Archive for the 'Second World War' Category

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

71cOYL3oaHL._AC_UL320_

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.

Literature and the two world wars

November 7, 2018

I’ve often wondered why there seems to be so much more literature from the Great War than from the Second World War. That’s an impression I have, rather than any carefully calculated conclusion. I also have the feeling, that I think many readers would probably agree with, that the literature from the earlier war is more powerful, and more effective. And no, I’m not forgetting Second World War classics like Catch-22 and Life and Fate

Thinking about this a little more deeply: there was poetry written during the Second World War; I have an anthology (which I don’t dip into very often, I’m afraid) and a few poems collected loose-leaf over the years, but I’ve rarely used any of them in my teaching. They are so different, so much more low-key, with almost an aura of, ‘well, here we are again’ about them, rather than the shock, anger and outrage of the likes of Owen and Sassoon, whose power could not be equalled.

I have read fewer memoirs of the Second World War, although I found Keith DouglasAlamein to Zem-Zem as interesting as those of Sassoon, Graves et al. There is much more humour – novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms trilogy spring to mind, and again I know of no parallels from the earlier war; Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is much more slapstick, although as brilliant in its own subversive way as is Heller, I feel. And there is good drama set in the Great War – Hamp, and Journey’s End for starters, but no plays leap to mind from the later war.

And yet, when you turn to look at both wars from a historical perspective, 1939-45 makes 1914-18 pale into insignificance in so many ways: the genocide of the Jews, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the vastly greater casualty figures, especially among civilians, the vileness of Nazism per se…

In many ways the Great War seems to have been so unnecessary, a self-inflicted wound that Europe drifted into, not quite out of boredom, a war that came to an unresolved conclusion out of attrition and left unfinished business that led to the next war a generation later. Recently, I have been reading about how the ending of that war came as such a shock to the Germans: lack of a sense of defeat of their armies made it easier for the Nazis and others to perpetrate the myth of the stab in th eback and the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles…

Reading the literature, what comes across most strongly to me is the utter shock of what the Great War became, the pointless hell of trench warfare in the West, with images that still cannot fail to appal, where the destruction, annihilation even, is actually far greater than that at Hiroshima: look at photographs of what (doesn’t) remain of some of the villages on the Somme or Passchendaele and you will see what I mean. And of course the determination that this should never happen again meant (after 1939) blitzkrieg, swift occupation and plunder of nations, the ability to plan extermination of whole races and peoples. And the weariness and the absolute necessity of putting an end to Hitler and Nazism led to a different kind of war, all-encompassing and far more destructive.

It is so wrong, and so unhelpful to the future of the world, that in the West we do not realise, cannot comprehend, what that war did in the east. If you have stomach, watch Elem Klimov’s film Go and See. I saw it once, over 30 years ago and still cannot face seeing it again. Read Svetlana Alexievich on The Unwomanly Face of War, or the interviews in Last Witnesses if you can. The Second World War cost Britain a great deal, but we got off oh so lightly compared with almost every other nation, and we still behave in a cavalier fashion towards our near neighbours who have striven to ensure that should be the last war on our continent…

On another centenary…

November 2, 2018

My father was born a subject of the last Tsar, of a nationality without a nation. My researches have shown me that he will have spent the early years of his life pretty close to the lines of the Eastern Front during the Great War. And then came November 1918, the end of the war, and the re-establishment of an independent Poland, after well over a century of non-existence. The Second Republic was born.

You can read about Polish history elsewhere; if you need a recommendation, the excellent books by Norman Davies are the best I know in English. Although only half-Polish, I do feel some pride in the history of the nation, once the largest on the European continent, in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Somewhere I read, the first country to abolish corporal punishment for children; not quite sure how that actually worked. But a nation which elected its monarch? A great idea in theory, perhaps, but which was one of the factors leading to its downfall. A country with a nobility where membership went with your name, not your status and wealth and importance: though my origins are in the peasantry in the middle of nowhere, our name is in the book, the Index of Polish Nobility. It doesn’t do me any good; the Second Republic abolished the nobility in 1919, I think.

Re-creating a nation after over a century is a pretty impossible task, and the Second Republic didn’t do terribly well, torn between those who wanted Poland to be for the Poles and those who hankered after the old, vast commonwealth encompassing many peoples, and much wider territory. It didn’t take long before Poland was another of the fairly grubby semi-dictatorships that spread over much of central Europe. And then there were the Jews, getting on for a quarter of the population, and not always popular, in a country full of poor peasants who saw some prosperous Jews. Because they couldn’t own land, Jews turned to trade and property to make their living; my father said they sometimes taunted poorer Poles: “You may own the land, but we own what is built on it.”

My father was called up in August 1939; living in the eastern part of the country, his section of the army was not involved in trying to hold back the Germans. On 17 September he and his mates were taken by the invading Russians before they could leave their barracks, and shortly after, Poland once again ceased to exist. He and his fellow-soldiers were marched off to Siberia like many thousands of other Poles, where they endured appalling conditions in various camps for more than two years. Enough has been written about the bestiality of the German occupation; what the Soviets did is less well-known. Once Hitler invaded Russia, Poles were grudgingly allowed to leave and make their way to the West to join Allied forces for the struggle against the Nazis. It wasn’t easy; disease and semi-starvation took their toll. But my father ended up in England, joined the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade and was trained to be dropped as part of the liberation of his country – which never happened. He was part of the abortive Arnhem operation, and then Poland was sold down the river by the Western allies.

Newly ‘liberated’ Poland shifted a hundred miles or so to the West and my father’s homeland became part of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which meant that technically, were he to return home, he would be a Soviet citizen. But Soviet citizens who had been in the West were dangerously suspect, so he did not return, one of many thousands in that plight. He knew some who did return, and who then vanished.

Under the Soviet umbrella, Poland attempted to become a nation again, with a certain amount of success, in the sense that there was stability of a kind for the next forty years or so, and also an ethnically homogeneous nation, almost entirely Polish. However, as recent events have begun to show, that has not been a wholly good thing: Poland does not welcome refugees which, given its own past, is rather sad. And the fact that opposition to the Soviet-imposed regime was centred on the Catholic church has created other difficulties, too, for a nation now free of one set of shackles but seemingly unsure of its future direction…

I’ll not apologise for that personal take on Polish and family history. I’ve wrestled with my origins for over sixty years now, and in many ways I’m as English as they come; I was an English teacher for my entire career. I’ve visited Poland five times, and I would not want to live there, not because I don’t like it – I do – but because I’m English too. I’m entitled to Polish citizenship and a Polish passport if I stump up about €1000, and I’ve been briefly tempted, because of all the Brexit insanity. But I think that currently Poland is in a different kind of mess because of its past. Collectively, though Poles are justifiably proud of their record in the Second World War, they seem as yet unable to come to terms with the fact that not every Pole behaved with honour or decency towards his Jewish fellow-citizens. And I’m not casting any stones here, because the English have not a clue as to what life under Nazi occupation for Poles, whom the Nazis also regarded as an inferior race, was like. Poles have yet to face up to the anti-semitism fostered and fanned by the Catholic church in the inter-war years.

But Poland is a free and independent nation, and has been free of the Soviet shackles for nearly thirty years, even if it has found others instead. I try to imagine what my father would have made of it all. Though he saw the successes of the Solidarity movement, and eventually free elections in Poland, he died a month before the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, six months before the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union, which had so radically altered his life…

%d bloggers like this: