The 948 Days of the Warsaw Ghetto

Bruno Halioua

(Éditions Liana Levi, 256 pages, 2018)


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The 948 Days of the Warsaw Ghetto, written seventy-five years after this major urban revolt against the Germans in occupied Europe, retraces the whole history of the ghetto, including the daily life of those Jews who, trapped for so long within the walls and laws, attempted to survive the death machine expertly orchestrated by the Third Reich.

On October 12, 1940, the legendary history of the Warsaw Ghetto began. As the holy day of Yom Kippur was being celebrated, Nazi authorities gave the order to transfer the Jews of Warsaw into a small area within the city. Obeying the law that said they must each wear a yellow star on their outer clothing, 381,000 Jews—40 percent of Warsaw’s inhabitants—would live henceforth in an enclosed perimeter.

In the summer of 1942, in response to information that the Germans were carrying out mass murders of the Jews moved from the ghettos, a group within the Warsaw Ghetto, led by a twenty-three-year-old, started to fight back. They fired on German and Polish troops as they removed Jews for deportation, and the troops retreated. The Jews continued to organize and gather weapons. Then, at six in the morning of April 19, 1943, German troops entered the ghetto, prepared to transfer the inhabitants to a concentration camp. They were met by a hail of bullets, grenades, and Molotov cocktails. The fighting continued for nearly a month. On May 16, however, the Germans regained control, and SS General Jürgen Stroop sent this telegram to Himmler: “The Jewish quarter of Warsaw is no more.” It was the end of Europe’s largest Jewish community. Of the many attempts at resistance against extermination by the Germans from the ghettos of Europe, this was the most massive, the most successful, and the best known.

Bruno Halioua, using newly opened government archives and real-time testimonies, offers a synthesis of this major event of the Second World War. The 948 Days of the Warsaw Ghetto is unique in that it describes not just the history of the Ghetto, but the daily lives of its inmates from the time the gates first closed to the heartbreaking end of the uprising.

Bruno Halioua is the author of several books, including Blouses blanches, étoiles jaunes, Histoire de la médicine (Elsevier Masson, 3rd edition, 2009), and La médecine au temps des pharaons (Éditions Liana Levi, 2002; Harvard University Press, 2005).


The History of Matches: the Revolution of Instant Fire

Pierre-Emmanuel Danan

(REF.2C éditions, 192 pages, 2011)


The power to harness fire, source of light and warmth, is indisputably one of the most significant landmarks in the evolution of humankind. Our ancestors strove to maintain and transport fire but it was not until the nineteenth century that John Walker, an English pharmacist, started selling his “friction lights” to the delight of his townsfolk. In this richly illustrated book, Pierre-Emmanuel Danan traces the turbulent history of this humble object that revolutionized the daily life of millions of people across the globe.

In the first part of the book, Danan tells of the many trials and errors that accompanied the development of match production. The early prototypes conceived in pharmacists’ backrooms and crafted in modest workshops revealed themselves to be highly dangerous for consumers and workers alike ­--so much so that phosphorous matches were banned from one country after another. A solution to these safety concerns was found in Sweden, and before long, matches were manufactured on a large scale first in Europe and the United States then in other countries.  Danan, himself a descendant of a match-making family, brings to life the ingenuity and competitive spirit of those early industrial pioneers, such as  the French Caussemille Jeune & Cie and the Roche family from Marseilles, who lost their founder and their factory in a spectacular explosion; the British Bryant & May; the American Barber of the Diamond Match Co.; and the Swedes Lungstrom and Kruger.

In the second part of the book, Danan expands on the various aspects linked to the production of this new and soon indispensable product. Those include the advances in chemistry, the renewed importance of patenting in times of accelerated modernization, the progress in lithographic techniques, and the appearance of a new community of collectors who were seduced by the inventive iconography adorning matchboxes.  The aesthetic appeal of those scenes of daily life, bucolic landscapes, caricatures and portraits of beautiful women can be appreciated thanks to handsomely reproduced  illustrations in the book.

In A History of Matches, Danan covers a lot of ground but never looses sight of the big picture. The invention of the modern match and its propagation as a basic commodity is, for him, an exemplary story of the industrial revolution, a story illustrating not just the evolution of techniques but also that of labor conditions, work organization, and the arrival of new financial and marketing strategies. This book depicts in accessible language and compelling images what it took for an object as familiar as a match to become accessible to all.

Pierre-Emmanuel Danan is a historian and filmmaker and member of the Society for Industrial Archeology.


The History of Smells in Western Europe from the 16th to the Early 19th Century

Robert Muchembled

(Les Belles Lettres, 272 pages, 2017)

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The sense of smell is not, as commonly believed, a wholly natural experience.   For the most part it is learned rather than biologically determined and culturally mediated rather than universally shared. The same odor may thus be perceived by different people as pleasant or repugnant and how it is perceived has greatly evolved over time. This is the starting point for Robert Muchembled’s compelling exploration into the world of smells in Western Europe, from the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century. In this dazzling olfactory journey, Muchembled traces the evolution of customs and the remarkable mutations of the sense of smell across centuries.

Muchembled, an accomplished historian, provides a rich and diverse body of reference.   His primary scent-revealing sources include plague doctors’ remedies, civility treatises, beauty recipes, royal edicts, the perfumery glove trade’s ordinances,  and postmortem apothecaries’ and glove perfumers’ inventories. The literary genres he cites include the considerations  of philosophers, storytellers, poets, and theologians.

Muchembled’s fascinating journey into the universe of scents is not always for the fainthearted. He takes the reader into the stench of Paris streets and introduces the fulminations, concoctions, and ointments once believed to keep old age and illness at bay. He discusses at length how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were haunted by the most virulent mysogynistic fantasies. During times marked by recurring epidemics of plague and religious turmoil, smell played a central role as a marker of sanctity or evil. If the presence of the Devil was announced by its stench,  so women were stigmatized for the supposedly fetid odor emanating from their bodies. Not until the olfactory revolution of  the eighteenth century  did the use of the prophylactic trio of  excremental scents—musk, civet, and ambergris,  give way to flowery fragrances and the rise of a more hedonistic bodily culture more favorable to women.

Muchembled briefly returns to the present in the conclusion of this brilliant and entertaining book to remind us that, then and now, the sense of smell has always played a primordial role in the identification of and adaptation to dangerous as well as pleasurable situations, and that it continues to evolve in tandem with changing social and cultural norms.

Robert Muchembled is a French historian. He has published more than thirty books, which have been translated into many European languages as well as Chinese and Japanese. His works translated in English include Popular Culture and Elite Culture in France, 1400-1750 (Louisiana State University Press, 1985), A History of the Devil: from the Middle Ages to the Present (Polity Press, 2004), Orgasm and the West: A History of Pleasure from the Sixteenth Century to the Present (Polity Press, 2008), and A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present (Polity Press, 2011).


La Belle Époque: The True Story


Dominique Kalifa

(Fayard, 308 pages, 2017)


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Paris was the reigning cultural capital of Europe and the geographical center of what came to be called La Belle Époque. Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge were at their height; famous courtesans and Folies Bergères dancers graced Parisian high society with their fashionable and scandalous presence and for the less wealthy there were bistros and cabarets.  Artists and musicians flocked to the City of Light and the city became the cradle of creativity and home of a rising modernist avant-garde. Progress was evident not just in the arts, but also in an unprecedented string of scientific and technological innovations including the Eiffel Tower, automobiles, the airplane, and the cinema.  That glorious and optimistic time, La Belle Époque may have started the end of the Franco-Prussian War, or in 1877, 1889 or 1900 -- historians disagree.  But they agree that it ended in the summer of 1914 with the beginning of a war that was to cause Europe to fall into an abyss of death and destruction.

In La Belle Époque, Dominique Kalifa, rather than revisiting the period per se, examines the term as a phrase, like “the Middle Ages” or “The Enlightenment” that comes to designate a specific period of time in the collective consciousness.  Kalifa explores why and when this concept of “La Belle Époque” first appeared and how it has been invoked and reformulated in different historical and geographical contexts. La Belle Époque, he reminds us, was not called as such by those who lived through it. It was only in the darkening political atmosphere of the 1930s that “La Époque 1900,” as it was called then, began to be infused with a sense of longing and nostalgia.

The term “Belle Époque” did not appear until 1940 on the airwaves of Radio Paris, the only radio station allowed during the German occupation. Programs devoted to the songs of the Belle Époque gained popularity. Reminiscent of a happier and more frivolous time, they were used as an efficient mean to sugarcoat Nazi propaganda.  The 1960s, by contrast, debunked the myth of a joyous and insouciant Belle Époque. 

The excluded, the poor, the striker and the anarchist found their place in historical narratives that reimagine the period and insist that it was far from being “ beautiful” for everyone.

With a dazzling wealth of archival material —from films and songs, to memoirs and novels— Kalifa retraces how changing representations of La Belle Époque resonated with the zeitgeist and the pressing concerns of a particular historical moment. In La Belle Époque: The True Story, Kalifa offers an original and fascinating view of a period we thought we knew. 

Dominique Kalifa is a French historian, and professor at Sciences Po and the Sorbonne where he is director of the Centre of 19th Century History. He specializes in the history of crime, transgression, social control, and mass culture in nineteenth- and early-twentieth France and Europe. He has published about a dozen of books including L’Encre et le sang (Fayard, 1995), La Culture de masse en France (La Découverte, 2001), Crime et culture au XIXe siècle (Perrin, 2005) and Les Bas-Fonds: Histoire d'un imaginaire (Seuil, 2013) devoted to the underworld and its role in the Western imagination. His essays have appeared in English in academic publications such as French Historical Studies, The Journal of Modern History and Yale French Studies as well as in Writing Contemporary History (Gildea and Anne Simonin (eds), Hodder Education, 2008) and The French Republic: History, Values, Debates (E. Berenson, V. Duclert & C. Prochasson [eds.], Cornell University Press, 2011).



The World as Seen from the Sea

Jacques Attali

(Fayard, 360 pages, 2017)


Jacques Attali’s latest book, The World as Seen from the Sea, is a powerful hymn to the sea but it is also a cry of alarm. Humankind’s earliest history starts with the sea but the destruction of the oceans is one of today’s most alarming threats to the planet. And this at a time when we, more than ever, understand the fundamental ecological role that the sea plays in the survival of humanity.

In this ambitious and necessary book, Attali adds his prestigious voice to the rising chorus of those who, each in their different fields of expertise, are warning against the imminent dangers we face. By boldly retracing the history of the oceans from the creation of the universe, Attali offers nothing less than a sweeping history of humankind “from the perspective of the sea.” His point is clear: The future of humankind is at stake as the histories of the oceans and of human beings are so interwoven that the survival of one means the survival of the other.

Attali, in his clear and accessible style, takes the reader on a breathtaking journey through space and time from the formation of the oceans and the first sea travel to the role the sea has played and continues to play in the building and fall of nations and empires. He discusses the technologies of seafaring and the economics of fishing but also speaks at length of the many ways the sea has served as a source of inspiration for poets and artists.

The sea has been the source of many disasters and sorrows and yet, Attali writes, most of the innovations that have impacted human societies “are in one way or another connected to the sea.”Attali evokes Max Weber’s classic thesis on the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism to emphasize that for him, it is the distinction between sea and land, between “seamen” and “peasants,” that decisively sets the boundary “between those who based their societies around commerce and the ideals of liberty and those who remained bogged down in the feudal world and its rents.”

In the final two chapters, Attali reviews how the oceans are being threatened and what can be done to prevent further devastation. He provides a list of potential actions each specifically directed to concerned citizens, the media, businesses, and governments, as well as the international community. He ends by proposing the establishment of a World Sea Organization with the means and powers to coordinate and monitor all these efforts.

The World as Seen from the Sea is designed to stir the reader into further inquiry and action. Attali ends with the hope that “each and every one of us will consider themselves as the ambassador of the future generations.” For him, this means increasing our knowledge and appreciation of the maritime environment, as partners rather than consumers and plunderers,  and cultivating “an attitude of wonderment of a respectful passer-by, for the benefit of the future.”

Jacques Attali is a renowned economist, social theorist and writer with a long career as a political adviser and senior civil servant. He also served as the first head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 1991-1993. In 2009, Foreign Policy recognized him as one of the top 100 "global thinkers" in the world. On April 7, 2011, as the founder and president of PlaNet Finance, Attali received the Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars of the United States’ Smithsonian Institution in the United States. He has published more than fifty books, including Noise: The Political Economy of Music (University of Minnesota Press 1985), Millennium: Winners and Losers in the Coming Order (Crown Publishing, 1992), The Labyrinth in Culture and Society: Pathways to Wisdom (North Atlantic Books, 1999), and A Brief History of the Future: A Brave and Controversial look at the Twenty-First Century (Arcade Publishing, 2006).


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.