United States … or United Nations? Author Colin Woodard reminds us that “who we are now” is “where we were when.”

"American Nations," a book by Colin Woodard.
In his book “American Nations,” Colin Woodard divides the continent into 11 distinct territories.

It’s tempting to think about the United States as a pretty monolithic country and culture. Certainly, if you listen to the views of Continental Europeans or people from the Middle East, it seems that’s how many around the world view us.

But the reality is far more complex. Speaking as someone who has lived in all four major regions of the U.S. — the Northeast, Midwest, South and West — I’ve experienced first-hand a variety of different regional “quirks.”

And now we have an interesting book that really delves into the phenomenon of America’s distinct regions. In his book American Nations, published in 2011 and now available in paperback, journalist and author Colin Woodard takes us on an interesting regional tour of the continent.

Woodard counts no fewer than eleven “nations within a nation.” And as he defines them, they’re actually spread throughout the United States, Canada and Northern Mexico.

What exactly are these “nations within a nation” and how did they come to be?  They’re the result of early settlers, later migration patterns, and deep-seated cultural affinities that, while somewhat mitigated in recent years, are still surprisingly resilient even after 150 or 200 years.

The one “nation” on Woodard’s map that may characterize what many people think of as “America” is one he calls “Yankeedom.”

“Yankeedom nation” stretches from New England and Upstate New York to the Midwest, encompassing Northern Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

According to Woodard, this region’s character and social culture stem from the utopian communities founded by Puritans and the later immigrants from Scandinavia. In “Yankeedom nation,” intellectual achievement is valued along with an abiding belief in public institutions’ ability to improve and even perfect society.

Understanding these attributes makes it easier to see how the Grange Movement, Robert LaFollette’s Progressive Party and even RomneyCare came into being here rather than in some other part of the United States.

The polar opposite of Yankeedom may well be “Greater Appalachia nation,” a region on Woodard’s map that stretches from Southwestern Pennsylvania west and south to encompass nearly the entire states of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee along with vast swatches of contiguous states.

Also referred to as “The Borderlands,” this “nation” also includes areas we don’t usually associate with Appalachia such as the Ozarks, Oklahoma, Central Texas and even a bit of Eastern New Mexico.

What ties this sprawling “nation” together? The eastern portions of the region were settled not by English planters, merchants or Puritans, but by Scots-Irish immigrants who brought with them a fighting spirit along with a sense of fierce independence and suspicion of central governments.

They and their descendents later migrated to the western regions, bringing their cultural predilections with them. Think of John McCain’s fighting spirit – whose ancestors settled in Mississippi from further east – and you have a flavor of the abiding characteristics of this region.

The great observer of American politics, Michael Barone, has written about Greater Appalachia nation’s antipathy to the social and governmental policies of the current administration in Washington, DC. He notes that even as President Obama has won the White House twice with relative ease, he’s actually fared worse with voters in the Borderlands region when compared to the unsuccessful efforts of John Kerry and Al Gore, losing every county in the states of West Virginia, Arkansas and Oklahoma and carrying precious few anywhere else.

American Nations, by Colin Woodard.Woodard’s book delves into a great deal of rich regional history in order to reveal to us how these and the other “nations” came to be. It’s a fascinating volume that will surely spark some of your own thoughts and perceptions of “America” – in whole and in part.

If you have some personal observations or experiences that illustrate the regional differences in the country, please share them in the comment section below.  As for myself, I’m a person who was born in the “Tidewater nation” and who has relatives in the “Deep South nation.” When attending high school in the Twin Cities (smack in the heart of “Yankeedom nation”), I found it interesting how clueless my otherwise intelligent, knowledgeable and well-traveled schoolmates were about anything to do with the Deep South.

In particular, Mississippi and Alabama were always being mixed up in their minds.

And of the ~50 people who graduated from my high school class, consider these stats: While easily three-fourths of our grads chose to attend college or university out of state … nearly 90% of the class stayed in Woodard’s “Yankeedom nation.”

A coincidence? I think not.

[By the way, I was one of the ~10% who elected to attend college in another “nation,” a decision I never regretted.]

Remembering Nancy Wake (1912-2011): Secret Agent Extraordinaire

Nancy Wake in later lifeNancy Wake, master spy, during World War IIThe world of wartime espionage lost one of its most colorful characters early this month when Nancy Wake, just a few days shy of her 99th birthday, passed away in London.

In fact, when it comes to messing with the Germans during World War II, Nancy Grace Augusta Wake Fiocca Forward may be the ultimate pièce de resistance.

Like so many of the women who were to join the resistance movement on the European Continent, Ms. Wake fell into the role quite by accident after finding herself behind enemy lines. But the big difference with Nancy Wake wasn’t only that she survived – because a goodly number of them didn’t – but also her deadly effectiveness in the role of spy.

Nancy Wake’s early life could never have foretold living the adrenaline-rush life of a secret agent. She was a New Zealander, born in 1912 in Wellington. A few years later, her family moved to Sydney, Australia. But her journalist father soon abandoned the family, so Nancy’s early life was one of some privation in a family of six children headed by a single mother.

At the age of 16, Nancy decided to leave home, using a small inheritance from an aunt to sail for England in 1928.

Here’s where Nancy’s life begins to take on the contours of a spy thriller. First, the plucky young woman bluffs her way into a job in journalism with the Hearst newspaper chain by claiming she is fluent in “Egyptian” – never mind that no such language exists. Once ensconced into a crack news reporter position, she is sent to Paris as a correspondent.

There, Nancy becomes increasingly alarmed by the Nazi saber-rattling occurring on the other side of the Rhine River … but at the same time she meets and marries Henri Fiocca, who happens to be the wealthy heir to a shipping company based in Marseilles.

As she would later say about Mr. Fiocca in an interview with the London Daily Telegraph: “He was tall. He could dance the tango. And if you dance the tango with a nice, tall man, you know what will eventually happen …”

Just one year into the marriage, however, the German tanks rolled into France. At first, Nancy became an ambulance driver, and from there became involved in manning escape lines from her home in Marseilles as people of all stripes desperately sought safe passage to neutral Spain. Among her early exploits were hiding people on the run, giving lavish cash payoffs to guards to free prisoners, and becoming a communications courier for the French resistance.

Not surprisingly, these doings made her known to the Germans as a key figure in the resistance movement – one who needed to be neutralized at all cost. In fact, at one point she was tops on the Gestapo’s “most wanted” list. Heeding advice from her husband and friends to leave the country while she still had the opportunity, Nancy made her way back to England by way of Gibraltar.

Her husband had made plans to join her after settling his business affairs in Marseilles, but the Germans made short work of that by torturing and then killing him – presumably because he refused to divulge information about his wife’s whereabouts.

Nancy was not to learn of her husband’s fate until the end of the war. Meanwhile, her trip to England via Spain and Gibraltar was a harrowing one involving switching from coal trucks to trains and ships … evading German soldiers and bullets along the way.

But was that the end of her spying career? Hardly. Nancy spent eight months of training in the British special operations forces, then parachuted back into central France in 1944 to work as a communications liaison between London and the local Maquis resistance.

Amusingly, she would later recount how her descent into the French countryside was not particularly elegant; the local Maquis leader, Capt. Henri Tardivat, found her tangled in a tree.

The good captain greeted her by remarking, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.” Her tart response: “Don’t give me that French sh*t.”

It would be hard to overstate the contribution Nancy Wake made to the resistance movement in France. Not only did she take care of finances, she allocated the arms and equipment that were being parachuted and smuggled into the country. She was also responsible for recruiting many new members to the movement – so that the resistance force eventually numbered ~7,500 people.

And boy, did they ever wreak havoc on the German occupiers! It’s estimated that from April 1944 until the liberation of France, the Maquis fought ~22,000 German SS soldiers and caused ~1,400 casualties while taking fewer than 100 themselves. Nancy did her part; she was a good marksman, and even killed an SS guard with her bare hands on one of the Maquis’ many raids in order to prevent him from sounding the alarm to his fellow soldiers.

At the end of the war, Nancy Wake was all of 33 years old, yet had already lived a veritable lifetime of excitement and action. In the postwar period, she divided her time between Australia and England, becoming involved in leftish politics and also working as an intelligence officer … eventually remarrying and settling in England for good.

Her popular 1985 memoir, The White Mouse, was so titled because it had been the name the Gestapo bestowed on her for her deft ability to avoid the traps that had been set for her.

In later years, Nancy Wake became a resident of the fashionable Stafford Hotel in London’s St. James Place (Picadilly), which had served as a British and American services club during the war. In fact, its bar had been the place where Nancy had been introduced to alcohol many years before.

Evidently quite the character well into her 90s, she could be found at the hotel bar every morning, enjoying the bar’s first gin and tonic of the day. Now that’s what I call style!

Franz Göll: Witness to History

The Turbulent World of Franz GollAn old saying goes like this: “There are three types of people in the world: Those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what happened.”

The implicit meaning is that only the first set of people are consequential in life.

But sometimes those who watch from the sidelines make their mark in surprising ways.

I think a good example of this is a person who is the subject of a new book. The Turbulent World of Franz Göll, by Peter Fritzsche [Harvard University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0674055315], is a fascinating read. It chronicles the tumultuous events of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of a lower-level administrative manager, a lifetime resident of Berlin.

What makes the book so interesting is that everything is taken from the meticulous diaries and notes written down by Herr Göll over the course of his adult life. And his 85 years of life happened to span the entire sweep of the consequential events in Germany and Europe during the 20th century (1899-1984).

This isn’t the first book that deals with private diaries kept by people living in Berlin during World War II. About 25 years ago, the diaries of Marie Vassiltchikov, a young Russian/Lithuanian princess who moved to the German capital city after the Soviets had occupied her country in 1940, were published by her son after her death. In Berlin Diaries: 1940-1945 [Vintage, ISBN-13: 978-0394757773], we get a blow-by-blow description of life as an aristocrat in Berlin … a city full of nervous energy that quickly becomes an inferno. As an adrenaline rush, it’s hard to top that book. (In fact, I’m surprised Mlle. Vassiltchikov’s story hasn’t been made into a movie.)

But this volume on Franz Göll is quite different. Peter Fritzsche, the book’s author, is a professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in German history. In researching the book, Fritzsche had a veritable treasure trove of material to work with. That’s because Göll bequeathed his entire set of diaries plus other ephemera to the Berlin State Archives upon his death in 1984.

There they remained, essentially untouched, until Professor Fritzsche came across them and realized what he had found: some 23 volumes of diaries meticulously chronicling one man’s life in Berlin from the era of World War I all the way up to the modern day.

… And more. Not only was Göll a writer, he was an obsessive collector as well – so much so, he’d probably be a prime specimen for a psychoanalyst.

Göll kept copious notes on his voracious reading … created poems … collected postcards (more than 8,000 of them!) … clipped and saved countless newspaper and magazine articles. A lifelong bachelor who would live in the same two-room Berlin apartment his entire adult life, he was a loner who likely felt out of place in his working class surroundings despite being of working-class rank himself.

He was largely self-taught in his knowledge, and his entertainments were solitary pursuits like going to the movies.

Surely a “sad sack” case if there ever was one.

But author Fritzsche has gleaned all sorts of interesting material from Göll’s diaries — and in the process helps us understand that, far from being “in the dark” about the conditions of Jews and other minorities during the era of the Third Reich, Göll was aware of what was happening. Maybe not the details, but certainly in a broader sense.

In a diary posting from 1941, he wrote: “It is an open secret that they are proceeding against the Jews in the most rigorous way with sterilization [and] removal to the Eastern territories.”

An early supporter of the Nazi party, as early as 1935 Göll had became disillusioned with conditions under Hitler, his diary postings reveal.

Some of Göll’s diary entries from earlier decades of Germany’s turbulent history are equally interesting. He wrote of the hungry Berlin winters at the end of World War I, and during Germany’s period of hyperinflation in the early 1920s, took note of what he saw all around him.

Later in life, as a resident of West Berlin, Göll saw his younger countrymen shake off their “German-ness” and embrace a generalized Western materialism that he found difficult to understand or accept. (In this regard, he was probably no different from many people of the older generation – in Germany or elsewhere.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it shows how an obscure person with no claim to fame — a loner with virtually no friends or relatives — can accomplish something important for posterity. As “obsessive-compulsive” as Göll may have been, even he seemed to think what he was doing was for naught. Writing in 1954 at the age of 55:

“I used to take myself very seriously: my diaries, my collections, my readings, my poems, and not least, my ‘self.’ Today, I have to admit it: It would have been important to have acquired a trade, to have become a man, and to have founded a family … Nothing I did ever bore any fruit; it was all an idle wasting of time.”

Readers of this book will disagree. In “watching things happen,” Herr Göll actually accomplished a great deal — for historians and for us.

The Most Fascinating Civil War General You’ve Never Heard Of

General Jo Shelby
General Jo Shelby
I’m not a Civil War buff. But when two different people mentioned to me how much they enjoyed reading a new book on the life of Confederate General Joseph Orville ‘Jo’ Shelby, I decided to get myself a copy.

General Jo Shelby’s March, a just-published book written by Anthony Arthur [ISBN-13: 978-1400068302 — also available in a Kindle edition], is quite a read. It tells the story of how General Shelby, rather than surrender to the Union, led a regiment of soldiers from Arkansas through Texas and into Mexico. In a wild and dangerous journey, they marched all the way to Mexico City, where the soldiers offered themselves up in the service of Emperor Maximilian’s army.

While the Emperor turned down this offer, he did invite the Confederate soldiers to stay on in Mexico and become farmers. The expatriate colonies that sprung up there were not as successful nor as long-lasting as Rio Americana in Brazil, but more than a few of the soldiers ended up settling in Mexico for good.

General Shelby turns out to be one of the Civil War’s most fascinating characters. Born into wealth and position in Kentucky, he struck out as a young man for Missouri, where he found early success in farming and business (hemp and lumber), and before long had built his own white-columned mansion on the banks of the Missouri River in Waverly.

But the cross-border skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and Missouri during the 1850s led to the destruction of Shelby’s sawmill operations. Shelby himself gained fame for leading retaliatory raids into Kansas. When the Civil War finally came in 1861, Shelby chose to fight for the Southern cause, even as most of his Kentucky relatives remained Unionists.

[People tend to forget that Midwestern Missouri was for years a state with distinct southern sympathies. Even as late as 1956, when the Republican Eisenhower was handily winning re-election, Missouri joined with only six Deep-South states – Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina – in voting against the party of Lincoln.]

Throughout the war, Shelby was to command forces in the so-called Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy, even as his wife and children were forced to flee Missouri for Kentucky after their mansion was torched and their lands plundered. For Shelby and many of his men, the decision to run for the Mexican border was easier to make because there was so little to return to at home.

Anthony Arthur’s recounting of the confusion that characterized the western theater of the Civil War, and later the harrowing march through Texas and Mexico, is an exciting and gripping read. Particularly moving is his description of Shelby’s soldiers as they reached Eagle Pass on the Texas-Mexico border. In a ceremony on the banks of the Rio Grande, a tattered Confederate flag – one that had been with the regiment through many battles and skirmishes in Missouri, Arkansas and Texas – was folded for the last time and placed into the river, the waters enveloping the flag as it disappeared from view.

Once in Mexico, Shelby had his wife and eight children join him, where they lived for several years. But as Emperor Maximilian’s position became ever more untenable and the French army decided to ditch the country, it became increasingly clear that staying in Mexico was not an option. While some of the ex-Confederates decided to migrate to Cuba, Brazil or other foreign lands, Shelby made the decision to return to the United States.

Renouncing his support of slavery and pledging allegiance to America, Shelby now commenced the second part of his life. He took up residence again in Missouri, and was eventually named marshal for Western Missouri by President Grover Cleveland. This was not a trivial responsibility, as this was the region where the notorious Jesse James Gang and other outlaws roamed.

When the general passed away in 1894, more than 2,000 people attended his funeral and 4,000 joined in the procession to the cemetery. As reported by the Kansas City Star, Bill Hunter, an African American who as a slave boy had been purchased to be Shelby’s manservant, led the general’s riderless horse with its empty saddle, boots and spurs to the burial site at Forest Hill Cemetery. It was a poignant farewell for two men who had remained friends for life.

In the conclusion of his book, Anthony Arthur sums up the General’s life this way:

“Shelby was the model of the gifted, principled man who had fought bravely for a doomed cause, and who ultimately reconciled himself not only to defeat but to the fact that his cause had been fatally flawed by the greatest evil in American life, chattel slavery … in classic American fashion, he reinvented himself and showed the way for others to do the same.”

In the end, not a bad legacy at all.

Otto von Habsburg at 97: A Link to the Past … and the Future

Four-year-old Otto von Habsburg, flanked by his parents, at the time of his father\’s coronation as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (1916).

This past month, Otto von Habsburg celebrated his 97th birthday. As the eldest son of the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he is a link with history – the heir apparent to one of Europe’s most powerful dynasties that ruled Central Europe for more than 650 years.

Otto’s life was borne amid conflict. He was just a small boy of four when his father Karl ascended the throne of Europe’s third largest country, right in the middle of the First World War – a conflict which was to bring about the collapse of the monarchy in 1918. Emperor Karl died just a few short years later, making Otto the titular head of the impoverished family, which was forced to live “on the run” in Switzerland and Spain.

Throughout his years of schooling, Otto was tutored in the fiendishly difficult Hungarian language. This was deemed important because Otto’s father had never relinquished his claim to the throne of Hungary — and because Hungary was still technically a monarchy, ruled as regent by Admiral Miklós Horthy, once supreme commander of the Austro-Hungarian navy.

But soon thereafter came the destruction of Second World War and the spread of communism throughout most of the lands of the old empire. At this point, it seemed almost inevitable that Otto would be destined to become “just another” ex-royal personage, whiling away his days in carefree locations like Monte-Carlo, St. Tropez or the Aegean Isles.

But here is where Otto played his hand differently – and in the process became an important player on the international stage and an advocate for a new European political order. Renouncing any claims to the throne, he became instead an indefatigable champion of European unity. An ardent anticommunist, Otto believed the key to Europe’s future was to strive for common interests and common ground. He stood for election to the European Parliament and was an early member of that body, eventually serving for 20 years.

Otto von HabsburgHe also became an important historian and lecturer, traveling the world and speaking with audiences everywhere. I remember hearing Otto von Habsburg give a speech at St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul, MN in 1972, when I was a student in high school. The predictions Otto made in that speech were uncanny in their accuracy. He forecast almost to the exact year the fall of communism (1990), and he also warned about Europe’s smoldering powder-keg (the breakup of Yugoslavia into squabbling mini-states).

And when the Iron Curtain finally did come down in the early 1990s, Otto offered up his services to the new post-communist governments in the land of his forefathers. Subsequently, he played a significant role as a kind of unofficial cultural and social ambassador for several countries, most notably Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary. The prestige of the Habsburg name and its ties to a proud history provided added “cachet” to the early efforts of the post-communist governments to establish meaningful economic and business ties with the West. (Otto’s fluency in the Hungarian language, thanks to all the many hours of tutoring when he was a boy, turned out to be quite handy in a wholly unexpected yet very welcome way!)

Today, at age 97, Otto von Habsburg is still very much with us. He has slowed down a bit, but still shuttles regularly between his home in Bavaria and “his” cities of Budapest, Vienna and Zagreb. From the vantage point of history – where we can now see how the “brave new world” of the 20th Century brought forth more than its share of human misery along with all of the political innovation – the virtues of the “old order” have become easier to recognize.

Certainly, that is the case in the lands of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Otto, “the man who would be king,” has not only been declared an official citizen of several countries, but is also respected by people all across the political spectrum. In the end, not a bad legacy at all.

So here’s a hearty toast to Otto von Habsburg: 97 years young and a true citizen of the world.