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Tag: Book Reviews

The Palgrave Handbook of Britain and the Holocaust

Reviewed by Ellis Spicer

This new volume, edited by Tom Lawson and Andy Pearce, includes contributions from authors of a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. It does not shy away from awkward truths or confronting representations of the past that serve the interests of the present. The editors emphasise how the past is used to understand and shape the present. History is memory in action and it is fascinating that this book places the recent events of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, legacies of slavery in statues, and Brexit as paramount to the ways in which history is consumed, reacted to and communicated in our modern society.

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The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History

Reviewed by Vittoria Princi

If the bicentenary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s death has managed to make everyone agree on one thing, it is that the Corsican-born general-turned-emperor remains as much a symbol of his epoch (the “soul of the world on horseback”, in the famous definition by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel) as a deeply divisive figure. This was very true already in his intense life and times, and it is still so in the distant posterity of the 21st century, as even the celebratory speech given by French president Emmanuel Macron on 5 May 2021 had to acknowledge. Insisting on Napoleon as a “great man of history”, however, eclipses the bigger picture of a worldwide, two-decades-long conflict embroiling Europe and whose ramifications spanned nearly all over the global order of its times. A helpful book to keep this wider context in mind is The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History, by Alexander Mikaberidze.

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China

Reviewed by James Farley.

The Communist Party of China (CCP) recently released a new version of their appraisal of the country’s history, entitled ‘中国共产党简史’ (Brief History of the Communist Party of China). Following in the tradition of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and their ‘short course’ that began in 1938, the China series has always provided a concise, and officially approved, guide to the history of the Party, and by extension the development of the country. The Brief History has always existed to combat what the Party terms ‘Historical nihilism,’ or rather what are perceived to be ‘incorrect’ analyses of China’s history. Whilst the content of each ‘short course’ is naturally heavily weighted in favour of the CCP, analysis of each entry in the series can provide insight into current development concerns and the standing of former leaders, as the books are framed to support current political, economic and social aims and objectives. The most recent edition, published in February 2021 for example, contains 530 pages, 147 of which focus on 2012-2021 and the leadership of the current Chairman of the Party, Xi Jinping. By comparison, the Mao years are only given 33 pages. The past is certainly being utilised to serve the future.

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Britain’s War: A New World, 1942–1947

Reviewed by Chris Smith

This book, the second volume of Daniel Todman’s mammoth history of Britain’s Second World War, picks up where the previous volume left off in 1941. Unlike the majority of histories of Britain’s conflict, which tend to focus on only one aspect of the war, Todman’s work aims to be completist – or rather as completist as any single history (even in two volumes) of Britain and the Second World War can hope to be.

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Turkey and the Soviet Union during World War II: Diplomacy, Discord and International Relations

Reviewed by Edward Corse

The Second World War produced some intriguing quasi-conflicts amongst the much larger and better-known battles of that period. Onur İşçi’s analysis of the relations between Turkey and the Soviet Union at that time carefully plots out one such fascinating story – one that is understudied and often misunderstood.

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Sounds of War: Music in the British Armed Forces

Reviewed by Dominiek Dendooven

While reading Sounds of War I was reminded of my late grandma. Born in 1908, she spent the war years in Café Transvaal near the station of Poperinghe, next to a large storage hall. Maybe this was the very same place the Guards converted into a theatre, as related by Emma Hanna in her fine book. Much chance then that the child later to become my granny witnessed British army bands performing there. Anyway, ‘oma’ often recollected how the British troops marched towards Ypres preceded by a band and singing loudly, adding: “But when they returned from the trenches they were no longer singing. Oh no”.

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Britain at Bay: Past and Present

Reviewed by Oliver Parken

Memories of Britain’s war continue to soothe a fragile national psyche. Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic, two of the greatest political challenges in living memory, have often been unambiguously linked with the myths of Britain’s war. Given the recent turn to the right in mainstream British politics and the conservative underpinnings of Britain’s war memory, politicians and commentators draw freely from the past to provide stability in the present. Britain ‘stood alone’ in forging a Brexit deal as it did against continental Europe in 1940. Beating Covid-19 demands a pulling-together and sacrifice of civil liberties of society reminiscent of the ‘Blitz spirit’ (itself part of a larger, more egalitarian framing of the war which nonetheless feeds into right-wing narratives).

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Allied Communication to the Public during the Second World War: National and Transnational Networks

Reviewed by Will Butler.

This edited collection, which covers a diverse range of inter-related subjects, is a triumph, and a welcome collection to the study of the use of propaganda during the Second World War. It brings together a diverse range of scholars (both established and early career), who all tackle their subjects with aplomb, taking the reader on an exploration of their individual areas of study, without losing sight of the overall theme of the collection.

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Dying for the Nation: Death, Grief and Bereavement in Second World War Britain

Reviewed by Ellena Matthews.

Over the last 30 years an increasing number of historians have explored the social and cultural history of death in the twentieth century. Lucy Noakes’ Dying for the Nation builds upon these studies to show that an analysis of death in wartime enhances our understanding of the Second World War. Through examining how death impacts upon individuals, communities and the state, Noakes illustrates that the management of death, grief and bereavement shaped the impact of wartime loss during the war years and in the immediate post-war period.

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Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: The Downfall of Ordinary Germans in 1945

Reviewed by Charlie Hall.

The question at the heart of Florian Huber’s book is: why did so many ‘ordinary Germans’ take their own lives at the end of the Second World War, in an act of mass suicide which has no parallel in modern conflict? There is no doubt that this is an important question, and one which promises to shed new light on the personal stories and experiences of individuals who lived (and died) in the Nazi age of extremes. However, while Huber’s work is a compelling, and often powerful, collection of stories, it struggles to reach a conclusion which satisfactorily answers this main question.

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