What would the map look like if the Axis powers had won the Second World War? The new season of The Man in the High Castle, which premiered on Amazon last week, gives us one possible answer.
Based on the 1963 alternate-history novel by Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle takes place in a world where Nazi Germany controls much of the Atlantic world and Imperial Japan has conquered the Pacific. Read more
Michael Pye’s History of the North Sea Disappoints
In The Edge of the World, Michael Pye sets out to explain “how the North Sea made us who we are.” He at least succeeds in showing how, through the centuries, the lands around the North Sea were in constant communication with each other and influenced developments in law, science and trade, perhaps more than most historians assumed.
But he does so while tearing down a familiar narrative about the rise of capitalism in the region without volunteering an alternative interpretation.
Pye’s book is organized around themes: the invention of money, the writing of law, fashion, urbanization. The book as a whole covers centuries but most chapters deal with a much shorter time and dwell longer on the stories of individuals — whom we have to assume are representative of bigger trends — than they do on tying in events to produce something resembling a theory.
It’s interesting to learn how Roman law was rediscovered in Icelandic and Irish monasteries and then spread to other parts of Northern Europe. But why is this relevant? What is the meaning of this? Read more
Deutschland 83 is Germany’s answer to the highly successful American television drama The Americans. Whereas the latter follows two well-trained KGB “illegals” in the United States, Deutschland 83 centers on a young East German border guard who is unwillingly thrust into the middle of a nuclear standoff.
The two series have a powerful theme in common: the way in which the extreme polarization of the Cold War could destroy families. Read more
Old-Fashioned Detective Work in The Day of the Jackal
When French president Charles de Gaulle agreed to Algerian self-determination in 1961, his right-wing supporters were outraged. They had supported his return to power only three years earlier so he would put down the bloody uprising in France’s most prized colonial possession. Some of the pieds-noirs, the Algerian French, and their sympathizers in the army banded together in the paramilitary Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) to stop the independence process with assassinations and bombings.
The Day of the Jackal, based on Frederick Forsyth’s novel of the same name, fictionalizes the group’s plots against De Gaulle. Read more
Iron Kingdom: Prussia’s Success Foreshadowed Its Demise
In Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, Christopher Clark succeeds marvelously in explaining how a medieval backwater managed to transform itself into the driving force behind the most powerful empire in Europe — and how its very success foreshadowed its disappearance from the map.
Prussia, in Clark’s telling, largely came about as a result of the (iron?) will of its kings, the Hohenzollerns. Originally a minor aristocratic family from the south of Germany, they came in possession of Brandenburg (now in East Germany) and Prussia (roughly corresponding to Russia’s modern-day Kaliningrad Oblast) and managed to turn these territories into the most powerful German-speaking state through a combination of flexible diplomacy, military genius and occasional luck. Read more
In university, I once attended a panel discussion about the Cold War where one of the organizers of the large antinuclear demonstrations that took place in the Netherlands in the early 1980s startled the audience by saying he believed President Ronald Reagan had been a “nuclear pacifist.”
Many of the students, who had been taught Reagan was a cowboy, a radical rightwinger and a strident anti-communist who spoke of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” just as Mikhail Gorbachev set about reforming the country, found the old peacenik’s admiration of the Republican president difficult to understand. Hadn’t Reagan stepped up the arms race, they asked? Wasn’t it his administration that deployed cruise missiles in Western Europe — the very missiles he protested against at the time? Read more