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.

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