Oops, no results. Check out what we have on All Shows.

History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

History Unplugged Podcast Episodes
John Burgoyne: The British Playboy Who Lost the Revolutionary War
February 14, 2023 - 31 min

No British General of the Revolutionary War has been written about more than John Burgoyne. That’s because of his surrender of his army at Saratoga, New York in 1777, widely seen as the turning point in the Revolutionary War. He is considered a reckless lout, and there’s plenty in his life story to support this characterization. He gambled heavily and possibly had to flee England as a young man to escape his debtors. His father-in-law eventually paid Burgoyne’s debts and got him another commission in the army, just in time for the 7 Years War. There he served admirably and became a war hero. But 300 years after his birth, the many lives of Burgyone -- dashing cavalry colonel of the Seven Years War, satirical London playwright, reformer Member of Parliament, gambler in the clubs on St James’s Street – have been forgotten.

Today’s guest is Norman Poser, author of From the Battlefield to the Stage: The Many Lives of General John Burgyone. We look not only at the Saratoga campaign, but also elements of Burgoyne’s eventful life that have never been adequately explored. He was a socialite, welcome in London’s fashionable drawing rooms, a high-stakes gambler in its elite clubs, and a playwright whose social comedies were successfully performed on the London stage. Moreover, as a member of Parliament for thirty years, Burgoyne supported the rule of law, fought the corruption of the East India Company – he was a sworn enemy of Clive of India whom he denounced with all his might – and advocated religious tolerance.

How Britain Stole Intelligence from Nazi High Command Via Their German Drinking Buddies
February 9, 2023 - 52 min

"How might the British have handled Hitler differently?” remains one of history’s greatest "what ifs."

Many fault the Neville Chamberlain administration of the 1930s with trying to appease the Fuhrer by any means necessary. But they failed, still got a war, and earned a reputation for cowardice. Or as Winston Churchill said to Chamberlain, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.” But what if we haven’t given Britain enough credit for trying to stave off the war in ways that weren’t dishonorable?
It turns out they did, and they got very creative. One method involved using a handful of amateur British intelligence agents who wined, dined, and befriended the leading National Socialists between the wars. With support from royalty, aristocracy, politicians, and businessmen, they hoped to use the recently founded Anglo-German Fellowship as a vehicle to civilize and enlighten the Nazis.
At the heart of the story are a pacifist Welsh historian, a World War I flying ace, and a butterfly-collecting businessman, who together offered the British government better intelligence on the horrifying rise of the Nazis than any other agents. They infiltrated the Nazi high command deeper than any other spies, relaying accurate intelligence to both their government and to its anti-appeasing critics. Having established a personal rapport with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, they delivered intelligence to him directly, paving the way for American military support for Great Britain against the Nazi threat.
To tell this story is today’s guest, Charles Spicer, author of “Coffee With Hitler.” His book is based on eight years of research among letters, intelligence reports, and other primary sources, many of which have been lost or overlooked by historians.
While these men didn’t succeed in their goal, they did feed critical intelligence to the British Establishment and gave them a very clear understanding of the threat that Hitler posed. That’s why when war did finally break out, Britain wasn’t caught asleep at the switch. It had spent years arming itself and training for the outbreak of hostilities. More could have been done – and that’s always the case when it comes to total war – but we have these men to credit for trying to avoid and neutralize an enemy that was unavoidable and immovable.

The Encyclopedia: One Book’s Quest to Hold the Sum of All Knowledge
February 7, 2023 - 32 min

What if one book could contain the sum of mankind’s knowledge? Scholars and chroniclers have tried to write this book since antiquity, penning several so-called universal histories (perhaps the best was Rashid al-Din’s “Compendium of the Chronicles” that was commissioned by a Mongol Empire daughter state in 14th century). This goal was reached in 1768 with the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published in Scotland by Enlightenment thinkers who believed that human thinking could be categorized. It became a fixture of American households in the 19th century and occupied the bookshelves of every library and school in the United States until very recently.

Today’s guest is Jill Lepore's show, host of the show “The Last Archive,” about the US's post-truth crisis -- of how we know what we know and why it seems lately as if we can't agree on anything at all. She both reckons with the present moment through her historical expertise and also presents solutions that are forward and current.

How Much Can One Individual Alter History? More and Less Than You Think
February 2, 2023 - 42 min

How far can a single leader alter the course of history? Thomas Carlyle, who promoted the Great Man Theory, says that talented leaders are the primary – if not the sole – cause of change. This view has been challenged by social scientists who understand that leaders are not only constrained by their societies, but merely products of them. Whatever this interplay between a personality and his society, it raises the question of whether dictators are as unconstrained as they seem, and if so, how do they attain that power?

Today’s guest is Ian Kershaw, author of Personality and Power. We look at an array of case-studies of twentieth-century European leaders – some dictators, some democrats – and explore what was it about these leaders, and the times in which they lived, that allowed them such untrammelled and murderous power, and what factors brought that era in Europe to an end?

The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East
January 31, 2023 - 42 min

The most disruptive and transformative event in the Middle Ages wasn’t the Crusades, the Battle of Agincourt, or even the Black Death. It was the Mongol Conquests. Even after his death, Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire grew to become the largest in history—four times the size of Alexander the Great’s and stretching from the Pacific to the Mediterranean. But the extent to which these conquering invasions and subsequent Mongol rule transformed the diverse landscape of the medieval Near East have been understated in our understanding of the modern world.

Today’s guest is Nicholas Morton, author of “The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Middle East.” We discuss the overlapping connections of religion, architecture, trade, philosophy and ideas that reformed over a century of Mongol rule. Rather than a Euro- or even Mongol-centric perspective, this history uniquely examines the Mongol invasions from the multiple perspectives of the network of peoples of the Near East and travelers from all directions—including famous figures of this era such as Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, and Roger Bacon, who observed and reported on the changing region to their respective cultures—and the impacted peoples of empires—Byzantine, Seljuk and then Ottoman Turks, Ayyubid, Armenian, and more—under the violence of conquest.

Weather Itself Was WW2's Fiercest Enemy: The Sinking of the USS Macaw
January 26, 2023 - 34 min

On January 16, 1944, the submarine rescue vessel USS Macaw ran aground at Midway Atoll while attempting to tow the stranded submarine USS Flier. The Flier was pulled free six days later but another three weeks of salvage efforts plagued by rough seas and equipment failures failed to dislodge the Macaw. On February 12, enormous waves nudged the ship backward into deeper water. As night fell and the Macaw slowly sank, the twenty-two sailors on board—ship's captain Paul W. Burton, his executive officer, and twenty enlisted men—sought refuge in the pilothouse but by the following afternoon, the compartment was almost entirely flooded. Burton gave the order to open the portside door and make for the foremast. Three men succeeded but most of the others were swept overboard. Five of them died, including Burton. Three sailors from the base at Midway also lost their lives in two unauthorized rescue attempts.

Today’s guest is Tim Loughman, author of A Strange Whim of the Sea: The Wreck of the USS Macaw. He traces the ship's service from its launch on San Francisco Bay to its disastrous final days at Midway. It tells a war story short on combat but not on drama, a wartime tragedy in which the conflict is more interpersonal, and perhaps intrapersonal, than international. Ultimately, for Burton and the Macaw the real enemy was the sea, and in a deadly denouement, the sea won. Highlighting the underreported role auxiliary vessels played in the war, A Strange Whim of the Sea engages naval historians and students alike with a previously untold story of struggle, sacrifice, death, and survival in the World War II Pacific.

A Short History of War
January 24, 2023 - 50 min

Some anthropologists once believed that humanity lived in a peaceful state that lacked large-scale warfare before the arrival of large civilizations and all its wealth inequality and manufacture of weapons. But archeological findings have shown over and over that warfare dates back as far as homo sapiens themselves (such as the Bronze Age Battle of Tollense River, about which we known nearly nothing, save that 5,000 soldiers fought each other with primitive weapons).
Throughout history, warfare has transformed social, political, cultural, and religious aspects of our lives. We tell tales of wars—past, present, and future—to create and reinforce a common purpose.

Today’s guest is Jeremy Black, author of “A Short History of War.” We examine war as a global phenomenon, looking at the First and Second World Wars as well as those ranging from Han China and Assyria, Imperial Rome, and Napoleonic France to Vietnam and Afghanistan. Black explores too the significance of warfare more broadly and the ways in which cultural understandings of conflict have lasting consequences in societies across the world.

The 1911 McNamara Bros. Murder Trial was the OJ Simpson/Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard Case of Its Time
January 19, 2023 - 34 min

Considered by many to be one of the best-known criminal defense lawyers in the country, Clarence Darrow became nationally recognized for his eloquence, withering cross-examinations, and compassionate support for the underdog, both in and out of the courtroom.

Though his fifty-year-long career was replete with momentous cases, specifically his work in the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Leopold and Loeb Murder Trial, Darrow’s Nightmare zeroes in on just two years of Darrow’s career: 1911 to 1913. It was during this time period that Darrow was hired to represent the McNamara brothers, two union workers accused of bombing the Los Angeles Times building, an incident that resulted in twenty-one deaths and hundreds more injuries.

Along with investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens, Darrow negotiated an ambitious plea bargain on behalf of the McNamara brothers. But the plan soon unraveled; not long after the plea bargain was finalized, Darrow was accused of attempting to bribe a juror. As Darrow himself became the defendant, what was once his shining moment in the national spotlight became a threat to the future of his career and the safety of his family.

Today’s guest is Nelson Johnson, author of Darrow's Nightmare: The Forgotten Story of America's Most Famous Trial Lawyer: (Los Angeles 1911–1913). Drawing upon the 8,500-page transcript saved from the two trials, Johnson makes Darrow’s story come to life like never before.

Daniel Webster -- Perhaps History’s Greatest Orator -- Turned Virginians and New Yorkers Into Americans
January 17, 2023 - 37 min

When the United States was founded in 1776, its citizens didn’t think of themselves as “Americans.” They were New Yorkers or Virginians or Pennsylvanians. It was decades later that the seeds of American nationalism—identifying with one’s own nation and supporting its broader interests—began to take root. But what kind of nationalism should Americans embrace? The state-focused and racist nationalism of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson? Or the belief that the U.S. Constitution made all Americans one nation, indivisible, which Daniel Webster and others espoused?

Today’s guest is Joel Richard Paul, author of Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism. We look at the story of how Webster, a young New Hampshire attorney turned politician, rose to national prominence through his powerful oratory and unwavering belief in the United States and captured the national imagination. In his speeches, on the floors of the House and Senate, in court, and as Secretary of State, Webster argued that the Constitution was not a compact made by states but an expression of the will of all Americans.

As the greatest orator of his age, Webster saw his speeches and writings published widely, and his stirring rhetoric convinced Americans to see themselves differently, as a nation bound together by a government of laws, not parochial interests. As these ideas took root, they influenced future leaders, among them Abraham Lincoln, who drew on them to hold the nation together during the Civil War.

How Ottoman Sultan Suleyman Conquered Most of Europe and the Mediterranean While Avoiding Assassination
January 12, 2023 - 44 min

Within a decade and a half, Ottoman Sultan Suleyman, who reigned form 1520 to 1566, held dominion over twenty-five million souls, from Baghdad to the walls of Vienna, and with the help of his brilliant pirate commander Barbarossa placed more Christians than ever before or since under Muslim rule. He launched voyages into the Indian Ocean, threatened to conquer all of Europe, and took firm control over the Mediterranean Sea.

And yet the real drama takes place in close-up: in small rooms and whispered conversations, behind the curtain of power. His confidantes include the Greek slave who becomes his Grand Vizier, the Venetian jewel dealer who acts as his go-between, and the Russian consort who becomes his most beloved wife.

Today’s guest Christopher de Bellaigue, author of The Lion House. He tells not just the story of rival superpowers in an existential duel, nor of one of the most consequential lives in human history, but of what it means to live in a time when a few men get to decide the fate of the world.

Home Shows About Us Contact Us How to Listen