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)