Anne Colamosca is a former staff writer at Business Week and has written for many national magazines and newspapers including Columbia Journalism Review, the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, the New Republic, USA Today, Sojourners Magazine and Ms. With William Wolman, she is coauthor of " The Judas Economy: The Triumph of Capital and Betrayal of Work." and "The Great 401(k) Hoax."
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A Complicated Reformer
ON Oct. 31, 1517, an intense 33-year-old Catholic monk with deep-set eyes and a prominent chin nailed an announcement of proposed points—95 theses—for a university discussion to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Martin Luther, a well-respected University of Wittenberg professor and administrator, was attacking the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, in which the well-to-do “bought” their relatives out of purgatory by investing in “good works” for the church. Poorer people followed suit with a few coins.
Luther was far from the only critic of indulgences, but his action got attention. Intelligent and charismatic, he was not easily dismissed. He sparked the Protestant Reformation, marking its 500th anniversary this year, at that church door. This review touches on three Luther biographies: chiefly the new Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, by Lyndal Roper, the first woman named Regius Professor of History at Oxford University, but also Brand Luther, by Andrew Pettegree, and Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, by Scott H. Hendrix.
Luther’s fame grew after he refused to recant his criticisms of the Catholic Church at the 1521 Diet of Worms, in front of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated. This incident, Roper writes, “probably did more to win people over to the Reformation and shape their hopes and expectations than did his theology.”
From 'Grocer' to Rescuer
IN THE EARLY 1940s, Raoul Wallenberg was a slight, balding young man living modestly in Stockholm. He worked for a trading company that imported Hungarian poultry to Sweden. Wallenberg’s colleagues were mainly Hungarian Jews.
He had trained in the U.S. to be an architect. But on his return to Sweden, Wallenberg discovered that he didn’t have the engineering courses required to be hired in his homeland. His other career alternative, banking, also eluded him. The extended Wallenberg family owned one of Sweden’s most prosperous banks, Stockholms Enskilda Bank. But they found Wallenberg to be overly talkative, too artistically inclined, and having a penchant for drama that did not signal, for them, the makings of a top-drawer Swedish banker. So Wallenberg fell into depression, feeling that he was a failure, now known to his family disparagingly as “the grocer.”
Yet this unfulfilled young man would become, virtually overnight, one of the great heroes of World War II.
Veteran Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlberg has written a remarkable, nuanced, 600-page biography featuring extensive original research and new material: Raoul Wallenberg: The Heroic Life and Mysterious Disappearance of the Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. The English translation of this award-winning work was released earlier this year.
When the Germans sent 500 Norwegians to Auschwitz in late 1942, the outraged Swedish government, which had remained neutral, declared that Sweden would accept any Jew who could make it to the Swedish border. They also decided to set up a special humanitarian aid mission in Budapest to help Hungarian Jews being annihilated by Hitler’s troops. A colleague at the trading company immediately recommended Wallenberg to the Swedish Foreign Mission to head the new mission.
Ideologies and Idealism
FUELED BY DEEP economic insecurity, terrorist acts, and an influx of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees fleeing their homelands, a slew of bellicose, ultra-right-wing parties throughout Europe are gaining popularity in 2016. Some are reminded of the 1930s when fascists Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and communist strongman Joseph Stalin all held power, along with dictators in several smaller states.
Today’s mostly democratically led Europe, of course, is a far cry from that bloody, disastrous decade, but the real angst that prevails still gives cause for alarm and analysis. In Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, veteran journalist Adam Hochschild takes us back to what is seen as an important prelude to World War II.
In 1936, a broad coalition of mainly left-wing parties—liberals, socialists, anarchists, and communists—narrowly won national elections in Spain. In response Spanish Gen. Francisco Franco, supported by the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini, launched a rebellion against the new government. The left-leaning government forces and its supporters became collectively known as the Republicans; Franco and his coalition of the military, landed aristocracy, and most of the Catholic Church hierarchy were known as the Nationalists. This conflict, a democratically elected government attempting to fight off a fascist uprising, became the focus of international attention.
Hochschild explores the passion, commitment, and dangerous “boots on the ground” actions by Americans who volunteered to fight the fascists in Spain. Hochschild has excavated a rich trove of memoirs, letters, and unpublished books that these volunteers left behind.
A Gentle Life
WHILE OTHER Turkish writers choose to live outside the country, Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk—except for short periods—still lives in Istanbul, Turkey, in the building where he was raised. It is not exactly a safe, secure life. He has already faced charges for making anti-Turkish remarks regarding the long-denied mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He fled the country for more than a year until charges were dropped (due in part to pressure from high- profile writers that included Gabriel García Márquez). And since then, numerous other writers and journalists have been arrested by the increasingly authoritarian government.
Pamuk’s newest and ninth novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, took him six years to write and release, as he has struggled against conservative forces who call him a “Western stooge.” Like Istanbul: Memories and the City, a memoir by Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind is a double portrait of the main character, Mevlut Karataş, and the city of Istanbul. It is a postmodern fairy tale, a mesmerizing odyssey, a coming-of-age urban fable.
Mevlut is a street vendor who sells a fermented wheat drink, boza, which became popular in the days of the Ottoman Empire. Through Mevlut’s prism we become acquainted with a city of 14 million—up an astounding 12 million people since Pamuk was born in 1952. Pamuk has described Mevlut “as a man of immense imagination ... he sees and feels things in the streets that no one else does.” He is a quietly observant Muslim, modest, shy, and with his own inner sense of holiness and of “strangeness.” Like Pamuk’s own character in Istanbul, Mevlut is a lonely dreamer, living outside of the mainstream, caught up in his own imaginary world, often being judged harshly by those around him.
An Ambiguous Political Prophet
The Kennan Diaries. W. W. Norton & Company.
Brothers in Faith and Defiance
No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State. New York Review Books.
The Party of Ayn Rand's Discontent
The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson. Oxford University Press. Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, by Gary Weiss. St. Martin's Press.