Saturday, 18 February 2017

Hacksaw Ridge - a hurrah for the forgotten heroes of war

My grandfather - Capt. Stanley Millar - was in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) during World War Two.  Already a GP before the war, he joined up in 1939 and served right the way through - France 1940, North Africa, Italy, and back into France in 1944.  I've often idly wondered what it must have been like for him; patching up all those injured young men, agonizing over those that he couldn't save.  However, sadly for me - as I suspect for most of us - the role of army medics is one that gets so little air time in the conventional narrative, that it is often hard to imagine what they went through.

That said, I don't imagine for a moment that my grandfather went through anything like the horrors experienced by the subject of the new film "Hacksaw Ridge".  Set mostly during the battle for Okinawa during World War Two, the film tells the true story of Desmond Doss; a young, Virginian, Seventh Day Adventist, who joins up out of patriotic fervour after Pearl Harbor, only to discover that his devout faith forbids him from handling a weapon.

After much wrangling with the military authorities, Doss qualifies as a combat medic with the 77th Infantry Division; thereby squaring his faith with his desire to serve his country.  What followed would have made lesser men wish they had stayed at home.  In real life, Doss served in the Philippines and on Guam, but the film jumps straight to his service in the Battle for Okinawa in the summer of 1945 - specifically to the battle for the Maeda escarpment; known to the Americans as "Hacksaw Ridge".

As one might expect, the battle scenes in the film are not for the faint of heart - they are graphic, visceral and extremely brutal.  Throughout, however, the unarmed Private Doss (played brilliantly by Andrew Garfield) scampers around the battlefield saved those that can be saved.  Most impressively, after a Japanese counter-attack forces the Americans off the ridge, he stays behind - risking certain death if discovered - to tend to the remaining wounded.  In this way, it is estimated that Doss saved some 75 American lives, including that of his commanding officer, before he was himself injured and evacuated.

The real-life Desmond Doss
Hacksaw Ridge is a quite astonishing film, which gives us a rare glimpse into the horrors experienced by the forgotten heroes of the medical corps - men who went into battle with the task of saving lives when all around are trying to take them.  The film ends with the - now rather commonplace - film footage of interviews with the real-life characters.  You will not leave the cinema dry-eyed.

In recognition of his actions, Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1945 - the first conscientious objector to be so honoured.  He died in 2006.
And, what of Stanley?  He came home from the war, but was evidently never the same man he had once been.  He started drinking, was struck off, got divorced and ended up taking his own life in 1973.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Martin Bormann - and the flight from common sense

One of the effects of the return of the execrable crudfest that is "Hunting Hitler" is that all manner of conspiracists come out of the woodwork - on Twitter and elsewhere - to air their preposterous theories, in sympathy with the nonsense spouted by the dubious "experts" that front the show.

In amongst that cornucopia of claptrap is a long-standing piece of idiocy regarding Martin Bormann.

Martin Bormann
a master of horticultural deception
- or not...
Allow me to elucidate...  Martin Bormann - Hitler's Party Secretary and the 'eminence grise' of the Third Reich - was last seen alive on 2 May 1945 by Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann. Together with Bormann, Axmann had been part of a group that have left the Reich Chancellery Bunker and had headed north on Friedrichstrasse, reaching the Spree at the Weidendammer Bridge. Soon after, Axmann left the group before doubling back on himself.  Then, he claimed to have seen the bodies of both Bormann and SS doctor Ludwig Stumpfegger, not far from the Lehrter Station.

Aside from Axmann's story, however, no other contemporary account of Bormann's fate was ever given. He was tried 'in absentia' at Nuremberg, and declared legally deceased in 1954, despite the fact that the West German government continued looking for him - officially at least - until 1971.

Then, in 1972, construction workers near the Lehrter Station in Berlin discovered the remains of two men, who were identified through dental records to be Bormann and Stumpfegger.  With the development of new technology, in due course - in 1998 - Bormann's remains were conclusively identified to be his via DNA testing, providing a match to his son Martin Bormann junior.  With that - for most sane individuals - the Bormann story draws to its definitive end.  Martin Bormann died, on 2 May, close to the Lehrter Station in Berlin...

But - according to our conspiracist friends - there is a twist.  They maintain that Bormann's remains contained traces of a red soil that is not native to Berlin.  Instead, they say, the soil is the same as that of some region of Paraguay or of Argentina...  Cue dramatic music..  Dun dun daaaa...

Bormann's body was passed to his heirs after the DNA tests were carried out and was cremated, so this theory is impossible to test - even if we would wish to.  However, let us just think of the logical implications of this daft theory for a moment...

The conspiracists' story would run as follows.  Bormann - far from dying on 2 May in Berlin - somehow escaped the Nazi capital and went to live in South America.  Then, when he died, his body was presumably buried, in Paraguay (or elsewhere), then exhumed, packaged up, and taken back to Berlin by persons unknown and surreptitiously reburied close to the Lehrter Station, not far from where he had last been seen in 1945, so as to give the world an alibi; to cover up the 'fact' that Bormann had escaped. And all this happened without the people involved being intercepted by the German or Paraguayan authorities or being spotted or betrayed by anyone...

(Oh - as an aside - One question for the conspiracist cretins - what about Stumpfegger? Did he go to South America too? So, was he also flown back to Berlin after his death? Or did he actually die in 1945 and those persons unknown had some secret knowledge of where he was buried so that Bormann could be carefully placed next to him?  I think we need to know!)

Hmm.  Forgive me for being a spoilsport - but every fibre of my being is crying out that this cockamayme tale can only be arrant horseshit.  Is it not just possible that Bormann died and was buried IN BERLIN, IN 1945, a few yards from where he was last seen?!  Is that not a more logical solution to the conundrum? Is it not infinitely more logical than the idea that he escaped to South America, died, was buried, was exhumed, flown back to Berlin, and reburied, close to where he had last been seen...?

I know that conspiracy theorists have - by definition - a tenuous grasp of concepts like "logic", "facts" and "probability" - but Jeez...

It would not surprise me in the least if this idiotic tale gets an airing in the current series of Hunting Hitler - but then again idiocy and conspiracy theories often travel hand in hand...


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

"1944 - Forced to Fight" - a historian's review

The Estonian film "1944" was released to huge acclaim in 2015 and was submitted as that country's entry for the 2015 Academy Awards as best foreign film, has now been released in the UK (with subtitles), under the title "1944 - Forced to Fight".

It is set against the backdrop of Estonia's unenviable fate during World War Two, stuck as it was between the rock of Nazi Germany and the unmovable object of Stalin's Soviet Union.  Those that have read my book "The Devils' Alliance" will know some of the horrors endured by the Baltic States during this period.  For the uninitiated, a thumbnail sketch: this was a time in which is was quite possible for a single family to have parents exiled to Siberia by Stalin in 1940, have an elder son drafted into the Red Army the same year, and a younger son conscripted into the Waffen-SS in 1944.  On our comfortable little island, with its clear moral narrative of World War Two, such complexities can be hard to fathom.

Yet, "1944 - Forced to Fight" explains them very ably and succinctly.  It focuses on two individual soldiers - Karl Tammik and Juri Jõgi - who find themselves on either side of that divide; one fighting for the Germans, one for the Soviets.  Like most of their countrymen, neither shows any particular ideological fervour, except the desire to escape the madness and go home.  Their story plays out during a few months of the Red Army's advance into Estonia - between the Battle of the Tannenberg Line and the fighting on the island of Saaremaa - in the late summer and autumn of 1944.

I won't spoil the story for readers by giving away the narrative strands that link the two principal characters, but suffice it to say that the film is one of the best World War Two films I have seen.  It is well acted - with excellent characterisation (even through the medium of subtitles), the combat scenes are as riveting and harrowing as they are authentic, and the central narrative brilliantly displays the impossible predicament that the people of Estonia - and their Baltic neighbours - found themselves in during the war.

See it - you won't regret it.



Tuesday, 11 October 2016

"Blitzed" by Norman Ohler - a historian's review

Hitler - cynics say - is the gift that keeps on giving.  He still holds us all, it seems, in his awful thrall.  We are fascinated and appalled by him in equal measure.  But we should perhaps also be grateful - grateful that, where once he inspired genocide and war, now he just inspires occasionally dodgy history.

This last week saw the publication in the UK of "Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany" by German author Norman Ohler.  The PR campaign here in the UK was immense.  Perhaps it was the book's heady combination of "Hitler" and "drugs" that did it; catnip to the media - but it received prominent reviews in the press, alongside a "news" item on the BBC website, which amounted to little more than a breathless extended plug by the author.  Nonetheless, after the book's success when published in Germany last year, I was keen to see it, hoping for a treatment of the subject that would be typically 'Germanic' and thorough.

Ohler's thesis is twofold.  Firstly, he suggests that Hitler himself was addicted to the cocktail of drugs supplied to him by his personal physician; Theodor Morell, which included cocaine, the morphine-derivative Eukodal, and Pervitin; a form of methamphetamine.  This addiction, he says, had political and military consequences, as Hitler's sense of invincibility and his inability to see reason grew unchecked, and - in 1945, when he struggled with the consequences of withdrawal.

The second strand of the book is that - despite Nazism's official disapproval - drug use was actually rather commonplace during the Third Reich and in particular that the use and abuse of Pervitin was widespread, especially in the military.  Pervitin - which induced feelings of euphoria, alertness and diminished inhibitions - was certainly exploited by the German armed forces, and Ohler says, seems to have played a key role in the early successes that are so often attributed to the tactical genius of the Blitzkrieg.

Both these subjects are well worthy of historical examination, yet - for all the hyperbole - neither is entirely new.  Hitler's drug habits have often been discussed in detail - in (for instance) Leonard Heston's "Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler" from 1979 or Ernst-Gunther Schenck's "Patient Hitler" from 1989.  In addition, it is a subject that has been discussed - at least in passing - in all the Hitler biographies, including Alan Bullock's "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny" from 1952.  Hitler's drug use has even been the subject of a couple of low-rent TV documentaries in recent years. Ohler's claim to novelty on this therefore, should be taken with a considerable pinch of salt.

Where Ohler is rather more novel is in his claims that Hitler was addicted to the cocktail of drugs that he received.  Of course, the honest answer is that we can't know for sure as there is not enough evidence to be had - but I think it is telling that more circumspect commentators - such as Schenck, who was an SS doctor - have concluded that, as far as the evidence allows a conclusion to be drawn, Hitler was most probably not addicted to any of the substances that he was given.  Nonetheless that doesn't stop Ohler from jumping to his sensational conclusion not only that Hitler was addicted, but that the addiction had political and military consequences.

The material on the use of Pervitin - though less spectacular than the tales of Hitler's supposed addictions - is rather more interesting.  Certainly Pervitin use appears to have been widespread before and during the war, particularly in the military - and this has also been written about before - but again Ohler overplays his hand by making some claims for pharmacological explanations for military events that are scarcely sustainable in the sober light of day.

Stylistically, "Blitzed" is very readable; Ohler has written novels previously, and it shows.  But, while his story rattles along well, he rather struggles with the requirements of serious non-fiction.  The twin strands of his narrative are imperfectly spliced, and he undermines his own credibility by adding a smattering of contemporary drug-related words "junkies", "high", "doped up" throughout his narrative.

In sum, there is some engaging and enlightening material here - but very little that has not been said before elsewhere.  All that is provable isn't new; and all that is new isn't provable.  "Blitzed" is certainly sensational - but whether it is good history or not is another matter.


Thursday, 15 September 2016

"Anthropoid" - a historian's review

Bloody typical!  You wait 40 years for a film about the wartime assassination of Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich, and then two come along at once...! 



The first of these - "Anthropoid" - I saw last night.  And it is very good. 

It follows the story of Heydrich's two assassins - Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) and Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) - from their arrival in occupied Czechoslovakia, parachuted in courtesy of SOE, to their deaths at the hands of the Germans in the aftermath of their successful killing of Heydrich. 

Of course, my primary concern was that the history is not played with too much, and in this regard the film certainly did not disappoint: production values were excellent and it had the all-important whiff of authenticity: the Germans spoke German and the Czech accents were maintained throughout - indeed some of the actors - such as the luminous Anna Geislerová - are themselves Czechs. The narrative, too, did not noticeably stray from the historic one - every aspect was there; the betrayal, the cyanide, the razing of Lidice - even the head in a bucket... 

Historically then, "Anthropoid" is pretty much faultless. Dramatically, too, it is very strong.  It is structured, effectively, as a long crescendo, climaxing with the deadly siege at the church.  This generally works well, though the first half of the film - with scene setting, characterisation etc - was a tad slow. Murphy and Dornan were very convincing as Gabcik and Kubis, though the characters might have been fleshed out a little more - even allowing some artistic licence - and the tensions between them and the domestic resistance might have been turned up a notch.

Nonetheless, that is a minor criticism.  Overall, "Anthropoid" showed how history can be translated brilliantly to the big screen without excessive compromise in terms of historical accuracy.  It is well worth a watch. 

The other Heydrich-assassination-themed film, by the way, is the adaptation of the Laurent Binet novel "HHhH" - which is due for release later this year. 



Friday, 29 April 2016

Was Hitler a Zionist?

Yesterday, British politics was plunged into an improbable, yet nonetheless frenzied discussion of Adolf Hitler and Zionism.  Despite the multifarious threats of ISIS, the Migration Crisis, the EU's slow-motion car crash and the faltering world economy - journalists were quoting Mein Kampf and dissecting the finer points of Hitler's policies towards the Jews.

The reason for this rather preposterous state of affairs was the veteran left-wing politician, Ken Livingstone, who - on riding to the support of a Labour MP, Naz Shah, who was exposed as having made anti-Semitic remarks - successfully poured fuel on the flames.  Apropos of not very much, he said in a radio interview:

"Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews."

Now, given the obvious historical ignorance on show in that sentence - Hitler didn't "win" an election, he was appointed Chancellor in 1933, he didn't "go mad" and Israel was not established until 1948 - it is perhaps surprising that Livingstone's suggestion that Hitler supported Zionism was given any credence at all, but the press (and others) nonetheless had a field day.  So let's give the subject the once over.

Hitler was an anti-Semite.  He was an ingrained and impassioned anti-Semite.  Anti-Semitism was the guiding principle of his political life and it ran through his career like the text in a stick of seaside rock.  Hitler's primary political ambition was to remove the Jews from Germany.  As we all know, this he would later do by extermination in the Holocaust - but in the early years of the Third Reich, he sought to do it by "encouraging" emigration; making conditions for Jews within Germany so bad through boycotts, purges and persecution, that they would opt to leave of their own accord.  In this, indeed, he was relatively successful.  Between 1933 and 1939, the Jewish population of Germany fell from over 500,000 to little over 200,000, with German Jews finding refuge across Europe and the wider world.

Some of those emigrants found their way to British Mandated Palestine - or, as Ken Livingstone would put it: "Israel".  Indeed, there was a scheme in place called the Ha'avara Agreement, made in 1933 between the new Nazi government and Zionist German Jews, to facilitate emigration to Palestine.  It required the payment, up front, of a £1,000 fee, which would be used to effectively 'purchase' the possessions of would-be emigrants, thereby neatly getting around the fundamental problem that the Nazis did not allow German Jews to remove their property and wealth from the country.

This shakedown of the desperate might feasibly be what Livingstone was referring to when he stated that Hitler "supported Zionism".  But, there are a number of caveats that he should perhaps have borne in mind.  For one thing, Hitler was no fan of the Ha'avara arrangement, fearing that the Jews - if concentrated in Palestine - would simply form a new outpost of his imagined "Grand Jewish Conspiracy".  Neither were all German Jews "Zionists" - Zionism was a particular strand of Jewish political thought and was by no means shared by all German Jews, even in the increasingly perilous situation that they found themselves in the 1930s.  Also, the British in Palestine were far from enthusiastic about encouraging a wave of Jewish emigration that would be bound to upset their fractious province.  In addition to all that, the up front costs of the Ha'avara deal meant that many German Jews were unable to take up the offer, even had they wanted to.  In the end, some 50,000 German Jews used the scheme, barely one in six of the total that left Germany between 1933 and 1939.

So, there was a Zionist arrangement of sorts with Hitler's Germany - but to conclude that Hitler therefore "supported Zionism" is not only historically inaccurate, it is historically illiterate.  But then, this particular storm in a teacup was never really about history. It was just a crude, rather cretinous attempt to smear by association.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Houellebecq - "Submission" - a review

On the day that Michel Houellebecq's controversial new novel Soumission ("Submission") was published in France last year - January 7 - Islamist cretins chose to attack the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo - murdering 12 people.

As publicity stunts go, this must top the lot.  "Submission" is a dark tale, set in 2022, in which France is taken over by a Socialist-Islamic coalition, including the supposedly moderate Muslim Brotherhood, under the presidency of the charismatic Mohammad Ben Abbes, and joins the Umma - it becomes an Islamic State. 

Our guide through this new world is a middle-aged academic at the Sorbonne named Francois.  Francois is very French: world-weary, single, somewhat sex-obsessed but otherwise full of ennui.  Released by the University, as a non-Muslim, he watches events with a cold eye, a very dispassionate observer of France's Islamisation.  Throughout, Francois's thoughts are interspersed with literary references, some rather arcane, many referring to our hero's pet subject; the 19th Century novelist Huysmans.  It is all strangely gentle, and very French.

Somewhat predictably, Houllebecq has been accused of Islamophobia in writing the novel.  Yet, the honest reviewer would have to conclude that there is nothing remotely critical of Islam in it.  Indeed, the supposed 'attractions' of the faith - not least polygamy and Middle Eastern petrodollars - play a crucial role in turning our protagonist's head.

So, this is no fire and brimstone, nativist call to arms. Far from it.  If there is a target for Houllebecq's ire, it is very much the Francois of this world, rather than the Muslims.  Instead the book is a rather thoughtful exposition of how such a turn of events might come to pass, and how western populations - full of rootless, materialist, ennui-laden individuals like Francois - might meekly acquiesce.  Or submit.

On that point, Houllebecq may, regrettably, be proved right.  Western societies - stripped of any remaining pride in their own nations or their own traditions - may well fall victim to political and religious colonization in the way that he describes - supinely, with little more than a Gallic shrug.

But on another point, Houllebecq is almost certainly wrong.  As the bloody events at Charlie Hebdo demonstrated - on the very day that this book was published in France - a Muslim takeover is unlikely to be peaceful.

This book was never going to be anything less than controversial - but it is well worth reading, if nothing else as a reminder of how fragile so-called "Western Liberal Civilization" might prove to be.