A few months ago, I made a list of books that I had read over the past year. To my surprise, that post generated a fair amount of interest. Therefore, I have compiled a list of the books that I read this summer.
Realpolitik: A History by John Bew: Bew has written a truly fascinating book about the evolution of the term realpolitik. Originally coined by a German, Ludwig von Rochau, the term has now come to be synonymous with realism and cold strategic calculations. That was not always the case, however. Rochau coined the term in his book Grundsätze der Realpolitik, angewendet auf die staatlichen Zustände Deutschlands while pondering the revolutions of 1848. In his book, Rochau argued that revolutionary elements within the German states needed to be less utopian in their political strategy and accept that reality requires compromise, not rigid moral purity. Rochau did not, however, argue that rationalism trumped emotion and culture. On the contrary, he thought it was highly rational and utterly necessary to consider and understand the role that ideational forces play in shaping history and politics. Bew also illuminates the evolution of the normative meaning of the term realpolitik, explaining how it was originally viewed as barbaric and “German” during WWI before gaining popularity during the 1930s. The book is far too rich and nuanced for me to do it justice in one paragraph. Suffice it to say, if you are interested in the history of ideas or the way in which terms and meanings evolve over time, this book is a must read.
Why Did Europe Conquer the World? by Philip T. Hoffman: This book was recommended to me by my comparative politics professor, and it was a really interesting read. Hoffman is an economic historian – a field with which I have little experience – and thus develops a very interesting approach for studying European military history. Hoffman argues that the standard explanations of European military dominance (for example, the ones made by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel) are unsatisfactory. The argument that diseases helped the Europeans expand doesn’t explain how the spice islands and parts of Southeast Asia were conquered, for example, as people in these regions had already developed immunity to most European disease. Other arguments such as the geographic makeup of Europe creating a fractious and war-prone region that catalyzed advancements in military technology are also unpersuasive because Europe is actually no more mountainous or variegated than China, an enormous and relatively unified power during the period of early European colonization. Hoffman develops a tournament model of conflict, which he argues better captures European warfare. In essence, he posits that Europe was uniquely war prone due to its hereditary, honor-bound political system. Thus, despite being technologically inferior and economically weaker than Middle Eastern and Asian powers, European leaders spent a far larger percent of GDP on military activities such as jousting tournaments and war. This allowed them to leap ahead of rival empires with regard to military capabilities, thus enabling European powers to defeat far more prosperous and advanced civilizations. If you enjoy history or novel approaches to answering old questions, I recommend you give this book a shot.
Political Order and Political Decay by Francis Fukuyama: A classic. Seriously, if you haven’t heard of Fukuyama’s work, you have been living under a rock. Fukuyama is arguably the greatest social theorist of the past few decades, and is one of the greatest thinkers to ever grace this planet. From the development of the U.S. Forest Service to patronage networks in southern Italy to the current gridlock in Washington, Fukuyama thoroughly examines the evolution of political institutions and the reasons for their decay. If you are interested in the systems and institutions of politics, you need to read this book. If you don’t care about politics at all, you should still get this book because it is a classic that you need to have on your bookshelf.
The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 by Nicholas Stargardt: I discovered The German War after Stargardt came to Georgetown to speak about the research that went into this book. Essentially, Stargardt tries to understand what it was like to be a German during WWII using archival analysis. Germany was clearly the aggressor during the Second World War, and thus the experiences of its many victims – the Slavs, Jews, Roma, etc. – have been examined in excruciating detail. Few, however, have looked at how the war was viewed by actual Germans. Stargardt paints a complex picture of the German experience during the war. For example, he finds that most Germans knew of the atrocities committed by their regime, making German war guilt even more powerful. However, Stargardt also paints a picture of solidarity and camaraderie, vividly recounting the travails of ordinary citizens who suffered constant bombing and soldiers ordered to violate their consciences. In sum, Stargardt has penned a powerful and moving book that deserves to be read by anyone seeking to understand WWII or the impact that the war had on German society and culture.
The Invisible Hand of Peace: Capitalism, the War Machine, and International Relations Theory by Patrick J. McDonald: This is a slightly more technical book, so if you aren’t a political science nerd, it’s probably not worth reading. That being said, I found it to be an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking work. In The Invisible Hand of Peace, McDonald attempts to understand the role that democracy and free-market institutions play in constraining countries’ propensity for conflict. He finds that while the so-called democratic peace (the claim that democracies do not fight one another) is likely wrong or at least severely overstated, free market institutions tend to make states more pacific, as business interests push for increased trade and lobby against costly and damaging wars. To be sure, I found parts of his analysis to be unconvincing. For instance, McDonald’s claim that the absence of a democratic peace prior to WWI undercuts the veracity of democratic peace theory seems foolish to me because pre-WWI democracy is meaningfully different than the kind of democracy that developed in the early 20th century and interwar period. That being said, McDonald’s statistical work is robust and his empirical analysis is deeply illuminating. If you are at all interested in the intersection of economics and international conflict, I can’t recommend this book enough.