Scheuerman

July/August 2013

Foreign Affairs: The Frankfurt School at War by William E. Scheuerman

The word “espionage” is written with Cyrillic letters on a typewriter. (Wolfgang Rattay / Courtesy Reuters)


Secret Reports on Nazi Germany: The Frankfurt School Contribution to the War Effort. by FRANZ NEUMANN, HERBERT MARCUSE, and OTTO KIRCHHEIMER. edited by RAFFAELE LAUDANI. Princeton University Press, 2013, 704 pp. $45.00.

War makes for strange bedfellows. Among the oddest pairings that World War II produced was the bringing together of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) — a precursor to the CIA — and a group of German Jewish Marxists he hired to help the United States understand the Nazis.

Donovan was a decorated veteran of World War I and a Wall Street lawyer linked to the Republican Party. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt tapped him to create the United States’ first dedicated nonmilitary intelligence organization. At that time, many in the foreign policy establishment saw intelligence and espionage as somewhat undignified, even unimportant. So Donovan cast a wide net, recruiting not only diplomats and professional spies but also film directors, mobsters, scholars, athletes, and journalists.

Even in that diverse group, Franz Neumann stood out. Neumann, a Marxist lawyer and political scientist, had fled Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933. He arrived in the United States a few years later, where he was hailed as an expert on Nazi Germany after the 1942 publication of his book Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, which depicted Nazism as a combination of pathological, monopolistic capitalism and brutal totalitarianism. Neumann’s work brought him to the attention of Donovan, who was eager to mobilize relevant expertise regardless of its bearer’s political views.

To read the rest of this article, please refer to the Foreign Affairs website:
http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139466/william-e-scheuerman/the-frankfurt-school-at-war?page=show


Secret Reports on Nazi Germany by Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse & Otto Kirchheimer
[F]ascinating. . . . [T]his new volume . . . conveniently collects a substantial chunk of the original documents penned by Neumann and his research team.”–William E. Scheuerman, Foreign Affairs 
 
“[A] fascinating collection. . . . The history of wartime intelligence is a developing field, and this material is a welcome addition.”–Library Journal
Secret Reports on Nazi Germany
Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse & Otto Kirchheimer
Edited by Raffaele Laudani
With a foreword by Raymond Geuss

During the Second World War, three prominent members of the Frankfurt School–Franz Neumann, Herbert Marcuse, and Otto Kirchheimer–worked as intelligence analysts for the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime forerunner of the CIA. This book brings together their most important intelligence reports on Nazi Germany, most of them published here for the first time.

These reports provide a fresh perspective on Hitler’s regime and the Second World War, and a fascinating window on Frankfurt School critical theory. They develop a detailed analysis of Nazism as a social and economic system and the role of anti-Semitism in Nazism, as well as a coherent plan for the reconstruction of postwar Germany as a democratic political system with a socialist economy. These reports played a significant role in the development of postwar Allied policy, including denazification and the preparation of the Nuremberg Trials. They also reveal how wartime intelligence analysis shaped the intellectual agendas of these three important German-Jewish scholars who fled Nazi persecution prior to the war.

Secret Reports on Nazi Germany features a foreword by Raymond Geuss as well as a comprehensive general introduction by Raffaele Laudani that puts these writings in historical and intellectual context.

Franz Neumann (1900-1954) was a labor lawyer and political activist in Germany before the Nazi period, and was a professor of political science at Columbia University after his work in the OSS and at the Nuremberg Trials. Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) was a philosopher who made important contributions to the Frankfurt School critical theory of society. He taught at Brandeis and San Diego universities after his work in the OSS. Otto Kirchheimer (1905-1965) worked for the OSS until 1952. Later he was professor of political science at the New School for Social Research and Columbia. Raffaele Laudani is assistant professor of the history of political thought at the University of Bologna.

Derek Sayer “succeeds in doing what might have seemed at the beginning an impossible task,” according to Leonardo Reviews

Derek Sayer’s Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, is warmly received by Jan Baetens of Leonardo Reviews:

Why Prague as ‘capital of the 20th Century’, and not Berlin, Tokyo, Los Angles, or, of course, New York? The answer that Derek Sayer, renowned specialist of Czech Modernism, gives to this question is multiple, but most crucial is here the symmetry he elaborates with Walter Benjamin’s landmark description of Paris, cultural capital of the 19th Century. Just as the Ville-Lumière could appear in Benjamin eyes‒and don’t we look all through his eyes nowadays?‒as the laboratory of 20th Century’s modernism, Prague may be the city that foreshadows the world in which we live today, a world that is less simply postmodern than the epitome of what Baudelaire defined as the landmark feature of all modernities ahead: “the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable” (“The Painter of Modern Life,” 1863). More than any other city in the (Western) world, Prague has become the symbol of that singular mix of constancy and instability that singles out modern as well as postmodern life. Much more than a city like New Work, Prague is deeply rooted in history, and much more than a city like Paris, this history is a never-ending chain of upheavals, turmoil, changes, revolutions, and destructions, in which the only certitude that remains can only be that of uncertainty itself.

Yet there is also a second reason to choose Prague as a new case in point for a Benjaminian revisiting of cultural history, in the very broad sense of the word bringing together art, politics, ideology, business, and daily life, combining both the well-known signposts of culture and the forgotten or despised details that only illuminated rag pickers are able to value. That reason is the necessity to rewrite a dramatically important chapter of history wiped out by post-iron curtain ideas on 20th Century modernism. Until the Second World War, Prague had been, indeed, one of the cradles of Surrealism, only second to Paris and, if not in depth than certainly in width, definitely more important than Brussels. Belgium may have had more radical avant-garde writers than Czechoslovakia (in comparison with Paul Nougé, the Nobel Prize winning Jaroslav Seifert will appear to many as a rather pale figure, for instance), and it may have hosted also more famous painters (needless to remind that Magritte has had a more lasting influence than his Czech colleagues), but Surrealism has pervaded the whole of culture and society more profoundly in the old kingdom of Bohemia than the country governed by King Albert I and King Leopold III, a country where Surrealism often narrowed down into softer, more user-friendly, sometimes almost petty-bourgeois forms, while Surrealism did never cease to have revolutionary undertones in Prague. Unfortunately, however, it is the fate of small countries and small cultures to be overlooked in history, which remains written and rewritten from the viewpoint of the global culture of the day. Hence, for instance, the complete neglect of Czech Surrealism in the show that has determined for many decades the US vision of modernity: William Rubin’s 1968 MOMA blockbuster retrospective “Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage”.

Read the complete review at Leonardo Reviews: http://leonardo.info/reviews/july2013/sayer-baetens.php


Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History by Derek SayerPrague, Capital of the Twentieth Century:
A Surrealist History

Derek Sayer

Setting out to recover the roots of modernity in the boulevards, interiors, and arcades of the “city of light,” Walter Benjamin dubbed Paris “the capital of the nineteenth century.” In this eagerly anticipated sequel to his acclaimed Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History, Derek Sayer argues that Prague could well be seen as the capital of the much darker twentieth century. Ranging across twentieth-century Prague’s astonishingly vibrant and always surprising human landscape, this richly illustrated cultural history describes how the city has experienced (and suffered) more ways of being modern than perhaps any other metropolis.

“[A] captivating portrait of 20th-century Prague. . . . The breadth of Sayer’s knowledge is encyclopedic, and those willing to stay the course will be rewarded.”–Publishers Weekly

Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century is an erudite, comprehensive, well-illustrated and witty account of Czech art, design, architecture, literature and music in an era–stretching roughly from Czechoslovakia’s creation in 1918 to the end of the second world war–when few in Paris, Berlin, London or even New York would have thought of the Czechs as not being part of western civilisation. . . . [I]n this book [Sayer] has succeeded in bringing back to life a golden avant-garde era that not long ago was in danger of being written out of history altogether.”–Tony Barber, Financial Times