Historians tend to discourage each other from writing sweeping histories. Usually that’s good advice. Few individuals know enough to write “the” history of peasantry or “the” history of the fifteenth century or “the” history of France. Better to devote a few years of your life to writing a thorough history of peasant life in fifteenth-century France than try to be the next Fernand Braudel.
We still want the best historians to at least make an attempt at grand narrative, or we couldn’t see the forest of history through the microhistory trees.
Good examples from recent years include John Darwin’s After Tamerlane (2007) and Peter Frankopan The Silk Roads (2015) for inner, and Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels (2003, 2009) for coastal, Eurasia, and Jack Goldstone’s Why Europe? (2008) for the rise of the West (far superior to Niall Ferguson’s more popular book on the topic).
Brendan Simms’ Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy is a lesser entry in the genre. Read more “Struggling Through Simms”
Keeping a thousand years of European history readable is no small feat, but Peter H. Wilson manages it.
The Holy Roman Empire touches on everything from high politics to peasant life. Wilson’s central insight: the empire’s perceived weaknesses were its strengths.
The Holy Roman Empire changed composition through the centuries. Its internal organization was in a constant state of flux. Emperors had to negotiate to come to power and compromise to stay in power. Autonomy given to one city or prince did not necessarily apply to another. For a long time, such agreements were not even written down. The empire refused to lay down one law, one language, one religion. It ended up a patchwork of overlapping competencies and jurisdictions that kept bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians busy for centuries. Read more “How to Keep an Empire for a Thousand Years”
Jared Diamond’s latest book, Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, is clearly written for a lay audience.
I took only introductory courses in Australian and Japanese history in university, but I learned almost nothing new from Diamond’s respective chapters on these countries. The chapters on postwar Germany and the 1973 coup in Chile taught me nothing I hadn’t picked in high school or from watching documentaries. The remaining chapters on Finland’s Winter War with the Soviet Union and Indonesia’s dictatorship were more informative, but only because I never investigated either.
Even by the standard of an undergraduate textbook, Upheaval falls short. Footnotes, endnotes and references are completely lacking. Anecdotes abound. If it wasn’t for a list of further reading at the back — which contains barely more than a dozen titles per country — one could be forgiven for thinking Diamond relied entirely on personal experience and the opinions of a handful of international acquaintances to arrive at his conclusions. Read more “Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis”
Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rising popularity of the National Front in France have all been explained as working-class revolts against urban, liberal elites (including by me.)
The Niskanen Center’s Brink Lindsey argues in The American Interest that this isn’t quite right. These democratic expressions of discontent should rather be understood as the convulsions of a working class that is dying. Read more “The End of the Working Class and What Comes Next”
Regular readers of the Atlantic Sentinel will be familiar with Matt Grossmann’s and David Hopkins’ theory of asymmetric politics. I’ve referenced their thesis to argue why Hillary Clinton, not Bernie Sanders, was the proper Democratic candidate in 2016 and how Republican anti-establishment sentiment wrecked American politics.
Now they have put their theory in a book, which goes into greater detail and explains how this asymmetry between the parties manifests itself in other areas, like the media and policymaking. Read more “Party Asymmetry in the Age of Trump”
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 “Michael Pye’s History of the North Sea Disappoints”
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 tear families apart.
Set at a time of heightened East-West tension, when Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech convinced the Soviets an American attack was possible and NATO’s decision to deploy middle-range Pershing II missiles in Western Europe to offset the East Bloc’s SS-20s triggered mass antinuclear protests, the world of Deutschland 83 is almost unrecognizable. Rampant smoking and elegant 1980s costumes and decor amplify the show’s alienating effect. Read more “The Inescapable Cold War: Deutschland 83”
When French president Charles de Gaulle agreed to Algerian self-determination in 1961, his right-wing supporters were outraged. They had returned the general to power only three years earlier so he could put down the bloody uprising in France’s most prized colony. 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 “Old-Fashioned Detective Work in The Day of the Jackal”
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.
What helped was a relatively enlightened mentality, imposed from the top down during the reign of Frederick the Great (1740-86).
Prussia boasted one of the most progressive education systems in the world. Its bureaucracy was less encumbered by vested interests than in the other German lands, allowing it push through rational policies that professionalized the armed forces and saw the economy expand. In the early nineteenth century, the nobility was opened up to bourgeois estate holders. Read more “Iron Kingdom: Prussia’s Success Foreshadowed Its Demise”
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 “Reagan’s Rebellion and the End of the Cold War”