While a number of major surveys of European social history have been presented in recent decades, many of these are indebted to Western European perspectives and narratives. In his ‘A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe’ (London: Routledge 2013), Béla Tomka, professor of history at the University of Szeged (Hungary), offers a modern synthesis, based on painstaking empirical data. As reviewer, Ferencz Laczó argues, the volume may be considered as a corrective to more established perspectives, as well as a contribution to post-communist attempts at revising inherited historical understandings especially regarding the supposedly notable successes of communist-era modernization. All in all, Laczó argues, Tomka’s book represents a towering achievement in the historiography of European social reality.
Perhaps coincidentally, diplomats feature prominently among writers from ’emerging’ countries such as Brazil and India. Yet unlike, say, Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q & A’ (better known through its movie adaptation ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s recent novel ‘His Own Man’ (first published in Portuguese in 2010, and translated into English in 2014) does not let the — often messy — politics fade into the background of a human-interest story. ‘His Own Man’, writes BRB reviewer Julian Murphy, sometimes reads like a personal effort at coming to grips with how a country and a people can rapidly change its leaders and its values, yet calling the book a ‘personal’ account would do the book a disservice: It is also undoubtedly a contribution to a public record of a dark era — between 1960 and ca. 1985 — of South America’s history.
Graham Farmelo, known as a biographer of physicist Paul Dirac, in his new book, ‘Churchill’s Bomb’, argues for a reassessment of Churchill’s role in British science policy. While not a scientist himself, Churchill drew inspiration from the work of writers such as H.G. Wells, speculating as early as 1924 that a bomb could be made, “no bigger than an orange….with the explosive power of tons of cordite”. When the possibility of actually building an atomic bomb came within reach, however, Churchill made various moves that ensured Britain’s exclusion from the American-led project to build the bomb. While, on one interpretation, Churchill allowed himself to be “fobbed off” by an evasive U.S. President Roosevelt, a fuller picture, as Farmelo makes clear, needs to take into account the various parties — individual and institutional, political and scientific — involved. In what reviewer Martin Underwood considers “a clear, lucid manner”, Farmelo reconstructs “Churchill’s often confused views on The Bomb and possible deployment”.
At a commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, last month, U.S. President Obama hit all the right notes: he complimented the military on remaining “the most trusted institution in America”, he vowed to eradicate sexual assault, which is rife in the armed forces, and he encouraged the graduates to “live with integrity and speak with honesty and take responsibility and demand accountability”. Of the military academies themselves, and their system of values — perhaps best expressed in the class motto “Surrender to Nothing” — Obama said “our nation needs them now more than ever”. Recent books, such as Lance Betros’s ‘Carved from Granite: West Point Since 1902’, tend to provide the historical background narrative to such rhetoric. But do the military academies deliver? Do they deserve their unique status as federally funded institutions of higher learning, for the purposes of training military officers? Bruce Fleming, Professor of English at Annapolis, begs to differ. The academies encourage a misguided sense of entitlement, drain public funds, and do not deliver intellectually. Worst of all, they are about as historically outdated and oblivious to their anachronistic existence as East Berlin in the year 1989.
In his book ‘Foundations of the American Century’ (Columbia University Press 2012), Inderjeet Parmar provides a wide-ranging study of the influence American philanthropic foundations have exerted on world politics and the ‘soft power’ that comes with cultural hegemony. The mutual penetration of state and society, notest Parmar, is ‘so deep and comprehensive – physically, politically, ideologically, psychologically, and organizationally – that it is almost impossible to say where one ends and the other begins’. Parmar’s book succeeds, writes reviewer Houman Barekat, because he studiously avoids the trap of implying an unmediated vertical relationship between the philanthropies and the political and economic elites whose goals they ultimately served. Nuanced and well-researched, Parmar’s study provides a healthy antidote to simplistic critiques of US ‘elites’, while bringing out – through case studies of Indonesia and Chile – how the initiatives of ‘philanthropic’ organizations dovetailed with and complemented those of the American state.
Nilüfer Göle’s book “Interpénétrations: L’Islam et l’Europe”, recently translated as “Islam in Europe: The Lure of Fundamentalism and the Allure of Cosmopolitanism”, makes a strong case that Islam must be acknowledged as having become part of the fabric of European modernity. As reviewer Mohammed Khallouk points out, the experience and lifestyle of a generation of young Muslim women in Europe occupies a central place in Göle’s argument. While the values they adopt in their personal lives may differ from those of their (non-Muslim) peers, their non-confrontational fusion of Western modernity and Muslim spirituality showcases what a self-confident multireligious Europe might look like.
In his book ‘Mumbai Fables’ (Princeton 2010), Gyan Prakash unfolds the rich tapestry of the city’s cultural history. From the grand colonial architecture to more recent land reclamation projects, he traces the spatial dimensions of the city and their cultural meanings. Like all great cities, Mumbai has more than one fable in its story. But for all of Mumbai’s historical glamour, the situation of shanty-town dwellers is not overlooked — even though reviewer Katrina Gulliver has some doubts about whether the plotline of a comic book (to which Prakash devotes considerable space) is the right literary device.
In ‘Fromms: How Julius Fromm’s Condom Empire Fell to the Nazis’, Götz Aly and Michael Sontheimer tell a meticulously researched story of how entrepreneur Julius Fromm, who had built a lucrative enterprise around a series of inventions and improvements of latex production techniques, lost his ‘condom empire’ in the process of ‘Aryanization’ in Nazi Germany. However the injustice persisted until well after the fall of the Nazi regime. Following Julius’s death in 1945, the Fromm family attempted to regain possession of their property, yet in 1951 they were merely offered a settlement that required the Fromms to pay (!) 174,300 West German marks to Otto Metz-Randa who, as a profiteer of the ‘Entjudung’ had gained ownership in 1939. Why then, asks reviewer Leon Rocha, did the American publisher tone down the original title of the book, ‘Wie der jüdische Kondomfabrikant Julius F unter die deutschen Räuber fiel’ (‘Fromms: How the Jewish Condom Manufacturer Julius F. Fell Prey to German Robbers’)?
Every Friday morning, postmasters in the United States send out over a million copies of ‘US Weekly’ to subscribers. ‘US Weekly’ is only one of many periodicals that report, and sometimes fabricate, events in the lives of the rich and famous. Where does this cult of celebrity come from? Fred Inglis, in his ‘Short History of Celebrity’, traces the historical origins of celebrity in the modern sense to eighteenth-century London — according to Inglis, ‘the first city to construct itself as a city in a form that would prove recognizable to modernity’. Inglis’s narrative quickly moves from London’s aristocracy and the arcades of Paris to the money- and gossip-obsessed New York of the Gilded Age. Somewhat problematically, according to reviewer Alex Prescott-Couch, he extends his analysis of ‘supreme celebrities’ to the quintessential 20th-century dictators Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. While he may have overshot the mark in this respect and while some attempts at conceptual disaggregation might have been in order, Inglis manages to draw the reader into tales of the rich and fabulous, while at the same providing much elegantly written material for a closer analysis of the phenomenon of celebrity.
Recent polls conducted by a number of polling institutes indicate that, in the minds of Germans and Europeans, Islam – more than any other religion – is associated with negative feelings. A recent edited volume, ‘Islamfeindlichkeit – Wenn die Grenzen der Kritik verschwimmen’ (roughly: ‘Islamophobia: When the Limits of Criticism become Blurred’), traces the origins of these negative connotations, along with more recent expressions of resentment towards a visible presence of Muslims in Western societies. But, argues reviewer Mohammed Khallouk, the book may also be read as a manifesto for cultural dialogue, with the goal of finding a consensus on values.