Category Archives: world history

How The Middle East Got That Way: Fromkin Used History to Explain Politics

If you haven’t read A Peace to End All Peace, add it to your summer reading list immediately. David Fromkin, a professor of International Relations at Boston University is a prolific author and scholar whose book provides a historical look at the creation of the modern Middle East–with an eye toward geography, conflict, and the decisions taken post-WWI the shaped the regions storied history.

In a Foreign Affairs review of the book, John C. Campbell writes that “Fromkin’s history is made by men rather than impersonal forces.”

 

Fromkin wrote about other seminal issues in 20th century international relations, such as the origins of the Great War, post-war relations and reconstruction, and the fate of key theoretical constructs such as idealism and realism, as embodied in institutions and programs:

In 1995, he wrote “In the Time of the Americans: F.D.R., Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur — the Generation That Changed America’s Role in the World,” in which he argued that after World War II Americans were given a rare second chance to correct the shortcomings of Woodrow Wilson’s one-world idealism.

As Richard Reeves wrote in The New York Times Book Review, “The United Nations is Wilsonian; NATO represents the kind of big-power peace enforcement envisioned by T.R.”Among Professor Fromkin’s other books were “Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?” (2004), which the journalist Avedis Hadjian, writing for CNN.com, called “a fast-paced, gripping guide through the complex set of reasons and emotions that led to the 20th century’s seminal conflict”; and “The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners” (2008).

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Why the Russian Revolution in 1917 Matters

A new book by China Miéville stakes out “the key political event of the 20th century“…an “astonishing, inspiring story” of what the American diplomat George Kennan described the “bitter first fruit” of the Great War, “the seminal tragedy.” And yet, this year the Kremlin skipped the national commemoration this past March 12.

In one sense it’s uncontroversial that 1917 matters. After all, it is recent history, and there’s no arena of the modern world not touched by its shadow. Not only in the social democratic parties, shaped in opposition to revolutionary approaches, and their opponents of course, but at the grand scale of geopolitics, where the world’s patterns of allegiance and rivalry and the states that make up the system bear the clear traces of the revolution, its degeneration and decades of standoff. Equally, a long way from the austere realms of statecraft, the Russian avant-garde artists Malevich, Popova, Rodchenko and others remain inextricable from the revolution that so many of them embraced.Their influence is incalculable: the cultural critic Owen Hatherley calls constructivism “probably the most intensive and creative art and architectural movement of the 20th century”, which influenced or anticipated “abstraction, pop art, op art, minimalism, abstract expressionism, the graphic style of punk and post-punk … brutalism, postmodernism, hi-tech and deconstructivism”. We can trace the revolution in cinema and sociology, theatre and theology, realpolitik and fashion. So of course the revolution matters. As Lenin may or may not have said: “Everything is related to everything else.”

Source: Why does the Russian revolution matter? | Books | The Guardian

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Another Take on Obama’s Worldview

We are still talking about what past U.S. Presidents meant to national interests and strategy and how their decisions shaped the world (or failed to do so). Consider this new take on Eisenhower or Nixon or Wilson. And so, we will still be talking about the Obama Presidency for a long time. He told Doris Kearns Godwin that he “didn’t want to be Millard Fillmore or Franklin Pierce”. He seems to be reshuffling the deck, rethinking the game–even dissing the Special Relationship. So what will be Obama’s legacy?

If you want to read the latest  round of journalism-to-maybe-become-history longform, head over to Jeffery Goldberg’s lengthy piece in The Atlantic.

But if you want a shorter take, Max Fischer does a nice job on Vox. He breaks down the notion of Obama as a “Hobbesian optimist” and someone who sees long-term historical thinking as a key part of U.S. strategic interests–contrary to a foreign policy establishment that is focused on quick wins, especially by use of military power:

This spoke to how Obama sees challenges as well as opportunities: as a matter of encouraging that global progress toward peace and prosperity, while also acknowledging how dangerous it can be when that progress stalls or reverses. But it sees the latter as the exception rather than the norm.

Source: The best articulation yet of how President Obama sees the world – Vox

His critics may be status quo. His critics are certainly inflamed. They may even be right.

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After 100 Years, the Meaning of Verdun

Some facts about Verdun may surprise you: Verdun was symbolically important for both sides, had been intended by Germany to be a battle of attrition and caught the French by surprise. It resulted in roughly equal and staggering casualties: 800k dead, wounded or missing with approximately 150 dead–and many unrecoverable remains.

Did the horror and utter failure for both sides create a new era of Franco-German cooperation?

What was the meaning of this now-defining battle of World War I? Paul Jankowski writes:

To a historian 100 years later, Verdun does yield a meaning, in a way a darkly ironic one. Neither Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the German General Staff, nor his French counterpart, Joseph Joffre, had ever envisaged a climactic, decisive battle at Verdun. They had attacked and defended with their eyes elsewhere on the front, and had thought of the fight initially as secondary, as ancillary to their wider strategic goals. And then it became a primary affair, self-sustaining and endless. They had aspired to control it. Instead it had controlled them. In that sense Verdun truly was iconic, the symbolic battle of the Great War of 1914-18.

Source: World War I’s Iconic, Ironic Battle – The New York Times

Also, don’t miss this incredible interactive then/new photography on the war and Verdun by Guardian UK to see the destructiuon from another perspective.

 

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Booklist | Ian Kershaw’s ‘To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949’ 

Vytautas The Great War Museum Kaunas, Lithuania

Could the Great War have been avoided? Ian Kershaw’s new book offers an explanation:

Kershaw argues that World War I could have been forestalled if Vienna had acted with speed to punish Serbia for its complicity in the murder of the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; it had the Kaiser’s reckless blank check for punishment, but as Kershaw puts it, the Austrian Empire “knew only two speeds, slow and dead stop.” By the time Vienna sent its ultimatum to Belgrade, three weeks after the assassination, Russia, with France in tow, had encouraged the Serbs to be more bloody-minded. More bloody-minded, in my own judgment, than justified.

Kershaw identifies a second missed opportunity to avert mass slaughter. He writes that even as Russia started to mobilize in the summer of 1914 — much before Germany — “a firm British declaration of neutrality . . . might even at a late hour have prevented general war. But Grey’s disastrous hesitation meant that the room for diplomatic initiatives vanished.” Pretty well every history nods to the poetic prescience of Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, in the foreboding he expressed on Aug. 3. Standing by his big window overlooking Horse Guards Parade, he watched the gas lights being lit in the street below and said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” They were, though Grey lived to see Europe, with the lights on, begin to fumble its irresolute way to World War II.AdvertisementContinue reading the main story

Source: Ian Kershaw’s ‘To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949’ – The New York Times

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Creating a New Europe in Vienna, 1814

Ballhausplatz, the Austrian seat of power and location for 1814’s meetings (as well as some bad boy behavior in the extreme).

History allows us to look back and create convenient categories, rightly or wrongly. One such set of bookends could include the 19th century’s run of peace and cooperation ending with the Great War in July 1914 and starting in Vienna, 1814.

Was this party in Vienna such a game changer? Some sigh with apathy–or debate the notion, but as Stephen Walt writes in ForeignPolicy.com, many rightly see this as a key turning point in global affairs:

After the Napoleonic Wars, diplomats and officials from all over Europe convened in Vienna to negotiate a peace settlement to resolve the various issues that had arisen after over two decades of war. Sure, there was a lot of hard-nosed haggling over borders and other arrangements, but historical accounts of the Congress also make it clear that the participants also engaged in months of energetic revelry, much of it of a decidedly lubricious sort. Historians who regard the Congress as a great success might argue that all this frivolity helped; those who believe the Congress left many critical issues unresolved probably think the assembled plenipotentiaries should have spent less time partying and more time on their work.

via Top 5 parties in world history | Foreign Policy.

Follow this animated map of 19th century Europe through the Congress to WWI to see how events evolved in the aftermath of Napoleon and how power was maintained by the victors, with clear losers being nationalistic aspirations and French revolutionary ideals in Poland, Belgium Norway, Italy, Germany, and among Balkan Christians (Serbs, Christians, Greeks, and Bulgurs).

click for animated explanation of how European powers divided up the Continent post-Napoleon.

click this animated explanation of how European powers divided up the Continent post-Napoleon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No less than Henry Kissinger, the realpolitik living dean of international relations cut his teeth on the Congress of Vienna, writing his dissertation on Metternich the statesman. But an exciting new book on the topic by historian Adam Zamoyski takes on Kissinger’s conclusion directly, as noted in this Guardian book review:

For those who believe that jaw-jaw is more interesting than war-war, this is an exhilarating book. Zamoyski starts with the exhausted emperor hustling back to Paris after the retreat from Moscow to try to keep French domination of Europe alive. He finishes with a demolition job on Henry Kissinger, whose doctoral thesis on the diplomat Metternich praised the Congress of Vienna for giving Europe a century of peace. Zamoyski has no time for Kissinger or his Austrian hero, Metternich.

The system that came to be called the Concert of Europe, Zamoyski writes, “imposed an orthodoxy which not only denied political existence to many nations; it enshrined a particularly stultified form of monarchical government; institutionalised social hierarchies as rigid as any that existed under the ancien régime; by excluding whole classes and nations this system nurtured envy and resentment, which flourished into socialism and aggressive nationalism.”

 

 

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Diplomatic History and the Political Science Wars

In the long run, put money on the historians:

Many historians outside diplomatic history—conscious of globalization, concerned about recent foreign policy events, and seeking a broader framework—have attempted to “internationalize” their research. Consequently, diplomatic historians and nondiplomatic historians are finding affinity in one another’s work and publishing in one another’s journals. The results are encouraging, both institutionally and intellectually. The online discussion list for international history, H-Diplo, is one of the most popular lists in the H-Net system. Likewise, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations hosts well-attended conferences and publishes an innovative journal.2 But as diplomatic historians have successfully focused on becoming more mainstream within the historical profession, they have neglected a discipline with which they share many interests: political science.

via Diplomatic History and the Political Science Wars.

Using SIMS: Stop Blaming Students for Your Listless Classroom

Simulations and gaming approaches to learning can be powerful additions to forlorn general education history of civilization courses–just how IO simulations (MEU, MUN, Model Arab League) work for international relations.  For example, Reaching to the Past (RTTP) is a role-playing simulation where students play assigned roles using classic texts in the history of ideas, such as Darwin and the rise of Naturalism (1861-1864), Athens in 403 BC, or the trial of Galileo (1616-33). The results?

Over and over again he heard stories like the one told by Nate Gibson, an undergraduate who played a Reacting game on the French Revolution in a Western-civilization course at Dordt College in the early 2000s. Gibson said that, as the semester drew to a close, his professor foresaw that he would not have enough time to finish the game, and let students know that it would have to finish early. In response, the students proposed that class start 30 minutes early for the remainder of the semester—at 7:30 a.m. The professor agreed, and the game was allowed to run its course.

 

Recollecting that experience, Gibson recalled the difference between learning in that course and what his peers in other courses were experiencing. As he described to Carnes: “While my friends trudged off to their engineering, theology, philosophy, or business classes with this sense of apathy and frustration, I was rushing off to Western Civ, eager to see how the day’s session would unfold.”

 

Comments like that contrast so sharply with the dire picture we read about today’s students in so many articles on higher education. But as many of us who write about teaching and learning on college campuses would argue, sparking that kind of excitement in the classroom requires faculty members to let go of their nostalgic yearning for the idealized students of the past.

via Stop Blaming Students for Your Listless Classroom – Advice – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Book Portrays Eichmann as Evil, but Not Banal – NYTimes.com

A recent film about Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, illustrated into her views on evil and Adolf Eichmann, a leader in the Third Reich in what a reviewer called “the glorification of thinking.”  Now, Arendt’s original thesis has been challenged–this time in a new book by Bettina Stangneth, the author of Eichmann Before Jerusalem.

Listening to Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt saw an “inability to think.” Listening to Eichmann before Jerusalem, Ms. Stangneth sees a master manipulator skilled at turning reason, that weapon of the enemy, against itself.

“As a philosopher, you want to protect thinking as something beautiful,” she said. “You don’t want to think that someone who is able to think does not also love it.”

via Book Portrays Eichmann as Evil, but Not Banal – NYTimes.com.

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Why World War I Resonates – NYTimes.com

No society today would accept such a horrendous casualty count. At the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1, 1916, the British Army suffered 60,000 dead and wounded — in one day. It was arguably the worst butcher’s bill in military history, of army versus army. There is a very real sense in which the modern world — our world — was born between 1914 and 1918. Something changed in human sensibility. Soldiers wouldn’t be willing to engage in such slaughter. Toward the end of the First World War, even, tolerance for past norms had begun to end. In 1917, much of the French Army mutinied and refused to attack. They would defend but not attack. The days of cannon fodder were over forever as a result of that war, which is a further reason artists try to re-imagine it constantly.

via Why World War I Resonates – NYTimes.com.

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