Podcast #94 is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Sterling Murray about his biography of the classical composer Antonio Rosetti (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!
Over the years I've developed criteria for judging new surveys of well-covered historical subjects. First, does it offer any new information? Second, does it offer a different perspective than other books on the same subject? Third, does it do a better job of covering its subject than its (sometimes innumerable) predecessors? In the case of a book like Sondhaus's history of the naval dimension of the First World War, it faces the added burden of being measured up against Paul Halpern's superb account of the subject, which was published not even two decades previously.
In terms of the first criteria, the answer is mixed. Sondhaus does take full advantage of the works published in the intervening period (such as Nicholas Black's book on the British naval staff during the war) to flesh out some new aspects to the story. None of it really revises our overall understanding to the conflict, but it does help him to offer a different perspective from Halpern. In this respect, Sondhaus does offer something different from Halpern's book, for while he covers many of the same battles and campaigns he spends his first chapters on the prewar naval arms race and focuses more on the broader political and strategic aspects of naval operations during the war itself. Because of this, Sondhaus's book is arguably a better overview of the subject than Halpern's book, especially for someone who wants to understand the impact of the naval war upon the overall conflict.
Does this mean that Sondhaus's book is better than Halpern's? The answer depends more upon what the reader is seeking than anything else. For a history of naval operations during the war Halpern's book remains unsurpassed for its coverage and thoroughness, as Sondhaus's own reliance upon it as a source can attest. Yet as an introduction for the uninitiated Sondhaus's book enjoys a slight edge. Fortunately we don't live in a world where we have to choose between the two books, and can benefit from reading both, yet Sondhaus's is definitely recommended first for a reader new to the subject before having them turn to Halpern's more richly detailed account.
This is a book that, having read Ian Kershaw's massive two-volume biography of Adolf Hitler (which he wrote afterward), I didn't think I needed to read. Now I realize how wrong I was; this is one of the absolute must-reads for anyone seeking to understand how the Third Reich functioned.
Kershaw's focus in this book is on Hitler's popularity and its role in legitimizing the regime. Using Max Weber's formulation of "charismatic authority," he examines the rise of the "leadership cult" around Hitler, and how it became an important instrument in Nazi rule. This was hardly an original invention of Hitler's, but drew upon leadership cults in German culture from imperial times. Conservative Germans disaffected from the Weimar Republic longed for a strong man to restore Germanys their imperial greatness, while the miseries of the Great Depression led many to seek someone who could deliver Germany from its travails. Hitler's public persona was crafted to satisfy this demand, and was the key ingredient in the Nazis's rise to power.
Hitler maintained this aura as chancellor through careful image management. An important aspect of this was the awareness that its maintenance required association with positive developments. Because of this his appearances were rationed, tied to announcements of economic progress and foreign policy triumphs. By contrast the party itself soon came into popular disrepute through its conspicuous displays of petty corruption. Not only did Hitler rise above this, but his popularity ensured his indispensability to the party -- in short, they needed him in order to maintain their authority.
For all of Hitler's (and Joseph Goebbels's) success in maintaining his popularity, Kershaw sees it as contingent upon circumstances. The gap between economic promises and results was ignored as Hitler scored foreign policy triumphs, while general uneasiness about the outbreak of the war in 1939 was soon dispelled by the military triumphs in Western Europe. Yet Kershaw portrays Hitler as falling victim to the classic flaw of believing his own press, with the failure to bring about a popularly-anticipated end to the war, coupled with the surprise attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, as signaling the beginning of the decline of his stature. With the German people increasingly exposed to the failings and brutality of the Nazi regime, Hitler's popularity plummeted to the point when, by the end of the war, they regarded themselves as much as victims of it as were the rest of Europe.
Kershaw's book is a fascinating study of the role the Hitler image played in Nazi Germany. His analysis helps to explain much about his role for the German people during those years, and how Germans rationalized the terrible developments of those years. If there is a flaw, it's that Kershaw doesn't tie his findings into broader discussions of leadership beyond Weber; his argument about how Germans saw Hitler as unaware of Nazi corruption, for example, was squarely in a tradition of "the courtiers, not the king" rationalizations which have a long tradition in Western history. Nevertheless, this is a enormously important study of the Nazi regime, one that should be interested in this history of modern Germany or the Second World War.
Half a millennium after a lone monk began a theological dispute that eventually tore Western Christendom asunder both religiously and politically, does the event known as the Reformation still matter? In his book Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, Carlos M.N. Eire determined to examine the entire period leading up to and through the epoch of the Reformation. An all-encompassing study for beginners and experts looks to answer that question.
Eire divided his large tome into four parts: On the Edge, Protestants, Catholics, and Consequences. This division helps gives the book both focusing allowing the reader to see the big picture at the same time. The 50-60 years covered in “On the Edge” has Eire go over the strands of theological, political, and culture thoughts and developments that led to Luther’s 95 theses. “Protestants” goes over the Martin Luther’s life then his theological challenge to the Church and then the various versions of Protestantism as well as the political changes that were the result. “Catholics” focused on the Roman Church’s response to the theological challenges laid down by Protestants and how the answers made at the Council of Trent laid the foundations of the modern Catholicism that lasted until the early 1960s. “Consequences” focused on the clashes between the dual Christian theologies in religious, political, and military spheres and how this clash created a divide that other ideas began to challenge Christianity in European thought.
Over the course of almost 760 out of the 920 pages, Eire covers two centuries worth of history in a variety of ways to give the reader a whole picture of this period of history. The final approximately 160 pages are of footnotes, bibliography, and index is for more scholarly readers while not overwhelming beginner readers. This decision along with the division of the text was meant mostly for casual history readers who overcome the prospect of such a huge, heavy book.
Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 sees Europe’s culture change from its millennium-long medieval identity drastically over the course of two centuries even as Europe starts to affect the rest of the globe. Carlos N.M. Eire authors a magnificently written book that gives anyone who wonders if the Reformation still matters, a very good answer of if they ask the question then yes it still does. So if you’re interested to know why the Reformation matters, this is the book for you.