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 All have been read & are recommended by casahistoria.


  These have all received casahistoria 5 star reviews.
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Susan Pedersen: The Guardians

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 to 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.
December '15 (*****)

Other Reviews:
Mark Mazower in The Guardian

Times Higher Education
Interview with Pedersen
For Susan Pedersens Abstract, "The Meaning of Mandates" read here.

Wade Davis:
The Great War, Mallory And The Conquest Of Everest

To call Wade Davis's excellent  book on the British Everest Expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924 a work on mountaineering is to do it a disservice. It is an intelligently written and painstakingly researched story that weaves much more into the narrative than how three successive expeditions tackled Everest and failed.

Wade places these post World War 1 climbs into a very broad context: the world of the Edwardian gentleman Alpinist and their studied denial of professionalism (to the extent of resisting the use of oxygen on Everest as it was not quite "good form"); the emergence of the Bloomsbury milieu in which many of the mountaineers moved - its decadence as well as intellectualism; the religious beliefs and customs of Tibet as well as its 19th and 20th century troubled history with China and Britain's imperial meddling in the region; the need for a specific British success in a feat of exploration to redeem the country after 1918 and the failure to achieve that other great international trophy: the first to the South Pole. Each of these is covered in detail allowing for the mindset of the mountaineers and their hosts to be better understood - as well as their final failure.

However the central piece of context is that of the Great War. With one exception (Irvine) all the climbers were frontline officers who survived the war. As the narrative unfolds Wade looks at each in turn outlining their war and how its horrors impacted on each one. Their stories are told in stark and brutal detail. It is clear that at war's end they carried the burden of what they had seen and who they had lost. Their response to life, danger and death was clearly conditioned by the temporary and fragile nature of their wartime experience. All of this background takes time to present (in the 600 pages or so we don't start on the first expedition until the late 200's) but is not only essential to the unfolding drama but presented in a skilful way that is easy to read.

The second part of the book looks at each of the three expeditions in turn showing how gradually the climbers reached higher up Everest until the summit was less than 1000 feet away and ends with the death of Mallory and Irvine on their final attempt (by now using oxygen) to reach the summit. The emotions provided by the book are complex. At times it is difficult to empathise with the main characters. The imperial attitude towards bearers and sherpas (despite a few occasions of considerable bravery to protect then) will leave an unpleasant taste to modern readers. The carriage by bearers across much Tibet of items clearly not crucial to an expedition - bottles of vintage champagne from private personal cellars and tins of foix gras - again is symptomatic of a bygone age of privilege. One word used frequently by Wade in describing team members at different times is "lassitude".

Yet this remains a story of determination as well as personal strength and bravery. The final, 1924 expedition shows this most of all. Probably one of the key factors in reducing the strength of the climbers for the one last attempt was the energy devoted to climbing up to a top camp to bring back, and so save their lives, four sherpas who had broken away from the main descent team and returned to the higher camp where they would otherwise die of exposure. Faced by the worst weather for many years repeated attempts are made to conquer Everest. Each in turn fails leaving the bearers exhausted (many walked out, two died) and the sahibs close to physical collapse (frost-bite, snow blindness, altitude sickness and physically weakened). Yet, despite apparently having his own misgivings, Mallory decides on one final attempt at the summit with Irvine and both head up alone from the top camp but do not return.

The irony that dawns on the reader during this final expedition is that the climbers are in fact reliving that Great War experience. It is a "campaign", repeated offensives are launched to push just a few yards further up the mountain, often followed by retreat and retrenchment. The sherpas are formed into "assault groups" to set up forward posts. Hardship, injury and danger from the unknown is a constant. Even the arguments over whether to use oxygen or not echoed the British wartime debate over whether to use modern technology to help break out of the stalemate. It is this that in the final analysis makes this such a sad work. Here were the survivors of a generation that suffered terribly during the Great War. Their attempts on Everest can perhaps be seen in part as a response to this. Having lived so closely with death and disfigurement for so long they took greater risks than otherwise might have been the case and were more dogged in the face of possible failure.

Although unlikely, Mallory may have made the summit, dying on the way back. The discovery of his body in 1999 does little to prove or disprove this. It is perhaps fitting though, that like so many of his wartime comrades his precise fate will never be known.
Dec'13 (*****)

Norman Davies: Vanished Kingdoms

At first glance on a bookshop shelf (especially in an airport lounge!) this is a pretty intimidating tome - over 800 pages all in. However it is far from that once you start to read it. 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 fifteen 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? But other non-kingdoms are included...).

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 (74 in total plus a further 14 lists of figures/family trees) - 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. On a practical note, I was reading the hardback edition which holds all of this well together. I am less sure how paperback binding would survive the to and fro of map/image/footnote referencing that a reader might subject the book to.

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 (*****)

Other reviews of Vanished Kingdoms:

The Guardian
The Literary Review 
Times Higher Education

Wall Street Journal: An Interview with Davies 


Jonathan Steinberg: Bismarck, A Life 

When I first opened Steinberg's biography and started to read my heart fell. It did not appear to be a conventional biography, but one hung around extracts from Bismarck's contemporaries. Like the worst of today's history books for students it appeared to be "history by gobbet", preselected for the reader. Yet first impression can be deceptive and Steinberg's approach of supporting (and often forming) the narrative and analysis by generous selections from the writings of those around the German Chancellor proves very effective and illuminating whilst not denying the general thrust of Steinberg's arguments.

Bismarck was undoubtedly a political genius, perhaps the most accomplished of all 19th century politicians. In less than 10 years he 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 Bismarcks 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. Sept '12 (*****)

(See also The full text of Steinberg's interview with History Today editor Paul Lay.)  

Further reviews:

The Guardian by David Blackbourn
The Literary Review by Tim Blanning
Reviews in History by Dr Matthew Jefferies (detailed & especially useful)


David Olusoga, Casper Erichsen: The Kaiser's Holocaust: Germany's Forgotten Genocide and the Colonial Roots of Nazism.

Olusoga and Erichsen's book is really in two parts. The first 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. In chapters that are crucial reading to all who seek to understand the motives behind 19th century colonialism and imperialism the authors show 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... by shedding rivers of blood and money" (General von Trotha) in which the missionary churches were actively complicit.

This alone is a story that needs telling widely, but 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. More significantly, 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. Terms appear that are to be more infamously used later: Rassenschande (Racial shame), Rassenreinheit (Racial purity). Interracial marriage is made illegal. This was all to make the colony racially safe for emigration for a Volk that needed Lebensraum (living space) to expand into and escape population pressure at home. In the final chapters Olusoga and Erichsen skillfully show how these ideas survive the collapse of 1918 and become a core element of the politics of the right. Hitler uses his Landsberg imprisonment to read much of the work on race that emerged out of the Wilhelmine colonial experience. 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. One chilling story is that of the 400 "Rhineland Bastards", children fathered by French colonial troops occupying the Rhineland after 1918. By 1937 all are sterilised.

There is a final twist in the argument. Hitler's war, it is 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.

A couple of final points: In the US this is only available as a Kindle download (sign of things to come?), my copy had a few minor issues with proof reading: several wrongly spelt German terms, but most crucially the map was missing...... Jan '11 (*****)

Robert Service: Trotsky: A Biography

The first thing that needs saying is that despite its 500 pages plus footnotes this is not a heavy write, full of the dialectics of marxism/leninism/trotskyism/stalinism and all the shades in between that the period produced. This will probably disappoint the theoreticans and activists of the left hoping for new insights into Trotsky. Rather it is an attempt to provide a readable account of who was undoubtedly one of the leading figures of the Russian Revolution, if not the key individual in its immediate survival. Service has produced a narrative, as it says on the tin, "a biography". No more, no less. So we get his family, early background, exile (Siberia), more exile (Britain), return in 1905, more exile (Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, USA), return in 1917 - revolution - civil war - struggle inside the post Lenin party, banishment, exile (Turkey, Norway and finally Mexico); his assassination comes abruptly and without much fanfare.

In between all this Service weaves in his relations with the other revolutionaries and builds up the character of this itinerant revolutionary amongst the key stages in his passage through life. His relations with his entrepreneurial peasant father, the emergence of his obvious gifts as orator and writer (Service compares him in this respect with Winston Churchill), his role in the party schisms before 1917 and his apparent inability to win close, trusting friends within the party as a consequence of his arrogance and perceptions of self righteousness.

He gets closest perhaps to Lenin after mid 1917. But then of course Lenin dies and the bottom falls out of Trotsky's political world. Service shows clearly the misjudgements of Trotsky in this period - again down to arrogance. Stalin is despised and fatally underated as uncouth, brutal (this from the man who showed so little compassion to opponents in the civil war - even if they were card carrying communists), a non intellectual. as a result Trotsky is forced into exile again.

In reality Trotsky is remembered for his role in a mere 7 year period, 1917-24, of Russian history. The key events of this period are told clearly - but with Trotsky as the focus: in Oct/Nov, at Brest litovsk waiting for a German revolution, criss crossing the old tsarist Empire on his battle train to win the civil war, another example of politician turned highly professional (and brutal) military commander. This tends to reduce his influence on other internal policies, giving space to Stalin and also allowing the other Bolshevik leaders to fear him as a new Bonaparte: heir to a revolution and the head of an army.

Implicit throughout the second part of the biography is a comparison with Stalin, and the question: what if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin rather than Stalin? Unfortunately, despite all Trotsky wrote so eloquently about from outside the Soviet Union there would have been little difference. Trotsky had already shown he could ignore legal niceties and be ruthless when dealing with perceived opponents. His campaigns showed he had little inclination to spare the wealthier, kulak peasants. Nor despite later protestations in exile was he a believer in proletarian democracy. In reality Stalin's 5 Year Plans drew heavily from Trotsky's post NEP ideas. As for foreign involvement Trotsky was little concerned with foreign nations where Russian (revolutionary) interests were threatened shown by his keenness to go to war with Poland. The final chapter is a little more explicit in drawing out this depressing conclusion.

Perhaps the pace of change would have been slower, but little else would have been different.

The book is easily structured for students. Clear chapters on specific periods issues lend itself easily for dipping in and out of to get info. One especially valuable chapter is on his Jewishness. It does not figure prominently according to Service but for one key aspect: he argues that Trotsky believed despite not being a practicing Jew, he would still be seen as such by a Russia that was still highly antisemitic. He could never lead Russia as he would not be respected because of his Jewish background. This prevented him placing himself in a key leadership role until it was too late.

Trotsky deserves a new biography. The worthy Isaac Deutscher bio of fifty years ago that launched the thousands of 60's and 70's radicals is in need of supplementing by a post Soviet Union approach. For the radicals this biography will unhappily remove a great deal of the gloss, but for students of today it will get rid of much of the dross (especially on the internet) that has followed in the wake of the man who more than anyone else made the Russian Revolution happen. Lenin lead the revolution, Stalin made the revolutionary state a confident superpower that controlled half of Europe. But it was Trotsky who masterminded the events of October/November and enabled it to survive its birth, but in true Soviet fashion, at considerable human cost. July '10 (*****)
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Tim Butcher: Blood River – A Journey Into Africa’s Broken Heart

Tim Butcher was Africa correspondent for the UK's Daily Telegraph when he decided to follow Stanley's route of 1874-77 down the Congo from central Africa to the Atlantic. Butcher's story is both riveting and depressing. Riveting as he writes well of his travels and is able to punctuate his story with relevant historical outlines of a regions past and with well chosen and revealing interviews (he is a journalist after all) with local individuals.

However it is also a depressing tale of a country which, in Butcher's words is not underdeveloped, but is un-developing. It is clear that it's post Stanley colonial period under the Belgians was far from pleasant but even the limited gains of this period have vanished in the post-colonial chaos largely instigated not just by ex colonial powers and African neighbours keen to control the Congo's vast resources, but also by a failure of indigenous leadership which has appeared happier to exploit rather than govern the peoples of the Congo. To me it seemed, to use the parallels of the continent just across the ocean, that the Congo has resources & potential like Brazil, but the self-destructive politics of late 19th century Paraguay.

On a personal level Butcher's trip appears a unique event. The Congo no longer has cross country links – by road or river. Cities, towns and settlements survive on their own in isolation, retreating into the bush when trouble comes, as it often has. The United Nations has a tenuous presence, often providing the only sense of order, but even then this appears to be restricted to isolated key towns.

Butcher was really only able to travel because of outside agencies such as the UN from whom he hitched lifts on UN ships and aircraft. Although there is a telling remark by one UN official who describes him not as journalist, historian or tourist but as an "adventurer". The real heroes are the (very few) local aid agencies, such as Care International and International Rescue Committee, working in great danger and difficulty and who offer both lodging and transportation to Butcher across the Bush. At times I felt the "adventurer" in the author was unnecessarily endangering the lives (and work) of these people as he strove to accomplish his journey. It is noticeable that little real help was offered by those few Congolese companies and agencies in a position to assist.

It is clear that Stanley would still recognise the vast region if he were to return today – that is what ultimately is most depressing to the author, as well as the reader.
Jan '10 (*****)

Richard Holmes: The Age Of Wonder: How The Romantic Generation Discovered The Beauty And Terror Of Science

My Christmas period reading has shown that Holmes' book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, well deserves the critical plaudits printed all over its cover. This is a well integrated story of the emergence of the modern "scientist" in the late 18th and early 19th century. Focusing on biographies of botanist Joseph Banks, the Herschel astronomy family and safety lamp man, Humphrey Davy this narrative shows how (largely through the networking of Banks) a culture of science for society rather than individual study emerges. The cast list interwoven by Holmes is broad as well as enormous: the Montgolfiers (a very entertaining chapter on ballooning) and explorer Mungo Park (who I remember mainly from a stained glass window in my primary school, close to where he grew up) but more significantly the close relationship between the people of science and the new Romantic literary movement. So we have the Shelleys, Southey, Coleridge and Byron attending lectures, sampling exotic gases as well as exchanging verses and prose with the scientists. A culture of Romantic celebs! In terms of A level language - a genuinely synoptic work from a master of biographical writing.

There are surprises: the emergence of Caroline Herschel as a great scientist of note in her own right as well as the driving force behind her two brothers. Davy is shown in a much less sympathetic light (and is perhaps over emphasized here at the expense of more focus on continental connections to the movement as a whole).

The book is well presented too. Apart from the usual footnotes I liked the device of printing key supplements to the main text at the foot of the relevant page. There is also a cast list that acts as a good reference to the galaxy of names mentioned (and which you might remember only vaguely from school science lessons).

Like the best of writing at the end you want to read on - about the new wave of scientists that come through - Faraday, Babbage and the significance of Mary Somerville. Perhaps there is scope for a follow up to the 470 pages of tight print presented here.....
Dec' 09 (*****)

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Margaret Macmillan: Peacemakers

Margaret Macmillans "Peacemakers" is the book I wished had been written when I was a student (or as I covered the Peace Treaties year after year with my examination students beginning their exam courses). It is valuable on two levels. Firstly there is the obvious: a study of the drafting and setting up of the Peace treaties that ended the First World War. Macmillan writes in a clear readable manner, portraying the key participants, Wilson, Clemenceau & Lloyd George as very human characters, grappling with enormous issues but also showing up their flaws. Wilson for example, spending too much time on the creation of the League and failing to focus on the inconsistencies of Versailles re his 14 Points (especially concerning the German minorities left in Poland & Czechoslovakia). Equally his failure to see the need for US all party support dooms the settlement to US rejection.

The book also shows clearly the emergence of the Anglo-Saxon alliance that is to develop as the 20th century progressed. Most of all it presents the three as facing a novel situation: no real precedents; the sudden German collapse presented no time to prepare for the peace; the pressure of public opinion limited the freedom of action and forced some decisions the three knew would cause future problems. Additionally they were hemmed in by a desire to prevent the further growth of a feared new ideology adopted by their earlier ally – Bolshevism. It is clear the ending of World War 2 was to be very different, much as a consequence of these 1919 issues: no big postwar conference, no deputations from smaller nations. Rather 1945 produced a peace that the Great Powers could realistically enforce on their own, and in their own interests.

But perhaps the real value of the book is on another level. It is an excellent primer for the 20th century. Coverage is gloabal as Macmillan goes into detail about the creation and future problems not just of eastern & central Europe but also the Far and Middle East. For Example Japan's concerns over the inclusion of a League principle to guarantee racial equality reveal the depth of unease the west (and especially the white Dominions) had in dealing with a newly industrialised & strong Japan. There is also a clear explanation of the role the Great War played in the rise of an expansionist Japan in China which is not always dealt with in western textbooks.

My only reservation is that perhaps like the Peacemakers Macmillan may have ignored the Germans. The full footnotes, bibliography and listing of unpublished sources lack any in German indicating a reliance only on what has appeared in English. Nonetheless, this is a key resource for those beginning courses on 20th century history, making clear the origin of what become the dominant problems and concerns that mark out the century's progression, or in many cases, regression.
Aug '09 (*****)


Tim Tzouliadis: The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia

The "Forsaken" are a small group of US citizens who move and settle in the USSR to escape the Depression and work in a society they believed promised more than the capitalist USA in the 1930's.

Within a couple of years all goes wrong as they get caught up (as dangerous "spies") in the 1930s Terror. One by one they disappear and this is where their tragedy begins. Innocents caught in Stalin's and then the NKVD's paranoia they are siezed off the street, tortured, forced to confess then shot or sent to the Siberian Gulags to be worked to death and vanish without trace. Just like the anything up to 20 million other Soviets that Tzouliadis includes in the narrative.

What is especially appalling about these US victims is that they are disowned totally by the US. The Embassy ignores appeals for help (In fact it fails to even protect its own employees from disappearance. One of its key figures in the 1930's is Kennan of the containment telegram fame. He also sees little point in pushing to help these US citizens, who are perceived by many in officialdom as pinks and reds linked to US unionism.  The lame response of FDR himself to the tragedy of the US citizens and the failure to perceive the true nature of the Stalin regime helps understanding of Churchills frustration with FDR-Stalin relations at the wartime meetings. It also provides a wider survey of the process of arrest, horrendous Gulag conditions, execution and disappearance during not one but three waves of Terror including US troops seized during and after World War II and how the process came to an end of sorts. 

"The Forsaken" is a valuable addition to the work on Stalin's Russia. Perhaps it will also start to show a wider audience that Stalin was no better than Hitler, in all probability much worse, in creating a society that dehumanised its members and eliminated millions. May ‘09 (*****)

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Claire Tomalin: Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self

A sympathetic survey of the able administrator that naval historians of the 17th century so admire. Yet it is the personal diarist/observer that takes centre stage. The diaries cover barely 10 years of Pepys life but include Sex, drink, brutal (but successful) surgery, plague, fire, music, marital conflict, the fall of kings, corruption and courage in public life, wars, navies, public executions, and incarceration in the Tower of London. These are all treated clearly and methodically in themed chapters, organised in a way which would have pleased the methodical man himself. Tomalin argues that the diaries are much more than an account of events but are a genuine piece of literary value displaying more than ever before the personal tensions, desires and most of all relationships and concerns of the upwardly mobile. In this sense Pepys is presented as a flawed but essentially caring man guilt ridden after doing something he feels remorse for. He is shown as quite modern. Like Marlborough, Pepys is another example of how individuals accommodate to the intriguing question of Regime change. Tomalin shows clearly how a generation that grew up or begun carrers under Cromwell had to accommodate themselves with the restoration of the monarchy. Pepys never seems to lose the republicanism of his boyhood – yet has to come to terms with rising to high office due to royal favour. However he has the honesty to stand by his Royal patrons (unlike Marlborough and James II) even if heir lifestyle is not to his taste and he has to ultimately resign. It is perhaps a mark of how close you get to Pepys that there is a genuine sense of loss when he passes away at the end. This is a real read – impressively researched, and reading like a page turner. Jan '09 (*****) 

Ronald Wright: A short history of progress
This is a concise primer for all who want to see just how fragile human life & society really is. Wright shows clearly just how brief our “civilised” existence has been and also how easily it could end. He does this by looking at key previous civilisations: Sumer, Rome, China, Mayan America and Easter Island. Clear, sobering lessons are drawn out for us to be learned if we are not to over-farm, pollute or destroy the present.

He concludes with an Argentine saying: “Each night God cleans up the mess the Argentines make by day” but makes it clear that we are now at the point where God alone cannot clean up our mess. We can help ourselves, but only if we act now. Excellent detailed footnotes develop the brevity of the presented arguments – and provide suggestions to a variety of further background reading. This should be a compulsory matriculation present for all school leavers……
Oct ´06 (*****)

Giles MacDonogh: After the Reich - from the fall of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift

Any modern writer of post war Germany who mentions the names of Hajo Holborn and Michael Balfour in the first few pages clearly has done their reading. This book fills in the gap left in many English language histories of postwar central Europe: from the actual end of war and its immediate impact to the outbreak of the Cold War. Covering not just the zones of Germany, but also Austria and the events of German speaking Europe elsewhere - the German Reich at its largest.The initial 100 pages or so are a harrowing account of the treatment of the German speakers as they were invaded, occupied, looted, raped and for the millions in the east, moved westwards. The brutality by all concerned is meticulously documented - too much so in places - I wanted to skip on as it was so disturbing and relentless. The Red Army is well documented by others, less so the proportionately greater savagery of the Czechs on the Sudetenlanders (especially grim as MacDonogh makes clear the pre 1938 Sudetenlanders were ex Austrians, not Germans who had been unlawfully deprived of the chance at self determination after Versailles by a nationalist Czech regime.).

Another eyeopener is the evidence that all the allies used prisoners of war in ways similar to Speer in his use of slave labour (and often in the face of resultant deaths). The US was especially cynical in this matter announcing they had released all POW's in mid 1946 when in fact they released them to be handed over to other allies: Belgium and France, for manual work. The USSR was still returning POW's in the mid 1950's.

The early stance of the US was surprisingly tough. Outside the Soviet Zone, the US had and maintained the hardest stance to its prisoners and civilian population for the first 18 months. Torture seems to have been common initially amongst all the occupiers as they sought to do the necessary and root out Nazi's. However MacDonogh's examples indicate a direct line of war's dehumanisation that makes treatment of Iraqi prisoners seem minor.One issue with
After the Reich is caused by its heavy reliance on documentary sources, especially memoirs. This had meant a skew towards recounting the experiences of the better off, in particular the womenfolk of the German/Prussian nobility. At times this leads perhaps to a too unconsidered appreciation of the sometime self-serving motivation of the 1944 plotters, many of whom were close to the writers of the memoirs used.

The final sections takes a reader swiftly but clearly through the fog of the origins of the Cold War, only after 500 pages of the aftermath analysis what follows has a clarity lacking in the work of many other revisionist writers. Ultimately the emergence of the postwar west Germany is shown to be linked closely to the creation of the European community, with Adenauer consciously supporting a pro western & French future, even if it, as suggested, meant sacrificing the old historic Prussian, socialist and protestant eastern, (and at the time more slavic influenced) provinces of the old Reich.

Since the
Wende, this has been a topic occupying the history shelves of most German bookshops. MacDonogh has done English readers a service with this account. The underlying sentiment is that this book records the consequences of the far greater evil perpetrated on others by the Germans - a feeling that many of those recorded reflect, despite their misery. It is not surprising that with the opening of the east Germans have wished to document the period, nor is it surprising that Anglo-saxon writers have shunned it for so long. May '06 (*****).
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  Adam Hochschild: King Leopold's Ghost

Read this to find out the true horror of imperialism. The focus is on the Belgian Congo, but it indicates clearly the role played by the other Europeans in supporting the process. Very well written, it reads (too?) easily and also does a great service in highlighting the role played by the few who tried to publicise the atrocities: Britons Edmund Morel, & Roger Casement and the African American George Washington Williams & William Sheppard. Nov '05 (*****)

  N A M Rodger: Command of the Ocean. A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815

This is the second volume in the naval history and is very valuable, not just for its account of how the Royal Navy grew into the premier seafaring force of its time but also for placing this in a general political & economic context. Different sections on politics and society as well as naval technology and management styles show very clearly the emergence of Britain as the key imperial power. It reads easily and appears thoroughly researched. Hardly surprising it became a (surprising) bestseller in the UK. I look forward to Volume 3. Jan '06 (*****)

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