Monday, 6 October 2014

Hitler biographies - Do we really need another one?

I spent some time over the weekend reading Volker Ullrich's new, German-language biography of Hitler. Released in 2013, it is due to appear in the UK next year, but I wanted to consult it on a few points for a forthcoming e-Book of mine (watch this space), so got hold of a copy.

A lot of people will question why we need a new biography of Hitler.  Aren't there enough already? They will ask.  Didn't Ian Kershaw's two volume offering of 15 years ago satisfy our collective fascination with that most odious dictator? Is there anything new that can be said about the man?

Well, yes and no.  As one might expect, my office shelves are rather loaded with 'Hitleriana', including all of the serious biographies.  Though there are countless books which touch on the subject in some way, or treat Hitler's life more or less tangentially - one is tempted here to recall Alan Coren's famous marketing ploy for his "Golfing for Cats" - in terms of straight biographies of Hitler, there are actually not that many available.   The most significant are Ian Kershaw's above mentioned, of course, but also those by Joachim Fest, John Toland, Alan Bullock and Konrad Heiden.

Now, one point springs to mind.  The fact that the three German volumes (Fest, Heiden and now Ullrich) were written by journalists and not historians says rather a lot, I think, about the impenetrable nature of most of the output of German historians.  If you thought British academics struggled to communicate to a wider public, spare a thought for their German counterparts, whose strictly 'scientific' approach and needlessly convoluted prose make them all but unreadable for the layman.

But, crucially, 6 major biographies over 70 years does not appear excessive.  Also, one has to bear in mind that new interpretations, archival revelations and new ideas have also informed those accounts.  The process of historical revision has been constantly at work.  So, on that basis, it is perhaps justified, even timely, that Ullrich's book should now appear.

However, I think there is something more profound at play here.  Reading Ullrich's book, it is immediately apparent that he is seeking to tell a human story as much as a political one - and that is something quite novel.  Kershaw's books, for all their brilliance, are unashamedly political biographies: they are primarily interested in Hitler as a political actor, rather than as a human being.  Hence, what we might call the 'human Hitler' is almost completely absent.  This omission is deliberate, and in line with Kershaw's belief that "Hitler the man" is less important than the structures that he put in place and the events that he inspired.

Whatever one thinks of that contention, the desire to overlook "Hitler the man" is perhaps understandable on a more visceral level.  As I have written elsewhere, I think we tend to play down Hitler's humanity as a self-defence mechanism; a way of distancing ourselves from him, and from his beliefs and actions.  Like the perennial nonsense about his supposed monorchidism, it is a way for us to set him apart - to say he is not one of us...

However, Ullrich's book marks the return of the "human Hitler" to the historical canon.  He is not afraid to foreground the human aspect of his subject, and indeed he does so very well; using eye-witness and memoir accounts to great effect.  This does not make it an extended gossip-fest; far from it.  The history presented is sound, and is amplified and enriched by the additional material.  It is worth mentioning as well that the German edition is beautifully written...

So, for that reason at least, Ullrich's is a significant book.  Is there anything really 'new' in there?  Probably not.  Is the new addition worth reading?  Most certainly.

Friday, 29 August 2014

NKVD massacre site discovered - one of many?

An interesting news story caught my eye yesterday.  A piece on the Telegraph website reported that Ukrainian and Polish archaeologists had discovered a mass grave in the grounds of a former castle at Volodymyr-Volynsky in Western Ukraine.  According to the investigators, the grave contained some 950 corpses, including both civilians and Polish military personnel.  Cartridge cases found at the site were said to have come from the Tokarev TT pistol, the wartime side-arm used by Red Army officers as well as the NKVD.  The victims, it is said, had been executed with a shot to the back of the head.

For students of Polish history, this story will seem like "so far, so familiar".  It will, of course, be very reminiscent of the Soviet Katyn massacres, where some 22,000 Polish army officers, policemen and others were killed in the spring of 1940 - with the only exception being that, on that occasion, NKVD killers used German Walther pistols rather than their own Tokarevs.

In fact, this is not even the first NKVD mass grave discovered in Volodymyr-Volynsky.  Others were discovered in 1997 and again in 2013, containing the corpses of some 700, mainly Polish policemen.

Given the wider political situation in Ukraine at the moment, it is likely that we will hear a lot more of such discoveries.  As I noted in my book "The Devils' Alliance" almost every town in the Kresy (Eastern Poland, occupied by the Soviets in 1939) saw murders and persecutions of the local population by the NKVD.  Many of them would have witnessed their own "Katyns", especially in the murderous phase immediately before the arrival of the Germans in June/July 1941, when the Soviets disposed of all those 'prisoners' that they did not want to leave alive.  At that time alone, it is thought that 3,500 were murdered by the NKVD in Lwow, 2,000 in Luck, 600 in Sambor, 890 in Czortkow, 574 in Tarnopol, 550 in Dubno... and so it goes on.

So, now that Ukraine finds itself at odds with the Kremlin, we can expect to hear of similar gruesome discoveries elsewhere in the country.  I suspect that such sites were probably never entirely forgotten and have lived on in folk memory; perhaps their locations are known precisely, perhaps only vaguely.  But with the seismic geo-political shift of recent months, the climate is now right for them to be "discovered", investigated and publicised. They certainly give Kiev a stick with which to beat Moscow in its current conflict, but we should see beyond the current squabble and recognise them for what they are: as historically important reminders of the horrors of Soviet rule.

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.