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Book Report: The rise and fall of empires

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I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert...Near them, on the sand,

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Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The long and level sands stretch far away.

--Ozymandias by Percy Shelley

The notion of the decline of the West didn't all begin with Oswald Spengler. Poets and philosophers have been writing about national decline for ages as the famous poem above, written in 1817, attests.

Over the past few years, professors from four continents have met in various venues, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison to discuss, then write essays about their take on whether or not the United States is on the brink of decline as top dog in the world to be succeeded by emerging powers like Brazil, Russia, India and China.

And how about the European Union? Will its organization allow it to regain the hegemony enjoyed earlier by parts of it like Britain and France?

Subtitled "Spain's Retreat, Europe's Eclipse, America's Decline" the essays have been published and take a look backward at countries that declined because of the erosion of their economics that prevented their ability to field a strong military presence, their insistence on misusing what was left of their military, their diplomatic breakdowns, their inability to keep under control their colonial relationships.

It's all pretty scary when the comparisons with today are made. The book "Endless Empire" edited by Alfred McCoy, Joseph M. Fradera, and Stephen Jacobson (University of Wisconsin Press, $29.95 paper) is without doubt an important contribution to world diplomacy and a credit to the University of Wisconsin Press for publishing it.

Speaking of empires, there's always the Third Reich, which Adolph Hitler said would last a thousand years. Der Fuhrer should have read more Percy Bysshe Shelley and less Friedrich Nietzsche.

In "Hitler's Berlin: Abused City" (Yale University Press, n.p.) the late German historian Thomas Friedrich claims that Hitler had a love-hate relationship with Berlin. As an Austrian farm boy, he was appalled at the licentiousness of post-war Berlin, the center of a young empire.

Ah, but he liked those buildings, those big, big buildings. So much so that he took Albert Speer under his wing and encouraged him to design an even bigger Berlin, a pipe dream from which we thankfully awoke.

And so have the Berliners. On a recent tour of the great city, with its gates and its domes and the zoo that fed many taxpayers in 1945, we were somewhat amazed at our tour guide, who told us wide-eyed tourists that Berlin ain't what she used to be. Once the juggernaut of Central Europe, the town that took all the Turkish emigrees they could to do their scut work, is now an economic disaster. Since the Wall went down, the old Soviet Union pulled out all of its factories in East Berlin, unemployment is up, salaries are down.

On the bright side, she said that rooms at famous hotels like those on the Kurfurstendamm start at $1,500 per night and only tourists from overseas go there. "Breakfast is included. I'm sure it's a good one," she said bitterly.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.

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