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The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge
The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution and Revenge
by Paul Preston
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent use of thematic approach to make war and its context understandable., 5 Aug. 2014
By the standards of key works on Spain's Civil War this is fairly concise at about 300 pages. However its value to students of the period is far more than this (possibly partly because it is so tightly structured).

This is not a blow by blow account of the war. For that the newest Beevor work is probably better. Rather Preston takes a loosely narrative structure and uses it to examine the key themes produced by the conflict in a clear and perceptive manner. The initial chapters setting the context should be compulsory reading not just for those interested in the 1930's but for those who want to understand modern Spain. The divisions and splits apparent before 1930 still figure prominently today: the historic poverty of the rural south and west still shows in the fact today that these areas are hardest hit by "la crisa". The separatist tendencies of the Basques and Catalans similarily predate the Franco and Post Franco era.

The complexities of the political infighting of both right and especially left in the 1930's is an area that can confuse and make the period difficult to fathom. Preston does an excellent job of navigating the reader through the ebb and flo of the politics helped by a list of key figures and a glossary of key terms attached as appendii. I found his treatment of the international aspect of the war most illuminating. Not just the intervention of Italy and Germany but also in making the less obvious war aims of the USSR evident. Most of all he shows up the at best perfidious, at worst antagonistic attitude of France and especially Britain to the legitimate Republican government. Officially peddling non-intervention, this did little more than cloak indirect support for Franco and the nationalists. It was left to the International Brigades to restore some dignity for the western Great Powers.

The full title of the work includes, "Reaction, revolution and revenge". It is the final section that may provoke most thinking by those new to the period. Revenge was displayed by both sides. The Republic, especially early on was guilty of unprovoked attacks on clergy, property owners and "fifth columnists" killing many thousands. Yet Preston shows how attacks, reprisals, disappearances became part of the systematic advance of Franco's forces and supporters. Indeed Preston argues the war took so long to end as a consequence of Franco's desire to eliminate possible future Left and Republican opposition as his armies progressed through Spain (rather like the actions of the Red Army outside Warsaw at the end of the Second World War as they waited for the Germans to eliminate the non-communist Poles of the failed Polish uprising before the Red Army itself entered the city to liberate it from the Germans). This revenge led to not just secret killings but also mass imprisonments in labour camps and the continued impoverishment of what were the last Republican areas of control for many years after the end of war.

In his introduction, Preston makes clear his sympathies are with the Republic rather than with Franco. However he does not let this show in his writing – and is to be commended all the more for telling readers this. For actual students of the period there is one further gem. The final chapter is a comprehensive and very well explained critique on the works available on the civil war. This in itself makes reading worthwhile!

The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe
The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe
by Andrew Wheatcroft
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Useful to English readers but needs developing, 5 Aug. 2014
Wheatcroft tells a story little written about by English speaking historians - the attempts by the Ottoman Turks to capture Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries. The focus here is on the campaign which came closest to success, that of 1683. The most useful part of the work is in placing this attack in the context of Turkish advance westwards since the 15th century and in showing the reader new to the topic just how extensive this was. The duration of the Turkish presence in much of Hungary until the 18th century and the Hapsburg wars against the Turks which lasted until the end of that century were a surprise to me.

The 1683 siege is covered in much detail although as mentioned before in other reviews the quality of the maps in this ebook was poor and place names almost totally unreadable (when will publishers do something about this? Some now recognise the problem but their solution is to publish without any maps at all...) which made it difficult to always follow the progress of both the initial Turkish march on the capital and then the military configuration of those armies lifting the siege. However the detail of the narrative is clear.

Unfortunately, the focus tends to fade once the siege is lifted and the narrative becomes an outline of future campaigns and battles which I found somehow lacking in substance and unsatisfying. Part Three is more an essay on the nature of Austria's "Age of Heroes" (Heldenzeitalter) which followed the final succession of victories against the Ottomans. These included the hero of 1683, Charles of Lorraine, and Prince Eugene of Savoy the 18th century leader and enabled Vienna to construct a fantasy of military heroism and prowess that would last well into the 19th century (and even contribute to the hubris of 1914) and long after any repetition of victorious military campaigns was possible within the Empire. The Austrian historian Michael Hochedlinger is quoted as describing this ‘belated great power’, as having a ‘splendid baroque surface, it perhaps had more of a trompe l’oeil and resembled a colossus on feet of clay, whose fate was always hanging by a thread’. The connections with 1683 are made but at times this final section feels more like an afterthought.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pleased with item but wait too long, 15 Mar. 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Case has just arrived and fits well. This is important given the unorthodox shape of the Yoga. Clever use of Velcro openings allow the yoga stand to be used. All openings are in the correct place. Durability will need to await some time of usage. Would have given 4/5 stars but for the long wait (over two weeks) for the item. This was stated in the dispatch confirmation which said it could have been four weeks(!) but it is a bit late then. Had Amazon made this clear at point of sale I would have gone elsewhere. It came from Germany so given the wait it seems they probably order from China on the basis of each Amazon order. Amazon need to do better than this. Even eBay tell you where an item is sourced from

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
by Christopher Clark
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.69

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not why - but how political ineptitude led to the Great War, 25 Jan. 2014
At the moment there is a deluge of books attempting, so it would seem, to cash in on the outbreak of the 1914 war rather than to advance its study. "Sleepwalkers" is an exception to this. In the introduction to the book Christopher Clark writes that its purpose is not to explain why the First World War happened. Rather it is to show how it came about by looking at the complex relationships between the main players and the outcomes they produced, culminating in the declarations of war that brought about the war.

Complex the relationships certainly are. Clark's meticulously argued work though places the key focus on the Balkans and the relationships that developed and festered there between Austro-Hungary, Serbia and Russia. By 1913 several points emerge that would have an impact on the decisions of June/July 1914:

1. Russia was becoming a growing threat to an increasingly unreliable stability between the Great Powers. It's apparent support for Serbia in the Balkan Wars alienated Austro-Hungary just as its incursions into Persia antagonised Britain. Thanks to French loans it was undergoing a massive programme of military rearmament and revival (at the time believed to be greater than it actually was). This in turn helped contribute to the German rearmament programme of 1913 which in turn led to further French and Russian expenditure on weapons and tweaking of war plans.

2. The French saw supporting greater Russian involvement in the Balkans as in their interests for if war broke out between Russia and Austro-Hungary, Germany would become involved in support of Vienna. If Russia then tied up German forces in the east this would give France the opportunity to attack and defeat weaker German forces in the west.

3. Recent experience had taught Austro-Hungary to believe that using a realistic threat of force was the only means of getting its way against an increasingly militant, nationalist and aggressive Serbia.

Clark shows that this need not necessarily have resulted in the catastrophe of 1914. In a careful study he shows that each country had supporters for and against the actual path followed and policies pursued. In several cases the countries had also displayed contrary policies to the ones that actually occurred in June/July 1914. There was a signal lack of clear leadership in each major power so that ambiguity of intentions and the nature of likely outcomes reigned as the final fateful decisions were made. Britain was perhaps the most perfidious of all, Foreign Secretary Grey encouraging Germany to believe Britain might not get involved, whilst at the same time leading France and Russia to think the opposite. The Alliances were uncertain, not always what they seemed to be.

It would appear that the generation born in the 1880's and 1890's and who would die by the millions were let down not just by the quality of the wartime military leadership but also by that of their pre-war politicians. As "Sleepwalkers" reaches June and July 1914 it is the politicians lack of prescience that brings the peace to an end. Clark suggests a key role in the encouragement French President Poincare gives to Russia as ensuring what might have remained a local Austro-Hungarian conflict with Serbia becoming a continental war.

And what of Germany, blamed at Versailles and focus of much finger-pointing by historians? The chapter on the "blank cheque" is clear in showing crucial initial German support for Austrian action against Serbia ie to support a localised, if not continental war. However what is implicit is that it was the resultant (and clumsy) actions of Russia, with French encouragement, that transformed what might have remained a local conflict into the Great Power continental one.

This is essential reading for students seeking to understand the outbreak of war beyond the classic long term/short term causes approach. It shows emphatically how the lack of clarity in political decision-making and a failure to understand the implications of decisions made, led Europe to fall into war, oblivious to its industrialised reality.

Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest
Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest
by Wade Davis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

5.0 out of 5 stars An intelligently written and painstakingly researched story, 2 Dec. 2013
To call Wade Davis's book on the British Everest Expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924 a work on mountaineering is to do it a disservice. It is an intelligently written and painstakingly researched story that weaves much more into the narrative than how three successive expeditions tackled Everest and failed.

Wade places these post World War 1 climbs into a very broad context: the world of the Edwardian gentleman Alpinist and their studied denial of professionalism (to the extent of resisting the use of oxygen on Everest as it was not quite "good form"); the emergence of the Bloomsbury milieu in which many of the mountaineers moved - its decadence as well as intellectualism; the religious beliefs and customs of Tibet as well as its 19th and 20th century troubled history with China and Britain's imperial meddling in the region; the need for a specific British success in a feat of exploration to redeem the country after 1918 and the failure to achieve that other great international trophy: the first to the South Pole. Each of these is covered in detail allowing for the mindset of the mountaineers and their hosts to be better understood - as well as their final failure.

However the central piece of context is that of the Great War. With one exception (Irvine) all the climbers were frontline officers who survived the war. As the narrative unfolds Wade looks at each in turn outlining their war and how its horrors impacted on each one. Their stories are told in stark and brutal detail. It is clear that at war's end they carried the burden of what they had seen and who they had lost. Their response to life, danger and death was clearly conditioned by the temporary and fragile nature of their wartime experience. All of this background takes time to present (in the 600 pages or so we don't start on the first expedition until the late 200's) but is not only essential to the unfolding drama but presented in a skilful way that is easy to read.

The second part of the book looks at each of the three expeditions in turn showing how gradually the climbers reached higher up Everest until the summit was less than 1000 feet away and ends with the death of Mallory and Irvine on their final attempt (by now using oxygen) to reach the summit. The emotions provided by the book are complex. At times it is difficult to empathise with the main characters. The imperial attitude towards bearers and sherpas (despite a few occasions of considerable bravery to protect then) will leave an unpleasant taste to modern readers. The carriage by bearers across much Tibet of items clearly not crucial to an expedition - bottles of vintage champagne from private personal cellars and tins of foix gras - again is symptomatic of a bygone age of privilege. One word used frequently by Wade in describing team members at different times is "lassitude".

Yet this remains a story of determination as well as personal strength and bravery. The final, 1924 expedition shows this most of all. Probably one of the key factors in reducing the strength of the climbers for the one last attempt was the energy devoted to climbing up to a top camp to bring back, and so save their lives, four sherpas who had broken away from the main descent team and returned to the higher camp where they would otherwise die of exposure. Faced by the worst weather for many years repeated attempts are made to conquer Everest. Each in turn fails leaving the bearers exhausted (many walked out, two died) and the sahibs close to physical collapse (frost-bite, snow blindness, altitude sickness and physically weakened). Yet, despite apparently having his own misgivings, Mallory decides on one final attempt at the summit with Irvine and both head up alone from the top camp but do not return.

The irony that dawns on the reader during this final expedition is that the climbers are in fact reliving that Great War experience. It is a "campaign", repeated offensives are launched to push just a few yards further up the mountain, often followed by retreat and retrenchment. The sherpas are formed into "assault groups" to set up forward posts. Hardship, injury and danger from the unknown is a constant. Even the arguments over whether to use oxygen or not echoed the British wartime debate over whether to use modern technology to help break out of the stalemate. It is this that in the final analysis makes this such a sad work. Here were the survivors of a generation that suffered terribly during the Great War. Their attempts on Everest can perhaps be seen in part as a response to this. Having lived so closely with death and disfigurement for so long they took greater risks than otherwise might have been the case and were more dogged in the face of possible failure.

Although unlikely, Mallory may have made the summit, dying on the way back. The discovery of his body in 1999 does little to prove or disprove this. It is perhaps fitting though, that like so many of his wartime comrades his precise fate will never be known.

Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways
Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways
by Christian Wolmar
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

3.0 out of 5 stars providing new insights into a neglected area, 28 Oct. 2013
What Wolmar does is show the impact that railways had on military logistics and as a consequence on military tactics. The focus is on key conflict areas since the emergence of railways - initially the Crimean War and especially the US Civil War where railways first came into their own reflecting the influence of US Federal engineer, Herman Haupt, whose work for the United States Military Railroads in preparation for several battles, culminating at Gettysburg, would confirm the strategic role of the railways in warfare and who in effect produced the key guidelines for effective railway management and coordination with the military in time of war. Haupt's two main principles were that the military should not interfere in the operation of the train service, and that freight cars should be emptied and returned promptly, so that they were not used as warehouses (or even, as happened, as offices). These may seem obvious but the only armies that used railways effectively were those who were able to make best use of these principles. Prussia's wars with Denmark, Austria and France are examined as are those colonial conflicts fought by the British prior to 1914. The survey then goes onto look at the war that was most influenced by railways, World War 1.

The most impressive point for historians that comes through is how railways altered the fundamental dynamics of warfare. Logistics were always a restraint on the size of armies sent into the field. They could only be as large as the area around afforded them to live off. Consequently campaigns had to be swift, battles short, before food, fodder and ammunition ran out. Railways changed this. Especially for armies defending. They could be constantly supplied by more men, foodstuffs and equipment by rail. Battles could last as long as the rail line was open but could not move far from the railhead. A recipe for the Great War and its offensives of attrition. The railway train contributed as much to the slaughter on the western front as did the machine gun and artillery shell. In the east where rail was less developed the war was less static, less attritional. By World War 2 road and air mobility reduced the dependency on the railhead, but rail was still central to the war economy whether in Britain, Germany, the US or the Soviet Union where lines were destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed and then rebuilt again (often in a different gauge each time) as German troops advanced then were pushed back again by the Red Army.

Wolmar bemoans the lack of prior literature on the topic also admitting he is not a military historian and this is clear in several instances. Each conflict begins with an outline description of the war itself. This will be useful for rail buffs who know more of the trains than the military and diplomatic history but can be annoying (especially some of the generalisations) to those who know more about the history. I skim read them quickly. Wolmar also writes that the dearth of material on the topic has made examination of many countries difficult. Nonetheless, I would also have liked to see more analysis on the impact of the WW2 Allied bombing campaign on Germany's railway system and the war economy of Speer as this is key to current research on the effectiveness of the strategic bombing of the Reich.

Overall though this is to be recommended as providing new insights into a neglected area. In the forthcoming commemoration of 1914-18 it will be especially valuable in helping many to understand why the armies of the west became so entrenched. The author writes this is an area crying out for more PhD research on the impact of rail on specific conflicts. This work will hopefully motivate and encourage others to do just that.

Eighth Air Force: The American Bomber Crews in Britain
Eighth Air Force: The American Bomber Crews in Britain
by Donald L Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars a comprehensive and accessible account, 16 Aug. 2013
Miller's account of the US Eighth seemed a suitable resource to follow up on earlier reading of the British RAF campaign in McKinstry's Lancaster. Miller is pretty comprehensive in examining the experience of the bomber crews in the round. In fact (and unfortunately for me) there is not too much about East Anglia, rather it follows the crews' war through training and stationing in the UK, the daylight campaigns against Germany and the high airmen attrition that went with this. Further chapters focus on those who baled out and were interned in POW camps, and how the eighth was used in the final months of the war. Copious reference notes complete the 700 page tome.

What Miller does best is use aircrew testimony and reminiscences to tell the story as they themselves have outlined it. This helps give an insight into the feelings of the US airmen and aids the general narrative, especially for the non-specialist. The book also shows clearly the mistaken premise with which these crews were sent off to bomb Germany on near-suicidal daylight raids, unlike the RAF who bomber under cover of darkness. Pre war US bombing theory held that daylight bombing was possible against strong fighter opposition if the bombers (in this case liberators and Flying Fortresses) could fly fast and high enough and were well defended. Not only that, but equipped with the latest Norden bomb-sights it was believed that precision bombing was achievable meaning targets could be specific military ones so reducing collateral civilian deaths. Again this contrasted with the RAF carpet bombing of city centres where the focus was on breaking civilian morale. Unfortunately the theory was proved wrong. The US bombers were savaged by the Luftwaffe and German artillery flak and the persistently poor north European weather meant many raids were "radar" led, meaning bombing blind through cloud with little accuracy on the towns below. The result was that the Eighth suffered about half of the U.S. Army Air Force's war casualties (47,483 out of 115,332), including more than 26,000 dead.

The "experiment" as Miller describes it was not given up despite the losses. Raids, and the huge losses such as those on Schweinefurt and Berlin brought no change (except in the Berlin "Big Week" raids of February 1944, the bombers themselves were used as bait to draw out the German fighters where overwhelming numbers of US fighters could destroy them to help gain air superiority). Miller is very good on the impact this had on the morale of the survivors and how the airforce dealt with what would now be called PTSD (basically one week r n r then back again). There were other errors. US targets were selected to bring down the Nazi military economy but selection was based on assumptions that Germany had a US (ie oil-based economy). So refineries (especially in Ploesti, Romania) were targeted to little effect but great cost. Only latterly did this change with the realisation that coal was the crucial focus. Synthetic oil plants and railway lines used to transport coal and finished war materiel were now bombed. By this point in the war the bombers were being escorted by P51 Mustang fighters, and losses were far smaller.

A fascinating section on aircrew who ended up in neutral Switzerland due to damage or mechanical failure casts light on the murky history of Swiss relations with the Nazi's during the war and is an area that perhaps needs further research by historians.

As Miller attempts to cover as many aspects of the aircrew experience as possible at times the narrative can wander a little too far from the prime focus. His apparent assumption that he is writing for readers with only limited awareness of the events of the more general conflict is clearly helpful to the general reader but can be irritating to the better informed. Personally I would also have liked to see more on the development of the east of England airfields and a little on the creation of the enormous and sobering war cemetery to the fallen aircrew outside Cambridge.

The US airforce leadership fought a campaign believing that pin-point accuracy by massed fleets of bombers could alone defeat Hitler's Germany. Despite sustaining horrendous aircrew casualties and crippling Germany almost completely, this was not achieved. Germany was only defeated when ground forces invaded from east and west. Several months later this flawed and dogged philosophical basis that Miller shows lay so clearly behind the European bombing strategy ended when a couple of B29's flying days apart did end a war on their own by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No massed bomber fleets, no huge crew losses, no pinpoint accuracy to avoid civilian collateral damage. A new era in aerial warfare had opened up......

One technical point: I read the ebook edition which has line drawings but none of the photos of the paper edition. I hope this is not to become a pattern

Two Brothers
Two Brothers
by Ben Elton
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars a difficult subject to turn into fiction, 7 May 2013
This review is from: Two Brothers (Hardcover)
This latest Elton continues in the tradition of being a good page turner, despite being just over 500 pages long. When you start reading it even suggests it may develop into a le Carré cold war thriller. The story like many of his earlier books also has what seems a novel line of development - in this case the story of twins from a Jewish family growing up in the 1920's and 1930's in a period of rising anti-semitism and persecution by non-Jewish Germans. One twin eventually flees as a refugee to join British intelligence, the other joins the Waffen SS.

Unfortunately early expectations are not really met. The story is hung rather clunkily onto a historical framework that would be familiar to any GCSE student of the last 25 years making a revision list of Germany in the 1920's and 30's: Freikorps, Kapp Putsch, inflation, Stresemann, Wall Street Crash, Reichstag Fire, Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht.... This becomes so pedantic in driving the chapters that it starts to grate. It may be that the author is unaware of how central (and familiar) this period has become to recent secondary education and as a result a more subtle integration of the history might have been more effective. Earlier "historical" novels such as 'The First Casualty' have been able to make more successful use of historical context. More worrying, at times I also began to feel the storyline was becoming exploitative of its harrowing and grim historical environment. Characterisation is also problematical. It is odd that the three central figures from persecuted Jewish backgrounds present perhaps less empathetically to the reader than the one non-Jewish German who helps them, despite their uneven treatment of her throughout the story.

In a final section Elton makes clear that the novel has its inspiration in his own family background, his father and uncle being refugees from Nazi Germany (The uncle was Geoffrey Elton, doyen of Tudor historians). There would appear to be several parallels between the fiction and this family reality. If Elton was trying to say something through the novel about this personal flight from Nazi-ism it may have been better served by actually researching and writing a proper historical article.

Despite reading it in a couple of days, and being keen to see how the narrative developed, I was disappointed by this book. I am normally a fan of Elton and were it not for my misgivings about the clumsy way it has used history the writing itself would engender *** or possibly ****. As it is though, this must merit ** only.

Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England
Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England
by Thomas Penn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars Introduces the key elements of a reign that set the tone for the next century and a half, 14 April 2013
Penn's telling of the story of Henry VII turns the focus on one of the lesser known Tudors. Surprising, given that as "Winter King" clearly shows, it was Henry VII who established law and order after decades of unruly noble wars and founded the dynasty that was to govern for over 100 years.

The Wars of the Roses had led to chaos and instability for much of the 15th century, Henry Tudor brought this to an end. He signifies the move from medieval monarchy to the age of new centralist government. Penn shows in great detail how this was achieved. The continual preoccupation with usurpers and the variety of ways (some surprising) used to neutralize them; the obsession with ensuring financial independence - so much so that by the end of his reign Henry was considered one of the wealthiest monarchs in Europe, a wealth his son Henry VIII would soon squander after his accession; and the way Henry combined the two using a system of fines and bonds to keep his potentially disruptive nobility in check.

Where "Winter King" excels is in the detail it provides about the individuals who surrounded Henry. The work of his councillors and officials, always tightly monitored by the King are shown in depth. Not just the best known such as Empson and Dudley but Bray, Fox and the many others who worked for him. Catherine of Aragon figures prominently in the narrative of diplomatic dealings. Wife first of the eldest son Arthur, then a pawn in (prolonged) negotiation to marry his second son Henry after Arthur's death. Henry VII though remains central. After the confusion that preceeded his accession, Henry micro manages policy and ministers to maintain tight control. In this Penn's portrait of Henry is in line with that presented by recent scholarship and the main thrust of his argument is that the king presided over a proto-Machiavellian polity, dominated by fear and suspicion, and one in which good government was too often subjugated to the demands of his own greed and paranoia.

Penn makes an intriguing point about Henry's accumulation of wealth in that he ascribes a significant part to England's growing role in the alum trade, used in the textile industry. Due to papal monopoly of alum England carved itself a role importing and re exporting to mainland Europe to circumvent the monopoly in a 15th century version of how multinationals today move capital about between nations to avoid national taxation in any particular one country.

Where I have concerns with "Winter King" is paradoxically due to its strengths. A focus on the work of those individuals around the monarch has been at the cost of policy overview. I longed at time to see how what I was reading fitted into the general policy development of Henry VII. It was like looking very closely at the workings of the wheels and springs of a particularly delicate clock, but never really looking at the time shown on the clockface. Neither is space devoted to showing how much the framework in which Henry VII and his officials operated was dependant on the administrative procedures introduced earlier by Edward IV. This is perhaps a consequence of Penn perhaps attempting to write a story allowing more popular access rather than an academic history. Nonetheless, Penn does the non-specialist a service in introducing the key elements of a reign that set the tone for the next century and a half.

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe
Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe
by Norman Davies
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let's hope there is a sequel!, 14 April 2013
At first glance on a bookshop shelf (especially in an airport lounge!) this is a pretty intimidating tome - over 800 pages all in. However it is far from that once you start to read it. Davies has selected 15 European kingdoms/states that have vanished in recent and not so recent times and looks at how they came about and then disappeared. Some lasted only a day (Rusyn, March 15th 1939) others spanned many centuries. The most recent (and obvious) state included is the USSR (1924-1991), which Davies admits provided the idea for the book in the first place, but the range includes post Roman Tolosa (Toulouse....) (418-507) in what is now southern France, Alt Clud (5th-12th centuries) of Scotland's Dumbarton Rock close to where the café first went to school and Borussia (1230-1945) the origin of Prussia. The final section "How States Die" tries to draw some of the strands together from the 15 surveys.

Each Kingdom is described carefully and in several instances their origins are just as interesting (if not more so) than the events of their demise. Éire is a case in point. Davies adopts an interdisciplinary approach to show how national identity and desire for statehood closely followed the emergence (and hot-housing) of a cultural identity, almost where one did not previously exist. This theme is repeated in several other of the stories. An intriguing use is also made of linguistics (especially with the kingdoms originating more deeply in the past) to survey patterns of settlement, expansion and identity.

With fifteen states to cover there is a little inconsistency evident in treatment. Some surveys become overlong and involved. Aragon (1137-1714), whilst one of the more interesting histories outlined could have been better edited. Dynastic history is key to its growth and decline but too many pages are devoted to the detail of genealogy, encouraging skim reading. Conversely I would have preferred to see more space being devoted to Byzantion (330-1453) which with 16 sides has received only two more than the one day Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (March 1939). Most kingdoms are otherwise treated to 50-80 pages of study. There are also some clear omissions, perhaps most notably, Venice (perhaps as it was a Republic? But other non-kingdoms are included...).

It appears the researching for these outline histories is exemplary - the footnotes are clearly set out and easy to use which is essential when brief histories like these produce sweeping historical assessments whose origins need to be clear. As a result the footnote section at the end reads like a "Who's Who" of specialist historians on the country concerned. Pleasingly, maps are plentiful (74 in total plus a further 14 lists of figures/family trees) - always a good sign of thorough study - and essential here, where names and frontiers are often new to the reader. Over eighty colour plates helped to develop the individual histories. On a practical note, I was reading the hardback edition which holds all of this well together. I am less sure how paperback binding would survive the to and fro of map/image/footnote referencing that a reader might subject the book to.

There is no need to read chapter by chapter or even in Davies' sequence. Chapter size is manageable to allow for dipping into whenever a spare hour is available This is an eminently readable and valuable addition to the post Roman history of Europe and does a service in reminding the reader of a completely, or as in the title, half-forgotten Europe. Let's hope there is a follow-up sequel!!

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