“The approach of this book is episodic rather than exhaustive,” writes Stephen Prothero, author of Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections). This is a generous description. For readers interested in analysis more than the pursuit of an agenda, it is also a warning.
Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, undertook this investigation after puzzling over the conservative resistance to the construction of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks. American respect for religious liberty and private property weighed in favor of letting the project proceed, he writes, so “why all the fuss?”
Walk along the Neva River in St. Petersburg and eventually you will come upon a willowy bronze depiction of 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She is caught mid-motion, her head half turned toward Kresty prison across the river, where hundreds of Stalin’s victims were murdered—including her husband, poet Nikolai Gumilyov. Memorials like this preserve history and the truth, despite efforts at erasure, but statues can be knocked down. Poetry, on the other hand, is more resilient.
Historian Robert Kirchubel’s Atlas of the Eastern Front 1941-1945 begins with a map key of unit identity distinctions. The key is critical to the atlas, its immense detail hinting at the kind of book it helps to decipher. After all, the legend involves various identifiers for units ranging from an army group formation with tens of thousands of men to a company of perhaps one hundred men. It also points out the different specializations of each unit. We are thus warned at the outset: this is a book only for professionals and passionate amateur historians.