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Spring into the past

Forty history books for 40 (or more) evenings of edification

Spring into the past

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

Since many of our readers love reading history books, we’ve had articles the past three Octobers about worthwhile ones. We’ll do that again this year—but amid coronavirus social isolation many of us are looking for good reading material. So here’s a spring set of history book recommendations.

Let’s start with my top six of the past six months. Great Society by Amity Shlaes (Harper, 2019) is a cautionary tale of what happens, both in peace and war, when those in charge don’t know or don’t care about what’s happening at ground level. Shlaes shows how ideological “poverticians did not want to hear from the cities or the churches” but instead fought the War on Poverty and the war in Vietnam through number-crunching. She adeptly portrays main characters—Walter Reuther, Tom Hayden, Michael Harrington, Pat Moynihan, Arthur Burns, and others—as human beings, not brains-on-sticks. 

With the coronavirus on our minds, War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War (Basic, 2020) is a fascinating read about a past pandemic and what else was going on as the deadly Spanish flu strolled the streets. Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith teach us about 1918 and adjacent years by focusing on three interesting characters: German orchestra conductor Karl Muck, lawyer and war hero Charles Whittlesey, and Babe Ruth. The two history professors write exceptionally well and structure their work for a poignant ending. 

Third, Daniel Chirot’s You Say You Want a Revolution (Princeton, 2020) is a tightly written history of revolution as tragedy. Chirot shows how moderates lost control in France, Russia, Iran, and Germany. He bitingly describes the result: revolutionary terror, autocratic corruption, and other demonstrations of how revolutions almost always end in bloodshed and failure. Chirot urges vigilance against socialist and fascist viruses.

Fourth: Conservatives often are compassionate, and Douglas Smith’s The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union From Ruin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) is a case in point. Communists who seized Russia in 1917 set the pattern (see Venezuela’s recent history) of quickly destroying their economy. By 1921 starvation loomed. Enter American humanitarians who ran the largest feeding operation in history, in the process saving the lives of more than 10 million Russians and Ukrainians—and doing so in the realization that they were enabling the survival of an evil regime.

Fifth, for those with multiple free evenings: Stephen Harrigan’s Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas (University of Texas Press, 2019) is 829 pages of storytelling—but since Texas has 254 counties, that’s only 3.26 pages per county. Harrigan portrays characters who made Texas larger than life: Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Gov. Hogg and his daughter Ima, Pa and Ma Ferguson, “Pass the Biscuits” Pappy O’Daniel, David Koresh, the Bushes. But he also makes room for immigrants who came in chains or by choice, entrepreneurs whose businesses or election prospects came crashing down, and a variety of rascals, renegades, and racists. 

My sixth choice is much shorter, and it may owe its existence to Donald Trump. Edwin Battistella’s Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels: Insulting the President, from Washington to Trump (Oxford, 2020) shows that historical amnesia underlies some claims about the purportedly good old days of civility. “Lying Hillary” is in the long tradition of Martin Van Ruin, Fainting Frank Pierce, Useless Grant, Rutherfraud Hayes, Tricky Dick Nixon, and Slick Willy Clinton.

NOW, LET’S RUN THROUGH other worthwhile books in chronological order, starting with those about the Old World. Liberal historians often say that religious liberty emerged from the 17th-century religious wars or the 18th-century Enlightenment, but Robert Louis Wilken’s Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom (Yale, 2019) shows how early Christians such as Tertullian argued that “every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions. … It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”

Martin Goodman’s Josephus’s “The Jewish War”: A Biography (Princeton, 2019) offers useful background about the birth of that classic history and how it’s been used over the centuries. The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin, by Jonathan Phillips (Yale, 2019), is a smoothly written story of a central figure in the history of the Crusades. Saladin, of Kurdish descent, has received good publicity for more than 800 years not only from Muslims but from the nobles of Christendom, such as Richard the Lionheart, whom he defeated. He wasn’t as generous and merciful as some claimed, but he was also not as bloodthirsty as many of his contemporaries. 

Edward Smither’s Christian Mission: A Concise Global History (Lexham, 2019) comes through on the pledge of its title, overviewing 2,000 years in 200 pages. Smither accentuates the positive but doesn’t overlook some missionary mistakes: “the abuse of power, the conflation of empire and mission.” Laurence Louër’s Sunnis and Shi’a: A Political History (Princeton, 2020) goes deep into the weeds of the Muslim rift: It’s hard plowing, but valuable for those who want to understand the complexities. 

Two writers have given their names to Machiavellian and Orwellian manipulation. Patrick Boucheron’s Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching People What to Fear (Other Press, 2020) is a lively read that reveals how the Florentine “studied the art of government”—by traveling and writing, not imagining and speculating. Machiavelli praised deceit and manipulation: He criticized ideals of Christian compassion and said wise leaders should choose to be feared rather than loved. Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth (Doubleday, 2019) is a thorough biography of George Orwell’s 1984 that shows what went into it and why it is still popular.     

Norman Lebrecht’s Genius & Anxiety (Scribner, 2019) is full of fascinating biographical tidbits about intellectuals and celebrities of Jewish ancestry from Felix Mendelssohn, Karl Marx, and Benjamin Disraeli through Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Proust, Emma Lazarus, and Sigmund Freud, to Albert Einstein, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Gustav Mahler, Amedeo Modigliani, Franz Kafka, and Michael Curtiz. We also learn about those they touched: Louis Armstrong received his first trumpet from the Karnovsky family after he ran errands in New Orleans. Armstrong later wrote, “It was the Jewish family who instilled in me singing from the heart.” 

The Ship of Dreams (Atria, 2019) is a detailed analysis of the 1912 Titanic sinking. Author Gareth Russell, like a good reporter, zoomed in on six of the passengers, examined deck plans and previously unpublished sources, and learned that some of the clichés—everything from locked gates that trapped third-class passengers to malign capitalist conspiracies—are plain untrue. The problem was the push to set a cross-­Atlantic speed record, which led to the captain’s failure to slow down amid iceberg sightings. 

If you’re looking for a long but readable book about an area of the world that most historians neglect, John Connelly’s From People Into Nations (Princeton, 2020) is an excellent history of Eastern Europe. Warning: It’s 956 pages. I confess to not reading every one, but several hundred were enough to convince me that I’ll come back to Connelly when I want background on one of those nations that’s in the news. 

Alexander Watson’s The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands (Basic, 2020) focuses on one terrible six months in one of Eastern Europe’s cities. The Hapsburg Empire decided to make its last stand in a fortress city near the border of the Russian Empire: What happened there led to the downfall of both empires. 

P.E. Caquet in The Bell of Treason: The 1938 Munich Agreement in Czechoslovakia (Other Press, 2018) shows how human cowardice magnifies evil. Had England stood with the Czechs and France in 1938, it would probably have averted early World War II disaster. A chapter on Adolf Hitler leads off Frank Dikötter’s How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century (Bloomsbury, 2019). Depressing but instructive and well-written chapters on Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, and others follow. 

Robert Gellately’s Hitler’s True Believers: How Ordinary People Became Nazis (Oxford, 2020) is both scholarly and startling. It’s easy to see the Nazi rank-and-file as poor distressed individuals demagogued into murder, but Gellately reports: “Medical doctors rushed to join the Nazi Party. … They coveted the positions of Jewish physicians.” Doctors were three times more likely than people in socially lower positions to be Nazis. Other elites were also overrepresented. 

In Between the Swastika & the Sickle (Eerdman’s, 2019), James Edwards narrates the life and disappearance of Ernst Lohmeyer, a theologian who opposed German anti-Semitism and called Jewish scholar Martin Buber his “brother.” Drafted into the German army in 1939, Lohmeyer participated in the invasion of Poland and wrote to Rudolf Bultmann: “What is happening in the occupied territories is so impossible and unspeakable that it would have been a thousand times better never to have started this war. … From a moral perspective we have lost everything.” Communists secretly executed Lohmeyer in 1946. His wife received official notification 11 years later. 

Martin Mosebach’s The 21: A Journey Into the Land of Coptic Martyrs (Plough, 2019) describes his encounters with the families of the 21 Christians whom ISIS decapitated in 2015 on a Libyan beach. He spoke with family members as they replayed on an iPad the propaganda video of murder: Instead of emphasizing revenge, they showed pride at having martyrs in their families. 

Jude Blanchette’s China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong (Oxford, 2019) examines the battles within the Chinese Communist Party since Mao’s death in 1976. His look at neo-Maoism and Xi Jinping is useful in understanding China’s “national communism with capitalist characteristics.”

TURNING TO THOSE who made a huge impact on the New World: Alan Gallay’s Walter Ralegh (Basic, 2019) is a long but fascinating look at the English courtier and colonizer who went from Queen Elizabeth’s favorite to having his head chopped off 401 years ago. Opposing those who equate colony-creation with bigotry and racism, Ralegh apparently argued for tolerance and peace with Native Americans.

John Turner’s They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty (Yale, 2020) is a scholarly but readable history of the small colony whose 1620 start will be remembered later this year. The years of a small colony are 70, or 80 if they had the strength—but Plymouth did not, and in 1691 it became part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. The Pilgrims filled those 71 years of Plymouth existence with debates about religious liberty and treatment of natives. 

Overviews useful for teachers: Robert Morgan’s 100 Bible Verses That Made America (Thomas Nelson, 2019) is a reader-friendly way of organizing positive stories about the Pilgrims in 1620, the National Prayer Breakfast in 2019, and Scripture-quoting patriots or presidents in between. Richard Brookhiser’s Give Me Liberty (Basic, 2019) offers smooth origin stories about 13 important documents—from the minutes of the Jamestown General Assembly to Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech. 

Disestablishment and Religious Dissent, edited by Carl Esbeck and Jonathan Den Hartog (University of Missouri Press, 2019), is heavy-duty but important reading. Executive summary: American revolutionaries, unlike their French counterparts, were pro-church. Thomas Jefferson had little influence. The advocates of financial voluntarism rather than state-supported churches took decades to convince others. The wall between church and state that existed from 1776 to 1833 was hugely porous.

Regnery regularly pops out lively history books such as Robert Hutchinson’s The Lincoln Assassination (2020), which walks well-trod ground but offers good specific detail. James Lundberg’s Horace Greeley (Johns Hopkins, 2019) is a readable biography of the 19th-century journalist so polarizing and inconsistent that Lincoln wanted to kick him around, but ended up petting and feeding him.

Attempting to meld military history with World Wide Wrestling, Britain’s Osprey Publishing has a series of well-illustrated matchups that middle-school boys would probably like: I read Sioux Warrior Versus U.S. Cavalryman (2019), but other bouts include U.S. Marine versus German soldier and British infantryman versus Zulu warrior. H.W. Brands’ Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West (Basic, 2019) is more scholarly and reads well, but it has ideological undertones. The federal government, as indicated by the Louisiana Purchase and federal payment for railroads, is really the book’s hero: “Individualism has built the East, but it would fail in the West unless complemented by large doses of collective action.”

Moving to the 20th and 21st centuries: Thomas Kidd’s Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale, 2019) is a good and quick survey of a religious movement grown fuzzy. Kidd reports that “since 1976 evangelical has become a code term for white religious Republicans. But evangelicalism in practice remains an ethnically and politically diverse movement focused on the new birth in Christ.” He also notes that the number of evangelicals who believe in evangelical doctrines is “much lower than the number of self-identifying evangelicals.” 

The United States after 2003 worked to bring democracy to Iraq—but we should have emphasized liberty (protection against government tyranny) rather than democracy, which can be its own tyranny. Randall Holcombe’s Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History (Independent Institute, 2019) shows how for a century we’ve been making the same mistake domestically. The U.S. Senate and the Electoral College, for instance, were originally insulated from political fads, but the goal of leading Democratic candidates now is to require electors to vote for whoever gets the most votes nationwide.

Joe Posnanski’s The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini (Simon & Schuster, 2019) is another enjoyable read. Fans of the great escape artist who died 94 years ago knew he was deceiving them in some way but did not know how. Jason Storbakken’s Bowery Mission: Grit and Grace on Manhattan’s Oldest Street (Plough, 2019) tells of how Christian charity facilitated amazing escapes from homelessness and alcoholism. 

Matthew Sutton’s Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War (Basic, 2019) tells of heroism but also deception, spotlighting the work of individuals such as John Birch. Rafael Medoff’s The Jews Should Keep Quiet (Jewish Publication Society, 2019) shows how the Roosevelt administration condemned to death hundreds of thousands of European Jews, even though the Virgin Islands, the Dominican Republic, and (moving from hot to cold) Alaska were eager to welcome them.

The baseball player who exemplified grit and grace almost never got his chance: Michael Lee Lanning’s The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (Stackpole, 2020) shows how the baseball legend honorably battled for civil rights during World War II and almost ended up dishonorably discharged. Tevi Troy’s Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump (Regnery, 2020) amusingly makes the case that current jostling among presidential staffers is not unique.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.