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Culture Books


Fall and rise of nations

Europe declines, Asia rises , and America hangs on the brink

A British statesman once observed that his nation had no permanent friends, only permanent interests. That is certainly evident in the dramatic rehabilitation of Germany.

In Changing Enemies, Noel Annan, who served in British intelligence, documents how his agency labored successively to destroy and then reconstruct Germany. Just how does one rebuild a nation twisted by totalitarianism and devastated by war? Mr. Annan's account illustrates the practical difficulties that so often bedevil the attainment of lofty political goals, in this case, the creation of a democratic Germany.

A related tale is told by Lonnie Johnson in Central Europe. Mr. Johnson, who has lived in Austria for the last quarter century, takes a long view, presenting the history of Central Europe from about the year 1000 through the collapse of communism in 1989. The sweep of history is hard for Americans to imagine: the Ottoman, Habsburg, Wilhelmine, and Czarist empires, swept away by World War I; the small successor states, carried off by the Nazi whirlwind; Hitler's Reich, destroyed by World War II; and the Soviet empire, collapsed of its own weight. It's a saga that will also help readers understand the ongoing Balkans wars, to the extent that anyone can.

After so much activity and conflict, it is perhaps not surprising that Europe seems exhausted. But was its decline inevitable? In The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman, a history professor at George Mason University, traces "declinist" thought from the Romantics of the late 1700s to the political correctness and environmental movements today. He warns: "Modern pessimism has done more than just counterbalance excessive optimism regarding the future; it has managed to wreck our faith in the idea of civilization itself." Even for Christians who possess a transcendent understanding of history, this is an important book.

More vibrant than contemporary Europe is East Asia, hosting the world's fastest-growing economies and the world's next potential superpower, China. Governments have long dominated life in East Asia, but capitalism and democracy have begun to overturn the existing order. Many countries now sport burgeoning civil societies--non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and philanthropic groups. Emerging Civil Society, which details this important phenomenon, isn't a book for the average reader, but it provides a wealth of information for anyone interested in the development of institutions outside of government.

That America suffers from serious racial divisions should be evident to anyone who watches the news. It is also evident from reading The Darden Dilemma, which assesses the "conflicting loyalties" of Christopher Darden, the black prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial. That prosecuting an accused murderer could be thought to engender "conflicting loyalties" demonstrates the depth of our race problem.