Living modern history

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
NEW PERSPECTIVES SERIES. THE RISE OF THE NAZIS. By Charles Freeman. THE BERLIN WALL. By R G Grant. CRISIS IN CENTRAL AFRICA. By Charles Freeman. Wayland Pounds 10.99 each.

Wayland's New Perspectives series of short, hardback studies of topics in modern history is one of the most impressive on the market. The books are well illustrated, often with pictures that are not familiar from other books, but the real strength of the series lies in the consistently high quality of the text.

There are well-chosen extracts from primary sources, and both the written style and the historical interpretation are often arresting. The opening words of The Rise of the Nazis draw out an angle of Hitler's inauguration as Chancellor that few other books have noticed: "For those Germans who knew their history, 21 March was an important day. On 21 March in 1871, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had opened the first parliament (Reichstag) of the new state of Germany".

The Berlin Wall tells a familiar story effectively, and makes the important point that, despite all their rhetoric about freedom and Berliners, western politicians were actually quite relieved by the building of the wall, since it defused the situation without the need for another airlift or military confrontation. Sure enough, with the wall in place, Berlin sank in importance as a potential spark of East-West conflict.

Crisis in Central Africa will be particularly welcome to teachers and school librarians. Most of us watched the horrifying outbreak of frenzied killing in Rwanda in 1994 with a mixture of appalled disbelief and total incomprehension. Charles Freeman's book gives a clear and dispassionate account of the background to the crisis, and to the West's reaction to it.

The restrained tone of the text lets the pictures and the extracts from eye-witness accounts convey the full horror of those months, and puts forward the unfashionable thought that the savagery cannot simply be blamed on the aftermath of colonialism.

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

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