Making history

The Gunpowder Plot by Antonia Fraser (Weidenfeld, pounds 12.99) The Jacobean Catholic laity had been suspected of treason for so long that they decided to commit it. Fraser's even-handed account, informed by her upbringing, makes clear that a plot was encouraged by agents provocateurs and discouraged by the Jesuits, who still died for it.

Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Abacus, pounds 9.99) This controversial book pushes anti-revisionism to bizarre lengths: all Germans had been inculcated with an "exterminationist" anti-Semitism and were prepared to collaborate in the Holocaust. Does this include exiles? Or assimilated Jews? Goldhagen makes a case, but he is prosecuting an entire people.

Stalin by Edvard Radzinski (Sceptre, pounds 7.99) Writing a tyrant's biography forces historians into odd complicities; Radzinski obsessionally tells us how vile Stalin was to the point where condemnation becomes perverse praise. Stalin wanted to be a tyrant and learnt well from his mentors and rivals. Radzinski knocks many legends on the head, but never quite makes sense of the man.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir (Pimlico, pounds 8.99) This is heritage history as far as its subject matter goes, but Weir devotes considerable intelligence to telling the story and giving it a context. Romance is absent: women married Henry for power and security in a world of judicial murder and constant disease.

A People's Tragedy by Orlando Figes (Pimlico, pounds 12.50) Figes views the Russian Revolution as inevitable, and inevitably atrocity-packed; the old order just went on too long. He is brilliant on the sweep of events and underlying economic forces, and on the individuals made and broken by revolution. One of the best narrative histories of our time.

One Hundred Years of Socialism by Donald Sassoon (HarperCollins, pounds 14.99) This dour book ends up trapped by its sense of the inevitable. What happened to socialism - its metamorphosis into market-oriented social democracy - was always going to happen. Sassoon is an essential source on the facts of organisation and economics, though less good on the passions.

Empire by Dennis Judd (Abacus, pounds 9.99) Weak on the story of rivalry with France and protection of merchants in India, this is at its best in its memorable vignettes of the High Victorian and Edwardian empire, and in its account of the decline of the indefensible. As one-volume histories of huge subjects go, it is competent and readable.

Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (HarperCollins, pounds 8.99) All accounts of the Raj's end are partisan. This is the best pro- Mountbatten book, and makes its case with skill. Fair-minded to all participants (without demonising Jinnah), it views the massacres of Partition as unforeseeable. This begs a few questions in an otherwise solid narrative.

God's Chinese Son by Jonathan Spence (HarperCollins, pounds 7.99) Chinese obsessions with unitary rule have their background. Hong Xiuquan, whose conversion to Christianity con- vinced him that he was Christ's younger brother, led a rebellion that nearly toppled the empire, helped European victory in the Opium Wars and killed 20 million. Spence's account is sparky and scholarly.

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