New history books (February 2012 edition)
Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).
No one in the world was surprised that Vladimir Putin was elected President of the Russian Federation yet again this year. News about Russian opposition movements — none too threatening to Putin’s grip on Russia — has been featured on the front pages of the Western press for the past couple of months. As that nation seems to be tragically slinking back into old habits of autocracy, historians have been looking to Russia’s past to find success stories when moderating forces opposed corrupt centralization of power. The primary question these historians seem to be asking is this: is autocracy inevitable in Russia?
A classic work of this type is Victor Leontovitsch’s The History of Liberalism in Russia, which was published in English for the first time this January (it was written in German and first released in 1957). In May of last year, Julia Berest published a biographical account of one of Russia’s early liberals during the Napoleonic era: Alexander Kunitsyn. A more recent contribution to the debate will be published in June of this year by the university press of my alma mater: the University of Wisconsin. Anton A. Fedyashin’s Liberals under Autocracy: Modernization and Civil Society in Russia, 1866-1904 utilizes the history of Russia’s primary liberal journal before the 1917 revolution, The Herald of Europe (Vestnik Evropy) as a lens into what he sees as a uniquely Russian brand of liberalism.
One of the greatest challenges to liberalization in Russia is the self-fulfilling idea among many Russians that the nation “needs” a strong (i.e. autocratic) leader. Historical inquiries into the successes and failures of Russian liberals may help debunk this myth.
The increasing influence of India and China on the world stage is both benefiting and upsetting Western nations. Although few in North America and Europe grumble about paying low prices for goods and services exported from Asia, they are reluctant to share power with emerging nations. China vetoing (with Russia) the recent United Nations resolution condemning the Syrian government’s crimes against humanity was a reminder that the period of unilateral power enjoyed by the West after the Cold War is drawing to a close.
The entire history of Western cooperation and intervention in East and South Asia is relatively unknown in the United States. Stephen R. Platt’s new book, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, describes a civil war in China during the middle of the 19th Century that left 20 million people dead and was decided in the government’s favor with the help of Western powers. In February, Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, published a highly praised work of narrative nonfiction about the slums in India. Reading books such as these can help readers in the West better understand the history and social life of emerging Asian nations.
The 20th century
Relative to the conflicts of the previous century which began in 1914, the world today is calm. But the imprint of the 20th century lives on with us in many subconscious ways, and historians will be very busy in the upcoming decades analyzing the meaning of that bloody but technologically progressive century. Jack Beatty has recently published a new work that tries to challenge the reigning assumption that the most tragic conflict of the 20th century — the First World War — was inevitable. Works like Barbara Tuchman’s excellent book The Guns of August often paint a pessimistically bleak picture of humanity’s ability to avoid the painful consequences of flawed human nature. Beatty argues that humans have more control over our destiny than we currently admit: a refreshing perspective.
Also recently published is Thinking the Twentieth Century. The last book by the late historian Tony Judt, it is a set of conversations between him and another scholar. The intriguing thing for me about this work is that it takes a look at the 20th century through the prism of intellectual history, a relatively rare perspective in scholarship today. I think there is a lot of potential in history books to investigate the effect that personal and public events have on how people form and act upon their ideas (and how those ideas go on to influence events anew). The previous century is certainly rich with such stories.