The best history books for Christmas

Epic passions for the past

Stephen Howe
Friday 01 December 2006 01:00

There's a double paradox in the state of history. Ever fewer children or young adults seem to want - or are allowed - to study the subject. At school level, history often seems to be a dog's breakfast of ill-assorted themes. In some quarters there's a pervasive self-doubt over whether it is, or should be, possible to do history at all. Yet alongside this double debility, history is hugely popular. Television devotes ever increasing time to documentaries and dramas. Family history is among the most prevalent of leisure pursuits. There is a genuine mass passion for history. Politicians are as convinced as always that it matters. Communities in conflict sustain themselves with rival versions of the past.

Above all, history books, including real heavyweights based on massive research, feature regularly in bestseller lists. Almost all the big history sellers of the past year are also big books in the purely physical sense. Yet if most of 2006's high-profile titles are a tree-lover's nightmare, some historians still show that both big and small can be beautiful.

Christopher Tyerman, for one, seems able to cover all the bases. Within a couple of years, his work on the medieval Crusades has produced the absolutely enormous God's War (Allen Lane, £30), a deftly miniaturised version for Oxford's Very Short Introductions series, and a medium-length "think piece" on the Crusades' significance, Fighting for Christendom (Oxford, £12.99).

Tyerman's work is unusual among major-league tomes in its medieval focus (albeit with obvious echoes in the present). Most of the attention is on modern history, and the central fascination remains Europe in the mid-20th century: the "age of the dictators" and the 1939-45 war, either in its own right or as prelude to surveys of the past six or seven decades. Norman Davies's Europe at War (Macmillan, £25) aims to be a sweepingly revisionist account, but is marked by a vehement Russophobia, and has far too many signs of hasty writing and careless editing.

Michael Burleigh's Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda (HarperPress, £25) is pervaded by a still stronger political animus, much to do with upholding the political record of the Catholic church and condemning those of Communism and Islam. Stalinists and Islamists are easy targets for Burleigh's fire - but he shoots wildly at a wide range of other sitting ducks. In these pages I noted the unpleasant anti-Irish prejudice which disfigures another historical blockbuster, Andrew Roberts's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25). Burleigh outdoes even Roberts on that front. Less obviously partisan, and far better written, than any of these is Tony Judt's "rival" survey of the post-1945 world, Postwar - a Heinemann hardback last autumn, and due in the new year as a Pimlico paperback.

Richard Vinen's study of France under occupation, The Unfree French (Allen Lane, £25), is vivid, especially in its evocation of individual life-stories, but doesn't really tell us anything new. More creative, moving and startling is another account of wartime France, Carmen Callil's Bad Faith (Cape, £20), centred on the repugnant but mesmerising Louis Darquier, Vichy's Commissioner for Jewish Affairs. Callil is one of many historians who, in time-honoured style, seek to address big issues through a biographical focus. Sometimes it's a single, perhaps unduly neglected, individual, as with David Lawday's examination of Prince Talleyrand, Napoleon's Master (Cape, £20 ). Obviously, putting Talleyrand in the main title was thought to be commercial death, but the Emperor's name still sells.

Occasionally it's a duo, as in Richard Aldous, The Lion and the Unicorn (Hutchinson, £20) - surprisingly, the first attempt at a double-biography of the great Victorian rivals Gladstone and Disraeli. And sometimes it's a group biogrpahy, as with Lucy Moore's enjoyable Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France (HarperPress, £20). The High Road to China by Kate Teltscher (Bloomsbury, £20) is also heavily biographical, focusing on the Scots adventurer George Bogle in Tibet. Bogle's trip was a crucial moment in early contacts between China and the West, and the history of Empire - another evergreen historians' theme.

Histories of the very recent past blur, without obvious demarcation lines, into "histories of the present" - more often written by journalists, or sometimes leading participants. By far the largest clutch of these during 2006 has inevitably been on the "war against terror" and especially the conflict in Iraq. In another few years, many will probably be forgotten and others seen more as sources to be quarried selectively for titbits. But some are likely to last when analysts learn, with a touch of surprise, that certain "instant histories" are much better than more leisured productions. Such, one might guess, may well be the case with Bob Woodward's books on Bush's adventures in Iraq - most recently, State of Denial (Simon & Schuster, £18.99).

It's surprising, and rather refreshing, how relatively few of these books focus solely on Britain. Of those that do, the outstanding success is Peter Hennessy's Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties (Allen Lane, £30). Rarer still are genuinely comparative histories involving multiple countries. An arresting example, and maybe the most innovative of 2006's heavy hitters, is Donald Sassoon's The Culture of the Europeans (HarperCollins, £30).

Collections of previously published essays rarely command much attention. Just occasionally, though, a writer who brings together scattered work produces something far more than the sum of its parts. So it is with JGA Pocock's The Discovery of Islands (Cambridge, £17.99) and Wm Roger Louis's Ends of British Imperialism (IB Tauris, £24.50). Both writers' themes have an urgent topicality: for Pocock, the historical making and unmaking of Britishness, for Louis, the decline of imperial power, with the 1956 Suez fiasco at its heart. 2006 marked the 50th anniversary both of Suez and the failed Hungarian revolution. "Anniversary histories" of both featured in the lists, as with Barry Turner's animated but impressionistic Suez 1956 (Hodder, £20) and Victor Sebestyen's more probing Twelve Days: Revolution 1956 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20).

Stephen Howe is professor of history at Bristol University

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