Archive for the 'Second World War' Category

Norman Davies: Trail of Hope

May 17, 2017

Norman Davies is probably the leading expert on Polish history in Britain; he has written the best and most detailed academic history of Poland, as well as several books on specific episodes in the nation’s history such as the Warsaw uprising or the war with the Soviet Union in 1920. Here he attempts to trace the Polish diaspora which resulted from the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 that led to tens of thousands of Poles from the eastern half of the country being deported to and imprisoned in the Soviet Union, thousands of them being deliberately murdered and thousands more dying of starvation and ill-treatment.

It’s clearly a labour of love, and not one in the style of earlier academic works. It reflects Davies’ travels through many lands, and his friendships and contacts with many Poles in many countries; it’s copiously illustrated with photos, maps, drawings and detailed extracts from memoirs, and manages to give a voice to the generations which have now largely died.

When the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany in 1941, Stalin agreed (after a fashion) to allow the Polish prisoners of war to leave the country and join the Allied war effort in the West. Of course, the many thousands of officers whose deaths Stalin had sanctioned and the NKVD carried out at Katyn were not available to join them. A Polish Army was established on Soviet soil and gradually made its painful way, with many thousands of civilians in its wake, first to Persia (as it then was) and subsequently by many diverse routes, and over a lengthy period of time, came to take part in various campaigns in the war, notably at Monte Cassino in Italy, and Arnhem in Holland. For some reason which I have yet to fathom, Davies concentrates almost entirely on the Monte Cassino trail, and the Arnhem battle merits less than a page. This I found particularly disappointing, as it’s my father’s story…

Davies spares no-one in his criticism and condemnation of the Allies’ betrayal of the Poles all down the line, and he’s right, I think: men who had lost everything gave all they had left in the hope of freeing their country and eventually returning home. This was not possible, as their part of Poland was ceded to the Soviet Union, which automatically regarded them as Soviet citizens, not Poles. Few did return, and of those who did, a good number disappeared. The rest remained, exiles, refugees, and not very welcome in post-war Britain. It’s a shameful story which is not widely known.

Trail of Hope is a weighty tome and a very welcome addition to the existing works on the subject. At the same time, it has its flaws, which I will charitably put down to poor proof-reading and checking at the production stage – careless typesetting, spellings and transliterations of names and place-names in many countries lack any consistency, with variations even on the same page (!). And I shall be attempting to discover why the Arnhem story is sidelined. But if you want to know about a little-known aspect of the Second World War, this is a book to read.

Erika Mann: When the Lights Go Out

May 16, 2017

This novel – a collection of linked stories really – is very grim and depressing, made more so by the fact that we know what came after. It was first published just after the start of the Second World War (though its publishing history is incredibly complicated, as the critical apparatus with this edition made clear), and the author is the daughter of Thomas Mann, the perhaps better-known German writer. She sets her stories in a small town in southern Germany in the years between Hitler’s seizure of power and the start of the war, and bases them on actual events and people she knew.

Although we know about the history of the war, and the debate about how much the average German knew about or participated in various atrocities of the Nazi era, understanding the lives of ordinary people, the choices they made, the silences they kept and the difficulties they faced, is rather harder, partly because of unwillingness to speak or to own up to their own past, and also increasingly because those who lived through those times are dying off. Much has been researched and written in recent years about how the Nazi regime extended its grip throughout society and sustained it for so long, but somehow fiction is able to bring the details and the effects to life and to our understanding in different ways.

Mann uses a small number of characters – perhaps a dozen or so – in the years leading up to the start of the war. Already, then, hindsight suggests how much worse it must have been later on. There are the shortages of food, before the war starts, the gradual prioritisation of re-armament and planning for aggression and its effect on the job market and what consumers could buy; there is the growing craziness of the effects of a tightly planned economy. Smaller shopkeepers are closed down because they are inefficient, workers are increasingly detailed to particular jobs, there are expectations that everyone will take part in extra work at weekends: all of this increasing inefficiency, and the production of inferior goods, may well remind us of what we know about the various problems and eventual failure of the Soviet Union. All of these details, no doubt available in textbooks and history books, (and Mann gives us her sources), are woven into the lives of ordinary people – her characters.

A young couple, planning to marry, overworked and undernourished, are driven to suicide by what a court eventually describes as a ‘regrettable error’ – a careless Nazi doctor accuses the woman of having had an illegal abortion and the concentration camp beckons. A leading doctor who has kept his head down and his nose clean for several years in the vain quest for a quiet life, is appalled by the increasingly poor training and ineptitude of medical staff because of the way the regime has organised their training, prioritising their employability not by their skills but by party loyalty, the number of children they have and their sporting prowess. A factory owner is horrified to discover that his secretary, to whom he has been making advances, is half-Jewish. A local Gestapo leader, unable to stomach the orders for the Kristallnacht pogrom, disobeys orders, enables some Jews to escape, then flees to Switzerland and is returned to his fate in Germany by the Swiss authorities…

I can imagine that in 1940 this book may have shocked many readers; it will probably shock less now, or else in different ways. We often wonder, why did nobody say or do anything, or resist in those early years? The answer is that some did, but it was not enough, the regime’s tentacles spread control very quickly and thoroughly, creating an atmosphere of fear through surveillance and spying. And initially, many did well enough out of the new regime…

At some level, the book remains a warning, to everyone, to be vigilant, and perhaps in our current uncertain times of increasing xenophobia and nationalism, we should heed such warnings.

Note: an English translation of the book exists, but I read the newly-published French paperback.

On a certain lack of understanding

May 4, 2017

I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed by war, but I do find myself thinking about it a lot, and I suppose given my family’s history, it’s not that surprising: my father was born and spent his early years in a village pretty much on the Eastern front line in the Great War, and ended up in England as a result of the Second World War, during which my mother was a child. I’ve recently been on my annual walking holiday in the Ardennes, and each time I’ve learned a little more about the Battle of the Ardennes in winter 1944-45, the enormous casualties and the horrors civilians endured during this last gasp of the Nazi war machine.

The European project emerged from the ashes. It was idealistic: the twice-repeated horrors of the first half of the twentieth century should never happen again. Initially it was mainly an economic project, binding countries together with links and ties that eventually began to grow into a more political union. Britain was outside for a long time, a nation that had become great, building an empire on conquest and commerce and trade, and gradually losing it again. Britain had stood alone for two years, unconquered; some people felt we had ‘won’ the war. But we wanted the trade advantages of the ‘Common Market’ and strove to gain admittance; we wanted the chance to trade with a huge and growing market and make more money. I don’t think that, as a nation, we ever really understood the real thinking behind the project. We hadn’t been conquered and devastated twice in thirty years.

1973: we joined. The EEC became the European Community and then the European Union. We seem to have done well commercially and financially, but we never really wanted the rest of the project, which we seemed to see as interference in our affairs, faceless bureaucrats in Brussels wasting ‘our’ money; we never really understood what was behind it, and preferred to hang on to the US coat-tails instead. We could have been in there in partnership with the French and the Germans developing and shaping a great project. Who knows, if we had played our part, we might now have a better and more democratic Europe, more to our liking.

2016: we decided to leave. We will leave, and lose many, if not most of those trade advantages that attracted us in the first place. Talk about cutting off the nose to spite the face…

I am deeply saddened by the turn of events, and have come to feel that as a nation we don’t understand Europe, we probably don’t belong in Europe, and that it may well be better for Europe that we are outside again. I don’t believe our politicians have a clue about what they are doing. I wish more of my fellow-citizens did understand, and shared the wish to build something worthwhile. I don’t have any illusions about the EU being perfect – far from it – but that doesn’t make it any less a noble idea.

On betrayal

March 30, 2017

Warning: political rather than literary post ahead!

So a certain D Cameron has the effrontery to say that the EU had been poisoning the nation’s politics for years and he was right to allow the referendum. Of course, it was the Tory party’s politics that had been poisoned, and Cameron gambled and lost, and thus betrayed the future of younger generations.

If you’ve read more than a handful of posts on this blog, you’ll know I’m half-Polish. But I was born here, raised here and have lived, worked and paid taxes here all my life. I’ve taught English language and literature as my career, and count myself as English: many people and many things tie me to this country. And this week I feel well and truly betrayed by our rulers, by our entire political class, and by the Labour party who should have been an opposition rather than supporting mayhem.

I can remember being glad that we’d decided to join the ‘Common Market’ when I was still a teenager; a couple of years later when there was a referendum and it might have made sense to leave, as I was going through a hard left phase as a student, I voted to leave what seemed to me at the time to be merely a capitalist club. We didn’t leave, and over time and after much travelling and learning rather more about the world, I came to appreciate more and more the significance of the European project to the countries on the mainland: it cemented peace and co-operation and a whole new way of going about things into their world, after the insanities through which they had lived a generation previously. Britain, on the other hand, came off relatively lightly from the Second World War, which we thought we had ‘won’ (although we did finally lose an empire). It always seemed a great shame, as well as a serious error, that we did not commit ourselves whole-heartedly to the project and seek to exert a real and formative influence on its development. We never really took Europe seriously.

In my darker moments I realise that I owe my very existence to a betrayal, Britain’s betrayal of the Poland for whom she allegedly went to war in September 1939 and then betrayed at Yalta in 1945; the country was allocated to the Soviet sphere where it languished for forty-five years, and my father’s region was annexed by the Soviet Union and he could never return. Yes, I know about realpolitik. I’ve also read about the grubby way this country treated her ally, and the men who made such arduous journeys to make their way here and join the fight for freedom.

I find myself rather envious of several friends who may read this, who have left these shores to make their lives elsewhere in Europe; you, of course, are rather younger than me, which perhaps makes it easier to uproot yourselves, and make a new or different life not too far away, but spared the mayhem here; I wish you well. I’m not a free agent for a number of reasons, and won’t be following you. I also know that I’m relatively fortunate in that I am retired and fairly contented in many other ways, and that I may perhaps not be too badly affected by the coming chaos. I am much more concerned for the future of my own children and their families, and their prospects in a straitened and inward-looking nation, indeed for entire generations who will not have the broader futures and prospects that will shortly vanish. And yes, I am aware of the many flaws of the EU, its organisation, bureaucracy and governance. Babies and bathwater and so on.

I can see that we will leave the EU; personally I do not and will not accept this decision, although I cannot change it; if I am eventually offered some form of voluntary European citizenship, I shall accept it gratefully. I can and do enjoy my Englishness, but I count myself equally European, and I am deeply ashamed of what this country has decided to do.

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

My travels: B for Bartoszyce

January 9, 2017

Once upon a time there was a region of Germany called East Prussia. What I’ve read about it makes it sound like a rural idyll, small towns, well-organised peasantry, prosperous, with a large city – Koenigsberg – as the provincial capital. One of my very favourite novels, Ernst Weichert’s A Simple Life, is set in rural East Prussia; it’s another of those magical books that capture the vanishing of an era, like Lampedusa’s The Leopard, or Josef Roth’s The Radetzky March. The population was mixed German and Polish, proportions varying according to sub-regions, and various bits were plebiscited post-WW1; most chose Germany. The whole area had been mixed nationalities for several hundred years, at least since the times of the Teutonic knights. And all this was to change, irrevocably, in 1945…

My uncle, and his parents, were taken by the Germans as forced farm labourers to East Prussia during the war. His parents – my grandparents – returned home; my uncle didn’t, and ended up living in what had been East Prussia until it was divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, and all the Germans forcibly expelled. After the way the Germans had treated the Poles in the war, this ethnic cleansing was inevitable, understandable, and probably justified. But it changed the area forever, as, indeed, so much of Eastern Europe was irrevocably transformed: the people went, the buildings remained; former East Prussia was now populated by Poles moved out of the territories Poland lost to the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Lithuania. The town of Bartenstein became Bartoszyce. It’s a medium-sized town now, with a typical gothic town square and brick gothic churches. Almost all trace of Germans has been eradicated. On my first visit there in 1970 I remember being very shocked that the old German area of the town cemetery had been bulldozed; all the broken gravestones were higgledy-piggledy, in vast heaps…

It felt like quite a sleepy little place, partly because the border with the Soviet Union was less than ten miles away. The main railway line that used to link Bartenstein with Koenigsberg had been dynamited; there was a single freight track remaining. So it was the edge of nowhere, really. The roads were appalling. A mound where a castle used to stand, a river, forests, a lake, farmland. And where our family lived. Further east one moves into the beautiful Masurian Lakes region. I’ve been back several times. It’s still a backwater, still right next door to Russia, more prosperous than it was, and visited by hordes of wealthy Russians doing their shopping; unemployment is at least 20%, so it’s not part of the better-off new Poland yet. And for some reason, one of the main streets is still Karl Marx Street, over a quarter of a century after the fall of communism…

Peter Unwin: Baltic Approaches

November 26, 2016

61tgouatogl-_ac_us160_This was an excellent find in a secondhand bookshop. The author was an experienced British diplomat, and this shows through in the care of his writing, which succeeds in portraying the broad sweep of two thousand years of European history from the specifically Baltic perspective. I hadn’t fully comprehended the vastness of the region, which Unwin likens to a northern Mediterranean, a perspective that had never occurred to me, but which makes eminent good sense, particularly when you take a good map and rotate it a little… it will never be the same in my mind and imagination from now on.

The book was written just over twenty years ago, and it’s quit astonishing how much things have changed dramatically in such a short period of time: he’s writing shortly after German reunification, before the accession of Eastern European nations to the EU, and he’s not able to imagine their joining NATO, which of course has happened. He follows the coastline as it limits Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Kaliningrad exclave, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and back to Germany again.

He’s particularly thoughtful and sensitive about East Prussia, analysing its contribution both to Germany and to Europe, and expressing sadness at its disappearance, inevitable and understandable though this was. My one gripe with him would be his attitude to Poland and Lithuania which I felt lacked subtlety, especially in his glossing over the significance to Poland of Wilno, and not just in the inter-war years. Overall it is hard to fault his careful, detailed, balanced and sensitive exploration of the complexities of the ethnic minorities questions which have bedevilled the Eastern Baltic region and to some extent still do today. He’s good on national traits and characteristics, insofar as this is possible when one is inevitably generalising. His prognostications about the future, outlined in his concluding chapter, are, unsurprisingly, overoptimistic, dated, and about as far as it’s possible to be from where we have got to today…

But, a good little book that does the subject justice and which has some nice outline maps which help when you turn to the atlas for more detail.

Siegfried Lenz: The German Lesson

October 21, 2016

41ufinpue1l-_ac_us160_A chance, passing reference somewhere recently sent me back to this novel, which I haven’t read for more than twenty years. I was instantly reminded of Günter GrassThe Tin Drum, a comparison which I don’t think had occurred to me on previous readings, and which got me thinking. Along with Heinrich Böll, these are three writers particularly associated with German attempts to reconnect with a sense of conscience and morality as they explore the cesspool of Nazism and its effect on the German people in various ways. It’s easy for a non-German to call this a necessary task; it’s certainly an incredibly difficult one, and I have a certain admiration for those who have persisted over the years.

Grass and Lenz share the fact that they originate from territories the Germans lost at the end of the war: Grass’ hometown of Danzig, an international city, has become Gdansk, in Poland, and Lenz’s hometown Lyck is now Elk in the Masurian region of Poland. The rights and wrongs of this ethnic cleansing are far too complex to elucidate here.

The setting of The German Lesson is Schleswig-Holstein, the area around the town of Husum near the border with Denmark, and gives the novel a far bleaker feel than Grass’ novels: small settlements and flat wind-swept coastlines are no match for the international and multiracial city of Oskar Mazerath’s story. Grass’ novel is narrated by a boy/man who is the inmate of an asylum; Lenz’s narrator is a juvenile delinquent incarcerated in an institution. It’s interesting that those who were children in the Nazi-time are not able to become ‘normal’ functioning adults – even Grass himself kept his forced membership (he was 14 at the time) of the SS a secret almost until his death, to the shock and horror of many.

Siggi’s father is a village policman given the task of monitoring a painter who has fallen foul of the Nazi authorities and been banned from painting; he takes this duty very seriously, obsessively even. He is a very strict father, and his wife a taciturn and sour woman; they make their children’s lives hell, imposing senseless rules and vicious punishments; in the end the children are desperate to escape. The elder son shoots himself in the arm to avoid military service and is repudiated by his parents, cast out from the family never to be mentioned and when he turns up back at the family home, having been seriously injured in an air attack, they turn him in. Siggi begins to take and secrete paintings to save them from his father, who, even after the end of the war, does not give up the task he was set by the Nazi authorities…

Lenz puts the idea of duty under the microscope. We see Siggi’s father’s idiotic and overbearing sense of it poisoning all family relationships and friendships, tipping him into mania. Max, the painter, sustains his duty to his art through a series of invisible paintings in a cat-and-mouse game with the policeman, that we aren’t always invited to approve of, I think. And Siggi the delinquent is punished for not writing his essay on the joys of duty by the prison governor, at which point he makes it his duty to explain himself – through the novel, demonstrating a similar, if less harmful (?) obsessiveness to his father.

It’s a far more pessimistic novel than I remember: Siggi the delinquent cannot live a straight life though he may wish to, and has nothing to look forward to outside the juvenile offenders’ institution; can he even have a clear picture of what an ordinary life might be? Irrevocably shaped – perverted and twisted by his father, and equally, though with out violence and horror, cajoled and patronised into accepting another duty by the governor – what chance has he?

Travels in the Reich 1933-45

June 20, 2016

41H1vwMh-LL._AC_US160_This is a serious, academic book, originally published in German, with a detailed introduction and full critical apparatus, and now available in English; it’s a collection of travel writing, accounts by a number of writers and journalists describing, either briefly or in depth, their experiences, impressions and opinions as they travelled in Nazi Germany. It’s in two sections: travels before the outbreak of the Second World War, and travels after that date.

It’s travel writing then, the kind of writing that I’ve been enjoying for years, but with a difference. Some of the writers travel voluntarily to the Reich, others are sent there, as journalists, reporters, business travellers. Before the war, almost anyone can go – unless for some reason they are persona non grata to the authorities; after the outbreak of the war, clearly some nationalities cannot go; neutrals like the Swiss or the Swedes still can, as can Americans until 1941, and also collaborators from occupied countries.

What’s also different, of course, is the effect of hindsight. Of course, whatever one reads, travel writing included, from years ago, is read through the light of intervening years. But the hindsight involved here is inevitably so much weightier, particularly when we have the impression that a writer is being deceived, or is deceiving her/himself. ‘How could they be so blind?’ we feel, unreasonably.

I was also led to reflect on the difference between history books, accounts of events written some time after, when a bigger picture has emerged and it is perhaps possible to make value judgements, and contemporary accounts of events, perhaps as published in newspapers of the time itself, when events are still unfolding and the final outcome is not yet clear to the participants, though of course we now know everything. There is an immediacy, and an openness, precisely because of that limited or non-existent perspective, without that hindsight which acts as a corrective and which shapes our judgements; if we really want to know how events, times and places felt to those who lived through them, we cannot do better than read contemporary accounts.

Some years ago – the internet is wonderful – I came across scans of newspapers published in Poland as the Germans invaded in September 1939. As the enemy advanced and the destruction and chaos worsened, the newspapers quickly shrank in size, down to two pages, a single side, and by October vanished completely – conquered Slavs did not need to read. This was a perspective I had never thought about; a line in a history book could have told me this happened, but I saw it briefly, much more clearly and effectively, through contemporary eyes.

Some of the pieces in the book are quite chilling. Sometimes we see a writer’s eyes opened as they travel, the scales falling from their eyes as they finally see through what is really happening. Sometimes we see them deluded; sometimes we come across perspectives we haven’t met before. It really is a fascinating collection; the introduction is excellent and most of the pieces are well worth our time and attention.

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