Arthur Herman’s The Viking Heart is a history book … well, no, it’s a sociology study … er, it’s a personal memoir … or, rather, it’s … it’s a little bit of everything. Including flawed.
The subtitle, How Scandinavians Conquered the World, is meant to be quite broad. We don’t realize this at first, reading through the early chapters discussing the early Scandinavian explorers – the Vikings. There is some really good, really informative history here about the make-up of the early Vikings (not all one group of people [Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, etc]) and their likely intent on their raids.
I should note that I assume this good history. I don’t know my Scandinavian history as well as I should. But I think I can recognize fact based on study and data as opposed to supposition. And Herman does a fair amount of supposition based on available facts.
I enjoyed the early chapters, detailing the early Viking heart and spirit and travels. Herman makes a good case for their inclusivity (an important aspect of his book, which I get to a little more in just a little bit) but at its core, I can’t help but feel Herman wants these people to be more inclusive than history actually suggests.
As the book progresses toward modern times (early 20th century on through World War II), the book becomes much more lackluster. Here Herman begins reaching, trying to associate the Viking spirit (‘the Viking heart’) of the early raiders/explorers to the behavior of some familiar Scandinavian names in history.
What prompted Lindbergh to fly across the Atlantic was the same spirit that had the early Vikings sail unchartered waters to raid new lands. Right?
What prompted Raoul Wallenberg to save hundreds of thousands of Jews in Hungary was the same Viking heart that had the Viking raiders taking slaves to … erm … well, there’s a connection there somewhere.
The general idea of comparing modern Scandinavians and their good deeds to ancient and medieval Scandinavians is fine, if it works, but Herman spends a great deal of time on unnecessary adiaphora. We really don’t need so much time on Lindbergh and his anti-Semitic comments or his pro-Nazi beliefs. It’s almost as though Herman is countering his own arguments about the Viking heart.
We also get Herman writing a good deal about his own ancestry. Some general comparisons might be fine, but the author goes on too much, ignoring more generally known historical figures in favor of family.
Before I address the last issue, I want to be clear on one aspect… Arthur Herman and I are generally cut from the same cloth. We both come from strong Scandinavian backgrounds. We both grew up and were educated in similar fashions. Bottom line, we’re both middle-aged-to-old white guys with Scandinavian ancestors.
Early on, Herman makes some very general statements that show a clear favorable bias toward the early Scandinavians (“After acting as a largely destructive and disruptive force for two centuries, the Norsemen suddenly pivoted and became a galvanizing presence in European civilization. They helped shake Europe out of its Dark Age malaise, finding innovative ways to transmit ancient Greek and Arab knowledge and science to the West, while expanding and fortifying the boundaries of Christendom, thereby laying the foundations of the medieval West.”) so we know to take a lot of what he writes with a grain of salt and we can see that sometimes he is really reaching to make a point or a connection.
My biggest issue, however, is a point he tries to make about how the Viking heart prompts a work ethic to be envied. I don’t necessarily disagree, but his rationale for making this point is a real slap in the face to our current culture. He writes:
As the sociologist Nima Sanandaji has put it, “High levels of trust, a strong work ethic, and social cohesion are the perfect starting-point for successful economies. They are also the cornerstones of fruitful social demographic welfare policies.”
What’s striking, in fact, is how powerfully those same bonds can be seen at work among Scandinavia’s offspring in the United States.
He goes on to show how not only have Scandinavian Americans done well, but “when we look at the experience of Scandinavian Americans, we see a substantial difference in their economic performance and status that simply living in the United States can’t explain.” Well, of course he does explain it, in his own bias: “…the right cultural ingredients, plus the kind of environment in which the qualities of the Viking heart can flourish, add up to a powerful socioeconomic advantage.”
What he never addresses is to me the most obvious of factors. White privilege.
While he writes briefly of how the Nazis assumed the Scandinavians would agree with their Aryan race ideas and how the misguided white supremacists have errantly taken to Viking culture for their beliefs, he fails to comment that simply by being a white man in America has contributed to the socioeconomic advantage. We don’t have to be actively or consciously taking advantage of this for it to be there. I’d argue that many cultures and many races have work ethics as strong or even stronger than the early Vikings, but the shade of the skin has had a strong contributing factor in how they are seen, historically and still today.
Looking for a good book? The Viking Heart by Arthur Herman has some interesting ideas but the author fails to truly make the strong case for his theories. The history in the early pages is worth reading, but the theories later, mixed with personal ancestry, should be skipped.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World
author: Arthur Herman
publisher: Mariner Books
hardcover, 512 pages