by Peter Kolchin
Hill and Wang
The study of slavery is the glory of American historiography. No other aspect of our history has inspired scholarship of such sophistication and subtlety. (In fact, the single greatest work of U.S. history since the Second World War, Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll, examines the world of the slaves.) And fittingly, no overview of any historical subject is more masterly, fair-minded, and elegant than Kolchin's book. In less than 300 pages he elucidates, from the point of view of both the slaves and the slaveholders, the history of a protean institution that evolved radically, along with white and black attitudes, over two and a half centuries as it spread westward and responded to different agricultural and industrial needs. Recently the authors of a number of books on the subject, understandably appalled by its brutality, have produced little more than defiant indictments of human bondage, a topic about which there would seem already to be some moral agreement. In contrast, Kolchin's approach is cool; he seeks to dissect and explain slavery rather than to expose and condemn it. This is especially important because he emphasizes a particularly fraught aspect of his subject: the intimate and intertwined relations between masters and slaves. He points out that the relatively high ratio of whites to blacks, along with the small size of plantations in the American South, constituted the most conspicuous difference between that slave society and those in other areas of the New World. These conditions usually assured intense day-to-day contact between slaves and slaveholders, in which master and slave often worked alongside each other in the fields, ate together, and worshipped in the same churches. Such relationships, of course, were hardly benign, and one can easily argue that American slavery—a system built on unlimited violence, in which affection and dependency flowed inevitably into hatred, brutality, and self-contempt—was all the more terrible for its paradoxes and moral entanglements. That institution, Kolchin reveals, fiercely bound two peoples together in bitter opposition, forging a relationship based on such ambivalence and interdependence that neither could convey the simplest emotions without referring to the other. Kolchin's isn't the only superb overview of slavery; John Boles's Black Southerners, 1619-1869 examines this complex subject largely from the slaves' perspective. Although Boles's treatment of slave Christianity (and particularly of the interweaving of white and black Christianity) is even more astute than Kolchin's, American Slavery is a richer survey, and is especially sophisticated in its comparative approach (Kolchin's second book, Unfree Labor, explained the resemblances and differences between American slavery and Russian serfdom) and in its examination of the economics of slavery and its analysis of slave resistance. Originally published in 1993, the book has just been reissued in a second, revised edition with a new afterword and a thoroughly updated bibliographical essay of nearly fifty pages (the most astute and authoritative assessment of slavery scholarship that exists). Fluently written and a masterpiece of compression, this is one of the very few books that every American should own (it costs $14.00)—and read.
by Robert Gildea
The German occupation during the Second World War remains the great blemish on the French nation and an episode that still engenders shame, bitterness, recrimination, and evasion. In this stunning work Gildea, a professor of modern European history at Oxford, attempts to move "beyond praise and blame" to explore the ever shifting lines between accommodation and defiance, cynicism and loyalty, and prudence and altruism that the French negotiated through their ordeal. He succeeds brilliantly. Unlike Julian Jackson's recent history, France: The Dark Years, this isn't a bureaucratic or political account; rather, Gildea examines the occupation on the ground, limiting his study to three departments in the Loire Valley, where he has meticulously and skeptically analyzed local archives (more than half the files he assessed had previously been closed) and the often contradictory testimony of surviving eyewitnesses. The complex picture that emerges will dismay those who like their history neat. The French devised informal but often clear rules for collaboration (drinking with a German officer at a bar was acceptable, but having him to dinner at one's home was not), even as the distinction between cunning and treason remained blurry, and was often only a matter of timing, of "changing direction as the occasion demanded." Provincial mayors saw collaboration to protect their communities as a patriotic duty, and by and large their charges were and remain grateful for their efforts. "Resistance" could be a cloak for thuggishness, and those members of the Resistance whose violent actions provoked reprisals against the local populace were and are often regarded by the community as irresponsible, if not criminal; and relations between occupier and occupied "were not always as brutal or even as one-sided as they have often been portrayed." In his nuanced and intricate work of historical reconstruction Gildea has grappled heroically with the ambiguity at the heart of history and in the heart of man.