Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Tim Snyder's "Bloodlands"

The second review is for Tim Snyder's excellent new book "Bloodlands" . This review was first published in the BBC History Magazine in October 2010.

There are many studies available that document the most brutal chapters of 20th Century history. The Holocaust is well-covered in both scholarly and popular volumes, and even lesser-known subjects, such as the Soviet ‘Great Terror’, the Warsaw Risings and the post-war expulsions of the Germans, have all found their own champions in print.

Yet, to date, nobody has sought to place all these grim examples of man’s inhumanity to man into a single all-encompassing narrative. That is the task that Yale historian Timothy Snyder set for himself with his new book “Bloodlands”.

Snyder concentrates his attentions on the very epicentre of those horrors – the ‘Bloodlands’ of the title – the territories between Germany and Russia comprising mainly of Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, which bore the brunt of the killing in the mid 20th Century. It was there, he suggests, that the two most murderous totalitarian regimes of the time competed, co-operated and overlapped through twenty of the darkest years of human history. Consequently, it was there that as many as 14 million lives were lost: not through military action, but through deliberate state policy – starvation, execution, maltreatment and gassing.

Snyder is an excellent guide through this man-made hell. A talented historian and storyteller, he expertly negotiates an extremely complex story, debunking myths, correcting misconceptions and providing context, analysis and human interest in equal measure, always with a sympathetic ear for the victims themselves.

His holistic approach is a novel one: modern scholarship and political convention prefer to view Nazi and Soviet crimes in isolation. It is also not uncontroversial, as there are vested interests who would seek to proclaim one or other episode as unique, or especially worthy of study.

Yet, as Snyder explains, the myriad victims of those events did not have the luxury of drawing such distinctions; they were often condemned to compare, most immediately when the two regimes worked in nefarious concert with each other, or when one totalitarian overlord was replaced by his rival. History demands that we, of later more blessed generations, do not shrink from such difficult comparisons. Snyder himself certainly does not, addressing the thorny issue in a thoughtful and thought-provoking final chapter.

If there are quibbles, they are minor. Though stylistically strong, Snyder’s text is dense, packed with information and nuggets of wisdom. It demands positive engagement from the reader. Moreover, there is a suspicion that the author has been a little too inclusive in his selection of events. His overarching argument would have been just as well made, for instance, without the addition of a chapter on the Stalinist anti-Semitic purges of the 1950s, which after all delivered only a handful of victims, and for all their distaste, sit rather incongruously alongside other, more murderous, chapters.

Yet, these are petty concerns. “Bloodlands” is an excellent, imaginative and authoritative book, which tells the grim story of the greatest human and demographic tragedy in European history with exemplary clarity. Snyder set out to give a human face to the many millions of victims of totalitarianism. He has succeeded admirably.

© Roger Moorhouse 2010

Adrian Weale's "SS - A New History"

Been a while away from here - busy launching my new book "Berlin at War" - so a couple of reviews to catch up with...

The first is for Adrian Weale's "The SS - A New History". This review was first published in the Financial Times.

Every writer – and every publisher – cherishes novelty. We all need a new angle, a new interpretation or new material. The word ‘new’, therefore, seems to be the sprinkling of gold dust that accompanies every publication.

So, too Adrian Weale’s new history of the SS. Given that the last large-scale studies of Himmler’s black-clad elite were published a generation or so ago, Weale has certainly timed his book well.

He has also chosen a subject that exerts an enduring if often ghoulish fascination. From its origins as a personal bodyguard to Hitler, the SS developed into the most loyal and ideologically committed organisation in the Third Reich. The very vanguard of Nazism, it was a movement whose authorship and complicity in some of the era’s most heinous crimes would earn it criminal status at the end of the war and the darkest of reputations.

Moreover – and curiously given the acres of print routinely devoted to the subject of Nazism and the Third Reich – there are still questions about the SS that remain to be addressed; such as how a select garde du corps morphed in wartime into a motley body of warriors nearly a million strong; or precisely how the vast economic empire of the SS – which handled everything from the fruit of its prisoners’ labours to the gold teeth of its Jewish victims – was integrated into the wider German economy. Overarching them all, of course, is the question that Weale poses for himself at the outset of his book - how the soldiers of the SS willingly participated in some of the most bestial operations in human history; the mass murder of men, women and children.

There should be much, then, for any new history of the SS to discuss. The organisation’s intellectual and political world, for instance, a curious mix of think-tanks and thugs, high-flown theory and murderous practice, would be worth some investigation.

Also, the new morality of the SS would surely merit a chapter. It was this, after all, that provided the pseudo-philosophical underpinning that enabled many SS men to do what they did. Liberated from ‘outmoded’ concepts such as pity or Christianity, they saw mankind sorted into a league-table of races with Aryans and Nordics at the top and Jews and Slavs consigned to the status of vermin. In their ruthless and murderous treatment of these latter categories, they viewed themselves as soldiers in a Darwinian, life-and-death struggle for racial superiority, through which they would forge the new Germany.

For all its potential, Weale’s book addresses few of these points, however. It is certainly well-constructed and well-paced, providing an easy-reading account of the salient points in the story. It also provides useful potted biographies of the main characters – Himmler and Heydrich – as well as those lesser-known villains such as Christian Wirth, Franz Stangl and Odilo Globocnik, and the solitary hero Kurt Gerstein, who infiltrated the SS solely to report to the outside world on its murderous activities. Yet, crucially, it offers little that is genuinely new.

Weale’s is a competent and engaging synthesis, but there is more to the story, and more is required if the adjective ‘new’ is to be appended to the book with any real justification.

Part of the problem is the author’s choice of sources. Lacking German, it appears, Weale is left with a rather restricted range of material with which to work. Unable to avail himself of the many academic studies and specific investigations that have appeared in recent years, therefore, he concentrates primarily on published, English-language volumes, which though sound, do not provide sufficient depth or variety.

As a result, though there is ample scope for a more thorough-going and thoughtful approach to the subject, Weale’s book is disappointingly pedestrian, telling most readers little that they didn’t already know. Though he tells his story well enough, Weale does not provide enough in the way of a novel approach, a new interpretation, or fresh insights. The ‘new’ history of the SS, it seems, still awaits its author.

© Roger Moorhouse 2010

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Trautmann's Journey

“Trautmann’s Journey”
by Catrine Clay
Yellow Jersey, £16.99, 340pp, index, notes, illustrations.

In a year in which Anglo-German footballing rivalry might well be rekindled in South Africa, it is perhaps timely that a new book should recall the remarkable contribution made to the English game by “Traut the Kraut” - Bert Trautmann. One of the most iconic figures of domestic post-war football, Trautmann is the only man ever to have been awarded both the Iron Cross and the OBE, and is most famous for breaking his neck in the 1956 FA Cup Final - and playing on.

Beyond these headlines, however, Catrine Clay’s new biography – “Trautmann’s Journey” – reveals a fascinating back-story. Born in humble circumstances in Bremen in 1923, Trautmann was tall, blond and athletic and excelled at sport. He joined the Hitler Youth, then the Paratroopers, spending three years on the Eastern Front in which he was briefly captured by the Soviets and even witnessed a massacre of Ukrainian Jews. Transferred to the west in 1944, he then fought in Normandy, Arnhem and in the Ardennes before literally stumbling into British captivity, where he was greeted with the words “Fancy a cup of tea, Fritz?” He would be one of only 90 of his unit of 1,000 to survive the war.

Yet, for all these experiences, Trautmann himself admits that his real education began when he reached English shores in the spring of 1945. Transferred into the POW camp system in the north-west, he worked as a driver and later in bomb disposal and was consistently surprised by the kindness, forgiveness and understanding demonstrated by the ordinary Britons with whom he came into contact.

His real passion was still football, however, and he played his first game in goal in 1946, immediately showing the determination and athleticism that had earned him numerous accolades and awards as a youth in the Third Reich. From there, his ascent was swift. Signed by St Helens Town and then Manchester City, he would soon be making the first of his two FA Cup Final appearances. None other than Bobby Charlton would refer to Trautmann as the best goalkeeper that he had ever played against.

“Trautmann’s Journey” is a remarkable story, well told. Only occasionally does Clay attempt to incorporate too much extraneous material into her account. In general, her narrative moves along briskly, ably combining the narrow focus of her subject’s life with the broad sweep of events. She also does well to tease out a number of salient themes, such as Trautmann’s sometimes difficult relationship with his parents and the significance – for all parties – of his decision to make his home in the UK.

Though it is not short of affection for its subject, Clay’s biography is no hagiography, however. Trautmann emerges as an often equivocal character; a sport-obsessed curmudgeon with a quick temper and an apparent inability to accept authority. Imprisoned by the Nazis for insubordination, he would also be classified by the British authorities as a category ‘C’ prisoner – a hardened Nazi – primarily because of his surly and uncooperative attitude in interview. Even time did not mellow him. In 1954, Trautmann was suspended for tangling with a referee, and in his very last game as a player, he was sent off for violent conduct.

For all his foibles, Trautmann enjoyed an illustrious career, being the first foreigner to be named Player of the Year and later being inducted into English Football’s Hall of Fame. As this book demonstrates, by his example and his efforts, he has been a tireless ambassador for Anglo-German relations. And if those two countries resume their rivalry in South Africa this summer, supporters of both sides should be united in raising a toast to his name.

© Roger Moorhouse 2010

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Toby Thacker's biography of Goebbels reviewed...

Goebbels – propaganda minister of the Third Reich – still fascinates. The diminutive genius behind the Nazi manipulation of the German masses, he is recognised as a key player in the establishment and maintenance of Hitler’s power. As such, he has already been the subject of a number of biographies; most recently by Ralf Georg Reuth from the early 1990s, so one has to ask whether we really need another study of the man.

Toby Thacker would argue that we do. Crucially, his new biography is the first to be written since the entire set of Goebbels’ diaries has been published. He was an enthusiastic diarist and wrote many volumes between 1923 and his demise in 1945. After the war, many of those diaries were considered lost, and only re-emerged from ex-Soviet archives in 1992. Now published in German, they encompass 30 volumes, the last of which appeared in 2006.

The picture that emerges from Thacker’s study conforms in many ways to the stereotype. It presents Goebbels as a powerhouse of a public speaker, with a sarcastic, razor-sharp wit, a man who, for all his intellect, seems occasionally to have had his brains in his scrotum. But there are important differences. Rather than a cynical opportunist eagerly leaping on the Nazi bandwagon, for instance, Thacker’s Goebbels is a man motivated by profoundly-held convictions – faith in Hitler, nationalism, anti-Semitism and his own brand of völkisch socialism.

Thacker’s reassessment is convincing and welcome. But though he tells us that Goebbels was generally reliable and candid in his diary – even recording his sexual liaisons in numerical code – it is hard for the reader to forget that his subject was one of the greatest dissemblers, manipulators and pedlars of lies in history. Seen in this light, Thacker’s reliance – arguably his over-reliance – on those diaries appears questionable.

Most importantly perhaps, Thacker’s subject never really comes to life. Goebbels was one of the most colourful and controversial of the senior Nazis; a genuine intellectual among a top echelon of cranks and imbeciles, he was also a depressive and a philanderer. He was a man who was loved and loathed by his contemporaries in equal measure and about whom commentators habitually resorted to adjectives such as ‘Mephistophelean’, ‘fanatical’, even ‘vile’. Yet, for all that, he comes across here as curiously two-dimensional, stripped almost of those traits and excesses that make him so fascinating.

The author is not helped by his rather pedestrian approach, in which even the highlights of the narrative – the ‘seizure of power’, or the ‘Total War’ speech, for instance – barely seem to merit any special emphasis or dramatic treatment. He has sought to be comprehensive, which is laudable, but he has done so at the expense of a more selective and imaginative assessment.
Thacker has produced a solid biography. Aside from occasional lapses, he writes well and his research and academic merit are undeniable. Importantly, he also offers the reader a number of important new contentions and insights. But, for all those positives, it is hard not to conclude that he would have benefited from a dash of his subject’s devilish imagination and diabolical flair.

Monday, 10 May 2010

I finally got around to seeing "Katyn", Andrzej Wajda's film about the infamous massacre of Polish POWs by the Soviets in 1940 and the battle for truth that followed.
For those who know little about this subject, Katyn is perhaps the touchstone of modern Polish history. It is not so much the bare facts of the massacre of 22,000 of the nation's finest officers, intellectuals and aristocrats that serves to elevate the event to this status, rather the fact that the subject was strictly taboo under the Communist regime, and was only admitted by Moscow in 1990. Not only was a generation of Poles greivously wronged, therefore, they were also condemned to an embittered silence.
And, as if to add the most painful of ironies, it was whilst commemmorating the massacre that the Polish president and his entourage died in a plane crash in Belorussia last month. In remembering the massacre of the Polish elite, the Polish elite met its death. Therein, one is tempted to suggest, is Polish history in a nutshell.
Wajda's film is a complex affair. Beautifully shot, it follows the tribulations of a family directly affected by the massacre. Andrzej, an ambitious young Polish officer, is in a Soviet prison camp in 1939 waiting for transport to an unknown fate, when he is visited by his wife, who tries to persuade him to leave with her for Krakow. He refuses - citing the oath that he has made as an officer - and is duly deported to meet his destiny.
The film then jumps to 1943, when news of the massacre breaks with the Germans (who have discovered the mass graves) pinning the blame on the Soviets. Further jumps take us to 1945, when the incoming Soviet regime blames the massacre on the Germans and is brutal in maintaining their version of the truth.
In the middle of this battle for truth are the Polish families of the Katyn victims, whose reactions neatly encapsulate what one might call the Polish condition - on the one hand seeking pragmatically to swallow one's principles to work with the new regime, and on the other the romantic impulse to fight for what one knows to be right, even if it should mean hardship and death.
It is a complex film, full of nuance, oblique references and characters that seem to appear out of nowhere. To the non-Polish viewer, therefore, it might all seem rather bewildering - a reaction not helped by having to decypher subtitles. Yet, one must remember, perhaps, that Wajda is not making his film for the international audience, he is unashamedly directing it towards a domestic public, one for whom the references and asides are immediately recognisable and require no explanation. Even with my grounding in modern Polish history, occasionally I felt like I was eavesdropping on a private conversation, whose nuances and references I barely grasped.
For all that, however, this is well worth a watch. Visually, it is stunning, and the characters are (on the whole) well-developed and convincing. At the end - particularly after the final scenes in which the massacres are shown - one is rather emotionally drained. But it is worth it. Serious film-making should challenge and enlighten as much as it entertains, and "Katyn" does all of those things.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Red Army cemetery in Wroclaw

I spent a very enjoyable few days in Wroclaw, Poland, last week. I was there to give a couple of lectures, but I took time out to visit the Soviet Cemetery in the south of the city. I went there on a whim; I had been to Wroclaw many times and had already seen most of the sights, but had never been to the Soviet Cemetery, which was laid out after the war for those that were killed in the siege of Breslau from February to May 1945.

After visiting the various wartime cemeteries in Normandy a few years ago, it struck me that one can tell alot from a war cemetery. Very few, of course, match up to the immaculate condition maintained in British & Commonwealth Cemeteries, but it is still an interesting exercise...

The first impression is pretty positive. The cemetery is laid out on the southern edge of the city, with two T-34s and a couple of artillery pieces as gate guardians. Aside from the inevitable rash of graffiti, the lawns were all pretty well maintained, though some of the headstones themselves were rather the worse for wear. There were around 2,000 of the estimated 6,000 Soviet casualties from the siege; the graves were mostly named and were grouped around a central monument.

There were a few notable items. The grave of Alexander Nazarov, for instance, is adorned with a polished metal facade (left) and, unusually, gives his life dates. The reason for this special treatment is that Nazarov had been awarded the "Hero of the Soviet Union". Nazarov died on the 7 February 1945, a few weeks short of his 19th Birthday.

There is also a memorial plaque to Soviet Air Force General Ivan Polbin, who was shot down by flak fire outside Breslau on 11 February 1945. A veteran pilot and dive-bombing specialist, Polbin had fought at Khalkin-Gol in 1939, and at Stalingrad, where he was awarded the "Hero of the Soviet Union". Commander of the 2nd Guards Bomber Aviation Corps, Polbin had flown over 150 missions. He was posthumouosly awarded his second Hero of the Soviet Union.

Considering the enormous political changes that have overtaken this part of the world in the seven or so decades since the end of the World War Two, one might have expected the Soviet cemetery in Wroclaw to be rather neglected and rather forlorn. After all, the inhabitants of the city in 1945 - the opponents of those Soviet soldiers - are long gone and have been replaced by Polish civilians. Even the regime that the Red Army imported - Soviet-style communism - has been gone for over 20 years. All of which leaves these sons of the Soviet Union washed up in a foreign land, seemingly neither liberators nor conquerors, rather a footnote to a complex history.

Yet, happily, the cemetery is in good shape; Wroclaw's scouts are evidently doing a sterling job in maintaining it. Perhaps this might become one of the touchstones of the new Russo-Polish rapprochement - it would be a fitting development for a city that has done so much to smooth the often difficult relationship with Germany. Here's hoping...

Monday, 12 April 2010

“The Retreat – Hitler’s First Defeat”
Michael Jones

After tackling the battles of Stalingrad and Leningrad, it is perhaps inevitable that Michael Jones should turn his attention to the third of that bloody trio, the battle for Moscow.

The Retreat follows the pattern of the other two books, giving very much the view of the soldier or civilian on the ground, with the occasional admixture of wider strategic or tactical matters. It’s a recipe that works rather well. Jones has scoured the published and unpublished sources for eye-witness accounts of the battle from both sides, and these he weaves together into a tight narrative which accentuates the frenzy of battle and the horror of the aftermath.

All the scenes that the reader would expect are rendered here in searing first-hand testimony: the Germans catching sight of the gleaming domes of the Kremlin through their field-glasses before being forced to retreat; the forward sentry found frozen solid by his relief; the corpse squashed flat by countless vehicles, the prisoners dying by the thousand. No quarter was offered in the Battle for Moscow, and none was expected. Few prisoners were taken.

On the whole, Jones’ approach works very well, giving the reader a discomfiting vision of the hideous nature of the war on the Eastern Front, both sides driven on by brutal ideologies and a cycle of revenge, and assailed by a ferocious Russian winter in which temperatures plummeted to -35ºC.

If there is a complaint with the book, it is that Jones might have benefited from a more sparing approach. The material that he has gleaned is certainly powerful, but it could be used to better effect if it were occasionally held back, if the ‘gasp-moments’ were fewer and further between. As every horror film director knows, you can only shock your audience a few times; and if you try to do it too often, you are at risk of them switching off altogether.

Jones occasionally falls into this trap; hurling quote after quote at the reader – Soviet after German – seemingly in the hope that something might strike a chord. The result is not only ‘horror-fatigue’ but also a lack of context and orientation, which might echo battlefield conditions, but does little to aid clarity or reader engagement. It might seem strange to criticise a historian for having too much excellent material, but that seems to be the case. One is reminded that deciding what to leave out is all part of the creative process.

That criticism aside, “The Retreat” is a fine piece of work, which shows the horror of the Moscow campaign in all its searing detail. If war is hell, Moscow must have been its most infernal chapter, and this book is a worthy guide.

© Roger Moorhouse 2010

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The curious tale of Peter the Wild Boy

In the summer of 1725 a peculiar youth was found in the forest of Hertswold near Hameln in northern Germany. Aged about 12, he walked on all fours and fed on grass and leaves. ‘A naked, brownish, blackhaired creature’, he would run up trees when approached and could utter no intelligible sound. The latest in a long line of feral children – in turn celebrated, shunned and cursed through the ages – ‘The Wild Boy of Hameln’ would be the first to achieve real fame.

After a spell in the House of Correction in Celle, the boy was taken to the court of George, Duke of Hanover and King of the United Kingdom, at Herrenhausen. There the young curiosity was initially treated as an honoured guest. Seated at table with the king, dressed in a suit of clothes with a napkin at his neck, he repelled his host with his complete lack of manners. He refused bread, but gorged himself on vegetables, fruit and rare meat, greedily grasping at the dishes and eating noisily from his hands, until he was ordered to be taken away. He was given the name of Peter, but was variously known as ‘Wild Peter’, ‘Peter of Hanover’, or, most famously,‘Peter the Wild Boy’.

In the spring of 1726, after briefly escaping back to the forest, Peter was brought to London where his tale had aroused particular interest. As in Hanover, he caused a sensation and his carefree nature provided an amusing antidote to the stultifying boredom and decorum of court life. He appealed especially to Caroline, Princess of Wales, who persuaded the king to allow Peter to move to her residence in the West End, where he was kept virtually as a pet. Though he insisted on sleeping on the floor, he was dressed carefully each morning in a tailor-made suit of green and red. He was also appointed a tutor, who had him baptised and taught him to bow and kiss the hands of the ladies at court.

Peter quickly became a celebrity. On one level, tales of his antics busied the London gazettes. Jonathan Swift, whose fictional ‘Yahoos’ Peter appeared to personify, noted sourly that ‘there is scarcely talk of anything else’. He was soon the ‘talk of the town’, his portrait graced the walls of the King’s Grand Staircase at Kensington Palace and an effigy of him was erected in a waxworks on the Strand. In 1727 a premature report of his death gave rise to a mocking epitaph in the British Journal. His resemblance to Swift’s fantastical characters had clearly not been missed:

Ye Yahoos mourn, for in this Place
Lies dead the Glory of your Race,
One, who from Adam had Descent,
Yet ne’er did what he might repent;
But liv’d, unblemish’d, to fifteen,
And yet, O strange, a Court had seen,
Was solely rul’d by Nature’s Laws,
And dy’d a Martyr in her Cause!
Now reign, ye Houynhnms, for Mankind,
Have no such Peter left behind,
None like the dear departed Youth,
Renown’d for Purity and Truth,
He was your Rival, and our Boast,
For ever, ever, ever lost!

But Peter could not to live up to the popular interest invested in him and a fickle public quickly abandoned him in favour of the next unfortunate. His academic progress also failed to match his earlier promise. He was declared ‘unable to receive instruction’, despite the attentions of ‘the ablest masters’. He could say nothing beyond his own name and a garbled form of ‘King George’. By 1728, his tutor had given up his efforts and Peter was retired to the country. A home was found for him on a farm near Northchurch in Hertfordshire and a generous crown pension of £35 per annum was supplied for his upkeep. The ‘talk of the town’ became a humble farm hand.

Though still only an adolescent, Peter faded into provincial obscurity and thereafter rarely troubled the gossip columns. He developed a taste for gin and loved music, reportedly swaying and clapping with glee and dancing until he was exhausted. But he never learned to speak and his lack of any sense of direction gave cause for concern. In 1745, the year of the Jacobite Rebellion, he was arrested as a suspected Highlander and, six years later, he wandered as far as Norwich, where he was thought to be a Spanish subversive. As a result he was fitted with a heavy leather collar bearing the inscription: ‘Peter, the Wild Man of Hanover. Whoever will bring him to Mr Fenn at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, shall be paid for their trouble.’ He finally died, aged around 72, in 1785.

Though Peter’s life is remarkable enough, what is most astounding is the sheer scale of scientific and philosophical interest that his case aroused. While wits opined that the boy might be corrupted by the sybaritic life of London high society, others saw in him an ideal test case for the nascent sciences of anthropology and psychology.

To the thinkers of the Age of Reason, Peter represented a blank slate. As humanity in its ‘raw’ state, he was what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called ‘the noble savage’, man ‘unspoilt’ by society and civilisation. He was indeed a fascinating subject, but he provoked further, disquieting, enquiry. He was undoubtedly human but, lacking speech and socialisation, could he be classed as a man? Could he have a soul? Could he possess the power of thought?

Of the numerous thinkers and writers who addressed the subject, Daniel Defoe did so with the most clarity in his pamphlet Mere Nature Delineated, published in 1726. He described Peter as an ‘object of pity’ but cast doubt on the story of his origins, dismissing it as a ‘Fib’. On the issue of Peter’s soul, he was more charitable. Possessed of the gift of laughter and thought, Peter clearly had a soul, he wrote, but its powers did not yet act within him. He was, in sum, ‘in a state of Mere Nature … a ship without a Rudder’. And it was the task of his tutors to bring him to ‘the Use of his Reason’. He deferred the final verdict on Peter, therefore, until the results of his education became apparent. If he could receive instruction – if he could be taught to heed his soul – then he would become a man. And, what was more, he would be a lesson to us all, especially, wrote Defoe, ‘those who think nobody so wise as themselves’.

Defoe wrestled manfully with the uncomfortable question that Peter posed: what was it that divided ‘us’ from ‘them’, man from the animals? Different minds arrived at different conclusions. But the habitual tidier of nature Carl Linnaeus was typical. He reassured mankind by creating a separate species of ‘wild men’ or homo ferens. Peter was still clearly an outsider – one of ‘them’.

Peter’s example was later used in numerous theories of child development, socialisation and the role of language. Many thinkers dwelt on his inability to learn to speak. The philosopher James Burnett (Lord Monboddo), whose ideas anticipated some of Darwin’s, presented him as an illustration of his theory of the evolution of language in the human species. He saw Peter as evidence that ‘man was born mute, and that articulation is altogether … a habit acquired by custom and exercise’. To others, Peter was thought to demonstrate the existence of a ‘critical window’ in which language and other skills are developed in the child. Having missed the ‘window’, Peter could never learn such skills again. Hence the apparent failure of his esteemed tutors.

Other scientists concentrated on the role of ‘socialisation’ in child development. After a childhood supposedly devoid of parental care and nurture, Peter was considered to have developed a ‘mental indifference’ and a lack of empathy, reflection and memory. In common with other feral children, it was argued, he ‘lived solely to survive’, satisfying only his base desires for food and sleep. In other interpretations, Peter’s mental shortcomings were attributed primarily to his lack of language. Having never learned to speak, it was suggested, how could he comprehend his own ‘inner voice’? How could he order and make sense of his world? The result was that he was virtually unable to display higher mental functions. He was trapped in the mind of a toddler.

The 19th-century German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) then rather spoiled the intellectual party. Examining contemporary accounts, which suggested that Peter had been tonguetied (hence his inability to speak) and had webbed fingers on one hand (a common corollary to mental impairment), he concluded that ‘the Wild Boy’ was most probably mentally retarded. If this was the case, he argued, it would help to explain Peter’s peculiar origins – a point that had also bothered Defoe.

Rather than being a genuine ‘feral child’ then, Peter was most probably abandoned, possibly only weeks before his discovery. Most importantly, however, if he had been mentally disabled, then all the noble theories of development and socialisation which relied on his example were rendered lame. The ‘noble savage’ had been a simple charity case, worthy of pity certainly, but not philosophical enquiry.

Feral children have always aroused man’s fascination. But when Peter stumbled out of the forest in 1725 he encountered a world in intellectual ferment. Inspired by the Light of Reason and the Scientific Revolution, Europe’s new secular intelligentsia was examining the world anew after centuries of obscurantism and superstition. An army of frustrated empiricists, they submitted everything and everyone to rational investigation. To them, Peter was a godsend: ‘the very Creature which the learned World have … pretended to wish for’. They pamphleteered, polemicised and pontificated. But, like their subject, they were stumbling into the unknown, often lacking the words to pose the right questions and the knowledge to interpret their observations correctly. As a mute, Peter was unable to disabuse them of their wilder conjectures and his mystery only deepened, fuelling the debate and spurring the theorists. In a sense, the philosophers of the Age of Reason had met their match. They were faced with a man who did not make sense. But, for all their theories, it did not occur to them that he could not make sense – that there was no ‘sense’ to make. As Defoe had suggested, it is quite possible that they brought ‘an Ideot upon the Stage, and made a great Something out of Nothing’.

Whatever his ailments, Peter was not forgotten by the royal court. His keep was paid by the crown for nearly 60 years through three reigns and when he died a brass tablet was erected to his memory at royal expense. But Peter was no more loquacious in death than he had been in life. He was given a prime spot in the graveyard at Northchurch, close to the south porch, and his rough-hewn stone, now shaded by an unruly dog rose, reads simply: ‘Peter the Wild Boy – 1785’.

© Roger Moorhouse 2010

(This article was first published in "History Today" April, 2010.)

Thursday, 18 March 2010

An item in The Times today caught my eye. A commission of German historians has concluded that the death toll from the notorious bombing of Dresden on 13th February 1945 was no more than 25,000.

This is significant in a number of respects. Firstly, it puts to bed the long-running argument about the 'morality' of the bombing, which had in turn been fuelled by the assumption that as many as 200,000 civilians died in the city that night.

The moral outrage than many felt - in some cases genuinely, and in some cases with a rather more nefarious ulterior motive - was primarily a result of that disproportionate figure. If the assumption is now that 'only' 25,000 died that night, then it rather robs the dissenters of their case.

Secondly, it is highly likely that the original figure was shamlessly inflated by the Nazis themselves, most probably by simply adding a '0' to their own casualty estimate. They certainly had a track-record of doing this. A few weeks later, a massive daylight USAAF raid on Berlin caused huge destruction and large-scale loss of life - but the Nazi authorities claimed that fully 25,000 Berliners lost their lives that day. Given that Berlin was the best defended and best-prepared city in the whole of Europe, this figure is utterly implausible. No Allied raid - even during the "Battle of Berlin" of 1943 - came even close to such a total; with most registering hundreds of deaths, rarely even thousands.

Thirdly, it is worth mentioning that 25,000 deaths that night is still an enormous figure. As the above example demonstrates, air raid death figures rarely reached even four figures. So, even the 'downgraded' Dresden death-toll should still serve to remind us of the horror of the air war.
We should remember that the 25,000 deaths reaped in a single night (or couple of nights) at Dresden represents fully half of the British civilian death toll from air attack over 6 years of warfare...

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Gedenkbuch Berlin

In 1995, fifty years after the demise of Hitler’s Third Reich, a long-standing research enterprise finally bore fruit. As early as the 1960s, the idea of a memorial book for the Jews of Berlin had been mooted. Finally, following the collapse of the GDR in 1989, and the granting of access to the archival materials formerly in communist possession, the volume was published. The Gedenkbuch Berlins draws on the available documentary sources to list as many as possible of those Jews deported from the German capital between 1941 and 1945, who subsequently died at the hands of the Nazis. Each entry begins with the victim’s name in bold, followed by a date and place of birth, a date and destination of ‘evacuation’ and finally a date of death. The very first entry is that of Jutta Aal, who was born in November 1860 in Bavaria and was deported to Theresienstadt in the autumn of 1942. Already 81 years-old at the time of her deportation, Jutta survived the ghetto for barely two weeks.

From that entry, the victims proceed – around 40 per page – for nearly 1,400 pages. Entire extended families are listed; children alongside parents and grandparents, the great and the good alongside the unremarkable and unexceptional. Many are listed simply as ‘declared dead’; others bear the euphemism “verschollen”, literally meaning ‘vanished’. A few are listed as “schicksal unbekannt”, ‘fate unknown’. There are 6 pages of ‘Abraham’s, 11 pages of ‘Hirsch’s, 12 pages of ‘Levy’s and 13 pages of ‘Wolff’s. The total number of victims listed is 55,696. The final entry is that of Leo Zyzman from Berlin, who was only just 16 when he was sent to Auschwitz in the autumn of 1942. It is a deeply moving and fitting memorial to a community annihilated.