Michael Korda: Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence's early life and education show he was certainly gifted and supremely self confident in the exercise of his many talents - linguist, mapmaker, archaeologist with a keen sense of the value of antiquities, but most of all the ability to impress and gain the confidence of those who, on paper at least, were his superiors. It was archaeology that drew him to the Middle East, to what is now Iraq and Syria. The contacts and empathy for the region he developed pre 1914 soon drew him to the attention of the military once Turkey entered the war as an ally of Germany. He appeared to be able not just to gain the trust and respect of the Arab tribes of the region but also to keep them onside and united in what for them was a war against Ottoman rule. He was able to adopt Arab ways as well as dress to integrate all the more successfully and fashion the irregular Arab Army that took Damascus. Korda shows though that whilst a supporter of the Arab nationalist cause and a believer in a single "Greater Syria" Arab Kingdom, Lawrence did not "go native". He remained a British officer who saw such a state as not only reinforcing Britain's position in the region but also one that would keep out not just the Turks but also the French, whose colonial system he detested as much as that of the Turks. So far this is the story well known of Lawrence (and the basis of the famous 1962 David Lean film, although with a hero who was really 5'5" tall, not 6'2".....). However Korda uses this to look at Lawrence's military abilities in a wider context. Heled to the development of what are now known as guerrilla attacks: blowing up railway lines and bridges then vanishing into the desert. He prepared the way for today's terrorist campaigns and road bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also the first to see the value and to use combined operations involving ground troops supported by mobile armoured units and air strikes. Whilst serving in north west India he argued against the strategy of bombing rebel villages proposed that blockhouses, supported from the air, be built in rebel areas and used to launch motorised raids on rebel strongholds on the ground. The basis of strategy in Afghanistan today.He was a close friend and valued adviser to many of the Good & Great of the time: Allenby (overall commander in the middle east), Trenchard (head of the RAF), writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Hardy, and politicians such as Winston Churchill and Lloyd George. All did not just appreciate his ideas and invariably act upon them, but also felt close enough to support him in the 1920's and 1930's when he sought a life outside the limelight and when the pressures of writing and publishing "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" became overpowering.
His personal life seems to have been more of a mystery. He had very few close relationships despite making friends easily. He felt immense guilt at not delivering what he had promised the Arabs - independence and turned against high position after the war. More darkly, Korda explores masochistic tendencies that clearly had their roots in his treatment when briefly captured by the Turks. Korda's work is over 700 pages long and it has been criticised for its length - ironic given that much of it is devoted to showing how TEL struggled to edit "Seven Pillars"! I would have liked to see some of the post 1918 period edited and a little more said about the views of those Arab leaders he hoped to place on thrones. However it is not a difficult biography to read and its breadth allows TEL to be seen in a wider context - the desert war at its centre, but with many significant antecedents as well as providing an understanding of his unorthodox post-war career. It is worth persevering with to see who was in reality a 20th century version of a classical Greek hero - a unique range of talents and powers with the ability to enchant, but also one with real human flaws whose demons he had to contend with. (****)
Norman Davies: Vanished Kingdoms: the History of Half-forgotten Europe
Davies has selected 15 European kingdoms/states that have vanished in recent and not so recent times and looks at how they came about and then disappeared. Some lasted only a day (Rusyn, March 15th 1939) others spanned many centuries. The most recent (and obvious) state included is the USSR (1924-1991), which Davies admits provided the idea for the book in the first place, but the range includes post Roman Tolosa (Toulouse....) (418-507) in what is now southern France, Alt Clud (5th-12th centuries) of Scotland's Dumbarton Rock close to where the café first went to school and Borussia (1230-1945) the origin of Prussia. The final section "How States Die" tries to draw some of the strands together from the 15 surveys.Each Kingdom is described carefully and in several instances their origins are just as interesting (if not more so) than the events of their demise. Éire is a case in point. Davies adopts an interdisciplinary approach to show how national identity and desire for statehood closely followed the emergence (and hot-housing) of a cultural identity, almost where one did not previously exist. This theme is repeated in several other of the stories. An intriguing use is also made of linguistics (especially with the kingdoms originating more deeply in the past) to survey patterns of settlement, expansion and identity.With 15 states to cover there is a little inconsistency evident in treatment. Some surveys become overlong and involved. Aragon (1137-1714), whilst one of the more interesting histories outlined could have been better edited. Dynastic history is key to its growth and decline but too many pages are devoted to the detail of genealogy, encouraging skim reading. Conversely I would have preferred to see more space being devoted to Byzantion (330-1453) which with 16 sides has received only two more than the one day Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (March 1939). Most kingdoms are otherwise treated to 50-80 pages of study. There are also some clear omissions, perhaps most notably Venice (perhaps as it was a Republic?).It appears the researching for these outline histories is exemplary - the footnotes are clearly set out and easy to use which is essential when brief histories like these produce sweeping historical assessments whose origins need to be clear. As a result the footnote section at the end reads like a "Who's Who" of specialist historians on the country concerned. Pleasingly, maps are plentiful - always a good sign of thorough study - and essential here, where names and frontiers are often new to the reader. Over eighty colour plates helped to develop the individual histories. There is no need to read chapter by chapter or even in Davies' sequence. Chapter size is manageable to allow for dipping into whenever a spare hour is available This is an eminently readable and valuable addition to the post Roman history of Europe and does a service in reminding the reader of a completely, or as in the title, half-forgotten Europe. Let's hope there is a follow-up sequel!! March '13
Thomas Penn: Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England
This work turns the focus on one of the lesser known Tudors. Surprising, given that as "Winter King" clearly shows, it was Henry VII who established law and order after decades of unruly noble wars and founded the dynasty that was to govern for over 100 years.The Wars of the Roses had led to chaos and instability for much of the 15th century, Henry Tudor brought this to an end. He signifies the move from medieval monarchy to the age of new centralist government. Penn shows in great detail how this was achieved. The continual preoccupation with usurpers and the variety of ways (some surprising) used to neutralize them; the obsession with ensuring financial independence – so much so that by the end of his reign Henry was considered one of the wealthiest monarchs in Europe, a wealth his son Henry VIII would soon squander after his accession; and the way Henry combined the two using a system of fines and bonds to keep his potentially disruptive nobility in check. Where "Winter King" excels is in the detail it provides about the individuals who surrounded Henry. The work of his councillors and officials, always tightly monitored by the King are shown in depth. Not just the best known such as Empson and Dudley but Bray, Fox and the many others who worked for him. Catherine of Aragon figures prominently in the narrative of diplomatic dealings. Wife first of the eldest son Arthur, then a pawn in (prolonged) negotiation to marry his second son Henry after Arthur's death. Henry VII though remains central. After the confusion that preceeded his accession, Henry micro manages policy and ministers to maintain tight control. In this Penn's portrait of Henry is in line with that presented by recent scholarship and the main thrust of his argument is that the king presided over a proto-Machiavellian polity, dominated by fear and suspicion, and one in which good government was too often subjugated to the demands of his own greed and paranoia. Where I have concerns with "Winter King" is paradoxically due to its strengths. A focus on the work of those individuals around the monarch has been at the cost of policy overview. I longed at time to see how what I was reading fitted into the general policy development of Henry VII. It was like looking very closely at the workings of the wheels and springs of a particularly delicate clock, but never really looking at the time shown on the clockface. Neither is space devoted to showing how much the framework in which Henry VII and his officials operated was dependant on the administrative procedures introduced earlier by Edward IV. This is perhaps a consequence of Penn perhaps attempting to write a story allowing more popular access rather than an academic history. Nonetheless, Penn does the non-specialist a service in introducing the key elements of a reign that set the tone for the next century and a half. Jan '13 (***)
Jonathan Steinberg: Bismarck: A Life
In less than 10 years Bismarck unites Germany, fights victorious wars against Denmark, Austria and France and designs a political structure for the new German Reich that not only protects his vital interests of Junker conservatism and the Prussian monarchy but also introduces universal male suffrage in German's first parliament, the Reichstag, and later sees the setting up of insurance schemes for the masses. However, this is no sycophantic work. Bismarck may have been politically successful but his methods, later known as "realpolitik", with the end justifying the means, were ruthless and showed little respect for others. Disraeli described how treated his ministers as Don Juan his lovers "first he cajoles them and when he catches them lets them go without caring what happened to them". He was happy using Liberals against Catholics, Catholics against Liberals, all against Socialists whilst stealing key ideas from Socialists to undermine support for everyone else. Ultimately, after setting up the Reichstag he was willing to deconstruct it to protect his own position. Which was? Underlying all was his desire to maintain the dominance, social as well as political of his own narrow Junker class of landed aristocracy against the "ism's" of the modernising world: Liberalism, Catholicism, Socialism and industrialism. Steinberg also attempts to establish his role in the growing anti-semitism of 19th century Germany. Much evidence is provided, although Bismarck's realpolitik ensured he was happy to work with Jews as well as criticise them. Perhaps more needs to be indicated here of the emergence of anti-semitism at the time in Germany, not just as regards the Chancellor. Bismarck's views were symptomatic rather than causal in this. The work is valuable in other ways. Steinberg rightly draws attention to Bismarcks political enemy, Windthorst, leader of the Catholic Centre Party and an ignored early German democrat. He also makes it very clear how Bismarck's power was not absolute. He was the servant of the Prussian King and German (chiefly the old and aging) Kaiser William I. His consent was needed for Bismarck's policies and required deft handling by the Chancellor. Bismarck's genius was in his ability to manage this whilst introducing policies considered dangerously revolutionary by the conservative regime he purported to represent. Personally, Bismarck is seen as someone with few friends, easily embittered, manipulative of those he had and willing to resort to emotional blackmail. He also appears to have enjoyed ill-health, removing himself from the political arena when convenient to do so. Bismarck's alliances, like domestic policies were complex - so much so it is made evident that only he would be able to manage them and ensure Great power equilibrium - and even for him this was growing harder as time went on. The reader eventually realises how this system could lead to the disaster of 1914 in less capable hands, and this is what happens with his departure after the accession of the far less able William II. This is no book for someone seeking an introduction to the Bismarckian period. In places the complex nature of the Chancellor's policies and actions can make for a less than linear narrative, but for the student wishing to delve deeper this work is to be commended and is well worth reading. The approach is refreshing, thought provoking, and dare I say it, a page turner, especially in the crucial 1866-71 period. Hence to those who persevere, it is a five star volume. Sept' 12 (*****)
Janie Hampton: Austerity Olympics: When the Games Came to London in 1948
Hampton tells the story of the last time the Olympics were held in London – in 1948, when austerity was somewhat more apparent than it is today. She tells the story of its selection, financing and the events themselves, recalling the stories of the key figures to emerge including Emil Zatopek, Fanny Blankers-Koen and the French concert pianist Micheline Ostermeyer who won both the shot put and the discus – only to have someone steal her medals.Implicit throughout the account are comparisons with today. Austerity certainly was a genuine element of the Games though. The stadium, the Empire Wembley, was a converted greyhound track, athletes were put up in dormitories in school halls and colleges across London, most competitors had to buy their own uniforms (British male athletes were given two pairs of Y Fronts by the manufactures! Not sure if female athletes got these too…), even bringing their own towels, and cheques from competing nations were a crucial part of the business plan (it appears all paid up except for Argentina, one of the largest teams competing but whose cheque bounced). Sponsorship was beginning to appear, albeit nothing like today. Technology was in its infancy. The running was on a state of the art track made up of closely compacted cinders – starting blocks were needed for the first time as it was too hard to dig a toehold in. A camera system developed to sort out the winners when greyhounds raced was adapted to provide a photo finish for races too close to call visually. 'Gender checking' was introduced in 1948, which involved a doctor 'looking into the underpants of competitors to check for sexual abnormalities', The games were televised for a couple of hours each day and TV's were installed in the main competitor centres so they could watch the key events. Results were typed onto a stencil and duplicates given out to journalists each day. Four phones were made available for international calls... Another key shadow over the Games was the Second World War. Germany and Japan were excluded (the official reason being because "there was no address yet to send an invitation to"), Italy was accepted only as it changed sides at the end of the conflict. The key coach for the British Gymnastic team was a German prisoner of war, Helmut Bantz, a prewar leading German gymnast. Military camps were also used as accommodation. Competitors waiting to enter the arena for the opening ceremony sat in nearby bomb sites until their turn came to march in, and when they did come in the Olympic salute was not given, resembling as it did the Nazi salute of the Third Reich. It could be said that Britain's offer to stage the Olympics was due to an old fashioned notion (arrogance?) of noblesse oblige – a feeling that Britain had "led the road to wartime victory, now it would do the same for peace".Yet the world was changing. Competitors from the US, Argentina and Australia were better fed, clothed and perhaps displayed greater self confidence as teams than that of Britain. More significantly the British government of the day had more pressing issues than Games – the Olympics coincided with the Berlin Blockade, the first major conflict of the Cold War."The Austerity Olympics" is a sound narrative of the London Games. Hampton tells her story clearly and easily, providing an interesting account of the day to day impact of the Olympics. However, despite a "what happened next" final chapter, anyone seeking a deeper historical critique of the Games and their context will be disappointed. Equally there is too much focus on material provided by English speakers, with a need for more emphasis on the experience of competitors outside the world that was Great Britain, its Dominions, Colonies and English speaking allies. Perhaps though in this, the book is just repeating the prejudices of the time, but surely one we should be moving on from today, even when reporting its past. July '12 (***)
Helen Castor: She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth
Castor examines the lives of four women who 'ruled England before Elizabeth': Henry I's daughter, the Empress Matilda; Henry II's consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine; and the wives of two of England's least effective kings: Isabella of France (Edward II) and Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI).Her argument is that although not sole monarchs in the way that Mary and Elizabeth Tudor were, these four were able to use their positions as family members/consorts to significantly influence and to varying degrees, direct royal policy. To be honest none appear as especially attractive in a power political sense. All are ruthless in pursuing their aims and very capable of double-crossing and breaking promises. Tenacity seems to be another ability that they had by the bucket load – especially Matilda and Eleanor. Each are given a straight narrative which takes the reader from post conquest England to the advent of the Tudor new monarchs. This is well supported with clear (and easily understood) references to contemporary writers but does not attempt to provide a complete linear view of the period. However, the four periods examined do coincide with some of the most significant episodes of royal history during the period. And it is "royal history". The focus is on the power politics of those in control. Virtually no mention is made of anyone else or any other social group. This is not a fault of the author but a clear indication of the reality of medieval life. Where its male rulers had personal and political failings the country was generally thrown into crisis which meant baronial strife, conquest and counter conquest of castles and territory with the obvious destruction of crops, villages and property of those not considered by those leading armies to restore "order". The order of those in positions of privilege. Stephen was probably too soft for the age, Richard spent too little time minding the shop, Edward II had a knack of choosing male friends who antagonized his lords whilst Henry VI was pretty ineffectual. In each case a "she-wolf" strove to fill the power vacuum – some more successfully than others. The four accounts are set in a Tudor framework: we start with young dying Edward VI attempting to change his father's Act of Succession to prevent Catholic Mary from succeeding. The final chapter has Mary installed and uncontested as a Queen ruling in her own right – so much so that despite growing unpopularity is succeeded by another female, Elizabeth. Castor's underlying point (perhaps a little too drawn out) being that conditions had changed by the 16th century with the Tudor state having become sufficiently centralized and institutionalized to weather the types of upsets that earlier would not have tolerated a woman ruler on her own. Hence ambitious and capable women close to power had to find other ways to exercise authority. This is to be recommended to those who want a clear introductory framework to English medieval monarchy. Castor writes her stories well and in an entertaining way. Good clear maps are provided, but most crucially there are extensive family trees for each of the four. Less positive is the strange lack of foot or endnotes. Not good for further study, let alone testing the sources used. I have not seen the TV programmes yet – I wanted to read the book first - so am unable to say how well they complement each other.Readers wanting to explore characters mentioned in the text could do lot worse than use the online and very comprehensive Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies. The ODNB has bios (some over 30 pages long) written by leading modern historians (the name Castor also appears several times….) and if you have a UK library card or are part of a subscribing global educational institution is totally free! April '12 (****)
Frederick Taylor: Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany
A popular read on the less explored (by non-German historians at least) immediate post war history of Germany, 1945-47. Initial chapters provide a narrative of collapse and defeat including the mass movements of Germans from east to west. I was fascinated to discover that teams of economists had been working secretly within the Nazi structure under Backe (Hitler's Food Minister) and Speer planning for the economic survival of a defeated germany from 1943 onwards. The team included Ludwig Ehrhard, later to be the architect of west Germany's economic miracle. Where Taylor shines is when he looks at the specific occupation policies of the allies. One useful chapter examines the practical problems of denazification. An early IBM system was introduced to set up a database of suspected Nazi's - but was plagued by technical issues. It was to prove an impossibility for demobilising occupiers to denazify an entire population and Taylor chronicles how pragmatism led to this being one of the first areas handed back to German control. Another factor slowing down the process is suggested as being an underlying anti-semitism amongst the US command (especially Patton) which was reflected in a distaste for supporting and listening to DP's (Displaced persons) many of whom were Jewish survivors of the camps. Post war zonal policy is examined individually. Much has already been written of the attitude of the Soviets in the east, less about the British and especially the French in the west. It seems the British tended to treat their zone initially as if it were andAfrican colony. At one point an exasperated Kurt Schumacher (later to become the leader of the SPD party) exclaims "Wir sind kein Negervolk" ("We are not Blacks" - which says as much about the racist attitudes prevalent at the time as well as British policy!). Taylor is especially useful on the French position. Early French treatment and policies were harsher even than those in the Russian zone. There were large numbers of prisoner of war deaths, they refused to accept refugees from the east, saying as protestants they would unsettle the religious balance of their Rhineland zone - and cleverly recruiting German Catholic support. Paradoxically though the French were also the first to give the Germans a genuine role in self-government and denazification (Taylor suggests one reason for this may have been more empathy between occupier and occupied given that many of the French had played a collaborational role with Germans in Vichy).
What the reading makes clear is how the occupiers had to juggle many, often conflicting demands: initial concern over "Werwolf"counter attack and desire for revenge, followed by the practicalities of feeding a people incapable of doing this themselves because of destruction and dislocation. How to restore Germany - non industrial state incapable of going to war (The US Morgenthau plan), nation made up of fragmented states as after 1648 (France), a client state incapable of returning to a Nazi, or capitalist past and too weak to wage war (Soviet Union) or a Poor Law pauper kept alive but no better than the poorest at home (Britain). Political and emerging Cold War reality soon focussed minds: Britain and the US restore the framework for economic revival and the ability for their zones to feed themselves. France and Germany begin the dance of a couple destined to tie them and the rest of Europe into the European Union. In the east, concerned Soviets, try to use Berlin to halt these developments, which after the blockade accelerates the binding of wartime western allies and their zones, by then the Federal Republic.
One of the most useful sections is the epilogue - essentially an essay on how post 1949 Germany has come to terms with its nazi past: The sleep cure of the 1950's when the Adenauer regime admits the "fellow traveller" nazi's back to positions of administrative authority to manage the economic miracle. Then the questioning of this by the generation of the 1960's: Press criticism, 1968, Baader-Meinhof terrorism. In the 1970's as a prosperous but not yet confident society, the Ostpolitik of Brandt coming to terms politically with its eastern past. Only today, over 60 years later is Germany sufficiently confident under a Chancellor born after the nazi period, to take a lead again, but hesitantly, still conscious of its past malevolent ghosts. March '12 (****)
Tim Butcher: Chasing the Devil: the search for Africa's Fighting Spirit
This sees the author trekking through Africa's rainforest and remote hinterlands walking across Liberia using a route taken by Graham Green in the 1930's. He has a strong personal reason for this region of travel. He was chief war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph during the wars at the turn of the century and the "search" in the title is as much a personal search to find closure with the events of that conflict as much as an exploration of how far the area has recovered since then and/or changed since the time of the Greene's.
Butcher takes the reader across Sierra Leone and the Gambia as well as Liberia, using his travels to create a framework to look at both the background of recent strife and the context of native tribal belief. In this he does a service in making the current and past problems of the region far clearer and immediate to the general reader perhaps not too aware of west Africa. The culture of "dash", tribal religion and traditional beliefs and the horrendous history of recent violence are all part of this journey as is the depth of forlorn poverty in the villages and towns he encounters. What did surprise me was the fact that such a walk was possible at all given the climate and general deprivation. It nearly killed Graham Greene and he had a colonial style caravan of bearers and equipment (including hammocks and food hampers). Butcher was a party of four effectively: himself, a walking companion, a local guide (whom, in a depressing evaluation in the final chapter, he describes as his African "Everyman": an African who had heeded the advice of experts to limit family size, seek education, be industrious - but who had gained little from this through the greed and incompetence of others) and a motorcyclist who rode ahead each day with the rucksacks. Avoiding the roads travelled by the motorbike they used the remains of rain forest paths walking in the humidity and heat. Their diet becomes so limited that when, near the end of the journey they do have a western style meal in the canteen of a modern European mining company, Butcher is ill. The account is at its best when relating events along the walk to the history, both recent and not too recent. Apart from the start and finish the Greene connection is at times of less importance. Overall this is a good read, with the added advantage of teaching the reader something about a part of the world usually ignored elsewhere - and telling a story of recent times that needs to be told. March '12
Matthew Parker: The Sugar Barons. Matthew Parker
Parkers history of the West Indies sugar industry is one of the most valuable reads of the year for students of industrial and imperial history. He outlines the origins of the industry which originated on the Caribbean island of Barbados and reached its peak with the cultivation of Jamaica. The final chapters look at eventual decline and collapse. The 17th century saw the cultivation of sugar following ideas first used in Brazil by the Dutch and Portuguese. Other islands soon followed as the price for sugar rocketed in Europe and fortunes were made by the estate owners. Sugar became an essential luxury and demand forced more and more land into cultivation. More was being made in profit than could be spent on the islands- the growing surplus was being spent and invested in England - providing funds for other commercial and early industrial ventures. So far so good, but it is in exploring other aspects of this growth that the book excels: the growth of privateering - the use of ships to attack and loot Spanish treasure ships was encouraged; relations with the New England colonies; the growth of sugar as the key element of the English 18th century economy and the emergence of a sugar lobby that would determine English foreign and economic. However the key thread of the book is that of slavery. Parker makes it very clear that this "modern" slavery was driven by the needs of the Indies. Sugar cultivation is very labour intensive. The islands were amongst the least healthy places on earth with mortality, especially amongst Europeans being very high. Slaves brought in from Africa were the answer for the owners and were employed in ever growing numbers from the mid 17th century, despite their own high death rates. They were considered of little value other than as an economic commodity and Parker shows clearly how dehumanised the owners and their white management had become to slavery. Supported throughout by individual histories with a focus on the Landowners, this is well written and accompanied by good maps and illustrations. Dec '11 (****)
Alice Hogge : God's Secret Agents
Tells the story of Roman Catholic missions and Jesuit priests in England during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. A detailed and thorough account, with care taken to inform the general reader of the specialist contexts and terminology used by historians as the narrative progresses. She tells of the early missionaries from the continent, often educated in colleges founded in Europe by English Catholic exiles and how they travelled the country and lived within the "underground" recusant community. The main thrust of the book outlines the different and changing reaction of government. Initially tending to tolerance, this hardens, culminating in the post 1605 Oath of Allegiance and anti Roman Catholic legislation. The Apellant episode is also explored. Yet the Jesuits seem to have been opposed to regime change, the eventual Gunpowder Plot being the product of the frustration of home-grown subversives (assisted or not by government agents to increase the eventual anti-Catholic spin) at the lack of official change. Hogge paints a credible picture of the Jesuits as scapegoats for both James and Elizabeth’s Government to blame their troubles on. An interesting aspect of the book is the story of the Jesuit Nicholas Owen, arrested and racked to death in 1606, who was the builder of many of the priest-holes found in the country's great houses and used to hide Catholic clergy when a house was searched. Two final sections of note indicate where Owen's building work may be seen today, and draw parallels (already emerging to the reader as the story unfolds) with present day British changes to torture and terrorist legislation and practice in response to current concerns over militant Islam.However, this may be more a book to be dipped into (using the index - for some unexplained reason chapters are numbered like a novel but given no other description to assist partial reading for research) rather than read cover to cover. Perhaps tighter editing might have helped but I found the initial chapters and the final post 1600 section of most use and value (especially those outlining James I's early religious inclinations). During the 1580's and 1590's I tended to get lost amongst the places, names, conversations, letters and travels of those being described. Oct '11 (***)
John Simpson: Unreliable Sources: How the Twentieth Century Was Reported: How the 20th Century Was Reported
John Simpson, BBC World Affairs editor, writes an account of how he sees the press reported on key stories from the Boer War to the Iraq invasion. As the focus is on the British press, so the themes are those that affected Britain and its press most strongly over the last 110 years. This probably means it will be of most direct interest to students of modern British history, but the story it tells of relationships between the press and its readers, of press owners and government as well as how far the press supports, questions and/or is restricted by government policy is more global in its significance.
Simpson devotes a chapter to a key period that affected how the press operated: clearly Britain’s main wars and conflicts, but also issues such as the Abdication crisis, interwar attitudes to Hitler, Suez, Ireland, and the rise of the Murdoch press. I found the most useful chapters to be ones that examined the press response to government policy during the Boer and First World Wars (in the final chapters Simpson draws several parallels of approach between the Boer War and Iraq invasion). He shows clearly for example how loathe the press was to present the realism of the western front and how much his was resented by those at the front. Students (and teachers preparing courses on the impact of the media) will also find much of value on the interwar chapters which shows clearly which papers were most behind Hitler and the differing views on Appeasement and the actions of Chamberlain. Individual reporters are given mini pen portraits - many seem to be “gentle” and/or “generous…… Meanwhile he explains how the new kid on the block, news reporting on BBC radio, tried to catch up until coming into its own during World War II. Well written and reads easily, it is a large tome with a basic but useful bibliography for each section (although it publishes all chapter notes and the origin of specific sources online). It is sufficiently self-contained so that chapters could be taken on their own. This is worthwhile as Simpson provides many extracts from press reports (good for using as source questions?) and numerous worthwhile, not to say often enjoyable, anecdotes about the individuals he is describing. As for the Beeb, it might have been more valuable to have more on the impact of the BBC World Service reporting after 1945 and less on the BBC’s more recent conflict with the Blair government, which if we are being pedantic was not in the 20th century. Another point of issue is that the book seems to focus on issues that are exclusively political or to do with international conflicts that involved the UK. No mention is made at all of how BBC reporting made the world aware of the famine in Ethiopia and produced such global impact and consequences. Such “social” reporting has grown considerably since the 1980’s even if its thrust has been blunted/hijacked by more recent governments – however is this not the theme of the book? Aug '11 (****)
Philipp von Boeselager: Valkyrie - The Plot To Kill Hitler
This is a memoir of Philipp von Boeselager, traditional German aristocrat, cavalry officer and last surviving member of the 1944 Bomb Plot to assassinate Hitler. In many ways this would seem to be of limited value to a historian: it is as said, a personal memoir, and would seem to be ghost written at that. Much of it is devoted to uncritical praise of an elder brother, also involved in the Plot and the amount of the (slim) work on the actual Plot is minimal. Nonetheless, this is a significant piece of history, but not so much on what it says about 1944, rather, it gives an interesting insight into the mentality of the Junker officer class during the Third Reich. Implicitly, the content and presentation of the narrative in the memoir makes clear that the aristocracy saw the Fuhrer as an upstart, but did not intervene to obstruct his accession to power seeing this more as "the will of the people" with which they should not deign to interfere. They also appeared to have exercised considerable informal local authority, but without too much accountability, or desire to use this considerable local and historic influence to resist or reduce the impact of national socialist policies (although a incident of the family assisting fleeing Jews early on is described). Von Boeselager and his brother join the cavalry and there is little questioning of German war aims/strategy until the war turns against the Germans, especially in the east, although the memoir states it was a growing awareness of SS atrocities in the east rather than growing Soviet pressure that brought about plans to assassinate Hitler and stage a coup. We read of how the July 1944 plotters gradually came together and instigated several attempts to kill Hitler in preparation of seeking an anti-Soviet alliance with the western allies, but ultimately failing and most facing arrest, torture and execution. Several take their own lives. The von Boeselager brothers are not betrayed by fellow plotters and survive (although Phillips brother is killed later fighting the Red Army), with Philipp himself living until 2008. These officers of the Junker class were undoubtedly brave and fought determinedly and with a strong sense of historic duty to defend Germany and ensure the well being of their men (Von Boeselager distinguished himself in combat on the Eastern Front, was wounded several times in combat and was awarded the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves for bravery in combat). It is clear that they were principled and honourable with a genuine sense of chivalry. The plotters themselves became the conscience of postwar (western initially) Germany. Unfortunately, these memoirs do little to remove the notion that the principles and sense of duty were misdirected. They had the political awareness, skills and inherited authority to prevent or restrain national socialism at its birth but chose to wait too long to act and when they did von Boeselager's account still makes it is difficult to remove the impression that they did so at a time when their historic interests and privileged lifestyle were most under threat - by the advance of Soviet communism. July '11 (****)
Christopher Meyer: Getting Our Way: 500 Years of Adventure and Intrigue: The Inside Story of British Diplomacy
Meyer's book (he was the UK Washington Ambassador 1997-2003) is subtitled "500 years of adventure & Intrigue - the Inside Story of British Diplomacy" but is pretty selective in the episodes it examines. A series of chapters look at specific a stages in the story, some more successful than others. The initial chapter on the Elizabethan ambassador Killigrew in Edinburgh is an interesting example of the rudiments of modern diplomacy at work, as are the three on British relations with China (or should it be the British abuse of those relations?). There is a valuable section for students of the interwar period on Sir Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office from 1930 to 1938 which clarifies Britain's ignominious role in the collapse of the League of Nations. Least successful chapter is the final somewhat diffuse one on Bosnia in the 1990's. However this is not a history book - footnotes are sparse, bibliographies are limited and contain largely the standard works that might appear on a decent piece of IB/A level coursework. The value of this readable book though is the insight it provides into the mindset of a modern successful British diplomat. From its introduction onwards it provides an argument in favour of reinforcing British diplomacy, and British support for how this branch of government should be enabled to strongly pursue and protect British interests and values in the world. In doing this Meyer writes little of the advantages of internationalism, and seems to ignore what even he writes about regarding the impact of the blind pursuit of British values and interests on 19th century China or on the Ethiopians in the 1930's. He argues diplomacy has to adapt and modernise to protect national interest. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but not at the cost of a "beggaring my neighbour" approach that was so prevalent in the past. He correctly argues that following an ethical foreign policy (as recently with early New Labour) is itself problematical but that should be no reason to revert to past methods (he believes Margaret Thatcher's time was "a notably successful period for British diplomacy").It is telling that there is no chapter on the one great challenge - and questionably greatest failure of modern British diplomacy - Europe. Nothing on how diplomats failed to engage with the early moves for closer co-operation. Even in his own terms of reference, no mention of how greater involvement from the start might have delivered the British influence and values he seeks and how a successful British diplomatic offensive might have embedded them in the heart of the European project. Perhaps because this is the one big area Britain did not "get its way". This is a quick read and it reads well with much to fascinate - not the least of which is as an aid to understand the attitudes and objectives that formed so much of British foreign policy for so long. June '11 (***)
Barry Strauss: The Spartacus War
This slim volume is the story of Spartacus, leader of the slave revolt against the Romans in 73BC. Spartacus gathered a force of up to 40,000 slaves and in the course of two years was able to lead them up and down the length of Italy resisting all attempts by the Roman legions to suppress them - until the final campaign against Crassus when he was defeated and killed in battle (in contrast to the Kubrick film which shows him captured - the famous "I am Spartacus" scene happening in Hollywood only!). Spartacus is seen as a charismatic and very able commander and leader, his eventual vanquisher Crassus was not one of Rome's most sympathetic generals - he took 6,000 prisoners and proceeded to crucify each one along the road to Rome.To someone accustomed to reading about modern history, the style is unsettling at first - too many mentions of "might", "perhaps", "likely", "uncertain but" suggest a vagueness that makes for a lack of certainty, but gradually you realise Strauss is using the only evidence available - which is patchy and unreliable. The historians role in the ancient world here is to map a probable route through the possibles for the layman and build up a picture of what might have been. The available evidence allows for no more. Strauss does this well, giving his views on how much value to place on evidence at each stage of the campaign. Good maps and a thoroughly explained bibliography at the end make this a useful read for the non-specialist who wants to find out a little more about the considered reality beyond the film set. May '11
John le Carre: Our Kind of Traitor: A Novel
I am pleased to say this is a return to le Carré’s old hunting ground – the spy novel. As in the past, it also sees the British Secret Service ranged against the Russians and focuses around a high level defection from Russia. But here similarities with the Cold War novels end.
The defection is not from the KGB or its modern successor but from the Russian mafia. Nor is the British secret service portrayed as it once was by le Carré. There is still internal rivalry but the conflict is now with a service deeply inbred with the London’s city establishment and it’s role as a financial capital.
This is a darker, more political le Carré who is taking aim at what he perceives as another threat to liberal, compassionate, democratic society. The “Constant Gardener” took aim at the hypocrisy of the international aid and pharmaceutical communities, “A Most wanted Man” tackled international terrorism. Now it is the turn of the global banker and the way the establishment of a nation desperate for foreign capital fawns towards them.
Perhaps because it is more of a “spy” novel than has recently been the case, this is le Carrés most successful work for some time (although his young central characters do appear to be drawn from the sixties rather then the facebook/twitter generation of today). A good read that encourages you to move through it quickly! April '11
John Keegan: The American Civil War
Keegan, a war historian best known for his surveys of 20th century warfare writes well and clearly. I should imagine that the book provides more than sufficient detail on the campaigns and key meetings between both sides to satisfy most students researching the conflict (however some reviews have expressed concern with accuracy). What is irritating is the habit of repeating points made earlier on in the narrative.The battle maps are particularly useful (although I must admit to moving quickly through some of the land campaign details, lack of personal familiarity with the basic geography of the area trying my patience a little. This though is a personal failing, not one of the authors.). What is made very clear is how inexperienced and unprepared both sides were in the craft of warfare and it is interesting to read the process of natural selection required to find able military commanders. Keegan also provides a number of chapters prior to and after the conflict that are extremely useful articles in their own right on key aspects of the conflict (such as the Life of the Soldier, Generalship, Nature of the Civil War Battle, Home fronts, Black soldiers). In many ways these are just as valuable as (if not more so than) the account of the war itself. One omission is a discrete chapter focusing on the war role of Lincoln himself, which is a pity. Given Keegan's interest in 20th century warfare there are many instances where he shows how the Civil War displayed and introduced features of later wars (as well as how it did not and drew rather on earlier conflict experience in Europe). All in all this is an easily recommendable narrative cum basic analysis of the war if what is required is a primer. March '11 (****)
Matthew Brzezinski: Red Moon Rising: Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age
It tells the story of "Sputnik and the rivalries that ignited the Space Age". Indeed it starts well with a very atmospheric description of a V2 launch against London, and then goes on to tell the story of the early pre Sputnik US and Soviet space programmes and the internal politics that lay behind them. Centre-stage is rightly given to von Braun, ex member of Hitler's SS and Korolev, survivor of Stalin's Gulag camps (interesting that Korolev had as many failures - probably more than the US before his successful Sputnik launch) with an examination of their respective relationships with Eisenhower and Khrushchev but beyond telling the story, rather like early US attempts to get into space, it fails to really ignite. Brzezinski is a former journalist (for the Wall Street Journal) and this reads like an extended piece of journalism - rather like a long series of articles that you might find in a weekend supplement. The US political context is more satisfactory than the Soviet. The end notes suggest that research is essentially secondary - and much of that from the internet.An appropriate read perhaps if you are new to the period (having just seen the forthcoming movie on "Ham" the space chimp maybe) but don't look to find any novel insights or new archival research. Jan'11
PS If you are wondering why the next two reviews have no images it is because they are available on Kindle only in the US!! (***)
- David Olusoga, Casper Erichsen: The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism
Tells the story of German colonialism in South West Africa, showing how German policy towards the native Herero and Nama peoples developed into one of genocide. Shows how a philosophy of white racial supremacy emerged out of the ideas of Charles Darwin and was put into practice. Survival of the fittest becomes justification for white dominance over "inferior" indigenous peoples and genocide an acceptable option. This process is shown though as not just a German process and the German experience is placed in a global context: with British colonists in Tasmania, the US frontier wars, the Argentine wars of the desert all showing the same features.In the German genocide against Herero and Nama we read of extermination orders, forced labour and concentration camps designed to kill off indigenous peoples who were articulate, politically able and well resourced, but ultimately doomed as the Kaiser's troops introduce a policy of "absolute terror and cruelty" in which missionary churches were actively complicit.The second part of the work shows the significance of this colonial experience for future nazism. The colonies first Governor was the father of Hermann Göring, the uniform of the SA was that of the Wilhelm II's brown shirted colonial army. The colonial period saw the emergence of the pseudo science of eugenics and the legal framework to protect the purity of German settlers from racial contamination for a Volk that needed Lebensraum to expand into and escape population pressure at home. These ideas survive the collapse of 1918 and become a core element of the politics of the right.After 1933 races considered impure, German Jews and Gypsies, are subjected to the treatment first employed in South West Africa: Nuremberg Laws to end racial mixing; control and internment in concentration camps, forced labour, extermination. Hitler's war, it is also argued, was ultimately one for colonial Lebensraum in the east. The German treatment of the eastern populations and Red Army was different to the western conflict as Hitler considered the eastern peoples to be similar to uncivilised indigenous colonial peoples. Fighting was more brutal, civilians were treated with even less regard. Necessary he believed to ensure Lebensaum and civilisation. The nazis compared this push East to how Wilhelm's troops had fought the Herero, or the British the Sudanese & Tasmanians, the US the Native Indians, or the Argentines with the tribes of the south. Thought provoking, this is an important, thorough and well written work. It ranks with Hochschild's "King Leopold's Ghost" as an indictment of European colonialism but develops its arguments beyond normally considered confines to place the events of a short-lived German colony in a far wider context. Jan '11 (*****)