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Civil War, Round One: Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence

As some of you may have noticed in my recent post on American empire, I’m not exactly a fan of the exceptionalist myths that we Americans replace our history with. I became excited, then, when I learned about a new book from the J. Carroll Amundsen Professor of British History at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Holger Hoock. Entitled Scars of Independence, Hoock’s work is meant for both public and academic audiences and seeks to restore the central and ubiquitous position of violence to our sanitized and whitewashed tradition of the American Revolution. Reminding his readers that the war was just as much a civil war between Patriots and Loyalists as it was a struggle for independence, Hoock embarks on a grisly account of just how bitterly the Revolutionary War was waged.... Read More
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Episodic History: Bryan’s Picks

In just a few days, Friday will see the premier of the much-anticipated movie Dunkirk, which tells the story of the World War II battle of the same name in which British and French forces were evacuated across the English Channel by civilian watercraft under the guns of the Third Reich. When done well, all of us here at Concerning History love seeing history on the big and small screens, as it seems to bring the past to life with a vibrancy and immediacy lacking in other media as well as powerfully impact public perception and memory of events. The number of history-related series on television or streaming services especially has blossomed in recent years. We all have our special interests, though, and can’t help but pine for some of our pet topics to get the attention we know they deserve. In what we hope will become a long-running series, I’ve decided to pull together a list of a few historical events and periods I feel would make for highly compelling or necessary television.... Read More
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Grand Prize, or Honorable Mention? The Case of American Settler Empire

Last week I undertook to unpack the question “What was history’s greatest empire?” In so doing, I discussed numerous possible criteria while refraining to ever actually answer the question. For those looking for my final answer in this post I make no guarantees you will be satisfied, but perhaps I can supply a more solid proposal than last time.... Read More
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A World Afire: Empires at War, 1911-1923

The Great War has come to be known as the First World War for rather obvious reasons. For four years it engulfed the globe in a conflict the magnitude and ferocity of which had never before been seen. This violence extended so far outside of Europe as a direct result of its key belligerents’ imperial holdings. Despite this, a preponderance of Great War history has focused on the infamous Western Front specifically and the war in Europe more generally. In this edited volume of articles, Robert Gerwarth and Erez Manela have assembled an array of perspectives that attempt to realign that focus, casting our attention not only beyond the confines of Europe but outside of the standard periodization of the war years as well.... Read More
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Size, or How You Rule It? Determining History’s Greatest Empire

One fall morning in 2015, as I sat in my Training and Methods course in the Oxford History Faculty, my peers and I were pressed for the answer to a question rather unorthodox for a room full of academics: what was the greatest empire in history? Asked by the late, redoubtable Dr. Jan-Georg Deutsch, the question compelled us all to silence as we contemplated what was so obviously a trap, yet equally a tantalizing opportunity for debate. Boldly (perhaps one might say brashly), I ventured an answer that attempted to dissect the question... Read More
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Not Without Meaning or Purpose: Hew Strachan’s The First World War

Strachan, Hew. The First World War. New York: Penguin Books, 2013. The mud-filled fields of Flanders and poems such as Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et decorum est” fill popular imagination about the First World War, the cataclysmic conflict fought between the empires of Europe for continental hegemony and the security of their empires. Much is made […]... Read More
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War on all the World: Starz’s Black Sails

The end of March brought with it the finale of the Starz series Black Sails. I’m a sucker for anything involving wooden ships and broadsides, so it was natural that I would eventually try the show out. As I began watching, all I knew was that it was a gritty pirate drama in the style of so many recent offerings from similar premium services. Imagine my delight when I discovered not a pulpy sensationalist naval warfare fix but a masterfully crafted historical drama.... Read More
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Churchill Begins: Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire

When I saw that Candice Millard, author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, had published yet another book, I was intrigued. When I learned that this time her subject matter dealt with Winston Churchill and a British Imperial war, I became excited. For those not familiar with her work, Millard has made a name for herself by engagingly telling the tales of lesser known incidents in the lives of prominent historical figures, accompanied by a level of historical context that both lends depth to her narrative and helps emphasize the importance of the events she describes. Eager to see what might result when she took this approach to a topic I'm familiar with, I dove right in.... Read More
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A Persistent Fiction: Myths of British Martial Prowess and Their Appeal

A few weeks ago, as I was reading Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire (which shall be reviewed on this very blog in four days), I came across a puzzling statement. In her prologue, Millard described the British army as “one of the most admired and feared fighting forces in the world.” Anyone familiar with the ersatz history of the British army in Europe or Britain’s imperial holdings might look askance at such a dubious claim, but I thought little of it at the time save to raise an intellectual (and physical) eyebrow. As is so often the case, however, this inciting incident opened my eyes to more and more use of this or a similarly-worded error. I have since encountered it in material covering a diverse range of subject matter concerning Britain in the period of its empire, authored by historians spanning a wide array of training and background. Rather than composing a direct rebuttal of these claims of a superlative British army, I instead became preoccupied with determining the reasons one might buy into such an easily-refuted detail. What follows below is an account of my efforts and, incidentally, a fair amount of refutation in its writing.... Read More
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Crucible of the World: Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads

From its main title, one could be forgiven for assuming this book to be simply a regional study of Central Asia. Yet Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History of the World begins with much loftier goals. Having been fascinated with the history of the broadly-defined Middle East in his youth, Frankopan asserts that he is here to posit a new method of understanding history: one that challenges European narratives of inevitable triumph and restores Central Asia to its place as the fulcrum of world history. In the process, however, The Silk Roads delivers simultaneously more and much, much less than Frankopan promises.... Read More