A slim, useful guide to a politically fraught but historically transformative stretch of European history.



A scholarly history explores the emergence of the nation-state out of the political and philosophical upheavals of the 17th and 18th centuries. 

In this book, Schwartzwald (The Collapse and Recovery of Europe, 2015, etc.) announces an ambitious task: a chronicle of the genesis of the nation-state. The author divides his history into three interconnected parts. First, he charts the attempt of kings to aggrandize their power by claiming divine support—King James of England pursued such unlimited rule, followed by his successor, Charles, who shared his “absolutist pretensions.” Paradoxically, Oliver Cromwell’s thirst for power, which involved keeping the restoration of a Stuart dynasty at bay, ushered in a “triumph of constitutionalism” in England. Later in this section, the focus is on France and King Louis XIV’s indefatigable quest for a centralization of his power and its territorial extension, a quixotic aim that "sowed the seeds of the monarchy’s destruction even as he raised it to its zenith." In the second part, state power is reinterpreted as a contract between ruler and ruled, though in such a way that “enlightened despotism” is preferable to democracy. Schwartzwald lucidly demonstrates that such a reinterpretation of legitimate political authority tended more toward revolution than reform. In the last section of the book, he explores the final throes of political absolutism, its death supported by the Enlightenment philosophers who elevated reason and nature over the divine and made popular sovereignty both attractive and defensible. Each part concludes with a “societal achievements” section, which offers commentary on the intellectual and scientific advances of the time. The author aims to reach the “student and the general reader alike” and does indeed in admirably accessible prose. Occasionally, readers will be overwhelmed by a swarm of details, but Schwartzwald skillfully keeps his eye on the big picture. His view certainly isn’t an original one, and he doesn’t delve as deeply philosophically as other well-known studies. But he ably furnishes a brief but rigorous overview.

A slim, useful guide to a politically fraught but historically transformative stretch of European history.

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-4766-6547-4

Page Count: 275

Publisher: McFarland

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet


For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

Did you like this book?

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • Kirkus Reviews'
    Best Books Of 2018

  • New York Times Bestseller


A highly instructive exploration of “current affairs and…the immediate future of human societies.”

Having produced an international bestseller about human origins (Sapiens, 2015, etc.) and avoided the sophomore jinx writing about our destiny (Homo Deus, 2017), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) proves that he has not lost his touch, casting a brilliantly insightful eye on today’s myriad crises, from Trump to terrorism, Brexit to big data. As the author emphasizes, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Three grand stories once predicted the future. World War II eliminated the fascist story but stimulated communism for a few decades until its collapse. The liberal story—think democracy, free markets, and globalism—reigned supreme for a decade until the 20th-century nasties—dictators, populists, and nationalists—came back in style. They promote jingoism over international cooperation, vilify the opposition, demonize immigrants and rival nations, and then win elections. “A bit like the Soviet elites in the 1980s,” writes Harari, “liberals don’t understand how history deviates from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality.” The author certainly understands, and in 21 painfully astute essays, he delivers his take on where our increasingly “post-truth” world is headed. Human ingenuity, which enables us to control the outside world, may soon re-engineer our insides, extend life, and guide our thoughts. Science-fiction movies get the future wrong, if only because they have happy endings. Most readers will find Harari’s narrative deliciously reasonable, including his explanation of the stories (not actually true but rational) of those who elect dictators, populists, and nationalists. His remedies for wildly disruptive technology (biotech, infotech) and its consequences (climate change, mass unemployment) ring true, provided nations act with more good sense than they have shown throughout history.

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-51217-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet