A Better Class of Murder: London 1922

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As a marked victim of political and racial assassins and now the subject of several biographies, he is a challenging figure of contemporary history.

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Born in , Walther Rathenau was a true child of imperial Germany and its emancipated Jews. Following his dutiful study of engineering, Walther Rathenau did his business apprenticeship in various AEG subsidiaries before returning to Berlin at age thirty-two; he continued to travel throughout Europe and to South America and Africa. Within the next decade he succeeded his father at the helm of AEG, also served on numerous boards, and became one of Europe's major economic leaders.

The other Walther Rathenau sought an influential position in the German intellectual firmament. He was a talented musician and painter, an avid art collector and raconteur, a brilliant linguist and man of letters who produced five didactic volumes on contemporary and philosophical issues. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, the dominant figure of his age, Rathenau lauded the creative spirit who labored to win things eternal and divine.

A latter day utopian socialist, Rathenau called for state regulation to subordinate personal interest to the needs of the community and an international organization to control trade, finance, and raw materials. Like many Jews of his generation who had attained wealth and held intellectual and social pretensions, Rathenau subordinated his Jewishness to his Germanness -- perhaps with more fervency than most.

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In he characterized his people as "a separate and alien race," and asserted his complete devotion to Germany and to the German people. An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. The second and third chapters explore how the British generated the symbolic boundaries of community, and how the class and ethnic divisions cross-cut any collective sense of Britishness.

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Some fascinating issues are raised here, such as the lack of success the British had in attempts to replace French with English as the language of the Egyptian elite. Mak shows the considerable distance which upper-class Britons, whose life centred on Cairo's exclusive Gezira Club, put between themselves and their compatriots of lower status.

Sports were central to the British community, but again notably class-divided — horse racing enthusiasts for instance split between those who made it into the prestigious Jockey Club, and those that did not. Schooling was vital to stratification. The upper class members of the community sent their offspring to school in England, a scattering of lower middle-class children attended either the Victoria College in Alexandria, which catered primarily to other European nationalities and Syrians, or Cairo's New English School, which required one English parent for admission.

Working-class kids made do with the Dean's School in a down-market area of Cairo. The community notably failed to create adequate hospital facilities for itself, which Mak puts down to an anti-communal ethos of self-help. In these chapters Mak provides a plentitude of fascinating material, but he could have done more to develop the socio-cultural analysis. Chapter Four very successfully establishes Mak's contention that the British in Egypt were not comprised mainly of an elite, but were extremely socially-diverse. He uses painstakingly assembled statistical data to demonstrate the presence of a substantial working class and lower middle-class elements of the community.

There are a few interesting brief portraits of individual clerks, artisans and nannies.

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Mak shows that a very large proportion of the British women were spouses who were not in formal employment. Colonial society provided opportunities for upward mobility. The Cook family, for example, founded the success of their global travel empire on excursions to Egypt and employees from engineers to teachers could hope to earn substantially more than in the UK. Mak turned up an exceptionally rich archive here: Britons charged with offences were not tried in normal Egyptian judiciary, but before the Consular Courts of Cairo and Alexandria.

Mak has found evidence of a significant level of domestic violence and abuse in both working-class and middle-class homes. He emphasises the economic insecurity of many perpetrators and the prevalence of alcoholism as causal factors.

Mak stresses the psychological pressures of colonial life and points to indications of a serious suicide rate amongst less affluent Britons. There were instances of assault, some driven by anti-Egyptian racism. Fraud and embezzlement amongst lower-level employees was quite frequent. Talented con man Charles Helfield, for example, variously passed himself off as Baron A. Petty theft was rife. Although very few British women were involved in the explosion of prostitution during the First World War, a number of British men, including former Army officers, became notable pimps.

Mak shows that crime, cruelty and personal suffering were pervasive amongst the British in Egypt. Chapter Six gives a highly informative portrait of how the British presence changed during the First World War, when the country became a base for enormous numbers of imperial troops. This created an economic boom. The state seized German and Austrian businesses. Mak points out that the British businesses failed to take real advantage of the opportunities which this situation presented them with, but he does not give a really adequate explanation of why this was so.

Chapter Seven presents a strong portrait of how the Egyptian uprising against the colonial power which broke out in affected the British community. This was an extremely violent conflict, in which over a thousand Egyptians were killed by imperial troops and police. Over 80 British individuals were murdered in political incidents in and several more in the following years, in assassinations and mob killings. The character of the upheaval and the response to it is well evoked by Mak. The resulting socio-economic disruption fragmented the British community, with some urging a crack-down, and others moving toward advocating political withdrawal from Egypt.

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By , London, concluding that the political situation was intractable, chose the latter option. This book would have benefited from better editorial intervention by the publisher. It is based on Mak's PhD thesis and to some extent bears the characteristics which may be necessary in that genre, but are better eliminated in the transition to a book — for example a tendency to hammer at the beginning and end of each chapter on the key points, and somewhat formalistic statements of the relevant theoretical and historiographical literature.

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Occasionally chapters are broken into sections in a way which inadvertently highlight the difference between the more strongly and weakly supported parts of the arguments. And sometimes the phrasing of the prose is a bit awkward — especially in chapter 6. But these are only irritants.

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Generally the book is clearly written and jargon-free and these stylistic deficiencies only detract in a minor degree from what is, in general, a fascinating read. The book is, on the whole, stronger at statistical analysis and narrative than at socio-cultural analysis. Yet it is nevertheless an exceptionally useful contribution to the history of colonialism.

A Better Class of Murder: London 1922
A Better Class of Murder: London 1922
A Better Class of Murder: London 1922
A Better Class of Murder: London 1922
A Better Class of Murder: London 1922
A Better Class of Murder: London 1922

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