The Books of 2016, #7: Rebellion: The History of England from James I to The Glorious Revolution, by Peter Ackroyd

rebellionLast year, I read the first two books of this trilogy, Mr Ackroyd's comprehensive overview of the history of England from earliest times up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. And I loved them. I came into this entire series with a bias as I had read, a few years earlier, his London: The Autobiography, which was a GODDAMNED OUTSTANDING history/mash note of/to that awesome, insane city.

So, yeah, long story short, Ackroyd knows and does England well. It's his thing.

One of the key aspects of this series that makes it manageable (even at three volumes) is its sharp, laser-focus on _England_. This is not a history of Great Britain, or the Empire, or the colonies, or even Ireland or Scotland. It's about England, that weird little 2/3rds of a rather dumpy, damp island that has punched orders of magnitude above its weight in human affairs for a couple of centuries now. Mr. Ackroyd makes no apologies for this focus; one of the tasks of the historian-as-author is circumscribing what they're going to present rather than let that admittedly-interesting but increasingly distant from the theme subtopics run away with the entire narrative.

So, for example, the whole complex web of Irish history is pretty much absent save for when it directly impacts the goings-on in England proper. Ditto Scotland. The conflict between the Anglican Church and the Puritans gets a very large chunk of the text devoted to it, as it was extremely important, particularly in the time period covered by this volume, but, as noted in the book itself, once a large chunk of Puritan leadership decides to fuck off for America, that's the last the book concerns itself with them.
Within the boundaries of these constraints, what you're left with is just a wonderfully detailed, deep look at the people, processes and actions that shaped England throughout this era. As it was a particularly violent and clamorous time, it lends itself to being a good read. The Stuarts were not quite as bloodily bonkers as the Tudors who preceded them, but what they lacked in personal viciousness they generally made up for in bull-headed, stubborn incompetence. This naturally led to the English Civil War, a fairly catastrophic event for the English people (~140k dead in a country of five million souls is… well, it's a fuckin' LOT), followed by the grim stretch of Cromwell & Son's grey rule over a joy-deprived island.

Ackroyd maintains a lively trip through this otherwise dark and bloody era, leading the reader along through the very bad goings-on but also taking care to show the hard-earned lessons the English learned from their suffering, all culminating in the reestablishment of the monarchy in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Stronger boundaries were proscribed around both the throne's and Parliament's spheres of action by this, and most agreed that it was basically time to shunt religion out of the political arena entirely, leaving it generally up to the individual's conscience. The sense as this volume and series closes is that, for all the blood, the Civil War and Protectorate taught the English people the right lessons that directly led to the next two-odd centuries' worth of general growth and prosperity.

Interspersed throughout this volume, and every volume in the series, are shorter, stand-alone chapters that cover various single important works of art, or scientists, or, in the earlier volumes, what people ate, wore, lived in… these asides add a tremendous amount of color to the otherwise-standard chronological march through time of powerful people and their doings. I enjoyed these breaks from the main narrative, and digging into a chapter on, say, how the writings of John Milton reflected the uncertainties and passion of Republican England adds as much to the reader's understanding of the era as the raw facts do.
In all, this is a wonderful end to a wonderful series by a frankly wonderful author. Ending with the Glorious Revolution is a wise choice, as from there forward the history of England is inextricably intertwined with the story of the Empire and of Europe, and the scope would have to widen considerably. Stopping here allows this series to stand alone as a history of pre-modern _England_ all on its own.

I genuinely like and respect all of Peter Ackroyd's work that I've read to date, and I can heartily recommend this particular series to any reader interested in any aspect of English history. It's definitely a popular history, so no prior knowledge of the topic is required to understand or appreciate the work. But, being popular by no means implies that it is shallow or poorly-done; it's masterfully written and will be equally engaging to those of us who were already quite familiar with the period covered here.

Books of 2016, #4: The German War: A Nation Under Arms, by Nicholas Stargardt


For most of the Cold War, the popular consensus regarding "blame" for World War II and the Holocaust ran something along the lines of "well, there were good Germans and bad Germans, and most just wanted to get by, but Hitler and the Gestapo were very bad and willing to hurt people who didn't do what they wanted, ergo, thus, six million Jews somehow WHOOPS died and an entire continent went up in flames".

This was obviously a very simplistic look at things, but when you combined a West German willingness to toss a LOT of money Israel's way to make up (in some small, unsatisfactory manner) for things along with the United States and NATO's need to have "good" Germans that they could rearm and park on the front line against the Soviet menace backed by their own "bad" Germans, well… everybody basically went along with this view.

Even though it was bullshit.

The first big revision to this viewpoint came after Germany reunified, the Cold War ended, and, instead of there being a binary "good vs. bad" German theme, there just being, well… _Germans_ again. And a Harvard PhD candidate named Daniel Jonah Goldhagen didn't care for the traditional narrative and therefore dropped a bomb on it called "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" in 1996. Disagree or not with his premise that a majority of ALL Germans very much wanted all of the Jews dead (as he doesn't prove this to my own or a lot of other people's satisfactions), what he DID manage to do here was prove that there was really no way the common belief that most Germans had no idea what was going on with the Jews held any water. The gist, and it's hard to believe that this was ever controversial, is simply this:

You cannot kill six million people (and change) without a very large number of people knowing about it and helping to make it happen.
What "The German War" attempts to do, then, is show what average Germans felt about both the Holocaust and the war in general as it happened, via private letters, diaries, the public opinion polls taken by the SD regularly throughout the war almost to the very end, etc…
It is a much better _book_ than Goldhagen's, which read like what it was: a PhD thesis barely edited into narrative book form, and therefore dry, dense, and repetitive.
Stargardt's book, however, is a fantastic read, though, admittedly, that feels like an odd adjective to use for a book on such a grim topic.
Overwhelmingly sourced (it often feels like every paragraph has a footnote), Stargardt tells the story of a number of Germans, mostly regular people, soldiers, wives, doctors, mothers, but specifically tried to seek out those who a) lasted at least into the war's middle years if not through to the end b) left a record of multiple entries along the way. Basically, he wanted to track changes in how regular Germans felt about the war and the Jews as the Germans went from winning and conquering all before them, from arresting to then deporting to then killing the Jews, and then to being on the defensive, bombed, invaded and, finally, conquered.
There's a brutal melancholy in watching a young wife go from a loving new wife scared of what the war will do to her husband but convinced that Germany needs to defend itself from the assaults of Global Jewry to bombing victim convinced that the bombing is the revenge of the murdered Jews (and thus, somehow unfair) to widow.
The soldiery, as is often the case, figures out faster that what they're doing is indefensible but generally rationalizes their actions as being what must be done if the nation is to survive. It's possibly even sadder to read their stories than the housewives, particularly the more sensitive ones who quickly realize that they're doing unconscionable things that only future generations _might_ benefit from. And, regardless of the terrible things they're doing, it just gets depressing at how many of these stories end with a hard stop when the soldier in question dies.
The details of the individual lives traced here gives this book its narrative thrust, and its emotional impact. To reinforce the author's main point, though, these stories are reinforced with a lot of weight from the popular opinion surveys and mood studies the German SD did throughout the war, almost up to its very end. Goebbels wanted his propaganda to be effective and, to do that, he needed to know what the people actually thought in order to shape it to his ends. Thanks to this urge, we have a lot of data on what the people actually believed as well as what the German State wanted them to believe.
In the final analysis, I believe Stargardt makes his point well. While the reasonings and self-justification changes depending on which person's words are being reviewed at any given point in the book, the inescapable larger conclusion reached is simply that a) most Germans were very well aware of what was happening to the Jews (and Poles, and Russians, and Ukrainians, etc….). Furthermore, most (but by no means all) Germans were pretty much okay with what was going on, particularly when the German star was in the ascendant. Once fortune turned, many Germans believed that what was happening to them was either retribution for what they had done to the Jews; the main difference seems to be whether a given person thought that this was fair or unfair.
What this book shows is this point: regardless of how a given German felt about what was happening to the Jews and the other victim races, they _knew_ it was happening. And this is a very important point as it goes against what we were led to believe for the many decades of the Cold War era here in the West.

I believe this book has become and will remain the standard regarding contemporary German knowledge of and feelings towards the Holocaust and Germany's part in World War II for years to come.

Books of 2016, #3: By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire, by Ian Worthington

by_the_spearNot the best history book I've ever read, but good enough to probably be my new default for anyone asking for a recommendation on something that covers Alexander the Great. The key hook feature Mr. Worthington adds to differentiate his take here is looking at both Alexander's AND his father, Philip II's, reigns, as flip sides of the same coin. I buy his argument that you can't really consider Alexander at all without having a solid grounding in what his father did first to set the table.

Proceeding from that, we get a decently-written, reasonably quick history of both reigns, with a focus on comparing the two to each other. The author's bias seems to lie with Philip II, favoring that ruler's propensity to enhance his kingdom vs. Alexander's propensity to enhance himself. Worthington makes a reasonably effective argument that Philip II was a better ruler due to the amount of time and effort he put in to making sure that his conquests were well-governed and integrated into his kingdom in a way that was designed to be lasting.

The book is most enjoyable in the Philip sections, for me, mostly because that's just a much-less-covered period of history. Alexander is basically history's first celebrity, and we have more primary source material on him than on anyone else until the Romans start getting weird. So, to anyone who's even dabbled in ancient history, his story is well-known, right down to the various disputes over what actually occurred at certain points in his life, but even those disputes and their various possible answers are well-known at this point.

Philip? Not so much; there's much less hard source data to work with, but Worthington does an admirable job of pulling together to story of his life and reign in fairly thorough details, noting properly when big gaps exist in the sourcing.

All in all, the book is an effective overview of the reigns of these two deeply-intertwined rulers, with an added bit of comparison that is more weighted towards the author's point of view than the straight history, but serves as a solid analysis of the differences between the two, whether or not you agree with the conclusion drawn. Follow this book with Dividing the Spoils and you'll have about as good of a layman's understanding of the entire Hellenistic Era as one would probably need.