Review of “The Hemingses of Monticello” by Annette Gordon-Reed

The first thing to understand about this book is that it is not just a story about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, nor is it in fact focused on Jefferson, although he naturally plays a large role in this history. The author took the opportunity provided by Jefferson’s fame and record-keeping to profile a slave family, the Hemingses, because accounts about the lives of slaves in early America are few and far between. As many as 70 members of the Hemings family lived in slavery at Monticello over five generations.

It begins with Elizabeth Hemings, the daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white father. Elizabeth and her mother came into the ownership of John Wayles when Wayles married Martha Eppes in 1746. After the death of his third wife, John Wayles took his slave Elizabeth Hemings as his mistress, and was the father of six of her children. Sarah (Sally) Hemings was one of their daughters. The mixed-race children of John Wayles were kept in slavery. Virginia had a number of laws to ensure this rule obtained.

White males deciding the fates of everyone else in the Virginia House of Burgesses

The Virginia House of Burgesses was called upon in the late 1600’s to answer the question of “whether children got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free” on account of challenges to enslaved status by mulattos (people of mixed race). Their response was to turn English law upside down by reaching back to an archaic Roman rule, partus sequitur ventrem (you are what your mother was). That is, Virginia passed laws establishing that the legal status of the mother, not the father, as stipulated in Britain, determined the legal status of the child. The author explains that this change from British law ensured that white masters could retain the value of “increase” when these female slaves gave birth, because as long as the child’s mother was a slave, it wouldn’t matter who the father was. Masters could therefore continue to exploit the popular option of using female slaves for sex without having to worry that this would cause them to lose their “property.” [Other states, particularly in the South, quickly followed suit. Further laws were passed to ensure that even “one drop” of “black blood” made the difference between slavery and freedom. You can read more about the history of the “one drop rule” (and its uniqueness to the U.S.) here.]

Jefferson’s Monticello Estate is in Albemarle County, Virginia

The legal degradation of blacks played a “useful” role in uniting the country as well. The sore point of inequalities of class, initially the cause of greatest tensions in the colonies, was superseded as the prime dividing line for status within the colony when race entered the picture: “Instead, poor whites, encouraged by the policies of the elites, took refuge in their whiteness and the dream that one day they, too, could become slave owners, though only a relative handful could ever hope to amass the land, wealth, and social position of the most prominent member of the Virginia gentry…”. (As historian Keri Leigh Merritt observes: “Throughout American history, the economic elite have used vile forms of racism to perpetuate the current hierarchy — politically, socially and economically. White supremacy is most commonly conceptualized as a way for lower-class whites to feel socially superior to people from other ethnic backgrounds.”)

Before long, “whiteness” came to signify the superiority of one socially and legally defined population over others, while simultaneously inculcating notions that character, intelligence, and other traits were associated with whiteness or non-whiteness. Thomas Jefferson himself contributed to that idea with his Notes on the State of Virginia, a book written by him in 1781, and updated and enlarged in 1782 and 1783. While the book also discussed Virginia’s natural resources and economy, it is remembered today primarily for Jefferson’s observations about slavery, miscegenation, and his beliefs that whites and blacks could not live together in a free society. Jefferson said he thought blacks were inferior to whites in terms of beauty (he cites such “superior” traits in whites as “flowing hair”) and reasoning intelligence. (He observes, for example, “They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”). But as Gordon-Reed often has cause to point out, the “public” and “rhetorical” Jefferson was quite a different man than the private Jefferson. The author sardonically observes: “White supremacy does not demand deep conviction. Ruthless self interests, not sincere belief, is the signature feature…”

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson in 1786 by Mather Brown

In fact in private, Jefferson had a long-standing relationship (38 years) with a mixed-race woman, Sally Hemings, who was, as noted above, Elizabeth Hemings’s daughter by a white father. (Elizabeth Hemings and her children arrived at Monticello around 1774 as part of Jefferson’s inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles.) Sally (a nickname for Sarah), bore seven children by Jefferson, four of whom survived to adulthood, over the course of their liaison. Since Elizabeth herself was half white, Sally was one-fourth white, and by all accounts quite a beauty, “in spite of” (or because of) her part-black ancestry. Sally was also the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. When Martha married Jefferson, John Wayles had already died, and the whole Hemings family had moved with Martha to Monticello. Jefferson and Martha had two daughters that survived, and Sally became their ladies’ maid. Portentously, when Jefferson went overseas to serve as United States ambassador to pre-revolutionary France, he wanted his daughters to follow him, and Sally came along as a companion. But Jefferson’s daughters went away to attend a boarding school outside of Paris. Sally, then around 14, and Jefferson, in his early forties, began a sexual affair. [While this sounds egregious to us, “the age of consent in eighteenth-century Virginia was ten.”] By the time Jefferson was ready to return to the U.S., Sally was pregnant.

Site of Hotel d’Langeac, Jefferson’s residence in Paris.

The author explains how it was that Sally forwent the opportunity of freedom she could have had by staying in France. Rather, she opted (if that word even applies to a slave who was a young, impressionable, and inexperienced girl, not to mention one who was pregnant) to come back to Virginia with Jefferson, having apparently extracted a promise from him that their children would be freed when they came of age. [The author suggests that because Jefferson was both self-indulgent, ambitious, and anxious to make his mark on America without any mark on his reputation, Sally had a bit of “power” over Jefferson at that point since an affair with a slave would have sullied his image in America.] And note: the only promise she could apparently get was not that their children be freed immediately, but only at the age of 21. Sally herself could not be freed since “interbreeding” between whites and free blacks was illegal but having sex with a “slave” was not, and it seems Jefferson wanted to continue their “arrangement.” [As the author observes, as long as white men did not try to elevate slaves and the children they had with them to the “status” of white people or bestow upon them the privileges of whites, they were left alone to do with their “property” as they pleased.] But again, allegedly, Jefferson agreed to treat Sally well.

Thomas Jefferson in 1791 at 49 by Charles Willson Peale

The book is about more than Sally, however, and the author also goes into great detail about the other Hemings of Monticello, including the children Sally had with Jefferson, three of whom, being only one-eighth black, could apparently pass for white. While Jefferson was meticulous in recording even the smallest detail about most things and most slaves, including most Hemingses, his records are also notable for their omissions. The legacy-conscious Jefferson left out any information about Sally. When he had cause to refer to their children, it was only obliquely with no names, a markedly different practice than he used otherwise. His documentation of the minutiae of his life except as noted above allows us to know a great deal about the rest of this slave family.

There is no way to know whether the alleged affection and loyalty shown by slaves to Jefferson was genuine, but both his presence and his absence had serious consequences for them. As long as he lived, he endeavored to keep the Hemingses together and in a somewhat privileged position (vis-a-vis other slaves) at Monticello. But within six months of his death on July 4, 1826, the contents of Monticello and 130 slaves, including Hemingses, were auctioned off.


The slaves themselves had no control over who was sold, who purchased them, or where they went and for what purposes. Family members were separated to the great heartache of those affected. This included the Hern family. David Hern Sr. performed a multitude of tasks during his 50 years at Monticello.  He was a skilled woodworker and wheelwright. His son, David Hern Jr., was a wagoner who made regular solo trips to transport goods between Monticello and Washington during Jefferson’s presidency. Nevertheless, after Jefferson’s death, David Hern and his 34 surviving children and grandchildren were sold. Similarly, Joseph Fossett and his wife Edith served as the blacksmith and head cook at Monticello, respectively. Jefferson freed Joseph Fossett in his will, but Edith and seven of their children were sold.

This fact reminds us of an important point stressed throughout the book by the author. In spite of Jefferson’s relative “laxness” regarding his slaves, they were never totally free in any sense, because they were at all times living in a slave society under a regime of white supremacy. Thus “slavery was more than just the relationship between an individual master and an individual slave. The entire white community was involved in maintaining the institution and the racial rules that grew up around it…. ”

An Overseer Doing His Duty, Near Fredericksburg by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1796.

(At the same time, as the author also shows, “The profanity of slavery does not define the entirety of lives of enslaved people.”)

Sally Hemings was 53 at the time Jefferson died. It was thought her disposition was made in oral requests by Jefferson, still loathe to mention her specifically in any document. Jefferson’s daughter Martha, who possibly had a great resentment for Sally ever since Jefferson took her as his “concubine,” granted Sally her “time” 8 years after Jefferson’s death. This was a way to grant freedom without formal emancipation, which would force the person to leave the state. (Martha did however permit Sally to leave Monticello after Jefferson died to go live with their sons in Charlottesville.]. Why did Martha wait 8 years? It is unclear. Thomas Jefferson did free all of Sally Hemings’s children: Beverly and Harriet were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822; Madison and Eston were released in Jefferson’s 1826 will.

Martha Jefferson Randolph

The Monticello website reports:

“[Sally’s] son Madison told a newspaperman in 1873 that ‘shortly after’ Jefferson’s death he and his brother Eston, who both had been freed in Jefferson’s will, took their mother to live in Charlottesville with them. Sally Hemings had not been freed in the will, yet she appeared with Madison Hemings as a free person of color in a special census in 1833 (and the census of 1830 also suggests she was considered free). In a superseded will of 1834, Jefferson’s daughter Martha Randolph wrote that ‘to Betsy Hemmings, Sally & Wormley I wish my children to give their time. If liberated they would be obliged to leave the state of Virginia.’ This was probably a written reinforcement of a previous verbal arrangement. If it was made at Jefferson’s recommendation before his death, no document has been found to confirm it.”

While, as stated previously, this book was not meant to be primarily about Jefferson, we get an excellent look at the man behind the legend from this story. As Roger Wilkins wrote in Jefferson’s Pillow: “He was a dizzying mixture of searing brilliance and infuriating self-indulgence, of idealism and base racism, of soaring patriotism and myopic self-involvement. He was America writ small.”

Ironically, however, Annette Gordon-Reed paints Jefferson in rather a more positive light than other recent historians. While she mentions that he didn’t like to lose on any issue, she also emphasizes how much he disliked conflict, almost suggesting he would “give in” rather than have disagreement be a part of his life. She thereby downplays his consistent record of using often vicious tactics by operating sub rosa through lackeys to destroy the careers and lives of anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. One could see him using every aspect of this trait to bend Sally to his will.

The author wants to confer agency on Sally, but the entire time she was his mistress, she did, after all, continue to serve as his slave, in addition to being pregnant almost continuously when he was in town. She moreover was relegated to a hidden room in Monticello, while Jefferson’s daughter served as the mistress of the estate.

Discussion: The Hemings and Jefferson family trees are a bit hard to follow, through no fault of the author’s. It seems there were a limited number of names in use by these intertwined families (in part because naming each other in honor of other family members was practiced). Besides having the same names, they had nicknames which bore no logical relationships to the names themselves. Access to charts detailing, for example, which Martha was which, is helpful. The hard copy of the book has a chart, and you can see a small portion of one below.

Evaluation:This is an excellent and detailed recounting of the complex nature and legacy of someone who was not only a seminal figure in the history of America, but the author of the founding credo “All men are created equal.” It explores the interrelationships between the man who wrote this, and the slaves he owned. It is also a story of slave family in greater detail than we often have access to; a story that has so many elements of tragedy, even while revealing occasional moments of triumph and joy.

Students of American history should not avoid this book because of its length. I found it consistently engaging and full of riveting details about the early years of America that are critical to understanding what our country was then, and what it has become.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by W. W. Norton & Company, 2008

Note: Literary Awards

Pulitzer Prize for History (2009)
National Book Award for Non-Fiction (2008)
Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (2009)
George Washington Book Prize (2009)
Frederick Douglass Book Prize (2009)
SHEAR Book Prize
Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award (2009)

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

This very long book was narrated admirably by Karen White, whose soothing and mellifluous voice still managed to convey outrage at the story she read. It was a pleasure to listen to her.

Published unabridged on 25 CDs (approximately 31 and 1/2 listening hours) by Tantor Media, 2008


Review of “Here I Stand” by Paul Robeson

Here I Stand, by Paul Robeson, was first published in 1958, and reissued in 1971 and 1988. It sets out his thoughts about the pressing issues of race in the 1950’s, and about the accusations that had been made against him.

Paul Robeson, one of the greatest intellects and talents of modern times, was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey to a father who was an escaped slave and who later became a Presbyterian minister. At seventeen, Robeson was given a scholarship to Rutgers University (called Rutgers College at that time), where he received an unprecedented twelve major letters in sports in four years and was also his class valedictorian. After graduating he went on to Columbia University Law School, and, in the early 1920s, took a job with a New York law firm. No white secretary would assist a black man, however, so he turned to the performing arts, a field in which blacks were more accepted. He attained international fame as an actor and singer, and traveled the world performing benefits for causes of social justice (he spoke fifteen languages).

Paul Robeson, a 1919 Rutgers graduate and distinguished student, in his yearbook photo. Photo: Rutgers University

In 1950, Robeson attempted to renew his passport so that he could travel abroad to fulfill contracts for singing and acting performances. The State Department insisted that Robeson sign an affidavit declaring that he was not a member of the Communist Party and that he was loyal to the United States. Robeson refused and filed suit in federal court. In August 1955, a federal judge ruled that the State Department was within its legal rights to refuse Robeson a passport.

Robeson was then denied the opportunity to earn his own living as hundreds of white-owned venues refused him the right to perform. (His salary plummeted from over $100,000 a year to less than $6,000 a year and remained at that level for nearly a decade.) Robeson was never charged with any illegal activity, and never arrested. What, you may well ask, was his crime?


The crime Paul Robeson committed was to expose the hypocrisy of U.S. policies at home and abroad about the treatment of blacks by its people and its government. He spoke out forthrightly and without apology about the persistence of Jim Crow in the 1950’s. How, he asked, can we insist on freedom abroad if we do not grant freedom in our own country? He also defended the vision of racial equality he saw in socialist societies. He opposed U.S. military forays as “imperialistic” and opined that it was “unthinkable” for American Negroes to “go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations.” (my emphasis)

Robeson (along with others) were blackballed for similar sentiments, and even the “newspaper of record” – The New York Times – refused to print Robeson’s side of the issue. Therefore, he decided to write a book outlining his positions and why he was now a persona non grata in the United States.

Here I Stand touches on many aspects of inequality affecting blacks in 1958. Two of the points he makes in this slim volume stand out.

Robeson writes about the resistance by southerners in Congress to giving up Jim Crow (as evidenced most saliently by Mississippi Senator James Eastland who remarked ten days after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation: “Let me make this clear! The South will retain segregation!”). He notes that friends of Negroes, both black and white, urged “gradualism” – waiting “until the hearts of those who persecute us has softened – until Jim Crow dies of old age.” Robeson roars back at them:

. . . the idea itself is but another form of race discrimination: in no other area of our society are lawbreakers granted an indefinite time to comply with the provisions of law. There is nothing in the 14th and 15th Amendments, the legal guarantees of our full citizenship rights, which says that the Constitution is to be enforced “gradually” where Negroes are concerned. . . . The viewpoint that progress must be slow is rooted in the idea that democratic rights, as far as Negroes are concerned, are not inalienable and self-evident as they are for white Americans. Any improvement of our status as second-class citizens is seen as a matter of charity and tolerance. The Negro must rely upon the good will of those in places of power and hope that friendly persuasion can somehow and some day make blind prejudice see the light.”

Paul Robeson in Oakland, September 1942 (Credit: National Archives)

There’s another line of thought in Robeson’s book I found particularly noteworthy. Robeson spent time in Africa, studying culture and languages, the richness of which proved to be a great surprise to him. For example, he wrote, “It is astonishing and to me, fascinating to find a flexibility and subtlety in a language like Swahili, sufficient to convey the teachings of Confucius, for example … these qualities and attainments of Negro languages are entirely unknown to the general public of the Western world and, astonishingly enough, even to Negroes themselves.”

What he discovered was that Western colonizers of Africa had a vested interest in portraying Africans as uncultured savages – an image that persists even today! – to justify their rape and plunder of the rich natural resources of this great continent. (For a horrifying account of what the Belgians did in the Congo in their rubber-extraction mania, a great source is King Leopold’s Ghost – see our review here). And in fact, after generations of exploitation, the great potential that Africa exhibited when seen by Robeson may not exist any longer. But it was there, and it was denied, and it was largely eradicated.

He ends this gem of a book with a poem by Chilean Pablo Neruda, a prayer for all people:

“Let us think of the entire earth
And pound the table with love.
I don’t want blood again
To saturate bread, beans, music:
I wish they would come with me:
The miner, the little girl,
The lawyer, the seaman,
The doll-maker,
To go to a movie and come out
To drink the reddest wine . . .
I came here to sing
And for you to sing with me.

From Pablo Neruda’s “Let the Rail-Splitter Awake”

Robeson was taught by his father two important precepts on which he based his life: loyalty to one’s convictions, and the pursuit of personal integrity (which was inseparable for him from the idea of maximum human fulfillment). He lived out these precepts to the best of his ability, and in fact is still admired long past his death in 1976. Paul Robeson is an American hero.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Othello Associates, 1958, and reissued many times since

Review of “War Made New: Weapons, Warriors, and the Making of the Modern World” by Max Boot

Max Boot’s War Made New uses the theme of differences in warfare technology as the organizing principle for a history of warfare for the last 500 years. Many decisive military confrontations became routs because one side employed weapons, tactics, or organization that were superior to those of their opponents.

In particular, Boot discusses how the following four technological “revolutions” were instrumental in producing revolutions in military affairs: (1) the Gunpowder Revolution; (2) the Industrial Revolution (encompassing developments in rifles, railroads, and steamships, inter alia); (3) the Second Industrial Revolution (tanks, torpedoes, superfortresses and firebombs); and (4) the Information Revolution. But he issues the caveat that “no technical advance by itself made a revolution. … Even if a country figures out how to harness military power, it still needs the wisdom to know the capabilities and limitations of its war machine.” He emphasizes that organization, training and leadership are also necessary to achieve victory. With this in mind, however, he argues that military adaptation to breakthroughs in technology resulted in seismic shifts in the balance of power among nations.

Boot provides the background and detailed descriptions of actual combat of several campaigns to demonstrate the effect of intelligent adoption of the new technologies produced by each of the four “revolutions.” In every case, the earliest effective adopter of the technology vaulted into greater worldwide prominence by decisively defeating its adversary. Boot’s narratives of the conquests of Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years War (1631-32), the British slaughter of the Mahdi’s army at Omdurman (1898), and the American triumph in the First Gulf War (1991) are particularly illustrative. In each case the winner easily achieved smashing victories over opponents that outnumbered or nearly outnumbered the winner.

F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter used in the First Gulf War

Military technological predominance does not last forever; in fact, it can be very short-lived. For example, the Nazi’s blitzkrieg tactics (armor supplemented by close air support) shocked their opponents from 1939 to 1941, but shortly thereafter the Americans and British won control of the air, and the Soviets won most of the major tank engagements. The monopoly of nuclear weapons enjoyed by the United States lasted only three years before the Russians developed an atomic bomb of their own.

Boot’s final chapters give a glimpse of things to come on future battlefields. Robotics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence all presage new ways of waging war. America’s current predominance is being challenged (at least locally) by China, which has developed its own stealth fighter planes and is building a formidable navy.

One reviewer, eminent historian William McNeill, criticized the book because he felt it omitted important events and failed to analyze crucial non-military aspects of the events it did treat. However, I think Boot’s aims are less ambitious than an all-encompassing treatise on warfare for the past five centuries. He states:

“I will not attempt to challenge most of the theses put forward in a number of prominent recent works that have sought to explain the [entire] course of human development…. Rather than attempting to supplant them, this book will supplement them by highlighting the importance of certain vital military developments in the making of the modern world.”

Evaluation: War Made New is very readable. It can be treated as a series of vignettes because each battle or “revolution” is independent of the others. On the other hand, it can be read as organic whole because of unifying themes.

Note: The text includes maps, pictures, and many footnotes.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gotham, 2006

Review of “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels” by Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham is a respected historian and author. He wrote American Lion (about Andrew Jackson); Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power; Destiny and Power (about George H. W. Bush); and many historical monographs. He appears regularly on CNN television to instruct Americans about the ways in which Donald J. Trump is a really bad president. His latest book, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, tells the story of other historical moments in which vicious, hateful forces (like the Ku Klux Klan) have contended with inclusive, liberal movements (such as for civil rights) and leaders (FDR, Truman, and Lyndon Johnson) for defining what America is and should be.

The “Better Angels” of the title were first identified by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address, when he pleaded with southern whites to listen to those angels. They didn’t. After the ensuing Civil War, a decade of “Reconstruction” featured a backlash in the South that involved horrifying incidents of beatings, rape and murder both of blacks and of the whites who sympathized with them. This period was followed by a century of “Jim Crow” laws and practices that took rights away from blacks.

Meacham sees American history as moving in cycles from the truly awful to the more uplifting. He retells some of the worst parts of American history, showing how attitudes toward race allowed unscrupulous politicians to incite fear and prejudice – a practice that sadly continues to this day. He tempers the tales of domestic violence with accounts of better men like W. E. B. DuBois and Harry Truman. The passages about the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther King as its heroes, are quite moving.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Martin Luther, King, Jr. at the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The book jumps from the 1960s to the present day. Although the author is appalled by Trumpism, he does not try to explain how we got here, nor offer an analysis of whether this dark period is any different than those preceding it. Thus it is hard to understand Meacham’s optimism that a kindler, gentler America will prevail. In some ways, it could be argued that the anger and divisions over race that have characterized our country from the beginning have always been roiling around just under the surface, waiting for opportunistic politicians to provide an imprimatur for their expression. But in the current era, the ability of both social and visual media to promulgate as the truth a “menacing, overarching narrative” that identifies not only fellow citizens as enemies but parts of the government itself, is unparalleled in American history. Moreover, these efforts are egged on by two important loci of power: a foreign country as well as by the President of the United States himself. These are indeed scary times, with the advice of “better angels” being drowned out by the broadcasts of hate-mongers.

Evaluation: This book is best regarded as a historical narrative of the period between the time of Lincoln and the Civil War, and the apotheosis of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s. As such, it is not necessarily “timely,” but I feel history is always good to know. If only the current leadership felt the same….

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Random House, 2018

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator, Fred Sanders, did an excellent job, imbuing his reading with passion at the appropriate moments.

Published unabridged on 9 CDs (approximately 11 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2018

June 28, 1914 – Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – Did it Really Cause WWI? Review of “The War That Ended Peace” by Margaret MacMillan

Anyone under the illusion that the outbreak of World War I was the result only or even mainly of the assassination of an Austrian Archduke in Serbia will be disabused of that conception after reading this thorough account by Oxford University scholar Margaret Macmillan. In fact, after reading this book, one can only wonder how war was averted until 1914.

Macmillan provides a detailed introduction to all the major players in European international affairs at the turn of the 20th century. She also reviews the alliances, competitions, hostilities, jealousies, and the sociological currents feeding the inchoate war machine: in particular, inflated senses of honor, nationalism, imperialism, and what one might call a racist interpretation of Darwinism.

At this time, the major European powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) were competing for hegemony in several dimensions:

First, they wanted to be seen as strong and powerful military states.

Second, they wanted as big a share of the colonial pie as they could grab. Colonies could be exploited for natural resources, laborers, soldiers, and the psychological benefit of the impression of world dominance. Britain and, to a lesser extent France, had stolen a march on the others by gobbling up large tracts of Africa, India, and China. In addition, the Ottoman Empire was correctly viewed as on the verge of dissolution, which would soon open up great opportunities for colonizing oil rich areas of the Middle East. Germany in particular was trying to make up for lost time. Each of the powers feared that if it didn’t leap into the fray first, it would lose out, and a hated rival would steal “its place in the sun.”


Third, each, albeit in varying degrees, had a sense of racial and/or ethnic superiority, which contributed to their determination to dominate lesser groups.

Fourth, the very powerful memes of nationalism, radicalism, and anti-Semitism all were roiling around in the air and causing destabilization.

An important factor adding to instability was the fact that no one Power was in position to dominate the others. Accordingly, all the Powers sought to ally themselves with any other strong Powers whose interests did not conflict too seriously with their own. By 1910, Europe had divided into two rather hostile (but not yet warring) camps: (1) the Triple Alliance—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (rather reluctantly) Italy; and (2) the Entente—France and Russia and (maybe) England.


Members of both the Alliance and the Entente perceived their own agreements to be primarily defensive in nature. But MacMillan points out that those same arrangements seemed to outsiders to be offensive in purpose. As a result, every continental Power perceived itself to be surrounded by hostile forces, and endeavored to prepare for what seemed like an inevitable outbreak of war.

In addition, advances in technology, particularly railroads, made it possible to mobilize a country’s army in a much shorter time than in previous years. This situation created pressure on the others to be ready to mobilize at a moment’s notice. Otherwise, you could be caught at a great disadvantage, if an enemy Power was ready to deploy before you were.

Thus, Europe was a powder keg, with players just waiting for an excuse to light the fuse.  The Balkans, being the most volatile area at the time, was merely the most likely source of the much-anticipated spark.  [Ironically, Europe had weathered at least three very close calls (the Moroccan Crisis and two Balkan Wars) between 1908 and 1913 that had nearly resulted in war but were smoothed out in the end. But the pressure was building, and no leader took the necessary steps to defuse the new crisis adequately.] After the death of Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary issued a humiliating ultimatum to Serbia that could never be accepted, and the game was on.

Discussion: This is a detailed history of the period immediately preceding World War I, rather than a history of the war itself. To that end, MacMillan tells you everything you always wanted to know about the situation in Europe at that time. While she spreads plenty of blame all around, she is probably in the camp assigning the most blame for the war to Germany, with its possibly insane kaiser and its power-hungry and ideologically extremist ministers.

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902

One criticism is that the author could have forgone the minutiae about the predilections of various ministers and their wives for fishing or gardening and the like. Instead, she would have served readers better by adding background on the influential writers of the time, such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, whose popular book Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) argued that Germany, constituted primarily of the (allegedly) superior Aryan race, needed to come out triumphant in the never-ending struggle among ‘the chaos of races.” [Chamberlain was British, but later became a German citizen.] The anonymous and infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russia in 1903, and positing a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, was also widely translated and disseminated. Many of the racist tracts at the turn of the century, such as The Social Role of the Aryan by the Frenchman Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1899) explicitly cited Darwin to provide a scientific imprimatur to the advocacy of racial eugenics. These ideas caught fire among the political and intellectual elite in Europe at the century’s end, and indeed, were still fueling social policy before and during World War II. Some background on these writings would have provided a much-needed explanation for the currents of thought that roiled these turbulent times, and would have helped displace another commonly held misconception that it was mainly the unsatisfactory resolution of World War I that resulted in World War II.

Evaluation: This book is an excellent addition to any World War I library. MacMillan provides a fascinating backstory to many of the events leading up to the war. While some may take issue with her emphases, this book is definitely worth consideration.

We listened to an audio version of this book. The narrator, actor Richard Burnip, is quite competent and has a delightful British accent. Our only complaint is that each disc ended and then started over with nary a breath in between.

Rating: 4/5

Published unabridged on 25 compact discs by Audible Ltd. Books on Tape, an imprint of the Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2013

June 24, 1941 – The German Army Occupies Vilna

As the Holocaust Museum online site explains:

Under the terms of the German-Soviet Pact, Vilna, along with the rest of eastern Poland, was occupied by Soviet forces in late September 1939. In October 1939, the Soviet Union transferred the Vilna region to Lithuania. The population of the city was 200,000 at this time, including over 55,000 Jews. In addition, some 12,000-15,000 Jewish refugees from German-occupied Poland found refuge in the city. Soviet forces occupied Lithuania in June 1940 and in August 1940 incorporated Vilna, along with the rest of Lithuania, into the Soviet Union. On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked Soviet forces in eastern Europe. The German army occupied Vilna on June 24, 1941, the third day after the invasion.”

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

German occupation of Lithuania during WWII

The destruction of the Vilna Jewry began soon thereafter.

Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” It was an important center of the Jewish Enlightenment and had a number of famous institutes of research and education, including the Jewish Scientific Institute, YIVO. The book Stronger Than Iron reports on the fate of Vilna Jews from the moment the Germans came in June, 1941 until the Soviet liberation in September, 1944. Some seventy thousand Jews died. The author notes that “by the most optimistic assessment only one thousand Jews [of Vilna] survived.”

I have read quite a few books written by Holocaust survivors, but I think this one stands out because of the astute observation skills of the narrator, who was a prominent member of the Jewish community in Vilna, Lithuania. (The book was originally written in Yiddish by Theodore Balberyszki, and translated into English by his son Mendel.)

As you read about the amazing sequence of events that led both Theodore and his son to live in spite of all they endured, you will understand how rare and crucial this eyewitness account actually is.

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

One of two ghettos for Jews established by the Nazis in Vilna

Mendel Balberyszski, in his Preface, explains the title of this book:

“My book is entitled Stronger Than Iron, for a human being had to be stronger than iron to endure the savage brutality and hatred of the Germans and their Lithuanian helpers, who were determined to implement a policy of the extermination of Vilna Jewry.

One had to be tough as iron to absorb the blows of the ‘good’ German during the slave labor; to survive when the body was swollen from hunger; to overcome disease and lice and to work from dawn till night in rain, snow, blizzards, winds, frost and heat.

“One had to be tough as iron not to collapse physically as well as morally when witnessing the pain of an old mother, of one’s wife and most importantly of one’s little children who all of a sudden, from a beautiful, cultured, materially secure life, were thrown into the abyss of need, confinement, dirt, hunger and horrible suffering.”

Evaluation: I will say that, in spite of having read many survivor accounts, I found this book riveting. If you are at all interested in this genre, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Note: There is a good article on Vilna Jewry and what happened to them on the online site of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, here.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gefen Books, 2011

Review of “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan

The principle thesis of Peter Frankopan’s thought-provoking history The Silk Roads is that westerners (Europeans and Americans) have greatly underestimated the influence on their own history of events occurring in Central Asia (along the “Silk Roads”). While the West tends to see itself at the apex of civilized peoples, in fact, it is the countries of the East that have been at the very center of history from the beginning: “It was here that Civilisation was born.” And it was at the intersections between east and west that great cities arose famed for their innovations that advanced and enhanced “the world’s central nervous system.”

Frankopan employs this thesis to organize and analyze significant time spans. He begins with Alexander the Great, but not by focusing on Alexander’s impact in Greece. Rather, he examines his influence on Asia Minor, Persia, and farther east where the successors to his conquests continued to rule for many years. One of Alexander’s captains, Seleucus, founded a dynasty of his own, the Seleucids, that ruled from the Tigris to the Himalayas for three centuries. During the reign of the Seleucids, long-distance trade of high value goods, from pottery to spices to horses, burgeoned.

Trade items going back and forth across both land and sea that had a great effect on the countries involved included furs, slaves, precious metals, and grains. But it was silk, primarily from China, Frankopan avers, that performed the most important role in the ancient world. Silk served as a reliable international currency as well as a luxury product, increasingly in demand by the rich and powerful as cities in the West prospered. Its importance guaranteed that the West would continue to seek interaction with the East.

For all that we in the West look to the Roman Empire as a seminal innovator, Frankopan points out that “Rome’s eyes were opened by the world it encountered in the east.” In Asia, the ancient poet Sallust observed, Roman soldiers learned “how to make love, to be drunk, to enjoy statues, pictures and art.”

Soldiers and traders not only had their own horizons expanded by the East. They in turn brought with them ideas and goods from the West that exerted a reciprocal influence. Moreover, regulation of markets by countries affected by trade, and the taxing of imports and exports, led to political changes in all the countries involved. And political leaders, covetous of the goods they saw from other places, began to think about the feasibility of conquest beyond their usual realms of interest.

Trade wasn’t the only impetus of increased contacts between east and west. Much of the history of the world from the fourth to the twelfth centuries C.E. was dominated by the spread, interplay, and conflicts among the religions of Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Islam. Christianity dominated the Mediterranean basin until the rise of Islam in the seventh century, but Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism were contending for the loyalty of many more people farther east. The search for religious converts has always played a large role in the movement of peoples around the world, and religions in both east and west went through metamorphoses to capture the allegiances of rivals. Doctrinal conflicts served as tools to establish and/or solidify power (as well as in defining enemies, which is always helpful in fixing loyalties).

Spread of Christianity in the Middle Ages

Frankopan argues that Christianity would have been more successful in the East had it not been for Emperor Constantine I, who, by identifying his own empire with Christianity, anathematized that religion for his rival emperors of Persia and central Asia. By way of contrast, Frankopan attributes Islam’s early tolerance of other faiths as a key factor in its expansion.

Spread of Islam in the Middle Ages

Frankopan’s thesis of the importance of influence by Central Asia becomes less workable in the late 15th century when European powers made technological breakthroughs in ocean-going ship design and in weaponry. However, once petroleum became the world’s principal energy source in the early 20th century, countries in the Middle East once again began to influence if not dominate world history. As Frankopan concludes, “The silk roads are rising again.”

There is another way in fact that the “silk roads” are experiencing a renaissance, although it is beyond the historical purview of this book but relevant to its message. China is reviving the concept of “The Silk Road” to foster a new connectivity, as Huffington Post reports:

What Chinese President Xi Jinping means to convey is a renewed connectivity both within Asia and between Asia and Europe, both by land and by the sea, and both by means of strengthening traditional infrastructure and through building highways of trade, finance and cultural exchange to strengthen connectivity.”

China is already the number one trading partner of most Asian countries. With the U.S.’s withdrawal from international agreements, Asia is eager to increase it’s hegemony in world leadership. The so-called “Belt and Road” initiative is expected to funnel investments worth up to $502 billion into 62 host countries over the next five years.

Evaluation: This is a deftly-written book with intriguing insights that gives European and American readers a new coign of vantage from which to observe world history. Today, Frankopan observes, because of religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence in the East, we tend to forget that the countries that are now reviled as backward once served as bywords for “good taste in everything….” Frankopan shares fascinating stories from history to bring that important legacy back into focus.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, 2015