2020 has been defined by China and things of Chinese origin. The Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party Is Reshaping the World (One World), by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, is one of the more important books of the year. Beijing long ago penetrated the mind and pocket of US presidential candidates, European MPs and MEPs, ambassadors, industrialists and journalists. What’s less well-known is the extent of this influence. Hamilton and Ohlberg take us on a nightmare trip with evidence at each step (The Bidens are serial offenders, but then the Bush and Trump families don’t come off any better). Every individual, company, organisation in the West connected to China, no matter how tenuous the link, is a front for the Party, the United Front Work Department, or the PLA. Westerners often aren’t even aware of it. The Party has been applying the Maoist dictum of surrounding the city with the countryside in the West and was getting away with it till Trump (the one thing he got right) came along and Europe became sceptical about Beijing. Confined to North America, West Europe and Australia, the book is nevertheless a must-read for China watchers—and worried citizens everywhere.
In The Story of China: A Portrait of Its Civilisation and People (Simon & Schuster), historian Michael Wood attempts the impossible—4,000 years of history in a single volume—and succeeds. He’s given us a page-turning account of one of the greatest and oldest of civilisations. China passes before our eyes like a free-flowing yet ordered array of images, with the author’s own travelogues sharpening colour and context. Wood’s calling card is not merely his scholarship of China’s past or his insight into its present but also his intimations of its future.
Timothy Snyder, historian of the Holocaust and Soviet Bloc Europe, had a brush with death in end-December 2019. It took a few days for him to be correctly diagnosed and then operated upon. Recuperating from surgery in hospital as 2020 dawned, the author of the seminal Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010), meditated on health and everything wrong with the US healthcare system, on how American society, politics and governance had brought things to such a pass. And the pandemic was yet to unleash itself. The book that appeared in September, Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary (Crown), asks that healthcare be elevated to a human right. Less than 200 pages and a minor work, the book is still enlightening, forcefully argued and powerfully written.
The Butcher of Lemberg, SS Brigadeführer Otto Freiherr von Wächter, died in Rome, inexplicably, in 1949 and was among the biggest Nazi war criminals to evade justice. Wächter, sheltered by the Vatican after years hiding in the Austrian Alps, was planning to escape to Argentina on the ratline. Lawyer and author of East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity (2016), Philippe Sands has written a biography, history and thriller in The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive (W&N), collaborating with Wächter’s son Horst, named after…well, Horst Wessel.
Horst doesn’t accept his father’s criminality—a father indicted in 1945 as the overseer of some of the worst mass murders of Jews and Poles under the Final Solution—but he gives Sands a free hand and unhindered access to his archives. The personal and political story that emerges pushes beyond the Nazi darkness to the beginnings of the Cold War and the pursuit and recruitment of former high-ranking Nazis by, chiefly, Western intelligence agencies. In many ways, it confirms what was always known—that many Nazi fugitives could have been caught if Western governments had wanted them caught. The book is also a revelation, not least because Sands seems to grasp what really ‘killed’, or didn’t kill, Wächter. Incidentally, Sands lost family in Lemberg to Wächter’s genocide.
The Soviets wouldn’t have got an atom bomb, let alone in 1949, without Ursula Hamburger, aka Ruth Werner, aka Ursula Beurton (Mrs Burton), born Ursula Kuczynski. A Jewish-born German colonel in the Red Army and possibly recruited by legendary German-born Soviet spy Richard Sorge, Agent Sonya (or Sonja, as Kuczynski was codenamed) passed on the atomic secrets from Klaus Fuchs. She operated in China, Switzerland and Britain before returning to Germany (East Germany) in 1949. Agent Sonya hoodwinked MI5 for years, partly because her appearance (and reality) of a housewife in rural Oxfordshire, her retinue of children, and her integration in English village life did not make anybody suspicious enough. Back in the GDR, she wrote about herself, albeit redacted and altered. Ben Macintyre has brought her back to life (she died in 2000) in Agent Sonya: Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy (Viking). Macintyre, author of Operation Mincemeat (2010), A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014), The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War (2018), etcetera, is a master of the espionage true story. Kuczynski, like Sorge, was a dedicated German communist working for the Soviets who had a hand in changing world history. This book was overdue.
In its day, the Empire’s subjects may have felt otherwise, but in the aftermath of two rounds of 20th-century tyranny, many of those former subject nations have looked back wistfully at Vienna, at the holy Roman emperor. The Habsburgs may become one of the best popular histories written in our time
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Another tome on the Habsburgs? Martyn Rady hasn’t written one, but he’s produced, under 400 pages, a tour de force of Europe’s most important dynasty and shown why, and how, popular history matters, if skilfully written. Rady sustains the pace, covers a millennium of a family’s story and European history, underscoring every event of import and preserving each detail that can be niched but not missed. In focusing on central Europe, Rady also stays true to the origins and the core of Habsburg power. A chaotic stew of languages, ethnicities and creeds, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, nevertheless, remains the ‘good’ alter ego of what post-Bismarck Prussian-German power could have been—cosmopolitan, largely tolerant because of its complex demographics, patrons of learning, purveyors of continental peace, and lasting a millennium. In its day, the empire’s subjects may have felt otherwise, but in the aftermath of two rounds of 20th-century tyranny, many of those former subject nations have looked back wistfully at Vienna, at the long-lost Holy Roman Emperor. The Habsburgs: The Rise and Fall of a World Power (Allen Lane) may become one of the most important popular histories written in our time.
New York Times’ Chief Africa Correspondent Declan Walsh was thrown out of Pakistan in 2013 on the eve of the general election for ‘undesirable activities’ after living in Islamabad for a decade. In 2017, he had a near-similar experience in Egypt. The book that took him seven years to write, The Nine Lives of Pakistan: Dispatches from a Precarious State (Bloomsbury), is as much his story in Pakistan as of the ‘nine lives’ he set out with, most of whom met violent ends. Walsh leads us to the most dangerous corners in one of the most dangerous countries on the planet but never misses its vibrancy and love for life even as it seems to perpetually flirt with death. What’s more, he keeps his wits about him and knows how to wed the sacred and the profane.