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.

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.

Monday, 26 October 2015

"Nothing is True and Everything is Possible" by Peter Pomerantsev - a review

There is a discomforting moment in Peter Pomeratsev's brilliant book "Nothing is True and Everything is Possible" when it dawns on the reader that this really isn't funny any more.

The book - subtitled "Adventures in Modern Russia" - is a journalistic survey of a dysfunctional, corrupt kleptocracy.  Through his work as a TV journalist, Pomerantsev has collected numerous vignettes - many of them bizarre and darkly comic - which colour the picture that he paints of Putin's Russia.  Of course, it is by definition a pointillist picture, where a single anecdote is mobilised to tell a wider narrative, but it is no less convincing - or terrifying - for that.

Pomerantsev opens with the seemingly ubiquitous Russian "gold-diggers", ordinary girls from the provinces who hunt down eligible (for "eligible", read "rich") men in the night-clubs of the capital, looking for a sugar daddy, perhaps even a role as a trophy wife.  They are devious and determined.  Honing their performance as required, from quoting Pushkin and pontificating about modern art, to tottering on the highest of heels. There are even, he tells us, a network of schools and advisers training the girls in the best way to attract (and supposedly keep) what they call a "Forbes", named after the American business magazine which regularly lists the world's richest men. It is all a very long way from "Romeo and Juliet".

From such almost comical beginnings, Pomerantsev moves into progressively darker territory.  For instance, he tells the story of Ruslana Korshunova, a highly-successful Russian supermodel, who committed suicide aged only 20 when she threw herself from the balcony of her 9th floor Manhattan apartment. After dismissing the usual peril of drugs, Pomeratsev suggests that the cause of her death as her involvement with a curious Russian cult - "The Rose of the World" - which dehumanized its members through emotional disorientation and humiliation.  One of Ruslana's last posts on social media said "I am so lost. Will I ever find myself?"

Or consider the dark tale of Yana Yakovleva, the co-owner of a chemical firm who - after resisting official extortion attempts - was arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to prison on remand, where she spent 7 months.  It is a fascinating, terrifying chapter; with echoes of Kafka and of Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" - the prisoner seemingly impotent and cast into a parallel universe where black is white and nothing is as it seems.

Yet, if the reader was consoling themselves that such horror stories of abject national malaise were confined to Putin's Russia, the last chapter of the book shows that the contagion is spreading.  Through the sorry stories of Boris Berezovsky, Bill Browder and Sergei Magnitsky, Pomerantsev shows how Russian corruption is spilling beyond national boundaries.

We like to kid ourselves, Pomerantsev tells the reader, that the reason that Russia's oligarchs like to congregate in London, or Paris or New York is that they fundamentally aspire to be like us - that we might adopt a civilizing, democratizing role - that we might somehow play the Greeks to their Romans...  This, however, is wishful thinking, says Pomerantsev: It is not we who are influencing them - from the politicians turning a blind eye to money-laundering, to estate agents unconcerned by high-rolling Russian buyers - it is they who are influencing us, and not for the better.

This is a brave, terrifying, depressing book, which deserves to be read.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Volkswagen - founded by the Nazis - felled by eco-fibbing

The emissions scandal that has engulfed Volkswagen this week is a reminder of the precariousness of even the most apparently established brands in the modern marketplace.  Just as a misjudged aside at a conference sank Gerald Ratner’s jewellery business in 1991, so it seems some eco-fibbing might just torpedo the second largest car manufacturer on the planet.

All of which is rather surprising, when one considers Volkswagen’s thoroughly toxic early history.  Given the almost reflexive opprobrium that is (rightly) directed at companies tainted by association with the Third Reich, is it not astonishing that a company established by the Nazis to build a car that was in integral part of Hitler’s social project – should have survived at all?

Hitler examining a model Volkswagen
Volkswagen was set up in 1937, at Hitler’s command, by the Nazi DAF; the ‘German Workers’ Front’, itself a nazified substitute for the smashed trades unions.  Given that cars were very much luxury items in Europe in the 1930s, Volkswagen’s brief was to design and build a “People’s Car” – that’s what the name means in German – a budget model, which would be priced to be affordable for the average household. and could carry a family of four at 100kmh.  Hitler himself was said to have even made some preliminary sketches. 

It was no pipe-dream.  A purpose-built factory was established in 1938 at Wolfsburg, near Fallersleben, with a projected capacity of 1.5 million cars per year, which came complete with a nearby ‘new town’ to accommodate the necessary workers.  Moreover, the renowned car designer Ferdinand Porsche was brought in to hand-pick the car’s design team.  Wind-tunnels were employed to utilize the very latest ideas in aerodynamics. 

The car that they were to produce was to be officially known as the “KdF-Wagen” – named after the Nazi freetime organisation; Kraft durch Freude, or ‘Strength through Joy’.  It was to be marketed for 990 Reichsmarks; a fraction of the price of other marques then available, and could be paid off by weekly subscription; 5 Reichsmarks per week.  Over ⅓ of a million Germans signed up.  The era of mass popular motoring, it seemed, had dawned.

Of course, the Nazis did not go to all this trouble and expense out of altruism.  To some extent, the KdF-Wagen – like its eponymous, parent organisation – was a propaganda exercise; an attempt to convince ordinary Germans that they were part of a bright, new, consumerist world, ushered in by their Nazi masters.  But it was more than just propaganda eyewash.  By appealing to the ordinary German people – the “Volk” – the KdF embodied the ‘socialist’ element of the Nazis’ ‘National Socialism’; convincing the ordinary worker – who once might have voted socialist – to shift his loyalty to Hitler.  In this way, Volkswagen became an essential component in the Nazis’ seduction of the German people.

Hitler being presented with a prototype "KdF-Wagen"
Of course – like the Third Reich – it did not end well.  Hitler was presented with a prototype “KdF-Wagen” for his birthday in 1939, and 50-odd further completed vehicles were gifted to foreign potentates and Nazi bigwigs.  But none of the 300,000-odd ordinary Germans, who had dutifully paid their dues and collected their stamps, ever owned the car. 

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Wolfsburg factory shifted production to German military jeeps, consuming in the process many thousands of slave labourers sourced from the local concentration camp. 

The world would have to wait until 1946 to see the first “KdF Wagen” – or as we know it today – the Volkswagen Beetle.

On one level, I suppose, Volkswagen did remarkably well to shed its Nazi past and become one of the world’s most famous and most successful car manufacturers. 

But – given its intimate links to the Third Reich, its use of concentration camp labour, and its central importance to the toxic Nazi ‘dream’ – I personally find it astonishing that the company lasted long enough to be brought low in 2015 by something as banal as an emissions scandal.  Given its hideous early history, it should have been killed off long ago.  

© Roger Moorhouse 2015

Friday, 4 September 2015

"Portrait of a Soldier" - a quite remarkable film.

I had the privilege this week to see a preview of "Portrait of a Soldier", a new documentary by the film-maker Marianna Bukowski about the Warsaw Rising of 1944, in which Polish forces attacked the retreating Germans in a brave, doomed attempt to seize control of their capital.

The film tells the story - through extended interviews, cut with original film footage - of a young female soldier; Wanda Traczyk-Stawska.  Now a sprightly octogenarian, Wanda was 12 when war broke out. Witnessing the horrors of the German occupation of Warsaw, she swiftly developed a desire to fight back, which would be realised when the Rising was launched at 5pm on 1 August 1944.

As Wanda explains, the Rising was supposed to last no more than a few days, wresting the city from German control, before the Soviets arrive to "liberate" it from the east.  However, the Germans responded with unprecedented brutality, while the Red Army waited on the far shore of the river Vistula for Hitler's SS troops to do their nefarious work.  In the event, the Rising lasted an astonishing 63 days.

Wanda began as a messenger, but soon graduated to a fully-fledged fighter.  "I looked like a boy", she said, "I fought like a boy".  She fought throughout the Rising, being awarded the Cross of Valour, and seeing many of her comrades die, before surrendering and heading into German captivity.

Her recollections, delivered with wit and humour, are tremendously affecting. She talks of the remarkable Olympian and photographer Eugeniusz Lokajski, for instance, who was killed that September: "I knew the very best of him", she says.  Her story of the unidentified fighter, eviscerated by German sniper fire, who died in her arms: "the most beautiful boy I had ever seen", will not leave a dry eye in the house.

Warsaw rose in anticipation of Allied aid but little materialized. Over 63 days, the Polish capital was ravaged and systematically destroyed by the Germans, who murdered their way through the suburbs in a horrific attempt to sap their enemy's will to resist by wholesale murder.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Wanda reserves her highest praise for the city's civilians, who endured unspeakable horrors and fully ten times the death toll (some 200,000) of the Polish military forces, yet did so with honour and steadfastness.  Only with their support, she says, was the Rising possible.

"Portrait of a Solider" is a thoroughly remarkable film. Combining sumptuous production values, searing original footage and the poignancy of Wanda's own recollections, it provides a new and illuminating viewpoint of one of the bravest and most brutal military campaigns of World War Two.

I urge you to see it.

"Portrait of a Soldier" is released on 8 September via Journeyman Pictures also via ITunes and Amazon Instant Video.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Antonio Gramsci - the most important political thinker that you've probably never heard of...

On this day in 1937, the Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci died, at the tender age of 46.  The chances are that you haven't heard of him, but - as you will see - he is one of the most important thinkers of
the 20th Century.

Gramsci in 1914
Gramsci was born in modest circumstances on the island of Sardinia, the fourth of seven sons.  Something of a weakling, he suffered perennial ill health and as an adult measured less than 5ft, with a permanent deformation of his spine.

Despite his physical shortcomings, Gramsci won a scholarship to study at the University of Turin and, gravitating towards the political left, joined the Italian Socialist Party in 1913.

By the end of the First World War, Gramsci - like many of his generation - had undergone a political radicalization and emerged as one of the leaders of the nascent Italian Communist Party.  In the years that followed, he would travel to Moscow and be elected as a member of parliament, before being arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini's fascists in 1926. He spent most of the remaining decade of his life in a succession of fascist prisons in deteriorating health, before dying in 1937.

The story might have ended there, with Gramsci languishing in Italian obscurity.  However, he spent most of the decade of his imprisonment writing notebooks and so emerged post mortem as one of the most important thinkers in the development of Western European Marxism.

Many Marxist thinkers of the early 20th Century expended much of their energy in trying to make sense of Marxism's apparent failure.  Marx had famously stated that his revolution was inevitable, governed by "world historical forces" - but it didn't happen; capitalism proved remarkably resilient for a system that was so scientifically doomed.

Gramsci posited that one of the reasons for capitalism's continued survival was that the anti-socialist forces of the bourgeoisie enjoyed what he called a "cultural hegemony"; that is they controlled not only the levers of economic power, but they also effectively controlled the very way people thought, and how they viewed the world, by dominating the cultural-intellectual climate.  Because the vast majority of the population did not even perceive themselves to be manipulated, it was a system that he called "consensual coercion".

Gramsci's response to this "cultural hegemony" was to suggest that the working class should develop a rival 'culture' of its own; providing moral and intellectual leadership, so as to thereby aid and speed the "inevitable" political and economic victory of Marxism.  It was to be fought for not on the factory floor or the battlefield, but in the editorial offices and in the radio studios, in the school classrooms and the university lecture halls.

Gramsci's goal was to create a Marxist cultural hegemony which would provide a new intellectual climate, and would in turn shape and limit what people discussed and how.  It would not only become an essential element of the Western Marxist canon, it would provide the theoretical underpinning for the later idea - espoused by German Marxist Rudi Dutschke - of the "long march through the institutions"; the attempted leftist takeover of the educational and media establishments.  Ultimately, Gramsci's cultural Marxism would give rise to the sinister Orwellian concept of the "thought crime".

Of course, Gramsci would not live to see his "cultural hegemony" realised.  Capitalism won the economic argument hands down in the 20th Century, but in the process left the cultural sphere undefended, to the ultimate benefit of Gramsci's acolytes.  Today - with Britain once again in the ferment of a General Election, and with domestic politics perhaps more polarised than ever before - some of us might wonder just how 'dead' Gramsci's ideas really are...