Review copy provided by the publisher.
This is an absolutely lovely brick. I loved reading it, and I recommend it highly. Wilson is the author of a similarly huge history of the Thirty Years War which I also really enjoyed, and he starts this book in 1500 in part because he knows that a lot of the “common wisdom” about things that started with or after the Thirty Years War is not true and wants to give a fuller context.
This book isn’t called The Swiss: They Exist, Dammit but that’s a major theme that works really, really well: Wilson doesn’t mistake the current national boundaries among German-speaking peoples for inevitable eternal destiny, and this makes a lot of things make a lot more sense than they do if you assume that we have arrived at the one true set of national boundaries toward which everyone was always yearning. This is true of the Austrians but especially of the Swiss, they are so often relegated to “I dunno they were up in the mountains somewhere what do you want from me.” Not this time. Detailed accounts of the establishment and maintenance of Swiss neutrality, Swiss mercenary corps, etc. Hurrah.
It’s quite a long and eventful bit of history to cover, so my one complaint is that Wilson has chosen to divide into periods and then into theme within period…which is great…but his periods are extremely long. And I get that he has stuff he wants to cover about how various things in WWII segued directly into how militaries were handled in the divided Germanies of the 20th century and that segued into how the reunited Germany handles those same issues in the present, but…it made for a lot of back-and-forthing. 1930s to present is…rather long. As periods go for this kind of discussion.
Nevertheless, this is a book that has a lot of interesting things to say both about fun details with which you can amaze your family (plunderhosen, my pals) and about the larger patterns–and also what they weren’t. It’s the sort of book that seems essential once you have it.