As Christmas approaches, various magazines and newspapers in the UK have been putting forward their choices for the best History books of 2018. The past year has seen some excellent books on all aspects of the past, ranging from reassessments of the life and rule of Napoleon I in the eighteenth century to fresh studies of Arnhem in 1944 and American involvement in the Vietnam War just a few years later.
There have also been fascinating studies of ‘dictator literature’ in the twentieth century and of ‘civility’ and manners in early modern England. A well-received study has also explored a controversial aspect of the private life of Mary, Queen of Scots, while another book has set out some of the legacy of Mary.
In a recent edition of the ‘Saturday Review’ section of The Times newspaper, writer Gerard DeGroot explored some of the above tomes and also some of the other possible candidates for History ‘Books of the Year’.
One critically-acclaimed study has been Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, written by journalist and historian Max Hastings. In this ground-breaking new study, Hastings looks at how, to use DeGroot’s words, the USA’s initial ‘gargantuan’ self-belief ‘obscured the futility of the American mission’ in south-east Asia.
As Hastings reveals, it was near impossible for the USA to win a war that lacked a clear moral or strategic purpose. Hastings is able to draw on many of his own experiences as a young journalist who witnessed and reported directly from the conflict in the late 1960s, and is particularly effective on the reality of life for the ordinary conscript soldiers on the ground. In DeGroot’s estimation, the book ‘is by far the best book on the Vietnam War’.
Another possible candidate for acclaim is another study of the sheer brutality of warfare from the hard-working military historian Antony Beevor, Arnhem: The Battle for the Bridges 1944. This well argued and thoroughly researched new exploration of the disastrous Arnhem operation in Holland in September, 1944, which was the brainchild of British Field Marshal Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery, shows – according to DeGroot – how Monty’s ‘hubris’ destroyed an army. Indeed, in DeGroot’s view, Beevor’s book ‘is not a tale of heroes, although heroes are present. It’s a story about the ugliness of war. It’s about blood and piss and vomit, severed limbs, oozing brains and soldiers crying for their mothers’. As DeGroot points out: ‘No one beats Beevor at recreating the bewildering cacophony of war’.
Another possible candidate as a History book of the year is surely Daniel Kalder’s Dictator Literature: A History of Despots Through Their Writing. This well-written tome looks at the literary and propaganda efforts of murderous dictators such as Hitler, Mao and Saddam Hussein. As DeGroot notes, Kalder’s study ‘has done us a great service’ in the way the author has patiently read the books written by some of the biggest tyrants of the twentieth century, including the ‘mind-numbing drivel’ that was produced by Communist China’s Chairman Mao in his The Little Red Book, and some of the bizarre ‘Mills and Boon’ style books penned by the dictator of Iraq. According to DeGroot: ‘This wonderfully entertaining book is a cautionary tale about how societies are easily wooed by foolish demagogues spouting gibberish’.
Turning to earlier periods in the past and another despotic figure, Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth, penned by Adam Zamoyski, is a welcome new reassessment which, as DeGroot has pointed out, at last questions the genius of Napoleon Bonaparte. In DeGroot’s estimation, historians have been ‘too kind’ to the man who in fact presided over the worst military disaster in history – the string of defeats experienced by the French armed forces from Moscow in 1812 to Waterloo in 1815. In this ‘authoritative and robust’ new biography, Zamoyski ‘shows how Napoleon’s genius was the creation of his propaganda machine’.
Delving even further back into history, another possible candidate for the History book of 2018 is, in DeGroot’s estimation, arguably Keith Thomas’s In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilisation in Early Modern England. As DeGroot rightly comments, Thomas ‘has produced a delightfully quirky book’ about how the English ‘learnt to be nice’. Thus, between 1690 and 1760 an estimated 500 self-help manuals on ‘civility’ were published in the country, and out of ‘civility’ came ‘the quest to civilise’. However, there was also a dark side to this: it was a short step to slaughtering the ‘uncivilised’ in the interests of civilisation. As DeGroot observes, Thomas’s book is thus a study about ‘niceness’ – but also ‘its evil manifestations’.
And among some of the other candidates for the History Book of 2018, DeGroot has pointed to Rival Queens: The Betrayal of Mary, Queen of Scots, by Kate Williams, and Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots, penned by Nancy Goldstone.
The work by Williams investigates an under-explored episode in the life of the tragic figure of Mary: in April, 1567, she was raped, but she kept quiet about the crime. Why? Williams traces the possible reasons for Mary’s reluctance to acknowledge this brutal episode, and also writes more generally about the struggle faced by rape survivors throughout history. The study by Goldstone also further enhances our historical knowledge of Mary, but this time through an exploration of the story of four spirited sisters and their mother, Elizabeth Stuart (who was the daughter of James I and the grand-daughter of Mary, Queen of Scots). Like her grand-mother, Mary, the unlucky Elizabeth Stuart faced a number of, to use DeGroot’s words, ‘cruel twists of fate’. Yet, she and her daughters ‘somehow prevailed’, and Goldstone has recounted ‘an enthralling tale about brave women who rose above weak men’.
DeGroot’s survey for The Times of the possible History books of 2018 has identified a number of other works that could be on the list, including The Secret World: A History of Intelligence, by Christopher Andrew; The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, by David Gilmour; Rome: Eternal City, by Ferdinand Mount; and Roller-Coaster: Europe, 1950-2017, by Ian Kershaw.
Any one of these books would make an excellent present to place under somebody’s Christmas tree later this month. What all these wonderfully written and often very moving studies demonstrate is that 2018 has shown, once again, that there is a tremendous public appetite for well-researched studies by scholars of history, which are also both accessible and innovative.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)