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Readable and insightful history books from the past 12 months


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Over the years, when meeting WORLD members, I’ve often asked what kinds of books they like best. Almost always the reply is: history. Here are a dozen books in American history that I learned from during the past year but have not previously reviewed, and a second dozen concerning Europe, Turkey, and Israel.

Robert Middlekauff’s Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader (Knopf, 2015) is a solid retelling of how the great general matured through his first 50 years and persevered throughout the Revolution when others despaired. Joe Loconte’s God, Locke, and Liberty (Lexington, 2014) examines John Locke’s views of religious toleration, which (usually indirectly) influenced Washington and other key founders.

Baptists in America: A History, by Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015), is an elegantly written account of how Baptists became the largest Protestant bloc by emphasizing toleration, minimizing bureaucracy, and maximizing the opportunity for church entrepreneurialism. Kathryn Lum’s Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction (Oxford, 2014), documents varying American ideas about hell from the Revolution through the Civil War: Many pastors subscribed to the “scared straight” school of preaching, but others worried that “human scaring by frightful imagery” was more likely to make “confident imposters” than genuine Christians.

S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (Scribner, 2014) shows how the famous general embodied strong Christian faith and scared Union generals. Jackson would have been fascinated by specific detail in Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Knopf, 2014): Sven Beckert shows the role Southern cotton played in the 19th-century world economy, and the European interest in making sure that ex-slaves had little choice but to accept contracts that virtually re-enslaved them.

John Compton’s The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution (Harvard, 2014) offers a fascinating and innovative analysis of how the federal government started to lord it over private property: 19th-century evangelicals tried to eliminate immorality by restricting property rights, and judges “bent the constitutional framework to accommodate a series of ever more restrictive state and federal morals laws” concerning lotteries, alcohol sales, and other matters. “Progressive” jurists were then able to use those precedents to make the point that legal concepts and categories were in flux, with traditional constitutional principles only serving to mask the judiciary’s subjective preference for laissez-faire economic policies.

Also presiding over American devolution have been presidents with a variety of religious commitments that two scholarly books document well.

Gary Scott Smith in Religion in the Oval Office (Oxford, 2015) assesses Madison, both Adamses, Jackson, McKinley, Hoover, Truman, Nixon, Bush 1, Clinton, and Obama. The Faiths of the Postwar Presidents by David Holmes (University of Georgia Press, 2012) takes readers from Truman through Obama.

Allan Ryskind’s Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters, Agents of Stalin, Agents of Hitler (Regnery, 2015) has strong content about 1930s and 1940s moviemakers—some followed the Communist line so vigorously that they even supported the 1939-1941 Stalin-Hitler alliance—but scornful language that will put off those not already convinced of the Hollywood left’s turpitude.

Ivan Eland’s Recarving Rushmore (Independent Institute, 2014) is a topsy-turvy ranking of our best and worst presidents as measured by the peace, prosperity, and liberty that their administrations bulwarked or undercut. Woodrow Wilson is rightly Eland’s worst, and his best (John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, and Rutherford B. Hayes) may get you thinking about individuals long forgotten. Eland gets really weird when he calls Jimmy Carter “our best modern president,” but Carter does deserve credit for his marital faithfulness.

Richard Smith’s On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller (Random House, 2014) extensively profiles the man who desperately wanted to be president but died with his boots off, apparently suffering a massive heart attack while committing adultery. Rockefeller once said, “When you think of what I had, what else was there to aspire to?”

Heading to Europe: This year is the 800th anniversary of the signing of a great document, and Stephen Church’s King John: And the Road to Magna Carta shows how John’s subjects forced him to sign the historic semi-surrender. Regarding later battles against authoritarian power-wielders, Adam Zamoyski’s Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Creation of the Modern State, 1789-1848 underplays the impact of real terror but has fascinating tidbits, including Czar Alexander’s attempt following Napoleon’s defeat to turn Europe into a Christian federation.

This year is also the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which ended Napoleon’s power. Readers wanting an overview of the battle should turn to Waterloo (HarperCollins, 2014) by Bernard Cornwall, an action-packed novelist turned historian. The Longest Afternoon by Brendan Simms (Basic, 2015) tells the story of how 400 German soldiers at La Haye Sainte farmhouse decided the contest by beating off waves of French infantry.

Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century (Basic, 2014) shows how Margaret Thatcher brought England back from the grave and John Paul II’s energy began digging the grave of the Soviet Union. Caryl also juggles stories of Afghanistan, Iran, and Deng Xiaoping without dropping a ball. Philipp Blom’s Fracture: Life & Culture in the West, 1918-1938 (Basic, 2014) shows how the bitter disillusion of war gave way to hedonism in the 1920s and political movements in the 1930s that built their appeal on countering decadence. Adam Tooze in The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (Viking, 2014) shows—most pointedly in a chapter entitled “The Fiasco of Wilsonianism”—that Europe had deep-rooted problems and U.S. good intentions were not enough.

While reporting on a socialist convention a decade ago, I was surprised to see a burgeoning alliance of Leftists and Islamists. Now, two scholarly histories recently published by the Harvard University Press show how leader-worshipping birds flock together. Stefan Ihrig’s Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination shows how Hitler, who cherished his bust of Turkish strongman Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modeled his dictatorship on Ataturk and admired his exiling of Greeks and execution of priests.

The other book, David Motadel’s Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, with its 155 pages of footnotes, will be the definitive scholarly study of Hitler’s attempt to build a Muslim alliance on the basis of shared enemies (particularly Jews and the British) and willingness to murder. Motadel shows how Hitler in his Berlin bunker, as the Third Reich crumbled, mourned missed opportunities: “All Islam vibrated at the news of our victories. … Just think what we could have done to help them, even to incite them, as would have been both our duty and our interest.”

Hitler learned from Turkey’s murder of Armenians how he could get away with murdering Jews, and Ronald Suny’s A History of the Armenian Genocide (Princeton, 2015) tells the miserable story well. One Muslim official, Sukri Bey, summarized a survival of the fittest rationale: “It is the continual battle between the Muslims and the Armenians that is now being finally fought. The weaker of the two must be the one to go.” Suny’s summary: “Officers, officials, and ordinary people participated in mass killing, plundering, and rape for myriad reasons, from sadism to personal profiteering to fulfillment of duty.”

While most Jews in Europe went to their Holocaust deaths without battling back, Jews in British-mandated Palestine fought for their lives with every weapon they had: Scholar Bruce Hoffman tells that savage story in Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947 (Knopf, 2015).

Had the British not chosen to appease Hitler and Arabs, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved: That road not taken plays into Jeffrey Gurock’s The Holocaust Averted: An Alternate History of American Jewry, 1938-1967 (Rutgers, 2015).


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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