Wednesday, 12 November 2008

"Valkyrie" - Tom Cruise

I notice that the release date of "Valkyrie" has been postponed again. It will now air in the UK on 30 January 2009 - ironically the very date that Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 (but that's probably deliberate).

Its a little frustrating that the film has been shunted around the schedules so much. It was initially earmarked for a summer 2008 release, then it was shifted to February '09, then brought forward to December 26th. Now, back to the end of January.

This is not only frustrating for those of us who are keen to see the film, it is doubly irritating for anyone trying to suf the wave of interest and media attention that will inevitably accompany the film. In many cases, articles have been written, books are being released, TV programmes are to be aired. All these things have been solidly scheduled, and yet the film itself - the centrepiece of the effort - is jumping around the calendar. All very annoying.
That said, I think I am one of the comparatively few "in the business" who are actually looking forward to the film. Of course, it could be a stinker... Cruise's recent track record is not great, and its a subject that needs to be sensitively handled if it is to head off the barrage of criticism that seems inevitable.
The 'scientology sideshow' in Germany did not help matters, of course, but the Germans are always going to be highly sensitive about a subject which is so central to their self-image - let's face it, the Stauffenberg story is the ONLY positive that modern Germany can take from the Third Reich and World War Two - its no surprise therefore that they might be a bit prissy about it being dramatized and potentially mangled by Hollywood machine that has precious little interest in historical accuracy.
I must say that this is one of the aspects that worries me - historical accuracy. It won't worry the average cinema-goer of course, but I (as a historical anorak) really will be looking at the medals, and the uniforms, and checking that the story is correctly told. A glance at the publicity photo above does not inspire confidence - where, for instance, are Stauffenberg's medals and awards - Iron Cross (First Class), Wound Badge in Gold, German Cross in Gold - all of which would have been worn on his tunic? If anything is amiss in the film proper, my viewing experience - for one - will be rather marred.
But I think that beyond such legitimate concerns, there's also been a bit of a media whispering campaign about the film - alot of negativity. Only this last weekend, a tiny column in the Sunday Telegraph (I think) noted that clips of Tom Cruise's supposedly dreadful German accent were causing much hilarity on youtube. Well, I looked and I couldn't find them. And also, I read that the production team made a decision that no German accents were to be used on the film - except of course for those German actors, such as Christian Berkel, who would be using their natural accent. It just strikes me that there is almost a desire - probably directed towards Cruise himself, rather than the subject matter - that the film should not succeed.
So, I say - let's be positive. Cruise and Bryan Singer are proven filmmakers, the cast is good, the story is a cracker, and the trailers that I have seen on the web have been excellent.
Moreover, for all of us involved in some way with the story, it can only be of benefit that the story of Stauffenberg is better known, especially amongst a traditionally non-book-buying public. It can only be beneficial too, that the media's attention - generally eschewing history of late - will be firmly fixed on this subject.
So, bring it on. "Valkyrie", Tom Cruise, your public awaits you.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The Reich’s Last Gamble

"The Reich's Last Gamble" by George Forty, Cassell & Co.,

The German Ardennes campaign of December 1944 – the famed “Battle of the Bulge” – still exerts a powerful fascination on military historians. It was of profound significance in both military and strategic terms. As Germany’s final major offensive of World War Two, it was devised, at worst, to stall the Anglo-American advance in the west. At best, it was to force a separate peace that would split the Alliance and allow Germany to concentrate on its primary ideological enemy – the Soviet Union. In the event, it did neither.
On paper, the Ardennes Offensive bore the mark of genius. It was envisaged as a swift mechanised advance north-west, through the Ardennes forest, with the main objective of seizing the Allied supply depot at Antwerp. The Ardennes was an inspired choice. A region of bleak wooded uplands scored by narrow and sinuous valleys, it was considered to be wholly unsuited to the requirements of modern warfare, despite being the scene of Rundstedt’s decisive breakthrough in 1940. Accordingly, it was only lightly defended by untried and recuperating US troops.
In the vanguard of the attack were two elite units. One, the Kampfgruppe Peiper, formed a rapid armoured spearhead aiming to seize the strategically vital bridges over the Meuse. It would later carry out the Malmédy massacre of 86 captured American soldiers. The other, the 150th SS Brigade, was commanded by the infamous Otto Skorzeny; liberator of Mussolini and ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’. Largely English speaking and equipped with looted US uniforms and equipment, its task was to sow panic and confusion behind Allied lines. These two were followed by the troops of 5th Panzer, 6th SS Panzer and the 7th Army.
Yet, despite the ingenious planning, the Ardennes Offensive failed. By Christmas, after barely ten days fighting, it had stalled. Starved of ammunition and fuel and lacking air support, German troops failed to achieve the breakthrough necessary for a repeat of the Blitzkrieg of 1940. Antwerp was never reached. The enemy had been underestimated. Allied lines had buckled but held. After the initial shock, the Americans had recovered their nerve, and their legendary defence of the key points of St. Vith and Bastogne would contribute to what Churchill termed “the greatest American victory of the European War”. Germany lost 120,000 men and over 600 tanks. But more importantly, she also lost the ability to wrest back the military initiative. Her army had been disembowelled on the Eastern Front, but the Ardennes delivered the coup de grâce. Hitler had gambled and lost.
George Forty is well placed to write about such matters. He is a veteran of Korea, Aden and Borneo and director of the excellent Tank Museum at Bovington in Dorset. He has also written on almost all aspects of armoured combat in World War Two. This book is commendably thorough and well-researched, and combines memoir accounts and military reports with some skill. It has excellent illustrations, numerous clear maps and informative appendices. It amply demonstrates the author’s excellent knowledge of his subject. And yet, something is lacking.
There are some minor irritations. Forty bases his account primarily on American memoir sources and would benefit from a more balanced use of German accounts. He also shares the military’s eternal fondness for acronyms, but he leaves many of them unglossed, leaving the reader to guess their meaning. OKW and GOC are OK, but any suggestions for POL and ETO?
But there are also deeper failings. Considering the excellent subject material – all daring, death and derring-do – the narrative is curiously flat and unengaging, too “text-book like”. It is a good example of traditional military history writing: earnest and thorough, but rather too sober to carry any wide appeal. In contrast to more recent publications of the genre, Forty’s soldiers do not come alive on the page. They do not elicit sympathy or disgust. One does not cry for them, laugh with them or feel their pain. This may seem petty, but such things draw the reader in and seduce him into turning the next page. They spell the difference between a good book and a bestseller. Forty’s work is admirable as far as it goes, but military history writing has moved onto a higher plane in recent years. And one has to conclude that Forty has not moved with it.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Nelson, Victory and War

I was in Portsmouth, yesterday, with the family, and spent a fascinating day at the historic dockyard, looking at HMS Warrior, HMS Victory and the Mary Rose.

Whilst on the deck of the Victory - standing on the very spot where Nelson caught his fatal musket ball - I was just telling my son (8) about the circumstances of the Battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon, and all that, when my daughter (6) piped up in a small but strangely adamant voice...
"Why do we have wars anyway?" she said, "everyone shooting at each other - What's the point of them?"

I thought for a moment about explaining the concept of balances of power and hegemonies, but then had to concede that her argument was actually much more convincing than mine.
1-nil to the innocence and optimism of youth.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Alfred Naujocks -

I have removed this article for the time being as it now appears in my latest E-book "The Wolf's Lair: Inside Hitler's Germany" - apologies for the inconvenience...

You can find "The Wolf's Lair" here: "The Wolf's Lair: Inside Hitler's Germany"


Tuesday, 15 July 2008

"Hitler the Comedian"

Curious this story...

I am not sure what to think of it. Would it be newsworthy if it transpired that Churchill or Roosevelt told jokes about members of their entourage? I think not. One would almost expect it of them - after all they are remembered as rounded human beings...

There, I think, is the heart of the curiosity. The fact that Hitler told bad jokes rather reminds us that he, too, was human; he had a sense of humour, he liked to laugh.
And this doesn't fit with the monster that we know had millions murdered and started the most costly and destructive war in history. Surely, that same man, that monster, can't have told jokes about Goring's underpants?
Well, this goes to the heart of a problem that I've wrestled with for some time. For many of us, to present Hitler as a one-dimensional monster - a carpet-biting, foaming-at-the-mouth, rabid, ranting, lunatic - perversely presents a rather comforting image. It makes him not one of US, but something else, a breed apart. Therefore, we don't have to think any more deeply about what motivated Hitler, what moved him, what impulses drove him - because they were all patently perverse and depraved.
This may be comforting, but it is a cop out. If we want to understand Hitler, we have to understand him as a human being, with human emotions. This, I think, is where the film Downfall was so brilliant, because it presented Hitler - arguably for the first time - as a rounded human being; polite, avuncular even, to his secretaries, fond of apple cake, but also desperate, and fearful.
This was closer to the real Hitler. If you need your monsters to be one-dimensional, then fine, be surprised that Hitler told bad jokes. However, I would argue that the monster is made all the more terrifying, all the more potent, if one reminds oneself that he was, after all, human - just like you and me.

Monday, 14 July 2008

“Endgame 1945:” by David Stafford

Wars rarely end cleanly and World War Two was certainly no exception. Though the guns fell silent, animosities remained and suffering continued. In the aftermath, refugees and wounded had to be cared for and basic services restored, all against a background of political uncertainty and economic devastation. This difficult period – what one might call the ‘birth pangs of peace’ – is the subject of David Stafford’s new book “Endgame 1945”.

Stafford covers the short – but tumultuous – 3-month period from Hitler’s birthday in late April to the opening of the Potsdam conference in July 1945. Using memoirs, diaries and interviews, he structures his narrative around the accounts of a handful of Allied veterans, leavening the dominant military focus by the addition of other characters, such as a frustrated aid worker, an ambitious war correspondent and a German heiress.

In this way, Stafford brings a vital human element to the familiar political and military story of the end of World War Two. He illustrates well the vicissitudes of morale in those difficult months; the hopes and fears, the futility and the optimism.

For the military, of course, life was still largely one of boredom and hardship punctuated by the excitement of combat and the often-numbing horror of the aftermath - what one writer aptly called the “ghastly brotherhood of war”. Yet Stafford also relates wider concerns; a genuine fear of the SS, for instance, as well as widespread consternation that the Germans fought on when their cause was so patently lost.

Civilian concerns were rather different and naturally centred on the well-being of loved ones, and the very real worries about the humanitarian disaster looming in the aftermath of the war.

In essence, therefore, “Endgame 1945” is a series of engaging set pieces, with short digressions, detours and vignettes to provide context and backstory. Despite the obvious peril of this approach, the book never feels disjointed, however, largely through the excellence and persuasiveness of Stafford’s writing. Stafford frames and guides the narrative well; allowing his ‘voices’ the space to develop, yet never permitting them to dominate.

By way of complaint, Stafford’s is quite a specific view. To be fair, he makes no claims to comprehensiveness, preferring a pointillist approach, yet, with only a couple of exceptions, he has confined his ‘voices’ to those of Western Allied soldiers. This lends immediacy and a degree of familiarity to his narrative, of course, but provides a rather distorted picture. The Eastern Front, for instance, is ignored entirely, as are the Poles, who fought in every theatre in Europe. The Germans, meanwhile, are generally objectified; seen as enemy soldiers to be feared or civilians to be pitied or despised. Only one German ‘voice’ is permitted to present the viewpoint of the defeated.

This rather one-dimensional approach is disappointing. However, if one can see past that, “Endgame 1945” is an engaging and illuminating read. Stafford’s focus may be narrow, but he has nonetheless ably combined the personal with the political; the micro with the macro, and has produced a most readable account.

Monday, 23 June 2008

"Dunkirk - Fight to the Last Man"

“Dunkirk – Fight to the Last Man”
by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

Sometimes the British defy all rational explanation. A humiliating rout and ignominious evacuation from the beaches, Dunkirk ranks as one of most grievous losses ever suffered by British forces – and yet it is celebrated as a moral victory. Dunkirk meant not only the loss of 11,000 dead and a further 41,000 soldiers taken prisoner, but also spelt the expulsion of the British Army from mainland Europe for three long years. But, for all that, Dunkirk has entered the public consciousness and has become a byword for a peculiarly British trait - the dogged refusal to surrender and the will to triumph in the face of adversity.

For most, Dunkirk is all about the 800 “little ships” – the makeshift flotilla from the Channel ports that lifted around 330,000 British soldiers from the beaches of northern France. Yet, as Sebag-Montefiore demonstrates, this conventional understanding actually ignores a vital aspect of the operation – and one which is actually much more appropriate to the true meaning of the famed “Dunkirk Spirit”.

“Dunkirk – Fight to the Last Man” takes as its main focus, not the brilliantly improvised evacuation from the beaches, but rather the heroic rearguard action fought by units holding the perimeter of the Dunkirk pocket; units which in many cases were sacrificed to allow their colleagues to escape. It was an action that would result in no fewer than 8 awards of the Victoria Cross.

The book also casts its net wider and incorporates other interesting angles, such as the acrimonious deterioration of the Anglo-French Alliance and much of the background to the French campaign itself. Included in the latter category are two curious tales that are well worthy of an airing. Firstly, Sebag-Montefiore explores the contact between Hans Oster of the German Abwehr and the Dutch Military Attaché in Berlin through which vital intelligence about the forthcoming French campaign was passed to the Allies. Secondly, he relates the little-known Mechelen Incident, whereby German invasion plans fell into Allied hands in January 1940 after a German pilot crash landed in Belgium having lost his way in fog. In retrospect, armed with this wealth of information, it is hard to see how the Allies could have been caught cold when the Germans finally attacked on 10 May.

Sebag-Montefiore is at his best with ‘set pieces’ such as the massacres at Wormhout, Vinkt and Le Paradis, or his description of the capture of Eban Emael or the Mechelen Incident. He writes crisply and the series of small-scale actions are related with considerable verve, but he appears to shy away from offering a wider context or thoroughgoing analysis of the events that he is describing. For example, he gives only a cursory explanation of one of the key mysteries of the campaign – Hitler’s decision to halt at Dunkirk, rather than press his advantage. Stranger still, he even avoids offering a concluding chapter in which wider issues such as the creation and significance of the “Dunkirk Myth” might have been discussed.

“Dunkirk” is a fine book. It is immaculately researched, well written, and has much in the way of pathos and human interest, but it is hard not to conclude that the definitive volume on this subject still awaits its author.

© Roger Moorhouse

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

“The Berlin Wall" by Frederick Taylor

Another review from the archive - this time ...

“The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961 – 9 November 1989”
by Frederick Taylor

The Berlin Wall defined an era. The symbol par excellence of the Cold War, it was 93 miles long and 13 feet high; its western side was a colourful blaze of graffiti and scrawled slogans, its eastern side a deadly network of barbed-wire, searchlights, watch-towers and attack dogs. This grim concrete edifice scarred the former German capital for a generation, separating the erstwhile occupation zones of east and west, but also dividing communities, families and loved ones.

Given its centrality to German, as well as world history in the mid-20th century, the Berlin Wall is ripe for a biography of its own, and Taylor’s book fills that role well. Taylor is sure-footed on the historical framework and capably illustrates the futility and the tragedy of the episode. His pen portraits of the main protagonists; politicians, escapees and student activists, are engaging and his explanation of the wider political machinations surrounding the wall is sound.

Taylor is at his best describing the many escape attempts. One of the first ‘martyrs’, for example, was Peter Fechter, shot and left to bleed to death in the shadow of the Wall in 1962. The last was Chris Gueffroy, shot in the chest whilst attempting to escape the GDR, only 10 months before the GDR itself met its end. Taylor also tells the moving story of Conrad Schumann, the young East German border guard famously photographed leaping over the barbed-wire in the first days of the Wall’s existence. After settling down to an unremarkable life in the west, Schumann committed suicide in 1998, apparently unable to cope with his reputation as an ‘iconic traitor’.

Taylor relates these stories well, but there is something slightly dissatisfying about his book. The accomplished style of his previous effort, Dresden, seems to have morphed into a curious staccato delivery, with an admixture of occasional folksy lapses. There is also a lack of engagement; Berlin’s ‘soul’ is absent.

More seriously, the book doesn’t appear to know quite what it is supposed to be. It contains too many digressions and too much extraneous material. Its first mention of its subject, for instance, comes only after a 130-page jaunt through German history. This may be because the book is seeking to broaden its appeal and somehow pose as a primer to the history of the GDR or the Cold War. Sadly, it is neither, and the result is simply that it becomes overlong and tends to lose its narrative head of steam.

This is a worthy contribution from a capable writer. But – given the iconic status of the Berlin Wall, and its resonance for a generation – it is hard to conclude that it represents the last word on its fascinating subject.

© Roger Moorhouse 2007

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

AK47 - The Story of the People's Gun

AK47 - The Story of the People's Gun, by Michael Hodges.

I was inspired to buy this after firing the iconic weapon on a visit to Budapest. Unlike the book, the gun did not disappoint.

Michael Hodges is evidently a talented writer, but the concept of this book has obviously flummoxed him. It is a difficult concept, admittedly. The AK47 is an icon, a powerful political symbol and, of course, a weapon. But the task of combining these aspects into a readable and illuminating narrative has eluded Hodges. What he has produced is merely a mish-mash of stories with the gun as their (loose) theme, with little broader context and no overarching 'thread' at all.
There is a book to be written about this most iconic of weapons, but sadly this is not it.

Monday, 2 June 2008


"well, well, well, here we are"

Welcome to my blog - 'historian at large'

I decided to set this up on a whim, and in a fit of vanity...

I hope to use it to air my views and vent my spleen on issues and events related to history, especially those in my area of specialism - World War Two in Europe, Nazi Germany and Central Europe.

I also aim to post a few of my old book reviews on here, to stimulate and inform (with luck)

About me -

I am 39 and a professional freelance historian, living in the UK. I was the co-author of "Microcosm" - the history of the Polish city of Wroclaw (the former German "Breslau")

... and am the author of "Killing Hitler" (2006) - the first thorough-going study of the various attempts to kill Adolf Hitler. "Killing Hitler" is already in (I think) eight languages and the Spanish edition "Matar a Hitler" will be published later this week.

I am a regular commentator and book reviewer for the national and specialist press and have appeared a number of times on national television and radio. They keep inviting me back, so I imagine they must think I am vaguely presentable...

If you want to get in touch, please do. If you have any queries or requests, I will do my best to help out if I can.

In the meantime, check back regularly, and have a look at my books on Amazon... ;-)