"A Short History Of Africa" by Roland Oliver & J.D. Fage
Africa is the poorest continent, but it has a rich history that is little known or appreciated outside its borders. This lucid and balanced account of its history was first published in 1962 and the current edition is dated 1995.
Oliver & Fage start by emphazing that African history is the longest of any: "In historical times .. the backwardness of Africa was always a backwardness relative only to the mainstream of human development in the more favoured parts of Europe and Asia. In pre-historic times - at least through all the long millennia of the paleolithic or 'Old Stone Age' - Africa was not even realtively backward; it was in the lead. Archaeologists today are increasingly confident that it was in Africa, and more specifically in eastern equatorial Africa, that man's ancestors became differentiated from other primates." Then, of course, Africa was host to the incomparable Egyptian civilisation of five millenia ago.
Other civilisations of the continent include the first Phoenician colonies on north Africa in about the 8th century B.C., the addition of this region to the Roman Empire, the Arab conquest of north Africa in the 7th century A.D., and the Sudanic civilisation and the kingdom of Ghana of a millennium ago. However, it is the case that large parts of African history are virtually unknown because there are no records - for instance, ".. from the fourth century until the ninth East Afica disappears entirely from the historic record".
African history took a dramatic and ugly turn with the intervention of the European states and the development of the slave trade. It was the Portuguese who started from about 1510 to transport African slaves to the early Spanish colonies in tropical America. By the 17th century, the rapidly growing European demand for sugar - a crop making heavy demands for labour - promoted a huge growth in the slave trade to the Dutch, French and English colonies of the West Indies. According to the figures of Oliver & Fage, the 17th century total for slaves transported across the Atlantic was at least 1,340,000; this exploded to at least 6,050,000 in the 18th century; and it was still around 1,900,000 in the 19th century. The British were at the heart of this barbaric trade - by the end of the 18th century they were carrying nearly half the slaves taken to America - but in 1811 they were the among the first to abolish slavery. Oliver & Fage are honest enought to record, however, that: "There had been slavery in Kongo, as in every other part of Africa, long before Europeans began to export slaves overseas".
Of course, the gradual end of the slave trade did not mean the conclusion of European interest in Africa. Far from it: colonisation was to do as much damage. Again it was the Portuguese who were in the lead with small-scale endeavours from the end of the 15th century and a settlement at the Cape from 1652. However, what Oliver & Fage call "the colonial fever" was a feature of the 1890s. They make the point that: "The international hysteria which led to partition was caused not by the few European powers who already had small interests in tropical Africa but by a sudden stampede of those powers who had previously had no interests there at all". These were Belgium (actually King Leopold II acting personally) and Germany who joined Britain, France and Portugal and so created "a scramble" that dragged in Italy and Spain and led to European governments claiming sovereignity over all but six of some 40 political units into which they had by then divided the continent (and, of these six, four were more technical than real).
This scramble took a mere two decades and resulted in six decades of colonialisation. The first nation to achieve independence was the Gold Coast which became Ghana in 1957. De-colonialisation then proceded rapidly (except for the Portuguese and Spanish territories), but the longest struggle was in apartheid South Africa. The African National Congress was actually founded in 1912, but it was not until 1994 that the first democratic elections were held in the country. Independence, however, has been a troubled experience with considerable political instability and more than 50 military coups while the population has suffered drought, starvation and most latterly HIV/AIDS. In many respects, the story of Africa is only just beginning.
"A Short History Of The American Revolution" by James L Stokesbury
I went to see the film "The Patriot" (2000) starring Mel Gibson and I thought that the American revolution could not possibly have been that simplistic so, on a trip to Washington, I bought Stokesbury's book at the National Museum of American History. Stokesbury is an American who works as a professor of history at Acadia University in Canada. His book - first published in 1991 - is a lucid account of a seminal event encompassed in just short of 300 pages.
I suppose that, for the half of all Internet users who are American, the story of the revolution is a very familiar one, taught in schools and part of the psyche. However, for someone like me - British and with no schooling whatsoever in the period - Stokesbury's book was a revelation. I just learned so much.
For starters, I had thought of the war as a relatively intense and short-lived affair of some months. In fact, it lasted eight years (1775-1783) and involved twenty or so major battles. For much of the time, though, "the war just bumbled along" and frequently looked like "a sort of equilibrium". It looked as if "neither side was capable of winning it and both were tired of waging it" and, five years on, it was "less a contest of physical forces than of willpower or, more correctly, staying power". Arguably the decisive battle of the war was Yorktown in late 1881, but peace was not signed until almost two years later and the British maintained their holdings in America even longer than that. At the end of it all, "The country was militarily exhausted and financially ruined".
I had not appreciated either how much the American War of Independence was in fact a civil war. About 50,000 Americans actively fought for the British side. Stokesbury puts it this way: "The general estimates are that perhaps a third of the population were active supporters of the Revolution or Patriots; and one third were actively for the King or Loyalists or Tories; with the other third wanting to be left alone as much as possible; or, that one quarter took either active position, and as much as one half formed the amorphous and neutral middle". One of the dreadful features of so many civil wars is often atrocities and, in this case, both sides were guilty of brutalities.
I had certainly not understood that this so-called American war was in effect a world war. From the start, the British employed foreign units, notably some 30,000 Germans (most of them from Hesse-Cassel). For their part, the Americans sought and obtained allies from the European powers opposing the maritime strength of thalassocratic Britain. First, the old enemy France declared war on Britain; then Spain and the Netherlands came out against the British; and finally the Baltic powers - Russia, Denmark and Sweden - combined in an anti-British coalition called 'Armed Neutrality' and, before the war ended, Prussia, Portugal, Austria and the Two Sicilies had all joined this alliance. So, as well as America, there were major theatres of war in the West Indies, the Mediterranean, India, and the English Channel.
Through the mists of time, we tend to see history in black and white terms in which events had almost an inevitability about them. Stokesbury makes it clear that reality was much more complicated.
For a start, in spite of all the intense research of the period, so much is still unknown or unclear. We do not even know who fired the first shot of the war on 18 April 1775 at Lexington. The conduct and casualties of many of the battles are confused.
Also the supporters of independence were far from a united army battling the evil British. There was enormous conflict between the Continental Congress and the individual states - a tension which continues today - and immense rivalry over who was to command which forces with the infamous Conway cabal against George Washington. There was desertion, mutiny and even treason in the shape of Benedict Arnold. Stokesbury writes: "It is fair to say that George Washington was the one indispensable man of the American Revolution and that, without him, there were several times when the whole enterprise would probably have collapsed".
Then there is the odd situation of New York, then - as now - the chief city of the continent. For most of the war, it was securely held by the British and the Americans could do nothing to retake it. Stokesbury explains: "The military theory of the period held that, if you took the enemy's capital, or his major cities, he would have sense enough to make peace. But the Americans were not involved in a conventional eighteenth-century war".
Finally there is a tendency to think of both the outbreak of the revolution and its success as inevitable. A more sensitive handling of genuine grievances by King George III and his Ministers would have made all the difference. Canada was kept for the British and the thirteen states could have been secured as well. A more determined effort by the British at the end of the first year of the war - following the taking of New York - and world history could have been very different. If one sees the conflagration as a world war, then Britain won in four of the five theatres.
And not one mention of Mel Gibson ...
"The Civil War" by Bruce CattonOn a trip to the site of the famous battle of Gettysburg (1-3 July 1863), I decided that I needed a better overview of the American Civil War (1861-1865) and that I would read one text. At the shop at the site, I purchased “Civil War” by Pulitzer Prize-winning Bruce Catton which was first published in 1960 and has become one of the best-selling and most widely-read general histories of the war available in a single volume. We all know the essential features of the war. Eleven southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America (the Confederacy), the other 25 states supported the federal government (the Union), and after four years of brutal warfare - mostly within the Southern states - the Confederacy surrendered, the nation was reconstituted, and slavery was abolished everywhere in the country. The problem with explaining the war in any more detail is that there is a danger of the account becoming simply one bloody battle after another with lots of skirmishes and clashes in between because, like most long wars, there was no clear narrative but a regular oscillation of advantage from one side to the other. Indeed there were almost 400 battles and some 8,000 instances of hostilities. Gettysburg is described by Catton as "the greatest single battle of the war" and "a terrible and spectacular drama which, properly or not, is usually looked upon as the great moment of decision". In his book of almost 400 pages, Catton avoids the 'one battle after another' dilemma by placing the military campaigns in a wider political and economic context and, to guide us through the complications of the conflict itself with its wide canvas of events and personalties, at the back of the book he provides a chronology of the war and mini biographies of its leading personalties together with several useful maps (although non-Americans would probably like more maps). The scope of the war was enormous. Although the two capitals (Washington and Richmond) were only 100 miles apart, it was genuinely a continental conflict with battlefields from Pennsylvania to New Mexico and from Florida to Kansas. The wings of the war front were Virginia in the east and Mississippi in the west with Tennessee in the middle. Catton gives the death tolls as 359,000 on the Federal side and 258,000 for the Confederates. This total of some 617,000 was nearly as many as that of all American soldiers killed in all the other wars that America has fought combined. On one single day (17 September 1862) in the battle of Antietam, more American soldiers were killed or mortally wounded than in all the wars fought by the United States in the 19th century. To this day, the precise causes of the war are still being debated. At a vital level, it was about states' rights relative to those of the federal government - still a divisive issue in American politics as revealed by the legal appeals against Barack Obama's healthcare legislation. Catton describes the rebellion by the South as "the strangest of revolutions - an uprising of conservatives who would overturn things in order to preserve a cherished status quo". He declares of the slavery issue: “It was not the only cause of the Civil War, but it was unquestionably the one cause without which the war would not have taken place”. Its importance changed during the progress of the conflict with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 - "one of the strangest and most important state papers ever issued by an American President" - elevating it to the central moral issue. Catton asserts of the Declaration: "… in the end, it changed the whole character of the war and, more than any other single thing, doomed the Confederacy to defeat". Nobody expected the war to last so long and be so costly. When the conflict began, the country's regular army consisted of no more than 16,000 men and the first battle – Fort Sumter – was bloodless. Yet this became the first real industrial war with William T Sherman's infamous 'march to the sea' introducing the notion of 'total war' and the nature of weaponry, the use of trenches, the tactics deployed by battlefield leaders, and the poor knowledge of medicine all made this a particularly bitter and bloody conflict. Catton makes it clear that, in terms of resources (manpower, industry, raw materials, railways, a navy, and a sound currency), the North was from the beginning possessed of impressive advantages. But, to win, the North had to invade the South and destroy its armies, notably Robert E Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and Joseph E Johnston's Army of Tennessee (occupying towns would not be enough), while the Confederacy attempted to prolong the conflict until the North tired of the effort and the price with its high water mark in September 1862 at the time of Lee's first invasion of the North. For years, the outcome was not assured. Catton concludes his account of the American Civil War: "If no one could say exactly why it had come about in the first place, no one could quite say what it meant now that it was finished. (A century of reflection has not wholly answered either riddle.)" The debates continue but Catton's book is an excellent starting point for beginners.
"A Traveller's History Of China" by Stephen G. Haw
Covering 3,000 years of Chinese history in just 300 pages is no mean feat, but Haw accomplishes it with some skill in an informative and readable introduction to this immense subject.
It is argued that China has "arguably the longest continuous history of development of any civilisation in the world". It is a history of immense fragmentation with constant conquest and chaos. Three millennia ago, there were some 170 states. Yet, in the midst of this turmoil, there has been true genius with lasting philosophy, superb craftwork and brilliant invention.
The name 'China' comes from the Sanskrit name of Cinasthana which is what the Indians called the state of Qin (221-206 BC). It was this state that unified under one ruler an area approximating what we know now as China and it was the First Emperor of Qin who instigated both the Great Wall and the terracotta army.
The Chinese were responsible for a remarkable number of inventions, with major advances in science and technology occurring particularly about the turn of the first millennium. Among these inventions were paper, the foot stirrup, the collar harness, spinning and weaving machines, the crossbow, the wheelbarrow, the compass, cast iron, and of course gunpowder. Amazingly it took centuries for many of these discoveries to reach Europe.
Haw explains that, during the period of the Sony Dynasty (960-1279), "China was undoubtedly the most advanced nation in the world at this time".
However, invasion and domination then followed. The Mongols and the Manchus took over; later the western powers, notably Britain and France, provoked wars and extracted concessions; then came the invasion by the Japanese.
The 'father' of modern China was Sun Yat-sen who led the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and briefly became the first President of the new republic. To this day, he is revered by Nationalists and Communists alike. Haw describes his ideals as "democratic and socialist" and, if he had been able to retain power, the modern history of China might have been very different.
As it is, five decades of totalitarian communism have given way to a stunning economic transformation of the country that must now challenge the existing political order. As Haw points out: "The structure of the machinery of government today is fundamentally identical with what it was under the later imperial dynasties. There is no emperor at the top, but instead there is a small committee of the leading members of the [Communist] Party which holds much the same position".
The dynamic tension between the economy and the polity must change this - possibly sooner than many expect.
"A Brief History Of The Czech Lands To 2000" by Petr Čornej and Jiří Pokorný
My wife is half Czech, we have many Czech friends and we visit the Czech Republic regularly so, on a recent trip to Prague, I chose to read a history of the country, but made sure that I selected a brief and modern work. In fact, this little book - translated from the original Czech - only runs to 95 pages and the authors have done a commendable job in making a rich history so concise and accessible. Čornej is responsible for the period up to 1914, while Pokorný takes over for the remainder of the 20th century.
It is a history of the Czech lands - that is, Bohemia , Moravia and part of Silesia - which became a joint state in the Middle Ages, since what is now the Slovak Republic - which from the 11th-19th century was an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary - only features for the period 1918-1993. The Latin name Bohemia actually derives from Celtic tribe of the Boii who conquered the Czech territory in the period of the rise of Ancient Rome (1st-3rd century BC).
Most peoples celebrate a 'golden age' in their history and the Czechs have two. First, there was the era of the Greater Moravian Empire (the epithet was actually the creation of later times). This existed from 830 to 907 when it fell to Hungarian raiders. Čornej writes: "Greater Moravia left behind a remarkable cultural legacy that the world has come to know only since 1945 as a result of archaelogical finds". The second political and cultural flourishing occurred under the reign of Charles IV (1346-1378) who was the first ruler of Bohemia to become King of the Romans and, after his cornation in Rome in 1355, Holy Roman Emperor. Charles chose Prague for his residence and, under his leadership, the city was enlarged, there were important constructions like the Charles Bridge, and a university - the first in Central Europe - was founded.
As a result of the teachings of the non-conformist preacher Jan Hus (who was originally influenced by the English thinker John Wyclif), the Czechs became a thorn in the side of Christian Europe and, in the course of 1420-1431, no less than five crusades against Hussite Bohemia ended in failure. Ultimately, however, the so-called Bohemian Estates were defeated by Catholic forces in a small battle at White Mountain (located on the outskirts of Prague) on what was arguably the blackest day in Czech history (8 November 1620).
It took the First World War and the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the Czechs could win their independence and the Slovaks joined them to create the new state of Czechoslovakia on 28 October 1918. It proved to be the only democratic state in Central Europe at that time and Pokorn points out that: "The majority of indices of production and living standards placed Czecholsovkaia in 10th to 15th position in the world".
For seven or eight centuries now, the history of the Czech lands has been shaped crucially by its relations with Germans and Germany. It was in the 13th century when a substantial stream of colonists from overpopulated German areas started to arrive in Bohemian and Moravia. Indeed my wife's family comes from a town which was long called Nemecký Brod (German ford), after the German miners who founded it, but at the end of the war was renamed Havlíčkův Brod after a famous Czech journalist.
It was the existence of the Sudenten Germans that allowed Hilter - with the acquiescence of Britain and France - to force upon the Czechoslovaks the Munich Agreement of September 1938 which, together with subsequent loses to Poland and Hungary, resulted in Czechoslovakia losing a third of its territory including its natural defences, before six months later suffering a Nazi invasion and occupation. In 1945, therefore, some 2.7M Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia in a process which still complicates Czech-German relations, especially in the context of the Czech Republic's entry into the European Union.
The last decade or so of this history has witnessed momentous events: the velvet revolution as four decades of Communism was overthrown and the velvet separation as the Czech and Slovak peoples formed their own states. As the Czech Republic prepares for accession to the European Union, it is back where it always belonged - at the heart of Europe.
"Czechs And Balances: A Nation's Survival Kit" by Benjamin Kuras
Like the book by Čornej and Pokorný, this is a short and episodic history, but not quite as short (197 pages), while being even more episodic. It is written in very fluent English by a Czech writer who has lived in London since 1968 and Kuras adopts a light-hearted, even irreverent tone, which makes what could otherwise be a dry topic readable and frequently amusing.
In fact, the first half of the book is an analysis of the Czech character and the Czechs' legends. Kuras believes that, above all: "The Czechs love their comfort ['pohoda' in Czech]. So much so that their comfort considerations usually overcome such hollow concepts as ideology, idealism, heroism, honour, gallantry". Kuras summarizes a succession of legends, many of which - such as, King Barley, Prince Bruncvik, Saint Wencelas and the Knights of Blanik - conclude with the promise of the hero returning to save the Czechs at the hour of their greatest need which - as he humously points out - has apparently not yet occurred in spite of successive foreign occupations and totalitarian regimes.
Before launching into the chronolgical hisory that fills the second half of his book, Kuras talks of "that uniquely Czech way of solving political differences" called 'defenestration' (that is, "solving political differences by throwing opponents out of windows"). There are three infamous occasions of such acts:
On this day, 21,000 Protestants (mainly Czech but some German) were defeated by 26,000 Catholic (international with some Czech) armies in "a walkover" lasting just two and a half hours, as a result of divisions among commanders and a reluctance of poorly-paid mercenaries to fight. The consequnces were a land which was 85% Protestant becoming almost wholly Catholic within 10 years and almost half the population being massacred, starved or exiled by the impact of 30 years of war.
If these were dark days for the Czechs, the 20th century saw widely oscillating fortunes - the diplomatic triumph of 1918 when Czechs and Slovaks united to win an independent state, the betrayal and dimemberment of the 1938 Munich Agreement followed six months later by Nazi occupation, the joy of liberation in 1945 followed by the Communist takeover of 1948, the false dawn of the 1968 Prague Spring before the eventual velvet revolution of 1989.
Writing in the mid 1990s, Kuras concludes; "six years after the fall of communism, it is still by no means decided whether the Czech Republic is on its way to becoming a true Western democracy, as craved by most of its people and hoped for by its Western fans, or a mafia-controlled market economy with corruptible officials on every step of the political, judiciary and economic ladder, and across the political spectrum, where election results are irrevalent, Latin American style".
"Twelve Days: Revolution 1956" by Victor Sebestyen
When revolutions suddenly swept the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in late 1989, one Communist country avoided such convulsions, although arguably it was the trigger to the changes in those other states. That country was Hungary which had already had a (failed) revolution 33 years earlier.
Victor Sebestyen was born in Budapest and was an infant when his family left Hungary as refugees. His new book marks the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution and is a well-researched and well-written account of this historic event, drawing on fresh evidence from Moscow, Washington and Budapest plus interview with participants.
Of course, the core of the work (some 170 pages) is the 12 days of the title: 23 October 4 November 1956. But, very helpfully the scene is set with a review of key events since 1944 (another 100 pages) and then there is a short aftermath section (20 pages). As Sebestyen puts it: "It is a story of heroic failure, of awe-inspiring courage in a doomed cause, and of ruthless cruelty" and "This revolution was marked by idealism and breathless excitement , as well as by violence and utter confusion". Indeed he insists: "It was the least-organised revolution in history. There were no leaders, no plans.">
The Hungarian revolution did not come out of nowhere. Under the hated regime of Mátyás Rákosi, in a small country of less than 10 million between 1950 and 1953 more than 1.3 million people were prosecuted and half of them were jailed. Yet, when the revolution came, it was sudden and unexpected. It started with student protests over conditions at colleges and universities and demands to be free of the official Communist student organisation. It was the spark that lit the tinder but, as Sebestyan puts it: "Like so much that happened over the next few days, this opening move of the revolution was haphazard, spontaneous, rudderless."
It is not known who fired the first shots, but Sebestyan believes that it was almost certainly a trigger-happy AVO recruit (the AVO was the despised state security service) and the first demonstrators to fall were two students. The Parliament Square was the scene of a subsequent massacre by Soviet troops in which another 75 died.
Although there were demonstrations throughout the country and resistance in a number of towns, most of the fighting was in the capital Budapest and the fiercest battles were around a small number of locations, most notably the Corvin Cinema (where Gergely Pongrácz emerged as leader) and the Kilián Barracks (where army colonel Pál Maléter took charge). Much of the fighting was done by young factory workers under 30 and some brutal retribution was taken against AVO members who were beaten and hanged in the streets.
Astonishingly the first Soviet military assault was held by the revolutionaries and eventually a cease-fire was agreed, with the Russians promising to remove their troops from Hungary. For a few breathless days, it looked as if the revolutionaries had won, although this was a period when rival groups argued and even on occasions fought with one another. However, the Soviets lied repeatedly to the new Hungarian multi-party government as they marshalled a huge invasion force. They deceived the Hungarian military leadership into allowing themselves to be arrested and then launched 'Operation Whirlwind' involving nearly 150,000 troops and 2,500 tanks. The revolution was quickly crushed.
The central character in the Hungarian revolution was Imre Nagy, the loyal but reformist Communist who had been Prime Minister from 1953-1955 and was again from 24 October to 4 November 1956. He was a brave and decent man, but cautious and indecisive when he needed to seize the moment.
Sebestyen makes clear how Nagy had never wanted a revolution, made utterly inadequate early speeches to the revolutionaries, and was constantly a day or two behind the political mood of the fighters until the final days when he formed a broad-based government and then finally declared that Hungary had left the Warsaw Pact. He writes: "Nagy has been weighed in the balance again and the scales have slightly tilted. Nagy died better than he had lived."
At the end of it all, some 2,600 Hungarians had been killed, roughly two-thirds of them following the second Soviet assault. The Russians lost less than 60 soldiers. In a matter of months, around 200,000 people fled Hungary. In the country itself, the new Communist leader János Kádár who had initially supported the revolution and been in the new Nagy government instituted savage reprisals. Around 22,000 were jailed and about 330 were executed, including Imre Nagy and Pál Maléter.
The Hungarian revolution coincided with the last week of President Eisenhower's re-election campaign in the United States and the invasion of Suez by the British and the French, so the eyes of the world were elsewhere. Nevertheless, as Sebestyen makes clear, the US never anticipated such an armed revolt against Communism and, when it came, had no intention of risking its already delicate relations with the Soviet Union.
Although the Hungarian revolution failed, János Kádár - who remained in power until 1988 - gradually relaxed his grip and - as Sebestyn puts it - "In many ways Hungary was the most relaxed and most prosperous of the Soviet satellites". Indeed the reform movement inside and outside the Hungarian Communist Party went so far that, in 1989, it was the opening of the Hungarian border to Austria that allowed so many East Germans to leave the Communist bloc and provoke the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent revolutions in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.
Footnote: On my first visit to Hungary in 1991, the last Russian troops were leaving that week and I made a point of visiting the grave of Imre Nagy. On a more recent visit in 2005, I visited some of the scenes of the heaviest fighting in the 1956 revolution, including the Kilián Barracks and the Corvin Cinema.
"A Traveller's History Of India" by SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda
I attempted two other histories of India, but found them too dense and too lengthy, before turning to the "Traveller's History" series which I used for China. Again I found a thoroughly accessible and immensely readable work. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delogoda (T-D) is from Sri Lanka but his knowledge of India is impressive and his insights illuminating.
India is named after the River Indus which is now in Pakistan. It is a place where "People still believe in the same religion, they still worship the same gods and they still chant the same verses and hymns which they recited 4,000 years ago". T-D inists: "Alongside Egypt and Mesopotamia, it is one of the very cradles of civilisation".
The traditional religion is Hinduism which dates back to at least 1500 BC and today nearly 82% of the population are Hindus of one sort or another. The Muslim population comprises 11% which, given the size of the total population, means that India has the second largest Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia). T-D asserts: "More perhaps than any other country in the world, India's culture and society has been moulded by religion".
The Indus Valley civilisation is the first real landmark in the history of the subcontinent. It is thought to date from around 2500 BC and to have lasted almost 1,000 years. It was based on the two great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro which were only discovered by accident in 1856 by two British engineers.
The next stage began with the Aryans, barbarian invaders from the north, who dominated from around 1500 to 334 BC. The word 'Arya' means 'high born' and the four classes of Aryan society represent the origin of the Hindu caste system, a structure of more than 2,000 groups which still has an important influence today. This is the era of the two great epic poems, the Mahabharata (100,000 verses) and the Ramayana (25,000 verses).
The Mauryas, who ruled from 330-184 BC, represented the first Indian empire and Asoka ('The Sorrowless One'), who was in charge for 37 years, is one of the most famous figures in Indian history. T-D writes of the Mauryas: "No Indian dynasty before them had enjoyed so much power, and it is doubtful whether any regime since has been able to exercise such complete and effective control over so much of this vast country".
The collapse of Mauryan power saw the break-up of India into several different kingdoms, a state of affairs that was to last for almost 500 years, until the rise of India's next great imperial dynasty, the Guptas. The Gupta empire was a golden age of Indian civilisation which saw world pre-eminence in mathematics (Indian scholars invented the zero symbol and the decimal system), as well as Vatsyayana's famous fourth century treatise on the art of love, the Kama Sutra.
Towards the end of the 10th century, a succesion of Turkish invasions brought Islam and a set of Turkish dynasties to India which changed the nature of the nation for ever. However, it is the Mughal Empire of 1526-1707 which represents what T-D calls "one of the most glorious and fascinating episodes in Indian history". The word Mughal is an Indian spelling of Mongol and Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, was a descendant of Gengis Khan. It is this empire which has left behind those sites most appealing to tourists to modern-day India, including the Red Fort in Old Delhi, the Taj Mahal at Agra, and the one-time capital of Fatehpur Sikri.
The 18th century saw the arrival of European merchants and the foundation of European colonies. Starting first around Madras, Calcutta and Bombay, it was British rule which came to dominate as India became 'the jewel in the crown' of the British empire. The British governed the subcontinent for almost 150 years, "completely transforming its appearance, its institutions and its culture" and even building a new capital at New Delhi. T-D explains: "In less than 200 years, they made an even greater impact than the Muslims had in 800. They measured and mapped, standarized and centralized, bridged and connected the subcontinent into a single workable unit".
Following the success of the independence movement led by Gandhi, in 1947 Muslim Pakistan was separated from the largely Hindu India which triggered an orgy of violence. At least five million refugees fled each way and at least half a million were killed. Subsequently east Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh. Meanwhile, since independence, India has been the world's largest parliamentary democracy. However, T-D is frank about the problems: "Political corruption on an unimaginable scale, increasingly criminal and violent politics, rising caste conflict, separatism and militant communalism - these are some of the spectres which India will have to face in the new century".
"Iran: Empire Of The Mind" by Michael Axworthy
Iran is home to one of the world's oldest continuous major civilizations, with historical and urban settlements dating back to 4000 BC, so Axworthy - a lecturer at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter - has done a marvellous job in providing an erudite but readable history "from Zoroaster to the present day" in just 300 pages.
His choice of title reflects his view that Iran - or Persia as it was called for much of its history - is as much a state of mind as a place in geography. In fact, what one might call Greater Iran consisted of the area from the Euphrates in the west to the Indus River and Jaxartes in the east and from the Caucasus, Caspian Sea, and Aral Sea in the north to the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the south. However, given its position, what today we call Iran has been overrun frequently and has had its territory altered throughout the centuries. It was invaded and occupied by Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and others and, more latterly, has often been caught up in the affairs of larger powers such as Russia and Britain.
The Medes first unified Iran as a nation and empire from 728-550 BC. The Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BC) was the first of the Iranian empires to rule in the Middle East and Central Asia. They were succeeded by the Seleucid Empire (312-150 BC), the Parthians (247 BC-226 AD) and the Sassanids (226-651) which governed Iran for almost 1,000 years. In the confused history that followed, there were two great turning points. First, the Islamic conquest from 633-656 and the Islamicisation of the country during 8th to 10th century. Second, after centuries of foreign occupation and short-lived native dynasties, the reunification of Iran as an independent state by the Safavid dynasty (1501-1722) who established Shi'a Islam as the official religion of their empire.
Over the next three centuries, Iran was a monarchy ruled by a shah or emperor almost without interruption through the Hotaki, Afsharid, Zand and Qajar dynasties. The crisis of the Qajar monarchy led to the revolution of 1905-1911 with its short-lived experiment with a form of democracy and then the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty resulted in the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the current crisis in relations between a nation of 74 million, led by a Holocaust-denying Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and much of the rest of the civilised world fearful of its nuclear intentions.
Of course, history does not follow a neat narrative arc and Axworthy tells us that "One thesis of Iranian history, advanced by Homa Katouzian and others, is that Iran just lurches from chaos to arbitrary authority and back again". However, Axworthy finds "grounds for some cautious optimism". He asserts that "There is real social and political change afoot in Iran, in which the natural dynamic toward greater awareness, greater education and greater freedom is prominent" and he offers the remarkable statistic that "only 1.4 per cent of the population attend Friday prayers".
"Khomeini's Ghost" by Con Coughlin
Coughlin is the executive foreign editor of the "Daily Telegraph" and has previously written a biography of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In this work of 360 pages, he examines the last century of the history of neighbouring Iran through the prism of the life of the Ayatollah Khomeini, arch enemy to Hussein. There is little new in the account and many of the author's sources have had to remain private, but it is a readable and informative examination of one of the greatest revolutions in world history whose consequences still shape global politics and threaten world peace.
Ruhollah Musavi - he only took the name of his home town in later life - was born on 24 September 1902 in the dusty Iranian town of Khomein to a family which originally came from India and he was the son and grandson of Shia clerics. Couglin writes: "It has been estimated that at the turn of the twentieth century Persia [as it was then known] was one of the four least-developed countries in the world". Following a century of the 'Great Game' - the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia - this was a time when the Iranians turned to the Swedes and the Americans to develop their country.
Khomeini studied at a succssion of seminaries, finally settling in the holy city of Qom and wearing the black turban which indicated that his family was directly descended from the Prophet. Here he married and started a family of four and developed a life-long interest in poetry. At this stage and for a long time, he had no involvement in politics. Meanwhile, in 1925, Reza Shah overthrew Ahmad Shah Qajar, the last Shah of the Qajar dynasty, and founded the Pahlavi Dynasty, commencing a 15-year dictatorship, only ended in 1941 by the simultaneous invasion of the country by Soviet and British troops, when his son took over as the new (and last) Shah.
Khomeini became interested in politics during the period of militant anti-colonialism which swept Iran in the aftermath of the Second World War when he allied himself with the radical ayatollah Kashani and the Fedayeen terrorist group. Yet it was only in the early 1960s that he became directly involved in politics when the deaths of two senior clerics left a leadership vacuum that he was quick to fill.
In 1963, Khomeini was arrested for opposition to the White Revolution, the programme of modernisation of the second Pahlavi Shah. By late 1964, he was exiled. Consequently Khomeini had no direct involvement in the turbulent decade and a half which marked the final years of the reign of the Shah when the Shah's secret police force SAVAK exerted terrible brutality and he himself assumed the status of a deity. However, the ayatollah maintained close contact with clerical and revolutionary movements in Iran and flooded the country with literature and recordings of his sermons and thoughts. The Shah was forced into his own exile on 16 January 1979.
Khomenei's return to Iran came after a period of exile of 15 long years (1964-1979) in Turkey, then Iraq, and finally France by which time the ayatollah was already 76 years old. He flew back to Tehran on 1 February 1979 to the largest welcome in history. Skilfully and brutally, he extinguished all opposition and assumed absolute power, having thousands executed and many more imprisoned. Notionally power was exercised by an elected parliament of 290 called the Majlis and a Prime Minister chosen by an elected President but, in practice, the new constitution ensured that power resided ultimately with with a Supreme Leader who was required to be a senior cleric. As Coughlin puts it: "The powers entrusted to the Supreme Leader in the constitution's final draft compare favourably to those claimed by Europe's fascist dictators, with the exception that Khomeini had the added bonus of claiming divine inspiration."
The system of government that Khomeini instituted and which is still in force today is known as velayat-e faqih which translates as 'the regency of the theologian'. It is a stark contrast and contradiction to the historic position of the Islamic clergy which can be charaterised as 'quietism' - the belief that the world of the spiritual and the political should remain separate. A fundamental feature of the system of velayat-e faqih is a structure of power which runs parallel to the regular police and army, based around the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a body created by Khomeini and now involving a domestic security force called the Basij and a force supporting overseas' operations called the Quds (Jerusalem), numbering in total some 125,000.
Khomeini had a decade as Supreme Leader during which Iran suffered an eight-year war with Iraq in which officially around 200,000 Iranians died (some estimates put the toll at up to half a million). During his period of rule, 52 US Embassy staff were taken hostage for 444 days, with his support, and a fatwa was issued by him against British novelist Salman Rushdie. Khomeini died on 3 June 1989 aged 87, the first Iranian ruler for over 80 years not to be exiled or executed. It is a central contention of Coughlin - as the title of his work makes clear - that the spirit of the ayatollah lives on and that the political system of control he instituted is as strong as ever and the policies that he enunciated are still being vigorously pursued.
Couglin traces the development of two particular such policies: first, the export of revolutionary Islam and terrorist techniques to southern Lebanon through Hizbollah, the Gaza through Hamas, and Iraq through the Badr Corps and, second, the secretive but relentless construction of a nuclear programme that he is in no doubt is intended to create nuclear weapons to threaten Israel and the Sunni Muslim states of the Middle East. The book ends with the election of Barack Obama in late 2008, but everything which has happenend since - including the fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the brutal supression of the election protests, and the advances in the regime's nuclear programme - confirms that nothing fundamental has yet changed in this fundamentalist system of government and control.
"Conquistadors" by Michael Wood
This book is the product of a series of television films made for the BBC in the UK and PBS in the USA. The author of the book and the presenter of the films, historian Michael Wood, is someone with whom I travelled to eastern Canada in 1966, although I have never met him since. His style of both writing and presenting is one of infectious enthusiasm for his subject and the 16th century conquest of Latin America by the Spanish conquistadors is an ideal topic for his considerable talents.
Accompanied by many superb photographs and some helpful maps, essentially Wood tells four stories as he retraces the epic journeys of those involved:
"The Middle East" by Bernard Lewis
This 417-page book, first published in 1995, is subtitled 2000 Years Of History From The Rise Of Christianity To The Present Day. The style is fluent and the scope wide. It is structured in three main sections: a chronological section covering the period from the time of Christ to the mid 16th century when Islam was at the height of its power; a thematic section with chapters on the state, the economy, the elites, the commonality, religion & law, and culture; and another chronological section from the mid 16th century to the end of the 20th century.
The period from the advent of Christianity to the advent of Islam - the first six centuries of the Christian era - was shaped by a series of major developments: the rise of Christianity itself, the shift of the centre of gravity of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople, the Hellenisation of the Middle East, and the steady growth of what today would be called the command economy. Between the 4th-6th centuries, Arabia seems to have sunk back into a sort of dark age which Muslims call Jahiliyya or the Age of Ignorance.
The Islamic era began in 622 with the migration of the Prophet Muhammed and his followers from Mecca to Medina an event known to Muslims as Hijra. The rapid rise of Islam through a series of conquests was stunning. Lewis writes: "Within little more than a century after the Prophet's death, the whole area had been transformed, in what was surely one of the swiftest and most dramatic changes in the whole of human history." But he adds: "It is the Arabization and Islamization of the peoples of the conquered provinces rather than the actual military conquest itself, that is the true wonder of the Arab empire."
Yet, from the very beginning, the world of Islam was riven by dissension, principally over the issue of how one should choose the successors to the Prophet Muhammed. The majority view - the Sunni tradition - is that the successors should be 'elected' and the first four caliphs became known as 'the rightly guided ones'. However, the alternative view - the Shi'ite tradition - is that the successors should be chosen from the Prophet's actual relatives and their descendants and all but the first of the four rightly guided caliphs were killed by assassins. As well as this division, the Sunni majority contained many schools of sharia law, four of which survive in modern times.
The middle of the 8th century saw the replacement of the Umayyad caliphate (661-749) by the Abbasid caliphate (749-1258) - a change which Lewis describes as "a revolution in Islamic history" - and the capital was moved from Syria to Iraq. Later came two waves of invaders from the Steppes: the Seljuk Turks in the early 12th century and then the Mongols in the mid 13th century. Between the 10th -13th centuries, Sunni Islam fought, and largely won, struggles against Shi'ite dissidents who were tamed or overcome, Christian crusaders who were repulsed, and the heathen Mongols who were converted and assimilated.
By the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566), the Islamic empire was at the peak of its power. Some historians have argued that the pig set the geographical limits of Islamic expansion, since the Muslim faith did not take root among the pig-rearing and pig-eating peoples of Spain, the Balkans, and western China.
Lewis notes: "In the high Middle Ages, the commerce of the Islamic Middle East was in every way ahead of Europe - richer, larger, better organized, with more commodities to sell and more money to buy, and a vastly more sophisticated network of trading relations. By the end of the Middle Ages, these roles were reversed."
Among the factors inhibiting the Islamic world in the development of commerce and industry at this time were the lack of forests and therefore timber, the lack of rivers and therefore water power, the shortage of metals, the paucity of roads and wheeled vehicles, the ban in the Koran of usury, the destructiveness of invasions, and the domination of the state by military aristocracies with little interest in trade and production.
The European agricultural revolution and then the European industrial revolution simply had no counterpart in the Islamic world so, by the 19th century, the Middle East had become much weaker than Europe and the European powers progressively encroached on the Ottoman Empire. As well as the long continuing shortages of timber, water and minerals, there was what Lewis describes as "the immense institutional and ideological barriers to the acceptance of new ways and new ideas". The printing press was not taken up by the Turks until 1729 and, when the first press was closed in 1742, a mere 17 books had been produced.
The final defeat of the Ottoman Empire came with the First World War, following which the victorious powers of Britain and France largely divided the Arab lands into various colonies and protectorates. Following he Second World War, all the Arab nations acquired their independence and the United Nations established the state of Israel which fought five wars to maintain its existence in the face of Arab opposition - a conflict that remains unresolved to this day.
Writing in 1995, Bernard lewis concludes his history of the Middle East with an optimism largely belied by the events over the following decade: "Despite many reverses, European-style democracy is not dead in the Islamic lands, and there are some signs of a revival."
"Islam" by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair
This 258-page book, first published in 2000, is subtitled: "A Thousand Years Of Faith And Power", so it covers the period from the 7th-16th centuries which is the first millennium of Islam. It is the companion volume to an acclaimed three-hour documentary of May 2001 on the American PBS television channel called "Islam: Empire Of Faith". The book consists of three sections.
The first section, entitled "Muhammed And The Origins Of Islam" covers the period 600-750. The Prophet Muhammed was born around the year 570. He married an older widow called Khadija and they had four daughters, each of whom played a role in the early history of Islam, and two sons, both of whom died in infancy. It was decided that the new era had begun on the first day of the first lunar month of the year in which Muhammed arrived in his new home of Yathrib (16 July 622 CE).
When Muhammed died, he left no legal successor and he had only one surviving daughter, Fatima, who was married to his cousin, Ali. In the subsequent struggle over authority, the followers of Ali become known as Shi'ites and this position finished up as very much a minority one in the Arab world as a whole. Those who supported a system of caliphs became known as the Sunnis and they now represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world today. Shi'ite followers are divided into the Zaydis (or Fivers), the Ismailis (or Seveners) and the Twelvers. Sunni followers are divided into four main schools: the Hanafi school, the Maliki school, the Shafii school, and the Hanbali school.
The two holy works of Islam are the Koran (consisting of 114 suras or chapters) and the hadith (consisting of the collected sayings and deeds of the Prophet). These two works, along with consensus and analogy, provide the basis of the sharia, the rules and regulations that govern the everyday lives of Muslims.
The second section, entitled "The Golden Age", covers the period 750-1250. Following the rapid and decisive military victories of the forces of Islam, a great empire existed that stretched from the shores of the Atlantic to the steppes of central Asia and the plains of northern India. Regional and imperial capitals such as Córdoba, Fez, Cairo, Baghdad, Isfahan and Samarkand flourished at a time when European urban civilisation withered. There was, nevertheless, much internal conflict as in the 11th century Arabs, Persians and Turks as well as Sunnis and Shi'ites fought among themselves. This internal turmoil was followed by the external challenges of successive Christian crusades. Nevertheless commerce, science and education thrived in the Muslim world and Europe was intellectually backward by comparison.
The third section, entitled "The Age Of Empires"' covers the period 1250-1700. The Golden Age of Islamic civilisation was brought to an abrupt end in the early 13th century by a series of cataclysmic invasions, with three regional powers emerging: the Mongols in Iran, the Mamluks in Egypt and Syria, and and a series of dynasties in the Maghrib (modern day Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia). The longest-lasting of all Muslim empires to rule in later times was the Ottomans (1281-1924) and the apex of Ottoman development was the 44-year reign of Süleyman from 1520-1566. The Ottomans' great rivals to the east were the Safavids (1501-1732) of Persia (modern day Iran). The authors declare that "the first thousand years of Islamic civilization was one of the most glorious in the history of mankind".
In the "Introduction"' husband-and-wife team Bloom & Blair point out that Islam is now a faith followed by more than one billion people, approximately one-fifth of the world's population, and, in the United States, there are now more Muslims (over four million) than Episcopalians.
"The Palestine-Israeli Conflict" by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami
This is an unusual book on a difficult subject. Most of the book consists of two separate and very different accounts of the Palestine-Israeli conflict by American rabbi Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok and distinguished Palestinian Dr Dawoud El-Alami respectively, both of whom are academics at the University of Wales, Lampeter. The two sections are very informative and, while inevitably partial, impressively measured. The last 20 pages consist of a debate between the two in which the temperature rises somewhat. A six-page chronology and a couple of maps add to the usefulness of this work to anyone wanting to understand this historic conflict.
Although this book's chronology starts at 1862 and the first civil unrest between Palestinian peasants and Jewish settlers occurred in 1891, at the very heart of the conflict is the creation of Israel in 1948, preceded by the Balfour Declaration of 1917, British Government White Papers of 1922, 1930 and 1939, and the United Nations General Assembly declaration of 1947.
For Cohn-Sherbok, this is overwhelmingly a moral issue: "The onslaught against European Jewry [in the Holocaust] is one of the most horrific chapters of modern history. Is this not sufficient moral grounds for the Jewish quest to obtain a foothold in their ancient homeland?" However, for El-Alami, it is essentially a legal issue: "On what basis did the British believe that they were entitled to promise to the Zionists a land that belonged to others? This question lies at the core of the Palestinian position."
Cohn-Sherbok cries out: "In a world now faced with the very real threat of mass destruction, the flames of hostility continue to burn bright, with the threat of Jewish extermination as intense as ever." But El-Alami pleads: "It was not Arabs who inflicted the holocaust on European Jewry, but their fellow Europeans, yet it is Arabs who have paid the price."
The Israelis will never forget how, the day after the declaration of independence, five Arab states attacked with the intention of extinguishing the state of Israel at birth. This was the first of six wars and even today there is the constant threat of rocket attacks and suicide bombers. However, the Arab word remembers that, by the time the first war ended, half a million Arab refugees had fled from Israeli territory. Some of the territories occupied by the Israelis in 1967 remain under harsh military control, there have been a host of illegal settlements and an illegal separation wall, while the Palestinian refugee problem has now risen to some four million, most living in appalling conditions.
Both sides can refer to terrible atrocities that have deepened the bitterness. Arabs can recall the 1948 massacre by the Irgun at Deir Yassin when 107 were murdered, the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila camps by Lebanese militia forces while the Israelis turned a blind eye, and the 2002 attack on Jenin when - according to the Palestinians but not Human Rights Watch - hundreds were killed by the Israeli army. Israelis have their own horrors to recall: the 1972 Black September seizure and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, the 1985 Palestinian Liberation Front hijacking of the "Achile Lauro", and the 2002 suicide bombing at a discotheque in Tel Aviv which blew apart 21 young people.
What is the answer?
Cohn-Sherbok identifies five necessary ingredients for a lasting peace:
El-Alami does not present such a explicit list but makes clear that, in his view, there must be an end to the occupation of the West Bank, removal of the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, removal of the wall, and a right of return for Palestinians.
Such conflicting objectives will be hard to reconcile but, since the latest edition of this book in June 2003, there has been the Geneva Accord of December 2003 [click here] which might eventually prove to be the basis of a settlement. One can only hope.
"Beware Of Small States" by David Hirst
The title comes from an 1870 quote by the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin who was writing of 19th century Europe. In fact, the state that is the subject of this book is Lebanon which is indeed small: no biggest than Wales in the UK or Connecticut in the USA. The author was a long-time former Middle East correspondent for the "Guardian" newspaper and he has lived in Beirut for some 50 years.
In 460 pages, David Hirst provides a history of Lebanon from 1860 to 2009 but, in doing so, effectively offers a history of the Middle East itself because Lebanon has so often been the subject of intervention by other states, whether the rule of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the First World War, France in the mandate period from 1918-1943, the presence since 1948 of Palestinian refugees and until 1982 the PLO, the support for different militias by various states during the horrendously bitter civil war of 1975-1990, the presence of UNIFIL peacekeeping troops since 1978, the invasions by Israel in 1982-1985 and again in 2006, the support of Iran for the militia Hezbollah since 1985, and the constant interference, sometime occupation, and repeated political assassinations by neighbouring Syria.
Towards the end of this complicated, twisting and blood-soaked narrative, Hirst summarizes the current (2009) balance of forces in Lebanese politics.
The 8 March bloc takes its name from a huge demonstration called by Hezbollah on that date in 2005. Membership of the bloc includes most of the Shia Muslim community dominated by Hezbollah led by Hasan Nasrallah plus Amal and the Maronite Christians led by Michel Aoun and (now 2011) the Druze led by Walid Jumblatt. The group is supported by Syria and Iran.
The 14 March bloc takes its name from probably an even bigger demonstration which was held on 14 March 2005, exactly one month after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Membership of the bloc includes the Sunni Muslims led by Rafiq's son Saad and groups of the Maronite Christians led by Amine Gemayel and Samir Geagea. The group is supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
In short, Lebanon has never been master of its own fate. Hirst quotes the Iranian scholar R.K. Ramazani - "It is a truism that all things in the Middle East are interconnected" - and notes that "Nowhere did this truism manifest itself like it did in Lebanon".
The reason for all this intervention and interconnectedness is partly Lebanon's location in the cockpit of the Middle East and partly its complex religious and sectarian composition. From the beginning in 1943, this nation, which then had a mere one million citizens, reached an unwritten National Pact that specifically recognised and allocated political representation to no less than 17 groups. Today the population is some four million and a version of the National Pact remains in force with 18 groupings now recognised.
Hirst is incredibly well-informed and immensely informative but his history is not impartial. In particular he makes clear his opposition to Zionism and Israel, comparing the creation of the Jewish state with Lebanon itself and calling it "a vastly more arbitrary example of late-imperial arrogance, geopolitical caprice and perniciously misguided philanthropy". But he is critical of the Arab states too, noting that "While Arabs may be abstractly passionate for Palestine the cause, they often display little such passion for Palestinians as persons". He seems rather impressed by the Shiite Hezbollah though, describing it as "both the most influential political player in Lebanon and probably the most proficient guerilla organization in the world".
I read "Beware Of Small States" while travelling in Syria and Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the successful February 2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and it certainly aided my understanding of the region's complex history and fractious present.
"Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991" by Orlando Figes
This is a work that covers a century of revolutionary history in a main text of just over 400 pages written by the well-known British academic Orlando Figes who teaches at Birkbeck University in London. It has the strengths and weaknesses of any non-fiction book that seeks to cover so much ground in such concise fashion. It puts the Russian Revolution in context by describing how it came about and what the consequences were so long as the Communist regime survived and it is written in a very readable and accessible style. But necessarily it races through the decades and is quite light on detailed facts, dates, and quotes.
Figes believes that the seeds of the Russian Revolution are to be found in the famine of 1891 which, together with cholera and typhus, killed half a million people by the end of 1892 and then the 'Dress Rehearsal' of 1905 when there was a wave of strikes and demonstrations following the massacres of 'Bloody Sunday'. But he explains the weakness of Tsar Alexander II and the powerful personality of Vladimir Lenin, plus the catastrophy of the First World War, as further vital ingredients in the success of the two revolutions of 1917 - the first, a social democratic revolt against the monarchy, in February and the second, a Bolshevik assault on the Provisional Government, in October.
Figes writes that "Few historical events have been more distorted by myth than those of 25 October 1917" and argues that "The Great October Socialist Revolution, as it became known in the Soviet Union, was in fact such a small-scale action, being in reality no more than a coup, that it passed unnoticed by the vast majority of the inhabitants of Petrograd". Meanwhile the result of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the Germans was that Russia lost territories occupied by 34% of its population (55 million people).
When covering the following civil war, Figes notes that "The totalitarian state had its origins in War Communism, which attempted to control every aspect of the economy and society" and he argues that "This was not a Dictatorship of the Proletariat but a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy". In chapters titled "The Revolution's Golden Age?" and "The Great Break" respectively, Figes writes favourably of Lenin's reformist New Economic Policy (NEP) and critically of Stalin's Five Year Plan. Dark days followed with a widespread famine in 1932-33, in which up to 8.5 million died of starvation or disease, and the Great Terror of 1937-38, in which around 1.5 million were arrested and some 680,000 executed.
The Second World War and specifically Operation Barbarossa could have finished the Communist experiment and Figes underlines that "The invasion was the gravest threat to the revolution", but at the last moment Stalin held his nerve and then a mixture of terror, coercion, patriotism and the cult of sacrifice enabled the USSR to defeat the Nazi war machine, although at staggering human cost (8.6 million in uniform alone). Figes records that "Stalin presented the military victory as a triumph for the Soviet system rather than the people's achievement".
The death of Stalin and his denunciation by Krushchev is narrated in a chapter titled "The Beginning Of The End", the post-Krushchev era is covered in a chapter titled "Mature Socialism", and the efforts of Gorbachev to renew the Leninist revolution leads to him being dubbed "the last Bolshevik". Figes notes that "Nobody expected the Soviet regime to come to an end so suddenly. Most revolutions die with a whimper rather than a bang."
In a downbeat summary, Figges opines that: "The collapse of the Soviet system did not democratize the distribution of wealth or power in Russia. After 1991, the Russians could have been forgiven for thinking nothing much had changed, at least for the better. No doubt many of them had thought much the same after 1917."
Link: author's website on Russian history click here
All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON
Last modified on 29 June 2017
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