"The Opposite of Communism is Europe"

This is a fascinating book that I'm glad that I read but that I'm also glad is over.

Judt sets out to explain how Europe went from being a continent made up of many countries to, well, the European Union. His central thesis is that the utter devastation of the two World Wars left Europe so hobbled and its citizenry so shell-shocked that the only way progress could occur was with strong direction from the government. In the case of Western Europe, that meant the "Welfare State" served up in various forms in different countries, and in Eastern Europe it meant a degree of acceptance of the communist regimes put in place by Stalin. Judt ends with the Soviet Union gone, Eastern Europe clamoring to get into the EU and Western Europe struggling to figure out just what it means to be European.

That probably doesn't sound like a scintillating read. I won't lie. This is isn't a page turner over all but parts of it do have the sweep and drive of great popular history. Other parts read like a text book. Judt loves facts and figures. Given the choice between telling you that coal production in Belgium fell 45% in ten years or telling you exactly what coal production was in 1960 and 1970, he'll always go with the later. Still, I haven't come across any other book which attempts to do what Judt does and while he does have his opinions, he's far from doctrinaire. Judt isn't a fan of Maggie Thatcher, Francoise Mitterand or Boutros Boutros-Ghali - which is quite a gamut.

Judt takes on a few sacred cows as well, for instance he explains the events of Paris 1968 in a way that is less heroic and more about squatters' rights. He doesn't shy away from Europe's less appealing actions either - like enforced sterilization through until the mid-1970s. What emerges is a full picture of a continent trying to assembly itself into a community.

If you want to know how the shambles of postwar Europe became the Europe of today, this is the place to start. It's especially notable for it's insistence on seeing Europe independent of the United States and for giving equal time to the Eastern European experience. Recommended for those interested in 20th Century history.

What the Librarian Saw

The Fall of Rome is one of those rare event that demonstrates that even when history is written by the losers the truth can be in short supply. For a man whose name can still inspire visions of terror Attila the Hun is poorly understood. When he's depicted as a barbarian (see most histories of the Roman Empire written before 1850) Attila seems more Neanderthal Frat Boy than brilliant military leader. When he's shown as a worthy adversary to the crumbling Empire, Attila seems more like Alexander the Great without the fancy tutors.

Christopher Kelly aims to show us Attila as he was - the leader of a civilization that the Romans dismissed out of arrogance, ready to play power politics with Roman, Constantinople, and Persia. This is genuine popular history that draws on the latest archaeological research to show us a society with laws, elites, fools, geniuses, and above all pride. Kelly places the old stories about the Huns in the context of their times, explaining what all that hyperbolic language really meant. He doesn't glorify the Huns any more or less than the Romans or Byzantines. He shows them all acting with honor, lying, conniving, breaking treaties, and upholding right as they understand it.

Best of all, Kelly has a sense of humor and he knows a good story. The story of the Roman librarian on a diplomatic mission is half farce, half James Bond and wholly entertaining. Where else are you going to find scheming eunuchs, Dudley DoRight-esque Roman soldiers, gossipy librarians, stuttering love-sick con men and day long dinner parties? Attila did not bring about the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire but his story exposes the weaknesses, corruption and rot that did.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in ancient/Roman history.

Kindle note: photographs not included even though they are (annoyingly) referenced in the text.