summer book exchange #9: Christmas Truce

There’s stories, rumors, apocrypha, legends and myths. Telling the difference between them – for historians – is critical and often difficult.

Christmas Truce, by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, 1984

photo 2There have been dozens of books, articles and movies written about the legendary Christmas Truce in World War I. This book, though a bit older, is one of the better ones.

In 1914, the governments of Europe merrily sent their sons off to fight what they were sure would be a very short war filled with honor and glory. “We’ll be home by Christmas,” they all cheered, certain of their impending victory.

Then they discovered the realities of machine guns, artillery and poison gas. Those who died, many have said, were the lucky ones, because the rest of us had to live forever in a new and unpleasant world.

Christmas Truce examines day-by-day the break in the fighting that spontaneously happened in December 1914. Soldiers who had only the day before been eagerly trying to kill each other stopped fighting, shook hands, exchanged gifts, and some even played in pickup soccer games.

Brown and Seaton present here a good examination of the before, during and after of the impromptu truce. The pacing of history books is often monotonous, dragging facts through the molasses of time, but the authors’ work in television has apparently given them some insights into how better to pace a book to keep the reader interested.

The book is well and thoroughly researched. If you’re interested in WW1 history, this is one to pick up.

summer book exchange #6: Wolf Hall

I love telling the story of Henry VIII discarding his first two wives. It’s salacious and full of intrigue, two of the best aspects of any story. Plus lots of dirty stuff.

Having said that, I’ve never been much of a fan of historical fiction. Maybe “not a fan” is too strong – “not able to get into” is maybe more accurate, because it snaps me out of the story when the author takes …liberties… with the material.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (2009)

photoI’ll say this right off the top – Mantel is a fantastic writer and her style is engaging and smooth. Even if I hadn’t known anything about Henry, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell going into this book, it wouldn’t have mattered, because Mantel brings them all to life quite effectively.

It’s clear that the book is researched in depth; Mantel doesn’t screw up the little stuff and she just flat out gets the details correct. That goes a long way towards suspending belief long enough to enjoy the story – even though I knew how it was going to end.

(Well – sort of. This is book 1 of a trilogy. I know how book 3 will end.)

The cool thing about this book is that it doesn’t focus on King Henry and his new (second) bride, Anne Boleyn. This book is all about the people in the background, the people dealing with Henry’s tumultuous decision.

There’s a bit of projection of modern values backwards onto historical figures, but I suppose that can’t be helped. In reality, the only truly sympathetic character in the story of Henry VIII was Thomas More, and they chopped his head off. Mantel has to create a hero or the story isn’t compelling. Cromwell becomes that compelling figure at the center of the narrative, and we’re drawn into his rise from humble beginnings to the lofty heights of court.

I probably won’t delve into the sequels because this isn’t the kind of genre I get into, but this was a very good book.

the good news is – the trouble in the middle east is not really our fault

There’s a lot of hand-wringing going on in the USA today as Iraqi militants (who, if they were on our side, we would call freedom fighters) attempt to wrest control of the nation from a government set up and supported by the US and numerous other western nations.

No matter what any of us do, they’ll win. Eventually. The good news is, though, that it’s not our fault. Really. Well, mostly not our fault. (That statement is not meant to denigrate the sacrifices of over 4,000 American lives in the attempt to bring peace to that region.)

What we call the Middle East is a mixture of African and Asian territory populated by a Muslim (religion) and Arabic (ethnicity) majority. Most of it is hot, difficult territory to live in, but they have a shitload of oil under their deserts, so it is, in fact, a very important place in the disposition of the entire world.

The Middle East is also the cradle of civilization – it’s where populations first developed the key characteristics of what we call civilization – and people have been fighting over it ever since the first walls went up around the first cities there.

The Middle East claims a lot of firsts – the cultivation of wheat, domestication of goats and cows, Catal Hyuk (1st major human “city”), invention of pottery, irrigation and agriculture, the wheel, writing, and much, much more. After the Romans conquered the region, though, it’s pretty much a slide right into the strife of the modern era.

The Persians conquered the region in the 500s BC. Alexander the Great (Macedonian/Greek) conquered Persia (and thus the Middle East) in the late 300s BC. The Romans took over the region gradually, starting with the defeat and destruction of the Carthaginian Empire in the mid-100s BC. The Roman emperor Hadrian named in Syria Palestina, and Emperor Diocletian turned the region into a more-or-less self-governing territory (under his control, of course), when he split the Empire into four pieces. Diocletian gave over control of Italy, Spain and most of North Africa to Maximilian, France and Britain to Constantine, and Greece and Southeastern Europe to Galerius. He kept for himself Egypt, Arabia, Palestine, Syria, and what we now call Turkey (they called part of it Asiana and the other part Pontica).

Christianity was growing when Diocletian partitioned the Empire, and that new religion helped destroy the Romans. Note that I say “helped” and not “caused,” simply because there were many reasons the Roman Empire went into decline and Christianity was but one aspect of the trouble facing the collapsing Romans.

Islam came along in the 7th century AD, changing everything in the region. The previously polytheistic Arabs rallied behind Muhammad and created a new Arabic/Islamic Empire that conquered all of North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey and Spain. The only things that kept the Muslims out of Europe were the Pyrenees Mountains (separating Spain and France) and the presence of massive, aggressive Asian tribes north of Turkey.

Real trouble between (Middle) East and West began in 1095 AD, when the Roman Catholic Pope Urban II decided that, after 450+ years of the Muslims controlling Jerusalem, it was time for the Christians of Europe to “reclaim” the “holy land.” The Europeans won that first war, conquering Jerusalem in 1099, but the Arab Empire retaliated, leading to another eight “sanctioned” Crusades and about another eight “unofficial” Crusades, many of which were launched by the Catholic Church against other Europeans. You probably never heard of any of them, except maybe for the Albigensian Crusade, which wiped out the last remnants (in France) of the Christian sect called Catharism.

Mostly, though, the Crusades were about the Catholic armies of Europe trying to wrest control of the Middle East from the Muslim armies of the Arabic Empire. Over 400 years of warfare, the result of which was that the Arabs continued to control the Middle East.

Let’s see how that panned out, then: 1095: Arabs in control of the Middle East. MANY YEARS OF WARFARE. 1456: Arabs in control of the Middle East. I wonder how many people died to accomplish that goal.

Note that nobody knew anything about the copious stores of oil at that time.

Islam underwent many changes in its formative years, especially the years after Muhammad died. There was a big fight over who would be the caliph, the leader of Islam, and that fight led to a schism (a split in a religion) that left us with Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. It wasn’t terribly unlike the schism in the Catholic Church we call the Reformation, the one that gave us Catholicism vs. Protestantism, in the 16th century.

Anyway, the Seljuk Turks dominated the region for a time. They subjugated the Arabs and controlled most of (then later just parts of) the Middle East into the 1300s. The Ottoman Turks started their rise to power at the end of the 1200s and dominated the region until the end of World War I in 1918.

After WWI is when, as they say, that shit got real.

(FOR MORE AND AWESOME INFORMATION ON THIS TOPIC – I.E. THE MIDDLE EAST IN WWI, READ “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” by Scott Anderson. FANTASTIC BOOK!)

See, the Ottomans were on the losing side in the Great War, and along with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they got smacked down in the peace. Both the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were dismantled by the Allies. By “Allies,” I mean England and France, because the US packed their shit up and went home when the fighting was over, leaving President Woodrow Wilson with his dick in his hand at the peace talks in 1919.

In 1917, the British gave permission to the Zionist “nation” (i.e. Jews all over the world) to rebuild a homeland in Palestine, which had been controlled by the Ottomans and was now under the control of England (more or less). England and France occupied the territory in 1918, and France started stirring shit up immediately, going to war with the locals in Syria in 1919. The next four years saw a near-constant state of warfare in the region as Turkey tried to establish hegemony, upsetting many British and French plans.

(Obviously, by now, everybody was talking about oil.)

The thing is, France had put no effort at all into the Middle East during WWI, they had just suffered so much in Europe that they felt they were entitled to some spoils – that is, the Ottomans lost, so France deserved territory. They didn’t give a shit about the people already living there, the effort the British (who had their own agenda anyway) put into keeping the Arabs and Turks fighting each other to keep the Ottoman Empire as much on the margins of the war as possible.

France took over Syria and Lebanon; Britain took over Iraq (then called Mesopotamia) and Palestine and exerted a lot of influence, if not outright control, over Persia (later renamed Iran). Saudi Arabia emerged in 1932 when Arabs living in Hejaz and Nejd, pissed at the Allies and the Turks, decided they’d had enough of being pushed around and treated poorly and forcefully established their own nation. The other parts of former Ottoman territory in the Middle East became Yemen and the various Arab states of the Persian Gulf (Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar & UAE).

It was in the wake of this partition that the modern concept of the Middle East emerged. As the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Islam, these new nations were also steeped in their own local history and majority Muslim as well, with pockets of Christians and a (very) few Jews. The problem (among many) was that these regions had been ruled by a distant, disinterested empire for so long that they had no tradition of self-government. As they struggled to learn how to govern themselves, they had France, England, Germany, and later the USA pushing and prodding them this way and that – manipulations both subtle and overt. They never really had a chance to get themselves peacefully established.

PLUS, when England and France marched in and drew the lines in the sand that became these international boundaries, they did so WITH ABSOLUTELY NO CONSIDERATION OF RELIGIOUS OR ETHNIC DIVISIONS in the local population. They brought their Western arrogance along with their cartographers and geologists and divided up the region according to their own selfish agendas. The fledgling League of Nations – a precursor to the nearly useless United Nations – was complicit in this partition, squandering the opportunity to create a truly beneficial international institution and doing what the more powerful (or at least more influential) nations of the world wanted. The needs and desires of the less powerful nations of the world were completely ignored and France was at the forefront of this bullying behavior.

The British weren’t much better about it, but at least the Brits had skin in the fight. France kept crying about how bad they had it during WWI, completely ignoring the FACT that they had NO military forces in the region and REFUSED to support the Arab effort against the Turkish armies in the sand. Between the end of WWI (1918) and the beginning of WWII (1939), there were seven major rebellions or uprisings against the colonial rule of England and France.

Italy and then Germany invaded the region in the late 1930s, which led to England and the USA re-invading and re-conquering the region as part of World War II.

After WWII ended, the Cold War started, and – while we haven’t talked at all about religion up to this point – that’s when the USA and USSR started heavily meddling in Middle Eastern affairs in order to exert some control over the world’s oil supply. Between the USA and the USSR vying for influence (and oil) in the Middle East, governments were propped up and undermined so many times that just trying to keep it all straight will make you dizzy. The new nation of Israel – created by taking land away from the Arab population in Palestine – fought several wars to defend and expand its borders. The Persian Gulf states gained their independence gradually, with the last of them doing so in the early 1970s.

Now, the desire of these people to rule themselves notwithstanding, a multitude of European nations have been meddling in the affairs of the Middle Eastern people since the fucking 11th century – a THOUSAND years, people. A THOUSAND YEARS. The machinations of the United States and Russia are merely the latest drops in the bucket.


if world war 2 was a bar fight

( inspired by )

030512_roadhouseJapan has already been in one fight tonight. Having sucker-punched China, Japan stole China’s girlfriend and is hanging out at the bar, looking smug.

The US is friends with the bartender and convinces him to serve Japan only non-alcoholic beers and to charge double for them, too.

Germany started drinking before they got to the pub, as did Italy, and they’re super excited to see each other. Italy tells the story about how he beat up Ethiopia at another pub across town.

Germany isn’t happy that the Soviet Union is at the pub, but after a brief conversation, they agree to just leave each other alone.

Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland are sitting at a table by themselves, talking quietly. Germany comes over and drags Austria over to his table, then comes back and drags Czechoslovakia over to his table, too.

England and France tell Germany to stop dragging people away from their own tables and look sympathetically at Poland, who is now sitting alone. Germany promises to stop and everybody shakes hands and buys another round.

Germany walks back over to the table and punches Poland. While Poland is trying to get up off the floor, the Soviet Union comes over and punches Poland, too, knocking him out cold.

Germany asks Belgium if he’s going to stay friends with France; when Belgium says he will, Germany punches him right in the nose. Holland accidentally gets in the way & Germany punches him, too.

France puts his dukes up, but Germany kicks him in the balls and shoves England back against the wall.

Germany drags France’s table over next to their table and invites France to start drinking on his tab. France looks angry about it, but starts ordering German beer.

Germany starts throwing glasses, bottles and whatever else he can get his hands on at England. Luckily England is standing on the other side of the bathrooms.

Germany and the Soviet Union start punching each other repeatedly.

While everybody is watching Germany and the Soviet Union fight, Japan creeps up behind the US and kicks him right in the ass. Germany shouts “Way to go, Japan – I’ll be right there!”

Japan shoves the US away from the Philippines’ table and glares at Australia.

England and the US go over to talk to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia & Egypt. Every time Germany interrupts, they punch Germany until he goes away again.

The US is running back & forth between both sides of the pub, alternately punching Germany & Japan. He manages to get in a few good hits on both of them.

Germany starts randomly punching innocent people throughout the pub, making them stand in the corner and then stabbing them.

The Soviet Union lands a giant roundhouse kick on Germany, knocking it halfway across the pub.

The US & England keep punching Germany, and manage to escort Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia & Egypt over to the restaurant, where they say they’ll pick up the tab for whatever they want to eat as long as they save them some of that delicious wine.

The US & England start punching Italy. Italy goes down quickly, but Germany comes over to Italy’s table & starts throwing punches.

India starts punching Japan over by Burma’s table.

The Soviet Union, the US & England huddle together, then break and resume punching Germany.

The US, England & Canada go over to France’s table, where Germany has been hanging out this whole time. They throw a drink in Germany’s face and start punching & kicking him.

Germany hits the US with a chair, but the US comes back with a leg sweep and pushes Germany away from France’s table, then drags it back to where it was before.

Germany goes back to its table only to find the Soviet Union standing right there. They start punching each other again, but Germany keeps having to turn around to punch the US and the Soviet Union doesn’t really seem like he’s getting tired. The Soviet Union calls his girlfriend over to punch Germany, too.  She does, but she punches the Soviet Union a couple times, too.

The US & the Soviet Union pick Germany up and throw him down on the table, breaking the table into four pieces. The US & the Soviet Union each pick up a piece of the table; England & France run over and grab pieces of the table as well.

The US & Japan have been steadily punching each other all this time, and the US eventually forces Japan to go sit back at the bar. The US thinks it sees Japan downing an energy drink.

The Soviet Union says it’s ready to start punching Japan. The US says “Nah, I got this.”

The US pulls a gun and shoots Japan. Twice.

Japan gives up and asks the US for help getting up from the floor.

The Soviet Union sulks and starts trying to figure out how to steal the gun from the US.