There was a time in my life when I thought I hated history. My irritation with the subject developed in high school. History classes were taught by athletic coaches, most of whom didn’t seem particularly interested in the subject matter and I found our textbooks to be completely devoid of relevance. My smug adolescent brain assigned little value to the required course load so that when completed, my attitude was “goodbye and good riddance”.
Notably, in my effort to take as few history classes as possible, I never took a course that covered the 20th century. I’m embarrassed to admit that for decades I persisted in the belief that I’d absorbed enough knowledge from family anecdotes, TV, and movies to be adequately informed on topics ranging from the Great Depression to the Cold War.
One period that seemed particularly well-covered in popular media was World War II. When choosing books to read or documentaries to watch, I routinely skipped over this era. Starting around 2010, however, this began to change. With each title I consumed came an increasing awareness that there exists an unlimited supply of angles and anecdotes to keep me enthralled. Just when I think I can move on from this genre, another WWII story piques my interest. Such was the case with Wine & War, by Don and Petie Kladstrup.
One Commodity Above All Others
Thanks to the book All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and the 2014 film, The Monuments Men, many Americans are aware of France’s attempts to save its fine arts and museum treasures from German clutches. But according the authors of Wine & War, the German effort to confiscate and control France’s wine production was an even higher priority for the Third Reich.
Historians are divided over the extent of Hitler’s teetotalism. Some claim he never drank. Others say his devotion to asceticism was invented by Goebbels, his chief propagandist. Whatever his proclivities with respect to alcohol, Hitler recognized the value of wine and he would stop at nothing to commandeer France’s internationally-renowned supply chain.
Through an impressive collection of personal anecdotes gathered from winegrowers who survived the fighting, Wine & War delivers a new and uplifting spin on the story of French Resistance.
Personal and Particular
Perhaps what I appreciated most about this book is the display of human ingenuity, rebellion, and determination that lies at its heart. Starting before German troops crossed into France and ending with the repossession of Hitler’s private wine stash after the war, French people often risked everything to save their precious vineyards and vintages.
In under 300 pages, the authors seem to cover nearly every way in which wine played a role during World War II.
- From compensatory caseloads sent to boost the spirits of a quickly defeated French army, to giant casks outfitted for smuggling members of the Resistance across the Line of Demarcation.
- From Germany’s efforts to prevent their own soldiers from pillaging and destroying France’s finest vines, to its appointment of weinführers—agents charged with buying as much French wine as possible and shipping it back to Germany where it could be resold at a huge markup.
- From French winegrowers that hid the “good stuff” while watering down the bottles they sold to their occupiers, to French wine merchants tried for treason after the war for having supplied the enemy.
- From captured and starved French officers planning a multi-day wine festival, to the race between French and American forces to reach Hitler’s secret wine vaults, hidden high in the Austrian Alps.
- From winegrowers drafted to fight for Germany and sent to the Russian front, to the French women who suddenly found themselves in charge of their family’s centuries-old wine business.
- From winegrowers that hid allied paratroopers in their cellars to those who begrudgingly housed German officers throughout the war—sometimes one and the same.
These are just some of the highlights that come to mind.
Bringing History to Life
Wine & War loosely follows the struggles of several of France’s prominent wine dynasties, interweaving personal anecdotes with interesting facts and figures about the war. There were times when I found the writing a bit choppy, but in general, I think the authors did an impressive job of organizing a sizeable assortment of information.
Books like this one bring history to life, an objective that most (if not all) school textbooks fail to achieve. Over the years, I’ve convinced myself that our education system should stop trying to get kids to regurgitate an abundance of dates and brief facts spanning centuries of our past. Instead, the goal should be to instill an appreciation for the struggles and triumphs of human history. Have students read one or two books per semester that take a broad look at a single subject like the Transatlantic Slave Trade, or the Dust Bowl, or the French Revolution. There is a wealth of wonderful books to choose from. It doesn’t matter where you start. The point is to set kids on a journey that will last a lifetime.
What’s your relationship to the study of human history? Did you perhaps have an excellent teacher or two that brought your high school texts to life? What are some of your favorite historical books? Please weigh in below.
- Sud Ouest, En images : c’était comment les vendanges en Gironde, avant la viticulture 2.0 ?
Same here, I hated history (always boring techiners), until I was asked myself to give history classes pertaining to a religious order. Then I got hooked!
Nice post. Right now, France is losing lots of its wines, for other reasons – a bunch of super big Bordeaux wines are now really the property of Chinese companies, as they have the largest part in the actions.
It’s fun to learn that you too were bored with history, Emma. You obviously got over your ennui!
Very interesting to learn about the Chinese takeovers. This doesn’t surprise me but it does seem sad. The French value their centuries-old traditions. Not everything should be about maximizing profit.
Fascinating. I didn’t know about that. They pilfered everything. That was the way of War. It is now happening in Ukraine…
History? Just love it. No particular teacher, (Home schooled remember?) My parents liked history. I had good textbooks and the subject always fascinated me. Plus my family’s relationship with history is strong as you may have seen in many of my posts…
I also think that History is critical. it is the only way we can learn form the errors of the past. And P*tin is just bringing us back to the savagery of WWII on the Nazi (and R*ssian) side… Sigh…
You are a shining example of why “one-size-fits-all” curriculums are absurd, Brieuc. Luckily, a family’s culture is still the most important ingredient in a child’s upbringing, whether homeschooled or not.
Merci. (Though not sure whether I deserve the adjective “shining” )
Fact is my mother was indeed our “teacher” all through primary school. Then we had outside teachers come in for… math, Latin (yes!) Spanish. But basically our parents taught us, using the manuals and text-books. And muy mother, who did not complete high school because of the war, taught us “les tables de multiplication, Spelling, grammar, how to write essays… She was a woman of great culture…
…..our education system should stop trying to get kids to regurgitate an abundance of dates and brief facts spanning centuries of our past. Instead, the goal should be to instill an appreciation for the struggles and triumphs of human history…..
Kids usually don’t relate well to dry data, but they do tend to like stories. History is a kaleidoscope of interlocking stories and should be taught as such. Emphasize the narratives, the personalities, what the various important persons, groups, and nations in a given conflict were fighting for and what their motives were — the way one would do in a novel. The exact dates are less important (people can look those up, anyway), so long as students get an accurate general idea of when things happened and why.
We now have a mass of people who can look up any individual item of fact on the internet but don’t understand what it means because they lack the background information to put it in context. They can easily look up what year the Ottomans captured Constantinople, but the information isn’t really meaningful because they don’t know anything about who the Ottomans were, or about the Muslim-Christian conflict at the time, or about the development of military technology.
Antony Beevor’s books on World War II do a good job of making history lively and interesting (he is unstinting about describing the atrocities, but they’re a necessary part of the story). Another excellent and lively book is Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, about the Belgian rule in the Congo — one of the worst horrors in human history, but little known in the US. Simon Schama’s A History of Britain is one I’ve read through several times, despite its hefty three-volume length. It gives some attention to what life was like for ordinary people during the various periods of history, and the power relations of social classes, not just the antics and schemes of royalty.
Some of the best history books are biographies — not surprising since they naturally focus the most on storytelling and personality. Two favorites of mine are Mary Renault’s The Nature of Alexander and Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (about Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism). Biographies generally require the reader to have some background knowledge of the period to put things in context, though.
You bring up an excellent point about stories Infidel. Filling a semester with a series of shorter pieces, rather than full-scale books as I suggested is a better idea.
I also read King Leopold’s Ghost. Wonderful book! The History of Britain sounds good, especially because you say it talks about the lives of ordinary people, not just of nobility.
I think biographies are an excellent way to learn about history. No single book can come close to painting a complete picture but over time, they add up, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and the reader becomes aware of human behaviors, tendencies and circumstances that they’ve had no firsthand exposure to. That’s the beauty and importance of studying history.
I can forgive young people for not knowing that much about history but its tragic how little middle-age and older people don’t know–especially when they are our elected officials. Have you ever visited the Library of Congress? The Great Hall is a spectacular example of how much thought went into creating our national archive of human knowledge. It is filled with art that recognizes the contributions of ancient philosophers, scientists, and rulers. Many of the people currently serving in our Federal, State, and Local goverments seem to have little understanding of the principles behind the dozens of quotations that adorn the walls.
An example of what A History of Britain gets right is that the section on the 19th century spends a lot of time on the broadening applications of technology during that time — things like providing running water to every settlement in the country, which were much more important to the average person than the intrigues of the monarchy. That’s the kind of thing I look for from history. Bad European history focusing on dynasties tends to read like soap opera — all intrigues about who’s going to marry whom and suchlike.
I’ve never been to DC at all, but I know the Library of Congress is supposed to be the largest library in the world. Unfortunately most power-seekers are not thinkers, though there are exceptions, nor do they have much respect for thinkers. From Galileo to Fauci, progress has been held up again and again because the little scuttling popes, kings, and presidents failed to show proper deference to their betters. It’s remarkable that science has accomplished so much despite that.
“European history focusing on dynasties tends to read like soap opera”. This reminds me of my attempt to read Wolf Hall earlier this year. I read read 250 or so pages and then stopped. Just couldn’t get into it. Maybe this is part of the reason why. But then, not all books are for everyone.
“most power-seekers are not thinkers”—a simple statement that makes perfect sense yet I don’t think many people recognize this. Your comments are so insightful Infidel. I suspect you won’t be running for office.
Your highlights about the book are an intriguing introduction to it. The discussion of education through stories is timely: if the January 6th Committee’s impact is as lasting as it appears it may be, it will be because they told some compelling stories. One of my favorite books about events leading up to WW II is Citizens of London, by Lynne Olson.
Good point Annie. I imagine there will be books about Trump and his administration for many years to come. I’ll check out Citizens of London. Thanks.
All I learned from high school history is that the ability to store grain was essential to civilization and that barbed wired was essential to settling the West. I was interested in French language and culture, so I majored in French, Then I changed to French history because I knew I would never have enough money to go to France to study. Then I changed to Art History and won (almost) free trips to France, England, and Italy.
Our ignorance of history started with No Child Left Behind—they didn’t test social studies, so History was omitted.
Good to know that at least you picked up a couple interesting facts, Laura. That’s an interesting path you followed through school. Many people I know ended up working in a field they’d not foreseen when they began college.
Do you think formalized testing of history would improve the current understanding of the subject?
Interesting article, Carol. With millions of people caught up in the conflict, it’s understandable that a seemingly endless supply of stories exist for that period. I’m no educator, but it seems to me students would benefit from having a big picture (what, when, and why) of historic events, as well as personal stories from multiple points of view. We’re all drawn to narratives. Before long, you recognize that individual stories, and the people who populate them, are part of a larger historical arc.
I had the good fortune of having a couple of good teachers in high school that sparked my interest in history, plus a long-time love of reading historical fiction that led me to read history and biographies. Movies can be a good catalyst for learning about historical events. Travel, too.
That’s an excellent point Diana about there being an endless supply of interesting accounts. I remain skeptical about curriculums that try to cover wide swaths of time. I feel like that kind of program hampers even the best teachers. Perhaps a curriculum that provides a rough outline but leaves plenty of time to tackle a few compelling events/personalities more thoroughly would answer both needs.
I envy your experience with good history teachers. My outlook is undoubtedly influenced by my lack of inpirational instruction. Regarding movies and historical novels, I think its cool when teachers from different subject areas join forces. My kids’ high school did a bit of this. For example, a French teacher could have students read excerpts from Les Miserables around the same time that the World History teacher covers the French Revolution. Easier said than done, however.