History dominates this selection, from the first attempts at international government to Brazil’s recent pastby Oliver Kamm / September 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
With October lists, publishers have an eye on the Christmas market while not yet succumbing to the dreary ephemera of books designed to be given as presents. This month’s selection contains pleasures that ought to be savoured without interruption.
In Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56 (Allen Lane, £25) Anne Applebaum describes how the entire region from the Baltic to the Adriatic was subjugated by Stalin within a few years. With a stubborn suspicion of “totalitarianism” as an ideologically tainted term, historians have tended to overlook the extraordinary thoroughness of this phenomenon. Applebaum sets herself to explain it, beginning with Europeans’ sense of “radical loneliness” amid the carnage of the second world war. Her account illuminates the squalid statecraft of the nominally local autocracies of central and eastern Europe. And she describes poignantly the plight of the peoples of these nations, and the psychological compromises needed to live in a system where the communist monopoly on power invaded every aspect of life.
This is a magnificent book. Among its merits is a deft refutation of the old revisionist claim that the harsher policies adopted by Stalin in 1947 and 1948 were primarily a defensive reaction to the Cold War. They were, rather, born of a realisation that communism did not command popular support and could be established only by repression.
The end of the Cold War spurred expectations of a new era of international cooperation. In Governing the World: The History of an Idea (Allen Lane, £25), Mark Mazower explains that such ideas are far from new. They have a counterpart in the Concert of Europe envisaged 200 years ago in reaction to the destructiveness of the Napoleonic wars. The book traces the chequered history of this notion of international government. It is a cogent and learned argument about the seductive thesis that an anarchic international order can be tamed by applying rules and reason.
Mazower is particularly acute in identifying the paradox of historic institutions that spoke in the language of fraternity despite being the outcome of military victory. His conclusion is an astringent corrective for us liberal-democratic internationalists who believe that the world would benefit from more integration. Voters invariably and everywhere regard the nation-state as their focus of allegiance rather than any supranational body. Owing to public alienation at the dilution of sovereignty, argues Mazower, “the idea of governing the world has become yesterday’s dream.”