“Americans do not share a common memory of slavery,” write California State University, Fresno, historians Kytle (Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era, 2014) and Roberts (Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South, 2014) in this eye-opening history.
The authors point out the “whitewashed” and “unvarnished” versions of the American slavery story. The whitewashed version recalls benevolent masters and faithful slaves; the unvarnished describes the cruelties of enslavement. To recount the memory of slavery from its abolition in 1865 to now, the authors focus on Charleston, South Carolina, where the Civil War began at Fort Sumter and which became the “epicenter” of the Lost Cause gospel and longtime site of “Confederate veneration.” Making fine use of letters, diaries, and other sources, the authors offer a richly detailed, vivid re-creation of the entire era, showing how former slaveholders fostered romanticized antebellum memories while former slaves told the true story of slavery’s brutality. Tracing these conflicting narratives through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and recent years, the authors detail the roles played by the Charleston News and Courier, the Old Slave Mart Museum (long the only museum focused on American slavery, it argued slavery’s horrors were “greatly overstated”), and other institutions that made the city a “tourist mecca” after the Civil War, complete with visits to local gardens. “Few things troubled white southerners more than the notion that their ancestors had actively engaged in the sale of men, women, and children and facilitated the destruction of families,” write the authors. Those pressing for unvarnished memories countered a post–World War II campaign to “remove most traces of slavery” by providing black heritage tours, made slave spirituals part of the civil rights movement, and sought to memorialize Denmark Vesey, a former slave who planned a revolt in 1822 (and was honored with a statue in 2014). The authors note a “more truthful” memory of slavery has prevailed in Charleston since the early 2000s.
An important and fascinating examination of American slavery’s aftermath.
A revealing study of the lives of “ordinary Germans” under the Third Reich and its aftermath.
Historian Jarausch (European Civilization/Univ. of North Carolina; Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century, 2015, etc.) recounts the experiences of Germans born in the 1920s—old enough to have participated in some way in the polity of the Third Reich and to have played a part in the reconstruction of Germany and subsequent “economic miracle” in the West. The latter moment, writes the author, “created an expectation of continual material improvement,” and wealth and its pursuit, coupled with memories of the nightmare years, served as powerful engines to create the social democracy that has prevailed in Germany (the West, at least) for 70 years. That comfort, however, was born in terror. Jarausch charts the changing attitudes of early-20th-century Germans toward ideas of nationhood. Where their predecessors were mostly not attuned to questions of genealogy and in many cases, among the proletariat, scarcely remembered their grandparents’ names (“for the struggle for existence prevented the keeping of records”), Germans under the Third Reich were forced to conform to ideas of racial purity and prove it lest they be destroyed. On that note, much of the narrative concerns the machinery of annihilation, but it also turns on some surprising moments, such as the decision on the part of some Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to remain in Germany even though they “had ample reason to emigrate.” That was a daring choice, it seems, inasmuch as the author’s account also implicates the majority of contemporary Germans: “More ordinary Germans were involved in the Holocaust than apologists admit, but at the same time fewer participated than some critics claim.” In other words, a silent majority gave tacit consent.
A provocative addition to a vast literature: Jarausch’s history complicates our understanding of German society during the early decades of the 20th century.
Robb (The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts, 2013, etc.) uses his vast knowledge of Celtic history, languages, and geography to create a fascinating book of history and adventure.
Regarding the strange story of what is called the “Debatable Land,” the author turns to writings both ancient and modern as he applies archaeological methods to history. This 33,000-acre site is the oldest detectable territorial division in Great Britain. It is devoid of archaeological evidence between the Roman period and the 1500s, which leads Robb to posit that perhaps it was just uninhabitable. Located northeast of the Solway Firth above Cumbria’s Lake District, it was a no-man’s land, a buffer neither Scottish nor English, and open to murder and mayhem by parliamentary decrees of both countries. Until nearly the 1600s, no buildings or cultivation were allowed, and cattle could pasture only between sunrise and sunset. Cattle thieves plied their trade in a reasonably civilized manner governed by March law, a code common and efficient to both sides and unique to the area. It governed the use of hostages to prevent reprisals, established the traditional days of truce, and ensured compliance. On the truce days, livestock owners would receive the value of the stolen animals in money, corn, or merchandise. Throughout the book, readers will be impressed with Robb’s archival digging, especially as he turns to Ptolemy’s 150 C.E. map of Britain—not just the source, but the fact that the author corrected the grid of Ptolemy’s map, which was inaccurate. Readers will have fun following along with Robb’s intriguing historical journey of discovery through this magical realm. In a series of appendices, the author provides detailed maps of different areas of the region as well as a timeline that runs from 43 C.E. to 1793.
An imagination-stimulating work in which the past seems “to dissolve and reshape itself.”
What happens when the walls of Wall Street come crashing down? Donald Trump, for one thing. A long but not oppressive study blending politics, economics, and history.
Tooze (History/Columbia Univ.; The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931, 2014, etc.), whose previous book won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, examines the “first crisis of a global age” as it played out in an increasingly interlocked financial world. One driver was the deregulation of financial institutions, which was not confined to the United States. As the author notes, deregulation was central to the British plan to convert London into ground zero for “many of the most fast-paced global transactions” that were remaking the world. Tooze complicates the usual narratives. While many writers, especially on the right, have pegged the financial meltdown on the subprime mortgage crisis, agencies such as Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae in fact kept loans to high standards, and that aspect of the larger financial crisis proved more symptom than cause. Still, those mortgages worked to distort the market, and “when you distort the market, crises are inevitable.” One unintended effect of the rattling of capital was the strengthening of Russia, whose “new prosperity was associated not with independence from the world economy but with entanglement in it,” and China, whose economy responded “in directions that the Beijing leadership had been struggling to counteract.” Some of the broader consequences were more profound, including a schism between globalists and protectionists in the U.S. and Europe—a schism that, by Tooze’s account, resulted a decade later in Brexit, the election of Trump (whose “objectionable personality and outlandish policy proposals now had to be weighed against the more basic political question of who could do what for whom”), and the rush to once again deregulate the very forces that had set off the crisis in the first place.
First-rate financial history and an admirable effort to wrestle a world-changing series of events between covers.
A gripping study of the greatest sea disaster in the history of the U.S. Navy and its aftermath.
Launched in 1932, the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis earned a distinguished record during World War II: eight battle stars awarded to its crew, a key role in the American victory at Iwo Jima, and its delivery of parts of Little Boy, the atomic bomb that would later destroy Hiroshima. However, as skillfully chronicled by Navy veteran and bestselling author Vincent (Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, 2010, etc.) and award-winning documentary filmmaker Vladic, the Indianapolis will forever be known for its sinking at the hands of torpedoes from a Japanese submarine on July 30, 1945. Nearly 900 of its 1,195 men perished, with the majority of them succumbing to exhaustion, dehydration, saltwater poisoning, drowning, or shark attack after the sinking. The survivors clung to life for four horrific days before their rescue. However, for Capt. Charles B. McVay III, the nightmare was just beginning. Naval authorities looking to cover up their incompetence railroaded him into a court-martial conviction for “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag” even though, among other exculpatory evidence and testimony, the commander of the Japanese submarine testified that zigzagging would not have made a difference. A deluge of hate mail followed, and a broken McVay committed suicide in 1968, a revolver in one hand and a toy sailor in another. Due to the combined efforts of the surviving men who served under him, a 12-year-old student from Florida, and Sen. Bob Smith, Congress passed a 2000 resolution exonerating McVay for the loss of the Indianapolis. On Aug. 19, 2017, a search team funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen found the wreckage of the Indianapolis at a depth of approximately 18,000 feet in the North Philippine Sea.
Fittingly, Vincent and Vladic close their enthralling, thrillerlike, meticulously researched book with the discovery of the wreckage, bringing the 85-year-old saga of the Indianapolis to a close.
Fast-paced account of a forgotten episode of World War I history.
Say what you will about the Jerries: They knew how to mount a flying circus—and how to shoot down brave Britons in the skies over France. One of those brought abruptly to ground was a 19-year-old named Colin Blain, one of the heroes of Bascomb’s (The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb, 2016, etc.) stirring tale. Determined to get back to his own lines and pick up the war where he had left off, Blain was eventually dispatched to a camp called Holzminden, a nasty bit of maximum security work designed for British officers who had a penchant for legging it when the guards weren’t looking. Holzminden was headed by a foul-tempered commandant named Karl Niemeyer, who greeted his new charges with a ration of acorn coffee and the promise that any attempt to escape would be severely punished. Naturally, Blain tried—and with him a company of like-minded prisoners. “Shorty Colquhoun, all six and a half feet of him, wanted to dig a tunnel,” writes Bascomb. So the men of Holzminden did, with the engineering mastermind behind the plan taking advantage of unforeseen weaknesses in the prison’s infrastructure. “They wanted to keep their cabal small, twelve officers at most, to ensure the tunnel stayed secret as well as to limit the number of individuals going in and out of the building,” writes Bascomb, but in the end 29 prisoners escaped, 10 of them traveling the 150 miles to the border of neutral Holland and returning to Britain against all the odds (and Bascomb reckons that of the 10,000 attempted British escapes from prison camps during World War I, less than 6 percent succeeded). Bascomb’s portraits of the principals are affecting, Niemeyer among them—and though he became unhinged following the escape, the commandant was sound enough of mind to slip away at war’s end to avoid being tried as a war criminal, another great escape in itself.
Expertly narrated, with just the right level of detail and drama.
A scarifying history of a terrible moment in the Pacific War.
In 1945, Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines as he had promised, wanting nothing more than a spectacular military parade through the streets of Manila. The Japanese commander of forces in the field, Tomoyuki Yamashita, the “Tiger of Malaya,” intended to oblige by withdrawing his soldiers from the city, but an admiral named Sanji Iwabuchi had other ideas. Defying orders, he commanded his sailors and marines to dig in for a house-to-house defense of the city, co-opting some army units in the bargain. With certain death their only option, Iwabuchi’s command embarked on a campaign of atrocities in which more than 100,000 Filipinos and foreign nationals were slaughtered, with orders that they be grouped to save ammunition and then disposed of by burning buildings and, with them, material evidence of the massacre. Historian Scott (Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor, 2015, etc.) holds that “Manila has never truly recovered from the battle”; though a gleaming, modern city at its edges, the old heart remains scarred and in some places unreconstructed. Moreover, he adds, Iwabuchi’s orgy of violence was not an isolated instance of soldiers without any other hope playing out their last traces of aggression against an enemy that could not fight back. Instead, it was “a pattern of Japanese brutality that played out across Asia,” a bookend to the Rape of Nanking. Scott’s narrative, studded with nearly unimaginable atrocity, makes for difficult reading, but one cannot argue with that thesis after reading about babies bayoneted in the face, women gang-raped by squadrons of soldiers, and men burned alive. Iwabuchi killed himself rather than face justice, and not many Japanese soldiers survived the relentless American siege. As for Yamashita, though there is some evidence to suggest that he truly had no control over the rogue commander and his troops, he was hanged as a war criminal, a fate that few readers will lament.
Painful but necessary reading for students of World War II.
The celebrated New Yorker writer and Bancroft Prize winner tells the American story.
“A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos,” writes Lepore (History/Harvard Univ.; Joe Gould’s Teeth, 2016, etc.). In this mammoth, wonderfully readable history of the United States from Columbus to Trump, the author relies on primary sources to “let the dead speak for themselves,” creating an enthralling, often dramatic narrative of the American political experiment based on Thomas Jefferson’s “truths” of political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. The author recounts major events—the Revolution, Civil War, world wars, Vietnam, 9/11, and the war on terror—while emphasizing the importance of facts and evidence in the national story, as well as the roles of slavery (“America’s Achilles’ heel”) and women, both absent in the founding documents. Lepore offers crisp, vivid portraits of individuals from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine to Liberator writer Maria W. Stewart and preacher David Walker to contemporaries like “rascal” Bill Clinton, sporting a “grin like a 1930s comic-strip scamp.” “To study the past is to unlock the prison of the present,” writes the author, noting recurrent debates about guns, abortion, and race. “Slavery wasn’t an aberration in an industrial economy; slavery was its engine,” she reminds. Throughout, Lepore provides sharp observations (“instead of Marx, America had Thoreau”) and exquisite summaries: In World War I, “machines slaughtered the masses. Europe fell to its knees. The United States rose to its feet.” She discusses the “aching want” of the Depression and the “frantic, desperate, and paranoid” politics of today. Always with style and intelligence, Lepore weaves stories of immigrants and minorities, creates moving scenes (Margaret Fuller’s death in a storm off New York City), and describes the importance of photography and printed newspapers in the lives of a divided people now “cast adrift on the ocean of the Internet.”
A splendid rendering—filled with triumph, tragedy, and hope—that will please Lepore’s readers immensely and win her many new ones.
The prolific, prizewinning military historian turns his attention to the Vietnam War.
Having defeated the French after a bitter war, Vietnamese forces under Ho Chi Minh expected to govern Vietnam, but in 1954, the Geneva Conference awarded them only the northern half. Ironically, Ho’s frustration was engineered by the Soviet Union and China, whose priority was to avoid intervention from the United States. Of course, the U.S. eventually intervened. Hastings (The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, 2016, etc.) lets no one off the hook. “In the years that followed the Geneva Accords,” he writes, “it was the misfortune of both Vietnams to fall into the hands of cruel and incompetent governments….The war that now gained momentum was one that neither side deserved to win.” The author brings his usual brilliant descriptive skills to the action, mixing individual anecdotes with big-picture considerations. Stupidity was rampant on both sides, and the North Vietnamese generalship was not immune; all combatants committed terrible atrocities. Hastings does not conceal his contempt for America’s anti-war movement. He makes a good case that fear of the draft stimulated many participants, and readers will squirm as he quotes many of its leaders’ praise of Ho and his freedom fighters. He also offers a virtuoso account of the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was a disaster for the North but convinced many hawks that the war was unwinnable. Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 showed that most Americans opposed a quick withdrawal, but his cynical goal (revealed by his own tapes) was to avoid blame for the inevitable communist victory, and he achieved it. No domino fell after 1975, as a united Vietnam faded into impoverished Stalinist isolation. The sole satisfying outcome of two recent American interventions in poor nations with incompetent governments is likely to be more superb histories by Hastings.
A definitive history, gripping from start to finish but relentlessly disturbing.
Provocative, sweeping study of America’s original sin—slavery—in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In January 1850, writes Delbanco (American Studies/Columbia Univ.; The Abolitionist Imagination, 2012, etc.) early on in this book, a Virginia senator named James Mason introduced what would become the Fugitive Slave Act, justifying the law constitutionally. “From the point of view of its proponents,” writes the author, “it was a new attempt to solve an old problem: slavery is a condition from which the enslaved will seek to escape.” Slaves fled from George Washington’s farms after the Revolution, and they fled in uncountable numbers in the years after that. Writes Delbanco, 1851 would see a record number of slaves being captured under the terms of the new law, which obliged nonslaveholding states to participate in the return of escapees to bondage; a handful of that number were freed, but most were returned either judicially or without due process. “Opponents regarded compliant officials with disgust and treated them with derision,” writes the author, but even so, efforts to help slaves freeing captivity were improvisational, such as the Underground Railroad, “a loose confederation of independent cells of which the membership was sometimes a single person making a snap decision to hide a runaway rather than turn him in.” Meanwhile, South and North struggled to expand or contain slavery in the new territories of the West, contributing to the conditions leading to secession and war. The overarching point of Delbanco’s narrative is the legal complicity of various federal institutions, from the first constitutional conventions to laws passed just before and even during the Civil War. As the author observes, Lincoln seemed torn about how to dismantle slavery legally in the months leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation; it wasn’t until June 1864, in a “belated act of formal recognition of what the war had already accomplished," that Congress repealed the Fugitive Slave Act.
Essential background reading for anyone seeking to understand the history of the early republic and the Civil War.
A vivid evocation of the Big Easy, whose nickname sidesteps three centuries of uneasy history.
Writer and documentary film producer Berry (Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, 2012, etc.) opens with a juxtaposition of two important moments in the recent history of New Orleans: the 2015 funeral of musical legend Allen Toussaint, which “resembled an affair of state,” and the fiery debate over removing Confederate statues from the city’s public places. This “clash of icons” speaks to the significant question of what the city’s history really is: Is New Orleans a space where transformative works of art and music have been born or a place where some of the worst angels of our nature have been let loose? The answer, of course, is both. Borrowing the thought from novelist Walker Percy that the people of New Orleans are “happiest when making money, caring for the dead, or ‘putting on masks at Mardi Gras so nobody knows who they are,’ " Berry explores key moments in the clash of cultures and powers. Carved out of the scrubby Mississippi River lowlands as an entrepôt and anchor for France’s inland empire, New Orleans was, by its 10th year, “a black majority town with slave labor.” Indians were enslaved, too, even as the French concluded treaties with faraway Indian nations. The city was affected by both the Reign of Terror in Paris and the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, both of which indirectly led to the acquisition of New Orleans as part of Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase—said the seller, a cash-strapped Napoleon Bonaparte, “I renounce it with the greatest regret….I require money.” Confederate center, strategically important port, birthplace of jazz, setting of tragedy and disaster, and now a site of gentrification: Berry nimbly covers New Orleans in all its aspects over 300 years, “a map of the world in miniature, a blue city floating against the odds of sea rise and climate convulsions, blue forever in its long sweet song.”
Every major city should have such a guide to its past.