Archive for the 'Second World War' Category

Literature and Auschwitz

January 23, 2020

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_ML3_  71l2--J+pSL._AC_UY218_ML3_  91Zrixmwg7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   An article by Dan Jacobson in The Guardian about Auschwitz appearing in the titles of many works of fiction, as well as my distaste upon reading that someone had decided it would be a good thing to colourise the film made at the time of the liberation of the extermination camp by the Soviet Army, crystallised the idea of this post. The 75th anniversary of the liberation comes up shortly, of course, hence the media attention.

I visited Auschwitz half a century ago, at the age of fifteen. It’s an experience I’ve never forgotten, never can and never should. Heaven only knows what my sisters, even younger than me, made of it, but I firmly believe my father was right to take us. At the time it was used as a piece of Soviet propaganda, with a stark memorial claiming that four and a half million people had been killed there (nowadays the figure is more accurately put at more than a million) and the focus was not on remembering extermination of Jews but extermination of human beings.

That last is an interesting point. It is well-known that the Nazis attempted to eliminate European Jewry; less-known that in Eastern Europe everyone’s life was cheap, if not of no value, and there is documentation pointing to the fact that after the Jews, and after an eventual German victory in the war, the Poles and Russians were next on the list for elimination. Read Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, set in a world where Jews are only a historical memory. Six million Jews were murdered; six million Polish citizens were killed in the war.

I have always felt that the use of the word ‘Holocaust’ (which only came into wide use after the film Schindler’s List) somehow both shifts the focus away from the viewing of groups of people as subhuman and also in a way sanitises what the Nazis did: most of the killings took place not in extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka but in nameless fields, forests and ditches in the vast depths of eastern Poland (as it then was), the Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The previous term used was ‘Final Solution’ which was what the Nazis called their approach to dealing with the Jewish population of Europe; that also hides enormity behind a euphemism. Above all we need to remember that the Second World War, started by the Nazis, led directly and indirectly to the death of over fifty million people…

Somehow an awful place like Auschwitz has now become another stop on a tourist trail, and there is plenty of documentation of appalling behaviour there by unthinking visitors. And yet, people must continue to go there, and the horrors which that place symbolises must not be forgotten. Which brings me back to Jacobson’s article, and writings about Auschwitz.

There has been much written in terms of history and personal memoirs, very little (until recently) in the way of fiction. And that has seemed appropriate, to me at least: to try and use one’s creative imagination focused on such matters appear perverse, in a way. And somehow, the idea of marketing a book because it has the ‘A’ word in the title is just wrong. I used The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne once as a class reader while teaching; it may have been a brave attempt at bringing the subject within the scope of school age children, but it was too toe-curling for me. Hans Peter Richter’s Friedrich was a much more powerful introduction to the topic.

I found Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Kenneally, a very powerful read, but have never wanted to bring myself to watch the film; I was very moved by André Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of The Just, which traces a Jewish line down through generations until it is eliminated at Auschwitz. Vassily Grossman treads lightly in his novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate, and the result is very effective: the hero Lev Shtrum is haunted throughout by the death of his mother who was unable to flee the German advance whilst he was; he learns that she ended up dead in a mass grave, and he cannot forget this. Grossman is unremittingly truthful in his factual, journalist’s account of the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp site by the Soviet Army.

Finally, I must mention Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) again. The opening chapters are truly horrific; a Nazi witnesses the blood and guts and the utter chaos on the Eastern Front as the extermination of the Jews in the East begins. It is mayhem, the stuff of nightmares, and the dedicated Nazi is determined that there must be a better, more efficient way to carry out the Final Solution.

Where I get to in my reflections on this appalling chapter of European history is that it must be taught so that it may never happen again, also that the events and the reasons (?) behind them are far more complex than most people can know, or admit or understand, and that there are people who will attempt to turn a profit or make political propaganda out of it. If it were possible, my view of our species is further diminished.

A tragedy and a shame

January 18, 2020

I was just about to turn 18 when the UK joined the Common Market in 1973. So I have lived my entire adult life (so far) as a European citizen, and have always thought of myself as European first, and English/Polish second. I will also admit, to my shame, that, swayed by Trotskyite propaganda, I voted for us to leave the Common Market in the 1975 referendum.

Shortly, against my will, I will cease to be an EU citizen. To all of my readers in Europe I say that for me this is a tragedy. In my years of travelling, pretty much all of which has been in Europe, I have grown to know and appreciate what we have in common as well as how we differ from each other as individual nations, and what we share feels so much greater than what separates or divides us. I have also learned the deeper meaning of the European project and its symbolism for those nations on the European mainland who suffered so much during the two world wars of the last century: this is at the root of Britain’s fateful decision to leave. We have never been occupied; we have not experienced such horrors as Auschwitz, Lidice or Oradour-sur-Glane on our soil.

There are times when I have felt that the EU was basically a neoliberal capitalist club; those aspects still anger me. And yet, the EU is not the unbridled capitalist chaos that is the USA, nor the thinly disguised dictatorship that is Russia, nor the surveillance and pollution nightmare that China seems to be; it is a wavering outpost of social-democratic, welfare state society that by and large seems still to espouse some of the freedoms and decencies hard-won after two world wars on its soil.

And so I do regard our departure as tragic.

But it is also a matter of national shame. Such a major decision, the full implications of which are still unknown, and the full effects of which will take several years to become clear, was taken by a minority of the electorate; in the recent election which allowed the steamroller to proceed, far more voters supported remain parties than those advocating departure: that is all history now, except for the disgrace that is our electoral system, and the disgrace of the liars who manipulated, cheated and deceived the nation’s voters.

Once we were a nation with a huge empire, built on conquest, racism and slavery. The price of US assistance in the last world war was the relinquishing of that empire. And yet, shamefully, we still try and behave like a world power, when we are only a small island off the coast of a continent, and now of far less importance, significance or influence than we have been for the last half-century or so. We are a country living in the past, unwilling to look at, never mind embrace the future. We can blame politicians of all hues for failing to engage with the European project properly, when, given our economic weight, we might have a major influence on the shape of the entire project.

So, shortly, our country severs the ties. I don’t accept that rupture. I will not ‘get over it’. I will not ‘make friends’ with the liars, idiots and crooks who engineered it all. I shall continue to see myself as a European first, I shall continue my travels in Europe and my encounters with its people for as long as I am able, and, as I always have done (bar that 1975 aberration) I shall continue to argue the case for the UK being a part of it all.

Friendly greetings to all my European readers!

On peace and forgetfulness

September 26, 2019

When I reflect on my life, and seek the source of the contentment I feel in my later years, I am drawn back to feelings of gratitude for the greatest thing of all: that I was born, grew up and have lived in peacetime.

I have benefited from peace in Europe; I have been incredibly fortunate. Yes, I’m well aware that we had our own civil war in Northern Ireland for a quarter of a century, that Britain has been involved in wars in many parts of the world, and that Europe had its own extremely nasty conflicts when the Federation of Yugoslavia collapsed in the aftermath of the fall of communism. For me, and many like me, that was the stuff of newspapers and radio news bulletins. I’m aware that there was the Cold War: I think we also had saner and more intelligent politicians in those days…

I return to this idea of peaceful existence more and more often, because I see it under threat, by neglect, by those who should know better, by those who don’t think, and by those in positions of power who are acting irresponsibly. For example, many of those of the older generation, who support Brexit, are wont to bang on about the wartime spirit, the spirit of Dunkirk, that got us through those times and will get us through the coming chaos. And I think, not only were most of those people not alive during that war and even conscious of that alleged spirit – my mother who was a schoolgirl at the time, remembers sheltering under the kitchen table from German bombers on their way to and from Hull – but they will have grown up after the war in the times when everyone did pull together to rebuild the nation, and with the benefits of the greatest British achievement, the NHS. So yes, such people make me angry.

Time leads us to forget. We’ve been at peace in our corner of the world for a very long time: three quarters of a century next year. Most people now only know from history books where vile racism and nationalism lead. They do not imagine, cannot imagine, such perils ahead of them now.

My own family history, which I’ve referred to often enough in my blog, also makes me aware that most Britons’ notions of war are not those of other Europeans, who experienced occupation, starvation, deportations, persecutions and executions. You only have to visit battlefields anywhere in continental Europe, and memorials in any country to discover the traumatic effects of war, to see where entire cities and towns had to be rebuilt. Wherever I travel, I see and hear evidence of European nations determined to collaborate, to ensure that the horrors of the past do not return, their determination not to forget. Dad’s Army, the Blitz, and ration books are not how the rest of Europe experienced the Second World War.

Because in a sense peace is an absence – the absence of war – it’s hard to see its benefits. Then I visualise these advantages disappearing overnight, as, for example in former Yugoslavia or in Ukraine, and I can see how truly fortunate I, my family and almost everyone I know has been.

On being alarmed by the state of the world

July 25, 2019

I don’t think I’m the only person alarmed by the parlous state of the world. And, as this is a literary blog, instead of launching into a political piece straight off, I turned my thoughts to my reading.

I’ve always read a lot of science fiction, as regular readers will be aware; it’s mainly of the type called speculative fiction, the ‘what if?’ kind of story and novel, and in my time I’ve devoured the writings of John Brunner, who back in the 1970s was warning about the dangers of pollution and overpopulation, and Ernest Callenbach who pictured ecologically sensible futures. Then there was the great Ursula Le Guin, who pictured humans and human-type races trying to live harmoniously with the nature of the worlds they inhabited. And I read scientific writers – popular science, I suppose – who outlined the dangers our planet would face in the future, if we failed to make changes to the ways in which we were harming our only planet.

And, sadly, we have not learned, either from the facts of the scientists or the imagined futures of the novelists, and it really does feel as if we are truly wrecking our planet. I can selfishly think two things: one, I’ve always tried to do my bit in terms of living responsibly, and two, my time will be over relatively soon in the grand scheme of things and so I won’t be too badly affected. The problems with those two points are so blindingly obvious I hesitate to point them out, but I will. One, individual humans cannot make the difference: concerted, collective action is needed. Two, I have children and grandchildren whom I love, and what sort of world will they have to cope with after I’ve gone?

Secondly, I’ve always read a lot of fiction about war. The First World War literature was mainly about preparation for teaching students; the Second World War was because I am a product of the outcome of that war, which was allegedly started to protect my father’s country and ended with his not being able to return to that (rather different) country… So I have multiple pictures of what an appalling thing war is, that only our species visits on itself, and through my reading of history – another passion – I have the factual details and information with which to appal myself. In my later years my reading and my experience of the world have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that humanity is not really a very intelligent species. Yes, a lot of us may be very clever, but that is far from being the same thing.

I lived through the rank insanity of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; there was eventually enough common-sense and intelligence in the Soviet and US leaders eventually to lead them to slow down the arms race and reduce the danger of mutually assured destruction. Today I feel I live in a far more precarious world, where terrorism is rife, and the possibility of war is far more likely, because we have politicians and leaders who are – to put it mildly – pretty clueless.

There was a phase in science fiction, particularly from writers like H G Wells, where it was imagined that by the end of the twentieth century we would have a World Government which would, in an enlightened but probably not democratic way, protect the planet and the interests of all its citizens, and abolish forever the plagues of warfare and want. We should be so lucky. And yet it does strike me that we could desperately do with some form of rule that was outside the remit of selfish nation-states and greedy business interests. It’s interesting that, in various future visions I’ve read, the kind of ‘democracy’ that we are currently blessed or benighted with does not figure terribly prominently: it is very limited and cannot cope with the complexity and scale of the modern world. Different models are needed.

We could do with a World Government which would take a long-term approach – over fifty years or a century, say, to address our profligate and polluting energy use which is what will make the planet uninhabitable eventually. And it would put an end to the scourge of the world arms trade, which silently and obscenely makes fortunes of billions for those involved in it, and kills millions in faraway countries that we do not worry our pretty little heads with, but which creates all the problems associated with refugees and economic migrants who are so desperate to reach our shores…

Where I end up, in my own little microcosm, is with the awareness that my lifetime of reading has perhaps enabled me to understand the issues that face us, and yet relatively powerless to do anything about them: certainly the ‘democratic’ possibilities I’m offered every few years are not calculated to allow me to make the choices I want to be able to make. And so, I end up with the feeling of sadness that a species which has so much individual talent, cleverness and intelligence, is unable to use it collectively in an effective fashion.

Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad

July 23, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Reading the prequel to Life and Fate felt strange: I knew the characters from that novel, and was now meeting them in an earlier incarnation; also, of course, the actual historical events were familiar. The genesis of the novel is very complex, and Robert Chandler has not only done a really good job of translating Stalingrad, he has also provided a very detailed and helpful introduction and notes.

Grossman paints an optimistic and committed panorama of Soviet society, with touching portraits of peasants making their farewells to family, home and village as they set off to war from which they do not expect to return. He takes time to build up his canvas, with a convincing aura of pride and optimism shining though his characters who are committed to the revolution, genuine and sincere in their desires to build a better world for everyone (whatever Stalin may be up to), and clear that Hitler is out to destroy all they have achieved. Here is a patriotism we in the West find difficult to comprehend or accept. And yes, at times some of Grossman’s characters do talk like rather wooden socialist realists: we must remember the times and conditions under which he wrote (he was told by the KGB that it would be two centuries before publication of Life and Fate would be possible!). The propagandist line is there, quite subtle, with positive references to Stalin as a father-figure of the nation.

An atmosphere of foreboding builds up, with the Soviet armies still in retreat from the German advance, and the crucial effort to prevent them reaching and crossing the Volga. There is determination, there is sacrifice, there is a full picture of a country at war for its very survival, aware that their people are considered and treated as sub-human by the Nazis. The colossal Soviet war effort, moving entire sectors of the economy hundreds of miles to safety beyond the Urals is something very difficult to imagine – yet they did it.

Thumbnail portraits of individuals are lovingly done, clearly showing their dedication to their tasks, their modesty, their pride in work well done, and their love of their country: you do feel that many millions of people did really have their lives improved under communism. Equally, and perhaps surprisingly, Grossman portrays his German characters insightfully, without hatred or racism, allowing the evils of Nazism to speak for themselves, as well as trying to show the political and psychological reasons for the success of that ideology among the Germans.

There is a very powerful sense of immediacy when the actual German attack on Stalingrad begins; the sudden disappearances and deaths of characters we have grown to know and like are very shocking but obviously realistic: war doesn’t spare favourites. Equally touching are the cameos of moments of reunion and happiness in the midst of warfare. What I found most powerful of all, extraordinary even, were his portrayals of men and women fighting to the death in the ruins of their city, conscious of the fact that they were certainly going to die quite soon. We see how they are transformed by their experiences, and if we find this all rather hard to believe at times, the notes remind us that many of Grossman’s accounts are factually-based.

Stalingrad struck me as a less mature novel than Life and Fate, more propagandist and more diffuse, even naive at times. Nevertheless, it is a stunning achievement when one takes all the different factors I’ve tried to mention into account. It means I’ll have to go back to Life and Fate again soon. I’ve mentioned the excellent critical apparatus in Chandler’s work; I’ll moan about the poor maps which lack the necessary detail to be helpful to the reader in following the action, and the shoddy production values of the UK edition of the book, which is basically a glued-block paperback with a cheap flat-spine cardboard cover…

But, read this book!

Timothy Snyder: Black Earth

June 29, 2019


I’ve admired Timothy Snyder’s previous books, The Reconstruction of Nations and Bloodlands, because I’ve comes across nothing else in English that deals so clearly and in so much detail with the history of my father’s part of the world during his lifetime; I was immediately interested when this, his most recent book, came out, but was also warned off by reviews which didn’t like his links between Hitler, ecology and what was happening in the contemporary world.

I was instantly uncertain when reading this late twentieth century term in connection with Hitler and the Holocaust, but it’s clear Snyder has studied and analysed Hitler’s Mein Kampf in great depth, which not many do, and which is the source of his ideas about the struggles between races, for domination and survival. There were times when I did feel Snyder was striving too hard to fit all of 1930s history and politics into his own neat theory.

Snyder’s analysis of inter-war Polish politics and its relations with Germany, together with his explanations of why, ultimately they didn’t become allies in a war against the Soviet Union, are very useful, and we see how in the end Poland, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany all misunderstood each other, and misread each other’s intentions. Poland wanted to sort its Jewish problem through mass emigration to Palestine, and spent time and money training Zionists for their armed struggle against the British who had the mandate; Poland suffered from mass unemployment, and felt it had too many Jews (over 3 million). Jews were regarded as human beings whose presence in the country was economically and politically undesirable. What is so well treated is the complexity of all the issues, including the question of Polish anti-semitism. Equally Snyder is clear about Hitler deliberately provoking crises hoping to embroil Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in a war, as well as the Soviet Union fomenting tension along its border with Poland.

Where Snyder’s analysis seems to make most sense, and the greatest contribution – at least to this non-historian’s understanding – to analysis of events in Eastern Europe during the Second World War is in his exploration of the gradual way in which Jews were made stateless, ie without any formal protection in law, and how vast tracts of nations were made lawless zones, in which anything became possible. Once again Snyder makes it evident how the West never really understood the Nazis’ intentions and behaviour towards Eastern Europe and its populations, imagining those lands’ experience of war and occupation as being similar to their own, which was never true.

Soviet occupation of the borderlands in 1939-40, consequent on the secret protocols in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, made the Nazis’ work in 1941-42 much easier: Soviet occupation and chaos followed by Nazi occupation and chaos in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland was crucial in facilitating the wholesale massacre of civilians.

Snyder also unpicks different kinds of anti-semitism in different parts of occupied Europe, the differing ways in which the Nazis encouraged and took advantage of it, and the different ways in which the extermination of the Jews was carried out in different countries. In the West we are not usually aware of the fact that most of Europe’s Jews had already been killed before the extermination facilities at Auschwitz were opened; the focus on Auschwitz has allowed Germans to claim that they didn’t know what went on, whereas any German on service in Eastern Europe could not have been ignorant of mass shootings in hundreds if not thousands of locations.

There is also a very interesting chapter of individual stories which reflect how complex relations were between Jews and non-Jews at all levels during the war, and examine why some helped Jews and others did not. Again, Snyder challenges simplistic Western commentary on Polish anti-semitism: not that there was none, for indeed there was, but that many complex factors lay behind people’s behaviour.

After the war there was collusion between the new Soviet-backed regimes and many of those who had in various ways collaborated with the Nazis; in Poland the Holocaust laid the foundations for the new Soviet settlement and transformation of a now Jew-less society.

I am not a historian and so I cannot comment on Snyder’s analysis and how it fits in or doesn’t with what others have written, but for me he does explore issues carefully, sensitively, in detail, makes connections where they haven’t been made before, and provokes further reflection. As I mentioned at the start, I did find his overall thesis somewhat forced; nevertheless he makes the important point that we don’t necessarily now live in a more secure or saner world from which the spectres and horrors of the past have been banished, and indicates where some future dangers may lie. For me, this is the mark of a good historian.

Vassily Grossman: A Writer at War

June 12, 2019

51A67VDPEHL._AC_UL436_  While I was waiting for Grossman’s novel Stalingrad to be published (it’s the prequel to the stunning Life and Fate, and I now have my copy, though as it’s a 1000-page doorstop, don’t expect a review too soon!) I decided to revisit this collection of his journalism from the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call their Second World War, which lasted from 1941-45. It’s not pure Grossman, as it’s edited, selected, commented on and analysed, but this has been done well.

Grossman was medically unfit to serve, so became a war correspondent for the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvedza, and followed the war through all the fronts, from the retreat and loss of Bielorussia and Ukraine almost to Moscow, the battle for Stalingrad, the biggest tank battle ever at the Kursk salient, and the push back which took the Red Army to Berlin.

One is immediately struck by the immediacy and the impressionism of his reportage. He chronicles the horrendous start to the war, with the Soviet Union paralysed by Stalin’s unwillingness to believe his erstwhile Nazi ally had dared to attack. This denial of reality seems to have gone on for a long while, worsening the military collapse. Then there was the tragedy of the Ukraine, devastated by Stalin’s starvation tactics and famine ten years previously, which meant that its inhabitants often welcomed the Germans with open arms, not realising what was about to happen to them.

The hectic nature of life under fire and the uncertainty of war come across vividly, as does the astonishing heroism of so many in defence of their motherland. And Grossman was at the front, among it all. I cannot recall any parallel to the extraordinary callousness and brutality of warfare: Grossman paints a picture of Russians fighting for their very existence, rather than just not to be invaded and conquered: here is a very different sense of conflict.

Grossman’s accounts of the battle for Stalingrad are very vivid; he interviewed commanders and men and wrote up his accounts for the newspaper: the men recognised themselves and the deeds he described, and his reputation grew; he was only censored ‘lightly’ because of the patriotic feelings his accounts inspired. Only when he mentioned specifically what was happening to the Jews – he was Jewish – was the blue pencil heavier; the Soviet authorities did not approve of the Jews being viewed as any different from other Soviet citizens, and such anti-semitism was to worsen after the end of the war.

The accounts of the winning back of Soviet territory from the Nazis, and the discovery of the full horror of what the Germans had done in the territories they had occupied, make very unpleasant reading: it is clear that the Nazi approach to Slavs was that they were subhuman and they were treated as such. This did not happen in Western Europe: there are just too many stories we cannot comprehend, just as in Svetlana Alexievich’s accounts of the same war. You need a particularly strong stomach to read his descriptions of the Treblinka extermination camp, culled from interviews with those who lived in the area.

There are those who say that such events are now so long ago in the past that it’s time to forget them. I’m not one of those. Very many Germans – not all, though – have striven to come to terms with this appalling period of their history and what members of their families did, more or less willingly. We do not have the right to forget what bestialities humans inflicted on each other, nor should we blithely imagine that such things are only part of the past.

Walter Kempowski: All For Nothing

January 2, 2019

61xYa-pKCfL._AC_US218_It’s hard to find the right adjective for this novel: it’s very good, powerful, moving and yet none of those words does it full justice. It’s a novel about Germany in the closing stages of the Second World War, and another of my reactions as I finished it was anger, as I realised it would have been impossible for an English writer to produce such a novel, and because this feeling once again highlighted my country’s inability to understand other nations’ experience of that conflict, or their desire, through the European project, to ensure that it was never repeated.

To prevent this piece becoming a rant, and because I want to do justice to a remarkable book, I’ll slow down and explain. The novel is set in the depths of East Prussia, an area of the Reich that was cut off as the Russians swept westwards, and eventually impossible to escape from. East Prussia no longer exists, its territory having been divided by Stalin between the Soviet Union and Poland, for the latter nation as recompense for all the territory Stalin took. And I declare a kind of interest, as much of my Polish family live in those once German lands.

But we need to go further back into history to understand: in those territories for centuries many different peoples had lived along side each other reasonably peaceably – Poles, Germans, Kashubians… after the end of the Great War there had been plebiscites and some areas had chosen to become part of the re-born Polish Republic, while others opted for Germany. The Nazis’ treatment of other nationalities and races as subhuman meant the end of any further co-existence, and Stalin enforced ethnic cleansing throughout the region. The region is beautiful countryside and you can see German characteristics in many of the buildings which survived the war, but it is now indelibly part of Poland. I remember great shock when visiting as a teenager in 1970, and seeing the wreckage of the old German cemeteries, which were being demolished and removed…

Back to the novel: apparently Kempowski spent years collecting information, testimonies and evidence from those who fled – as he had done as a child. So although some of the places in the novel are fictional, the whole is solidly rooted in fact. And he manages to create a lyrical picture of an epoch, a place and a way of life which had totally vanished, which had to vanish, and yet make us regret its loss; the only other novel I’ve read which had succeeded so powerfully is Lampedusa’s The Leopard.

Because it’s a tale of the gathering flight from the region, there are many characters who pass through, as well as those who are more fixed; there are glimpses of Nazism and also the impression that the Nazis have passed them by, which of course they have not. There is a great sense of naivety about many of them, and of wilful blindness and collusion about others, as well as a complete inability to grasp the epic scale of the calamity which is overtaking them. And they are all basically decent people, deep down: they cannot understand what is happening to them. Death arrives horribly suddenly and brutally. Nazi bureaucrats and minions continue to wreck lives in nit-picking little ways even as the Reich is crashing down around them: no-one is spared. People are capable of great goodness and great pettiness; Kempowski shows us it all, achieving a strange, almost Brechtian distancing from his characters and their fates. Perhaps much of the book’s power comes from this, through the sense of ordinary people swept along by the tide of events, both complicit and yet also tragically victims. His neutral tone is also important, helping create a certain sense of nostalgia and sadness, as well as inevitability, and giving a dream-like quality to the lost world. There is an unreal, even surreal quality to many characters’ thoughts and actions, which unnervingly leads the reader at times to attribute innocence to them; yet there are chilling hints of their knowledge of the horrors perpetrated by the regime which acts in their name. The moral complexity is both challenging and necessary.

The book has been translated very well, I feel, and the novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s introduction to this edition, in which she writes about Kempowski’s research, is also very useful background.

Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle

December 22, 2018

512pFI-ABRL._AC_US218_I’ve had the TV series sitting unwatched on my hard drive for a couple of years now: obviously I’m a bit suspicious of elephantine television series expanded from a single good novel (so I haven’t been watching The Handmaid’s Tale either). This novel is probably Dick’s masterpiece, I think after this re-read (number five, apparently)…

It’s a serious step up from what he produced before. In this world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and divided up a defeated United States between them, Dick succeeds from the start in a Brechtian alienation effect as, through the way characters use the language he creates a completely different world, portraying the deference the Americans show to their new Japanese overlords in many ways, as well as the omni-present use of the I Ching to make decisions.

The alternative history genre is now well-established: in 1962 it was quite new, and Dick certainly hadn’t played with it before. The historical details he invents to create his world are sketchy yet convincing in more than just broad-brush strokes: the Germans have a space programme, and the Japanese are bogged down militarily in South America, and there is evident tension between the two superpowers at many levels. Cold War is still cold war.

New, too, is Dick’s creation and development of much more complex characters, far beyond the SF of his time, and of his own earlier work. There is a new racial pecking-order evident, and expected behaviours still exist, just different from those we knew about in the 1960s; slavery has returned to the US. Dick makes a real effort to understand the world view of both the Nazis and the Japanese and how it might operate if they had been militarily successful: I was reminded of the powerful insights into Nazi character explored by Jonathan Littell in his astonishing novel The Kindly Ones. The victors always write history, so of course it’s the Allies who were guilty of numerous atrocities in their attempts to win the war.

With Dick, one should always expect something extra, and he doesn’t disappoint: within his alternative universe, there is a novel – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – which imagines another counterfactual, a world in which the Axis powers lost the war, banned by the Germans, but circulating semi-legally. Here is a novel operating on so many different and sophisticated levels, that I cannot see why it hasn’t achieved higher status, other than the damning SF label, of course. And this nested alternative history where the Allies win the war is not the history we are all familiar with, but another version still… There is serious social and psychological analysis of fascism and nazism, and of the old British and American empires embedded in the text of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in a way which reminded me of Goldstein’s book within Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.

Dick is at his most interesting in his presentation of the gracefulness and the courtesy of the Japanese, as well as their inscrutability, compared with the gaucheness of their American inferiors who struggle to interpret the nature of communication with their conquerors, and in the detailed use of the I Ching as predictive and interpretive of human actions and choices. Complex moral choices are developed sensitively and fully explored as the novel moves towards a strangely open conclusion, enigmatic in true Dickian fashion in one track, and reminiscent of Kurtz’ ‘The horror! The horror!’ moment in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the other.

This book is magnificent, and deserves much greater recognition.

Not a very intelligent species…

November 11, 2018

Ten million soldiers killed; millions more civilians still to die from Spanish flu, part of a population physically weakened by four and a half years of conflict. And were any lessons learned? It is hard to think so, for the ‘peace conference’ at Versailles set in motion the seeds of an action replay twenty years later, in which far more were to die, and further unspeakable horrors were to be perpetrated.

Having visited various areas of France where the Western war took place, I can understand why the French sought to exact reparations from a defeated Germany, an approach which was to contribute to resentment, economic collapse and the eventual rise of Hitler. Numerous peoples who had suffered under foreign yoke for years achieved independence, (including Poland, my father’s country), but as multi-racial countries which could not easily learn how to deal with their new-found freedoms; again this contributed to weak democracies collapsing into dictatorships and feeding the rise of fascism. I only have to look at what happened in Poland, where my father grew up in those inter-war years, to see the problems that had to be faced. And the ‘victorious’ powers, the British and the French, presumed to impose on the Middle East a ‘settlement’ the consequences of whose idiocies are still being visited on the entire world today. Finally, the United States emerged onto the world stage as a superpower, relatively stronger because of its much shorter participation in the conflict.

I watched a series of BBC documentaries this week, with testimonies from participants in the Great War, who spoke about the effects on themselves, families and friends. And I was shocked at the anger I felt: all these people endured all this suffering and death at the behest of their masters who themselves went through very little of it: had there been any need for the build-up to and outbreak of the war other than competitiveness between nations and futile ideas of national pride?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing… but in a world where ordinary people are asked to put their trust in politicians through a ballot-box, one ought to be able to expect intelligence from rulers, the ability to think through the consequences of their actions and decisions, otherwise what is the point? Having sown the seeds of 1939, those politicians then bowed to the common people who had no wish to see a repeat of the Great War, appeased fascism until it was too late, and we know what the end result was.

As I grow older I am torn between two competing views of humanity: collectively we are capable of astonishing achievements, and individual genius testifies to our capabilities, and yet we really do not seem to be a terribly intelligent species, for all that. We allow greed, violence and inequality to lord it over us, and allow ourselves to be diverted from reality by lies, bread and circuses… I have long been convinced that violence and war do not solve anything. I will acknowledge that the Second World War had to happen, but a truly intelligent species would never have allowed the causes of it to develop and flourish in the first place.

For me, today is a day for sober reflection, and respect for the memory of those who were killed.

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