Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) says that “the True University of these days is a collection of books.” Here is my best attempt to share some of the readings that have most impacted me this year.
Two emblematic dictators-Stalin and Hitler- were allies at the beginning of theSecond World War, each because of his own interests and reasons, only to later end up in a fight to the deathuntil the Soviet Union’s occupation of Berlin in 1945. Hitler started the war and is the figure that has received more attention in the historical literature, to the degree that WWII has frequently been identified as “Hitler’s war.” Sean McMeekin[i]argues that this is an erroneous focus becauseit was Stalin who took advantage of the circumstances presented to himat every juncture until gaining incomparable strategic benefits.While it was the United States that achieved the unconditional defeat of Germany and Japan,this iconoclastic account concludes that the undisputed winner of the conflict was Stalin, who imposed a very much longer-lasting tyranny.
InThe Spectre of War”, Jonathan Haslam venturesthat the Russian Revolution of 1917 altered international relations forever and that those who continued to adhere to the previous frame of reference erred in all their decisions, some extraordinarily transcendental,beginning with that the new Soviet regime was as important in Hitler’s rise as the Treaty of Versailles. Yet more important, it led Western leaders to believe thatespecially for the British (Chamberlain), Hitler would be a key factor in containing Communism. No one can know what would have happened had the West and the Soviet Union become allies in the thirties in order to impede the growth of Germany, butHaslam’s speculation is key: “the lesson of theinterwar years is that in political lifethe extremecan tooeasily become the mainstream.”It is key, Haslamgoes on, not to ignore history,because “History does offer warnings, if we care to recognize them for what they are.”
Michael Nieberg wrote on the fall of France in 1940, a collapse that no one anticipated given the famous Maginot Linethat the French, and the rest of the world, thought invulnerable, only to find that Nazi Germany invaded France through The Netherlands, circumventing formidable fortifications. The book[ii]deals with the impact of the invasion of France on the U.S. and the approach transcends the immediate matter-at-hand. In essence, the argument is that the folding of France swayed theU.S. because our neighbor to the North had conceived of France as a wall of contention that would provide protection from any enemy on the Atlantic side; the fall would oblige it to rethink its entire conception of the world and, thence,to build the mightiest army inthe history of the planet that not only won that war, but that also became henceforth a world factotum. Of particular interest is the description that Nieberg portrays on howthe U.S. decided who would be their allyin France, wagering on Vichy, the government of the Occupied France, going against the British government that had carried out a conscientious analysis of the French situation and concluding that the ideal partner would be de Gaulle. The book is itself fascinating, but it seems to me especially relevantbecause of the U.S. propensity for ignoring the local situation, thus blundering in the identification of its allies, as evidenced inVietnam, Afghanistanand Iraq.
Manuel Hinds wrote a book thatbreaks with the tendency of the last years on seeing in the government the solution to all the problems. In Defense of Liberal Democracy is a peculiar book in thatit is authored by a Salvadoran addressing the Americans. The central argument is that periods of technological change produce severe disruptions that, as now, translate into income inequality and greater poverty, but that liberal democracy is the best instrument that humans have devised to confront these evils. Hinds analyzes complex periods such as the French Revolution and Nazi Germany to conclude that the key to development and democracy lies in the consolidation of a horizontal society that he denominates “multidimensional,”which immediately creates checks and balances that strengthen the capacity of the generation of ideas, projects and productive activity becausethese align the incentives of persons with those of the development of their country.
The best book that I have read on the China–U.S. relation was written by a former Australian prime minister, who describes the complexity of the interaction of these two societies, its historical misunderstandings and, especially the points of convergence and divergence. Its title,“The Avoidable War”[iii], is suggestive: the route of suspicions and conspiracies that are assumed by both sides have a sole possible outcome, lest both parties recognize the need to come to key understandings for them and for the world.
[i]Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II
[ii]When France Fell: The Vichy Crisis and the Fate of the Anglo-American Alliance
[iii]Rudd, Kevin, The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China