Archive for the 'Second World War' Category

On collective amnesia

May 5, 2022

I haven’t posted much lately because I haven’t been reading much. Escaping the current dire state of the world seems to elude me.

I realise, as I get older, that not everyone remembers as much or as far back as I do; it’s like that strange moment when you eventually realise that policemen are now younger than you, and it didn’t use to be like that. You have to be approaching seventy to have any memory of the Cuban missile crisis. Apart from Biden, no current world leaders hit that.

Back then, NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other; two hostile alliances. Now NATO faces Russia alone. Back then, the two alliances faced each other in Europe; there was a buffer of “friendly” states between Russia and the West. Now there isn’t. NATO has always had its missiles in the Russian back yard; the closest Russian missiles get to the US back yard is …. Alaska.

In 1961, world leaders were rather wiser than now, I think; they all knew what the horrors of the world war that had ended less than twenty years previously had been. Today all that is history, rather than memory, for our leaders. And I am horrified by their approach. Correct me if I’m wrong, but EU leaders seem mostly to be being calm and measured, even if they’re getting nowhere. Biden is past it, to be honest: should he have a driving licence at his age, let alone leadership of the “free” world? His public messaging is all over the place.

Britain continues to be a joke. Our PM gives away military secrets during a TV interview. His ministers say outrageous things about Putin publicly; they’re entitled to say what they like in private, but name-calling, doubting the man’s sanity, calling for him to be tried for war crimes when we aren’t at war with the Russians (yet) is barking. I wouldn’t trust the cabinet to run a ‘win a goldfish’ game at a funfair.

Putin, whose actions are evil, does look like a physically ill man. Some call his sanity into account: we don’t actually have access to information to verify that. But if that is the case, then threats and abuse are surely more likely to trigger a more outrageous and over the top response: we should be more measured in our response, without being any less determined.

Meanwhile, consider what is actually going on. Russia, left alone, might well have overwhelmed Ukraine in a matter of days. What they see is the West once again fighting a war by proxy: NATO is providing Ukraine with whatever it needs apart from troops on the ground and planes in the air. Ergo, to them, Russia is fighting NATO.

Here we are again with the Irishman’s reply to the lost traveller: “If I were you, I wouldn’t be starting from here.” Western triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union got us here; a more measured approach to Russian needs for security would have been a good start. We are in a serious mess now.

I have no suggestions for a way out. I do know that war is not good for humans and other living things. And, while Putin threatens rapid, fiery destruction, let us not lose sight of the fact that American capitalism is busy, quietly boiling the frog: big business is burning up the planet in the quest for profit, and social media is constantly stirring the cauldron of hatred. Putin has a hell of a lot to answer for; our side does not have clean hands.

Rank insanity

February 24, 2022

Today the lunatics are running the asylum.

Trump thinks the US has invaded Ukraine. Biden sounds like a true Cold Warrior. Our Prime Minister is playing at Churchill. Our Foreign Secretary is geographically challenged. And our Defence Secretary hurls insults at the man who started it all – Putin. I’ve read hundreds of column inches of half-informed drivel in the so-called serious press, by commentators who ought to know better, but don’t. I think I’ve read two sensible articles.

Putin is running rings around the West, having had years to practise, and an increasingly clear, and very Russian objective: to rebuild the Empire; whether it’s the Soviet one or the Tsarist one hardly matters. And we don’t understand what’s going on. Western leaders do seem incapable of looking at the situation from the Russian point of view. Kennedy got stroppy very quickly when the Soviets started installing missiles in the US backyard, and we ended up with the Cuban crisis of 1962. And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the West was ridiculously triumphalist: we won, our system’s better than yours, we are top dogs now.

For a while, there was caution, of a sort, but I don’t see how anyone could have imagined that to allow NATO to move right to the borders of Russia, and then to allow the – no matter how remotely in the future –prospect of Ukraine joining, was not going to have Putin as antsy as Kennedy was way back then. And I hold no cards for Putin, who is a nasty piece of work with all sorts of typically Russian skullduggery to his name, both at home and abroad. But you would have thought there might be a little common-sense somewhere in the Western camp… but no, it’s full of people who weren’t even alive during WW2 likening Putin to Hitler, wanting full-on war and I don’t know what else.

I’m fully in favour of peoples’ right to self-determination and independence if they want it; Ukraine hasn’t had much of a chance, really: thirty years of trying, and what seems like a fair amount of chaos and a hell of a lot of corruption. Many, though not all, of the countries that emerges from the Soviet yoke back in the 90s have had a difficult translation to democracy; several are clearly backsliding rather seriously. And again, Western triumphalism and the urge of businesses to make a killing rather than build real foundations for a peaceful and secure world order, are more than partly to blame.

The lunatics are running the asylum. I’m scared, horrified and appalled. I’ve always been against war, which ultimately solves nothing, but creates more business opportunities for arms manufacturers. And I’m thinking about a former student of mine, who is in Kyiv at the moment.

Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient

January 9, 2022

      I’m in several minds about this novel, which many people rate highly and which I’ve effortlessly avoided for the last 30 years but have now read because it’s our book group choice for January. For me, it joins the list of oddball takes on the Second World War in novels, perhaps the most successful of which is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin an eminently forgettable one, for me at least.

It’s well-written: I like the ways Ondaatje uses the language to create atmosphere, particularly through the use of the impersonal ‘he’ and ‘she’. At times I felt a sense of showiness with so many names and places and foreign terms, and the narrative often felt too disjointed and disconnected, overly impressionistic. I could see the effect the writer wanted to achieve… The muddling of the story strands and the various timeshifts made for an oddly compelling narrative involving the isolated individuals in the Italian villa; it took quite a while, but eventually the interplay between the four very different characters began to work for me. This setting seemed to echo the isolation of the characters in the desert sections which I liked very much (well, I would, wouldn’t I?)

For me, by far the most interesting character was Kip, the Sikh sapper. I liked his inscrutability and his personality came across very well via the narrative style; the ending of his storyline was very powerful and moving, even more so because of the effect and message of the previous book I read (see the last post above). Even so, I found myself wondering if this interest in him was triggered by all the boys’ stuff, bombs and bomb disposal and so on.

And yet… somewhere I remain unsatisfied. I’m glad I read the book, in the end, but there was a certain self-consciously arty archness about it which I couldn’t shake off, and the quite sudden degeneration into an unpicking of the different spies mystery as the identity of the English patient became clear, I found really annoying. But the ending was unexpected and powerful because of that. It feels like a novel that needs a re-read to become clearer and yet I don’t really see myself finding the time.

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.

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