Books of the Ages

‘History books will provide sustenance in the dark months (and even darker times) ahead’

History

I was one of the historians History Today magazine recently asked to choose their top history books of the last 60 years. Reading the editor’s brief too cursorily, I picked Frederic William Maitland’s Domesday Book and Beyond, published in 1897. In the related poll where readers chose their greatest historians, I was pleased that Fernand Braudel edged aside ghastly old Eric Hobsbawm, but there was something depressing about the contemporaneity of the choices. Isn’t Robert Conquest a “great historian” for God’s sake? So I am going to have another go at my favourite history books, sustenance for Standpoint readers in the dark months (and even darker times) ahead. 

Maitland’s Domesday is in my category of technical gems, where one marvels at the historian’s sheer skill. As an undergraduate I learned from the great medievalist R.R. Davies to appreciate technical precision, where each source — and medievalists have fewer of them — is squeezed to make a precise and telling point. Britain has produced some great medieval historians, such as J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, James Holt or Henry Mayr-Harting. 

My own favorite medieval history books were about the countryside. Reginald Lennard’s Rural England, 1086-1135 (about medieval Sussex) is one such book; so is Marc Bloch’s French Rural History, in which he studied 18th-century topographical maps to recover the medieval landscape beneath. Another jewel-like book is Émile Mâle’s Gothic Image. A.T.Q. Stewart’s Narrow Ground shows why even the cobblestones are contentious in Ulster, many having been ripped up to throw at people, a theme more broadly explored in Paul Bew’s Ireland: The Politics of Enmity.

In the intervening quarter-century since I read most of these books, those that stick in mind include Correlli Barnett’s Pride and Fall sequence, or Maurice Cowling’s trilogy Religion and Public Doctrine. Then there are works on specific national themes: Patrice Higonnet’s Goodness beyond Virtue is an elegant exploration of the Jacobin mindset; David Apter and Tony Saich’s Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic does something similar for a cognate political culture. Easily the best historians of modern Germany are two scholars I am privileged to count as friends: Heinrich  August Winkler’s Weimar 1918-1933 is a dispassionate exploration of the Republic’s multi-act tragedy, while Karl Dietrich Bracher’s German Dictatorship has — like Raymond Aron in France — a political scientist’s grasp of the essentials of power. His Thinking Politically is one of the great books of the last century too. I also admire The Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas, Britain’s greatest living historian, and his gargantuan Cuba: A History in which there is not a redundant sentence. On modern France, anything by Stanley Hoffmann or Eugen Weber is worth reading;  ditto anything on Communism by François Furet and Martin Malia. 

In the last decade my historical interests have become much more global. An expert guide to the British Empire is Ronald Hyam:  Britain’s Imperial Century or Britain’s Declining Empire are books of style and wit. Anything by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper is worth the effort too. Vietnam has attracted any number of great scholars: my favourites books are Martin Windrow’s epic Last Valley, about the battle of Dien Bien Phu, and Neil Sheehan’s multi-layered A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. The vitality of historical writing in the US is astounding, whether one thinks of academic historians, like Walter A. McDougall on US foreign policy, or journalists on sabbatical such as our own Keith Kyle, the late author of the great history of the Suez crisis. 

I loved the angry passion of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, no doubt derived from his years as a young reporter in Vietnam, while Randall B. Woods’s compendious LBJ: Architect of American Ambition revealed what a great president Lyndon Johnson was. Americans also excel at the group portrait, if you don’t mind reading copious amounts of (often irrelevant) background detail. In this genre, Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’s The Wise Men about, among others, Acheson, Harriman and Kennan, and Kai Bird on the Bundy brothers, are marvellous studies of senior US policymakers during the Cold War; on the other side I recommend another team effort, Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali’s Khrushchev’s Cold War.

What shall I read in my dotage? I used to dabble in ancient history, admiring Peter Brown’s World of Late Antiquity especially. I shall have to get in A.H.M. Jones’s Later Roman Empire and other sets just to give me the illusion of journey’s end. But then I was never any good at economic history . . .