Everything is Oll Korrect!

An eclectic bibliophile's journal…

Tag: history

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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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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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 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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