Archives For History

Whenever I take strengths and personality assessments, the results usually remind me that I am the kind of person who looks at history to find answers to the solve the future’s problems. At work, I usually ask a lot of questions so I can figure out the best plan to move forward. I am also sure that those I am around, including my wife, are annoyed by me telling stories about history. I can’t help myself. The stories are so rich, alive, and I would offer that they are relevant to solving today’s problems.

Historian Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers, Undaunted Courage) once said, “You don’t hate history, you hate the way it was taught to you in high school.”  I was spoiled to have some of the most skilled and entertaining history teachers in junior high, high school, and college. I loved learning history then and love it even more now. In my middle age, I’m much busier than in my student days. Thus, I have to absorb history in different ways. That is why I listen to a lot of history podcasts and have compiled a list to help you get the fun out of history as well. Most of you reading this have either a commute to work or time to walk around your neighborhood. Why not have fun and learn a thing or two?

For that reason, I have compiled some of the best history podcasts that I recommend you enjoy.

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Unknown History with Giles Milton. If you are looking for a good 4-10 minute story about amusing moments in history, you’ll love this one. It’s an easy starter and leads into wanting to read more in his books. Plus, British accents are mesmerizing and amusing.

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Backstory. A conversational exploration of interesting stories you may have missed out on from the past. What I appreciate is during a current day crisis like heated exchanges between the U.S. and Russia, Backstory devoted a show to teaching about the history of their relationship. Hosted by a panel of historians from the University of Virginia. Each episode is 30-40 minutes.

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Stuff You Missed in History Class. This is a unique podcast because it tackles the stories we either glossed over or outright missed. From Frederick Douglas to the evacuation of Dunkirk to even a tackling the brief history of Veterinary medicine, you will be entertained and educated. The podcast explores history with a curiosity like Malcolm Gladwell tackles his books. Each episode is 10-40 minutes.

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British History Podcast. This is a must for any Anglophile. It doesn’t get much better than Jamie Jeffers’ storytelling. It is a chronological retelling of the history of Britain with a particular focus upon the lives of the people. You won’t find a dry recounting of dates and battles here, but instead you’ll learn about who these people were and how their desires, fears, and flaws shaped the histories of England, Scotland, and Wales. Each episode is 20-40 minutes.

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Dan Snow’s HISTORY HIT. I have loved watching Dan and his father Peter host great shows on the History and Military channels. They approach interviews like a battlefield reporter. This is one of my favorite podcasts and I love how Dan brings on fascinating people to interview. Listen to him interview Wehrmacht soldiers who gather together each year to recount their perspective of World War II. Each podcast is 10-40 minutes.

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Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. “The PhD of Podcasts.” This is not for the faint hearted. If you are willing to endure 4-7 hour podcasts, you can do anything. This is the equivalent to listening to an audiobook but it is worth your time. It is conversational and thought-provoking as you are hypnotized by Carlin’s voice and ability to teach us through storytelling. Hardcore History is the way popular history books are written excerpt Dan Carlin shares these stories out loud in a conversational tone. I recommend the 6 part “Blueprint for Armageddon” World War I saga or if you are interested in a single episode, listen to “The Destroyer of Worlds.” To date, he has recorded 60 podcasts. He only has 10 available as of today for free.

Ultimately, the goal is for all of us to have a greater understanding of how our world works. Sometimes that means we need to look back to know how to look forward.

You are never too busy to learn. Have fun while you’re at it.

The past is a source of knowledge, and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future. – Stephen Ambrose

I drove the camper van to the top of the hill in Siena, Italy. I emerged in exhaustion from and looked around. It was beautiful. I was exhausted but I made it to be my destination. On top of this hill outside Siena sat a beautiful university. It was an estate that overlooked miles of vineyards looking toward Tuscany. Only 24 hours earlier I was observing the Mediterranean Sea in Genoa. I parked the camper van overlooking the water and went to get a slice of pizza.

The joy was brief. I came back thirty minutes later to find my driver side window broken. A thief stole half of what I owned, including my passport. Dusk was settling in and I did what I had to and canceled my credit cards. This was a time before everyone had a cell phone so I was struggling to find a pay phone to communicate back to the United States. Soon after, my travel companion, well I thought was a friend, ditched me and I was left to find my way to Siena. I was alone. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. I had no choice but to keep moving and drive the 300 kilometers. I cursed. I hit the wheel. I even cried. I didn’t feel very proud of myself. But, I somehow kept going. I pushed on and made it there by dusk the next day. I wish I had a picture of me when I was driving, which would be most appropriate but in the end, I made it to Siena to this beautiful view.

I had so many good days traveling around Italy but that day was different. I can’t remember as many of the good days, though. I remember the road to Siena so well because of the pain. The pain was perfect. I smile every time I recall the day, which seems a little odd. As I look back, the pain was what made it the adventure. I can’t say it was successful except I lived and made it eventually to my location. But, I made it. Somehow. By the grace of God.

That memory came flooding back after reading the book, Endurance by Alfred Lansing. In it, Lansing tells the epic tale of Ernest Shackleton and his attempt to reach the South Pole in 1914 on the eve of World War I and make it across the continent. As the book shares, “In January 1915, after battling its way through a thousand miles of pack ice and only a day’s sail short of its destination, the Endurance became locked in an island of ice. Thus began the legendary ordeal of Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven men.”
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“For ten months the ice-moored Endurance drifted northwest before it was finally crushed between two ice floes. With no options left, Shackleton and a skeleton crew attempted a near-impossible journey over 850 miles of the South Atlantic’s heaviest seas to the closest outpost of civilization. Their survival, and the survival of the men they left behind, depended on their small lifeboat successfully finding the island of South Georgia—a tiny dot of land in a vast and hostile ocean.”

Did Shackleton succeed? Yes and no. He certainly did not achieve the mission objective but managed somehow to keep each man going to make it home. I’ve read a lot of books about survival. Not many come close to this. I think if he would have made it, the story certainly would still be good. But, would we recognize the pain it took to achieve such a task? I don’t think so. I believe we read about his voyage of survival with curiosity and wonder how he and his men managed to be creative to stay alive for almost 2 years.

The story of Endurance reminded me of my own pain. Shackleton certainly suffered more than I so I make no direct comparison. Yet, it reminded me of the purpose of endurance.

Good stories are found within those that endure.

Perhaps it is a reason I love movies about survival like 127 HoursApollo 13DunkirkBand of BrothersAlive, and Saving Private Ryan. I wrote about some of these movies in an earlier post.  We are meant to be in pain from time to time to learn, adapt, and understand endurance.

Anytime I struggle in something, I must remember Shackleton and the pain on the road to Siena.

 

For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures. Now may the God who gives endurance and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, according to Christ Jesus, so that you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one mind and one voice.

Romans 15:4-6 CSB (emphasis added)

When I find myself immersed in a history book the question often comes, “how would I act in this situation?” This is typically a moot point because I have the luxury of context and a more complete view of history. Yet, I still am tempted to do this and as I read 1944, I kept putting myself in each of the character’s shoes to make an attempt to evaluate how I would react.

I picked up Jay Winik’s new book 1944 last year and recently finished it. Although not his best work, it is an important book. To this day, I believe his book April 1865 is one of the finest popular history books to educate and entertain. I wrote earlier it is a book that will make you love history.

1944: FDR and the Yimagesear That Changed America could turn you away from reading history books. Not because it is a bad book but because it addresses some of the most difficult questions of modern history and what evil humans are capable of. I figured the book would provide a good contextual perspective of World War II but it focuses on FDR, the Allies, and the knowns and unknowns about the Nazi regime’s oppression of the Jewish people.

Known and unknown.

Despite the improvements in society, genocide has not gone away and in fact the majority of the modern western world has essentially turned a blind eye to such atrocities as Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, Cambodia, and Syria. These situations have proved that we have a long way to go.

The same questions arise,

We know it is going on but what are we able to do?

If we do something, what are the consequences? 

Will our reputation be damaged? 

Will Americans (or our people) perish in an attempt to help? 

Why can’t another nation closer to this take care of the issue?

We have so many other problems that also take priority.

These were similar questions asked when most of the Western world discovered about the Holocaust and the horrors of concentration camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Flossenberg. In the United States, “pass the buck” seemed to be the unofficial policy between the State Department, the military, and even FDR. There wasn’t a clear answer in what to do and it too far too long to do anything to save the lives of these people. Thousands died each day as it was debated. Eventually action was taken and some lives were saved but millions still perished when they possibly could have been saved. 1944 is powerful because it illustrates how we easily we can shy away from big problems.

What do we do?

Anytime there is discussion about these questions, it is helpful to look at the people. If we don’t humanize the oppressed, we will never act. We will never become creative enough to do. I am encouraged to get out of my comfort zone to learn more and to listen to someone who is of the oppressed. Perhaps then action will emerge.

Oppression in this world is far from over and whether the issue is with equality of minorities in America, freedom for a North Korean, or a child standing up for their religious belief in school, we must search deep inside to be creative and act. I may not know exactly what to do next time this happens but I am reminded that I must get out of my chair and move. What can I do to help those in my city? What can I do to help my neighbor? Just get up, move, and love them, Dave.

 

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hod us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

 

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Over the 4th of July drive this past week I listened to the audiobook of Conversations with Major Dick Winters: Life Lessons from the Commander of Band of Brothers.

For those of you who have watched the Emmy-award winning HBO Mini-series, Band of Brothers, or read the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose, you know Major Winters. His life has been well documented to this point through that story as well as his memoirs, Beyond Band of Brothers

urlFollowing the publication of Beyond Band of Brothers, Conversations was a book Major Winters wanted to have written after spending hundreds of hours with Col. Cole Kingseed. There were lessons through Major Winters’ life that needed to be told.

Watching Band of Brothers is something I recommend any person to do whether they are interested in military history, or not. At least do it for the sake of honoring those who served World War II. The book made Easy Company famous. Tom Hanks and Stephen Spielberg through the mini-series helped make the company legendary. Thousands of baby boomers and people my age were given a unique view into their epic journey from Airborne training, Normandy, Battle of the Bulge, and on to taking Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at the end of the war.

In the audiobook, Winters’ leadership principles were shared, as in Beyond Band of Brothers, and I think it is worth sharing with you. No matter your role in life, it is important to understand what it takes to lead. The military life can teach us a lot of things perhaps because the pressures seem greatest.

I have appreciated Major Winters  because of his “quiet strength” as a leader. Actor Damian Lewis played this very well on-screen in the mini-series.

I am humbled because as a leader I have far from mastered these lessons but they are principles that I need to be reminded of and develop on a daily basis. These lessons are applicable to any leader and not limited to the battlefield.

In the words of Major Winters, “Hang tough”.

Leadership At The Point Of a Bayonet

1. Strive to be a leader of character, competence, and courage.

2. Lead from the front. Say, “Follow me!” and then lead the way.

3. Stay in top physical shape–physical stamina is the root of mental toughness.

4. Develop your team. If you know your people, are fair in setting realistic goals and expectations, and lead by example, you will develop teamwork.

5. Delegate responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their job. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have a chance to use your imagination and creativity.

6. Anticipate problems and prepare to overcome obstacles. Don’t wait until you get to the top of the ridge and then make up your mind.

7. Remain humble. Don’t worry about who receives the credit. Never let power or authority go to your head.

8. Take a moment of self-reflection. Look at yourself in the mirror every night and ask yourself if you did your best.

9. True satisfaction comes from getting the job done. They key to a successful leader is to earn respect–not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character.

10. Hang Tough!–Never, ever, give up.

As a student of American History, I find it fascinating to learn from key figures who have shaped our nation over the past almost 250 years.

Reading about FDR, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Reagan, Kennedy, Jefferson, and Jackson is intriguing and each one has many admirable qualities. Each has shaped the nation based on the circumstances presented before them.

There is one who set the precedent for all of them, though: George Washington.

Washington today is often seen as a mythical yet distant figure since we get to stare at his face on the one dollar bill, quarter, and other official government documents. But we would be doing a disservice to him if we didn’t understand what separated him from other leaders.

George Washington was an admirable man because of his excellent leadership qualities but what separated him from most was his humility.

The Prayer at Valley Forge, Arnold Friberg's most well known painting. (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Prayer at Valley Forge, Arnold Friberg’s most well-known painting. (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Even at the height of his power, Washington set the tone for what being the leader of the President of the United States of America meant. In Europe at the time, the highest power in a nation was typically monarchial. Washington saw his position as a public servant. Although the power of the Presidency has ebbed and flowed over the past two centuries, what echoes most loudly is Washington’s humility.

Indeed, his humility was as much, perhaps even more so, a part of his greatness.

Here are 5 ways we can learn from Washington’s humility. 

  • Reluctance for Power: In 1783 when the war ended, Washington went back to his plantation in Virginia as a farmer. Five years later, he was quite pleased with his life, even despite the war’s fanfare. But he recognized that people needed him and he gave up a very comfortable life to come back to lead the nation in its infancy. It is easy to desire power but it must be at the right time and place and unless we are rooted in humility like Washington, we will fail.
  • Limited Service: Washington only served two terms in office. He saw the position as temporary and realized that the position was more important than his name. Presidents for the most part have followed his example since then. Our time on earth is short so it is important to always look at how we are training the next level of leaders to follow us.
  • A Man of the People: He dressed in civilian clothes as President. He was encouraged by some to wear his military uniform but he felt it would look too much like a military dictatorship and like most of Europe’s leadership. No matter our roles in life, we must always treat others with respect and dignity like Washington.
  • The Name of the President: He refused to be called a monarch or a more eloquent name like “His Majesty”, despite what John Adams and Alexander Hamilton wanted. He simply wanted to be called “Mr. President”. Washington was a man of deep Christian faith and was known to be in prayer often recognizing God’s power over his role. People follow courage and humility, not just titles.
  • Lead in the Hard Times: In the winter of 1777-78, Washington’s camp was at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. During this incredibly harsh winter, Washington was found to consistently walk through the camp to encourage and engage with his troops. He was never afraid to lead with them and not from behind.

Last, I found this story (more myth but the spirit is true) about Washington that reveals a lot about his servant leadership.

Once upon a time a rider came across a few soldiers who were trying to move a heavy log of wood without success.

The corporal was standing by just watching as the men struggled.

The rider couldn’t believe it. He finally asked the corporal why he wasn’t helping.

The corporal replied: “I am the corporal. I give orders.

The rider said nothing in response. Instead he dismounted his horse. He went up and stood by the soldiers and as they tried to lift the wood and he helped them.

With his help, the task was finally able to be carried out.

Who was this kind rider?

The rider was George Washington, the Commander-in-chief.

He quietly mounted his horse and went to the corporal and said, “The next time your men need help, send for the commander-in-chief.”

But the humble will inherit the land and will enjoy abundant prosperity. – Psalm 37:11

To learn more about George Washington, I recommend you to read a fascinating narrative of his life, “His Excellency” by Joseph J. Ellis.

I love reading biographies.

I make an effort to read three or four biographies per year about people I have admired or wanted to learn more about.

For those who are avid readers, you may have a genre that you favor more than others. In the past two years I have made an effort to read a greater variety of books, especially by reading (or re-reading) classics and venturing into fiction. These genres are all fascinating and drive my spirit of mind. But, I keep coming back to my first love of biography.

I believe that human lives are beautiful and are meant to be studied. It’s not because I don’t care about myself. It is also not because I think people who have a book written about them (or by them) deserve to be worshiped, either. I do love hearing about their adventures and great triumphs and feel like I am along for the ride.

But, the secret to a good biography is learning that these great people we admire have made mistakes, just like us.

Historian Walter Isaacson said it best,

“When you write biographies, whether it’s about Ben Franklin or Einstein, you discover something amazing: They are human.”

I believe that God sees each of us as a biography being written. After all, He sees us for who we really are; imperfect people who need grace and an urging by his holy spirit to act. Thus, he sends us on a journey called life. Some of us have a harder journey than others. But, we are all meant to seek it for God’s greater glory and that means taking steps beyond what we could ever have imagined. I believe biographies exist to remind us that we are not alone in our struggles.

Psalm 121:8

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

I think when I watch a movie like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it reminds me that we need to do more than dream. We just need to obey God and act. And by that act comes a great journey in faith. Watch the movie and the life of Walter Mitty to understand this scene. Although the story is fictional, Mitty’s life represents a living biography. Clearly he has dreamed but it his the transformation that counts.

Start by examining your own life and how the story is meant to be told. Then read the lives of others to see how you can see your stories in theirs.

This past year, I have read the following biographies and here is a quick lesson (of many) I’ve learned from each.

Young Winston Churchill at the beginning of his journey.

Young Winston Churchill at the beginning of his journey.

Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill by Michael Shelden

  • Insight: Did you know that Churchill’s career was virtually done with at the age of 40? Did that stop him? “Never give in” were his words. And we now know him as the uniter of the English language to defeat Naziism.

Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas

  • Insight: Eisenhower was blamed for not being tough enough on the Soviets in the 1950s. But, it was his restraint and patience that kept the world alive.

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (The Odyssey of Pat Tillman) 

  • Insight: Studying the life of someone like Pat Tillman who gave up millions of dollars to join the military post-9/11 is fascinating. But, think twice of why he really served.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

  • Insight: Ever wondered if CIA agents were all like Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt? Think again. This is how real 20th Century CIA work was done.

 

Biographies are meant to inspire us.

They are here to compel us to move.

I dare you to pick up a biography this week.

Report back in on the journey.

Remember, Bilbo Baggins needed to go on his adventures first before his story could be told.

Go write yours.

I am a huge proponent of studying the lives of the great people of history. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching a modern-day trailblazer in action but there is something more pleasing about studying another’s life in full to understand their story and what we can learn from it.

I want to know their dreams, adventures, successes, struggles, and what they learned in the process. Then I want to study the life application.

Those who know me and have read this blog are aware that I am a student of Winston Churchill as are many others. The latest book of his I am reading is Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill by Michael Shelden.

Most people know Winston Churchill by his magnanimous speeches with his deep British accent, his cigar in hand as he walked, and the way he led the United Kingdom with the Allies to victory in World War II. He is one of the most quotable people of all time and books continue to be written about him and I suppose more will continue to be for years to come.

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What most people do not know is that Winston Churchill was considered an incredible failure by the age of 40.

Like Churchill, we begin life with so much promise and hope – the world is to be conquered. Churchill was desperate to establish himself as a fast-moving politician in Edwardian England. He was an astute student of history and knew that he must be daring in how he lived to gain attention. He served in the military for a few years and in 1899 he was commissioned as a war correspondent during the Boer War. Churchill became famous worldwide for his fight in a train ambush and later through his daring escape from a POW camp in South Africa. Most Americans don’t know that he was a celebrity in the US even in his twenties and went on a massive speaking tour in North America to share stories from his Boer War heroics.

It’s easy to canonize Winston Churchill because of his successes. But, pay closer attention to his failures that made him who we know him today. 

During the First World War, Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and the chief proponent of the invasion of Turkey now known as the Gallipoli campaign. His strategy was to create a southern link to Russia, their ally. The Turks were a skillful and determined enemy, repelled the allies, and the campaign costed the lives of many young Australians and New Zealanders (ANZAC troops). Perhaps not solely responsible for the tactical defeat on the ground, the campaign was never the less Churchill’s idea and it crippled him politically for years.

Churchill was a big, fat, failure. 

We now know the rest of the story as it didn’t end there.

Churchill entered the political wilderness, dug in his heels, and marched back to eventually become Prime Minister during World War II.

So what do we learn from Churchill’s first half of life?

Churchill said it best,

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We may not live life with the type of drama that Churchill lived but we do share the ups and downs of life. Which honest person hasn’t had setbacks in life? We all have taken a punch or two to the face and even have fallen. It hurts admitting it but it is part of life.

“Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

Churchill’s life has taught us that failure is part of our journey and we become better because of it.

For that, we can keep getting back up and moving forward because victory in life is found in how we respond to the punches.

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