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The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-1871
Michael Eliot Howard
Progress: 224/512 pages
Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972
Marshall L. Michel III
Progress: 150/352 pages
The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914
Richard J. Evans
Progress: 277/928 pages

The conceit in American-authored alternate histories of the Second World War

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

Last night I decided to binge-watch season 2 of Amazon's The Man in the High Castle. If you're unfamiliar with the show, it's based on a 1962 novel by Philip K. DIck premised on the idea that the United States lost the Second World War. With its defeat the U.S. is a divided and occupied land, with the Japanese in charge of the West Coast and the Germans ruling everything east of the Great Plains. The novel itself is one of my all time favorites and so far I'm enjoying the show (with a caveat regarding the direction they're taking it regarding the central twist). But watching it has highlighted something that has long bugged me about alternate histories of the war written by Americans.

 

Simply put, it's the conceit is that the Germany couldn't be defeated without the United States. It's inherent in the majority of U.S.-centric alternate history stories, including Dick's: without America's involvement in the war, the Nazis roll over Europe and become the racist empire everybody not associated with our current administration loves to hate. There are two things I find annoying about this, the first being that it's bogus to anyone with more than a passing history of the war. As much as Americans may hate to admit it, but the Second World War was decided on the Eastern Front: it was the Soviets who were key to destroying the Nazis' empire, not the Americans. From the summer of 1941 onward the bulk of the German war machine was engaged in the Soviets, who ground it down over the course of four years; three out of every four German soldiers killed during the war died on the Eastern Front. While the U.S. aided in this, both through their Lend-Lease program and their assaults on Germany from the west, absent these the Soviet victory was still the probable outcome.

This would be a pedantic complaint were it not for how this reflects our devaluing of the costs involved in this. We don't know exactly how many Soviet soldiers died fighting the Nazis, but the conservative estimate is 8.7 million people. By contrast, the United States lost 139,380 soldiers fighting against the Germans in Europe, which makes for a ratio of 80 Soviet soldiers killed for every American who died in combat. And that Soviet figure is just for the men and women killed in combat: the official total of war dead is 26.6 million, and that's regarded as a conservative estimate as well.

 

Now, I get why American writers do this, as they're writing for their audience. But it's dangerous in that it perpetuates a conceit that is deeply offensive to lots of people in the world, both the ones who sacrificed and the descendants of those who did. The thing of it is, it doesn't take a huge stretch of the imagination to gin up a scenario that isn't premised on the belief that our participation in the war was indispensable to Germany's defeat. Instead, though, we bask in the conceit that our novice soldiers were the ones who knocked down the Nazis — and then we wonder why the world despises us for it.

Shelving my early Christmas gift

It's been over a week since my early Christmas gift arrived in the mail. Since that time the books have sat on my dining room table awaiting relocation to some secret place to be wrapped and presented officially once the holidays are actually here. It's my wife's tradition and one that I've respected until now.

 

Today after having waited a decent length for the books to be moved I gave up and decided to take action. Packing them up, I took them to my office, where they now rest proudly on my shelves.

 

 

Don't they look great? The ones at the end are the volumes of the Industrialisation of Soviet Russia series that sparked all of this craziness. Lined up like that, it's going to be hard to resist reading them  which of course was the point of getting them in the first place.

 

Now, though, I have a new problem: finding space for the books that these displaced:


Something Conan O'Brien and I have in common

Conan O'Brien and Robert Caro are two names I never expected to see paired together in a headline. Yet it turns out the big Irish goon is a huge fan of the great biographer, which is something he and I have in common. Just imagine if I ended up interviewing Caro for the NBN when his final volume comes out -- wouldn't that drive him crazy?

My new pile of books!

Yesterday I went with my son and a couple of friends on a book shopping trip. Lately I've exercised considerable restraint on my trips, weighing my choices against the mountain of books I already own and the ready availability of other titles in the libraries to which I have access.

 

Yesterday was different, however.

 

 

I was pleasantly surprised by my finds, as it's not often that I come across so many interesting books on these trips. These, for example, were completely unexpected:

 

I've orbited around reading Hodgson's series for years, which has long intrigued me but as never been a priority. I may return these after further examination, though; if after examining them closely I still can't see myself reading them anytime soon I'll probably do so just to keep free the shelf space they would take up.

By contrast, this won't take up much space at all:

 

Arendt's book is a short (less than 100 pages) study, but one that addresses an enduring topic. Given how interested I'm getting in her writings, I suspect I will enjoy reading this one.

 

I also indulged in an impulse buy:

 

Edwardian England is one of the eras of history in which I am most interested, and I have long wanted to read more of the contemporary fiction from that time. Tressel's book is one of them, and the moment I saw this copy on a shelf it practically called out to me. This edition even has an introduction by Alan Sillitoe!

Not all of my shopping was for myself, though. I picked up a copy of Twain's short stories for a colleague who told me earlier this week that he had never read Twain's "The £1,000,000 Bank-Note" (one of my all-time favorites), so I thought I should introduce him to it. And then there were these:

 

I've been looking for copies of John Christopher's Tripods Trilogy for awhile to give to one of my nephews, as he has been getting into science fiction lately. For some reason, though, copies have been increasingly hard to come by (they were in abundance the last time I cobbled together a set), and regarded myself as fortunate to have come across these mismatched volumes. As they're the second and third books, though, I still can't give them to him, so I may just break down and get a cheap copy online so I can pass them along at last.

An economy shaped by terror and war

The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 7: The Soviet Economy and the Approach of War, 1937–1939 - Professor Mark Harrison, Stephen G. Wheatcroft, Oleg Khlevniuk, Robert William Davies

During the late 1930s life in the Soviet Union was defined by terror, as a series of purges orchestrated by Joseph Stalin and carried out by his secret police apparatus gutted the nation. More than a million people, from Communist Party leaders to government officials to wealthy peasants, were arrested and either imprisoned or executed. While the purges secured Stalin's domination of the country, it came at the cost of innumerable lives destroyed and the county's development hobbled in ways that nearly proved fatal during the Second World War.

The disruptive impact of the purges on the Soviet economy is a major theme of the final volume of the "Industrialisation of Soviet Russia" series. In it its authors — R. W. Davies, Mark Harrison, Oleg Khlevniuk, and Stephen Wheatcroft — analyze the effects of the arrest on a Soviet economy still processing the collectivization of Soviet agriculture and the efforts to develop the industrial sector. Though the commissars and other managers arrested may have lacked the stature of the Part leaders of the marshals of the Red Army, their removal measurably slowed the growth of the Soviet economy. In some areas this slowing actually had the effect of feeding the purges, as the decline in growth and the failure to achieve the targets set by economic planners was attributed to sabotage, requiring the identification and arrest of suitable scapegoats.

Yet the purpose of the authors' book is not to describe the impact of the purges on the Soviet economy, but the Soviet Union's overall economic development during this period. As they note, the purges played less of a role in agriculture, where factors such as the weather were more important in determining output. Even more important than environmental conditions, though, was the international political scene. Here the authors place their analysis of the Soviet economic policy into a broader context, showing how the wars in Spain and China, as well as the increasing tensions within central and eastern Europe forced economic planners to readjust their plans to focus more on developing light industry and increasing the production of consumer goods. The result was an economy that by the start of 1939 was already gearing up for war, with even the purges ended in the face of the growing threat.

This volume brings to an end a series that has its origins in Edward Hallett Carr's The Bolshevik Revolution first published nearly seven decades ago. It is a fitting point at which to conclude it, for as the authors explain in their final chapter, it was during this period that the basis of the economy that would defeat Nazi Germany and establish the Soviet Union as a superpower for the 45 years afterward was established. To understand how this was accomplished and the terrible cost paid for it by the Soviet people this book like its predecessor volumes is indispensable reading.

Podcast #115 is up!

Before and After Alexander: The Legend and Legacy of Alexander the Great - Richard A. Billows

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Richard A. Billows about his book assessing the factors behind Alexander the Great's success as a conqueror (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 720 out of 1016 pages.

Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859-1888 - John C. G. Röhl

As Röhl details the series of events that led to Wilhelm's succession. I'm more like "the end is in sight!" than anything else. I suspect I'll be taking a break before starting the second volume.

Reading progress update: I've read 277 out of 928 pages.

The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914 - Richard J. Evans

To describe the decline of the European aristocracy in the late 19th century, Evans quotes from the memoirs of Hermynia von Zur Mühlen, the daughter of an Austrian aristocrat who married a Baltic German nobleman. It proved less a successful marriage of opposites and more a war of contrasting worlds:

Hermynia's father-in-law tried to intervene: 'He would stare at me as though he thought I had lost my mind, then he would roar louder than ever: "If I were your husband I should bet you to a pulp." "If you were my husband," I replied, "I should either have murdered you a long time ago, or else you would have learned how to behave like a gentleman."'

 

And just like that, another book was added to my TBR stack.

Christmas in August!

— feeling happy

This morning I returned from my errands to find that my Christmas present had arrived:

 

 

They're not quite in the condition I hoped for (the tops of the covers have some spotting), but overall I'm extremely satisfied with them. Now, after a little cleaning, my wife will secret them away for the next four months, so that the next time I will see them it will be wrapped up under our Christmas tree.

Delving into labor history

John L. Lewis: A Biography - Melvyn Dubofsky, Warren Van Tine

Today a former classmate of mine messaged me to say that a professor we knew from graduate school had died last week. While I never really knew him (I doubt we exchanged more than greetings in all of my time there), he was a real institution, known for his work in business history, and I went to the department's website to read his bio before it was removed.

 

As I went over his CV, one of his books caught my attention. It was a biography he wrote decades ago on Samuel Gompers, the longtime leader of the American Federation of Labor. Seeing it there reminded me about one of my long-ago resolutions to read more labor history, something that I have neglected for far too long. There are many reasons for this, but the one that matters is that I find it a depressing subject: too much of it is about the thwarting of the efforts of ordinary people to earn a living wage for their daily drudgery. Yet with Labor Day approaching and my recently having gained greater flexibility in my reading choices, I decided that the time has come to start filling in the gap by reading a few biographies of labor leaders. I ordered a copy of Dubofsky's classic on John L. Lewis (which I passed up an opportunity to buy years ago and yes, I still remember that and I'm still annoyed with myself about it), and I may try to squeeze in one or two more while the opportunity lasts.

 

And one of those that I'm going to squeeze in is that Gompers biography. I feel like I owe it to that old curmudgeon.

A reading reprieve!

The Spanish Frontier in North America - David J. Weber

Today was the day when my school's administration made the final decision as to what classes would be cut for the fall semester. Given our declining enrollments, it's come to be an anxious time when schedules set months in advance are upset with bare days for people to adjust before classes start.

 

This time, though, I got the best news I could hope for, as among the classes cancelled was the History of the Southwest course I was scheduled to teach.

 

Back in June I was informed that one of my colleagues was giving up the class and that they needed me to teach it. This meant that I had to read up on the subject to prepare for the course. I made some progress, but I had a fall ahead of me in which most of my available reading time would be spent reading books on the American Southwest and synthesizing them into lectures.

 

Only with the class's cancellation I no longer have to worry about it! Now I can focus instead on reading with which I'm more intellectually engaged at the moment, namely the history of 19th and 20th century Europe, and take my time with the books I had planned to read to prepare my new course. What a relief!

Crossing the high bar of authenticity

Doctor Who: The Time Travellers - Simon Guerrier

I don't envy authors who write novels for established media franchises, as doing so poses challenges that they don't face when writing their own original creations. For such works to succeed, they must capture a certain tone of the series in a way that is true to the source material while broad enough to acknowledge their readers' often differing interpretation of it. This is especially true in terms of characterization without the filtering role that an actor or actress plays by taking scripts from multiple authors and filter them into their performance. Without this standardizing step, authors risk writing characters that can seem false to their source, even before having to address how an audience already familiar with these characters regards them.

 

For these reasons, writing such a book means crossing a high bar of authenticity in order to succeed, one that is even more challenging for the Doctor Who franchise, with its shifting tone over the decades and often outdated elements, Yet Simon Guerrier manages the feat successfully. His novel goes back to the beginnings of the franchise itself, offering a story in which the first Doctor and his original group of companions — his granddaughter Susan and teachers Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright — arrive in London in 2006 after the TARDIS encounters a man while traveling inside of time and space. The crew finds themselves in a future in which the city is under attack from an unknown power, with a team of scientists developing a primitive form of time travel in the hope that it might prove the key to victory. As the Doctor and his companions discover, though, the experiments have resulted instead in a mounting series of problems, all of which must be solved amidst an impending invasion and while dealing with a hidden agenda.


Working as he does with the very first group of travelers Guerrier tackles attitudes and outlooks that are increasingly dated to his readers. Yet he manages to portray them in a way that is respectful while making it work for a story very different from the ones written by the writers of the day. His characters find themselves in a nightmarish world ingeniously constructed by Guerrier out of other stories from the show, imagining the world that would have resulted had not the Doctor defeated the threats that faced it. While the result is a world traumatized and grim, the genius of his approach is that because this is happening so early in the Doctor's travels he and his companions are unable to recognize the situation for what it is: an alternate future shaped by the evil the Doctor would go on to avert. None of them appreciate that the broader setting is wrong; for them it is simply is a future that is far darker than they imagined it could be.

 

In this respect what Guerrier has accomplished is much more than simple fan service, as he has drawn from nearly a half-dozen serials from the original series to develop his plot. And while the logic of the story does not hold as well as it might, overall the book is a remarkable feat: a novel that entertains on multiple levels while remaining true to its original source material. It is a book that every Doctor Who fan should read, ideally after having seen the episodes from which Guerrier draws the elements that serve as the source material for his novel so as to better appreciate the extent of his success with it.

Reading progress update: I've read 160 out of 288 pages.

Doctor Who: The Time Travellers - Simon Guerrier

I am enjoying this book enormously, as it hits that sweet spot of providing an alternate history of a science fiction franchise for which I feel enormous affection. What makes it so interesting is that Simon Guerrier envisions an alternate history constructed around events that the characters haven' experienced yet, as they occurred in later seasons. This requires a degree of deft writing, and so far Guerrier seems to be pulling it off nicely.

The shoulders of giants, the exaggeration of inheritors

Before and After Alexander: The Legend and Legacy of Alexander the Great - Richard A. Billows

In this book, the classical scholar Richard Billows offers something different from the histories of the Alexander-centric historians who have preceded him. Rather than concentrating on Alexander, Billows expands his focus to  encompass the pre-Alexander history of his homeland of Macedonia and the fate of his empire that followed. Though these subjects have been addressed by others, by bringing them together into a single book, Billows assesses Alexander's achievements from a different perspective and the result is quite different from what might expect from previous books on the Macedonian conqueror.

 

The greatest consequence of Billows's approach is the highlighting of the achievements of Alexander's father, Philip. A great conqueror in his own right, while his reign has been overshadowed by his son, Billows makes clear how much of Alexander's success were due to his father's accomplishments. It was with Philip's army and Philip's commanders that Alexander waged his campaigns, which often used tactics that predated Alexander to win in battle. Yet Billows also notes that Philip himself was hardly an innovator, as he drew upon the experiences of decades of Greek wars in building his army into the Asian-conquering force of legend. This army was also the product of a region ripe for success, for as Billows details, its climate and geography gave it several natural advantages over the more tenuously-existing Green city states to the south.

 

From this perspective, Alexander's achievements were less as a creator than as an exploiter. This Billows underscores by emphasizing the unsustainable nature of his empire. As their abandonment so soon after Alexander's death makes clear, the Indian and Afghan territories comprising the easternmost edge of his conquests were simply too far off to be controlled from his resource base in Macedonia. While his plans for campaigns in North Africa and southern Europe may have been more realistic, they demonstrate that the essence of Alexander's achievements was conquest rather than construction. In this respect, his successors the diadochi deserve more credit for developing his legacy than Alexander himself merits, yet they too are often given only passing mention in most Alexander-centric considerations of the period.

 

All of this Billows lays out in an accessibly fluid text that makes for easy reading. He pulls no punches in his assessment of the "great" conqueror, and in doing so offers a valuable corrective to the overlarge reputation Alexander enjoys today. This is a book that anybody interested in a measured assessment of the legendary figure, one that details just how much of it rested on the shoulders of his predecessors and depended on the achievements of his successors.

When the Southwest was the far north

The Mexican Frontier, 1821-1846: The American Southwest Under Mexico - David J. Weber

Before the American Southwest was the American Southwest it was the northern frontier of Mexico, representing a third of the territory of the country after its leaders declared their independence from Span in 1821. What the region was like in the quarter century between its possession by Spain and its conquest by the United States is the subject of David J. Weber's book. It's a comprehensive work that begins by examining how the news of Augustin de Iturbide's declaration of independence was received in the region and concludes with the outbreak of the war that would lead to the U.S.'s annexation of the territory.

 

While Weber's text surveys the span of human activity in the territory, two themes emerge over the course of his text. The first is the sense of isolation for the Hispanic residents of the region. Independence was a fait accompli for them, one in which they had no say. In many ways little changed with the news, as the region went from being the sparsely settled northern region of Spain's empire in the Americans to the sparsely settled northern lands of the United States of Mexico. Many of the key issues and developments that defined the area during the last decades of Spanish control continued, with the Mexicans dealing with economic change and relations the Indians just as they had before. While independence meant shifts in the dynamics involved, these were concerns that engaged locals no matter who was in charge,

 

What changed most with Mexican independence was its relations with the United States. This emerges as the second theme of the book: the growing drift of the region into the U.S. orbit. Independence from Spain meant an end to the mercantilist policies restricting trade with the United States, just as the presence of Americans on the frontier was growing. American merchants and trappers eagerly entered the region in search of economic opportunities, establishing a visible presence for the U.S. while economically orienting the region to the northeast. Close behind them were American settlers, whose presence in Texas in particular disrupted the dynamics of the region. Mexican authorities were conflicted about this presence, welcoming the economic benefits brought by trade and the stabilizing effects of non-Indian settlement while increasingly wary of what would follow from the growing American interest in the region. Their concerns would be validated with the outbreak of war in 1846, as the American presence served as the wedge for annexation two years later.

 

Weber makes plain the factors that led to the region's takeover by the United States, yet this is only one of his book's many strengths. For while Weber details the growing interest in the region by many Americans it also tells the story of the residents themselves and the lives they led. His chapters highlight the many challenges they faced, from their limited resources to the indifference with which they were often treated by Mexican institutions and the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. Such coverage illustrates the challenges of life on the frontier in the early 19th century while underscoring how annexation came about. In all it makes Weber's book essential reading for anyone interested in the region, as he fills in the valuable details of what proved a critical period of transition in its history.

Damn you, publishing industry!

— feeling surrender
The Secret World: A History of Intelligence - Christopher M. Andrew

There are times when I just want the publishing industry to take a year off so I can get caught up on my reading backlog. It's a sentiment that I felt again when I read about Christopher Andrew's new book. How am I expected to make progress in my TBR pile when they keep publishing books like this?