Book Review: Conquistadores

Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest
Fernando Cervantes
Viking Books
Copyright 2020 by the author

There seems to be a trend in the study of history these days to reexamine and reframe the past to highlight the evils that have been painted over in our “standard narrative”. Winston Churchill, for example, was not the brilliant leader who kept Britain fighting throughout World War II; instead he was the brutal colonialist whose policies led to the deaths of millions when famine hit India in the 1940s.

Some will claim they’re just trying to present a more nuanced approach, but to me it seems like they’re just being petty and vindictive, blaming the Past for all the ills of the Present that they feel powerless to deal with. Or perhaps they just enjoy being contrarian.

For if they were truly trying for a more nuanced history, surely they would be willing to accept a reexamination of what the “standard narrative” states was Bad and Evil – right? Would it be acceptable, for example, to show that the Spanish conquest of the Americas wasn’t one huge mess of rape, plunder, and murder by the white European males? Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: Checkmate in Berlin

Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World
Giles Milton
Henry Holt and Company
Copyright 2021 by the author

In the waning days of the Second World War, the allies – Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union – were all on reasonably good terms when it came to defeating Nazi Germany. Sure, there were a few rough spots, but “the enemy of my enemy” and all that saw to it that any differences were papered over for the common cause.

Four years later, the Soviets tried – and failed – to blockade western Berlin into submission, and NATO had been founded to counter the Communist threat.

How did it all happen?

Continue reading

Book Review: God’s Shadow

God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World
Alan Mikhail
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Copyright 2020 by the author

Mikhail opens with a note of curiosity. On the Mexican side of the mouth of the Rio Grande, there’s a town called Matamoros. In Spanish, that means “Slayer of Moors”. What is this reference to the Reconquista doing in the New World?

He goes on to explain that Spain’s system of colonizing the Americas involved land grants to that war’s veterans, and that encomendia system was a direct carryover from how Moslem lands were distributed back in Spain. He also notes that the major driver for Spain’s exploration was to find a way to outflank Moslem domination of the eastern Mediterranean, which had monopolized control of the trade routes to the Orient.

That’s his launching point for a look at the rise of the Ottoman Empire – and the sultan responsible.

Continue reading

A Close Run Thing

When thinking on the American Revolution, it’s generally a matter of national pride to see that the outcome was inevitable. A plucky militia, with Right on its side, handily defeated an Evil Empire who couldn’t be bothered to listen to the concerns of the rebels.

It’s always nice to have a happy origin story – or at least one that couldn’t have gone any other way.

Too bad that’s nowhere close to the reality of the American Revolution. It was one close call after another.

Continue reading

Overrated-Underrated: Medieval Battle

Warfare in Medieval Europe is a bit of an odd duck. Wars, such as they were, were rarely about acquiring territory or expanding the national geopolitical reach. Instead, they were more about personal or family politics, and ransoming prisoners. On the tactical level, things were barely and rarely more than massed frontal assaults. Most “armies” were around the size of a modern brigade, and forget about grand campaigns. It was more about who could get the most trained troops to the battlefield first. And there was rarely anything epic or glorious in the fighting.

But a few battles from that era still stand out – so of course some are overrated, and some are underrated.

Continue reading

Book Review: The World Beneath Their Feet

The World Beneath Their Feet:
Mountaineering, Madness, and the Deadly Race to Summit the Himalayas
Scott Ellsworth
Little, Brown, and Company
2020

While the English language steals words from other languages, the German language makes its own words when it needs something new. As a result, it pretty much has a word for everything. The one we’re interested in here is “achttausender”, which literally translates as “eight thousander”. It refers to those fourteen mountains that are over eight thousand meters in height. All of them happen to be in the Himalayas, and pretty much all of them were the targets of European climbing expeditions in the 1930s.

As Ellsworth recounts them here, it became a race between nations. The major contestants were the Germans (with the Alps in their backyard, mountaineering was pretty much in their blood) and the English (they controlled India, and therefore essentially controlled access to the Himalayas). Individual derring-do got combined with national pride as teams risked lives to set altitude records in a strange version of King of the Hill.

Continue reading

Movie Review: Zulu (1964, UK)

War movies are an interesting genre for the film buff. Not for the action and adventure, or the visual recounting of history, but that the movie reflects the attitudes towards war in the time and place it was made. Movies made during a war tend to be all patriotic and supportive of the troops; movies made near the end of a long and “questionable” (to put it one way) war tend to be dark comedies or biting satires of the military. Movies made in peacetime can be either, but they also tend to reflect the attitudes of the time the movie was made towards the history of the war – historical accuracy be damned.

Zulu is one of the latter. It shows the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in January, 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. A contingent of some 150 British troops at what was basically an outpost consisting of little more than a supply depot, a church, and what could be called a hospital with only the greatest amount of charity held off an assault by around four thousand Zulu warriors. That’s going to be great drama and action, as long as you show it with even modest accuracy and competence.

But what of the politics?

Continue reading

Book Review – Columbus: The Four Voyages

Columbus: The Four Voyages
Laurence Bergreen
Viking Penguin Press
Copyright 2011 by the author

What with theongoing hubbub over Columbus popping up again in the news this summer as his statues were defaced and knocked down and there were calls to rename the things we’ve named in his honor, I thought it would be a good time to read another biography of him, and perhaps cut through both the hagiography and the demonization to get to know him a bit better. And perhaps be able to counter the arguments used for and against him. In any case, it ought to be a fascinating read for a history buff like me.

Bergreen is a historian and biographer whose previous works followed Magellan (Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, 2003) and Marco Polo (Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, 2007). This work is (presumably) in the same mode; more of a chronicle of Columbus’ voyages rather than a complete biography. He uses Columbus’ own journals, logs, and letters, along with the many personal journals and letters of those who accompanied him on his voyages, to assemble as good an account of those trips as you are likely to get.

Along the way, he shows that pretty much everything you knew about Columbus is, well, complicated.

Continue reading

The Hiroshima Decision

Every August, you start seeing essays from professional and amateur journalists on the usage of the atomic bombs to end WWII. This month marks the 75th anniversary of that occasion, so you know there are going to be plenty more. And if this year is like all others, some of those essays will contain (or will have comments that contain) much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how we didn’t have to drop the bombs.

At least some of their reasoning involves post facto arguments, in that they use information that wasn’t available at the time. Or they rehash old, tired arguments that have been acknowledged and dismissed with justification.

What if we went back to the summer of 1945, and looked at the matter using only that information which was available at the time?

Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: Danubia

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe
Simon Winder
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Copyright 2013 by the author

Like his earlier Germania, this is not your typical political or military history of a nation. Nor is it a religious or cultural history – even though Winder does discuss those subjects. It’s not even a “People’s History” of the sort that Howard Zinn might have written. Instead, it’s what you might get if a good friend of yours spent months traveling across a large part of Europe, visiting a bunch of odd and out-of-the way sites of historical interest, then decided to weave all the stories of his visits into one fun and interesting narrative.

Winder lets you know almost from the start that the tale is going to be gloomier than the one in Germania, his history of Germany. Here, with the Habsburg Empire (to be later known as the Austrian Empire and then the Austro-Hunugarian Empire), the story is one of a long, slow decline with very few moments of glory. The inbreeding of the royal line had a good deal to do with that; the most noticeable result was the infamous “Habsburg Chin” defect. His ever-present wit and occasional light snark cannot fully hide that. You can only adjust a portrait of the Emperor so much before it loses all resemblance….

Continue reading