Akif Saifi is an editorial assistant at the Penguin Press.
The first of Stephen Kotkin’s projected three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin is itself a mammoth undertaking. Kotkin here seeks to do away with once and for all our conception of Stalin as an opportunistic monster, and he shows us instead that from a very young age, Stalin proved himself to be exceptionally smart and capable, and was thoroughly driven by Communist ideology. Perhaps one of the most impressive things about this first volume is that very little is really known about Stalin’s early years, and Kotkin takes care to only includes verifiable information—he is not prone to the wild psychoanalysis of Stalin’s earlier biographers who speculated that the purported beatings he received as a child were in some way responsible for his later atrocities. And so Stalin himself is barely a presence in the first part of the book, and instead we are given a tour of the plethora of factors shaping the empire (not to mention the world) that he was born into: Bismarck, Marx et al. As a result, this is more than just a biography of Stalin; in Kotkin’s own words, it’s “a history of the world from Stalin’s office.” Whatever it is, it’s a thrilling read, and it goes a long way in putting the present situation in Russia, as well as the crisis in Ukraine, into their proper historical context.
In recent years, there have been few public intellectuals as consequential as Tony Judt. He was that rare figure who could seamlessly bridge the gap between history and current events, drawing from overlooked historic episodes to help explain the world we live in now. When the Facts Change is a collection of some of the essays he wrote in the last fifteen years of his life, the majority of which were first published by The New York Review of Books, where he was a longtime contributor. It’s all here, all the subjects that were so central to his work and thought: Europe and its efforts to come to terms with its history; the folly of the war in Iraq and America’s increasing isolation on the world’s stage; and, of course, the Holocaust and Israel’s current moral dilemma. His writings on Israel are collected here for the first time in book form, and even though some time has passed (and numerous lives have been lost) since he wrote them, they still carry with them an air of prescience and insight invaluable for understanding the conflict objectively. When the Facts Change is a fitting capstone to his stellar body of work, as well as a sad reminder of the voice that we’ve lost.
Ten years ago this month, Mohammed Bouyeri, a 26-year-old Dutchman of Moroccan descent, shot and killed the filmmaker Theo van Gogh as he rode his bike through the streets of Amsterdam. But he did not stop there. He went on to slash van Gogh’s throat as people looked on in horror. The act was meant to be a retaliation for the release of van Gogh’s film, Submission: Part I, where verses of the Quran were painted on the bodies of naked women; indeed, Bouyeri claimed he was acting to defend the name of Allah. It was not the first time we had heard those words; it was surely not the last. In recent months, we’ve witnessed a resurgence of similar barbarism in the name of Islam, from the beheadings and widespread atrocities of the so-called Islamic State and the kidnappings and bombings of Boko Haram and Al Shabab in Africa. In Murder in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma, a noted historian and a Dutchman himself, travels to the Netherlands soon after van Gogh’s murder to investigate the climate that gave rise to such an appalling act, examining the influx of immigrants from North Africa and ex-colonies into the country and the way they are treated, as well as the resurgence of reactionary Dutch nationalists in a society often prized for its tolerance and liberalism. It reads like long form journalism that perfectly blends history with current events to explore a most pressing question, one that remains unanswered ten years on. I can think of no book more fitting for our times.
Among the spate of recent books examining World War I on the centenary of its outbreak, Adam Tooze’s new book. The Deluge, stands out. Tooze, a professor of history at Yale and the author of The Wages of Destruction, a much-praised study of the Nazi war economy, is one of the finest economic historians writing today. Here, he shifts his focus from the Third Reich and the Second World War to the United States and the First, examining the pivotal role that conflict played in redefining the nation and catapulting it to the top of the global hierarchy. This is not new territory per se, but Tooze writes persuasively and authoritatively. If you only intend to read one World War I book this year, The Deluge will not disappoint.
There has been much talk in recent years of the growing division between the top 1% and the remaining 99%, and part of the reason Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century became such a sensation earlier this year was because it provided some quantitative grounding to these arguments. Rana Dasgupta’s similarly titled Capital does not bother itself with the numbers; it is far more concerned with the social and human cost of income inequality. Dasgupta takes as his subject New Delhi, the capital of India, itself an incredibly polarized society where the very rich have recently done very well for themselves and have taken advantage of the influx of capital from globalization, while the rest of the city has carried on, largely unaffected, their lives about the same now as they were some forty years ago. If you’re a fan of Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, you’ll find much to like in Capital.
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