|October 10, 2017
Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.
Meredith Friedman: Two weeks ago, I was privileged to hear Norman Davies speak in Sopot about his books on Poland. A Welsh historian, Davies speaks fluent Polish and has spent a lot of time in the country. His books on Polish history are major undertakings, and they’re best-sellers. “Trail of Hope” tells the story of the Poles who were deported east to the Soviet Union during the invasion of Poland by the Soviets and the Germans in 1939. Some of the deported were the wives, children and parents of Polish officers. They were sent to Siberia or Kazakhstan, while the officers themselves were shot by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, at Katyn Forest. Many just disappeared and were never found.
Wladyslaw Anders was one of those captured by the Soviets and imprisoned while Germany and the Soviet Union were allies. When Germany double-crossed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, everything changed for the Polish soldiers, who were then needed by Stalin to help the Allies fight the Germans. They were released from prisons, formed into the Polish Second Corps and placed under the command of Gen. Anders. Those joining the Second Corps were sent to Iran, where they could train and be shaped into a fighting force before being deployed to fight on the Italian front.
After the horrendous treatment of the Poles by the Soviets, one wonders how any could fight for them, but one thing history has shown is that war makes strange bedfellows. Though many languished and often died in prison, with their families being treated as the lowest of Soviet society, often unable to work and without sufficient food or clothing to survive the extreme winters in Siberia and Kazakhstan, most Poles who were capable volunteered to join Anders’ Army. But Anders never trusted Stalin, and once Hitler was defeated, he encouraged Poles to fight against him.
I highly recommend Davies’ book, which, apart from telling the story of so many families in Poland who suffered horrendous atrocities by the Germans and the Soviets, also reminds us of Poland’s vulnerable geopolitical position on the North European Plain between Germany and Russia. Geography doesn’t change even if a nation’s politics and rulers do.
Jacob L. Shapiro: I resume my short, serialized reviews of Halberstam’s book on the Korean War. When last we left, the North Koreans had caught the U.S. by surprise and blitzed into South Korea with great success – too great, it would turn out. Meanwhile, Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur were butting heads, and the first expressions of McCarthyism were bubbling to the surface, which meant the Truman administration had to go out of its way to appear tough on communism and, by extension, on China. This section of the book tells the story of how close North Korea came to defeating the U.S. in South Korea. Eventually, however, the U.S. was able to hold the line at the Pusan Perimeter and push back the North Korean invaders. According to Halberstam, the two main reasons for this were the skilled leadership of Lt. Gen. Walton Walker and a number of smaller, heroic stands by individual American units in the face of superior numbers.
The protagonist of this part of the war, however, can be none other than Douglas MacArthur, who appears as brilliant at Inchon as he would turn out to be foolish in pushing his troops to the Yalu River and expecting them home by Christmas. Only MacArthur could have conceived the operation and managed the politics necessary for the overwhelming U.S. victory at Inchon. But after his great success, he became a victim of his own prowess. Most damning in the narrative Halberstam crafts is MacArthur’s inability to understand, or his decision to isolate himself from, the intelligence that was coming in about China entering the war. Because of that, MacArthur led his men directly into a Chinese trap, and a war that might have been over by Christmas 1950 continued for another three years and in some ways to this very day.
Kamran Bokhari: Though it may seem like a localized phenomenon in northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s jihadist insurrection has much wider implications. It has the potential to mix with many other issues facing the country and to destabilize an already fragile political economic order. State writ in Nigeria, one of the largest countries in Africa, is already very weak and could erode further. Boko Haram is already a regional phenomenon in the Lake Chad region, which includes Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Boko Haram is a relatively new movement, and as a result, there are very few authoritative accounts on its development. First published roughly two years ago, Virginia Comolli’s book fills this void. Its key contribution is that it examines the movement’s social, political and economic root causes and unpacks its ideological foundations.
Matthew Massee: Born into royalty at the onset of a chaotic era, Pu Yi was China’s last emperor. At birth, he was set to be the leader of the Qing dynasty, which fell apart in 1912. His middle years were spent under house arrest during the chaotic Republic of China era, and he later became head of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. After World War II, the Soviet Union’s armed forces captured him and eventually handed him off to the victorious Communist Party. He spent years being “reformed” in communist re-education camps, after which Pu Yi was released to live out his days as a modest gardener in Beijing. Outside influences determined each stage of his life: the rise of republicanism, Japanese imperialism, international communism and finally Chinese communism. Edward Behr masterfully lays out the historical setting of each period, including its domestic and foreign wars as well as a collapsing international system that fostered global war. China through the 20th century witnessed dramatic change, and understanding these events through a single person’s eyes helps one understand the modern narrative that drives not only the Communist Party of China, but also China’s 1.3 billion inhabitants.