Category: history

Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited (75 Books – XLVIII)

When reviewing Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets, I mentioned that although it’s a good book and well worth reading, Jones did not go into a lot of detail, but focused on the big picture and a handful of people and dramatic events. Those who enjoy getting into the nitty-gritty of archaeology, academic studies, and the like, though, will appreciate this book on medieval history, Emmet Scott’s Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited.

Scott examines the question of what, exactly, terminated Classical, Roman civilisation. Though the fall of the Western Roman Empire is typically dated at 474, it’s not clear when Classical civilisation gave way to what we would recognise as Medieval Europe. The standard view has been that it was a slow decline into the Dark Ages brought about by the Barbarian invasions in the centuries leading up to 474 or so, but Scott defends and updates a theory put forward by Henri Pirenne in his 1937 book Mohammed & Charlemagne, that Classical Civilisation continued until it was quickly destroyed by the Moslem conquests in the early-mid Seventh Century.

Scott spends much of the book examining archaeological evidence that indicates that recognisably Roman architecture and lifestyles continued throughout most of what had been Roman lands up to the Moslem invasions of the Near East, North Africa, and Spain. Rather than destroying Latin culture, the Germanic barbarian invaders had apparently been largely absorbed into it. This is why, for example, Spanish, French, and other Romance languages have little trace of Germanic syntax, whereas English, from one of the few places where Classical civilisation was undone by invading barbarians, is a Germanic language.

Now, the Arabs are often credited with preserving much of Greek philosophy and learning, but Scott demonstrates that men in the so-called “Dark Ages” actually were familiar with the Classics. They were only lost in Europe after the Arab conquest of Egypt, which was the major source of papyrus that Western scribes used, and Arab piracy and slave-raiding made much of the Mediterranean effectively uninhabitable and inhospitable to trade. Scott writes, “even the short periods of official peace [from Arab wars of conquest] were disturbed by the ‘unofficial’ activities of privateers and slave-traders. For centuries, Muslim pirates based in North Africa made large parts of the Mediterranean shore-line uninhabitable, and it is estimated that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries alone they captured and enslaved something in excess of a million Europeans.”

As for the fate of the Classics in Moslem lands, Scott is not impressed by their supposed respect for learning. He points out that many of the scholars active in Moslem countries were not themselves Moslem, but Christians and Jews living under Moslem rule. Furthermore, while they did preserve and foster a good deal of science, they were only interested in fields with practical applications, like medicine or physics. Scott is very harsh in his judgement, writing, “the very fact that knowledge has to plead its usefulness in order to be permitted to survive at all speaks volumes in itself. Is not this an infallible mark of barbarism? And we should note that even the utilitarian learning which the earliest Caliphs fostered was soon to be snuffed out under the weight of an Islamic theocracy (promulgated by Al-Ghazali in the eleventh century) which regarded the very concept of scientific laws as an affront to Allah and an infringement of his freedom to act.”

Scott does a fine job presenting all of his evidence in an approachable manner, without ever dumbing-down or oversimplifying things for a popular audience. If you’ve any interest at all in this period of history, I’d highly recommend checking it out.…

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The Plantagenets (75 Books – XLIV)

Doing some reading and writing on Dante has piqued my interest in Medieval history in general, so while looking for a new e-book I picked up (er, downloaded) Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets, which I remember hearing good things about. Even those who don’t know much about the history of the Middle Ages will recognise many of the kings and queens Jones discusses – Richard the Lionheart, John, Edward Longshanks, and Eleanor of Aquitaine are some of the most famous people in European history.

Jones’s writing style is more novelistic than, say, Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom or most other histories that I’ve read this year. That is, he focuses on the personalities of the kings and other figures he discusses, especially on the most dramatic events of their reigns, and never goes into much detail on battles, economic matters, and the like. It’s still a fine introduction, I think, and I never felt like he was dumbing down or oversimplifying the topic, but he’s clearly writing for a general audience and not for historians or even, necessarily, fans of history. So, people looking for a good story will be satisfied, people looking for an in-depth analysis of Plantagenet rule may not be.

He also occasionally engages in a “must have” type of narrative. For example, speaking of Henry II’s relationship with Thomas Becket, he writes, “[Henry] was known to ride into the chancellor’s dinner hall, jump from his horse, and sit down to eat. The experience must have grated on Becket as much as it amused the king.” It probably did grate on Becket, but this phrasing tells me that Jones probably doesn’t have a source of him saying so, so it’s speculation phrased as though it’s a fact. This isn’t a major problem, but is a nuisance for those who like their histories to stick as closely to established facts as possible.

The dramatic presentation and relative lack of details aside, though, there is enough material to detect some general trends in English history during this time. Famously, the Magna Charta was signed during King John’s rule, and the origins of parliamentary rule were laid over the next several reigns. However, the nobility only began to really assert itself through parliament in reaction to the worst kings of the dynasty. So, would parliamentary rule have developed in England at all if, say, Richard had lived longer and had an heir, meaning that John never became king? What if John, Henry III, and Edward II had just been wiser and more willing to compromise?

In any case, The Plantagenets serves as a good, readable introduction to a period of history that most people don’t know enough about. If you’ve any interest in the topic and don’t mind a novelistic presentation, check it out.…

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The Monarchia Controversy (75 Books – XL)

After finishing Dante’s Monarchia, I decided to look for some of the various commentaries and related works that editor Prue Shaw referred to in my Cambridge University Press edition. Several of these aren’t easily available, at least not in English, but I did find The Monarchia Controversy, edited by Anthony Cassell and published by the Catholic University of America Press. This includes Monarchia, Guido Vernani’s Refutation of the “Monarchia” Composed by Dante, and Pope John XXII’s bull Si fratrum, as well as Cassell’s own introduction and annotations.

Starting from the end of the book, Si fratrum is the document that sparked the controversy around the relationship between the papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor and whether one was subordinate to the other, though this controversy had been brewing for many years. It’s nice to have, then, for historical interest, but at only four pages it doesn’t develop any arguments, but simply proclaims that the pope is the legitimate ruler of the Empire when the office of emperor is vacant, and that it is his prerogative to approve of the election of the next emperor.

Guido Vernani’s Refutation is also relatively short, under thirty pages, and of mixed quality. Some of his arguments are disingenuous, as Cassell points out fairly often in his introduction and annotations. Also, while Dante kept a neutral tone throughout most of his work and portrayed himself as almost a third-party to the disputes, Vernani is sometimes outright abusive. Before introducing one of his last arguments, for example, he writes, “Here the wretch [Dante] reached the heights of his delirium: as he raised his mouth to heaven, his tongue lolled along the ground.” There’s nothing wrong with a polemical tone, and Dante isn’t subtle in calling some of his opponents sons of Satan, but in works dealing mostly in formal logic, theology, and history, this sort of attack stands out as mean-spirited and unworthy of formal debate.

That said, Vernani does raise some valid points. For example, he argues, quite reasonably, that only Christ could realistically have all of the virtues that Dante attributes to his vision of the universal monarch. He also points out that Dante’s interpretation of Roman history, with its heroism, nobility, and miracles, is very different from one of Dante’s own sources, St. Augustine, as well as several other authorities, who portray these same events in a very negative light.

I only skimmed through the Monarchia itself, but it seems readable enough. Of course, I’m not competent to judge the accuracy of one translation over another.

Over half the book is composed of Cassell’s annotations and his 100-page introduction, which is about three times longer than Prue Shaw’s in the CUP edition. Whether it’s three times more valuable depends on how much depth you want; both give an outline and some historical context, but Cassell goes into much more depth, especially on the reaction to Dante’s work, which Shaw only briefly mentions, and in analysing the method and substance of both Dante’s and Vernani’s arguments. This is all interesting to students of Medieval or philosophical history, but much of it isn’t really necessary to understanding either author. The annotations, which unfortunately are endnotes rather than footnotes, are also more thorough in Cassell’s edition, though not by a wide margin.

Now, I highly recommend reading Dante’s Monarchia, but which edition to read depends largely on what you’re interested in getting. If you just want the Monarchia itself with just enough additional explanation to understand the context and have a starting point for further study, then Shaw’s is perfect. If you’re interested in Medieval intellectual history and would like something more thorough, then Cassell’s is worth the extra cost – it’s fairly expensive new (over $70), but finding used copies isn’t difficult.…

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Robert E. Lee (75 Books – XXX)

Ever since I first took an interest in history back in middle or high school, I’ve occasionally gone to the local library or bookstore and there confirm something that is, unfortunately, unsurprising: most American’s aren’t interested. A look at the shelves would turn up a few things on Greece or Rome, maybe the Cold War or China, and if you wanted to know about, say, the unification of Italy, you’re totally out of luck.

There are, however, a few exceptions. It’s easy to find Americans knowledgeable and passionate about the Kennedy assassination, and the Second World War certainly receives plenty of attention, to the extent that back when the History Channel had any history at all it was basically the “World War II Channel.” The one other major event of broad interest, especially in the South, is the War Between the States, and deservedly so, since this was such a pivotal moment in the American narrative. However, I don’t know as much about the events and people involved as I probably should, beyond what I remember from high school (which was, fortunately, better than many high school history courses) and Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln.

Of course, one problem with all history books is determining which historians are trustworthy. One can have a passionate but reasonable argument about, say, who bears responsibility for starting the First World War; suggesting that Abraham Lincoln was less than a saintly martyr or more than a despicable tyrant, well, those are fightin’ words in many quarters. I don’t really expect authors to be completely free of bias; in fact, I generally trust those who are open about their opinions more than those who claim a distant objectivity. My general approach, then, is going to be to read a small handful of well-known modern historians, provided they don’t go full retard on whatever their ideological opinions are, but to stick primarily to primary sources when I can.

So, to begin this project, I read Noah Andre Trudeau’s biography Robert E. Lee. This is a fairly short (214 pages) overview of Lee’s life, with most of the book focusing on the war years; unsurprisingly, it’s about as much military history as biography. While I don’t value strict disinterestedness as much as many readers do, I do think that Trudeau does a good job treating his subject even-handedly; he obviously respects Lee, but avoids hagiography. He also avoids editorialising on the causes of the war or who was right or wrong. Rather, he focuses on what Lee himself said and did. In this, it reminds me of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, which I read recently, and which also avoided the temptation to signal ideological approval or disapproval (with a few exceptions), but instead approached the subject like a craftsman evaluating a peer’s work.

The book is short and straightforward, more of a sketch than a portrait, so those who have already read a good deal about the war or Lee himself can probably safely skip it, but it does serve as a decent introduction to the topic. That’s fine with me, of course, since this is basically an appetiser for the main course. Next, I’ll read Shelby Foote’s popular three-volume history to get an overview of the war as a whole, then I’ll try to stick to primary sources. I do have a recommendation for Raphael Semmes’s memoir. Of course, I’ll also continue to read other things between books on this subject.…

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Notes on the Third Reich (75 Books – XXVIII)

As one can easily guess, Notes on the Third Reich is Julius Evola’s follow-up to Fascism Viewed from the Right. Both books are similar in their structure and approach, and though both are well worth reading I think only the earlier one is really essential, because it’s more thorough and touches more on the general principles that define the Right. Evola’s criticisms of National Socialism are similar to those he made of Fascism, e.g. its populism, totalitarianism, and racialism, though each of these is much greater in Nazism than its Italian cousin. In fact, one notable difference between the books is the tone; Evola was moderately supportive of Fascism, finding several things to praise, albeit with multiple reservations. Here, though, he is relentlessly critical.

A large part of this criticism is due to Hitler’s obsession with race. Evola clearly does believe that race is real and significant, and comments that “even from the point of view of the Right, a certain balanced consciousness and dignity of ‘race’ can be considered as salutary.” However, he qualifies this by saying that this is “on the condition that we do not excessively emphasise the biological aspect in this ideal, but only if we particularly stress the ‘race of the spirit.’” National Socialism, though, focused almost entirely on the biological aspect of race and never really developed a fully formed worldview, despite some attempts, especially from Himmler and the SS, to do so. On anti-Semitism specifically, while Evola recognises that Jews are well-represented among anti-traditional thinkers and activists, he says that “this activity would never have been possible, unless the terrain had been prepared for quite some time, not by Jews, but by ‘Aryans,’ and often in irreversible terms.”

Related to this is Evola’s criticism of Hitler’s populism. The racial aspect of National Socialism made anyone and everyone who happened to be German out to be an elite of some sort, deservedly or not. This brought about a sense of levelling all Germans of whatever status. While he does praise some aspects of Nazism’s concern for the common man, especially in its protections for small landowners, he also writes, “The presence of a proletarian aspect in Nazism is undeniable, as in the figure of Hitler himself, who had none of the traits of a ‘gentleman,’ of an aristocratic type di razza. This proletarian aspect and even vulgarity of National Socialism was often noticed, especially in Austria after its annexation to the Reich and after the phase of a rash ‘national’ infatuation of Austrians for ‘Greater Germany.’”

Before this turns into another post where I mostly just quote Evola, I’ll just say to go read Fascism Viewed from the Right, then read this. Both books are fairly short and are best read together.…

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Fascism Viewed from the Right (75 Books – XXVI)

The American “Right” is a strange beast. The more one looks outside the bubble of the United States of the past five minutes, the stranger it looks, because what Americans usually call the “Right” is simply the Republican Party, an incoherent coalition of neoconservatives, social conservatives, Tea Partiers, and right-libertarians. What these groups have in common besides opposition to the various groups that make up the Democratic Party’s coalition isn’t at all clear to me. Indeed, it’s not at all clear how most of these are meaningfully “right-wing” at all, except in the relativistic sense of “less liberal than the faculty of Harvard.”

Admittedly, part of this confusion comes from American history (a “Conservative” wants to preserve his country’s traditions, American traditions stem largely from the Founding generation, but the Founding Fathers were Liberal revolutionaries). However, a similar confusion over what exactly constitutes a “right-wing” position seems to exist throughout the Western world. So, how does one figure out a definition of the Right more coherent than “yesteryear’s liberal?” One good method would be reading through Julius Evola’s short book Fascism Viewed from the Right.

Now, obviously the main focus of Evola’s work is an analysis of fascism, which is absurdly, but often, used as a shorthand for the Right as a whole. Since this assumption that the Right simply is fascism is so common, I would strongly recommend reading this just so one can clear up any confusion about what exactly fascism is. Nonetheless, Evola examines Mussolini’s speeches and policies, especially from his twenty years in power, to determine what the fascists did right and wrong from a Rightist perspective (and for those curious, he does occasionally comment on National Socialism, but covers that more thoroughly in another book, Notes on the Third Reich). Evola is difficult to summarise, so I’ll try to give an idea of the work by sharing a few excerpts.…

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Diplomacy (75 Books – XXI)

Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, published in 1994, looks at diplomatic history from Richelieu up to the early 1990’s, focusing on Europe and the United States and especially on the Cold War era. Overall, the book is excellent, and very useful to anyone looking for an introduction to how diplomacy is, and generally ought to be, conducted. Kissinger takes a point of view that reminds me of a craftsman looking at his peers’ work; he avoids moralising for the most part, and instead focuses on whether a particular policy worked or not, and why. For example, while discussing Joseph Stalin, he does mention the enormous death toll of his purges, but is primarily concerned with his relations with the Western powers and analysing his personality and domestic terror only insofar as it affected his foreign policy.

Now, as great as the book is, at 836 pages it’s also a project to get through. By far the best chapters are those covering events up through the Second World War, especially the first few that cover the basic theories of how nations ought to conduct foreign policy, with Richelieu and Bismarck’s Realpolitik and how this compares to Wilsonianism, and the three dealing with the Vietnam War. Of course, Kissinger was personally involved with some of the events he describes, and some of the personal anecdotes he provides are interesting in themselves. The rest of the book isn’t bad, but by then most of the basic conceptual points have been made and illustrated, and how interesting one finds these chapters depends largely on how interested one is in the history of the Cold War.

I should also mention that those of us who prefer a generally non-interventionist style of foreign policy may be annoyed at Kissinger’s occasional implicit and explicit dismissals of that position, mainly by his obvious admiration for Franklin Roosevelt. There are also a few comments that strike me as flattering his mostly American audience by seemingly approving of American Messianism, even though in the other places he criticises this attitude and clearly favours a more realistic approach to foreign policy based primarily in national interest, as was practiced by Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. For instance, at the end of his final chapter on Vietnam where he says, “[T]he sadness of the memories of Indochina should serve to remind us that American unity is both a duty and the hope of the world.”

Those criticisms aside, though, Diplomacy is essential reading for anyone who wants to comment intelligently on foreign policy issues.…

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The Guns of August (75 Books – XIV)

I hate to say it, but for me the main takeaway from Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August is that I don’t find military history as interesting as I used to. This surprised me, since I used to read a lot of it – back in middle school and high school, I read several books on the World Wars, as well as several other military histories from around the Napoleonic Wars on. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t read Tuchman’s book earlier.

There’s nothing wrong with the book itself, of course; it’s brought up every time there’s a discussion of the First World War, and deservedly so. It’s well-written all around, and I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to know about the beginning of the war. Even those with only a small interest in the subject might find it engaging simply from a narrative perspective, and I did find several memorable passages that made the book worthwhile. For example, while I knew that the Germans’ plan for invading France, the Schlieffen Plan, was meticulously worked out in every detail years prior to the war, I did not know much about French or Russian plans. The Russians seem to have intended to mobilise as fast as they could and then march in the general direction of German and Austro-Hungarian forces, while France had only slightly more detail:

Its motivating idea, as expressed by Foch, was, “We must get to Berlin by going through Mainz” … That objective, however, was an idea only. Unlike the Schlieffen plan, Plan 17 contained no stated over-all objective and no explicit schedule of operations. It was not a plan of operation but a plan of deployment with directives for several possible lines of attack for each army, depending on circumstances, but without a given goal. … Its intention was inflexible: Attack! Otherwise its arrangements were flexible.

I especially liked Tuchman’s description of some of the participants of the war, like this anecdote about Count Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of Germany’s plans (though he did not live to see the war itself):

Of the two classes of Prussian officer, the bullnecked and the wasp-waisted, he belonged to the second. Monocled and effete in appearance, cold and distant in matter, he concentrated with such single-mindedness on his profession that when an aide, at the end of an all-night staff ride in East Prussia, pointed out to him the beauty of the river Pregel sparkling in the rising sun, the General gave a brief, hard look and replied, “An unimportant obstacle.” So too, he decided, was Belgian neutrality.

Finally, on Sir Winston Churchill:

Asquith had, however, a particularly active First Lord of the Admiralty. When he smelled battle afar off, Winston Churchill resembled the war horse in Job who turned not back from the sword but “paweth in the valley and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha.” He was the only British minister to have a perfectly clear conviction of what Britain should to and to act upon it without hesitation.…

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The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815 (75 Books – XI)

More history, this time The Habsburg Monarchy, 1618-1815, by Charles W. Ingrao, which I read as a complement to A.J.P. Taylor’s book on the monarchy in the century after this.

Ingrao is, unsurprisingly, more positive in his judgements than Taylor. Of course, this is partly because he covers the empire at its height whereas Taylor covers its decline and fall, but Ingrao does a good job treating his subjects even-handedly, but Taylor was relentlessly critical to almost comical proportions, to the point of describing Rudolph II’s suicide as “fortunate.” That said, he does show some Liberal bias in a couple places, like his assessment that the French Revolution was worse than a “mixed blessing” because it prompted a conservative reaction against the Enlightenment across much of Europe. Frankly, when an ideology’s strongest proponents preside over an era known as the “Reign of Terror,” a good dose of skepticism is quite appropriate. For the most part, though, he consistently gives credit where it’s due and avoids judging his subjects entirely by modern, Liberal standards.

At 247 pages, the book can’t get into too much detail on any one subject, but Ingrao does spread his attention evenly across the two centuries he covers. Material on domestic issues and foreign policy is split roughly 60/40.

One consistent theme I noticed across the different reigns was the interesting mix of idealism, like the embrace of the Catholic Reformation or Joseph II’s enlightened despotism, with a sense of realism in the Habsburgs’ willingness to compromise when these ideals weren’t feasible. Actually, the book itself could be used as an argument for monarchism, and late Eighteenth Century Austria looks like the very picture of a great civilisation. As with the events in Taylor’s history, some of Austria’s problems went unresolved because the monarchy wasn’t powerful enough, though this would be more clear under Franz Joseph. Not that Ingrao intended this interpretation; though he treats the emperors fairly, he clearly takes the superiority of republicanism, or at least representative government generally, for granted.

In any case, I’d highly recommend this one to anyone curious about the Habsburgs or, really, to anyone who wants to know how real, historical monarchies actually functioned.

Up next on the 75 books project is a foray into Japanese Japanese comics, then even more history, probably Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.…

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75 Books in 2015 – IV (The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918)

Alright, we’re not even half a month into this challenge, and we’re bangin’ on all cylinders. My fourth completed book of the year is The Habsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918, by A.J.P. Taylor.

Now, I’m the sort of person who can’t help but feel a fondness for the Habsburgs, but I don’t feel confident that I know enough about them, so this book was a good step in correcting that. Well, somewhat, at least – because it focuses on 1809 onwards, much of it only covers one Habsburg, Franz Joseph, who reigned from 1848-1916. Furthermore, the book is actually fairly depressing, as it covers the decline and fall of the Austrian empire. There are very few triumphs here, and there’s a lot of muddling along and compromising, trying to hold the empire together for as long as possible, yet knowing that things cannot go on forever. Indeed, if the empire hadn’t been necessary to maintain stability in this part of Europe and thus been handled with kid-gloves by its neighbours, it may well have collapsed earlier than it did. As Taylor put it, “Austria was preserved to suit the convenience of others, not by her own strength. A Great Power becomes a European necessity only when it is in decline; the truly great do not need to justify their existence.”

Taylor isn’t afraid to state his own opinion on the people and policies he covers, and the vast majority of his judgements are negative. When an Italian war seemed possible in the early Twentieth Century, for example, he writes, “A war against Italy would have given even the Habsburg Monarchy the tonic of victory; for Italy was a ridiculous imitation of a Great Power, impressive only to professional diplomats and literary visitors.” This is fine with me, though some people might find his constant negativity grating, and he does get carried away at least once, when discussing Franz Joseph’s son, Rudolph: “[H]e intended to save the Empire by a more violent dose of German liberalism, and would have paired well with Frederick III, who had similar projects for Germany. Fortunately for himself and for others, Rudolph committed suicide.”

Overall, though, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone interested in European history. I likely will supplement it with another book covering an earlier era of the Habsburg monarchy, to see how the situation covered here arose in the first place.

Next up is more graphic novel fun (most likely either Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin or A Bride’s Story), then Tanizuki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows.…

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