Essential century;Secondary;Reviews;History;Books

10th April 1998 at 01:00

THE SECOND WORLD WAR. Neil DeMarco. GERMANY 1918-45 Richard Radway. RUSSIA AND THE USSR 1905-56. John Laver.

THE USA 1919-41. Peter Mantin. SOUTH AFRICA. J F Aylett. Hodder amp; Stoughton. pound;5.99 each.

John Aylett wrote some of the most successful and well-loved history textbooks of recent years. He was not one to take centre stage at conferences or run INSET courses, but his love of the subject and his attention to classroom practicalities made his books trusty friends. The In Search of History series which made his name is still selling well, even after the introduction of GCSEs and the national curriculum.

He set great store by making history accessible and enjoyable, and there is as much colour in his text as there is in his illustrations.

Hodder 20th Century History was his idea, a series of GCSE topic books combining up-to-the-minute historical research with a clear narrative structure, good source work and opportunities to stretch the more able. It was an ambitious agenda, and Aylett did not live to see it fulfilled, but fulfilled it has been by Neil DeMarco.

The books are attractively laid out, and there is welcome use of unfamiliar illustrations. Each chapter focuses on a key issue outlined at the start, and the chapters vary in length according to the scope of the issue to be investigated; there is no sense of material being squeezed into restrictive double-page spreads.

Little "fact blips" catch the eye, and there are regular questions and tasks. Although some of the questions are a bit wordy, the structured approach to extended writing tasks will be welcomed byteachers. (For the uninitiated, "Extended writing" is the fashionable term for "essay".) The source material is not allowed to restrict the length of the text, so that pupils genuinely have enough information to tackle the questions (by no means a universal feature in textbooks).

Britain 1900-51 shows us anti-Jewish riots in Leeds during the First World War (it was reported that no British-owned shops were attacked, which itself tells us a lot), and a striking poster showing the brave new world of the national health service. But particularly impressive for a book at this level is the way it tackles historical debate: the Dangerfieldthesis on the decline of Liberal England, and the founding of the NHS, are both treated in a way which will allow pupils to engage in genuine debate.

Neil De Marco's volumes on the two world wars are as good as we have come to expect from him. We are used to attempts to put General Haig in a better light or take a more sym-pathetic view of appeasement, but conscientious objectors in the First World War are also subjected to rigorous scrutiny, and there is a focus on deeper questions: who wins wars? Do governments have the right to lie in wartime?

Germany 1918-45 and Russia and the USSR 1905-56 both use unfamiliar material, such as anti-Soviet jokes in Russia, and gay clubs in Weimar Germany. The Nazis were keen upholders of family values, but the regularity with which members of the League of German Maidens tended to get pregnant at Nuremberg rallies must have tried the patience of even the most ardent Nazi parents.

Peter Mantin's volume on the USA has a particularly good section on the Ku Klux Klan, although the point should have been made that membership declined rapidly in the Thirties. But there is welcome coverage of the 1919 anti-Left witchhunt that sent Sacco and Vanzetti to the electric chair, almost certainly wrongly, and a rare glimpse of Roosevelt in his leg braces, an image carefully concealed from the American public.

John Aylett's own book, South Africa, covers this emotive subject calmly and evenly, weighing the evidence on events such as the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto rebellion all the more effectively because he eschews loaded language.

A list of the different racial categories in South Africa and the arguments over which names to give them is a powerful indictment of the system, headed, with typical understatement, "A word about race".

Sean Lang is head of history at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge

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