As everyone who has spent more than ten minutes in a classroom knows, history is a boring subject packed with dates and names which have to be learned by heart so that, at the end of the year, everything can be regurgitated on an exam paper. The textbooks given out are bland, filled with maps and the occasional portrait, and seem to whisk the reader through hundreds of years as if it were a forty-five minute lecture. It is hard enough finding interest for current events, when so much information is available, the older periods of history, when history was really in the making, are often just too much.
For anyone with this attitude, yes, you’re probably right, history teaching misses out a great deal, cuts corners, doesn’t go into any real depth in the early stages of school life and, as such it is a boring subject. If someone like Christopher Clark was writing the school textbooks, though, it might be a completely different matter. He brings the reader, even over a great period of recounted time, into a land, into a period with such skill that the long-dead seem to spring to life once more, populating the page with figures we can almost see, can feel, can relate to.
Photo Credit: michael.berlin – Creative Commons
With Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 it is no different. Clark brings the dry facts of a period long ago in a foreign land to life with his writing style, his capturing of the times and customs. All the names and dates are there, but far more too: there are insights into character, into motivation, into the political and social pressures facing not only those in the higher echelons, but also those on the ground. We are allowed an insight, a form of understanding of how a situation came about, the problems involved, the greed as much as fear involved. Clark writes with a style which could be akin to fiction, were it not for the fact that we know all these events took place, and can place ourselves within the context of the times. His books are not a dry recounting of dates and names, but living recollections of a period which shaped, in this case, European thinking, politics and the geography of a continent, as well as influencing the tactics and prejudices of modern generations.
Anyone lost within the desert of a textbook on Prussia, on the relationship between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, the slowly forming might of Germany, Russia and Great Britain can lay their textbooks momentarily to one side and delve into a real, livid account of this historical period which, when those end of term exams rear their heads, enlivens the understanding as much as the retelling.
Published by Allen Lane / Penguin. ISBN: 978 0 014 029334 0.
- Viktoria Michaelis.