Review of “Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age” by Robert D. Kaplan

Robert Kaplan is the best selling author of Balkan Ghosts (1993), a book that Bill Clinton said shaped his perception of the war in Bosnia. In Adriatic, Kaplan returns to the Adriatic Sea, but this time covers countries on both the eastern and western shores. Kaplan describes how the Adriatic over the last 1,000 years experienced a frequent shifting of the boundaries of three once powerful empires — Habsburg, Venetian, and Ottoman — and how that history still influences modern Europe.

Traveling through Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece, Kaplan gives more specific details about the geopolitics of each country, and what lessons the rest of the world can take away from the region. He covers the rise of populist politics, as well as issues arising from migration, trading, and energy resources, observing the changes in the three decades he has been studying the area. He laments the decline of empires, which often were able to control violent nationalist aspirations [until they weren’t able to, whether through leadership changes, internal revolutions, or outside wars].

This is by no means an easy book to categorize — it is much more than a travelogue. Kaplan uses particular locations to ruminate on literature (especially books set in the places he goes), architecture, history, and religion. In each place he visits, he points out the influences of both West and East. He also learns, and educates readers, through interviewing politicians, journalists, historians, and others as he travels.

He makes the observation that in the current era, China has targeted the region with its Belt and Road Initiative by which Chinese leaders seek to expand their influence, particularly through significant investments in port facilities. He warns that the new and vast maritime empire of China and its burgeoning global trade threatens to overwhelm Europe. What this will mean for its identity is anyone’s guess.

Evaluation: Adriatic is a highly readable and informative book on a fascinating part of the world.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Random House, 2022

Review of “The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History” by James J. O’Donnell

We all know that the Roman Empire “fell” some time around 476 A.D., the date of the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, traditionally seen as the “last” Roman emperor. But maybe not, at least according to James J. O’Donnell, a distinguished classicist and provost of Georgetown University. In O’Donnell’s view, set forth in The Ruin of the Roman Empire (2008), the “fall” or end of the Roman Empire is exceedingly difficult to pinpoint. One reason is that the Empire persisted in the east (headquartered in Constantinople) until at least 1453 when it fell to the Ottoman turks. [That’s when Edward Gibbon identified the “fall” in his magisterial History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.] And even then, the Ottomans continued to refer to their empire as “Rum” [Rome] until it was formally disbanded in 1924 with the establishment of the modern Turkish state.

O’Donnell’s book focuses on the part of the empire governed from the city of Rome, particularly in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. And even there, the “fall” was not at all obvious. The Empire in the third century was especially chaotic, with emperors typically lasting only a year or two before being assassinated and replaced by some ambitious general or warlord. The chaos ended in the late 3d century with the ascendency of Diocletian, who moved his base of operations eastward to what is now the Croatian city of Split. His successor, Constantine, moved the capital even farther east to Byzantium, which he modestly renamed Constantinople.

As the capital migrated eastward, the empire’s control over the western provinces (Gaul, Spain, and Italy) lessened, but that did not mean they became more barbaric. O’Donnell argues that the western provinces interacted a great deal with their “barbarian” neighbors to the north and east. Indeed, most of the consuls of Rome during the 4th through 6th centuries were born outside the titular boundaries of the “Empire.”

The Rhine and Danube rivers marked the official boundaries of the empire. But O’Donnell points out that rivers make very ineffective boundaries between civilizations (mountains and deserts are much more effective) because they attract people. Hence, citizens of the empire and their ostensibly barbaric neighbors had plenty of intercourse (double entendre intended) across those waterways. Tribes close to the empire adopted many of the customs, dress, institutions, and habits of the people within the empire.

O’Donnell portrays the movement of people and tribes around and across the empire’s boundaries as a bit chaotic, but more peaceful than generally described in most western literature. He appraises Attila the Hun as the most overrated villain in western history. In his view, the Huns were not so much repelled in battle as simply assimilated by a mutually recognized superior culture.

Rome may have been sacked by the Vandals in 455, but it quickly reorganized. Odoacer, son of Edoco (a Hun) became leader of the western empire and assumed the title of “king” rather than emperor, but provided wise leadership and stability from 476 to 493. His successor, Theoderic (sometime called “the Great”), ruled from 493 to 526 upheld a Roman legal administration and scholarly culture and promoted a major building program across Italy. In 505 he expanded into the Balkans, and by 511 he had brought the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain under his direct control and established hegemony over the Burgundian and Vandal kingdoms.

Coin depicting Flavius Theodoricus (Theodoric the Great). Roman Vassal and King of the Ostrogoths. It is only known a single piece of this coin, from the collection of Italian numismatic Francesco Gnecchi, now in Palazzo Massimo, Rome, via Wikipedia

Thus in O’Donnell’s view, Rome had not fallen in the mid 5th century, but was well governed until at least 526, admittedly by Visigoths and descendants of Huns. The bete noire in his telling is Justinian, who ruled in Constantinople from 527 to 565. The split of the empire into two halves, the Latin speaking west and the Greek speaking east, was not something he could abide. He was driven to unite the entire empire by a need to unify Christian beliefs. The western rulers tended to be tolerant of various forms of Christianity, whereas he was a devoted follower and believer in the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon.

O’Donnell does a nice job of explaining the various forms of early Christianity. As he says:

Jesus and his first followers…offered a variety of assertions about Jesus’s relationship with the supreme divine being….There is simply too much scripture for it all to make sense.”

Arian theology, a belief held by the majority of the people in the West, but not by the bishops of Rome, insisted on distinguishing Jesus from God. The Nicenes, on the other hand, said that Jesus and God were of “identical substance,” homo-ousios in Greek. The Council of Chalcedon attempted to solve the issue with a doctrine O’Donnell characterizes as “both-and,” asserting both the godhead and manhood of Jesus at the same time. O’Donnell opines:

“…the Chalcedonians put forth a logical construct, yet still quite difficult to grasp and comprehend, and they made this incomprehensibility into a virtue, at least far as they could. If scriptures were contradictory and confusing, they represented not conflict, but rather a lofty, divine logic that mortals could not grasp, and became evidence of the truth of a logically paradoxical doctrine.”

So Justinian set out to unify the empire, both politically and religiously. His armies set out from Constantinople to conquer Italy, north Africa, and Spain. They also picked fights with the Persian Empire to their east. Although they were often successful in battle, they pretty much ruined the economies of the western provinces. Moreover, not only were they ultimately unsuccessful in subduing the western provinces, they may have weakened their own empire as a whole as well as the Persian Empire so much that neither they nor the Persians were able to withstand the onslaught of Islam, wich began shortly thereafter.

O’Donnell’s book provides a welcome insight into an historical period not well known or understood today.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2008

Review of “A History of the Bible: The Story of the World’s Most Influential Book” by John Barton

Author John Barton, a priest in the Anglican Church and Oxford professor, reflects the influence of both institutions in this long and detailed history of the Bible and how it developed.

He calls the Bible a “melee of materials”: a collection of folk memories, myths, and aphorisms subject to vagaries of translation over the years.  He avers that “the history of the Bible is the story of the interplay between the religion and the book—neither mapping exactly onto the other.”  

For example, there are absolutely central doctrines in Christianity, such as that of the Trinity; the “real presence” (in Catholicism); or the organization of the Church itself, that are almost entirely absent from the New Testament. Barton states, “One of my purposes in this book is to demonstrate that there really are irreconcilables: that the faiths that appeal to the Bible are not totally congruent with it, though they are clearly closely related.”

He points out that all printed versions of the New Testament (and he analyses all the major ones) are based on the comparison of various different ancient manuscripts.  Therefore an appeal to the exact wording of the New Testament is fraught with difficulty because of the lack of an agreed text.  As Barton says:

To attribute religious authority to such a document stretches the word ‘authority’ to its limits, and can only be sustained by devising special ways of interpreting this book that differ from those in which others are interpreted.”

This does not, however, stop religious adherents from claiming doctrines are irrefutable because “the Bible says….”

In addition, Jews and Christians both read their version of the Bible as if it were a single book with a consistent theme, but their respective themes are quite different.  The Old Testament is one characterized by the themes of violence and revenge; the New Testament is all about redemption.  Christians emphasize the story of “The Fall” in Eden as an event from which mankind must be “redeemed,” and see the suffering and death of Jesus as the mechanism by which the redemption is effected.  Moreover they employ some very strained interpretations of Delphic prophesies in the Old Testament as applying to or “prefiguring” events in the life of Jesus.  Jews, on the other hand, ascribe little importance to the story of Adam and Eve, and view the Hebrew Bible as a narration of God’s continuing interaction with his chosen people.

Then there is the problem that many passages of the Bible are absurd on their face or at least highly incredible to a modern scientifically educated reader. That is not a new problem for believers. As early as the second century, Christian apologists struggled with some Old Testament passages. Origen was the Christian scholar who came up with the ultimate technique of interpretation that protected the Bible from criticism for its absurdities and inconsistencies.  He said that it should always be interpreted allegorically—to him, the literal meaning of the text was relatively unimportant (and thus, it could be outright false) because the real meaning was hidden or stated indirectly.

Indeed, the need for translation and interpretation represents one of the most enduring problems of the Bible.  Translators often could not come up with literal meanings to correspond to those in the documents they worked with, and thus individual beliefs, pedagogical orientations, and cultural agendas colored their work.

Translators and interpreters had more barriers than just lacking a Rosetta Stone for their work.  For example, scrolls of the Hebrew Scriptures contain only consonants, forcing the reader into a creative process by having to determine contextual connections and inflections. This situation led to a large body of work in Judaism (specifically, the Talmud and the Midrash) to interpret the sacred texts.  Early Jewish sages viewed the lack of “pure” or “objective” truth as positive:  one must come to faith by active intellectual engagement.  Christian scholars were more oriented towards finding the “essential truth” revealed by the Bible, and thus a great deal of violence has been exercised over the years in the attempt to establish a “definitive” version of religious “truth.” 

Another interesting issue in translating the Bible is that the original versions of the various books, having been written by different people, manifest substantially different levels of sophistication and eloquence. For example, the original Greek of Mark is rather rough, whereas Luke and Matthew show a higher level of education. Moreover, Revelation (or the “Apocalypse”) is often ungrammatical. And yet, every English, German, and French translation has chosen to translate every book in a single “voice,” as if it were written by the same person. In fact, the King James Version of the English Bible is often pointed to as a paradigm of excellence in English composition. Barton thinks much could be gained by preserving the variation in diction in the original to the extent practicable.

Bible Translation Spectrum from Logos Bible Software Wiki – see larger here:

It should be noted, however, that freedom to interpret religious texts can go only so far in the real world; the great Jewish philosopher Benedict Spinoza, now recognized as one of the founders of biblical criticism, was excommunicated for calling into question a literal interpretation of the Bible, rejecting the idea that the Bible consisted of “inspired truths.”  His distinction between knowledge and logic on the one hand, and obedience to faith on the other, did not endear him to religious authorities; in 1656 he was cast out of the Jewish community. He believed the Bible should be read and interpreted just like any other book. He rejected the possibility of miracles and doubted the accepted authorship of some of the Old Testament books, proving for example that Moses could not have written all the books of the Pentateuch. One of his most innovative concepts was that people in biblical times thought differently from modern people, an idea that had not been clearly articulated before.


Spinoza might have been pleased by Barton’s use of  comprehensive scholarship in an attempt to right the misconception that the Bible has one definitive meaning.  He shows the stories in the Bible are diverse in style and content, contradictory, and reflect different historical needs.  He contends that the assertion of a perfect fit between scripture and the faiths of either Judaism or Christianity is totally without justification, given the history that he so ably elucidates.

Evaluation:  This book is an excellent and consistently interesting must-read for students of religion.  As for Fundamentalists, they wouldn’t like it….

Rating: 5/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2019

Review of “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” by Erik Larson 

As terrible as the costs of war are, we tend to feel especial horror over civilian casualties.

Shortly after the beginning of World War II, German bombers attacked Britain relentlessly in what came to be known as “the Blitz” after the German word “blitzkrieg,” meaning “lightning war.” Between September 7, 1940 and May 10, 1941, some 45,000 British civilians were killed and another 139,000 were injured. Many more were left homeless – over 12,000 alone in the final, brutal raid on London. Hundreds of thousands of buildings were destroyed or damaged. Overall, some 33,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the Germans over Britain. It was only after the Germans opened up a second front against Russia that the bombing abated because the Germans needed to redeploy the aircraft of the Luftwaffe to their new Eastern Front.

Larson explains that he wrote this history after wondering how anyone could stand the frightening reality of constant bombardment and threat of actual invasion by Germany. The noise of the planes and blasts from the bombs added to the general fear and anxiety. The physical damage from the bombings required ongoing repairs but there was a lack of sufficient supplies and labor. Shortages of food and medicine increased the worries of the populace. In particular, Larson wondered, how could parents handle the threat to their children? During the Blitz 7,736 children were killed and 7,622 seriously wounded.

Larson was curious how Churchill, by then aged 65, coped psychologically with the challenges. Because so many biographies of Churchill had already been written, Larson opted to craft “a more intimate account” of this period using source material from diaries as well as other documents. He drew from the private diaries of Mary Churchill, at 17 the youngest of Churchill’s four children; John “Jock” Colville, 25, one of Churchill’s private secretaries; and Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief propagandist.

Southampton was hit by two serious raids on the nights of 23 November and 30 November. During the second of these raids, which lasted six hours, 800 high explosive bombs were dropped. Source: Imperial War Museum

The author takes us from the evacuation of the Allies from Dunkirk in June, 1940, through the collapse of France shortly thereafter, the invasion by Hitler of Russia in late June, 1941, and finally to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and subsequent entry of the United States into the war. After vicariously enduring all that Churchill and the British suffered, one can’t help but have mixed feelings over the Japanese bombing: the sacrifice of the soldiers at Pearl Harbor and resulting willingness of Americans to enter the fray undoubtedly saved Britain, hanging on by a thread, from Hitler’s juggernaut.

Larson embellishes what history buffs already know about the first year of the war in England with interesting personal observations by those closely tied to the centers of power. The daily ravages of war did not stop those caught up in its vise from experiencing the gamut of personal relationships. It is notable that, as Larson observed, “the attacks on London seemed clearly to unleash a new sexuality… As bombs fell, libidos soared.” One woman in London at the time wrote: “Young people were reluctant to contemplate death without having shared their bodies with someone else.” Affairs involving married people were also common, Larson reports.

Coventry’s medieval cathedral was destroyed in the bombings on November 14-15, 1940. German bombers dropped 503 tons of high explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs on the city. 568 people were killed and 850 seriously injured. Source: Imperial War Museum

Evaluation: It is hard to read this gripping account without gaining even more appreciation for Churchill than if one only had read his speeches, which were simply superb. One will also admire the courage and perseverance of those who went through so much and still carried on. It’s an inspiring story, and written to appeal to more than just a “history” audience – it reads in many ways like a thriller, albeit with an outcome you already know.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2020

Review of “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021” by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

The authors set out to document, as they put it, “the inexorable culmination of a sustained four-year war on the institutions and traditions of American democracy.”

Of Donald Trump, they write:

He did not know that Puerto Rico was part of the United States, did not know whether Colombia was in North America or South America, thought Finland was part of Russia, and mixed up the Baltics with the Balkans.  He got confused about how World War I started, did not understand the basics of America’s vast nuclear arsenal, did not grasp the concept of constitutional separation of powers, did not understand how courts worked.  ‘How do I declare war?’ He asked at one point, to the alarm of his staff, who realized he was unaware that the Constitution prescribes that role for Congress.  He seemed genuinely surprised to learn that Abraham Lincoln had been a member of the Republican Party.  ‘He knew nothing about most things,’ observed one top aid.  Advisers soon realized they had to tutor him on the basics of how government worked.”

…and yet, he became the 45th President of the United States!

As President, he was always concerned more about appearance than substance.  He loved the trappings of office, and never passed up a good photo-op. He made many appointments to key positions based on how well the candidate would look on television rather than on their qualifications.  He even spent “exhaustive amounts of time each morning combing and twisting the long strands of his awkwardly colored hair.”

Watching television took up an inordinate amount of Trump’s time.  He passed many hours watching his favorite network, Fox, and often made decisions based on how they would play with his ratings.  Although his family and friends had relatively easy access to him, key members of his administration frequently had trouble gaining his attention.  Newt Gingrich even said “The two most effective ways of communicating with Trump are ‘Fox and Friends’ and ‘Hannity.’”

But television wasn’t the only media outlet he wanted to dominate. He used Twitter as an outlet for outrage and a means for self-praise, and “fact-checking was never part of the process.”

His foreign policy, if he can be said to have had one, revolved around his “conviction that the country had been taken for a ride by foreign allies and adversaries alike.” Everything was about transactions with Trump, and all transactions were about “winning,” which to Trump generally meant getting money or favors. He alienated traditional allies and courted enemies and adversaries.

He sought constant adulation and was much more interested in appearing in rallies than in governing.  He surrounded himself with sycophants and yes-men, and fired aides who dared to challenge his whims.  He turned most conversations into some way of bragging and exaggerating about his supposed “accomplishments.” He lied constantly: the Washington Post fact checker counted 30,573 false or misleading public statements he made while president!

Baker and Glasser follow Trump’s chaotic presidency in carefully researched detail from his false claims of the biggest inauguration crowd in history to his aborted effort to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election. It was, in their words:

. . . an unimaginable period in our history when the United States had a leader for the first time who neither knew nor subscribed to many of the fundamental tenets of the Constitution and even actively worked to undermine them.”

Evaluation: This book is an excellent, almost day by day, summary of the Trump presidency.  Every chapter outlines reasons for enlightened citizens who love the United States to be angry.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Doubleday, 2022

Review of “A New Birth of Freedom” by Charles L. Black, Jr. – Examination of Human Rights Via Declaration of Independence & 9th and 14th Amendments

Professor Charles Lund Black, Jr. (1915-2001), was one of the leading constitutional law scholars of the twentieth century. In this restatement of much of his life’s work, he attempted to put the jurisprudence of human rights on firm legal ground.


Black looked to three sources for human rights: the Declaration of Independence, the Ninth Amendment, and the “privileges and immunities” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Declaration declares “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Ninth Amendment provides that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Article 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment says “1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Black considered the Declaration of Independence to be not only a source of law, but “law” itself. Why not? After all, it is the founding document that “established” the United States.

But even if the Declaration is not considered “law,” the ninth and fourteenth amendments are most certainly law – national law, which Article VI of the Constitution, provides is the supreme law of the land, superior to anything enacted by any of the “several states.”

The ninth amendment, though rarely cited in Supreme Court opinions, as indicated above states that the failure of the constitution to enumerate certain “rights” shall “not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” But what are those unenumerated rights? Black proposed they should include those mentioned in the Declaration, which was adopted only thirteen years before the passage of the Ninth Amendment.

And because the Ninth Amendment applies only to the Federal Government, the Fourteenth Amendment is needed to protect citizens from the actions of the states, which, Black pointed out, are the principal abridgers of human rights.

Although the 14th Amendment has acted as a check on actions by the states to limit human rights, the jurisprudence surrounding it has been faulty. The federal courts have relied on the “due process” clause of the amendment to find various state actions unconstitutional. This is all well and good where the state action was an unfair procedure (process), but that clause’s language simply does not seem to cover an unfair or otherwise constitutionally inappropriate substantive provision.

Professor Charles L. Black

Professor Charles L. Black

Black contended that reliance on the due process clause to invalidate overreaching by state governments has resulted in some poor decisions and fuzzy analysis. Instead, he pointed to the privileges and immunities clause, augmented by the 9th Amendment and a reference to the Declaration of Independence, as a better guide to the human right jurisprudence.

Black further argued that those three sources of human rights not only protect against state infringement, but also impose on Congress an affirmative constitutional duty to see that all citizens have a decent chance to “pursue happiness.” He said, “There is then nothing exotic to the Constitution in the proposition that a constitutional justice of livelihood should be recognized….” He wanted our national debate about the elimination of poverty to shift from a matter of compassion to one of a constitutional right. In his words, “The general diffusion of material welfare is an indispensable part in the general diffusion of the right to the pursuit of happiness.”

Black believed that “the pursuit of happiness” should be adopted as a fundamental right, created by the Declaration of Independence, incorporated in the Constitution and imposed on the federal government through the Ninth Amendment, and imposed on the states through the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The simple insight of the right to pursue happiness would reach out to every field of human rights:

It would make plain the wrong in every kind of discrimination hurtful to women. It goes to the essence of the wrongs done by the law and outside the law to those having homosexual preferences. It could clarify the ultimate grounds of the banning of racial discrimination against blacks and other racial minorities.”

Moreover, we need not fear that such an extension of such rights would go “too far.” After all, the law effectively limits the right of free speech and religion. An analysis similar to that which prohibits yelling “fire” in a crowded theater (limiting speech) and prohibits ritual animal sacrifice (limiting religion) would keep pursuit of happiness jurisprudence within reasonable bounds.

Black dedicated the book to Abraham Lincoln, who also looked to the Declaration of Independence as a source of “law” when he referred to it in the Gettysburg Address. Black thought perspicaciously and wrote clearly; this exceptionally good book is highly recommended.

Published by Putnam, 1997

September 1, 1939 – Beginning of War in Europe and Review of “No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945” by Norman Davies

Although Japan was already at war with China, the “world war” is said to have started on this date in history, with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany.

No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 is a book about which my husband and I have fairly strong disagreement. While I thought the author was repetitive and annoying after his initial valid points, my husband liked it so much he read it twice! I will give my summary first, followed by his dissent.

Review by Jill:

Davies’ extensive history of WWII is divided into five subject areas: military, politics, soldiers, civilians, and media. Each area is explored chronologically, so that we go back and forth, five times, sometimes over the same material. Throughout, several themes predominate:

1. Western powers aggrandize their roles in WWII. To the contrary, the most important battles were in the East, and the 1945 victory in Europe was “above all” Stalin’s. These facts are obscured by “relentless Western publicity pursued to the greater glory of Western interests….” [And in fact, Americans are by and large unaware that the Soviets suffered 95% of all military casualties inflicted on the three major Allied powers (the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R.) and that 90% of Germans killed in combat in the war died fighting them, not the West.]
2. Most histories of WWII, looking through Western conceptual lenses, see Hitler’s Germany as the “most” evil. America’s “war-time love affair with the USSR” put Soviet atrocities out of focus, and romanticized the role of “the Russians.”
3. The USSR was multinational, not just Russian; Ukrainians and Byelorussians suffered more than any other group;
4. Stalin was way more evil than westerners give him “credit” for; and
5. Poland got screwed by all parties (including the allies) big time.

These points are important and well-taken, but Davies tends to beat them to death in this extremely detailed overview.


Some of his observations are nicely crafted. For example, in describing Britain’s situation after March 1941 when Lend-Lease started, he suggests that Britain became an “island aircraft carrier, to which U.S. military assets could be transferred as the need arose.”

On the other hand, some of his observations are questionable. Hitler was “only human” if, albeit, “obnoxious”?!!! David Irving (an English Holocaust denier) displayed “the wrong shade of opinion”?!!! Ariel Sharon “alleged” there were Jews who fought with the Allies?!!! Some 150,000 “Jews” fought with the Wehrmacht?!!! (N.B. This number actually represents the number of “mischlinge” or those who were designated as Jews only because of Hitler’s insistence in going back to the fourth generation past for racial purity. Most of these men were born and raised Christians and were ardent German patriots.)

Oddly, in spite of Davies’ anti-Soviet, anti-Stalin bias, he doesn’t make a strong statement about Roosevelt’s pandering to Stalin. He does opine that Roosevelt was much more wary of Churchill as an “old imperialist” than of Stalin. Yet later in the narrative he avers (speaking of the Tehran summit) “Roosevelt was inclined to humor Stalin.”

Davies’ world of the Gulag, the Katyn Forest, Sobibor and the like seems so alien from our current reality that it is hard to come away with useful lessons for the present. Tony Judt, in the May 1, 2008 New York Review of Books (writing about WW2 historical treatments generally), charges that “teaching the War through vectors of the suffering of particular groups” (as does Davies) only serves to make us feel separate from other groups’ sufferings. Thus we lose a sense of a shared past in favor of au courant atrocities. The underlying message is that these “Historical Horror way stations” are past us, and “we may now advance…into a different and better era.”

The “Big Three”: From left to right: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill on the portico of the Russian Embassy during the Tehran Conference to discuss the European Theatre in 1943.

I’m afraid one of my biggest criticisms of this book is rather fuzzy: that is to say, in my opinion this book lacks “background music.” Davies’ long delineation of particulars is cold and lifeless, even with, and in spite of, the inclusion of many inspiring stories. As Saul Friedlander observes in “Reflections on Nazism,” language can establish emotional distance by “showing that all the chaos and horror is, after all, coherent and explainable.” Thus Davies evokes nothing with his recitation of numbers of war dead – not even understanding, since the numbers are beyond rational comprehension. And of the cultures that were lost, there is not a word. I believe one can learn more about the pain and loss of WW2 from listening to the music of Kreisler than by reading Davies’ neutralized analyses. My husband loved this book; but he would much prefer lists of tanks and planes to evocations of life and love. I would have preferred to see Davies advance his theories in a nice long article in The Atlantic or The New Yorker, rather than a 560-page book. I give this book three stars; he would give it five. His review follows….

Fritz Kreisler

Fritz Kreisler

Review by Jim:

I thought this was a far better book than my wife gives it credit for being. It is as much a book of historiography as a work of history. It points out how both popular and scholarly works in both the West and East (Soviet) have skewed their perceptions to promote the political preconceptions of their audiences. Davies emphasizes how Western historians have poorly expressed the comparative magnitudes of the war in the East with the war in the West. He also shows that both Eastern and Western historians have underestimated the criminality of the Soviet behavior in the war. The Germans were not the only barbarians who fought the war.

In his reassessment of the writing about the war, Davies observes that the Holocaust and the plight of the European Jews has had a large share of the ink spilled on the period. If this were the only book written about WWII, one would say that Davies greatly underestimated the enormity of the Nazi treatment of the Jews. But that is not his point. He is starting from a position in which there does exist a considerable corpus of Holocaust literature, and remarkably little about the plight of the Serbs, Gypsies, Ukrainians, Bylorussians, and the entire Polish people. Moreover, little is written about the fate of millions of Germans, mostly women and children, who were uprooted, raped, and/or killed during the Red Army’s final thrust into the Reich.

Davies’s choice of organization does cause some repetitive treatment of some events, as he analyzes them sequentially from the respective coigns of vantage of military, politics, soldiers, civilians, and media. Nonetheless, I think that is necessary since he makes some fairly controversial assertions, and he must martial his authority on each contentious point.

A sampling of Davies’ observations and conclusions indicates how inaccurate in his view is the general account of the war given by western media:

1. The first campaign of the war was a joint invasion of Poland by both Germany and the Soviet Union.
2. The Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939 was as blatant as Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941.
3. The Germans conquered only about 10% of the land mass of the Soviet Union, and most of the occupation covered the USSR’s western republics, Ukraine and Byelorussia. Stalin was much more willing to sacrifice the “politically suspect” ethnic and religious minorities in border states than Russians.
4. The communists “proved to be incompetent at almost everything except espionage, deception and war.”
5. Roosevelt’s entourage was riddled with fellow travelers who proved incapable of grasping the nature of Stalin’s regime.
6. The Soviets maintained larger concentration camps with more inmates than the Germans did.
7. Forcible repatriation to the USSR involved millions who were being sent to their deaths or to long prison terms for the “crime” of not fighting to their deaths against the Germans.
8. The victory of the USA and Britain was at best only partial, leading to 45 years of the cold war, a military standoff with the co-victors and the imposition of a totalitarian tyranny in the Soviet zone of Europe.

The book may not thoroughly original, but it is one of the best comprehensive reevaluations of our perception of the most significant event of the twentieth century that I have encountered.

Published by MacMillan, 2006

Review of “George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father” by David O. Stewart

An experienced biographer, historian David O. Stewart focuses on how George Washington became a “master politician,” and how this skill helped him navigate the very treacherous shoals of the early years of the American Republic. The increasingly poisonous atmosphere, especially during Washington’s second term in office, won’t sound so foreign to the current audience.

Stewart devotes most of his attention to Washington’s early years, and especially to those events that defined his later character. He recounts Washington’s experiences in the French and Indian War; his terms of office in the Virginia House of Burgesses; service as a judge on Fairfax County Court; and commander of armed forces in the American War of Independence. Stewart documents how, over time, Washington gained control over his apparently fierce temper, and learned the importance of building political coalitions and avoiding controversies whenever he could.

Washington, Stewart reports, never minced words about what he wanted: his goal was renown. Moreover, he craved “the regard and esteem” of fellow countrymen. He had a lifelong dread of any smudge on his reputation, and therefore of failure in any of his endeavors. As he wrote to a relative in 1775, “reputation derives it principal support from success.”

Because he needed success to make a good impression, some controversies were more difficult to avoid than others, especially as they directly would determine the outcome of his biggest challenges. One was the matter of getting colonists to cough up money. The Revolution was tied to Americans’ hatred of taxes, a dislike that has never in fact been dented much. And yet, at the same time, Americans wanted much that depended on government funding, such as an army that could repel the British; protection by an army from Natives increasingly unhappy over the usurpation of their land; and roads and other infrastructure that crossed state boundaries. Washington, who spent so many years leading soldiers who had little food, clothes, equipment, and wages, knew firsthand that a resistance to taxation and demand for services were incompatible desires.

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

Washington’s awareness of the country’s need for money carried over into his presidency, during which he aligned with Alexander Hamilton on fiscal policies that would retire the war debts and get a standardized currency approved. These unpopular measures needed to have the force of law behind them. As Washington observed back in 1778, “Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest, or advantage, to the common good.” He went on to aver that no institution relying on that faulty premise would succeed.

Washington had several factors that worked in his favor in the early republic. One was that Americans then, like now, “craved a hero.” It was generally easier to find someone to fill that need who played a military role, in spite of the fact that Washington’s military victories were few and far between. Much of his success in the Revolution could be attributed just to outlasting the British, who were fighting far from home. But as Stewart points out, it was political savvy, rather than military prowess, that was central to Washington’s success. In the internecine battles for control over the army and influence in Congress, Washington was often just the last man left standing.

Washington always wanted to make sure that everyone knew he didn’t want all these responsibilities (a claim belied by his pursuit of them). Thus if he failed, it wasn’t really his fault because he kept trying to turn down all these positions to which he was unanimously elected.

Once he did accept a position, however, he exerted tight control over that institution. Today he would be called a “micro-manager.” He was deeply involved in every aspect of his army and with all the deal-making under his presidential administration, in spite of his seeming reticence publicly. In fact, one interesting passage in this book deals with the famous compromise over war debt assumption by the new country and the location of its capital. Most histories claim that Jefferson somehow engineered the deal at a dinner party; Stewart contends this was largely a re-writing by Jefferson of what happened. It was a long-term process, Stewart avers, and Washington manipulated all of it.

By Washington’s second term, however, Washington was no longer seen as someone who could do no wrong. The country had grown, and dissent had grown along with it. Opponents launched bitter and often untrue attacks on him. Stewart explores the factors that led to this increase in factionalism, including French interference in American politics; the growing rivalry of Jefferson, who co-opted Madison, a former ally of Washington’s, to his cause; and of course, taxes. Washington couldn’t wait to escape the growing acrimony of political life. On the day John Adams was inaugurated as the second president, Adams later wrote that Washington looked “as serene and unclouded as the day.” He added, “Methought I heard him say, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which one of us will be happiest!’”

President John Adams

Washington died in 1799 after a difficult illness that started out as a cold. In his will he freed what slaves he could (some were owned by Martha’s estate and not his to free), and provided for care of others. He never made a public condemnation of slavery, however. Stewart speculates that Washington knew how controversial slavery was and didn’t want to damage his standing any further. Stewart also thought Washington must have known he would have sounded hypocritical if he spoke out against slavery. [That consideration never stopped other Founding Fathers, such as Jefferson.] Moreover, Washington never seemed to have awareness of how awful the state of being “owned” must be to another person. When he was younger, for example, traveling to Barbados with his older half-brother Lawrence in 1751, he gushed in his diary about being “ravished” by the beauty of Barbados, the gorgeous mansions, and the great meals, but evinced no awareness of the harsh lives of the slaves there who made all that possible, especially the short-lived workers in the sugar-cane fields. And much later in life, when Martha’s favorite slave Ona Judge ran away, Washington fumed in a letter:

“. . . however well disposed I might be to a gradual abolition, or even to an entire emancipation of that description of People (if the latter was in itself practicable at this moment) it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor.”

The Washingtons were incensed and offered a reward for Ona’s recapture.

In Washington’s view, Ona, who was money walking out his door, was “ungrateful.” What about a desire for freedom? It seems that for Washington, that wasn’t a relevant or legitimate desire for African Americans.

His blindness about “life, liberty, and happiness” for all extended to Native Americans. When fighting against them on America’s then western border, he reported how upset he was over “barbarous” Indians killing settlers – “poor innocent babes and helpless families.” He never considered why they might have acted that way, insofar as they were being evicted from their homelands, and subject to barbarous murders themselves by settlers covetous of Native property.

Stewart doesn’t make these flaws in Washington’s perception and character central, however, choosing to focus instead on Washington’s self-reinvention and political genius, and how he accomplished the former and developed the latter. In that respect, he does a fine job.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Dutton Books, 2021

April 19, 1775 – Battles of Lexington and Concord Kick Off the American Revolution & Review of “The British Are Coming” by Rick Atkinson

The poem “Concord Hymn” by Ralph Waldo Emerson paid tribute to the famous Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first official military engagements between Britain and the colonies in the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). Tensions had been building for many years between residents of the thirteen American colonies and the British authorities, particularly in Massachusetts. Emerson’s poem describes “the shot heard round the world” fired by Patriots at the North Bridge in what is now Charlestown, in northwestern Boston, Massachusetts.

Rick Atkinson, in his first magisterial volume of the planned “Revolution” trilogy, The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, describes just how those tensions developed and the early years of the war. In his Prologue, while summarizing the events that led to the Revolution, Atkinson writes:

“The odds were heavily stacked against the Americans: no colonial rebellion had ever succeeded in casting off imperial shackles. But, as Voltaire had observed, history is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.”

The results of the 3,059 days of the American Revolution were “tectonic,” Atkinson avers. The first was the reduction of the British Empire by about one-third. [Ironically, one rationale for the British wanting to suppress the American rebellion was preservation of the empire, fearing it would encourage insurrections in other British colonies.] The second was “epochal and enduring: the creation of the American republic.” Unlike the creation myths about America, the war, Atkinson argues, was “both grander and more nuanced, a tale of heroes and knaves, of sacrifice and blunder, of redemption and profound suffering.”

He then goes into a great deal of detail about the early years of the Revolution, especially about the personalities involved in the conflict.

He describes the patriots as “disputatious and litigious, given to violence on the frontier and in the street: a gentle people they were not.” Furthermore, they were accustomed to tending to their own affairs, and resented the arrival of the British in Massachusetts who intended, per orders of the king, to enforce obedience to the laws. As Atkinson notes however, all the talk of freedom by whites in America and outrage over what they viewed as an encroachment on freedom was accompanied by a robust slave trade in blacks and Native Americans.

Much like current times, Americans in the 1770s were anxious about the future, nostalgic for the past, and angry about the present. The leadership in Britain had many misconceptions about these colonists. Most portentously, Britain was convinced resistance was largely confined to Boston, with the American colonies too scattered and diverse for effective collaboration. Therefore, it was assumed, the Regulars would make short work of the problem, and respect for British authority would be reestablished.

Britain’s military commander in chief in America, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, sent warnings to London about the “wild and ungovernable” Americans, and pleaded for conciliatory measures, but he was derided as an “old woman.” The Americans, meanwhile, knew nothing of Gage’s attempts to improve their situation. On the contrary, he was seen as the face of Britain, and Gage effigies were burned in bonfires, while effigies of British soldiers were hung by nooses from roadside trees.

Portrait of Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley, c. 1768

Although some of the British army and navy regulars were eager to wreak “chastisement” on the “villainous” Americans, most were bored, apt to be continually drunk on the cheap and plentiful rum, and inclined to desertion. In fact, the navy desertion rate was so high, particularly in Boston, that ships started to remain at anchor rather than risk mass defections on land.

There was also a good deal of friction between Patriots and Loyalists, or Tories. (Recent scholarship has estimated that roughly 20 percent of the 2 million white Americans in the Colonies during the Revolution remained loyal to the Crown.) The antagonism became so intense that the Tories felt need for protection, for good reason. The Patriots terrorized the Loyalists, with Anglican churches and clergymen singled out for even more abuse, because they prayed for the British king. Churches were smashed and priests tarred and feathered or covered with excrement. Extralegal Patriot “committees of safety” policed members of their own towns, encouraging neighbor to turn against neighbor, and not discouraging vigilante and/or mob violence.

Separate colonial governments made preparations for a possible war, even as the authorities did back in London. The Provincial Congress also took measures in anticipation of armed conflict, including the establishment of a courier system.

When the fighting finally began, Atkinson describes it poetically:

“Now the Lexington bell began to clang in the wooden tower, hard by the meetinghouse. More gallopers rode off to rouse half a hundred villages. Warning gunshots echoed from farm to farm. Bonfires flared. Drums beat. Across the colony, in an image that would endure for centuries, solemn men grabbed their firelocks and stalked off in search of danger, leaving the plow in the furrow, the hoe in the garden, the hammer on the anvil, the bucket at the well sweep. This day would be famous before it dawned.”

Battle of Lexington and Concord 1775

Atkinson brought me to tears with that passage. Not only is it one of many beautifully written and evocative descriptions of the founding of the country, but it reminds the reader of all that was at stake, with the fight to establish a democracy rather than an autocracy, a fight that may yet be lost some 240 years later.

The rest of the story proceeds in a similar vein. Atkinson has done meticulous research, and he is a consummate storyteller. I sat on the edge of my chair during many of the battle descriptions, even though I knew their outcomes quite well.

And as for that “shot heard round the world”? Atkinson tells us that scholars have calculated that at least seventy-five thousand American rounds were fired in the opening battles, but only one bullet in almost three hundred found its mark. As he wryly notes: “The shot heard round the world likely missed.”

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2019

Review of “Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show” by Jonathan Karl

This excellent book details the ways in which, in the last months of the his administration, Donald Trump betrayed supporters, advisers, norms, laws, and most importantly, the country he was elected to serve in 2016.

Karl avers that he attempted to write the book with “objectivity and balance” from a journalistic standpoint. Yet, he observes, “But the first obligation of a journalist is to pursue truth and accuracy. And the simple truth about the last year of the Trump presidency is that his lies turned deadly and shook the foundations of our democracy.” The Trump that emerges from Karl’s objective and balanced reporting is a demented, raging, utterly deceitful and unscrupulous maniac.

Karl delves into the activities of Johnny McEntee, a 29-year-old former college football player who was hired by Trump as Director of the Presidential Personnel Office in which capacity he was responsible for hiring and firing of more than 4,000 political appointees across the federal government. McEntee apparently got his playbook from Stalin, using the office to purge anyone deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump and his policies.

It was McEntee who encouraged Trump to fire Defense Secretary Mark Esper, because he was, inter alia, committing the sin of “actively pushing for ‘diversity and inclusion.” It was also unclear if Esper would support a military takeover of the country if Trump called for it. Thus on November 9, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper via tweet in his inimitable manner, replacing him with Christopher C. Miller, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Joining Miller as chief of staff was Kash Patel, formerly top aide to Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. Both Esper and Miller come across more favorably in Karl’s account than they have been portrayed in the liberal press: neither would support using the military in controlling the election.

Karl focuses on the *established* fact that Trump lost the November 3, 2020 presidential election to Joe Biden, but then launched a violent insurrection (or as Ronna McDaniel, chair of the RNC, called it, “legitimate political discourse”) to overturn the results.

Instead of concerning himself with mitigating the effects of COVID-19, Trump was laser-focused on staying in power (for a job he didn’t seem interested in doing), and got a distressing number of people to go along with his efforts.

Karl reviews many of the conspiracy theories and rafts of misinformation bruited about by Trump’s inner circle about the “stolen” election (explaining just how and why they were absurd) and claims that these same people confided in him that they were telling Trump the truth in private. However, Trump knows the issue of what his knowledge and intentions were is critical and he continues to take steps [see his statement on February 4, 2022 for example] to counter that narrative with an assertion that he believed there was fraud and “large scale irregularities,” and therefore his behavior was “appropriate.”

Karl reviews Trump’s multiple meetings with Michael Flynn and attorney [sic] Sidney Powell, who argued for seizing the country’s voting machines; his calls to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger demanding that he “find” more votes (that were, he insisted, legitimately his); his efforts to get Republican legislators in other key states to substitute the Biden slate of electors with those certifying Trump as the winner instead; and his bullying and threatening of his vice president, Mike Pence.

Karl concludes with a limited bit of good news that “Democracy prevailed” in the end, but stops the story (by necessity) a bit too soon. He doesn’t deal with all the steps the Republicans have taken *since* January 6 to make sure Democracy won’t prevail again if they can help it. Another bit of good news, [pardon my schadenfreude], reading between the lines, we can infer that this egomaniacal menace is not a happy man: he may be monumentally delusional, and in any event, he is exceedingly frustrated.

Karl’s book should be read with fear and trepidation by all those who love Democracy, the rule of law, and the primacy of reason.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Dutton Books, 2021