The Good Duchess By Jane Dismore It is 300 years since the death of a remarkable Scottish noblewoman.
Shadow on the South China Sea By Bill Hayton Since the beginning of the 20th century, a tiny collection of islets and shoals has been the focus of disputes involving seven nations.
A Case of Double Standards By Suzannah Lipscomb Despite progress since the 1970s, female historians are still treated unfairly both inside and outside the academy. Things must change, says Suzannah Lipscomb.
On the Trail of the Terror By Shane McCorristine The recent discovery of a long-lost ship throws new light on a strange disappearance.
Remembering the Forgotten By Jerome de Groot In this round-up of historical fiction: Thomas Hardy's housemaid, an Icelandic boy witnesses the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic and a young Englishwoman in revolutionary Paris.
Smuggling: Seven Centuries of Contraband This pacy book is a whistle-stop tour of what the dust jacket calls our 'dark history', namely the ruthless pursuit of profit at the expense of the law through the traffic of people, goods and ideas. It is a story that stretches across time and...
Churchill and Ireland Winston Churchill had a long association with Ireland, from his infancy in Dublin in the 1870s to his second premiership in the 1950s. During his life he adopted various stances on Ireland's political relationship with Britain. As a young...
Elizabethan England and the Islamic World The Mediterranean world loomed large in English culture in the 16th century. What is made strikingly clear in Jerry Brotton's new book, This Orient Isle, is the extent to which the Muslim inhabitants of North Africa and the Middle East...
The Collective Memory of the Vietnam War The Vietnam War has long been represented through the 'authenticity' of the GI experience. Those who 'were there' and related their experiences of a chaotic, brutally violent war have served as a cultural conduit for the conflict in ways which...
Full Steam Ahead to the Modern World This is an engaging history of the capitalist world in the 1850s, which stitches together vivid stories of entrepreneurs and adventurers from the United States to New Zealand. ...
Gertrude Bell and the Archaeology of the Middle East The female Lawrence of Arabia, the woman who made Iraq, the uncrowned queen of the desert: there have been many attempts to encapsulate the complex essence of Gertrude Lowthian Bell since her death in 1926 in Baghdad. Born to a wealthy industrial...
Albania's Executioner Unmasked Few leaders have published as much and eliminated more people than Enver Hoxha, Albania's dictator from 1944 to 1985. Hoxha published on a Churchillian scale: 7,000 pages in 13 volumes of memoirs. Simultaneously, during his rule, of Albania's...
Browne was the first British volunteer to die in the war. One of many female volunteers to fight, she travelled by car to Spain with her friend, Edith Bone. They arrived in Barcelona just days before Franco's attempted coup of 18 July 1936. Interesting story on her life. Her artistic work was recently given a special exhibition in the Tate Britain.
An interesting approach. Harding uses the inhabitants of a wooden summer house to tell the story of twentieth century German history. As they say with property, location is everything and this house certainly has the location to enable a good story to be told. Built by a Jewish family on the edge of a small lake on the outskirts of Berlin during the period of Weimar prosperity it is leased as the family flee Nazi Germany and then aryanised, each time occupied by families with their own tale of survival and/or deceit.
But back to location. At wars end the house finds itself just inside the Soviet zone of Germany and even has the 1961 Berlin wall built across its garden to block access to the lake and the west which is only a few hundred yards away on the other side. When the wall comes down the author (grandson of the daughter whose father built the house) returns to research the story and ends up setting up a charity to prevent its demolition and keep it as a monument.
In many ways the DDR part of the story is the most interesting, with its glimpses into everyday life, perhaps as this is the period with the most readily available material to the author. He is a journalist, and the approach relects that. Evidence is largely based on interviews (and as he confesses to little knowledge of German this suggests they were interpreted through a third party. Another admission indicates that interviewees were offered expenses for their time.), and the small potted history updates provided through the narrative to give the general reader a basic context are at times over simplistic (the explanation for the Berlin Blockade is one such case) or inaccurate (the Soviets did not fly jet fighters over Berlin or anywhere else in World War 2). Nonetheless the narrative is intriguing and compelling and reads easily. An attachment to the property soon develops.
The story is illustrated with ground plans that show how the design changed under different inhabitants. An accompanying web site also includes pictures and home movies taken by the original owners as well as updates on restoration progress. Unfortunately the publishers decision to put all explanatory notes at the back and not indicate in the body of the text where such a note exists has potentially deprived the reader of valuable insights. No doubt done to increase the appeal to the general reader who might be put off by footnotes this has been counter-productive as these notes are not academic, but rather complement what is in the main body of the book (background to interviews, additional details about decisions indicated in the narrative) and often are as interesting as the general text. Many readers will miss them until they are "discovered" after the last page is read.
Hundreds of soldiers wrote to families on eve of the battle of the Somme that saw 57,000 British casualties on first day. To commemorate the centenary of the Somme, the Imperial War Museum in London is opening access to many of these final letters that were given to the museum by descendants, along with treasured photographs.
The following are extracted from an article by the historian Antony Beevor which examines clearly the key factors in the origin of the EU today and also why it has the problems that it does. In conclusion Beevor acknowledges though that the EU has been a positive rather than negative force which Britain should remain attached to. The full article can be read here.
.......The origins of the EU lie in the second world war, but not in the way many people on both sides of the debate assume. Brexiters try to imply that European unification descends from Napoleon and Hitler, even though membership has hardly been imposed at the point of a bayonet. At the same time, defenders of the EU like to believe that it somehow prevented a third world war, when in fact peace depends rather more on good governance. Proper democracies do not fight each other.
Because Britain was not involved at the start we do not have a clear idea of the EU's development. Few in this country have even heard of Jean Monnet. He was an extraordinarily important Frenchman who neither went to university nor was ever elected to public office. Born into a family of cognac merchants, Monnet became the greatest behind-the-scenes fixer in modern history.
It was Monnet who, while based in London in the dark days of June 1940, working on the integration of the British and French arms industries, came up with the suggestion of an Anglo-French union to continue resistance to Hitler. The idea excited both Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, but was crushed by Marshal Philippe Pétain, who described the plan as a "marriage to a corpse", since France was about to surrender. ..........
.......August of 1943, Monnet .... decided that European states would be so enfeebled after the war that they must unite into a federation. And yet the Monnet plan, which he expounded in 1945, proposed the French takeover of Ruhr coal production to rebuild France at the expense of Germany. De Gaulle supported the idea fervently, but then resigned because the infighting of French politics failed to live up to his own impossible dream that the country's conflicting views would become unified under his leadership.
On 2 January 1946, just before his departure, De Gaulle appointed Monnet to head the Commissariat Général du Plan. This was to provide centralised planning writ large. Monnet brought in almost the whole team from the Délégation Générale à l'Equipement National, even though it had been created by the collaborationist Vichy regime. These bright young "technocrates" from the top schools of the French administration had worked on projects to modernise France within the "new European order" of the Third Reich. After the war they were the very same people who were to run the European Coal and Steel Community, headed of course by Monnet, and then in 1958, the European Economic Community. Thus the top cadres of the European bureaucracy were not merely elitist from the start, they had little patience for democratic consultation. They knew best what was needed.
The Marshall Plan in 1948 saved western Europe from economic and political collapse. The formation of Nato the following year also provided the first measure of unity as the sudden intensification of the cold war imposed a form of geopolitical straitjacket. The development of the EU in subsequent years was not a rival to Nato, as some seem to imply. The two organisations existed perfectly well in parallel, while the EU greatly encouraged and aided the emergence of countries such as Portugal, Spain and Greece from reactionary military dictatorships. It also contributed to the return of democracy in central European nations after more than 40 years of Soviet dictatorship...........
Clearly the EU has not fulfilled its objective of "ever closer union" and now, as Tusk acknowledges, it never can. That raises the interesting question of whether any ideology – of the left, the right or, in this case, the centre – could ever achieve its founding purpose. I doubt if any utopian plan has survived contact with the unpredictable reality of events. Ideals may inspire, but all too often they contain a self-defeating element. In the case of Europe, the very process of unification was bound to excite the nationalistic reactions that the whole project was hoping to eliminate.
But the EU's flaws do not justify its destruction. Alliances are fragile entities. They take time to create and are always vulnerable to vicious circles of suspicion and resentment. Whatever we might think of the EU – whether we love it or loathe it – one thing is certain. If Britain pulls out and thus provokes or accelerates its disintegration, we will instantly achieve most-hated nation status, not just in Europe but far beyond. It could well turn into the worst example in history of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
The publication of Dikötters well reviewed new work on the Cultural Revolution led me to reading this earlier prequel in his Moa's China histories as preparation for the recent book.
This book covers the period from 1958 to 1962 when Mao Zedong ordered the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to catch up with Great Britain in less than 15 years. The reality was very different. Farmers were taken from the fields to work on enormous irrigation projects, which themselves were largely flawed. The split from the Soviet Union saw remaining villagers involved on village level schemes of industrialisation to produce the materials once obtained from the USSR using backyard furnaces to manufacture products that were of very poor or unusable quality. To replace the shortfall imports were required which were largely paid for in grain and other agricultural produce. The reduced rural workforce and hair-brained farming techniques from the centre cut food production that the population could be fed with and produced a perfect storm that led directly to a widespread famine that may have led to upwards of 45 million deaths.
In a clear and well supported structure Dikötter shows how this disaster fell into place and grew in magnitude illustrating points consistently with examples drawn from careful research. Chapters are laid out methodically so that the work is convenient to use for studying aspects of the famine. The role of party officials, the apparent need to disguise and inflate production figures and the inability of Mao to be presented with, or to accept, the true reality of his policies until too late form the first part of the book. Later chapters also examine the of the famine on specific groups such as children, women and the elderly.
Ideally suited to the general reader this is at times overwhelming in the magnitude of the (very necessary) specifics provided to support the narrative and reinforce the extent of the famine and its consequences. The reader is left wondering just how it was that policies so clearly failing could be followed so blindly (or drawn up in the first place). Ultimately there is central criticism of the policies, but not of Mao explicitly, which sees amendment to the policies and ending of the famine - but also the unleashing of the Cultural Revolution, to be used by Mao to rid himself of those who opposed his policies of the Great Leap Forward.
Readers should not put the book down without reading the very useful Essay on the Sources. This does exactly what it says, commenting not just on the sources used, but also on the particular problems relating to researching the history of post Revolution China. Finally the historical debate in calculating the actual numbers who died as a consequence of the famine is surveyed in the context of sources used by different researchers.
As an introduction to Mao's China this is highly recommended. This was not genocide or mass murder as was the case with Hitler, but the callous disregard by a war hardened elite of the devastating impact of their unopposed policies on the vulnerable masses they believed themselves to be serving. The result though was the same: death on a massive scale.