History

Undertaking fieldwork in Iceland, anthropologist Hugh Raffles was combing a beach when he noticed, and became transfixed by, a ‘large rectangular black stone’. So transfixed, in fact, that he decided to take it back to New York. On his return to his car, everything was in chaos. The alarm went off, piercing the tranquil landscape; the ‘door open’ icon flashed, despite all the doors being closed. Raffles began to drive, but the alarm and blinking light were unceasing. So he pulled over, gently placed the stone by the side of the road and drove on in relieved silence. Upon hearing this story, his Icelandic friends laughed knowingly. ‘Everything is alive,’ they said. Later, poring over archival material, Raffles discovered that the coastline on which his brush with the supernatural had occurred was known for causing chaos with ships’ navigational instruments, ‘perhaps because of high levels of magnetite grains in the basalt’.

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The invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941 caused massive destruction over a huge area. The number of deaths is uncertain, though a figure of around twenty-seven million is now widely accepted. The lives of many more millions were affected – as soldiers, as workers in war-related industries, as civilians in besieged and occupied territories, as refugees – and the experience of hardship and self-sacrifice in what is widely referred to in Russia as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ or the ‘Great Fatherland War’ continues to dominate the Russian historical narrative.

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The participation of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, from 1936 to 1939, was a great but overwhelmingly tragic adventure. According to Geoffrey Cox, an enthusiastic young journalist from New Zealand in Madrid at the time, it was ‘the most truly international army the world has seen since the Crusades’. Romance, bravery, and sacrifice were combined with bastardry, suffering, and humiliation, marred by often lazy and amateurish tactics, including the fatal notion that military discipline was a form of ‘class oppression’. Giles Tremlett’s richly documented new account overflows with exhilaration and alcohol, along with sabotage, treachery, and utter disorganisation. Perhaps it was the very failure of this romantic intervention that has encouraged, over the decades, a rose-tinted vision: a history, in effect, written by the losers.

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This is a book in the expansive American tradition of long, well-researched historical works on political topics with broad appeal, written in an accessible style for a popular audience. David Nasaw has not previously worked on displaced persons, but he is the author of several big biographies, most recently of political patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy.

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It was obvious that Nick Bryant’s insightful new book would be a requiem for American greatness. More revealing is its history of Trumpism, which long predated the man’s presidency.

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Kathy Mexted was a teenager when the possibility of becoming a pilot entered her head. The year was 1978, and she was airborne in a plane commanded by her father. The latter turned to his daughter and remarked: ‘If you’d like to learn to fly, I’ll pay for it.’ Nonetheless, it would take twelve years for the author to seriously pursue her piloting ambitions. This delay was due to several factors, not least of which was that flying has long been a ‘male dominated industry’.

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‘Half a Jew’s life is consumed by the futile battle with papers,’ wrote Joseph Roth, in The Wandering Jews (1937), his little-known collection of essays written not long before the Holocaust. ‘The struggle for papers, the struggle against papers, is something an Eastern Jew gets free of only if he uses criminal methods to take on society.’ Faced with police demanding to see ‘exotic, improbable papers’, the Eastern Jew who possesses too many troublesome names, inaccurate birthdates, and no proper nationality to speak of is sent packing, ‘again, and again, and again’.

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Forty years ago, François Furet outraged the French historical establishment by proclaiming that ‘the French Revolution is over’, launching a blistering critique of the Marxist categories and politics of university historians, many of them still members of the Communist Party he had abandoned in 1959. By the time of the bicentenary in 1989, historians were in bitter dispute over the meaning and legacy of the Revolution. In that year, Patrice Gueniffey completed his doctorate under Furet at the prestigious research school the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. He remains at that institution today, Furet’s most famous disciple and a celebrated historian in his own right.

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Russel Ward’s new book is a revision of History, which he published in 1965, mainly for an American audience. In fact, it was read more in Australia and now he has extended the work, put in more detail, and, presumably in response to recent developments, included some cursory glances at the doings of Aborigines, explorers, and the female half of the Australian people.

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At the time that I was asked to review Rosemary Lancaster’s Je Suis Australienne: Remarkable Women in France, 1880–1945, I was reading American writer Helen Barolini’s Their Other Side: Six American Women and the Lure of Italy (2006). The books are similar: five of Lancaster’s six chapters are devoted to individual women whose lives and experience, like those in Barolini, cover the period from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth. Both books are very much of the transnational moment, with its preoccupations with movement, connections and experience across borders, and premises that the identities of individuals and nations are formed abroad in contact and collision with others, as well as at home. The number of studies of overseas lives continues to grow but is surpassed by transcultural life writing, including Australian, in what has been described as ‘villa/ge’ books, travel writing that is about the destination not the voyaging, about living abroad rather than touring, about subject in situ rather than ‘situ’.

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