Archive for the 'history' Category

Amin Maalouf: Adrift

January 21, 2021

         It’s not often I read a book and end up thinking, everyone really needs to read this! But this is one of those rarities, the reflections of a wise and thoughtful Lebanese writer and novelist on the current state of the world, and why it’s in such a dreadful mess. He professes to be haunted by the image of our species heading ineluctably for shipwreck. And, a rarity, the book has been translated from French into English.

There are plenty of pundits who offer relatively superficial and partisan analyses of the world’s woes: Maalouf isn’t one of those. He begins modestly reflecting on his origins and family background, at some length: they are Lebanese, with historical connections with Egypt, and so his exploration is firmly anchored in how the problems of the Middle East, and of Islamic nations, are at the heart of so much that has gone wrong, a microcosm of the world’s greater problems.

It is false to think that the homogeneity of nations is a good thing: Spain became weaker after expelling Muslims and Jews after 1492, France became weaker after the expulsion of the Huguenots in 1685. Often the benefits of minority groups to a nation are only perceived when they have gone. I obviously thought of Brexit here!

The failure and collapse of communism as an ideal has helped move the world into its current disastrous state. Communism didn’t just appeal to the working class but also to minorities as a way of transcending divisions; briefly, Jews Christians and Muslims worked alongside each other in communist movements worldwide. A liberating space, an inspirational space has disappeared. And Maalouf weeps no tears for Stalin, Mao or any of the other tyrants: the failure of dirigiste state ‘socialism’ tarnished anything and everything vaguely resembling it, allowing conservative forces to invalidate social democracy and the welfare state too.

The Six Day War of 1967 had a devastating effect on the Arab world from which it has never recovered, and allowed political Islam to come to the fore. Equally, victory in that war has been a trap for Israel. Maalouf then notes the calamitous effects of the oil price rises of the 1970s, which were a direct response by Arab nations to the debacle of the 1973 war, in which the USA had supported Israel.

In his more general analysis, Maalouf sees 1979 as a turning point: the year conservatism declared itself revolutionary, with the election of Thatcher in the UK, followed by that of Reagan in the US the following year: the only option for the left was to try and hang onto what it had painfully won over the decades. At that time, Khomeiny also came to power in Iran, Deng Xiao Ping took the reins in China and changed its political and economic direction, and the Catholic Church elected John Paul II as Pope. And the USA let the genie of radical Islam out of the bottle by deliberately drawing the Soviet Union into the quagmire of Afghanistan… Maalouf points out that until then, the Muslim world had been gradually moving in a progressive and tolerant direction, towards modernity and laicisation; the West wrecked all this. Conservatism has moved openly hand-in-hand with the perfidious forces of nationalism and racism.

And as the purpose of the Reagan/Thatcher revolution was a massive attack on state power, the work of states as unifying forces was seriously harmed; suspicion of big government has fed into our inability to tackle issues such as the climate emergency in our own time. Maalouf knows that the state can, and must have a role in creating and fostering social cohesion. Instead, widening social divides have been accepted, and public authorities are now mistrusted by many. It’s hard to do justice to the depth of his reflection, which is that of a lifetime, and his knowledge of history, and the interactions between nations.

Maalouf articulates, far better than I’ve ever been able to, a good number of the thoughts and ideas I’ve worked out about the state of the planet over the years. He has written the most profound, reasoned and intelligent analysis and commentary on our times that I’ve ever read; he does not proffer any simplistic solutions beyond helping understand where we have gone adrift, and sadly, he admits to a great pessimism about our future…

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Noel Barber: Trans-siberian

December 26, 2020

This is an account of a journey on the Transsiberian Railway in the winter of 1939, so a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War. The writer and his wife begin their journey in Dairen, part of Japanese-occupied China, formerly the Russian city of Port Arthur, and now the city of Dalian. The casual anti-Japanese racism is quite shocking to this contemporary reader. Here is a white Westerner whose nose is put seriously out-of-joint, because of the way the Japanese clearly behave in a way that makes it clear they are the racially superior and more powerful ones. Of course, the Japanese treatment of China and the Chinese was abominable at this time; equally, everyone seemed to be anticipating war between Japan and the Soviet Union, a revenge re-play for the debacle of 1905…

I’ve always found old travel books fascinating, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the actual travelling requires a real effort, unlike so much of today’s travel. Then, there are the writers’ impressions of the places through which they pass, and the often very interesting casual encounters they have as they progress. All of these aspects combine to give a much clearer picture of a past era than you can necessarily derive from a history book.

What was particularly interesting about this book was that although the journey was made in 1939, the book wasn’t published until 1942, when we are in the middle of the Second World War, and the Soviet Union is one of our allies. Throughout, I was looking at the book as part of the propaganda effort to paint Stalin and the Soviets in an acceptable light, and how this was quite subtly done. The whole account of the journey and the places the writer sees and visits is interspersed with comments that update the reader to the current war and our ally’s efforts.

Stalin is very much in the background; we don’t get much more than references to the ubiquitous portraits garnishing public buildings. There is one slightly shocking reference to awkward social elements being ‘liquidated’. What is foregrounded is the military preparedness of the country, its massive industrial capabilities, large amounts of which are beyond the Ural mountains and therefore out of the reach of Germany. Much of the heavy industry can easily be converted to the war effort. And their troops are well-trained, well-prepared for action. A fair amount of this flies in the face of what we now know: Stalin’s refusal to believe the blindingly obvious German preparations for invasion and the country’s consequent chaos when war did finally break out, and the rush to move as much industry and production away from the German advance…

The idealism and the patriotism of the Soviet people is played up, as is women’s major contribution to the economy; there is much praise for the massive and rapid industrialisation and general modernisation of the country in the previous decade, and the master-minding of this is attributed to Stalin’s foresight. The picture of the genuine idealism of many Russians, especially the young, is borne out by later stories of their heroism and their suffering during the Great Patriotic War. As propaganda, such aspects are carefully presented, and the writer is also clear to admit what he doesn’t get to see, what he is not allowed to see, what he isn’t told, and the questions which those he meets are unable to answer…

All-in-all this was a fascinating glimpse into a long-vanished world, and also a reminder of the genuine idealism of many as they strove to build a new and better society. Everyone knows of the excesses, abuses and mass repressions and murders of the Stalinist era; no-one can or should make any excuses or apologies for them, and yet the desire of, and commitment to, a different and better world, by so many ordinary people, should not have been lost…

Richard Fletcher: The Cross and the Crescent

December 16, 2020

     This is a short, well-written and very readable account of the interactions between Christianity and Islam in their early days. Various pieces of a complex jigsaw are laid out clearly, and contrasts, connections and overlaps between the two faiths and their world-views explained lucidly.

There were a number of reasons why Islam tolerated both Judaism and Christianity in the lands it rapidly overran in the seventh and eighth centuries: partly the injunctions in the Qur’an about respecting the other ‘peoples of the book’ and partly Muslims were often in the minority, and needed the remnants of the old Roman Empire to continue functioning, which meant using its learned men and its bureaucrats.

What had never occurred to me was that the only possible framework within which Christianity could explain and view Islam was that of heresy: there were plenty of heresies that the orthodox church was trying to suppress in those days, and the such an idea was reinforced by the evident overlaps between the Christian and Muslim holy writings. Certainly there was no concept at all of a ‘new religion’. Equally, there was a tendency among in Islam to ignore Christianity, given the belief that Muhammad was the last of the prophets, with the final and perfected message from God, which necessarily superseded that of the Old Testament and Jesus… Christianity was passé, if you like.

Nor did the Christian lands seem to have very much to offer the Islamic world and its rulers; society in Christian lands was backward, primitive, agrarian. Although they were not very interested in each other as belief systems, there was much interest in the spread and sharing of knowledge, and eventually in trade. The gradual diffusion of the learning of the ancients was a lengthy process involving translations through multiple languages. Here was the greatest and most fruitful area of co-operation: curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge knows no boundaries. Yet, once the Christian West had gained the knowledge it wanted from its Eastern rivals, the two worlds gradually drifted apart, and Islam became more aloof and self-isolating.

And while Christians threw themselves with great energy and violence into Crusades to recapture the holy places from the ‘infidels’, the Muslim world was largely indifferent to what were merely pinpricks, and was far more concerned with serious dynastic rivalries and other more weighty issues. On the other hand, the Crusaders were having their eyes opened to a much wider world than the one they had known…

So Fletcher offers us a good number of refreshing new perspectives, which certainly helped me deepen my understanding of what went on in that era, from the seventh century to the Renaissance. He also explores, as far as the available evidence allows – and recognises where it is lacking or incomplete – how the Christian world eventually came to gain the edge over the Islamic world. He is clear that it was a complex spread of factors involving trade, Mongol invasions, dynastic rivalries in the Muslim nations and others… and others have also highlighted that the rapid adoption of printing technology in the West but not in the East, had much to do with this.

In Fletcher’s judgement, through the Middle Ages there was a persistent failure by both sides to try and understand each other – and I feel he is more than hinting at a message for contemporary readers here – which he recognises was probably inevitable. Certainly the rise of the West took the Islamic world by surprise, and it has probably never recovered from this. Here is a really interesting and useful read.

Miron Białoszewski: A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising

December 13, 2020

     I’ve read a number of historical accounts of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, notably the excellent account by Norman Davies in Rising ‘44. This memoir is a completely different thing. Historical accounts enjoy the benefits of hindsight and can make judgements broad in scope; they can give a full and complete overview of what the situation was at any particular point. Białoszewski’s memoir was originally written a number of years after the events in which he took part, and not published (in a slightly censored version) until 1970, yet it has an astonishing sense of immediacy which can be breathtaking.

Warsaw was already a pretty chaotic place after nearly five years of war and German occupation, and the previous year there had already been another brave but futile rising in the Jewish Ghetto, brutally suppressed by the Nazis, who then razed it to the ground. And the Soviet army was approaching the city from the east, although it decided to sit and await the outcome of the rising, and the consequent weakening of the Home Army…one of the most cynical of Stalin’s many vile calculations.

Białoszewski’s account shows us the camaraderie and self-help, among the ordinary citizens themselves and between them and the fighting partisans: here is ordinary humanity, sharing deaths and cruelties which are sprinkled through the account in a completely matter-of-fact way, which is alarming to those who have never experienced such random existence.

The narrator frequently to admits a sense of total confusion; details of time and place are often vague, descriptions impressionistic, laconic even. There is never a clear picture of the overall situation or state of play, for how could there be for someone in the middle of it all, and deprived of any certainties other than death? The feeling is one of suspended animation and it’s deeply disturbing.

As the rising progresses – Warsaw, or parts of it held out for 63 days in total, against the might of the Wehrmacht – Białoszewski and his family and companions move about the city, seeking new, safer havens temporarily, undertaking dangerous journeys through the city which he describes as existing on three levels: the gradually-demolished buildings on the surface, an immense network of interconnected cellars, and beneath these, complex routes through the city sewers…

We share people’s fears, panics and frequent calculations about potential safety in particular streets and buildings, under shellfire and bombing from German planes. We see them living underground from day-to-day, sometimes without food, sometimes with plenty of it, like insects constantly on the move.

Stylistically the writing is very interesting, and the translator – who has done a marvellous job – tells us how difficult her task was. Sentences are frequently very short, often verb-less and so non-sentences, creating a disjointed pace, and vivid impression of the universal chaos and violence surrounding everyone, and just dropping the reader in the middle of it all. Time isn’t linear – Białoszewski flits back and forth, and often drops back to the autumn of 1939 when the war began, to draw out connections and parallels, as well as to remind us just how long this hell has been going on for.

Not an easy read, by any stretch, but a strangely gripping and fascinating one, once you wade in and go with the flow, which is all anyone there in 1944 could do, anyway…

Alberto Angela: Les trois jours de Pompeii

November 28, 2020

     A few years ago, I saw the amazing Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum, and since then had been meaning to read more about what happened there in the first century CE. It was a toss-up between Mary Beard’s book – I have always enjoyed her TV programmes on the ancient world – and a new book by Alberto Angela, an Italian historian whose book on daily life in the Roman Empire I really enjoyed a couple of years ago.

Angela writes well, with an excellent eye for detail. Frequently, when he’s describing an object or artefact from the ruins, he gives us the Latin word as well, just in case we’re interested, or have some knowledge of the language. The book is structured well, as a countdown through the hours leading up to the eruption, and then the hours of its duration. I had no idea just how enormous and devastating the eruption was, and found myself thinking, OK, so what about Krakatoa?

It’s hard to describe the exact nature of the book; dealing with events so long ago, either you can provide a few bald facts, or you can engage in speculation, and Angela manages to tread an interesting, very fine line. There is documentary evidence for a certain number of survivors, and he focuses on those details to create a kind of docudrama novel, as it were, which explores their lives, homes and possible routines, obviously drawing on a good deal more general source material about ancient Rome, the excavations in the Pompeii-Herculaneum region and broader Roman history. So the imaginative part is very well-anchored in detail, and the overall effect brings those terrible days to life. In this sense his approach mirrors the successful one of his previous book. Where he is deliberately imagining things for the sake of completion, he says so clearly. Certainly, I never felt misled.

The Romans weren’t really aware of the mountain as a volcano, although there had been serious damage in 62CE; it wasn’t so prominent a feature of the landscape then as it is now, and they seem to have just put up with the warning signs that would nowadays have kicked evacuation plans into action. I was astonished at just how large an area was devastated, and the six phases of the eruption, which had different effects on the various towns and villages.

There are useful maps of the region and the towns and settlements, and some surprisingly well-reproduced photos in this mass-market paperback. Overall, I got a very clear picture of daily life, industry and routines in the region, which was the stomping ground of many well-to-do people of the time; Pliny the Elder died during the eruption, and his nephew Pliny the Younger observed events from some thirty miles away and wrote about what he had seen. One thing in particular touched me in the book: several times, Angela reminds us that the dozens of plaster casts of people dying in agony, that are in various museums and displays, were real people, and that it’s somehow not quite right to be gawping at them as tourists, and taking selfies with them…

Here is the news…or not

November 23, 2020

Elsewhere you’ll find posts about my love of newspapers and my newspaper collection; recently while having a tidy-up and clear-out, I found myself looking through my collection again, and various different impressions struck me:

How much more serious and sober newspapers were in the days when they were monochrome! The message was clear: this is news, not entertainment. Almost – therefore, you can trust what you read here. I found a crumbling front page from the Daily News (founded by Charles Dickens, no less) in 1912, where the main headline speculated about what was going on at the South Pole. Had Amundsen got there? Had Scott got there? Scott’s imminent return was awaited…unless he had chosen to spend another season on the ice, continuing his research… There, you also get the sense of immediacy from the time way back when, as well as an even more poignant sense of the tragedy.

Back in those days, some newspapers did not carry news on the front page… The Times resisted up until 1968, I think. Some newspapers eschewed photographs – Le Monde did this I think well into the 1980s. There were far fewer pages: wartime restrictions and paper rationing meant that they often ran to only 4 broadsheet pages. They still managed to fit in pretty nearly everything you’d expect in a newspaper today, using space much more economically. I also looked back through some newspapers from the communist countries: again, few pages, few pictures, and most strikingly, no advertising. I found this very refreshing: the message was, here is the news, rather than, we are trying to sell you something. And yes, I know their idea of news was somewhat different from ours.

The changes creep in gradually, from the late 1970s and early 1980s onwards: more pages, more sections, as daily papers discovered the need to emulate the weekend ones. Designers took over, using white space and eventually colour to create a superficially more attractive product, with more pictures, and more ‘features’, ‘lifestyle’ content; news now occupied an ever smaller proportion of the pages. And articles, both news and commentary, became shorter, perhaps reflecting what television was doing to our attention-span?

Ironically, these developments came along at the time when newspapers themselves were becoming far less ‘relevant’ to more and more people, because the news was on the TV and the radio; these developments may have been intended to arrest the decline of print, but it is now evident that they have singularly failed, when you consider, for instance, a newspaper like the Daily Express that once enjoyed the largest circulation in the land, now a pitiable shadow of its former self, currently selling fewer copies per day than The Guardian or The Times did in their heyday…

It was inevitable, once the internet arrived; the vast infrastructure that distributed tonnes of print around the land overnight was no longer needed; a far more up-to-date news service is now available at the breakfast table than ever dropped through the letter-box. And yet, I am convinced, in many ways we are the poorer for the changes that have taken place over the past half-century. I think we are less clear about what news is, we are less clear about the distinction between news and opinion, and we are less well-informed that we used to be, in spite of, or perhaps because of those changes.

Keith Roberts: Pavane

November 14, 2020

     Here’s one I’ve liked for a long time, and just re-read. I hesitate to call it a novel, as it’s really a series of loosely-connected short stories, set in an alternative time-frame, which was what originally attracted me to it some forty years ago. Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Spanish Armada was successful, the Protestant Reformation in England was undone, following which it was seriously curbed throughout Europe and the hegemony of Rome was re-established. Strict control is maintained over all aspects of science and technology, which means that late twentieth-century England, when the tales are set, is a very different place, without the internal combustion engine and electricity… But trouble is building up, the natives are dissatisfied.

Keith Roberts creates an incredibly detailed alternative vision, which convinces the reader through that detail. Within his picture of a strange England, he embeds a series of vignettes of different individuals and their lives in this unfamiliar world. There’s the driver of a steam-powered road-train, beset by highwaymen; a trainee semaphore signaller; a monk who is an artist and illustrator, so traumatised by images of the Inquisition at work that he’s ordered to make, that he has a breakdown and leads an initial, failed rebellion against the Church. We return to the family of the road-train driver and see how much more repressive the Church has become; the links between the stories and characters are fairly tenuous over time, though unified by their common location in the West Country. Things come to a head in the character of the heiress to a fortified castle, who heads what develops into a national revolt against Rome in a final powerful story.

What is so fascinating and gripping – to this reader at least – about such tales, set in times and places that can never be? I suppose they appeal to the thinker in me, who realises that our choices and decisions at every level do shape the future. In my own lifetime, for instance, I might reflect on what the world would be like had the Soviet Union not collapsed and disappeared… And so, we ought to be thinking seriously about the things we do, and their effect on the future, much more than the vague questions and largely irrelevant choices that we are offered in ‘democratic’ elections every few years. Why do most of us express great concern about climate emergency, while we continue consuming vast quantities of energy and consumer goods? Just asking…

The Virago Book of Women and the Great War

October 31, 2020

     This anthology was compiled and published over twenty years ago, and it is a worthy but flawed collection, I feel; worth having, but the curating and editing could have been better done. I wasn’t impressed reading in the introduction that the bulk of the literature of the Great War was written by British writers – a sweeping statement which is easy to challenge. And decimal currency was introduced in 1971, not 1972…

Having griped a little, I will admit that this is a pretty catholic selection, from some French and German sources but largely from British women writers. The main interest lies in the individual pictures of life and work in those times, and the way that many excerpts counter the general, broad sweep of ‘official’ history: not everyone partied and rejoiced at the outbreak of war, not everyone was eager to volunteer and join up. We also see British women involved, mainly in medical and caring roles, in all sorts of places I hadn’t expected: Serbia, Russia, Austria and other countries.

The editor ranges very widely in her choice of sources, but even to this experienced and hardened student and reader of Great War literature, there’s rather too much information, as the current saying puts it. And yet, I can accept that such an anthology needed compiling before all sorts of material disappeared. There is a clear focus on women’s very real role and contribution to the war effort, men’s reluctant realisation and acceptance that this was both the case and very necessary to the achievement of Britain’s war aims. Women established themselves widely in the workforce and strove for equal pay and conditions with men; clearly the desire for suffrage and other rights was also in the forefront of the efforts of many, and this is evidenced in great detail from contemporary accounts and material.

And yet, there’s a bit too much here; the best is the personal accounts of front-line experiences.

Nicolas Offenstadt: Le Pays Disparu

October 12, 2020

     As a teenager I travelled twice through the GDR en route to Poland. It was a weird experience – almost empty motorways, which were the original autobahns built by Hitler, and certainly showing their age by the 1970s. No stopping allowed; strict border checks; enormous and beautiful transit visas in our passports; compulsory driving insurance that was completely useless to us… now you can drop in and visit the museum that was the enormous car and lorry checkpoint at Helmstedt/Marienborn, completely deserted.

Offenstadt’s book – only available in French, and I don’t imagine a translation is very likely – is a very thorough and timely exploration of how an entire country has been thrust into the 1984 memory-hole, erased deliberately from existence, and the reasons for this are also touched upon.

The GDR was not just a dictatorship; as a workers’ and peasants’ state it was conscious of, and proud of, its connections with the workers’ movements and history from the pre-Nazi days. It was very easy and convenient for the triumphalist West to label it as one dictatorship following on another, eliding Nazism and Stalinism, and to completely gloss over what the GDR achieved in forty years of existence. Clearly it ultimately failed as a state, though the final push came from outside; economically it was unable to satisfy all its citizens’ wants and needs, and it watched over them as closely as does China or North Korea today, and it killed people trying to leave ‘illegally’, but it enjoyed successes in many areas and also the loyalty of many of its citizens, as Offenstadt amply documents. But the West ‘won’, and the victors had the power to de-legitimise the predecessor.

Offenstadt is an urban explorer as well as rather obsessed by the disappeared country. His is a full, serious and thoroughly documented work, based upon personal exploration and a wide range of interviews and conversations with former-GDR citizens. It is important that he goes so much deeper than the trite Western picture of an economically failed state, and an economic system that allegedly cannot work, a picture that deliberately throws the baby out with the bathwater for its own ideological reasons. Equally, he does not slip into sentimental ‘Ostalgia’ and is conscious of his rather curious status of very interested non-German.

The GDR was not a warmongering 12-year nightmare like Nazi Germany, but a country that rebuilt after the Second World War along totally different lines from its Western counterpart, and without the massive financial support of the USA. It was a country for 45 years, for its citizens to grow up and live in, make lives and careers in, to build and be proud of, and Offenstadt catalogues the advantages it gave its citizens, particularly in terms of women’s rights, childcare, education, employment and housing, many of which were lost when the two Germanies were ‘re-united’. Increasingly there are historians who judge that actually it was another anschluss, an annexation of a weaker state by a more powerful one.

Interestingly, Offenstadt advances the idea that the Federal Republic’s drive to remove all trace of the GDR (and he catalogues the removing of plaques, statues, the re-naming of streets, schools and public buildings, the closing down of institutions, demolition of landmarks and much, much more) and play up the evils of the Stasi as reflecting back on its earlier almost complete failure in the de-Nazification process after the Second World War…

It was an interesting and useful read, though in the end perhaps a little too detailed when it came to the eradication of plaques and monuments to the various celebrities of the GDR, and it’s a shame that the photographs reproduced so poorly in what is a mass-market paperback, but these are minor gripes, and I’ve yet to come across a similar work on the GDR in English…

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