Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust – Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

From what I can glean, this is a very controversial book. I am not a historian of the Holocaust, of Germany, or even of World War II, so it’s hard for me to debate the book on the merit of its factual analysis and the representativeness of its case studies and sources. I can comment on methods though. I find Goldhagen’s thesis about the monocausal nature of antisemitism to be a major weakness in his argument, even though he claims that he is not making a monocausal argument. Though he argues often for the agency of the Germans (treated here as a monolithic block), he does not seem to realize that by making Germans slaves to their supposedly deep-seated antisemitism, he robs them of agency. Moreover, it is never entirely clear where this antisemitism comes from. But apparently it’s powerful enough that all Hitler has to do is flip a switch to not only turn it on but elevate it almost instantly to its most brutal and inhumane of forms. Goldhagen is also constantly making arguments from counterfactuals, which I think its a good example of a weak thesis. And his self-congratulatory Afterword makes the argument that his thesis is sound because the German people, at least the ones he interacted with, found it to be so, not because he has been a diligent scholar. It was certainly an interesting read, but I walked away from the book unsatisfied by the author’s intellectual rigor and remain unconvinced of his argument.

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Women, Gender and Industrialisation in England 1700-1870 – Katrina Honeyman

This neat little book is a handy primer on women’s role in the Industrial Revolution in England. Perhaps its most useful contribution is the historiographical essay in the opening chapter that introduces the reader to the evolution of scholarship on this topic. It provides an interesting examination of how gender shaped the conception of the workforce, often finding male and female workers as antagonists due to the prevailing gender norms at the time. While it doesn’t exactly offer anything novel, it does offer a good shorthand, and would be a useful text in an undergraduate class.

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New Countries: Capitalism, Revolutions, and Nations in the Americas, 1750–1870 – John Tutino

The essays in Tutino’s collection often stray from the “capitalism” of the title to explore pure political motives behind the revolutionary change that occurred in the Americas from 1750 to 1870, though trade and economics never lag that far behind. Most interesting is how dynamic the authors in this collection portray the revolutions of the Americas to be, with shifting alliances and motivations as different groups of people fought either for hegemony or individual roles in the emerging nations. While the authors of this volume do a good job including peoples of all races and classes in their analyses, they do not pay adequate attention to the definition of the “nations” called out in the title. A more explicit exploration of nationhood and nationalism would round out this otherwise fulfilling collection.

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Liberty or Death: The French Revolution – Peter McPhee

This is a book that wants to be more than just a chronology of the French Revolution, but struggles to paint a picture larger than the political machinations that went into the founding of the Republic and the turmoil that followed. For the most part it is easily readable, though at times it is hard to keep up with all the characters and plotting that want into this complicated event. That said, it is a solid text to be used as an introduction for upper level undergrads or graduate students. Not revolutionary in and of itself, it still does a respectable job of describing and analyzing the French Revolution.

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The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808: A World on the Move – A.J.R. Russell Wood

September 6, 2017 – Started ReadingSeptember 6, 2017 – Started ReadingReview For the most part this book reads like a collection of descriptive lists – which flora and fauna went where, who explored or what or established relations where. There’s a lot of surface detail, which is good for an introduction, but chapters trying to move beyond such descriptions were disappointing; the chapter on the spread of ideas and mores had not much to say about its topic. There was no in depth investigations of the ways cultures encountered and interacted with each other beyond cataloging that exchanges happened and what they were. A good primer if you’re interested in the cataloging of Portuguese exchange with the rest of its global network, but if you’re looking for more in depth examinations of these relationships you’ll have to go elsewhere. I never felt the sense of motion the title implies.

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Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire – Roger Crowley

Do not let the title of this book fool you, or, perhaps, let the title of this book fool you. It is indeed about the Portuguese conquerors of the 15th-16th century who rounded the Cape of Good Hope and established the first Western European presence in the Indian Ocean. Crowley’s conquerors were not just after the profit of the spice trade, of which there was much to be had, but were also seeking to carry through the holy crusade of winning back Jerusalem from the Muslims, a feat which, inexperienced and too far from home, they were ill-equipped for. Perhaps to Crowley’s eyes as well as to those of the Portuguese, India as an ends to itself was not quite the same as holy war. But, then again, Crowley focuses on only a few of Portugal’s leaders, and quite often notes how many of their men stood in opposition to the goal to eradicate Islam from Christian holy sites and trade networks. It’s not an academic study so much as an exciting historical investigation, a good door into the world of the Portuguese Indian Ocean that can lead to even more nuanced studies of the European invasion of the Indian Ocean.

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When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 – Louise Levathes

It’s too bad Zheng He’s voyages didn’t leave behind more complete records, because it most likely would have been enlightening to read Levathes’s full account of them. Behind what deceptively appears to be a narrative of the Treasure Fleet milked for all its worth is a tale of Chinese diplomacy, Sinocentrism, East Asian religion, and court politics that, despite the paucity of the sources concerning the actual fleet, leave us with a neat narrative of the Yongle Emperor’s reign. Levathes does a fine job of extracting what little she can from scant Chinese sources on Zheng He and supplementing them with rich documents on the Ming Empire to create a convincing portrait of an Emperor who wanted to bring the glory of the Chinese Empire to the Indian Ocean while at the same strengthening China’s diplomatic and military power vis a vis his new trading partners. As written, it’s a convincing interpretation as to the purpose of the Treasure Fleet. Unfortunately, Levathes does not use the same subtle skill to explore China’s subsequent abrupt isolationism. A book of deceptive depth that is also easy to read, it’s a nice entry into the myriad of work on the Ming Empire that are contemporary to it.

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Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England – William Cronon

It may just be impossible to overstate the importance of this book and its detailed but succinct uncovering of the way Indians and Europeans interacted with the land of New England and with each other, critically historizing all three characters. For use in a undergraduate course, even to frame a lecture, this book can be used to challenge students’ preconceived notions of static or ahistorical systems as dynamic, with all human characters endowed with agency. I’ve read this short volume countless times but I always find something new. I can’t wait to share it with my students.

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The Age of Trade: The Manila Galleons and the Dawn of the Global Economy – Arturo Giráldez

This unique book on an overlooked and important aspect of the Age of Exploration can’t seem to pick what it wants to be. Is it an economic history? A political history? Or (least of all) a cultural history? Perhaps Giraldez presupposes a reader with more foreknowledge of the topic than I have, which is fair, but I often found myself lost in the lists of figures and officials. The inclusions of laws was extremely helpful and interesting but their contents were poorly explained. I wanted to read more about the Magellan exchange, revealing my own biases. I wanted to read more about interactions with the Chinese and Filipinos. I wanted more than figures and names, which disrupt the narrative and delay analysis. I think this book is part of a crucial project but for the uninformed reader and perhaps the informed reader as well, it falls short in terms of analytical content.

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Slavery in the Roman World – Sandra R. Joshel

In order to better understand the history of slavery that I will be teaching from 1450, I decided to read this book on Roman slavery both to inform myself historically and to learn more about a system that is often compared to American chattel slavery as being more humane. This book is the perfect read for an undergraduate or armchair historian looking to learn about the basic ins and outs of Roman slavery. It is written simply though with important detail, and Joshel is always forthcoming about the shortcomings of her sources and when she is presenting speculation. This honesty is a valuable tool to both the beginning and advanced scholar, as it demonstrates the importance of reading against the grain. My one qualm is that Joshel did not place Roman slavery in the context of a more inter-regional or global slave system. It would have been nice to learn more about where these slaves came from. Otherwise a neat little read that demonstrates strong scholarship and a brief but rich understanding of the subject matter.

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