A strange, brilliant and endlessly arguable book, one every student of history needs to have close at hand.



Who was worse, Adolf Hitler or Genghis Khan? An odd question, perhaps—but after finishing prolific historian White’s compendium, it’s one readers will be better prepared to entertain.

The answer, of course, is that both were quite terrible. Between the two dictators, something on the order of 100,000,000 people died during their regimes—most of them noncombatants. “War kills more civilians than soldiers,” writes the author. “In fact, the army is usually the safest place to be during a war.” That said, White patiently works his way through 100 atrocities, examining each with a tone that’s sometimes waggish, sometimes even flippant, but never less than smart. He reckons, for instance, that the dreaded Persians, whom the Greeks supposedly kept from destroying Western civilization, really weren’t such bad guys, even if their military machine dispatched many a foe. Timur, known to the West as Tamerlane, was similarly a pretty good guy, at least if you were on his good side. By one of history’s little ironies, those who were on his bad side were usually co-religionists: “He was a devout Muslim who almost exclusively destroyed Muslim enemies.” Stalin? A rotter. Mao? Perhaps worse. Hitler? Well, to the conservatives who insist that we were wrong to ally with Stalin against Hitler, White writes that “the world went to war against Hitler because he was dangerous, not because he was evil,” adding, “when you start invading your neighbors, the rest of the world gets jumpy.” Observing that nothing will prompt a fight more quickly than a set of numbers, White merrily quantifies the grimmest records humans have set—and if there’s any overarching lesson to take from his book, it is that our species is little more than a pack of chimps with guns and murderous intent. Fight or not, White is an equal-opportunity quantifier, showing that if Zulu chief (and sometime hero) Shaka had plenty of innocent blood on his hands, so did the French and British imperialists, to say nothing of Robert McNamara.

A strange, brilliant and endlessly arguable book, one every student of history needs to have close at hand.

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-393-08192-3

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2011

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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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

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