Monday, February 26, 2024

The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia's Jews on the Eve of World War I (Steven Ujifusa)

Immigration to America in the late 19th and 20th Centuries was a big business, large enough that J.P. Morgan was involved and millions of dollars could be made by funneling Europeans on large steamer ships across the Atlantic. In fact, over two million Jews traveled from Eastern Europe and Russia to escape persecution and search for a better life.

Steven Ujifusa's The Last Ships from Hamburg: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia's Jews on the Eve of World War I chronicles the migration of Europeans in the decades preceding World War I and men who built large businesses and banked huge profits off the transport of those wishing to go to America. It also describes how America gradually turned insular and anti-immigrant due to a number of factors. 

Ujifusa focuses much of the book on Albert Ballin, a Hamburg businessesman who was the managing director of the Hamburg-American line. Ballin created a sprawling network of trains and steamships to funnel migrants west. But his empire came crashing to the ground with the onset of World War I, as migration ceased and Europe and the North Atlantic turned into a war zone. Despite the war's end in 1918, immigration in America was severely restricted due to nativist and racist forces gaining influence in immigration policy.

The Last Ships from Hamburg is a great telling of the story of migration through Europe and to America but through the prism of how business in Europe helped in the mass migration.


Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Sparks: China's Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future (Ian Johnson)

Sharing untold but true stories of a nation's past is important and necessary to help it learn about itself. While this can usually happen in America with little fanfare, it is much more dangerous in places where the state exerts full control. Ian Johnson's Sparks: China's Underground Historians and Their Battle for the Future details the stories of China's underground historians and their quest for truth, sometimes at the price of everything they have.

Chinese officials have oscillated over the seven decades of Communist control. In Mao's time and increasingly in Xi's time as leader, expressing an opinion different from the party line could find people ostracized or worse. Telling the stories of those who dissented, or weren't ideologically "pure" enough, was a fraught exercise that could end in prison time or death (see the Cultural Revolution as an example of this). Sparks highlights the brave historians who look for ways to bend and ebb around Chinese state control to ensure stories can be told.

Johnson is greatly effective at detailing several key points in Chinese history: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiannemen protests, and the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan. The tales of the "counter-history" from these points in time and the people who told them are powerful reminders of the need for authentic storytelling before the stories of the past are forgotten.


Monday, February 12, 2024

Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations (Simon Schama)

Before Covid-19, periodic bouts of contagion ravaged cities and countrysides throughout the world, killing multitudes. Smallbox, cholera, and bubonic plague ebbed and flowed based on movement of people and pests. Combating these diseases, people looked for ways to protect populations and come up with innovative solutions, even in places that didn't seem to be the most innovative for scientific breakthroughs.

In Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines, and the Health of Nations, author Simon Schama highlights a number of unsung heroes throughout the centuries, most notably Waldemar Haffkine, a Jewish student in Odessa who became a microbiologist under Louis Pasteur. Haffkine developed a cholera and bubonic plague vaccine that saved millions of lives in British India around the beginning of the 20th Century. He was celebrated by the masses but shunned by the scientific community of the time. Haffkine's innovation in developing mass-produced vaccines helped set the stage for mass innoculations that would protect against a long list of diseases.

Foreign Bodies is ultimately a great story but ends rather awkwardly with its pivot to modern-day anti-vaccine movements. The book's final chapter on Covid-19 seems almost like a rant against those who disliked Anthony Fauci, instead of covering a nearly eight-decade history of vaccine and global communities coming together under the World Health Organization (WHO). Covid-19 produced a wide range of policy decisions for population health, ranging from near "anything goes" to WHO-supported lockdowns similar to those in China. The book would have ended more effectively if it offered less of a political rant, which provided a down ending to a great story.