« Older Entries

Hayden White and John Reed: Between Narration and Narrativization, Reviewed by Bernard



In “Ten Days That Shook the World”, John Reed presents his eye-witness accounts of the Bolshevik Revolution. From the March Strikes until the formation of the Soviet government, Reed provides a detailed historiography of the Bolshevik Revolution by basing himself on documentation such as press releases and news papers while at the same time exposing the reader to his own personal observations and interpretations of the events. Reed’s work incorporates various principles of narration outlined by Hayden White in his essay “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”. I will argue that, as a work of popular history, Reed’s account of the Revolution does not fit in White’s theoretical framework since it presents elements of both narration and narrativization. Specifically, elements such as the author’s usage of dialogue, the incorporation of specific grammatical features, and the omnipresence of the narrative structure reveal the author’s ideological support for the Revolution.


As iterated by White in “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”, Reed relies heavily on narrativization in his recollection of the Revolution. Narrativization is the process through which the historian shapes his accounts to adopt a framework similar to that of a story.[1] In other words, narrativization attempts to make the events speak for themselves within a linear timeframe. The author accomplishes this in two ways, namely by filling in the gaps of the historical narrative with his own observations and by presenting the reader with and introduction, and most importantly, a conclusion to the Revolution. Firstly, Reed follows a similar outline throughout the chapters in his book. He begins with extracts of various headlines, which he selects from newspaper articles or official governmental records. He then fills in the gaps created between these sources with his own recollections. Moreover, Reed heavily relies on dialogue, which shapes the events into the mold of a story. Reed’s ideological support for the Revolution is portrayed by his insistence on giving the proletariat a voice in his book to emphasize the importance of socialist ideologies. He focuses particularly on dialogues between soldiers and other members of the masses. For example, the author recounts the words of soldiers expressing their frustration with “dirty work like desertion” and how “every deserter is a traitor and should be punished”.[2] Secondly, Reed introduces the events of the Revolution by explaining the causes of the March Strikes and concludes with what he describes as the “victory of Socialism” in Russia.[3] Introductions and conclusions are innately alien to the process of historical writing; their solely purpose in the book is to satisfy the reader’s need for structure and closure. However, it undermines the continuity of the historical process because history is not static and linear but rather allows historians to better comprehend the present. Overall, Reed’s usage of dialogue and his incorporation of an introduction and conclusion to recount the Bolshevik Revolution is evidence of the process of narrativization.


Reed’s novel does not fit the theoretical framework established by White since his recollection also incorporates elements of narration as well as narrativization. In his essay on the value of narrativity, White states that, in the process of constructing a narrativized history, events are chronologically recorded, “truly there is no longer a narrator”.[4] Reed clearly operates outside the framework outlined by White since he is an active participant in the story. As a first-person narrator, Reed engages in dialogues with many other combatants as well as non-combatants and recounts the conversations verbatim, which undermines the validity of the book as an historical source.[5] In this case, the author’s usage of narrative is problematic since, as explained by White, Reed gives “real events the form of story.”[6] By doing so, Reed acts as an omnipresent narrator. Historical figures of the Bolshevik Revolution are perceived as characters following the plot line of a story rather than individuals having truly experienced the Revolution. Since the author assumes the role of omnipresent narrator, he speaks freely about events that he did not witness reinforcing the doubts of the reader as to the value of the book as an historical source. For example, the author describes an interaction between Kerensky and Avksentiev at the Winter Palace giving the impression that he was physically present at the event.[7] Acting as an omnipresent narrator, Reed’s account of various events is brought into question by historians, thus emphasizing the role of the book as a from of popular rather than academic history.


The author’s particular engagement with the historical material cited in the book blurs out the distinction between narration and discourse in a way that demonstrates his subjectivity.  As stated by White, grammatical features can differentiate between two modes of discourse: one that is subjective and one that is objective.[8]  Although most of the book is written in the third person indicating a narrative structure, the author’s usage of the pronoun “I” and adverbial indicators such as “tomorrow” allows the reader to deduce that the book adopts, at specific instances, a subjective mode of discourse. The most effective way of perceiving Reed’s subjectivity is through his usage of nomenclature reflecting his political stance on the Revolution. Words with a positive connotation such as “liberty” and “glorious” are simply two examples amongst many that the author employs throughout the book. What is particularly striking is that the author describes the proceedings of the Bolshevik Revolution as a “marvelous adventure” although famine and military conflict remained widespread.[9] Nevertheless, in a personal statement, the author admits that his sympathies were not neutral but that he remains committed to the truth, “although quite subjective as a concept.”[10] Even though the author is aware of his bias, his selective usage of nomenclature demonstrates his failure to distance himself from the events. Furthermore, due to its subjectivity, historians have often debated over the value of this book as a historical source. When considering the book in its entirety, the author incorporates some elements of proper historiography such as a timeline, taken from the annals form of historical writing, and definitions of specific terms associated with the Revolution. Although this book is a product of historical writing, it is more fitting to categorize it as a work of popular history due to the author’s usage of specific grammatical features and bias nomenclature.


Reed’s “Ten Days That Shock the World” provides the reader with a romanticized account of the Bolshevik Revolution. Operating somewhere between narration and narrativization, the author’s account does not comply with the theoretical framework set out by White in his essay on the value of narrativity. Specifically, the author’s attempt to fill in the gaps created by the selection of historical sources, his usage of specific grammatical features, and his presence as an omnipresent narrator demonstrates his ideological support for the Revolution thereby discrediting it as a work of academic historical writing. Although the book is riddled with the author’s bias interpretations and remains a clear example of popular history, it should not be completely dismissed by academic historians. The historical profession will always be confronted with problems of subjectivity and historians should strive to incorporate sources of popular history in their writings to develop a holistic understanding of the events at hand.


Reed, John. Ten Days That Shock the World. London; Penguin, 1977.


White, Hayden. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” in The Content of the Form. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

[1] Hayden White,“The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” in The Content of the Form (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 6.

[2] John Reed, Ten Days That Shock the World (London; Penguin, 1977), 138.

[3] Ibid., 271.

[4] White,“The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” 7.

[5] Reed, Ten Days That Shock the World, 150.

[6] White,“The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” 8.

[7] Reed, Ten Days That Shock the World, 82.

[8] White,“The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” 7.

[9] Reed, Ten Days That Shock the World, 13.

[10] Ibid., 13.

The Americans, Reviewed by Amanda



The television show, The Americans, follows the lives of two Soviet spies living in America during the Cold War. Airing from 2013 into 2017 and produced by a former CIA agent, the show has garnered various accolades and has been deemed a critical success.[1] By situating this TV narrative in 1981, mostly in Washington D.C., the show simultaneously constructs a historical narrative, with both fictional elements and factual ones, riddled with references to President Reagan, images of bulky, burgeoning computers and stereos, 80’s fashion, and of course, mentions of nuclear missiles. This show is also situated in a context where Western media has, for decades, depicted Russians – one of many American geopolitical “antagonists”- as stereotypical, hardened villains, contributing to both a political and cultural mythos of mediated xenophobia and a propagation of American exceptionalism. However, The Americans dismantles this dichotomy of nominal Americans versus Soviets or Russians, thus, belying other dichotomies, such as the nation versus the individual, reality versus truth, assimilation versus integration, and morally good versus morally bad, to just name a few. Utilizing Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s historiographical framework of examining the production of both vocality- power- and silences in history, it will become clear that both the Pilot episode and the second episode of The Americans gives voice to the previously silenced, thus, de-humanized, Soviets during the Cold War, but also, produces silences for others. This demonstrates the potential for historical narratives to bestow empathy and motive-voice- to previously ignored groups, but also, the potential for these narratives to further subjugate others[2].

As briefly mentioned, The Americans follows Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two KGB spies, living in Washington D.C. in 1981 with their two children, Paige and Henry, who were both born in the US. The show also follows Stan Beeman, Elizabeth and Philip’s new neighbor, who happens to work in the counter-intelligence department at the FBI. Additionally, the viewer also gets glimpses of the Soviet Rezidentura or Embassy. The pilot episode introduces Elizabeth and Philip, posing as travel agents, as they try and capture a KGB defector, a formal Kernel, who has been working with the FBI, using various disguises, tactics of seduction, and violence along the way.[3] The second episode, The Clock, features Elizabeth and Philip being ordered to blackmail a maid employed by the American Secretary of Defense, to remove a clock from his office so they can bug it, in order to record an important conversation between said Secretary and another official.[4] They blackmail the maid by poisoning her son and offering the rare antidote only after the clock is replaced.[5] Meanwhile, Stan Beeman and the FBI blackmail an employee of the Rezidentura to leak information to them.[6] Constantly at risk of being exposed, Elizabeth and Philip navigate their “fake” marriage, their obligation to their children, Elizabeth’s desire to prioritize their nation and mission above all else, and Philip’s underlying desire to defect to the US in two tonally tense episodes amidst references of the “mad man” Reagan and the “evil Russians.”[7] Similarly to how Michel-Rolph Trouillot asked, “If history is merely the story told by those who won, how did they win in the first place? And why don’t all winners tell the same story?,” the show is also interested in examining the other “winners” or players of the Cold War and unraveling the different stories and implicit silences told in the process.[8] Although this TV show features an amalgam of both the fantastical and the factual, such as featuring violent fights and burning dead bodies with acid, while still referencing the conflict in Nicaragua and the stirrings of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, like Trouillot, in evaluating this popular history, I’m more interested in how the show produces historical narratives in innovative ways, dismantling the codified myths and dichotomies of Americans vs. Russians, giving voice and subjectivity to the previously silenced “other.”[9]

Moreover, from these two episodes, one can clearly see the show-runners’ goal for this historical drama: to humanize and give voice to the previously silenced and demonized Soviets, therefore, acting as an example of Western media constructing a narrative about the “East”-Russia. Joe Weisberg similarly stated, “The question at the heart of the show is whether you can relate to the enemy.”[10]A strategy for relating to this supposed “enemy,” utilized by the show, is giving voice to historical silences. Trouillot notes the many ways silences are produced in the historical process, such as when narratives are created and when “retrospective significance” or “history” is constructed.[11] One could argue that through the production of this TV show, one is producing a narrative and “retrospective significance,” particularly in this case as the audience is temporally distant from the events and  knows the broad outcomes of the Cold War- that the Soviet Union will fall. Furthermore, as Trouillot also notes, there are strategies to remedy silences produced in historical narratives, such as by providing different interpretations of “known” events, juxtaposing sources, or creating a new narrative of “conflicts.”[12] Arguably, these two episodes of The Americans are employing some of these strategies to give voice to the previously silenced Soviets through its omniscient narration enabling deep dives into Elizabeth and Philip’s-Soviet- subjectivities providing a different perspective of Cold War events. The do this by juxtaposing the motives and beliefs of the Soviet characters and the American ones at the FBI and by creating one larger narrative encompassing the many conflicting interpretations and viewpoints of events. Implicitly within Weisberg’s goal of humanizing and giving voice to the previously vilified Soviets, is an argument against xenophobia and not allowing differences in identities to divide societies.

However, one must evaluate whether Weisberg achieved this goal of humanizing-giving voice and power- to the previously silenced, thus, vilified, Soviets through an analysis of this historical narrative produced by the TV show, specifically, the first two episodes. Like Trouillot examining the production of the Haitian revolution’s historical narrative in order to give voice to silences, one can examine how The Americans’ historical narrative gives voice to the silenced Soviets. Firstly, The Americans echoes Trouillot by emphasizing the importance of the individuals in the narrative, especially, exploring their subjectivities.[13] Specifically, Trouillot notes the importance of subjectivity using the example of a striker as the individual:

…a competent narrative of a strike needs to claim access to the workers as purposeful subjects aware of their voices. It needs their voices in the first person, or, at least, it needs to paraphrase that first person. The narrative must give us a hint of both the reasons why the workers refuse to work and the objective they think they are pursuing-even if that objective is limited to the voicing of protest…[14]

In this quotation, one can apply these parameters of subjectivity in historical narratives to The Americans, thus, giving vocality or power to the previously silenced Soviets- Elizabeth and Philip. Although the narrative is omniscient in that the audience is shown the subjectivities of both the Soviets and Americans, it clearly prioritizes delving into the “first person” perspective of Elizabeth and Philip’s lives, motivations, and struggles, such as having various scenes illustrating the love Elizabeth and Philip have for their children- one of their motivators for keeping their covers to secure their children’s safety and way of life. By depicting scenes, such as at the end of episode two, after Elizabeth and Philip have poisoned and threatened to suffocate the maid’s son, featuring Philip starring at his son, Henry, while he sleeps and having Elizabeth offer to pierce Paige’s ears as a form of familial bonding, the show’s narrative mitigates the Jennings’ “villainy” by depicting their internal lives/ subjectivities- this very human and “universal” love of children on both American and Soviet sides.[15] By focusing on this “objective motive”- to protect their children- the show’s narrative is subverting the stereotypical, “cold” and unfeeling Russian with a loving parent, instead. This, thus, fills in the emotional silence and “first person” motivation lacking in previous mediated depictions of Soviets in Western media, while also, implicitly debunking the dichotomy of national identity- American or Soviet. Because Philip and Elizabeth feel love for their children just like any American, doesn’t that also make them American in some way? Additionally, by delving into these characters’ “first person” subjectivities, the audience also becomes privy to Elizabeth and Philip falling in love after years of being in their fake marriage. This then debunks the dichotomy of “real” and “fake,” in addition to showing that perhaps, once again, Elizabeth and Philip are in fact “true” Americans as they are able to engage in a heteronormative, “American” love story that results in a family and participating in capitalism to purchase their white-picket fence house and sports cars. In this example, one can see how Weisberg’s goal of giving voice to once silenced subjectivities, thus, humanizing the Russians, is achieved through examining the production of historical narratives.

Additionally, the audience is also shown Elizabeth and Philip’s subjectivities through featuring flashbacks in the Pilot.[16] These flashbacks provide this “objective motive” Trouillot discusses by providing crucial context of what led Elizabeth and Philip to become spies, therefore, leading the violent lives they now lead. For example, one flashback to July 1960 in Gryazi, Soviet Union, depicts Elizabeth training, learning to fight and having her English corrected, but then, being raped by the same ex-KGB Kernel who defected to the FBI, who the Jennings then kidnap and kill.[17] In this horrific flashback, the camera zooms in on Elizabeth’s face while she is violated, emphasizing that there is deep pain and sacrifice rooted in her story. Another scene in the episode features Elizabeth finally telling Philip her Russian name, Nadezhda, and explaining how her father was killed during World War 2 fighting in Stalingrad.[18] By filling in the silence of Elizabeth’s individual life and understanding the hardship she came from, this historical narrative bestows her vocality and thus, power, as the audience is able to understand and understanding possesses the potentiality for empathy- an important tool in humanizing an individual or group. One could view these flashbacks woven into this historical narrative as a possible “alternative source,” providing more information on a silenced group, thus, allowing for more nuanced and detailed narratives to be constructed.

Furthermore, Trouillot’s destabilizes the claim that “…history is a story about power, a story about those who won,” by demonstrating that two, diverse historical narratives can be produced from the same events, for instance, how the Alamo narrative can be seen as either supporting American exceptionalism or disproving it.[19] The Americans arguably has two narratives- two histories- at work: one for the Americans and one for the Soviets, supporting Weisberg’s mission of subverting the legacy of the Cold War’s xenophobic narrative, by showing both sides as human, giving voice-power- to both sides.[20] In the Pilot and The Clock, both episodes try to debunk the dichotomy of good vs. evil, like Trouillot’s Alamo example, by filling in silences through Stan and the FBI and the Jennings, making all these primary characters empathetic: their narratives can be interpreted as either morally “good” or “bad.” For example, the show invests in fleshing out both the FBI and the Rezidentura- the audience sees both spaces- and the second episode features both English and Russian.[21] Additionally, vexingly for the audience, one feels relief at both the Soviets successfully bugging the Secretary of Defense’s office, while also feeling pleased regarding Stan getting an informant from the Rezidentura.[22] In this show’s production of historical narratives, it problematizes the idea that a historical narrative must have one, all-powerful victor, implicitly arguing for a more egalitarian power dynamic where neither party is silenced.

Producing both historical narratives for the TV show, but also producing a broader “retrospective significance” or history of the Cold War, The Americans further mitigates the silencing of the Soviets, thus, their de-humanization, by constructing a “materiality” of history.[23] As Trouillot notes in regards to not having a physical body of the Haitian Colonel, audience members or readers of historical narratives are more likely to remember and view a narrative as “credible” if there are physical bodies or buildings-physical traces- that were/are discoverable.[24] By producing this historical narrative, the actual television show acts as a materiality of history to some extent, rendering the invisible- the Jennings’ spy profession and the legacy of “silent” or absent historical narratives depicting the Soviets in a sympathetic light in Western media- visible, thus, giving them voice. Therefore, by producing this historical narrative, this TV show is adding to the overall “history” of what people remember from the Cold War era, dismantling older mediated histories of the same time period.

Moreover, by producing this historical narrative in a TV format- a material entity that can be watched on physical DVDs or digitally- the show is adding to the myth-making and Cold War “canon” in the West. Like Trouillot notes, media plays an important role, not just academia, in producing these historical narratives and myths, thus, is also important in producing silences.[25] The TV show’s narrative, itself, demonstrates this, as it depicts both Paige saying she has an assignment about “how the Russians cheat in arms trades”- showing the dissemination of these myths and silences in academia- but also, shows Henry and Philip attending a presentation celebrating an Astronaut or “American hero.” [26] However, counter to this particular myth of American exceptionalism on the show, the TV show’s broader historical narrative itself, produces an alternative myth or narrative, thus, remedies some of these silences, by depicting the complex humanity of its Soviet characters, Elizabeth and Philip. The opening credits of the show also highlight the importance of media in disseminating these myths and according silences by presenting various American images, monuments, and video, against Soviet ones, such as having “Jazzer-cise” juxtaposed against Russian dancing or a picture of Santa replaced with the image of Karl Marx.[27] In this dizzying array of images, an audience member becomes aware of the previously understood myths, historical narratives, and dichotomies, disseminated through media, but also, by placing the images of supposedly dichotomous entities in such close proximity, one realizes that the iconography of “The Americans” and “The Soviets” aren’t as different as one had thought. This prepares the viewer to encounter a narrative that fills in past silences and constructs a narrative different from the “Russians as the enemy” ones they had grown up seeing from the Cold War media canon. Therefore, this, once again, supports Weisberg’s mission of giving voice to the previously silenced Soviets, through the production of this television narrative. In this way, once could argue that The Americans is a successful popular history in that it challenges the role of power and silencing in the production of historical narratives.

However, The Americans’ historical narrative also engages in the silencing of others, even as it tries to give vocality to the previously silenced Soviets. Trouillot states, “By silence, I mean an active and transitive process: one “silences” a fact or an individual as a silencer silences a gun,” through his diction, emphasizing the violent and weapon-like potential of silencing others.[28] The first episode’s narrative participates in the gendered silencing of Elizabeth through rape.[29] While this act of gendered and bodily silencing is arguably used to garner sympathy for Elizabeth’s character which some may argue gives her “voice,” the narrative decides to eventually make the rape more about Philip’s revenge and rage- his subjectivity, not Elizabeth’s, as shown through it being the catalyst for Philip to finally kill the kidnapped ex-KGB defector who perpetrated the rape.[30] In fact, one could argue that this act of gendered silencing acts more like a plot-device than an excuse to explore Elizabeth’s subjectivity as the rape seems to be more about needing a catalyst for the episode’s narrative closure- killing the KGB defector which then acts as a catalyst for both the American and Soviet governments to ramp up their aggression towards each other. Thus, this act of silencing doesn’t offer a substantial opportunity to return vocality-power- to Elizabeth -its purpose in the narrative is simply to take away Elizabeth’s power, in order for Philip to truly perform his through violence- killing the rapist- and in a broader sense, it eventually leads to acting as the “rationale” for more masculine male aggression to be performed between the two nations. Its purpose is to bestow rationality to men, while still silencing a woman.[31] Additionally, the TV show’s narrative participates in the literal silencing and bodily violence enacted upon a Woman of Colour and her son in the second episode.[32] Philip in disguise, at one point, pushes Viola, the maid, into a wall and clamps his hand over her mouth, literally voiding her of her ability to speak and move.[33] Even though the episode does try and show Viola as a resistor of this silencing, for instance, when she refuses to bug her employers office, lets this racialized and gendered violence/silencing act as a catalyst to explore Elizabeth and Philip’s subjectivities, namely, their relationship with their children. Her voice and her son’s are stolen, in order to give voice to Elizabeth and Philip. Therefore, while The Americans attempts to give voice to the previously silenced, it still privileges bestowing this vocality-power- to those who have rid themselves of their “otherness”- the anglicized, white-passing Elizabeth and Philip. While one may argue it would be anachronistic to give voice-power- to those who were marginalized, as this narrative shows to its Soviet characters- giving marginal individuals and groups a voice is a powerful way of showing the validity of peoples’ existence even when they did live in a deeply stratified and hierarchical world: whether or not people had political or social power, they still existed, thus, they had a historical narrative- a voice- to be recorded. As historians, as The Americans selectively demonstrates, it is possible to bestow voice- a proof and validity of existence- to the previously silenced.

Additionally, in evaluating whether or not Weisberg achieved his goal of giving vocality to the previously silenced Soviets, implicitly arguing against xenophobia, in these first two episodes, one must ask whether the way in which he argues against xenophobia isn’t counter-intuitive. The way in which he argues against xenophobia- by showing that the Westernized Elizabeth and Philip, with their heteronormative love, deep protective-instincts for their children, and participation in capitalism are “just like” the Americans, such as the FBI agent Stan and his family- is actually an argument for assimilation and an implicit idea that a group can only be humanized if they resemble the West, eschewing their “exotic” names and cultural mores, in the process. One must also question whether this Western narrative, produced by Americans, is a way for the US to have the ultimate narrative authorial power- ability to silence or give voice depending on their wishes- on the Cold War narrative? In some way, by producing a Western TV show that arguably prioritizes Soviet subjectivity, is this just a larger attempt to control the historical narrative- have the supreme power to produce this narrative how the West pleases? While these maybe extreme questions, it’s important to interrogate whether Weisberg’s goals in producing this historical narrative are not just reproducing silencing power dynamics of the past, but instead, are trying to distribute this power to produce narratives in a more equitable fashion. It’s also worth noting that one of Trouillot’s limitations was that he wanted to produce historical narratives that weren’t solely dictated or centred around the West, but still appeared to desire the West’s acknowledgement, such as when he states that many Haitian “…narrators aim to conform to guild practice” and admitting he “…bowed to some rules, inherited from a history of uneven power, to ensure the accessibility of my narrative.”[34] Similarly to Trouillot, The Americans, while attempting in many ways to create a counter-narrative to many of the Western ones disseminated in the past, still arguably conforms to many ideals of American exceptionalism and Western archetypes, such as the show’s implicit argument for embracing societies’ similarities in debunking the many dichotomies, mainly “The Americans” vs. “The Soviets”, but not acknowledging that perhaps xenophobia can only be challenged- one of Weisberg’s implicit goals-when we embrace our differences- not silencing those who are different- and recognize that power plays a role in who we deem as the “other.” Thus, we must be vigilant like Trouillot, in identifying where silence and the subsequent “otherness” is produced.

Overall, the first two episodes of The Americans are an entertaining and refreshing example of popular history, especially because of Weisberg’s implicit goal that echoes Trouillot’s argument of locating silences in the production of historical narratives and finding ways to bestow vocality to those previously silenced, oftentimes through producing alternative narratives. Despite displaying a few limitations, namely that the show still engages in silencing others, the fact that this popular history is in the form of easily consumable media helps disseminate Trouillot and Weisberg’s power-altering narratives that contributes to a narrative movement- in Hollywood and history alike- to amplify previously silenced, under-represented or mis-represented voices, hopefully, encouraging more empathy regarding cultural differences amongst audience members- a commendable goal.

[1] Joe Weisberg, interview by Katie Arnold-Ratliff, Time.com, March 12, 2013.

[2] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).

[3] The Americans. “Pilot.” Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Written by Joseph Weisberg. FX, January 30, 2013.

[4] The Americans. “The Clock.” Directed by Adam Arkin. Written by Joseph Weisberg. FX, February 6, 2013.

[5] lbid.

[6] lbid.

[7] The Americans. “Pilot.” Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Written by Joseph Weisbeg. FX, January 30, 2013.

[8] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 6.

[9] The Americans. “The Clock.” Directed by Adam Arkin. Written by Joseph Weisberg. FX, February 6, 2013.

[10] Joe Weisberg, interview by Katie Arnold-Ratliff, Time.com, March 12, 2013.

[11] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 26.

[12] lbid., 27.

[13] lbid., 23.

[14] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 24.

[15] The Americans. “The Clock.” Directed by Adam Arkin. Written by Joseph Weisberg. FX, February 6, 2013.

[16] The Americans. “Pilot.” Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Written by Joseph Weisberg. FX, January 30, 2013.

[17] lbid.

[18] lbid.

[19] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 5.

[20] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 9.

[21] The Americans. “The Clock.” Directed by Adam Arkin. Written by Joseph Weisberg. FX, February 6, 2013.

[22] lbid.

[23] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 26-29.

[24] lbid.,29-47.

[25] lbid., 19-20.

[26] The Americans. “Pilot.” Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Written by Joseph Weisberg. FX, January 30, 2013.

[27] The Americans. “The Clock.” Directed by Adam Arkin. Written by Joseph Weisberg. FX, February 6, 2013.

[28] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 48.

[29] The Americans. “Pilot.” Directed by Gavin O’Connor. Written by Joseph Weisberg. FX, January 30, 2013.

[30] lbid.

[31] lbid.

[32] The Americans. “The Clock.” Directed by Adam Arkin. Written by Joseph Weisberg. FX, February 6, 2013.

[33] lbid.

[34] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 56-57.

The Dawn of the Second Elizabethan Age, The Twilight of the British Empire: Netflix’s The Crown, Reviewed by Liam


One hundred gowns made of organza, Crêpe de Chine, and Shantung silk, each adorned with sprigs of native wild flowers from across the British Empire. Fifty pairs of shoes, thirty-six hats, and a young Queen overwhelmed by the burden of the Crown. It is November 1953, and Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) is getting ready to embark on her first Commonwealth tour as sovereign. “Isn’t this all a bit much? Couldn’t we try to economize?” the modest Elizabeth asks her stylist. He responds that the tour’s clothing budget was a directive from the top of the government. For Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), the tour is an opportunity to reinforce the Empire, and so the Queen will embody the glory of Great Britain at any expense.

The scene shifts to a grumpy Prince Philip (Matt Smith), Elizabeth’s husband, who is reluctantly in a uniform fitting of his own. He views the 23-week trip as a futile pantomime. “The Commonwealth roadshow,” remarks Philip, “is like giving a lick of paint to a rusty old banger to make everyone think it’s all still fine…Look at where we are now in India, Pakistan, South Africa, Iraq…The rust has eaten away at the engine and structure. The banger is falling apart. But no one wants to see it.”[1]

So begins the eighth episode of The Crown—Netflix’s sumptuous, £100 million historical drama—which charts the ascent and early reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The Crown’s driving narrative is Elizabeth’s personal struggle to adapt to the role of sovereign, and reviewers have rightly praised the show for its engrossing portrayal of the royal family and the pageantry of the British monarchy. But where The Crown excels as a work of popular history is by setting this plotline against the backdrop of Britain’s postwar decline. Peter Morgan, the show’s creator and screenwriter, brilliantly contrasts the pomp and circumstance of the court with the erosion of British power in the late 1940s and 1950s. Most Britons, including Churchill, believed that Elizabeth’s 1952 ascension promised a renewed global role for Britain because she was young and popular; The Crown proves that this thinking was folly. While many contemporary works of British popular culture cultivate nostalgia for the Empire, The Crown offers a refreshingly honest depiction of its gradual, inglorious collapse.

Morgan is a renowned film writer and playwright, not a trained historian, but he is an authoritative voice on modern British history. Morgan wrote The Deal (2003), a film which covers the 1994 Labour leadership election; The Queen (2006), an Oscar-winning drama about Princess Diana’s death; and The Audience (2013), a play about Elizabeth’s relationships with her prime ministers. Through these projects, he has compiled substantial knowledge about the royal family and postwar British politics. Morgan has never met Elizabeth, but she praised Helen Mirren’s performance in The Queen (we are awaiting Her Majesty’s verdict on The Crown, but it is unknown whether she and Philip subscribe to Netflix). While writing The Crown, Morgan and his team spent over two years conducting extensive research alongside professional historians. They studied news reels, newspaper clippings, documentaries, and biographies of the major characters.[2] Morgan sought authenticity in the smallest of details, from the midcentury lexicon of the British elite to the medals that decorated their uniforms. The Crown magnificently captures the complexity of historical figures and the nuance of events—the casting and production value are superb—and only certain elements of the past are dramatized. For example, no written record exists of the weekly audiences between Elizabeth and Churchill. Morgan had to imagine the nature of these conversations based on their personalities and the historical context. But overall, The Crown is true to the historical record.

Morgan’s masterful scriptwriting is reflected in his portrayal of the British Empire’s decline. Morgan weaves this theme into his royal drama in several ways. First, over the course of the series, the royals frequently travel across the Empire. The primary narrative purpose of these trips is to advance the drama of the Palace. Elizabeth and Philip are in Kenya when they learn that King George VI has unexpectedly died; Princess Margaret must endure time away from her lover, Group Captain Peter Townsend, while on official business in Rhodesia. However, Morgan makes a concerted effort to deconstruct imperial mythology during these scenes. Upon arriving in Kenya, Elizabeth delivers a speech in which she describes pre-colonial Nairobi as a “savage place.” Then, as a British general introduces Elizabeth and Philip to native leaders, and informs the royal couple that independence movements are sweeping the continent, Philip is exceptionally rude to one of the chiefs, mistaking his crown for a hat.[3] While speaking in Rhodesia, Princess Margaret refers to the “primitive Africans” that surround the tiny settler community. She then leads the crowd in the royal courtesy, but as the white folks in the room chant “God Save the Queen,” the Africans in the room stand awkwardly silent.[4] Overall, the royals are presented in a sympathetic light. But these instances of paternalism and racism, which are jarring for most modern viewers, are extraneous to the main plotline and only invite questions about the moral standing of the Empire. Thus, Morgan provides an honest portrayal of the Empire’s flaws: it was politically unstable and imbued with racism.

Of course, Morgan makes only a muted criticism of the Empire. For example, The Crown makes no mention of the Mau Mau Rebellion that erupted in Kenya in the 1950s. Such “silences,” as Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues, can distort the popular understanding of history.[5] However, The Crown’s chief focus is the Queen; the Empire provides only a backdrop to her early reign. It would be impractical, and probably boring, if Morgan gave screen-time to every midcentury anti-colonial movement in the expansive British Empire. Instead, he makes the wise editorial choice to emphasize one chapter in the retreat of the Empire: the 1952 Free Officers coup in Egypt and the subsequent rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser, a devout anti-imperialist and Arab nationalist. Historical narratives can be more effective if certain events are prioritized at the expense of others.[6] Egypt is mentioned in nearly every episode, and according to Morgan, season two will focus on the 1956 Suez Crisis, a watershed for the collapse of British power. Thus, even if The Crown’s narrative excludes certain chapters in the history of decolonization, it effectively uses Egypt—and the aforementioned racist comments—to show that the Empire was not that glorious. Morgan goes further to expose the disdainful elements of the Empire than most popular works, like Downton Abbey or even the James Bond series.

Morgan also personifies Britain’s decline through Churchill, who is a prominent character in The Crown and a figure associated with British glory in the popular consciousness. We are introduced to Churchill in the first episode at the 1947 wedding between Elizabeth and Philip. Churchill points out Lord Mountbatten in the crowd and growls to his wife, “That’s the man who gave away India!”[7] As portrayed later in that episode, Churchill was re-elected to the premiership in 1951 at the old age of 77; over the course of the series, he is shown to hold a conservative, imperial worldview and be overly fixated on restoring Britain’s international standing. He frustrates his cabinet colleagues and the Queen by relegating domestic problems to the backburner; instead, he is primarily concerned with the Cold War, the state of the Empire, and the Egyptian revolution. However, it becomes increasingly clear that the slow-moving “British Bulldog” is past his glory days—and that he cannot restore Britain to great-power status. After the Soviet Union successfully tests an H-Bomb in 1953, Churchill scrambles to organize a summit meeting with U.S. President Eisenhower. In Churchill’s mind, only he could engineer peace between the Americans and the Soviets. “In the matter of world governance, [the Americans] are not yet ready,” Churchill tells Elizabeth. “They need an experienced and elder power to guide them, school them.” Churchill dispatches to Washington Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, to plan the summit, but Eden, who suffered from a myriad of health problems, feints in the waiting area of the U.S. State Department. Upon discovering Eden, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles remarks: “That gentleman is not just a sleeping man, it’s a sad metaphor. The second most powerful man in what was once the most powerful country on Earth.” The summit is ultimately cancelled because Churchill is hit with his own health problems and suffers two strokes; he has become a shadow of his former self.[8] In the ninth episode, Churchill turns 80, and resigns after reflection about his old age (Eden takes over as Prime Minister). The episode is a magnificent character analysis, and a rare portrayal of the father of the nation in an aging, weakened state, as he ponders the decline of the Empire that he cherishes deeply.[9]

The closing scene of season one, set in 1955, drives home Morgan’s point that Elizabeth’s ascension, despite the hopes of Britons, could not rectify Britain’s international standing. It juxtaposes Elizabeth posing for a formal photograph with Eden viewing a film. The Queen is dressed in full regalia; the ridiculously-oversized St. Edward’s Crown sits atop her head. “Not moving, not breathing. Our very own goddess,” muses the photographer as he prepares for the shot. But Elizabeth’s lip is quivering, and she looks unnerved; she has just been in an argument with Philip, their marriage is unstable, and the burden of the Crown wears heavy. “Glorious Gloriana,” the saviour of the British Empire, an ordinary young woman who loves horses and never wanted to be Queen. Eden is nervous, too. He sits in the dark film room alone, watching Nasser give a vitriolic speech that calls for war with the imperialists and lambasts Eden personally. Eden is not strong like Winston. He shoots up Benzedrine—he was an addict—and passes out on the table as the film reel disintegrates.[10] One year later, Eden oversaw the disastrous campaign to retake control of the Suez Canal from Nasser. It marked the death knell for British power, and came just four years into Elizabeth’s reign. A sad metaphor, indeed.

[1] The Crown, “Pride and Joy,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[2] Kate Samuelson, “How The Crown Uses Real History to Make Drama,” Time.

[3] The Crown, “Hyde Park Corner,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[4] The Crown, “Gelignite,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[5] Michel Rolph-Trouillot, Silencing the Past: The Power and Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 20-22.

[6] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary Review 4 (2) (1973): 282.

[7] The Crown, “Wolferton Splash,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[8] The Crown, “Scientia Potentia Est,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[9] The Crown, “Assassins,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

[10] The Crown, “Gloriana,” created by Peter Morgan (Netflix, 2016).

Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance, Reviewed by Kathryn


Overlooking the city of Izmir is the face of Mustafa Kemal carved from the rock mountainside. Kemal’s eyes seemingly keep watch over the city his nationalist forces “liberated”, thereby honoring the sacrifice of the soldiers lost fighting for Turkish independence. However Turkish national history overshadows historical truth: modern Izmir has largely been purged of its past, with the monument itself imposing a state narrative that ignores the darkest episode in the city’s pre-republican history. Nowhere does the structure allude to the arson, ethnic cleansing or other excesses committed by Kemal’s troops as they “reconquered” Smyrna from its Christian inhabitants in the Fall of 1922.

Although the Turkish Republic struggles to acknowledge and reconcile with its past, the destruction of Smyrna is engrained in Greek and Armenian memory as a national horror. Giles Milton’s Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance navigates this contention by tacitly exposing the deficiencies—or “silences”—inherent in the Turkish narrative of the “Great Fire of Smyrna”. Through the use of personal testimonies and other intimate records from the Levantine, Greek, Armenian and foreign diplomatic communities, Milton constructs a raw—and often lurid—chronicle of the city’s demise from its period of prosperity prior to 1914 through the holocaust of 1922.[1] By piecing together accounts from a diverse group of Smyrniot survivors, Milton presents an impartial narrative that details the atrocities committed by Turkish belligerents and the Allied powers’ cold-blooded pragmatism that allowed for humanitarian catastrophe.[2] Although Paradise Lost mainly draws upon the records of the societal elite, Milton provides necessary voice to the victims of Turkish nationalism.

            In Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History, author Michel-Rolph Trouillot  traces how historical production serves as a reflection of power.[3] Troulliot identifies that “silences” are built into historical preservation and production by domineering forces that favor certain aspects of historical events. Accordingly, any historical narrative is a “bundle of silences” shaped by particular ideological or political interests.[4] Although Trouillot relates his concepts to a discussion of Atlantic history, Turkish official history is also rife with “silences”. Falsification and misrepresentation of historical memory have been employed to sanctify Atatürk’s republican project and to justify the homogenizing pressures of political nationalism. The destruction of Smyrna and the systematic extermination of the Eastern Christian population is one such event effaced from historical memory. Turkish records—crafted by Mustafa Kemal himself—claim local Greek and Armenian populations set their city alight, attempting to subvert Turkish authority following the defeat of Greek forces. Greek and Armenian histories cite that Kemalists burnt the Christian quarters of the city after systematically assaulting and massacring local populations. Athens commemorates the “Great Fire” as the closing episode of the genocide of the Ottoman Greeks. Official Turkish histories avoid remembering minority accounts altogether.

Given this context, it appears as if Milton stumbled upon a political and ethical minefield. However, Milton’s techniques for obtaining documentary evidence inadvertently prepared him for the challenges of this non-fiction. Milton relates his research process to that of a treasure-hunter at the beach, conducting “metaphorical metal detecting…by delving through letters and personal papers” for evidence that excites his interest. The result is an “idiosyncratic collection” of histories built from personal testimonies, memoirs and letters “of ordinary people who just found themselves attempting to survive extreme situations.”[5] Milton’s works span from the Jacobean era to the present, suggesting that he is not wedded to any particular era or mindset. Although this approach has its shortcomings, Milton is simply concerned with what the documents tell, not how state-sponsored narratives should frame his work. Paradise Lost thus lays the evidence from a diverse group of Smyrniots bare for public scrutiny and provides a vehicle for the documents to “speak” to a broad audience. This honesty allows the reader to draw his or her own impressions from the evidence and to identify the glaring “silences” in preexisting literature. In a discrete and artful manner, Milton helps the reader indict Turkish official history as myth.

Nonetheless Milton’s narrative does not leave any participant in this complex story unscathed. At the opening of his book, Milton provides a “List of Characters”: British, Levantine, American, Greek, Turkish and Armenian actors that were either serving in official capacity during the crisis of 1922 or as “witnesses to the fire and to the violence”. British, non-Ottoman Greek and American characters enter the narrative at the close of the First World War. Their accounts reveal how the Allied powers’ geopolitical aspirations in the Near East sparked and eventually intensified sectarian catastrophe.[6] Milton interweaves American diplomatic cables that warned ethno-religious tension would erupt if Greek forces occupied Anatolia with conversations from the Paris Peace Conference to highlight the political-diplomatic disconnect between the conditions on the ground and ambitions of the imperialists.[7] Most damming are conversations from Admiral Mark Bristol which forbid American cruisers docked in Smyrna harbor to intervene in the impending humanitarian crisis for fear that sheltering the Christian “enemy within the state” would preclude the United States from economic relations with the Turkish victors.[8] Milton also tacitly condemns British inaction by including naval officer accounts that describe how their ship’s band was frequently directed to play so as to drown-out the screams and pleas for help echoing from the city.[9] Although the crimes committed on the part of Turkish troops are the most dramatic elements of the story, Milton also highlights how Smyrna fell “victim to reckless foreign policy”, thus providing a balanced account of how events unfolded.[10]

Milton’s narrative is broken into three parts, each detailing Smyrna in its twilight. Segment one, “Paradise”, offers a romantic account of the city prior to and during the First World War. “Serpents in Paradise” identifies the emerging tensions between Greek and Turk national ambitions through accounts of ethnic violence and the early phases of the Greco-Turkish War. Additionally, this segment suggests double-dealing by the Allied powers, tracing their initial support for Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos’ Megali Idea to their ultimate conversion to pro-Turkish policy when the victor became apparent. Finally, “Paradise Lost” provides a day-by-day account of the arrival of Turkish troops to Smyrna, the destruction of the Armenian and Greek quarters and the ensuing humanitarian crisis.

Milton paints Smyrna as a melting pot through the youthful hyperbole of Petros Brussalis, a Greek Smryniot who was only eight years old in 1922.[11] Brussalis’ description allows the reader to imagine Smyrna as a prospering emporium: “you’d hear about every language under the sun…and see ships from everywhere in the world.”[12] Milton utilizes Brussalis to emphasize the multiethnic character of the Aegean trading hub so that the contrast with later developments is all the more horrific. Brussalis’ accounts also display how the fortunes of Smyrna’s different ethnic and religious groups were intertwined—unlike Anatolia, where sectarian tensions were often easily provoked.[13]  This underscores the differences in perception of Smyrna: an “infidel, majority-Christian city” to leadership in Constantinople, yet an independent “beacon of tolerance” for local populations.[14] At times, however, Milton’s narrative is punctuated with trite commentary about the city’s inevitable destruction. This allows the work to read like a popular drama, yet detracts from the seriousness and focus of the piece. What is most powerful about the witness accounts is that the authors were unaware of their impending fate—a chilling reality the reader can certainly gather for his or herself.

Milton is primarily concerned with the Levantines of Bournabat: the wealthy families of European descent who dominated the city’s commercial activity. The Levantine bourgeoise, “more than any other community”, shaped Smyrna “in their own image—rich, cosmopolitan and of mixed blood heritage.”[15] Unpublished memoirs from the Bell, Giraud, and Wood families provide the backbone of Milton’s work as their charmed existence was well documented and preserved. In many respects, the Levantines’ fall from opulence to destitution parallels that of the city. The “Paradise” portion of the book details the Levantine aristocratic life and how their trading enterprises benefited the city. However, with the outbreak of World War One, Constantinople perceived the Levantines as “enemy aliens” plotting to undermine the war effort in favor of their British homeland.[16] In actuality, the most recent generations “had never set foot in England”: as with the majority of Smyrna’s diverse population, the Levantines did not owe allegiance to the country of their ethnic origin.[17] The notion that the non-Muslim, non-Turk populations of the Empire were a fifth column wrought irreversible damage on ethno-religious relations in Anatolia by provoking hostilities that had long been dormant.[18] The Giraud memoirs illustrate how these cleavages deepened during the Greek occupation of Smyrna and the Greco-Turkish War by recounting events of sporadic ethnic violence and the stories of Turkish troops “reclaiming” the interior from “aliens” that had actually lived in Anatolia for centuries.

However the use of Levantine accounts has its shortcomings. Although Milton details the Levantines’ return to relative normalcy following the 1918 armistice, part three is ill-suited for their accounts. Whilst Hortense Wood remains in Bournabat as Turkish troops enter the city, the majority of her relatives flee on British naval vessels as safe passage from the violence and destruction was guaranteed by their British citizenship and wealth.[19] Certainly their Greek servants were not as fortunate. Although Levantine accounts are moving (for example, the families watched, from the vessel, the bank where they deposited their wealth and jewelry be consumed by fire) Milton realizes the deficiencies in his approach.[20] He then begins to focus on the journey of Garabed Harcherian, an Armenian physician struggling to sneak his family to safety.[21] Harcherian’s accounts detail “Turkish irregulars setting fire under orders” and “dousing” buildings with petrol after executing their inhabitants: descriptions that clearly reveal Turkish intent to destroy. However, Greek accounts are noticeably absent in this section.[22] As the non-Turkish quarters of the city were specifically targeted by Turkish troops, lack of a Greek voice causes this section to feel incomplete.

Milton’s use of witness accounts also provokes broader questions about historical production and memory. Levantine letters, diaries and testimonials clearly reveal their shortcomings in the final section. From a historiographical standpoint, this causes the reader to question how representative the Levantines were of Smyrna society and thus the utility of their accounts. Additionally, Milton’s supplementary characters in part three are still derived from privileged groups, including doctors, nurses and the clergy.[23] Milton details over 150,000 Armenians and Greeks waiting along the harbor for Allied assistance after fleeing their homes, yet none of their accounts are specifically integrated into the narrative. Perhaps they went unrecorded or are inaccessible: Milton does note that the majority of the refugees recovered from Smyrna harbor were literally deposited in Nea Smyrni, one of the poorest municipalities of Athens. However, by excluding these accounts, is Milton perpetuating “silence” himself?

Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance is an important contribution to preexisting literature on the “Great Fire of Smyrna.” Milton’s use of personal testimonies and intimate records provides an honest, harrowing account of Smyrna’s history without  implicitly entering the contention surrounding official Greek and Turkish accounts. Popular histories such as Milton’s have great utility: by providing a broad audience with the historical truth,   authors hold the ability to combat the “silences” that dominate historical discourse.

[1] Milton, Giles. Paradise Lost: Smyrna 1922, The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance (London: Sceptre Press, 2008): xi.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995): 26.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5]  “Biography”. Giles Milton. Giles Milton, 1 Jan.  2017. Web. 5 Feb. 2017.

[6] Ibid., 269.

[7] Ibid., 238.

[8] Ibid., 318.

[9] Ibid., 320.

[10] Milton, 6.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid., 10.

[13] Ibid., 67.

[14] Ibid., 14.

[15] Ibid., 16.

[16] Ibid., 66.

[17] Ibid., 68.

[18] Ibid., 202.

[19] Ibid., 316.

[20] Ibid., 317.

[21] Ibid.,238.

[22] Ibid., 307.

[23] Ibid., 247.

The Rise and Fall of Prussia, Reviewed by Ashley


Published in 1980, The Rise and Fall of Prussia is a concise book on the history of Prussia from the middle ages up to the abdication of the German emperor after WWI. The book was first published in German under the title Preussen ohne Legende (which literally translates to “Prussia without Legend”) in 1979. It is unknown why the publisher of English translation did not adopt a literal translation of the original title.

In this book, the author Sebastian Haffner presents an interpretation of Prussia as a metropolitan empire which was founded upon ideals of rationality and liberty. Frederick the Great is central to Haffner’s narrative of Prussian history, for he established the tradition of “rational state” in Prussia, in Haffner’s words,

His flute playing, his love for the arts, his Anti-Machiavelli, positively dripping with enlightened humanism, his enthusiastic friendship with Voltaire, the flood of humanitarian decrees when he assumed the throne – abolition of torture, (with certain exceptions), ‘Journals must not be interfered with,’ ‘In my state let everyone find salvation in his own fashion’ – this was not a mask or a magnanimous whim, but the real Frederick, his original character.[1]

One major contribution made by this book proposing the distinction between “Prussianness” as established by Frederick the Great and “Germanness” according to Bismarck and Hitler. Haffner emphasises that racism was not part of Frederick the Great’s policy, as he argues, “The million of Poles, for instance, whom Prussia incorporated between 1772 to 1795, were no worse in Prussia than before. […] There was no intention to ‘Germanise’ them, such as become the sad practice in the German Reich in the days of Bismarck and even more so after Bismarck.”[2] By introducing this argument Haffner implicitly contradicts the popular perception at the time of the book’s publication that Prussia was the “root of all evil” – according to Winston Churchill – for the humanitarian disasters caused by Nazi Germany in WWII. Interestingly, Churchill’s line is itself a disputed quote. One version of his quote in 1943 reads “Prussia was, I want to stress that, the root of all evil in Germany”, the other is “The twin roots of all our evils, Nazi Germany and Prussian militarism, must be extirpated.” It is unverifiable which version is authentic, or whether Churchill might have stated both versions on different occasions. Either way, both are frequently quoted in popular publications, sometimes in full and sometimes in fragments. This might well be an example of how popular histories often involve dubious accounts built upon more dubious accounts. On a pessimistic note, it happens in academic histories as well.

Like many other popular history books, The Rise and Fall of Prussia does not include footnotes or endnotes, nor does it list out the bibliography. This certainly undermines the credibility of the author’s arguments since it is unclear where the evidence comes from. The only identifiable historian whom Haffner explicitly quotes from is Walter Bussmann, specifically Bussman’s comments on Bismarck’s foreign policy[3], but without stating from which of Bussmann’s books the quote is extracted from.

What is more problematic with the absence of footnotes and bibliography is that it is impossible to trace the “legends” that Haffner seeks to refute in his book and where these “legends” come from. In the early chapters of the book, Haffner remarks that Frederick the Great is “an underrated King of Prussia”[4], but does not specify who “underrated” the King. If he is referring to the perception of Frederick the Great among the general public, then his argument is hardly true, as Frederick the Great is often portrayed in a relatively positive light in German history textbooks and popular histories for the very same policies Haffner praises. In fact, Haffner’s portrayal of Frederick the Great does not differ much from that presented in other German popular history publications since the eighteenth century. Without knowing what the “legends” are and who created them, the whole book reads like an attack on a strawman that might not necessarily exist apart from in the author’s imagination.

While there is neither footnotes nor bibliography, the book does provide an appendix which consists of a chronology of the history from 1147 to 1947, and eight maps of Brandenburg-Prussia from 1415 to 1918. The indication of state boundaries is also confusing as some are drawn in solid lines while some others are drawn in dotted lines. Moreover, the lines very often end abruptly in the middle without explanation. It only becomes more difficult to navigate through the maps as they do not come with a legend or note illustrating what each of the map symbols means. This raises the question of reliability of these maps. The appendix might help readers grasp a general idea of the Prussia’s territorial expansion throughout 1415-1918, but they rarely offer any insight beyond that.

To understand this book, it might be helpful to look into the background of the author. It is stated on the back cover that Haffner considers himself “a Prussian by birth”[5], as he was born in Berlin in 1907[6] when the German Empire still existed. (Although, to be fair, the back cover might not be penned by himself, but his editors.) The nostalgic undertone of the book might be explained by the author’s idea of his own identity. In 1938, Haffner moved from Germany to Britain and began his career in journalism; he returned to Germany in 1954, where he wrote for Die Welt and Stern.[7] There he gained popularity as a political commentator. It should be unsurprising that his writings followed closely to popular trends in West Germany at the time.

It is also important to note the timing of the publication the book. Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, a historian at Fairfeld University, marks the beginning of the Prussian Wave (Preussen-Welle) at 1977 when West Berlin held major exhibition on the history of Prussia.[8] Interestingly, as Rosenfeld points out, the exhibition did not coincide with the anniversary of any major event in Prussian history.[9] One way to interpret this curious situation is that the Prussian Wave was not only meant to allow West Germans to revisit Prussian history, but also to allow them to reposition their attitude towards WWII, thirty years after the war. The Rise and Fall of Prussia was published when there was rising interest in Prussian history among the West German public in this context. Prussia was (and arguably still is) often perceived as the root of German militarism, or Nazism even. Shortly after WWII, Prussia became a taboo in German public discourse for this reason. Haffner’s interpretation of Prussian history contrasts greatly with such narrative. His book spoke to the underlying frustration among the West German public towards the unspoken censorship of anything related to Prussia, and furthermore, the trauma from the expulsion of Germans in former Prussian territories. His intention to bring awareness to the expulsions – but not to encourage revenge – is obvious in the conclusion of the book:

All that is left now is a glance at the final and most frightful chapter of Prussian post-history. This no longer concerns the Prussian state; that no longer existed. It was not Prussia as Prussia that paid the price of the lost Second World War, as it had done for the First; but the Prussian people: East Prussians and West Prussians, Pomeranians, people from the New Mark, and Silesians, those people of mixed German and Western Slav blood who had once provided the principal part of Prussia’s national substance. They lost the land which throughout seven centuries had been their homeland – first through mass escape and later through expulsion. […]  What does one do about atrocities, how does one cope with them? Keeping a score is no use; thoughts of revenge only make everything worse. Someone has to find the magnanimity to say: ‘This is enough.’ To have been able to do that is a title to glory that no one can take from the expelled Prussians. Anyone so disposed may call the matter-of-fact way in which they, without any thought of revenge, and soon without any thought of return, have made themselves at home and useful in Western Germany evidence of Prussian matter-of-factness. It lends to the sad story of Prussia’s slow demise something of a ringing final chord.[10]

It might be more sensible for academic historians to read The Rise and Fall of Prussia as a source of historical memory of Prussia in West Germany, rather than a historical source of Prussian history in itself. As a history book, the arguments are poorly supported and occasionally oversentimental. As a popular publication, however, it might have well captured the sentiment of its West German readership at the time. And this, perhaps, is the spirit of popular history – despite being prone to questionable accuracy, compiled with dubious supporting materials, and making broad, sweeping claims, it reflects the collective memory of the past, and that is not at all meaningless.

[1] Sebastian Haffner, The Rise and Fall of Prussia, trans. Ewad Osers (London, United Kingdom: Phoenix, 1980), 31,

[2] Ibid., 70.

[3] Ibid., 117.

[4] Ibid., 50

[5] Ibid., back cover.

[6] Ibid., front matter.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rosenfeld, Gavriel D., “A Mastered Past? Prussia in Postwar German Memory,” German History. 22(4) (2004): 508.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Haffner, The Rise and Fall of Prussia, 157-158.

The Mongols: Barbarians, Conquerors, and Renaissance Enablers, Reviewed by Anisha


“Europeans experienced a Renaissance, literally a rebirth, but it was not the ancient world of Greece and Rome being reborn: It was the Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to meet their own needs and culture.”[1] In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford portrays the Mongols as a civilization that espoused religious toleration, diversity, and military prowess. While he successfully tells the history of the Mongols based on Mongolian sources and uncovers a previously silenced perspective, Weatherford’s work is weakened by the prevalence of unsubstantiated claims, and suffers as he overstates the degree to which the Mongols caused the Renaissance in Europe.

Weatherford aims to change the perception of the Mongols, shifting the emphasis from their barbarity to their lasting impacts on the rest of the world. The first part of the book deals with the life of Genghis Khan, from his birth in 1162 through the founding of the Mongol Empire to his death in 1227. Then, Weatherford examines the numerous conquests that made the Mongol Empire the largest empire in history, as well as the domestic policies that made it history’s largest free-trade zone, a region of religious tolerance, and a provider of universal education. Finally, he looks at how the Mongols influenced the rest of the world by facilitating the westward movement of various ideas and technologies. Throughout his work, Weatherford’s underlying argument was that the Mongols played an essential role in developments in innovation in Europe because their trade routes allowed for the movement of goods from east to west. He argues that the “new technology, knowledge, and commercial wealth” that travelled along Mongol trade routes “created the Renaissance.”[2]

Weatherford’s attempt to redeem the Mongol image can be seen as a response to the silencing of certain aspects of this history. This process was described by fellow anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past. Trouillot explores how choices made during the crafting of a history can silence some perspectives, particularly when these choices are based on preconceived ideas about a population. Weatherford looks at how this has occurred in Mongolian historiography, and tries to amend these past misrepresentations. The stereotypical image of the Mongols is that of savage barbarians and this view informed many of the choices made in crafting Mongol history. Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk, described the Mongols as “inhuman and of the nature of beasts, rather to be called monsters than men, thirsting after and drinking blood, and tearing and devouring the flesh of dogs and human beings.”[3] Depictions of the Mongols in popular media usually show them as, in Weatherford’s words, “savage hordes lusting after gold, women, and blood.”[4] Weatherford’s redress of these stereotypes is balanced, acknowledging the Mongols’ brutality while presenting their refined military prowess and progressive domestic policies.

Trouillot examines the process of the creation of history and identifies several opportunities for the silencing of certain perspectives, starting when evidence is created and assembled into archives.[5] Weatherford provides an effective example of this silencing as he shows that most sources in Mongolian history were created by foreign travellers, while a group of Mongolian documents chronicling the history of the Mongols, referred to as the Secret History of the Mongols were largely ignored.[6] Trouillot argues that the foreign actors who create the body of evidence that becomes the basis for a country’s history have the power to influence how their past is seen. Weatherford argues that in Mongolian historiography, historians imbued with “prejudice and ignorance” based their histories not on Mongolian sources but on “political rhetoric, pseudoscience, and scholarly imagination.”[7] Weatherford seeks to rectify this by telling the story that was uncovered in the Secret History.

Trouillot also identifies the process of the selection of facts and the subsequent crafting of narratives as an opportunity for silencing. Much of past Mongolian historiography sought to create narratives in which the Mongols were seen as ruthless warmongers, thus historians mainly selected evidence that showed the ferocity of their military tactics, ignoring the motivations behind their actions. An event often viewed as a ruthless Mongol invasion was the battle against three Russian armies in 1223, which was the first successful Asian invasion of a European army in one thousand years. While this event is normally seen as a strategic decision to expand their empire, Weatherford portrays it as a mission of vengeance against the Russians for executing ten Mongolian ambassadors. In Weatherford’s narrativization of the incident, he writes that the Mongols wanted to “reaffirm to their own men the extent to which they would always be willing to go to avenge the unjust killing of a Mongol.”[8]

Weatherford’s bold overarching argument, that the Mongols created the Renaissance in Europe, is exaggerated. To suggest that the Renaissance would not have occurred had the Mongol trade routes not existed goes too far. Weatherford argues that the Mongols did not contribute to the Renaissance through their inventions or technologies, but that they facilitated the movement of these technologies, specifically printing, gunpowder, and the compass, to Europe. While the Mongol trade routes surely aided and facilitated the diffusion of the ideas which were important to the Renaissance, Weatherford does not adequately prove that these ideas would not have eventually moved from East to West without them.  It is likely that they would have been transported eventually, especially given that people were beginning to travel between these regions more frequently. As Weatherford states, “The Mongols made no technological breakthroughs, founded no new religions, wrote few books or dramas, and gave the world no new crops or methods of agriculture.”[9] Since they did not make any unique contributions, it is difficult to claim that they played an indispensable role in the Renaissance.

Weatherford’s portrayal of the Mongol conquests is balanced. He acknowledges that they “killed at an unprecedented rate and used death almost as a matter of policy and certainly as a calculated means of creating terror.” Yet he also emphasizes that their actions were not brutish cruelty carried out for their own enjoyment, noting that they “did not torture, mutilate, or maim.”[10] However, at times his narrativization of the events causes him to make unsubstantiated claims that further his argument but cannot be proven. He makes the claim that “unlike other generals and emperors in history who easily ordered hundreds of thousands of soldiers to their death, Genghis Khan would never willingly sacrifice a single one,” but does not provide any evidence to prove that this was actually a belief of Genghis Khan.[11] Further, he says that “for the Mongols, the law was more a way of handling problems, creating unity, and preserving peace rather than just a tool for deciding guilt of administering punishment,” yet he does not cite any sources showing the intentions of the Mongols in creating their laws.[12] Without proof to support them, these claims are speculation.

Weatherford’s writing skills make this book a compelling read, and the fact that he does not spend time dwelling on minutiae such as dates and military tactics makes it very accessible to the large audience he intended. This approach can be useful in disseminating an awareness of a topic across a wide population, and it is particularly appropriate in Weatherford’s case as his goal was to change public opinion and alter a stereotype. However, in many cases Weatherford failed to provide adequate evidence for his claims. Weatherford’s declaration that the Mongols’ annual use of the death penalty was, at 2,500 in thirty years, lower than that of the modern United States, appears exaggerated.[13] However, as there is no source to support this claim, readers must accept it at face value. Weatherford presents all of his speculations as though they are accepted truths, and while this made for an engaging read, readers without the means to recognize these speculations and verify his assertions will trust them automatically.

Weatherford invites his audience to discover Genghis Khan and the Mongols from a new perspective, one which had been silenced in the past by historians who based their narratives on their preconceived notions of the Mongols. While Weatherford overstates the Mongol influence on the Renaissance, and makes many speculative claims, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World successfully remedies the stereotype of the Mongols as a barbarous, murderous tribe of nomads, giving readers a balanced account of the exploits of the Mongols.

[1] Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Three Rivers Press: New York, 2004), 316.

[2] Ibid., 21.

[3] Ibid., 212.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press: Boston, 1995), 51.

[6] Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan, 25.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 204.

[9] Ibid., 19.

[10] Ibid., 172.

[11] Ibid., 114.

[12] Ibid., 276.

[13] Ibid., 274.

Narrativizing the Injustice: King Leopold’s Ghost and Hayden White’s Interpretations of History, Reviewed by Alanna



In his analysis of the interpretation of history, Hayden White looks at the construction of narrative as a way to build history out of events. White claims that to be real history, an account must manifest a proper concern for evidence, chronology and narration, bringing structure and meaning to the narrative.[1] Adam Hochschild wrote King Leopold’s Ghost with the express aim of bringing attention to the scandal of King Leopold’s slave trade and plundering in the Congo, a reign of terror under which the population was reduced between 1885 and 1908. Hochschild intended this to be a piece of popular history, with the potential to reveal to modern audiences the atrocities that had been committed,[2] and therefore the way in which he constructs his narrative is particularly interesting. He delves deep into the history of this time, and situates Leopold’s crimes in a wider context of European and African history while at the same time underscoring the modern nature of his efforts to exert “spin control” over his actions. In considering the international relations, personal aims and societal pressures that led to the horror that was perpetrated in the Congo and in the first great human rights movement that would end it, Hochschild brings attention to the voices of a wide range of characters in constructing his narrative, building a plot that encapsulates all the moving parts which came together to allow this to happen. King Leopold’s Ghost is a piece of investigative history, with the author seeking to uncover and expose the details of this forgotten piece of history. Looking at King Leopold’s Ghost through the theories of Hayden White exposes how Hochschild created this narrative, processing and interpreting it in such a way that would provide the reader some insight into the meaning and significance of what he wanted to convey.

White alleges that narrativity is essential to our comprehension and belief of history,[3] and this distinction exposes the value of popular histories such as Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. Popular history is in its essence the building of a narrative, and through these works, wider audiences are able to interact and understand events of history. However, the creation of a narrative requires significant interpretation of events, and this leaves space for the author to inflect his personal experience through the choices they make in what is included in their account and the meaning they choose to encourage. Hochschild builds a narrative that is focused on the injustice of King Leopold’s actions, encouraging the reader’s distaste through his use of language and construction of characters.  He takes the narratives of multiple actors and placing them into one story, giving space to little heard voices, and concentrating on building a narrative that incorporates all elements. As White notes himself, this interpretation and explanation raises the problem of the possible content of that truth and the form its affirmation must take.[4]

Hochschild’s construction of his characters as vivid, larger than life creatures further increases the narrative elements of his account, and through this influences how its audience interacts with the story. Leopold comes across as a megalomaniac, a greedy king obsessed since adolescence with the idea of running a colony of his own and duplicitous in his presentation of himself as possessed of higher motives, philanthropic and selfless. Henry Morton Stanley, the world-famous explorer whom Leopold retained as his agent, is depicted as a bully and chronic liar who allowed his own celebrity to be used by Leopold for the worst possible ends, persuading hundreds of Congo basin chiefs to sign over their land and their rights to the king of the Belgians. As Hayden White describes, there is an immense value to the creation of narrative as it has the ability to fashion human experience into a form similar to structures of meaning that make it easier to understand knowledge across cultural boundaries.[5] Furthermore, he raises the notion that there is significant appeal in the idea that real events are properly represented when they can be shown to display the formal coherency of a story.[6] These sorts of character details which Hochschild provides build a protagonist-antagonist element to the plot, perpetuating the narrative element, but also his interpretive aims.

Hochschild persists in his view that what happened in the Congo has long been forgotten, but his reliance on published sources, some new, some old, shows that it did gain considerable attention. For example, Jules Marchal’s scholarly four-volume history of turn-of-the-century Congo, “The Scramble for Africa,” and the vague yet vivid depictions of Africa in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, allowed academics and the public to encounter this time and place, but these histories were situated in their time or historiographical specificity, with little applicability to modern popular audiences. However, the fact remains that King Leopold’s Ghost brought the awareness of the King Leopold’s brutal acts to an audience of today, using language and ideas with are more amenable to our audience as Hochschild has stitched it together into a vivid, novelistic narrative that makes the reader acutely aware of the magnitude of the horror perpetrated by King Leopold and his minions. White writes that the explanation of events into history requires the interpretation of the individual historian[7] in order to encourage the cultural function of narrativizing discourse.[8]  This cultural element to the narrative is critical to how the audience perceives and accepts the historical narrative, and Hochschild exercises this in his retelling of the tale of Leopold’s duplicity, lubriciousness and greed, and of the cruelties and depredations which occurred in the Congo Free State for a modern audience. He translates the findings of specialist historians into a narrative of popular history by incorporating modern cultural reference. This is particularly notable in his choice of ‘holocaust’ as a term to define Leopold’s reign in the Congo, linking it with those for which Hitler and Stalin were responsible and which modern audiences find it easier to identify with.

Leopold tried to ensure that his crimes would never make it into the history books and shortly after the turnover of the colony he burned most of the Congo state, “I will give them my Congo,” he said, “but they have no right to know what I did there.”[9] White writes that there can be no explanation in history without a story, and that can be no story without some plot that makes it a certain sort of story – the provision of a plot-structure by the historian.[10] This perspective leads to the centrality of the historian, and the power that they have in interpreting a story. The very construction of popular history is reliant on the creation of narrative, as its nature is based in easy consumption and comprehension of history by wider audiences, and it is often written with express purpose toward a specific interpretation. There is little doubt that Hochschild viewed his book as a quest to bring to justice the atrocities of King Leopold and impress upon his audience the gravity of what had happened, continuing the work of the human rights movement that ended the reign of Leopold. The use of narrative provided Hochschild by which to transform a chronicle of events into a history understood by its readers as a story of a particular kind.[11] This exposes the problems of popular histories, as due to narrativization playing such a major role in their construction, so does the personal interpretation of the author. In the case of Hochschild, he is fighting for justice and condemning Leopold’s reign in the Congo, but the same elements which make this narrative could be equally used to promote less honorable histories.




[1] Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980), 9.

[2] Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa (Boston: Mariner, 1999),3.

[3] White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” 16.

[4] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (1973), 293.

[5]White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” 5.

[6] Ibid., 8.

[7] White, “Interpretation in History,” 302.

[8] White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,”  8.

[9] Hochschild, 294.

[10] White, “Interpretation in History,”  297.

[11] White, “Interpretation in History,”  296.

The Fall of Berlin 1945, Reviewed by Jonathan


Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945 explores the final battles between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the Red Army advanced towards Berlin. As a military history book, The Fall of Berlin 1945 attempts to reconstruct the battle scenes in its narrative and uses testimony from the soldiers who fought in the battles to portray the brutality of war. It explores the thought process of German and Soviet generals and leaders who were often involved in political conflict. Beevor’s book begins with a quote from Albert Speer, known as Hitler’s architect, after the end of the Second World War: “History always emphasizes terminal events.”[1] Even though Speer might be disappointed that Nazi Germany’s downfall would overshadow its rise, Beevor argues that the fall of Nazi Germany is fascinating due to the large amount of information that it reveals about the regime.[2] Indeed, the downfall of the Third Reich revealed the nature of its politicians and generals. Overarching themes in the book include the murder of civilians or soldiers who were unwilling to fight against the Soviets, the determination of Adolf Hitler to continue his resistance, and the brutality inflicted by Soviet soldiers on German women. Even though The Fall of Berlin 1945 is intended for an audience with a general understanding of the Second World War and is heavily biased against the Red Army’s conduct, it provides a unique and valuable account of civilian and military life in Germany towards the end of the war, using a rich amount of testimony from people who directly experienced the war’s violence.

Although Beevor is primarily concerned with the details of the battles between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, he does not use a lot of statistics to describe the resources possessed by each side or the casualties of war. Instead, he uses testimony from the survivors of war to portray the violence of warfare as well as the lives of soldiers who were still facing death even as the war was drawing to an end. Up until the fall of Berlin, Nazi Germany continued to use propaganda to convince its people and soldiers the possibility of victory and the necessity to continue fighting.[3] The SS mercilessly executed many people who wanted to surrender or tried to flee from the battleground, but Beevor does not hesitate to point out the hypocrisy in their behavior, noting an incident where two SS women who threatened soldiers to continue attacking completely disappeared at the end of a skirmish.[4] His narrative emphasizes that war was fought by individuals who had their own story to tell and could think for themselves. From Beevor’s point of view, they were not simply pawns sacrificed by generals and politicians of totalitarian regimes for military objectives; their stories help him construct a well-rounded understanding of the battles in eastern Germany and how the mentality of soldiers contributed to the final results.

Politicians and generals, however, were also important characters as they ultimately had the power to decide the course of history. In addition to the strategies drafted by Soviet and German generals, Beevor also analyzes the rivalry between Ivan Konev and Georgy Zhukov and the struggle for power between Heinrich Himmler and Martin Bormann.[5] However, Adolf Hitler received most of the book’s attention as Beevor spends a considerable portion of his book for his narrative on final days of Hitler, which included his determination to remain in Berlin, his declining health, and his death.[6] Notably, Beevor even provides an analysis of Hitler’s sexuality and the possibility of sexual contact between him and Eva Braun.[7] His writing on Hitler is catered to an audience that is curious about the private life of politicians who tried to construct a great image of themselves in history and suppressed their less desired traits from appearing in public. His approach to political figures is similar to his approach to warfare: he is interested in the details that contribute to a general understanding of the person or the event but are usually forgotten by history. His information may be very interesting to an audience who has a general understanding of the end of the Second World War, but information such as Hitler’s sexuality may be superfluous for an academic who is studying military history or the reasons behind the downfall of Nazi Germany.

The violence that the Red Army inflicted on civilians, particularly women, during the war was one of the most controversial subjects in the history of the Second World War and Beevor clearly shows his disdain towards the actions of Soviet soldiers, their indiscrimination towards women (regardless of their profession, ethnicity, nationality, or even age), and the ineffectiveness of officers who were supposed to regulate the behavior of their soldiers.[8] He categorizes the “evolution” of rape into four stages in order to demonstrate the blurring of lines between rape and coercion as women volunteered themselves to Soviet soldiers in order to have food and to avoid gang rape.[9] The categorization also provides a glimpse into the shortage of goods and the fear of violence in Germany after the occupation of Berlin, portraying the horrible consequences of war to the reader. Beevor, however, makes assessments on the psychology of Soviet soldiers without providing evidence to support his claims. He argues that Soviet soldiers involved in rape were “satisfying a sexual need after all their time in the front,” while noting that “undisciplined soldiers without fear of retribution can rapidly revert to a primitive male sexuality.”[10] He blames the prevalence of collective rape on the culture of the Red Army, even claiming that “the practice of collective rape can even become a form of bonding process.”[11] While these assertions attempt to reconstruct the Soviet soldier as a human being brutalized by war and to portray the primitiveness still existing in human nature, they also reflect Beevor’s animosity towards the Soviet Union and his determination to portray the average Soviet soldier in a negative manner. Although he occasionally mentions the kindness of the Red Army towards German civilians, his circumscribed narrative on the Red Army’s behavior implies that Soviet presence in Germany was equated with violence and fear.[12]

Beevor constructs his narrative with interviews, diaries, and unpublished accounts from many people who experienced the war. These sources provided valuable information on the chaos throughout eastern Germany and the strategies used in warfare. Information related to military affairs originated from soldiers and commanders of both the Soviet Union and Germany (including foreigners who also fought on behalf of Nazi Germany).[13] Many German civilians, including women who were raped by Soviet soldiers, also provided accounts of their own experiences in the war.[14] Although Beevor uses a slightly excessive amount of testimony that does not necessarily strengthen his arguments, these sources are crucial for his analysis of German society during the war and their relationship with politicians, officers, and Soviet soldiers. In addition, many of Beevor’s primary source documents originated from Russian and German archives and were complemented by French, American, and Swedish documents that provided some information on the American perspective of the war as well as French and Swedish presence in Germany.[15] Beevor, however, could have reduced the amount of testimony from German civilians and used more American and British documents to expand on his discussion of the Western Front, which is unfortunately very limited. The Western Front was also important for the fall of Berlin, since Stalin was motivated to occupy Berlin before the Western Allies arrived and many Nazi officials wanted to surrender to the USA in order to avoid the brutal treatment that they expected from the Soviet Union.[16]

The Fall of Berlin 1945 is a narrative that successfully portrays civilian and military life in Germany towards the end of the Second World War and provides historians with valuable information on the thought process of Soviet and German soldiers as well as German civilians. Beevor’s introduction emphasizes that “one should be extremely wary of any generalization concerning the conduct of individuals… Human behavior to a large extent mirrors the utter unpredictability of life or death.”[17] To a large extent, he successfully avoids generalizing the behavior of different social groups and uses testimony from many distinct individuals in order to create an overarching understanding of the events happening in eastern Germany. History was ultimately created by the seemingly insignificant people who might be dispensable. Beevor’s work reminds historians that war was conducted by individual soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives and resulted in the suffering of individual civilians. Without these people, politics and warfare would not be able to take place. Despite the fact that Beevor’s work has certain flaws and includes many superfluous details that may not necessarily be valuable to a professional academic, it is a great book for a casual reader who wants to learn more about the reasons behind the downfall of a large nation or for a historian who is seeking for more information about war’s effect on society.

[1] Speer Interrogation, 22 May 1945, 740.0011 EW / 5-145, National Archives II, College Park, Maryland, United States of America, quoted in Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945 (New York: Viking, 2002), xxxiii.

[2] Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945, xxxiii.

[3] Ibid., 133.

[4] Ibid., 123, 336.

[5] Ibid., 42, 165.

[6] Ibid., 58, 153, 359.

[7] Ibid., 253.

[8] Ibid., 326-327.

[9] Ibid., 414.

[10] Ibid., 326.

[11] Ibid., 327.

[12] Ibid., 326.

[13] Ibid., 433-434.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 432-433.

[16] Ibid., 294.

[17] Ibid., xxxv.

Hamilton: A Revolutionary Manumission Abolitionist?, Reviewed by Ilya



Throughout the biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow usually gives readers a choice of interpretation, placing different versions of events which are debatable “within [their] ‘context’”, “bath[ing] [them] in a common ‘atmosphere’”.[1] He pays great attention to details and does not attempt to integrate Hamilton’s story in “a single process of development” or display his data as “functions of general laws of cause and effect”[2], Instead, he collects facts rather than trying to integrate them into the narrative of progress. Thus, according to Hayden White’s “Theory of Interpretation in History”, Chernow uses a satirical mode of emplotment, a contextualist mode of explanation, and a liberal mode of ideological implication.[3] However, throughout the book Hamilton is described as a “staunch”, “fierce”, “unwavering”, “uncompromising”, “fervent”, and “committed” abolitionist.[4] The use of the strong language that implies Hamilton’s true, selfless and emotional involvement in the case, is supported by evidence that suggests that his anti-slavery talk might have been populist, or dictated purely by his financial vision. However, such options are disregarded by Chernow, whose clear-cut case for Hamilton as a selfless abolitionist serves as “magnifying glass”[5] for the reader, a cold hard fact in his contextualist explanation. However, on such occasions, Chernow’s narrative switches to a romanticized plot, idiographic explanation, and anarchist mode of ideological implication[6], as it depicts Hamilton as a sort of a knight in shining armour fighting for his ideals against the system. I would argue that by making the narrative switch in a manner that is hardly perceivable for the majority of his readership, Chernow betrays his reader by making him unquestionably believe in selfless nature of Hamilton’s fight against slavery.

The concept of historical interpretation can be summarized as “exlusi[on of] certain facts”, arguably “irrelevant to [the] narrative”, and “filling in the gaps in […] information on inferential and speculative grounds”, where facts are lacking.[7] Chernow’s approach to historical interpretation throughout the biography is essentially “atmospheric historicism” or contextualism. He places facts in the general context of the time[8] and this permits the reader to make conclusions about them. For example, a historiographical debate whether Hamilton was born in 1757 or 1755 is presented with an explanation of evidence that supports both dates. 1757 was “used by Hamilton himself”, while in 1768, “a probate court in St. Croix reported him as thirteen”, suggesting 1755 as the year of his birth.[9] Moreover, the irony, a supporting trope of satirical mode of emplotment, closely related to contextualist explanation, comes to play in an assessment of Hamilton’s words that he is “a youth about seventeen” as “an adolescent way to say he was sixteen”.[10] Although Chernow concludes  that 1755 is the preferable interpretation because of the preference of “the integrity of contemporary over retrospective evidence”,[11] he leads his readers to expect that questionable facts will be evaluated based on their compatibility with “atmosphere” and trends of the given period, just like contextualism implies.[12] The other speculation, ”that Hamilton was an illegitimate son of” Thomas Stevens, is not entirely refuted. Instead, it is also placed in context. If it was true, it would explain Alexander’s distanced relationship with his brother and father both named James Hamilton, and his proximity to Thomas Stevens and his son, Edward.[13] This trend of liberal interpretation, which permits many versions of questionable data to be included, runs throughout the book, so the popular history reader might assume that the facts represented from a singular viewpoint are unquestionable. However, the use of romanticized narrative in Chernow’s discourse of Hamilton’s abolitionist ideas goes against this natural assumption.

The romanticist approach to history is represented by an idiographic approach of “magnifying glasses” for the reader, where a process is said to be better explained and specified[14]. Chernow argues that “Hamilton’s staunch abolitionism formed an integral feature of [his] economic vision”[15], and never considers the possibility that his abolitionism was a consequence of his economic vision. Of Hamilton’s St. Croix apprenticeship in Kortright and Cruger, a company that handled, among other shipments, slaves, Chernow writes that the cause of later Hamiltonian abolitionism was “a permanent detestation of the system”, obtained from St. Croix trade.[16] The evidence that he ignores is “the frequency with which […] Cruger placed newspaper notices to catch runaway slaves,”[17] that might have provoked Hamilton’s doubt in a profitability of such system in the North. Indeed, in Harvey Amani Whitfield’s analysis of post-independence slavery in the North, we find that “even the youngest slaves [there] had valuable skills” and that “versatile and multi-occupational [slave] labour” dominated “along the Hudson River”.[18] Thus, “slaveholders greatly valued their work”, to the point where one slave could cost more than four oxen and one heifer[19]. Therefore, the escape of a skilled slave in the North cost more than in the South, where the monotone task of collecting cash crops did not require such a diversity of skills. Moreover, “the use of free black labour, which began in 1780s […] made chattel bondage unnecessary”,[20] as it enabled a use of institutional racism to push the salaries of Black workers down so they can be used to do similar tasks without a risk of escaping from their owners for very low remuneration. That Hamilton’s acquaintance with the high costs of Northern slaves’ escapes did not provoke Chernow to think that abolition might have fit with Hamilton’s financial program is telling. Later on, he dismisses the alleged cynicism of Hamilton’s approach to the creation of a Black battalion. “If we do not make use of [Blacks] in this way, the enemy probably will,”[21] writes Hamilton to the Congress. Chernow characterizes such writing as “plac[ing] political realism at the service of a larger ethical framework”.[22] Hamilton is favourably compared to Jefferson. Chernow describes Hamilton as someone who believed “in the genetic equality of blacks and whites”[23], as if being less racist than Jefferson was a serious achievement. Hamilton’s resolution on gradual manumission presented to New York Manumission Society in 1785 was “too strong to be swallowed by their peers”[24], which Chernow perceives as a further proof of fierce abolitionism. However, it may have been made so strong on purpose, to reaffirm Hamilton’s status of a deeply moral person without changing anything within the existing system. In fact, Hamilton’s opportunist populist tendencies do not escape Chernow’s satirical treatment. Hamilton, according to him “was trying to have it both ways”, when scaring Southerners that Jefferson might use his fake “sympathy for the slaves [to] emancipate” them.[25] In the end, Hamilton’s opportunism was already present when he wrote “his way out of poverty” at the age of seventeen by writing a letter describing the storm in Nevis.[26] Back then, “[l]est anyone suspect that an unfeeling Hamilton was capitalizing on mass misfortune, [it was] noted that [he] had at first declined to publish it”, remarks Chernow ironically. However, all his irony disappears as he points to the selfless nature of Hamilton’s abolitionism again and again, ignoring his own evidence.

In his views on interpretation, Hayden White permits considerable leeway, acknowledging possibility that there are “as many types of interpretations as there are historians”.[27] However, such a possibility would be extremely worrisome.  A switch from satirical, contextualist interpretation that permits the pluralism of explanations to an idiographic, romantic representation of abolitionism  makes Chernow’s debatable claims of sincerity of Hamilton’s anti-slavery sentiments acquire a certain degree of validity. For readers u unfamiliar with the historiography and with Hayden White’s thinking would probably not see the switch from presenting multiple viewpoints on questionable opinions to a romantic idealistic dogmatism. Since Chernow’s writing was mostly of impeccable quality and interest, popular histories like his deserve a chance to be told but require  a more responsible approach to treatment of collected evidence. Otherwise, speculation such as Chernow’s will make people believe that one of the Founding Fathers was definitely a “revolutionary manumission abolitionist” that genuinely thought that the Americans will “never be truly free until those in bondage have the same rights as [them]” [28], a questionable opinion that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton musical on Broadway borrowed from Chernow’s book. A questionable opinion that millions have heard and song along with.

[1] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary History 4(2) (1973), 301.

[2] Ibid., 302.

[3] Ibid., 307.

[4] Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 6, 23, 121, 495, 629, 730.

[5] White, 299.

[6] Ibid., 307.

[7] White, 281.

[8] Ibid., 301.

[9] Chernow, 16-17.

[10] Ibid., 17.

[11] Ibid., 17.

[12] White, 300.

[13] Chernow, 27-28.

[14] White, 299.

[15] Chernow, 6.

[16] Ibid., 31-33.

[17] Ibid., 32.

[18] Harvey Amani Whitfield, North to Bondage: Loyalist Slavery in the Maritimes (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016), 23-24.

[19] Ibid., 50, 52.

[20] Ibid., 108.

[21] Chernow, 122.

[22] Ibid., 122.

[23] Ibid., 210.

[24] Ibid., 215.

[25] Ibid., 515.

[26] Ibid., 37.

[27] White, 307.

[28] Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, Hamilton: The Revolution (New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 27.

Red Army Film Review, Reviewed by Sabrina


The story that was heard all over the world was about a group of scrappy and amateur American college hockey players who competed for gold against the robotic Soviet Union hockey team, at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York. Eventually the American team won and the nation dubbed as what it was; a “Miracle on Ice”. Gabe Polsky’s documentary, Red Army, offers a different narrative than what most North Americans have already heard about the “bad” Russians. “Miracle on Ice” was merely a hiccup in the Soviet domination of ice hockey from the 1970s to the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991. Polsky, the son of Soviet émigrés, brings to light the voices of the silenced Soviets, who were born and raised to become patriotic symbols despite harsh living conditions, to break the confirmed stereotypes of an alien nation. This review will argue that Red Army is a useful example of popular history that should be added to historians’ understanding of the Soviet Union narrative of national identity through sports propaganda, with an intimate re-telling of the stories of past by the silenced Soviet heroes.

Despite featuring interviews of key Soviet hockey players, their significant others and hockey experts, the documentary is centered on an interview with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, who is undeniably one of the finest hockey players to come out of the Soviet hockey system. Slava Fetisov is seen as a national hero, having played twenty-three seasons of Soviet League, National Hockey League (NHL) and international hockey. Along with being a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, he has won two Olympic gold medals and two Stanley Cups. Fetisov’s story begins as a boy living in a country that was ruined by World War II. Despite such circumstances, he claims he was happy because he played hockey, a game he viewed as a way to escape reality.

Hockey was the most popular sport in the Soviet Union. Boys were recruited at a very young age to train for a well-organized system with the man who was deemed as the “father of Soviet hockey”, Anatoli Tarasov. Tarasov formulated the Soviet hockey system by creating a training method from studying ballet and an on-ice strategy from playing chess. He saw hockey as an intricate game of passing the puck to emphasize comradeship. Along with tight control over the players’ lives, the playing strategy worked in helping the Soviet team dominate hockey internally by winning twelve world championships and four Olympic gold medals. These accomplishments indicated that the Soviet hockey team represented the peak of what the Soviet Union had achieved. Hockey was not just a form of pure entertainment. It was to demonstrate their superiority in the political system through puck-based propaganda.

Prior to the 1980 Winter Olympics, Tarasov was dismissed after angering Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev then assigned his prodigy, Viktor Tikhonov, to continue Tarasov’s methods of training players. However, in contrast to the beloved Tarasov, Tikhonov was detested by most of the players. In the aftermath of Lake Placid, Tikhonov rebuilt the team around  young players, including then-22 year old Slava Fetisov, who served as team captain. The core of the team consisted of the Russian Five, a unit of three forwards – Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov—and two defensemen, Alexei Kasatonov and Fetisov himself.

The heart of the documentary focuses on the final years of the Soviet hockey team. Their success occurred during the economic stagnation of the Soviet Union, which launched reforms including perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) under General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. As the East was opening to the West, there was a financial incentive for players to play for the NHL. Publically, Tikhonov stated that players were allowed to leave, but privately, he was pressuring the players to stay. The conflicts between the lure of the NHL and loyalty to the homeland eventually tore the Russian Five apart. Furthermore, the transition from Soviet hockey to North American hockey was difficult for Fetisov and other Soviet players. North Americans found the Soviet style of playing hockey odd. They were unaccustomed to the more physical style of play in the NHL. Furthermore negative stereotypes against the Soviets generated animosity and hostility towards them. For Fetisov, it was only after being traded and reunited with players who were trained under the same Soviet hockey system, that he was able to adjust to playing for the NHL.

A decade after the disintegration of the USSR, Fetisov and some of his fellow players returned to a rapidly changing Russia with a different mentality and culture. By the early 2000s, Russia had embraced capitalism and materialism, which in turn created a growth in corruption and poverty in the large cities. Fetisov links the country’s crisis to hockey, criticizing newer hockey players for focusing on the materialistic aspects of hockey, which originated with the  West, and which conflicted Soviet national identity. Despite being mistreated, it is clear that Fetisov yearns for the glory days of Soviet hockey.

Polsky aims for Western audiences to understand the Soviet patriotism by shining light on the voices of the unheard Soviet heroes. Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued that history has been silenced by the more powerful actors and narrators. In this case, the West had no knowledge of what shaped the Soviet Union and its people. Soviets were not allowed to leave their country unless it was for diplomatic reasons or international competitions. Thus, how the West viewed the Soviets was what was presented to them. Members of the K.G.B. used their power to silence the hockey players. Polsky believes that using the voices of the silenced will invoke a more emotional narrative of the experience in living and training in the Soviet Union.

Trouillot states that silences are “inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing.”[1] Polsky attempts to fill in those missing parts about the Soviet narrative of hockey with the interviews and clips that serve as testaments. One of the silent narratives that is revealed is the brutal control the Soviet government held over the players. In 1979, the group made a trip to Canada accompanied by KGB agents. The agents, one of whom Polsky interviews, says that they were assigned to control the players and prevent any “escapes” to the West. Fetisov says “The special people who traveled with us, they give you your passport before you get to passport control; and they collect the passport when you cross the border.”[2] Fetisov’s wife, Lada, recounts that eleven months in a year, they were forced to be training at a camp. “In the Soviet period, the individual had to obey very strictly and had no say. If he tried to have a say that could end his career,” describes Fetisov’s teammate Vladimir Krutov.[3] Tikhonov would not allow the players to leave the training camps even under the most extreme circumstances, such as an ill parent. Fetisov recalls that if the players did not obey, then Tikhonov would punish severely by cutting their salaries or barring them from playing the game. When Fetisov was adamant in leaving to play for the NHL under his own terms without KGB interference in salary profits, he was barred from playing for any other ice hockey teams in the Soviet Union. His wife recalls Fetisov once being attacked, handcuffed, and then beaten until he chose to compromise with Tikhonov.

Another silent narrative that is revealed is despite a break to the West, most of these players were still attached to the patriotic narrative of the Soviet Union. When Fetisov speaks of the frustrations with playing for a league with a different system of playing the game, Polsky presents a clip of a Toronto Maple Leafs player attempting to engage in a fight with a confused Slava Fetisov. Fetisov comments on the North American style of hockey as, “There was no style.”[4] When Fetisov comments on the lack of patriotism in current Russian hockey players, Polsky presents a clip of Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin shootings pucks at Russian dolls filled with Russian dressings. When Polsky asks “Would you rather it be the Soviet Union again?” Fetisov refuses to answer the question directly but replies with “It’s not a proper question.”[5] The silent truth is that these players were shaped by the Soviet system. It is impossible to get rid of the past. That is who they are.

Red Army should be regarded as a popular history as it appeals to the mass by using emotional narratives to humanize the Soviet players. At times, it was difficult to un-silence the already silenced. When questions became too personal, they chose not to answer. When Polsky questions Fetisov’s best friend, Alexei Kasatonov on why the Russian Five were torn apart, he is given small sentenced answers such as, “Next question.”[6] Instead of pushing him, Polsky closes in on Kasatonov to capture the glimpse of sadness on his face. Similarly, when asked to recount the finals at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, Fetisov answers Polsky with several expressions varying from irritation to pensiveness. Instead, Polsky relies on showing clips of the original broadcast of the game where players clearly looked frustrated. In that sense, Polsky attempts to fill in the gaps of the narrative with emotional music and clips.

In respect to Trouillot’s argument, silences are inherit in history. The story of the Soviet Union hockey team is not complete as there are still parts that are missing. From the Russian Five, only three players were interviewed. Igor Larionov played a major impact on Fetisov’s career in the NHL. However, he was not interviewed. Furthermore, Tikhonov refused to be interviewed for the documentary. Instead, Polsky chooses to adopt Fetisov’s narrative of Tikhonov. The former coach is presented to the audience through a series of clips portraying him as a mockery. One clip features an angry Tikhonov yelling at one his players during a hockey game. Another clip shows an announcer claiming that a player once said that if he ever needed a heart transplant, they would want Tikhonov’s because he had never used it. Polsky intercepts scenes of Tikhonov’s iron fist with other scenes of Russian bears playing hockey at a circus. The background music is humorous, even featuring a laugh track. Polsky portrays Tikhonov as what Fetisov sees him to be, a stooge for the KGB who gains his position as coach due to nepotism. Therefore it is acknowledged that the documentary may portray some bias against Viktor Tikhonov, who did play a significant role in the success of the Russian Five.

Red Army is a popular history as it aims to understand an emotional Soviet narrative of devotion to the nation through sports domination. Americans viewed “Miracle on Ice” as one of the most memorable moments in sports history. It was a “David and Goliath” matchup where the much inexperienced American hockey team took home the gold. Coincidentally, the game occurred during a period of rising tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, when the latter invaded Afghanistan. To the Russian, a win was a much needed victory against the “enemy”. Polsky makes it clear that Red Army is simply not a sports documentary. It is a story of the people who were born in the Soviet Union and shaped by the Soviet system, who then cultivated hockey as a symbol of patriotism.

[1] Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the past: power and the production of history. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, p. 37

[2] Polsky, Gabe. 2014. Red Army, USA, Gabriel Polsky Productions

[3] Red Army

[4] Red Army

[5] Red Army

[6] Red Army

Les Ordres, Reviewed by Charles


L’histoire peut se présenter sous plusieurs formes. Au contraire de certains domaines plus spécifiques, l’histoire semble contenir une portée universelle. Il est clair que les académiciens de ce champ d’études ne détiennent pas un monopole sur le domaine. Pourtant, ce sont les plus qualifiés pour entreprendre cette mission délicate qu’est l’interprétation et la transmission du passé. L’universalité de l’histoire amène donc bon nombre de personnes moins qualifiées à entreprendre pareille tâche, pour une myriade de raisons, en s’adressant à des publics tout autant variés, à l’opposé de l’érudit écrivant presque strictement pour ses camarades intellectuels. Dans ce texte, je tâcherai de présenter une forme particulière d’histoire dite populaire,  soit l’utilisation du passé pour un projet politique. Dans le film Les Ordres (1974), le réalisateur Michel Brault propose une démarche historique tout à fait légitime visant à faire revivre les événements de la Crise d’Octobre, les inscrire dans la mémoire collective, et en dénoncer les abus de pouvoir.

Pour bien comprendre l’œuvre de Brault, il est important d’en saisir le contexte, soit la Crise d’Octobre, certainement un des événements majeurs, et des plus polarisants, de l’histoire québécoise et canadienne. À la suite de la montée du Front de Libération du Québec dans les années 1960 et de l’augmentation de la fréquence de leurs attentats, à l’époque de la Révolution pourtant dite tranquille, une cellule plus radicale du FLQ décida d’enlever successivement le diplomate britannique James Cross puis le Ministre du Travail québécois Pierre Laporte en octobre 1970. La crise populaire qui s’ensuivit força le maire de Montréal Jean Drapeau, ainsi que le Premier Ministre du Québec Robert Bourassa, à demander de l’aide du fédéral et du Premier Ministre Pierre Elliott Trudeau. La loi sur les mesures de guerre fut décrétée; des centaines de Montréalais furent arrêtés sans mandat. Avec le décès tragique de Laporte le lendemain, la crise se résorba peu à peu, alors que les personnes arrêtées furent libérées au compte-gouttes.

            Les Ordres relate l’histoire de ces personnes arrêtées, de manière injuste dans la grande majorité des cas, et qui passèrent des jours, voire des semaines, en prison. Certains subirent même la torture pour des crimes qu’ils n’avaient pas commis. Le film suit les histoires croisées de quelques personnages, principalement celles d’un père au foyer, d’une travailleuse sociale, d’un syndicaliste et de sa femme ainsi que d’un médecin dont la femme était sur le point d’accoucher, de leur arrestation jusqu’à leur libération.

La question fondamentale à se poser concerne les intentions de Brault au moment de produire son film. Dans les soubresauts de la Crise d’Octobre, celui-ci avait rencontré des gens qui avaient été fait prisonniers, puis avaient été marginalisés à leur sortie pour cette raison. La réinsertion dans la société leur était difficile, d’autant plus que plusieurs devaient vivre avec un traumatisme lié à leur passage en prison. Le réalisateur décida donc de se pencher davantage sur la question. Brault rencontra cinquante personnes qui avaient été emprisonnées afin d’entendre leurs histoires. Son film fut basé sur les quelques cinquante heures d’enregistrement qu’il tira de ces entrevues. L’angle initial de son film était donc de faire entendre ces gens, de leur redonner une crédibilité sociale. De manière plus profonde, « en réalisant son film, M. Brault avait pour intention première de lutter contre l’oubli de l’événement et son refoulement par la mémoire collective »[1].

Pour ce faire, Brault utilisa un type de narration très particulier. Il faut comprendre que le cinéaste était une figure de proue internationale du cinéma-vérité, style habituellement plus attribué au documentaire et qui visait à tout capter, à montrer une image de l’instantané, plus authentique. Malgré le fait que le film fut présenté sous forme de fiction, le but avoué était de représenter une réalité bien concrète, à hauteur humaine, sans lyrisme ni sentimentalisme exacerbés. Les personnages du film correspondent donc à des gens qui avaient réellement vécu les expériences présentées. D’ailleurs, au début du film, les acteurs s’adressent à la caméra et présentent leur personnage respectif, pour illustrer cette distanciation face au personnage, pour illustrer qu’ils ne sont que des courroies de transmission entre les événements et le public. Ainsi, le public suit un parcours qui semble fictif, mais ne peut s’extirper du fait que ce qu’il voit à l’écran s’est effectivement produit. Au lieu de produire une narration analytique des événements, de présenter le contexte au niveau macroscopique, Brault fit plonger l’audience directement au niveau microscopique, au cœur même de la Crise. Il choisit de montrer le pan le plus concret pour prouver l’innocence des victimes. Incidemment, le fait de montrer à l’audience la violence subie dans des situations où elle n’était pas nécessaire exposait une critique à un niveau plus élevé, une dénonciation des politiques mises en place par les gouvernements au pouvoir.

Il incombe maintenant de se demander si les arguments de Brault sont efficaces. À mon avis, Brault accomplit son objectif premier d’illustrer la réalité difficile des prisonniers. Il est clair qu’il existe un biais du réalisateur, ainsi que des témoins, dans le choix des histoires montrées. Pourtant Brault ne mit pas de l’avant le sensationnalisme aux dépens de l’authenticité. Par exemple, le sort le plus difficile réservé à un prisonnier est la mise en scène d’une fausse peine de mort par les gendarmes pour le faire parler, événement traumatisant pour ce père de famille. Dans ce cas-ci, l’histoire semblait si extrême et invraisemblable que Brault s’était décidé à ne pas l’utiliser, malgré le fait qu’il s’agissait bien sûr d’une histoire percutante, jusqu’à ce qu’un autre témoin lui fasse part d’une histoire similaire, ce qui procura à l’anecdote plus de crédibilité.

Il m’apparaît évident que certaines arrestations puissent avoir être utiles à la résolution de la Crise, mais ce point ne contrevient pas à la pertinence de dénonciation des abus de pouvoir. Il est certain que la loi sur les mesures de guerre contribua grandement à la fin de la Crise, mais ses critiques dénoncèrent plutôt le fait qu’il n’était pas nécessaire d’aller aussi loin, que la menace réelle ne justifiait pas de telles mesures. Par incidence, si Brault choisit de montrer les cas où des gens furent victimes d’abus de pouvoir, ce choix m’apparaît légitime et indépendant du fait que certaines arrestations étaient justifiables.

Dans son intention plus grande de contestation politique, Brault fit polémique. Pourtant, c’est à ce niveau d’interprétation que le film prend sens. Malgré le fait que Brault se soit fait reproché par certains, comme Pierre Vallières, éminent felquiste, de ne pas avoir suffisamment critiqué les gouvernements et la violence[2], il m’apparaît au contraire que le sort cruel des personnages qu’il présente apporte une dimension universelle de contestation politique et de rejet des abus de pouvoir. Brault rejoignit ici la pensée de Michel-Rolph Trouillot quant aux silences du passé. Dans cette grande Crise qui secoua le Québec, Brault constata que le débat négligeait les victimes premières et décida de faire en sorte que leur mémoire et leur implication dans la Crise soient perpétuées. S’il prétendait dénoncer les abus de pouvoir, je n’en vois pas d’inconvénient, puisqu’il y en eut réellement. Il ne proposait pas une œuvre qui se voulait juge de qui de René Lévesque, Vallières, Bourassa ou Trudeau avait raison, mais présentait plutôt une critique légitime axée sur un angle spécifique – les victimes d’enlèvements et de traitements injustes –  et basé sur des sources fiables – leurs témoignages.

Bref, Les Ordres ne peut pas être traité en tant que pièce historique aux standards élevés de méthodologie. Pourtant, comme Trouillot le souligne, un des objectifs de l’histoire est justement de faire perpétrer les souvenirs du passé qui sont placés sous silence, que ce soit de manière volontaire ou de manière structurelle, dans la mémoire collective, pour que ne se reproduisent pas des abus de pouvoir comme ce fut le cas lors de la Crise d’Octobre. Dans cette optique, l’œuvre de Brault vise un large public encore traumatisé par les événements de 1970, et réussit au final à lui rappeler des événements du passé, de les dénoncer et de faire réagir ledit public. Ainsi, malgré la présentation d’une forme d’histoire dite populaire, Michel Brault parvient à obtenir une rigueur suffisante pour faire passer un message pertinent et nécessaire, à travers un des chefs-d’œuvre du cinéma québécois.

[1] Christian Poirier, Le cinéma québécois, à la recherche d’une identité?, 112.

[2] Michel Brault, Œuvres 1958-1974, Textes et témoignages, 60-64.

Did the Irish Really Save Civilization?, Reviewed by Alex



How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe written by Thomas Cahill, is an interesting chronicle of the role the Irish, ‘the island of saints and scholars’, uniquely played as conservators and shapers of the medieval civilization and mind. Cahill argues that although retrospectively history often appears to be just one catastrophe after another simply synthesizing “a narrative of human pain”, that history is also a “narrative of grace”.[1] Precisely, history is also the “recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else…gave something beyond what was required of the circumstances”.[2] Working within this perspective, Cahill ventures to display that it was the Irish, after the fall of the Roman Empire, which took up this valiant position of service to all, exemplifying this ‘narrative of grace’. He tries to show that the Irish were essentially ‘great gift-givers’, that arrived on the scene in a time of crisis, aiding in the transition and transformation of civilization. Rather than undertaking a conventional historical endeavour of examining a static historical occurrence he attempts to examine a history in movement – the transition from the fall of Rome to the Dark ages through the lens of the Irish.

This work puts forward quite an interesting and strong thesis, but Cahill fails to proportionately support and defend such a bold thesis. Cahill’s thesis revolves around the idea that the the evangelization of Ireland through St. Patrick Ireland became a hot bed of monasticism and thus a centre of learning and literacy. Ireland’s historical openness and interest in competing ideas allowed this tide of learning to have a great breadth, “they brought into their libraries everything they could lay their hands on. They were resolved to shut out nothing.[3] Thus, as the Dark Ages began and the burgeoning Irish monastic communities began to disperse throughout continental Europe they brought their coveted books with them. Many of which had been lost to continental Europe during the fall of Rome and barbarian and the Germanic pillaging sprees. Cahill argues that it was through this preservation of Western European civilization through books that the Irish essentially saved civilization. However, this argument is predicated upon a tremendous ‘what if’ statement. In Cahill’s words: “What is about to be lost in the century of barbarian invasions is literature – the content of classical civilization. Had the destruction been complete – had every library been disassembled and every book burned – we might have lost Homer…all of classical history…Plato and Aristotle and all greek philosophy… we would have lost the taste and smell of a whole civilization”.[4] Here we realize that Cahill is working from a grand assumption: that if it weren’t for the Irish all the books which upheld Roman and western European culture and civilization would have been burned. Cahill fails to address the counterfactual observation. Historically speaking we do not certainly know that all the books on continental Europe crucial to civilization were in fact burned. Therefore, it seems more appropriate to assert that the Irish played the role as preservers of Europe’s literary civilization, not saviours. Not to mention that Cahill entirely dilutes the Irish role in saving all of European civilization when he later states: “The Hebrew bible would have been saved without them, transmitted to out time by scattered communities of Jews. The Greek Bible, the Greek commentaries, and much of the literature of ancient Greece were well enough preserved at Byzantium”.[5] This seems to starkly call into question the validity of his previous statement of the total lose of “the content of classical civilization civilizations”.[6] The issue of weather an entire civilizations, ‘taste and smell’, can be encapsulated and continued through literature is a whole other problem, also not dealt with. Thus, Cahill began with a bold and grand claim, that the Irish “Single handily re-founded European civilization”[7], but it seems that as one progresses through the book, the cracks and weak spots begin to shine through with an eventual unbearable glare of suspicion developing.

Furthermore, a similar detractor to this work was the seemingly unfounded provocative  and polemic prose regularly present. The provocative nature of some of Cahill’s assertions are not worth criticizing, however their unfounded nature and complete lack of circumstantial evidence is worthy of critique. Cahill does honestly admit in his bibliography that “of course, some of the most deeply held things are sourceless – or rather, one can no longer remember where on first learned them”.[8] Rather than a logical or stylistic justification this coms across as a clever way of cloaking his explicitly personal, ideological, and politically driven assertions often of a moral nature. An example of this can be found in one of his many appraisals of St. Augustine: He [Augustine] subsequently writes the first Catholic justification for the state persecution of those in error…The doctrine he had enunciated will echo down the ages in the cruelest infamies, executed with the highest justification. Augustine, father of many firsts, is also father of the Inquisition”.[9] Cahill retrospectively simplifies a complex moral and theological doctrine, glazes over a centuries interlude of historical occurrences, applying a contemporary moral evaluation onto a historical event without providing any legitimate context. This is simply false causality, peddled off as a authoritative historical analysis. Moreover we see the shortcomings of his callous style in his assertion that after the edict of Milan “the vast majority of Christian coverts were fairly superficial people”.[10] To make such a claim without providing any sort of substantiating evidence or entering into the context of the time smells of a blinding personal motive for presenting such assertions in this manner. Thus, Cahill frequently cherry-picks historical occurrences, glazes over their importance, highlighting what he personally see as the significance worth drawing out and than proceeds to espouse grand historical connections for the purpose of his argument, all without producing a shred of historical evidence. Although this  strategy may sell copies, it does a great disservice to the historical discourse and to the innocent reader.

Cahill’s narrative and investigative technique of selecting figures from the different eras he chronicles as a point of reference is unique and of some value. Cahill uses this technique to humanize history, to reveal some of the nitty gritty nuances of the eras in question. This undertaking is an intriguing take on Marc Bloch’s sincere view that “behind the features of landscape, behind tools or machinery, behind what appear to be the most formalized written documents,… there are men, and it is men that history seeks to grasp”.[11] Cahill attempts this through his depictions of the poet and professor Ausonius of the 4th century, Queen Medb and the warrior Cuchulainn of the pre-christian barbaric Ireland, Augustine of Hippo a father of the Church and stalwart of orthodox Catholicism, and St. Patrick the evangelizer of the Irish. He uses each character as a lens through which to view the era of interest, and than contrasts the findings to the other characters of interest. This does indeed provide a very distinctive view of history, but it is fair to ask whether from this singularly narrow approach it is appropriate to proceed to make judgements and conclusions of a whole historical period when working from the scope of one individual historical figure.

This book, although having significant deficiencies and lacking the character of a truly historical work, nonetheless challenges the reader to think unconventionally about this historical occurrence. Cahill takes a unique approach to this historical narrative, examining history over centuries through a few figures, comparing, contrasting, juxtaposing, and drawing a great deal of theories from them. Some readers may find this endeavour quite refreshing, while others may find it wildly unfounded and frustratingly personalistic. However, in a dramatized and slightly fantasized way it makes a crucial transition in history more accessible to the common reader. Moreover, Cahill can be credited with substantiating his overarching thesis in his ‘Hinges of History’ series which this book is a part of, that history is a “narrative of grace”, in which someone gave something far beyond what was expected of them in their particular situation. Although with many flaws, Cahill does display that the isolated Irish went beyond their call of duty in this instance of history. In conclusion, I leave it to the reader to decide whether the merits of this unconventional voyage in history can be positively weighed against its lack of scholarly character. An individuals appreciation or dissatisfaction with this work will stem from what they expected to attain from readings it – a provocatively stylized dramatization of history, or a robust, empirically grounded historical discourse.

[1] Thomas Cahill,  How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Irelands Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), The Hinges of History.

[2] Cahill,  How The Irish Saved Civilization, Hinges of History.

[3] Cahill,  How The Irish Saved Civilization, 158.

[4] Cahill,  How The Irish Saved Civilization, 58.

[5] Cahill,  How The Irish Saved Civilization, 193.

[6] Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 58.

[7] Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 4.

[8] Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 221.

[9] Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 65.

[10] Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization, 125.

[11] Marc Bloch, The Historians Craft (New York: Vintage Books, 1953), 26.

Historical Narrative and Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Reviewed by Henri


In The Devil in the White City: Murder Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, Erik Larson tells the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair from the perspective of two vastly different characters: Daniel Burnham, the architect named director of works at the fair, and Henry Howard Holmes, the prolific serial killer who roamed its grounds. To Larson, Holmes serves as an ideal counterpoint to the sublime beauty of Burnham’s vision, a “devil” whose genius and novelty matched that of the “Fair That Changed America.”[1] The picture here is of a moment in time that marked a great historical transition, the beginning of an age of electric lighting, urban planning, and the modern serial killer. While Larson is a gifted storyteller, the narrative framework of The Devil in the White City fails to perform many of the functions one would expect of more conventional histories.

The book’s methodology, while providing an engrossing narrative, is lacking in analytical insight. Larson seems more interested in telling a good story than in putting forward an argument, despite the sensationalistic subtitle that the Chicago World’s Fair “changed America.” The work of Hayden White, who argues that all modern history writing involves some form of “narrativity,” can be of some use here. To White, all narratives contain certain common elements, such as chronology, and a system for “assigning importance or significance to events.”[2] Narrative provides an important explanatory function, as prioritizing certain facts over others can allow for the charting of causation, for instance. In addition, White sees narration as a means to render history “comprehensible.”[3] Larson’s work is certainly comprehensible, but it suffers from a paucity of analysis that seems at odds with the aims of narration as elucidated by White. If Larson is attempting to demonstrate the transformative effect of the Fair on American life, his narrative does not provide very much to support the idea. While it is true that the Fair saw a grouping of some of the most renowned architects in the American pantheon, like Louis Sullivan, Frederick Law Olmstead, and Daniel Burnham himself, there is not very much shown in the narrative to suggest that the Fair had a lasting and profound influence on American architecture, aside from a few words in the epilogue about the “City Beautiful” movement.[4] The Fair also hosted some of the great minds of turn-of-the-century America, and Larson duly provides a few juicy anecdotes regarding their attendance. Larson describes, for instance, the amusing circumstances surrounding the meeting of Buffalo Bill Cody and Susan B. Anthony, as well as the reason for Mark Twain’s absence at the Fair (he was ill and bedridden for the duration of his stay in Chicago).[5] Here again, however, the Fair’s larger role as a turning point in American history remains largely unproven. Where an academic history would opt for more focus, Larson meanders through the history of the Fair, seemingly structuring the book purely according to chronology. Rather than provide analysis, Larson’s narrative seems to preclude it.

Still, it could perhaps be said that Larson’s narrative functions as an “impressionistic” or “contextualist” history, as White calls those with less “formal coherency,” that is, those that attempt to provide a sense of the atmosphere of a period.[6] Even here, however, Larson’s treatment of Chicago during the World’s Fair seems inadequate. Most of the primary sources he draws upon consist of the writings of the likes of Burham, Sullivan, and Olmsted, as well as Holmes. This is unsurprising, seeing as these are the main characters of the book. What is disappointing in The Devil and the White City is perhaps not the research itself but Larson’s choice of characters. These are all, almost without exception, affluent, Anglo-American men. Cleavages of class, race, and gender make virtually no appearance in the text. When they do, it is usually as obstacles to the success of the Fair, as when a strike threatens to postpone opening day, or when a worker is killed during construction (a total of seven were killed).[7] Chicago’s squalor, its working conditions, and the state of its labour movement are mentioned in passing. The experience of the colonized peoples brought to the Fair to populate its exhibits, often little more than human zoos, is also largely absent, or relayed through the observations of their White American managers. The picture that emerges as a result is one of great men in smoke-filled rooms driving humanity forward. This is not to diminish the achievements of Burnham and his associates, only to say that the larger story of life in Chicago in the Gilded Age, the place Larson alludes to as “the Black City,” is insufficiently explored.[8] Even the dark counter-narrative of Holmes can be said to suffer from the same problem. Holmes, a physician fond of insurance fraud, moved for the most part in comfortably middle class circles.

One of the more unusual aspects of Larson’s book is its novelistic style. Where historians, and indeed even popular historians, typically narrate as impartial observers whose knowledge of their subjects is finite, Larson often assumes the perspective of the omniscient narrator who knows the most intimate thoughts and feelings of his characters. This is certainly not an academic approach, yet it manages to considerably enliven the events depicted, particularly those pertaining to Holmes. As a reader, just as one acknowledges that Larson is guilty of embellishment, one trusts that the picture he is trying to create is generally accurate, and that his writing is informed by concrete evidence, in the form of memoirs or interviews with witnesses. This, however, is not always the case, particularly where Holmes’ motives and the details of his murders are concerned. The death of one victim, Julia Conner, is particularly disturbing, Holmes deriving sexual satisfaction from murdering a pregnant mistress of his with chloroform. As Larson admits in his notes, however, many of details in the scene are purely speculative, as Julia Conner’s body was never found and Holmes never specified how she was killed beyond the fact that it was during a “criminal operation,” an abortion.[9] Holmes’ reasons for committing the murders, described by Larson repeatedly and in quite explicit terms as sexual gratification derived from a sense of dominance, are not substantiated by Holmes or by any witnesses, but are rather one possible explanation suggested by mental health professionals among several.[10] Larson’s account thus appears as little more than conjecture in many places, a sin that would be more forgivable if Larson had stressed his artistic intentions from the outset. The reverse is true. In the preamble Larson claims, “However strange or macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction.”[11] There is something slightly dishonest in this, particularly seeing as Larson’s novelistic passages alternate with more conventional narration, as well as lengthy quotations from letters and diaries, creating a uniform impression of veracity where there ought not be.

Despite all of the problems raised above, The Devil in the White City is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Larson is an excellent writer, with an eye for character that is lacking among professional historians. Nonetheless, there is little in the structure or scope of his book that would be instructive to academic historians.

[1] Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), xi.

[2] Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 11.

[3] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (1973): 291.

[4] Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City, 373-374.

[5] Ibid, 285-286.

[6] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” 297, 300, 301.

[7] Ibid, 223.

[8] Ibid, 334.

[9] Ibid, 404.

[10] Ibid, 395.

[11] Ibid, xi.

John Adams, Reviewed by Griffin


Historical narratives regarding the American Revolution are typically romanticized to a certain degree in order to be palatable to American audiences. As a result the founding fathers are generally depicted as staunch visionaries protecting liberty. Even depictions that attempt to show other aspects of American life (such as slavery) often cling to this trope to a certain extent. The HBO mini-series John Adams attempts to express neutrality towards the events of the revolution and its aftermath, yet it still tends to create omissions in the narrative in order to maintain an idealized history. The show initially begins with a highly sympathetic view of the English when chronicling the Boston massacre. The show then goes on to discuss the event in a fairly accurate way from Adam’s role in the continental congress to his time in office. However, during the series there are occasional omissions which tend to create a romanticized narrative.

Due to the series covering the events of Adams’s life from 1770 onwards, it is natural that certain events must be omitted. The failure to include certain occurrences fits with Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s idea that silences are inherently created within a narrative fit the inclinations of the person creating the narrative.[1] While HBO created a fairly balanced account of John Adams’s life there are still silences involved that project a glorification of John Adams.

The first episode consists of Adams defending the redcoats who perpetrated the event commonly known as the Boston Massacre. In the midst of a hostile riot full of angry Bostonians, the redcoats are depicted as being violently antagonized and in serious danger. A shot is discharged, the panicked soldiers fire their rifles, before the captain orders them to cease fire. The episode consists of Adams working to acquit the accused soldiers by convincing the jury it was in self defense. The show tries to depict Adams in a similar light as Atticus Finch from the 1960 novel To Kill a Mocking Bird, an honest lawyer trying to represent a man wrongly accused of murder in a society that despises the defendant. The British soldiers are seen as kind hearted people who are doing their duty, and conversely the Boston sons of liberty are an unruly mob in drab clothing. Additionally, the episode shows a man being tarred and feathered by the sons of liberty after an argument with John Hancock in which he referred to Hancock as a smuggler (which was technically accurate); the scene made a point to highlight the brutality of the act. These depictions clearly show a concerted effort by the producers to portray the British in a sympathetic way or at least depict the colonists negatively.

The episode is fairly accurate in its depiction of the event. For instance it is notable that the patriots refer to themselves as Englishmen, as even the more radical protestors still refer to themselves as such. This is an important distinction because accounts of the revolution often include the propensity to state that independence was an inevitable conclusion. However, the idea of independence did not become widespread until the publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet common sense in January 1776, less than a year before the signing of the declaration of independence. The show proceeds to give an accurate rendition of the events, mentioning important issues such as slavery. The first major silence to my mind was when the colonists declared independence and the declaration was read aloud.

At the end of the second episode it showed various people reading out the text of the Declaration of Independence, and it is noteworthy which passages they selected. The parts the producers decided to include in the show typically advocated liberty and natural rights. While this may have been small issue, the show devoted time to scene, there seemed to be a concerted effort to read out lesser known passages from various parts of the text. For instance, this phrase was not read on screen: “He has excited domestic insurrection among us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”[2] The excerpt is fairly important because it shows how the continental congress was accusing their sovereign of essentially encouraging war crimes against his own subjects, and according to Professor Jason Opal this was an important statement in the declaration.[3][4]

In order to create a romantic image of the founding fathers it is necessary to omit this passage from the narrative. It would be more difficult for audiences to empathize with the revolutionaries had they used the term “merciless Indian savages”.  While this silence may seem innocuous, it does show the active decision by the show’s creators to silence an aspect of the event in order to bolster their patriotic narrative the reading conjures. In addition to this, during John Adams’s presidency he is portrayed as non-partisan and the show neglects certain events which would undermine such a presumption.

Since the series chronicles the life of John Adams it naturally tries to portray him in a positive light. As a result his term as president depicts him as a political idealist who tries to avert war with France in spite of factional disagreements between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. When viewing this series I presumed that the producers would exclude two notable events from their narrative: the Alien and Sedition acts, and the Judiciary act of 1801, interestingly, they managed to incorporate the former in the story. The acts essentially allowed the federal government to censure journalists, and imprison foreigners. The acts were discussed in the show by Jefferson and Adams in which Jefferson accused Adams of trampling on the constitution. The show showed this blemish on Adams’s record, but also curiously never mentioned the extent of Jefferson’s contestation of the acts, preferring instead to show continued comradery between the two figures. The narrative never mentioned how Jefferson helped write the Kentucky resolutions, which declared that the states had the right to regard federal statutes as unconstitutional. This omission appears to be an attempt by the show’s creators to downplay the division between Adams and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans. In Addition, The show does not include the judiciary act which would severely tarnish the perception of Adams as someone disdainful of factionalism.

The failure to mention the judiciary act was necessary in providing an interpretation of Adams as non-partisan. After the Democratic-Republicans defeated the Federalists in the election, they won the presidency, the senate, and the House of Representatives. As a result the Federalists were worried what the new government would do, and appointed a large number of federalist judges to preserve their influence in government. This act was quickly enacted after Adam’s defeat to Jefferson, and shows how he was willing to participate in the factionalism of the time in spite of lacking a clear mandate to create such a law. This contrasts with the show in which Adams appeared to be above the panic of a Jeffersonian government. Overall the series is a compelling account of the life of John Adams.

The HBO series is ultimately a compelling chronicle of the life of John Adams, although there are some silences that impede the account. It begins with a Pro British account of the prelude to the revolution. This nuance allows the series leeway when it uses common Pro American narratives in the later part of the series. The chronicling of events is fairly accurate, the main criticism that could be leveled against it is the neglect of certain occurrences. However, these omissions are benign and do not particularly affect the narrative to a huge extent.

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past, (Boston: Beacon Hill Press, 1995), 6

[2] Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy. “Declaration of Independence,” Accessed: Feb 7, 2017, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp

[3]Jason Opal, “Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson”, (lecture History 327 Age of the American Revolution, Mcgill University, Montreal, February 6, 2017.)

[4] Jason Opal, Conversation During Office Hours, February 7, 2017.

Apocalypse: The Second World War, Reviewed by David


Foreword: Due to the length and complexity of the series, Apocalypse: The Second World War, as well as the word count limit, I have chosen to analyze the first three episodes: Aggression (1933-1939), Crushing Defeat (1939-1940), and Shock (1940-1941). This has permitted me to provide a through critique and review, without being restricted by the assignment’s guidelines.


Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clark’s documentary, Apocalypse: The Second World War (Apocalypse: La deuxième guerre mondiale), chronicles the titanic struggle between Axis and Allied powers during the course of WWII. Released in 2009 and earning a great deal of praise, the acclaimed six episode series covers WWII from 1939-1945, and explores both the defeats and victories of the Axis, Allied and Comintern alliances. The series uniquely presents WWII in colour footage as well as using film from soldiers, resistance fighters and citizens from various nations.[1] Thus, the series can be considered to use both a macro and microhistorical approach to WWII, despite the complexity and length required to explain the conflict to society at large.

The series’ production and presentation as popular history to its audience is done so in such a way that it may answer the curiosities of nearly everyone. Ranging from historians to laymen, Apocalypse attempts to make sense of the complexities surrounding WWII in order for it to be understood by even a mere novice in the subject. Nonetheless, one must take into account that the series was initially produced for a French audience and later for other countries, but still suffers from a clear bias as well as omitting key details that could potentially alter the audiences’ perception of WWII.

As forwarded by historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, the production of historical narratives by competing groups or individuals determines what will constitute “historical truth.”[2] As a result, Apocalypse suffers an enormous weakness in its presentation of WWII. As Trouillot would agree, the series is undermined from its entirely Western-European approach when presenting the conflict, by explicitly omitting an entire portion of WWII, the Pacific Theatre of war. Therefore, despite Apocalypse’s sincere intentions, it nonetheless suffers from a Western-European narrative of WWII as well as omitting key facts that would potentially alter the perception audiences would have of the conflict.

Apocalypse’s Methodology and Merit as a Work of Popular History

Regardless of the complexities and heated emotions that surround WWII, Apocalypse truly does justice to the war’s victims since great attention is paid to the plight and persecution of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists, etc. Therefore, since the documentary has made a clear effort to acknowledge all victims of such a destructive conflict, it must be commended. One must note that until recently, historians have largely excluded highlighting the wartime and post-war maltreatment of homosexuals (especially by their Western “liberators,”) but the series nonetheless devotes time to pay tribute to these unfortunate victims of totalitarianism.

Furthermore, Apocalypse provides a fairly descriptive background prior to 1939 in order for its audience to properly understand the grievances expressed by the German population, which permitted Adolf Hitler to seize power as Chancellor in 1933. Though the series does not spend a great deal of time discussing the events that eventually lead to the outbreak of war, it still provides a sufficient explanation for audiences to comprehend that Germany possessed a political agenda entailing aggressive expansionism throughout central and eastern Europe.

Regarding interpretation, Apocalypse makes use of historical revisionism in a positive sense, wherein “unpleasant” topics such as the rounding up and murder of Jews, untermensch (e.g. Slavs), and asocials (e.g. communists) could not have been achieved without the active collaboration between civilians in occupied territories and the German SS. As Trouillot expands upon in his book, the victors write history and thus, consequently create historical narratives that suit their needs. Such a dilemma leads to many current preconceptions from the general public regarding what constitutes “historical truths.”[3] Nothing could be truer in the context of WWII, since civilian collaboration with the occupiers was widespread, but is considered a taboo subject in early post-war years. Surprisingly, Apocalypse does not shy away from such taboos and goes as far as addressing Vichy France’s collaboration with Germany, but to a limited certain extent.

Lastly, regarding methodology, the series makes great use of film archives as well as government documents that have only been recently released (e.g. details surrounding the Katyn Massacre).[4] The purpose such uses of film serve is that it accurately portrays both the brutality and widespread destruction the conflict inflicted upon civilians and soldiers alike. Notably, the series uses both a micro and macrohistorical approach to explain WWII. Though one may question whether this is the best way to go about explaining such a complex war, it nonetheless provides both greater humanity and socio-political context to the audience of how civilians, soldiers and leaders went about their lives. The use of diaries in order to portray soldiers on every side as other than merely villains or heroes is quite striking. For instance, Apocalypse cites German lieutenant August von Kageneck’s diary explaining how his father (a general), did not agree with the Nazi salute despite owing his career’s successes to Hitler’s military aggression. Therefore, the series must foremost be commended on the humanization of people on every side of the conflict, avoiding the usual pitfalls documentaries make when explaining WWII: grouping everyone’s views as the same via nationality.

Apocalypse’s Flaws and Weaknesses

Despite the series’ best efforts, the documentary falls into the enormous pitfall that Trouillot has warned against. Notably, Apocalypse’s complete lack of attention or mere mention of the Pacific Theatre of war in the first three episodes is incomprehensible.

By the end of the third episode, the “European” date for WWII’s timeline has reached December 1941, wherein Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour is briefly mentioned for approximately one minute.[5] However, this was the only mention of the Pacific Theatre in any of the episodes studied. Taking into consideration how the Japanese Empire along with its puppet, Manchukuo, was waging an aggressive and brutal war against Nationalist China since 1931 onwards, one would think it ought to be mentioned. However, Apocalypse completely fails in this regard. Such an exclusion of an entire theatre of war, that involved upwards to hundreds of millions of lives only reinforces the concerns Trouillot has regarding “historical truths” and how historical narratives are created.[6] The sole inclusion of historical narratives that are entirely centered on the product of white Western-European historians (“history proper”) could not be more evident.

It must be once again emphasized that such disregard for the Pacific Theatre is incomprehensible. Even if one were willing to solely accept the Western-European narrative as proper historical truth, the status of Vichy France’s overseas colonial possessions (notably French Indochina) is not mentioned either, despite the fact that the Japanese defacto controlled the colony from September 1940 onwards.[7] Therefore, from a white Western-European historical narrative, the aforementioned Japanese aggression against a European colony should have received mention. However, this is not the sole illogical omission of historical facts in the series.

Selective Memory of the Past

Furthermore, Apocalypse should be commended for taking the time to explore pre-war political parties and organizations, such as the America First Committee or the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley. However, it once again selectively omits l’Action Française, a political movement considered fascist in France that ultimately contributed to the eventual establishment of the collaborationist Vichy government.[8] It can therefore be interpreted that the creators of the series are selectively choosing historical narratives that will reflect France in the least negative way possible. Such efforts could not be more evident in the portrayal of the German occupation of France and Vichy’s active collaboration in deporting France’s Jews to death camps.

Attempting to portray the French as persistently resisting Nazi Germany is quite an exaggeration the series makes as well. As of summer 1941, merely 60 German battalions (30,000-40,000, men unfit for the Eastern Front) occupied all of metropolitan France versus a civilian population of 45 million.[9] Without active collaboration on the part of French civilians vis-à-vis a French administration and police force to maintain order, the occupation would have been impossible.[10] Though clearly not black and white, and likely much more complex than the numbers suggest, the series did not feel obligated to actively explore widespread French collaboration with Germany. However, Apocalypse interestingly did not hesitate to extensively cover the collaboration by civilians throughout Eastern Europe.

Therefore, actively omitting such details and attempting to create historical narratives to then constitute truth is highly problematic since it is not an objective evaluation of the facts at hand. One could argue that perhaps the creators of the series did not focus on the Pacific Theatre as much due to how enormous the global conflict was. However, if that is so, how come they discuss collaboration in great detail throughout occupied countries except for their own? Such exclusions as well as a Western-European centered approach are the most prominent weaknesses in Apocalypse.


Despite Apocalypse’s best efforts to remain objective and fair, it ultimately fails in this regard. As Trouillot has forwarded, audiences should be wary of the accepted historical narratives that constitute “truth” in our societies since they are often manipulated vis-a-vis the inclusion or exclusion of important facts. Apocalypse thus serves as a great example of such a case, since it had sincere intentions, but suffers a great deal from a narrative that is Western-European centric. The series can therefore be commended for its strides, but nonetheless serves as a reminder of the pitfalls popular history ought to avoid.

[1] Apocalypse: The Second World War, documentary, created by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke (2009; Paris, France: CC&C and ECPAD, 2009.), television, episode: Aggression.

[2] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (Boston, Massachusetts: ‪Beacon Press, 1995), 6-7.

[3] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 53-59.

[4] Apocalypse: The Second World War, documentary, created by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke (2009; Paris, France: CC&C and ECPAD, 2009.), television, episode: Crushing Defeat.

[5] Apocalypse: The Second World War, documentary, created by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke (2009; Paris, France: CC&C and ECPAD, 2009.), television, episode: Shock.

[6] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 53-59.

[7] Robert O. Paxton, La France de Vichy: 1940-1944 (New York, New York: Random House, 1972), 71-78.

[8] Robert O. Paxton, La France de Vichy: 1940-1944, 240-244.

[9] Ibid., 11-13.

[10] Ibid.

Borgia (2011) and the Black Myth of the Borgia Family, Reviewed by Jennifer



The chronicle of the Borgia family reads like fiction: the crimes they are supposedly responsible sound unbelievable. Salacious details of the misdeeds of the Borgia, which was one of the rich and powerful Renaissance families that the Italian peninsula with an iron fist (and often admittedly amoral methods), has stuck throughout history, capturing the popular imagination. The family reached the height of its power with the ascent of Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1508) into the papacy as Pope Alexander the VI in 1492. The pope had four illegitimate children at the time of his ascendancy, each notorious in their own right. Cesare Borgia, his second son, was a key inspiration for Machiavelli’s political philosophy. Lucrezia Borgia, his sister, was rumored to have had incestuous relationships with various members of her family. Giovanni (also known as Juan) was rumored to have been murdered by his brother, Goffredo, after sleeping with Sancia, Goffredo’s wife. These accusations against the Borgia involve exceptionally immoral crimes: even for the flexible moral standards of the Italian Renaissance, incest and fratricide were extreme. Each misdeed – real or supposed –  was gleefully spread with zeal by enemies of the family and/or detailed with near-voyeuristic pleasure from the public, until a black myth shrouding the Borgia rendered the very name of the family synonymous with libertinism and nepotism.

The 2011 Canal+ show Borgia, which shows the family’s ascent from 1492 (the year Rodrigo was elected as pope) to 1507 (the year of Cesare’s death) neither swerves straight into this ‘black legend of the Borgia’, nor attempts to apologize for or paper over the actions of the family. In their depiction, the Borgia are neither depraved villains, nor tragically misunderstood victims of an unfair but durable smear-campaign conducted by their enemies. Instead, the show unflinchingly depicts the shortcomings and sins of the Borgia, but always in context with the reason and circumstance behind the characters’ actions. If there is gore or brutality in the crime, the show depicts it with gratuitously, but also spends generous amounts of screen time prefacing each crime with a sympathetic survey of why the character might have acted the way they did. In doing so, the show tries to explain the seemingly irrational behaviour of its historical characters as reasoned. Its goal, as a piece of history, seems to be to explain the decisions and actions of the Borgia as reasonable.


The general direction the show takes throughout the series corroborates this analysis: from the first season to its third and last, the character development of Cesare Borgia and Lucrezia Borgia can best be described as innocence becoming tainted and compromised by forces outside their control. Lucrezia is depicted in Season 1 as a conflicted woman struggling with the frustrations of being forced to marry into political alliances, and seeking to find refuge in religious faith. After committing some pretty major crimes throughout the way (the most extreme of which we will discuss in greater detail shortly), and learning from her mistakes, we see Lucrezia, by Season 3, as a confident, devout, and secure woman. Cesare, on the other hand, begins as a student thrust into the clergy by his father, with little say in the matter. He is stifled, ambitious, and tremendously talented. He is, however, tragically suppressed by his father and unable to fulfill his ambitions and use his talents in the most effective way possible. Being suppressed, in turn, has a tremendously adverse effect on his psychology. Cesare become ruthless because his circumstances make it impossible for him to play by the rules and fulfill his dreams.


A specific example of how Borgia takes an explanatory, sympathetic view of its character’s crimes can be found in the season finale of Season 1, The Serpent Rises. The episode deals with Cesare Borgia’s investigation of his brother Juan’s death. Cesare struggles greatly in his investigation, dealing with the possibility that he himself may have been responsible for his brother’s death – he had been drunk the night his brother was killed, and does not remember parts of his night. The memory of the night that remained intact seems, troublingly, to implicate him: Cesare continuously has flashbacks to a drunken brawl with his brother that evening. It is not that Juan didn’t deserve his fate – the entire season which precedes this climax shows the opposite. Juan is depicted as having very few redeeming qualities: he is a swaggering poseur, inflated by hubris and entitlement. He is an abusive husband, who kills his own wife to save his reputation. He kills his older brother, Pedro Luis, just to get ahead in his career; he also attempts to kill Cesare, his younger brother, to escape culpability for his earlier fratricide. He tries to rape Lucrezia, his younger sister, then chastises her for refusing to forgive him. Despite all this, Cesare struggles greatly with the untimely demise of his brother. In painstakingly depicting Cesare’s struggle with his conscience, the show shows that Cesare, for all his flaws, has a moral conscience and a desire to do what is right. Cesare is not unscrupulous. According to the show, he has simply been confronted with very difficult circumstances, and those circumstances made him into the man Machiavelli describes in The Prince.


Another interesting feature about the show is that it uses devices familiar to modern audiences to make sense of the struggles faced by the Borgia. The choice of accents is one example of how the show uses anachronisms to make a greater point about the historical subjects it deals with. Rodrigo Borgia’s status as an outsider –  a Spaniard – to the Italians is reflected through his American accent. Among a sea of a European accents, Rodrigo’s American twang sounds abrasive and unstudied: he sounds like he just does not fit in. Indeed, his outsider status is reaffirmed over and over again through the voices of Italian characters in Italian accents. Cardinals continuously use the fact that Rodrigo is a Spaniard to deride him throughout the series. Whenever defeated by Rodrigo’s political machinations, some Cardinal or another yells, “That Catalan!” in a thick Italian accent. This willingness to use anachronisms to make a point about the experience of a historical character more familiar to modern audiences suggests that the show wants to tie in the experiences of a man who lived six centuries ago to the experiences of audiences in the twenty-first century. Some human experiences, the show implies, are universal. Through furthermore showing that despite his outsider status, Rodrigo is triumphant, the show fits the historical experience of Rodrigo into a trope more familiar to modern audiences: that of the underdog winning, despite the cards being stacked against him.
The greatest failing of this show, however, is that it fills in the silences of history with no acknowledgement of ambiguity. When dealing with questions which have become impossible to answer conclusively, the show decides to present a conclusive answer. For instance, the question of who is responsible for the murder of Juan Borgia is an open one: though there have been speculations about who was responsible, there is no evidence which points to a clear answer. The show gives an answer: his sister, Lucrezia, was responsible. Juan had wandered into her room after a confrontation with Cesare, and had confessed all his crimes to his sister. Lucrezia, in turn, had acted as a judge, doling out his punishment. Again, the show depicts Lucrezia’s decision as reasoned: the show argues that Juan truly deserved to be punished for his despicable crimes, and Lucrezia’s actions were understandable – even noble. Her fratricide is shown as fitting punishment for Juan’s own fratricide. However, the choice to depict these actions without hesitation and without historical evidence could be seen as irresponsible.

Borgia deals with a difficult historical subject: sthe Borgia family is shrouded in rumour and legend. The show does a great job of making sure the historical subjects and their choices, however immoral they may seem, are understandable, firmly situating characters’ actions within the circumstance and moral context of both the Italian Renaissance and the Borgia family’s particular struggles as outsiders. However, it does not deal with the historical silences, however, in a completely responsible way. It depicts events that have not been proved, and cannot be proved, unflinchingly.

David McCullough’s 1776, Reviewed by Emma


1776 by David McCullough is the account of the year 1776 during the age of the American Revolution. It is the account of George Washington’s troops in the ‘Continental Army’ and the reality they lived, as well as the battles they fought in defense of America. McCullough’s history of the American Revolution is distinct from traditional American narratives, because he also explores the experiences and characters of British officials and soldiers as well as lesser-known or lesser-discussed American officers. David McCullough is an American popular historian and author of twelve history novels, but best known for his biographies of prominent Americans including John Adams and Harry S. Truman. Along with two Pulitzer Prizes, McCullough has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.[1] 1776 was written with the aid of a large number of sources from “more than twenty-five libraries, archives, special collections, and historic sites” both in the United States and the United Kingdom.[2]

David McCullough’s 1776 is a unique version of the events of the American Revolution, presented as a story, events are the victories and pitfalls of both British and American officials whom he presents vividly. A stark contrast is made between the American amateurs commanded by the godly George Washington, and the traditional British military men. It is with the help of diaries, letters, and papers, belonging to each of these officials that McCullough pieces his narrative together and which also allows for his intense characterization of the men involved. However, missing from the account are analysis of the political and social aspects fuelling the Revolution, events occur and are reacted to as the result of individual agents, without a deep explanation of their political motivations.

McCullough, in his account of arguably one of the most significant years in American history, focuses on the battles over Boston and New York. His version of the year 1776 focuses on the reality lived by people, American and British alike, at this time, not only the military triumphs and losses. 1776 explains the regional conflicts amongst American soldiers not yet united, as well as the strong regional stereotypes from New Englanders – disorderly and brutish, to Virginians – put together and fortunate. It also shines light on the fact that the American forces while impassioned and determined, were not seasoned fighters, unused to military life and conduct, and just generally a ‘rabble in arms’.[3] American soldiers were drunken, disorderly, and overconfident, while their commanding officers were not forceful and were unaware of rank. McCullough presents these officials in stark contrast to General George Washington.

McCullough analyzes Washington’s role in the war and his character in great detail. Throughout the narrative, Washington’s presence and influence emerges, and re-emerges. Washington is presented quite clearly as a man above the rest, one who was awed and respected by his own troops as well as the British forces. Always collected, dignified, and cool-headed, Washington is pictured as the hero of the story without a doubt. However, McCullough also draws attention to Washington’s supporting actors and even his enemies, whom are presented as not quite as god-like as Washington, but full of heart and relatable intention. Lesser-known officials such as General Nathanael Greene, Joseph Reed, General Israel Putnam, and General Henry Knox are thrusted into the spotlight, and their roles in the Revolutionary War exemplified. These men are treated as key players in the narrative and much attention is paid to describing their character and their lives, as is paid to their military involvement. Notice is also given to British officials in 1776 with McCullough describing the part played by Lord Germain, Lord North, Lord Howe, and even King George III.

All of these prominent figures are treated like characters, and their actions are presented along with their motivations and their backgrounds, even their pasts. The American officials are generally ragtag and inexperienced such as Nathanael Greene. Greene was a Quaker with a stiff right leg, a limp, and asthma. He was the youngest official in the American Army at thirty three years old,  and had only been a soldier for six months.[4] However, it was his 1500 Rhode Islanders who were seemingly the most put together of the troops. Greene contrasted with British Lords Clinton and Burgoyne who were “well-connected, well-schooled aristocrats, and, as major generals, at the threshold of the peak years of their career.”[5] This comparison is a deliberate and unconventional choice on the part of McCullough and contributes to a larger trend in his account of the American Revolution: the inclusion of two sides of the story. The battle for Boston which culminates in a seeming victory for the Americans, as well as the back and forth nature of the battle for New York, gives a voice to both the English and Americans. In this way, 1776 is unlike other American accounts of the Revolution, it makes no attempt to de-humanize the British, or glorify the American forces, it aims to give an even account of the events.

Yet, 1776 is a highly narrativized version of American history. The progress of the account is treated as the typical plot structure of a fictional novel. When presenting the battle for Boston, the Americans are depicted as an unlikely mess pitted against a sophisticated army of redcoats. Their victory is unexpected and the plot first explains their unfitness, but intense spirit, and their losses against the British, all in anticipation of their triumph in Boston after the evacuation of the British forces in the city. The story is told very linearly, and even the battle in New York is presented as a humbling event for the Americans in response to their victory in Boston. All events of this plot are made possible and are interpreted through the eyes of McCullough’s ‘characters’ or the officials involved. His descriptions of the prominent figures are comprehensive yet theatrical, describing their thoughts and emotions. Interactions are even, in some cases, presented as dialogue where officials speak to each other within the narrative.[6] Again, all made possible by primary sources such as personal accounts of events such as diaries, journals, and letters.

So much focus is given to agents in the story that mention of the past, politics, or previous battles is neglected. While there is continual mention of the Continental Congress in Washington’s letters to John Hancock, there is little mention of the changing political situation facing independence and little mention of the Declaration of Independence itself. The Congress and Declaration are referred to distantly, as distantly as King George III’s orders or the political situation of British Parliament are referred to when mentioning the actions of the British army. McCullough’s version of the year 1776 is thus presented almost as an isolated world, where characters act and react with only the influence of their own goals and heart. 1776 is presented as if the collection of many small biographies working in common to piece together the events of a year.

David McCullough in 1776 deftly describes the men involved in the Revolutionary War and makes them unique. He emphasizes the agency of these men and illustrates the complexity of human involvement in military and political events, doing so with the help of many excellent primary source documents. McCullough brings the words of these men to his readers in order to explain the events of the year 1776. However, the presentation of the year 1776 as twists leading perfectly to turns of fate, as well as the strong emphasis on characters, gives the illusion of a mythical account. The story appears to happen inexplicably, and characters must react. While this style of historical account makes a perhaps dull military history palatable, it disregards influences other than the goals and beliefs of the selected few men McCullough chose to accentuate. 1776 is an interesting history presenting two sides of the story, but still narrowly telling the tale of the American Revolution through the eyes of a handful of men. However, if readers bear in mind that it is indeed the tale of only some men and how they specifically influenced the war, they will be enthralled with these lively characters.

[1] “David McCullough,” Simon & Schuster Canada, http://www.simonandschuster.ca/authors/David-McCullough/938.

[2] David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 295.

[3]  David McCullough, 1776, 20.

[4] Ibid., 20.

[5] Ibid., 77.

[6] Ibid.,144.

A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, Reviewed by Naomi



In 1930, resident New Yorkers met an unexpected sight: white-collar workers, throughout the city, braving the shame of the breadline. And so, after some camera flashes, one of the most iconic symbols of the Great Depression was born.[1] Yet for food writer Jane Ziegelman and historian Andrew Coe, this was merely the beginning of an era in which economic turmoil would repeatedly turn American food-ways upside-down. In A Square Meal, Ziegelman and Coe retell the Depression’s story through “culinary” lenses, exploring how disparate actors responded to America’s suddenly restricted food budget. With thorough research and flowing narrative, A Square Meal reenergizes the Depression’s dreary popular image. But, as historian Hayden White asks, what purpose does such a narrative fulfil?[2] Despite its novel sources, A Square Meal spins a conventionally top-down narrative undergirded by glorification of “national resilience”—leaving conventional understandings of the Depression, and their attendant problems, intact.

Organized around the broader “Depression chronology,” A Square Meal examines different moments when economic constraints made food a flashpoint of American conflict and creativity. However, rather than following convention and taking the 1929 Crash as its starting point, the authors’ “story” begins with the return of America’s GIs after World War One. Having “seen the sights,” and tasted the foods, of Europe, many such men joined the exodus of young Americans fleeing quiet rural life. Arriving in the big cities, Ziegelman and Coe’s migrants are greeted by an onslaught of culinary modernity in the form of deli meats, soda fountains, and apartment “kitchenettes,” courted by the rise of nutritional science and a fashion for “healthy eating.” With the standardly booming backdrop of the Twenties thus established, Ziegelman and Coe’s stage is readied for an economic—and gastronomic—slump.

Though the story which follows is largely narrative-driven, some key themes are highlighted along the way: charities’ responses to food crises; President Hoover’s steadfast resistance to federal food initiatives, and FDR’s reluctant acceptance; and female home economists’ efforts to keep the cult of healthy eating alive through hard times. Told through geographically and thematically diverse “food histories”—from school lunch policies to food surplus distributions—A Square Meal portrays how Americans reoriented their food-ways in times of wider economic strife. Indeed, this meandering history centers on the argument that “food authorities”—mostly women—“led America through the Great Depression,” forging the country’s culinary future.[3] Resurfacing from economic slump in the 1940s, America was therefore, the authors suggest, a nation gastronomically transformed, awash as it was with mass-produced foods, federal nutritional guidelines, and even nostalgia for lost days of “honest” home cooking.

If this sounds like a story crowded with characters, it is. But for A Square Meal, this is perhaps no bad thing. Proving its credentials as a social history “of” the Depression, A Square Meal succeeds where many good social histories do: deploying diverse sources to highlight subaltern perspectives of “big events” relegated to the shadows. Migrant poetry about heading West “with a coffee pot and a skillet,” nutritionists’ records of acculturating immigrant children to American diets, even menus from “transient camps,” are testimony to the authors’ thoughtful, thorough research.[4] Boosting their book’s scope, Ziegelman and Coe provide strong groundwork for historical production—what White calls “constitut[ing] a story out of the chronicle of events”—such that previously “silent” actors become relevant to the Depression’s history.[5] While all readers can enjoy such reorienting, the more methodologically-oriented will also appreciate the close source analyses often undergirding the process. For instance, a social worker’s diary informs a detailed and engaging “food microhistory” of Manistee, Michigan.[6] With fascinating anecdotes like these in abundance, A Square Meal consistently highlights its authors’ impressive research.

Yet, in turning factoids into narrative, A Square Meal offers little interpretive novelty. For White, “narrativity” embodies an “impulse to moralize reality” given one’s culturally-conditioned norms.[7] With its “moral” emphasis on food-related philanthropy and activism, A Square Meal weaves a celebratory, nationalist—and trite—narrative of an America awoken from small-government torpor. Indeed, the book is littered with cartoonishly “moral” assessments of the era’s key political actors. President Hoover’s announcement that “no one is actually starving” precedes an anecdote about a starving mother; naturally, the authors also describe Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s state relief initiatives in response to such intransigence, acts of basic “social duty.”[8] While these interpretations are unfairly simple, they also belie broader reluctance to defy conventional, nation-level narrative. Indeed, considering the book’s novelistic, non-academic style, such national “moralizing” not only drives A Square Meal’s narrative, as White suggests, but at times seems to intentionally overpower historical analysis—flowery discussion of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “reshap[ing] the national’s culinary consciousness” is, in this respect, particularly damning.[9] Thus, despite its “quirky” perspective, the book does little more than reiterate many “top-down” Depression histories predating it.

These rehashed interpretations are not necessarily ‘wrong,’ but given the evidence, they are clearly not the only histories which could have been told. The book’s take on gender is a prime example. With many excerpts from female nutrition experts, the authors’ thesis—women pushed America’s culinary life through the Depression—is well-developed and quite convincing. Yet this women-as-national-heroes narrative overlooks other gendered dynamics uncovered by the same sources. The question of how “repressive” or “liberating” women found shifting “culinary burdens” to be, is avoided; for instance, a women’s letter to a home economist, requesting advice in feeding her children, is said to embody the mother’s “awakened desire for food knowledge” and the home economist’s zeal for spreading her gospel nation-wide.[10] Overlooking how the former may have felt burdened, or the latter individually “empowered,” the authors flatten their source to fit easy, nationalist narrative suitable for general readership. Indeed, for White, narrative history is desirable precisely because it presents a reality more coherent than life itself.[11] Evidently, for Ziegelman and Coe, “tidying up” means subsuming all women’s culinary experiences to a national framework—and losing other, more obscure dynamics in the process.

More concerning than what is twisted to fit this narrative, however, is what barely made the cut at all. As A Square Meal progresses, an elephant seems to appear in the room: the book’s whiteness. Clearly is not for lack of evidence; for instance, racist Red Cross policies requiring African Americans to work for aid receive mention.[12] Rather, non-white histories are truncated precisely for not advancing narrative. Discussing the Dust Bowl, the authors note that many starving black sharecroppers headed for northern cities, while white sharecroppers moved westward—initiating discussion of “the great chronicle of that westward migration,” The Grapes of Wrath.[13] Insofar as narrative fulfills authorial desires—to describe, as White suggests, stories in line with one’s “social system”—this favoring of tried-and-true romanticizing over black experiences excludes People of Color not just from mainstream histories, but from the American “social system” represented.[14] Indeed, as a light-hearted read about food, such erasure of People of Color from even “trivial” history may only confound historical biases among the authors’ white, non-academic readers. Accordingly, Ziegelman and Coe detract both from popular understandings of the Depression, and from American history generally.

Yet, despite all this, A Square Meal does have its merits. As mentioned earlier, the book’s narrative spans longer than some Depression histories,’ from 1919 to the mid-nineteen-forties. This decision was likely driven by, as White suggests, desire for coherent, story-like history; foreboding description of the twenties’ rural exodus as “the first sign of trouble,” for instance, establishes the book’s novelistic pretensions early.[15] Yet in lengthening their narrative, the authors do place the Depression within twentieth-century history better than many similar works. More noteworthy, however, is how the same “moral” lens burdening much of A Square Meal comes into play here. Highlighting the “forward-thinking” women pushing America on, the authors paint a picture of the Depression in which “modernity” coexists with scarcity. This “celebratory” bent not only challenges popular understandings of the Depression, but also adds a thread of continuity to the consumerist, “Post-War Boom” to come; the female enthusiasm for refrigerators—state-of-the-art consumer technology—closing the book is, given all the anecdotes of culinary adaptation preceding it, palpable.[16] Thus, A Square Meal’s chipper narrative is useful at least in nuancing popular images of the Depression’s unvarying bleakness.

As a social history, A Square Meal had the potential to throw this “bleakness”—economic, political—into new light. Yet, unfortunately, the book fails to deliver. Though thoroughly researched and filled with unusual sources, the imperatives driving the authors’ narrative mean that this evidence is rarely mustered towards new interpretations or subaltern histories. Drawing on popular pride about national resilience through the Depression, Ziegelman and Coe produce a conventionally top-down narrative in which other actors—women, People of Color—are either subordinated to, or excluded from, this history. Though “saved” at times by its ability to contextualize the Depression, the book’s nationalist tint ultimately reiterates the simplistic, and problematic, national myths held by its general readership. Narrative history may be, as Hayden White argues, a product of the historian’s moral lens—but, as A Square Meal shows, inevitable does not mean harmless.



White, Hayden. “Interpretation in History.” New Literary Review 4, no. 2 (1973): 281-314.


—–. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” In The Content of the Form.     Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. PDF eBook. ACLS Humanities.

Ziegelman, Jane and Andrew Coe. A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression.    New York: Harper Collins, 2016.


[1]. Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression (New York: Harper Collins, 2016), 54-63.

[2].  Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” in The Content of the Form (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987): 4. PDF eBook. ACLS Humanities.

[3]. Ibid., 278.

[4]. Ibid., 221; 212; 81-82.

[5]. White, Hayden. “Interpretation in History.” New Literary Review 4, no. 2 (1973): 292.

[6]. Ziegelman and Coe, A Square Meal, 160-173.

[7]. White, “The Value of Narrativity,” 14.

[8]. Ziegelman and Coe, A Square Meal, 148-149; 123.

[9]. Ibid., 203.

[10]. Ibid., 143-4.

[11]. White, “The Value of Narrativity,” 24.

[12]. Ziegelman and Coe, A Square Meal, 114.

[13]. Ibid., 216-219.

[14]. White, “The Value of Narrativity,” 14.

[15]. Ziegelman and Coe, A Square Meal, 7.

[16]. Ibid., 266.

Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited, Reviewed by Jeremy



Oliver Stone’s Alexander Revisited vividly reintroduced the life of Alexander III of Macedon, arguably the most eternally revered conqueror in Western culture. The film is narrated by Ptolemy, a prominent general in Alexander’s army who inspired the most important surviving account of the campaign, Arrian’s Anabasis. Despite this choice of narrator, the plot depends more heavily on another account written by Plutarch. The purpose of the film is less to retell the great events of the ancient narrative and more to facilitate a better understanding of Alexander himself. Essentially, what kind of a person Alexander was as well as his relationships with his men and Persian subjects. Stone attempts this by covering Alexander’s life chronologically from the decisive Battle of Gaugamela (331 BC), while occasionally imbedding important childhood scenes to facilitate our understanding of the man behind the legend. With the occasional flashback, the narrative covers Alexander’s conquest of the Persian mainland, his push east into Bactria and India, the mutiny that caused him to return to Babylon and the final days before his untimely death in 323. In light of its occasional fictions and biases, the film’s fresh and informative portrayal of Alexander can only be fully appreciated by those with sufficient background knowledge on the subject.[1]

It is evident throughout the film that Stone, under the advisement of Oxford Historian Robin Lane Fox, consulted a wide array of ancient narratives and archeological finds to reproduce the campaign. The Battle of Gaugamela is especially well done. The uniforms, weapons and equipment of the Macedonian forces are entirely consistent with the archeological evidence.[2] The complex procedure of maneuvering Alexander’s well trained phalanxes is appreciated and well illustrated.[3] Drums are accurately depicted coordinating delicate, precise maneuvers. Additionally, Stone remains loyal to Arrian’s account of the battle by portraying the phalangites as skillful warriors capable of breaking rank to evade incoming chariots.[4] Arrian’s comments about the decisive advantage of the longer sarissa over shorter Persian weapons are also brought to life in an excellently filmed scene.[5] Stone even stays true to Arrian’s precise account at the macro level, accurately depicting broad battlefield developments. The Persian double envelopment, Parmenion’s wavering line and Alexander’s decisive cavalry charge are all included. Moreover, there is even some evidence of Stone consulting secondary sources, at times dismissing the claims of contemporary accounts to respect the modern historical consensus. For instance, instead of blindly accepting Arrian’s fantastical figure of over a million Persians at Gaugamella, he acknowledges a more realistic figure deduced by historians by having Ptolemy allude to “hundreds of thousands”. Similarly, the debate on whether Alexander’s marriage to Roxana was a personal or pragmatic decision is addressed and deliberately left unanswered, thereby introducing an important historical debate in secondary literature without passing judgment. Even the harshest of critics cannot deny the thorough research that went into this movie in light of its frequent references to primary and secondary sources.

Despite the tremendous amount of research that went in to creating the film, Stone distorts history liberally at times, compromising accuracy of entertainment and plot coherence. However, such is mostly done for the sake of broadening our understanding of the “real” Alexander. While he falsely associates Aristotle with Plato’s “Like frogs in a pond” analogy,  this does not mean that Alexander, educated by Aristotle, did not share this common mindset about the Mediterranean.[6] Introducing the audience to the mindset of contemporary Greco-Macedonians through the limited evidence we have is necessary when precise sources concerning Alexander’s education are missing. As apparent throughout the film, fiction can strangely be used as a platform to present other truths.  Similarly, Stone places Alexander’s conversation with Darius’ daughter in Babylon after Gaugamela while in reality it occurred two year earlier after Issus. As the battle of Issus was skipped in the film, Stone decided to still include the conversation Plutarch recorded at a later stage, preserving a crucial dialogue in understanding Alexander’s relationship with the Persians. On this occasion, amalgamating historical facts into a distorted plot abridges, but does not take away from our understanding of Alexander.

Stone is especially successful in using fragmentary evidence to accurately recreate the collective sentiments of the Greco-Macedonian forces fighting the campaign. Like Alain Corbin, the screenwriter uses a scarce amount of sources to effectively depict the sentiments of a group that produced no surviving literature.[7]  He does so by referring to both common Hellenic views (as attested in the literary evidence) and recurring literary themes that are used to portray the opinions of Alexander’s soldiers. While most of the likely mythical conversations recorded by our sources are not used directly, it is evident that these were consulted and cross-examined in a way that mirrors Corbin’s treatment of rumor.[8] The conversations were then interpreted collectively to understand the likely sentiments behind these dialogues.[9] Stone takes these historically credible sentiments and presents them in a creative way.  He is notably effective in accurately capturing how these soldiers viewed the “other”.  Despite living under Macedonian hegemony after Philip II conquests, the Greeks as a whole never accepted the Macedonians as true Greeks. These sentiments can undoubtedly be extended to the tens of thousands of Greeks that were employed in Alexander’s army. Despite frequent Macedonian attempts at associating themselves with the Pan-Hellenic world, there were never referred to as “Greeks” due to cultural differences such as their distinct clothing and their bizarre local dialect of Greek. Stone picked up on this and purposefully made most of the Macedonians talk in an Irish accent.  By contrasting these accents with the British ones of Greek characters, he subtly informs the audience that like the real Macedonians in the 4th Century, his Macedonians are also portrayed as outsiders in the Greek world. This point is furthered by certain scenes that depict Phillip II, Alexander’s father, in an outfit more associate with Greece’s northern neighbors.

Furthermore, while all historical films must include some element of fiction to “fill in the gaps”, Stone imbeds fictional dialogues as a platform to expand upon sentiments attested in the ancient sources. For example, while it is evident in most accounts that Alexander’s troops were dissatisfied with his cosmopolitan policies geared towards the equality and mixing of Greeks and Asians, Stone builds upon these sentiments and creates conversations consistent with these concerns. Amongst other points, these conversations expand upon Macedonian reservations about adopting Asiatic cultures, the implications behind Alexander marrying a Bactrian and not a Macedonian; subjects likely covered in Alexander’s real conversations with his men. While some elements remain fictional, historically guided fiction in these instances facilitate rather than detract from our understanding of a disgruntled army on the brink of mutiny.

However unlike Corbin who warns us not to “reproduce or to follow too closely the interpretations of contemporary observers”, Stone fails and even at times enhances the biases of the ancient accounts.[10] The heavy Hellenic bias against the Persians is reinforced throughout the film. Representations of the opposing peoples on the battlefield serves as a prime example.  The well organized Macedonian ranks are filled with blond, well quaffed soldiers with surprisingly white uniforms despite years of intense battles. Contrastingly, the Persians are portrayed as filthy ungroomed Orientals with flies infesting their disorganized lines. Stone neglects the obvious facts that Greco-Macedonian males were typically bearded and were no cleaner than their adversaries and enhances the rampant biases of the ancient writers using contrasting imagery. Whether he does so deliberately or not is uncertain. It could have been intentional, or perhaps as Haden White would argue, a product of the inherent subjectivity of the historical trade laden with personal biases.[11] While Persian military organization is undoubtedly as Trouillot would describe it,  a “silenced history” as a result of a lack of surviving evidence, there is enough available information in the Greek accounts to deduce that the Persian lines were organized.[12] The hordes depicted in the film are merely a biased representation with no historical backing. The scene where Aristotle describes the Persians as an “an inferior race” of barbaric brutes would have been more than enough to emphasize the Greek mindset towards the Persians. The contrasting imagery of the deployed armies on the other hand, does nothing but amplify millennia old biases that distort our image of what truly happened.

As Ptolomy ponders in the beginning of the movie: “did such a man as Alexander live? Of Course not. We idolize him, make him better than he was.” Despite his historical advisors, Oliver Stone is equally as guilty of distorting the image of Alexander as the ancient sources. The director is determined to present Alexander as an idealistic humane character to the extent that he chooses to neglect some of his crueler attributes that even the sympathetic Plutarch includes. Like all conquering forces in his time, Alexander’s army was involved in a tremendous about of looting, pillaging and rape. Such realities are only referred to in passing, as the Alexander that crucified all the military aged males of Tyre and enslaved whole cities is hidden from the sympathetic audience.[13] Stone has no problem having Alexander say fictionally that his men should “take back what is ours, but spare what belongs to the Persians” while not acknowledging the significant looting required to sustain his army. He strives to protect his positive image of Alexander to the point that he enhances the biases of the ancient sources and willingly neglects the less palatable aspects of Alexander’s campaign. As he treated and incorporated homosexuality in the movie, Stone should have represented Alexander and his cohorts as they really were, without suppressing certain attributes to appease a 21st Century American audience.[14] Overall, Alexander Revisited can be used to facilitate our understanding of the conqueror, but only by those knowledgeable enough to evade the biases and fictions liberally imbedded throughout the film.





Alexander Revisited: The Final Unrated Cut. Directed by Oliver Stone. Performed by Collin Farrel, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins et al. United States: Warner Bros. 2012. DVD.


Arrianus, Flavius, Peter A. Brunt, and Edgar I. Robson. 2010. Arrian: in two volumes. London: Heinemann.


Corbin, Alain. 1992. The village of cannibals: rage and murder in France, 1870. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


Curtius Rufus, Quintus, John Carew Rolfe, and John Rowe Workman. 1946. Quintus

Curtius: History of Alexander. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press.


Plato, and David Gallop. 1975. Phaedo. Oxford [England]: Clarendon Press.


Plutarch, Perrin, Bernadotte. “Plutarch’s Lives”. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 1968. Derived From: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/home.html


Polybius, and Fridericus Hultsch. 1962. The histories of Polybius. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the past: power and the production of history. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press.


White, Hayden. “Interpretation in History.” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (1973): 281. doi:10.2307/468478.


[1] One would need sufficient knowledge of the prominent ancient and secondary sources in order to understand what are the more accurate aspects of the film that should be taken in. Simply put, the film should not be engaged at face value but by a well informed student of history.

[2] The Sarissa (pike) for instance, the primary weapon of the Macedonian infantryman, is identical to those found in Vergina, the depictions of Sarissae in ancient artwork, and the descriptions of Polybius; Polyb.18.29.

[3] Phalanxes were cumbersome formations of tightly packed men with bristling 16 foot pikes. It took significant coordination for the phalanx to maneuver.

[4] Arr.Anab.3.16.6.

[5] Arr.Anab.1.12.9.

[6] Pl.Phd.109b.

[7] Corbin, Alain. 1992. The village of cannibals: rage and murder in France, 1870. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 39.

[8] Ibid., 8.

[9] In the ancient world, it was common for historians to create fictional conversations which although never took place, play upon real sentiments. Ancient historians used to use myth as a platform to present broader truths.

[10] Corbin, Alain. 1992. The village of cannibals: rage and murder in France, 1870. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2.

[11] White, Hayden. “Interpretation in History.” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (1973). doi:10.2307/468478, 283.

[12] Our knowledge or the Persian army is similar to the knowledge we possess of Sans Sourci; we are entirely reliant of fragments of a mostly silenced history; Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the past: power and the production of history. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 53.

[13] Curt.4.4.21; Plut.vit.Alex.11.12.

[14] The film was originally released in 2004. Oliver stone embraced the homosexual aspects of Alexander’s story despite likely reservations from a somewhat homophobic American audience.

The Logic of Exclusion, Reviewed by Tristan



Fukuyama uses a body of empirical evidence to support the thesis that history has an inner universal logic, and, unlike many historians, is self-consciously moralizing historical events. My purpose is to understand the dynamics of Fukuyama’s narrative using Hayden White’s theory. In White’s view, in any historical discourse facts do not have a pre-given meaning a priori, but are rather are constituted as meaningful within a web of significant narrative relations. I want to in particular examine how one concept––the concept of a universal history as a process––is structured by, and constitutes, the explanatory paradigm chosen, and to a limited extent the particular ethical commitments and the narrative strategy used My argument is that Fukuyama’s interpretation of empirical data strongly favours White’s claims about the nature of narratives, namely that the historian attempts to make reality coherent, unambiguous, and desirable by appealing to a social authority. I show how Fukuyama deploys ethnocentric tropes to construct a notion of desirable and authoritative reality––the superiority of the so-called West––to diminish the threat of different possible narratives.

Fukuyama’s philosophy of history is indebted to G.W.F. Hegel’s construal of history as a unified process. In the Philosophy of History, Hegel identified a single metaphysical principle behind the process of history, namely the drive of the rational historical community coming to know itself.[1] The end of history, in a Hegelian sense, would eventuate when rational freedom is obtained and the inner purpose of history’s logic is satisfied.

Fukuyama, taking the general thrust behind Hegel’s theory, identifies two metaphysical principles behind history. The first is economic: the expanding free-market is the most efficient distributor of ideas and technology, favouring both progressive scientific advancement and increasing conformity to economic liberalism.[2] Fukuyama’s second principle is on the level of ideas. This principle Fukuyama borrows from Hegel. Some commentators interpret Hegel as arguing that as rational beings, humans have desires above somatic urges––namely rational desires, which include desire for recognition of our personhood as valuable.[3] For Fukuyama, various political ideologies have competed to provide satisfactory rational recognition. Fukuyama argues that the two principle threats to liberal democracy in the twentieth century––Fascism and Communism––were outright contradictory, or at least ideologically unsustainable. They did not provide satisfactory political recognition, and, as a result were defeated in the march of history.[4]

According to Fukuyama, liberal democracy therefore remains “the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures.”[5] Fukuyama makes the strong claim that there is a “move toward political freedom around the globe.”[6] Due to the ubiquity, success, and coherence of liberal democracy, there will be “no further progress in the development of underlying principles and institutions, because all of the really big questions have been settled.”[7] Fukuyama’s end of history thesis is easily misinterpreted. The end of history for Fukuyama does not “mean that the natural cycle of birth, life, and death would end, that important events would no longer happen, or that newspapers reporting them would cease to be published.”[8] Rather, the driving principle behind history’s logic has been satisfied––the achievement of rational freedom––and therefore history as an “evolutionary process” has been superseded by the tranquillity of the liberal eschaton.[9]

Fukuyama’s mode of explanation fits quite neatly within White’s organicist paradigm. The organicist historian necessarily relates “various contexts that can be perceived to exist in the historical record as parts to the whole which is history-in-general” striving to “identify the principles by which the different periods of history can be integrated into a single macrocosmic process of development.” What white describes is precisely what Fukuyama is attempting.[10] Moreover, although Fukuyama bemoans the “banalization of life under consumerism,” Fukuyama nevertheless ends his narrative with liberalism’s triumph.[11] Consequently, within Fukuyama’s world-history, historical events are morally meaningful inasmuch as they represent this progressive logic towards the proliferation of liberal democracy. Therefore, we can say confidently that a moral authority behind Fukuyama’s text is liberalism, which he understands as the free market and formal legal equality.

Fukuyama faces a problem establishing the authority of his moral system. There are multiple narratives that conflict with this optimism. Even if we accept his highly contestable claims about the putative completeness of liberal democracy and its facilitation of scientific progress, there are numerous political dilemmas at the time of his writing. What about the authoritarianism within the Islamic world, or even the proleterianization and impoverishment of minority populations in post-industrial countries owing to neoliberal policy?

As Hayden White notes, the very impetus for narrativizing reality is because of a disjuncture in interpretations like the one Fukuyama is facing: the disjuncture between the emptiness and discontinuity of the sequence of real events, and our desire to give human experience a fixed and coherent meaning. The authority behind some notion of reality, White thinks, is what the historian assumes to be significant in virtue of her situation within a particular system of social authority.[12] By constituting historical reality within a structure of cultural significance, the author makes reality desirable to the reader, “imposing upon [reality’s] processes the formal coherency that only stories possess.”[13]

Fukuyama is constrained by his totalizing organicist mode of explanation. To give his narrative continuity, and therefore desirability, he must somehow interpret all of world-history within his story. Fukuyama resolves his contestable interpretation by suggesting that “if we look not just at the past fifteen years, but at the whole scope of history, that liberal democracy occupies a special kind of place.”[14] The question is what constitutes the “whole scope of history.” In a graph supposed to demonstrate the emergence of democracy, Fukuyama lists European, North American, South American, and a few East Asian Countries.[15] All Middle Eastern and African countries are excluded on the graph. Yet the Middle East and Africa are not excluded from Fukuyama’s discourse. To be sure, the regions are included, and are essential for the intelligibility of the idea of progress.

Fukuyama constitutes the web of significance in his narrative so that facts that conflict with his grand-narrative are included within world-history, but interpreted so that they are excluded from threatening the intelligibility of a progression towards freedom. There are a set of binary oppositions operating within Fukuyama’s text that play a role in constituting the web of significance within his narrative. As he writes, when the Eastern Europeans overthrew communism they “proved instead to be adults who could tell truth from falsehood.”[16] In other words, becoming ‘democratic’ involves ‘growing up’ from infancy into adulthood, the implication being that most of the undemocratic world is in cultural immaturity. Moreover, Fukuyama always describes universal history as the universal history of man and mankind. In fact, Fukuyama does not mention a single woman in the book. The only time the signifier <woman> vaguely comes to the reader’s awareness (but is not used) is in his criticism of feminists.[17] Women are present as an absence.

Fukuyama also divides the planet into the “historical” and “post-historical” world.[18] He uses historical to describe the so-called Third World, still undemocratic “stuck in history” and in its effeminate infancy. Post-historical describes the democratized free market countries in masculine adulthood, languishing at the end of history.[19] Africa is mentioned in the discourse, not by name, but rather as an absence, coming to the reader’s attention generally within the historical Third World.[20]

The constitution of Fukuyama’s narrative as continuous relies on the imposition of these various ethnocentric and androcentric idioms. To illustrate my point, let’s return to a thorny empirical obstacle to Fukuyama’s argument: Islam. The radicalization of Islamic political society is a response, in Fukuyama’s view, to the failure “to maintain their dignity vis-à-vis the non-Muslim West,” a response which is nevertheless inconsequential for the march of world-history, because Muslim “values, corrupt and latitudinarian, had been soundly defeated in the course of the previous hundred years.”[21] Because, in Fukuyama’s discourse, ‘historical’ connotes irrationality and infancy, the Islamic world is dismissible as unworthy to be considered within his masculinist narrative of the historical process. The Islamic world is comprehensible as a ‘part’ of the ‘whole’ scope world history only inasmuch as the Islamic world represents the absence of progress, and therefore the cultural superiority of the so-called West. As he puts the matter succinctly himself, “the universal historian must be ready to discard entire peoples and times as essentially pre- or non-historical, because they do not bear on the central plot of his or her story.”[22]

In sum, Fukuyama’s popular historiography is less a convincing depiction of an actual historical logic than an attempt to lend coherency to liberal dogma. Fukuyama incorporates empirical evidence when it justifies the moral prerogatives of the narrative, using ethnocentric tropes to distort the frame of world-history to fit a particular set of mostly so-called Western countries. Interestingly, Hegel, and Marx also were predisposed to heavily ethnocentric explanations in their theories of history as well. I do not think that a general history must fall in to these tropes, but certainly such a notion of history predisposes one to such racialized explanations.





































Works Cited


Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press, 1992.


G.W.F., Hegel. Philosophy of History. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2004.


Kojeve, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Basic Books, 1969.


White, Hayden. “Interpretation in History.” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (Winter 1973): 281–314.


———. “Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980): 5–27.


[1] Hegel G.W.F., Philosophy of History (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2004).

[2] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 108.

[3] Such as Alexandre Kojeve, whom Fukuyama draws upon. See Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (New York: Basic Books, 1969).

[4] Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 143-210.

[5] Ibid, xiii.

[6] Ibid, xx.

[7] Ibid, xii.

[8] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, 1992), xiii.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (Winter 1973), 302.

[11] Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 4.

[12] Hayden White, “Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980): 5–27.

[13] Ibid, 23.

[14] Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, 48.

[15] Ibid, 49.

[16] Ibid, 235.

[17] Ibid, 296-99.

[18] Ibid, 276.

[19] Ibid.

[20] He does, however, bring up the continent––again, but does not name it––only in the context of the White South African Afrikaner population on two occasions; see Ibid, 15, 111.

[21] Ibid, 246.

[22] Ibid, 139.

The Professor and the Madman, Reviewed by Michele



In his book “The Professor and the Madman”, Simon Winchester sets off to narrate how the Oxford English Dictionary was firstly conceived and then realized. As the title hints, the author constructs his book around the lives of two men who had a particularly relevant role in the development of the project: namely, James Murray, who was the first editor of the Dictionary (the Professor), and William Minor, an American surgeon who, whilst confined in an asylum after having perpetrated a murder as a result of his delusional state of mind, became one of the Dictionary’s most prolific contributors (the Madman). Thus, Winchester’s book begins with the murder of George Merret, Minor’s victim, then develops by providing the biographies of the two ‘main characters’ and an account of the evolution of the Oxford English Dictionary, from its conceptualization to its completion, and lastly narrates the final years of the most important agents involved in the Dictionary’s development. Even whilst following such a structure, Winchester makes numerous digressions throughout the book, arguably in order to provide a context for his narrative. Thus, for example, in Chapter 6, he intertwines the description of Minor’s life inside the Broadmoor asylum with a short story of the institution itself[1], or quickly covers the evolution of the Philological society in chapter 4[2].

Nonetheless, while at first glance “The Professor and the Madman” seems to based on solid empirical grounds, a closer analysis reveals how various methodological shortcomings seriously undermine its claim to provide a throughout reliable historical inquiry. Arguably, the main problem with Winchester’s approach could be understood through Hayden White’s conception of the role of narrative within historical discourse. Thus, White claims that “historians interpret their materials… by the choice of a plot-structure, which gives to their narratives a recognizable form… by the choice of a paradigm of explanation, which gives to their arguments a specific shape, thrust, and mode of articulation”[3]. Winchester superficially adheres to such a paradigm, inasmuch as, if we want to follow White’s own nomenclature[4], its narrative could be said to be plotted as a tragedy and explained through a contextualist approach. On the other hand, White makes clear that an historical account must “deal in real rather than… imaginary events”[5], and it could be argued that here lies Winchester’s fault. While, as the author himself elucidates by the end of the book, it is undeniable that his narration was partly based on empirical data such as the Broadmoor asylum’s “voluminous files that have long been kept on all patients”[6], it can be said that he makes no effort in distinguishing such sources from evidence that he has seemingly gathered (it is hard to tell with certainty) from personal accounts or reports of rumours. In other words, even leaving aside the imaginative descriptions that Winchester occasionally provides (such as the account of Merret’s murder, which offers an improbable amount of details that could hardly have been known by the author)[7], he fails to properly interpret his own sources by presenting all his facts as true regardless of the origin, de facto blurring the line between real and imaginary events.

Thus, for example, Winchester narrates how, on the day of the murder, “the night was clear and starlit” and Merret’s “breath was visible in the cold night air—or maybe he was just puffing on his pipe”[8]. Such a narration is clearly imaginative: how would Winchester know such things, as they seem unlikely to have been reported by anybody? Nonetheless, as such details are only functional in embellishing the narration, they do not really detract from the validity of the historical inquiry. However, the author fails to specify whether he is providing such ‘improvements’ not only in cases where it might appear rather obvious (such as the latter), but also when the process of distinguishing the empirical evidence from the author’s imagination becomes trickier. Thus, for example, while introducing Minor’s biography in the book, Winchester offers a description of Ceylon as “a kind of postlapsarian treasure island, where every sensual gift of the tropics is available, both to reward temptation and to beguile and charm”[9]. As the author’s account seems to have Orientalist undertones, the question about his source becomes all the more interesting. Moreover, the information is again presented as a fact, while the account seems to be imaginative. Thus, it can be argued that Winchester based his own description of the island on an unknown source and at the same time failed to properly contextualize the source itself. In this light, it seems that he is not able to interpret the data in the way that White deems essential for the historical narrative.

In this fashion then, one fundamental problem arises with the book: how are we to trust anything that the author says? It is certain that some of Winchester’s accounts are factual within the book, but how can they be discerned from the others when he does not seem able to make the distinction himself? By presenting every piece of evidence that he gathered without any criticism whatsoever about its origin or context, it can be argued that Winchester has seriously undermined the credibility of his book as a whole. Hence, for example, can we believe that Trench insisted on the importance of historical principles and sources (which makes for an ironic situation as the author does not employ such methods himself) while conceptualizing the Dictionary[10]? Or that Minor converted one of his “two rooms into a library, with a writing desk, a couple of chairs, and floor-to-ceiling teak bookshelves”[11]? To what extent are such accounts factual? In this light, it can be said that Winchester’s work does not really provide a reliable understanding of the events that it tries to narrate inasmuch as the lack of proper methodology prevents any account that might be relevant from standing out.

[1] Winchester, Simon, The professor and the madman: a tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English dictionary, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), 118.

[2] Ibid., 78-79.

[3] White, Hayden, Interpretation in History, (New Literary History 4, no. 2, 1973), 304.

[4] Ibid., 307.

[5] White, Hayden, The content of the form: narrative discourse and historical representation, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 5.

[6] Winchester, The professor and the madman, 233.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid., 11.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 106.

[11] Ibid., 123.

Sapiens – Inducing Humans to Rethink Humanity, Reviewed by Noah



The book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, has won international acclaim in the few short years since it was published. Though Harari is a professor and historian, Sapiens is a popular history, a historical book written for wide consumption by the masses, not just the academic community. Harari begins his novel by dispelling the myth that Sapiens are the only members of the human (Homo) genus, referring to people as “Sapiens” instead of “humans.”[1] After placing Sapiens in the context of our modest origins, he weaves the story that led our species to where we are today. Harari divides his work into four parts, The Cognitive Revolution, The Agricultural Revolution, the Unification of Humankind, and the Scientific Revolution. Looking at our history through an extremely unique lens, Harari offers compelling arguments as to how our species wound its way through time, and how the most major phenomena in our history came to pass. Harari uses strong scientific evidence to chart the path of Sapiens from our humble beginnings to his predictions of our future, and while he makes some untestable hypotheses and grand conjectures, his overall compelling work leads the reader to rethink where we came from, how we got here, and where we are going.

Harari begins with the story of Sapiens’ emergence along with the many other members of our Homo genus. He contextualizes Sapiens among our relatives, providing a very humbling perspective of the roots of humanity. Harari plots the path of Sapiens, alongside our brothers and sisters such as Homo Erectus and Homo Neanderthalus, describing our rapid ascent through the food chain of the animal kingdom. He goes on to chart how Sapiens continued to rise, eventually overcoming the other members of our Homo genus, and ultimately conquering the world. Harari uses scientific evidence, introduces competing scientific theories, and posits many questions regarding the unrivalled ascendance of our species. He concludes that it was due to Sapiens’ “new ways of thinking and communicating” that we were able to conquer the world.[2] Harari defines this as the Cognitive Revolution, and says it took place between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago. From there, he moves on to the Agricultural Revolution, when Sapiens moved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a lifestyle based on agriculture. Whereas generally, this has been described by historians as progress for humankind, Harari argues that “the Agricultural Revolution was a trap”, calling it “history’s biggest fraud”.[3] He claims that life for Sapiens in fact became worse due to the Agricultural Revolution, challenging our ideas of progress. Next, Harari begins analyzing Sapiens society, and how writing and “the imagined order” allowed us to expand and work together.[4] He explains the creation of modern culture and societies, along with analyses of gender and race relations throughout history. The third part of the novel covers “The Unification of Humankind”, focusing on expansion of human societies and globalization.[5] In this section, he discusses the importance of money as a unit of trust, and highlights the rise and fall of empires and religions throughout history, indicating what they contributed to Sapiens society. The fourth and final section of the book begins around the time Columbus landed in the New World, and discusses the Scientific Revolution. Harari cites our willingness to admit ignorance as the most important factor inducing this period. He moves through capitalism, industrialism, and modern inventions in our contemporary society, then turns to questions of happiness and well-being of Sapiens overall throughout history. Harari argues against the notion that over time, Sapiens have become happier. Finally, Harari goes on to predict the future of Sapiens, including possible immortality and the likelihood of soon being overtaken by artificial intelligence.

One of the key novelties in the book Sapiens is Harari’s incorporation of “pre-history” into history by choosing to begin over 70,000 years ago. While this allows for many opportunities in the exploration of early Sapiens history, and permits us to analyze human history from its’ very origins, it also leads to some dilemmas. Harari uses fairly sparse data to make very grand overarching hypotheses. The most notable of these is his claim that Sapiens’ shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural lifestyle was “history’s biggest fraud.”[6] Harari argues that the lives of the average Sapiens actually worsened due to the Agricultural Revolution. While he does construct persuasive and unique arguments, such as claiming that wheat actually domesticated us as opposed to the other way around, Harari makes very large speculations using very little data. Many of his hypotheses are entirely untestable, as we are not able to turn back the clock and conduct a side-by-side comparison of the happiness levels of Joe Hunter-Gatherer and Jane Farmer. Evidence limitations aside, Harari’s original perspective does help to uncover silences that modern everyday Sapiens have a habit of ignoring. This begins with Harari providing us with a sobering reminder of our un-spectacular origins in the middle of the food chain, forcing us to acknowledge that we are a part of nature, not above it. In the latter part of the book he hypothesizes that natural selection will soon be replaced by intelligent design. While he uses examples of recent advances to support this prediction, he extrapolates extensively from current research, using the past and present to predict the future, something Hobsbawm warned against.[7] In general, Harari uses strong scientific evidence and inter-disciplinary explanations to draw intelligent and thought provoking conclusions, although at times he tends to speculate and extrapolate too far.

Sapiens adds an exceptional amount to our understanding of our species’ history; Harari causes us to rethink not only where we came from, but where we are today and where we are heading in the future. By starting with Sapiens’ humble beginnings as an ordinary member of the animal kingdom and Homo genus, Harari re-contextualizes Sapiens among our roots. This serves to remind us that we are much less unique than we believe and is a poignant reminder that we must work harder to respect the ecosystems around us. On that same vein, Harari tells of mass extinctions which occurred when Sapiens initially conquered the world, providing a dire warning about our current destructive environmental tendencies. Harari also forces his readers to look at many other aspects of our history through a new lens, from rethinking the Agricultural Revolution, to rethinking the global narrative of empires and imperialism, to unique theories of culture, capitalism, money, religion, and more. By looking at each of these major aspects of Sapiens society through a new perspective, one begins to rethink their understandings of our present society and the history that molded it. While Harari’s predictions for the future ought to be viewed with skepticism, they indisputably raise questions which we must all consider regarding the present and the direction in which our species is headed. He also questions theories of progress, arguing that overall, Sapiens have not become happier over time. Much like Hayden White, Harari suggests that history has not actually been a story of human progress, that is merely the narrative we choose to mold our history into.[8]

Yuval Noah Harari takes on the challenging task of educating everyday people about the complex nature of our species’ history. Beginning around 70,000 years ago, Harari follows the winding road that Sapiens took to reach the point we have today, from an unremarkable species in the middle of the food chain to the almighty conquerors of mother nature. Harari looks at our history through an exceptionally unique lens, drawing on science and multiple disciplines such as psychology, sociology, and biology to draw his deftly constructed conclusions. While at times his arguments are too broad for the facts at hand, overall, Harari’s arguments are concise and compelling. Sapiens is a work that will unquestionably cause one to rethink the origins of humanity, perceive much of history as well as present phenomena in a new light, and lead one to consider many questions regarding our future.


[1] Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. McClelland and Stewart, 2014. 5.

[2] Ibid. 21.

[3] Ibid. 79.

[4] Ibid. 112.

[5] Ibid. 162.

[6] Ibid. 79.

[7] Hobsbawm, E. J. On History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.

[8] White, Hayden. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980)

Wolfgang Schivelbush’s Tastes of Paradise by Marian


Historians tend to classify Modernity as an historical period: this underscores how much the qualification of « modern » is first and foremost the result of the gradual emergence of an industrialized popular consciousness. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, German historian and social scientist, explored this rise in three books. Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants (1980) is the last in date.

Tastes of Paradise presents a social history of Genussmittel (literally objects of pleasure, stimulants in English) in Western Europe, starting at the dawn of the Modern Age with pepper and salt, addressing the introduction of coffee, tea and chocolate as well as tobacco, and finishing with the popularization of liquor and opium in 19th century England. The book is an admirable feat of synthesis and vulgarization, but it leaves major elements aside and is too lenient for the analytic work it claims to be: its twofold objective of synthesis and argumentation necessarily ends up as somewhat conflictual.

Schivelbusch argues that Genussmittel were more than what their name implies: they symbolized and accompanied the rise of the modern social consciousness. The aim is broad; the project ambitious: Tastes of Paradise tries to make it all work in 228 pages. This also makes the book a synthesis of at least five centuries of consumption. The author’s audience is therefore clearly not academic, and the purpose of the book is twofold: trying to prove that the Genussmittel have been major social factors in modern times as well as giving the reader a very general sense of the historical unravelling of stimulants consumption.

Doing so, Schivelbusch takes unusual angles: for example, it explores the history of medicine to explain the receptions of tobacco, coffee, tea and chocolate as well as the shaping of a popular conception of their use. We learn, for example, that « coffee [dries] out the body’s phlegm and therefore [robs] the phlegmatic temperament of its very foundation ».[1] This allows him to build a sociological approach: given what certain stimulants were thought to do, who would be most inclined to drink them?

For example, in the chapter Chocolate, Catholicism and Ancien Régime, Schivelbusch argues that chocolate (the drink) was prized among Catholics of southern Europe for its nutritional value: it was very useful in periods of fast. It was as well praised by the nobility, for chocolate started to represent Rococo elegance: « the essence of the chocolate ritual [served in bed] was fluid, lazy, languid motion [representing the] ideal of an idle class’s morning-long awakening to the rigors of studied leisure ».[2] This was in opposition to coffee, a defining element of the bourgeoisie and the middle-class, « a powerful force for change, helping to forge a new reality ».[3] It enhanced one’s concentration and productivity, supposedly sobered drunkards and weakened sexual impulses, fitting right into a protestant working ethic.

As another example, Schivelbusch devotes an entire chapter to the evolution of the rituals involved in smoking and the social importance of the pipe, then of the cigar, and then of the cigarette. Each was less prestigious than its predecessor and each presented a quicker way to consume tobacco and ingest the stimulant, in a society in which time was becoming an ever more precious resource. Tastes of Paradise associates consumption habits to broader social customs and perceptions, addressing class divides and inequalities through a seemingly benign object of consumption, and the links it highlights make for a compelling case.

The work of synthesis and vulgarization is admirable: Schivelbusch is concise; his style is never challenging, and the reader leaves the book with a much better understanding of the history of consumption. The thematic arrangement of the book allows the author to make his points independently from one another, and, although this may undermine the interdependence between different stimulants (for example, the way tea progressively supplanted beer as the biggest drink in England), it is all done for the sake of clarity.

Furthermore, Tastes of Paradise spares itself much explanatory work with a frequent use of paintings and engravings illustrating what it is trying to say. It allows the reader to visualize the popular representations of coffeehouses as opposed to taverns, of the impact of liquor as opposed to beer: the first obliterating any social restraints, the second simply cheering up individuals, and so on. On a side note, it is interesting to compare, in Tastes of Paradise, the different conceptions of beer: before the 18th century, it was blamed for the effect liquor was considered to have in the 19th century. This allows the book to guide its reader through the centuries, touching upon a multitude of stimulants, all the while keeping its focus.

On the other hand, Schivelbusch’s choices as to what to develop in his book are sometimes questionable. For example, the decision to leave out sugar is difficult to understand. Sugar was seen first as a spice, as a mean to display wealth, then it democratized and became one of the most consumed items in the world; it was a source of population migration (with slavery); it played a noticeable role in the development of mercantilism; it changed the way people consumed coffee and tea… The list goes on. Was there no point to be made on sugar as a major social factor? Sidney W. Mintz’ Sweetness and Power (1985) is a fascinating read and can be used to complement Tastes of Paradise on the matter. Nevertheless, it is understandable that an author must make choices in a work of synthesis, but sugar seems too important to ignore, especially when Schivelbusch tries to link Genussmittel to social restructuration.

Tastes of Paradise’s argumentative integrity also raises concerns, mostly on the question of sources. The author has compiled an 8-page bibliography without ever referring to it sources in his book. Such a lack of references may seem trivial: but it can leave the reader with the impression that Schivelbusch was trying to prove his point more than anything else. We do not know what he borrowed from his sources, nor do we know how objective he was. The pertinence of the argument suffers greatly from such an assessment. To what extent do the argumentative and narrative purposes overlap?

This also depreciates the value of his synthesis: how much was he trying to inform the reader rather than convince him? In a word, how reliable is Tastes of Paradise for the non-academic audience it aims?

To the author’s defense, the biography does not really serve an academic purpose: it is rather an invitation to the reader to build upon Tastes of Paradise, to further his research and deepen his knowledge by looking at the sources referenced: after all, the book is a 228-page synthesis: it is an introduction to a very broad topic. Nevertheless, the reader aware of historical methodological requirements cannot but look with suspicion at such a lenient use of sources.

Moreover, Tastes of Paradise’s twofold objective is often conflictual: first, the book’s broad argument, with examples spanning over half a millennium, would have needed much more development. For example, the author does not even try to address the major historical question of causality? In other words, did coffee propel protestant ethic, or did it fit in their preexisting narrative? Did liquor answer to a quicker need to become drunk in a society with less and less time to spare, or did it create said need?

Second, the synthesis is necessarily structured to prove the author’s point: but then, how good of an introductory book is it? The book cannot be both a brief synthesis and a well-rounded historical and sociological argument.

In conclusion, Schivelbusch’s Tastes of Paradise is a clear, simple work: its efficient synthesis and his compelling sociological argument make it a worthwhile read. However, some important omissions are to be deplored, and an obvious lack of references in the text are prone to make anyone remotely knowledgeable on methodology somewhat skeptical of its argument, which sometimes conflicts with the book’s synthetic aim. It is a book that invites its reader to learn more; but its content must sometimes be taken with a pinch of salt.

[1] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 46.

[2] Ibid., 91.

[3] Ibid., 63.

It’s here….


The desert island book club has arrived! All the reviews are on this page…scroll down and enjoy! You can also link to reviews via the individual links tabs under “Recent Posts” in the margin on the right. Have fun! It’s a truly delightful and diverse smorgasbord!


At the Dark End of the Street, Reviewed by Matt Garry


At the Dark End of the Street is a book about the African-American civil rights movement in the United States from the 1940s into the 1970s. This period saw the breakdown of institutional racism, codified by a series of laws that banned discriminatory practices that had become associated with the Jim Crow system. One of the movement’s leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., is nothing short of an icon. However, Danielle McGuire’s book is not about such well-known figures.

The author sees a largely untold side of the story of civil rights. She believes the role of women and the more sexualized aspects of racism in the United States have been largely forgotten. In the eyes of whites, black men were frequently seen as rapacious beasts. Meanwhile, black women were often targets of sexual assault by white males. McGuire gives a normally ignored account of the role of black women in the civil rights movement. This places her well within the trend of including women in history. That the role of women in such a recent and ubiquitous movement has been so disregarded is a testament to the necessity of books like McGuire’s. She also convincingly argues that one of the major fronts for black women in the battle over civil rights was in the realm of sexual violence.

McGuire’s book is essentially a succession of case studies connected across time. She examines several women who were either advocating for civil rights, resisting Jim Crow, victims of racial violence, or some combination of all three. This is conducive to a narrative way of explaining history, and the author does not shy away from employing narration. For example, McGuire describes an incident where Ella Ree Jones, a black female college student – sitting in the back half of the bus as required – refused to give up her seat to a white man. The bus driver flew into a rage, as was common. He pulled over and got two police officers. They ripped Jones off the bus. The policemen took her to city hall, severely beat her, and threw her in a jail cell. A judge convicted Jones the very next day, when she was still wearing her bloody and torn clothes. He would not entertain any accusations of abuse. McGuire uses these sorts of stories, often rather than statistics, to establish trends in the Jim Crow South. The author uses such stories to point out that Jones was in some ways lucky – it certainly wasn’t unheard of for a black woman to be raped by her arresting officers.

McGuire has clear and direct intentions in telling these kinds of stories. The first is to show what the Jim Crow system was like for women. Perhaps the most infamous acts of violence during this period were perpetrated on black men. There are countless stories and photos of lynchings, yet these always involve black men. Women of color faced different threats, often times more sexual in nature.  She also points out that many female acts of defiance took place long before Rosa Parks, herself a civil rights activist, declined to stand up for a white person on a bus. This is the case with Jones.

The fact that women were carrying out acts of resistance remarkably similar to Parks before she became a national figure is a key feature of McGuire’s book. Not only does it show that women refused to simply abide the vicious racism imposed on them, but also reveals an interesting fact. Civil rights activists would often only rally around the “right” sort of person. McGuire gives the accounts of many brave women who stood up to racism but were ultimately pushed to the sidelines by activists because they were too poor or were unwed mothers, etc. Although the movement could have a spontaneous feel to it – for example Rosa Parks is one day just no longer able to move to the back of the bus for the white man – there were a lot of behind-the-scenes calculations going on.

So why is it important to write about women in the civil rights movement? It is crucial not just because women deserve to have a voice in history, but because women were immensely important to this particular episode in history. As mentioned before, there was actually a fair amount of calculation and organization to the civil rights movement. Black women played a key part in this respect. McGuire points out that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, championed by figures such as MLK, largely succeeded because of the women who participated. Women used the bus more often than men to get to their places of work.

Essentially, black women were crucial to many aspects of the civil rights movement and actually had goals, such as the cessation of sexual violence, that were not entirely shared by their male counterparts. McGuire does an excellent job of detailing the many ways in which black women contributed to civil rights and were indispensible to the overall movement. That the author tells the personal stories of women who resisted racism and segregation makes her arguments compelling. She provides interviews and photographs of such women, some of whom are still alive, to give a more concrete emphasis on their existence and importance, even though many of them have been left out of the historiography of the civil rights movement.

There are also some weaknesses to At the Dark End of the Street, however. It is fair to say that one key reason women were often relegated to the background in the civil rights movement is that American culture generally marginalized women in that period. However, McGuire perhaps does not criticize the role of the movement’s leadership in downplaying women. It seems she shies away from saying something negative about such a renowned movement. Nevertheless, the question remains. Could activists have done more to credit the women who were integral to their success? Implicitly, McGuire says yes. In many ways, that is the raison d’être of her book, to demonstrate just how important black women were in this respect. However does not directly address the issue. When trying to explain why women did not figure as publicly into the civil rights movement as men, she never really implicates the movement itself. However, it seems highly unlikely that activists, especially male activists, were in no way responsible for black women being kept in the background in spite of the critical role they played. McGuire’s book loses some explanatory power for her failure to address such issues head on.

The author falls into another historiographical trap. The subject of her writing is the civil rights of black people, especially African-American women. McGuire gets a bit wrapped up on shaping her arguments along the lines of agency. In the context of freedom from sexual violence, the author talks about how one of the principal motives of black women was to reclaim their humanity and their bodies from their white oppressors. However, words like “reclaim” carry certain implications. Such terms suggest that white men did, in fact, own black women’s bodies and humanity. Instead of saying that these women had their humanity all along and that such things were simply being denied to them, McGuire at times writes from a master-slave historiographical perspective. This does not due justice to brave women that stood up to racism and oppression. To claim that African-American women did not have agency and needed take it back plays into frameworks set by arguments surrounding the question of whether or not people had any humanity at all.

However, this should not dissuade anyone from reading McGuire’s book. The criticisms just mentioned pale in comparison to what At the Dark End of the Street has to offer. There are incredible women who organized as effectively, thought as clearly, and fought as fiercely for their rights as any man during the civil rights movement. McGuire proves that the movement likely would not have succeeded without the help of black women. More importantly, she demonstrates clearly that the civil rights movement has been overly reduced and simplified. It was not just about Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering harrowing speeches. The movement also entailed women who risked as much, if not more than men in the hopes of securing the rights enshrined in American idealism.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Reviewed by Costa Valettas


In 1417, Poggio Braccolini, ex-papal secretary, seasoned book-hunter and humanist par excellence, discovered a forgotten copy of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura tucked away on the shelf of a German monastery. This epic poem articulates in beautiful Latin the Epicurean philosophy, an ancient Greek intellectual tradition that holds that the world is composed of tiny, indivisible, indestructible atoms in constant motion. The trajectory of these atoms is not linear, but instead very slightly swerved, causing them to combine and collide with each other and to form the complex and ever-changing structures that constitute the material world.

Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve is so named because it argues that Poggio’s discovery was itself a swerve, not this time in the realm of the material, but in the realm of the metaphysical. The discovery of De Rerum Natura, according to Greenblatt, helped to usher in the Renaissance and its intellectual turn to empiricism, thus making Poggio a “midwife to modernity.” A work of masterful storytelling, The Swerve also showcases the tensions between various forms of knowledge production in the course of the development of European intellectual history, while reminding us that much of what we know, or think we know, about the past originates from the intersection of chance and human agency. Aside from these theoretical considerations, The Swerve immerses us in world of Poggio, his contemporaries, and his Roman predecessors, while the immensely entertaining narrative allows us to share the thrill that Poggio himself must have felt as he first laid eyes on that dusty manuscript.

It might come as some surprise that a papal secretary could be so instrumental in the diffusion of a school of thought whose philosophical implications, such as the “pleasure principle,” which holds that one’s goal in life should be to maximize pleasure, and the notion that the soul is material and dies with the body, were considered anathema by the Catholic Church. The contradiction becomes less perplexing when Greenblatt explains that the pre-Counter-Reformation church that was more tolerant of dissidence than its later incarnations, and when we learn that Poggio’s devotion to God was exceeded only by his devotion to classical philology.

The book does, however, have a tendency to oversimplify its analysis. For example, there has in recent years been a great deal of debate about the centuries before the Renaissance. The conventional narrative maintains that there was a “Dark Age,” during which the literary, cultural and scientific inheritance of Antiquity was forgotten and very nearly lost, only to be snatched from the jaws of oblivion by Renaissance humanists and returned to the light of the world by their philological labors. Greenblatt appears to harbor some sympathy for this more romantic view of the Renaissance, though it is now much more frequently argued that it was a much less significant break from the Middle Ages than had previously been thought (if indeed it is possible to delineate these two periods at all). The Swerve seems to attribute excessive influence to the effect of De Rerum Natura alone on the evolution European thought. Though the poem was certainly a monumental find, Greenblatt himself tells us that it was “certainly not responsible for an entire … transformation – no single work was” (12).  Instead, he states that he has “tried in this book to tell a little known but exemplary Renaissance story” (12). Yet he goes on to say immediately thereafter that his book is “the story of how the world swerved in a new direction,” “the key moment” being when Poggio “reached out one day, took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That was all; but it was enough” (12).

It is difficult to believe that Greenblatt, professor emeritus of history at Harvard, could genuinely subscribe to such a simplistic narrative. It seems more likely that in trying to craft an appealing story for the reader, the author has taken certain liberties with the historical record. There is no doubt that the clever title has come at the cost of some historical precision, but as long as the careful reader interprets Grenblatt’s book in light of his initial warning, rather than his subsequent deviation from it, the central message remains much more faithful to the evidence in question and much more balanced.

The Swerve also serves, if somewhat inadvertently, as a study of the phenomenon of knowledge production. In its simplest form, the concept of knowledge production implies that instead of “rediscovering” the past, historians “construct” it in the present. According to this view, historical knowledge has always been constructed in this way, and has, and likely always will, contain some sort of bias. Historical knowledge depends on the evidence analyzed, the point of view from which the historian approaches their work, and a host of other factors inherent in the process of historical research. In effect, the concept involves breaking with the notion that there can exist an objectively true account of the past. Moreover, Greenblatt’s account of the process by which humanist knowledge developed (through the intentional search for texts, some of which were preserved by the toil of monastic scribes, and others of which were lost in what was essentially process or random selection) reinforces the importance of chance in shaping the parameters for the creation of historical knowledge. Had Poggio and his contemporaries stumbled upon other, now lost manuscripts, the evolution of European intellectual culture might have followed a markedly different path.

In his own narrative, Greenblatt implicitly describes the conflict between a number of processes of knowledge production. Most notable among these is his account of the clash between Catholic “official knowledge,” and humanist knowledge, the latter of which has its roots in classical philosophy. As the humanist challenge becomes increasingly pressing, the Church finds itself on the defensive, creating more knowledge to counter the uncomfortable assertions of humanism. For example, Greenblatt treats in significant detail the process by which the Church entrenches in the minds of its adherents the knowledge that pleasure is sinful, in order to diminish the appeal of Epicurean philosophy and to defuse the threat it poses to the Church’s spiritual monopoly.

The reader might also observe that Greenblatt himself produces a particular narrative (or “knowledge”) of intellectual history for the reader by emphasizing the importance of De Rerum Natura at the expense of many other factors. Moreover, the fact that Greenblatt casts what is essentially a European narrative in a universal light suggests to the reader that the intellectual history of Europe is the intellectual history of the world, a statement whose absurdity needs no refutation. Finally, the author sets up a dialectical opposition between Classical philosophy, as interpreted through the humanist prism, and Catholic dogma. However, the work of authors like Carlo Ginzburg suggests that there were likely other perspectives involved in shaping the intellectual character of Europe during this period. In sum, Greenblatt himself becomes an example in his own study of knowledge production.

The book is by no means a flawless work. For one, the narrative itself, for all its merits, is very misleadingly framed. Moreover, Greenblatt at times provides the reader with some information that is not strictly necessary to support his thesis, and while the interested reader might appreciate the additional context, other readers might find the extra information cumbersome. To this author’s mind, at least, these little anecdotes help the reader envision the cast of historical personages less as abstractions, and more as flesh-and-blood human beings. Indeed, this is one of The Swerve’s winning qualities: it renders tangible the world of the past in a way that few other works can. Moreover, it is visually appealing – while the casual reader will appreciate the color gloss photographs for their vividness and detail, the scholar will be relieved that there are any pictures at all.


Though the reader should bear in mind that The Swerve’s focus is skewed by a catchy subtitle, a misleading metaphor, and an ill-advised addendum to the introduction, the book is nevertheless highly recommended. When read with the above qualifications in mind, The Swerve book proves an astute study of an “exemplary” case in the history of European thought. It is eminently readable, witty sometimes, and informative almost always. What’s more, it is suffused throughout with the author’s sense of wonder at the complexity of the human experience, echoing, no doubt, the sentiments of Lucretius himself. It is rare feat indeed to create an experience that is both intellectually rewarding and aesthetically pleasing, but the careful reader will find that Greenblatt has done just that.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Reviewed by Tara Davis



In Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky (1997) spins a refreshingly intimate narrative on the relationship between humans and the environment. He attempts to understand the present by way of the past: what historian March Bloch’s describes as, “the master quality of the historian”.[1] In this light, Kurlansky’s interpretation of the critical events leading to the decline of cod in the 1990s contributes to a necessary dialogue on current sustainability of the marine environment.[2]

In Part One, “A Fish Tale”, Kurlansky addresses how man, “an openmouthed species greedier than cod”, caused the near-extinction of the “common” fish made to “endure”. [3] His first approach is to establish cod as instrumental in laying the foundation of the Trans-Atlantic world. The Vikings air-dried the fish to survive voyages made to America between 985 and 1011, the medieval Basques established themselves as whalers by trading and salt-curing cod, and the British fought the first cod war in 1532. By 1550, sixty percent of all fish eaten in Europe was cod and it remained a staple food for 250 years.

Kurlansky reveals how cod fishing territories were the heart of British and French negotiations following the Seven Years’ War. France “held its slave colonies but lost its fisheries” and would subsequently depend on New England cod to feed Caribbean plantation slaves.[4] When Britain attempted to regulate the French molasses trade and the American cod trade in 1733, Kurlansky argues it marked the “first inadvertent step towards dismantling the British Empire”. (99). By the late 1700s, the cod fisheries in New England established a commercial environment of individual economic freedom independent from the British crown. The American Revolution emerged not from a call for political freedom. Rather, the colonists demanded the right to make money via the right to sell cod.

Ultimately, the more experienced, better trained, and “certainly better dressed” British Army lost because the Continental army was better fed and better paid.[5] Following Kurlansky’s narrative thread the reader initially assumes the Continental Army survived on cod, yet this is not the case. Due to the militarization of fishing waters there was “not much cod for anyone”.[6]

In response, Kurlansky explains how cod laid the economic foundation for the production of food for the Continental Army. Here was the fish that had built Boston’s economy. Its financial trail extended far beyond the day’s catch. On a whole, Kurlansky aptly introduces the reader to the “fish that changed the world”, but his representation of cod as the fish that won the revolutionary war is reductionist. While it does lend a new perspective on the conflict, it neglects other reasons for British defeat such as the vast territory the army had to cover in the colonies, so distant from Great Britain. In failing to address the counterarguments of established historians, it is not clear from where Kurlansky’s is drawing his argument.

In Part two, “Limits”, Kurlansky interprets the technological and sociological transition from cod fisherman to industrial worker: from the use of hand lines to trawl lines. Kurlansky contributes to this history by interweaving the human rationality behind every new change in technology. At the turn of the 19th century, the human perception of the abundance of cod dictated alterations within fishing practices. In the Darwinian spirit of the Victorian age, Kurlansky argues, T.H. Huxley served on three British fishing commissions, where he argued that all the herring and cod could never be “fished out”.[7] The number of cod and the prolific number of eggs in an average cod was enough to preclude “all the efforts of man to exterminate it”.[8] Here, Kurlansky could present better examples and could be more explicit in making connections between the Darwinian age its impact on the management of cod. This meeting of micro-history and macro-history does not lend for an argument as persuasive as Kurlansky’s other insights.

Kurlansky also comments on the self-perpetuating relationship between cod populations and technological innovation.  So long as newer fishing techniques yielded bigger catches it did not seem that the stocks were being depleted. Even when local cod populations were in obvious decline, steam ship trawlers expanded into the ocean and returned with bounty. The abundance of fish catches were not related to the population size, so much as they exemplified the efficiency of steam ship trawlers to access untouched, healthy populations in remote waters. By the 1890s, Kurlansky notes, fish stocks were already showing signs of depletion in the North Sea. Instead of conservation, “fleets traveled farther to richer grounds off of Iceland”.[9] While this tactic supplied the international market for a time, it altered marine ecosystem dynamics indefinitely.  In Newfoundland, Canada’s historic fishing province, it left inshore fisherman with dwindling cod populations. In what appeared to local fisherman as a sudden collapse of cod, the fish that had forever been managed as an infinite resource, was in fact, “so rare that it could no longer be considered commercially viable.”[10]

Kurlansky explains how technological innovation was not only to blame; it was simply the tool humans crafted to supply demands for cod. Diesels, trawler nets, bottom draggers, sonar surveillance, and factory ships– all took a toll on the resilience of cod. After the industrial age, what drove the extraction of cod at unprecedented levels was a consumer market predicated on Clarence Birdseye’s invention of frozen foods. Though Kurlansky’s focus on the modern distribution methods is focused, it neglects other reasons for increased cod extraction.  These include the role the advancement of medicine played in drastically increasing the size of population, the post-WWII economic boom, and the overall increase in wealth and prosperity throughout the modern world. All attributed to an increased demand for cod.

In Part Three, “The Last Hunters”, Kurlansky’s stronger argument is found in how he ultimately ascribes the decline of cod to human misperception. These technological transfers are not simply natural, inevitable transitions, rather they were innovations justified within a specific socio-cultural context of guiding policies and practices. In his comparison of Canada and Norway, Kurlansky intimates how past human errors can only aid current natural resource management decision-making. In Norway, the politicians were able to severely limit the catch and change the industry when the fish were still commercially viable. As a result, populations were able to rebound. In Canada, the necessary regulations arrived too late and the fisherman were left to wait.[11] Regardless if the human decisions surrounding cod in Canada were for better or for worse, and it is clear Kurlansky supports the latter, what is hopeful is this element of human agency.

Living in a time of large-scale profit-driven food markets, changing climate, and massive species extinction, Kurlansky’s history lesson is worth applying to contemporary decision making, though it is far from a policy brief.  Cod recipes, dating from the twelfth century to the twentieth century, chronologically break up the chapters. At first, these recipes come across as anecdotal and trite. In Part One, it is not clear how several boiled cod recipes are relevant. The further Kurlansky builds his argument, however, the recipes become shards of evidence of an unimaginable time when cod was, indeed, abundant. They also serve as a constant reminder of the longevity of this staple food in daily life. In the beginning sections of this book, Kurlansky intimates this point, but it is not until the last page of the book that Kurlansky drives his main point and the recipes come to life:

There is a big difference between living in society that hunts whales and living  in one that views them. Nature is being reduced to precious demonstrations for entertainment and education, something far less natural than hunting. Are we headed for a world where nothing is left of nature but parks? We know it is hard to kill off fish than mammals. But after 1,000 years of hunting the Atlantic cod, we know that it can be done.[12]

The recipes reveal a time when man was intertwined, as oppose to a part from, the natural processes. Cod represented livelihood, sustenance, and ritual.  Throughout the book, we see how cod is transformed from a dish cooked by fishing communities to a pricey specialty prepared by elite cooks. The progression of the recipes cited throughout the book exemplifies the shift from man’s personal relationship with nature to a large-scale dependency on technology. What is strikingly distinct about the last thirty pages of recipes in the book is how the reader realizes they are all written for a ghost fish, and it is not clear if these recipes will be again in the future.

[1] Bloch, Marc. 1953. The historian’s craft. New York: Knopf.

[2] Kurlansky, Mark. 1997. Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world. New York: Walker and Co, 43.

[3] Kurlansky, 45.

[4] Kurlansky, 88.

[5] Kurlansky, 98.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kurlansky, 121.

[8] Kurlansky, 108.

[9] Kurlansky, 132.

[10] Kurlansky, 186.

[11] Kurlansky, 193.

[12] Kurlansky, 233.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Reviewed by Francesca Bucchi


The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (2008) is a bestseller written by Ian Mortimer, an English writer and historian with a BA and PhD in history from the University of Exeter.  The book is both unprecedented and fascinating because it offers the reader a new approach to history in an attempt to bring the subject away from the elitist circle of historians and to a larger audience. As the title suggests, the work is designed as a guide for a time traveller and it describes various aspects of the life in medieval England as the reader himself were visiting the country during the fourteenth century and experiencing what it meant to live there at the time.

The text is divided into various chapters, each of which dealing with a specific aspect of the medieval reality, such as the Landscape or What to Wear. Interestingly, Mortimer subdivides the chapters themselves into smaller sections in order to describe each and every aspect according to medieval social classes, which he introduces in chapter two. Although many would consider this as a method Mortimer uses to simplify and systematize his work, this is in fact a very courageous approach to analyse the specific historical period since it accentuates the different ways the author used to study the classes. By comparing the parts dedicated to the nobility and the clergy and those dedicated to the peasants, one would notice that the author tends to be more specific with the former, mentioning important examples, while more vague with the latter.  For instance, when dealing with the medieval lodgings of the nobility, the author is able to present a great deal of supporting evidence for his claim of the fourteenth century as a century of castle rebuilding (154). On the other hand, when he deals with the lower classes’ houses, Mortimer only recurs to Chaucer’s tales as major evidence (163,165).  The classist approach thus involuntarily emphasizes either the availability or lack of sources the author had to deal with when writing his work.

In addition to classes, sex is another subcategory the author uses to deal with the different aspects of medieval life in England. Mortimer specifically includes a part dedicated to women in the chapter on the medieval classes (chapter two). In this, the author seems very conscious of the patriarchal nature of medieval society, but he nevertheless claims that women indeed have advantages, for instance, “no man could take his wife to court for […] husband-beating” (56). Although this is a true statement, it is hard to believe in its wide applicability to the majority of medieval women. Moreover, after this short but intense part dedicated to the apparently “not so fair sex”, Mortimer uses sex as an analytical framework in a very biased way. He mentions women only when dealing with specific cases where sex obviously matters, like medieval clothing, but he seems to forget to mention, for instance, what it meant for women to travel in fourteenth century England (chapter six) or why they would just not “stay at an inn by themselves” (146). As a result of this, the entire book seems to be framed in a very male perspective and thus for a “male” time traveller to medieval England.

Besides the classist approach, another characteristic of Mortimer’s narrative is the sensory aspect of the book. This is both a novelty and a strength of the work that derives from the wish of the author to describe the specific historical period as the reader was actually living it. Throughout the book, it won’t be unusual to see references to the five senses such as the smell of a brook (6), the quietness of a road (246), or the chatting in a manorial court (126). For instance, when talking about Where to Stay (chapter seven), Mortimer spends quite few pages describing the peculiar and very common world of the inn; however, he warns the time traveller that despite what the tradition has conveyed to the modern reader about the often “romantic aspects” of staying in an inn (145), the reality is indeed different. During the night, in fact, “the sound of travellers stumbling along the gallery or down the stair is not uncommon” (146). This emphasis on the senses is really effective in catching the attention and curiousness of the reader, but it is important to say that such literary manoeuvre has a deeper purpose.

The very peculiar narrative style full on sensory details chosen by the author to deal with the specific historical period perfectly adheres to the principles of what he himself introduces in the preface as “virtual history” (2). This new approach aims at “taking the reader directly to a moment in time, and presenting events as if they were still unfolding” (2), thus bringing history closer to the reader by allowing him or her to go beyond mere historical sources and actually understand the humanity permeating a specific historical period. As Mortimer claims: “As you start to think of the past happening […], a new way of conceiving history becomes possible” (1). Thus one sees how the sensory details are not simply literary surpluses, but they are concrete devices used by the author in order to plunge the “traveller” completely into the reality of medieval England. For instance, in the chapter dedicated to Health and Hygiene (chapter nine), the author underlines the importance of understanding the gravity of the Great Plague not only as an historical turning point, but as a human factor that affected the life of millions of people and to do that he describes what the landscape would have looked like to anyone visiting England during the Black Death:

“As you look around and see ravens flying through deserted streets, and half-wild dogs and pigs eating the corpses abandoned on the edge of a village, you will see something no historian will ever see” (203).

In the same way, Mortimer uses the present tense throughout his book, which may at first seems confusing when dealing with history. Actually, this is just another means to make the reader feel like he is experiencing what he is reading and not just filtering information passively.

In conclusion, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is an excellent book for all the lovers of medieval history, but I would actually suggest anyone to read it. The way of approaching history proposed by Mortimer is simply revolutionary and reading the book may eradicate anyone’s previous misconception of history as a merely scholarly subject. The narrative in fact seems to bring history to life, thus demonstrating that sometimes one just needs new eyes to really appreciate something. As Mortimer ardently states at the end of his book: “history is no longer just an extended academic exercise – it can be anything you want it to be.” (290)


Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England: a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. London: The Bodley Head, 2008


The Sleepwalkers, Reviewed by Josh Doyle – Raso


The history of the genesis of the First World War has been addressed by countless historians due to its complex nature. Historians point to structural conditions, the attitudes of each state’s specific leaders, the prevailing ideologies of the time and the arms race, among other things, as the causes of the conflict. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, though it works with an immense collection of sources and accounts, presents a simpler explanation; the leaders and foreign policy makers of pre-War Europe simply did not realize the consequences of their actions and so continued to perpetuate volatile and inconsistent policy and discourse. His focus on diplomatic and other governmental decision-makers has benefited First World War by providing a more in-depth analysis of the personas in the diplomatic scene of pre-war Europe. Clark’s work presents its easy to understand thesis through an unchallenging literary style and the research that Clark has done, his interpretations of that research, and the methodology he uses to alleviate his sources’ limitations, especially state-managed archives, are very effective.

Merits as a Work of Popular History

Clark uses a narrative style full of description and character building, making The Sleepwalkers’ central arguments accessible to a non-academic audience. Despite the book’s length, Clark does not use lengthy paragraphs and his sentences are concise. Though the length may intimidate some, the content and writing in the book should not be a concern to a lay audience.

Clark’s narrative style could easily lend itself to the writing of a novel. He rarely uses complicated or obscure words and does not employ academic concepts or theories that a lay reader would not understand; instead, he uses colloquial and exciting language to draw the reader into the story and drive the narrative. For example, when writing about Bulgarian concerns over Macedonia, Clark writes that Bulgaria was “anxious to secure Salonika before the Greeks got their hands on it.”[1] The colloquial phrase “getting one’s hands on something” is not typically found in a serious work of scholarship, but it works well in this instance. It is a phrase that every English native speaker understands and so allows Clark’s point to be readily understood. Additionally, the phrase can convey children grabbing for the last morsel of some treat, which is true to the mood that Clark tries to evoke here.

Clark’s narrative style is found not just in the everyday nature of his language, but also in his descriptions. His writing effectively evokes settings and portrays historical figures as real life characters. For example, Clark provides a detailed background of Sir Edward Grey, the longstanding British foreign secretary, which includes his family upbringing, education and an account of his pastimes. He refers to Grey’s own notes as well as British and foreign writings about Grey and compares many accounts to distill Grey’s personality.

Clark’s literary style in The Sleepwalkers allows him to retain and appeal to an audience who might be intimidated by the size and detail of the book. It produces a narrative history, keeping the reader interested and desirous to read more.

Clark’s arguments are also easy to understand. He argues that the diplomats and policy makers of pre-war Europe acted as “sleepwalkers” and unknowingly led themselves into a world war. Rather than appealing to academic theories or using historical jargon, he consults the memoirs of relevant figures and compares them with contemporary newspaper accounts and official governmental documents. Further, his comparisons and analyses are explained in layman’s terms. Though his conclusion, that all the actors are culpable and no individual actor should be blamed, may not satisfy a reader who seeks a simplistic “good guy/bad guy” narrative, his methodology is sound. It is not a challenging task to understand the progressions that Clark makes throughout his book, and the conclusions that he reaches based on his evidence are well-grounded and easily understood.

Merits of Methodology, Research, and Interpretation

            Clark explains simply and clearly the methodological problem of working with state archives. Clark explains that any First World War historian is confronted by an oversupply of archival evidence. He advises that much of this information is suspect due to the politicized intent of state archives. For example, German archival collections attempt to dispel the “war guilt” thesis; French collections attempt to counteract this; and Russian archives portray the buildup to the First World War as an autocratic and bourgeois process that countered the interests of the working class. He also explains that the memoirs of many statesmen and other key decision-makers have been sanitized to remove any possibilities of guilt, or are simply extremely vague regarding the events prior to the War. He notes that even the memories of many of these figures, when interviewed by an American historian in the 1920s, were hazy, spotty, and surprisingly immune to self-doubt.[2] He also remarks on the secretive nature of many of the period’s diplomatic exchanges.[3] Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Clark researched state archives, decision-makers’ memoirs and newspaper articles extensively and intensively. It is evident that the depth and breadth of Clark’s research has benefited his book as it allows him to overcome the limitations of relying only on state-managed archives.

Clark’s recognition of state-managed archives’ shortcomings is a good first step to addressing the problem. His methodology is founded upon this recognition. For discerning the truthfulness of state-managed archives and filling the gaps found in many of the relevant figures’ memoirs, Clark consults as many sources as possible.  This strategy is effective for it allows him to compare sources which contain similar claims with slightly different information. For example, Clark used this method with success when attempting to ascertain the truth of reports that Serbian military forces were carrying out atrocities in 1913 occupied Albania.

Though the Serbian government denied these atrocities, Clark looks to messages from Austrian, British and even Serbian diplomatic officials that countered its claim. He writes that the Austrian Consul-General in Skopje reported on these atrocities, and that these reports mostly accorded with those provided by British regional officials. He points to messages the Serbian envoy in Vienna sent to Belgrade which stated that the French ambassador was concerned by the atrocities and that the Serbian envoy advised the Belgrade government that these complaints might have “very bad consequences.”[4] He also consults a Viennese newspaper article in which a Serbian minister was quoted as saying Serbia might be “forced to take measures on her own account” to deal with Albania-Serbia border troubles, though caused by Serbian atrocities.[5]

In instances such as this, consulting solely the Serbian sources might give the false impression of a government whose actions are misunderstood. Alternatively, consulting solely the British or Austrian sources would have revealed only the possible existence of these atrocities. By consulting Serbian and other sources, both governmental and media-based, Clark provides a more complete view of the issue and confirms the atrocities and sheds light on the Serbian government’s reaction.

Clark’s methodology has also allowed him deep insight into the relationship between states’ foreign policy and the domestic and world presses. By consulting these sources in order to confirm the factual basis of many events, he also discovered the personal opinions of statesmen and other decision-makers regarding the effect of public and press opinions. This section of the book is especially interesting because it is analogous to the current situation in many countries, in which extreme opinions are much louder than those of moderates. It is noteworthy that even early 20th century diplomats recognized that the press, especially nationalist or extreme press, could not be trusted to reflect accurately actual public opinion.[6] It is in examinations such as these where Clark’s effective interpretation of evidence is most obvious for the logic of the conclusions he draws from his research is apparent.

Take, for example, Clark’s examination of Russian foreign minister Sazonov’s view of the press. Clark examines statements given by foreign minister Sazonov. He writes that it was well understood that Sazonov “affected an attitude of contempt towards journalists and their opinions” but goes on to write about how Sazonov cleverly used the Russian press to make Russia’s intentions palatable to foreign powers. He cites a confidential Russian circular to its ambassadors in which Sazonov urged them to direct foreign officials to read Russian press to understand the domestic challenges faced by the Russian government.[7] If Clark had merely taken Sazonov’s public words at face value and failed to consult official documents that contradict those words, Clark would have failed to provide an insight into the character and actions of this key official. Clark reaches the conclusion that Sazonov, like many other decision-makers for whom Clark provides examples, understood the limitations and frustration of published opinion, but still utilized it as a tool to express foreign policy or discern the possibilities of another state’s foreign policy. It is through his careful research and transparent methodology that Clark is able to reach this conclusion without controversy.

In conclusion, Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is an accessible, if lengthy, account of the diplomatic tensions that led to the First World War. The methodology he employs is effective at redressing the issue of politicized state archives and sanitized official memoirs, while the language and styles employed in the book, as well as its relatively uncomplicated thesis, make his work accessible to a lay audience. Though the book is long and detailed, it would be a fascinating read for anyone, academic or not, with an interest in the First World War. It provides a simple and clear argument presented in an unintimidating fashion that is supported by excellent scholarship.


[1] Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers, (New York : HarperCollins, 2012) p. 253

[2] Clark, pp. xxiii-xxiv

[3] Clark, p. xxvi

[4] Clark, p. 113

[5] Clark, p. 286

[6] Clark, p. 229

[7] Clark, p. 265

The Lost Symbol, Reviewed by Praniet Chopra



The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown[1] narrates the story of Professor Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, who is deceptively invited to Washington by a psychopathic murderer on a quest to find the ‘Lost Word’ and his honorary place among the demons in the afterlife, and is plunged into a manhunt to retrieve his friend, Peter Solomon, a high-ranking Mason. In spite of enduring various near-death experiences, Langdon is able to, by relying on his knowledge of ancient symbols and codes, decipher the enigmatic pyramid, find the villain, and prevent him from revealing all the secrets of the Masonic brotherhood’s rituals and members. Eventually, despite not being a member of the Masons, Langdon is exposed to the Lost Word—the Bible—buried deep within the Washington Capitol building by George Washington (a prominent Mason) and is reminded of the godlike powers of the individual.

In The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown attempts to present a very trustworthy and [overly] favourable interpretation of the Freemasons and, without bibliographic evidence, retells their historic myths in a present-day male-centered society.

This book includes a very eclectic range of history, spanning from the conspiracies revolving around the institution of Masonry to the ancient basis of the study of the mind’s power, known as Noetics. While it was certainly engaging to venture into the depths of an organisation that is perceived as extremely secretive and to understand the true potential our minds harness, Brown presents history in a very sensationalised manner. He emphasizes the secretiveness of Masonic rituals, and yet describes in detail the ceremony to enter into the highest order. Admittedly, Brown does not make a pledge of veracity in terms of the Masonic rituals and the Ancient Mysteries he describes. However, the fact that he incorporates them into his book with such perceived integrity is disconcerting because many readers might blindly accept his accounts as accurate. He also appears to be a bit too defensive of the secretive Masonic rituals and practices, and exhibits a clear bias in their favour. Relatedly, if the Masons truly are as secretive as he claims them to be, how reliable are his accounts of members’ identities and roles in history? In essence, to maintain the sensationalist character of his book and attract even more readers, Brown presents many mind-boggling conspiracy theories, whose legitimacy is not clearly established.

Being centered on the Masonic brotherhood, this novel obviously has a very gendered character to it. In fact, Brown, in depicting the heavily male-dominated history of the American founding fathers and the Masonic society, creates a similar society and atmosphere within which his own female characters, specifically Katherine Solomon and Inoue Sato, develop. However, these two characters are described inconsistently, with Brown simultaneously incorporating the characteristics of the ‘caretaker’ and ‘damsel in distress’ archetypes (especially in pertinence to Katherine) into those of a knowledgeable, well informed, useful, and authoritative individual.

Brown paints Katherine Solomon as a ‘female’ in a very conservatively traditional connotation of the word, with the exception her role as a scientist. She is described as an attractive and very sensitive character, often putting herself and others in danger in order to find and save her brother. Her constant worry for him is quite irrational at times, given the time-sensitive nature of concurrent crises. This irrationality is amplified when juxtaposed with the actions of Langdon and William Bellamy, who are focused on assessing the repercussions of deciphering the pyramid, even though doing so could save Peter’s life. Katherine’s emotionally driven behaviour pushes Langdon to decipher the pyramid, an event described as catastrophic, with all the blame being allotted to the Solomon sister. This seems to be an ‘Eve and the poisonous apple’-esque legend being moulded to fit into a historical fiction context. She is also portrayed as the overused stereotypical archetype for female characters, that of the “damsel in distress,” with both Langdon and Peter citing her safety as prime reasons for their actions and decisions.

However, instead of just leaving Katherine’s role as the sister of an important male character, Peter, Dan Brown attempts to weave her deeper into the storyline by presenting her niche area of research in Noetics. It also gives her a position of strength over the other characters in that her research is very closely linked to what the psychopath seeks and the Masons are trying to preserve: the Lost Word and the power of the human mind. It is interesting to note, however, that she divulges this research to the cleverly disguised antagonist, who burns it, while the Masonic brotherhood, who are protecting a similar secret, manage to preserve it throughout. There is a parallel here again with the Eve and the poisonous apple story where Katherine’s mistake nearly assures the doom of human knowledge, with the addition of the Masonic brotherhood acting as a saving grace. She reflects upon this instance as she lies, dying, and ponders upon how futile her life had been now that none of her research on Noetics would outlive her. Ironically, Langdon pursues a similar thought process when he is inches away from death, ruminating upon how useless he and his intellect would be after his death. Is this inconsistency in her portrayal, or attempt at setting her on an equal pedestal as the majoritarian male characters, an attempt at truly treating her as an equal to the male characters or simply depicting her as the ideal modern woman, who is deeply engrossed in her work but concurrently gives family more importance than anything else?

In contrast, the Director of the CIA Inoue Sato is depicted as a strong-willed and commanding woman, and provides an exception to the above-mentioned characteristics. Although she is not a major character and is described as harbouring various manly characteristics, her voice being one of them, she does hold a lot of power over many characters, including Langdon and Warren Bellamy, a high ranking Mason. Her ability to command even the most powerful characters in the novel certainly earns Brown some credibility for attempting to present a female character who is more than simply a loyal sidekick/love interest. Also, his attempt at diversifying his female characters, as well as his male ones (ranging from a fearful disbelieving professor to a blind all-knowing Mason priest) discourages the widespread use of stereotypes, even though Katherine is partly an exception to this.

When comparing Katherine and Sato, especially based on their interactions, there seems to be a power-influenced hierarchy that comes into play. It is characterised primarily by Sato ordering Katherine to obey her orders, as she is a top-ranking official in the CIA. Based on simply this analysis, as well as those of the male characters (Langdon-Bellamy, for example), it seems that once one transcends the gender divide by focusing on characters of the same gender, the major theme that determines interaction among these individuals is the allotment of power.

It seems a bit disturbing that despite her intellect and potential, Katherine and her communication and decisions are constantly influenced by a motherly and nurturing instinct in relation to loved ones, namely Robert Langdon and Peter Solomon. This dichotomy between the emotional Katherine and practical Langdon, Bellamy, Peter, or Calloway, is only countered by the significance of Katherine’s research and the contrast that callous Sato provides, acting as a sort of bridge between the female and male characters.

On the whole, this book is an inviting read because it presents a myriad of conspiracy theories that readers can evaluate based on their own interest. Due to its sensationalist nature, the book engages readers and maintains their attention throughout the various interpretations of different codes and symbols, due to the urge to discover what, truly, the Lost Word is. It also describes many interesting artistic and architectural phenomena, which can appeal to another sector of readership that might not have read a simple historical fiction. Furthermore, it justifiably only provides a basic introductory understanding of the Freemasons. The detail that Brown presents about the institution is not verifiable in the text due to the lack of a bibliography, but it can ignite in readers an interest in the topic, which they can pursue with external research.

However, because this book was a historical fiction, a genre not known for its historical accuracy, it contains many flaws as well. Firstly, as already mentioned, Brown does not cite his sources in this book, which means that Brown verifies nothing that he mentions in this book, allowing readers to openly question the information’s legitimacy. It is also extremely sensationalist; the conspiracy theories Brown brings up should not be taken factually by the readers, a group composed of a an array of people, including young students who might not know to challenge what Brown states so authoritatively.

Overall, while the book might present some interesting sensationalist conspiracy theories and conjectures about a diverse range of historical organisations and events, such as the Masons, George Washington, the Capitol building, etc., it is not worth the read. Dan Brown’s questionable stipulation of ‘facts,’ clearly gendered story-telling technique with an annoyingly unhelpful Katherine Solomon, and biased approach towards the institution of Masonry detract from the legitimacy of the book and render it unimpressive in its historical domain.

[1] Brown, Dan. The lost symbol: a novel. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

As this is the book being reviewed, this will be mentioned throughout the piece.

« Older Entries
Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.