Friday, August 29, 2014

Reading about the Great War

By Jeff Burns

June 28, 2014 marked the centennial of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that started World War I. Over the next month or so, the greater and lesser powers of Europe found themselves dragged into what was known at the time as the Great War, or optimistically the War to End All Wars.  Eventually the United States too was dragged in.  Much is being written about the legacies of the war.  In the short term, a generation of Europeans was lost through death, injury, and displacement and the effects of the war and peace that followed would of course lead directly to World War II a quarter century later.  The spirit of nationalism that was one of the causes of the war led to colonial independence movements throughout Africa and Asia.  Even now, we see the geopolitical effects of the war.  Here are just a few books I recommend on the subject.

            Journalist Tim Butcher’s new book, The Trigger:  Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War traces the life of Gavril Princip, the nineteen year old who assassinated the Archduke.  I wrote about Butcher’s last book, Blood River, his book following Stanley’s expedition on the Congo River to find Livingstone in an earlier blog. The Trigger  follows a similar template.  Butcher travels to rural Bosnia to begin the story of Princip, a boy from a poor subsistence farming family  whose descendants still live in the tiny village, much as they have for generations and follows his path from there to Sarajevo, then Belgrade, then back to Sarajevo for the fateful act.  Butcher is a great storyteller and a consummate old-school journalist, and it comes through in his work.  First, he immerses himself in research and then he talks to people and faithfully tells their stories.  However, the book is not just about the assassination.  Butcher himself was a war correspondent who covered the Balkans in the 1990s.  He manages to weave the story of the assassination into the intricate fabric of the Balkans, a region shaped by hundreds of years of conflict.  It’s a fascinating read.

Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History is a great book if you’re looking for a more thorough history of the Balkans and the ethnic and religious conflicts that culminated in the wars and genocides of the 1990s.
 If you’re looking for the classic history of the war, the must-read is Barbara Tuchman’s  The Guns of August.  Tuchman re-creates the first month of the war, and all the steps and machinations leading to the conflict.  This was required reading for a college history course for me, but it was not a chore.  Tuchman is an excellent writer who told an exciting, suspenseful story that happened to be true.
Personally, I’m not a huge military history buff, so my interest in war history is mostly interest in causes and effects.  Another classic about the causes of the war is Dreadnought by Robert K. Massie.  Dreadnought is specifically about the naval arms race between Britain and Germany, part of the militaristic fervor that propelled Europe into war, but the book is not a dry naval  history – pun intended.  When I read this book, I learned so much about the European military leaders and royals whose drive to achieve military superiority, in this case by building the greatest battleship, was a major factor leading to the war.
           Turning to fiction, I have a couple of recommendations.  All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the greatest war novels ever written.  In fact it is very much an anti-war novel written by German war veteran Erich Maria Remarque.  The reader experiences the build up to the war, the horrors of the war itself, and their effect on the men involved, through the eyes of its protagonist, Paul Baumer and his comrades.   The book was unique for its time, not a jingoistic, super-patriotic glorification of war, but a realistic portrayal.  In fact, it was one of the first books banned in Nazi Germany because of its anti-war message.  It’s one of my favorite classic novels.
            In an earlier blog, I wrote about Ken Follett’s historic epics, The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End about medieval England and the Century Trilogy.  Book One of the Century Trilogy is The Fall of Giants,  and it follows five families (British, German, Russian, and American as they experience the war , the Russian Revolution, and the British women’s suffrage movement.  And when I say epic, I mean epic.  It’s a huge book, but I was thoroughly engaged from the beginning and finished it very quickly.  As one would expect from Follett, it’s full of historical detail, and is an education in itself about the effects of the war on all segments of society.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Forgotten Presidents, Unforgettable Books

By Jeff Burns
            Even though I teach American history, it’s sometimes hard to generate a lot of excitement in class when we get to the Gilded and Progressive ages, roughly 1880 to 1910.  Odd, since there was a lot going on during that time, the closing of the frontier, the rise of big business, and the beginnings of American imperialism.  America changed from agricultural to industrial and stepped out onto the world stage like never before.  The face of America itself was changed as waves of new immigrants arrived, making tremendous contributions to the country as they assimilated.
            In spite of all this, the period can be kind of a blur for students.  I sometimes call it the “forgettable president” era, since most of the presidents of this time were rather weak executives, overshadowed by the big business tycoons of the day.  They tend to blend together in a bearded mass, and many Americans today are hard-pressed to remember their names.  Lately, however, I’ve read some really great books that bring a real vibrancy to the era.
            Two of the books are about the two lesser known presidential assassinations:  Garfield and McKinley.  Candice Millard wrote Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, about James Garfield and his assassin, Charles Guiteau.  Millard’s previous book River of Doubt (reviewed in another blog) tells the story or Theodore Roosevelt’s Amazon expedition.  Destiny of the Republic is, in many ways, every bit as exciting.  She tells the parallel stories of the two men.  I never really knew much about Garfield; after all, he was president for only a few months.  Millard paints a picture of an outstanding man of character, willing to stand up for his principles.  He was one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president. On the other hand, Charles Guiteau was a mentally ill man who, in his mind, was doing God’s will by killing the president.  While the stories of the two men are fascinating in their own right, the story doesn’t end there.  After the shooting, Garfield lingered for months while there was an intense power struggle erupted among the doctors, a power struggle that ultimately cost his life.  Millard tells the story in riveting fashion.

            The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century by Scott Miller is another page-turner, about Leon Czolgosz’ assassination of William McKinley, but it’s much more.  It is a thorough history of the United States at the turn of the century, with full accounts of the Spanish American war, the war in the Philippines, the Haymarket Square Riot, and Emma Goldman and the anarchist movement.
            Pulitzer prize winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism is the typically epic work that we expect from her, nearly 1000 pages researched and written over a decade. Goodwin tells the stories of TR and Taft, two great men with two vastly different approaches to politics and the presidency, who were best of friends until politics drove them apart in 1912. She interweaves their stories with the rise of the muckraking press.


Friday, August 1, 2014

History, Yum!

By Nina Kendall

                Do you have a taste for history? Are you looking for a good book to sample? Do you want to get someone hooked on history? Try food history.  Food reflects who we are and who we were as a people. It illustrates the influence of technology on society and reveals the cultural traditions and diversity of a region. Food is both an artifact and a motivator. The Columbian exchange transformed the world in part because of the food it introduced to new lands.

            Mark Kurlansky has written several books about history and food.  His works document both the role of food in society and how food reflects change over time. Well researched and accessible, Kurlansky's work is worth checking out.  Salt is an account of food as force of change. Salt made food preservation possible and once served as unit of exchange. This work illustrates how one commodity can influence population, and impact international relations.

In The Food of a Younger Land, Mark Kurlansky uses records from the Federal Writers Project administered by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to create a picture of food and eating habits in America in the 1940’s. The WPA employed out of work writers to conduct interviews and record traditions during the Great Depression. Mark Kurlansky shares a collection of recipes and stories that describe a land were food is traditional, seasonal, and regional. Kurlansky gives you a glimpse of American food habits before technology and transportation advancements.

The Histocrats are going to use The Food of a Younger Land as inspiration for a hunt for recent history. We have read about the history of drink and Soul Food. We have visited the Coca-Cola Museum Now we are going to hunt for the food of a modern land.  What do we eat now? How have traditions changed? How can we use what we learn to teach students about history?  What would you find if you went hunting in your hometown? Happy eating! May the history you find be delicious.