Andrei Markovits is the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan. Born in the west Romanian town of Timisoara, he grew up in Vienna and New York, and after receiving his doctorate in political science in 1976 at Columbia University, he went to the Center for European Studies at Harvard University of which he was a member until June 1999. His books include The German Predicament, Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism and Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America. Here Andrei writes about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel.
Andrei Markovits on Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Since my early childhood in the West Romanian town of Timisoara, where I grew up in the 1950s, historical plays, writings and literature of all kinds played a central part in my life much beyond the conventional confines of formal school education. Even before I entered elementary school at the age of six, my mother had read me Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in German so that I master this language which to my parents remained - despite Auschwitz - the single most important marker of sophistication and learning (the vaunted 'Bildung'), confirming yet again the amazing staying power of German culture for central Europe's Jewish bourgeoisie. After all, my mother had lost both of her parents in the camps and, counting my father's relatives, the Nazis butchered nearly 30 members of my immediate family. But nary five years after the war, German cultural capital was alive and well in the Markovits household, from the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner to the dramas and poetry of Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and Kleist. On the level of 'Bildung', at least, it was patently evident that for my parents the horrors imposed on them by the Nazis had never mutated things German from their pedestal of pertaining to a culture of 'Dichter und Denker' (thinkers and poets) to that of 'Richter und Henker' (judges and hangmen). But next to going to games of football (soccer) with my father in support of my beloved 'blues' of Stinta Timisoara, I liked nothing more than his reading to me from Thucydides's The History of the Peloponnesian War in Hungarian. This was such a formidable experience for me that I can still recite passages from that amazing book over 50 years later - though only in Hungarian.
Dividing my teenage years between Vienna and New York, I continued with my passion for history, reading almost obsessively - not surprisingly - everything that I could find on World War II. I was so enamoured with dates, facts, historical events, geography, that I read historical encyclopedias cover to cover. But not until a skiing trip with the labour-Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatsair near Salzburg in the mid-1960s did I enter the world of analysis and interpretation beyond the mere learning of facts. On this journey, our group read and discussed The Communist Manifesto, which turned me not only into a lifelong admirer of Karl Marx the writer and thinker - if not always into a reliable Marxist - but also into an ardent fan of what could best be described as historical sociology, i.e. large-scale macro-social comparative writings deeply anchored in history.
As a freshman at Columbia University, I experienced that University's legendary year-long 'Great Books' course, known America-wide by its acronym 'CC' which stands for 'Contemporary Civilization'. But even more than this amazing intellectual experience, it was the encounter with the pedagogy and scholarship of Alan Silver, Ira Katznelson and Robert Alford that changed me forever and made me into the passionate political sociologist I have remained to this day. Their courses immersed me deeply in the world of Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Alexis de Tocqueville, Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, Werner Sombart, Ferdinand Toennies, Robert Michels, Seymour Martin Lipset, Barrington Moore Jr and C. Wright Mills, to name just a few. All of these very different thinkers were preoccupied in their very own particular ways, it seemed to me, by the same central issue and asked pretty much the same questions: What created capitalism? What explains Europe's and the West's victory over all other 'modes of production' and 'social formations'? Why did this kind of modernity prevail?
Then, in the middle of the 1970s, upon completing my doctorate at Columbia, I joined the Center for European Studies at Harvard, a place brimming with intellectual energy and creativity, full of cross-disciplinary minds most of whom were beholden to some sort of historically anchored comparative politics or sociology of the neo-Marxist and/or neo-Weberian variety. Heated debates about the transition from feudalism to capitalism ruled the day. Many of us read every letter in Immanuel Wallerstein's and Perry Anderson's tomes that appeared at that time, dividing ourselves on the one hand into Wallersteinians who gave economic developments and the formation of markets pride of place in the formation of modern capitalism, and Andersonians on the other hand who preferred the primacy of politics and state building as better explanations for the creation of the 20th century's real winners.
It was perhaps because of my budding association with the quantitatively-oriented political scientist Karl W. Deutsch which commenced at the same time, and for which my anti-positivist, neo-Marxist Center friends gently disdained me, that I started to miss a certain rigour in all of the literature that I had been reading over the years and from which I derived such pleasure. Of course, it had become clear to me how downright silly, even embarrassing, by contemporary standards some of the scientific assertions by Durkheim, Marx, Engels, Pareto and others about so called 'primitive' and pre-modern societies had been. Even the great Max Weber's writings on China, let alone some of his misinformed statements on Judaism, Calvinism and other key ingredients in his magisterial comparative sociology explaining the emergence of capitalism, were gravely erroneous. But more than that, none of these social thinkers seemed to have the scientific wherewithal to engage in what I came to call a 'deep materialism', a materialist framework that went way beyond Marx's, a conceptual framework that explained why, for example, certain forms of agriculture arose in one place and not in another by dint of climate, earth formation, geography and ecological factors apart from and - most important - preceding human interaction and the establishment of what we have come to call societies. In other words, I became convinced that what had occurred well before the history known to and used by these great political sociologists and theorists was absolutely crucial for the understanding of our world and the proper contextualization of their massively varied conceptual interpretations of it. I remember discussing this often with Karl until he died in 1992. And despite his amazing insights, genius that he was, and his personal guidance that led me to dabble in the world of political geography, comparative ethnology, even biogeography, I remained dissatisfied with my understanding as to why Europe - and the West - had won. To my chagrin, I was, and remain, virtually illiterate in the natural sciences (beyond high-school level calculus and physics), a handicap that, I am increasingly convinced, disqualifies me as a serious student of key social developments and their accompanying histories.
And then something amazing happened on a rainy day in Berlin in the fall of 1998. All fellows at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Studies of Berlin), of which I was one during that academic year, were encouraged to attend a lecture by Jared Diamond. I had, of course, heard the name and knew about his book Guns, Germs and Steel which had been published in the United States in 1997. Even though I had read some of the reviews in my usual sources (The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and similar high-brow periodicals), I must have done so superficially and hurriedly, because none of them grabbed me to the extent that I wanted to purchase and read the book. After being introduced by an eminent biologist from the University of Zurich, Diamond ascended to the lectern and began his lecture - delivered in perfect German, I must add - with the following question:
Why am I not a Sioux, or a Navajo or an Apache, or a Maya, addressing you - also descendants of these nations - here in Berlin in the language of these peoples while the native German population, much decimated, lives in destitution on bleak reservations somewhere in the wilds of Bavaria or Saxony?I was totally mesmerized by this question and completely enchanted by Diamond's ensuing lecture which, to this day, remains one of the most trenchant intellectual experiences of my life. For his lecture had finally revealed to me the missing link that I had been seeking for so long: Diamond's words offered me a framework that explained to me the 'pre-historical' conditions that furnished the prerequisites for the proper understanding of the writings of Marx, Weber and Durkheim and many others about capitalism and the West in a comparative context. I was so enchanted with Diamond's lecture that, immediately following it, I called friends back home in the United States and had them send me a copy of Diamond's book by overnight mail because I wanted to read it in its English original and not wait for the German translation that was about to be published very soon. Upon the book's arrival in Berlin, I sat down and read it cover to cover over the ensuing three days. It then became - and still remains - my most marked-up book apart from the first volume of Das Kapital.
Since I do not perceive my task here as that of a conventional book reviewer, I will not provide details about the book beyond its most fundamental thesis: that by dint of Eurasia's climatic conditions and geographic positioning featuring an East-West rather than a North-South axis, its peoples succeeded in domesticating key large mammals, horses in particular, and major food crops that caused this region's mutation into a sedentary agrarian society. The proximity to domesticated animals and the agglomeration of population clusters that all sedentary societies - as opposed to their nomadic counterparts - experience, led in turn to the spreading of deadly germs to which these populations eventually established immunities. In addition to these germs, these societies invented steel as a crucial 'productive force' that was utilized for, among other purposes, forging guns. Equipped with this troika of weapons - guns, germs and steel - the Eurasians outmatched any of their opponents and could easily defeat and conquer the globe's other inhabitants, which they did shamelessly and most lethally. But this risibly brief summary does the book's amazing richness no justice. Diamond's comparative data and analyses are breathtaking. I mean, who on earth would have thought, pre-Diamond, that zebras are simply 'undomesticable' as compared with horses, their close cousins - a fact that had an immense impact, explaining why Eurasians developed superior weapons to Africans in the form of cavalries. The very uneven distribution of 'domesticable' animals among the continents 'became an important reason why Eurasians, rather than peoples of other continents, were the ones to end up with guns, germs, and steel,' writes Diamond (on p. 162).
In a way, I almost wish that Diamond had stopped the book with his immensely compelling presentation of these continental differences in flora and fauna and not elaborated on the intra-continental differences such as, for example, reasons as to why it was the Europeans rather than the Chinese among these Eurasians who conquered the Americas and the rest of the world. Here, too, his insights are wonderful when, for example, he demonstrates how the relatively smooth coastline of China favoured a large unitary political economy and culture, as compared with the ragged coastline of Europe with its five large peninsulas that - almost like islands - was conducive to the creation of small, self-contained, mutually exclusive economies, cultures and languages. But his assertion that the main reason for China's crumbling as a naval power - and thus its forfeiting the oceans to its European rivals - was largely due to the victory of the eunuchs' opponents at the Chinese court, though certainly true, seems somewhat thin, especially when compared with the immense richness of much of this wonderful book. Nonetheless, Diamond's framework had finally given me a real understanding wherein to place the writings of Marx, Weber, Durkheim and all the other political sociologists that remain so important in my life.
Permit me to end on a somewhat puzzled and slightly disappointed note. Even though Diamond's book won many prizes, among them the Pulitzer, became a huge bestseller and spent years, it seems, on The New York Times bestseller list; and even though the book was translated into many languages and received accolades from most of its reviewers; it somehow never came close to establishing anywhere near the iconic stature for my circle of colleagues and friends that the aforementioned works of Wallerstein and Anderson did, to say nothing of of those of Michel Foucault and Juergen Habermas on modern capitalist societies. I have never heard of the existence of Jared Diamond reading or discussion groups in my world, as I continue to encounter such groups and collectives devoted to the works of Habermas, Foucault, post-colonialist and feminist thinkers and still – to my delight - Marx and some Marxists. Indeed, a quick perusal of reading lists of courses in political sociology, political theory and comparative politics at top American universities will reveal the woeful absence of Diamond's work. I have many well-read colleagues in the literature on comparative capitalism who have not only never read Guns, Germs and Steel, but have never even heard of it or its author. I have some speculative thoughts on the reasons for this omission but will refrain from presenting them in this already far-too-lengthy discussion.