- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2008


By Byron Hollinshead and Theodore K. Rabb

Doubleday, $27.95, 319 pages, illus.


It would be all too easy to dismiss as a gimmick a book with a stated purpose like this: “Twenty superb historians invoke dramatic turning points in the history of Europe and the West.” But, as with the case in 2006’s Book 1 of this series dealing with events in American history, this would be a serious mistake. For to do so would be to deny yourself a series of brilliant insights into events famous and less-known, all of them of profound significance, even those which are not actually pivotal.

And yes, those 20 historians, a mix of distinguished academics and independent scholars, are superb writers and thinkers at the top of their form as they joyfully hone in on particular episodes in history.

Perhaps it is because each historiographer has chosen a particular incident close to heart and mind that these essays dazzle with their perspicacity. What seems indisputable is that, freed to some extent from the self-imposed burden of professional objectivity, these men and women reveal what they really think here more than in their longer, more developed works.

So just as they get to imagine peeping into places and events they would have loved to observe, we readers get to see their masks slipping away as they share their favorite topics with us.

In the best traditions of recent historical scholarship, which has emphasized the artistic, scientific and broadly sociological along with the drier staples of politics and economics, this book reaches out boldly to some surprising areas alongside more expected incidents, like Hannibal crossing the Alps in 218 B.C., the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800, the granting of Magna Carta in 1215 and Wat Tyler’s 1381 rebellion.

Yet even these most celebrated of events receive a vibrantly interpretative telling that banishes any possibility of staleness rendering them less than enthralling. In the case of the Spanish Armada, so famously defeated by Francis Drake in 1588, the book considers the greater disaster that might have befallen Spain had its commander then “heeded the advice of those who advocated surrendering the whole fleet.”

“It is hard to see how Spain could have defended itself against the counterarmada that was launched the following year,” writes Geoffrey Parker, “let alone maintained her dominant position in European affairs for another half century.”

But if many know the story of Drake and the Spanish Armada, if not of this near sequel, how many know of the role which King Frederick the Great of Prussia played in the cultivation of the potato in northern Europe, let alone of the strategic, as well as agricultural and gustatory, consequences of his decision?

Thanks to J.H. Elliott, we catch a glimpse of a little known incident in the life of the future King Charles I of England, usually glimpsed being beheaded after Oliver Cromwell vanquished him in the Roundhead revolution. Here we are privy to a secret mission by the young Charles, then still Prince of Wales, to Madrid in pursuit of a Spanish Infanta as his bride.

And what a fascinating brew we have of personal diplomacy and more conventional power politics: Rival dynasties and nations, Protestantism and Catholicism, and individuals with real feelings all mix it up here.

In “Handel is Fired,” the great composer negotiates the perilous shoals of Court rivalries and royals at loggerheads with their relatives in two nations. Later, we witness Manet’s “Dejeuner sur L’Herbe” clash with the Academy and Picasso’s interaction with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Science gets its due with the evolution of Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking “Principia” and in a fascinating meditation by the polymath Freeman Dyson which begins with Aristotle and proceeds by way of Galileo to an early-20th century Swiss X-ray crystallographer Fritz Zwicky, who observed the universe through a new very powerful telescope.

“When all is said and done,” Mr. Dyson concludes his sweeping essay, “the conversation I would most like to overhear as a fly on the wall is not any of the real conversations that I have described, but an imaginary one. I would like to bring Aristotle and Zwicky back to life and listen to them talking about the universe. Aristotle was ignorant but not stupid. Zwicky was brilliant but not deep. Each of them would have had much to learn from the other.”

The beauty of this book is that the reader not only gets to be a fly on the wall at some fascinating events, but sometimes gets to perch on the head of a brilliant and original interpreter: history at its most engaging.

m Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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