Empires And Barbarians by Peter Heather

original_400_600Years back I bought Peter Heather’s Fall of the Roman Empire (2005).  This 2009 book complements it, by viewing the period from the Barbarian perspective.  In particular Heather is looking at the topic of migration – striking out in a middle way between the traditional view of Völkerwanderung (the movement of entire and unified ethnic groups) and the revisionist view of Elite Transfer (the movement of a small group of typically male military leaders).

Heather does well to try to piece together all sources of information – archaeological evidence, written sources, economic, occasionally linguistic, and most notably comparisons to later migrations.  The elite of the Norman conquest, and the aggressive raiding turned movement of the Boers’ Trek are called to mind, as is the forced migration of Rwanda in the nineties.  This helps break down a complex topic into something that’s easier for non-specialists to digest.  There’s even an rare bit of humour in Heather’s writing (sometimes this takes it into awkward territory – too heavy to be accessible, too populist to be academic – but I think he normally lands it correctly).

Migrations into and around the late Roman empire are well covered – with the origin of The Goths getting particular focus; then a look at the power vacuum created by the decline of The Huns’ short-lived multi-ethnic empire.  It’s quite nice to read this without the Romans being the focus.  Beyond that though, Heather does challenge pre-conceptions and has the skill to make new ideas seem obvious.  He’s open about other historians who may not agree with his line of thinking (Walter Goffart, Guy Halsall) and I have a list of further reading to widen the picture.

Unfortunately the later sections don’t fit quite as well.  The formation/migrations of the Slavs are a difficult topic – too many unknowns, and heated nationalism – Heather does present what seems like a plausible timeline from the evidence available, but it’s not exactly thrilling stuff.  By contrast, a chapter on the movements of the Vikings suffers because the conclusions are too close to the conventional narrative.  Better is the penultimate chapter when these come together to show the formation of states in northern and eastern Europe.  The overall picture he portrays is complex: different forms of migration and state building at different times, but the book is well worth reading to get the valuable detail.

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And The Weak Suffer What They Must? by Yanis Varoufakis

27384105Yanis Varoufakis was the Greek Minister of Finance for five months in 2015,  for the left wing anti-austerity party Syriza, before resigning over the result of a referendum on a further financial bailout (he was against).  More than that, he was and is a successful academic economist.  He had already thrown his oar into the EU debt crisis with what he called A Modest Proposal, co-written with a former British Labour party MP and an American ecnomist.  That proposal appears in the appendix of this book.  While he was writing up a popular account of the crisis and his proposal, he suddenly found himself elected and playing a much more active role in the proceedings.

With all that in mind, this is hardly an unbiased account, and Varoufakis does plenty of the dramatics and grandstanding that he is known for.  At times in the book he presents himself as naive and well-meaning, but you feel he would have to be impossibly so (and completely unaware of the history he describes in the book).  Aside from this dis-ingenuousness, he is a very compelling writer.  The topic is dry but his graphic style of writing makes it exciting – for instance, he describes Greece’s series of debts and forced loans as “fiscal waterboarding”.  It is over the topic, but he’s a passionate man.

He starts, after a childhood story, with an explanation of the Nixon Shock and Bretton Woods.  Both of which were new to me.  From there he builds a picture of inter-country finance and the problems with currency exchange (more interesting than it sounds).  He then traces the history of the Euro through the antagonism and scheming between the French and German governments, and between the German government and the Bundesbank.  There are plenty of broad brush statements, which would be an interesting discussion in and of themselves – for example, suggesting that the removal of powers from democratic organisations to technocratic ones is the cause of our current poor crop of politicians.

With the ongoing news of Trump’s economic moves against Turkey, one thing that stood out was that all this financial “co-operation” so often read like war by other means.  The author plays up to this, of course, taking his title from Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War.  It was a bit depressing to read about the open anger and plans to “punish” countries as an example to others.  I know these are generalisations and there are factions and factions within the EU and within national governments.  Varoufakis is very much on one side of the argument and I kept thinking that it would be interesting to read a book from the other point of view; but perhaps it wouldn’t.  Varoufakis is a very, very good writer.

HHhH and Memoirs of Hadrian

220px-hhhh_bookcoverRecently I read two quite different works of historical fiction by French authors, both obsessed in their own way with a kind of authenticity.  In the post-modern HHhH (from 2010) the author Laurent Binet inserts himself and his writing process into a story about the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich.  Uncomfortable about straying from historical fact or even inventing dialogue with real characters, Binet will intersperse the narrative with his thoughts on his own writing and his experiences researching the book.  I’m not sure whether this quirk is inventive or not; but it is wasn’t quite as well done as this the book would be unreadable.  The reticence against invention leads to the characters that a flat and, although the story still has its drama, it feels like Binet could have made more of it.  His interventions do add to the build up, but it’s a gimmick that I enjoyed but wouldn’t particularly care to see again.  In all, I enjoyed the book as a one off; and I’m tempted to break through my usual aversion to WW2 histories and find a real book on the assassination.

51fbcpndyjl-_sx323_bo1204203200_In 1951’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Margeurite Yourcenar tries to strip her own personality and touch away from the writing; through detailed research and critical editing (a number of earlier attempts were scrapped entirely) she produces what reads like a real set of memoirs.  This sometimes leaves the book more admirable than enjoyable but at it’s best it can be moving, especially as Hadrian deals with the death of his favourite Antinous.  His internal struggles show a character with real depth, as a man who fundamentally believes that peace is the best way forward but throws himself wholeheartedly into his military role.  Compared to another recent read, Julian by Gore Vidal, the emperor feels genuine and subtle; the themes seem to occur naturally from the story.  It’s a very gentle work, and you can feel the time and effort that have went into it.

As far as authenticity goes, Yourcenar definitely has the better balance of research and narrative; I could probably stand for a little less realism, but I think it’s a good model for fictionalised biography.  Binet self-reflects on his failure to do justice to the narrative, and in a way that deprecation makes the book work, gives it a source of humour on a grim topic.  I don’t think even close to a model of how to write, but it is however a very enjoyable book.

The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper (Volume 2)

Unlike Volume 1, with its focus on Plato, I’m a bit less familiar with the material here – largely Hegel and Marx – so it can be a bit hard to know how to take Popper when he goes off on one.  As ever, he’s a very convincing writer but often drifts into his own take on things.  Hegel, he doesn’t like at all – taking a view from Schopenhauer for much of it.  Popper dismisses him as a charlatan and a fraud deliberately prophesying whatever his employer Prussia wanted.  We get a bit on Aristotle too (he doesn’t much like him either).

The book improves as the author starts to tackle Marx – he doesn’t necessarily agree with him but he seems to respect the talent with which he deals with the material and the dire social situation that spurred him to do his writing.  He picks out some of the flaws in Marx’s work rather skilfully – the inability to factor in that democracy and compromise could dilute capitalism and improve life for the workers.

Where Marx like the others seemed to get caught in the predictions of his model, Popper finds a core of rationalism.  At other points though, Popper deals with issues that seem somewhat tangential or nitpicking – Marx as anti-psychologism in sociology, his views on materialism.  It’s clear that the criticisms often aren’t of Marxism as such as it became, but of the actual philosophy of Marx and this means that they occasionally feel like a contribution to an argument that no one else cares about.

Towards the end of the book Popper gets back to his familiar topic of historicism, rationalism and reason: constantly pushing for a middle ground and for the role of liberal democracy in improving a world without a plan or destiny.  It’s an enjoyable, if very uneven read.

Q by Luther Blissett

51x8b2znkvl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I first heard of this book around fifteen years ago on Channel 4’s Football Italia.  It had nothing to do with the former Watford and A.C Milan striker, but in the UK that connection did get it in the media as a bizarre “and finally” style story.  This Luther Blissett is (or was) a collective of Italian anarchist writers who used the name as a anonymous group nom de plume for their works (“Anyone can be Luther Blissett simply by adopting the name Luther Blissett”).

The premise of the book, however, did interest me.  The Reformation.  Revolting Peasants.  Prophetic Anabaptist preachers.  Scheming bankers.  The intrigue of the medieval catholic church.  Much of this is not fiction – the book follows a character through the German Peasants’ War, the Munster Rebellion, and fringe groups of the reformation in Antwerp and Venice.  He changes his name several times and, perhaps, becomes harder and more cynical.

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These changes do feel natural.  Although the chapters are short and the book skips quickly through its thirty year time span, the character and his path are shown, not told.  Life as a protestant radical is given the feeling of a left wing political movement, an anarchist protest, or occasionally a football crowd.  The atmosphere of the book throughout the Munster rebellion is fantastic with hope for a brighter future drifting into despair and terror as Jan Matthys finally arrives.

At times the blending of anti-capitalism and religion is a little heavy handed.  I felt that Imprimatur by Monaldi & Sorti (another Italian novel from the same time) featured the murky dealings of the church’s agents with more subtlety.  I wouldn’t hold that against it, it feels very suited to the radical hero of the book.  The final showdown with Q, a papal spy and the main antagonist, feels like a little bit of an anti-climax; but I suspect that was only because the journey to that point was so enjoyable.

The authors behind Luther Blissett have since changed their name to Wu Ming, and I look forward to reading more of their work!

Iron Kingdom by Christopher Clark

I picked this up from my local library recently for a holiday to Berlin.  As it turns out, there’s maybe not a whole lot of relevancy for such a city break – Berlin has been so rebuilt from the time of old Prussia in both physical form and outlook; and, in any case, the history of Prussia was always dominated by the fringes.  The eastern Dukedom that provided the name and the old military Junker families is now back in Polish hands, and the rest of German has found an easier, less Prussian, form of German unification.  It was however a fascinating book.

With the reputation that Prussian has, I was expecting fairly blunt military history but Clark delicately covers the social, religious and economic aspects of history too.  We don’t just get the monarchs (inevitably called either William or Frederick, sometimes both) and the aristocrats, but also the working people – both native Prussians and minorities, often Polish or Jewish.  Packing all this in, the book is a big one.  It is not, however, heavy going – Clark writes accessibly, even on the more difficult topics.

As Prussia forms and leads a unified Germany, the book could become more of a standard history of the World Wars.  Thankfully, Clark finds his own angle on this.  Alongside the main narrative of the rise of the Nazi Party, for instance, we see the Prussian state dominated by the Social Democrats.  Throughout the book, there were a lit of similar bits, previously unknown to me, that came together to help explain the path that Prussia took through history.  It may not have quite been the perfect holiday book, but I really enjoyed this.