History taken on trust

Colditz castle, the wartime PoW camp, is enduringly linked to stories of plucky British prisoners attempting to escape. These tales, Ben Macintyre claims in the preface to his new book, comprise the Colditz “myth”, which “has stood unchallenged for more than seventy years”. Colditz: Prisoners of the castle, we are told, is “the real Colditz … Read more

Elizabeth II in history

Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning sovereign, was a leader of exceptional skill. As a young queen she was cautious and conservative. Her deft handling of the crises that assailed the monarchy in the 1990s strengthened the Crown and her leadership ensured that it remained at the center of national life. As the daughter of the Duke … Read more

Celts in history

Ever since JRR Tolkien called the Celts a “magic bag into which anything could be tossed and anything retrieved”, Celtic studies have struggled to escape what he called their “fabulous twilight”. For outsiders this can be a voyage of fascinating discovery, for insiders often a painful argument, fueled by the revolution of DNA archaeology. This … Read more

Cycles of History: On Jody Rosen’s “Two Wheels Good”

JUNE 26, 2022 I RECENTLY GOT rid of my vintage Raleigh cruiser, a dusky brown survivor with numerous patches of rust that, to my mind, made the 1960s bicycle look more distinguished. The finicky gears weren’t the problem. Nor was it the handbrake cable that frequently jutted straight up like an antenna. What wore me … Read more

Underdog history

“A few thousands of hearty determined fellows well armed” could do the job, reckoned the group’s founder, Thomas Spence, in 1795, as he weighed the chances of capturing London in a coup. Captain Despard, before he actually attempted one in 1802, had put it at 1,500 – with another 50,000 to hold the capital. Arthur … Read more

Why Learning History Was So Much Easier in China, a guest post by Xiran Jay Zhao

Ever since I started sharing stories from Chinese history online, many people have asked me “How do you know so much of this, Xiran? Are you a historian?” I am not—my degree was in biochemistry. And the truth is that I don’t consider myself an expert of Chinese history, just a mildly knowledgeable enthusiast. My … Read more

A history of death

In her review of my book This Mortal Coil: A history of death (April 15), Emily Wilson writes that I make the “repellent assumption” that “disability is necessarily a fate worse than death”. Her only justification for this assertion is that I included a discussion of Down Syndrome, since this “is not a fatal condition”. … Read more

Getting history wrong

This uncompromising novel denies its readers many of the pleasures of fiction. More concerned with the ambiguity of ideas than with clarity of plot or character, it is a heartfelt celebration of the life of the mind – though its defiance is qualified by the wryness we would expect from Julian Barnes. Neil, the narrator, … Read more

A Genius on the Wrong Side of History: Tolstoy’s Conflicts and Contradictions

IT IS DAUNTING to write a biography of Tolstoy. Hundreds or even thousands of books have already put each detail of his life and work under a microscope, and the archives contain no more hidden treasures. Yet, new interpretations of Tolstoy’s life continue to pour in, with more expected in the run-up to the writer’s … Read more