4 history books that changed my view of the world in 2016
Even the greatest world powers can be brought down in just a few years
One of the surprising pleasures of approaching middle age is the way that the habits I started to cultivate as a young fogey are becoming more age-appropriate hobbies. And perhaps the most enjoyable of them is getting lost in newer history books, which constantly overturn, revise, and clarify the dim certainties I was taught as a boy, and which pass for a historical education in the world of letters now.
This year, four books of history came across my nose that spoke to moments very much like the one we seem to be living in, moments when the certainties and solid powers of the recent past seem to be dissipating and crumbling with astonishing speed before religious, ideological, and nationalist assault.
1. The Final Pagan Generation, by Edward J. Watts (2015)
This book came recommended by my friend Rod Dreher. It's a fascinating account of the lives Romans lived as Christians went from a tolerated and curious cult that negotiated the complex web of pagan piety and Roman religious infrastructure gently to an ascendant and intolerant imperial religion routing its pagan enemy in a surge of triumphalism. For a century before Constantine, Christians had to learn how to dodge persecution or make their way carefully, separating the idolatry they despised from the familial, social, and political events and networks to which that system of pagan piety was attached.
And one day, pagan and Christian alike woke to realize that this once-solid network of sacral institutions, habits, and pieties was quite weak. And this realization empowered Christians on a campaign of triumphalist suppression, desecration, and new apologetic. It's a chilling reminder that civil and religious peace is usually the product of a balance of power, not an ethic of co-existence. Watts' book obviously provides plenty of parallels to today, whether it is the unapologetic rise of Wahhabist Islam persecuting Yazidis and Christians in Iraq,or the renewed confidence among secularists in America that the religious right is a paper tiger.
2. In the Shadow of the Sword: the Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire, by Tom Holland (2013)
That brings us to the rise of another faith. For centuries Christian scholars have been chipping away at the attempt of Biblical critics and modern historians to demythologize the origins of their religion. And slowly the scholarly opinion on the dating of the New Testament has moved backward from the 200s to decades that are arguably within the lifetime of the Apostles.
But I have quite a bit less confidence that Islamic scholars will be as successful at dismantling the efforts of historians like Tom Holland, whose scholarly examination of the origins of Islam has an unapologetically demythologizing bent. Many have written accounts of Islam's birth that have criticized its theology or the ideologies of conquest and domination Islam produced. But Holland takes a sledgehammer to the very historical events themselves. In Holland's book we find not the traditional story that centers around Mecca but one focused along the edges of Syria-Palestine, a world swirling with religious ideas from Zoroastrian, Persian, Gnostic, and Jewish cults. And so the story of Islam in Holland's hands is not of a sudden revelation to an Arab in the desert which swiftly, by luck or God's will, built an empire, but an Arab Empire already built in search of a religion in the morass of tradition and millenarianism surrounding it.
3. The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, by Adam Tooze (2014)
No other book has captured in such compelling prose and arresting detail how 19th century European order was not destroyed just from within during the Great War, but from the astonishing rise of the United States, which in a matter of years displaced Great Britain as the world's preeminent naval and financial power, turning it's former parent and the greatest empire in history rather swiftly into Washington's debtor and, eventually, its pawn.
Tooze's book also revises the popular view of President Woodrow Wilson as a semi-utopian and reveals him to be the hard-headed American nationalist he was. Tooze also completely changed my understanding of the post-World War I arrangements, and how America's rise was connected to the communist and fascist reactions across the continent. He also puts the Brest-Litovsk treaty back into the center of this period of history, where in Anglophone and French history it was previously overshadowed by Versailles.
4. Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922, by Ronan Fanning (2013)
One of the consequences of the First World War was the United Kingdom's loss of Ireland, which presaged its later loss of the Raj in India and its empire everywhere. 2016 was the centennial year of The Easter Rising, and a trunkful of new titles came out to commemorate the week when Irish rebels seized Dublin, declared a republic, and set in motion the events that over the next years and decades ejected 26 counties of Ireland from the grasp of Westminster. Many of those books are still doing the work of Irish revisionists who questioned the legacy the Rising bequeathed to Ireland. But Ronan Fanning's book provides an intimate, almost cinematic retelling of the British government's policy toward Ireland during the Home Rule Crisis, the Rising, and the Anglo-Irish War that revises the revisionists.
In it we see Herbert Asquith maneuvering around his own coalition partner and leader of Irish Constitutional Nationalism, John Redmond. We see Parliamentarians conniving with Ulster Protestants who threaten civil war unless the Home Rule Act is amended. We see a bigoted Liberal Prime Minister contemplating the arrest of Catholics for wearing vestments in London streets. And we see a government too overwhelmed by the threat from Germany to contemplate the problems of Fermanagh. Most of what we see is that even a century after the Act of Union, the leaders of British government still treated Ireland not as part of their own nation, but as a foreign irritant that should not be allowed to govern itself, let alone decent Protestants. Fanning claims to have demonstrated the failure of Constitutional politics on the Irish question. But really he shows that it was the British government that abandoned Constitutionalism well before rebels fired their first shot.
All of these books have something to offer readers this year and beyond. They include the lessons that humiliated nations can defeat great global powers and that the persecuted can proceed with alarming speed from cringing beneficiary of a new tolerance to confident persecutor. And that moral and financial debts can bring down even the greatest world powers in just a few years.