Everything is Oll Korrect!

An eclectic bibliophile's journal…

Tag: history

The Histories

Next to Aristotle’s TopicsThe Histories may be the most vaguely titled book ever written. I suppose you can get away with that when you’re the Father of History, as Herodotus is called, and as the author of the first narrative history it’s not like there was much room for confusion at the time. Besides, while Herodotus makes the Greco-Persian Wars his ostensible subject, he’s so far-ranging that the broad title describes the work well enough.

Herodotus could also have accurately titled it “Things that Interest Me.” Though some historians will address tangential topics in the course of their books, Herodotus revels in sharing only tangentially related anecdotes, ethnography, geography, information about landmarks, and so on. For example, while discussing Croesus’s rule in Ionia, he makes sure to add that he had donated a number of things to the Delphic Oracle, and adds that much of this is still there (at least as of when he was there last), and worth seeing; it’s as though he saw himself as a combination of John Keegan and Rick Steves. Some readers may find these digressions annoying, but personally, I find them charming, and some of my favourite stories from The Histories are things that a modern historian would likely have left out. Besides, in Herodotus’s defence, much of this information does provide background information that helps the reader understand the motivations and situation of the many nations and individuals involved, directly or indirectly, in the Greco-Persian Wars.…

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Klemens von Metternich’s Memoirs

This is another book that I wasn’t aware of until I stumbled on it in a used bookstore. I was surprised that memoirs by Klemens von Metternich wouldn’t be more talked-about since he’s such a respected figure among the Right, and I went into the book with high expectations, thinking it would be something like a more focused version of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy.

Now, the book is titled The Autobiography: 1773-1815, but it’s not really an autobiography, since Metternich says very little about his personal life, especially once he begins his diplomatic career. It’s not a history, either, as he says explicitly a few times. I called it a memoir above because it’s mostly a collection of anecdotes, conversations, and commentary on events Metternich was involved in. It’s a bit odd stylistically, but perhaps that’s to be expected; Metternich didn’t publish this himself, and doesn’t seem to have intended for all of it to be published. Rather, it’s a collection of three works edited together by his son, Prince Richard Metternich. Two of them blend together seamlessly, but the third, On the History of the Alliances, does stick out noticeably, and is a more traditional historical narrative of the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1813-15, though still focusing on the events Metternich personally took part in and avoiding well-known explanations of the battles and broader history.

So, those looking for a self-revealing memoir will be disappointed, since Metternich isn’t self-revealing at all, as will those looking for in-depth diplomatic history or theory. However, the book is still worth reading because one does get a fascinating sketch of some of the most influential people of the era by a man who seemed to know everyone of importance. For example, early in his career Metternich met and got along very well with Emperor Alexander of Russia, who requested that he be sent to St. Petersburg as Austria’s ambassador. When Metternich was sent to France instead, the Emperor took some offense. Metternich says, “The Emperor Alexander did not allow of any graduations in the behaviour of another, because he knew none in his own political conduct, as he was always going backwards and forwards from one extreme to another, in the most opposite directions; he therefore suspected me of being altogether on the side of France and of nourishing great prejudices against Russia.”…

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The First World War in Colour

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Dan Carlin, in an episode of his Hardcore History podcast, called history from Herodotus onward the “colour era” of history, compared to the “black and white” era before Herodotus. The difference comes down to one of style – ancient histories were often little more than chronologies, with some propagandizing, but had relatively little characterisation or storytelling. From Herodotus onward, though, historians began treating their subjects in a more narrative style, which makes their subjects feel more “alive” to the audience.

Some historians are very good at this. Last year, for example, I gave Dan Jones’s The Plantagenets credit for his novelistic writing style, even if it was a bit overdone at times. In my reading, most popular historians do at least make an attempt to avoid getting bogged down in plain facts, figures, and abstractions, to give readers an idea of what the events they describe were like for the people who actually experienced them.

Nonetheless, history often is difficult to imagine for those of us who had no part in the events, especially for the distant past. I think I’m safe in speculating that there’s more interest in relatively recent events like the Second World War than earlier eras because, besides being more obviously relevant, there’s a lot more supplementary material. I can see many photographs and even film of the Second World War, and even listen to speeches by, say, Franklin Roosevelt or Sir Winston Churchill. This is even more true for still more recent history.

So, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the First World War, and at this point descriptions of trench warfare have a visceral feel to me; I can imagine myself in the position of the soldiers on the Western Front. I get the same gut reaction, though, to Vietnam’s jungle warfare, even though I’ve spent far less time studying that conflict, because I’ve seen it in colour photographs; this still doesn’t get across the experience, obviously, but it’s much more of a “hook,” so to speak, into the subject. Yes, many photographs exist of the Great War, but colour photography has at least as much more punch to it than black-and-white photos as black-and-white photos have more than painting.

That’s changed somewhat, though, because I just recently learned that colour photographs of the First World War do exist, about 4,500 of them. That’s not a lot, relatively speaking, but I only know about them at all because I stumbled on a collection of them in a used bookstore, The First World War in Colour, by Peter Walther.

Here’s one example, taken during the Battle of the Marne:

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When I first saw this, the first thing I noticed was actually the uniforms – every history of the war mentions how the French soldiers’ red pants made them easy for the Germans to spot, and now that I see them, well – no kidding.

Of course, this also just looks like a regular scene of men out camping. These men aren’t just figures in a table of troop numbers, they look like anyone I could meet today. The colour quality isn’t great, but it’s not a great deal worse than some of the commercial cameras used for a lot of my family’s photographs from well within living memory.

Speaking of uniforms that make the soldier easy to spot for the enemy:

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That’s a Zouave unit; needless to say, like the main French force, they changed their uniform design fairly quickly.

Now, because of the unwieldy equipment needed and the time-consuming process of just taking these photos, there was no way to capture an ongoing battle. So, there are many images of ruins and landscapes, and all the photos of people were staged. Subjects may have been limited, but I do like the almost pedestrian quality of some of these. For example, this image of some German POWs with hand-made instruments:

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One limitation I do find disappointing, though, is that the majority of these images are French. There are some photos of British forces and a few of the Germans, but almost nothing from the Eastern Front or elsewhere. This seems to have been because most of the colour photographers  were French, but it would’ve been nice to have seen more of the many other armies involved in the war. I also could have gone without the photos of amputated limbs.

In any case, I’m very glad to have the book, and if you have any interest in the First World War or the history of war photography, it’s definitely worth checking out.…

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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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