Dan Carlin's Hardcore History

>> Thursday, October 19, 2017

This one's a bit of a new one for my blog, in that it's a review of a podcast. I do book reviews here, but the only difference between this particular podcast and a non-fiction audiobook is that while it's scripted, there's clearly an element of ad-libbing in how the script is delivered. So, why not?

Dan Carlin is a journalist and broadcaster who hosts a couple of very popular podcasts. The one I'm looking at here is called Hardcore History, and in it, he explores different historical topics. Sometimes he'll do a single podcast episode on a single topic, but what I'm reviewing (because it's what I've listened to so far) are two separate series of podcasts, both of which are basically military history.

The first one is called Wrath of the Khans, and it's a 5-episode series covering the history of the Mongol empire, from the rise of Gengis Khan to the decline of the empire. This series came out in a 6-month period from mid-2012, and it's about 8:30 hours long.

The second, Blueprint for Armageddon, is considered by many to be Carlin's magnum opus (so far!). This 6-episode series is about World War I, concentrating on the war itself. The episodes here are massive, clocking in at around about 4 hours each. The whole thing is 23 hours. The episodes came out between October 2013 and May 2015.

Carlin often makes it clear that although he loves history, he's not a historian. I suppose he means that he's not going to the primary sources to bring in new knowledge, like a professional historian would. What he does, and I think it's just as valuable, is to take the work from professional historians and make it into an incredibly absorbing story. He's a storyteller.

Actually, he's a wonderful, masterful storyteller. Here's what I love about Hardcore History:

1) Carlin takes a huge range of sources and creates a coherent story that makes sense. He simplifies, obviously, but in a way that doesn't seem simplistic. He's very good at signposting the bits that are missing (e.g. how he's concentrating more on a particular front during WWI, and that at the same time stuff was going on in this other front).

2) It's not that he takes only the cool, fun bits, but that he makes even the dry bits fascinating. This includes things like descriptions of military manouvers, which I previously thought could not be done in a way that wouldn't put me to sleep.

3) Explaining is just as important as bringing events to life. I already knew intellectually that the trenches in WWI had been horrific, but it was not until I listened to Blueprint for Armageddon that I felt that in my gut and could really picture it. I'd never stopped to think about what it might have been like to know that the Mongol hordes approached your city. I felt that horror.

4) Carlin has a knack for zeroing in on just the right little detail that illustrates the big picture, just the right personal perspective from a person involved.

5) He does not forget about the impact of these big historical things on the individual. Just because something horrific happened long ago, it doesn't magically become appropriate to take it lightly. When I read The Handmaid's Tale long ago, the bit that unexpectedly changed how I look at things forever was the epilogue. It takes place many, many years after the events in the story, and features a male historian who's discovered Offred's record of her experience. He makes jokes and cheeky puns. We've just experienced the traumatising pain of Offred's life, so this feels extremely jarring. And yet, that's how so many modern historians deal with their material, particularly sexual violence. I just listened to another historical podcast where the (female) historian who was being interviewed was describing how a Scottish nobleman had broken into an estate and "forced a marriage" upon the widow of the former owner in order to gain the property. He made sure he consummated the marriage, and all hell broke loose the next morning. And this historian felt it appropriate to joke that she hoped the wedding night had been worth it, hahah. She was talking about rape. Dan Carlin emphatically does NOT do this. When he's talking about how Mongols would often take the women of their defeated enemies as wives, he stops to say that this is the way they referred to it and that it is a euphemism, a euphemism that hides sexual violence. He does not let us forget this.

6) Carlin somehow manages not to glorify war, while at the same time creating pictures that make the listener go "wow!" These pictures stick in my mind. The German army marching through Belgium. The Mongols in a battle with Polish knights. Wow.

7) He's got a very idiosyncratic way of speaking (if you say to any Hardcore History listener "Ageeeen. And ageeen. And ageeeen", they'll laugh knowingly). I love it (however, YMMV).

There are now 60 episodes of Hardcore History, and the last 10 or so are available for free on the website. This includes the Blueprint for Armageddon series, but also a series called Kings of Kings (about the Achamemenid Persian empire), a single episode called The Celtic Holocaust (about Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul) and what he calls a Blitz episode (I think these are more explorations of a theme) about the development of nuclear warfare and how humanity has dealt with having the power to destroy itself. The remaining 50 episodes are available for "a buck a show, that's all we ask". I've bought them all, even though I hear the earlier ones are not as good (Carlin was apparently still developing how he does things), and call it a bargain.


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