Non-Fiction Reads of 2015

T.E. Lawrence in Arabia; War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Scott Anderson 5/5

Barbara Truncham, the brilliant historian most famous for ‘Guns of August’ once stated that her primal goal when writing History was to retain the reader’s attention. Many historians, vigilant as they are with the facts, fail in that endeavour, other historians lose the facts in their pursuit of readability. Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson succeeds because of the magisterial way he fuses incredible detail with an engaging readability. I often found myself reading the book aloud for chapters on end because of the melismatic ease of his writing. Having said that, this is not a simple book. It is densely researched and broad in its scope.


The focus is not simply Lawrence, but three other characters in the Middle East at the time of the First World War and the Arab Revolt. Curt Prufer, a German attache to the embassy in Cairo who attempts to ferment Islamic Jihad. William Yale, an American on an oil finding mission for Standard Oil and Aaron Aronsohn, agronomist and committed zionist who gains the trust of both the Ottomans and the British. Each of these men is handled with deft, with in depth explanations of their background that familiarises the reader with an understanding of the motives behind their actions, as well as placing them in the wider global context. The book jumps between these men in a linear chronology that can at times be confusing because absorbed as I was with one individual, I would forget where it was I had left the other. Yet it also serves to create a novelic feel to what is a purely academic work.


Unsurprisingly, given the current global context and the centrality of the Middle East to geo-politics, the role it played in the Great War and the effects of the War on it have become important questions to modern audiences.


Anderson convincingly promulgates the high powered geopolitical jostling for ascendancy in the Middle East at the time. The British, whom Anderson claims were largely the creators of the modern Middle East, do not emerge sympathetically. On one hand they had promised to grant the Arabs a pan-Arabic state in return for revolting against the Turks, and on the other hand the Sykes-Picot Agreement meant a partition of the Middle East between France and Britain. Even-handed as he is, Anderson also portrays the extent of the disgust within the British Military at the duplicity of such an agreement, when it came to be known. He explains the logistics of such a decision, detailing how one department of the British Army could take one decision, another department take the opposite decision, and neither side be aware of the other’s actions because of the separation between the two.


Written as it is chronologically Anderson skillfully weaves several different threads together, most deftly with regards to the Armenian Genocide. He proffers no opinion on the classification of ‘genocide’ instead he explores the reasoning behind Ottoman policy. Was it an attempt to ethnically cleanse all Armenians, or was it driven by a genuine fear that the Armenians would revolt against the Ottomans in the case of a Russian invasion? Was it both? If it was in fact a collective decision to ethnically cleanse the Armenians why did the Governor of Syria Djemal Pasha help thousands of them during the War. He manages a seemingly ostensible recount of their suffering, lowering it into chapters not directly concerned with the Armenians, elucidating the widespread nature of their suffering. For example, William Yale on a train trip to Damascus, describes the lines of severely impoverished Armenians up and down the roads, many of them dead, others begging for mercy.


Of course this is a book about T.E Lawrence, and while he is placed into a necessary perspective in the hierarchy of decision making, he is not relegated from significance. Thomas Edward Lawrence emerges a tragic hero, often frustrated by British decision making during the war and eventually broken by the decisions at Versailles and Lausanne. He is a lonely figure, whose sexuality remains a quag of speculation and innuendo. He loved the Arabs, he spoke their language and felt at ease with them. He genuinely believed in their right to self-autonomy and was deeply affected by the decision to partition the Middle East along imperial lines.

Anderson, although broadly sympathetic, does challenges Lawrence, if a piece of evidence contradicts Lawrence’s later recollection of events, his difficult nature, his arrogance and his disloyalty to the British in favour of the Arabs.


Despite the considerable fame he procured in the years following the war, Lawrence spent his final years desperately unhappy, spending the majority of his time in seclusion. ‘It’s hard to escape the image of a sad and reclusive man, his circles of friends and acquaintances steadily dwindling to a mere handful’. Anderson believes that this desire for anonymity was born out of a sense of guilt, that he had promised the Arabs so much and failed to deliver; that men had died in the pursuit of these unfulfilled promises. In the end Lawrence died in 1935 in a car accident. It is for certain that the mystique of Lawrence will endure for his contribution to history is of the unlikely variety. A middle-class Englishman helps lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans. It is the stuff of legend and myth; precisely the best storytelling.


This book overwhelmingly leaves the reader with the question of ‘what if?’. What if the Ottomans had joined alongside the Allies rather than the Central Powers? What if Germany had won the war? What if the British had listened to Lawrence and invaded from Alexandretta as opposed to Gallipoli? A decision that, based on further research I’ve undertaken, is breathtaking in its incompetence and short sightedness.


What if the British had in fact granted the Arabs their state? Would it have succeeded? Anderson provides a qualified statement. ‘The notion of a true pan-Arab nation was always something of a mirage, the differences between its radically varied cultures far greater than what united them… (However) It is hard to imagine that any…could possibly have produced a sadder history than what has actually transpired over the past century, a catalogue of war, religious strife and brutal dictatorships that has haunted not just the Middle East but the entire world.’ A Brilliant work.


The Iron Kingdom, Christopher Clark 5/5


This is a book about a Kingdom that no longer exists whose former existence was greatly consequential to modern European History. Prussia was the Kingdom that lead the unification of Germany. The book details it’s most famous personalities from Frederick the Great to Otto Von Bismarck, the decimating effect of the Thirty Year’s War, it’s many years of inferior status in Europe, it’s religious tolerance. Prussia was dismantled by the Allies after the Second World War, its leaders believing Prussian militarism responsible for the Two World Wars. Clark grapples with this question. He acknowledges the extent of the role the military played in Prussia, but details that there was more to Prussia. This was an enlightening read about a society I knew very little about and I came to appreciate just how important Prussia and Germany were to European society.


Kaiser Wilhelm II; A Life with Power, Christopher Clark 4/5


Kaiser Wilhelm Hohenzollern II is one of the most controversial figures in 20th century history. As the leader of Germany during the First World War he has been held ultimately responsible for the actions of his nation prior to and then during the conflict. Christopher Clark assesses his legacy in this book and in his familiar style doesn’t explicitly state a sympathy or antipathy towards his subject, it must be found in between the lines. Clark has no time for comparisons with Hitler and the notion that Wilhelm was evil. Rather the Wilhelm Clark portrays is more a child than a villain. He is temperamental, his focus shifting from one subject to another fluidly, in need of constant adoration, frustrated by Germany’s seeming isolation in Europe, desperate to attain the supremacy he believed Germany deserved. As Queen Victoria’s grandson he revered and is jealous of the British, it is this inferiority complex that forms part of the reason Wilhelm pursues the fateful German naval building policy. I found this relatively short book did not answer all my questions about Wilhelm but on its own accord it is excellent.  


Russia: A Short Introduction, Geoffrey Hoskings 3.5/5


There are many of these Short Introduction books that provide simple, easy to read, overviews of their subject. It can be read in a few hours barely 100 pages long. I bought the Russian edition because I wanted to attain an overview understanding of Russian History. Geoffrey Hoskings is an expert on Russia and he manages to tell Russia’s story simply and provide answers to questions about Russian History. Especially to the question of why Russians will support a strong leader no matter how despotic – Ivan the Terrible, Josef Stalin – they are. The reason is essentially because they believed the alternative to be anarchy. This is a great introduction to Russia.


The Plantagenets; the Warrior Kings and Queens Who Ruled England, Dan Jones 5/5


The English Royal Dynasty best known to posterity are the Tudors. It is perfectly understandable, there’s is a dynamic story that involves all the ingredients to keep modern audiences transfixed. However the Royal Family that preceded them, the Plantagenets, were just as transfixing. For three days straight I locked myself in my room and flew through this lengthy read that encompasses over 300 years of history. It includes everything we know and love about Medieval Europe. Knights, War, Famine, the Church, Rage, Power, Lust, Sex. It begins with who I think was the best of the Plantagenets Henry II and includes some of the most important moments in English History. Murder in the Cathedral, Richard the Lionheart’s death, Magna Carta, the Wars with Scotland, the Black Death, the Crusades, the Barons revolt, The removal of Edward II, the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasants Revolt, ending with the removal of Richard II whose rule proved most unpopular. Dan Jones is very even handed through-out, as all good historians ought to be, even finding positives to state about possibly the most reviled of all the English Kings, John. No numerical addition required for there will only ever be one King John. I loved this book and will return to it as it contains so much information, it is impossible to absorb in one reading.


The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan 4.5/5


In the end the First World War was a tragedy, a tragedy the pulled Europe to the brink and worst of all ended millions of lives. Some have attempted to claim that the war was a pointless crime but to do so would be wrong, because many of those who fought did so because they believed it was necessary. To do so would be to arrogantly presume our current society so advanced that no such conflict could be replicated in our times; the reasons for War in 1914 not applicable to ours. To do so would be to deprive our generation of a valuable lesson from history. The sad reality is that many Europeans at the turn of the 20th century shared the belief that Europe, now a beacon of enlightenment and progress, had found the means to avoid war. Margaret Macmillan attempts to, and largely succeeds in elaborating this point, hence the title, the War That Ended Peace. All the regular players are involved, Kaiser Wilhelm, Tsar Nicholas, Edward Grey. The narrative begins at the 1900 Exhibition in Paris, France, showcasing the modernity and progress of the modern world. A glimpse into pre-war society that is almost haunting benefited by hindsight.

For most of the narrative Macmillan allows the sources she’s collected to speak for themselves but there are other times where she is more equivocal in her opinion. She scorches the Germans for the incompetency of their foreign policy. She takes the view that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on the verge of collapse. She views the Kaiser as a bit of joker. Yet, like many modern historians, Macmillan doesn’t apportion blame to any single nation for the war but spreads it around to Germany, Russia, Austro-Hungary, Serbia and to a lesser extent Britain and France, whom Macmillan claims deserve less blame than the others, but ought to be criticised for not doing enough to prevent the conflict. It truly was the War That Ended Peace and the world is all the worse for it.


The Uses and Abuses of History, Margaret MacMillan 3/5


This is a short, sharp read about how History has often been used as a political means of justification eg. Hitler and Frederick the Great, and the adverse effects of doing so. There are points where MacMillan’s political views emerge but overall it showcases the dangers of history as a political tool.


Paris 1919: 6 Months That Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan 5/5


When the First World War concluded following four years of inglorious fighting the World’s focus shifted to Paris where the world’s leaders met to negotiate the peace. Leaders from all across the world converged on Paris in what was an extraordinary period in the city’s cherished history; from China and Japan, to parts of Africa, Australia but mostly from Europe. A Europe altered dramatically by the Great War. The three most important of these men were Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France; The victors. It was in their hands that the most important decisions of the Paris Peace Conference were made.


One of the central theses of this work is that the Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles were not to blame for the Second World War. MacMillan, in this brilliant work, argues that these men believed they were creating a better world, especially Wilson and his beloved League of Nations. However, they had to balance this with the promises they had made to allies during the War, against the often irrational demands of jingoistic nationalism, as well as the appeasement of their own populaces. The book details how difficult this often proved to be. In the end the peace was hardly perfect and many of the decisions of the conference continue to affect us today. Notably the division of the Middle East, but perhaps most surprising to me was the effect it had on the Chinese populace, who lost much faith in the West owing to their treatment at the conference. I read the majority of this book in Europe, including Paris, which only added to the enjoyment I received in reading this enlightening and important book.


When We Were Young And Foolish, Greg Sheridan 3/5


Greg Sheridan is an Australian journalist who works for the Australian. He is of conservative inclination, and a close personal friend of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. His area of expertise is Asia, an area he loves, and writes passionately about especially Indonesia. This book details his early years, including his time working for a Union as a member of the Labor Party, taking the fight up to the Communist dominated left at University, entering a seminary to become a Priest, and getting to know some of the most important of figures of future Australian politics, including Bob Carr, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. This is a fascinating read and while Sheridan is a good writer, he is a better columnist.


The English and Their History, Robert Tombs 5/5


There is an intrinsic depth and breadth to English History that is captivating. This book, over a thousand pages in length, explores English history but also explores the culture and art of the moment, the development of the English language, and the overall historical context. As the title suggests, this is not just a work about English History it is also about the English. Tombs is remarkably even handed through-out, one reviewer hoped Tombs would ‘bare some teeth’ but he doesn’t. That is in essence what makes this such an agreeable book. Any author who manages to remain apolitical about Margaret Thatcher is doing something right. Another example is the First World War. Tombs declares that the First World War was not an accident but then questions what else Edward Grey could have done during the July Crisis. He claims that Europe’s populations did not happily march into war, believing it an adventure to be over by Christmas, rather they were quite saddened by the announcement, fearful of its ramifications, but also believing in it. The English Civil War is portrayed not as some great Parliamentarian victory but as an avoidable accident. The Empire is portrayed for its mistakes as well as its victories. I loved this book and whenever I feel I need some information on English history I return to it. He does brush over Medieval England a little, but there are plenty of other books to turn to for that.