Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Guardian review of my "Devils' Alliance" - a response

I've not really had a bad review before, so this was a new experience.  The Guardian today published a review by Richard Evans of my new book "The Devils' Alliance", on the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and it was a rather predictable response.

I had expected that the left would cry foul about any book that draws attention to this most egregious chapter in Soviet history.  T'was ever thus.  As I write in the book, the Pact of 1939 should rank alongside 1956 and 1968 as one of the most horrific, embarrassing years in the history of communism.  The fact that it doesn't is tribute to the skill of the USSR's post-war propagandists in burying the story as best they could. The story of the Pact might not be unknown to academics like Professor Evans, but - he can take my word for it - away from the groves of academe it barely registers...  My primary argument is that it really should.

Professor Evans is generous is describing parts of the book as "masterly"... praise indeed.  But he takes issue with what he describes as the book's "bias".  Actually, his review is to a large degree guilty of tilting at windmills.  Its subtitle asks "Was Stalinism really worse than Nazism?", thereby suggesting - wholly incorrectly - that this is a comparison that I make.  I do not.  I do not make this argument at any time in the book.  My position, which I think comes across loud and clear, is one of "A plague on both their houses", and is made blatantly obvious by the title of the book.

So, rather than expressing a bias, I would argue that I am actually trying to combat one.  Namely the bias on the left that persists in whitewashing Soviet crimes, in seeing Stalin's Soviet Union in some way as "a noble idea gone awry", indeed in seeing Stalin himself as the wartime "Uncle Joe", rather than the murderous psychopath that he was. It is the same bias - or "asymmetry of tolerance" - that I have written about before, in which the Nazis and the Soviets are viewed in some way as opposites - rather as twin purveyors of evil - the twin "Devils" of my book's title.

Strangely, Professor Evans praises much of what I do write, but criticises what I don't.  He seems to have wanted a wider discussion of the early phase of the war, suggesting that I should have covered the Nazi occupation of Greece, for instance, or their depredations in Yugoslavia - in some way, one imagines, as a counterbalance for Stalin's hideous treatment of the Poles, the Baltic peoples, the Finns and the Bessarabians.

In response, I would say that I did not set out to write a history of the opening two years of the war in Europe.  Others can do that.  I set out to write an account of the Nazi-Soviet Pact - about its sordid politics and its hideous effects on the ground - on the unfortunate peoples upon whom its paragraphs had the most direct effect.  Thus, I give ample coverage to German actions in their zone of occupied Poland, and to the growing tendency towards ethnic cleansing that Berlin is groping towards prior to summer 1941, but Greece is beyond the remit that I set for myself, and Yugoslavia only imposes upon my narrative as the cockpit of conflicting and increasing Nazi-Soviet ambitions.

The uncomfortable fact for Professor Evans and others on the left is that in those opening two years of World War Two, the Soviet Union was much more practiced than Germany in the sifting, persecution and deportation of subject populations.  We forget perhaps, but at this point the Holocaust had not yet begun. Hitler may have been an eager student of such matters, but Stalin was very definitely the master.  If there is an "imbalance" in the book therefore, it reflects a historical imbalance, and one with which many on the left are uncomfortable.

So, there is much here to unpack of course - and, as ever, much to constructively criticise - but blanket, blinkered rejection of the sort expressed in this review, I think, says rather more about the reviewer's prejudices than it does about my own.  Naturally, I would urge those interested in this subject to read the book and make their own minds up.


Monday, 4 August 2014

Gottland - by Mariusz Szczygiel - a review

A curious tome caught my eye some weeks ago - "Gottland" is a book about communist Czechoslovakia written by a Polish journalist Mariusz Szczygiel.  As one steeped in Mitteleuropa, I naturally ordered a copy, spurred by the positive reviews.

It is indeed an interesting book.  Essentially, it is a collection of anecdotes and vignettes from communist-era Czechoslovakia, expertly researched by the author and told in a very accessible way.  The tales are many and varied - from that of Lida Baarova, Goebbels' one-time mistress, to the sad fate of the man who designed Prague's former monument of Stalin, to the intertwined lives of Zdenek Adamec (who self-immolated in Prague in 2003 in imitation of Jan Palach, and the doctor who treated the dying Palach back in 1969.

Gottland has a good go at evoking the Czech soul - a curious mixture of the other-worldly bizarreness of Kafka and the worldly guile-cum-innocence of Hasek's "Good Soldier Svejk".  Such is the gentle tone of the book that the inattentive reader might almost assume that it is a nostalgic paean - such as is common is some parts of central Europe - to the reassuring certainties of 'real existing socialism'.  Yet, it is nothing of the sort.  Gottland is more of a gentle broadside; a softly-spoken tirade against the petty accommodations, the pusillanimity and the sheer mendacity engendered in ordinary people doomed to live under communism. For that reason alone, it should be required reading, particularly for those who still hanker for that benighted system.

Though I thoroughly approve of that subtext, and I generally enjoyed the ride, I found "Gottland" somehow unsatisfactory.  Maybe it is a little too gentle in it's approach, too emollient in its tone.  It left me with the impression that it was either too clever by half or not clever enough.  Perhaps a tighter style, or a more interventionist editor might have strengthened the political message.  But then, maybe that soft-soap approach is what readers want?

Either way, its an engaging and illuminating read.  And if you are interested in the recent history of the region, and the myriad ways in which societies adapt under totalitarian systems, then it is certainly worth a read.



Wednesday, 15 January 2014

"The Gun: The AK-47" by C.J. Chivers - a review


Given the death before Christmas of the Soviet weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, I thought it was a good time to post this review of a book from 2010, which made a study of his most famous invention: the iconic AK-47...


“The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War”

by C.J. Chivers

Few guns achieve iconic status.  One of those that indubitably has is the AK-47 – the Kalashnikov.  Simply engineered, reliable and easy to use, it is now nearly ubiquitous, with an estimated 100 million examples currently in circulation.  Instantly recognisable the world over, it is a subject of political iconography from the gable-ends of Belfast to the flags of Hezbollah and Mozambique, and is the weapon of choice for generations of freedom fighters, terrorists and jihadis.  It has become ‘the people’s gun’. 

With the book market teeming with ‘micro-histories’ of everything from cod, to sugar, to the Atlantic Ocean itself, it was perhaps inevitable that someone should seek to tackle a brand as powerful and as malevolently cool as the AK-47.  Yet, C. J. Chivers’ book “The Gun” goes further than retracing the story of the weapon’s development and its subsequent emergence as an icon – fascinating though it is.  This, he claims, is a gun that has changed the very nature of warfare and has even altered history itself. 

It is certainly a remarkable story.  According to the Soviet mythology, Mikhail Kalashnikov – himself the son of an exiled kulak – was the original proletarian hero: a man whose patriotism and class consciousness, fired by service in World War Two, had led him to single-handedly design the most successful weapon of all time.

As ever, the truth is rather more prosaic.  As Chivers relates, the gun was a hybrid of existing rifle technology and was the product of more minds than one.  Thus, though Kalashnikov certainly played a central role in its development, there were some who later questioned whether his name should have been appended to the weapon at all. 

The gun’s real, large-scale debut would be in Vietnam, where its rivalry with the American M-16 would carry with it much wider connotations: capitalist versus communist, peasant versus professional soldier.  The Kalashnikov won hands down.  More reliable, more hardy and cheaper to produce, it won many plaudits, even being preferred by some US Marines to their standard-issue weapon. 

Chivers writes very well, as one would expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner.  His descriptions of set-pieces, such as a jungle fire-fight or an attempted assassination, are exemplary.  He also works hard to disentangle the mythology surrounding the weapon’s development and is admirably clear when explaining technological matters. 

Yet, there are a couple of caveats.  For one thing, the book is rather overlong and would have benefitted from some judicious cutting.  Though impeccably-researched and engagingly presented, it spends fully four chapters explaining the background history of automatic weaponry, when surely one would have sufficed.  Also, the book’s episodic, impressionistic feel – shifting from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq and elsewhere – tends to rob it of a narrative focus and definable structure.

More seriously, Chivers seems to wrestle rather unconvincingly and inconclusively with the wider aspects of his story.  The overarching context of the book is that of the profound changes wrought by the miniaturisation, simplification and democratisation of automatic weaponry, as exemplified by the AK-47.  The original automatic gun – the Gatling – resembled an artillery piece and required a crew of men to fire it, whilst the Kalashnikov is about the size of a tennis racquet, the weight of an axe and can be had for around $200.  There is a very valid point to be made here, but Chivers does not quite make it coherently or explicitly enough, almost preferring the argument to materialise incidentally as he goes along.  

Yet, these complaints should not detract from a formidable feat of research and writing.  Chivers’ story of the Kalashnikov is a fascinating and complex one, which encompasses both the darkest days of the Cold War and the asymmetric warfare of the early 21st Century, and features illuminating asides on technological developments and wider strategic concerns.  He has marshalled these myriad sources well and has surely produced the final word on one of the most brutally effective and iconic weapons of our times. 

This review first appeared in History Today, January 2011

© Roger Moorhouse 2010

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

"Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" - a historian's review



I finally got around to watching the last part of the German mini-series "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" last night.  It first aired in Germany earlier this year, and caused something of a sensation, drawing enormous audiences, provoking spirited debate and anguished reflection and generally jumping the normal bounds inhabited by a TV programme. 

Meaning literally "Our Mothers, our Fathers", it is the story of 5 friends (3 men & 2 women) who meet up just prior to the invasion of the USSR in the spring of 1941 to swear eternal friendship and promise to meet again the following Christmas.  They are perhaps a microcosm of the ordinary German population: 2 soldiers (one keen, one not), an ambitious singer, a nurse eager to do her duty for the Fatherland, and a Jewish tailor. None of them, tellingly, is a Nazi.

What follows, over 3x90 minute programmes, shows what life - and the war - throws at the five friends, and crucially shows the ways in which they, like the vast majority of ordinary people, were subtly made complicit in both the Nazi regime and the all-pervading horrors of World War Two.  The singer, Greta, for instance, has an affair with a Gestapo man, essentially to further her career; Wilhelm (the enthusiastic soldier) is disillusioned by his experience of the war, his less enthusiastic brother Friedhelm becomes totally apathetic and ruthless.  I won't spoil your enjoyment by revealing too much more.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when..."
In this respect, the film does a great job of bringing the nuances and complexities of life in wartime in a dictatorship to the screen.  Living in freer times, we like to imagine life back then as black and white: you were either clean or you collaborated.  However, life is rarely so neat, and certainly wasn't back then under the Third Reich or the Soviet Union.  What the film brilliantly brings to the fore is the countless shades of grey that existed for everyone.  The tiny compromises and accommodations that could often have huge consequences.  So far, then, so realistic.

Another positive was the film's production values, which were excellent.  Acting throughout was never less than convincing, and - whisper it quietly - people got dirty..., army uniforms were never neatly pressed.  I remember a veteran once saying to me that they could smell the Red Army before you could see them - this film gives a whiff of that grim olfactory realism.  In this regard, the only complaint was that the deaths were far too neat - people shot once in the body rarely die instantaneously; yet here they did, irritatingly regularly.

There are other gripes... I found it rather unrealistic that the five friends kept bumping into each other. Considering the vast extent of German-occupied Europe between 1941-45, it was utterly implausible that the nurse and her soldier beau, for instance, should have bumped into each other - not once but twice!  And that the Jew-cum-Partisan should recognise his childhood pal passing him in a Wehrmacht Kubelwagen... One is tempted to quip - "Of all the slit trenches in all the world..."

OK, I get it - the piece has to make a few concessions for the sake of a narrative structure.  But there were other failings - the film also showed a rather peculiar "world view".  It is probably to be expected that the Germans themselves would not be portrayed terribly sympathetically - they are all in some way seen as complicit (as the premise dictates), they are all 'collectively guilty' for the crimes of the Nazis.

Yet, beyond that, the film demonstrated some rather peculiar sympathies and prejudices.  The Polish Underground Army (AK), for instance - in which the Jewish tailor finds temporary refuge - is portrayed as being rabidly and almost uniformly anti-Semitic. Now, anti-Semitism was not just a German disease, and there were certainly instances of it in wartime Poland.  But, but... let us not forget that Poland has more individuals listed as "Righteous Among the Nations" - for saving Jews during the Holocaust - than ANY other country - and over 10 times the figure for Germany.  So, to portray the Polish partisans as more anti-Semitic than any of the German characters on show was not only a gross distortion - it was grossly unfair.

More surprising, perhaps, was the positive spin that was put on the Red Army and the Soviet Union in the film.  Not only did the benighted Polish partisans express the opinion that the Germans were worse than the Soviets, (they tended to view both as equally awful), but a would-be rape of the nurse character (Charlie) is interrupted by a stern (female) Red Army officer, who then finds her a position in a Red Army medical unit. If the scene were at all realistic, one fears, a captured German nurse like Charlie would have been raped - probably numerous times - before being unceremoniously shot.

One is tempted to wonder why the Soviet Union is portrayed in such a positive light - the only group incidentally that come out of the film with any apparent credit whatsoever.  Indeed, such is the gloss applied, that - were it not for the excellent production values - one might have imagined that the film had been made during the dying days of the GDR!

Despite all this historically-themed griping - this is nonetheless an excellent film, which is well worth seeing (and it is due to be shown with subtitles as "Generation War" on BBC2 this winter).  German TV's treatment of the Third Reich, the war, and the nation's complicity in both has clearly come a long way, but there is still - perhaps - a little way to go.

© Roger Moorhouse 2013

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Fortress at Brest - a story of heroism, sacrifice and unreconstructed Soviet historiography



I watched an interesting film yesterday.  "Fortress of War" is the subtitled English-language release title of a Belarusian film from 2010, 'Брестская крепость' or "The Brest Fortress".  It tells the remarkable story of the Soviet garrison manning the 19th Century Fortress at Brest, on the Soviet-German frontier, in the opening days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.  Astonishingly, the fortress held out for a week against the German attack, suffering enormous privation in the process, before its last defenders were forced to surrender.  It is indeed a remarkable story.

And, it is a remarkable film.  In pure cinema terms, it is actually rather good.  If I were to describe it as a "Belarusian 'Saving Private Ryan'", then that might sound mocking, but it should be taken as a compliment.  The narrative is well-paced, the characters (though a tad two-dimensional) are just about rounded enough, and the battle scenes are gripping and reasonably realistic.  So, on that level at least, the film is certainly not a waste of 138 minutes of your life.

The film is also remarkable on another level, however: as an example of unreconstructed Soviet 'hurrah' historiography.  But for the glossy modern production values, this exact film could have been made in 1985 - or even 1965.  The message is the same: the Soviet Union was a land of milk, honey and happiness before the Nazi invasion, and the Red Army was the unblemished valiant defender of the Soviet people.  Even the film's Political Commissar - Yefim Fomin - is portrayed with unalloyed admiration.  This - in 2013 - is truly remarkable.

So, there is a great deal that the film does not tell the viewer.  One salient point is the immediate history predating the 1941 attack, for instance that Brest had been in Poland two years before, and had itself been invaded and occupied by the Soviets and the Germans jointly in 1939.  Indeed, it was at Brest that one of the most remarkable episodes of the opening phase of the World War Two took place; the joint Soviet-German parade of September 22 1939.  As the image below shows, Brest could well have been synonymous with the brief flowering of 'friendship' between Moscow and Berlin.
German & Soviet Commanders take the salute at Brest
Yet, understandably perhaps, that was not an image that the world chose to remember after 1941.  Accordingly, no mention is made of it in the film.  Even the Nazi-Soviet Pact itself is reduced to a couple of oblique references that would pass most viewers by entirely.  The political and geographical complexity that Brest signified is reduced to a simple tale of Red Army soldiers defending the Soviet Motherland against unprovoked attack.

Of course, it is too much to expect a film with a discreet narrative to include such related, though extraneous, material as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, or the Soviet deportations of Poles from Brest and elsewhere of the previous summer, but the 'tone' of the film is still rather astonishing.  One parlour game that I sometimes play in these situations is to transpose the Soviets for the Nazis and then question whether the portrayal might be deemed balanced or objective.  So, for instance, the Political Commissar character - let us imagine that he were to be changed to an SS man, galvanising his troops, leading them in battle?  (Now this is not such a crass comparison: after all, let's not forget that the NKVD (to which the Political Commissar belonged) was responsible for the Soviet Purges, the Deportations, the Gulag, the Katyn Massacres, etc etc.. and easily qualifies as a criminal organisation, like the SS.)  So, even after the most cursory thought, most readers will surely agree with me that it is unthinkable that an SS officer would be portrayed in an uncritical light, and rightly so.  Yet, incredibly, in the Soviet world-view, the Commissar can still be a positive figure. Clearly, a generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, the ex-Soviet equivalent of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung: the famed "Coming to Terms with the Past", is barely off the starting blocks...

So, "Fortress of War" is well-worth a watch, and is remarkable on a number of levels.  Its Belarussian film makers should probably be congratulated, but they should most definitely be dragged into the 21st Century.


Monday, 21 October 2013

The Saga of the Dornier 17

I had a rare treat last week, being invited up to RAF Cosford to take a look at the Dornier Do 17 wreck that was raised from the seabed this last summer.  It was a fascinating visit.

It was, of course, very interesting to have a tour around the workshops and see what Cosford is doing with a number of other WW2 projects: not least one of only two surviving Handley Page Hampdens - recovered from northern Russia - and a dismantled Vickers Wellington; a Heath-Robinson-esque melange of geodesic aluminium, wooden battens and tattered Irish linen...

A Dornier 17 of WW2 - shown here in Croatian colours
But the highlight was naturally the Dornier.  Shot down on 26 August 1940 over the English Channel, the Dornier Do 17 was one of around 2,000 of the light, twin-engine bomber built - known as the "Flying Pencil" for its slim fuselage - which became one of the mainstays of the Luftwaffe's tactical bombing arm.  Separated from its accompanying squadron, it seems that 5K+AR ran foul of one of the RAF's least-loved aircraft, the Boulton-Paul Defiant.  Holed across the cockpit and engines, the Dornier ditched over the Goodwin Sands, off the Kent coast, before flipping over onto its back and sinking in around 50ft of water. Two of the plane's 4 crew survived the crash and became PoWs
.
The wreck remained on the Goodwin sands, apparently unknown, until the early years of the 21st Century, by which time it was thought to be the only one in existence (though the wreckage of another still litters a site near Oslo in Norway).  After a fund-raising effort, the RAF Museum finally raised the plane's remains in June 2013, and have now begun a conservation project.

As our guide explained, this is very much a 'conservation' - not a 'restoration', as it is sometimes erroneously reported.  73 years of time and tide have left little unaffected.  The Dornier's aluminium body is encrusted with barnacles and sea-life, and all of it is full of sand.  Indeed, such is the accretion of wildlife that the plane has taken on, the weight that was lifted from the seabed amounted to fully three times the weight of the original aircraft.  This material is to be removed gradually over the coming months and years.

Most pressing, however, are the accumulated chloride salts, which could cause the aluminium frame to swiftly deteriorate further.  To wash these salts away, the airframe is being constantly sprayed and washed in citric acid - at a constant pH of between 5.2 and 5.5 - so as to stabilise the remains and ensure that they can be preserved for display.  This process is, necessarily, somewhat experimental but is estimated to require around 2 years.

Some of the Dornier parts in a hydration tunnel.
As was stressed by RAF Cosford's expert, the goal at present is not 'restoration', but 'conservation', and on seeing the remains in the flesh that seems eminently sensible as any attempted rebuild - one fears - would amount to little more than a replica.  Rather, it appears that the plan is essentially to replicate the exhibit of the Handley Page Halifax W1048, which was raised from a Norwegian fjord in the 1970s, and is displayed at RAF Hendon in 'as recovered' condition.

73 years in salt water? No problem
Aside from the two hydration tunnels, much of the Dornier's ancillary parts have already been cleaned up and are meticulously boxed and labelled.  Many news outlets reported the erroneous 'fact' that the plane's tyres were still inflated when the plane was raised (they were not), but there is nonetheless much evidence among the remains of the fabled German engineering efficiency.  An 8-ft aluminium spar was handed round and was astonishingly light.. Also the bearings on this recovered gear mechanism (above right) ran as true and smooth as on the day it left the factory.  Most surprisingly perhaps, when divers decided to cut the plane's oxygen 'ring main' - the piped oxygen supply than ran throughout the aircraft - they were astonished to discover that it was still 'live'.

One hindrance that surprised me is that the plane is not complete, despite what was claimed at the time of its salvage.  A few parts - wing tips etc - had already disintegrated.  But more worryingly, it seems that in the short time between its discovery and its raising, the wreck was subjected to fairly large-scale pilfering.  As a result, most of the cockpit is missing, including the seats, controls, instrumentation and guns.  Although there is still some smaller material scattered across the sea bed, it must be assumed that most of these headline artifacts have found their way into private collections.  Consequently, an amnesty is currently in place, in the hope that RAF Cosford can secure their recovery without resorting to more forceful methods.

Having contributed - like many others - to the raising of the Dornier, it was fascinating to see it and learn about the conservation efforts.  I wish the experts of RAF Cosford every success with it, and hope that at least some of the plane's missing artifacts might one day be reunited with the plane.  If you are reading this 'private collectors' - you know who you are - do the right thing, eh?


Monday, 7 October 2013

A glimpse into criminal history - The Kripo report on Paul Ogorzow's first victim.

On 4 October 1940, the man who would become known as the "S-Bahn Killer", Paul Ogorzow, claimed his first victim.  After a season of assaulting women around his home patch in the eastern suburbs of Berlin, with increasing frequency and violence, Ogorzow killed for the first time.  

What's peculiar about the case is that Ogorzow was not yet utilising the modus operandae that would become his trademark - that of battering his victims and throwing them from moving trains.  In this instance, his victim was found in her home, with a single stab wound to the neck.  

The following is a transcript of the original Berlin Kriminalpolizei report, relating the circumstances in which that first victim's body was found.  As well as the inherent tragedy of a young woman's life being taken, and her two children losing their mother, the report shows that the victim was already under investigation by the Nazi authorities for leading a "parasitic life" - and that the person who found her body was a representative of the welfare office, who was coming to take her children away.  Berlin could scarcely get more noir...
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Kripo report  
5 October 1940.


At round 13.45 on 4. October 1940, the Kripo was notified by the Schutzpolizei, that Frau Ditter – resident in the Gutland II Colony, Path 5a, house 33 – had not been seen since the afternoon of the day before.  The Kripo detective Hinze discovered the following at the scene.

The front door to the house was not locked …but the door to the kitchen was blocked, so it was thought that it was locked.  As the wimpering of a child could be heard from inside, it was decided to smash a window to gain access to the room where an 18 month old and a 3-month old were found.  From this room, access was gained to the kitchen, where the body of the resident – Gerda Ditter, née Bath, b. 21.7.1920 Berlin – was discovered slumped in a crouching position.  The doctor who was called – Dr Dolgner of Friedrichsfelde – certified death by a 3cm stab wound to the left carotid artery.

The representative of the NSV [Nazi welfare organisation - RM] who was present; Konrad Braun, b. 3.9.1902 Friedrichsfelde, arrived at around 12.30 as he was due to take Ditter’s children away and place them in an orphanage.  The reason being that, in spite of warnings from the NSV, Ditter was leading a parasitic life, so much so that the NSV had decided to remove the children and allow the mother to report for labour duty.  Braun found the house dark and unlocked.  He entered and when he found the body, he lit a match.  Thereafter he called the police straight away.


The woman’s husband is with the Wehrmacht in Potsdam.  The circumstances suggest that suicide is doubtful, and that a crime is likely.  Consequently the murder commission has taken over the case. 
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Ogorzow would go on to murder another 7 women over the following 9 months, until his capture in July 1941.  Admitting 8 counts of murder and over 30 counts of assault, he was sentenced to death and executed by guillotine.  Ogorzow was largely unknown until I (re)discovered his story in the Berlin archives in 2008. 

The full story of Ogorzow's crimes can be found in my book Berlin at War (US edition here) and in my e-book The Wolf's Lair.