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The Battle for the Arab Spring: Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the Making of a New Era by Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren & Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi by Alison Pargeter

September 2012, no. 344

The danger in writing about unfolding dramas is that they keep unfolding, potentially stranding both writer and reader. Not so with these two fine books, whose authors have long experience of the Middle East. Quite different in scope – a sweep of the Arab world contrasting with the ascent and decay of Muammar Gaddafi’s brutal régime – they deal with past, present, and possible future events in a lucid, compelling way. Anyone with an interest in what is at stake in the Middle East would be well advised to read them.

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The ‘good’ biographer always opts for a nuanced portrait, and this is what Peter McPhee has given us in his well-written, reflective, sympathetic account of one of the most enigmatic, complex leaders of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre (1758–94). McPhee had his work cut out for him. Those familiar with the period may come to this book, as I did, with somewhat preconceived ideas. Robespierre conjures up a rather distasteful character, a revolutionary with all the negative connotations that word can conjure: a zealot, cold, calculating, idealistic, paranoid, the prototype of the totalitarian bureaucrat capable of sending friends and colleagues to the guillotine for the ‘cause’. So I was curious as to what McPhee, a leading historian of the French Revolution, made of the man, and how he accounted for Robespierre’s condemnation to death of so many people.

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Long hair flowing around his face, he grasps his sword firmly in one hand, the regimental banner held high in the other as he strides purposefully onto the bridge, leading his men to victory. It is one of the most familiar portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte, immortalised by the painter Antoine-Jean Gros: an image of courage, of leadership, of calm determination. And it is not quite what happened. The attack on the bridge at Arcola was a dismal failure and ended in an ignominious withdrawal, in the course of which the diminutive Bonaparte fell into a ditch and nearly drowned. It was hardly the stuff of heroic legend. 

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Over the past four years, we Australians have had considerable experience of the conflicted, and sometimes agonising, politics of war. In this study, Michael A. McDonnell, a historian at the University of Sydney, examines the unanticipated social and political contestations aroused by the demands of another war. In the late eighteenth century, Virginia endured a six-year struggle against the imperial rule of Britain. A settled class of wealthy gentlemen planters who had previously assumed the right to leadership came to find that role questioned in a wholly new politics of war. Middle- and lower-class Virginians began to ask them: how will you distribute the burden of the war equitably across society? Should the wealthy planters be exempt because of their property holdings? Who is to fight and die in this war? Who is to control recruitment? 

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