Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures

So much of history depends on random chance. A door left open, an order obeyed, a train taken can change the fate of nations, and of the entire world. Stefan Zweig's Triumph and Disaster is about five particular moments in Western history when such change occurred. These "miniatures" jump in time and place from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the modern era, including Lenin's arrival in Russia on a "sealed train" in 1917, and each one shows how often the difference between triumph and disaster is little more than a roll of the dice.

Triumph and Disaster is slim, and Zweig (1881-1942) shows off his considerable talent by placing the reader into the context of each miniature with speed and precision. Beginning with the Battle of Waterloo--where one overly faithful subordinate failed to provide a rearguard for Napoleon--Zweig drops into periods of history expertly to describe "a single moment that determines and establishes everything." Summing up decades of history in a short paragraph, his goal is to get to the heart of tectonic change. The result is a series of short thrill-rides, where even if the reader knows why something occurred, it's still a treat to see how Zweig raises the tension as he races to a well-known conclusion. Calling these short pieces miniatures makes them seem like a lark (especially coupled with how fast they read), but Triumph and Disaster is stellar historical writing. Even as it zips by, it fully embraces this central thesis: sometimes the greatest change comes from the most unlikely places. --Noah Cruickshank, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.

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