91+Lue-yzDLVolume II of Peter Ackroyd’s ambitious historical project charting the history of England from its earliest days to the present focuses on the reign of Henry VIII, his son and two daughters.

While Henry VIII was  not the first Tudor,(Henry VII was technically the first king from this welsh household), no other ruler besides perhaps his daughter Elizabeth exemplified the manic energy of their clan.

Ackroyd is not the first historian to chart English history through the rise of either the English church or the relatively brief dynastic reign of the Tudor clan. What makes Ackroyd so successful is the delight he seems to take in telling this story.

While this is not a critical examination of the Tudors (there are already enough of those), it is not a whitewash of a dynasty either. Ackroyd is perfectly keen to note Elizabeth’s indecisiveness, Edwards gullibility, Mary’s messianic drive, and Henry’s general disregard for decency. but while he shows us the flaws that make these rulers, “all too human”, he is also emphatic that the sometimes murky orders Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth especially gave helped to slowly etch away at what had been the Catholic church in England and ended up becoming a distinctly English invention: the Anglican Church (Church of England). Put another way, ecclesiastical matters went from being dealt as the Church IN England to the Church OF  England.

Describing the development of the Anglican Church, starting as it does in fits and spurts, has been a difficult endeavor for historians and faithful alike. surprisingly, Ackroyd is able to describe the whole evolution of the English Reformation from the dissolution of the monasteries to the settlement  under Elizabeth with surprising ease. His transitions from reign to reign are assisted by the presence of a colourful supporting cast from Sir Thomas More to Archbishop Cranmer to Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Queen of Scots. The rise and fall of  these eclectic persons add wonderful context to the events that surround the monarch and provide anecdotal support to Ackroyd’s interpretation of events.

Most refreshing in Ackroyd’s volume is the distinct absence of sentiment or interest regarding the love affairs of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII was a notorious philanderer with an obsession concerning male progeny that borders on compulsion. Additionally, Elizabeth’s oft written on-off affair with Robert Dudley does not feature as prominently a narrative device. Instead, Ackroyd spends a great deal of time on the administrative costs of war, poverty, and reformation/counter-reform.

None of which is to say that Ackroyd’s story is devoid of rhetorical flourishes. Instead, he brings the reader’s focus back to the ground amid the dirty streets of London or the bloody marshes battlefields in Calais. In both respects Ackroyd’s talent as a storyteller is on display. abjuring sensationalist stories, Ackroyd spends time to weave complex narrative into a digestible, if long, tapestry.

Tudors: The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I by Peter Ackroyd. St. Martin’s Griffin 2014. 528 pages. Purchased Copy

To describe author and activist Owen Jones as a “Bennite” would be something of an understatement. While never having lived through the tumultous  Wilson or Callaghan Labour governments of the 1960’s and 1970’s, (neither did I, though), Jones is very clear at who is at fault for the ills that have befallen the working class in Great Britain.

Thatcher.

The vitriol Jones reserves for Thatcher and her cabinet ministers, and even journalists in Tory papers is unevenly matched against the lamenting school-teacher tone regarding his left-wing friends in the Labour Party.

To understand the premise of Jones’ work, one must first understand what the focal point Jones is entering the discussion. Namely, the disenfranchisement of historically working class men and women in Great Britain who, starting in the end of the Thather era, began to be derisively titled “Chavs” by middle and upper class society. “Chavs”, as both the author and a cursory glance at wikipedia both reveal is a person obsessed with the illusion of station;  as Wikipedia states: “…a young lower-class person who displays brash and loutish behaviour and wears real or imitation designer clothes.”

To be a “chav” then, is to be a the fringes of acceptable society, even within the working class.

Jones leans heavily on his background within British left-wing society to argue that the corruption of the virtuous working class was due in large part to consumerism, Thatcherism, and an unwillingness of Labour leadership to stand up to the rising tide of austerity:

There was a time when working-class people had been patronized, rather than openly despised. Disraeli had called working-class people ‘angels in marble’. ‘Salt of the earth’ was another phrase once associated with them. Today, they are more likely than not to be called chavs. From salt of the earth to scum of the earth. This is the legacy of Thatcherism—the demonization of everything associated with the working class

Jones likely spent hundreds of hours collecting quotes and contrasting perspectives, from  Geoffrey Howe, Lady Thatcher’s first chancellor of the exchequer, to Neil Kinnock, the man who led Labour through some of its most bruising times in recent history.

From the information provided, Kinnock appears resigned that the Left forfeited the fights of the 1980’s rather than create any kind of meaningful change. when asked if the Tories were the ‘real’ class-warriors in British politics, Kinnock shakes his head and bemoans, “ ‘No, because they’ve never had to engage in a class war,’ he said. ‘Largely because we signed the peace treaty without realizing that they hadn’t.'”

Jones concludes that largely as a result of the sustained electoral beatings that Labour suffered from 1979-1992, the survivors of this shipwrecked party latched onto any idea that would keep them from becoming consigned to history, (a very real worry given the declining state of the Liberal party through this time period, which managed to stave off its own place on the ash heap only by creating an odd marriage of convenience with disaffected social democrats to create the modern “Lib-Dem” party), a fact Jones notes with characteristic bluntness:

Because of this desperation and demoralization, Blair and his followers were able to impose the Thatcherite settlement on the Labour Party. Part an parcel of this settlement was the idea that everyone should aspire to be middle class. Little wonder that. when asked what her greatest achievement was, Margaret Thather answered without hesitation: ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”

Jones writes lovingly and longingly for a working class establishment that no longer exists in modern Britain, but does not advocate burning down Apple stores to return to this Eden. Instead, his goal is surprisingly reasonable given the disparaging remarks and high standard he holds the Left to in his book.  the result is not a game-changing, epoch-defining solution. Instead, Jones advocates that the Left do what it has always done: advocate and implement good-paying, skilled jobs that provide a decent and dignified income to the working-class.

Admittedly after reading about 260 pages of commentary on how the Left had failed the working class, and the Tories were hell-bent on their destruction, I was a little dejected that the solution Jones advocates is so unsurprising and reasoned. Instead of a Zizek retort, we’re left with a policy proposal.

Chav’s does many things well; chief among them is the crystallization of working-class discontent for the last 30 years. Jones writes with exacting skill and twists the knife into the the Conservative Party with a certain amount of vigour. However, it becomes tiring to read line after line about the moral indecency with which the Tories have governed. After 100 pages or so, I found myself wishing Jones would just wrap it up and get to the point.

Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. Verso 2011 298 pages. Purchased copy

 

 

The twentieth century was born in the trenches. Its midwives were poison gas, bullets and steel. In Modris Eksteins opus, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Eksteins examines all the horrors of the war and its effect on the men in the trenches to revisit how those bloody days helped shape the men who lived through it and consequently the rest of the century.

“For the Germans this was a war to change the world;” Eksteins writes.

“For the British this was a war to preserve the world. The Germans were propelled by a vision, the British by a legacy.” In two simple sentenc3es, Eksteins is able to condense the whole of the madness of the Great War. Many authors have discussed the actual war itself and the brutality it manifested. Indeed, so does Eksteins. But of vital consequence is the effect the war had on the men who walked out of the trenches and lived with the burden of what they had been forced to do to one another and to themselves.

Eksteins’ title borrows from composer Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Rite of Spring”. The title itself is indicative of Eksteins’ larger motif, where he notes that in the post-modern era that comprises the present days, the intermingling of fiction and drama with the social sciences have come to form a kind of blending. This description is primarily a word salad that Eksteins composes in order to make the ridiculousness of the postmodern critique of history more palatable to unwitting audiences. Postmodernism aside, Eksteins aptly includes cultural references to create a more nuanced perspective of the war and tragedy that transcends simple battlefield retelling and theories of characters motivations. In order to truly understand what a break the Great War was with the prevailing traditions in 1913/14 it is vital that culture be identified and discussed.

History as a field of study ought not subdivide everything in a subject and reject potential lenses through viewing the past simply because they are hard. They should be rejected if after study the writing shows that the author has either have a.) offered a viewpoint which in its ridiculous and far-fetched nature and is an affront to reason, or 2.) is so nihilistic that it negates the reason for writing down history at all.

Eksteins manages to slyly slip between these two bars and project a study of the great war in all its brutality and anger and irony while utilizing persons who have been traditionally been on the periphery of discussions. For example, Eksteins recounts of the intrigue in the drama scene in Venice in the months before the guns of august roared. The purpose being that it symbolizes the hope and irreverence that had overcome middle class and upper class European culture in the second decade of the new century. If the war could be seen as a long pilgrimage through night towards day, the days before the war are definitely the lingering sunset that is absent the knowledge of the horrors that are to come in the twilight. 18 months into the conflict, Lord Kitchener, the war czar in Great Britain, complained that he was running out of options. “ I don’t know what’s to be done…this isn’t war.”

The transformative nature that the Great War had taken on was neither fully understood or appreciate by the Allied forces. However, as Eksteins notes, for the Germans the war was always about a national catharsis. “To Ludendorff,’ (general staff officer and later head of all military), “all questions…were military questions.” Militarism in Germany took on a different connotation than other nations would identity. To Wilhelmine Germany, the militant militarism of schools, the economy, culture, were a sign of an ascendant Germany. Wilhelm and his aides were sure that the new century would be Germany’s. Their principle rival in this endeavor was Edwardian Britain.

Conversely, Eksteins posits that while Germany stood for a casting off of old order (except monarchism), the British ideals of free trade, Anglophone common law, and colonial supremacy were firmly rooted in the past centuries. To the men in the House of Commons and Lords, the sun would never set on their empire, because God and the navy ensured otherwise. The clash of national identities and even national destinies plays heavily into the narrative Eksteins builds.

At the end, nations were transformed from their prewar state not into what they had fervently hoped would be a new glory, but more likely a new desperation that inhabited a broken legal and cultural framework and the bodies of millions of young men who carried the determined stoicism and philistinism of their war days up through the rest of their lives. The tragedy upon tragedy that compounds is not just the staggering loss of life in conditions so impoverished the mind reels, it is also the loss of a sense of hope and progress that seemed so attainable in 1913.

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Moris Eksteins. Mariner Books: 2000. 396 Pages. Purchased copy.

 

Vienna has always been a city that nurtured a fetish for death and the macabre, but the present city is greatly different than  the vibrancy of the Austrian capital a century ago. These days it is with a ghoulish presence that one explores forgotten neighborhoods that once filled the streets with dozens of languages. It is a depressing endeavor for a set of completely different reasons than one would normally presume.

Today the capital of a small mostly heterogeneous German population, Vienna is still awash in its former glory. It is a testament to what an interminable personality Emperor Franz Joseph was that a tourist can still find a small painting of his likeness hanging in an overlooked corner of a delicatessen or dress shop. Nevertheless, these small examples of nostalgia belie a much larger and grandiose world that existed for centuries.

Into this world of stale memories, Frederic Morton brings new vigor. Morton notes ruefully, “The future keeps mocking the past. The past, in eerie resilience, keeps shadowing the present.” No better description exists of such a unique place and time as Vienna in the year before the Great War set off a century of barbarism.

In Morton’s Vienna, readers encounter a vagabond Stalin, who spends his days researching his social tracts that he hopes will gain him greater recognition than his foe, the internationally known Leon Trotsky.

Other fellow travelers in this locus of culture are characters as diverse as Freud, Jung, Adler, and even Hitler himself.

However the narrative driver of Morton’s work that is really his freshest writing is the complicated and antagonistic relationship that Franz Joseph shares with his nephew and heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Rebuking his uncle and the Schonbrunn court, Ferdinand years earlier married a woman of ‘lower’ standing despite the warnings from his Imperial Majesty. As such, Ferdinand lives essentially two lives; at home with his wife and children he is a devoted father and husband, where the world is equal. However at formal occasions one would suspect he was a bachelor because he was not allowed to escort his wife in with him and his heraldic honors. The Imperial Court obviously took pleasure in rubbing salt into these open wounds that Ferdinand opened because it was decided that Ferdinand’s wife must enter at the very end of the heraldic chain, emphasizing to people the shame of her situation.

Despite this ignominious treatment, Ferdinand looked forward to when he would be King, and set about modernizing an empire that, according to Morton, Ferdinand believed, did not treat all of its subjects to the best of its ability.

The scenery that Morton describes in razor sharp detail is engrossing. Morton’s Vienna comes alive with the sounds of spring dances and the smell of coal-fired industry. From the palace of the Hapsburgs to a hovel on the street, this is as good a description of the socio-political geography of Austria before the wars as I have yet read.

Recommended for readers with introductory knowledge of Central Europe and above.

Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 by Frederic Morton. Da Capo Press: 2001. 410 Pages. Purchased copy.

 

Germany had become a nation of walkers. Men, women, children and the infirm all at some point in time and across the formerly spacious Reich left their homes, shoppes and places of worship toward the center or west of Germany. The sins committed by fathers and sons of Germany had come home, and many faced a fork in the road of their lives: Suicide and a quick death, or run, and stave off death at least for a little while. In After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation attempts to bring this dark and turbulent era of peace to light in hopes of putting a mirror to the faces of an overly righteous east and west.

While conventional knowledge of the Russian atrocities in Berlin and elsewhere was widely available and shared during the Cold War, less discussed, if known, was the atrocities committed by French, English and American soldiers against the occupied populous from the time of Germany’s surrender through the creation of the West German state in the late 1940s. To be sure, on scale alone, Russia’s crimes against the German people are of a magnitude unmatched elsewhere in continental history since perhaps the 30 Years War.

MacDonogh is adept at exploring and interweaving the Macro and the Mico scale of destruction that permeated not just from an economic perspective, but also the fraying of the cultural fabric of German society. For example, the assault of German women was also compounded by the fact that many women were later forced to commoditize their bodies in order to procure goods for their families that they needed to survive. This begrudged the German men, if any were left, and had an emasculating effect that likely put strains on thousands of post war marriages.

In addition, through utilizing personal narratives, MacDonogh is skillfully able to create a complex portrait of persons and places that provides a human face to the occupation while not neglecting the need to examine the topic in a broad, generally readable, manner.

                At the risk of stating the obvious, any academic student will quickly realize that it is inherently difficult to create a broad and stimulating historical examination of a period of time that occupies the better part of a decade and spans several countries and hundreds of historical actors. The author does his best, but by the time the reader reaches the occupation of Austria, the intellectual and emotional reserves are run thin. This is unfortunate, because the occupation of former Hapsburg lands is almost more interesting than the increasingly homogenized Germany. When occupying forces entered the west and east of the countries, respectively, they happened upon a country filled with deportees from the east as well as Slovenes, Croats, Italians as well as native Austrians.

In many cases, the German speaking evacuees had been forcibly put on trains or forced to walk the hundreds if not thousands of miles to the Austrian border while experiencing every conceivable type of deprivation and denigration. This presented a complex issue to the three occupying nations (UK, USA, USSR), who approached their occupying duty in Austria with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The English were bored, the Americans were confused, and the Russians mainly concerned with shipping everything of industrial or economic value back to the charred and destroyed areas in the east. This is in stark contrast to the attitudes of the occupiers of Germany proper, where the attitudes of the Big Three were almost uniformly punitive. It is a shame that Macdonogh does not spend more time on this analysis, as he becomes more involved in presenting an ever growing and wearying amount of evidence of Allied crimes.

Another particularly jarring moment is the oft overlooked (or purposefully hidden) role of the English troops in ‘repatriating’ Cossack troops who had fought under German flag against Bolshevik’s, but as Stalin made clear, they were still citizens of his Soviet Union and therefore his to deal with. This in effect was a mass deportation of men but also their women and children to the east and an almost certain death. A slightly moving if romanticized moment occurs when the German commander of the Cossacks, Helmut Von Pannwitz, chooses to go to Russia with the rest of the men under his command, though strictly speaking as a Wehrmacht officer in British custody he was not forced to go with them. Macdonogh masterfully shows the connections that people make during wartime that have long reverberating effects. Pannwitz was summarily shot in Moscow upon his arrival for crimes against the Slavs in Yugoslavia. The casualness with which death was meted out after the supposed peace is one of the great unmentioned themes of the Macdonogh’s work, and is the element that sticks with the reader the most after conclusion.

The race to the finish of a conflict often includes a frenzied period of violence in advance of the coming peace. Before the guns went silent on the eleventh hour on the eleventh day on the eleventh month in the last Great War, the artillery from both sides rang constantly, hoping to add one more body to the enemy’s cemeteries and wastelands. In the second war, violence of that sort continued unabated long after the ink on the losers signed documents went dry. If anything, Macdonogh show readers that assault, looting and murder petered out only after the perpetrators appetite, whetted by 6 years of deprivation, had been satiated.

In the west, the narrative shown to school children and uninformed adults is one of monastically abstinent American and British soldiers entering a benighted Germany, grateful for their carpet bombings and ‘liberating’ them from their possessions and in some cases, lives. Instead, what Macdonogh shows is that brutality is not party to one nation or one side. Instead it is a crime that makes even victors become villains.

Recommended for readers familiar with Central European social history and revisionist narratives.

  After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles MacDonogh. Basic Books USA: 2007. 656 Pages.  Purchased copy.

15793661Establishing some kind of unified field theory concerning British hegemony in the 19th and first half of the 20th century has become something of a grail quest for historians. Perhaps one of the most incisive and exhaustively academic is “The Rise and Fall of the British Empire” by Lawrence James. For as rigorous as James’ study is (700+ pages), it was published some 15 years ago. Current academic and social understanding of empires have continued to evolve from then. For example, when James was published, Hong Kong still had two years of its 99 year lease left.

Into this vacuum enters English historian John Darwin. Having previously tackled imperial attitudes in After Tamerlane and The Empire Project, Darwin uses his experience as a lecturer and researcher to attempt to provide a complete account of the question that has haunted the British establishment since perhaps 1948; What caused the decline and fall of the great British Empire?

I said before that historians looking for a united theory in explanations have discussed this topic in academic journals and publications for years. In an attempt to square this historical circle, Darwin proposes that the reason Britain became an empire at all was because of the “four C’s”: colonizing, civilizing, converting and commerce. It is a neat and tidy grouping that does its best to contain the bloated weight of two hundred years of imperial memory.

However, I give credit to where credit is indeed due. Darwin has an excellent moment of real keeping early on when he states:

“Nor was it just the modern world that was created by empire. This suggests that the conditions that give rise to empires are neither peculiarly modern, nor peculiarly rooted in European behaviour, technology or values. It also suggests – unless we dispense with our view of historical change as a whole – that empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those they ruled over.”

In fact I think it is fairly easy to defend the thesis that empire was the default setting of early nations and states. The fact that some succeeded for longer than others is a testament to the brutality of these empires.

Darwin doesn’t exactly offer his work in supplication to the formerly ruled. Instead, it acts more as contextualization of European empire in general and British policy in particular. None of which is to say he does not call out the sadistic nature of the occupying forces. His coverage of Indian policy and also the internment of both Boers and later Mau Mau is particularly acidic in nature. If permitted, I would take Darwin’s conclusions a bit further and reference George Orwell, whose experience serving the glory of the Raj drove him nearly insane with anger at the local population (see “Shooting and Elephant”).

Understandably, empires are destructive not just to the people that are being occupied. They also wear on the emotional stress of the occupier and colonial elite. Tales of alcoholism, violence and madness are a common theme stitched through his whole narrative.

Indeed, if Darwin succeeds in creating a great narrative of British rise to hegemony, it is on a kind of cumulative radicalisation. “entrepot imperialism”, using force and soft power to force British goods into new markets, ruled policy until the foundation of the American Republic in 1783. From this cataclysm for British soft power, new markets were already opening up, as Darwin points out:

“…far from heralding the implosion of British imperial power, the loss of America was the prelude to a colossal expansion of its scale and ambition.”

This ambition had a name; India and (and greater South Asia as a whole). From here Britain would make its mark into the history books as its laissez faire rule through corporatism led inexorably to direct rule and from there to complete domination of the sub continent and elsewhere.

While Darwin does cover the various entry points into local societies around the globe that marked the modern world with anglophone names on a majority of the world’s landmass, his best work is when discussing how India and South Asia were the real linchpin to British hegemony in the world. The navy they used kept markets relatively stable for British goods which could be produced ‘freely’ from cheap Indian labour.

Darwin doesn’t bring anything necessarily new to the table regarding British rule of the world’s largest empire. But perhaps the fact that it keeps civil society discussing the legacy of imperialism and how it very visibly affects our day to day life is worth while enough.

Recommended for readers with interest in broad anglophone histoy, great for introductory courses.

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain By John Darwin. Bloomsbury Press USA 2012. 496 Pages. Purchased Copy