Friday, December 13, 2013

Five Books worth Reading: History of the 20th Century

History can be an intimidating thing into which to dive. Historians tend to be specialists, and it can often make it difficult for them to communicate even among themselves, much less to a more general audience. Still, reading history is a worthwhile thing to do, both because it is useful to have some idea about the past, and because, when written well, it can be very engaging.

But where to start? Even the most obvious points of entry, the beginnings and ends of major wars, the turns of the centuries, or the lives of individuals are all, in some sense, artificial breaks in larger streams with no discernible beginnings and endings.

1. Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945
Judt’s book is as perfect a treatment of the topic as one could hope for. It is meant for the non-specialist, providing a level of detail sufficient to inform without swamping the reader. Judt was a compelling writer, and his prose is open and engaging. He was an exemplar of that breed of historian who thought good writing was part of the historian’s job. Most importantly, he is ethically engaged without being pushy or deforming his subject matter. All history comes from one perspective or another. Good history makes the best use possible of the available evidence. In this respect, Judt was very much at the head of the class.

There a lot of books about the Holocaust, many of them very good, all of them rather grim. Levi, a chemist from Turin, was deported to Auschwitz in February of 1944 and survived until the liberation of the camp by the Red Army in January 1945. Many Holocaust memoirs simply convey the horror of the experience; Levi’s book, by contrast, is perhaps the most searching examination of the human implications of the Holocaust. What does Auschwitz mean for our conception of ourselves as human beings? What are its ethical implications? How can we (those who experienced it and those who did not) live afterwards?  Levi’s book is surprisingly free of anger. Rather, he turns his skills as a scientist to the question of what the whole event has to tell us.

There’s an exchange in the British comedy series Black Adder that I think sums up the beginning of World War I quite nicely:

Captain Blackadder: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war, two great super-armies developed. Us, the Russians and the French on one side, Germany and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea being that each army would act as the other's deterrent. That way, there could never be a war.
Private Baldrick: Except, this is sort of a war, isn't it?
Captain Blackadder: That's right. There was one tiny flaw in the plan.
Lieutenant George: Oh, what was that?
Captain Blackadder: It was bollocks.
The beginning of the First World War is notoriously complicated, so much so that even the people involved were kind of shocked when it happened. Tuchman’s book makes it much easier to understand (which one can do with the benefit of hindsight). Her narrative is full of interesting characters, big ideas, and catastrophic miscalculations. You’ll think you were reading the best thriller ever written, except that this one actually happened, sadly for all concerned.

In the early 1960s, Berlin was the center of the Cold War universe. Soldiers, diplomats, spies, bureaucrats, and assorted whack artists roamed corridors of power and the bars and back allies, making deals and looking for advantages. The story is very entertaining, but also alarming considering the stakes that were in play. Kempe, who wrote for Bloomberg News and Reuters and has been a fellow at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, fills his book with interesting insights into the players backgrounds and states of mind, letting the reader into the processes of decision making (such as they were).

Vietnam is a hard subject to write about. Probably no event in the 20th century so divided Americans. Even today the scars are far from healed. Karnow’s book is the sort of thing that every American should read. He doesn’t really have an ax to grind, in the sense of being a partisan of one school of interpretation or another. What it does is give the reader a history in the long view, the relationship between China and Indochina, the story of French colonization, and the history of our involvement in the country after the end of World War II. Karnow doesn’t really fit into (and has been roundly criticized by) the major politically informed schools of Vietnam interpretation, which is a pretty good advertisement for his book. He does about as good a job as it is possible to do of letting the available information drive his conclusions and, as a historian, that’s about the best one can do.

Tony Judt once wrote that the mark of good history is that it’s written well. All of the above-mentioned books have this quality. It’s easy to get turned off of history when it’s just a litany of facts and dates. Reading that sort of history transports one back to one’s school days, and you find yourself wondering if you should be taking notes for the inevitable exam. These authors all share the ability make events jump off the page. 

~John F.

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