Monday, 23 June 2008

"Dunkirk - Fight to the Last Man"

“Dunkirk – Fight to the Last Man”
by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

Sometimes the British defy all rational explanation. A humiliating rout and ignominious evacuation from the beaches, Dunkirk ranks as one of most grievous losses ever suffered by British forces – and yet it is celebrated as a moral victory. Dunkirk meant not only the loss of 11,000 dead and a further 41,000 soldiers taken prisoner, but also spelt the expulsion of the British Army from mainland Europe for three long years. But, for all that, Dunkirk has entered the public consciousness and has become a byword for a peculiarly British trait - the dogged refusal to surrender and the will to triumph in the face of adversity.

For most, Dunkirk is all about the 800 “little ships” – the makeshift flotilla from the Channel ports that lifted around 330,000 British soldiers from the beaches of northern France. Yet, as Sebag-Montefiore demonstrates, this conventional understanding actually ignores a vital aspect of the operation – and one which is actually much more appropriate to the true meaning of the famed “Dunkirk Spirit”.

“Dunkirk – Fight to the Last Man” takes as its main focus, not the brilliantly improvised evacuation from the beaches, but rather the heroic rearguard action fought by units holding the perimeter of the Dunkirk pocket; units which in many cases were sacrificed to allow their colleagues to escape. It was an action that would result in no fewer than 8 awards of the Victoria Cross.

The book also casts its net wider and incorporates other interesting angles, such as the acrimonious deterioration of the Anglo-French Alliance and much of the background to the French campaign itself. Included in the latter category are two curious tales that are well worthy of an airing. Firstly, Sebag-Montefiore explores the contact between Hans Oster of the German Abwehr and the Dutch Military Attaché in Berlin through which vital intelligence about the forthcoming French campaign was passed to the Allies. Secondly, he relates the little-known Mechelen Incident, whereby German invasion plans fell into Allied hands in January 1940 after a German pilot crash landed in Belgium having lost his way in fog. In retrospect, armed with this wealth of information, it is hard to see how the Allies could have been caught cold when the Germans finally attacked on 10 May.

Sebag-Montefiore is at his best with ‘set pieces’ such as the massacres at Wormhout, Vinkt and Le Paradis, or his description of the capture of Eban Emael or the Mechelen Incident. He writes crisply and the series of small-scale actions are related with considerable verve, but he appears to shy away from offering a wider context or thoroughgoing analysis of the events that he is describing. For example, he gives only a cursory explanation of one of the key mysteries of the campaign – Hitler’s decision to halt at Dunkirk, rather than press his advantage. Stranger still, he even avoids offering a concluding chapter in which wider issues such as the creation and significance of the “Dunkirk Myth” might have been discussed.

“Dunkirk” is a fine book. It is immaculately researched, well written, and has much in the way of pathos and human interest, but it is hard not to conclude that the definitive volume on this subject still awaits its author.

© Roger Moorhouse

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

“The Berlin Wall" by Frederick Taylor

Another review from the archive - this time ...

“The Berlin Wall: 13 August 1961 – 9 November 1989”
by Frederick Taylor

The Berlin Wall defined an era. The symbol par excellence of the Cold War, it was 93 miles long and 13 feet high; its western side was a colourful blaze of graffiti and scrawled slogans, its eastern side a deadly network of barbed-wire, searchlights, watch-towers and attack dogs. This grim concrete edifice scarred the former German capital for a generation, separating the erstwhile occupation zones of east and west, but also dividing communities, families and loved ones.

Given its centrality to German, as well as world history in the mid-20th century, the Berlin Wall is ripe for a biography of its own, and Taylor’s book fills that role well. Taylor is sure-footed on the historical framework and capably illustrates the futility and the tragedy of the episode. His pen portraits of the main protagonists; politicians, escapees and student activists, are engaging and his explanation of the wider political machinations surrounding the wall is sound.

Taylor is at his best describing the many escape attempts. One of the first ‘martyrs’, for example, was Peter Fechter, shot and left to bleed to death in the shadow of the Wall in 1962. The last was Chris Gueffroy, shot in the chest whilst attempting to escape the GDR, only 10 months before the GDR itself met its end. Taylor also tells the moving story of Conrad Schumann, the young East German border guard famously photographed leaping over the barbed-wire in the first days of the Wall’s existence. After settling down to an unremarkable life in the west, Schumann committed suicide in 1998, apparently unable to cope with his reputation as an ‘iconic traitor’.

Taylor relates these stories well, but there is something slightly dissatisfying about his book. The accomplished style of his previous effort, Dresden, seems to have morphed into a curious staccato delivery, with an admixture of occasional folksy lapses. There is also a lack of engagement; Berlin’s ‘soul’ is absent.

More seriously, the book doesn’t appear to know quite what it is supposed to be. It contains too many digressions and too much extraneous material. Its first mention of its subject, for instance, comes only after a 130-page jaunt through German history. This may be because the book is seeking to broaden its appeal and somehow pose as a primer to the history of the GDR or the Cold War. Sadly, it is neither, and the result is simply that it becomes overlong and tends to lose its narrative head of steam.

This is a worthy contribution from a capable writer. But – given the iconic status of the Berlin Wall, and its resonance for a generation – it is hard to conclude that it represents the last word on its fascinating subject.

© Roger Moorhouse 2007

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

AK47 - The Story of the People's Gun

AK47 - The Story of the People's Gun, by Michael Hodges.

I was inspired to buy this after firing the iconic weapon on a visit to Budapest. Unlike the book, the gun did not disappoint.

Michael Hodges is evidently a talented writer, but the concept of this book has obviously flummoxed him. It is a difficult concept, admittedly. The AK47 is an icon, a powerful political symbol and, of course, a weapon. But the task of combining these aspects into a readable and illuminating narrative has eluded Hodges. What he has produced is merely a mish-mash of stories with the gun as their (loose) theme, with little broader context and no overarching 'thread' at all.
There is a book to be written about this most iconic of weapons, but sadly this is not it.

Monday, 2 June 2008


"well, well, well, here we are"

Welcome to my blog - 'historian at large'

I decided to set this up on a whim, and in a fit of vanity...

I hope to use it to air my views and vent my spleen on issues and events related to history, especially those in my area of specialism - World War Two in Europe, Nazi Germany and Central Europe.

I also aim to post a few of my old book reviews on here, to stimulate and inform (with luck)

About me -

I am 39 and a professional freelance historian, living in the UK. I was the co-author of "Microcosm" - the history of the Polish city of Wroclaw (the former German "Breslau")

... and am the author of "Killing Hitler" (2006) - the first thorough-going study of the various attempts to kill Adolf Hitler. "Killing Hitler" is already in (I think) eight languages and the Spanish edition "Matar a Hitler" will be published later this week.

I am a regular commentator and book reviewer for the national and specialist press and have appeared a number of times on national television and radio. They keep inviting me back, so I imagine they must think I am vaguely presentable...

If you want to get in touch, please do. If you have any queries or requests, I will do my best to help out if I can.

In the meantime, check back regularly, and have a look at my books on Amazon... ;-)