Jerusalem, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Summary: an elegant and compelling account of the long bloody history of perhaps the most contentious and contended city in the world

Jerusalem is where Solomon built the Jewish Temple, where Jesus was crucified for teaching that people should love one another, and where Mohammed ended his mystical Night Journey. Hence it is a place that is sacred to three of the world’s great religions. And it is a place where all three of these religions have consistently and horrifically disgraced themselves for the much of the city’s history.

The Crusaders, for example, deciding to misinterpret Jesus’ teachings as meaning that you only have to love other Christians, claimed to have waded through blood up to the bridles of their horses from the massacre they instituted when they first took the city.

To be fair, they were following a long sanguinary tradition. When the future Roman emperor Titus took the city from Jewish rebels in 70 AD he butchered not just the rebels but the civilian population that the rebels had oppressed, and tortured other survivors to death for the entertainment of his troops and the citizens of Rome.

After the Romans and the Franks the Ottoman Empire also conquered the city before losing it to the British in the First World War. The French, Russians and Americans also intrigued over the place, before it was ceded to Jordan and then captured by the Israelis in 1967. Of course that has not settled anything: any peace settlement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must include some way to share the city between these two peoples with equally legitimate claims on it.

Many of the stories recounted in this book – of David and Solomon, of the Maccabees, of Jesus, of Titus and Josephus, of the Crusades and the great Kurdish leader Saladin, of Lawrence of Arabia, of Rabin and Dayan – will be familiar to the general reader. But by placing them in chronological order and in their international context Sebag Montefiore shows how the city has been at the centre of so many world changing political convulsions over the centuries, right up to the present day.

In Luke’s gospel there is the story of how the Devil led Jesus to a high place and “in an instant showed him all the kingdoms of the world.” In this history of Jerusalem Simon Sebag Montefiore manages a trick similar to the Devil’s: illuminating the history of the world from the perspective of the Temple Mount.

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The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman

Summary: exquisitely written and utterly gripping account of the first weeks of the First World War

My friend Caitlin, a state-level chess champion in her US high school days, once gave me the best tip ever for playing the game: “Remember,” she said, “it’s not just about what you are planning to do, but what your opponent is planning to do as well.”

As with so many things about chess, Caitlin’s tip is important more generally in life. And Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August shows how it is, perhaps, most vital of all in war.

In the decades before the outbreak of the First World War many brilliant generals across Europe developed many different plans that would grant them decisive victory. Unfortunately these plans tended to rely on opponents behaving in a way that would conform most helpfully with planners’ ambitions.

For example, the German High Command did not anticipate that King Albert of Belgium would actively resist Germany’s brutal invasion of his country. Nor did they expect Tsar Nicholas to uphold his treaty obligations to his Western Allies by mobilising Russian forces. And, as the fighting of the first weeks of the war unfolded, they did not expect the garrison of Paris to sally from the city to attack their flanks and initiate battle on the Marne.

As these things happened, quite contrary to the expectations of the shinny Schlieffen plan that had for so long promised swift victory to Germany over France, the Western offensive of the Germans crumpled into the muddy, bloody stalemate of the trenches.

Much of the focus of The Guns of August is on the machinations of the various high commands as their hopes collide with the realities of European politics on the battlefield. But Tuchman also gives human faces to the warlords who led their countries.

The book has its heroes, notably King Albert who, of all his royal contemporaries, was the only one, Tuchman notes, who achieved personal greatness. Of the other generals it is perhaps Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who comes out of Tuchman’s account worst, as a remarkably hesitant and ineffectual commander.

When they finally met in London in 1922 Michael Collins found French, who he had once tried to kill, a charming and engaging man. It is a sobering thought that it may well be humans’ finest qualities that render them of least utility in war. In other words, as Chaucer realised, the myth of the “perfect, gentle knight” is just that: a myth.

The Guns of August quickly established itself as a modern classic shortly after its publication in 1962. It is a deserved reputation. The book is an elegantly written, gripping, and enormously erudite account of the first weeks of the First World War, ending abruptly, in an echo of Thucydides, on the eve of the critical Battle of the Marne.

Perhaps it is also a book that helped to save the world. Jack Kennedy read it shortly after its publication and, himself a veteran of confused battles and command bungling, was impressed by a key theme of the book – the miscalculations and errors that led to war and battlefield disaster. So, a few months later, during the desperate days of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, Kennedy made very sure to constantly wonder about what his opponents – in Washington, Moscow and Havana – were planning to do.