Archive for the 'Second World War' Category

Richard M Watt: Bitter Glory

November 11, 2021

     Although I bought this book some twenty years ago, I’ve only just finished it, and the timing is perfect, as today is Polish Independence Day

It’s an account of the life of the Second Republic, from start to finish – only 20 years – and I finally have a clear and detailed understanding of the country my father grew up in. The opposition between Pilsudski’s (perhaps romantic) vision of a Poland of many peoples, and Dmowski’s homeland for ethnic Poles only is there right from the outset. Josef Pilsudski’s vision was tried in the Second Republic; Roman Dmowski’s was artificially imposed and created by the Soviet Union and its puppets after the Second World War. And so we have the situation that so many of us in the Polish diaspora find ourselves.

We could have done with more maps, and better copy editing and checking of the book, but I’ll let those pass.

The task was truly Herculean: resurrect a country which had been abolished for 120 years, from three disparate parts run under three very different administrations, with a resentful Germany to the West and an unpredictable Soviet Union to the East. The Versailles conference fixed the Western borders: the East was to be a DIY affair, settled briefly and very resentfully after the 1920 war with the Soviets. So for its entire existence, the republic was hemmed in by unfinished business. The Western Allies, savaged by the Great War, didn’t really care that much.

The book is very broad in scope and detail. In particular, the ethnic and national conflicts on the Eastern borders – the Kresy – are explained and contextualised with great care, and the various approaches to the issues, crystallising in the personalities of Pilsudski and Dmowski, are also clarified. The permanently scarred relations with the former ally Lithuania are also explained. It really does become evident that for so many reasons, and not just the fault of Poles – the new Poland was not really a viable state in the long term. Perhaps that should not surprise us?

Economically, the situation was horrendous: too many peasants on too many small farms. Little industry. No coherent communications. And all was made worse by the fact that no Poles had any experience of ruling or governing. The 1920s were totally chaotic politically, through incompetence and corruption. The roots of the awkwardness of the church date from this time, in a flawed concordat with the Vatican, and of course, antisemitism was always lurking in the background, to come to the fore in the 1930s.

Which was the more dangerous potential enemy, Germany or the Soviet Union? And where were reliable allies to be found? Increasing chaos led to the virtual end of attempts at democracy by 1930 and the country was thereafter rules by authoritarian governments who exploited anti-Jewish feeling when it suited their interests, disgracefully supported and encouraged by the church. For most of the life of the republic, the military were heavily involved in government. There was scandalous trickery used to pass a new constitution in 1930, and a new rigged electoral system.

Things clearly were unravelling all over Europe as the 1930s progressed and Poland was no exception; under an authoritarian rule, swaggering at times as if it were a great power, it waited its turn to be picked off by Hitler…

It’s an exhaustive and authoritative book, with thought-provoking evaluation and conclusions. And though Watt’s picture is very dark, we must acknowledge what was achieved: Poland was brought back into existence effectively enough to survive independently for two decades, and was not to be erased from the map permanently again by the Second World War, though the epoch of the People’s Republic drew out the agony for another four decades and more. The beginnings of a modern nation-state, with national self-awareness took shape. And today’s Poland still has plenty of crocodiles to wrestle with…

Heinrich Gerlach: Breakout at Stalingrad

October 19, 2021

     The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning-point in the Second World War; its history is chronicled well in Anthony Beevor’s book, and the Russian (Soviet) experience of that part of the Great Patriotic War is portrayed very effectively in Vassily Grossman’s two novels, Stalingrad and Life and Fate, the latter being one of the greatest war novels ever, in my estimation. So I was interested to read something from the German perspective.

The history and genesis of this autobiographical novel – for Gerlach is lightly concealed in the character of Breuer the intelligence officer – is astonishing in itself: written during his captivity in a Russian camp, confiscated by the Soviet authorities, re-created using hypnosis for recall after his release and originally published as The Forsaken Army it became a bestseller; then the original – this book – was rediscovered about ten years ago in Russian archives and finally published. It’s apparently rather different from the bestseller.

The most striking thing is the utter chaos, lack of clear information, how overstretched the Nazi forces have managed to get themselves, and the luxurious lives the general staff and higher ranking officers carve out for themselves while the ordinary footsoldiers suffer the atrocious conditions of the Russian winter, poor equipment and lack of food. The picture of what the Germans are trying to do is never clear, and their actions are hamstrung by their blind obedience to Hitler’s unhinged orders and their fear of the consequences of personal initiative. There’s no sense of unity of common purpose here, and you do get a clear image of the moment when Nazi Germany finally overreached itself and sealed its eventual fate.

I have to say that, in the end, this description of chaos became rather tiresome to read. What saves the book is the exploration of the manifold psychological effects of the gradual realisation that there can be defeat, after so many years of success and hubris; intelligent officers finally begin to ask the questions they should have been asking and responding to long before. The focus is largely on the general staff attempting to do the impossible, and unable to face reality or tell the truth.

There are enlightening moments, such as the aftermath of the capture and interrogation of a Russian prisoner, where the German officers begin to see through the propaganda fog which has surrounded their atrocities so far, and yet are unable to realise the hypocrisy of the attitudes they must continue to espouse… And there are moments where you begin to feel sorry (!) for some of the Germans, when they begin to realise how they have allowed themselves to be misled and duped by their leaders and generals, and they have now been abandoned to die, and thus create a heroic myth for the German nation. Faced with the inevitability of surrender or death, scales fall rapidly from eyes… there is powerful stuff here, presented mainly through the thoughts of the author’s alter ego. (I honestly never imagined being able to write those last few lines.)

I wouldn’t describe it as a compelling or necessary read, but it’s worth it if you have the time and interest. Ultimately the message is the same as emerges from any number of novels, really: ordinary folk catch all the shit; leaders are vain, deluded, ambitious, insane but persuasive and are usually allowed to play out their mad ideas.

Tadeusz Borowski: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

October 18, 2021

     There are now a huge number of books about the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, many of which were sited on Polish soil; Auschwitz has become a sort of shorthand for all the horrors. Yet of all the books I’ve read, this collection of stories remains the bleakest of all. Written a few years after the end of the war by a Pole who had been interned there and who killed himself a little while after writing it, the book shows the depths to which human beings can be reduced, or can reduce themselves.

Death and horror are a normality in these short stories, a necessary part of the struggle for survival. The vileness of the arrival of the transports, the selections, the scrabbling for food and belongings, the cameraderie of the survivors: this is the challenge to every reader – what would you have done? We dare not try to answer…

I think part of the powerful shock effect comes from the short story form, one which I generally avoid reading. There are fewer details, less development of character or personality in short stories and somehow this sketchiness, a sort of distancing-effect, amplifies the awfulness of situations and behaviours. The horrors are gut-wrenching, powerful compulsive; other writers pale by comparison with Borowski’s candour. And we must read these stories; it is vital that what humans did eighty years ago is not forgotten, is not buried by thoughts of such things being so dreadful that they must be made up, exaggerated. You need a strong stomach to read the stories; they had to be written; these things were.

Rolf Hochhuth: The Representative

July 31, 2021

     Hochhuth was certainly a controversialist: in Soldiers he suggested that the Polish wartime leader Sikorski’s death in a helicopter crash in 1943 was no accident, but sabotage designed to rid Churchill of a troublesome ally, and the fact that various related documents continue to remain secret for far longer than the normal period has not entirely dispelled this accusation. Here Hochhuth’s target is the Catholic Church, the papacy, and specifically Pius XII for doing nothing to openly protest about the extermination of the Jews, of which he was fully aware, and indeed he could see the deportations of the Jews of Rome from his rooms in the Vatican…

We see the Pope as a businessman first of all, keen to protect the Vatican’s investments and income streams. We see how his obsessive fear of communism and its perceived threat to the Church leads him to see Hitler as an ally, even while priests are murdered by the thousand in Poland. Hitler may be committing sins, but first and foremost, Nazi Germany is a bulwark against a threat to the Church, which has, to a certain extent, become trapped by its earlier stances towards Hitler’s regime. It is very hard to suppress one’s outrage faced with the wilful and deliberate blindness shown by Pius XII, and the astonishing moral and mental gymnastics of all those who defend and justify his inaction and weasel words, partly on political and partly on theological grounds. The stain – by no means the only one – on the Catholic Church has not faded sixty years later.

It’s a flawed play, in the sense that it’s laden with very dense and interpretive stage directions, the full import of which would never be conveyed to an audience in production; equally, fully to understand Hochhuth’s accusations, one needs many pages of supporting documentation, found at the end of the text. At times, the feel is very melodramatic, perhaps to emphasise the moral horrors and the dilemmas of the participants. But in 1963, ugly truths needed airing and exposing, and he certainly managed to do this. It is a very Sixties style of drama, wordy, cinematic, didactic even; politics and religion do not often sit well together, particularly on stage. The final act, set in Auschwitz, is bizarre. The contradictions between the moral teachings and the actions of the Church have been exposed. The end result is, of course, the 1984 effect: the play, its damning accusations and moral minefields, have vanished into the memory-hole of history. Who reads, who puts on this play now?

 

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls (concluded)

July 29, 2021

     I’ve yet to detect or unpick any real significance to the fact that the chapters are labelled with the names of various English and American authors, which happen to be the subject of the professor’s classes; Skvorecky certainly has an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature.

I still wonder about whether this is a boys’ book: the war, resistance, and endless attempts of young men to get women into bed with them. I’d be genuinely interested to hear if any of my women readers have read this, or any of Skvorecky’s work. In the end, as a man, I let him off the hook because I don’t find any of these elements exploitative or gratuitous: they form a genuine part of his experience of life, and we can make our judgements without denying the magnificence of the book itself.

Milan Kundera – one of Skvorecky’s exiled compatriots – describes the book as a masterpiece. I think he’s right. The story of the affair with Nadia, the girl with TB, I find genuinely moving; the letters from the simple peasant who finds his place and modest success on his terms in the workers’ and peasants’ paradise are unsettling of everyone’s prejudices, and the worker Malina’s magnificent swearing I have always admired…

I agree with Kundera because the novel presents something so difficult for us – relatively or differently privileged Westerners – to have any comprehension of. So many times I thought I understood some of my father’s experience, and often argued with him about it. Living under Nazism or communism (though it wasn’t really that) gives one a totally different perspective on so many things, and a different kind of wisdom, a distance from the inanities of the West, too; the contrast and relative “freedom” here allows us to take so many things for granted. If I were to try and describe Skvorecky’s message (as it appears to me this time around, I stress) then it’s probably about the urge to survive at all costs and live your life, because you only get the one go, and so many people don’t, and also about the futility of revolution as a way of making a better world. But, at the moment, what makes it a masterpiece for me is its portrayal of the experience of exile.

I have just looked at my ‘best’ lists; this book isn’t in there; I can’t work out which one to drop in order to include it…

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls (part 1)

July 29, 2021

     Here is a book to which I return regularly, and each time it rises in my estimation. This time, I’ve re-read it perhaps rather earlier than I might otherwise have done, but since I chose it as a read for our book group, I needed to remind myself of the detail before leading a discussion.

What I’ve realised is that it’s a very close, full and painful presentation of the life of an exile, and, as such, it has led me belatedly to a much clearer appreciation of my late father’s experiences, although they were very different from those of Josef Skvorecky. You can read my previous thoughts on the novel here, if you’re interested.

I say novel, despite the major autobiographical content, which has been disguised and fictionalised in many ways, and not just to protect people who might otherwise suffer consequences. The hero is Danny Smiricky/ a thinly veiled Skvorecky, who features in many of the author’s works. Here, he is in his forties, a professor of English Literature at a fictitious college in a Toronto suburb. The novel, however, was written in Czech, in 1984, and translated. Canada offers the exile a sense of freedom of a kind, but it’s a country with no past, and not all the Czech exile community can stand the separation; some of the characters agonise about the risks of return; some do.

He is weary of the world; his students alternate between boredom with literature and incomprehension of his take on the texts and the world in general. They plagiarise their essays. Nevertheless he is interesting enough for one of his women students to have an affair with him. Their affability, affluence and lazy freedom silently contrast Smiricky’s experiences at their age.

The novel ranges widely from Smiricky’s youth in the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren, with naive attempts by him and his friends at resistance and sabotage, through the chaos of the gradual communist takeover and transformation of Czechoslovakia, and the necessary rewriting of history, to the gradual realisation that you cannot give a human face to Stalinism, Alexander Dubcek’s brave attempt and failure in the Prague Spring of 1968, and finally of the need to leave an oppressive homeland which offers no future. There is then the emptiness of exile, and for many, aimless wandering in search of home.

In many ways, the book is the nostalgia and heimweh of a middle-aged man who is realising that his life will never be the one he hoped for. Pitilessly Skvorecky exposes the moral complexities all his characters are faced with, either in the oppressive homeland or the supposedly free West; all are found wanting in various ways. Nothing can ever be simple. Time shifts between the professor’s literature classes, life under Nazi or communist oppression, and the Czech exile community in Canada, and the text is regularly punctuated by letters from his past friends now scattered to various different places. These letters need no commentary: they speak painfully for themselves. The picture is one of the increasing insanity of our world, through a character who has lived through so many contradictions. (to be continued)

Irmgard Keun: After Midnight

June 4, 2021

     Here’s a novella set in Germany between the time of the Nazis taking power and the start of the Second World War, by a German woman writer who lived through those times. I was often reminded of Erika Mann’s When The Lights Go Out, which deals with the same times and experiences, those of ordinary Germans who can’t quite comprehend what’s changed and what’s going on around them, and happening to them. There’s a lot of avoidance – understandable, perhaps – in evidence.

There is a deliberate naivete in the young female narrator, which shows us clearly how the new regime affects so many small details of the everyday life of the average citizen, the minor adjustments and compromises they choose to/ have to make in order to continue with their lives, and how this all creates a deepening atmosphere of fear which serves to keep almost everyone in a permanent state of uncertainty and obedience: there is no rechtstaat any longer. The narrator’s evenness of tone reflects her unthinking acceptance of the changed circumstances. Ordinary citizens are in survival mode, and have quickly taken on board the idea that resistance is both dangerous and futile. People inform on each other all the time, for all sorts of reasons.

Yet in her thoughts she’s awkward and dangerous, and pretty savvy in her behaviour in lots of ways, especially at avoiding potential trouble, and keeping her more insouciant friend Gerti out of it. There is the feeling that, in these relatively early days of the Nazi regime, many people are partying and drinking and avoiding admitting that the real, old world is falling to pieces around them. There is still time to get away for those who can, and, although at times the narrative became a little tedious and predictable, the ending is both hectic and powerful.

Fiction such as this and recent history and social history texts are both fascinating and alarming, as they enable us – who haven’t been there yet! – to see just how things can and do change without many of us realising it before it is too late, and I experience a grim sense of warning and foreboding when I read them. Often the fiction is more telling, I feel, and more effective, as we try to understand the mentalities of those who lived through such times, the accommodations and compromises so many of them made, and, most of all why they did so. There are important messages for us here and now.

Jozef Czapski: Inhuman Land

May 7, 2021

     Reading this book was part of my ongoing research into what my father and his comrades went through during their imprisonment in the Soviet Union in the early years of the Second World War. Almost all of them are long dead, but many accounts survive in memoirs like this one, and are very interesting to read, when you finally come across them. Czapski lectured on Proust to his comrades in the Soviet concentration camp where they spent two years; you have to admire this. And the book has an excellent contextual introduction from Timothy Snyder, who, along with Norman Davies, has currently the greatest knowledge of time and place. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who is also Olga Tokarczuk’s translator, has produced this recent version of Czapski’s memoirs. It reads well: she’s done an excellent piece of work.

So: the nation erased from the map, the Nazis experimenting freely in the western part and the Soviets eliminating all trace of Poland in the east, deporting people in the tens of thousands as well as murdering thousands of officers and intellectuals. Then all change in June 1941 when Hitler attacks the Soviet Union and suddenly from reviled class enemies the Poles are allies, released from captivity and all striving to make their way to the middle of nowhere, where the Polish Army is reforming, and is eventually, grudgingly and with much hindrance and impediment, allowed to leave for Persia.

Czapski’s account only covers the first year of this gathering of the diaspora. There is a real sense of the atmosphere of liberation as men travel en masse to join up, tinged with the tragedy of countless deaths from disease, exhaustion and starvation, topics which my father only ever alluded to very briefly. Yet in this account figure all those details he mentioned, and the places, too. And there is the attempt to piece together where all the Poles are who have been dispersed thousands of miles in every direction; in particular, just where are all those missing officers? Czapski had been one of them and had strangely, along with a few others, escaped their fate…

Czapski provides a general account which is enhanced by his artist’s eye for detail and sympathy for others. There are several interesting digressions on art, poetry and literature. He is a thoughtful writer, and not afraid to be critical of his fellow-countrymen and officers at times; he’s aware of the shortcomings of his nation and people, as well as very aware of what they face.

There is also a sense of futility and impending despair, as he’s constantly fobbed off by the Soviets in his searches; they obviously know something has happened to the missing officers. He catalogues the craziness and the misery of the countless deportations of so many peoples and nationalities for so many different reasons, and if we didn’t already feel this, we can see why his book has the title it does.

Czapski eventually comes to run the Army propaganda department as well as taking responsibility for getting education up and running for the younger refugees; he’s well aware of the need to build cohesion among Poles from such disparate origins and backgrounds. As I’ve been discovering recently, he catalogues the willing help and support for the Polish diaspora from many countries; as I know from my father’s story, disease – typhus and dysentery in particular – and starvation exacted a dreadful toll on those who survived the ‘Soviet paradise’.

There is a quite lengthy concluding section appended to this translation, written after the war, in which Czapski expresses the bitterness of his countrymen at how the Allies reneged on the promises they made to Poland. His final analysis is very thoughtful and challenging, particularly when it comes to reflecting on the relationship between Poles and Germans. I have read a good deal over the years about these times and these events, and Czapski’s account is one of the best, from the perspective both of detail and of balance.

Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation

April 21, 2021

     Reviewing the past century, exploring it, understanding it and coming to terms with it, has been one of the major currents of German literature, and it’s obvious why. Writers who lived though the Nazi era wrestled with making sense of what they had lived through – Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz spring to mind instantly, but more recent writers, who weren’t alive in those times, such as Walter Kempowski and Jenny Erpenbeck are still nevertheless preoccupied with them. And at some level, whilst Germans do have a traumatic century to reflect on: societal collapse post First World War, rise of Nazism, Second World War and the Holocaust, a divided nation and the DDR, reunification, not to mention the complex relation with neighbouring lands like Poland and Russia, at least there has been an ongoing determination to face the horrors and the guilt, unlike many other, more complacent nations such as my own…

Erpenbeck’s novel focuses on a specific place – a small lakeside community somewhere near Berlin – and how it evolves, develops and changes over time, reflecting the history of the nation. At one level there is the sense of permanence that comes through those who have always lived there, rooted in the place; these are only touched upon, apart from being represented in depth through the abiding presence of the gardener who lives through it all, a silent and obedient servant to all the different outsiders who come in to develop their holiday homes in the village… ask no questions.

German history is revealed through the changing property ownership and developments that take place during the twentieth century, and profiteering from the gradual dispossession of Jewish owners is part of this. Everyone colludes, quietly, as the horrors progress. The gardener transcends time, doing whatever the owners request and pay him to do, dependent on the times and the circumstances. The corruption of the Nazi era, and the DDR times is clear, as is the profit to be made after reunification. I was particularly moved by the reflections of a young Red Army officer billeted in the house in 1945:

The more German houses they set foot in, the more painfully they are faced with the question of why the Germans were unable to remain in a place where nothing at all, not the slightest little thing, was lacking.

At times the novel is reminiscent of, if not indebted to, the fictions of Grass, but there is not the dialogue and the humour of his writing: everything exudes a Germanic seriousness; there is an evenness of tone – which is not monotone – that places pleasure and horror disturbingly on the same level, emphasising further the permanence of place as opposed to people. Even the Holocaust becomes human incident against this stern backdrop. The uncomfortable reader is forced into reflection.

There is a deeper question underlying everything: what is ‘home’, where is ‘home’ when our existence is temporary and fleeting, against the backdrop of geological time? Here is a conundrum that Erpenbeck can only reflect, never answer. And her book ends with the systematic, legally enshrined, following the tiniest niceties of German laws and regulations, demolition of one of the main properties whose various owners and inhabitants have been at the centre of the novel…

Walter Kempowski: Homeland

February 13, 2021

     Here is an unsettling, disturbing novel, cynical in tone, and verging on black comedy at times. A German writer with roots in former East Prussia is offered an assignment to visit the region, now part of Poland, and draw up a potential tourist itinerary. He know his mother died while fleeing the region in 1945, after giving birth to him, and that his father died in a coastal defence position close by.

Kempowski juxtaposes German incomprehension with Polish truculence. Our writer researches his trip before leaving, and meets and interviews a number of those who had to flee at the end of the war. There has always been a section of the German population who have refused to accept the loss of those territories to Poland and the Soviet Union, and hope that some day they may be able to reclaim them! And there are some pretty unsavoury characters among them.

The actual trip ends up with their being on the tail of a busload of German tourists ‘doing’ the sights of cities and towns that were formerly German, so our hero’s somewhat detached cynicism is juxtaposed with more open revanchism. Even though the story is set in the 1980s, there are still reminders of the former status of the territory, and increasingly the writer’s thoughts return to his parents’ deaths in the chaos at the end of the war.

The Poles do not emerge unscathed either: these are the days of shortages and the People’s Republic; while the Germans cannot understand the absences and the poor quality of what they are offered, they are targets for fleecing, deception and robbery by the locals, and the regime has its points to make to these necessary – for their foreign exchange – visitors, too. Mutual dislike, distrust and incomprehension abounds. The Germans can see lots of possibilities for exploiting the locals and the area… just as they did in the past.

The writer’s final, and accidental, visit to the village where his mother died and his father was killed, is very low-key, apart from his bitter repetition of ‘All for nothing!’ (incidentally, the title of another of Kempowski’s books, on a similar theme.

My familiarity with a number of the places visited and described in the novel was also rather jarring. I had visited some of them back in the 1970s, before the final peace treaty between Poland and the Federal Republic which acknowledged the irreversible loss of those eastern territories; one of the most shocking sights to this fifteen year-old was a bulldozed and demolished German cemetery, with smashed German gravestones piled in heaps. For me this novel is a reminder of the lasting effects of war: before 1933, Poles and Germans had co-existed reasonably peacefully for centuries in this region; after 1945 there was no way Germans could remain. Ethnic cleansing took place. My grandparents had been slave labourers in this part of former Germany. I can understand that some Germans are sad that the lands of their remote ancestors are now no longer German, but supporting evil warmongers has its consequences; nothing is fair in war.

It is a dark novel, and rightly so.

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