Thursday, 6 March 2014

Book Review: Atrocities: The 100 Deadliest Episodes in Human History

 I have long kept in my memory statistics such as the fact that the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648) managed to kill off 25% of the German population. Or there is my personal favourite; during the War of the Triple Alliance, the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano Lopez questionably and unwisely led Paraguay in to a war against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina, which resulted in the deaths of something like 90% of the mature Paraguayan male population.

These statistics are simply imponderable. What was it like to live after the cataclysm of the Thirty Years War? How did Paraguay manage to continue as a nation after the debacle of the War of the Triple Alliance? How did these events happen?

RRP: £14:99
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co
Publication Date: July 2013
ISBN: 978-0393345230

'Atrocities' collects and ranks the Thirty Years War (Rank: 17) and the War of the Triple Alliance (Rank: 79) with ninety-eight other appalling instances of man's brutality, and provides a brief synopsis of their causes, course and results, all done in a cheerful and humorous approach to the all-too serious subject matter.

Matthew White, independent scholar and self-described 'atrocitologist', has amassed the sorts of facts and figures that men like to have at their fingertips. It is essentially a compendium of deaths. We know the wars of the last century caused tens of millions of deaths. But what about the Crusades, the African slave trade, and the many conflicts in China's history? How do they compare? Were they even worse? The answer, of course, is that both were relatively appalling. “War kills more civilians than soldiers,” writes the author. “In fact, the army is usually the safest place to be during a war.”

Each of the entries gets a good write up that provides background, players, setting, course and effects of the particular piece of human tragedy being reviewed. The book covers a period from the Second Persian War (Rank: 96), circa 480 - 479, to the Second Congo War (Rank: 27) that ran from 1998 to 2002. The author Matthew White surveys the entire world, which results in entries from the Goguryeo-Sui Wars (Rank: 67) between Korea and China, crica 598 to 612 A.D., to the Bahmani-Vijayanagara Wather (Rank: 70) between Muslims and Hindus, circa 1366, in India, to the "Heart of Darkness" which was King Leopold I of Belgium's Congo Free State (Rank:14), circa 1865 - 1908. The result is a book that is easy to dip into to read whatever the reader is interested in. Definitely a mans coffee table book.


Friday, 21 February 2014

The Difficulty Of Remembering WWI Where It All Began


A simple plaque on a street corner marks the assassination
Sarajevo is gearing up for events planned to mark the centenary of the assassination in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.

As schoolchildren are taught the world over, Bosnia was then part of Austria-Hungary, and the Archduke's assassination by a Bosnian Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Pincip led directly to the outbreak of war between the Habsburg Empire and Serbia, which led to a chain reaction of political, diplomatic and military events which drew in Russia, Germany, France and Britain.

But Milorad Dodik, President of Republika Srpska, said in November last year that Bosnia's mainly Serbian entity will not take part in events planned in Sarajevo to mark 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. He said this was because the events in Sarajevo would not be "well grounded", historically, and would not contribute to reconciliation among peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Next June, some 130 historians from 30 countries will gather in Sarajevo to reconsider the origins of the great war at an international conference at the Sarajevo School of Science & Technology. In both Serbia and Republika Srpska, politicians see the conference as an attempt to "revise history", to lay the blame for the war, with its 10 million dead, on the shoulders of the Serb people."Serbia will neither allow a revision of history, nor it will forget who are the main culprits in World War I," Dacic warned.

Dodik added that Republika Srpska would instead collaborate with neighbouring Serbia over a programme of events.

Tension over the centenary in Bosnia reflects the fact that Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks [Muslims] naturally view Princip's action and legacy differently. To most Serbs, Princip was a national hero whose memory is to be celebrated. Many Croats, on the other hand, recall Princip as a terrorist and do not rejoice in the destruction of Austria-Hungary, which was a direct consequence of the war.

The locals of Sarajevo have always had difficulty remembering and commemorating the 1914 assassination. Over the last hundred years almost a dozen different monuments, memorials and museums have adorned the street corner where Princip fired his famous shots, each one has been telling in terms of how the people of Bosnia have struggled to understand the assassination as part of their national history. Then, like now, the memorial process has rarely broken free from outside influence. In the memory of many contemporary Westerners, the Sarajevo assassination merely confirms their stereotypes of Balkan backwardness and barbarism, and thus has provided a convenient means to divert blame for the escalation into war in 1914 from their own leaders. For many in Sarajevo, however, June 28, 1914, will always be seen as the beginning of their liberation from centuries of foreign control. Moreover, while the assassination is as inseparable from the city in which it took place as the camp at Dachau, how Sarajevo's population and that of Bosnia-Herzegovina itself have sought to remember this history is a more complex matter. For although an event as scrutinized as the Holocaust in terms of memory and identity is in little danger of being glorified in official representations, the Sarajevo assassination has always been looked upon more ambivalently by those who must accept it as their own.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Book Review: The Butcher of Poland: Hitler's Lawyer Hans Frank

By Gary O'Connor


Hans Frank was a German lawyer who worked for the Nazi party during the 1920s and 1930s. After Hitler's ascension to power in 1933, Frank became Nazi Germany's chief jurist and Governor-General of occupied Poland's 'General Government' territory. During his tenure (1939–1945), he instituted a reign of terror against the civilian population, systematic plunder and brutal economic exploitation and became directly involved in the mass murder of Polish citizens. At the Nuremberg trials, he was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and was executed. Author Garry O'Connor brings his skills as a playwright, biographer and novelist to this harrowing account of Hitler's lawyer, an educated man who formalised the Nazi race laws.

RRP: £18.99
Publisher: Spellmount Publishers Ltd
Publication Date: Nov 2013
ISBN: 978-0752498133
Buy this book: The History Press


He joined the German army in 1917 and after the war he served in the Freikorps under Franz Ritter von Epp's command, and then joined the German Worker's Party (which soon evolved into NSDAP), in 1919. He was one of the party's earliest members.

Frank studied law (he passed the final state examination in 1926) and rose to become Adolf Hitler's personal legal adviser. As the Nazis rose to power, Frank also served as the party's lawyer. He represented it in over 2,400 cases. From 26 October 1939, following the end of the invasion of Poland, Frank was assigned Governor-General of the occupied Polish territories, controlling the General Government, the area of Poland not directly incorporated into Germany.

His territory was the location of four of the six extermination camps. Frank later claimed that the extermination of Jews was entirely controlled by Heinrich Himmler and the SS and that he, Frank, was unaware of the extermination camps in the General Government until early in 1944. During his testimony at Nuremberg, Frank claimed he submitted resignation requests to Hitler on 14 occasions, but Hitler would not allow him to resign. Frank fled the General Government in January 1945 as the Soviet Army advanced.

Frank was captured by American troops on 3 May 1945, he was indicted for war crimes and tried before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg from 20 November 1945 to 1 October 1946. During the trial he renewed the faith of his childhood, Roman Catholicism, and claimed to have a series of religious experiences.

Frank voluntarily surrendered 43 volumes of his personal diaries to the Allies, which were then used against him as evidence of his guilt. Frank confessed to some of the charges and expressed remorse on the witness stand, showing penitence for his crimes. The former Governor-General of Poland was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity on 1 October 1946, and was sentenced to death by hanging.

The life of the Bavarian Hans Frank has not received the full attention the world has given to other Nazi leaders. In many ways he warrants it more. His life symbolises Germany's hubristic and visionary ambition to an alarming degree much better than anyone else's, perhaps because he was an intellectual of the highest calibre: "Can t they see", he said of his fellow accused at Nuremberg, "that this is a horrible tragedy in the history of mankind, and that we are the symbols of an evil that God is brushing aside"? As he recognised by the end he was a primary - if not the exemplary - symbol of evil, his remorse, self-pity, and arrogance knew no bounds as they vied with his contrition.

This work ia a thorough analysis of the life and mind of this extraordinary manipulator, thief, and despot. A controversial look at the family life, religion, and legal brain that made the man.


Friday, 10 January 2014

Elegy for Silent Cinema

A report produced by the United States Library of Congress in September 2013 revealed that research had shown that a total of 70% of American silent films are believed to be lost. 11% survive only in foreign release versions or in low image quality copies, while 5% are incomplete. The other 70% are completely lost.


This is partly the result of the nature of the nitrate film stock, which was vulnerable to fire damage and general deterioration; however the industry also had a routine practice of neglecting or even destroying prints and negatives when it suited them. Sometimes, an individual might work to preserve their work; Mary Pickford, the famous silent screen actress, paid for the preservation of her films and so almost all of them have survived for posterity. Luckily, very occasionally new, thought lost, films, come to light; Pickford’s first credited-by-name film, ‘Their First Misunderstanding’ (1911) has only been recently discovered, in a barn. However, similar famous names have had their work lost to posterity; films featuring famous names of the day, as such as Clara Bow, Will Rogers’ and Tom Mix, who was Hollywood’s first cowboy are all believed to be gone.

Those without a clear knowledge of the history of early cinema or indeed a general appreciation of the genre can at least realise, from the perspective of the study of the history of art, storytelling and human culture, a great deal of visual evidence has been lost.
It is generally considered that the silent era lasted from 1894-1929, before silent films were replaced by the development of ‘talkies’ in the last 1920s.

The oldest surviving film was created by Louis Le Prince in 1888, taken of people walking in "Oakwood Streets" garden, entitled Roundhay Garden Scene and lasting a full 2 seconds.
There were a number of early entrepreneurs of filmmaking, including the Frenchman Georges Méliès, who built one of the first film studios in May 1897. When people think about the earliest silent films, they often bring an image of a retro style moon against a black backdrop, which could very well be a reflection of one of Méliès’ most famous films, ‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902). This, together with ‘The Impossible Voyage’ (1904), are considered to be some of the earliest surreal films of the science fiction genre. This was a more creative development of use of film, which had in the previous decade been devoted to creating flat, stagey scenes, only a minute or so long, often featuring crowd pleasing slapstick.

In later years, as filmmaking developed, silent films were made of famous stories, such as A Christmas Carol and Pride and Prejudice. Newsreels developed as a key way of providing news to the bourgeoning cinema audience, as cinemas began to be built in America, Britain and France from around 1907. As the silent film era continued, more famous films, starring the likes of Mary Pickford and Tom Mix, began to be shown to large audiences.

As a part of western culture, especially the culture of America, Britain and France between the wars, the approach to cinema, both in terms of what was being made into a film and why, can be viewed by any student of history as vitally important. We need only look at the use of film for propaganda, on both sides of the Second World War, to know that the world was changed by the development of film, in so many ways. Which is why I, for one, feel saddened to know that we have lost such crucial material historical sources.

Guest Author: Martha Stoneham

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Inspiring Women from Modern History

The study of women's history is the belief that more traditional recordings of history have minimized or ignored the contributions of women and the effect that historical events had on women as a whole; in this respect, woman's history is often a form of historical revisionism, seeking to challenge or expand the traditional historical consensus. Here at History and the Sock Merchant we are all for a bit of challenging expansion! Here we have some women from modern history that have made their pioneering mark. Each of these women dared to be first - challenging convention and stepping outside of their expected roles to create new opportunities for themselves and others, here are some of modern history's greatest female role models.


Nadezhda Andreyevna Durova (1783 –1866), was a woman who, while disguised as a man, became a decorated soldier in the Russian cavalry during the Napoleonic wars. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military.

She fought in the major Russian engagements of the 1806-1807 Prussian campaign. During two of those battles, she saved the lives of two fellow Russian soldiers. The first was an enlisted man who fell off his horse on the battlefield and suffered a concussion. She gave him first aid under heavy fire and brought him to safety as the army retreated around them. The second was an officer, unhorsed but uninjured. Three French dragoons were closing on him. She couched her lance and scattered the enemy. Then, against regulations, she let the officer borrow her own horse to hasten his retreat, which left her more vulnerable to attack. Durova saw action again during Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. She fought in the Battle of Smolensk. During the Battle of Borodino a cannonball wounded her in the leg, yet she continued serving full duty for several days afterward until her command ordered her away to recuperate. She retired from the army in 1816 with the rank of stabs-rotmistr, the equivalent of captain.

A chance meeting introduced her to Aleksandr Pushkin some twenty years later. When he learned that she had kept a journal during her army service he encouraged her to publish it as a memoir; The Cavalry Maiden. It is a significant document of its era because few junior officers of the Napoleonic wars published their experiences, and because it is one of the earliest autobiographies in the Russian language. Durova continued to wear male clothing for the rest of her life. She died in Yelabuga and was buried with full military honors.


Mary Carpenter (1807 – 1877) was an English educational and social reformer. The daughter of a Unitarian minister, she founded a ragged school and reformatories, bringing previously unavailable educational opportunities to poor children and young offenders in Bristol.

She published articles and books on her work and her lobbying was instrumental in the passage of several educational acts in the mid-nineteenth century. She was the first woman to have a paper published by the Statistical Society of London. She addressed many conferences and meetings and became known as one of the foremost public speakers of her time. Carpenter was active in the anti-slavery movement; she also visited India, visiting schools and prisons and working to improve female education, establish reformatory schools and improve prison conditions. In later years she visited Europe and America, carrying on her campaigns of penal and educational reform.
Her reformatory school in Kingswood was active way up until 1984 and the Red Lodge Girls' Reformatory closed in 1918. Carpenter's campaigns for juvenile penal reform had a major influence on the development of a more enlightened regime for dealing with young offenders. Her writings, political activism and public addresses had a major influence on correctional education in Britain, Europe, India and America and helped bring about major reforms in the 19th and 20th century. However, many of the causes of youth crime apparently remain unaddressed in the early 21st century and failures in contemporary youth jails have been criticized by official bodies


Alice Guy-Blaché (1873 –1968) was an early French filmmaker. She was the first woman director in the motion-picture industry and is one of the first directors of fiction films.
Alice Guy-Blaché is the first female film maker and is responsible for creating one of the first narrative films in 1896.Guy’s career of 24 years of directing, writing and producing films is the longest career of any of the cinema pioneers. From 1896 to 1920, Guy directed over 1,000 films, some 350 of which survive, and 22 of which are feature-length films.

Guy was and still is the only woman to ever manage and own her own studio, The Solax Company.
Despite these accomplishments, she is rarely, if ever, mentioned among her peers in the history of cinema, and most professionals in the industry are completely unaware of her work. Few of her films survive in an easily viewable format (primarily those involving Charlie Chaplin), although preservation and recovery efforts are ongoing by the PIC Agency.


Constance Georgine Markievicz, (1868 –1927) was an Irish Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil politician, revolutionary nationalist, suffragette and socialist. In December 1918, she was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons, though she did not take her seat and, along with the other Sinn Féin TDs, formed the first Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament Lower House).

In 1908, Markievicz became actively involved in nationalist politics in Ireland. She joined Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann ('Daughters of Ireland'), a revolutionary women's movement. In the same year, Markievicz played a dramatic role in the women's suffrage campaigners' tactic of opposing Winston Churchill's election to Parliament during the Manchester North West by-election, flamboyantly appearing in the constituency driving an old-fashioned carriage drawn by four white horses to promote the suffragist cause. One male heckler asked her if she could cook a dinner, to which she responded, "Yes. Can you drive a coach and four?"

Markievicz was in Holloway prison, when her colleagues assembled in Dublin at the first meeting of the First Dáil, the Parliament of the revolutionary Irish Republic. When her name was called, she was described as being "imprisoned by the foreign enemy" (fé ghlas ag Gallaibh). She was re-elected to the Second Dáil in the elections of 1921.

Markievicz served as Minister for Labour from April 1919 to January 1922, in the Second Ministry and the Third Ministry of the Dáil. Holding cabinet rank from April to August 1919, she became both the first Irish female Cabinet Minister and at the same time, only the second female government minister in Europe. She was the only female cabinet minister in Irish history until 1979 when Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed to the then junior cabinet post of Minister for the Gaeltacht for Fianna Fáil.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Book Review: On Board RMS Titanic: Memories of the Maiden Voyage

By George Behe


George Behe, former vice president of the "Titanic Historical Society" has, in this meticulously researched book, amassed an invaluable collection letters, diaries and postcards which were sent by those who visited, toured or sailed on RMS Titanic in 1912. The majority were originally published shortly after the disaster, and have not been available since that time; some have not even been published at all, but saved by family members. Some date from before Titanic sailed, written by those lucky few who had a chance to tour the ship before she left on her maiden voyage; others who posted letters or postcards to friends and family, mostly of the journey between Cherbourg and Queenstown; however, the bulk of the material is from survivors of the disaster who wrote their accounts of what happened to them for family or for official enquiries.




RRP: £30.00
Publisher: The History Press Ltd
Publication Date: (1 Sep 2012)
ISBN: 978-0752483061

Some passengers record how they simply put their affairs in order before embarking; some could not wait to travel on the biggest ship in the world; while some had premonitions of disaster, others saw the trip as routine. I personally enjoyed the very few letters sent during the voyage - put ashore when the ship docked at Cherbourg and Queenstown before heading for New York - as they present an achingly small but wonderful firsthand account of life aboard the Titanic, before she became forever synonymous with tragedy and disaster. Passengers write of being impressed with their palatial rooms, the modern facilities and the sumptuous food. Everything is described as 'elegant' and most report enjoying themselves on board. Passengers write of everyday concerns; worrying about train connections when they arrive in New York, a man asking his wife to buy the football papers for him while he is away and another reassuring his wife that they have been testing the steel doors which sealed off the compartments, "so you see it would be impossible for the ship to be sunk..." Others comment that it's like being on land or in a hotel, while one man writes, "she has everything but taxicabs and theatres."

It becomes shocking to be at one moment be reading such cheerful  correspondence to relatives or friends about a thrilling sea voyage and then suddenly find your subjects, traumatised, on board the Carpathia. "Everything has gone, every single thing but my life," writes one passenger; another writes, "we stood on the deck and saw nothing else but death in front of us." Others write of initial excitement and rushing on deck to see the iceberg: "I have often read about icebergs but I never thought to see one." Many people comment on the lack of information, the terrible cries as the ship went down and the inability of the men to even unfasten the lashings when the lifeboats were dropped.

The letters are provided with very little introduction except the basic cursory information in order to establish context, and there are no analyses or final words by the author after each letter. In this way the author allows the reader to come to his or her own conclusions regarding what is right or what is wrong, what truly happened or what might be elaborations based on the immediacy of the emotive events.

With a plethora of Titanic literature stretching back a hundred years, many of you will be wondering what could possibly be new in this book. I will simply say that "On Board RMS Titanic" presents the letters, laid bare as they are (often containing the original errors as written by their authors). From  these, the researcher can take the collective body of work and compare and contrast in order to try and establish a common truth for themselves. With so many works these days distorting the events and actions taken aboard the Titanic to support an opinion, it is refreshing to find a book that brings together contemporary voices without too much decoration. This book is a must to read and worthy addition to any Titanic library.



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