Sunday, May 29, 2022

Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945 (Richard Overy)

The years before and after World War II marked a major change in political power in the world. Empires rose in the run-up to conflict and fell violently during it; other longstanding empires in Europe teetered and eventually weakened dramatically as colonies in Africa and Asia declared their independence. The 1930’s and 1940’s were a period of tumult, captured brilliantly by Richard Overy in Blood and Ruins: The Last Imperial War, 1931-1945.

Overy recasts World War II as a longer conflict, starting in 1931 with Japanese aggression into China, continuing through the 1930’s as Italy and Germany both tried to expand their territory, seeking room to grow, power, and influence. The author’s exhaustive work focuses more than on the military costs of conflict, getting into the economic and civilian impact in great detail. Blood and Ruins covers World War II from both the Pacific, European, and North African theaters of conflict, including details on the violent behavior of many soldiers as conflict raged over Eastern Europe.

There are many, many, many books on World War II, covering specific battles, politicians, or military figures. However, Blood and Ruins is a great work that summarizes a dramatic and climatic war that changed so much of our history. The author does a wonderful job breaking down the battles, the causes, and the effects at a level that readers can easily digest. Coming in at nearly 900 pages, it is a lengthy read that is light on pictures and heavy on detail. However, for fans of history and individuals who study military conflict, this is a must-read book.


Sunday, May 22, 2022

Waterloo Sunrise: London From the Sixties to Thatcher (John Davis)

“Swinging London” was a term applied in the 1960’s to London as the city built a reputation for creative music and vivid fashion. This was in contrast to the “stiff upper lip” London that lived in austerity after World War II. London’s youthful swag and confidence belied a city that was undergoing a transformation, losing its industrial character, and becoming more white-collar. This transition, which slowly undermined that “swinging” city’s swagger, is detailed in John Davis’s Waterloo Sunrise: London From the Sixties to Thatcher.

Waterloo Sunrise: London From the Sixties to Thatcher traces roughly a twenty year stretch of fashion, vices, urban blight, and attempts at renewal, race relations, and local politics and how they influenced events on a national level, including the eventual rise of Margaret Thatcher to the Prime Minister’s office in 1979. Davis’s book has wonderful detail and bounces between serious and lighthearted. One section explores the changing tastes of London’s culinary scene; another chapter dives into the seedier side of London nightlife.

All in all, Waterloo Sunrise was a joy to read. Many of us in America know of 1960’s Britain through Austin Powers, the musical “British Invasion”, or James Bond. Thankfully, Davis gives us a deeper look at a city that shared a lot of the same struggles and issues as our cities did on this side of the pond.


Thursday, May 12, 2022

Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War (Roger Lowenstein)

Much has been written about the economic differences between the North and South during the Civil War and how the North’s advantage in population, industry, and commerce were factors in their eventual win. The financial management of the North and South is a topic that is less known about. Roger Lowenstein’s Ways and Means: Lincoln and His Cabinet and the Financing of the Civil War addresses how the two parts of the country attempted to finance and govern their war efforts.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, the government had no authority to raise taxes, no federal bank, and no official currency. The South’s secession and the subsequent war required both the Union and the secessionists to finance their war efforts. Each camp took vastly different approaches. Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, developed a taxation strategy and financed bonds while battling to keep inflation in check. The South embargoed its main cash crop, cotton, and watched while inflation and poor fiscal decision-making drove runaway inflation and gradual starvation of the Confederacy.

Lowenstein also devotes a part of Ways and Means to the change in the federal government’s involvement in the lives of Americans. Pre-Civil War America was a state-driven enterprise, with the federal government a weaker federation having less direct control and influence in policy. The Republicans of the Civil War era were modernizers, permitting the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the formation of land grant universities, and increased government involvement in agriculture and eventually immigration policy. These reforms helped sustain and push the country along after the Civil War’s conclusion. Lowenstein smartly points out that much of those reforms and efforts helped push the North and West while the South lagged for decades to come. The country’s internal economic disparity remained significant between North and South until cities such as Houston, Atlanta, and Dallas began to attract large numbers of residents and immigrants, helping the South to shed its agrarian way of life and leave the Jim Crow era behind.

Ways and Means is a great account of how fiscal policy can guide a country in tough times and how Chase’s creativity and resourcefulness helped in large part to save the Union.


Friday, May 6, 2022

After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War (Helen Rappaport)

Russia’s historical love for Paris dates back over 300 years, to when Czar Peter the Great traveled to Western Europe to learn about European customs. He sought to modernize Russia and draw it closer to a more technologically and economically advanced part of the world while also drawing Europe closer to Russia. While his trip wasn’t a total success, he did begin a long-standing fascination with Paris for many Russians. A number of Russian elites and artists had residency in or visited Paris frequently. As the Romanov czar era reached its tumultuous end with revolution in 1917, many Romanov family members and others who were anti-Communist sought refuge and survival in Paris.

Helen Rappaport’s After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War is a richly detailed chronicle of the remnants of the Romanov family and other Russian elites and how they tried to rebuild their lives in France after the Bolsheviks took power and stripped them of their wealth and fame. Those that survived made difficult journeys by boat or land during the last stages of World War I, often while battling the influenza outbreak or other calamities along the way. Paris’s Russian immigrants faced challenges, including xenophobia, and often ended up in hardscrabble conditions during the 1920’s and especially the 1930’s. 

Rappaport’s book gives the reader a voyage into the Russian influence in Parisian art, dance, theater, and culture during the post-czar era. She also dives into how these expats hoped, plotted, and tried to influence the downfall of the Communists in the Soviet Union and how the Soviets worked to divide and subvert the anti-Communist movement.  After the Romanovs is an enjoyable, well-researched book.