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.
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.
Don't read this if you want a detailed bio of the Maid of Orleans life. Do read it if you want a clear, well written account of her life and actions within the context of the late Hundred Years War.
Unless you are a student of the late medieval period (and perhaps even if you are) the time between Agincourt in 1415 and the collapse of English rule in France in the 1450's can be a complex and confused. What Castor has done has been to provide a clear explanation of what the war was about, how it had divided France and then give a clear focus on the main players highlighting the political as well as military pressures each was under. Only then is Joan introduced and her actions presented. This enables the non-specialist reader to better comprehend how she was able to have such great military and psychological impact on the French and then why they then gave her such half-hearted support once she was arrested, put on trial and finally executed by the English. Joan's intervention – divine or not – did provide impetus at the crucial time for France's Charles VII which eventually led to pushing the English back to the Pale of Calais.
Castor does not enter the debate as to who exactly Joan's voices were or whether Joan was saintly or not. What she does is lay out the available historical evidence to reveal a troubled personality, but one in many ways firmly planted in the real world. Her voices told her to don male attire but as she later explains, this wearing of men's clothes was an attempt to ward off male advances, even although she must have known her persistence in doing so and admitting to it was condemning herself in the eyes of a Catholic Church inquisitors who saw such behaviour as heresy.
Castor's book (as one might expect given her earlier work) makes clear the role played by strong women in events. Not just Joan, but also Yolande of Aragon, protectress of Charles VII and early and strong supporter of Joan when others had doubts, suggesting a key role in orchestrating Joan's appearance on the scene.
If there is a problem with this book it is the paradox that in making its greatest strength the focus on context rather than on Joan herself it sadly underplays the degree of attention given to Joan's cultural and theological legacy. An epilogue (four pages) attempts to draw attention to this but I would have liked to read more about how her beatification played out as well as the way writers as diverse as Schiller and Shaw placed her in their dramas. Nonetheless Castor has provided a very readable introduction to not just Joan of Arc but also the Hundred Years War. One of the comments on the cover stated the book was amongst "......the best of popular history". Can't argue with that.
Pedersen has written a meticulously researched and well argued account of the working and impact of the League of Nations Mandate system. This is not a straightforward narrative however. Analytical and perceptive Pedersen shows how the oversight function given to the League Permanent Mandates Commission ultimately altered the perception of imperial rule and territory, preparing the way for statehood even in areas not held as Mandates.
The mandated territories were largely the Empires of the defeated German Reich and Ottoman Empire. Given out to victorious Allies to look after and develop, the process involved annual reporting and a petition process for reporting grievances back to Geneva. It sought to introduce "internationalism" – economic open doors and freer access – to compete with closed bloc imperialism. During the interwar period and especially during German membership of the League this introduced an element of third party scrutiny into how those countries looking after Mandates operated in their mandated territories. France was heavily criticised for its behaviour in Syria and its bombing of Damascus during the Syrian Revolt in 1925. South Africa was taken to task for labour and resettlement policies in South West Africa. In an intriguing section on Papua Pedersen charts the emergence of the anthropologist in questioning existing attitudes to what constitutes a "primitive people".
The imperial countries reacted in various ways – all of which would change the post 1945 world. In Iraq Britain produced the client state, nominally independent but tied by treaty and military agreements to the imperial power. France was to follow suit in Syria. This would become the model for the neo colonialism in the post independence world.
It was Palestine that offered the coup de grace the Mandate system. Britain initially believing it could develop the mandate for both growing Jewish settlers and the indigenous Arab population. When this proved impossible Britain sought to push for Partition which the PMC resisted on the grounds of their interpretation that the Palestine Mandate be there to lead to statehood for the Jewish population and Arabs be coerced into acceptance. Finally with European war becoming the main focus, London acted unilaterally, signalling the demise of the mandated territories project.
There are other nuggets tucked away in this work. Britain's failed attempts to buy peace in Europe by offering Hitler overseas colonies is covered in some depth concluding with the remark that the colonial offer may have failed to appease Hitler, but the European powers did eventually find their land to give over to German empire building: the Sudetenland. Another is the depth and influence of Polish anti-Semitism in the late 1930's as it put pressure on the PMC to force Britain to enlarge the land envisaged in partition for the Jewish settlers so that Poland could push out its Jews into this land.
The Guardians is probably not for the general reader, but for those with some knowledge of the League and the interwar period it makes a rewarding read.
Gaskill makes comprehensive use of personal testimony and primary records to show the relationship between north American settler and the English mother country during the period of early colonisation in the 17th century. This is not a story of independently minded Puritans heading off across the Atlantic to leave early Stuart tyranny behind and build a new world amongst the forests of New England. Rather, Gaskill presents a much more complex situation where not only settlement and economic exploitation but also political and cultural development remained very much dependent on England, an England that was also bound to the life-experiences of the early settlers and increasingly to the business model the new colonies produced.
The book looks at colonies in their broadest sense. There is a focus on Virginia and New England, paying tribute to the earlier English conquest and settlement of Ireland which offered the earliest (flawed) model for colony building, but the sweep takes in the Caribbean and later spread to the Carolinas and up the Appalachians. Here was embedded English society, given an opportunity to farm and trade through a series of Royal Company Patents, not self governing but administering themselves locally under the umbrella of the English crown, much as an English town or County might have done at the time. The settlements of new England with a higher (but not overwhelming) proportion of Puritan households saw these oligarchic assemblies dominated by those who considered themselves the elect. Further south in Virginia and in the Caribbean, it was the rapidly growing large estate owners who held sway. Just as the 17th century upheavals in England of Civil War, Restoration and 1688 revolution affect attitudes to power at home, Gaskill shows this being tightly followed and reflected in the Americas. Only after 1688 does the divergence which is to lead to revolution in the next century begin to become evident. England becomes more imperialist, more focused on the economic gains of overseas possessions, less inclined to consider the interests and protection of the colonists as a priority.
Apart from the social and political there are other themes running through the work. The siezure of Indian land is a given, the inevitable Indian wars which do so much to foster the "frontier mentality" of the American are reported by contemporaries in the same violent manner in which Irish rebels were described in the 1640's. Some settlers go native, others try and convert "praying" Indians but for the majority they were a population to be feared, exploited and pushed back for their land. The reality of colonial life in mid century is well treated in Chapter 14.
One of the chapters looks at the cultural isolation felt by many of the settlers (not uncommon even today as expatriates with internet, skype will agree with). England is always "home", many attempted to create their idea of an English idyll in an alien environment, with mutant twists. Where estate owners in the south could not get landless labourers to help achieve this as they might have done on an English estate, they ship in Africans in ever increasing numbers.
Gsskill is a specialist on 17th century witchcraft, so it may not be a surprise that the climax of the work is the Salem witch trials of 1692-3. For Gaskill the almost immediate reversal of the trials and discrediting of the Puritan testimonies represents the collapse of the Puritan stranglehold on the mood of the northern colonies. Dominant in setting the initial culture of New England, like their counterparts in England the latter part of the century sees this being discredited and replaced by particularist pragmatism. It is this change he argues that does so much to force a parting of ways between London and the northern colonies.
Apparently the work is based on a course presented by the author. It may be easier for the more general reader if chapter headings were less literary and obscure and perhaps given titles more immediately relevant to their content akin to seminar meetings. This would allow for easier selection of reading for students unable to read all the book. The wealth of contemporary evidence whilst clearly forming the structure of the argument can be overwhelming and the point in hand (as well as attention) can easily be lost to the multitude of characters and places presented to the reader.
Between Two Worlds is a worthwhile read. Students of the period perhaps will use it best with careful reading of the excellent Epilogue to help search out key themes and then make judicious use of the Index to follow their development.
Michael Pye's book has the sub-title: "How the North Sea made us who we are" and indeed it does make several interesting connections to show the significance of the North Sea in forming modern western society in the post Roman and medieval eras. Star placement is given to the Frisians, living on the margins of north-western Europe and dependent on the North Sea for transport and economic survival. Pye claims they made a major contribution by forcing society to look differently at the concept of money: at how they used money, instead of as barter or as a straight equivalent in precious metals, which required both buyer and seller to accept the abstract idea of value. Attention is also paid to the Hansa and how they developed the modern concept of economic community over nation or kingdom.
Pye also explores areas such the beguine communities of women in the low countries which reveal surprisingly modern ideas of female independence and control over their own destiny as well as the emergence of sumptuary and labour laws after the Black Death which he argues begin to stratify society more formally than before. However, interesting as these are, it is at times difficult to see the connection with the North Sea other than what is being cherry-picked for inclusion has originated in north-west Europe. This is perhaps clearest in the final chapter where much time is spent examining the Flanders-Burgundy connection of the late middle ages. Intriguing as it is to see how a Flemish culture flourished behind a Potemkin facade that disguised weakness for display, it is not clear how this fits the sub-title of the book. Ultimately the reader is left with the feeling that this is a well researched set of historical connections that is looking for a common thread to house them.
Clement Attlee would appear to be having something of a revival in public view at the moment. He even appears on a series of T-shirts with the phrase "what would Clement do?" alongside an image of himself. What indeed? Attlee has become something of an unknown quantity for students. Less charismatic than his prime ministerial predecessor (Churchill) he led the British post war Labour government that changed the structure of British society and welfare arguably more than any other before or after. Michael Jago's biography begins to flesh out who Attlee was.
Michael Jago's narrative soon makes clear what he was not. He was not from a poor background. He attended a good public school and joined the legal profession before the 1914 war broke out. He was not a radical socialist from the Trades Union wing of the left. He was modest, not extrovert, pushing himself to the front or that ambitious that he trampled on rivals to get ahead.
However it is clear from early on he was a respected leader able to win confidence from those he led. World War I saw him serve at Gallipoli and in France with honour and an officer who cared for his men. He had a social conscience, albeit initially rooted in the upper class concept of helping the poor and needy in a "lady bountiful" way but one which led him directly into social work in the East End of London and through that into Labour Party politics as the only way he could see to change the lot of those in need. He identified with his constituents. Initially not only did he live amongst them, his East End home was partly given over to party usage.
As he rose up through the Labour Party in the interwar period to eventually lead the party Jago portrays Attlee as principled (he came to resent what he saw as MacDonalds hypocrisy and opportunism) as well as hard-working and quietly efficient. Jago raises the question of whether the party leadership came to him through luck to be in the right place at the right time rather than ability. He then tends to leave this question hanging until the final chapters when he disregards it. Always quietly efficient and hardworking, but most of all generally trustworthy towards colleagues seems to explain his success.
Most enlightening to the café is Jago's portrayal of Attlee as Deputy PM to Churchill in the wartime coalition. He is shown as a loyal supporter of the PM, softening his harsher exclamations and working very publicly to keep support up. Touring the country, giving talks in factories, shipyards as well as in town halls Attlee became the face of the government, looking forward to a better future. This had been agreed by both main parties, but Attlee came over as the confident, well organised, hard working member of the top duo. The safer pair of hands for the peace.... His profile thus raised, this made the 1945 Labour victory more easily explained.
The post 1945 period is perhaps the less satisfying part of Jago's book. It is clear the Foreign Policy saw Attlee at his weakest. India and Palestine especially were disasters whose repercussions remain today. Equally it is clear that Attlee played the Atlantic relationship poorly. Truman was too easily ignored. He lacked Churchills ability to cajole, to compliment or simply to invest the time in maintaining close personal relations with the US leadership. Whilst Jago shows this well, the café would have liked to see more focus on the personal mechanics and relationships that drove through the post war welfare state. After all it is this that would seem to have been Attlees' real strength.
Overall however a work to be recommended. Attlee needs wider study as well as recognition. It is as if he has been able to maintain his own modesty over historians in the near 50 years after his death in 1967.
Ben Macintyre is now best known for his espionage books including Agent Zigzag and his latest on Kim Philby. This is one of his earlier publications (perhaps the back catalogue being re-released on the back of these later, more successful works.) and is not about spies. Rather it combines two unlikely themes in an offbeat but readable way.
Going off to Paraguay, Macintyre looks for evidence of German colony founded in the 19th century by the sister of Friedrich Nietsche. In 1886 Elisabeth Nietzsche, set up a 'racially pure' colony in Paraguay together with a band of blond-haired fellow Germans. Macintyre describes his travels as he crosses the inhospitable centre of Paraguay to find actual survivors of Nueva Germania still living an isolated existence in the remains of the bizarre colony.
However, Forgotten Fatherland is more than this. It is written in a "double style" retelling not just the narrative of colonial settlement but in tandem the more intriguing story of how Elisabeth came to hijack her brothers legacy and turn him into a cult to serve her own nationalistic and racist ends. Nietzsche, the stalwart of the individual, anti church, anti imperial and anti nation (he himself refused to support Nueva Germania) is transmuted into the intellectual rock behind National Socialism, Elisabeth's shrine for her brother in Weimar becoming a place of pilgrimage for Hitler, Mussolini and other assorted nationalists of the far right during the 1930's and early 1940's.
This has elements of Pimblet's Paraguay history/travelogue, Inflatable Pig but is probably also a straightforward primer in understanding what Nietzsche actually does represent. Well worth looking out for.
This is a book on an area that has not received much modern attention (although just like buses, you wait for ages then two come along at once: in the last couple of months another work has appeared on this very topic - Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I by Charles Spencer. How depressing must that be to the writer of the second one....). It tells a good story though: the tale of how Charles I came to be tried and executed and how after the restoration of his son Charles II, tables were turned and the regicides became the hunted themselves.
Don Jordan and Michael Walsh have a background in documentary journalism rather than academic history and this perhaps contributes to the fact that the work is accessible and reads well. The background to the execution of Charles is dealt with briefly but clearly and the narrative of the trial and execution reads well. Where the book is most valuable is in describing the period of chaos, treachery and political wheeler-dealing that followed the death of Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son Richard. Normally this receives limited focus as standard works (and exam courses) move swiftly to the Restoration of Charles II. Here though we see the full reaction to regime change. Fellow travellers of the Republic rush to change sides (in some cases becoming double-agents to help root out the Republicans who do not sway), and are quick to be visibly praising the restored monarchy and attacking the outgoing regime. Villain of the piece is portrayed to be General Monck, erstwhile General in the New Model Army, but then turncoat who changes sides and uses his forces to neutralise the Republican military and prepare the way for Charles II to return.
As part of the terms for his return, Charles II promises "Oblivion" a pardon to all but those who signed his father's death warrant. The new monarch however is shown as being far from charitable towards the surviving leaders of the Commonwealth and those (such as "Cornet Joyce" who originally took his father under arrest) he felt bore some part of the responsibility for the execution of the King. Vengeance is a better description than mercy as signatories of the document sentencing Charles I to death are arrested, tried with little real opportunity at defence, then (described in detail) hanged, castrated, disembowelled (still alive) and quartered. In an ironic echo of the Marian executions a century earlier, the dignity shown by those dying does much to uphold their cause - to the concern of Charles II.
The list of those excluded from pardon keeps growing, agents comb Europe (and less successfully the colonies in north America) assassinating, seeking rendition and extradition. It appears the town of Vevey in Swiss Bern was one of the few places to genuinely offer asylum and protect against Royalist agents. This is where Edmund Ludlow, whom many of the exiles hoped might lead the invasion to depose Charles II, managed to live safely until his death in 1692.
The King's Revenge shows clearly that the end of the Commonwealth did not only mean a restoration of monarchy. It also brought an end to a period when principle was a key determinant of policy. The men of principle were forced to hide or were extinguished. Those left behind in England and in politics were the survivors, those willing to bend to suit expediency. These politicians, rather than the restored monarchy were to set the tone for the future development of English and then British democracy. The "Good Old Cause" was well and truly buried.