I grew up on Golden Age Radio, and while I love to read, I typically consume more books via audio thanks to a job that lets me listen while I work. As an aspiring writer, I try to read a great deal of non-fiction in addition to a variety of fictional genres. I especially love history, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and old-style gothic horror.
Anyone who thoroughly enjoys Medieval and Renaissance history as I do can tell you that the history of Christianity is so bound up with it as to be inseparable. The thing is, a great many history books will give you only what's necessary specific to the topic at hand and very little else. Even books on the Crusades, which presumably center around religion, will leave the underlying faith as an accepted and understood issue, touching upon the heretical issues as they come up.
This book is specifically geared towards pretty much anyone who wants the details as well as the broad strokes. It covers the history of Christianity from the onset of Judaism as an offshoot of earlier traditions, Christianity's beginnings as an offshoot of that, and covers its evolution not just in Western Europe, but also in Greece, Russia, Africa, Korea, and all parts of the globe where the cross is held high. It goes even further as Islam splinters from that, and the history of the Middle Eastern faiths are examined as an intertwined whole. As it goes, the reader is given another portrait to absorb as the beliefs evolve in the various corners of the globe, across time and through politics or scholarly pursuits.
In short, this is the most complete picture of Christianity that I've certainly ever encountered, and it's helped my understanding of history considerably. Special kudos not only to what it covers and why, but also how, as the outline for this book is nothing short of daunting. To cover this topic so completely is nothing short of a feat.
As one might expect, a history of this depth and magnitude will likely call into question the faith of a devout individual reading this book as not everything is as tradition holds to be true in our day and age, and as that tradition may vary depending on which sect you follow. I would challenge that the scholarly will find a great deal of wealth here, and the religiously-minded will be confronted with questions fundamental to their faith. How those questions are answered will ultimately be determined by individual willingness to see past the rigid and into the changing waters of history. Some are more readily accepting of this than others, obviously, everyone has to approach the question their own way. Being a hefty monster of a tome, however, this one is most definitely aimed at the serious scholar, regardless of the historical or spiritual approach.
I find that in my studies of history, comprehensive and sweeping overviews are invaluable, both to help keep people and events in perspective, and to give me an idea of where I might want to dig deeper later on. I've gone through a number of such overviews over the years, though not one as ambitious as this one. From the mists of legend through to the fall of Rome as the title suggests, Bauer weaves together all of the broad strokes of human history in this time period. For the earlier accounts, history is extrapolated from mythology and archaeology, translating symbolism into human events. Another high point of praise is that most overviews like this will pick a single nation or perhaps a hemisphere. This covers East and West, putting the rise and fall of various dynasties on a timeline that allows the reader to compare and contrast in an way that I've not seen with such effectiveness. Bauer has similar titles for Medieval and Renaissance history, and I'm looking forward to connecting those stories as one larger tapestry.
As much as this is a book of political monarchs in highly turbulent times, this is also the personal story of siblings and how they related to one another. Once again, Alison Weir has knocked another one out of the park, bringing even the most nuanced aspects of this realm and time period to life in such a way that even a foreigner of the modern world can understand it in a deeply meaningful way. As a narrative history, this excels.
Weir does state that this book is a follow-up to her book The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which I've also given top marks. Indeed, I would agree that in conjunction with that work, Tudor history becomes a very human story, something far beyond a soap opera. Having read her biography of Henry VIII in paperback, I can say that anyone serious in Tudor studies via Weir should start there, proceed to Six Wives, then this. This focuses on the time period between Henry's death and Elizabeth's ascension, spotlighting Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth. Next in line is her Life of Elizabeth, which will no doubt build on all of these other foundations, and which I'll be adding to my reading list soon. It's all dense storytelling, but it's also expert level history made as friendly as if reading a novel, building the layers as an artist does a painting. It's that good.
Simon Prebble is as authoritative and as engaging as ever in his role as narrator. He's just got one of those instantly respectable and friendly voices that's perfect for documentary narratives and lends itself so well to works such as this.
I listened to this book because I have kind of an interest in cryptography and its historical impact. The Zimmerman Telegram is ostensibly about the famous telegram that was the final straw that brought America into the first World War, and how the British decoded it and then made use of it. But that turns out to be only a relatively minor part of the story. Really, most of the book is about the geopolitics of the early 20th century and the personalities of leading American, British, and German officials, diplomats, and military leaders, and how these shaped history as we know it.
The "plot" in a nutshell (and Barbara Tuchman does make this book interesting enough that it reads more like a novel plot moving from one twist to another, rather than the inevitable course of history): in 1917, Britain and the other Allied powers are getting the stuffing beaten out of them by Germany. The European front is hemorrhaging lives. What Britain wants and needs, and what Germany fears, is America entering the war. The only thing keeping Britain alive is her navy, and the German navy thinks they can starve Britain and the rest of the Allies if they commence "unrestricted" submarine warfare: meaning, even neutral ships are fair targets in the war zone. Since this largely means American ships bringing supplies to Britain, letting the U-boats loose means very likely provoking America into declaring war.
Then falls into the hands of British codebreakers, who unbeknownst to the Germans have broken their diplomatic code, a telegram from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman to the German ambassador in Mexico. Zimmerman tells the ambassador to offer an alliance between Germany and Mexico should the U.S. enter the war (which they expect will happen since the decision has already been made to begin unrestricted submarine warfare). As part of the deal, Germany offers Mexico a great big slice of the American Southwest (basically everything the U.S. had taken from Mexico in various wars and then some), and also urges them to make an alliance with Japan to get Japan to attack the U.S. West Coast.
This is obviously political dynamite, and the British figure it's just what they need to push the U.S. into declaring war on Germany. The only problems are (1) how to reveal this in a way that will simultaneously not be dismissed by the Americans as a hoax while not revealing to the Germans that their code has been broken; (2) U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who has been stubbornly persisting in trying to broker peace and keep the U.S. neutral, even as it becomes increasingly obvious that neither will be possible.
As I mentioned, the codebreaking stuff turns out to be a very small piece of the story. I found the characterization of President Wilson much more interesting: at times he seems naive, foolish, stubborn, and understandably his opponents even labeled him cowardly. He was adamantly opposed to entering the war, and was pushing his "peace without victory" plan even after the Germans had all but spit on it. But Tuchman's portrayal does suggest a man who was far from cowardly, and not a fool either. He genuinely wanted peace, and genuinely grieved when his orders resulted in the deaths of American servicemembers. (One might wish some of our more recent Presidents had such a personal investment in the consequences of their orders...) But he was also stubborn and prone to not listening to news and opinions he didn't like.
The other interesting part of the story is just how differently the U.S. was situated then as opposed to now. We Americans tend to think that the U.S. has been a "world power" pretty much since its founding, but really, in 1917, the U.S. was big and had a lot of industrial capacity and manpower, but had yet to really be tested on the world stage. Today we laugh at the idea that Mexico might seriously think they could invade the U.S. and carve off Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, but it was no joke then, especially if Japan, a growing empire itself, landed troops on the West Coast, which was also a real possibility, or at least the U.S. believed it was.
World War I was when America had to actually prove itself and get bloodied. The other powers wanted America's strength on their side and feared America's strength turned against them, but probably no one had any idea of the global superpower the U.S. would become.
An interesting history full of diplomatic maneuverings and historical context that reminds us that everything leading up to World War I, like most wars, was built on things that had been happening for decades before it. A hundred years later, we mostly only remember the outcome.