Posts Tagged ‘Second World War’

Norman Davies: Trail of Hope

May 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Erika Mann: When the Lights Go Out

May 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Europe…

February 8, 2016

There’s a lot of talk and argument about Europe at the moment, and it’s not going to go away. So, I’ll add my fourpence-worth, at least, from the perspective of my blog.

Sense of belonging is a curious thing. I’ve never felt British; it’s a weird concept, and alien to me. I know it says it on my passport. If I acknowledge anything, it’s Englishness, as England is where I was born, brought up and have lived; however, half of me is Polish, and I feel an affinity with that nation, too, some of the time, although I feel alienated by its currently bonkers politics… so I’ve never really been sure where I properly belong.

Most of my travelling has been in Europe, a place I feel at home in and understand to varying degrees, depending where I happen to be visiting. We share a great deal in Europe: the past, the Romans (for a sizeable chunk of Europe) Christianity, which for better or worse has shaped our beliefs and philosophy, and our approach to literature and the arts links us together, too. There’s a great deal we can be proud of as Europeans, and probably rather more that we should be acknowledging is shameful.

Although other parts of the world, perhaps tutored by our past example, are beginning to approach the savagery let loose during two world wars, those wars blight our history and collective memory in aeternum. And somewhere, the European project of the last sixty years or so has been about ensuring that we do not slide into that kind of anarchy and mayhem again; apart from the Balkans in the 1990s, on that front we have done quite well. Many nations are increasingly closely tied together by economy, law, travel and culture, and it’s pretty difficult to see those bonds disintegrating.

And yet, the cynic kicks in: despite all those lofty ideals to which our petty leaders pay lip-service, the EU is actually a gigantic capitalist club, increasingly forged in the interests of big business and profits, if not actually run by those businesses, as they pull the strings of the Brussels puppets. It’s not the Europe I’m really interested in, and feel part of.

Then there is the refugee crisis and immigration, which is being exploited by nationalists who would be happy to see the European project dismantled. Those of us who are reasonably comfortable with immigration, and want to help those in need, nevertheless must recognise that we live among other people who are profoundly unsettled by what is going on, who would like to restrict or end immigration and asylum. To this I can never subscribe, being the son of a Polish exile. So what should Europe do?

Because Europe is prosperous and peaceful, it’s attractive to people who live in war zones. And, to begin with, Europe should be looking at its contribution in creating those war zones in the first place: invading Iraq, bombing Libya, bombing Syria: as we collectively trash those countries and interfere in others, we both make ourselves more attractive to our victims, and also make ourselves the potential objects of revenge. It doesn’t take an Einstein to put that two and two together…

So, yes, I feel European, and want my country (England) to remain an integrated part of it. I’m not worried about loss of sovereignty (whatever that may mean); I’m concerned about lack of democratic accountability within EU institutions, but that doesn’t mean I want to throw my toys out of the pram. And I hope to continue enjoying travelling in Europe, visiting its cultural treasures and marvellous landscapes, and enjoying its amazing music and wonderful literature for many years yet. English and happy to be European!


Gotz Aly: Hitler’s Beneficiaries

May 4, 2015

9780805087260This is not an easy read, but it’s a very enlightening book.

I can’t really see economics as a science: the various theories I’ve read enough about exist and can seem to make sense within their own hermetic little worlds, but once outside these and subject to real world scrutiny, they tend to dissolve in a cloud of contradictions and fairy dust. As someone whose existence was shaped by the Second World War, although I was born long after it ended, I’ve read widely about it, and every now and then return to some aspect of it, in an effort further to understand the ultimately incomprehensible.

Gotz Aly‘s book attempts to show how the Nazi economic system worked and succeeded for so long in its own terms, first within Germany and then, during the war, in the lands under its domination. It’s details like this this us ordinary non-historians never think about unless prompted to: where do you get the money from to launch and sustain such a war, for so long? Similarly (although this isn’t the subject of his book) how do you get so many people on trains to extermination camps without disrupting the entire European rail system, and allegedly without people knowing it was going on?

The author shows how the overriding need was to keep ordinary Germans contented and materially satisfied. If they were, then the war could continue. So taxation was organised to impinge hardly at all on almost all Germans – rich property-owners bore the brunt of internal taxation. When countries were conquered, they were systematically plundered to keep the home consumers satisfied. And then, there was so much Jewish property to confiscate and re-sell…

The entire banking systems first of Germany and then of occupied Europe were inevitably involved; all occupation costs had to be met by the country being occupied, and were, and a parallel money system allowed occupying troops to buy up anything and everything they wanted from those countries was set up, allowing troops to send enormous numbers of goody parcels home; economists kept a close eye on things to make sure that inflation didn’t take off. And Jewish property was carefully confiscated and became state property; the book-keeping relied on all sorts of trickery, some of it supposedly in order to comply with the Hague Conventions(!) and endless loans which could be repudiated when Germany won the war… and forced loans from Jews based on their property and wealth, which they would never be in a position to call in, once they had been ‘resettled’ in the East. The ultimate economic logic of the system was that Germany had to win the war (!) and that the destruction of European Jewry was an integral and necessary part of the economic war plan.

Gotz Aly demonstrates that all Germans, whether they were aware or not, benefitted from these arrangements; what shocked me most of all was how much of the documentation was destroyed after the war by the authorities in both the Federal and Democratic Republics… which, of course removed possibilities of individual compensation claims. As so often when I get to the end of a book like this, I feel that, though I always knew war was an evil and dirty business, it is even dirtier and more evil than I had imagined thus far.

Modris Eksteins: Walking Since Daybreak

March 5, 2015

41NX3WWBQ5L._AA160_This book adds to the territory covered by Timothy Snyder‘s excellent Borderlands and The Reconstruction of Nations, with a specifically Latvian perspective, but overall, it’s rather flawed in its execution. But over here, in the (relative) security of western Europe, we know very little about the Baltic nations, and we ought to know more. For centuries, Latvia and Estonia were German-ruled provinces, athough often subject to Russian supervision and control: this is still an issue today, when Russia may seem to regard the area as its own backyard, much in the way that the US regards and treats Latin America…

It’s the structure of the book that’s ultimately at fault, I feel: Eksteins wants to bring out significant parallels between what went on pre-1914 and post-1989, along with recounting the sufferings wreaked on the small nations by the Second World War. Interwoven into his historical account is his own family’s history, which is fascinating, but there’s rather too much going on for the book to retain clarity.

Small nations caught between the German and Russian steamrollers inevitably suffer from both sides, and their suffering is accentuated by picking the wrong side to support. The history, both national and racial, of the region, is very complex – as Snyder has clarified so expertly – and Western oversimplification of the issues, and naivete in response to the Russians, betrays a total lack of understanding which the people do not deserve, and which is, ultimately, potentially very dangerous.

I had not known about the horrors of the wars between Russia and Germany over the Baltic region in the aftermath of the Great War. Eksteins also manages to clarify an issue I had wondered about, namely the Latvians’ support of the Nazis during the Second World War and their collaboration in the killing of the Jews, which seems to have resulted largely from the previous Soviet occupation, where many of the leaders and powerful figures were Jewish…

Ekstein’s family ultimately end up as displaced persons in Germany before they eventually are accepted as immigrants to Canada; again, I learned much about the trials of displaced persons at the end of the war, their horrendous treatment by all sides – that’s Germans, Russians and the Western Allies – but the focus gets lost towards the end of the book as the family story leaves the centre-stage and the author expresses his indignation at the Allied atrocities of carpet-bombing of German cities. He is absolutely right about the moral swamp that both sides were mired in, though: yes, the Germans started it all, but war corrupts all who engage in it.

It’s a useful, harrowing and challenging book, and it’s easy for me to say that the structure is a problem, as I’m not sure how else he might have done it. In the light of current events in Eastern Europe and the gross oversimplifications and posturings of our leaders, it was a timely read.

On the Great War

February 13, 2014

I know I will be revisiting some of the literature of the First World War over the coming months and years. With the arguments about the rights and wrongs, the blame, whether to celebrate or commemorate already under way, in the usual unseemly fashion here in Britain anyway, I decide to put some thoughts on paper.

We remember (supposedly) the war(s) and war dead every year on 11 November. It has increasingly become a matter of routine: do we actually reflect on what it means? To me, the centenary means an opportunity to slow down, and to think properly about what actually happened, and how it has affected our word today. For me, it’s about commemoration, and respect for the dead.

The blame game – who started it, whose fault was it? – is irrelevant, really: the war happened, all those people died. That cannot be undone. Politicians’ job now is to ensure such things never happen again.

We will have the opportunity to remember the actual horror that war is – the deaths, the injuries, the maimings, the mourning: there will be plenty of detail about all that. We need to realise that such things happen in all wars, everywhere, whether our country is involved or not, whether we think a war is ‘just’ (?) or not.

The traces of the Great War remain with us: the places, the cemeteries (I was left at a loss for words so many times on my visit to the Somme battlefields last autumn), the art and the writing. I’m going to write about my reactions to writers from the countries that were involved.

More importantly, the consequences of the Great war are still with us. Eric Hobsbawm‘s massive history contains a volume entitled Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991. It’s a fascinating take on the period, which has always made sense to me: everything flowed from that war – communism and its associated excesses, fascism, the Second World War, the Cold War, and the millions of deaths associated with them. As half-Polish, I remember that Poland re-emerged as an independent nation as a result of the war. And the crazy boundaries in the Middle East, drawn by French and British diplomats and bureaucrats continue to wreck the lives of so many people.

I’ve always felt that war solves nothing. That’s not intended as a glib statement, and it’s sometimes hard to defend, but, as a self-labelled ‘intelligent species’ it’s one that I hope many people will be reflecting on over the next four years.

Hanna Kochanski: The Eagle Unbowed

June 21, 2013

The history of Poland is very complicated, particularly in the twentieth century, and this book is about Poland and the Second World War. I’m not a historian, but am half-Polish. I’ve read quite a lot about the place and the period, and also about the formation of the Polish community in Britain. So I was eager to read this book, and not disappointed: Hanna Kochanski picks her way through the minefield very deftly. Nothing is overlooked, it seemed to me: the difficulties of rebuilding Poland after the Great War, the complexities of relationships between all the races and nationalities in the country, including the Jews, the diplomacy, the invasions by Germany and the Soviet Union, the horrors of occupation and resistance, the betrayals by the Western Allies as the war came to an end…

I have a lot of sympathy with the old idea of the Polish Commonwealth and its attempts to incorporate a large area and many peoples, because my family is from the territories lost at the end of the war; equally, it seems like an idea from a bygone age, which was never going to work in the twentieth century for so many reasons. But the tragedy of what happened at the end of the war is never really going to be understood by people who have no connection with Poland – the huge loss of territory and two large cities, centres of culture and education. Nor, I suspect, is it easy to understand the deliberate attempts by two invading nations to eradicate a country and exterminate its cultural elite.

So Poland is now a much smaller country, and almost exclusively Polish in nationality, and many of the places Kochanski writes about are vanished, totally obliterated by war, or renamed, a part of history now, populated by completely different nationalities.

Is it worth dwelling on the past? It is, for the truth to be told, no matter how awkward. The Poles do not come out shining from all this: their diplomats were arrogant and often unrealistic both before and during the war; some Poles were anti-semitic; some Poles betrayed their country. Poles fought bravely on many fronts during the war, enduring great hardships; the story of how so many came eventually to be released from Soviet captivity and make their many different ways to Britain to join the allies is still being told. I learned that Poland was one of the pioneering nations in parachuting before the war, and I finally realised how chaotic the landings at Arnhem in 1944 were.

Britain does not come out of this smelling of roses either: often racist, hostile, negative towards its ally and her troops, unable or unwilling to understand Poland or its people, often belittling its contribution to the war effort. And yet, after the war, Britain allowed Polish troops to remain rather than sending them back to further captivity… and that’s why I’m British.

Kochanski’s book is wide-ranging; she acknowledges how complex the issues are; she show how small nations get ground up unmercifully in the wheels of big power politics.  Her evaluations are lucid and fair. It’s a valuable and important book, and alongside the current books of Timothy Snyder and Norman Davies, goes a long way towards giving the complete picture of the times.

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