Welcome to my second post looking back on 2019! I always select three nominees for each categories and crown one winner. You can find the first post on new-to-me games here.
One of the nice side effects of writing this blog is that I read a lot of history books for my research – in addition to the history books I read just for pleasure. Yes, I’m a huge nerd. Anyway, here are the three best historical non-fiction books I read this year:
Since the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, I have spent a lot of time with early modern Europe (for example, playing Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games)). If you want to understand this period, I recommend two books: Kenneth G. Appold’s The Reformation covers the religious part, Norwich’s Four Princes takes care of the power politics as told by the stories of the leaders of the four most powerful states: the kings of France and England, Francis I and Henry VIII, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Norwich shines at interweaving the strands of the four rulers as well as linking individual events with the larger narrative. Not an academically trained historian, the author is free of the dryness that often comes with those accounts and presents a superbly entertaining book instead. On the other hand, he also feels less inhibition to present his personal biases in the book – for example, Catholicism does not exactly get a good rap in it. With that in mind, I can cordially recommend Four Princes – just make sure you don’t accidentally get the „reverse harem fantasy” of the same name.
It’s surprising that it took my until this year to read this book – after all, I’m quite interested in naval matters, and Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (written later than The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery) was the book that made me realize I wanted to major in history. So here are two perspectives on the book – the points it makes in regards to sea power (especially in reply to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History), and its position in regards to Kennedy’s later work:
Instead of Mahan’s battle-fleet heavy interpretation of sea power, Kennedy follows a more nuanced one (a triangle of naval, commercial, and colonial strength which mutually reinforced each other during Britain’s predominance on the seas). Similarly, it was not an alleged British single-minded focus on naval matters that gained them naval mastery, but rather a balanced strategy of securing European equilibrium and expanding navally and overseas.
Just like Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, this book is very well written and argues with immense strategic clarity. Not only do the books have similar titles, but Kennedy also professes at the end of the book that he is becoming more interested in the rise and fall of great powers. Talk about foreshadowing! Amusingly, however, Kennedy ends the chronological part of the book by saying that historians reaching the future in their accounts must either stop writing or leave their profession. Here, Kennedy chooses the former, but in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he embraces the latter with his predictions that made the book a phenomenon outside of academic circles.
Two strong books! The best historical non-fiction which I read this year, however, is…
I read this while doing the research for my Century of German History post on the fall of the Berlin Wall. And boy, do I wish I could convey the drama and sheer unlikeliness of the events the way Sarotte can. Her book is a masterclass in historical writing: She draws both on a variety of archival sources and has conducted a plethora of interviews with many people involved. Despite that richness of source material, the book is never dry, but instead as gripping as a novel (with many footnotes) – hinting at Sarotte’s work experience as a journalist.
The book especially excels when writing about specific people – many of whom Sarotte has interviewed first-hand. Their motivations and challenges as well as the special circumstances under which they acted become clear, and you understand the unexpected agency people from the middle of society in this exceptionally fluid historical situations. Many of the most fateful decisions were made by mid-level executives with no directions from above (or against those directions), others were forced by the masses below.
The Collapse reminds us that history is an open-ended, contingent process, and that sometimes people like you and me – or even you and me! – have it in their hands to change it.
Which history books did you enjoy this year? Let me know in the comments!