The New York Review of Books is one of the great disappointments in the cultural life of today. It might have been the place to discuss “the best that is known and thought in the world,” to borrow Matthew Arnold’s famous words. No such thing. The NYRB is the house journal of the American liberal, a rarified species as uniform in thought-process as herd animals. Contrary writers and opinions will not appear in its pages.
In the current issue, a review of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 by Christopher Browning is a perfect illustration of the lengths to which the NYRB will go in pursuit of the liberal version of reality. Ullrich’s biography of Hitler stands up to earlier studies by Joachim Fest and Ian Kershaw. Moreover, Browning is fully qualified to write on the subject. His book Ordinary Men describes how a reserve battalion of elderly German policemen turned into heedless Nazi mass-murderers. But instead he opens his review by asserting that it is impossible to read Ullrich “outside the shadow cast by our new president.”
For shadow, read comparison. Browning stipulates “emphatically” that Trump is not Hitler and the American Republic is not Weimar. However, to set circumstances of birth, wealth, war service, sexual experience of the one against the other is purely gratuitous, nothing to do with history but everything to do with prejudice. In the review of a book about Hitler are paragraphs about the American army, “middle-aged white Americans” and possible reactions of Republican legislators, all as lugubrious as irrelevant.
Browning may think and write whatever he likes about Trump, but it is ill-mannered, even disgraceful, to hang his animus on to the historian of quite another subject. Moreover, Browning’s final sentence reads, “If we can still effectively protect American democracy from dictatorship, then certainly one lesson from the study of the demise of Weimar and the ascent of Hitler is how important it is to do it early.” There is only one way to read this: An experienced American professor is calling for the country to get rid of Trump before it is too late and he is dictator.
It’s a convincing reason to get rid of The New York Review of Books.