Whether history shapes men or men shape history is a tricky question, as both are true at different times _ often at the same time. Be that as it may, beyond doubt two men shaped the 20th century. Both were tyrants (who was "worse" is still being argued).
Six Months In 1945 by Michael Dobbs 448pp, 2013 Arrow paperback Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 425 baht
Mortal enemies, Hitler and Stalin became friends, however unlikely, for two years. Until Nazi Germany invaded Communist Russia. London and Washington allying with Moscow, Berlin went down in defeat. Proud of being responsible for the death of tens of millions, the Fuhrer took the easy way out. What to do with the country that started it all? While the Third Reich was in its death throes, the Big 3 _ President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the US, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the UK and Generalissimo Joseph Stalin of the USSR _ met to discuss just that.
In fact, there were two such conferences in 1945. The first was in Yalta in the Crimea. The second after VE Day in Potsdam in occupied Germany, the subject a still warring Empire of Japan on the other side of the globe. British historian Michael Dobbs delineates both in Six Months In 1945.
He notes that the decisions made then _ good, bad and indifferent _ affected not only the combatants but all countries until the turn of the century. To be sure Stalin was instrumental in bringing about the "Cold War" (the term given by George Orwell), but at least one American president was not blameless. There were 300 Red Army divisions. The US had nuclear bombs. A Mexican standoff. Stalin wanted to execute 50,000 Nazis. Churchill wouldn't stand for it. Russian soldiers raping German women at will was contentious. G.I.s and Ivans settled brawls with guns. Russians looted with a vengeance.
F.D.R. expired and was replaced by President Harry Truman, who didn't call Stalin "Uncle Joe". Russian foreign minister Molotov was tough. Truman verbally took him down like a street fighter. Churchill had his priorities, but presented them diplomatically. Germany had to swallow losing Prussia, Silesia and Pomerana.
Labour beating the Conservatives in Britain's elections, Prime Minister Clement Atlee took over from Winnie at Potsdam, his long-winded talks a bore. Truman kept the dates for dropping the atomic bombs a secret. Stalin ordered the invasion of Manchuria (as agreed earlier) then claimed Russia won the Pacific War. Heady days indeed.
The Mayan Secrets by Clive Cussler and Thomas Perry 375pp, 2013 Micheal Joseph paperback Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 695 baht
Change of direction
Truth be told, I roll my eyes when I pick up a book about the search for Atlantis, or finding another apostle testament, or the Templars and their hidden wealth, often with added Muslim terrorists to spice up a story that isn't about them. Some scribes are better at it than others yet, really, these topics have all but been done to death. Surely their imaginations can be directed further afield? Not new topics necessarily _ there aren't too many of them left _ but those lightly touched to date, as prolific Yank writer Clive Cussler and co-author Thomas Perry do in The Mayan Secrets. It is set in San Diego, California, Mexico, mainly in Guatemala.
It is not known how many Indians in the Americas died after Columbus and those who followed came to the New World. The Church sent priests to convert the savage kings and queens sent conquistadors to steal anything of value. Aztecs, Incas, Mayans, etc, were slaughtered or enslaved, their lands taken as colonies.
Of all the tribes the Mayans were the most advanced, though they believed in a multitude of gods, above and below, and practiced human sacrifice. While all the tribes had spoken languages, only the Mayans had a written language. They used it to write all knowledge their ancestors and they had learned.
The Codex was copied many times so that each family had its own. However the priests decided that these books were the work of the devil and proceeded to destroy them, along with those possessing them. Hardly a handful exist to this day. Cussler focuses on one recently found. His carryover protagonists are husband and wife treasure hunters Sam and Remi Fargo. They are the good guys, aiming to take their finding to museums. The villain is Sarah Allerby, filthy rich and unscrupulous. She intends to keep the Codex for herself. Both sides bring in firepower, expending an arsenal in their battle-royal. Best is what the reader is told about Guatemala, past and present. Even those who can't find it on the map will be interested to know how advanced for their time the Mayans were in astronomy and mathematics, and produced their own calendars.
Cussler is one of the top contemporary authors. He's penned his share of Muslim terrorist stories et al. This reviewer trusts that he's gotten off that kick.