Longman-History Today 2009 Book of the Year Award.
Hot Flushes, Cold Science
A History of the Modern Menopause
Granta 336pp 14.99 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 1847080660
During last year's Christmas holidays, an edition of Today, BBC Radio 4's agenda-setting news programme, was guest-edited by the crime novelist and Conservative peer P.D. James. Conducting interviews for the programme, the baroness, now in her 90th year, made mincemeat of the BBC's Director-General Mark Thompson, cowed the Justice Secretary Jack Straw and engaged in a sparkling debate on English national identity with the historian David Starkey. Universally acclaimed for her erudite performance, many critics and listeners asked why, if they're this good, there aren't more'women of a certain age' in broadcasting and in public life in general.
The answer to that question lies in the poisonous legacy traced in this riveting book by Louise Foxcroft, the winner of the Longman-History Today Book Prize for 2009.
The prejudice against menopausal and post-menopausal women, born of the belief that a woman not producing babies is useless, is one with a 2,000-year pedigree which was reinforced from the beginning of the 18th century by an increasingly powerful and misogynistic medical establishment (for those who think science is a one-way street to enlightenment this book stands as a necessary corrective). During the 19th century, physicians argued that there was a direct link between the brain and the womb, and hysteria and the menopause became linked; unnecessary hysterectomies became commonplace; and 'immoral' behaviour in one's youth was thought to lead to an especially difficult menopause, often characterised by an unhealthy interest in sexual excitement. Older women were not, 'normally', meant to have sexual urges.
The scientist and campaigner Marie Stopes (1880-1958) was among the first to question this stifling medical consensus. The advice she offered was revolutionary and it is advice Foxcroft agrees with. The menopause is not a disease; it is natural and is simply bound up with ageing, a process that should be confronted with pragmatism and dignity by both men and women, a much-needed but difficult task given modern Western society's dysfunctional obsession with youth.
This is one of the most original and important historical studies of recent years. In winning the Longman-History Today Book Prize, it united in praise a judging panel consisting of a medievalist, a filmmaker and a military historian. That is evidence of its wide appeal. It is a compelling demonstration of why history matters.
The Great Caliphs
The Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire
Amira K Bennison
I B Tauris 272pp 19.50 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 1845117375
I am delighted that we are able to draw attention to Amira K. Bennison's wonderful book by naming it a runner-up in the 2009 Long man-History Today Prize. This book is lucidly written, based on a wide and diverse range of sources and offers a compelling yet nuanced understanding of the civilisation of the Abbasid empire. Here is a new integrated history of Islam, attuned to its rulers and its subjects, to religion and economy, to laws and conventions alongside the messy reality of life.
It is particularly interesting to learn more about the Abbasid empire (750-1258) at a time when Islam is identified by its most fervent adherents as well as by its Western detractors as a system associated with the pursuit of doctrinal purity and superiority against non-Muslims. Amira Bennison shows well how central urban life was to the Abbasid empire--from Iberia to India, with Baghdad at its heart--and with it all that cities can offer: conversation, books, schools, performance, poetry and sumptuous goods. There was a great awareness among scholars and rulers that from Baghdad could be harnessed the powers of east and west, the sciences of Europe, the Mediterranean, the Near East and Asia. To do so was to allow a public sphere to develop, one which did not threaten the ultimate truth of Islam and its caliphs-protectors, but which allowed the traditions of the empire's people to converge and cross-fertilise. Patronage for projects of translation meant that classical science was disseminated and thus preserved--often by Syriac Christians and Jews--and that medicine and astronomy, mathematics and metallurgy benefited from frequent mutual encounters. The grandeur of the empire also meant that projects of poor relief, the building of mosques and palaces, provision of water supplies and public hygiene were conceived to beautify and make more tolerable life in the vast cities.
The Great Caliphs deserves to be widely read and much discussed. Congratulations!
British Culture and the Royal Air Force 1939-1945
Oxford University Press 266pp 32 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0199277483
It was a real pleasure to read the 40-odd entries for this year's Longman-History Today book prize. There were many fine submissions by authors who told us something fresh about aspects of history that were both familiar and, to me at least, very unfamiliar. Louise Foxcroft's book stood out. Her history of the menopause approached an original subject in an accessible way, without awkwardness. Written with passion but also with real historical scholarship, it is a provocative and anger-making read; a truly original book.
The Flyer by Martin Francis is a compelling exploration of the culture of the RAF flyers of the Second World War and the story of masculinity in the mid-20th century. Francis brilliantly uses a broad range of sources including memoirs, novels, plays and movies as well as official records. The RAF 'flyboys' held the public spellbound. In their dashing blue uniforms with the silvery wing above the breast pocket they became the epitome of the glamorous, modern male hero. And, stationed around the country, they were visible in towns, villages, pubs and clubs in a way that other military men were not. Romantic entanglements were common, while the flyboys relished their clubbable, male atmosphere with its emphasis on heavy drinking. The RAF culture was one that celebrated being modern and not hidebound but was still inescapably class ridden.
Francis also explores the many contradictions within the culture of the RAF flyboys who were seen by the public as both chivalric knights for their defence of Britain and as mass murderers for their carpet bombing of German cities. One minute they were warriors dicing with death in combat, the next they were sitting down to lunch with their families. And the chapter about how young men coped after surviving a crash or a shoot down as a horribly mutilated victim, often with a burned or terribly scarred face, is fascinating. The Flyer is not a work of military history but more a contribution to cultural and gender history. It is a powerful runner-up.
We had to settle on only three books, which was unfair in such a bumper crop. Many other books stood out for me, including Death or Victory: The Battle of Quebec and the Birth of Empire (Harper Press) by Dan Snow. For a first work, this is a tremendous book by a television historian who displays real understanding of the experience, sights and sounds of 18th-century warfare on land and at sea. The Restoration Warship by Richard Endsor (Conway) is a beautifully produced book and a labour of love researched and written over several years. It follows the design, building, fitting out, ordnance and service history of the Lennox, a Royal Navy warship of the 1670s. It tells the story of the craftsmen who built and equipped the ship and superbly captures the world of futtocks, scuppers, topsails and orlop decks. That's why history is so wonderful.
HISTORICAL PICTURE RESEARCHER OF THE YEAR
On Five Groats a Day
Thames & Hudson 152pp 12.95 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0500251508
This quirky travel guide provides practical information on Elizabethan London--a booming city of courtiers, cut-throats, merchants, beggars, lawyers, dramatists, apprentices and adventurers--with topics such as preparing for your visit, sightseeing, day trips, shopping and simply enjoying yourself during your stay. The colour plates show portraits of famous personalities of the period and contemporary London landmarks, but it is the woodcuts, many unfamiliar, which especially complement the lighthearted nature of the text and demonstrate some ingenious lateral thinking and thorough research by picture researchers Alice Foster and Sally Paley.
Selling the Tudor Monarchy
Authority and Image in 16th-century England
Yale University Press 588pp 30 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0300140989
The iconic images of the Tudor monarchs have exerted a strong hold on the English imagination from the 16th century to the present day, testimony to their success in self-publicity. But who was in control of the royal image and to whom was it addressed? The meanings of the verbal, visual, textual and spectacular representations of the Tudor monarchy are explored in Kevin Sharpe's ambitious new study, the first of a trilogy of works mapping royal representations across the 16th and 17th centuries.
The book hinges on the argument that the religious and political shifts of Henry VIII's Reformation sparked off a 'revolution' in representations of monarchy and in the reactions of subjects to royal policies. The questioning of ecclesiastical authority and the rapid expansion of print culture are linked to the emergence of a 'public sphere' in England, a critical audience whose support had to be sought and secured. Alongside his analysis of the myriad forms of royal writing, Sharpe listens to the voices that sought to address the Tudor monarchs, even to challenge their authority, exploring the role that these 'active citizens' played in the development of the royal image. He navigates deftly through an immense weight of scholarship to expose the complex processes that went into the construction of authority in the 16th century, the 'contested' representations of monarchy and the dialogue that took place between the Tudor monarchs and their subjects. Exploiting a dazzling array of materials, from pots, spoons and carpets to paintings and pageantry, Sharpe captures the multi-layered magnificence of Tudor monarchy and its audiences, contemporary and historical.
Henry VIII looms large in the book, creating what Sharpe describes as a 'new monarchy', of post-Reformation secular authority. In a relentless campaign of self-promotion, Henry founded his power in his own person, imposing his image on the minds and imaginations of his subjects in the drive to secure compliance. Presenting himself in portraiture, text and pageantry, Sharpe's Henry VIII is the king of Holbein's famous Whitehall mural, thrusting his codpiece aggressively towards his viewer subjects, daring them to question his authority. His son, Edward VI, a younger version of his father in his portraits, similarly emerges from his own writings as a monarch who was fully capable of making his subjects aware of his power and of exerting his authority over politics and policy.
Mary Tudor, often overlooked by scholars of Tudor royal imagery, is revealed here as having paid particular attention to visual representation. Sharpe brings together images of the queen on medals, coins and manuscripts with the more familiar portraits. In her royal proclamations, Mary presented herself as a loving, gracious and conciliatory ruler, far from the 'Bloody Mary' of popular history. Yet for all her efforts, Mary ultimately lost the battle to maintain control of her own representation. The queen's popularity declined as Protestant propaganda took hold and her brutal punishment of Protestant heretics gave Mary's opponents the material that allowed them to reshape her image to their own ends.
Elizabeth I is shown adeptly controlling the strategies available to her as a female ruler, flattering her parliaments and cultivating intimate relationships with her nobility. Her careful management of her representation, transmitted through dress, portraiture, ritual and in spoken and written text, was accompanied by the rapid expansion of consumer demand for the royal image, disseminated via coins, medals, woodcuts and engravings. But the very popularity of Elizabeth's image was also its undoing, its 'publicness' allowing critics to appropriate her image to communicate their own messages and to ask unsettling questions about the succession.
Presenting the representation of the Tudor monarchy as the product of a dialogue between rulers and ruled, this is as much a study of the Tudor people as of their monarchs. It is also a book about historians and their methods. An autobiographical thread runs throughout, Sharpe reflecting on the impact of Cold War propaganda and the modern political art of spin-doctoring on his own research, not least on this current study. Written by a scholar who has worked at the forefront of historical enquiry for almost three decades, the book establishes an agenda for the next generation. Sharpe urges historians to more fully embrace the methods and sources of other disciplines in order to expose the negotiations, compromises and strategies that underlay Renaissance politics and culture. Thought-provoking, at times contentious, this book is written with a contagious enthusiasm that will engage general and specialist readers alike. We can look forward to its sequels with considerable anticipation.
A 20th-Century Story
Faber & Faber 443pp 20 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0571234721
For the Jews of Europe more than any other group, the 20th century was a vortex of destruction. Contrary to the subtitle of Mary-Kay Wilmers' family history, the chronicle of the Eitingons is the story of the Jews during that catastrophic period rather than anything representative of the century as such. She assumes that her family saga is universal, but had Wilmers been descended from a line of Norman peasants or Bulgarian merchants the century she could have recalled through their experiences would have looked rather different.
Having registered this caveat there is a lot to enjoy in this genealogy. Her father was a straight-laced Anglo-Jew whose family arrived in Britain from Germany in the 1870s. He was assimilated, middle class and conventional. However, he married a Russian Jewish divorcee who came from a large, and for a time fabulously wealthy, family. Several of Celia Eitingon's uncles were international fur dealers trading out of Leipzig, traditional centre of the east-west commerce in pelts. One, Motty, emigrated from Russia to the USA in 1923, where he founded a lucrative business importing, processing and selling furs. Another, Max, used the fortune he inherited to fund his passion for psychoanalysis. A third, more distantly related, became a senior officer in the Soviet secret service.
Motty emigrated to America partly because of an unpleasant brush with the Soviet authorities, but he followed the route travelled by two and a half million Jews who left poverty and oppression in the under-developed tsarist empire for the goldene medina (the Golden City), the power-house of capitalism. By the mid 1920s he was a dominant figure in the garment district of Manhattan, wheeling, dealing and outsmarting the labour unions. He enjoyed a good run until the 1940s. Then the Cold War sealed his fate. In 1946, Motty went bust. His relations with (and relatives in) the USSR repeatedly attracted the unwelcome attention of the FBI, but investigations shed light on no more than some shady business deals. Crucially, he was never linked to Leonid Eitingon, the man who organised the assassination of Trotsky.
Leonid hailed from Mogilev in the heart of the Pale. Like many bright young Jews he threw in his lot with the Bolsheviks and joined the Cheka. During the 1920s and 1930s he was posted to Shanghai, Constantinople, Paris and Madrid. In France he arranged the kidnapping of a White Russian general. In Spain he purged 'Trotskyites' from the Republican ranks. It was there that he recruited Ramon Mercader, who he directed at Trotsky with the precision and mercilessness of a laser-guided missile. Yet none of these achievements was enough to deflect Stalin's paranoia and anti-semitism. Leonid was arrested in 1951 during the frenzy surrounding the 'Doctors' Plot'. Released by Lavrenti Beria after Stalin's death, he fell along with his protector and toiled through the gulag from 1953 until 1964. He was rehabilitated in 1992, following a campaign by his daughter, but what 'rehabilitation' means is questionable in the case of a man whose proof of good service was a record of murder and mayhem.
The most sympathetic figure in this pantheon is Max. He studied medicine in Switzerland, but was enthralled by Freud's writings. In 1906 he became the first non-Austrian to bring a case to Dr Freud.This earned him the master's undying gratitude and Max responded with slavish devotion plus a steady flow of cash. After the Great War Max set up the Polyclinic in Berlin, a free service designed to bring psychoanalysis to the masses. Although he preferred administrative and financial matters to conducting analysis, and published little, he also assumed the presidency of the Psychoanalytical Society. Max's psychoanalytical empire was weakened by the decline of the family fortune during the Depression and was finally shattered by Hitler. A lifelong Zionist, in 1934 he emigrated to Palestine. He died there in 1943.
Wilmers speculates whether Max and Motty assisted Leonid in his nefarious activities. There were fleeting connections between them, and tantalising clues of more, but Wilmers never manages to unearth any proof. Instead, while trying to describe several complex lives and unravel these mysteries, her narrative becomes disjointed and frequently confusing. The book is full of intriguing details and some brilliant observation of character, but it never quite amounts to more than the sum of its disparate parts. It is most revealing about Wilmers herself, whose fabled conduct of the London Review of Books emerges as a prolonged act of revenge on her parents.
Russia Against Napoleon
The Battle for Europe 1807-1814
Allen Lane 618pp 30 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0713996371
The great hero of Russia's battle against Napoleon was perhaps 'not a human being but the horse', writes Dominic Lieven in his magisterial new book. The Cossack horses, 'small, fast and ugly', gave the Russians a great advantage and Napoleon's shortage of steeds put him at constant disadvantage. But the story Lieven tells is equally replete with human heroes. Tsar Alexander I vowed to eat potatoes with his peasants rather than sign an ignominious peace. His war minister, Mikhail Barclay de Tolly, a Baltic German, preoccupied himself with raising national morale. Private soldiers fought to the death for their country, while ordinary peasants were determined to thwart Napoleon's troops as they passed.
Russia Against Napoleon is an ambitious and wide-ranging work. Lieven, Professor of History at the London School of Economics, wishes to tell the history of the Napoleonic Wars through the Russian campaign and to show how the battle against the French laid the foundations for the modern Russian state. He blames western historians and Russian writers alike for perpetrating a mythology in which Napoleon was defeated by 'snow or chance', an unforgiving terrain and a harsh winter. Western historians do so because they are reliant on French sources, while Russians have wished to denigrate the aristocratic and dynastic state as inefficient for political reasons. For Lieven, Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace has exercised a particularly baleful influence, thanks to its habit of presenting military excellence as a 'German disease'.
Lieven's Russia, by contrast, was responsible for its own victory, thanks to the committed leadership of Alexander, an efficient military and political administration and a disciplined and highly ordered army. The country was fortunate in the 'near-legendary, courage, resilience and loyalty of the rank and file'. Around a million men were drafted into the army in the two years between 1812 and 1814. The average age of a conscript was 22 and he served for 25 years, usually in the same regiment. Very few of those who survived returned home and when one died, the others received his possessions. Their only loyalties were to each other.
Napoleon underestimated the weather and made grave errors. His army arrived exhausted by the march across Europe and he tarried too long in Moscow, so the bitter winter had taken hold when he departed in 1812. But still Lieven proves his thesis: the Russian counter to Napoleon was sustained and determined and ran from top to bottom. 'Although I am convinced that our people would not accept the gift of freedom from such a monster, it is impossible not to worry,' wrote the private secretary to Alexander's wife, the Empress Elizabeth. But the serfs defied Napoleon with vehemence, much less eager for his 'gift' than other European peoples.
War is a miserable and complicated business, but Lieven's book is lucid, engaging and reflects his deep love for Russia. This is a fascinating, exhaustively researched work, an elegant handling of a welter of confusing sources and a vital account of Russia from 1807 to 1814 that is unlikely to be bettered.
Death or Victory
The Battle of Quebec and the Birth of Empire
Harper Press 560pp 25 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0007286201
This vigorous and well-written book ably captures the excitement and importance of Wolfe's bold thrust at Quebec in 1759. It is scarcely untilled ground and, although energetic, Snow has missed some valuable manuscript accounts of the battle, but he provides an effective guide to the campaign and sets it in the multiple contexts that gave it meaning. His range is impressive, including the diet of Wolfe's army and the nature of military discipline. In the event, British volley fire put paid to the French column advance. Richard Humphrys of the 28th Foot noted:
The general exhorted his troops to reserve their fire, and at 40 yards distance they gave it, which took place in its full extent, and made terrible havoc amongst the French. It was supported with as much vivacity as it was begun and the enemy everywhere yielded to it.
An anonymous British participant recorded:
We stood to receive them; they began their fire at a distance, we reserved ours, and as they came nearer fired on them by divisions, this did execution and seemed to check them a little. However they still advanced pretty quick, we increased our fire without altering our position, and, when they were within less than an hundred yards, gave them a full fire, fixed our bayonets, and, under cover of the smoke, the whole line charged.
Thus were empires won. Yet they are also all too speedily forgotten. At the present moment there is opposition from Quebecois separatists to any commemoration of the battle and it has received remarkably little attention in Canada. That indeed is worthy of a study, but such an exercise would also have to look at the extent to which what was praised by contemporaries as the greatest of modern British victories has also received very little governmental note in Britain. Jack Straw's comment on the malign influence of the British Empire suggests a government confused about, as well as embarrassed by, the national past, which may help explain its difficulty in advancing a concept of the national interest and the nation's future.
Reconstructing the Body
Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War
Oxford University Press 360pp 60 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0199546466
The bodies of classical Greece and Rome haunted the battlefields of 1914-1918. Their spectre was clearly visible in the hospitals, public squares and parks and gymnasia of Britain, America and Australia in the 1920s and 1930s. Ana Carden-Coyne's new book brings these ghostly bodies to life. Reconstructing the Body is a brilliant revisionist account of the ways in which British, American and Australian men and women sought to rebuild their lives as well as their entire society after the war. In the words of the classicist and political activist Gilbert Murray, Greek civilisation was a 'shining light' against 'the surrounding barbarism'. The war-wrecked body could be more than merely salvaged: it could be remade into something glorious, even beautiful.
Carden-Coyne insists that classicism and its tropes were at the heart of attempts to overcome the physical trauma and psychological suffering caused by the war. The classical ideal seemed to suggest an alternative to the technological brutality of war. It offered beauty and repose. Peace. Entire communities, as well as individuals, could be healed. This is an ambitious book but Carden-Coyne is as confident exploring the technology of artificial limbs as she is in unpicking the meaning behind modern dance movements. Her history elegantly weaves together the histories of reconstructive surgery, bodily rehabilitation, physical culture, war memorials, health initiatives and art. In Carden-Coyne's words: 'Despite all the pain and suffering of the war, human beings demonstrated a remarkable capacity to forgive themselves for the carnage, to reconstruct their bodies, and to reshape their memories of violence through modern visions of the classical imaginary"
The Great British Bobby
A History of British Policing from 1829 to the Present
Quercus 336pp 20 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 1847249470
I opened CLive Emsley's history of British policing asking myself how long it would take him to mention the BBC television series Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76). The answer turned out to be three pages. And quite right too. The show defined policing for a generation. Watching an episode made it easier to sleep at night, knowing that figures like its hero, the honourable and decently dull PC George Dixon, were on the beat. It was not ever thus. Most of the first recruits to the Metropolitan Police (established in 1829) were dismissed for drunkenness, abusive behaviour or unfit conduct.
Emsley, Britain's leading historian of modern crime and policing, traces police lives from the 18th century to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in 1999, focusing mainly on England, but he also has a lot to say about policing elsewhere in the United Kingdom and indeed in the Empire. But he is concerned less with the police as an institution than with the men and women who joined the force. Thus we learn of policemen like James Jackson, whose promising career in Hertford came to an end in 1877 because he allegedly failed to doff his cap to the squire's daughter.
Emsley is not afraid to note examples of racism or sexism. He is clear that the police have always had it tough, caught between the conflicting demands of government and public opinion. Even worse is the continual risk of violence. He records that police in the Victorian Black Country could not get through five years without injury. To survive they had to become hard men. Similarly, the charge room in a late Victorian London police station was 'more like a slaughterhouse than a place for human beings'. Gilbert and Sullivan got it right: 'A policeman's lot is not a happy one.'
An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire
Princeton University Press 222pp 16.95 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0691136691
Like the end-of-year press reviews of significant events, Giusto Traina's book gives an overview of an 'ordinary' year a half-century before the fall of Rome. Familiar from contemporary news coverage, this horizontal, synchronic and geographically extended view is totally alien to ancient historians, so that Traina's snapshot presentation forges a new perception of the fifth-century Empire.
Successive chapters take us on a trip from Syria to Constantinople, all the way to Britain and then back along North Africa, Egypt and Jerusalem to Central Asia, conjuring up a global image of that world that is commonly veiled by the fragmentation of scholarly specialisms.
Both a Romanist and an Orientalist, Traina transcends academic barriers, offering new perspectives on a period of important transformations for the Empire and its neighbours. East or West, Greek or Latin, religious pluralism or state orthodoxy, such were only some of the choices made under Theodosius II. The story's cast includes such famous figures as Galla Placidia, Symeon the Stylite, the Sassanid Bahram V, and lesser known ones like bishop Rabbula of Edessa, the Coptic monk Shenute or the Arab prince al-Mundhir.
Traina also brings to light the commander of the eastern army, Flavius Dionysius, hitherto an obscure entry in prosopographies, whose delicate and important diplomatic mission to Persia after the fall of the Kingdom of Armenia under Sassanid control is only recorded in a Syriac hagiographical text. On his return, he escorted the newly elected bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, from Syria to the capital. Both events were central for further developments, creating a new geopolitical reality and disturbing the religious status quo in a way that had long-term consequences for the eastern Empire.
The choice of AD 428 is not random, but springs precisely from the concomitance of those events and some other minor ones. Thus this book is not what it claims to be, namely an exercise de style reviewing an 'ordinary' year. More accurate, the original Italian subtitle was 'History of a Year' (Storia di un anno), one whose importance the author strives to demonstrate.
Stuarts and Romanovs
The Rise and Fall of a Special Relationship
Paul Dukes, Graeme P. Herd, Jarmo Kotiloine
Dundee University Press 262pp 30 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 1845860554
Diary of General Patrick Gordon of Auchleuchries 1635-1699
volume 1, 1635-1659
Edited by Dmitry Fedosov, foreword by Paul Dukes
University of Aberdeen 307pp 25 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 1906108045
Stuarts and Romanovs is the story of two dynasties whose fates were very different. The Stuarts and the Romanovs came to the thrones of England and Russia at the beginning of the 17th century. By the end of the century James II of England and Scotland was in exile but Peter I was about to propel Russia into the ranks of the great powers, a status that would last for the next 200 years. This book is a balanced and well-researched survey of Anglo-Russian relations in the 17th century. Both countries were conscious of each other's role in the major diplomatic manoeuvres and military conflicts of the period, but the main importance of the relationship for each was trade and, in particular, the export from Russia to England of naval supplies. Trading relations were never easy and problems were not resolved in either this century or the next. This was partly because of very different mercantile habits, partly because of disruption caused by war and partly because of Dutch competition. It was primarily, however, the consequence of a severe imbalance of trade, as the English merchants purchased Russian masts, hemp and tar but had little to offer Russian consumers in exchange.
Important though Russia was to English merchants in the Muscovy Company and to the English navy, it is hard to portray this dynastic relationship as 'special'. There was no personal contact between the Stuarts and the Romanovs. The first meeting between a Russian tsar and an English king took place in Utrecht in 1697 between Peter the Great and William Ill, that is, after the ousting of James II. That meant that the embassies sent by each ruler to the other's country took on more significance. Patrick Gordon, a Catholic Scot in Russian military service, led embassies to England in 1666-67 and 1686-87 on behalf of the tsar and showed the use made by the Russian government of foreign nationals in their service. Gordon went on to attempt to influence Russian policy toward the Jacobites and Jacobitism after the fall of James II.
The publication of the first volume of the Diaries of General Patrick Gordon provides an invaluable source not only on diplomatic and military matters but is also a unique account of the roving life of a mercenary officer in the 17th century. As the Catholic 'yonger son of a yonger brother of a yonger house', Gordon became a soldier of fortune after being seduced by 'faire and sugred words' at a chance encounter of a fellow countryman in Poland. In this first volume, covering the years 1635 to 1659, Gordon left home, wandered aimlessly in northern Europe before joining a regiment, became an accomplished officer but witnessed and was subjected to brutality, capture, battles, skirmishes, hunger, looting, summary military justice, sickness and the tedium of marching across northern and eastern Europe. Along the way, he changed sides between the Polish and Swedish armies on several occasions and met fellow wandering Scots of various degrees of respectability. It is a fascinating tale of war, rootlessness and adventure. The promised publication of the five later volumes of the diaries is eagerly awaited.
The Fourth Part of the World
The Epic Story of History's Greatest Map
Profile Books 462pp 25 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 1 86197 803 5
Holidays at home didn't begin with the credit crunch. Armchair travel has long been an option for the imaginative. As Toby Lester recounts in this exhaustively researched story, maps and books enable as many journeys as ships and horses--but it's a tough job to work out what they really mean.
Lester's account concerns the rediscovery of a remarkable world map from 1507, whose makers coined the term 'America' in honour of Amerigo Vespucci. That caused an 'epic fuss', as Lester explains. But this is about far more than a name. As the map offered a wider view of the world, so Lester's story covers most of the history of world exploration up to the 16th century.
Lester's engaging narrative zips along, yet detail is always present. He has laboured over complex historical and technical concerns. The standard longitude account, for instance, holds that maritime navigation was pretty hit-and-miss before 1760, when clockmakers and astronomers introduced precision and accuracy. Not so, demonstrates Lester. With a clutch of complex methods, sailors had a fair grasp of what was needed centuries earlier.
That's not to say they had it licked. A 15th-century poet exclaimed, 'l will go bounding over all the seas, more secure aboard my maps than aboard ships.' The armchair traveller knew it was dangerous out there. The 1507 map offered help to mariners: 'We have marked with crosses shallow places in the sea where shipwreck may be feared.' This was two centuries before Admiral Shovell wrecked his fleet off the Scilly Isles, prompting the Longitude Prize. Perhaps Shovell should have looked for the crosses.
We meet an extraordinary cast of philosophers, merchants and astronomers. Lester shows us corpses, cannibals and naked nymphomaniacs. There is looting and pillage, seduction and sedition; this is no dusty tome. We journey from dingy garrets to the farthest spheres of Aristotelian space. But back on Earth, it was all about trade--or, as Pliny the Elder tartly put it, 'to enable the Roman maiden to flaunt transparent clothing in public.' Twenty centuries later, nothing has changed. We might as well stay at home.
The Pen and the People
English Letter Writers 1660-1800
Susan E. Whyman
Oxford University Press 364pp 30 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0 19 953244 5
Susan Whyman's impressive new book comes amid a flurry of recent publications on letter-writing during the period from the 16th to the 18th centuries, including Clare Brant's Eighteenth-Century Letters and British Culture, Eve Tavor Ban net's Empire of Letters, my own Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England and most recently Alan Stewart's magisterial Shakespeare's Letters. Whyman's study breaks significant new ground, however, arguing for the 18th century as the period that witnessed the emergence of a popular culture of letter-writing. Based on back-breaking archival research in almost 40 collections of family papers, the book uncovers the letter-writing activities of correspondents below the ranks of the gentry, from among the middling sort, as well as lower down the social scale among farmers and workers, and among women and groups such as Congregationalists and Quakers. It will thus contribute significantly towards changing our understanding of popular literacy and the increasing democratisation of epistolary skills.
This is also a carefully nuanced study, inflected by issues of social status, gender, region and religion, which ably demonstrates the diversity of epistolary cultures and their deviation from the classical elite practices of the gentry and scholars.
The book is organised into three distinct sections. The first focuses on the acquisition of 'epistolary literacy' (the skills in reading and writing associated with letter-writing) and the impact of developments within the Post Office, which facilitated routine and regular correspondence. The second investigates the culture of letter-writing, concentrating on the letters of Northern farmers and workers, and a cross-section of middling-sort correspondents. The final two chapters consider the complex relationship between 'real' letters and literature alongside the explosion in print culture and the rise of the epistolary novel. While letters are indeed the book's main focus, the spread of letter-writing is viewed against the backdrop of broader developments between 1660 and 1800: the expansion of the Post Office and educational opportunities; improvements in communications and technology; economic growth, proto-industrialisation and urbanisation.
Overall, this is a thoroughly researched scholarly book which will undoubtedly have considerable impact on the field while the fascinating case studies will appeal to the more general reader.
Red Cloud at Dawn
Truman, Stalin and the End of the Atomic Monopoly
Michael D. Gordin
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 382pp 19.99 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0374256821
The Anti-Communist Manifestos
Four Books that Shaped the Cold War
John V. Fleming
W.W. Norton & Co. 362pp 18.99 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 0393069259
The Nazi-Soviet invasions of 1939
Pen & Sword 228pp 19.99 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 978 1844159260
At the end of a tough day at the Potsdam conference, on July 24th, 1945 President Truman casually sidled across to Stalin and told him that the United States had just exploded a powerful new sort of bomb. Stalin said he was pleased and hoped the US would use it. Truman and the Americans thought Stalin had not properly understood what he had been told and that the Second World War would soon end and the Atomic Age begin. But Uncle Joe knew exactly what he was being told. His spies had already discovered the purpose and scale of the Manhattan Project. This casual chat is the starting point for Michael D. Gordin's compelling and fascinating account of the beginning of the nuclear arms race.
Gordin, an Associate Professor of the History of Science at Princeton University, brings considerable scholarship to the subject of how the Soviets succeeded in building an atomic bomb. He weaves an impressively wide range of sources, including new material from ex-Soviet and western archives, into a brilliant narrative about the intelligence war. He shows that Soviet scientists learned as much about how to make an atom bomb from published and available documents in the West as they did from the now infamous spies like Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs, who infiltrated the Manhattan Project. And by not admitting the importance of uranium fission weapons, American scientists alerted the Soviets to their importance. In the funny old world of intelligence, knowing what you are not supposed to know is sometimes as valuable as knowing what to know.
After 1945 the US enjoyed a monopoly of nuclear weapons. The Soviets talked about world peace while desperately trying to catch up. Their nuclear programme was led by the astounding Igor Kurchatov. Some Americans said it would take until 1970 for the Soviets to build a bomb. In fact they caught up in four years. Gordin's gripping tale follows each stage of the process with as many twists and turns as good spy fiction.
John V. Fleming, another Princeton academic, takes a totally different approach to the early stages of the Cold War in The Anti-Communist Manifestos. Fleming's 'protagonists' are four books that he claims shaped anti-Soviet attitudes from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Arthur Koestler's novel Darkness at Noon (1940) exposed the horrors and the hypocrisy of the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s. Out of the Night by Richard Krebs (under the pseudonym Jan Valtin) revealed international Communism as a criminal Sovietled conspiracy and equated Stalin's Communism with Hitler's Nazi state. I Chose Freedom by Victor Kravchenko, was the autobiography of the first-ever Soviet defector from the wartime Lend Lease purchasing commission in Washington. Finally, Witness byWhitaker Chambers is the story of the man who fingered Alger Hiss in the infamous HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) case.
Fleming's book is a richly supported meander through the literary forests of the 1930s and 1940s. But the meander frequently becomes a ramble and for me its blend of literary criticism and historical analysis just doesn't work. I want more detail about the impact of the books upon wider public opinion and less about the intricate positioning of left-leaning intellectuals. The four books might have been bestsellers in the US but Fleming entirely fails to make his case that alongside the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe, the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War, these books in any meaningful sense 'shaped' the early Cold War.
In Poland Betrayed David Williamson explores the often neglected story of the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939. There's a lot of useful information here about the first time the Germans launched their Blitzkrieg style of war--fast-moving, hammer-blow attacks by armoured units closely supported by the Luftwaffe. And many tactics tried out by the Wehrmacht in September 1939 were to be seen again later, like the offensive through the Tuchola forest that the Poles thought was impassable by armour, just as the French would believe about the Ardennes. And there is a useful corrective to the Nazi propaganda that the Poles attacked their tanks with cavalry. In fact the cavalry were highly mobile and would attack, dismounted, with anti-tank weapons. There is a lot of good detail but overall the book feels a bit like a text book. It lacks a central driving narrative and could really do with some more maps.
These three volumes all deal with the actions of, or reactions to, the Soviet Union. They show that with new archives opening up and with new ways to reassess old material there is still much to be said about the Cold War that remains a fascinating feature of 20th-century history.
The Fall of the Soviet Empire
Weidenfeld&Nicolson 472pp 25 [pounds sterling]
ISBN 987 0297852230
The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe
Mary Elise Sarotte
Princeton University Press 378pp 20.75 [pounds sterling]
On the day the Berlin Wall fell Helmut Kohl was in Warsaw. His only disagreement with Lech Walesa came when the Polish Solidarity leader said that the wall would come down 'very soon, maybe weeks'. Kohl laughed and told Walesa that perhaps he was too young to understand that 'long historical processes' were involved. The removal of the wall would 'take many years'. Before the day was out Kohl discovered that Walesa's intuition had been sharper than his own. Remarking that 'I'm at the wrong party', he made his excuses and left for West Berlin via Bonn.
The story is told by Victor Sebestyen in his highly readable and wide-ranging account of the transformation of Eastern and Central Europe in 1989. He is well aware that, in spite of some common features imposed by a Communist system, there were great differences in the quality of daily life from one country to another. The party leaderships differed too. In Hungary and Poland they contained people capable of seeing the way the wind was blowing and even a few who were themselves supportive of systemic change. Belatedly, therefore, they entered into a dialogue with their own societies. For their part, the opposition leaders had an incentive to negotiate an end to Communist rule rather than attempt to seize power. As Walesa put it, 'better a round table than a square cell'.
Yet what brought the parties together--and what brought obtuse leaders down more suddenly--was the transformation of Soviet foreign policy taking place. As Sebestyen notes, Mikhail Gorbachev found his meetings with Kohl infinitely more agreeable than those with Erich Honecker. And though the speed at which Eastern Europe embraced not only independence but also capitalism, rather than any kind of 'socialism with a human face', came as a shock to Gorbachev and the reformist wing of the Soviet leadership, they stuck to their renunciation of the 'Brezhnev doctrine' whereby the Kremlin had arrogated to itself the right to intervene in any Warsaw Pact country in order to 'defend socialism'.
Sebestyen, a well-informed journalist rather than a scholar, is not always reliable on points of detail. But he more than makes up for a number of small factual errors scattered throughout the book by his generally sound judgements and a punchy style. He is good on the fawning of the West before the ghastly Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. He notes that Ronald Reagan, for all his limitations of knowledge and intellect, sensed the seriousness of change in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, while the CIA, with all their resources, failed to do so. As Admiral William Crowe, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1985-89, remarked: 'They talked about the Soviet Union as though they never read the newspapers.'
If Helmut Kohl was taken by surprise by the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was soon to become the central figure in the pursuit of a united Germany. Kohl's single-mindedness and political skill are very well brought out by Mary Elise Sarotte in her book, 1989, rather more than half of which is, in fact, devoted to 1990, for its central theme is the process by which Germany became reunited. This is a scholarly work based on a wide range of primary as well as secondary sources but well enough written to deserve a broad readership. Although more narrowly focused than Sebestyen's work, Sarotte does not confine herself entirely to the issue of German unity but raises the still larger question of whether the post-Cold War settlement was the best that could have been achieved.
While she gives due credit to Gorbachev for facilitating the process of change in Eastern Europe, including the unification of Germany (although the collapse, as distinct from reform, of the GDR was no part of his original intentions), she suggests that he did not negotiate as good a deal as he might have got. Gorbachev's larger vision of a united Europe, in which if the Warsaw Pact were to be consigned to the dustbin of history, NATO would be deposited there too, signally failed to be realised. One reason, Sarotte observes, is that, while Kohl was able to devote almost all of his considerable energies to German unification, Gorbachev was beset by problems at home and a multiplicity of issues demanding attention. Neither Gorbachev nor his advisers realised how fast events would move and how little time they had to create a post-Cold War Europe into which a transformed Russia would be increasingly integrated.
Kohl was taken by surprise not only by the fall of the wall on November 9th, 1989 but also by the speed of subsequent events. In November-December he was already thinking of a confederation embracing both East and West Germany as a steppingstone to full unification. However, he and his advisers saw this as an intermediate stage that would last for at least a decade. But with the East German street, as Sarotte notes, pushing for faster unity, Kohl rapidly adapted his policy to the new possibilities, receiving more sympathetic support from President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker in Washington than he did from Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher. He was eventually to win over Mitterrand. In contrast, even in the early stages of the process, when a confederation was mooted, Kohl told Bush that Mrs Thatcher was 'rather reticent' about the plan. The American president told him that was 'the understatement of the year'. Sarotte has a good feel for the internal politics of all four external powers which, as a result of the 1945 settlement, had a continuing stake in Berlin and the broader issue of Germany's fate. But she is especially good on Germany. Kohl's qualities have often been undersung. He emerges here as a major political figure.
This month's reviewers
Jeremy Black is the author of Crisis of Empire: Britain and America in the 18th Century (Continuum, 2008).
Joanna Bourke is the author of Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present (Virago, 2008).
Archie Brown is the author of The Rise and Fall of Communism (Bodley Head, 2009).
David Cesarani is the author of Major Farran's Hat: Murder, Scandal and Britain's War Against Jewish Terrorism, 1945-1948 (Vintage, 2010).
James Daybell is the author of Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England (OUP, 2006).
Janet Dickinson is a contributor to The European World, edited by Beat Kumin (Routledge, 2009)
Taylor Downing is the co-author of Cold War (Little, Brown, 2008).
Juliet Gardiner is the author of The Thirties: An Intimate History (Harper Press, 2010).
Janet Hartley is the author of Charles Whitworth: Diplomat in the Age of Peter the Great (Ashgate, 2002).
Rohan McWilliam is the author of The Tiehborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation (Continuum, 2007).
Kate Williams is the author of Becoming Queen (Hutchinson, 2008).
Andrew Robinson is the author of The Story of Measurement (Thames & Hudson, 2007).
Arietta Papaconstantinou co-edited Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium (Dumbarton Oaks, 2009).
David Rooney is the author of Ruth Belville: The Greenwich Time Lady (National Maritime Museum, 2008).
Miri Rubin is author of Mary Mother of God: A History (Penguin, 2008).
RELATED ARTICLE: Signposts: why did communism end when it did?
Exactly a quarter of a century has passed since the start of a seven-year period that changed Europe dramatically and saw the end of the Cold War. It was on March 11th, 1985 that the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union chose Mikhail Gorbachev as its leader. From that moment an increasingly radical reform process, perestroika, was launched. Gorbachev himself will preside at a conference in Moscow on March 19th to mark this anniversary and to launch a new book in Russian on the years 1985-91 entitled Responding to the Challenges of New Times. Archie Brown, a conference participant, discusses the contributions of historians to the understanding of Communism and why it failed.
Before an author tries to explain when and why Communism ended, it helps to know what Communism is--what distinguishes Communist systems from other highly authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Communism in its heyday in power had six essential defining characteristics. The first two related to its political organisation: the monopoly of power of a Communist party and rigid discipline and strict hierarchy within that party--what was euphemistically known as 'democratic centralism'. Communism's two economic defining features were its centralised, command economy (with prices and output targets fixed administratively) and state ownership of the means of production. There were also two characteristics of great ideological significance--the sense of belonging to an international Communist movement greater than the sum of its parts and the aspiration to build 'communism', the classless, stateless society of the future. Hazy and remote that last goal may have been, but it was the ideological justification for the party's 'leading and guiding role' and one of the many features distinguishing Communist countries from states ruled by socialist parties of a social democratic type.
It is clear that Communism has ended in Europe. Yet that isn't the whole story. It may reasonably be objected that in the wider world Communism hasn't ended yet. However, the two most populous of the five remaining Communist states, China and Vietnam (the former with 16 times more people than the latter), have largely abandoned a Communist economic system, although they retain the political power structures. Change is underway in Laos, and Cuba will evolve more quickly now that the Obama administration is abandoning America's longstanding and counterproductive policy of boycotting its small island neighbour. North Korea remains in a class of its own--a monument of unreconstructed Communism which will come crashing down one of these days, possibly at, or soon after, the next dynastic succession. Hereditary rule has been the one startlingly unorthodox variation of Communist government to be developed by Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. The cult of the leader's personality has also been taken a shade further in North Korea, but Stalin, Mao and Ceausescu were already strong contenders in that particular competition to set Marx spinning in his Highgate grave.
The development of Communist doctrine occurred primarily in the 19th century with the growth of an industrial working class and the conclusions Marx and Engels drew from this. Their theory was supplemented, especially on the political organisational side, by Lenin in the last years of that century and the first two decades of the next. The rise of Communist systems was the most momentous political development of the first half of the 20th century, their fall the most dramatic occurrence of its second half. The relative importance for that demise of ideas, individuals and economic decline is hotly debated.
The belief that the Bolsheviks had the right ideas but they were distorted and trampled on by Stalin has fewer adherents than in the past. In the uncompromising judgement of Richard Pipes: 'Communism was not a good idea that went wrong, it was a bad idea' (Pipes, Communism: A Brief History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001). In general, however, Pipes gives short shrift to the significance of ideas for politicians in Communist systems (as distinct from zealots joining the party in non-Communist countries). He is right in supposing that few party officials spent much time poring over the works of Marx and Lenin. Yet, there were many aspects of the doctrine which were accepted unquestioningly by these same officials and which were essential ideological underpinnings of the regimes.
Communist rule involved a large measure of coercion, but especially in consolidated Communist systems it did not rely on coercion alone. An official language of politics prevailed which made certain concepts almost literally unthinkable. To alter radically the vocabulary of politics had serious implications for the exercise of political power. Thus, when Mikhail Gorbachev as early as 1987 used the term 'pluralism' positively (albeit, initially a 'socialist pluralism'--later he was to embrace 'political pluralism'), this gave a green light to radically reformist party intellectuals to publish critiques of the Soviet past and present which undermined the authority of the ruling nomenklatura. Gorbachev himself told party officials in 1988 that the Communists had gratuitously awarded themselves the right to rule over the entire population. In future, if they were to justify their 'leading role', it should be on the basis of contested elections. (The first competitive elections in Soviet history for a legislature with real power duly took place the following year.)
In a more profound study than that of Pipes, Andrzej Walicki (Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia, Stanford University Press, 1995) pays due attention to the significance of ideas in the dismantling of a Communist system in the Soviet Union (as, in impressive detail, does Robert D. English in Russia and the Idea of the West: Gorbachev, Intellectuals, and the End of the Cold War, Columbia University Press, 2000).The change in ideas had profound international consequences. It was in 1988 that Gorbachev declared that the people of every country had the right to choose for themselves what their political and economic system should be. As Walicki observes, it is hardly surprising that a major 'consequence of this frankness was the collapse of Communism in Poland and, soon afterward, in the other countries of East-Central Europe'.
Communism would have ended years earlier throughout most of Eastern Europe but for the belief, based on experience, that any attempt to discard Communist rule there would produce Soviet armed intervention to reimpose it. Thus the change in the USSR was the crucial facilitating condition for all that happened in 1989. That Gorbachev--a radical reformer holding the most powerful office within the system--played the decisive role in all of this has become increasingly accepted, even by authors who have focused mainly on the process of change throughout Eastern Europe during 1989, such as Robin Okey (The Demise of Communist East Europe: 1989 in Context, Arnold, 2004). The role of the last Soviet leader is examined more fully in my The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford University Press, 1996). Claims have also been made for the importance of the part played by President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, but Reagan elicited no positive change in the Soviet Union from the first three of the four Soviet leaders with whom he overlapped. Things changed only after Gorbachev came to power. The pope helped to inspire the rise of Solidarity, but was powerless to prevent the imposition of martial law in December 1981, which outlawed the organisation, it re-emerged as a serious force within Polish society only three years after the launch of the Soviet perestroika in 1985--the reform of the system that by 1988 was turning into fundamental transformation.
Economists, unsurprisingly, emphasise the declining growth rates, technological lag and general inefficiency of the Communist economic system as the decisive factors in bringing the regimes down. That argument is to be found both in the work of the British economist Philip Hanson (The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy, Pearson, 2003) and that of the Russian acting prime minister who presided over the leap to market prices in 1992, the late Yegor Gaidar (Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia, Brookings, 2007). Relative economic failure is seen as just one of the long-term reasons for the demise of most Communist states by the authors of four recent histories of Communism worldwide--three substantial tomes by Oxford scholars: Robert Service's Comrades. Communism: A World History (Macmillan, 2007); David Priestland, The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World (Allen Lane, 2009); my own The Rise and Fall of Communism (Bodley Head, 2009); and in Leslie Holmes's masterpiece of concision, Communism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009). In fact, it was not so much economic crisis that forced reform as reform which created political crisis.
The kind of radical reform which Gorbachev launched was a political choice. It had profound consequences, both intended and unintended. The sophisticated array of rewards and sanctions under Communism provided means other than liberalising reform of controlling their societies. It takes more than budgetary deficits and a declining rate of economic growth to bring down highly authoritarian regimes. Nothing, it turned out, was more important in determining when Communism ended in Europe than the support for fresh thinking of the person wielding more institutional power than anyone else in the entire Soviet bloc.
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