Wednesday, 19 October 2016

"1944 - Forced to Fight" - a historian's review

The Estonian film "1944" was released to huge acclaim in 2015 and was submitted as that country's entry for the 2015 Academy Awards as best foreign film, has now been released in the UK (with subtitles), under the title "1944 - Forced to Fight".

It is set against the backdrop of Estonia's unenviable fate during World War Two, stuck as it was between the rock of Nazi Germany and the unmovable object of Stalin's Soviet Union.  Those that have read my book "The Devils' Alliance" will know some of the horrors endured by the Baltic States during this period.  For the uninitiated, a thumbnail sketch: this was a time in which is was quite possible for a single family to have parents exiled to Siberia by Stalin in 1940, have an elder son drafted into the Red Army the same year, and a younger son conscripted into the Waffen-SS in 1944.  On our comfortable little island, with its clear moral narrative of World War Two, such complexities can be hard to fathom.

Yet, "1944 - Forced to Fight" explains them very ably and succinctly.  It focuses on two individual soldiers - Karl Tammik and Juri Jรตgi - who find themselves on either side of that divide; one fighting for the Germans, one for the Soviets.  Like most of their countrymen, neither shows any particular ideological fervour, except the desire to escape the madness and go home.  Their story plays out during a few months of the Red Army's advance into Estonia - between the Battle of the Tannenberg Line and the fighting on the island of Saaremaa - in the late summer and autumn of 1944.

I won't spoil the story for readers by giving away the narrative strands that link the two principal characters, but suffice it to say that the film is one of the best World War Two films I have seen.  It is well acted - with excellent characterisation (even through the medium of subtitles), the combat scenes are as riveting and harrowing as they are authentic, and the central narrative brilliantly displays the impossible predicament that the people of Estonia - and their Baltic neighbours - found themselves in during the war.

See it - you won't regret it.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

"Blitzed" by Norman Ohler - a historian's review

Hitler - cynics say - is the gift that keeps on giving.  He still holds us all, it seems, in his awful thrall.  We are fascinated and appalled by him in equal measure.  But we should perhaps also be grateful - grateful that, where once he inspired genocide and war, now he just inspires occasionally dodgy history.

This last week saw the publication in the UK of "Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany" by German author Norman Ohler.  The PR campaign here in the UK was immense.  Perhaps it was the book's heady combination of "Hitler" and "drugs" that did it; catnip to the media - but it received prominent reviews in the press, alongside a "news" item on the BBC website, which amounted to little more than a breathless extended plug by the author.  Nonetheless, after the book's success when published in Germany last year, I was keen to see it, hoping for a treatment of the subject that would be typically 'Germanic' and thorough.

Ohler's thesis is twofold.  Firstly, he suggests that Hitler himself was addicted to the cocktail of drugs supplied to him by his personal physician; Theodor Morell, which included cocaine, the morphine-derivative Eukodal, and Pervitin; a form of methamphetamine.  This addiction, he says, had political and military consequences, as Hitler's sense of invincibility and his inability to see reason grew unchecked, and - in 1945, when he struggled with the consequences of withdrawal.

The second strand of the book is that - despite Nazism's official disapproval - drug use was actually rather commonplace during the Third Reich and in particular that the use and abuse of Pervitin was widespread, especially in the military.  Pervitin - which induced feelings of euphoria, alertness and diminished inhibitions - was certainly exploited by the German armed forces, and Ohler says, seems to have played a key role in the early successes that are so often attributed to the tactical genius of the Blitzkrieg.

Both these subjects are well worthy of historical examination, yet - for all the hyperbole - neither is entirely new.  Hitler's drug habits have often been discussed in detail - in (for instance) Leonard Heston's "Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler" from 1979 or Ernst-Gunther Schenck's "Patient Hitler" from 1989.  In addition, it is a subject that has been discussed - at least in passing - in all the Hitler biographies, including Alan Bullock's "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny" from 1952.  Hitler's drug use has even been the subject of a couple of low-rent TV documentaries in recent years. Ohler's claim to novelty on this therefore, should be taken with a considerable pinch of salt.

Where Ohler is rather more novel is in his claims that Hitler was addicted to the cocktail of drugs that he received.  Of course, the honest answer is that we can't know for sure as there is not enough evidence to be had - but I think it is telling that more circumspect commentators - such as Schenck, who was an SS doctor - have concluded that, as far as the evidence allows a conclusion to be drawn, Hitler was most probably not addicted to any of the substances that he was given.  Nonetheless that doesn't stop Ohler from jumping to his sensational conclusion not only that Hitler was addicted, but that the addiction had political and military consequences.

The material on the use of Pervitin - though less spectacular than the tales of Hitler's supposed addictions - is rather more interesting.  Certainly Pervitin use appears to have been widespread before and during the war, particularly in the military - and this has also been written about before - but again Ohler overplays his hand by making some claims for pharmacological explanations for military events that are scarcely sustainable in the sober light of day.

Stylistically, "Blitzed" is very readable; Ohler has written novels previously, and it shows.  But, while his story rattles along well, he rather struggles with the requirements of serious non-fiction.  The twin strands of his narrative are imperfectly spliced, and he undermines his own credibility by adding a smattering of contemporary drug-related words "junkies", "high", "doped up" throughout his narrative.

In sum, there is some engaging and enlightening material here - but very little that has not been said before elsewhere.  All that is provable isn't new; and all that is new isn't provable.  "Blitzed" is certainly sensational - but whether it is good history or not is another matter.