Monday, 26 October 2015

"Nothing is True and Everything is Possible" by Peter Pomerantsev - a review

There is a discomforting moment in Peter Pomeratsev's brilliant book "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible" when it dawns on the reader that this really isn't funny any more.

The book - subtitled "Adventures in Modern Russia" - is a journalistic survey of a dysfunctional, corrupt kleptocracy.  Through his work as a TV journalist, Pomerantsev has collected numerous vignettes - many of them bizarre and darkly comic - which colour the picture that he paints of Putin's Russia.  Of course, it is by definition a pointillist picture, where a single anecdote is mobilised to tell a wider narrative, but it is no less convincing - or terrifying - for that.

Pomerantsev opens with the seemingly ubiquitous Russian "gold-diggers", ordinary girls from the provinces who hunt down eligible (for "eligible", read "rich") men in the night-clubs of the capital, looking for a sugar daddy, perhaps even a role as a trophy wife.  They are devious and determined.  Honing their performance as required, from quoting Pushkin and pontificating about modern art, to tottering on the highest of heels. There are even, he tells us, a network of schools and advisers training the girls in the best way to attract (and supposedly keep) what they call a "Forbes", named after the American business magazine which regularly lists the world's richest men. It is all a very long way from "Romeo and Juliet".

From such almost comical beginnings, Pomerantsev moves into progressively darker territory.  For instance, he tells the story of Ruslana Korshunova, a highly-successful Russian supermodel, who committed suicide aged only 20 when she threw herself from the balcony of her 9th floor Manhattan apartment. After dismissing the usual peril of drugs, Pomeratsev suggests that the cause of her death as her involvement with a curious Russian cult - "The Rose of the World" - which dehumanized its members through emotional disorientation and humiliation.  One of Ruslana's last posts on social media said "I am so lost. Will I ever find myself?"

Or consider the dark tale of Yana Yakovleva, the co-owner of a chemical firm who - after resisting official extortion attempts - was arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to prison on remand, where she spent 7 months.  It is a fascinating, terrifying chapter; with echoes of Kafka and of Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" - the prisoner seemingly impotent and cast into a parallel universe where black is white and nothing is as it seems.

Yet, if the reader was consoling themselves that such horror stories of abject national malaise were confined to Putin's Russia, the last chapter of the book shows that the contagion is spreading.  Through the sorry stories of Boris Berezovsky, Bill Browder and Sergei Magnitsky, Pomerantsev shows how Russian corruption is spilling beyond national boundaries.

We like to kid ourselves, Pomerantsev tells the reader, that the reason that Russia's oligarchs like to congregate in London, or Paris or New York is that they fundamentally aspire to be like us - that we might adopt a civilizing, democratizing role - that we might somehow play the Greeks to their Romans...  This, however, is wishful thinking, says Pomerantsev: It is not we who are influencing them - from the politicians turning a blind eye to money-laundering, to estate agents unconcerned by high-rolling Russian buyers - it is they who are influencing us, and not for the better.

This is a brave, terrifying, depressing book, which deserves to be read.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Volkswagen - founded by the Nazis - felled by eco-fibbing

The emissions scandal that has engulfed Volkswagen this week is a reminder of the precariousness of even the most apparently established brands in the modern marketplace.  Just as a misjudged aside at a conference sank Gerald Ratner’s jewellery business in 1991, so it seems some eco-fibbing might just torpedo the second largest car manufacturer on the planet.

All of which is rather surprising, when one considers Volkswagen’s thoroughly toxic early history.  Given the almost reflexive opprobrium that is (rightly) directed at companies tainted by association with the Third Reich, is it not astonishing that a company established by the Nazis to build a car that was in integral part of Hitler’s social project – should have survived at all?

Hitler examining a model Volkswagen
Volkswagen was set up in 1937, at Hitler’s command, by the Nazi DAF; the ‘German Workers’ Front’, itself a nazified substitute for the smashed trades unions.  Given that cars were very much luxury items in Europe in the 1930s, Volkswagen’s brief was to design and build a “People’s Car” – that’s what the name means in German – a budget model, which would be priced to be affordable for the average household. and could carry a family of four at 100kmh.  Hitler himself was said to have even made some preliminary sketches. 

It was no pipe-dream.  A purpose-built factory was established in 1938 at Wolfsburg, near Fallersleben, with a projected capacity of 1.5 million cars per year, which came complete with a nearby ‘new town’ to accommodate the necessary workers.  Moreover, the renowned car designer Ferdinand Porsche was brought in to hand-pick the car’s design team.  Wind-tunnels were employed to utilize the very latest ideas in aerodynamics. 

The car that they were to produce was to be officially known as the “KdF-Wagen” – named after the Nazi freetime organisation; Kraft durch Freude, or ‘Strength through Joy’.  It was to be marketed for 990 Reichsmarks; a fraction of the price of other marques then available, and could be paid off by weekly subscription; 5 Reichsmarks per week.  Over ⅓ of a million Germans signed up.  The era of mass popular motoring, it seemed, had dawned.

Of course, the Nazis did not go to all this trouble and expense out of altruism.  To some extent, the KdF-Wagen – like its eponymous, parent organisation – was a propaganda exercise; an attempt to convince ordinary Germans that they were part of a bright, new, consumerist world, ushered in by their Nazi masters.  But it was more than just propaganda eyewash.  By appealing to the ordinary German people – the “Volk” – the KdF embodied the ‘socialist’ element of the Nazis’ ‘National Socialism’; convincing the ordinary worker – who once might have voted socialist – to shift his loyalty to Hitler.  In this way, Volkswagen became an essential component in the Nazis’ seduction of the German people.

Hitler being presented with a prototype "KdF-Wagen"
Of course – like the Third Reich – it did not end well.  Hitler was presented with a prototype “KdF-Wagen” for his birthday in 1939, and 50-odd further completed vehicles were gifted to foreign potentates and Nazi bigwigs.  But none of the 300,000-odd ordinary Germans, who had dutifully paid their dues and collected their stamps, ever owned the car. 

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Wolfsburg factory shifted production to German military jeeps, consuming in the process many thousands of slave labourers sourced from the local concentration camp. 

The world would have to wait until 1946 to see the first “KdF Wagen” – or as we know it today – the Volkswagen Beetle.

On one level, I suppose, Volkswagen did remarkably well to shed its Nazi past and become one of the world’s most famous and most successful car manufacturers. 

But – given its intimate links to the Third Reich, its use of concentration camp labour, and its central importance to the toxic Nazi ‘dream’ – I personally find it astonishing that the company lasted long enough to be brought low in 2015 by something as banal as an emissions scandal.  Given its hideous early history, it should have been killed off long ago.  

© Roger Moorhouse 2015

Friday, 4 September 2015

"Portrait of a Soldier" - a quite remarkable film.

I had the privilege this week to see a preview of "Portrait of a Soldier", a new documentary by the film-maker Marianna Bukowski about the Warsaw Rising of 1944, in which Polish forces attacked the retreating Germans in a brave, doomed attempt to seize control of their capital.

The film tells the story - through extended interviews, cut with original film footage - of a young female soldier; Wanda Traczyk-Stawska.  Now a sprightly octogenarian, Wanda was 12 when war broke out. Witnessing the horrors of the German occupation of Warsaw, she swiftly developed a desire to fight back, which would be realised when the Rising was launched at 5pm on 1 August 1944.

As Wanda explains, the Rising was supposed to last no more than a few days, wresting the city from German control, before the Soviets arrive to "liberate" it from the east.  However, the Germans responded with unprecedented brutality, while the Red Army waited on the far shore of the river Vistula for Hitler's SS troops to do their nefarious work.  In the event, the Rising lasted an astonishing 63 days.

Wanda began as a messenger, but soon graduated to a fully-fledged fighter.  "I looked like a boy", she said, "I fought like a boy".  She fought throughout the Rising, being awarded the Cross of Valour, and seeing many of her comrades die, before surrendering and heading into German captivity.

Her recollections, delivered with wit and humour, are tremendously affecting. She talks of the remarkable Olympian and photographer Eugeniusz Lokajski, for instance, who was killed that September: "I knew the very best of him", she says.  Her story of the unidentified fighter, eviscerated by German sniper fire, who died in her arms: "the most beautiful boy I had ever seen", will not leave a dry eye in the house.

Warsaw rose in anticipation of Allied aid but little materialized. Over 63 days, the Polish capital was ravaged and systematically destroyed by the Germans, who murdered their way through the suburbs in a horrific attempt to sap their enemy's will to resist by wholesale murder.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Wanda reserves her highest praise for the city's civilians, who endured unspeakable horrors and fully ten times the death toll (some 200,000) of the Polish military forces, yet did so with honour and steadfastness.  Only with their support, she says, was the Rising possible.

"Portrait of a Solider" is a thoroughly remarkable film. Combining sumptuous production values, searing original footage and the poignancy of Wanda's own recollections, it provides a new and illuminating viewpoint of one of the bravest and most brutal military campaigns of World War Two.

I urge you to see it.

"Portrait of a Soldier" is released on 8 September via Journeyman Pictures also via ITunes and Amazon Instant Video.

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...)