Very Short Reviews

Review: Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945

Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin, 2013).  

Richard Overy is one of the leading historians of World War II alive today, and while he has written on a number of topics associated with that conflict, the fighting in the air is his area of special expertise. While The Bombing War is not as comprehensive as some of his other works, such as the The Air War, 1939-1945 (1980), it is one of his most powerful books. For those interested in the topic of strategic bombing during World War II, The Bombing War is indispensable. It balances the meticulous research and broad vision that only an expert of Overy’s caliber can produce.

One of Overy’s purposes in writing The Bombing War is to provide “the first full narrative history of the bombing war in Europe” (xxiv). This narrative, he argues, is more complete than previous efforts because a) it covers all of Europe, b) it integrates bombing into the “broad strategic picture” (xxiv), and c) it links the narratives of those who did the bombing with those who were bombed. Overy’s other main objective consists of “re-examining the established narratives on the bombing war” which have been shaped, especially in the British and American cases, by official histories (xxv-xxvi). (The United States The Army Air Forces in World War II, which consisted of seven volumes, was published between 1948 and 1958, while Britain’s four-volume equivalent, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, appeared in 1961). Overy has conducted this re-examination by studying the “private papers of individuals and institutions” as well as parts of the official record that “were originally closed to public scrutiny because they raised awkward questions” (xxvi). At 642 pages of small, densely printed text, The Bombing War is long (maybe overlong), but it never loses sight of two related theses. First, strategic bombing during the war never lived up to the hype of its proponents; there was a big discrepancy between promise and achievement. Second, strategic bombing, as practiced during the conflict, was a bludgeon that did not achieve enough to justify the enormous collateral damage that it inflicted on both lives and property.

Overy’s story begins with a discussion of World War I and the interwar period. Here, he focuses on two major developments that helped make strategic bombing possible during World War II. The massive mobilization of World War I as well as the rhetoric that followed afterwards led everyone to assume that the next war would be “total” and that civilians would naturally be targets in this conflict. This discourse meshed well with assumptions among airmen and statesmen that urban conurbations of the modern era were particularly susceptible to dislocation from aerial bombing. Based on little evidence, those who contemplated the course of air war in the future believed that industry was vulnerable to destruction and that civilians living in big cities would panic easily. These attitudes, however, did not make strategic bombing during World War II inevitable; Overy argues that it was only events during the war that made such a thing possible.

Among the many limits that prevented airmen from immediately and deliberately dropping bombs indiscriminately on civilians in 1939 was the fact that many air forces believed that their primary mission consisted of supporting the army in a ground-attack role. And indeed, Overy argues that two incidents widely seen as initiating “terror” bombing during the war—the Luftwaffe’s bombardments of Warsaw and Rotterdam—were not that at all. In both cases, he claims that German aircraft sought out enemy ground forces that happened to be ensconced in or near urban areas. These two attacks resulted in large numbers of civilians being killed. The air assault against Rotterdam proved especially tragic since German and Dutch forces were then negotiating the surrender of the city but could not get word to the Luftwaffe fast enough to halt the air attack.

The first real strategic bombing campaign took place over the skies of Britain between 1940 and 1941. Overall German strategy was muddled from the start, constantly shifting from one objective to the next. On the eve of the Battle of Britain, Hitler could not decide whether to encourage the British to enter negotiations, invade southern England and dictate a settlement, or use ships, submarines, and aircraft to impose a blockade on British ports. As Overy puts it, “Hitler opted for all three possibilities, and achieved none of them” (68). Whatever the case, all three required the Luftwaffe to play an important role and demanded a heavy commitment from Hitler’s airmen. Forces, however, were frittered away as “the German offensive hovered between trying to gain air superiority against the RAF, preparation for invasion, contributing to the blockade by sea of British trade, degrading Britain’s industrial war potential and vague expectations of a crisis afflicting the enemy’s morale” (611). The failure to fix on an appropriate target and destroy it (along with the inability to match ends with means) accounted in large part for the frustration of German aims. This frustration occurred in spite of Britain’s weaknesses in civil defense (which were not made good until the latter part of 1941) and huge deficiencies in the RAF’s night-fighting capacity.

Although, as Overy points out, each strategic bombing campaign of the war differed in a number of ways, the German attack on Britain was emblematic in that it was planned and launched on the fly; almost no research or preparation for such an effort had been performed during the pre-war period (which accounts for the strategic confusion). This problem would also plague Allied campaigns throughout the conflict. The German campaign was also important in that it stretched notions of what was considered permissible during the war. The British in particular subjected the German campaign to very close scrutiny. In some cases, RAF’s Bomber Command learned important lessons (e.g. dense concentrations of incendiaries mixed with high explosive bombs were particularly useful in destroying large parts of towns). In others, the British misconstrued with the Luftwaffe had been up to (e.g. they assumed Germans were engaged in mere terror bombing). In still others, the RAF totally missed the boat (e.g. the British ramped up their bombing of German cities in the hope of demoralizing civilians and dislocating the economy without pausing to think that the Germans had failed to do the very same thing in the very same way).

With these observations in mind, it should come as no surprise that Overy is extremely critical of Bomber Command’s own effort against Germany and occupied Europe. Initially, the RAF’s campaign was too piecemeal, light, inaccurate, and scattered to have much effect. Starting in late 1941, however, the British more or less decided on the area bombing of German cities in an attempt to demoralize, dehouse, and decimate German civilians (which is what they thought the Germans had attempted to do to them). Although Britain’s political and military leadership always felt ambivalent about this decision, the appointment of Sir Arthur Harris as the head of Bomber Command in February 1942 gave the force an aggressive and intractable advocate who was fully committed to the air war against German civilians to the exclusion of all else. Nonetheless, progress was stymied by a number of shortcomings. There was a lack of appropriate, heavy four-engined bombers (as late as 1942, the number of Avro Lancasters was limited). The British were also plagued by “the slow development of target-finding and marking, [and] the dilatory development of effective electronic aids, marker bombs and bombsights.”  And then there was “the inability to relate means and ends more rationally to maximize effectiveness and cope with enemy defenses”—a problem that had also hampered the Germans (300). Despite its ineffectiveness, Bomber Command was allowed to persist in its campaign which swallowed a very large proportion of available British resources (about 7% of total British man-hours during the conflict)—no small victory for Harris and his subordinates who sought to safeguard their bailiwick.

The entry of the United States into the war did not change the British situation a great deal. The Americans made clear that they would not divert bombers from their factories to supply the British. Not surprisingly, considering the many demands placed on the United States, it took the Americans some time to organize, equip, and train a large bomber force that could exercise any influence in the European theater. The Allies made much fuss about a “combined offensive” and “round-the-clock” bombing (Americans during the day, British at night), which seemed to suggest that their bombers acted in concert. The truth of the matter was that their campaigns operated merely in parallel and did not reinforce each other at all. The Americans did not think much of bombing cities for the sake of depressing German morale. They were more interested in employing daytime precision attacks and destroying specific targets that would slow down German production (although Overy admits that when visibility was limited, American blind bombing was just as indiscriminate as anything Bomber Command did). Overy intimates that although American forces experienced difficulty in finding the bottlenecks that could bring the German economy to a halt, they expressed a much more thoughtful and sophisticated approach to bombing than Harris ever did. Bomber Command continued its nocturnal attempt to destroy city after city in the hope that the cumulative destruction would eventually end the war somehow.

In the end, Overy argues, Allied strategic bombing did not end the war, but it did influence the manner in which Germany was defeated. In early 1944, American forces finally made a commitment to using the bombing campaign as a means of destroying the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany. The delay in reaching this decision was not determined by technology; it was also a matter of placing commanders in the European theater who shared that vision. By that date, Carl Spaatz (commander of US strategic air forces), Jimmy Doolittle (Eighth Air Force), and William Kepner (VIII Fighter Command) occupied the key American positions in Europe and agreed that it was necessary to combine “the indirect assault on air force production and supplies through bombing with the calculated attrition of the German fighter force through air-to-air combat and fighter sweeps over German soil” (361). Initially spearheaded by P-47s with drop tanks (the P-51s came later), fighter loosely accompanying American bombers sought out German aircraft, leading to huge air battles with massive casualties on both sides. It was a campaign of attrition for which the Germans were ill-suited. Two major developments occurred as a result. First, the Germans redistributed resources—personnel, fighter aircraft, and anti-aircraft guns—to the homeland on a large scale to counter this threat. These were resources that could not be deployed on other fronts to support German ground forces (including anti-aircraft weapons which could double as anti-tank guns). Second, having forced the Germans to concentrate their aircraft in Germany, the Americans proceeded to destroy the Luftwaffe, shooting down enormous numbers of planes and killing their pilots. By mid-year, the Americans had achieved air supremacy over France and Germany. And then strategic bombing lurched forward on a much larger scale than ever before; three-quarters of the total tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany fell between September 1944 and May 1945. The Allies persisted in heavy bombing largely because they were worried that the Germans might suddenly produce new weapons that could turn the tide (the V-weapons as well as the Messerschmidt Me 262 jet fighter certainly gave them reason to think this way). They also hoped that more bombing could bring the war to a swifter end—the British thinking that obliterating more cities would tip Germany over the edge while the Americans believed that the destruction of oil and transportation targets would undermine the German war effort. Still, German productivity reached its height in the last three months of 1944, when bombing was extraordinarily heavy. Allied victory eventually came at an extremely high cost to victor and vanquished, but the impact of bombing was only one of several factors that defeated the Axis powers.

Many readers familiar with the topic will have seen parts of this narrative before, but Overy presents a version of the story that is very much his own in which a number of key arguments, great and small, are modified. Overy’s book is particularly interesting when it comes to discussing civil defense and the impact of the war on civilians, something that most histories of strategic bombing do not study in a systematic way. The Bombing War stresses the degree to which different circumstances obtained in different countries. For instance, civil defense in Britain was characterized by friction between the voluntarist tradition of a free society and the centralizing tendency of the state. In Germany and the Soviet Union, however, the party saw civil defense mainly as a means of political and social mobilization. Whatever the case, the experience of civil defense was similar to that of the bomber forces in that its preparations were incomplete upon the war’s outbreak; capacity and sophistication generally grew as the war continued. It is hard to make generalizations about bombing’s impact on the various peoples of Europe, though, as every country was different. Overy points out that a good case could be made that bombing helped topple Mussolini in 1943, but he proceeds to argue that the collapse of the Fascist regime had more to do with its overall inability to cope with the various stresses of modern war. In cases where the state or party was more or less equal to the challenges of fulfilling civilians’ needs (e.g. Britain and Germany), heavy bombing generally did not enhance or undermine the population’s will to resist. If anything, it made civilians more reliant on the authorities which reduced the potential for dissent. The picture Overy paints of civilian populations under sustained air attacks is one of anxiety, exhaustion, and deprivation. Moreover, these populations were highly mobile as they left destroyed urban areas in search of shelter, food, and working utilities. It is not surprising that people in such a position would turn to the state for succor.

Conquered territories, particularly in western Europe, found themselves in a unique position. Generally hostile to the German occupation, they initially supported the Allied bombing of military targets. The RAF hoped that a campaign in these regions would damage German military installations (e.g. submarine pens) and slow down production in factories that had worked on German contracts. Later, in preparation for the cross-Channel invasion, the Allies sought to destroy most of northern France’s transportation infrastructure (and once troops had landed in Normandy, heavy bombers were used for ground support). In these regions, the British always saw bombing as a propaganda act that could demoralize collaborators and give resistance a boost. Unfortunately, once the RAF began bombing France and the Low Countries without restriction in February 1942, opinion in these countries turned against the British initiative. Just as they were in Germany, Allied bombings tended to be inaccurate and destructive, resulting in many civilian casualties (almost 60,000 French civilians were killed by Allied bombs). In the conclusion of his chapter on the bombing of occupied Europe, Overy notes, “Bombing was a blunt instrument as the Allies knew full well, but is bluntness was more evident and more awkward when the bombs fell outside Germany” (606).

Not surprisingly, Overy concludes that strategic bombing as practiced during World War II was a crude, wasteful, and illegal strategy. Moreover, it was a failure on its own terms. It sought to win the war singlehandedly by destroying the enemy economy, demoralizing the enemy population, and deracinating the enemy’s political system. In all of these areas, the impact of bombing was limited. Strategic bombing’s main contribution to Allied victory—the destruction of the Luftwaffe—was almost incidental. The obsession with the “weight and scale” of attacks, rather than accuracy, paved the way for post-war nuclear arsenals that sought to do the same thing but on a much larger scale. This approach to strategic bombing would prove a dead-end; precision-guided munitions, Overy argues, were the “way forward” (613). We can be thankful, then, that “profound changes in available weapons, the transformation of geopolitical reality and post-war ethical sensibilities have all combined to make the bombing war between 1939 and 1945 a unique phenomenon in modern European history, not possible earlier and not reproducible since” (633).

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Hugh Dubrulle

NOTE: This essay reviews the Penguin UK version of Overy’s book, not the Penguin USA edition (entitled The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe 1940-1945). The latter was heavily edited and is much shorter than the former. The reviewer recommends that you purchase the British version.

Review: Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton


One Thing after Another finds the ten-sentence limit for Very Short Reviews too constricting and has surrendered to the lures of a much longer format. Today’s review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is our first of what promises to be reviews of normal (or abnormal) length.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History is about the “rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton” (xi). Beckert is particularly interested in this story because no other industry erected such a large, ubiquitous “global production complex.” By tracing the fortunes of this large and ever-changing empire, Beckert claims that he has provided a useful—perhaps even the best—example of “capitalism in action” (xv). Along the way, Beckert emphasizes several themes: states were absolutely integral to creating the empire of cotton; this empire relied on large doses of armed force and other illiberal types of coercion; cotton was global like no other product (which explains why a study of the empire must look not just at Manchester or Britain, but at the entire world); and production of the fiber constantly adapted to changing circumstances by engaging in revolutionary transformations.

Before the empire of cotton was created, cotton was largely consumed where it was produced—in a band that encircled the globe between 32 to 35 degrees south latitude and 37 degrees north. This band included Central America, West Africa, the Nile River valley, the Near East, Central Asia, and China. That Europe would come to dominate the production, financing, and processing of cotton when it was incapable of growing the plant is one of the central marvels of Beckert’s story.

This story proceeds by stages. In the late-medieval period, Europeans (particularly in northern Italy—and then later in Germany) began buying cotton from Mediterranean sources such as Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. But European textiles were not particularly competitive on the world market (such as it was) because the quality of there products was inferior to what was woven in India. What eventually made Europe a player in the market for cotton was its success in forging a “complex commercial web” that linked India, West Africa, North America, and Europe. As Beckert puts it, “the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to work on the plantations in the Americas to produce agricultural commodities for European consumers” (36). Europeans (primarily the British at this point) inserted themselves into existing networks and created ever more extensive ones through the use of force. Although the state would come to play a major role in the empire of cotton, at this point, most of the force involved in this process was in private hands—“heavily armed privateering capitalists” as Beckert describes them. The exercise of coercion became the first step in the creation of “war capitalism” (Beckert’s term). Becket never really defines what “war capitalism” was so much as he describes what it did, supported, or allowed: “imperial domination, the expropriation of vast territories, decimation of indigenous peoples theft of their resources, enslavement, and the domination of vast tracts of land by private capitalists with little effective oversight by distant European states” (38).

As time went on, the British increasingly aimed at creating an overseas market for their own textiles—instead of merely peddling superior Indian products. The main problem for Britain, however, was that wages were much higher there than in India; for that reason, British textiles could not compete on the basis of price. This problem inspired a concerted effort to increase the productivity of British labor. The answer consisted of making advances in spinning and weaving technology—which we associate with the Industrial Revolution. It also required the mass mobilization of labor in the metropole—usually drawn from vulnerable groups like children and women. War capitalism, Beckert argues, created propitious circumstances for the industrialization of Europe by providing access to markets, technology, labor, and raw materials. It also created a great deal of capital and fostered the development of various financial instruments. These important changes allowed the British to sell their goods in overseas markets. None of these achievements would have been possible without the activities of a strong, interventionist state. The state, according to Beckert, “was capable of forging and protecting global markets, policing its borders, regulating industry, creating and then enforcing private property rights in land, enforcing contracts over large geographical distances, forging fiscal tools to tax populations, and building a social, economic, and legal environment that made the mobilization of labor through wage payments possible” (76). This array of capacities was associated with “industrial capitalism” which was initially fostered and sustained by war capitalism.

A major way in which war capitalism assisted industrial capitalism was in securing huge territories and enormous pools of labor to supply the raw materials necessary to keep up with Britain’s enhanced industrial productivity. Beckert views the emergence of the American South as perhaps the most significant accomplishment of late war capitalism. In this part of the world, the empire of cotton did not have to compromise with existing socio-economic relations as it did in, say, India. Instead, indigenous inhabitants were removed wholesale, and a completely new labor regime (slavery), ideally suited to the cultivation of cotton, was implemented. It is no coincidence, as Beckert points out, that Baring Brothers & Co., which later became the most important British merchant bank involved in the cotton business, underwrote the Louisiana Purchase which allowed the United States take hold of an enormous territory on which cotton could be grown.

Although industrial capitalism required war capitalism to get started, Beckert points out that significant tensions persisted between the two. While war capitalism was particularly useful in securing the means for growing enormous volumes of cotton, it was totally ill-suited for the processing of the fiber or the manufacturing of textiles. Frictions between war and industrial capitalism were not impossible to reconcile so long as, say, war capitalism remained something that took place overseas (or “outside” as Beckert puts it) while industrial capitalism was something that happened at home (“inside”). However, in the United States, the two systems existed side by side, their interests were incompatible, and the American Civil War occurred as a result.

The Civil War was a major turning point in the history of the empire of cotton, and perhaps the greatest crisis it ever surmounted. Southern planters, who were the last politically powerful group of cotton growers in the world, were utterly destroyed as a force. The war capitalism with which they were intimately associated also came to an end. Most important of all, the war and the Federal blockade completely disrupted the flow of cotton to Europe. Manufacturers now had a huge incentive to reduce their dependence on American cotton and diversify their sources of the fiber—especially as it became clear to them that even the American South could not meet the enormous future demand for cheap, raw cotton. Looking to alternate sources also meant recasting the socio-economic relations of various regions and changing the way that cotton was produced, financed, and transported. The empire of cotton was compelled to penetrate the interiors of India, Egypt, Brazil, Africa, Central Asia, and American South. The empire built railroads to facilitate the transportation of cotton from remote parts of the world. It also took over the financing of cotton production, shouldering aside local traditional lenders. It employed scientific agricultural reform to enhance productivity. And it imposed new labor arrangements, mainly sharecropping, that eventually led to wage labor. In parts of India, for example, the countryside was deindustrialized as weavers were reduced to peasant status. Moreover, these peasants were no longer the traditional subsistence farmers who grew cotton on the side; they now exclusively produced cotton for the market. This kind of monoculture led to food insecurity and eventually periodic famines. The intensification of imperialism in the latter part of the 19th century (what most textbooks refer to as “New Imperialism”) only provided the empire of cotton with additional political tools to pursue the same ends.

Since then, the locus of textile production has changed: the manufacturing of cotton textiles has moved to the “global South.” Beckert focuses on two major reasons for this change. First, as the global South adopted increasingly advanced manufacturing techniques, its low wages allowed it to produce textiles at much lower prices than the First World. Second, with the advent of decolonization, the global South obtained states that acted according to their perceived national interests and implemented policies (often statist) that sought to protect domestic production. States and manufacturers in these regions, however, do not dominate the contemporary empire of cotton. Instead, according to Beckert, immense corporations are in charge. They no longer have to integrate new regions of the world into the market economy; that work has already been completed by various states. They no longer depend on any particular state; they “can easily shift all forms of production around the globe” (438). They no longer focus on “raw cotton, yarn, and cloth;” their interest is in the “apparel business” (437). From Beckert’s perspective, then, “the empire of cotton has continued to facilitate a giant race to the bottom, limited only by the spatial constraints of the planet” (440).

This reviewer cannot vouch for the economic history that lies at the heart of this work (because he is not an economic historian), but Empire of Cotton is a fascinating, thought-provoking, pioneering book that required great powers of synthesis to produce. Beckert’s decision to conduct a truly global history of cotton is justified by the results. Beckert does a wonderful job of showing the complex web of business links that stretched from Liverpool and Manchester all the way to, say, Bombay and Berar during the heyday of this empire. As the author details the doings of various figures who served this empire, the reader invariably feels as if he has removed the housing from a great machine and obtained a rare opportunity to see all the cogs, levers, and flywheels working in perfect order. Beckert’s model has great explanatory force, and as he describes it, each step taken by the empire of cotton seemed to lead ineluctably to the next.

At times, though, the activities of this empire sometimes seem too inevitable. Beckert’s depiction of the machine is a bit too elegant, smooth, and unproblematic. In his telling, the empire of cotton becomes an irresistible, revolutionary capitalist force that relentlessly adapted to changing circumstances while conforming to unimpeachable economic logic. Although Beckert describes the activities of numerous individuals caught up in this empire, they merely serve it; there is very little room for human agency here either. In other words, everything seems overdetermined. Conflict and ambivalence within the heart of this empire are simply ignored. For example, the abolitionist movement in Britain, which strenuously opposed slavery, receives no mention at all (Beckert merely states that “Britain in 1834 outlawed slavery within its empire”) (122). At the same time, certain facts are shoe-horned to fit Beckert’s interpretation. Beckert argues, for instance, that Britain’s Reform Act of 1832 allowed “many textile entrepreneurs to move into the House of Commons, where they strenuously lobbied for the (global) interests of their industry, from the Corn Laws to British colonial expansion” (77). Most British historians would argue that such a statement paints with an extremely broad (and somewhat inaccurate) brush (i.e. “many” entrepreneurs did not enter the Commons until much later, their efforts did not precipitate repeal of the Corn Laws, and many were ambivalent about colonial expansion).

These problems are probably a function of studying an enormous topic whose every single detail is somewhat beyond the powers of a single historian to master. Yet they are also partly due to the nature of economic history which does not always perceive problems in the round. As we have seen, Beckert depicts the American Civil War as a clash between elements of war capitalism and industrial capitalism—an old-fashioned interpretation that smells a bit like Charles and Mary Beard. It might seem unfair to criticize an economic history for being, well, an economic history. But if Beckert had matched the global scope of his study with a wide-ranging approach that incorporated more subfields of history (for sure, a herculean task), he would have avoided some of the mistakes and blind spots that crop up in his work.

At the same time, for all the details concerning the growing, financing, transportation, processing, and selling of cotton, Beckert is somewhat less precise when it comes to defining his most important terms. He never explains, for example, what the phrase “empire of cotton” actually means. While the reader obtains a fairly good idea of what Beckert signifies, a more explicit description would provide a better analytical tool. The problem here has to do with the use of the word “empire” which is not exactly a self-evident word. The same goes for words like “war capitalism” which is something of a novelty—at least in the way that Beckert uses it.

Finally, Beckert closes his work by referring to the two faces of capitalism that were presented by the empire of cotton: “domination and exploitation” on the one hand, and “liberation and creativity” on the other (442). The balance of the work certainly seems to stress the former at the expense of the latter. This tendency seems a strange foundation for his closing statement that the story of cotton should “give us hope . . .  that our unprecedented domination over nature will allow us the wisdom, the power, and the strength to create a society that serves the needs of all the world’s people.”

Despite these criticisms (and the amount of space they have consumed in this review), Beckert’s book is a terrific and worthwhile read. Present-day entrepreneurs like to pretend that they are the first to have made the world anew, but Empire of Cotton does a valuable service by reminding contemporary readers that visionary entrepreneurs in the past have made the world anew many, many times before.

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Mary Beard’s SPQR


Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, serves as the Times Literary Supplement’s classics editor, and regularly contributes to the New York Review of Books. Due to her frequent appearances on television, radio, and social media, she is, without question, the most publicly prominent classicist in Britain. Just last year, she published SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, an overview of Roman history that represents a lifetime of thinking about the topic. In this past, One Thing after Another has read books so you don’t have to. In this case, the blog has read this book and exhorts you to do the same—SPQR is an excellent work of “popular history” in the best sense of the term.

Mary Beard, A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015).

  1. As a classicist, Beard is, of course, interested in Romans, but she thinks the rest of us could profit from studying the experiences of these ancient people; as she puts it, while we cannot “learn directly from the Romans,” we “have an enormous amount to learn . . . by engaging with the history of the Romans” because “our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans.”
  2. In some ways, the questions that Beard asks which drive the analysis and narrative forward are traditional ones that have occupied the attention of scholars for centuries: How was Rome founded? How did it grow to overmaster the other city-states of Italy and dominate the Mediterranean world? How did the republic eventually collapse? How did the empire work?
  3. It is her approach to these traditional questions that is novel and stimulating—for example, she returns repeatedly to questions of identity (e.g. How does one define a Roman, and how did the Romans define themselves?) that have resonance today.
  4. For example, once Rome became a power on the Italian peninsula, Romans had to reconceive who they were, what their role in the world was, forge new relationships with their defeated enemies (which often included a grant of citizenship), and deal with the consequent strain on their political institutions/culture.
  5. Once Rome had destroyed its most dangerous rivals in the Mediterranean, its “relatively small-scale political institutions” were hardly capable of “controlling and policing a vast empire,” and “Rome relied more and more on the efforts and talents of individuals whose power, profits, and rivalries threatened the very principles on which the Republic was based.”
  6. In other words, the empire created the emperors (not the other way around), which necessitated another reconsideration of what Rome was and who Romans were.
  7. Just as important and interesting (if not more so) as her approach to traditional questions is the way Beard patiently sifts through the existing archaeological and literary evidence to explain what we know about Romans and how we know it (much is a matter of educated guesswork that includes a great deal of reading between the lines).
  8. In other words, SPQR is not a plain, old narrative history in which one damn things happens after another in an inevitable chain (although one will get a good sense of the main periods of Roman history and how they are linked together); it is an extended and thoughtful meditation on Roman history.
  9. Surviving documents in Roman history are skewed heavily toward wealthy and powerful men, but Beard makes an enormous effort to represent the lives of slaves, women, the poor, peasants, provincials, frontier peoples, and others who have not figured prominently in most narratives; although these folks possessed multiple identities and often clashed with the powerful, she argues that they also participated in a vital, popular Roman culture that united them with their betters.
  10. This extremely accessible work reads like an engaging after-dinner lecture by an erudite person who knows not only how to entertain but also how to convey some thought-provoking ideas to an audience of non-specialists (this would be a very interesting work to use with undergraduates).

Interesting Fact: SPQR is the Roman acronym for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus which means “The Senate and People of Rome.” The phrase appeared on Roman coins, Roman documents, and the standards of the Roman army.

Very Short Reviews: Dominic Sandbrook’s _Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979_

Over the course of a decade, Dominic Sandbrook has written a series of works detailing the history of contemporary Britain: Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (2005), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (2007), State of Emergency: The Way We Were—Britain, 1970-1974, and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (2013). Sandbrook is apparently at work on the next book in the series which will cover the period from 1979 to 1984 and is provisionally entitled Who Dares Wins.

But back to Seasons in the Sun. Why read an 811-page book that covers only five years of British history? First and most important, the years between 1974 and 1979 (which included Harold Wilson’s second ministry and Jim Callaghan’s stint as prime minister) are widely perceived as a major tipping point in contemporary British history. Second, it was an eventful period, not just in politics, but socially, economically, and culturally. Third, Sandbrook is a wonderful narrator with an eye for symbolic anecdotes.

Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (London: Penguin Books, 2013).

  1. Although historians have generally represented this period as one of wrenching change, from politics to punk rock (to name just two examples), Sandbrook stresses the continuities in British life during this period; Callaghan’s government anticipated some of Margaret Thatcher’s moves (e.g. making a priority of fighting inflation rather than unemployment) while art colleges, which had long influenced British popular music, continued to play a vitally important role in in the punk movement.
  2. If the period was not characterized by wrenching change, it was no doubt wrenched: high inflation, rising unemployment, a falling pound sterling, anemic rises in productivity, declining competitiveness, a mortifying IMF bailout, massive strikes, and the drop in real wages created a profound sense among almost all Britons that their country had entered an irreversible decline—something that was reflected in literature and music throughout this period.
  3. Yet Wilson’s Labour administration was paralyzed largely because the Cabinet was terrified of crossing the unions, while Wilson himself was exhausted, bankrupt of ideas, involved in petty quarrels, and consumed by conspiracy theories.
  4. After Wilson retired in 1976, however, Jim Callaghan, the new Labour prime minister, along with Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, brought inflation below 10% by explicitly abandoning Keynesian economics (see below), cutting government spending, and limiting wage hikes.
  5. This achievement was fragile because Labour did not command a majority in the Commons (it relied on support from Liberals), and wages could only be held down for so long when inflation was still above 8%.
  6. Sandbrook argues that the problem with keeping wages down was not that the unions were leftist and wanted to continue building a “New Jerusalem;” rather, years of affluence under the welfare state had eroded class solidarity, contributed to greater individualism among blue collar workers, raised expectations, and led to competition between unions to obtain ever greater pay hikes.
  7. At the same time, the great union bosses who oversaw the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which was the backbone of the Labour Party, belonged to an older generation that had lost touch with the shop stewards on the factory floor; in other words, the connection between the Labour Party and the union rank and file had begun to dissolve in such a way that the party could not control union members or appeal to their loyalty.
  8. When Callaghan sought to keep wage from climbing higher than 5%, the result was the infamous “Winter of Discontent” (1978-1979), when a massive series of strikes (coupled with terribly cold weather) practically paralyzed the country before the Labour government had to climb down in humiliating fashion; the stage was now set for the Conservative victory in the General Election of 1979—although Sandbrook emphasizes Thatcher’s weaknesses and the extent to which her positions on the issues in that particular contest were not all that different from those of Callaghan.
  9. The Labour government’s vain attempt to stay in power and fix Britain’s economic problems is at the heart of Sandbrook’s story, but this book is about so much more: the Troubles in Northern Ireland (which spread to England), the public debate on the emergence of comprehensive schools (and new, experimental pedagogy), the rise and fall of punk rock (according to Sandbrook, Elton John was the real soundtrack of the 1970s), the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, the Notting Hill riots of 1976, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), Scotland’s improbable (and disastrous) run at World Cup glory in 1978, the 1979 devolution referenda in Scotland and Wale, the rise of leftist student organizations, strikes too innumerable to mention, the Yorkshire Ripper’s rampage around Leeds, attempts at police reform, the terrible sex-attempted murder scandal that brought down Jeremy Thorpe (the Liberal Party leader), the varying fortunes of the National Front, the discovery of North Sea oil, and more!
  10. The stress on continuities, the marginalization of certain movements (e.g. Sandbrook claims student radicals were not particularly representative of students as a whole), and the evident respect for leaders of the Labour Party’s moderate wing (Sandbrook obviously appreciates the work of Callaghan and Healey while Tony Benn comes off as a worm) marks this out as conservative history, but a fine history it is.

Ironic Fact: The EEC referendum of 1975 was curiously the reverse of the EU referendum of 2016. In the former, Labour’s Harold Wilson, who was prime minister, sought to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s entry before the vote. He himself was very lukewarm on the EEC, and his party was divided on the issue. The Conservatives—both the parliamentary party and the voters–led by Margaret Thatcher no less, wholeheartedly supported entry into the EEC. But in 2016, it was David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, who renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership before the referendum. And this time, it was the Conservative Party that was divided on the issue, but Labour was generally pro-Europe.

And Finally: What makes this book so fascinating is that many key moments that Sandbrook describes appear on YouTube. Here’s “Sunny Jim” Callaghan not being so sunny, as he drops some truth on the Labour Party Conference of 1976 and abandons Keynesian economics.

Or how about Scotland’s run at the World Cup in 1978? Many thought the Scots had a shot at the title. However, they lost 3-1 against Peru and tied Iran 1-1. According to the rules as they then stood, Scotland needed a three-goal victory over the Netherlands to advance. The Dutch had come in second in 1974 and would finish as runners-up in 1978, so Scotland had a tall order. The Scots did not get their three-goal victory, but look at what they managed against the second-best team in the world.

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Karen Armstrong’s _Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence_

Fields of Blood

Since many people associate religion with the contemporary conflicts we have witnessed across much of the globe since 9/11, it seemed to make sense that this blog review Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. In other words, One Thing after Another read the book so you don’t have to.

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).

  1. Armstrong asserts that her primary motive in writing this book consists of refuting an assertion repeated to her relentlessly “like a mantra” by people from all walks of life: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”
  2. Attempting to disprove this assertion makes it unclear who this book is for; scholars do not make these kinds of generalizations in academic forums, and laypeople who do make these kinds of generalizations are unlikely to read an overlong book larded with so much detail that the thesis is occasionally lost.
  3. Along the way, Armstrong does remind her readers of some important, well-established truths: religion is difficult to define; until the emergence of the modern age, people could not really make a distinction between religion and politics; over time, religious traditions have been interpreted in a variety of ways and therefore have no true “essence” (although she undermines this argument by claiming from time to time that a religious tradition was not implicated by the violent acts of its adherents because they were not acting according to the “true” spirit of that tradition); and most faiths have experienced an ambivalent relationship with violence.
  4. Armstrong’s main argument is that the responsibility for the great majority of violence lies with the state and that in the contemporary period, war is the product of imperialism or the strains of modernization; religion has been distorted by these forces and often reflects rather than instigates them.
  5. So far from being the problem, she argues, religion is the solution: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world.”
  6. One of the main problems with this book is that it is too broad (it starts with the Sumerians and proceeds to the present), which means that Armstrong often ventures into areas where she has no experience or background; to name just one of many examples, she claims there is little evidence that humans fought one another before the advent of agriculture and civilization—but since Laurence Keeley wrote War before Civilization (1996), scholars (backed by mounting archaeological evidence) have increasingly taken the view that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were pretty violent.
  7. As other reviewers have pointed out, her history inclines toward an economic and social determinism that tends to be superficial and poorly explained; culture does not display much autonomy in her narrative. (See The Economist:
  8. It is not clear whether Armstrong’s sources influenced or express her stance, but her notes and bibliography are idiosyncratic and often do not reflect the latest literature in the periods or topics she studies.
  9. There are important contradictions in her argument; to name perhaps the most important one, if, as she states, religion could not be distinguished from politics up until the modern period, and political motives generally inspired warfare, it would seem that religion is still culpable.
  10. Or, to look at the same problem from another angle, as Mark Juergensmeyer writes in his Washington Post review of Armstrong’s work, “Religion — in the sense of what theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the repository of symbols’ — has also had long relationships with grandiose power, violence and blood. So religion is not totally off the hook.” (See the Washington Post:

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Ruth Scurr’s _Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution_

Fatal Purity

The 222nd anniversary of Maximilien Robespierre’s execution is coming up (July 28, 1794 or 10 Thermidor Year II, according to the French revolutionary calendar), so One Thing after Another thought it would be appropriate to resurrect the Very Short Review series this summer with an excellent biography of Robespierre.

Ruth Scurr, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (New York: Holt, 2006).

  1. Scurr is primarily interested in delineating the relationship between Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution; as she puts it, “At what point exactly did the lawyer from Arras begin to believe in the image that the Revolution reflected back to him” and “Why did that image become so dangerously hypnotic, for him personally, for his contemporaries, and for posterity?”
  2. Like other biographers, Scurr detects the heavy influence of Rousseau in Robespierre’s thinking, particularly in the desire to create a virtuous society (which was not merely a means to an end, but an end in itself) and a belief in the supremacy of the General Will (not what the majority wanted but rather what was in the best interest of society as a whole).
  3. Scurr also emphasizes the impact of Robespierre’s religious ideas—while he saw the Catholic Church and its priests as enemies of the revolution, he was a man susceptible to religious feeling, who believed in God, and felt that religion would facilitate the development of virtue (which is why he supported the cult of the Supreme Being).
  4. Of course, Robespierre’s strange and paradoxical personality—he was aloof, principled, sensitive, incorruptible, dogmatic, paranoid, idealistic, and ambitious—shaped his political strengths (a capacity to stay “on message,” an ability to obtain tremendous moral force, an uncanny knack for detecting his opponents’ vulnerabilities, and a dogged perseverance) and weaknesses (a suspicion of other and a susceptibility to abstractions that divorced him from the messy reality of the French revolutionary politics and life in general).
  5. Robespierre saw no further into the future than others (e.g. in 1789, he had no inkling the monarchy would be overthrown in 1792, nor did he dare suggest such a thing), but he had a very good sense of how to seize the moment for political advantage.
  6. Robespierre’s great strength was as an articulator of ideas (the Comte de Mirabeau said of him, “He will go far because he believes everything he says.”) who could dominate an assembly, not as an executive politician who always knew how to navigate the complicated and overlapping Parisian centers of power: the chief executive (the Committee of Public Safety), the legislature (the National Convention), the factions within the legislature (Hébertistes and Dantonists), the municipal authority (the Commune and its many sections), and the various political clubs (the Jacobins and the Cordeliers).
  7. We see Robespierre’s strengths at work when he defeated Brissot and the Girondins on a number of issues (e.g. the execution of Louis XVI, the erection of revolutionary tribunals, and the trial of Marat) before literally destroying them.
  8. At the same time, though, Robespierre’s obsession with virtue and his conviction that conspiracies threatened the revolution that sought to implement that virtue led to a madness that revolved around the following question: “How can you tell a sincere man in politics?”
  9. Another important component in Robespierre’s destruction was his self-identification with the revolution that he believed had to be protected at all costs—it a) reinforced his unwillingness to compromise with others and, b) in the eyes of many, tainted him with its excesses.
  10. Calmly and without rancor, Scurr concludes that Robespierre was sincere and honest, but even a sincere and honest man can lack a sense of proportion, become detached from reality, and commit terrible crimes (the Law of 22 Prairial, to name one example).

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Geoffrey Wawro’s _A Mad Catastrophe_

Wawro a mad catastrophe

Geoffrey Wawro, A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

  1. In this very opinionated and highly convincing book, Wawro argues that in 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a failing state, unwilling to surrender its status as a great European power and incapable of doing what was necessary to maintain that status, but recklessly determined to go to war in a futile bid to solve its domestic and foreign problems; in Wawro’s view, World War I did not destroy the empire, rather, the conflict exposed the state’s fundamental rottenness.
  2. Wawro refers to a number of the empire’s difficulties, but the most important one, he argues, was the nationalities problem, particularly the relationship between Austria and Hungary that resulted from the Ausgleich (which made for unwieldy government and allowed the Hungarians to stall any of Austria’s reforming initiatives).
  3. Domestic conflict undermined Austria-Hungary’s military preparations, leaving the empire’s diplomats with a very weak hand to play in European and particularly Balkan affairs; for example, in 1912, when Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro annexed Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire after the First Balkan War (territory that Austria-Hungary had been eyeing for years), Vienna found there was nothing it could do and wisely refrained from getting involved in the conflict—something it should have considered in 1914.
  4. The imperial leadership compounded its difficulties with very bad decisions (Wawro has harsh words for Emperor Franz Joseph and Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Chief of the General Staff): it did not fully think through its war plans (with their relatively small army, they thought they could invade both Serbia and Russia); it never seriously figured out how it would cooperate with Germany in a coming war (attacking the Serbs and holding the Russians at bay would be impossible without German help, but the Germans were committed to throwing all of their forces westward against France); it showed much dilatoriness in reacting to Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, and in waiting a month before delivering an ultimatum to Serbia, it forfeited most international sympathy; and Conrad tried to change the disposition of his forces in the middle of mobilization which caused untold confusion and ensured that Austro-Hungarian forces would be insufficient to fight in both Serbia and Russia.
  5. In the opening battles of the conflict, against ill-supplied but better-led enemies, the Austro-Hungarian army showed itself deficient at every level of war: strategically, it betrayed no ability to match means with ends, never realizing that the Russian threat warranted many more troops than the invasion of Serbia or that Austria-Hungary’s course of action depended completely on German decisions; operationally, it proved totally inconsistent, pointlessly shuttling forces hither and thither (exhausting its soldiers in the process) while in ignorance of the enemy’s location and numbers; and tactically, it launched frontal assaults in dense formations badly supported by obsolete artillery.
  6. In addition, the rank and file of the army did not fight well, Wawro argues, because many soldiers had little sympathy for the government under which they fought or interest in the cause they defended while mismanagement only led to more profound alienation.
  7. Austria-Hungary’s performance in the initial clashes of the war was appallingly bad—after some initial but bloody successes against the Russians in Galicia, the army suffered 444,000 casualties before being pushed back against the Carpathian mountains, while along the Drina River, Austro-Hungarian forces lost 80,000 men after making almost no headway against the Serbs.
  8. The army was hollowed out by these defeats which were the prelude for further disasters: two more invasions of Serbia in 1914 led to utter failure and a total of 300,000 casualties on that front (for reasons of prestige, the Austro-Hungarian army could not let the Serbs have the final word); in October, while covering the right wing of a German drive against Warsaw, the Austro-Hungarian army suffered a thrashing at the hands of the Russians; in November, a series of battles along the San River led to another 40,000 casualties to no effect; in December, during another German-led drive against Lodz, Austro-Hungarian forces were defeated near Cracow; and during the same month, a Russian attack on Austro-Hungarian positions in the Carpathians led the loss of 800,000 soldiers (three-quarters of them from illness) and the surrender of the Przemsyl fortress complex along with its garrison of 150,000 men.
  9. Many historians point to Austria-Hungary’s survival up until 1918 as proof of the regime’s essential toughness, but Wawro argues that this just wasn’t the case; by the end of 1914, after having suffered almost a million battle casualties, Austria-Hungary had become a “vassal” of Germany’s (something that was highlighted by the Sixtus Affair in 1917), and all subsequent military successes on the Eastern Front, in the Balkans, or in Italy were due to German power.
  10. Count Ottokar Czernin, the empire’s last foreign minister, observed “we were bound to die; we were at liberty to choose the manner of our death and we chose the most terrible”—had he seen into the future, he could have understood that this choice would also have significant and horrible implications for the 20th-century Balkans.

Stunning Fact: By 1917, the Austro-Hungarian army had suffered 3,500,000 casualties; a full half of these were POWs in Russia, something that seems to indicate a serious lack of will.

Hugh Dubrulle