Monday, 27 April 2015

Antonio Gramsci - the most important political thinker that you've probably never heard of...

On this day in 1937, the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci died, at the tender age of 46.  The chances are that you haven't heard of him, but - as you will see - he is one of the most important thinkers of
the 20th Century.

Gramsci in 1914
Gramsci was born in modest circumstances on the island of Sardinia, the fourth of seven sons.  Something of a weakling, he suffered perennial ill health and as an adult measured less than 5ft, with a permanent deformation of his spine.

Despite his physical shortcomings, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin and, gravitating towards the political left, joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1913.

By the end of the First World War, Gramsci - like many of his generation - had undergone a political radicalization and emerged as one of the leaders of the nascent Italian Communist Party.  In the years that followed, he would travel to Moscow and be elected as a member of parliament, before being arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini's fascists in 1926. He spent most of the remaining decade of his life in a succession of fascist prisons in deteriorating health, before dying in 1937.

The story might have ended there, with Gramsci languishing in Italian obscurity.  However, he spent most of the decade of his imprisonment writing notebooks and so emerged post mortem as one of the most important thinkers in the development of Western European Marxism.

Many Marxist thinkers of the early 20th Century expended much of their energy in trying to make sense of Marxism's apparent failure.  Marx had famously stated that his revolution was inevitable, governed by "world historical forces" - but it didn't happen; capitalism proved remarkably resilient for a system that was so scientifically doomed.

Gramsci posited that one of the reasons for capitalism's continued survival was that the anti-socialist forces of the bourgeoisie enjoyed what he called a "cultural hegemony"; that is they controlled not only the levers of economic power, but they also effectively controlled the very way people thought, and how they viewed the world, by dominating the cultural-intellectual climate.  Because the vast majority of the population did not even perceive themselves to be manipulated, it was a system that he called "consensual coercion".

Gramsci's response to this "cultural hegemony" was to suggest that the working class should develop a rival 'culture' of its own; providing moral and intellectual leadership, so as to thereby aid and speed the "inevitable" political and economic victory of Marxism.  It was to be fought for not on the factory floor or the battlefield, but in the editorial offices and in the radio studios, in the school classrooms and the university lecture halls.

Gramsci's goal was to create a Marxist cultural hegemony which would provide a new intellectual climate, and would in turn shape and limit what people discussed and how.  It would not only become an essential element of the Western Marxist canon, it would provide the theoretical underpinning for the later idea - espoused by German Marxist Rudi Dutschke - of the "long march through the institutions"; the attempted leftist takeover of the educational and media establishments.  Ultimately, Gramsci's cultural Marxism would give rise to the sinister Orwellian concept of the "thought crime".

Of course, Gramsci would not live to see his "cultural hegemony" realised.  Capitalism won the economic argument hands down in the 20th Century, but in the process left the cultural sphere undefended, to the ultimate benefit of Gramsci's acolytes.  Today - with Britain once again in the ferment of a General Election, and with domestic politics perhaps more polarised than ever before - some of us might wonder just how 'dead' Gramsci's ideas really are...

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

On Hitler's Teeth - or, the Death of a Dictator.

Alongside his many other faults, Adolf Hitler had very bad teeth - catastrophically bad teeth.  It is not clear precisely why - bad genes, bad diet or poor personal hygiene - but some among his entourage would later claim that his halitosis was sometimes so bad that they involuntarily took a step back when talking to him.  By the last year of the war, his teeth had deteriorated to such a state that only 5 of his 32 adult teeth were his own.  This X-Ray of Hitler's skull, taken in the autumn of 1944 in the aftermath of the 20th July Bomb Plot, shows the scale of the problem.  The dark patches where his teeth should be are crowns, with only the five front teeth of Hitler's bottom jaw showing as his own.

An apple a day...

Given that Hitler had the teeth of a Berlin hobo, therefore, he required some elaborate dentistry to conceal the dark truth.  Consequently, his dentist Hugo Blaschke constructed a network of gold crowns and bridges with porcelain veneers inside the Führer's mouth.  Now, to any German of that generation, working in close proximity to their leader would have been a memorable experience, but for Blaschke and his assistants - Käthe Heusermann and Fritz Echtmann - it was also the complex dentistry that stuck in their minds, not least the famed "telephone bridge" that spanned a crown in Hitler's lower jaw. 

Such recollections were to come in useful.  Though Blaschke escaped to the south and was eventually captured by the Americans, and the dental records were destroyed in the Börnersdorf plane crash (which also ultimately spawned the "Hitler Diaries" fiasco), the two assistants - Heusermann and Echtmann remained in Berlin and were duly arrested by the Soviets.  Under interrogation, they were asked to describe Hitler's elaborate dentistry from memory - Heusermann had been Blaschke's dental assistant, and Echtmann had crafted the bridges.  They did so; they also produced sketches - Heusermann's sketch (complete with Russian annotation) is here..

Then, on 9 May 1945, Heusermann and Echtmann were shown pieces of jaw that the Soviets had retrieved from one of the 14 or so charred corpses that had been discovered in the Reich Chancellery garden the week before.  Both immediately affirmed that the teeth and bone that they were handling were indeed those of Adolf Hitler.  The dentistry on show also conformed precisely to what the two had described and sketched prior to being shown the remains.  The teeth were Hitler's. 

Thereafter - according to Heusermann, who was flown back to Moscow for 10 years of further questioning - the teeth were carried around in a cigar box and were opened referred to by their NKVD handlers as "Hitler". 
These, incidentally, are the same jaw fragments that are still kept in the Moscow Special Archive. Clearly, it seems, the Soviets were convinced that the teeth in their possession were those of Hitler and - logically - that Hitler was therefore dead. Indeed, in mid-May, Soviet intelligence officers confirmed to their Western counterparts that Hitler had "been poisoned" and Zhukov admitted to Khrushchev that they had found Hitler's "charred carcass".

Hitler's teeth, with the 'telephone bridge' (right)

Sadly, however, within a few days Soviet leaders had opted to deny the obvious and chose instead to sow confusion over Hitler's death, insinuating that the German dictator had somehow survived and had escaped to the Western zones of occupation - thereby giving themselves an excellent stick with which to beat the West in the opening exchanges of the Cold War.  It is the subsequent campaign of disinformation and obfuscation that led to the outlandish tales of Hitler's survival - in the jungles of Patagonia, in fascist Spain, or in the secret Nazi base on the moon - that occasionally resurface to this day.  

Of course, it should be clear from this brief essay that if Hitler did in fact escape Berlin, we have to assume that he did so missing both his upper and lower jaw.  That 'escaped Hitler' would not only have to have been a master of disguise and have had the escapology skills of a Houdini - he would have been a medical miracle...

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A Danish adventure

I spent last weekend in Copenhagen, launching the Danish edition of my last book "The Devils' Alliance".  Beautifully presented by the Kristeligt Dagblads Forlag, "En djaevelsk alliance" is a handsome looking volume and is the first foreign-language edition of this book to be published.  So, as you can imagine, it was a great pleasure to formally launch the book at the inaugural "Historiske Dage" history festival in the Danish capital.

What was more exciting, however, was that the Danes evidently "got" the book.  They grasped what I was trying to do, without any bafflement, confected outrage or ridiculous suggestions that I was in some way "whitewashing Nazism". In review after review, they just seemed to "get it".  This was especially satisfying.  One reviewer even went so far as to suggest that perhaps it was time to regard Communism as having been just as great a threat to Denmark during World War Two as Nazism had been.  There were criticisms, of course, and valid ones, but in Copenhagen at least the unthinking binary formulation of "Stalin good/Hitler bad", that still seems to prevail in sections of the British media and academia, seems to have been consigned - praise the Lord - to the rubbish heap of history.

There are a couple of reasons for this enlightened attitude.  Firstly, Denmark has a natural connection to the Baltic States, not only though a shared status as a small state in northern Europe historically at the mercy of its larger neighbours, but also because Denmark was often used during the Cold War as an intermediary for American policy towards to the Baltics.  As a result, the historic sufferings of the Baltic peoples, far from being a largely unwritten chapter (as in the UK), are rather better understood in Denmark. Indeed, I met a couple of Sybiraks - survivors of the Soviet deportations, who grew up in Siberian exile - during my short stay there.

In addition, as I learned from the review of my book in the Berlingske Tidende, the issue of misplaced 'progressive' tolerance for the USSR and for Stalinism has already, to some extent, been worked through in Danish public life. Around the turn of the millennium, a Danish Encyclopedia appeared (in those old-fashioned days when such a thing would still be printed) whose academic editors, it seemed, went rather too easy on Communism.  In response, a philosopher pointed these oversights out, concluding that there was still a reluctance to acknowledge that Nazism and Communism had had much in common.

The result, then, had been a blazing row - something akin to the German "Historikerstreit" of the 1980s - in which learned commentators slugged out their ideas in the broadsheets and the news programmes - finally arriving at a more mature assessment of what those two great totalitarian systems of the 20th Century had signified.  That is why, it seems, Denmark "gets it".  The idea of Communism as 'progressive' and Stalin as the avuncular "Uncle Joe" might still hold sway in the remaining squats and foggy communes of Christiania, but they no longer go unchallenged in public life.

Which is all good.  Good news for the book, and a great pleasure to be preaching to the converted. Floreat Dania...
 En djævelsk allianceEn djævelsk allianceEn djævelsk alliance by the Kristeligt Dagblad

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The republication of "Mein Kampf" - a storm in a camomile teacup...

So, it was finally announced today that a new edition of Adolf Hitler's autobiography/manifesto "Mein Kampf" will be published early in 2016.  Cue much gnashing of liberal teeth and wringing of progressive hands.

Though some lunatics and professional fibbers will tell you otherwise, we are now 70 years after the date of Hitler's death - 30 April 1945 - and so the copyright on his most famous book expires at the end of 2015, hence the book can be published (theoretically) by anyone.  So, the German Institute fur Zeitgeschichte in Munich is first off the blocks by announcing that it will be offering an annotated edition of the book - taking the original 700 pages up to a whopping 2,000 - thereby making sure that no incautious or inattentive reader can possible take any positive message from Hitler's words.

If we are honest, there is little chance of that.  Not only has Hitler's toxic ideology comprehensively disgraced itself, its disgrace is paraded and showcased, analysed and reanalysed, hashed and rehashed in thousands of history books, novels and TV documentaries.  One would have to have been living under a rock to have missed the message... and we really should not make public policy to cater for the tiny minority amongst us who choose to live under rocks.

Aside from the political, it is reassuring to report that Hitler's prose is practically unreadable.  So keen was he to impress his followers when he wrote the book in prison in 1924, that he crammed everything he thought he knew into it - never a good idea for a first-time author - and consequently it it one of the most awfully badly written books in history.  Even the English translation - despite the best mediating efforts of the translator - is turgid; reading it is like wading through fascist molasses.

That English edition - which I have on my shelf - actually raises an interesting point. Many out there are worried that this republication will be hugely significant, exposing a new, innocent generation to the poisoned words of a racist madman.  Well, no.  The book's publication has been controlled by the Bavarian State (to whom the rights fell on Hitler's death in 1945) and they have strictly limited publication ever since.  But the English edition - through some quirk of the publishing history - is under a different copyright and has been freely available all the way through; you can easily find it on the internet, and even get it on your kindle for a bit of light holiday reading.

So, the lapse of the book's copyright and the prospect of its non-English language republication is - I suggest - a bit of a storm in a camomile teacup... I think it says much more about Germany's continued obsession with Hitler, and the curious assumption that his horrid, outdated ideas are still 'infectious', than it does about the book itself.

Let them publish, let Hitler be read (if you can), and let him be damned all over again.

(And - by the way - if you want to read about Hitler's time in prison during which he wrote "Mein Kampf" - here is my new eBook "His Struggle" which will explain everything...)

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Wannsee Conference - Some thoughts on a dark anniversary

Seventy-three years ago today, on 20th January 1942, fifteen Nazi officials met in an elegant villa at Wannsee outside Berlin to discuss genocide.  It was not a disagreeable meeting, only around 90 minutes or so followed by a buffet lunch, but it has gone down in history as one of the lowest points to which humanity has stooped. 
The Wannsee Villa - a beautiful location for a hideous act
The convenor of the conference was Reinhard Heydrich, the archetypal Nazi ‘superman’, Himmler’s deputy in the SS and the head of the Reich Security Main Office.  Assisted by Adolf Eichmann, the desk-bound perpetrator whose trial in 1961 would spawn Hannah Arendt’s memorable phrase about “the banality of evil”, Heydrich had assembled a dozen or so other representatives of the main ministries and organisations of the Third Reich, including the SS, Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry and Gestapo.  Most of those present were comparative unknowns: they were not generally the ministers themselves, but their lieutenants; senior civil servants, the mandarins of the Nazi state.  This was no Nazi rabble, therefore.  Eight of those present had a Doctorate, most of them in law. 

In the public mind, the Wannsee Conference is often perceived as the ’smoking gun’ in Nazi Holocaust planning: a rare moment when senior Nazis openly discussed their plans for the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”, thereby providing the organisational and logistical basis upon which the Holocaust was constructed.  Yet, such an interpretation is too simplistic.  On its seventy-third anniversary, it is fitting to examine what the Wannsee Conference was, what it wasn’t, and why it is still important.    

There are a number of aspects that argue against the Wannsee Conference being interpreted simply as the ‘kick-off’ meeting for the Holocaust.  For one thing, the Holocaust was already underway by the time the conference was convened early in 1942.  The invasion of the Soviet Union the previous summer had seen a systematic targeting of Jewish civilians, whilst the deportation and execution of Reich Jews had begun already in the autumn of 1941.  Also, it is hard to see Wannsee serving any logistical purpose in planning the Holocaust when no representative of German Railways – the organisation most intimately involved with the logistics of the genocide – was present in the room.

Moreover, if it was as important to the Holocaust as is often assumed, it seems strange that Wannsee was accorded only a 90 minute meeting, with a handful of civil servants, and produced a written protocol – drawn up subsequently by Eichmann and sent to all participants – of only 15 pages.  That protocol is also perplexingly vague for a document of such supposed importance.  Of course, its wording was ‘sanitised’ at Heydrich’s insistence, but it is still notable that, though it addresses the issues of deportation and of mixed-race Jews, it makes no mention of the gas chambers then being developed, or any of the death camps that would come into operation later that year.  Instead, it makes only a single oblique reference to “preparatory activities” and refers to Jews dying off from “natural diminution”, through being used as forced labour, with the remnant being “treated accordingly”.   Whatever it did, then, Wannsee was clearly not intended to provide the blueprint for the Holocaust.

So, what was the Wannsee Conference for?  The constellation of those present – with all organisations and ministries represented – gives a clue as to its primary purpose.  The conference was mainly concerned with pushing through a key policy against the background of endemic administrative infighting within the Third Reich, where rival agencies often competed in a quasi-Darwinian struggle to gain favour and status.  Before his audience at Wannsee, therefore, Heydrich was careful to set out his bona fides as the prime mover in the development of Nazi policy towards the Jews, and cowed his potential rivals into acquiescing to his overlordship on the matter. 

In addition, he was anxious to bind those present – and by extension their departments and organisations – into the new arrangement, to establish common complicity and prevent later backsliding.  In his invitation to the conference, Heydrich had given the purpose of the meeting as that of establishing “a common position among the central authorities” with regard to the final solution of the Jewish question.  That ‘position’, as Heydrich saw it, was that they would be working together, but that he was in charge.  He was attempting, as Eichmann would later suggest at his trial, to “nail down” the mandarins. 

Contrary to the assumptions of many, therefore, the Wannsee Conference did not mark the point at which the policy of genocide was arrived at – that, it seems, had occurred some weeks earlier.  Neither was it intended to inform those present of a newly-decided policy – few in the room would have been surprised by what Heydrich had to say.  Rather, it appears that Wannsee was as much about administrative squabbling within the Third Reich as it was actually about the Holocaust.  It represented Heydrich seeking to exercise his control over a vitally important policy area and ensuring that none of those present could later claim that they had understood things differently. 

Why, then, is Wannsee still important?  For one thing, it was symptomatic of the pervasive culture of administrative conflict within the Third Reich.  The conference did not decisively cut the Gordian Knot of inter-agency wrangling, as Eichmann would later testify in Jerusalem, but it certainly established one of the most radical and most dynamic players – until his assassination at least – at the head of events.  In that respect, alone, it was to be of profound significance.

Most importantly, however, the Wannsee Protocol is the closest the Nazis came to setting down their intentions for the Holocaust in writing, and those intentions were nothing if not ambitious.  Of the 11 million Jews in Europe in 1942, half were in countries beyond German control, yet they were included in Heydrich’s reckoning nonetheless.  Moreover, though it was itself only a snapshot in the evolving policy of the Third Reich towards European Jewry, Wannsee nonetheless reflected something of a step-change, from the rather haphazard, ad-hoc, deportations and massacres of late 1941, to the clear programme of extermination that would follow.  As such, though our precise understanding of its significance might shift, the Wannsee Conference fully deserves its place among the very darkest chapters of human history. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Sleepwalking... and the Nightmare that was Kaiser Wilhelm

I have long harboured doubts about the so-called "Sleepwalkers" thesis - the idea that the world slithered into war in 1914 due to some sort of collective misunderstanding and lapse of concentration - finding it all rather too neat.

Of course, history books often chime subconsciously or not with the times in which they are written, but I suspect that Christopher Clark's book is a rather egregious example of this - telling us as much about the world in 2014 as about 1914. To me, its message of, effectively, "no-one was to blame, we were all at fault", with a side-order of "Behold the perils of national sovereignty!" seems to coincide rather too well with the modern mores - and political imperatives - of the European Union.  The only surprise, perhaps, is that the book has been so well-received in Germany, which has otherwise made something of a fetish of the guilt of its forefathers.

So, it was with some relish that I picked up John Röhl's new biography of Kaiser Wilhelm (the abridged edition, natch, not the 3-volume behemoth).  Röhl - born in the UK to a German father - is a highly-respected academic historian, who has made a career out of damning Kaiser Wilhelm - highlighting his deficient character, his anachronistic political beliefs and the catastrophic results of his 'personal rule'.

It was indeed a toxic mix.  Röhl's Kaiser Wilhelm is an emotionally-stunted buffoon, an arrogant braggart, an almost schizophrenic Anglophobe, desperate for acclamation and viciously vindictive if he didn't get it.  He was a man-out-of-time, a monarch whose authoritarian conviction of his own divine right to rule belonged more to the eighteenth century than the twentieth.

Most crucially, these negative traits would be hideously and catastrophically brought to bear.  Coming to the German throne in 1888, Wilhelm would not allow himself to be a mere figurehead - like his British cousins - he insisted on ruling personally. Successive German Chancellors would merely be his creatures; fawning and obsequious, more medieval courtiers than modern politicians.

The book is richly noted with original sources and full of quotes from Wilhelm and others, so there is no shortage of evidence for Röhl's thesis.  Indeed, never was a man more roundly damned by his own words, it would appear, than Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Of course, any historian has to be alive to the distant sound of an axe being ground, and - as we know - Röhl has spent many a long year seeking to prove Wilhelm's political and personal shortcomings.  What he presents is certainly convincing.  Wilhelm was a catastrophe - surely one of the most disturbed and dysfunctional individuals ever to accede to a modern throne.  The vital point, of course, is whether those shortcomings were permitted to have political and strategic expression - and on this point, too, I find Röhl convincing.

It may be, of course, that Röhl overstates his case; overeggs his pudding.  But, crucially, if even a fraction of the evidence that he presents is as pertinent as he claims it is, then surely the 'Sleepwalkers' thesis - however cosy and comforting for us in 2014 - is a dead duck?  Other European states and statesmen might have been sleepwalking into disaster in 1914 - misreading each other's intentions and sending mixed messages - but Wilhelm was in a perverse wet dream all of his own: actively desiring his 'glorious' war to establish German hegemony and pushing his feckless Allies to bring it about.

As Röhl himself puts it: the idea that the world "slithered into the First World War...can be sustained only by the deliberate omission or marginalisation of much well-known cast-iron evidence to the contrary".  It might not be fashionable, but this brilliant and convincing demolition of Kaiser Wilhelm at least has the whiff of veracity about it.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The forgotten battlefield at Leuthen...

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Leuthen.  Heard of it?  Maybe you have..  If you have attended a Military Staff College, the chances are you will have heard of it, as it is a tactically very significant battle, but you probably don't know where it is.  Allow me to elaborate...

The Battle of Leuthen was in 1757 - during the Seven Years War - and it saw King Frederick the Great of Prussia rout a much superior Austrian force, thereby driving the Austrians from the province of Silesia and securing it for Prussia.

The battle is significant in a number of ways.  For one thing, Silesia is a highly fertile province - in contrast to Prussia's sandy Brandenburg heartland - possession of which certainly aided Prussia. Securing Silesia - as Frederick did at Leuthen - was an essential step in Prussia's rise to political prominence.

The Prussians advance at Leuthen
Secondly, the battle is highly significant tactically.  Leuthen is one of the best examples in history of the successful use of the 'oblique order' - attacking an enemy's flank to deny the advantage of superior numbers.  At Leuthen, Frederick used the lie of the land to hide his advance and so was able to engage an Austrian force over twice as large as his own, flank-first, thereby nullifying the Austrian numerical advantage.  In less than three hours the battle was decided, with around 5,000 dead (mostly Austrian) and the Austrian commander, Charles of Lorraine, could not believe that his men had succumbed.  This is why Leuthen - and the tactics employed there - is still taught at Staff Colleges and Military Academies across the world.

According to legend, it was after the battle of Leuthen that Frederick's troops spontaneously started signing the hymn "Nun danket alle Gott" - 'Now Thank We All Our God' - and, it was said, the tune was taken up by the entire Prussian army, some 25,000 men.  For that time on, the hymn has been known as the Leuthen Chorale.

Lastly, Leuthen is significant simply because it was one of the most famous victories of one of the most successful military tacticians in history - Frederick the Great.  We all like to think of Napoleon as the supreme military thinker of the modern age, but it is worth remembering that when the diminutive Corsican visited Frederick's tomb (he died in 1786) in Potsdam, he is reported to have said to his aides - "Gentlemen, if this man were still alive, I would not be here."

'Look upon my works ye mighty, and despair'
Today - the battlefield at Leuthen is a rather forlorn place.  Those generations of military men who know of Frederician tactics and the oblique order might recognise the name, but they probably couldn't find it on a map.  It is now in Poland - Leuthen is now Lutynia - about 10km west of the beautiful city of Wroclaw (the former Breslau).  The memorial that was erected in the mid 19th century - a 20-metre victory column made from grey granite, topped with an angel - was dynamited after World War Two, when the province of Silesia fell to Poland and national antagonisms were still (understandably) running high.  The remains of that monument are still there - a graffiti-covered granite pediment, standing alone in a farmer's field; the message of the German inscription long since forgotten.

Given the significance of Leuthen - would it not be appropriate to erect a new memorial at the site?  I appreciate, of course, that the Prussian/German history of Silesia can still be a controversial subject for its modern Polish inhabitants - but it is now 2014, the Cold War has long ended and Poland is a fellow member of the European Union.  Surely it is now time to put these old hatreds out of their misery and embrace the common history that sites such as this represent.

On this matter, indeed, it should be added that the city of Wroclaw has been in the vanguard of seeking to constructively confront these issues, actively working on reconciliation and a localised Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung... The best example of this admirable approach has been the old Hala Stulecia in Wroclaw - once the German Jahrhunderthalle - which, though it embodied a far more sensitive history than Leuthen, was nonetheless lovingly restored recently in a multi-million pound project.  If the Hala Stulecia can be embraced by modern Wroclawians - why not Leuthen...?

Time will tell, of course, but it is nice to imagine that a new memorial, and an information board, might adorn this site in years to come.  Perhaps it could even be in place by the time of the 260th anniversary of the battle in 2017?  Here's hoping.