Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Christmas Books...

Its that time of year again, so I would like to jot down a few of my favourite books of 2012, to give you - should you require it - a few pointers for the perfect history gift for your own resident historian...

First up - my absolute favourite book this year - was Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956.  If you have an interest in central Europe or in Stalinism - this is the book for you.  Brilliantly conceived and executed, insightful, sympathetic, readable...  I really can't recommend it highly enough.

Next - Antony Beevor's single volume The Second World War was a welcome addition this year.  It has all the old Beevorian touches, and reads fantastically well, but there is the suggestion that the sheer scale of the book prevented the usual flourishes, so real devotees of his work might feel that it is lacking something in pizzazz - but it is excellent all the same...

One book from late last year that sticks in the mind is Robert Gerwarth's Hitler's Hangman, a biography of Reinhard Heydrich which is both scholarly and thoroughly readable, finally a volume to do justice to this most fascinating, mephistophelean figure.

Other nods go to:

Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers; a revisionist assessment of the run-up to the outbreak of World War One.

Clare Mulley's The Spy Who Loved, about the remarkable life of Polish SOE agent Christine Granville - aka Krystyna Skarbek.  Perhaps a tad breathless for my taste, but still an excellent piece of work.

Patrick Bishop's Target Tirpitz is a characteristically rollicking read about the various efforts to destroy one of Hitler's most dangerous battleships.

Nicholas Best's Five Days that Shocked the World is a well written account of the final week of World War Two in Europe, skilfully combining many memoir accounts.

Lastly, I would like to recommend a slightly unusual choice, as I think this book evaded every one of Britain's literary editors - Jonathan Clements' Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy is the biography of one of Europe's most important leaders of the 20th century - Finland's Gustav Mannerheim...  You might think that Finnish history is not terribly relevant, but the genius of this book is that it makes it relevant - and Mannerheim's life is the stuff of fiction...  Well worth a try..

Of course, all of these are physical books (that's how I like 'em) - but if you are into the whole e-book thing - you could try any of these - or else you could try my own new release, The Wolf's Lair - a collection of published and unpublished essays on the history of the Third Reich, which is priced at a remarkable £1.99... ;-)

Happy Christmas all

Monday, 15 October 2012

Hitler and his 'charisma'

Hitler's 'charisma' & Laurence Rees' new book... 

One of the most interesting developments in our understanding of Nazi Germany in recent years has been the recognition of Adolf Hitler as a charismatic ‘personality’; an apparently magnetic character instead of merely a malevolent, psychopathic void.  It is indeed a paradox that such a fundamentally dysfunctional individual - unable to form normal relationships, unable to debate rationally, unable to perform most normal social interactions - could have become a figure of adulation for so many millions of Germans.

It’s a very valid question, and Laurence Rees’ new book – and the TV series that it accompanies – draws on this trend to examine Hitler’s charismatic appeal and ask how all this was possible.  Rees goes some way to providing an answer, arguing that Hitler’s rise to power was attributable – at least in part – to an unholy fusion of his own most peculiar nature and the urgent need of the German people in the inter-war years to find some sort of messiah-figure to save them from their malaise.  Germans, Rees suggests, desperately projected their political and messianic desires onto Hitler, and his arrogant, intolerant, inflexible personality appeared to confirm that he was, indeed, someone who was ‘on a mission'.  It turned out to be a marriage made in the darkest depths of Hades.

In fact, I think there are two points relating to Hitler's charisma.  On the one hand, there is what we might call Hitler's 'political charisma' - the aspect outlined above, which encompasses his undoubted sense of political 'style', his speaking manner, his dress sense, his image-consciousness - his charisma, as it was experienced by the many millions of his followers across Germany, the vast majority of whom never met the man, and never even saw him up close.  This aspect of the story Rees explains rather well.

The other aspect - that of Hitler's personal charisma - is a little more complex, and this Rees handles rather less well.  Peculiar though it may sound to our modern sensibilities, Hitler undoubtedly had a magnetic personal appeal.  This has been confirmed many times by members of his household - those that knew him best and saw him most often and, crucially, when off-duty - all of whom testified to his immense personal charm; his bourgeois manners, his sense of humour and his caring, avuncular nature towards his secretaries.  

On another level, Hitler also had the knack of impressing those who visited him in his headquarters.  He tended - according to those that met him - to use his striking blue eyes to great effect, holding his gaze on a new arrival to 'test' them, for instance. Few were unmoved - Stauffenberg was one of those that found Hitler personally most unimpressive, but he was very much in the minority. In other instances, Hitler proved himself most adept at convincing his underlings of his point of view, not always by ranting and raving (though that also played a part, especially as the war turned against him), but by persuasion.  There are countless examples of military men coming to the Fuhrer-HQ urgently seeking to convince Hitler of their opinion, and coming away equally passionately convinced of Hitler's...  

This is an important distinction.  If we suggest that the "political charisma" is most important in Hitler's rise to power, it is then the "personal charisma" that is surely more instrumental in keeping him there, in heading off potential rivals and critics - with ultimately disastrous effect.

This aspect of his personal charisma, I would argue, still does not get sufficient attention.  We saw a glimpse of it in the excellent German film "Downfall"- where it was almost possible - thanks to Bruno Ganz's brilliant performance - to feel sympathy for Hitler as his Reich collapsed about him.  Yet, this is still rather the exception.  It seems, perhaps, that we are still unable to acknowledge Hitler's humanity - we still prefer to see him as an 'other', someone quite apart from ourselves.  I would suggest, on the contrary, that acknowledging his humanity tends to make his crimes all the more horrendous.  

Though it does not go far enough then, Rees' book is nonetheless interesting, and is a useful vehicle for many of the first-hand accounts from eye-witnesses and participants that he has collected over his years as a TV documentary film-maker.  Consequently, there are numerous interesting contributions from ordinary Germans; those transfixed by a Hitler speech or perhaps unnerved by his piercing blue eyes or his unblinking stare.  

But the book feels padded and overlong.  And, with other venerable Hitler volumes available, I would suggest that this subject would have been better treated in a shorter, more essayistic style, rather than producing yet another full-length narrative. It is also curious that the book comes to a rather abrupt halt, covering the last two years or so of the war in a final, breathless chapter, despite this being a time when – as Ian Kershaw has convincingly shown – it was Hitler’s charismatic leadership that was largely instrumental in keeping the Third Reich fighting to the bitter end.  Perhaps this is where Rees reveals his blindspot - Hitler's "personal charisma".

Hitler was undoubtedly charismatic, and this is an aspect of the story of the Third Reich that is well-worth examining in some detail.  Unfortunately, however, Rees’ book does not quite do the job well or coherently enough.  It is too long, too unfocused and too obviously a TV tie-in.  There is certainly a book to be written on Hitler’s charismatic aspect – but, sadly, this isn’t it.  

(this is an extended version of the review that appeared in the Independent on Sunday: 14.10.2012)

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Missing of World War One

I went along on the trip last weekend to the Western Front, accompanying a group with the tour firm that I am involved with - Historical Trips (www.historicaltrips.com).  It was fascinating, of course, and chilling, visiting all those sites of such unimaginable carnage and slaughter - Ypres, Messines, the Somme, Cambrai, the Lochnagar Crater.  But what struck me most, perhaps, was the sheer number of 'missing' that one saw listed on so many memorials...  How on earth can one 'lose' so many people?

I first encountered this aspect a few years ago when - in a fit of enthusiasm for genealogical research - I tracked down my great uncle (via the Commonwealth War Graves Commission www.cwgc.org) Charles Moorhouse, who I had been told was killed during the Great War.

Dud Corner
I read on the CWGC website that Charles had been killed in April 1918 and was listed on the memorial at Dud Corner cemetery near Loos in the Pas de Calais.  Visiting the site, I found that my great-uncle was one of over 20,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers commemorated there who 'have no known grave': just a name, engraved on a large marble plaque, fixed to the cemetery wall.

Menin Gate
I hadn't really thought about Charles, or the "missing", again until this weekend.  Naturally, on our tour, we visited the beautiful and sombre Menin Gate at Ypres, where nearly 55,000 names are inscribed of those British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Ypres salient and 'have no known grave'.  To their eternal credit, the people of Ypres mark that sacrifice every evening at 8.00 with a short service of remembrance and the sounding of the Last Post.

Not far from Ypres, is another memorial - that of Tyne Cot - which was built to accommodate and commemorate those of the missing that did not fit on the vast Menin Gate...  The Tyne Cot memorial, therefore, commemorates an additional 35,000 UK and Commonwealth soldiers listed as "missing".

The following day, our tour made its way to the battlefields of the Somme, where famously, some 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day alone.  But the Somme offensive lasted over four months, and the meat-grinder would scarcely slacken.  Consequently, the nearby village of Thiepval was chosen for the construction of a vast memorial to the missing of the battle - over 72,000 names are inscribed on Lutyens' strangely beautiful arch - the largest British war memorial in the world.

Totting up the figures from those four memorials, all within a few miles of each other in northern France and Belgium, one quickly reaches nearly 200,000, a large proportion of the total estimated 500,000 British and Commonwealth "missing" of World War One. (according to Fabian Ware's study of 1937)

It is still staggering to me that an army can 'lose' half a million men in a war.  Of course, there are many unnamed graves on the Western Front, but they account for only around 180,000 of the missing, leaving nearly 330,000 - a third of a million men - completely unaccounted for.  Where are their bodies? Were they atomised by shellfire? Or simply sucked deep into the Flanders mud?  We just don't know.  I appreciate that French and Belgian farmers are constantly turning up war material and bones with their ploughs - we saw some of their 'iron harvest' stacked at the edge of a field - but 330,000 men?  330.000 skulls, 660,000 femurs and tibias...  Simply astonishing.  For those that teach World War One, it is perhaps worth stressing this aspect (if they don't already) as it brings home the sheer horror of the fighting and the scale of the sacrifice - the blood price - that was paid by all sides.  Lest we forget.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

What to do with Hitler's House?

There was a furore in Austria last week, after the mayor of the small Austrian town of Braunau-am-Inn declared that he thought that an 18th century house in the town should be converted into flats.

Hitler's 'House' in Braunau
Small place Austria, but even that story would not make the news were it not for the toxic association with Austria’s most infamous son, Adolf Hitler.  The house in question – formerly the Gasthof zum Pommer – was where Hitler was born in April 1889, and where he spent the first three years of his life. 

Naturally, this connection has loomed large over the years.  In the Third Reich, the house was purchased by the Nazi Party, festooned with swastikas and became a place of pilgrimage for the Nazi faithful.  Hitler himself, visited in 1938 at the time of the Anschluss with Austria, but never returned.

After the war, the connection was largely forgotten, until the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung reached even this pretty corner of Austria in the late 1980s.  Close to the centenary of Hitler’s birth in 1989, the then mayor of the town had a large piece of Mauthausen granite erected on the pavement outside the house, bearing the legend “Nie wieder Faschismus” (Fascism, never again). 

Since that time, the building – now privately owned once again – has served in a number of capacities, not least as a workshop for disabled people.  But now, once again, stands empty – hence the intercession of the town’s mayor last week and the resulting furore.

To my mind, there are a couple of points here.  First of all - to be clear, Hitler lived in Braunau as a baby, moving to Passau when he was 3.  He did not spend his formative years there, did not go to school there, did not become a Nazi there.  He returned to the house only once - for a photo opportunity - in 1938.  It obviously did not mean much to him. 

Bearing this in mind, it strikes me that some of the various suggestions for the building's use – 'inter-cultural understanding workshop', disabled centre, and so on – risk fetishising the poor benighted building (on the flimsiest of evidence) just as much as the Nazis did.  The idea of putting something in that building that Hitler would have despised – a spurious act of posthumous revenge – seems faintly ridiculous and, I think, says much more about us than it does about him.   

Secondly, if something is to be made of the building - let it at least be relevant to that history.  Germany (and Austria) have made great strides in recent years in the thorny process of ‘coming to terms with the past’ – the famed Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  The information boards erected in the last decade at places like the Berghof on Obersalzberg and the site of the Chancellery Garden in Berlin are testament to a growing confidence in dealing openly and honestly with this most toxic legacy.  Also, the excellent “Documentation Centres” (museums) at former Nazi sites around Germany are an imaginative and educational way of handling that difficult past.  Perhaps it’s too soon for a “Documentation Centre: Hitler” at Braunau – and as I’ve said, the connection is a rather tenuous one – but, in another decade or so, maybe that idea will not seem quite so outlandish.  Time will tell.

Lastly, one has to remember that this story really is a bit of a storm in a camomile teacup.  For all the discussion, the politically-correct suggestions and the hand-wringing, the house is still in private ownership – back in the hands of the family that it was purchased from by the Nazis in the 1930s – and they are apparently not selling.  So, until something changes there, all of this is merely politically charged hot air…

© Roger Moorhouse 2012

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The curious death of Ideology...

Reviewing two books on modern German history this week, a trend emerged that had only dimly occurred to me before: the curious downgrading of ideology as a factor in explaining the actions of the Third Reich’s soldiers and civilians. 

For many a long year after World War Two, we assumed that Nazi soldiers and civilians were motivated – at least in part – by the strictures and demands of National Socialism.  From the drunk killers of the Einsatzgruppen, to the SS men of Birkenau, to the enthused cheerleaders on the Home Front, all – we thought – were moved by ideology to do what they did.  That seemed to make sense; it seemed the neatest and most straight-forward way, perhaps, to answer the nagging question of “How could it all have happened?” This was the reason that Mein Kampf was long treated as a highly-contagious political bacillus (rather than the tedious, turgid tome that it is), lest this supposedly hideously persuasive ideology might infect a second generation of Germans and others and convince them to commit bestial acts.

Yet, to a generation of modern historians, this simple answer seems increasingly unsatisfactory and consequently ideology as a motivator has begun to be systematically downgraded.  One of the first to adopt this line was Christopher Browning in his seminal 1992 book Ordinary Men, which argued, most persuasively, that it was not primarily ideology that motivated the gunmen of the Einsatzgruppen to carry out their hideous acts; rather it was more mundane factors such as peer-pressure and a sense of solidarity with their fellow soldiers.  

Others followed suit, of course.  My own most recent book Berlin at War from 2010 takes the position that Berlin’s civilians were not primarily motivated by ideology, and that, instead, they were moved by a reflexive patriotism and a loyalty based on ‘performance’.  They supported the regime because the regime had put bread on the table and because it took pains to take care of them when they were bombed out or otherwise endangered.  For those doubting this idea, you need only take a peek at the vast flak-towers and assorted wartime bunkers in Berlin - and contrast them with Britain’s pathetic civilian air-raid provision - to see the point.

The two books that I have read and reviewed this week come to similar conclusions, albeit addressing different sectors to the Nazi war effort.  Sönke Neitzel & Harald Welzer have analysed transcripts of eavesdropped POWs’ conversations in their excellent book Soldaten, which convincingly suggests that – although participation in and knowledge of atrocities was surprisingly widespread – few of those involved appeared to have been motivated by ideological concerns.  Indeed, the authors even suggest that one of the paradoxical achievements of Nazism had been the “de-politicisation” of the army. 

Meanwhile, Rolf-Dieter Müller’s The Unknown Eastern Front (IB Tauris, 2012) argues that even Hitler’s European allies – from French SS-men to Central Asian Hiwis – were also not motivated primarily by ideology; with strategic concerns, a desire for adventure, and the need for adequate rations amongst the myriad motivating factors that persuaded those many hundreds of thousands to don German uniform and take up arms on Hitler’s side. 

This is all rather interesting.  For one thing, it suggests that there is a limit to the power of the state, even a totalitarian one with all its persuasive talents in propaganda.  The state can ensure a good degree of compliance, anticipatory obedience even - or at the very least apathy.  However, real ideological conviction – perhaps by its very nature – is only for the few.   People, of any era any in any political climate, are not generally motivated by ideas.

But, more importantly, this is a timely corrective to what had been a rather simplistic argument – typified by Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners – that ideology was paramount.  This new approach is more realistic in suggesting a similar degree of complexity in the issue of motivation as that which can be seen in society as a whole.  After all, it seems crazy to suggest that western troops in Afghanistan today are motivated to fight by a belief in capitalism, and liberal democracy, any more than their predecessors in World War Two were.  They fight because they are ordered to, because it’s their job; they fight for the platoon, for the battalion, for the unit, for their mates – but surely not primarily for David Cameron or Winston Churchill, (though the latter would certainly have had his champions).  Similarly on the ‘home front’, we in the UK did not – and do not – support our troops primarily out of ideological concerns, we support them because they are “ours”: our sons, our brothers and our husbands.  

It seems sensible, therefore, to at least start from the assumption that German soldiers and civilians during World War Two were little different; motivated primarily by similar, everyday, human concerns rather than ideology – even though they were undoubtedly living in more overtly ‘ideological’ times.   As Sönke Neitzel puts it: “They talked about the division that they belonged to, their unit, their duty, the next battle, or their weapons.  Almost nobody asked what it meant to be fighting in the Don steppe, far away from Germany.  They didn’t ask what it meant if Germans were killing thousands and thousands of civilians.”

This is not, of course, to consign ideology entirely to the rubbish-heap of history.  In the Third Reich, there were many who were undoubtedly ideologically-driven.  The regime's leadership certainly 'believed' in its ideological mission with a fervent and often utterly irrational passion.  Ditto those many members of the SS and Party leadership, who clearly believed in what they were doing.  It should also be said that ideology - though it might not have been an overt, active motivator for the general population - was nonetheless part of the intellectual climate, and so passively at least, must have had an effect in creating the circumstances in which critical questions were not asked, and one's gaze was averted.  Even if soldiers and civilians did not mention ideology, therefore, it was certainly a player in creating their perception of the world and their frame of reference.

Nonetheless, this is a most interesting point.  And it backs up a point that I made in my recent book Berlin at War Very few of the first-hand accounts that I read, and of the interviews that I conducted, made any mention of ideology.  They were loyal, yes, but predominantly unmoved by ideology.  Self-censorship? perhaps.  But it could just be that ideology simply wasn't that important to them.  Maybe, in this regard, They were really not that different from Us – regardless of how uncomfortable that might make us feel - motivated mainly by reflexive patriotism, a natural desire to win the war, and a concern for 'their boys'.   Acceptance of that simple premise – far from exonerating ‘the Germans’ – actually makes the subject of their motivations and drivers much more complex and interesting.  It forces us all, in fact, to ask more searching, more pertinent questions.  And that, surely, has to be welcomed.  

© Roger Moorhouse 2012 

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Anna Reid's "Leningrad: City under Siege" - a review

The Siege of Leningrad began 71 years ago this month - the bloodiest and most murderous siege in history.  To mark this grim anniversary, here is my review of Anna Reid's excellent book on the subject, which was published last year. (This review first appeared in the Financial Times, on 27 August, 2011)

Anna Reid “Leningrad: Tragedy of a City under Siege, 1941-44”,
Bloomsbury, £25.00, 492pp, bibliography, index, plates.

Everything in the old Soviet Union had a political aspect.  Individuals could be lauded one moment, then swiftly denounced when the political tide turned.  Historical events could be subject to similar ideological vicissitudes; held up as salient examples of ‘world-historical forces’, then derided as irrelevant.

So it was with the wartime history of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).  The longest siege of World War Two and the most murderous siege in history, the Nazi blockade of the city should have been a straightforward case of astonishing human suffering and heroism in the face of a barbaric invader.  Yet, post-war Soviet historiography at first proclaimed the fiction that nothing extraordinary had happened in the city that bore Lenin’s name, before switching to a mawkish and rather disingenuous commemoration of the martyrdom of a model metropolis – a latter-day communist passion-play. 

The truth, as ever, was rather more complex.  Anna Reid’s book Leningrad is one of comparatively few that have approached the subject in English since Harrison Salisbury’s seminal 900 Days of 1969.  She has a number of advantages, not least as a Russian-speaker, but also in benefiting both from post-Soviet archival revelations and from the work of Russian historians in recent decades uncovering the unglossed truth of the siege.  The narrative that she presents is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it is all the more important for that.  It portrays a populace caught between the rock of a merciless Nazi enemy, and the hard place of a brutal, often incompetent, Communist regime.   

Reid uses first-hand accounts to tremendous effect, drawing on memoir and archival sources to weave a vivid, sometimes disturbing tapestry.  Many of those that she quotes will be comparatively well-known; the poet Anna Akhmatova for instance, or Trotsky’s cousin Vera Inber.  But it is the ordinary, unremarkable diarists that make the greatest impact; the 12-year-old schoolgirl starving to death or the young apprentice pressed into the city’s militia.  Through such commentators, all the horrors of the siege are represented; from the mendacity of the Soviet authorities to the fear and paranoia of a populace forced to the very limits of their endurance. 

Though the winter cold and indiscriminate German shelling took many lives, starvation was the greatest peril.  Hitler had no intention of his forces actually ‘taking’ the city, preferring them instead to inherit it after the ravages of hunger had killed off its population.  He nearly got his wish.  When the Nazi ring around the city closed, it was estimated that Leningrad had only a month’s worth of food stores.  As the rationing system then collapsed, Leningraders first ate household pets, before resorting in desperation to the consumption of anything suspected to hold a modicum of nutritional value: from leather belts to cellulose, linseed oil to wallpaper. 

In addition, in the first winter of the siege in particular, the corrosive, dehumanising effects of starvation soon made themselves felt, with theft and looting becoming commonplace, and pushing Leningrad society close to a complete breakdown.  Even cannibalism – vehemently denied by the post-war authorities – was documented, with women from the suburbs, strangely, being most prepared to break the ultimate taboo and consume the flesh of those already deceased.  

For those less squeamish, death from starvation was a real fear.  Entire families succumbed.  Corpses would be dragged through the frozen streets on children’s sledges to be stacked for burial in mass graves when the thaw allowed.  Countless others were left where they fell.  The total numbers killed in the city during the siege are still disputed, but are thought to amount to at least three-quarters of a million.

Despite such tribulations, Leningrad’s people were not spared the additional horrors inflicted by their own authorities.  The Soviet secret police – the NKVD – scarcely drew breath with the Nazi assault before continuing its campaign of persecution against its real or imagined opponents within the city: ‘kulaks’, ‘defeatists’ and ‘spies’.  Many thousands would fall victim to their state-sponsored terror and institutionalised paranoia.

Reid tells the story of Leningrad under siege with considerable flair, providing a compassionate and sympathetic account of a city enduring unimaginable suffering.  Impeccably researched, well-paced and beautifully written, Leningrad marks a new benchmark in the study of the subject, and a more nuanced, objective interpretation for a new century. 
© Roger Moorhouse 2011 

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

On the anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, its worth perhaps remembering one of the festering wounds that brought the world to that unhappy and horrific day - the sorry saga of Afghanistan.  This is my review of Rodric Braithwaite's excellent book "Afgantsy", which first appeared in the UK's "Independent on Sunday" in the summer of 2011. 

Rodric Braithwaite, “Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989”
Profile Books, £25.00, 417pp, notes, maps illustrations.

 At a time when British politicians and commentators are questioning the continued involvement of their forces in Afghanistan, it seems appropriate to examine the story of the last foreign power to come to grief in that unhappy country.

Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, ostensibly in support of a communist, client government, which was spiraling into mayhem and facing revolt in the provinces.  Initially fulfilling a limited role of assisting an ally and training Afghan personnel, the Soviets would be drawn inexorably into a full-scale conflict with the American and Pakistani-backed Mujahedin rebels.  They would only leave some nine years later, after 15,000 Soviet soldiers and an unknown number of Afghans had been killed and a generation on both sides had been traumatised.

Rodric Braithwaite is well-placed to tell the story of the Soviet Union’s Afghan adventure.  A former British ambassador in Moscow and a fluent Russian speaker, he brings a cool, critical eye to this complex tale, dispelling a few old Cold War myths and misconceptions along the way.

His approach is a rather novel one.  Though the book’s structure is broadly chronological, the central section dealing with the war itself is organised thematically, covering areas such as ‘soldiering’, ‘fighting’ and ‘devastation and disillusion’.  Whilst this approach rather robs the book of some of its narrative head of steam, it does nonetheless facilitate the showcasing of Braithwaite’s excellent and original use of the first-hand testimony of Soviet Afghan-war veterans – the ‘Afgantsy’ of the title.  Their accounts – of the boredom and squalour of military life; of the atrocities that they committed and suffered, and of the psychological consequences that they incurred – provide a fascinating leaven to Braithwaite’s otherwise somewhat solid narrative.

Though he eschews making the comparison explicitly, the shadow that inevitably hangs over almost every line of Braithwaite’s book is the current western involvement in Afghanistan.  The similarities – and ironies – are obvious: both the Soviets and ourselves went in to that country parroting the same watchwords about ‘stabilisation’ and ‘pacification’; both spent many of the subsequent years seeking a way out, all the while fearful of what horrors would follow their withdrawal

Afgantsy is well-written and engaging and should serve to popularise a subject that deserves much wider attention and scrutiny.  More immediately, one is struck by the thought that this book should be required reading for all of those, military and civilian alike, who are involved in the current Afghan adventure.

© Roger Moorhouse 2011 

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The faded - and fading - glory of Versailles

A visit to Versailles whilst on holiday this month gave me food for thought.  The grand palace of the French kings, to the south-west of Paris, has long fascinated the world.  Back in the day, every European monarch wanted his own "mini-Versailles" in imitation of the French monarchs - like King Ludwig of Bavaria at Herrenchiemsee.  Nowadays, it seems (quite rightly) to occupy a position in the European "Grand Tour" and is frequented by countless hordes of Chinese, Americans, Russians and seemingly everyone in between.

It is certainly huge and hugely impressive.  Yet, for the visitor, it can be rather underwhelming.  For one thing, the interminable queuing grates.  Even in high-season, surely the authorities that be could dream up a more imaginative solution to the large numbers of visitors than just snaking them all across the courtyard?

And, once you get to the front of the queue, you invariably find that you will then have to go and queue somewhere else, and even buy an additional ticket for entry elsewhere.  All protestations to the contrary, of course, are met with a stereotypical Gallic shrug, and the novelty that French officials can now be rude to their visitors in English as well as French.  Chaos was the only word that sprung to mind, along with a sense of their contempt for the visiting public.  If those that run Versailles carry on treating us plebs in this way - heads might have to roll (again).

Once inside the impression scarcely improves.  For all its apparent size, the usable space within Versailles seems to be remarkably small.  And no effort is made to use the entire wing that we had queued through serve as a introduction or a whetter of the visitor's appetite.  As a result, you get whisked through the royal apartments (on a tide of humanity) surprisingly quickly - spending less time inside the palace than you had already spent outside queuing in the courtyard.  The lack of space is exacerbated by the ludicrous decision to install items of so-called "modern art" in many of the rooms - including a pair of giant shoes made of pots and pans at one end of the famed Hall of Mirrors, and a life-size, pink furry helicopter in another room.  Isn't there a law against such mindless desecration?

Treaty of Versailles, 1919
The audio tour was good - as far as it went - giving details of the decor, the architects and the royals themselves that once inhabited the building.  But, there was no wider context.  No mention was made, for instance, of the proclamation of the Germany Empire, which was made in the Hall of Mirrors in 1871.  Most egregiously, no mention was made either of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 - also signed in the Hall of Mirrors.  Surely both these events are of as much - if not more - significance to the average visitor that the arrangement of King Louis' bedchamber?  If the palace's curators are this shockingly myopic about Europe's modern history, they are truly in the wrong job.

Add to these failings a rather lacklustre state of general repair, bored staff staring into space, audio-guide numbers that are illegible because they are at ground level... the list goes on.  Tea and cake at €15 a head was probably par for the course, but, unsurprisingly, the toilets were absolutely awful.  Though they proclaimed to be all up-to-date with "baby-changing facilities",  I would scarcely let my dog in there such was the state of them.

In all, it was rather like a trip back in time.  But not in a good way... Rather than a visit back to the glamour and excess of the 1770s, it was like going back to the 1970s, when the concepts of museum curatorship were unenlightened, and the idea of actively engaging with your audience was considered dangerously avant garde.  I, for one, was left wondering what a modern London museum curator could do with the raw material presented by Versailles.  A damn site more, to be sure, than is being made of it at the moment.  Versailles' glories, it seems, are fading still.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Leipzig and Wroclaw - a curious symmetry

Been a while - apologies.

 I spent this last week on two trips to Central Europe - on Friday flying to Wroclaw in Poland (the former German 'Breslau') for a conference, and then to Leipzig to do some filming for a documentary. In the short time that I had for sightseeing in both places, the symmetry between the two hit me - Napoleon.

 Firstly, in Wroclaw, I returned to the city's stunning Hala Stulecia (or 'Centennial Hall'), which has just been completely renovated. 

I have written about the Hala Stulecia before - http://www.historytoday.com/roger-moorhouse/wroclaw%E2%80%99s-concrete-controversy - It was originally built in 1913 to commemorate Germany's Wars of Liberation against Napoleon; events in which Breslau played a central role, being at the very forefront of events.

The Hala - which was an impressive early example of the use of stressed concrete - survived the war, was renamed as the "Hala Ludowa" ('People's Hall') by the incoming
Polish communists, and then became something of a cultural battleground after 1989, with some arguing that scarce finances should not be wasted on 'German monuments' to a conflict in which the Poles, famously, fought on the other side. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the Hala was treated to a thorough-going renovation, which - commendably - has brought it closer to the original vision of its architect, Max Berg, than it has ever been. The result is quite spectacular.
Then to Leipzig - and, after filming was done, I had a couple of hours to spare so I set off for the Volkerschlacht Memorial - Leipzig's most famous historical monument. It is indeed impressive. 300 feet high, with granite facing to concrete innards, it was also completed in 1913, this time as a memorial to the "Battle of the Nations", of October 1813, just outside Leipzig, in which Napoleon's forces were defeated by an alliance of Germans, Russians, Prussians and others.

 Unlike the Hala Stulecia in Wroclaw - the Leipzig Monument is intended exclusively as a memorial, and so contains some quite remarkable statuary, including a crypt
surrounded by an honour guard of 24 granite soldiers with heads bowed standing before stylised 'death masks', and above that, four 10 metre high statues, depicting the historic 'qualities' of the German people: bravery, faith, self-sacrifice and fertility. Its all very unusual and rather remarkable.

In my mind, I had never linked the two buildings. But, for all their differences in style and concept - the utilitarian Centennial Hall and the maudlin Volkerschlacht Memorial, they are nonetheless inextricably linked. Both were pioneers in the use of concrete, of course, and both were imbued with the nationalist, jingoistic spirit of the age in which they were built.  But - though they are now in different countries - they both stand as memorials to the moment when Napoleon faltered, when his reign as overlord of Europe crumbled - a moment whose 200th anniversary is looming.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Hitler in Lederhosen

Alot of newspaper editors had fun this week with pictures of Adolf Hitler in a variety of outfits - lederhosen, for instance, or a very fetching SA cap. The Telegraph covered it here, as did the Times and the Daily Mail here It was all very amusing - and a chance to dust off a few old puns; "Camp Commandant" said the Daily Mirror, "Mein Camp" quipped The Sun.

Yet, behind the dictator-themed mirth there is an important historical point to be made about these pictures. The photographs were taken by Hitler's photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, in the 1920s and - along with a number of other shots showing Hitler in dramatic poses (as here) - they show Hitler 'working' on his public image.
The concept of a politician honing their public persona does not come as a surprise to our modern minds - its what they do - they preen themselves, construct an acceptable, appealing public persona and then get on with the business of baby-kissing and getting elected.

Yet, the important point to make here is that Hitler was operating at a time when few politicians had any idea at all about public image. Most of his fellow German politicians were top-hatted, frock-coated throwbacks to the 19th century - and the idea that they might experiment with different 'looks' or introduce dramatic gestures into their public speaking routines would have appeared faintly ludicrous to them.

But, Hitler (like Mussolini, in this regard) was of a very different stamp. He worked incessantly on his public persona, practised his public speaking, managed his image - even employing Heinrich Hoffmann, a talented and successful photographer, to help him. Hoffmann served as a visual sounding board for Hitler, photographing him in various outfits and various poses, and then helping him to decide what 'worked' and what didn't (The Lederhosen and the SA cap, by the way, did not 'work' and were duly consigned to Hoffmann's archive). This, then - far from being just an opportunity to have a giggle at Hitler looking silly - is a glimpse into Hitler's political modus operandae. This was how he marked himself out as a 'new' breed of politician. This was how he made himself appealing to the German people, with disastrous consequences.

If we can understand that - and have a laugh at his expense - then fine. But, in our rush to find humour in Hitler, let's not miss the important historical point that these pictures convey.

The book from which the pictures come, by the way, is Heinrich Hoffmann's memoir "Hitler was my Friend", published this week by Pen & Sword Books.  Oh, and it has an introduction on Hoffmann by yours truly...

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

"Building the Revolution" - if you must

I went down to the Royal Academy this afternoon to visit the "Building the Revolution exhibition, on modernist architecture in the Soviet Union, 1915-1935.

I was not sure what to expect to be honest, but I thought it showed up a few contradictions and hypocrisies that i found interesting.

The exhibition itself was a bit of a curate's egg - some of the headline acts were impressive, other aspects much less so. Though I am not particularly a fan of his work, Le Corbusier's buildings in Russia - the Tsentrosoyuz in Moscow and the Gosprom building in Kharkhov (above) - were of interest, not least because of their soaring ambition.

Certainly, as the architecture geeks and pseuds will tell you - this period in the early years of the USSR was pretty much the only one when the artistic avant garde became (briefly) state policy. The result was a flowering of modernist, functionalist architecture - all swirling concrete, geometric shapes, flat rooves and banded windows - which produced a few buildings of genuine interest.

The problem with this is that the material on display in the exhibition is rather thin. Aside from the headline acts, many of the items shown are fundamentally ugly, lumpen, concrete monstrosities, mostly by architects you have never heard of and whose work you will have little desire to encounter again.

Even the accompanying contemporary photographs by Richard Pare do little to add to the appeal. They are photographically interesting, of course, and beautifully composed images, but they are essentially of the sort of grim, rain-stained, post-industrial townscapes that are sadly so common across the former Soviet Union. It is a world that has few redeeming features.

Beyond that, the third strand of the display is the collection of constructivist art and sketches spirited out of the USSR in the 1920s. Whilst the story of the collection's provenance is certainly interesting, the sketches themselves are not. The catalog claims that they "probe the boundaries between painting and architecture". Sadly, they do little but show up their authors' artistic shortcomings.

So, a rather meagre diet, really, even for the enthusiast. Indeed, one suspects that were it not for the rose-tinted, unthinking Soviet-nostalgia amongst the western liberal elite, such architecture would have been largely and rightly forgotten.

What I found most interesting, however, was that the commentary on the exhibition insisted on viewing the architecture completely in isolation from the brutal political climate in which it was spawned.

The catalog and captions spoke breezily about the Izvestia building in Moscow, for instance, without mentioning Izvestia's dark role as one of the primary propaganda mouthpieces of the Soviet state. It also features a housing project in Ekaterinburg, which was intended for the families of serving Cheka secret policemen - Stalin's equivalent of the Gestapo. Even the architect who designed Lenin's mausoleum - Alexei Shchusev - was the same man who finished off the Lubyanka, the KGB's infamous headquarters in central Moscow.

Such dark, nefarious connections cannot simply be ignored or wished away. For all its modernistic flourishes, the Soviet Union was a brutal, murderous place, in many ways analagous to the Third Reich. We would all do well to remember that. Just as Albert Speer's buildings, or those of Werner March, or Ernst Sagebeil, are considered to be 'tainted' by the connection to the Third Reich, so too should these constructions be tainted by their connection to Lenin and Stalin.

Indeed, by way of an exercise, it is interesting to substitute Nazi-era buildings and architects for those on display in the Royal Academy and then gauge our own response. The idea of an Albert Speer retrospective gracing those venerable halls, for instance, is vaguely horrifying - yet somehow one showcasing Soviet architects is considered acceptable. Well, not to me.