When the news gets too hard to digest, I console myself by reading books of history, and these days I have been reading a lot of it. Part of it is a primitive “if you think things are bad now, consider the chaos of 1916” sort of consolation. Then there’s that timeless principle that those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it, an often ignored truth first advanced by the philosopher George Santayana.
Here are some recently published history books that have filled up some golden afternoons.
“Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash” by Richard Lourie (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 264 pp., $26.99) is a concise, clear-eyed, scary look at the Russian dictator whose greatest pleasure seems to be humiliating America and other democracies.
Lourie, who has spent decades writing about Russia, ably covers Putin’s life story — his rise from street-smart St. Petersburg kid to KGB official to faceless St. Petersburg apparatchik to . . . suddenly, prime minister, then president, of Russia. But the best bits are Lourie’s explanation of why Russia views the United States and its NATO allies as an existential threat. The NATO countries, with America as the big brother backup, almost completely ring Russia — one big reason Russia sees Ukraine’s possible inclusion in NATO as an intolerable proposition.
Lourie believes that Putin has already failed Russia during his tenure — squandering opportunities to transform Russia’s economy into a more technology-based one and falling back on the sales of oil, gas and timber to keep bread in people’s mouths and order on the street. This enlightening book, a relatively short read, will shape your understanding of the news for months to come.
Moving back in time, “Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War” by Fred Kaplan (Harper, 395 pp., $28.99) reshaped my view of our most revered president.
Most Americans remember Lincoln as a warrior against slavery, but Kaplan tells a more complicated story. Lincoln’s decision to emancipate the slaves came after a long, arduous struggle with the South’s slaveholding elite and his own evolving beliefs.
Kaplan compares Lincoln’s trajectory with that of John Quincy Adams, a truth-teller to Lincoln’s conciliator. As the slavery debate bubbled and steamed in Congress, Adams, a Massachusetts congressman who had already served as secretary of state and president, had nothing to lose. He spoke out against slavery time after time and was censured for it. (In Adams’ era it was forbidden to even speak of slavery on the floor.)
By the early 1800s Adams already believed that slavery would end only with an American civil war, but Lincoln believed abolition would destroy the union and “set off a hundred years of volatile racism,” Kaplan writes. Only when he concluded that freeing the slaves would wreck the Southern economy and free up thousands of black men to fight for the Union cause did Lincoln set emancipation in motion. Kaplan, author of biographies of both Lincoln and Adams, tells this story with precision and eloquence.
Finally, “History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town” by Filip Springer, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye (Restless Books, 318 pp., $17.99), is history told in miniature, the story of a small town in lower Silesia that literally disappeared.
A mountain town called Kupferberg when the Germans controlled it and Miedzianka when the Poles moved in after World War II, was from its medieval beginnings a mining town. For a brief, halcyon period in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kupferberg became a place where tourists could drink in the superior beer and the mountain-ringed view. All the while, the mining went on, and on. The very earth underneath the village became riddled with tunnels.
In the 1930s, the Nazis arrived. The village leaders were replaced by party enthusiasts; the Jewish families disappeared. World War II came, and when the vengeful Russians invaded, the terrified Germans fled before them.
Now the village belonged to communist Poland, was renamed Miedzianka and repopulated by Poles. They worked the mines extracting uranium, and the Soviet-run management brutally suppressed any talk about the dire health impact.
Today the town lies in ruins, with maybe 100 people living on the unstable ground. But here’s an odd thing — after this book came out in Poland in 2011, a theater company produced a play based on its story, and investors have banded together to open a small brewery there. Another lesson in history, another turn of the wheel.