The Odyssey of Fear

Bernard Benyamin

(Editions First, 304 pages, 2016)


The German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba on May 13, 1939. The passengers were all Jews, fleeing the Third Reich. A film about the tragic journey, Voyage of the Damned, starring Faye Dunaway and Orson Wells, came out in 1976. Now, as in many places of the world, a parallel story is taking place.

In early 1939 the Nazis organized a propaganda operation to highlight the world’s indifference toward the Jews. A German boat, the St. Louis, was summoned to carry 937 Jews from Hamburg to Havana, where they would be welcomed while awaiting emigration to the United States to start a new life. People flocked to the port of Hamburg, where they applied for U.S. visas and bought landing permits from the Cuban consulate. The boat set sail in May, carrying people from all walks of life, sharing only their Jewish heritage and the feeling of being persecuted, and that there was worse to come.

The terrible truth became clear when they reached the shores of Havana. The corrupt local government had decided, even before the ship sailed, not to take them in, though later a $500-per-passenger bond was suggested to allow them to land. The German captain of the ship, feeling responsible for his passengers and knowing they awaited certain death if returned to Europe, tried to negotiate their repatriation to the United States. President Roosevelt turned them down. The captain then tried the authorities of all the countries of Central and South America, up to Canada, only to be refused each time. The coast was now clear for Hitler to put in place his anti-Jewish plans, and eventually the Final Solution.

The St. Louis returned to Europe, this time landing in Antwerp, where only a small number of passengers were repatriated by Jewish rescue organizations to England. The rest were taken to France, Holland, and Belgium, from where they would soon be deported to the concentration camps. Of the 937 passengers on board the St. Louis, one-third would be killed.

Benyamin met and interviewed the last survivors from the liner, bringing valuable witness testimony to this tragedy.

Born in 1950 in Algeria, Bernard Benyamin has worked all his life as a journalist, first for national radio station France Inter, then, for the past thirty years, for France public TV channel France2, as a special correspondent, covering major events all over the world.


What Is a Revolution?America, France, Arab World 1763-2015

Hamit Bozarslan and Gaëlle Demelemestre

(Les Éditions du Cerf, 394 pages, 2016)


The word “revolution” is often used casually. A state goes from Republican to Democratic, a government changes the tax law, a country evolves by vote, riot, and demonstrations, or quiet coup. Revolution! But what is revolution? In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Hamit Bozarslan and Gaëlle Demelemestre reexamine the question in all its historical, philosophical, and sociological dimensions.

The authors argue that democratic society was born in the eighteenth century out of two fundamental revolutions: the American Revolution, as it overthrew British rule, and the French Revolution, as it rejected one thousand years of monarchy. More than two centuries later, this same desire to overthrow the powers that be lit up the Arab world, from Tunisia to Egypt

The authors define revolutions in terms of these two events and then focus on the Arab Spring and how it enters the historical spectrum. The American Revolution they see, as Hannah Arendt did, as a political revolution because it created a new type of power—federal—based on a constitution created by the people that the government cannot change. The French Revolution, again originally defined by Arendt, is considered a social revolution, as it sought to break the hierarchy in human relations, and in its place put forth three principles of equality, fraternity, and liberty. Then the authors qualify the Arab attempts at revolution with their own complexities. Despite the apparent failure of all of the uprisings except one, in Tunisia, they remind us that there was for a short moment the makings of revolution across the Arab world, and the quest for more democracy, liberty and equality.

Throughout the work, while not ignoring other revolutionary moments, Bozarslan and Demelemestre seek to highlight the distinguishing traits of these three revolutions, as well as their singularity.

Hamit Bozarslan is a professor of history and political science at EHESS (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales). Gaëlle Demelemestre has a Ph.D in philosophy and is a researcher at the CNRS (Centre National de Recherche Scientifique).


Motherhood and Infancy in Ancient Egypt

Amandine Marshall, Ph.D.

Preface by Dr. Salima Ikram, American University in Cairo

(Éditions du Rocher, 280 pages, 2015)


In Egyptology much is written about the end of life, but almost nothing about the beginning. Maternity, however, was central to Egyptian society and certainly as important as death and burial practices. Indeed motherhood had profound social, emotional, and economic implications for ancient Egypt. Moving from the pre-dynastic period to Roman times, Amandine Marshall presents a thorough study of maternity and infancy in ancient Egypt, drawing from texts, iconography, artifacts, bodily remains, medicine, anthropology, and ethnography. Her work fills a void, presenting a revealing look at the role of women and their place in that world.

Marshall starts her fascinating portrait of ancient Egypt’s rituals and resources in place throughout the span of motherhood with the desire to have a child. She continues on to the preparations for pregnancy, the recourses for fertility problems, and the implications of childlessness in social, religious, and medical terms. She covers the divine, magical, medical, and supernatural forces that were called upon in order to help an Egyptian woman become pregnant. She examines the place of the child in the family and society. Interestingly, it appears that the ancient Egyptians were more egalitarian toward the sex of the child than most other societies of the time, with female infants considered to be of as much value as male. Marshall concludes with a look at the child born with defects, and considers its role in the family and society. The book makes it possible for the reader to have a fuller understanding of Egyptian life. 

Amandine Marshall, an archeologist and writer, has a doctorate in Egyptology. Her work on motherhood and childhood has made her an internationally recognized expert in her field. Her book Être un enfant en Égypte Ancienne (Éditions du Rocher, 2014) was prefaced by Professor Véronique Dasen, world specialist on childhood in Ancient Greece and Rome.


A Society under Surveillance: Intellectuals and the Stasi

By Sonia Combe

(Albin Michel, 273 pages, 1999)

After the collapse of the Communist regime, former victims and academic scholars carefully documented and described the East German state’s violence and the depth of society’s collaboration with the secret police. Sonia Combe’s research and writings on the Stasi files, completed ten years after the fall, differed from previously published studies. As a historian who learned from Michel Foucault, she concentrated on “invisible punishment,” expressed as surveillance. She also investigated, perhaps for the first time, the relationship between intellectuals and the state in the context of a dictatorship, exemplifying what Pierre Bourdieu called “symbolic violence.” At the time of her work on A Society under Surveillance: Intellectuals and the Stasi, she was already grounded in the field. She had started her career as a scholar studying communist countries in Europe in the 1980s. Her fieldwork in the German Democratic Republic allowed her to investigate its Nazi history while also writing articles for Libération, the French left-wing daily newspaper.

In this still up-to-date book, Combe argues that after the erection of the Berlin Wall, repression declined. Physical violence almost disappeared and was replaced during the late socialist period by psychological violence: the knowledge that you can be observed at any moment. The state surveillance apparatus of the Stasi, however, gave rise to an apparent paradox: The more German society was watched over by the Stasi, the more permissive it became. By 1989, the Stasi was in the position to know everything, but no longer in the position to do anything with the information.

Combe shows that some intellectuals occupied an important and distinctive place in the Stasi apparatus. Based on a detailed study of twenty files, Combe examines two interwoven categories of intellectuals: university professors in a powerful position and eminent intellectuals. She approaches the information contained in the Stasi archives with appropriate caution. She notes and writes extensively about the reliability of police files in France and Germany. Her guiding principle is that police agents are more in search of guilt than truth.

Alternating between case studies and theoretical considerations, this book is a unique contribution to the understanding of the German communist experience, since it describes the relationship between intellectuals and political power. Trying to determine guilt, however, is a complex matter. The author takes special note of a category of intellectuals and party members who never spoke out because of their faith in the social project of socialism. They were the so called Linientreue Dissidenten (dissidents faithful to the party line.)

Sonia Combe is a French historian and a researcher at the CNRS, the French national research center, as well as a research associate at the Marc Bloch Center in Berlin. She has published numerous books about Germany and World War II.

The Death of Louis XIV: The Apogee and Decline of Royalty

Joël Cornette

(Gallimard, 361 pages, 2015)

The day Louis XIV died, the notion of the king as religion died with him, but a new France was born. Joël Cornette’s masterful work uses that day, September 1, 1715, as the touchstone to recount the seventy-two-year reign of Louis XIV. He describes the day in fascinating, minute detail, looking back to what France was before the monarch and bringing to life what it was during his reign, and shedding light on Louis XIV’s legacy.

What made up the grandeur of the century of Louis XIV? Glory. Louis XIV raised the prestige and power of the French monarchy to the height of its glory through the concepts of the divine right of kings and of the warrior-king; the elevation of the machinery of the state; and the establishment of a royal culture. He was, indeed, The Sun King, ruling 72 years and 110 days, longer than any European monarch. He created a central state, governed from the capital, and ingrained the administrative apparatus of the ancien régime by inscribing it into the very make-up of the patrimony. He brought about an opaque style of government that considered the “mysteries of the State” to be a governing method, and he projected his sacred image far and wide, into even the most humble abodes. During his reign, France, while fighting three major wars, became the leading European nation.

His project was ambitious beyond sustainability and would eventually unravel. What a contrast between the young monarch—inspired reformer of the Colbert legacy, who left his imprimatur on the creation of Versailles—and the aged king worn down by endless wars! Like his life, his death was different from that of most kings of France: He neither slipped away easily in his sleep nor had a dramatic, politically inspired ending. When he first fell ill, he was misdiagnosed as having gout, although he was probably suffering from gangrene. Other sources report that he had smallpox—and he may have had both. No matter the cause, he died after six agonizing days. His lover and companion Madame de Maintenon, the former governess of his children, was by his side until he sent her away and told the Duc d’Orleans, his successor (all of Louis’s immediate heirs having predeceased him), to make sure she was well taken care of., The Duc d’Orleans reigned until Louis’s great-grandson, then five years old, came of age and was crowned Louis XV.

The Death of Louis XIV closes a chapter in the history of royalty and opens another: On the eve of the Enlightenment, it is the essence of this monarch, as well as his conception of authority, that died with him.

Joël Cornette is a professor at the University of Paris VIII. He is the author of, among others, Roi de guerre: Essai sur la souveraineté dans la France du Grand Siècle (Gallimard, 1993) and Absolutismes et Lumières, 1652-1783 (Hachette Education, 2014).


An Erotic History of Versailles

Michel Vergé-Franceschi & Anna Moretti

(Éditions Payot Rivages, 2015, 352 pages)

Versailles, with its vast mirror-paneled and lavishly decorated rooms, was clearly designed to impress upon visitors the extent of the Sun King’s absolute political power. But did you know that Versailles also arose as a shelter for the royal court’s prodigious sex life? This is the focus of An Erotic History of Versailles.

Under Louis XIII, Versailles was a mere hunting outpost, a place for him to bond with his (male) friends. But this simple hunting lodge served a different purpose for his successor. Louis XIV began to take his mistresses there, beginning with the shy seventeen-year-old Louise de la Vallière. Soon, to the dismay of his finance minister, he was planning to remodel Versailles, making his bachelor pad into the enormous castle it is now. His love life made for a rather smutty lineup of women: the fleshy Madame de Montespan, the fiery Madame de Maintenon, courtesans and one-night stands . . . Still, the king never failed to end the night at the queen’s side.

The king was not the only one to flourish in this enclave of sexual freedom. The designers of Versailles—Charles Le Brun for the apartments and André Le Nôtre for the gardens—created alcoves and groves that were ideal for intimacy, as was the widespread disdain for undergarments. The sexual orientation of Versailles changed after Louis XIV’s death under the stewardship of Philippe d’Orléans, or “Monsieur”: At the Versailles orgies, he swooned and lusted after gorgeous young men instead. Then Louis XV came to power, and once again young women began to fight for the honor of becoming their insatiable king’s mistress.

For decades, a libertine spirit flowed through Versailles: François Boucher’s paintbrush captured the sensuous beauty of the female form, and sexual license worthy of Sade and Laclos reigned. But when Louis XVI (“the Soft”) came to power, everything changed. He could barely even do the deed with his own wife, Marie Antoinette—so on the verge of the Revolution, the age of “little Sodom” was already past. A page turned for Versailles.

Michel Vergé-Franceschi, a professor of modern history at the University of Tours and an expert on the Ancien Régime, has been honored by the Académie Française and the Academie des Sciences morales. He is the author of Colbert, la politique du bon sens (2005) and Ninon de Lenclos (2014). Anna Moretti has a Ph.D. in aesthetics from the University of Corsica, and specializes in femininity and sensuality in literature.


Monotheisms: A Pictorial Approach

François Bœspflug and Françoise Bayle

(Bayard, 254 pages, 2014)

Religions have already been deeply analyzed, though most treatments of the subject run through the same thesis and arguments in much the same manner. The three main monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—keep turning over the same words, pulled out of their beliefs, their worldviews, their hopes. Yet pictures can tell a great deal about religions. From this observation, François Bœspflug and Françoise Bayle have tried to define the doctrines of the three Abrahamic religions by displaying and explaining a small number of pictures. This original and undogmatic method sheds new light on these religions, giving us a never-before-seen glimpse into their foundations and their deep-seated identities.

As easy as it is to present the three Semitic religions from the standpoint of the key moments of their history, their sanctuaries, or their places of worship or pilgrimage, it is equally difficult to find the works of art or devotional paintings that will crystallize their faiths—the one taught (the doctrine) and the one lived (the religious experience). It is all the more delicate because several waves of iconoclasm have occurred over the course of history. As clearly explained and detailed in this work, some religious people adopted and still adopt a literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments, which forbid the making and worshipping of “graven images or any likeness of anything.”

Despite this, the authors have succeeded in selecting eighteen relevant pictures, six for each religion. Motivated by the will to know whether it was possible to find pictures common to the three religions, they added and analyzed two more, at the end of the book.

Properly contextualized, and described and analyzed with the utmost historical rigor, these twenty pictures provide a new way of understanding these religions. A picture has the power to educate us, to move us, and to make us remember something we would not have remembered if we had merely read it. That’s why this book is both pedagogical for people who don’t know much about religions and still riveting for those who do.

François Bœspflug is a historian of religions. He has worked for more than thirty years on an unprecedented iconographic history of religions. He has written many books about religions, including a history of God in art (Le Christ dans l’art, Bayard, 2000; Le Dieu des peintres et des sculpteurs, Hazan, 2010; Dieu et ses images: Une histoire de l’Eternel dans l’art, Bayard, 2011).

Françoise Bayle holds a graduate degree from the prestigious École du Louvre and is currently an art historian. She wrote the visitor’s guides for the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay and has already co-authored several books about religion with François Bœspflug, including Sainte Anne: Histoire et représentations (Editions ArtLys, 2010).


The Last Days: The End of the Roman Empire

Michel De Jaeghere

(Les Belles Lettres, 656 pages, 2014)

The Roman Empire existed from 27 bce to 476 ce. The reasons for its decline are still debated today, but it is generally agreed that they were multiple. The main causes and consequences are commonly sought in the century that separates the invasion by the Goths in 376 ce and Romulus Augustus’ fall a hundred years later. Michel De Jaeghere goes deeper than others to describe this decisive century, providing us with a singular, and exciting, historical account of the fall of the Roman Empire.

In The Last Days, Michel De Jaeghere brings to life fifteen years of research to produce this unprecedented historical reconstitution of the events that brought about the fall of the Roman Empire, and their consequences. In this extraordinarily well-documented work, the author explains in revealing detail Roman society of Late Antiquity, its institutions, and its structures. He addresses each new topic in the story of Rome’s decline by reminding us of the theories held by major historians and thinkers through the centuries. Moving between description and in-depth analysis, he offers a book as enthralling as it is thought-provoking. When talking about the Barbarians, for instance, he describes the overwhelming influx of Goths into the Empire, and the numerous wars and battles at its periphery. To this he adds a reflection on the consequences of the rise of the Germanic peoples in the Roman world.

In a strong departure from accepted theory, according to De Jaeghere, Edward Gibbon was not accurate when he argued, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that Christianity caused the collapse of the Roman Empire. He sees multiple other equally important reasons. In a crucial reflection on the greatness and limits of civilizations, De Jaeghere ends with a broader debate on the fragility of contemporary Western society, where he sees fault lines that have a historical echo.

Michel De Jaeghere is the editor of Le Figaro Histoire. He is the author of Le menteur magnifique, a work about Chateaubriand, published in France by Les Belles Lettres in 2006.

THE thick border: the origins of soviet policies (1920-1940)

Sabine Dullin

(EHESS, 351 pages, 2014)

 This work by Sabine Dullin is extremely timely . . . Is Russia currently creating a new thick border? Le Monde Diplomatique

Sabine Dullin . . . is a pioneer and perhaps a precursor for a rewriting of the history of Russia. Lectures

The Soviet Union had the world’s longest borders, and they were always evolving and moving. Certainly Lenin and Stalin were preoccupied with the consolidation of borders, but the obsession with them has been a constant in Russian history. This compelling and one-of-a-kind study, while focusing on the country’s geographic fringes, speaks volumes about Russian politics and sheds new light on the history of Soviet Russia and even on events of the present day.

Sabine Dullin begins her book by explaining how the Soviet Border Troops were consecrated and became national heroes. She underlines that a border guard was not only a soldier but also a defender of Soviet ideology, reflecting an outsized patriotic culture in the USSR.

Soviet political leaders were driven by two conflicting desires: to export the revolution and to protect their own territory. The former implied expandable borders, whereas the latter needed strong and constant ones. To get around this paradox, they chose, between 1919 and 1924, to thicken their frontiers by creating buffer zones and prohibited areas. After 1924, they chose another direction: to close the borders while influencing neighboring communist countries to promote the USSR’s politics, culture, and way of life on their behalf. This led directly to the guiding policy, baptized “The Iron Curtain” by Winston Churchill in 1946.

Sabine Dullin successfully grasps all the different facets of borders, in their geopolitical importance and complexity, being areas of both cooperation and confrontation. This well-referenced work is enhanced with previously unpublished maps and charts which help the reader understand the central concept of thick borders. The Thick Border offers a major contribution to the history of Russia in the twentieth century and an extremely topical view of current times.

Sabine Dullin has a Ph.D. in history and teaches at Sciences Po Paris. She specializes in Russian history and international relations in the twentieth century. She has published several books on Russia, including Men of Influence: Stalin’s Diplomats in Europe (Edinburgh University Press, 2008).


One Life for Another

Sonia Combe

(Librairie Arthème Fayard, 336 pages, 2014)

Between 1938 and 1945, more than two hundred thousand people were incarcerated in Buchenwald, one of the first concentration camps and the largest on German soil. Although it was not an extermination camp, many people died there, mainly because of harsh living conditions. Sefan J. Zweig, a child who arrived in Buchenwald at the age of four, survived, however, under the protection of his father and other prisoners through a process called “exchange of victims.” When he was scheduled to be sent to his death at Auschwitz, his name disappeared from the transport list and was replaced with that of Wili Blum, a sixteen-year-old Romani boy. Sonia Combe takes this incredible story of two boys as a starting point and guiding thread for a much larger reflection on the questionable practice.

Sonia Combe, in this carefully documented work, explains how the “exchange of victims” played a large role in the survival of selected prisoners in concentration camps. The author shows what it took to stay alive in the Nazi camps, and comes to the distressing conclusion that most of the time it implied forms of collaboration. After all, crossing a name from the Auschwitz list meant replacing it with another one. Combe puts into perspective the guilt that may be felt by those who avoided extermination camps, what is now known as the “survivor syndrome.”

The author examines the notion of a “gray area” that Primo Levi described—the issue of making a choice in extreme conditions. Does the survival of a four-year-old boy, for example, legitimize the killing of a sixteen-year-old one? Buchenwald is the perfect laboratory for this reflection, since the SS delegated their authority and power to prisoners inside the camp, the Kapos. The latter could decide to switch names on the transport list for Auschwitz, as long as the number of deportees remained the same. The “exchange of victims” was therefore common.

Such replacements had far-reaching consequences, positive and negative, and a close examination of the practice led the author to reconsider the role of the anti-Fascist resistance. One Life for Another fills tremendous gaps in the history of Nazi camps, stressing the importance of human relationships, hierarchy, and the power struggle between prisoners.

Sonia Combe is a French historian and a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), and a research associate at the Marc Bloch Center in Berlin. She published numerous books about Germany and World War II.