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.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

My review of Tim Butcher's "The Trigger"

Attending the Chalke Valley History Festival this year, one presentation stood out for me.  Tim Butcher, talking about Gavrilo Princip, on the 100th anniversary of the day of his infamous deed, was easily the best lecture / book presentation that I saw that weekend.  In fact, it was probably the best lecture / book presentation that I have seen in many a long year.

Butcher, a former Telegraph journalist turned historian/travelogger, is an absolute natural in front of an audience.  Speaking without notes, he was utterly coherent and convincing, funny, moving - and with his mane of blond hair - not unlike a lion, prowling the stage.  Naturally enough, I bought a copy of his book - as did countless others.  If the lecture was a sales pitch (which, in a large sense, it was), it must have been rudely successful.

The book, however, is rather less successful.  It is certainly well-written: Butcher is as seductive in print as he is in the flesh, but to the cold, objective eye, it has a few shortcomings that are less easily glossed over. Most seriously, it swiftly becomes very evident that Butcher has precious little material on his subject to go on.

What he is trying to do is to construct a journey, following in Princip's footsteps from the village of his birth, Obljaj, to Sarajevo, to Belgrade, and back to Sarajevo for his fateful assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand - the spark that would ignite simmering tensions and launch the First World War. In this journey, Butcher does indeed unearth a few gems.  His meeting with Princip's extended family members is a case in point, ditto his discovery of a engraving of Princip's initials on a stone slab in the garden of his former home.  Also, he does well to unearth Princip's school reports in Sarajevo, and is able thereby to track the transition of the gifted student to the embittered assassin.

But, beyond those aspects, Butcher is really feeding off scraps.  So complete, it seems, is Princip's deletion from history that Butcher struggles to bring his subject alive, and is reduced at salient points in his narrative to wondering - rather unconvincingly - whether Princip "passed this way" or "took in this view".  To be blunt, there is too much "Tim Butcher" in the book, and not enough "Gavrilo Princip".

There are a couple of important revelations.  Butcher asserts, for instance, that Princip was motivated more by South-Slav nationalism than the narrower Serbian nationalism with which he is usually accused.  Its a good point, but given that the main motor of South Slav nationalism was Serbia, perhaps a rather irrelevant one.  Princip was still acting - directly or indirectly - in Serbian interests when he pulled the trigger in Sarajevo.  In any case, the nuances of the assassin's precise motivations have very little bearing on the wider question of the war's justification or supposed 'futility'.  By the time that Britain declared war on Germany, much bigger fish were frying.  Princip was already a footnote.

Butcher's is a valiant effort to bring one of history's most famous - and infamous - assassins to life, but it cannot in my opinion be considered an unqualified success.  "The Trigger" is a good read - and many will enjoy it and undoubtedly be enriched by it - but it doesn't bring us much nearer understanding who Gavrilo Princip really was.  He is still enveloped by the mists of history and one has to wonder whether he will ever truly emerge.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Defending the indefensible - Vladimir Putin on the Nazi-Soviet Pact

This week, in a meeting with young historians in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rather startling statement.  In a discussion of 'falsifications of history' (an old Soviet favourite) and national bias, he stated not only that the Nazi-Soviet Pact had been in line with the then current "methods of foreign policy", but moreover that the Pact had not been so bad - "What is bad about it that the Soviet Union did not want to fight?" he said. 

Stalin and Heinrich Hoffman toast the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939

Putin has commented on the Nazi-Soviet Pact before.  In 2009, for instance, at the commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the start of World War Two, at the Westerplatte outside Gdansk, he was more conciliatory, stating that "all treaties" with the Nazis had been "morally unacceptable" and "politically senseless".  

This shift to a more unapologetic stance is symptomatic, of course, of the wider collapse in relations between Russia and the West that has peaked in the last year with the Russian invasion and partition of Ukraine.  But there is actually little that is genuinely new about it.  In fact, it echoes the old exculpatory Soviet line that Stalin signed the Pact to give him the chance to better defend himself against the 'inevitable' German aggression, and that anyway it had been the fault of the Western Allies, who had set a dangerous precedent by making an agreement with Hitler in Munich in 1938.

Both positions are thoroughly disingenuous and are challenged in my new book "The Devils' Alliance". Nothing prior to Hitler's attack of 1941 suggested that Stalin's motivation in signing the Pact was 'defensive' - in fact the opposite is true. He signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact in large part out of a desire to turn Hitler westwards to attack and undermine his old enemy, the Western Imperialists.  At that point, he thought, he would be able to march west unopposed, thereby turning the entire continent of Europe communist. We know this was the thrust of Kremlin thinking because numerous senior Soviet politicians said as much at the time.  

The juxtaposition of the Nazi-Soviet Pact with the Munich Agreement is similarly mendacious. It is true that collective security had failed by 1938, and each state was seeking to make the best bilateral arrangements that it could.  But the British and French effort to placate Hitler in 1938 cannot seriously be viewed in the same category as Stalin's pact with him of the following year. One was a failed attempt to preserve the peace (admittedly at the expense of Czechoslovakia), the other was a successful attempt to launch a war. One was a political arrangement to head off a crisis, the other was the opening of a two year economic and strategic relationship, which was an alliance in all but name.  Including both under the rubrik of "treaties with the Nazis" is a deliberate obfuscation. 

So, what about Mr Putin's contention that the Nazi-Soviet Pact was "not so bad".  Well, I suppose it depends on where you were standing. From the vantage point of the Kremlin, perhaps, it might seem so, but few people further west would have agreed.  The Nazi Soviet Pact launched World War Two.  It divided eastern Europe between the Nazis and Soviets and directly affected some 50 million people.  It left Poland divided and enslaved, the dismembered prey of the two most hideous and murderous totalitarian regimes the world has ever seen.  

The Pact gave Stalin the green light to launch an unprovoked attack on Finland in the winter of 1939; a short, bitter conflict that would see at least 150,000 killed.  It left the Baltic States at Stalin's mercy, consigned by the stroke of Ribbentrop's pen to a dark fate of occupation and annexation by the Soviet Union - their brave generation of independence snuffed out. The Romanian province of Bessarabia was similarly affected; annexed, occupied and wiped from the map.  

Stalin's march westwards in 1939-40 also had profound human effects.  Over 2 million people were deported from Poland, the Baltic States and Bessarabia to the wilder shores of the Soviet Union. Countless thousands more endured persecution, hardship and privation. For many of them, it was a life sentence.  

Comparing this litany of horrors to the Munich Agreement is not only disingenuous, it is downright daft. 

The Nazi-Soviet Pact was an archetype of cynical, Machiavellian totalitarian politics, and as such was a natural product of the two hateful regimes that spawned it. The Pact may have been "typical" by the perverted standards of Stalin's Soviet Union, but that does not mean that modern politicians can glibly play it down or make light of it.

The fact that Mr Putin sees fit to defend it in this way - in 2014 - speaks volumes about the current Kremlin mindset. The West, and its Polish and Baltic partners, should be very worried indeed. 

(Readers in the USA might be interested in the US edition of the book - which is here)

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