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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

First World War, The Battle Of Historians

We will get a more accurate picture of the First World War, now that the last participants are dead. While they lived, historians writing about the war paid “a natural deference” to their memories and sensibilities. But as history comes to be written entirely from documents, “there can be, paradoxically, far more rigour in the analysis, as sources are tested against each other, and the unreliability of active memory ceases to intrude” (3,600 words)

The Difficult Bequest: A History Of The Smithsonian

America’s national museum was “foisted on the country” in 1826 by “an obscure British mineralogist” called James Smithson who had never set foot in America nor shown any particular liking for the country. He was “a wealthy apolitical dandy” who saw a new museum as his chance for immortality. John Quincy Adams, who argued for accepting the bequest, “concurred that James Smithson was probably insane” (4,300 words)

Thomas Piketty’s “Capital In The 21st Century”

Another review, but another fine one, and perhaps the interval since peak Piketty last month has restored your appetite. This is a piece by and for the intelligent general reader, summarising Piketty’s narrative with generous quotation, and drawing some political and moral inferences. The paragraphs mapping the dynamics of international finance on to World Wars One and Two are particularly recommended (5,126 words)

World War One: Impossible, Then Inevitable Pick of the day

Nobody expected world war until it happened, from obscure beginnings, in 1914. The situation is similar in 2014: “Two key features of early 20th-century geopolitics created the necessary conditions for the sudden spiral into all-consuming conflict: the rise and fall of great powers, and the over-zealous observance of mutual-defense treaties. These features are now returning to destabilise geopolitics a century later” (1,027 words)

A Walk Along Hadrian’s Wall

Compared to a walk across Afghanistan, 40 miles along the English borders is a mere hop. But what the region lacks in exoticism it makes up in history. “This fort contained Frisian soldiers from Holland. Further west at Carvoran were Syrian archers. Each unit would have brought their own languages, some their gods; all their cuisine. One African unit had left the remains of an African casserole dish in the ground” (1,890 words)

The Invention Of Iraq

For 400 years prior to World War One the territory which is now Iraq consisted of three autonomous provinces within the Ottoman Empire — one Sunni, one Shiite, one Kurdish. After WW1 the British forced the provinces together into a new country, which had the misfortune to strike oil, while the French delineated Syria and Lebanon. A century later, America strives to preserve Europe’s geopolitical errors (1,430 words)

The War That Changed Everything Pick of the day

Historian looks back at the outbreak of World War One a century ago. “The conflict changed all the countries that took part in it. Governments assumed greater control over society and have never entirely relinquished it.” It brutalised societies and leaders. Germany’s course was fatally inflected; so, too was that of Russia, which without the war and associated revolution might have joined an evolution towards liberal democracy (2,800 words)

Surviving The Black Sea

Eight hundred Jewish refugees flee Nazi-occupied Romania by ship across the Black Sea towards Palestine. The engines fail off Istanbul. The Turks refuse permission to land. The British refuse permission to proceed. The passengers almost starve. After a month the ship is towed out and cut loose. A Soviet submarine mistakes it for a German boat and sinks it. One man survives. He died last month in Oregon. This is his story (2,560 words)

What Really Happened in Iran

A BROWSER BONUS: Our content partnership with Foreign Affairs allows us to bring Browser subscribers the full text of selected FA articles. This piece from the July-August issue draws on newly declassified papers to argue that the CIA’s role in overthrowing Mosaddeq was exaggerated; domestic politics and MI6 played larger parts. (Our link takes non-subscribers to the Foreign Affairs website, which has a metered paywall) (4,850 words)

Where Did Yiddish Come From?

If Yiddish did indeed arise as the Jewish dialect of the medieval Rhineland, an offspring of German, spoken by a small minority of European Jews, how and why did it become the lingua franca of older and bigger Jewish communities across Europe? Perhaps because that conventional account of the origins of Yiddish is entirely wrong. The history of the language may need to be rewritten, and that of Ashkenazi Jews also (6,295 words)

What Really Happened In Congo

A BROWSER BONUS: Thanks to our content partnership with Foreign Affairs, we can bring Browser subscribers the full text of selected Foreign Affairs articles. This piece from the July-August issue draws on newly declassified papers to trace how the CIA managed the overthrow of Patrice Lumumba and the rise of Joseph Mobutu. (Our link takes non-subscribers to the Foreign Affairs website, which has a metered paywall) (4,720 words)

The Temptation Of Despair

Review of “The Temptation of Despair” by Werner Sollors, a “melancholy, disjointed, awkward, but deeply powerful book” about the aftermath of World War II in Germany. Sollors tells of “a society in ruins and a people at the edge of psychic collapse”. He attempts no apologia for Nazism, quite the reverse; but his point is that deserved suffering hurts just as much as undeserved suffering (2,880 words)

Wikipedia Mining

Primer in the limitations of big data. Researchers rank the most influential figures in history using a million Wikipedia articles in 25 languages. “Depending on the ranking algorithm, the most influential figure in human history is either Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish botanist who developed the modern naming scheme for plants and animals, followed by Jesus; or Adolf Hitler followed by Michael Jackson” (1,120 words)

Tiananmen At Twenty-Five

Eyewitness accounts of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 were so plentiful at the time, that “publishing houses worldwide were rejecting them, citing the saturation of the market”. But now within China the event has been airbrushed from public history. If the violence is mentioned at all, it is portrayed as something “insignificant in the grand scheme, because it came amid broader gains in human development” (1,350 words)

Four Myths About The Great War Of 1914-1918

It wasn’t inadvertent: “The decisions that began the Great War show agency, calculation, foresight, and backward induction”. The slaughter was deliberate strategy by all sides. Nobody starved Germany; Germany starved itself. And the Versailles Treaty reparations didn’t ruin Germany, because Germany didn’t pay them. The Great Depression was the more important factor in Hitler’s rise to power (1,640 words)

The Writers Who Fell In Love With Fascism

Review of “The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940″, by Frederick Brown, on the intellectuals and ideologues who pulled France towards fascism during the last decades of the Third Republic. “It is as if the culture that, perhaps more strongly than any other, celebrated reason and geometrical order, also provoked within itself a deep, wild, and willfully primitive reaction, a return of the repressed” (2,850 words)

Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book

A new collection of academic essays on “Quotations From Chairman Mao” is full of interesting detail, but sadly lacking in broader perspective. “Reading the essays brought together here, you would hardly realise that Mao was responsible for one of the biggest human catastrophes in recorded history. Launched by him in 1958, the Great Leap Forward cost upwards of 45 million human lives” (2,140 words)

Ghosts Of Tiananmen

Discussion of recent books on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and its legacy by Louisa Lim and Rowena Xiaoqing He. “June 4 was a watershed in contemporary Chinese history, a turning point that ended the idealism and experimentation of the 1980s, and led to the hypercapitalist and hypersensitive China of today”. The Communist Party found political repression and economic liberalisation to be a winning formula (3,906 words)

Have White Americans Benefited From Slavery?

Arguments for reparations inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent essay exaggerate white gains from slavery. “Most living white Americans would be wealthier had this nation not enslaved African-Americans and thus most whites have lost from slavery too, albeit much less than blacks have lost”. Please note: this not meant as an argument against the moral case for reparations, regardless of the outcome for whites (746 words)

Have I Ever Left It?

Exploring the Dublin of James Joyce. First stop: 15 Usher’s Island, home of Stephen Dedalus’s aunts in Ulysses and setting for The Dead, greatest of Joyce’s short stories. “In order for him to write about Dublin, he needed to stay well away from it, but he understood the paradoxical nature of that distance and that need. The relationship between this city and its most famously wayward son was one of frustrated love” (6,300 words)

History’s Stranglehold

Highly entertaining review of David Van Reybrouk’s “magnificent” book, Congo, a history of the Congolese people. The unrecorded history goes back to ancient Egyptian times. The recorded history is short and often tragic: “Whatever Congo had was fed into the maw of the world” — rubber, copper, iron, diamonds, uranium, coltan, slaves. Do read to the end, where we stumble upon the oldest man in the world (Metered paywall) (1,945 words)

Writing BASIC For Apple From Scratch

Apple co-founder describes his learning-curve in coding, driven by passion for games. “I had designed Breakout for Atari in hardware. I wondered if I could program this arcade game in BASIC. I called Steve Jobs over to my apartment to see what I’d done. In one-half hour I had tried more variations of this game than I could have done in hardware over 10 years. Steve and I both realized how important it was going to be ” (1,920 words)

Secrets From Belfast Pick of the day

Riveting. The story of Boston College’s oral history project to record the testimony of IRA fighters in the Northern Ireland troubles. The interviews were carried out by an IRA veteran; the project was supposed to be secret; but the researchers published prematurely. Britain sued successfully for transcripts through the US courts, and has since detained Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein leader, in connection with a murder 40 years ago (7,800 words)

Don’t Turn Historians Into Informers

British police have detained Gerry Adams in connection with a murder forty years ago, using testimony given for an oral history project on the Northern Ireland Troubles conducted by Boston College in Massachusetts. US Courts ordered the surrender of the records. This is wrong. The job of the police is to find criminals; the job of historians is to find the truth; both are vital to a well-functioning society (Hard) (880 words)

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