With the new semester starting up, I decided it was time to make another post on the books I have read. This time, I’ll cover the texts I read over Christmas break. As always, I hope you enjoy.
The War That Ended Peace (by Margaret MacMillan): Despite having already read a fair number of books about the First World War, I decided to read yet another during my Christmas break. While this may seem redundant, I found it to be a valuable use of my time because World War One is such a complex and confusing conflict and, therefore, requires a large amount of study to be properly understood. I found MacMillan’s book to be inferior to Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, as it lacks many of the novel and fascinating anecdotes that made Clark’s work such a success. That being said, The War That Ended Peace is still a superb book that adroitly covers all of the salient events leading up to the war. In particular, I thought MacMillan did a masterful job of capturing the Zeitgeist in Europe during the early 20th century. While I found much of the actual information in the book to be unoriginal and slightly unfair toward Germany, it was an excellent summary of the lead up to the war. If you are looking for a comprehensive and well-written account of the onset of World War One, you would be well-advised to try The War That Ended Peace.
What is Populism? (by Jan Werner-Müller): This was a great little book that should be mandatory reading for anyone trying to understand the immense success of populist parties throughout the developed world. What is Populism? posits that populism represents the shadow of liberal democracy, as it is an ideology that attempts to keep democracy while rejecting liberalism. This results in a form of highly exclusionary politics that privileges the “real people” at the expense of “others.” Some academics argue that populist governments are oxymoronic because protest parties have no platform beyond bashing elites and belittling mainstream policies. Worryingly, Werner-Müller clearly and convincingly rejects this argument, pointing out that politicians like Erdoĝan and Orbán have been able to successfully lead populist regimes. After all, Werner-Müller argues, if populism really is the darker version of liberal democracy, there is no reason governments couldn’t adopt exclusionary politics designed to overrepresent “the chosen people” while intentionally marginalizing other voices. Given the current direction of Western politics, this warning must be taken seriously.
Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (by Eric Weitz): Weitz’ book is truly fantastic and is, in my opinion, the authoritative text on Weimar Germany. Indeed, almost every class on 1920s/1930s Germany here at Georgetown lists this book as required reading. The strength of Weimar Germany is its broad scope. Too many historical works focus on the classic topics of politics and diplomacy at the expense of other areas. This is certainly not the case with Weimar Germany, though. Weitz covers everything from domestic politics to art to music and theater in his wide-ranging book, and in so doing, he does a great service to those attempting to acquire a holistic understanding of Germany during the interwar period. One slight frustration I had with the book was Weitz’ seemingly Pollyanish views toward German Communists. While I agree with his assessment of German conservatism and its role in creating the Nazi party, I think Weitz sometimes paints an overly sympathetic picture of radical communist networks in the Weimar Republic. Given the rise of politicians like Walter Ulbricht in the GDR, I think Weitz’ views toward the Communists are, perhaps, a bit unfounded. That being said, this book is absolutely superb, and it provides an excellent review of an often overlooked era in German history.
The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (by John Toland): This is the best book I have read in the past year. If you are fascinated by the War in the Pacific or Japanese history, I can’t recommend this book enough. Toland performs the rare feat of writing an accurate and deeply researched tome that is both well-written and deeply engaging. The Rising Sun is a long book (over 900 pages if one includes the notes at the end), but it is supremely easy to read because the technical skill of the author is first rate. Toland’s strength is in providing a view of the war from the Japanese perspective. At the same time, though, Toland is also able to effectively incorporate American and British primary sources, creating a balanced and well-rounded account of the conflict. The Rising Sun is a narrative that is both wide in scope and, at the same time, deeply personal and detailed. Moreover, The Rising Sun is filled with riveting, funny, and sometimes tragic anecdotes that create a history that is engaging and personal, not whitewashed and boring. Honestly, I doubt one even needs to be interested in World War Two to enjoy this book. It is such a fulfilling and well-written book that anyone, even those who hate history, should be able to read it with pleasure.