Friday, 4 February 2011

Recent Reading

Over the past year, I have probably done more reading than I did in the preceding ten years. Much of this was prompted by personal circumstances, but I feel that it has enhanced my knowledge and understanding of history and also politics and philosophy.

The majority of my reading has been non-fiction, although fiction is beginning to play a more prominent role. I just thought that I would share my thoughts on a few of the books which I have been reading.

Perhaps the most momentous of the tomes which I have read was Winston Churchill's "The Second World War", in its condensed version. An intimate account of the conflict from the great leader himself, following most of the crucial decisions, deliberations and conferences which helped determine its course. Reading the work, I felt almost as if I was staring over Churchill's shoulder at meetings or negotiations, witnessing important events.

The book pulls no punches in its withering assessments of the reasons for the outbreak of the war, Britain's failings and those of her allies, and some of the unrealised ambitions. Churchill's account of the close of the war is particularly poignant, as his efforts to preserve democracy in Eastern Europe were apparently neglected by the Americans, followed by his loss in the 1945 general election. I emerged with a much greater admiration for, and understanding of, Churchill's personality and achievements.

Another notable read was "The War of Wars", by Robert Harvey, which is a reasonably comprehensive chronicle of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, focussing largely on events concerning Britain and France.

For me, the book succeeds because it examines the domestic, social and economic trends on both sides of the Channel which led to the conflicts, and which influenced their course.  The author eschews a mere chronological account of battles and tactical manoeuvres, preferring to put these events into their proper context.

A fairly unflinching account of the French Revolution occupies much of the first portion of the book, followed by the almost parallel rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. These passages contain much information which should prove quite revelatory to the casual observer.

Praiseworthy also is Harvey's devotion to covering some of the more obscure episodes and characters in the Revolution, and also some of the relatively unheralded theatres of war, such as Egypt. His description of the French retreat from Moscow is especially powerful.

Anyone looking for a detailed but accessible account of this period in European history should look no further.

In some respects my most enlightening read of recent months has been "Inside The Third Reich" by Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler's architect and Armaments Minister, which was originally published shortly after the author's release from prison.

Working my way through this historic piece of work gave me greater insight into the nature of Nazi Germany than any amount of previous research which I had undertaken. Speer comes across like a semi-autonomous member of the entourage, able to observe and comments on events from a partially detached perspective.

I was particularly struck by the relative ease with which Speer became seduced by the Fuehrer's charisma, and thus gained access to the inner circle. Hitler appeared willing to trust Speer more readily than his other associates, who indulged in incessant infighting. Speer remained essentially loyal until the closing year of the war, when he became conscious that Hitler intended to take Germany and its people down with him into a pit of destruction. Speer dramatically recounts his efforts, in co-operation with others, to help prevent further loss of life and elimination of Germany's infrastructure.

Although Speer is open and frank about his involvement in exploiting forced labour, this issue, and that of the concentration camps, is not touched upon as frequently as I expected beforehand. That said, he makes no attempt to conceal his complicity and guilt in some of the excesses which took place.

The book is unusual in that it features little detail of specific battles or campaigns, but it vividly reflects their effects on the home-front and the regime, and the sense of despair which overtook the Reich in the latter stages of the war is palpable.

Overall, "Inside The Third Reich" is an essential read for students of World War Two and the Third Reich.

More blogs on books will follow shortly!

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