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Category: Eastern European History

Book Review: Europe Since 1989: A History (Philipp Ther)

This book’s title is a lie, as is most of what little history it contains.  I read Europe Since 1989: A History to fill in the gaps from Tony Judt’s Postwar, which ends its history around 2000.  Philipp Ther’s book was published in 2014, with an English translation in 2016, and it specifically name-checks Judt’s book.  Thus, it seemed like the ideal way to bring my knowledge to the present day.  But this book could better be titled A Narrow Attack on the Economics and Social Impact of Neoliberalism in Post-Communist Eastern Europe; Or Why State Socialism is Awesome.  This book is, in fact, an apologetic for Communism, and a plea for a return to as many aspects of it as feasible, buried under a mishmash of rambling attacks on the economic methods used during the return to freedom of Eastern Europe.

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Book Review: Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Tony Judt)

Postwar, by the late Tony Judt, is the type of book for which the term “magisterial” might have been invented.  Judt takes an enormous amount of information and condenses it down to a manageable narrative, not in the service of some overarching thesis, but simply to communicate the basic history of the period (namely, from World War Two until early 2005).  He is even-handed and insightful.  The only problem, though, is that today’s reader finds it hard to care about this period.  Viewed from the perspective of 2017, very much of this strikes the reader as roughly equivalent to discussion of who ruled Mohenjo-Daro in 2413 B.C.  The knowledge is not worthless, but it is not worth much, because it is irrelevant to today’s Europe, barren of children and swamped by barbarians, a continent whose major challenges are maintaining any global relevancy past the next few decades, and surviving in any recognizable form thereafter.  On the other hand, though, the facts narrated here do offer various lessons for us, which is one reason the book is worth reading today.

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Book Review: The Demon In Democracy (Ryszard Legutko)

There is a scene in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, in which a character comes across a book of philosophy (Schopenhauer) and realizes in a soaring epiphany that it contains the answers to all of life’s questions.  For me, this book served much the same purpose—it explained to me why certain things are the way they are in the modern world.  Although, sadly, it did not explain “all of life’s questions,” such as what is contained in Area 51.  (I will also gloss over that the character in Mann’s novel quickly forgets the supposed answers and then drops dead of a tooth infection.)

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Book Review: The Romanovs
(Simon Sebag Montefiore)

Most of us have only the dimmest idea of Russian history prior to the Soviet era. We’re vaguely aware that there were some Mongols, then Ivan the Terrible (not a Romanov), Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and then a mass slaughter by the Bolsheviks. Along the way there was lots of unpleasantness; Napoleon was somehow involved too. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “The Romanovs” fills in all the gaps, at least from 1613 onward. And then it fills the gaps some more, until the flood of information becomes nearly overwhelming—although, at the same time, the reader is aware that the book is only scratching the surface with regard to any particular decade in Russian history. But at the end, the reader’s knowledge is vastly improved, and really, can you ask for any more?

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Book Review: The Bloody White Baron (James Palmer)

“The Bloody White Baron” is one of those fascinating short books about a nasty little corner of the world during a nasty time. The nasty little corner of the world is Mongolia; the nasty time is the Russian Civil War. The eponymous Baron is Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, of Estonian/German extraction, who was called the last khan of Mongolia and waged a brutal, doomed minor campaign against the Chinese and the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s. Naturally, he came to a bad end.

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