Reporter-historian Durschmied (The Hinge Factor, not reviewed) deftly catalogues facets of intrigue, horror, and chaos by placing himself as a frontline correspondent in a two-century span of sociopolitical upheavals.
At first his selection of events within the period seems somewhat arbitrary: what, after all, does Robespierre’s Reign of Terror have in common with the midnight rides of Pancho Villa or the nearly forgotten, tragically abortive little putsch of Rosa Luxemburg in the Germany that festered between two World Wars? Durschmied essentially hands the reader a detailed workbook with which to dope it all out. And it seems that rebellions, consummated or not, do share national or collective passions that invade the irrational and, at their core, personalities who are thrust into causes that demand utter abandonment of any consideration of human suffering or cost. Some—say, Stalin—press on, some accede or withdraw, but either way the results, the author asserts, are never pretty and almost always so ambiguously skewed as to render the absolute concepts of success or failure irrelevant. Beyond that, intricate cultural shadings and chaotic twists make each Durschmied parable substantially different from its companions. Readers who can stay with the myriad facts as they arrive in rapid succession are rewarded by moments that crystallize revolutionary pathos: in 1967, Che Guevara’s bullet-riddled body lies in a Bolivian schoolhouse while nearby some of South America’s poorest peasants, by choice totally oblivious, toil on. Che, like any number of self-anointed idealists bent on curing society with hard medicine, would live on only in the world of T-shirts. The final message, from Ayatollah Khomeini’s brutally retro-ecclesiastical Iran, seems to be that in programming themselves to have obligatory, nonviolent revolutions every four years, Americans tend to have a hard time seeing the other kind—whenever or wherever—coming.
A remarkable sense of being on scene when the political process yields to paroxysm.