Modern History for Younger Readers

Most works of popularized history and social sciences are superficial, but the level of juvenile books is even lower. For that reason I give my twelve-year-old credit for spotting the obvious partiality in a volume on the Cold War from our local library. Reagan was depicted as an “aggressive” leader but Gorbachev gets all the credit for ending the forty year standoff of East and West. Putting this in perspective, the author, it seems, has a pet cat named “Trotsky.”

But there are still good books for younger readers if you hunt for them. A first-rate study is Albert Marrin’s  Stalin: Russia’s Man of Steel which draws heavily on the work of scholars like Robert Conquest—the British historian who was one of the first to tell western readers about the full scope of Soviet mass murders. I recommend Marrin’s work for older readers as well, since it provides a readable but accurate portrayal of the USSR.

Recently my older children read Marrin’s biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. “Although no tyrant like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin,” Marrin observes, “he was the first modern dictator.” Important to understanding the career of the French Emperor are the events of the French Revolution. Like Charles Dickens, the author accepts the stereotypical views of pre-revolutionary society, but he is unflinchingly honest about the horrors perpetrated by the revolutionaries—atrocities so gruesome that even the thick-skinned Napoleon was disgusted. Speaking of the reign of the Jacobins, Marrin points out that “due process of law… didn’t exist under the Terror.”

No one was safe from the Terror. The man who cried ‘Vive le Roi’ (‘Long Live the King’), the woman who spoke well of the Austrians, the tavern owner who sold soldiers sour wine, the shopkeeper who raised prices, the mother who wept for a son killed in the war: all were sentenced to death as ‘enemies of the people.'”

While the author’s understanding of religious history is limited, he at least details the widespread repression of the Catholic Church under the radical Republicans.

Another book for young readers is Mao Tse-Tung and His China. It speaks favorably of Marrin that a reviewer for School Library Journal complains that Mao is depicted as a “fanatic ideologue” and the book gives “a relentlessly grim picture of 20th-century China, showing nothing of the Chinese people’s achievements, only their suffering and victimization.” It’s like complaining that a study of Hitler doesn’t talk enough about building the autobahn or putting Germans to work. Leftist academia, it seems, prefers glowing mythology about Communist achievements like the much hyped “Long March” of 1934. In this respect, Marrin’s solidly non-ideological, factual and lively approach to history is refreshing for children and their parents.

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