This is less a history and more of an extended essay on what caused the fall of the Soviet Union. Kotkin's thesis is that it was reform what done it -This is less a history and more of an extended essay on what caused the fall of the Soviet Union. Kotkin's thesis is that it was reform what done it -- Communism is incompatible with liberalism, so the moment Gorbachev opened the door with perestroika and glasnost, the frame collapsed and brought down the whole house with it. It's an interesting thesis that makes more sense than the typical American, "Reagan scared them to death," view, but Kotkin severely downplays the importance of Solidarity, Afghanistan and other issues that were plaguing the Soviets at the time. Even based upon the evidence that he puts forth to support his view, you could make a compelling case that the Soviets' problem was structural and was bound to be exploited by opponents of central authority eventually, even if Gorbachev hadn't given them an opening....more
This is well-trod ground and the book doesn't add anything new, though it's a perfectly good summation if you don't feel like digging through Tuchman'This is well-trod ground and the book doesn't add anything new, though it's a perfectly good summation if you don't feel like digging through Tuchman's The Proud Tower or any of the other mammoth works on the subject....more
When it comes to academic scandals, no field of study does it better than history. Mathematicians haven't had a good knock-down drag-out fight since NWhen it comes to academic scandals, no field of study does it better than history. Mathematicians haven't had a good knock-down drag-out fight since Newton and Leibniz went at it over who invented calculus, and literary types are so soft spoken they still let people get away with treating Freud seriously. But history -- you can't go a year without someone's reputation being ruined, whether it's Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin being accused of plagiarism, or Michael Bellesiles making up facts.
But of all the scandals, none is quite so boggling as David Irving, once a well-respected author who was considered to have written the definitive book on the Dresden bombings, turning into a raving neo-Nazi nutcase and Holocaust denier. In the mid '90s he sued Deborah Lipstadt, who had written a book on Holocaust denial which very briefly mentioned him. Her lawyers hired Richard Evans as an expert witness to dig into Irving's books, and what he discovered is simply astounding. For forty years, Irving simply made up sources to fit his conclusions, dismissed those that didn't, mistranslated documents to make Hitler look better, and accepted clear forgeries as genuine.
When Evans started working on the case, he, like most historians, assumed that Irving had slipped his cog fairly late in life, sometime in the late '80s when Holocaust denial started playing an increasing role in his work, but upon investigation Evans found evidence of denialism dating back to the '70s. Worse still, a check of Irving's book on Dresden, written all the way back in the '60s, turned up that Irving's casualty figures -- figures that had been widely accepted by historians -- were bunk. While everyone who counted casualties in Dresden placed the figure between 20,000-40,000, Irving added a "1" to the front of the figures, reasoning that the Nazis had been trying to play down the number of dead to hide the ineffectiveness of air defenses. Later Irving revised the number up to 200,000 to a quarter million dead, basing this figure on a document that had clearly been doctored by adding a trailing "0" to the figure to increase the number -- rather than wanting to downplay the number of dead, the Nazis wanted to make it as high as possible to stoke outrage amongst the people.
Sadly, though Irving's figures are now known to be nonsense, they are the figures Kurt Vonnegut relied upon when he wrote Slaughterhouse Five. Since far more people will learn about Dresden from Vonnegut than reliable history books, Irving's lie will be stuck with us forever....more
Most books on WWII, even those focusing on the Phoney War/Fall of France period tend to gloss over the downfall of Neville Chamberlain and ascension oMost books on WWII, even those focusing on the Phoney War/Fall of France period tend to gloss over the downfall of Neville Chamberlain and ascension of Winston Churchill. The inadequacy of Chamberlain is so self-evident that it's impossible to imagine in hindsight that he could've held on. And Churchill, the voice in the wilderness prophesying Hitler's danger -- how could anyone other than him have become Prime Minister? The inevitability of it all is so obvious in hindsight that there's no reason for any writer to spend more than a paragraph on the transition of power.
And yet things are only ever inevitable in hindsight. In the thick of things, there's always doubt and uncertainty. In late 1939 and early '40, Chamberlain's grip on power, even after the long string of humiliations that followed Munich, remained firm. More than firm -- though the least dictatorial leader in Europe at the time, Chamberlain was downright Nixonian in his application of power and not afraid to stamp down on dissent within his own party. Driving him from power required some work and wasn't a spontaneous affair.
Olson covers the slow rebellion against Chamberlain, which had started as far back as Munich, in great detail, in detail, following the anti-appeasement wing of the Conservative Party from its first, tentative, formation to its final alliance with Labor and the Liberals. This is down-and-dirty parliamentary politics, with lots of backroom dealing, strange bedfellows (view spoiler)[almost literally in the case of Harold MacMillan who had to work with a fellow MP whom he knew was cuckolding him (hide spoiler)] and backstabbing.
One major flaw in the book is Olson's decision to focus on the Tories to the exclusion of all else. The degree to which Labor and the Liberals supported or opposed Chamberlain and his appeasement policy is only glancingly touched upon.
The other problem is Olson's tendency to stop the narrative to give a potted biography whenever a new figure takes the stage. It doesn't help that most of these biographies are essentially the same -- the person went to school at Eton or a similarly prestigious school, moved onto Cambridge or Oxford, then joined the army where they served with distinction in the First World War, before returning home and running for office. Most of the figures were bookish and avoided the more Tom Brownish elements of British boarding schools. After you get through the first couple of these biographical sketches, you start skimming any time they come up. Thankfully Olson introduces all the major figures in the first half of the book, so by the time we get to the meat of the book -- Munich, Poland, Norway, etc. -- the narrative is free to move ahead without interruption.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
One of the most frustrating things about history is how undramatic it is. Things happen piecemeal over time, rarely reaching a proper conclusion; charOne of the most frustrating things about history is how undramatic it is. Things happen piecemeal over time, rarely reaching a proper conclusion; characters are contradictory, and even the best of them do things that make you want to throttle them; coincidences abound; and even when the good guys win, they usually lose. That's probably why WWII is such a popular subject, and the American Civil War. These are conflicts with clear good guys and bad guys, the course of events follows a traditional through-line -- betrayal at Munich, retreat at Dunkirk, the darkness of the Blitz, then the coming of the Russians, the coming of America, D-Day, Berlin and victory. The part where Reconstruction fails and the Allies divide Europe into spheres of influence ... we can ignore that and just focus on the good parts.
The British anti-slavery movement, which exploded in popularity in the 1780s but didn't succeed in abolishing the slave trade for two decades and took half a century to bring a full end to slavery in the British empire is a great case for how undramatic history can be. Nonetheless, Hochschild mostly succeeds in gluing the pieces into a cohesive whole. He tells the story in three parts, the first focusing on the initial abolitionist campaign in the 1780s, which, as he tells it, is the forerunner of all modern populist political movements. The organizers -- mostly Quakers, but with prominent Anglicans as their mouthpieces -- invented or perfected direct mailing, pins, posters, sloganeering and took petition writing to levels never seen before. And, thanks to Britain's antiquated version of democracy, they failed. Repeatedly. And then the French Revolution came and screwed everything up.
In the political backlash against liberalism that followed the Reign of Terror, the abolitionist leaders had to lay low lest they be mistaken for rabble-rousers in league with those who wanted universal male suffrage, an end to impressment and other radical ideas that threatened British society. With fifteen years in which the abolitionists didn't do much of anything, Hochschild turns to the slave uprising in St. Domingue (Haiti), making a case for how Britain's bungled attempt to suppress the revolution helped feed abolitionist sentiment even when it couldn't be expressed, particularly how it led many military officers to turn against slavery. But Britain's involvement in the revolution ended after a few years, and even with coverage of a few revolts in British territory, Hochschild pretty much has to skip ahead ten years to the second eruption of abolitionism in 1807. Unfortunately this wave, which finally succeeded in banning the slave trade, gets short shrift. We're given the basic outline -- the cunning James Stephen came out with a plan to stop French slave trading, which the British slave interest couldn't oppose without seeming unpatriotic, even though they realized they were letting the camel's nose into the tent. This is of course a classic political strategy, attacking an opponent more conservative than yourself by getting to their right (or more liberal by getting to their left), but Hochschild covers it in just a few pages. Next thing you know the abolitionists are banning the domestic slave trade as well and all's well with the world.
Well, except for the part that people already enslaved are still enslaved, as are their children. So again the narrative slips forward a couple decades to when the next generation of slavery opponents start pushing for total abolition. Even though this takes just as long as the first movement from the 1780s, Hochschild deals with it in far less space, rushing through to reach the climax.
Hochschild does the best he can to make the whole fifty year movement seem cohesive, though in doing so I think at times he comes a bit too close to Whiggery, but I feel there could be more balance between the parts. Still it's nice to get a history of the movement that doesn't focus on Wilberforce and the Evangelical Christians who fell into the movement for religious reasons. Hochschild acknowledges the role religion played, particularly with the Quakers, but he makes clear that the popular support for abolitionism was based as much upon the spread of Enlightenment philosophy and the first stirrings of labor and electoral reform movements -- not to mention the work of slaves and free blacks to draw attention to themselves....more
As an army brat I've always found it odd how Americans view the military as a bunch of uber-competent and noble professionals. Uh-uh. No, no, no. TheAs an army brat I've always found it odd how Americans view the military as a bunch of uber-competent and noble professionals. Uh-uh. No, no, no. The military is made up of a bunch of dorks who couldn't think of anything better to do after graduating high school or college. Putting them in a uniform and giving them basic training doesn't change that. Trust me here, I watched my dad and his friends drop water balloons from an 11th floor balcony and get into drunken silly string fights. Dorks. Especially the ones in technical jobs. The most accurate film about the military ever produced isn't Patton, or Platoon, or even Saving Private Ryan.
It's Stripes with Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and John Candy.
I've met soldiers like every character in this movie, including Francis.
So all of that is to say that I found absolutely nothing shocking in this book about shoddy maintenance, questionable design, and outright negligence involving nuclear bombs. A bored air crew using a scissor lift to pick up a B-52? High levels of substance abuse among those entrusted with operating nuclear weapons? Allen wrenches left inside bomb casings? Yeah, I'm about as shocked as Captain Renault finding gambling at Rick's. What else would you expect when you entrust a bunch of teenagers and twenty-somethings with superweapons? Frankly, the most surprising thing in this book is that nobody ever loaded a nuke into their car to impress a date. (Or at least they never got caught.)...more
We tend to think police detection is a modern phenomenon. Those who know a bit of the history of policing would probably think it began with Robert PeWe tend to think police detection is a modern phenomenon. Those who know a bit of the history of policing would probably think it began with Robert Peel. Sure, there must've been law enforcement earlier, but it was taken care of by men-at-arms or maybe a city watch, and any detective work would've consisted of torturing people for confessions. Terry Pratchett's portrayal of the Ankhmorpork Watch as a modern police force in the Middle Ages is funny because it's obviously anachronistic.
But as this book makes clear, it's not that anachronistic. The Provost of Paris in the 15th Century investigated crimes no differently that cops today (minus CSI, of course). Some procedures may differ, but the Provost's men took witness statements, gathered evidence, and canvassed neighborhoods just like Logan and Briscoe. And like the do-gooder cop in all the best detective novels, when the investigation leads to the highest rungs of power, the Provost didn't flinch, even if the revelation sparked a civil war that allowed Henry V to come in and kick ass. C'est la vie....more
Might better be called "The Receipts and Official Correspondence of Elizabeth Bathory." There are certainly some nuggets of historical interest here,Might better be called "The Receipts and Official Correspondence of Elizabeth Bathory." There are certainly some nuggets of historical interest here, but if you're hoping for insight in Countess Bathory's personality, you'll be disappointed -- the few personal touches are formulaic except for one or two occasions when she's angry at someone for not doing what she told them (the most interesting point of the book being a letter chastising someone for stealing her marijuana, though unfortunately it's unclear whether she means a personal supply or just some grown on her estate for sale elsewhere). There are two letters -- the only surviving correspondence -- by her husband included as an appendix, but even these few pages give us a better sense of his character than the dozen or so pieces written by his wife do of her....more
This is pop-history at its worst -- a broad, sweeping thesis that simplifies everything too much while relying on historical myths any time the authorThis is pop-history at its worst -- a broad, sweeping thesis that simplifies everything too much while relying on historical myths any time the author wanders into areas where he has no expertise -- which, in a book covering 2500 years, is just about everything. To hear Herman tell it, all of Western philosophical tradition stems from the disagreement between Plato's airy-fairy idealism and Aristotle's hard-nosed realism. In two and a half millennia, subsequent philosophers haven't brought anything new to the table. Anything that may seem like a new idea can be chalked up as an expansion on things Plato or Aristotle said. You may think David Hume had some original thoughts, but, no, Herman says Hume's ultra-rationalism is nothing but an outgrowth of Aristotle.
Even scientists, apparently, are either Platonists or Aristotelians. Not just early natural philosophers who didn't really distinguish inquiry into the natural order from philosophy, but even experimental physicists like Ernst Mach and Max Planck were taking sides in the ancient debate. And here I thought they were investigating the objective laws of the universe.
And then there's the actual history Herman musters to support his views. Well, much of it isn't "actual". Much of it he seems to have taken from a McGraw-Hill World History text book. We get everything from claims that the Romans fed Christians to lions on a regular basis, to some rah-rah jingoism about how the US won WWII, and sure the Soviets helped but they didn't do anything important.
James Burke's The Day the Universe Changed may be more than a quarter century old now, but it does a much more coherent job of being a grand unifying theory of Western thought than this mish-mash could ever hope to be....more
Albert Goering was a fascinating guy. The brother of Hitler's right hand man, Albert nevertheless managed not to become evil, and in fact spent the waAlbert Goering was a fascinating guy. The brother of Hitler's right hand man, Albert nevertheless managed not to become evil, and in fact spent the war helping people who had incurred the Nazis' wrath -- not just Jews but various political opponents as well. He's someone who deserves to be lionized next to Oskar Schindler.
And there is indeed a book that does that -- Thirty Four by William Hastings Burke. But that's a piece of investigative reporting that chronicles various incidents of Albert's heroism. This book here is a dual biography of Albert and his brother. Unfortunately, it's largely derivative, especially when it comes to Hermann. But that's not the problem.
The real issue with this book is what it's derivative from. Wyllie's portrait of Hermann is surprisingly sympathetic, painting him as a weak-willed man who was pushed into becoming Hitler's #1 henchman by his ardently Nazi first wife; a man who was wrecked by a horrible drug habit; and, most surprising of all, a man who acted to save Jews himself on several occasions. Wyllie does note that Hermann mainly helped Jews when pushed to do so by Albert or his second wife, an actress who herself had a number of Jewish friends, and he tears apart Hermann's claim that he didn't know anything about the Holocaust. But one still gets the impression of a man who was in over his head and went with the current in the hope that it would drag him back to land instead of further out to sea.
This attitude towards Hermann puzzled me until I happened to check an end-note and saw that the source for a claim was given as "Irving, D." When I flipped back to the bibliography, my worst fear was confirmed -- Wyllie was citing a biography of Hermann Goering by well-known Holocaust denier David Irving. What's more astounding, the bibliography also cites Richard Evans' Telling Lies about Hitler, a book that's all about Irving's crimes against history, including a lengthy debunking of the Goering biography. Evans concluded that Irving's work is so shoddy that "not one of his books, speeches, or articles, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them, can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject." No one who claims to be an historian can cite Irving and expect to be taken seriously. Even if not everything Irving said is a lie, there's no way to know whether any given fact is correct without following the citation back to the primary source, in which case you should just cite that source instead of Irving.
I do not think Wyllie shares Irving's pro-Nazi inclinations -- even if he presents Hermann in an unduly positive light, he doesn't deny his crimes, and he points out that Hermann's denials of involvement in the Holocaust don't fly -- but intent doesn't matter. Wyllie is too credulous to be trusted.
It'd be one thing if this were some forty year old book, written before Irving's distortions had been exposed. But it's not. There is no excuse for any history written in this century to cite him. Even if he's only one source that Wyllie relied upon, it casts doubt upon Wyllie's abilities as a researcher....more
Is there any assassination that hasn't inspired some harebrained conspiracy? I'm sure there are books out there claiming Roscoe Conkling put Guiteau uIs there any assassination that hasn't inspired some harebrained conspiracy? I'm sure there are books out there claiming Roscoe Conkling put Guiteau up to killing Garfield, and Octavius framed Brutus and Cassius. This is about as silly -- Bellingham was every bit as much of a deranged nutjob as Guiteau, with eerily similar motives, but Linklater insists that Liverpool merchants, upset with the curtailment of the slave trade and Perceval's antagonism towards the US, were somehow behind Bellingham's actions. Linklater's narrative often goes rambling through dark alleys in an attempt to build a case, but he absolutely fails to bring things together even at the most basic level of explaining what the conspirators are supposed to have done....more
Perhaps not the best one-volume history of WWI, but an excellent introductory text that explains some of the finer points most other histories overlooPerhaps not the best one-volume history of WWI, but an excellent introductory text that explains some of the finer points most other histories overlook (what's a Junker, what's a Cossack, what is this Frankenstein monster called Austro-Hungary)....more
A lot of people believe the conspiracy theory that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor but did nothing because he wanted the US into World War II. The first pA lot of people believe the conspiracy theory that FDR knew about Pearl Harbor but did nothing because he wanted the US into World War II. The first part of this is preposterous, and it is preposterous precisely because the second part is true.
Roosevelt definitely wanted America into the war, but to him the war meant the fight against Hitler. A child of the late Victorian Era, Roosevelt was a product of his time, and that meant holding Europe in higher regard than those pesky, inscrutable orientals. He supported China against Japan, but only out of long standing American commitment to China. When it came to divvying up aid, China came last, well behind Britain and Russia, and at times even Japan.
FDR's main concern towards Japan prior to Pearl Harbor was whether they'd join the war against Russia, or attack British and Dutch imperial interests in the Malay archipelago, or American interests in the Philippines. Stopping Japanese imperialism in general, however, was far less of a concern than aiding Britain against Germany. An actual war with Japan was the last thing he wanted because that would, at best, force America to divide her attention between the European and Pacific fronts. But if Japan attacked the US, Hitler was under no obligation to join the war, the Tripartite Pact only providing for mutual defense, so if Hitler played it smart, a Japanese attack on America would tie up American forces without pulling the United States into the European conflict.
Given all this, there was absolutely no reason for FDR to want America to get involved with fighting Japan. And yet that's exactly what happened. The whys and wherefores are complex, involving divisions within both the US and Japanese governments that caused intentions to be misreported and misconstrued, and fundamentally incompatible goals which made reconciliation impossible. ...more