Aronson’s approach to this topic differs in two respects from Sulzberger’s. First, he takes a broader view, looking at roughly a dozen major and minor monarchs who sat on Europe’s thrones in the second decade of the 20th century. Second, as noted, Crowns in Conflict is biographic in nature, not surprising given that Aronson, who died in 2003, wrote nearly two dozen royal biographies. Rather than rehash how the Central and Entente Powers careened into war, the book looks at the history of each monarch and what the kings and queens did through the course of the war.
This approach works in large part because most of the royalty were related to each other. For example, Britain’s King George V, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the crown princesses of Romania and Greece were all first cousins. The kings of Belgium and Bulgaria were also cousins of King George. Aronson uses these connections to not only explore the relationships among the monarchs but how each monarchy was led into the war and its ultimate effect on them.
Originally released in 1986 but with a new imprint two years ago, Crowns in Conflict also recognizes and explores the impact the advent of constitutional monarchy on each monarch’s power. The monarchs were no longer the only voice or decision-maker. “When set against the forces of nationalism and militarism, these dynastic relationships counted for nothing,” Aronson observes. Instead, the monarchs’ loyalty was now “country before caste.”
Britain, Germany (ruled by the Hohenzollerns), Austria-Hungary (the Habsburg empire) and Russia (the Romanovs) were the powerhouses and the last three bore the most responsibility for World War I. Thus, George V, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary are the main focus, Yet other monarchies, such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Serbia, also were buffeted by the war. Three such monarchs -- King Albert of Belgium, Victor Emmanuel of Italy and Ferdinand of Bulgaria -- also are looked at in detail.
Some may view Aronson’s approach as a bit superficial or perhaps even gossipy. I, though, found it an interesting version of an oft-told tale. Rather than simply being a diplomatic or military history, Crowns in Conflict uniquely personalizes World War I. It also helps place monarchies in a historic context.
In fact, the book may make the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica somewhat prescient. Its entry for monarchy said that while “it survives as a political force, more or less strongly, in most European countries, ‘monarchists,’ in the strict sense of the word, are everywhere a small and dwindling minority.” What the encyclopedia couldn’t or didn’t predict was what would succeed these hereditary autocracies. “Dictatorships of one sort or another shortly were established in almost any country over which the monarchs had once reigned,” Aronson observes.
While the American Revolution is central to the Fourth of July, America also seemed to encounter a revolutionary temperament in 1968. We weren't aloneWhile the American Revolution is central to the Fourth of July, America also seemed to encounter a revolutionary temperament in 1968. We weren't alone; revolution also seemed to be in the air in Europe. Even the counterculture symbol The Beatles would record their first politically explicit song, "Revolution." Yet you've got to wonder how much support there is for your revolution when John Lennon writes, "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow."
Lennon's attitude may have changed later but there's little doubt the excesses of China's then two-year-old Cultural Revolution were disturbing many worldwide. Although the violence eventually receded, the Cultural Revolution -- in reality prompted by an internecine power struggle -- wouldn't really end until after Mao's death in 1976.
The extent of the damage caused China is incalculable. We've gained insight into the Cultural Revolution's economic, cultural and personal costs as, over the years, memoirs of those caught up in it have become almost a genre unto themselves. One of the most recent is Wei Yang Chao's Red Fire: Growing Up During the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Like many of its predecessors, such as Red-Color News Soldier and Red Scarf Girl, it makes for compelling -- and stupefying -- reading.
Chao and his family moved Beijing in 1965. When the Cultural Revolution was declared the following year, he was 13. Perhaps because of that the first several chapters of Red Fire provide as much a historical perspective as a personal one. Yet Chao would witness several significant events in the transformation of the Chinese political and social landscape that year.
Among other things, he details going to see the first big-character poster. This and other posters were huge sheets of paper with revolutionary slogans that were posted in public places. The first appeared at Peking University in late May 1966. They were a method of debate dominated by what would become the Red Guard. As "an ocean" of posters saturated the country and attacked not only ideas but individuals, the Red Guard began physically attacking those they viewed as "revisionists," i.e., older generations. Public humiliation and beatings became common as the posters achieved a status where, Chao says, "they could end a career, if not a life."
On August 18, 1966, a 14-year-old Chao was among the nearly one million college and high school students who crammed into Tienanmen Square for a rally called by Mao for the "Proletariat Cultural Revolution." Red Fire reviews the rally, at which Mao endorsed the Red Guards. In so doing he essentially released millions of zealots intent on destroying what would later be called "the Four Olds": old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.
Chao recalls tears streaming down his face and feeling ecstatic when he saw Mao after he waded into Tiananmen Square's massive crowds. He attributes those feelings and the students' fervor to the Chinese education system, which he says "fashioned China’s youth into die-hard revolutionaries."
The education we received in those years left no room for us to question what we were learning. None. Your only option was to ingest what you were given and to believe everything you were told. Anything short of total credulity marked you as being against the revolutionary cause.
Violence erupted throughout the country. Chao admits joining in on the Red Guard's chants, slogans and rituals. He also attended "struggle sessions" in which teachers and others were severely beaten, some fatally. He claims he "looked away" at the the latter and drew a line at personal violence and destruction. Yet in 1968 he would personally experience what the Red Guard was doing.
Two immutable things brought the Cultural Revolution to Chao's front door. His father, a journalist, had attended college and graduate school in the U.S. That, of course, made him a spy. His mother came from a landowning family and landowners were one of the Red Guard's "black five categories." In April 1968, his parents were subjected to a public struggle session in their own home. Chao and his sister were forced to watch as their parents were beaten and humiliated. Within a year, Chao's parents and sister were sent into the countryside for "re-education." He, meanwhile, would be sent to do farm work in a different village, where he shared a cave residence with another man.
The personal stories allow Red Fire to portray the human effects of the Cultural Revolution. This is also true when he talks of going to historic sites he loved and seeing the destruction wrought by the Red Guards' attack on their own history and culture. Chao's detailing of the birth and initial development of the Red Guard movement and the Cultural Revolution, though, seems held at more of a distance. Moreover, the story largely stops after we learn of Chao and his family returning to Beijing. Thus, readers get no perspective on how they and their nation mended the wounds and how long it may have taken. Likewise, there's no discussion of any ramifications of the Cultural Revolution on 21st century China. Despite that, this is a lucid account of a family and country caught in the throes of revolutionary fervor.
All right, I owned or own six Emerson Lake and Palmer LPs, six Yes LPs, King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, three (yes, three!!) Rick WAll right, I owned or own six Emerson Lake and Palmer LPs, six Yes LPs, King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, three (yes, three!!) Rick Wakeman solo albums and a handful of other progressive rock albums. There's probably a half dozen or more such albums on my iPod right now. Caught up in the midst of the prog rock movement, I also admit I'm one of those who bailed when, by the end of the 1970s, it was derided and ridiculed.
Where prog rock came from, its decline and what it left behind are the subject of David Weigel's The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. As Weigel notes, The Rock Snob's Dictionary describes prog rock as "the single most deplored genre of postwar pop." And it was only 1984 when This is Spinal Tap, a peerless send-up of "prog rock" and some of the metal bands it influenced, was released. Te book, the title of which comes from a 1973 Emerson Lake and Palmer album, is a thoroughly researched and entertaining look at the genre. Yet the nature and history of prog rock is such as to create difficulty for any writer and, as a result, The Show That Never Ends stumbles with a couple unavoidable hurdles.
One confounding factor is the seemingly continuous changes in band personnel. Take drummer Bill Bruford, for example. In addition to forming two bands of his own, he was with Yes for its first five albums (1968-72) and part of a reconstituted Yes in 1991-92, part of two different incarnations of King Crimson (1972-74, 1981-84), the drummer for Genesis on its 1976 tour, and part of a band with three other original members of Yes in 1989. Or consider King Crimson. While its 1969 In the Court of the Crimson King is generally viewed as one of prog rock's best albums, it came and went for decades with 21 different musicians in its various formations.
Despite that, Weigel, a national political correspondence for The Washington Post, seems at his best in delving into the origins and early development of prog rock, following a handful of its preeminent artists and showing the music it spawned. It also reflects the heavily British source of the musicians.
The biggest challenge in examining prog rock is the music itself. The musicians not only aimed at creating complex music with unusual time signatures they sought new sounds, largely through the use of synthesizers and polyphonic keyboards. Yes even bought Slinkys, put microphones on them and threw them down stairs. "If you put a lot of reverb on it, it sounds great," said Yes guitarist Steve Howe. Moreover, Weigel notes, many lyrics "had as much or as little meaning as the listener wanted from them."
Even with a straightforward and traditional approach to any genre, there's the adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Add in the unusual and unconventional sounds in prog rock and the level of difficulty is even greater. As a result, The Show That Never Ends has passages like this one, describing the last track on the Yes album Fragile:
It started with a rumble, a 6/8 bass line from [Chris] Squire and a drumroll from Bruford. Then came [Rick] Wakeman, with a horror-film keyboard melody in 3/4. Back to the ascending riff, joined by Howe’s guitar. The melody suddenly changed, to a 4/4 beat, with the original riff being phased in slowly by the mix. Then a dropout, to a melody that Anderson had written on his acoustic guitar. The themes repeated, announced at various intervals on keyboards, by what the band came to call "Rick-recapitulation."
Weigel's efforts to translate this music into words are admirable but there's a few too many times when they muddle rather than enlighten. Readers could greatly enhance their enjoyment of the book using streaming music services as a supplement.
Naturally, the most well-known bands, such as Yes, King Crimson and ELP, get plenty of attention. The book also examines the role of many lesser known artists in prog rock's development and its legacy. Oddly, despite its success, Pink Floyd is discussed far less, although that is perhaps because entire books have been written about the band and by its members.
The reasons for the precipitous decline of prog rock are harder to define than the factors that gave rise to it. Declining record sales and Changes in the music industry led to labels dumping progressive rock bands. Yet listeners also abandoned the genre in droves, perhaps in response to the music's complexity. Or perhaps it is just as simple as the fact the bands and the music tended toward bombast, pretension and self-indulgence. I know that was what pushed me away. Still, Weigel makes a good case for prog rock's role in shaping rock music and what would come.