Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936)

I’ve just read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, a classic account of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War One, which is based on the detailed diaries Jünger kept from 1915 to 1918, featuring, among numerous other fights, his part in the Battle of the Somme.

Notoriously, Jünger’s account is so close to the events it describes that it is often difficult to understand quite what’s going on – as it often was for the troops on the ground. Storm of Steel became so well-known precisely because it is an intensely immediate and visceral account, a moment-by-moment description of comrades being shot, blown up, shredded, sniped, burnt by flares or eviscerated by shellfire as they advance, fighting and shooting, chucking grenades and grappling in hand-to-hand combat with the foe. Jünger himself was repeatedly wounded, picking up some 20 wounds in all. The descriptions of fighting are so intense and immediate that the only lyricism which emerges is a kind of visionary hymn to war itself, to the supposedly purifying and transforming experience of danger, injury and pain.

Sagittarius Rising, Cecil Lewis’s account of the three years he spent flying airplanes over the Western Front – exactly contemporary to Jünger, and also taking part in the Battle of the Somme – couldn’t be more different.

The benefit of hindsight

The key difference is that Lewis didn’t come to write his account until nearly 20 after the events he describes, in 1935, the finished book being published in 1936. This has a number of consequences. It means everything he writes is coloured by his knowledge of not only who won the war, but of what the long-term consequences of Allied victory would turn out to be i.e. chaos across Europe and then the rise of Hitler.

But it also means he can’t remember a lot of what happened. Although he kept a flight log as part of his job, and he has it open on his table as he writes, the entries are so clipped and official that he himself admits that he often has no memory of the events they describe. In a couple of places he quotes them verbatim and then laments that he now has no memory at all of so many of the events he recorded.

I am like a man on a rise, looking back over a plain where white ground mists lie, seeing isolated trees and roofs, upthrust haphazard, floating on the sea, without apparent connection with the lanes and fields beneath. I remember only incidents, and lose the vivid landscape of time. (p.80)

Instead of the searing relentlessness of the Jünger, then, what we get is something far more fragmented, and infinitely more mellow and reflective.

The 266-page text is divided into nine chapters (in fact the last three of these describe Lewis’s career after the war ended). But these ‘chapters’ are really just buckets into which he has gathered together impressions, vignettes, memories and reflections from particular periods and postings. The actual text is made up of hundreds of short passages, none of them more than three pages long, many of them less than a page long.

World government

And knowing what he does, how the war ended, who lived and who died, how ‘victory’ was frittered away by the post-war politicians – and writing as he does, in 1935, with Hitler in full flood and the dark clouds of another war looming close – the book is drenched with hindsight about fallen colleagues, poignant laments for his own naivety, and dark forebodings of what is to come.

In fact there’s a surprising number of passages where Lewis completely switches from memoir mode into discussion of contemporary politics, and warnings about the contemporary situation in Europe 1935, passages where he passionately argues that what the world needs to avoid another war is some kind of World Government which will rise above the petty rivalries of nation states driven by fear. In these passages he is clearly echoing thinkers like H.G. Wells, who was one of the leading proponents of a World Government.

The influence of modernism

And there is another, stylistic, difference from Jünger’s book, another indication of the way the book was written twenty years after the fact. This is that Lewis has absorbed the lessons of the Modernist writers who became widely known after the war, suggestions about how to play with form and experiment with voice and style. This impact is visible in at least two ways:

One is the way the text is highly fragmented: not in order to be deliberately disorientating, just that it’s made up of lots and lots of short scenes and vignettes, which create a scrapbook, mosaic effect.

Second is that he’s relaxed about writing the vignettes in different styles. The opening couple of pages describing him and a friend as keen young public schoolboys wanting to join the Royal Flying Corps have the jolly chaps tone of late Victorian boys adventure stories. In sharp contrast, he has several passages describing what he imagines his mother must have felt about him running off to war and these are written in a sensitive style which bends the rules of narrative and goes right inside her head to give us her thoughts and anxieties directly described in a mild stream-of-consciousness style that reminds me of Virginia Woolf.

Other passages describing the terror he felt on his first few flights, and the first few times the planes had problems and he experienced real panic, are done in a full-on stream-of-consciousness way but more disrupted and anxious in feel.

By contrast, in the many sections about the specifications and performance of the planes themselves, Lewis’s prose is as factual and clear as an engineering manual.

In one passage, describing three airmen out on the town in a French village behind the lines, where one of them pairs off with (sleeps with) a pretty 18 year old girl – the whole thing is told in the third person, like a short story plonked down in the middle of an otherwise first-person memoir, although we gather he’s describing something he himself experienced.

To any modern reader none of this presents a challenge. But it’s interesting to observe how fully techniques and approaches which were new and daring in the hands of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce had obviously become accepted and absorbed into mainstream writing by 1935.

Themes and variations

1. His mother

It’s only around page 100 that we meet his father, who appears to have gone off to live by himself in Devon and devote himself to ruminating on philosophy and the meaning of life, happy to sound off about Marx and Socialism on the rare occasions when Lewis goes to visit him (pp. 112-115). The first hundred pages are much more dominated by his mother who – presumably – brought him up alone. There are many deeply evocative descriptions of the landscape of the Surrey Hills where he grew up.

His mother appears in a series of short scenes, dominated by his guilt. As an impetuous, ungrateful 17-year-old all Lewis wanted to do was run off to join the air force. Only now, as he writes in middle age, does he realise how callow and unfeeling he was, and how his mother must have suffered agonies of anxiety. For example, he meets hismother in the Piccadilly Grill after his first training flight.

‘Well, dear, how did you get on?’
‘Pretty well.’
‘Did you go up?’
‘Yes!’
‘Oh!’ there was a faint tremor in her voice. (Not already! This only son, in the air, and a moment ago he played at her feet. Not already! Not to be snatched away already…) (p.20)

See how he almost immediately takes us into her mind and worries.

It is a sign of Lewis’s maturity and character that he includes these scenes, and that he obviously took as much care crafting them as the other, more obvious ones, about flying and the war. They’re touching in themselves and an indication of the benefits of waiting twenty years and really mulling over the whole situation, as it affected those around him. (pp. 34, pp. 72-74)

2. Women

It was the 1930s and so authors could write more openly about sex than in the 1910s. And because the narrative is by way of being a sort of coming-of-age story (as Lewis says, instead of university, he had the Western Front) a silver thread runs through the book recounting his experiences with girls.

Remember he was only seventeen when the story begins, and we find him walking a pretty girl home along quiet Surrey lanes on his last evening before going to training camp (pp. 26-27). He is in agonies of embarrassment and shyness before it is she who invites him to give her one, quick, chaste kiss.

Next, more confidently, he takes ‘Eleanor’ out for a champagne meal and a box at the theatre, but, when she invites him into her place, they simply sit in front of the fire until she lets him kiss her once, and then, yawning, dismisses him. He was bursting with ardour and impatience, but didn’t know how to proceed, what to do or say. Looking back as a middle-aged man he can’t help wondering what might have been. (pp. 34-36).

A year or so later, having got his flying licence and experienced life among men, we see him getting drunk with two comrades in an estaminet behind the lines, where the two filles de joie accompanying his pals find him a girl, the pale, slender mistress of a French officer who, in her master’s absence, grants Cecil her favours (pp. 66-69). It is revealing that this story has to be told in the third person, as if it is a fictional short story.

Later still, our hero comes back to the French cottage he’s billeted on, roaring drunk from an officers’ piss-up, and yells through to the coarse peasant woman he’s been billeted on, and she sleepily shouts ‘oui’ from her bedroom, so that – we understand – he can go in and shag her.

Thus the book charts his progress from timidly innocent virgin to drunken debauchee in less than two years.

In another bravura passage he describes a secret location in Kensington where off-duty officers could go to party, to dance to the music of a jazz band and to pick up girls. He takes a willing slender young thing up to the balcony to stare at the stars, to be intensely in the moment. Having dispensed with Victorian hypocrisy, he has reached the stage of being an utterly unillisioned healthy young animal after animal fun (pp. 157-160).

3. The planes

Lewis loves the planes. He includes as much technical information and descriptions of the designs, layouts, flyability, shortcomings and advantages of all the models he gets to fly as he can, and, he assures us that in his three years of service he flew every plane available on the Western Front. Thus he gives us detailed accounts of the:

  • Maurice Farman Longhorn (p.22)
  • Maurice Farman Shorthorn
  • BE 2B (p.30)
  • BE 2C (pp.42, 116)
  • Avro
  • Morane biplane
  • Sopwith Triplane (p.133) his favourite
  • SE5 (p.136)
  • Higher-powered SE5 (p.150)
  • Spad (p.161)
  • Sopwith Camel (p.165)
  • Handley Page (p.198)
  • DH4 (p.198)

So when Lewis is eventually posted back to Britain, to a squadron tasked with trying out new designs of plane, he is in ‘paradise’ (p.132).

Throughout the book are sprinkled wonderful passages describing the freedom of the skies and the joy of flying, combined with the constant awareness of death looming at any moment in the form of enemy planes, and the awareness of the limitations and foibles of the plane he’s flying.

He really makes you feel the exhilarating freedom of flying those rattly old death-traps high up above the clouds into the clean clear blue of the empyrean.

4. The joy of flying

The upper rim of the circle of fire dipped finally behind the clouds, and a bunch of rays, held as it were in some invisible quiver, shot a beam high into the arc of heaven, where it turned a wraith of cirrus cloud to marvellous gold. The lofty shade had covered the visible earth, and beauty lingered only in the sky. It turned colder… I remembered suddenly the warmth of the mess fire and the faces of friends. It would be good to be down again. I turned towards home and throttled down. The engine roar died. The wind sang gently in the wires. A long steady glide carried me inland. Now that the engine was off and the warm air did not blow through the cockpit, I grew chilly and beat my hands on my thighs. It was cold at ten thousand in March. I opened up the engine again to feel its warmth. Slowly the aerodrome rose up through the gauzy swathes of mist spun by the invisible hands of twilight. Above, the cirrus turned copper, faded to pink and mauve, and at last drifted grey and shroud like in the vast arena of the darkening heaven. I must hurry, It would  be night before I was down. Over the sheds at four thousand I went into a vertical bank and rushed earthwards in a tight spiral. At a thousand I pulled out, feeling a bit sick, burst my engine to make sure of the plugs, and then cautiously felt my way in over the hangars and touched with that gentle easy rumble which means a perfect landing, turned, and taxied in. (p.55)

Aged just 18. What an experience!

5. Landscapes

The book is littered with wonderful descriptions of landscape, beginning with the misty mornings in the Surrey Hills where he grew up, and including a phenomenal description of flying from Kent back to France and being able, mid-Channel, to look down and see the landmarks in both countries, and the little ships like toys sailing across the foam-tipped water.

I was particularly taken by this lyrical description of the country surrounding the River Somme.

Beyond the village, towards the lines, where the poplars started again to flank the dusty road, was the aerodrome. A row of Bessoneau hangars (canvas-covered, wooden-framed sheds holding four machines each) backed onto a small orchard where the squadron officers stood. The sheds faced the lines, fifteen miles away; but they were hidden from our direct view by the rolling undulations of the ground. It was that wide featureless landscape typical of northern France, miles and miles of cultivated fields, some brown from the plough, others green with the springing crops, receding to the horizon in immense vistas of peaceful fertility – the sort of country that makes you understand why the French love their earth. A mile or two south of the road, and running more or less parallel to it, lay the shallow valley of the Somme. the lovely river wandered, doubling heedlessly upon itself, through copses of polar and willow, split into diverse channels where water-weeds streamed in long swathes, lazily curling and uncurling along the placid surface, and flooded out over marshes where sedge and bulrushes hid the nests of the wild-duck, the coot, and the heron. It was always there on our right hand as we left the aerodrome for the lines, an infinitely peaceful companion, basking under a haze at midday, cool and mysterious when mists stole out of the dusk. A sort of contrapuntal theme, it played against our short staccato madness an immortal bass, whose notes, serene and timeless, would ring on when this war was a story of no more moment to the world than Alexander’s, dead in the dust of Babylon. (p.73)

6. Detachment and futility

From up in the sky he can see the beautiful countryside stretching for 20, 30, 40 miles either side of the Front. And then he can look down on the tiny ant-creatures murdering each other and turning the countryside into a hellscape.

His own psychological predisposition to the lyrical and beautiful and the distance which comes from twenty years of hindsight reinforce the simple detachment which must have been been created by flying so high above the scene. They combine to produce a series of passages of heartfelt anger, rage and contempt at the folly of war and the pitifulness of humanity, at ‘human fury and stupidity’ (p.97). There’s no shortage of long passages, or short references, where Lewis lets us know his full opinion of the futility of war.

The war below us was a spectacle. We aided and abetted it, admiring the tenacity of men who fought in verminous filth to take the next trench thirty yards away. But such objectives could not thrill us, who, when we raised our eyes, could see objective after objective receding, fifty, sixty, seventy miles beyond. Indeed, the fearful thing about the war became its horrible futility, the mountainous waste of life and wealth to stake a mile or two of earth. There was so much beyond. Viewed with detachment, it had all the elements of grotesque comedy – a prodigious and complex effort, cunningly contrived, and carried out with deadly seriousness, in order to achieve just nothing at all. It was Heath Robinson raised to the nth power – a fantastic caricature of common sense. But the humour was grim, fit only for the gods to laugh at, since to the participants it was a sickening death-struggle, in which both sides would evidently be exhausted, both defeated, and both eager, when they had licked their wounds, to fly at each other’s throats again. (p.82)

And what did it look like, the war – from up there?

Just above us the heavy cloud-banks looked like the bellies of a school of whales huddled together in the dusk. Beyond, a faintly luminous strip of yellow marked the sunset. Below, the gloomy earth glittered under the continual scintillation of gunfire. Right round the salient down to the Somme, where the mists backed up the ghostly effect, was this sequined veil of greenish flashes, quivering. Thousands of guns were spitting high explosive, and the invisible projectiles were screaming past us on every side. (p.85)

His job

So what did Lewis actually do? For most of his time on the Western Front Lewis was in observation and reconnaissance. In the build-up to the Battle of the Somme he was ordered to fly along the line of trenches taking photographs – an incredibly perilous activity, given the primitiveness of the planes and the even more startling primitiveness of the cameras.

Once the battle started he was charged with flying over the battlefield to observe the advance, or not, of our troops, and activity on the Hun side (in ‘Hunland’, as he puts it), reporting this back to communication trenches behind our lines, who relayed the information back to the artillery barrages, who aimed accordingly. For his work during this period he was awarded the Military Cross.

In between doing his daily tasks he seems to have been fairly free just to go for ‘joy rides’ to spy out the lie of the land, during which he and his spotter sometimes encountered Hun planes and had primitive dogfights. At other times he seems to have been free just to fly for the pure joy of it, watching a cumulus cloud appear out of nothing high in the sky, and then noticing the way the shadow of his plane against the pure white backdrop was ringed by a perfect rainbow (p.126).

His entire chapter two – nearly 100 pages long – describes this work, the tension in the last few days before the Somme offensive began on July 1, and then gives a day by day account of his work in the first few weeks of the battle, conveying his slowly growing sense of disillusion as it became clear that this enormous concentration of men and resources was going to fail, both to meet its immediate objectives, and to do anything like end the war. He describes the mood of disillusionment which sets in among his comrades, and on our side. ‘A complete washout’, ‘bitter disappointment’ (p.90).

Coming back from a week’s leave (where he has, as ever, tried to calm his mother’s terrible anxiety about him) Lewis discovers that a whole bunch of his mates, the liveliest, funniest characters from the Mess – Pip, Rudd, Kidd – have all been killed (p.122).

And towards the end of 1916 he notices that the Brits no longer enjoy quite the air supremacy they had previously had. German anti-aircraft fire (nicknamed Archie) is getting more precise. German fighter planes are better built and engineered and their pilots are becoming more aggressive.

The Hun was everywhere consolidating his positions, and paying much more attention to us than hitherto. (p.118)

Several times he is forced to make emergency landings, described with hair-raising immediacy, although he always manages to walk away (pp. 95-97). And how different things look on the pock-marked, devastated stinking ground from up there in the clean blue air!

The trees by the roadside were riven and splintered, their branches blown hither and thither, and the cracked stumps stuck up uselessly into the air, flanking the road, forlorn, like a byway to hell. The farms were a mass of debris, the garden walls heaps of rubble, the cemeteries had their crosses and their wire wreaths blown horribly askew. Every five yards held a crater. The earth had no longer its smooth familiar face. It was diseases, pocked, rancid, stinking of death in the morning sun. (p.97)

One evening he is flying over the lines and sees ‘a long creeping wraith of yellow mist’ over the trenches north of Thiepval.

Men were dying there, under me, from a whiff of it: not dying quickly, nor even maimed and shattered, but dying whole, retching and vomiting blood and guts; and those who lived would be wrecks with seared, poisoned lungs, rotten for life. (p.103)

This yellow drift of death gas was, for him, ‘the most pregnant memory of the war’, a symbol of the entire twentieth century, a symbol of the way man, in his stupidity, greed and lust for power, perverts whatever science discovers into disgusting methods of slaughter.

In a vision that shows the influence of H.G. Wells and directly echoes the war-visions which haunt George Orwell’s pre-war novels, Lewis foresees the next war in which pilots like himself will drop gas bombs on densely populated cities and poison into reservoirs, slaughtering hecatombs of woman and children. He can see only one solution to the mad rivalry between nations led by demagogues, a power which rises above all of them:

World state, world currency, world language. (p.105)

In 1922 Wells had written that ‘Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe.’ Lewis echoes this sentiment (which I take to be a truism or cliché of the inter-war years):

It is a fight between intellect and appetite, between the international idea and armaments. (p.105)

We now know this is naive and simplistic. Education, science and technology have made improvements Lewis can never have dreamed of. And yet fighting never ends. It is about resources, the means for populations to live,and deeply embedded ethnic hatreds. And fighting over those will never end.

Posted home

Lewis developed conjunctivitis. All that staring from heights at troop movements on the ground, plus the effects of oil and smoke flying into his face from the plane engine. It kept recurring which impeded his battle fitness, so at the end of 1916 he was posted back to Britain.

As he remarks several times, the average life expectancy of a flier on the Western Front was three weeks. He survived eight months. But, obliquely, he records how such prolonged nervous strain takes its toll.

Nobody could stand the strain indefinitely, ultimately it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility. For you always had to fight it down, you had to go out and do the job, you could never admit it… Cowardice, because, I suppose, it is the most common human emotion, is the most despised. And you did gain victories over yourself. You won and won and won again, and always there was another to be won on the morrow. They sent you home to rest, and you put it in the background of your mind; but it was not like a bodily fatigue from which you could completely recover, it was a sort of damage to the essential tissue of your being. (p.61)

He is posted to a testing squadron and has great fun flying all sorts of new planes for several months, before being recalled for active duty, and leading a squadron back to France in April 1917.

Dogfighting in France

Whereas previously he had been flying reconnaissance missions, now he and his men are fully engaged in fighting enemy planes. There follow some amazing descriptions of dogfights in the sky, the meeting of massed ranks of planes from both sides, and an explanation of what a dogfight actually involved, and how to survive it.

Protecting London

Then some German planes bomb London, the populace and politicians panic, and he and his crack squadron are flown hurriedly back to London to protect the metropolis. Lewis, by now cynical beyond measure, contemplates the stupidity of the authorities for not protecting London before, and the hysteria of the Londoners, with contempt.

No further German bombers appear, but Lewis describes the hard partying he and his squadron pursue. Drunk at dawn with comrades. Dancing with strange girls at riotous parties. The 1920s started here with the complete abandonment of the stupid old morality, the starchy Victorian etiquette and fake politeness which concealed the raw facts of human lust and reproduction.

As crude as the Death which stalks them, is the young pilots’ quest for pleasure in the here and now.

Fighting gets more intense – injury

No German bombers reappearing, Lewis is posted back to France. The descriptions of the dogfights become more intense. More friends and colleagues are killed. Eventually Lewis is caught out. Flying separately from his squadron while he tries to fix his jammed gun, is attacked and it’s only because he was in an unusual posture fiddling with the gun that the bullet which streaked down his back didn’t enter it and penetrate his heart (p.163). Bleeding and in pain he makes it back to the aerodrome and is posted home to recuperate.

Defending and partying in London

Having recovered he is posted to a Home defence squadron in Essex. Lewis describes the air defence system created to protect the south of England from bombers, and his part in it, though he is sceptical. The sky is so big, planes are so small – the bombers will always get through. Then to everyone’s shock the Germans come on a bombing raid at night. He is at a dance at the Savoy Hotel when the music is brought to a screeching halt by the sound of bombs dropping nearby. He gives an almost science fiction description of the impact on the jazz dancing crowds as they panic and flee towards all the exits.

Now his squadron have to learn to fly at night and he gives a brilliant description of his first night flight, afraid it will be like flying into pitch blackness, and then enchanted to discover that there is much more light than he’d expected, and that the countryside beneath – villages, fields, roads, are all picked out in the eerie glow of moonlight (pp.168-170).

Night raids on London

He gets drunk. They party hard in London. There are hi-jinks in the Mess. A new raid alert system is put into place and he describes being scrambled and flying towards London, watching the searchlights and the ack-ack guns but being completely unable to find the enemy bombers.

His experience of trying to halt the German bombing raids leads him to one big conclusion which he is at pains to emphasise: You cannot stop the bombers – they will always get through – which leads him to another of  his urgent contemporary pleas for action.

Today the voice of no one man, or no one country, can save Europe (and after the whole civilised world) from imminent destruction. If we cannot collectively rise above our narrow nationalism, the vast credits of wealth, wisdom and art produced by Western civilisation will be wiped out. (p.154)

Flying, drinking, dying

The final pages feel bitty. The promotions come faster. He is moved from one squadron to another. He retells experiences of landing in fog, of his plane catching fire in mid-air. There’s an extended anecdote about the time he landed in a field to ask someone where the devil he was (that happened a lot), and went back to the plane and turned on the motor, but the plane began to move before he could climb into the cockpit. It then proceeded to run in a small circle just a bit too fast for him – wearing heavy flying gear and boots – to manage to run into the circle while avoiding the propeller. In the end he gave up and watched it move in circles and slowly across a field until it fell into a ditch.

And the last pages are darkened by friends dying. Armstrong was the best pilot he knew but he mistimed a landing, crashed and was killed outright. His friend Bill was killed stupidly – crashing into a small ditch at the airfield, getting out to inspect the damage when his engineer triggered one of the guns by mistake which shot him through the heart – that Lewis balls his fists and rages against the senselessness of the world.

He is proud to be chosen to lead three squadrons across to France to combat the final German offensive in the spring of 1918, one of the few massed flights that made the commute without at least one accident. As the tide turns against the Germans the squadron is posted forward into an aerodrome near Ypres and he can’t believe the utter desolation of the countryside which is revealed to them. What a hell men have made of the earth.

It’s all over

Then it is all over. The Armistice is signed. They celebrate as best they can and all feel let down and deflated. The new young squadron he’s commanding has only just arrived. Trained to fight they never seen any action. And Lewis himself feels bereft. For the four most formative years of his life he has been living under the shadow of war, in the presence of Death, stretching his nerves to breaking point. Now it is all over. He is demobilised.

He was twenty years old. What a beautiful, thoughtful, considerate, sometimes savagely bitter, often rapturously lyrical, intelligent and mature memoir this is.


1964 interview with Cecil Lewis


Credit

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis was published by Peter Davies Ltd in 1936. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (1920)

A figure stripped to the waist, with ripped-open back, leaned against the parapet. Another, with a triangular flap hanging off the back of his skull, emitted short, high-pitched screams. This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. (p.31)

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) fought for the German army in the First World War. Wikipedia gives a good summary of his wartime career.

Most other memoirs and fictions about the war took years to surface, while the authors struggled to manage their traumatic memories and to find the words to describe the experience.

No such hesitation for Jünger, who converted the 16 diaries he’d kept during his three-year period of service into a narrative – titled In Stahlgewittern – which he had privately printed in 1920 in an edition of 2,000.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919 – looking miraculously untouched after three years of war and some 20 wounds

Over the course of his very long life (he lived to be 102 years old), Jünger not only wrote many more books and articles, but he rewrote In Stahlgewittern half a dozen times, each time moving further from the diary format, adding passages of philosophical reflection, and altering the emphasis.

For example, the 1924 edition is the most blood-thirsty and gives precise details of how he shot British soldiers. The 1934 edition, by contrast, is much more muted and removes those descriptions. Jünger was by now reaching an international audience i.e. British and French readers, with whom he needed to be more tactful.

It was only in 1930 that Storm of Steel was first translated into English and given this English title. During the 1930s it quickly became acknowledged as one of the classic accounts of trench fighting in the Great War.

Translating Jünger into English

English written by an English person tends to indicate the author’s social class, with traces of the kind of school they went to (private or state), sometimes their regional origins, and so on. It is full of all kinds of traces.

Translations into English, on the other hand, generally tell you more about the translator than about the original author.

Clunky phrasing

The translation I read is by Michael Hofmann, the poet, and was published in 2003. Although it won several prizes, I found it very easy to dislike.

Hofmann’s English prose doesn’t flow, in fact it regularly (two or three times per page) breaks down into unidiomatic and clunky phrasing. Again and again I found myself thinking ‘No native English speaker ever spoke or wrote like that – so why are you?’

‘They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not soon be over.’ (p.8)
How about … ‘and whether the war was going to end soon’

‘I was given a couple of hours to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout.’ (p.9)
‘To find an exhausted sleep’??

‘If it’s all one to you, I’d just as soon hang on to it.’ (p.18)
No English speaker ever said ‘If it’s all one to you’. An English speaker would say ‘If it’s all the same to you…’

We had the satisfaction of having our opponent disappearing for good after a series of shots had struck the clay ramparts directly in front of his face. (p.65)
Why the -ing on the end of disappear?

‘Recouvrance was a remote village, nestling in pretty chalk hills, to where all the regiments in the division dispatched a few of their young men to receive a thorough schooling in military matters…” (p.16)
Why not just delete ‘to’? And replace ‘dispatched’ with ‘sent’?

Maybe the resolutely un-English nature of many of the sentences and the un-English atmosphere which hovers over the entire text is a deliberate strategy to convey the un-English nature of Jünger’s original German.

But I doubt it because many of the sentences in Hofmann’s introduction have the same broken-backed, wrong-word-order, clumsy clauses, not-quite-English feel about them.

As I read Hofmann’s translation I compared it with the first translation of Storm of Steel into English which was made by Basil Creighton back in 1930, and which I borrowed from my local library. Creighton’s translation of that last excerpt reads:

Recouvrance was a remote little village hidden among delightful chalk hills. A certain number of the more youthful of us were sent there from the division to receive a thorough military training…

Though not perfect, Creighton’s version has more of the rhythm of ordinary English prose, and is therefore much more readable, than the Hofmann.

Erratic vocabulary and register

Hofmann is an acclaimed poet – which maybe explains why in some places he shows a deliberately refractory choice of phrasing and word order – why he often flaunts odd words and phrases – in a way common in modern poetry but which stands out next to Creighton’s straightforwardly factual (if sometimes dated) prose.

This often leads Hofmann into what I thought was a curiously tin ear for register, by which I mean the way a writer chooses vocabulary and phrasing, manages the positioning of subordinate clauses and so on, in order to create a consistent style or voice.

To give a specific example, Hofmann seems to deliberately combine terms which are inappropriate or anachronistic in order to create a clash of registers. Take this sentence:

After this incident I betook myself to my dugout, but today too there was no chance of any restorative kip. (p.74)

‘Betook myself to’? When do you think that phrase was last used in everyday speech or writing? It sounds like Dr Johnson and the Augustans to me. Googling it you find that ‘betook myself’ is included in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven, which was written in the mid-19th century in a deliberately archaic and Gothic style. In other words, the phrase was old in 1845.

On the other hand ‘kip’ is a slang term for sleep which reminds me of George Orwell’s use of it in Down and Out in Paris and London in the 1930s, where it has the feel of the rough, lower-class, Victorian vocabulary used by Orwell’s tramps.

Bringing them together in the one sentence – an extremely archaic 18th century idiom running into a 1930s slang term – creates, for me, a car crash of registers. And neither of them are what you’d call modern colloquial or formal English. They create a made-up register, an invented English.

Why? Maybe we are meant to accept it as the style of a famous poet playing with language. ‘He’s a poet; of course he’s going to give you a poetic translation!’

Which is all well and good in the privacy of his own writing where he can do as he pleases – but when he is translating a notable foreign author surely he should try to recreate a consistent register of English which is the nearest possible replication of the original author’s tone of voice. Isn’t that the goal of most translations?

(Incidentally, the insertion of ‘too’ in the ‘betook’ sentence is something no English speaker would do, but is instead a quite obvious direct translation of the German word auch and is placed where the German word comes in the sentence: aber heute auch – ‘but today also’. An English writer might say: ‘After this incident I went back to my dugout but once [or yet] again there was no chance of a restorative sleep.’)

To take another tiny, jarring detail, I was pulled up short when Hofmann has Jünger use the term ‘grunt’ (pp.133, 196) for infantryman. Now ‘grunt’ is a well-known word to anyone who’s read about the Vietnam War of the 1960s, where it became the universal term for the American infantry, expressing a combination of embattled fondness for the dumb front-line soldiers with contempt for the shitstorm their superiors had dumped them in. Looking it up, I find that ‘grunt’ was first recorded in this sense in print in 1969.

My point is that all this word’s associations are to Vietnam – to choppers, ‘gooks’, napalm at dawn and so on. Dropping it into your translation of Jünger describing the First World War is like dropping a couple of seconds of colour film into a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie. It is a deliberately jarring anachronism.

It seemed to me that at moments like this the translator is grandstanding, making more of an effort to display his modernist taste for unexpected juxtapositions of register, signalling what a poet he is – rather than concentrating on translating Jünger into clear, effective and tonally consistent prose.

Sometimes Hoffman has Jünger use low-class phrases like ‘argy-bargy’ (pp.155, 245) and ‘getting on our wicks’ (p.149) – phrases more evocative of Eastenders than an élite Germany infantry officer of 1917.

But at the other extreme of class diction, after our hero survives a violent foray into the British trenches, Hoffman has him overhearing a common soldier saying:

‘I must say, though, that Lieutenant Jünger is really something else: my word, the sight of him vaulting over those barricades!’

‘I must say… My word’! Does Hoffman really think that an ordinary squaddie – one of the common infantry he describes as ‘grunts’ – would actually talk like that? While he has posh, upper-class officers says things are ‘getting on our wicks’. It is a topsy-turvy use of registers.

Where and when is this English set? Is it with Edgar Allen Poe in 1845, with Orwell’s tramps’ during the depression, 1920s Jeeves and Wooster banter, or in 1967 Vietnam slang? This prose is all over the place.

German word order

I studied German at GCSE level. Not enough to be fluent but enough to have a feel for its grammar and very different word order from English. So I kept having the feeling that Hofmann, happy to play havoc with the register of his prose, also made a point of clinging to the original German word order.

Maybe, again, this is a deliberate strategy to convey the ‘otherness’ of the original German, but too often it simply has the result of obscuring Jünger’s actual meaning.

For example, Jünger first experiences a really heavy artillery barrage at les Éparges in 1915. He feels weirdly disconnected from the mayhem around him. Hofmann has:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Note the way he handles the subordinate clauses in these sentences. French and German users often put descriptions of something or someone or an action that the subject of the sentence has taken, into a subordinate clause right next to the subject or object. They write:

The ball, having been kicked by Daisy, rolled across the grass.

Francois, a man I had never liked, opened the door.

It often makes French and German prose, if translated literally, feel clotted or lumpy. Deciding what to do with these stumpy subordinate clauses is one of the chief problems facing anyone translating from those languages into English.

Because in flowing, idiomatic English, we prefer to give such clauses a main verb and subject of their own, sometimes inserting them into the main sentence, or – if that’s too tricky – just breaking a long clotted sentence up into two simpler ones. This makes them flow better, and it makes the prose more punchy and effective because, instead of a passive past participle, you have an active verb. So we write:

Daisy kicked the ball and it rolled across the grass.

Francois opened the door. I had never liked him.

Clearer, simpler, more active. Let’s look at that passage again:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Twice in this short passage Hofmann uses subordinate clauses, and these create a sense of passivity: ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ and ‘returned to my unit’ are both adjectival phrases describing the ‘I’ which immediately follows. They blunt the potential for active verbs. They weight the subject down like a ball and chain. They make the prose inactive and heavy.

Compare and contrast with Creighton’s translation of the same passage:

At the same time I had no fear. For I felt that I was not seen, and I could not believe that anyone aimed at me or that I should be hit. Indeed, when I rejoined my section I surveyed our front with complete calm. It was the courage of ignorance.

Not perfect prose either, I grant you, but note:

  1. Hofmann’s passive subordinate clauses have become phrases led by an active verb – ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ has become ‘I felt that I was not seen’, and ‘returned to my unit’ becomes ‘when I rejoined my section’. Feels brighter and more lively, doesn’t it? The point is that Hofmann tucks away a lot of information in clauses which – as the name suggests – are subordinate – passive, veiled and hidden. Creighton’s prose brings this information out into the daylight as active phrases which contribute to the flow of the prose and which the reader notices more.
  2. And this greater activity is really rammed home by Creighton’s final sentence which has the ta-dah! impact of the pithy couplet at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. ‘It was the courage of ignorance’ is exactly the kind of didactic punchline the paragraph is crying out for, which brings the point out into the open and rams it home. (It’s easier to feel the impact of this last sentence if you’ve read the whole of the previous sequence of paragraphs: it neatly sums up an entire passage.)

The result of all this is that I didn’t really notice this passage at all when I read it in the Hofmann. It just drifted by, passive, subordinate and veiled. Whereas when I read the Creighton version, this passage really leaped out at me as the pithy and powerful conclusion of a man who had been through his first artillery barrage and now, looking back, realises how naive and foolish he was to have felt so confident.

It was only in the Creighton translation that I understood the point Jünger was making.

So: from very early on in my reading, I had the impression that Hofmann was more interested in tickling the tastebuds of modish readers who like poetic effects (jarring, modernist, poetic effects) than in finding a consistent register which would allow Jünger’s meaning and conclusions to come over as clearly, consistently and powerfully as possible.

To be even blunter – I felt that in reading the Hofmann, I not only had to put up with a steady flow of clunking un-English phraseology and word order, but that I was missing a lot of what Jünger wanted to say.

Hofmann’s clunks

At four o’clock already we were roused from our bed put together from bits of furniture, to be given our steel helmets. (p.93)
This is German word order, not English. French and German uses the equivalent of ‘already’ a lot more than we do in English. It’s a giveaway sign that the German is being translated word for word rather than into idiomatic English.

All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of coloured flares. (p.95)

When morning paled, the strange surroundings gradually revealed themselves to our disbelieving eyes. (p.97)
Show-off, poetic use of ‘pale’ as a verb.

In my unhealthy irritation, I couldn’t help but think that these vehicles followed no other purpose than to annoy us… (p.102)
I don’t think ‘to follow a purpose’ is an English idiom. We’d say ‘had no other purpose’, though it’s still clunky phrasing. How about: ‘I couldn’t help thinking the only point of these vehicles was to annoy us…’

The following morning, the battalion marched off into the direction of heavy firing… (p.131)
Doesn’t he mean either ‘in the direction of’ or, more simply, ‘towards’?

We ate heartily, and handed the bottle of ’98 proof’ around. Then we settled off to sleep… (p.166)
‘Settled off’? Obviously he means ‘settled down’. This is not English. Why wasn’t this book proof read by an English speaker?

Our first period in position passed pleasantly quietly. (p.142)

In the evening, the shelling waxed to a demented fury. (p.161)
‘Waxed’? I know that it can mean ‘grew’, but it hasn’t been used in this sense since Shakespeare.

German humour

Maybe they simply don’t survive Hofmann’s clumsy translation, but what appear to be  Jünger’s attempts at humour aren’t very funny. For example, I think the following is intended to include both a stylish reference to a German literary figure, and to be itself a humorous description of trying to get rid of lice.

Fairly unscathed myself thus far by that scourge, I helped my comrade Priepke, an exporter from Hamburg, wrap his woollen waistcoat – as populous as once the garment of the adventurous Simplicissimus – round a heavy boulder, and for mass extermination, dunk it in the river. Where, since we left Hérinnes very suddenly, it will have mouldered away quietly ever since. (p.20)

This is godawful English prose. What a mouthful of marbles! In Creighton’s version this becomes:

As I had been more or less free from this plague, I assisted a friend, Priepke, to deal with his woollen vest, which was as populous as the habit of Simplicius Simplicissimus of yore. So we wrapped it round a large stone and sank it in a stream. As our departure from Herne followed very suddenly upon this, it is likely that the garment enjoys a quiet resting-place there to this day.

Creighton’s version is not brilliant either, but at least he makes the sensible move of breaking up the long clotted main sentence into two smaller sentences. And the use of ‘so’ at the start of the second sentence gives a sense of logic and clarity to the description.

Still not that rib-tickling, though, is it?

In his introduction Hofmann devotes a couple of pages to explaining what an awful translator Creighton was, and how he made literally hundreds of elemental mistakes in his understanding of German. Maybe. But his version is much more readable than Hofmann’s. If Hofmann’s accusations against Creighton are true then, alas, it seems that the reader is stuck with two very flawed translations.

Worse, it appears that the Creighton contains content – passages of reflection and philosophising – which are simply not present in the Hofmann. Presumably this is because Creighton was translating from one of the more wordy and reflective versions of the book, and Hofmann has chosen to translate one of the leaner versions or to himself cut out the philosophising passages.

It is in these sections that Jünger gives his thoughts about the meaning of war and bravery. Creighton has quite a few of them; Hofmann has none. Maybe this makes the Hofmann version more pure and elemental but it does mean that the average English reader will never get to see and read Jünger’s thoughts about his central subject – men in war.

From all this I conclude that maybe what this important book deserves is some kind of scholarly variorum edition. An edition which:

  • clearly explains the textual history of the book
  • summarises the changes between all the different versions
  • decides which version to translate (and explains why)
  • renders it into clear, unfussy English

But which also features extensive footnotes or endnotes which include the important passages from all the other versions, so we can see how Jünger chopped and changed the text, and with notes explaining why he did this and how it reflected his evolving attitude towards the subject matter.

Jünger’s detached attitude

As to the actual content of the book, it is notorious for Jünger’s apparently cold, detached and heartless description of what he experiences.

There is absolutely no build-up in the way of the author’s birth, upbringing, family, education, feelings on the outbreak of war, agonising over which regiment to join and so on, none of the bonhomie and chat and certainly none of the humour which characterises, say, Robert Graves’s famous war book, Goodbye To All That.

Instead we are thrown straight into the action: the narrator just steps off a train in France, is told to line up with his squad, is marched to a village, has his first experience of shellfire, sees some men from a different unit get killed, and then he’s taken up the line and starts the trench soldier’s existence of sleeplessness, cold and discomfort.

It is a little as if an utterly detached intelligence from another planet has been embedded in a human body and proceeds to do everything it’s told, while all the time observing the strange human creatures and their customs.

I still viewed the machinery of conflict with the eyes of an inexperienced recruit – the expressions of bellicosity seemed as distant and peculiar to me as events on another planet. (p.27)

It’s only some way into the text that we even learn the year he’s describing, namely 1915. It is a bare bones approach. In the fifth chapter (‘Daily life in the trenches’) the text really returns to the ‘bones’ of his experience, as it reverts to its original format as a diary, each paragraph starting with a date and the events of that day. We follow a straightforward chronological sequence of dates which takes us through the summer and autumn 1915, through Christmas, and into the spring of 1916.

The names of lots of soldier comrades are given, but only in the briefest, most clinical way. Often they’re only mentioned on the date they die, in fact most of the diary entries are clipped descriptions of who died on what day, and how.

Jünger doesn’t seem to have any close friends. He certainly doesn’t have the witty conversations with them that Graves does, or hang out with a few close buddies like Frederick Manning does in his brilliant war memoir, The Middle Parts of Fortune.

Instead, Jünger observes with cool detachment everything that happens around him. After he’s wounded the first time – a shrapnel laceration across his thigh – Jünger is brought back to a clearing station, where the surgeon is overwhelmed with casualties.

At the sight of the surgeon, who stood checking the roster in the bloody chaos, I once again had the impression, hard to describe, of seeing a man surrounded by elemental terror and anguish, studying the functioning of his organisation with ant-like cold-bloodedness. (p.32)

As it happens, among his many other achievements, Jünger lived to become a famous entomologist i.e. an expert on insects, and went on to write books on the subject after the war. So it strikes me that his portrait of the surgeon, calm and detached among the slaughter, watching the people around him as if they were insects to be studied – is in fact Jünger’s self-portrait of himself.


Jünger’s vision of war

What it lacks in warmth, humour or human touch, the book more than makes up for with the thing that makes it so powerful, which helped it grow into a classic – which is Jünger’s hugely compelling descriptions of the brutal, the eerie, the strange, the heroic and the primordial nature of this utterly new kind of total war, and of the terrifying new race of men it seemed to be breeding.

Physical disgust

In the rising mist, I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform. Turning round, I took a step back in horror; next to me a figure was crouched by a tree. It still had gleaming French leather harness, and on its back was a fully packed haversack, topped by a round mess-tin. Empty eye-sockets and a few strands of hair on the bluish-black skull indicated that the man was not among the living. There was another sitting down, slumped forward towards his feet, as though he had just collapsed. All round were dozens more, rotted, dried, stiffened to mummies, frozen in an eerie dance of death. (p.25)

Not only are there corpses all around, but the book gives us hundreds of descriptions of men being shot, eviscerated, decapitated, buried alive, flayed by shrapnel, burned to death by fire, stifled by gas, and exploded.

There was another whistling high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.

Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine-gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smouldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for a moment tore open the extreme abysm of terror. (p.225)

The rate of deaths, the endless stream of deaths Jünger sees at first hand, right in front of him, never lets up, is staggering, stupefying. So many men, so many terrifying woundings, eviscerations, liquidations, smashings, manglings and screams of pain.

NCO Dujesiefken, my comrade at Regniéville, was standing in front of my foxhole, begging me to get into the trench as even a light shell bursting anywhere near would cause masses of earth to come down on top of me. An explosion cut him off: he sprawled to the ground, missing a leg. He was past help. (p.230)

Beside the ruined cottage lay a piece of trench that was being swept with machine-gun fire from beyond. I jumped into it, and found it untenanted. Immediately afterwards, I was joined by Oskar Kius and von Wedelstädt. An orderly of von Wedelstädt’s, the last man in, collapsed in mid-air, shot through one eye. (p.237)

One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured onto the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. (p.248)

On his six visits to dressing stations in the rear and then on to hospitals to be treated, Jünger is in the company of men weeping and screaming from all sorts of pitiful wounds. At one hospital he is told they had received 30,000 casualties in the previous three weeks. Men die horrible deaths left, right and centre, all the time, unrelentingly. Death death death.

In the spring the ice and frost melt and the walls of the trenches thaw and dissolve, revealing the massed bodies and equipment of the men of 1914 and 1915, whose bodies had been built into the defences. The soldiers find themselves treading on the slimy gloop of the decomposing corpses from last year’s battles.

The scale of the killing is inconceivable.

Heightened alertness

Yet Jünger combines countless examples of disgusting physical injury and the ubiquity of slimy, popping, farting, rotting corpses, with an unquenchable lust for life and excitement. Nothing can stop his steely patriotism and lust for excitement.

Whenever possible he volunteers to go on night patrols into no man’s land, risking his life for often trivial rewards or none at all, generally ending up haring back to his own lines as rifle and machine gun fire starts up from the British or French opposite. But to be out there, sneaking silently in the presence of Death, is to be alive as nowhere else.

These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterable menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow burst; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape. ( p.71)

Battlefield stress

Sometimes it all seems like a dream or a nightmare, a waking nightmare from which there is no escape. On one occasion, caught out in no man’s land when his little squad bumps into some foraging Brits, the two groups fall to mad hand-to-hand fighting in which all their 20th century weapons fail, leaving only wordless, primitive struggle.

After one shot the magazine had clicked out of my pistol grip. I stood yelling in front of a Briton who in his horror was pressing his back into the barbed wire, and kept pulling the trigger. Nothing happened – it was like a dream of impotence. (p.88)

Later, Jünger is behind the lines in the village of Fresnoy when it comes under a pulverising artillery bombardment that blows houses to pieces and human beings into shreds of flesh.

I saw a basement flattened. All we could recover from the scorched space were the three bodies. Next to the entrance one man lay on his belly in a shredded uniform; his head was off, and the blood had flowed into a puddle. When an ambulanceman turned him over to check him for valuables, I saw as in a nightmare that his thumb was still hanging from the remains of his arm. (p.135)

It is a world of despairingly horrific sights and intense visions. A world in which everything is bright, overlit, too vivid, permanently visionary.

Like a vision in a dream, the sight, lit only by falling sparks, of a double line of kneeling figures at the instant in which they rose to advance, etched itself into my eye. (p.147)

A world in which even things which have just happened are so outside the range of normal human experience that they are impossible to process in any rational way.

I experienced quite a few adventures in the course of the war, but none was quite as eerie as this. It still makes me feel a cold sweat when I think of us wandering around among those unfamiliar trenches by the cold early light. It was like the dream of a labyrinth. (p.190)

Unsurprisingly, so many close encounters with death – not just close, but so irrational, so uncanny, so deep, arousing the cave man or the prehuman in their souls – had psychological repercussions.

It was only afterwards that I noticed that the experience had taken its toll on my nerves, when I was lying on my pallet in my dugout with my teeth chattering, and quite unable to sleep. Rather, I had the sensation of a sort of supreme awakeness – as if I had a little electric bell going off somewhere in my body. The following morning I could hardly walk. (p.88)

But like the men he so fulsomely praises, Jünger does get up, he commands, he leads, he doesn’t stop.

The emotions of war

The intensity of the war, the relentless bombardment, the lack of sleep, the continual toll of deaths from snipers or random mortar bombs, gives rise to new emotions and feelings – strange hilarities, clarities, hysterias – which he observes working within himself.

Here, and really only here, I was to observe that there is a quality of dread that feels as unfamiliar as a foreign country. In moments when I felt it, I experienced no fear as such but a kind of exalted, almost demoniacal lightness; often attended by fits of laughter I was unable to repress. (p.93)

And he repeatedly describes the madness of combat, the crazed exhiliration of the charge, bayonets fixed, down a confusing warren of corpse-strewn trenches, towards the top, and over into the face of the enemy.

On, on! In one violently bombarded defile, the sections backed up. Take cover! A horribly penetrating smell told us that this passage had already taken a good many lives. After running for our lives, we managed to reach a second defile which concealed the dugout of the front-line commanding officer, then we lost our way again, and in a painful crush of excited men, had to turn back once more. At the most five yards from Vogel and me, a middle-sized shell struck the bank behind us with a dull thump, and hurled mighty clods of earth over us, as we thought our last moment had come. Finally, our guide found the path again – a strangely constellated group of corpses serving as a landmark. One of the dead lay there as if crucified on the chalk slope. It was impossible to imagine a more appropriate landmark.

On, on! Men collapsed while running, we had to threaten them to use the last energy from their exhausted bodies. Wounded men went down left and right in craters – we disregarded their cries for help. We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a thin chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another. At moments we felt our feet settling on soft, yielding corpses, whose form we couldn’t make out on account of the darkness. The wounded man collapsing on the path suffered the same fate: he too was trampled underfoot by the boots of those hurrying ever onwards. (pp.96-97)

Courage

And in this strange landscape, between the midnight hunting in no man’s land, the grinding lack of sleep of the nightly sentry routine, and the appallingly unrelenting artillery bombardments unleashed by the British, amid all this horror, Jünger’s comrades do not defect or resile. They stand to when ordered to. They muster by the revetments of the trenches causing Jünger to burn with pride.

It was in the course of these days that I learned to appreciate these men with whom I was to be together for two more years of the war. What was at stake here was a British initiative on such a small scale as barely to find mention in the histories of both armies, intended to commit us to a sector where the main attack was not to be. Nor did the men have much to do, only cover the very small amount of ground, from the entrance of the shelter to the sentry posts. But these few steps needed to be taken in the instant of a great crescendo of fire before an attack, the precise timing of which is a matter of gut instinct and feeling. The dark wave that so many times in those nights welled up to the traverses through fire, and without even an order being possible, remained with me in my heart as a personal yardstick for human trustworthiness. (p.85)

Something awesome is happening, and Jünger brilliantly conveys its tensed uniqueness.

These instants, in which the entire complement of men stood behind the traverses, tensed and ready, had something magical about them; they were like the last breathless second before a hugely important performance, as the music is turned off and the big lights go up. (p.77)

New men

For amid this inferno, a new race of men is being forged.

A runner from a Württemberg regiment reported to me to guide my new platoon to the famous town of Combles, where we were to be held in reserve for the time being. He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world… Nothing was left in his voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It’s men like that that you need for fighting. (p.92)

Invulnerable, invincible men of steel, forged in the furnace of war.

As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered. (p.99)

New men. Men of the future. The Overmen.

There was in these men a quality that both emphasised the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood. (p.140)

Something primordial

Men being shaped anew in the storm of steel because these are conditions and circumstances unlike any ever experienced by any humans in all previous human history.

From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away at and around Combles, innumerable shells criss-crossed hissing and howling over our heads. All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of flares. Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed. We had the sensation of the ineluctable and the unconditionally necessary, as if we were facing an elemental force. (p.95)

The sheer unrelenting killing machine mincing its way through human flesh on an unprecedented scale awakes echoes of something infinitely primitive, primordial, echoes of pre-human conditions, the beginning or end of the world.

The whole scene – the mixture of the prisoners’ laments and our jubilation – had something primordial about it. This wasn’t war; it was ancient history. (p.150)

Conclusion

Storm of Steel follows Jünger’s diary in giving the German point of view of a number of Western front battles, in chronological order, from 1915 to 1918, including the Battle of the Somme and leading up to the German spring offensive of 1918, followed by the Allied counter-attack in the summer of 1918. At this point Jünger was wounded for the sixth time, and he was recuperating back in Germany when the war ended.

The text could be used as evidence of the camaraderie of the German forces, or of their officers’ awareness of their material inferiority to the Allies, or of their confidence in the superiority of the German fighting spirit.

The Creighton translation has an introduction by one R.H. Mottram, who himself fought in the war. In his opinion Storm of Steel is evidence of the obtuse refusal to face reality of the entire Germany military class. After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in October 1914, it became clear that the war could only ever end with Allied victory – yet the German High Command stretched it out for four long, bitter years of psychological denial, resulting in ten million unnecessary deaths.

There are occasional moments when Jünger reveals a human side. Half way through the book there’s an unexpected passage in which Jünger discovers that his brother, who had also enlisted, is fighting in a unit right alongside his own. He immediately goes to find him, in the heat of a battle and, discovering him wounded in a farmhouse, arranges for him to be carried back to a field hospital in a piece of tarpaulin, probably saving his life.

So, all in all, Storm of Steel contains much material for historians or literary critics, psychologists or military analysts, to excerpt and analyse.

And there are countless details to shock and grab the casual reader’s attention, like the little girl lying in a pool of her own blood in a bombed-out village, or the soldier thrown into the exact pose of the crucifixion by a shell blast – the kind of details which feed into the modern liberal consensus that war is hell.

But in my opinion, all these elements are eclipsed by Jünger’s terrifying sense of a new world of war emerging, a world of unprecedented destruction and obliteration, in which a wholly new breed of heartless, battle-hardened warriors would arise to fight and flourish. Emerging from his visceral description of total war is a nightmare vision of the future, and an even more destructive conflagration to come.

As though waking from a deep dream, I saw German steel helmets approaching through the craters. They seemed to sprout from the fire-harrowed soil like some iron harvest. (p.235)


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Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) and multi-ethnic societies

Mutual suspicion, brinkmanship, arrogance, belligerence and, above all fear were rife in the halls of power across Europe in the summer of 1914. (p.8)

I’m very surprised that this book won the ‘2014 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History’ and the ‘Society of Military History 2015 Distinguished Book Award’ because it is not really a military history at all.

It’s certainly an epic book – 788 pages, if you include the 118 pages of notes and 63 pages of bibliography – and it gives an impressively thorough account of the origins, development and conclusion of the First World War, as seen from the point of view of the politicians, military leaders and people of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

More social than military history

But I found it much more of a sociological and economic history of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society, than a narrative of military engagements.

Watson gives a broad outline of the German invasion of Belgium and northern France, but there are no maps and no description of any of the vital battles, of the Marne or Aisnes or Arras or Ypres. Instead he spends more time describing the impact on Belgian society of the burning of villages and the atrocities carried out by the Germans – in retaliation for what they claimed were guerrilla and francs-tireurs (free-shooter) attacks by civilian snipers.

I was specifically hoping to learn more about the famous three-week-long battle of Tannenberg between Germany and Russia on the Eastern Front, but there is no account of it at all in this book.

Instead Watson gives a detailed description of the impact on society in Galicia and East Prussia of the ruinous and repressive Russian advance. Little or nothing about the fighting, but a mass of detail about the impact on individual villages, towns and cities of being subject to Russian military administration and violence, and a lot about the impact of war on the region’s simmering ethnic tensions. I hadn’t realised that the Russians, given half a chance, carried out as many atrocities (i.e. massacring civilians) and far more forced movements of population, than the Germans did.

Watson does, it is true, devote some pages to the epic battle of Verdun (pp. 293-300) and to the Battle of the Somme (pp. 310-326), but it’s not what I’d call a military description. There are, for example no maps of either battlefield. In fact there are no battlefield maps – maps showing the location of a battle and the deployment of opposing forces – anywhere at all in the book.

Instead, what you do get is lots of graphs and diagrams describing the social and economic impact of war – showing things like ‘Crime rates in Germany 1913-18’, ‘Free meals dispensed at Viennese soup kitchens 1914-18’, ‘German psychiatric casualties in the First and Second Armies 1914-18’ (p.297) and so on. Social history.

Longer than the accounts of Verdun and the Somme put together is his chapter about the food shortages which began to be felt soon after the war started and reached catastrophic depths during the ‘Turnip Winter’ of 1916-17. These shortages were caused by the British naval blockade (itself, as Watson points out, of dubious legality under international law), but also due to the intrinsic shortcomings of German and Austro-Hungarian agriculture, compounded by government inefficiency, and corruption (all described in immense detail on pages 330-374).

So there’s more about food shortages than about battles. Maybe, in the long run, the starvation was more decisive. Maybe Watson would argue that there are hundreds of books devoted to Verdun and the Somme, whereas the nitty-gritty of the food shortages – much more important in eventually forcing the Central Powers to their knees – is something you rarely come across in British texts. He certainly gives a fascinating, thorough and harrowing account.

But it’s not military history. It’s social and economic history.

A lot later in the book Watson gives a gripping account of the German offensive of spring 1918, and then the Allied counter-offensive from July 1918 which ended up bringing the Central Powers to the negotiating table.

But in both instances it’s a very high-level overview, and he only gives enough detail to explain (fascinatingly) why the German offensive failed and the Allied one succeeded – because his real motivation, the meat of his analysis, is the social and political impact of the military failure on German and Austrian society.

Absence of smaller campaigns

Something else I found disappointing about the book was his neglect of military campaigns even a little outside his main concern with German and Austro-Hungarian society.

He gives a thrilling account of the initial Austrian attack on Serbia – which was, after all, the trigger for the whole war – and how the Austrians were, very amusingly, repelled back to their starting points.

But thereafter Serbia is more or less forgotten about and the fact that Serbia was later successfully invaded is skated over in a sentence. Similarly, although the entry of Italy into the war is mentioned, none of the actual fighting between Austria and Italy is described. There is only one reference to Romania being successfully occupied, and nothing at all about Bulgaria until a passing mention of her capitulation in 1918.

I had been hoping that the book would give an account of the First World War in the East, away from the oft-told story of the Western Front: the war in Poland and Galicia and the Baltic States he does cover, but in south-eastern Europe nothing.

The text – as the title, after all, indicates – is pretty ruthlessly focused on the military capabilities, mobilisation, economy and society of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Ethnic tension

If there’s one theme which does emerge very clearly from this very long book it is the centrality of ethnic and nationalist divisions in the Central Powers themselves, and in the way they treated their conquered foes.

Throughout its examination of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society – on employment, women’s roles, propaganda, agriculture and industry, popular culture and so on – the book continually reverts to an examination of the ethnic and nationalist fracture lines which ran through these two states.

For example, in the food chapter, there are not only radical differences in the way the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities dealt with the crisis (the effectiveness of different rationing schemes, and so on) but we are shown how different national regions, particularly of Austria-Hungary, refused to co-operate with each other: for example, rural Hungary refusing to share its food with urban Austria.

What emerges, through repeated description and analysis, is the very different ethnic and nationalist nature of the two empires.

Germany

Germany was an ethnically homogeneous state, made up overwhelmingly of German-speaking ethnic Germans. Therefore the fractures – the divisions which total war opened up – tended to take place along class lines. Before the war the Social Democrat Party (much more left-wing than its name suggests) had been the biggest socialist party in Europe, heir to the legacy of Karl Marx which was, admittedly, much debated and squabbled over. However, when war came, Watson shows how, in a hundred different ways, German society closed ranks in a patriotic display of unity so that the huge and powerful SDP, after some debate, rejected its pacifist wing and united with all the other parties in the Reichstag in voting for the war credits which the Chancellor asked for.

Watson says contemporary Germans called this the Burgfrieden spirit of the time, meaning literally ‘castle peace politics’. In effect it meant a political policy of ‘party truce’, all parties rallying to the patriotic cause, trades unions agreeing not to strike, socialist parties suspending their campaign to bring down capitalism, and so on. All reinforced by the sense that the Germans were encircled by enemies and must all pull together.

Typical of Watson’s social-history approach to all this is his account of the phenomenon of Liebesgaben or ‘love gifts’ (pp.211-214), the hundreds of thousands of socks and gloves and scarves knitted and sent to men at the front by the nation’s womenfolk, and the role played by children in war charities and in some war work.

He has three or four pages about the distinctive development of ‘nail sculptures’, figures of soldiers or wartime leaders into which all citizens in a town were encouraged to hammer a nail while making a donation to war funds. Soon every town and city had these nail figures, focuses of patriotic feeling and fundraising (pp. 221-225).

Watson is much more interested by the impact of war on the home front than by military campaigns.

Austria-Hungary

The spirit of unity which brought Germany together contrasts drastically with the collapse along ethnic lines of Austria-Hungary, the pressures which drove the peoples of the empire apart.

The Empire was created as a result of the Compromise of 1867 by which the Austrians had one political arrangement, the Hungarians a completely different one, and a whole host of lesser ethnicities and identities (the Czechs, and Poles in the north, the Serbs and Greeks and Croats and Bosnians in the troublesome south) jostled for recognition and power for their own constituencies.

Watson’s introductory chapters give a powerful sense of the fear and anxiety stalking the corridors of power in the Austro-Hungarian Empire well before the war began. This fear and anxiety were caused by the succession of political and military crises of the Edwardian period – the Bosnia Crisis of 1908, the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, the rising voices of nationalism among Czechs in the north and Poles in the East.

To really understand the fear of the ruling class you have to grasp that in 1914 there was a very clear league table of empires – with Britain at the top followed by France and Germany. The rulers of Austria-Hungary were petrified that the collapse and secession of any part of their heterogenous empire would relegate them to the second division of empires (as were the rulers of Russia, as well).

And everybody knew what happened to an empire on the slide: they had before them the examples of the disintegrating Ottoman and powerless Chinese empires, which were condemned to humiliation and impotence by the Great Powers. Austria-Hungary’s rulers would do anything to avoid that fate.

But Watson shows how, as soon as war broke out, the empire instead of pulling together, as Germany had, began dividing and splitting into its component parts. Vienna was forced to cede control of large regions of the empire to the local governments which were best placed to mobilise the war effort among their own peoples.

This tended to have two consequences:

  1. One was to encourage nationalism and the rise of nationalist leaders in these areas (it was via wartime leadership of the Polish Legions, a force encouraged by Vienna, that Józef Piłsudski consolidated power and the authority which would enable him to establish an independent Poland in 1918, and successfully defend its borders against Russian invasion in 1920, before becoming Poland’s strongman in the interwar period).
  2. The second was to encourage inter-ethnic tension and violence.

The difference between homegeneous Germany and heterogeneous Austria-Hungary is exemplified in the respective nations’ responses to refugees. In Germany, the 200,000 or so refugees from Russia’s blood-thirsty invasion of East Prussia were distributed around the country and welcomed into homes and communities all over the Reich. They were recipients of charity from a popular refugee fund which raised millions of marks for them. Even when the refugees were in fact Polish-speaking or Lithuanians, they were still treated first and foremost as Germans and all received as loyal members of the Fatherland (pp. 178-181).

Compare and contrast the German experience with the bitter resentment which greeted refugees from the Russian invasion of the Austro-Hungarian border region of Galicia. When some 1 million refugees from Galicia were distributed round the rest of the empire, the native Hungarians, Austrians or Czechs all resented having large number of Poles, Ruthenians and, above all, Jewish, refugees imposed on their communities. There was resentment and outbreaks of anti-refugee violence.

The refugee crisis was just one of the ways in which the war drove the nationalities making up the Austro-Hungarian empire further apart (pp. 198-206).

Two years ago I read and was appalled by Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands, which describes the seemingly endless ethnic cleansing and intercommunal massacres, pogroms and genocides which took place in the area between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

Watson’s book shows how many of these tensions existed well before the First World War – in the Balkans they went back centuries – but that it was the massive pan-European conflict which lifted the lid, which authorised violence on an unprecedented scale, and laid the seeds for irreconcilable hatreds, particularly between Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Jews.

The perils of multi-ethnic societies

Although I bet Watson is a fully paid-up liberal (and his book makes occasional gestures towards the issue of ‘gender’, one of the must-have topics which all contemporary humanities books have to include), nonetheless the net effect of these often harrowing 566 pages of text is to make the reader very nervous about the idea of a multinational country.

1. Austria-Hungary was a rainbow nation of ethnicities and, under pressure, it collapsed into feuding and fighting nationalities.

2. Russia, as soon as it invaded East Prussia and Galicia, began carrying out atrocities against entire ethnic groups classified as traitors or subversives, hanging entire villages full of Ukrainians or Ruthenians, massacring Jewish populations.

3. The to and fro of battle lines in the Balkans allowed invading forces to decimate villages and populations of rival ethnic groups who they considered dangerous or treacherous.

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915)

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915) No doubt ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’

In other words, everywhere that you had a mix of ethnicities in a society put under pressure, you got voices raised blaming ‘the other’, blaming whichever minority group comes to hand, for the catastrophe which was overtaking them.

Unable to accept the objective truth that their armies and military commanders were simply not up to winning the war, the so-called intelligentsia of Austria-Hungary, especially right-wing newspapers, magazines, writers and politicians, declared that the only reason they were losing must be due to the sabotage and treachery of traitors, spies, saboteurs and entire ethnic groups, who were promptly declared ‘enemies of the state’.

Just who was blamed depended on which small powerless group was ready to hand, but the Jews tended to be a minority wherever they found themselves, and so were subjected to an increasing chorus of denunciation throughout the empire.

Ring of Steel is a terrible indictment of the primitive xenophobia and bloodlust of human nature. But it is also a warning against the phenomenon that, in my opinion, has been ignored by generations of liberal politicians and opinion-formers in the West.

For several generations we have been told by all official sources of information, government, ministires, and all the media, that importing large groups of foreigners can only be a good thing, which ‘enriches’ our rainbow societies. Maybe, at innumerable levels, it does.

But import several million ‘foreigners’, with different coloured skins, different languages, cultures and religions into Western Europe – and then place the societies of the West under great economic and social strain thanks to an epic crash of the financial system and…

You get the rise of right-wing, sometimes very right-wing, nationalist parties – in Russia, in Poland, in Hungary, in Germany, in Sweden and Denmark, in Italy, in France, in Britain and America – all demanding a return to traditional values and ethnic solidarity.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying the evidence seems to be that human beings are like this. This is what we do. You and I may both wish it wasn’t so, but it is so.

In fact I’d have thought this was one of the main lessons of history. You can’t look at the mass destruction of the Napoleonic Wars and say – ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the appalling suffering created by industrialisation and say, ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mind-blowing racist attitudes I’ve been reading about in the American Civil War and say, ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mad outbreak of violence of the First World War and the stubborn refusal to give in which led to over ten million men being slaughtered and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the Holocaust and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’.

We cannot be confident that human nature has changed at all in the intervening years.

Because in just the last twenty years we have all witnessed the savagery of the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the genocide in Darfur, the failure of the Arab Springs and the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS, the war in Yemen, the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prove.

If all these conflicts prove anything, they prove that —

WE ARE STILL LIKE THAT

We are just like that. Nothing has changed. Given half a chance, given enough deprivation, poverty and fear, human beings in any continent of the world will lash out in irrational violence which quickly becomes total, genocidal, scorched earth, mass destruction.

In the West, in Britain, France, Germany or America, we like to think we are different. That is just a form of racism. In my opinion, we are not intrinsically different at all. We are just protected by an enormous buffer of wealth and consumer goods from having to confront our basest nature. The majority of the populations in all the Western nations are well off enough not to want, or to allow, any kind of really ethnically divisive politics or inter-ethnic violence to take hold.

Or are they?

Because creating multi-cultural societies has created the potential for serious social stress to exacerbate racial, ethnic and nationalist dividing lines which didn’t previously exist. When I was growing up there was no such thing as ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain. 40 years later there are some 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, some 5% of the population – and I read about people being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, or Muslims claiming unfair discrimination or treatment in the media, almost every day in the newspapers.

It’s not as if we didn’t know the risks. I lived my entire life in the shadow of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland which were based entirely on ethnic or communal hatred. And now not a day goes past without a newspaper article bewailing how Brexit might end the Good Friday Agreement and bring back the men of violence. Is the peace between the ethnic groups in Northern Ireland really that fragile? Apparently so. But British governments and the mainland population have always had an uncanny ability to sweep Ulster under the carpet and pretend it’s not actually part of the UK. To turn our backs on 40 years of bombings and assassinations, to pretend that it all, somehow, wasn’t actually happening in Britain. Not the real Britain, the Britain that counts. But it was.

Anyway, here we are. Over the past 40 years or so, politicians and opinion makers from all parties across the Western world have made this multicultural bed and now we’re all going to have to lie in it, disruptive and troubled though it is likely to be, for the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

Although it certainly includes lots of detail about the how the societies of the Central Powers were mobilised and motivated to wage total war, and enough about the military campaigns to explain their impact on the home front, overall Watson’s book is not really a military history of the Central Powers at war, but much more a social and economic history of the impact of the war on the two empires of its title.

And in the many, many places where he describes ethnic and nationalist tensions breaking out into unspeakable violence, again and again, all over central and eastern Europe, Watson’s book – no doubt completely contrary to his intentions – can very easily be read as a manifesto against the notion of a multicultural, multi-ethnic society.


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) A synopsis

Introduction

Ring of Steel sets out:

  1. to explore how opular consent for  the First World War was won and maintained in Austria-Hungary and Germany from 1914 to 1918
  2. to explain how extreme and escalating violence radicalised both German and Austro-Hungarian war aims, leading to the institution of slave labour and the stripping of agricultural and industrial resources in the occupied territories, and encouraging plans for the permanent annexation of Belgium, northern France and west Russia
  3. to describe the societal fragmentation caused by the war, especially in an Austria-Hungary already deeply fissured by ethnic tensions and which eventually collapsed into a host of new nation states; Germany was more ethnically homogenous and had been more socially unified in support of war so the end, when it came, unleashed a flood of bitterness and anger which expressed itself not along ethnic but along class lines, leading to street fighting between parties of the extreme left and right: the communists were defeated, the Nazis were born

Chapters

  1. Decisions for war
    • The conspirators– Elements in the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry and military had been waiting an opportunity to suppress little Serbia, located just on the empire’s border and endlessly fomenting nationalist unrest. When Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian (A-H) throne was assassinated on 28 June in the Serbian capital, Sarajevo, the Austrians blamed Serbia and spent most of July devising an ultimatum so extreme that they, and everyone else in Europe, knew it could not be fulfilled. Germany, not that concerned, gave A-H unqualified support, the so-called ‘blank cheque’. Both countries changed their tune when they realised that Russia was mobilising to support the Serbs, their fellow Slavs.
    • War of existence – Why was the Austro-Hungarian hierarchy so harsh on Serbia? A review of the many tensions tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire apart. ‘The actions of Austro-Hungarian rulers in the summer of 1914, although secretive and aggressive, were motivated less by belligerence than a profound sense of weakness, fear and despair’ (p.14).
    • The miscalculated risk – The pressures on German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg reflected a nation anxious about the growing might of Britain and France, the industrialisation of Russia, but well aware of the risk of world war. Hollweg gambled that a) the Austrians would defeat Serbia quickly, within a week and b) that Russia would be so slow to mobilise that the conflict on the ground would be over and the whole thing handed over to international mediation. He was wrong on both counts.
    • World war – Russia mobilised out of fear that an A-H victory over Serbia would:
      • give the whole Balkan region to Germanism
      • demolish Russia’s traditional claim to lead the Slav peoples
      • relegate Russia out of the league of Great Powers.
    • Fear and anxiety led Russia to full mobilisation. Hearing of this, German Chancellor Bethmann panicked and tried to curtail Austrian aggression. Too late.
  2. Mobilising the people
    • Assassination – The impact of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand on public opinion i.e. increased racial tensions across the Austro-Hungarian empire (p.57) Germans attack Czechs, Poles attack Germans.
    • The July crisis – Austria-Hungary issues its ultimatum to Serbia on 23 July. 27 July Serbia rejects it. 28 July Austria-Hungary declares war. The emperor Franz Joseph issued a proclamation to his people defining it as a defensive war. This excuse would be echoed by the German authorities and the Kaiser, who sincerely felt they were pushing back on a decade of slow encroachment by France and Russia, against a series of Balkan wars and international crises in all of which Germany had been ganged up on by France and Britain and Russia.
    • Mobilisation – Millions of men were mobilised with bewildering speed. Companies large and small lost their workforces, producing a depression and unemployment. Families lost wage earners. Widespread fears of terrorism and spies. The Kaiser made the grand declaration that he no longer recognised political parties – we are all Germans now. Fear of invasion by backwards Russia persuaded leaders of the largest party in Germany, the million-strong supposedly left-wing SPD, to back the government. On 4 August the Reichstag voted overwhelmingly for war credits, establishing the Burgfrieden ‘fortress peace’, the sense of one nation united to defend its values. 250,000 men volunteered to fight in August alone. Networks of women’s support groups sprang up across Germany. Austria-Hungary was very different: loyalty to the emperor and Hapsburg dynasty aroused much loyalty, but each of the different nations and races considered their own positions and ambitions – the Hungarians, the Poles, the Czechs. The Poles set up a volunteer Polish Legion which was to form the seed of the independent Polish nation declared in 1918. Many local imperial leaders took the opportunity to lock up troublesome nationalists, inflaming nationalist tensions.
  3. War of illusions
    • War plans – The German army only had one plan, the infamous Schlieffen Plan drawn up in the 1890s, which called for the army to knock out France with a lightning 6-week strike through Belgium, ensuring a swift capitulation (as in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War) before turning all its attention to Russia, which it was assumed would mobilise very slowly. Wrong. The attack through Belgium a) took too long b) guaranteed that Britain entered the war in defence of France and Belgium, with just enough soldiers to force the German advance to a halt. Meanwhile, in the east, the Russians mobilised faster than expected and invaded East Prussia. Everyone expected Austria to conquer little Serbia in weeks but due to ‘spectacularly incompetent’ leadership, its invasion not only failed but was repelled. Both nations, in other words, were scuppered right at the start by the ‘illusions’ and over-optimistic plans of their military leaders.
    • The Western Front – On the night of 1 August German forces secured Luxemburg’s railways. Deployment of 2 million men, 118,000 horses, 20,800 rail transports carrying 300,000 tons of material to the border with France and Belgium go like clockwork. But as soon as the large-scale invasion started things began to go wrong. The Belgians were better armed and more resistant than expected. The French stood their ground and even counter-attacked. Both sides were jittery. Suspicion of potshots by civilians, spies and franc-tireurs drew terrible revenge. Houses, sometimes entire villages were burnt down in revenge for supposed snipers. Civilians were taken as hostages, used as human shields, executed as spies or massacred. The Germans atrocities in Belgium were a propaganda gift for the Entente and sealed the German army’s reputation for brutality but Watson shows that, given half a chance, the French could match them. In any case, everything on the Western Front was dwarfed by the brutality of the Russian army as it invaded and occupied East Prussia.
    • The Hapsburg war – ‘The Hapsburg army fought a vicious and unusually unsuccessful war in the summer of 1914’ (p.136). Watson explains in detail why the Austro-Hungarian army was repulsed from Serbia (‘a spectacular humiliation’) and, because of the changes of mind of supreme commander Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (‘indecisions and errors’ p.148) led to catastrophic defeat in Galicia, the Polish-speaking eastern border of the empire, which the Russians swiftly over-ran. In one month of terrible decisions, Conrad had nearly destroyed the entire Hapsburg army (p.156).
  4. The war of defence
    • Invasion – News of the Russian sweep into Galicia and Eastern Prussia, and the atrocities they were committing, prompted fear and anxiety, and its corollary, patriotic fervour, across Germany.
    • Allenstein – Watson focuses on this town of 33,000 in East Prussia as an example of what happened when the Russians invaded i.e. the sudden threat of arbitrary violence which the mayor, police and other civil authorities desperately tried to fend off i.e. by handing over all the food the Russians demanded.
    • Russian atrocities – The Cossacks raped, burned and pillaged wherever they went. In the first two months some 1,500 civilians died. As in the west, a lot of the violence was fueled by the ordinary soldier’s fear of being shot by civilians, by spies, by the general terror created by this new kind of warfare. Preventing atrocities depended on the officers, and military discipline was more patchy in the Tsar’s army than in the western armies. 1 in 20 of those killed were cyclists. Bicycles were unknown in Tsarist Russia, so soldiers who saw bicycles assumed they were some kind of weapon, arrested the cyclists, smashed up the bikes and, more often than not, shot the cyclist on the spot. The Russians also deported tens of thousands of ‘suspect’ civilians into the Russian interior, often dumping them in makeshift camps, or just in the open steppes, where about a third died of illness and neglect. 800,000 refugees fled west and were distributed through the Reich and efficiently looked after, charity raising huge sums, and their stories helping to solidify Germany’s resolve to fight on. Russia’s atrocities in the first few months helped make the war last so long (thus helped the revolution).
    • Race war – Wherever they went, the Russians carried out pogroms against Jews.
    • Life in Great Russia – The Russians’ brutal and counter-productive efforts to make occupied Galicia (which straddles the modern-day border between Poland and Ukraine) part of Mother Russia by suppressing nationalist Poles, Ukrainians and, especially, Jews.
    • ‘Unwelcome co-eaters’ – In Watson’s view the Russian occupation of Galicia sowed the seeds of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Galicia was the breadbasket of the empire; combined with the naval blockade which the Entente began to put in place, this ensured food shortages, slowly developing towards starvation over the next four years. But also, over a million refugees fled Russian-occupied Galicia into the Empire. But whereas a flood of Prussian refugees into the Reich cemented Germany identity, here the arrival of Poles, Ruthenians, Jews and other minorities in German-speaking, Hungarian or Czech lands bred ‘resentment and hostility, social tensions and racial antagonism’ (p.205). Watson quotes an Austrian civilian describing the penniless refugees as ‘unwelcome co-eaters’.
  5. Encirclement
    • The long war – By Christmas 1914 it was clear this was a new kind of war, the stalemate in east and west was going to take time to beat down and, in the meantime, this would be a people’s war, requiring unprecedented levels of public support and consent.
    • A war of love – A description of the widespread volunteer activity in civilian Germany, including Liebestätigkeiten, ‘activities of love’, including sending Liebesgaben or ‘gifts of love’, i.e. socks and gloves and pants and scarves, to the millions of men at the front. In January the Reich set up its first propaganda campaign, to educate the population about Britain’s starvation blockade of Germany, and the need to ration food. The cult of nail figures.
    • Germany versus Britain – The German ruling class and intelligentsia were bitterly disappointed that Britain ended up joining the war against them – many had gambled that she would stay out – and, when Britain imposed a complete naval blockade of Germany – which had never been self-sufficient in food production – this resentment was focused by government propaganda into real hatred. Gott strafe England became a popular greeting. All this helped conceal the fact that the German authorities badly mismanaged the production and distribution of what food there was.
    • Austria-Hungary’s local wars – As soon as war started the Austro-Hungarian army, which turned out to be rubbish at fighting other armies – in Serbia or Galicia – turned out to be excellent at suppressing dissidents, spies and traitors in their own countries, waging what Watson describes as a ‘war on its own peoples and civil administrations’ (p.253). The inevitable result was that, over the next four years, all of those subject people lost faith in the Hapsburg administration and increasingly hankered after rule by their own kind. Watson’s descriptions of the Hapsburg army’s banning of Czech symbols and language in Bohemia has to be read to be believed, as an example of self-defeating heavy-handedness. On 23 May 1915 Italy, formerly their ally, declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Italy had been bribed by France and Britain with the promise of extensive Austrian territory and with gold. The deep sense of bitterness and betrayal in the Central Powers was further exacerbated. Austria-Hungary now had to face war on a new front.
  6. Security for all time
    • Mitteleuropa – In September 1914 Chancellor Bethmann Holweg approved a provisional ‘war aims’ plan. The goal was long-term security, which required pushing the borders with France and Russia further away, by permanently annexing Belgium and northern France and West Russia. These areas could then be turned into colonies, run by populations bred to supply the needs of the Reich. This had to be kept secret because the public was told it was a war of defence, but debate about whether it was, in actuality, a war of annexation, and just what should be annexed, and how and when, continued to exercise German leaders and politicians throughout the war.
    • Eastern utopias – In 1915 Germany counter-attacked against Russia and took back East Prussia and Galicia as well as conquering Tsarist Poland and the Baltic states. Watson describes the German plans to administer and exploit this large new territory, including the racialisation of the civil administration, and the asset stripping of most of Poland.
  7. Crisis at the front
    • Blood – By the start of 1916 all sides knew they were in a war of attrition. The idea of bleeding the opponent white underpinned the three big offensives of the year, the Germans against Verdun, the British on the Somme, and the Russian Brusoliv offensive.
    • The Grognards – The armies of all the combatants were much larger than they’d been in 1914, much better armed and supplied, but had also changed social composition. Lots of the career officers had been killed, replaced by men of lower social classes. Combined with fewer keen volunteers, this led to more tension in the ranks.
    • Verdun – Verdun was a complex of forts which stuck out into the German trench line. General von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, carefully planned co-ordinated attacks on the complex, designed to draw in an endless stream of French troops who could be massacred by the Germans facing them and controlling the flanks. In the event, both sides suffered immense casualties, about 300,000 men killed and wounded.
    • Brusilov’s offensive – The Russians stormed through the Austro-Hungarian Fourth and Seventh Armies in the East, ‘yet another blow to the sinking prestige of the Hapsburg monarchy’ (p.310).
    • The Somme – The Somme offensive failed because Field Marshall Haig broadened its at-first limited and carefully planned objectives into unacheivable over-reach. Watson thinks the Entente failed to deploy superior material and manpower in a focused enough way to secure a breakthrough. The biggest impact (apart from 100s of thousands of dead and maimed men) was the psychological blow to the German army which, for the first time, really felt the Entente’s superiority in men and materiel.
    • Outcomes – By the end of 1916, stalemate on all fronts. The Central Powers defeated and occupied Romania in autumn 1916. Late in the year a) German officers were posted to shadow their counterparts at all levels of the useless Austro-Hungarian army i.e. to help them b) in August the German General Staff was reorganised into a new body, the third OHL (see below).
  8. Deprivation
    • Suffering and shortage – Rationing, ersatz food (bread made of sawdust or sand, sausages made from slime and water), foraging, the black economy.
    • The causes of shortage – An economic survey of the shortfall of agricultural production before and during the war.
    • Mismanaging shortage – Various impacts of rationing and food shortages ‘huge inefficiency and disastrous errors’ (p.359).
    • Shattered societies – In Germany the beginnings of class resentment, in Austria-Hungary further polarisation between nationalities and races (e.g. Hungary refused to share its food surpluses with starving Austria), rising crime, loss of faith in the authorities, youth rebellion. There were food riots and, for the first time in two years, strikes. The social compact which had helped the Central Powers enter the war, was breaking down.
  9. Remobilisation
    • The Third OHL – 29 August 1916 Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg was appointed commander of the German army, with Erich Ludendorff as his Quartermaster General. OHL stands for Oberste Heeresleitung, Supreme Army Command. Over the next two years this pair gained total control of Germany’s war machine and, eventually, of its society, completely eclipsing the Kaiser and the civilian authorities
    • The Hindenburg Programme – The complete remodelling of German society from top to bottom, for Total War, refocusing agricultural and industrial output. Crucially, it represented an ideological shift from state authorities working through consent to working through compulsion.
    • Forced labour – In occupied Belgium, among prisoners of war in the Reich, and slave labour in Poland. ‘At war’s end 1.5 million prisoners were spread across 750,000 German farms and firms’ (p.389) about a third of them Poles.
    • The occupied territories – By 1916 the Germans had overrun 525,500 square kilometres and taken control of 21 million non-German citizens (p.392). The Germans stripped labour, agricultural goods and machinery from occupied lands, the worst case being the ‘Ober Ost’ region in the Baltic, under Ludendorff. The Belgians got off lightest because of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, organised by millionaire mining engineer and future U.S. president Herbert Hoover (p.406).
    • By far the most important thing to emerge from this analysis of German OHL attempts to militarise society, fleece occupied countries and create a mass semi-slave workforce was that it didn’t work – it did not succeed in either feeding the German population better or significantly increasing war output. A lesson the Nazis failed to learn.
  10. U-boats
    • The worst decision of the war – In January 1917 the Reich declared ‘unrestricted’ U-boat warfare on merchant ships supplying Britain and France. This was bound to impact America, who made up over half the shipping. As American merchant ships began being sunk American public opinion became vociferous for war. On 6 April 1917 America entered the war on the Entente side, changing the Entente into ‘the Allies’. Watson explains the background to the German decision i.e. an authoritative report analysed the shipping Britain required, the tonnage U-boats could sink, and calculated that Britain’s food supplies could be driven into crisis and Britain forced to capitulate before the Americans entered. In other words it was yet another German gamble which, like the Schlieffen Gamble back in 1914, utterly failed.
    • The unrestricted submarine campaign – A fascinating account of the development of the U-boat fleet, the experience of sailing on a U-boat, the resilience of its crews, some amazing stories of miraculous escapes, then analysis of why the strategy failed; partly due to the Allies adopting a convoy system, to the use of mines, mostly because Germany never had enough submarines but most fundamentally – because the strategy was based on faulty calculations.
    • Wonder weapon blues – At first the German population was given a huge lift by publicity around the new policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, putting its faith in this new ‘wonder weapon’ to end the war soon. Watson describes the enormous propaganda drive which surrounded subscription to the Sixth War Loan. America suspended diplomatic relations in February 1917, but German military leaders and intellectuals didn’t mind because of their confidence in the wonder weapon. But even patriots were dismayed when, on 1 March, allied newspapers published the notorious Zimmerman telegram in which the German Foreign Minister had offered an alliance with Mexico against America, in return for which the Mexicans would be handed the states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. To educated people it came as no surprise when America then declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. And it was no coincidence that a few weeks later Germany saw the first really large-scale strike of the war when 217,000 workers downed tools in Berlin (p.446).
    • In Watson’s opinion the decision to launch unrestricted submarine warfare was the single biggest cause of the defeat of the Central Powers (p.449).
  11. Dangerous ideas
    • Reactionary regimes – 1917 brought big changes. The Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph died and was succeeded by the 29-year-old emperor Karl I, who turned out to be shallow and indecisive. The Austrian Chief of Staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, who had overseen so many defeats, was replaced in February 1917. In March 1917 the Tsar of Russia was overthrown and replaced by an uneasy partnership between a middle-class Provisional Government and the Petersburg workers and soldiers’ soviet. President Woodrow Wilson’s announcement that America was fighting the military regime and not the people of Germany was cleverly devised to drive a wedge between population and rulers. Watson describes the response of the Kaiser, the third OHL, the socialists and the conservatives in the Reichstag to combat these political pressures.
    • Going for broke – Early in 1917 at a conference with the Chancellor and the Kaiser, Hindenburg and Ludendorff pushed through a policy of Maximum Annexation, with a view to permanent control of Belgium, northern France, Poland, the Baltic and the Balkans. In secret, the new young Austrian emperor had opened a channel of communication with the French and British, prepared to concede a peace ‘with no annexations and no reparations’. The Allied leaders were interested but the opportunity was crushed by the Italian Prime Minister who refused to abandon the promise he’d been made of gaining significant Austrian territory. Her peace overtures rebuffed, Austria found herself tied to an increasingly militant Germany.
    • Opposition – How the A-H nationalities – the Czechs, the Poles, the south Slavs and the Hungarians – distanced themselves from the failing Habsburg administration. In Germany there was a rise in strikes, and for the first time, mutinies, in the navy. Evidence that the example of the Petersburg Soviet had spread among politically-aware workers. The SPD split, with an Independent SPD pursuing calls for an immediate peace, and a tiny splinter group, the Spartacists, who would be involved in the post-war revolutionary uprisings.
  12. The bread peace
    • Brest-Litovsk – The Bolsheviks staged their coup d’état in November 1917, taking control of the Russian government, and a few weeks later sued for peace. The armistice on the eastern front started on 15 December 1917. Peace talks were held at the town of Brest-Litovsk. The Bolsheviks delayed and played hardball, so the Germans attacked and moved forward 200 kilometres in five days. Panicking, Lenin signed a peace treaty on 3 March 1918, by which he conceded 2.5 million square kilometres of territory with 50 million inhabitants, 90 percent of Russian coal mines, 54 % of its industry and a third of its railways and agriculture (p.494). Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Ottakar Czernin made one of the greatest mistakes of the period by signing an independence deal with Ukraine which gave the new country much of southern Poland, in exchange for Ukraine sending urgently needed food supplies to the empire. In the event the grain never turned up, but the entire Polish provisional council and Hapsburg diplomats in Poland resigned in protest.
    • Goodbye Galicia – The ill-fated decision to cede Ukraine land traditionally associated with Poland finished all lingering loyalty to the Hapsburgs. Watson details the riots in Cracow, the replacement of the Hapsburg eagle with Polish symbols, while Hapsburg insignia and even medals were publicly ridiculed, hanged and spat on. The corollary of this upsurge in nationalism was the end of the empire’s easy-going multinationalism, with a rise in attacks on non-Poles and especially Jews.
    • The Hapsburg military – In summer 1918 Austria-Hungary could have sued for a separate peace with the Allies, but failed to do so. After the peace with Russia about a million prisoners of war began returning, many bringing with them the virus of Bolshevism, but even more disillusioned by the futility of war. The army handled them badly, sending them to quarantine camps to be debriefed, where conditions were bad, then deploying them to areas where nationalism was rising and threatening the empire. Too late. Nationalist leaders in Poland and Czechoslovakia were finished with the Hapsburgs. Yet instead of negotiating a separate peace and possibly hanging onto their empire, the Austro-Hungarian ruling class tied its wagon to Germany’s fortunes. In May the emperor Karl made a humble trip to OHL headquarters in Spa, to apologise to Hindenburg and pledge his nation’s army to the neverending war.
  13. Collapse
    • The last chance – The Germans made a final, enormous and well-organised push on the Western Front in spring 1918. Watson shows how the preparations were immaculate but the offensive lacked clear targets. If the advancing spearheads had taken the major supply depots of Amiens or Haezebrouck, the Germans might have forced the Allies to the negotiating table. But Ludendorff made the fateful decision to support the army which made the quickest breakthrough of Allied lines, the Eighteenth Army attacking south of the Somme. It certainly shattered the British Fifth Army, took some 90,000 prisoners, and advanced 60 kilometres. But it was 60 kilometres of wasteland, still devastated after the terrible Battle of the Somme of 1916. It had no strategic importance. He followed this up with ‘Operation Georgette’ which broke through French lines on the Chemin des Dames and advanced 20 kilometres in a day, the biggest advance in one day achieved by either side at any point of the war. But this and the final attack in Champagne merely highlighted a fatal truth. No matter how far they advanced, the British and French always had more men and munitions, and the Americans were coming. German supply lines became stretched. Ammunition was running low. And the men, who had suffered huge losses, kept being recycled back to the Front and expected to fight again and again. But they were exhausted.
    • Defeat – Which explains why, when the French and British counter-attacked in mid-July, the Germans collapsed. Soon the Allies couldn’t cope with the number of Germans who were surrendering. The failure of the German spring offensive had brought it home to them, one and all, that they could never win. In which case, they just wanted the war to end. Between March and July the German army suffered 980,000 casualties, and the Allies captured 385,000. There were mutinies but also plenty of cases where officers led their men in surrendering. All ranks up to and including the High Command realised they had lost. Ludendorff had a nervous breakdown and a nerve specialist was called in to keep him going. On 28 September he gave in to reality and told Hindenburg that Germany must ask for an immediate armistice.
    • Revolution – It all ended very quickly. By October the German and Austrian rulers had agreed to approach Woodrow Wilson asking for an armistice. Watson details the complicated sequence of events. American demands hardened after a U-boat sank a ship in the Atlantic, killing women and children and some American civilians. Negotiations between the German leaders were tortuous. I knew the Generals suddenly became impatient for the war to end, but had no idea that they then changed their minds and tried to get the Kaiser to fight on. But by then power had shifted to the Reichstag and the bulk of the population. Demoralised by the publication of Germany’s initial peace overture of 3 October, the sailors of the German fleet simply refused to put to sea for a last-ditch Götterdämmerung battle with the British. Instead, they instigated mutinies which swept across barracks in Germany, leading to the declaration of a Munich soviet and a communist revolution in Berlin. A hurriedly convened committee of left and centre politicians announced that the Kaiser had abdicated (although he hadn’t). The long awaited armistice came into force on 11 November 1918. By then Austria-Hungary had collapsed. The Hungarian Revolution started on 27 October with thousands streaming onto the streets in defiance of the Hapsburg army, with soldiers mutinying and the Hapsburg insignia everywhere torn down and replaced by the red, white and green flag. On 31 October crowds took to the streets of Prague declaring Czech independence. More violent was the declaration of independence in Poland, accompanied by violence against rival Ruthenes and, as usual, pogroms against Jews. If the peace of November 1918 signalled a genuine return to the status quo ante in France and Britain, it brought just the opposite in central and eastern Europe, it led to entirely new and unprecedented political and nationalist forces being unleashed, forces which destabilised the new fledgling nations for years, until they were all caught up in the conflagration started by the Nazis, which itself only ended in 45 years of subjection to the Soviet Union.
  14. Epilogue – It took a long time to sign the peace treaties. Peace with Germany was only signed on 28 June 1919, with Austria in September 1919, with Hungary in June 1920.  Most of the Central Power leaders escaped scot free, the Kaiser enjoying retirement in his Dutch villa, General Hindenburg never ceasing to blame ‘the politicians’ for Germany’s defeat and, amazingly, getting elected President of the Weimar Republic in 1925. The enormous reparations imposed on Germany are usually named as the cause for post-war Germany’s financial and political instability. But Watson singles out Woodrow Wilson’s claim that the key to the peace would be the principle of ‘self determination‘. This led many people to hope for a nation and government of their own in a region which was just too racially intermixed. With the result that racial conflict was to plague all the post-war nations of central and eastern Europe for decades to come. Above all, tens of millions of people were left wondering what all their suffering and loss had been for, and with a deep, abiding, smouldering sense of resentment and anger. Bitter and violent anger combined with ethnic and racial tensions were to lead Europe into an even worse disaster just 20 years later. For which, read The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923 by Robert Gerwarth (2016)

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Other blog posts about the First World War

Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) has a unique international appeal, as both an artist and a personality. Her image in oil paintings and photographs is instantly recognizable.

This is a beautifully curated and designed exhibition which left me with a much deeper understanding of Kahlo’s life, her work, her toughness in the face of terrible adversity, and the Mexican roots of her distinctive and powerful self-image.

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo in blue satin blouse, 1939, photograph by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The treasure trove

The pretext or premise or prompt for the exhibition was the discovery of a treasure trove. After Frida died at the horribly early age of 47, her mourning husband, the famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, ordered all her belongings in the famous ‘Blue House’ they shared together, to be locked up and sealed away.

Rather incredibly, it was only in 2004 that this room was re-opened, to reveal a treasure trove of Kahlo-iana – including her jewellery, clothes, prosthetics and corsets, along with self-portraits, diary entries, photos and letters. Together they shed a wealth of new light on her life, personality, illness and endurance, on her art and on her extraordinary achievement in fashioning herself into an iconic image and brand.

And this is what the exhibition is based on.

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Self-portrait by Frida Kahlo (1941) © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Vergel Collection

Biography

The show is smaller than some recent ones at the V&A. Not so much a blockbuster, as an intimate portrait. It starts with a corridor-like room divided into small recesses, each of which take us briskly through a chapter in her early life, using black and white photos, a few early paintings and some home movies.

The key elements for me were that:

  • Her father was German, emigrated to Mexico in the 1890s and set up a photographic studio. She helped him and learned photographic technique, how to compose and frame a subject. No accident, maybe, that she is best known for her painted and photographic self portraits.
  • Her full name was Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón. She always preferred Frida because it her father’s name for her. I was mulling this over when I came to the section describing her marriage to the, by then, already famous Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, in 1928, who was a lot older than her, 43 to her 22. I.e. a big, reassuring father figure. Daddy.
  • When Frida was 6 she contracted polio and was seriously ill. She was left with one leg shorter than the other.
  • When she was 18 she was on a bus which was in a collision with a tram, resulting in her being both crushed against the window and having a piece of metal penetrate her abdomen. This accident and her long recovery put paid to the idea of studying to become a doctor. Confined to bed for months, she began to expand the sketching, drawing and painting she’d already been toying with.

In the late 1920s she developed a kind of naive, symbolic style, drawing inspiration from Mexican folk culture. After marrying Rivera, she accompanied him on a number of trips to the United States, where he had been commissioned to paint murals, socially conscious murals being a big part of 1930s American artistic activity.

Here’s a good example, from 1932. I don’t know if I like it. I understand the fairly simple ideas: on the left are images of Mexico, Aztec ruins and figurines, flowers and agricultural produce, with their roots in the good earth: on the right is Detroit, highly industrialised ‘Motor City’ (the name FORD is spelled out on the smoking chimneys), the American flag, skyscrapers, and growing out of the soil are not beautiful flowers but lamps and fans.

And in between is a self portrait of Frieda in a formal pink dress holding the Mexican flag. Between two worlds, eh? I get it.

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Self-portrait on the Border between Mexico and the United States of America by Frida Kahlo (1932) © Modern Art International Foundation

Her naive symbolism matches the simple-minded ‘political’ attitude of Rivera’s murals. They both thought of themselves as communists and went on marches supporting strikers etc, but, nonetheless, liked visiting the heart of capitalism, America – or ‘Gringolandia’, as Frida called it. The money was good and there were lots of opportunities for Rivera to get commissions. And it was in New York, in 1939, that Frida held her first successful one-woman show. Capitalism is an awful thing – unless you can get money, commissions, promotions and sales out of it: the attitude of many 20th century artists.

One of the most interesting biographical facts is that Lev Davidovich Bronstein, known to the world as Leon Trotsky, having been exiled from the Soviet Union, was offered refuge by the revolutionary government of Mexico and came to stay with the Riveras, not for a few weeks, but for two years.

The exhibition includes a b&w film of Comrade Trotsky explaining, in English, how badly he has been treated by comrade Stalin. He insists he is really a man of honour – as anyone whose family was murdered by the Red Army he set up, would surely have testified.

Mexican roots

These early biographical roots are interesting but they are eclipsed by the power of the later rooms.

These start with the room on Kahlo’s Mexican roots. It explains that during the 1920s and even more so the 1930s, Mexico underwent a cultural renaissance. Part of this was the exploration and promotion of the country’s pre-Colombian culture, but it also included the first real appreciation of the folk customs and costumes of peasants and the poor around the country.

Interest in the country spread abroad, with American artists, photographers and film makers attracted to its sunny, bright and passionate culture. John Huston made films here. Even the young British writer Graham Greene made a tour of the country (he hated it) and then set his most powerful early novel here, The Power and the Glory. I’ve reviewed them both.

Frida and Diego were part of this revival of interest in Mexico’s culture and history. They both sought inspiration in the folk and workers culture of their country. In particular they were attracted to the area called Tehuantepec in the Oaxaca region. People here followed traditional ways, and the exhibition includes a whole wall of traditional icons of the Virgin Mary, establishing a link between these images of saintly femininity and Kahlo’s self portraits and explorations of her identity.

The dress room

The final room in the show is the biggest and I involuntarily exclaimed ‘wow’ as I walked into it.

Centre stage is a huge central glass case displaying some 20 of Frida’s dresses. Full length, made of colourful fabrics and bright designs, each one has been carefully displayed and annotated, giving a powerful sense of Frida’s sense of colour and dress.

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

Cotton huipil with machine-embroidered chain stitch; printed cotton skirt with embroidery and holaün (ruffle) Museo Frida Kahlo

There are only 10 or so paintings in the whole exhibition and six of them are in this room. They’re later works, when she had realised that she was her own best subject and that self portrait was her best medium.

Looking out at the viewer, flat and unemotional, her iconic features by now well established – the monobrow, the faint moustache on her top lip, her strong brown eyes, the sideways pose – she is flatly, unashamedly, blankly herself.

In the painting below even the tears don’t really affect the expressionless face. Or they appear as surreally detached embellishments of the fundamental design. Much weirder is the ‘ruff’ dominating the image. The exhibition explains that this is a huipil de tapar, a traditional Mexican item popular in Tehuantepec, designed to frame the face and extend over the neck and shoulders. There is another larger painting of her wearing the same outfit and a full scale example of a huipil de tapar on a display mannequin for us to compare and contrast reality with painted depiction.

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Self-Portrait by Frida Kahlo (1948) © Private Collection

Kahlo is, you realise, a perfect subject for the V&A because she was not only an artist, but someone with a fascination for clothes and costumes – in her case, of her native Mexico. The exhibition is less about the ar per se and more about how she drew heavily on these costume traditions and elaborated them into a highly colourful style of her own.

Hence there are more than twice as many dresses as there are Kahlo artworks. Hence, also, the display cases devoted to the heavy and ornate jewelry she wore, the elaborate ear-rings and thick heavy necklaces, set off against the bright and colourful hair ribbons.

In this respect it is fascinating to watch the 9-minute tourist film from the Tehuantepec region which is on view just next to the dresses and necklaces. Look at the colours and designs of the dresses, the heavy gold jewellery, and the brightly coloured ribbons in the women’s hair. In a flash you understand. Kahlo was a conduit for these traditional dresses, colours, fabrics and jewellery, into the international art world.

She gave it her own style. She combined it in her own way and, above all, gave it the imprimatur of her own face, of her very distinctive features (eyes, monobrow, moustache) and her unsmiling, detached, dream-like appearance.

But a great deal of her ‘look’ quite obviously stems directly from the traditions of the women of Tehuantepec.

Frida Kahlo on a bench, carbon print (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo on a bench (1938) Photo by Nickolas Muray © The Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection of 20th Century Mexican Art and The Verge, Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

The sick room

The big dress room is the climax of the exhibition, in terms of dresses, design, jewellery, paintings and photos.

But arguably the biographical core of the exhibition is the room before it, entitled ‘Endurance’. In an imaginative but spooky display, the curators have commissioned the creation of six small four-poster beds and made each into a display case which, along with photos and text along the walls, give a quite harrowing account of Kahlo’s many illnesses, ailments, treatments, and lifelong suffering.

The polio left her with a limp. The bus accident left her with serious internal injuries. In the 1930s she began to experience back problems and underwent a series of treatments and operations to fix them. At the end of her life one foot became infected and then gangrenous, requiring the whole leg to be amputated. It’s gruesome stuff.

This room includes examples of the medical equipment she was forced to wear or endure. There are platform shoes for the shorter leg, a prosthetic leg made for her to wear after the amputation but, most evocative of all, a series of corsets, plaster casts and back braces to help support her failing spine.

Kahlo decorated, painted and embellished as many of these as she could. The plaster casts, in particular, are painted with abstract patterns. The most elaborate one carries a painted hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union and, underneath, an image of the foetus she was carrying before she had a miscarriage in 1932.

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

Frida Kahlo wearing a plaster cast, which she decorated with the hammer and sickle (c.1950) photo by Florence Arquin

The record of her illnesses and, in her later years, the almost constant pain she endured, make for harrowing reading, but there are also two really powerful insights in this room.

1. Painting in bed

One is that she was, at various periods, confined to her bed, it being too painful for her to walk or even stand. (Imagine!) So she had a mirror rigged up in the canopy above her and an easel on the side of the bed. From here she could paint, but paint what?

The answer is dreams – surreal images based on dreamlike symbolism, repeated images of her or a body in a bed – and her face. Over and over again the face of someone in discomfort or pain, staring, blankly, inscrutably, down from the ceiling.

Photos show the actual set-up, with Frida lying in bed, beneath a big mirror, the easel right next to her, on which she is painting.

This sheds quite a lot of light on her subject matter, and lends a depth and dignity to the pictures. Modern critics, obsessed with feminism and identity, may well write about the paintings ‘transgressing’ this or that convention and ‘subverting’ ‘gender stereotypes’.

But they are also the image of someone in tremendous pain. Knowing this, getting the really deep feel for her physical suffering which the ‘Endurance’ room gives you – lends tremendous depth of character and meaning to the detached, slightly dream-like expression you encounter again and again in her paintings.

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

The Broken Column by Frida Kahlo (1944)

2. The construction of the self

The other insight is easy to miss. Off to one side is a set of three black and white photos taken of Frida topless. They were taken by Julien Levy, the owner of the New York art gallery where she had her first solo show in 1939 and with whom she had an affair.

The insight comes in the text underneath, where Levy is quoted describing Frida doing and undoing her braids. First she undid the braids, carefully removing all the objects which were in them and held them in place, arranging them all carefully and in order on the dressing table. Later, she remade the braids, carefully and meticulously taking the ribbons and clips and other elements from their place on the dressing table, and putting them back in just the right places to create just the right effect.

In the context of the ‘Endurance’ room, next to so much physical pain and discomfort and demoralising bad luck – this ritual takes on a whole new significance.

You realise it was a way of controlling and ordering her life, a life of illness and pain which might so easily slip into indiscipline, depression or addiction. Instead she maintained control by paying minute attention to every element of her self-presentation. There are several cases showing the lipstick, and makeup, and nail polishes and eye liner and other accoutrements she used to create her image. To make herself up. To control, create and bolster herself.

Might sound stupid, but this knowledge makes the dazzling inventiveness of her self-creation seem genuinely heroic.

3. Long dresses

That’s why she liked to wear long dresses – because they hid her polio limp. This explains why all twenty dresses in the dress room are full length, reaching right down to and covering the feet. It’s a very Victorian effect, in some of the photos every inch of her body is covered save for her hands and face. But a Victorian outfit on acid, blitzed with brilliantly coloured fabrics and designs.

Conclusion

If you like Frida Kahlo this exhibition is a dream come true. There was a long queue to get in and the rooms were quickly packed out.

That said, there is remarkably little about her art, as art. A few mentions of the influence of Rivera’s socialist murals, a bit about Mexican symbolism, mention that the Godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, heavily promoted her, writing at length about the more surreal and dreamlike of her fantasy paintings (none of which are on display here).

But all in all, surprisingly little commentary or analysis of the paintings as paintings, except for comments about the dresses she’s wearing in them, the hair, the jewellery, the way she presents herself in them.

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

Self Portrait with Braid ( 1941) by Frida Kahlo

A moment’s googling shows that Frida Kahlo painted hundreds of paintings. Only ten are on show here. This exhibition is much more about the creation of her image, all the exhibits inhabit concentric circles spreading out from that premise.

I found it hard to get very worked up about 70 or 80 year-old makeup sets (in the outer circle). Her dresses and fabrics are colourful and interesting but, at the end of the day, not really my thing – though I could see plenty of women visitors being riveted by their designs and fabrics. Kahlo’s mural-style, political or symbolic art is sort-of interesting – although murals aren’t a format I warm to – and I found them less compelling than comparable murals by Stanley Spencer or Thomas Hart Benton.

No, it’s only when I came to her paintings of herself that I felt a real power and forcefulness in the image, the way they bring out her stern, unsmiling expression.

But even more central than her self portraits, and – in my opinion – at the absolute heart of the exhibition are the contemporary photos of Frida. It is the photos which bring together all the elements mentioned above, her great taste for colourful fabrics, bright designs, adventurous headgear, stunning jewelry and vivid lipstick to match, her deep sense of Mexican folk art and culture – all this funneled, channeled and focused in a series of stunning and powerful photos.

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Frida Kahlo with Olmec figurine (1939) by Nickolas Muray © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

Nickolas Muray

Thus it was often the photos which impressed me most in any given room. And looking closely, it quickly became clear that the photos we know, the ones we’re familiar with, and by far the best ones, were taken by Nickolas Muray.

There is almost no information about Muray in the exhibition, which is a shame because his images are iconic. According to Wikipedia, Muray had a ten-year-long affair with Frida, from 1931 to 1941. (During this period she divorced, then remarried Rivera. And sometime in there, she also managed to have the affair with Levy, which led to the nude photos. Those bohemian artists, eh?)

The only flicker of recognition of Muray’s role in helping to crystallise the Kahlo brand is a wall label next to one of the portraits. Here Muray is quoted as saying

colour calls for new ways of looking at things, at people

This struck me as pointing towards something very profound. Most of Kahlo’s paintings are striking in composition (and for their generally ‘naive’ style) but are surprisingly drab, especially the earlier, political ones. the later paintings are marvellously colourful and inventive. But in a way it is these photos alone which do justice to the tremendous colourfulness of her self-presentation.

According to Wikipedia, Muray was:

famous for his creation of many of the conventions of color advertising. He was considered the master of the three-color carbro process. (Nikolas Muray Wikipedia article)

In other words, Muray wasn’t just quite a good colour photographer – he was one of the inventors of colour photography for the modern age.

This knowledge goes a long way to understanding why Muray’s photos of Kahlo stand out from the other contemporary photos of her, done at the same time, by other photographers. The coming together of Muray and Kahlo’s bodies in their long affair is trivial compared to the coming together of their shared understanding of colour and design – with phenomenal results.

The (admittedly black and white) photo of her by Florence Arquin makes her look like a person, an ordinary human being, squinting in the sun. But the three photos I’ve included by Muray give Kahlo a feeling of power, self-control, majesty, an almost goddess-like calm. In Muray’s hands Kahlo becomes an icon to be worshiped.

You can imagine these images of Frida Kahlo carrying on being iconic for a very long time. Iconic of what, exactly? Whatever you want: our current cultural obsessions are with gender, sexuality, race, identity and so on. But I think her image transcends any one set of ‘issues’ and lends itself to infinite reformulation. Which is one of the characteristics of great art.

The movie

A film of her life was released in 2002. According to the trailer, Frida was ‘one of the most seductive, and intriguing women, of ours or any time’, and it features numerous clips of her jumping into bed with men and women, with little of no mention of the physical disabilities and ailments.

The shopping

Kahlo was an ardent communist. Today she is marketed as a fashion icon, feminist saint, and, more to the point, the inspirer of a whole world of merchandise.

In the shop you can buy some 134 items of merchandise including at least 20 books about her, notebooks, greeting cards, pencils, lapel badges, earrings, necklaces, brooches, jewellery, sunglasses, scarves and shawls, t-shirts, handbags, tote bags ( I counted 20 different design of bag), a Mexican cookbook and ingredients, pillows and socks – yes, socks.

Here’s the full list of Kahlo merch:

The promotional video

Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa


Related links

Other V&A blog posts

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018 @ the Serpentine

This is a wonderful exhibition. I walked round it with a huge smile on my face and left with a spring in my step. What inventiveness, humour, precision planning, vision and persistence!


You may have noticed or seen news reports of the immense sculpture made of painted oil barrels which was erected on the Serpentine in London at the start of the summer.

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park (2016-18) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park (2016-18) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

It is titled The London Mastaba and is the work of the modern artist, Christo, born 1935 in Bulgaria (and so 83 years-old).

Since the 1970s Christo and his late-wife, Jeanne-Claude, have created a series of dramatic and well-publicised site-specific installations.

The most memorable (for me) were:

  • erecting a curtain of orange cloth across a valley in California
  • wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris in golden-yellow fabric (1984)
  • wrapping the Berlin Reichstag in polypropylene fabric, covered by an aluminum in (1995)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude always refused sponsorship or contributions of any kind to their vast installations, instead raising money themselves by selling off sketches, plans, designs and other elements connected with the projects.

The Christo presence at the Serpentine this summer is in two parts:

  1. The vast Mastaba edifice itself, positioned in the east half of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, which will remain in place until 23 September.
  2. And a fascinating retrospective of Christo’s career being held in the main Serpentine Gallery, with particular reference to his enduring fascination with oil drums, as symbols of modern civilisation and for their sculptural and artistic potential.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018

Part one – Christo and barrels

I grew up in a petrol station. Well, in the house immediately behind a combined village store, petrol station and tyre bay. The smell of petrol, rubber, oil and all their associated products are part of my childhood. The massive shed-cum-warehouse at the back of the house stored hundreds of tyres, stacked vertically, reeking of rubber, especially when it rained and the leaky roof let the rain get in and made the tyres black, wet and shiny. Oily puddles were everywhere.

So I warm to Christo’s love of oil barrels. There is something primeval about them. Our civilisation, the entire world economy, is built on them. No oil – no cars, lorries, buses, lorries, planes, ships. No transport of people or food. No electricity. No light. No internet. No blogs.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

So I have deep autobiographical, and intellectual-economic reasons for being fascinated by displays to do with oil.

But there’s also something about ‘the barrel’ – as a shape, as an artefact – which is oddly picturesque.

Put it another way: the combination of the machine-repetition of hundreds, thousands, millions of identikit barrels – with the way that each one is then rendered individual by its unique collection of scratches, rust and dents makes them almost like human beings. Same basic model. A thousand variations, the dents of individual lives.

And in fact barrels do come in quite a combination of different sizes, makes and designs.

All this makes barrels a perfect material for artists from the schools of Arte Povera and Minimalism, committed to using industrial products and by-products, and to exploring the aesthetic impact of minimal combinations of simple, everyday materials.

Because of my childhood, because I like minimalism and the geometric in art, because I like the modern and urban, and I’m interested in political and environmental symbolism – I didn’t need any persuading to find oil drums, in and of themselves, beautiful objects, and that arranging them in patterns can be strangely attractive and beguiling.

Christo began with pots, apparently. Arriving in Paris in the late 1950s, he could only afford a small studio and became intrigued by the potency of paint pots. Pots plain, spattered with paint, or wrapped in cloth.

And then you can arrange them. One on top of each other, into little towers. Several towers next to each other. Some matt, some wrapped in fabric, some tied and colourised – some spattered. Experiment. Combine. Play.

Paint pots by Christo. Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the w, Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Paint pots by Christo. Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the w, Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Reminiscent of Jasper Johns’s paint pots and brushes of the same period. The joy of the everyday!

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns, 1960

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns (1960)

Then Christo moved into a larger studio, which happened to be near a loading yard. Full of barrels. Full barrels, empty barrels, new barrels, knackered old barrels, barrels of petrol, barrels of oil. (This explains the years given in the title to the exhibition – 1958 right up to the present day. Because it covers 60 years of Christo being fascinated by barrels and barrel opportunities.) Now he could ask the yard owners if he could take the oldest, pretty much useless barrels – and they were happy to get rid of them.

Following on from little towers of pots, Christo was now in a position to make bit towers of oil barrels! The exhibition includes some examples of those early ‘barrel columns’ in the flesh, as well as stylish black-and-white photos of the imaginative barrel combos he made back in the early 1960s, blown up to wall-size.

Oil barrel columns by Christo (1962) Photo by Jean-Dominique Lajoux

Oil barrel columns by Christo (1962) Photo by Jean-Dominique Lajoux

Cool, aren’t they? Vaguely Heath-Robinsonish. Or like something off The Clangers. Humorous. Or, more seriously, they could be totem poles, the totems of our tribe, the gas-guzzling, fuel-hungry tribe which is destroying the world. Misguiding spirits. Hollow memorials, ringing false.

Quickly, Christo realised you could not only pile them on top of each other, but build things out of barrels. Most obviously – walls! As early as 1962 he constructed a cheeky installation using them to block a side street in Paris.

Wall of Barrels - The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

Wall of Barrels – The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

Photos of this installation are in a room with several barrel sculptures and texts (in French) explaining the way that these barrel walls can hold, contain, limit, and block. And can be brightly coloured. Like the pixellations in old colour printing. Like Seurat’s dots. They eat up all kinds of references.

Beside the assemblages of pots and barrel totem poles and tripods, there are stylish sketches of how the Wall of Barrels could have been deployed as a fashion statement or design feature in the snazzy world of the early 1960s: at a gas station, on the ground floor of an apartment block, in your living room – if any architect had been mad enough to take up the idea.

Mur d'assemblage dans un station-service by Christo (1962)

Mur d’assemblage dans un station-service by Christo (1962)

If you can build walls of them on land – why not – floating barrels? Plans for a floating platform of barrels date back as far as the late 1960s, when Christo hoped to float a pyramid of barrels on Lake Geneva. In 1967 there were plans to build a floating pyramid of barrels on Lake Michigan.

Construction (Project for Lake Michigan – 1968) by Christo. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: André Grossmann, © 1967 Christo

Construction (Project for Lake Michigan – 1968) by Christo. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: André Grossmann, © 1967 Christo

Like the best minimalist art works, arrangements of oil barrels are both absolutely everyday objects and packed with meanings:

1. There is something seriously aesthetically about this plan for a floating pyramid of barrels. It is a beautiful object – severe, planned, organised and arranged to display a deeply repetitive pattern, but pattern with variations, of texture and colour.

2. At the same time there is something highly symbolic and meaningful, in a medieval allegorical kind of way – a riff on the age-old proverb about oil and water never mixing.

3. The image is also rich with serious socio-political overtones, a sardonic reflection on our civilisation’s prioritisation of oil over water – especially in light of the kind of disastrous oil spillages we used to get in the late 1960s and 1970s.

4. And, then again, there’s something purely cheeky and comic about it. It’s the kind of thing Bart Simpson might suggest.

‘Hey, let’s make a floating pyramid out of oil barrels!!’
‘Yeah, cool, Bart.’

In the corner of the main gallery is a smaller version of this pyramid of barrels – only one barrel deep, so more of a barrel triangle.

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

Looking at this brings us up to date, as it were, and introduces us to the long-gestating idea of The Mastaba!

Part two – Christo and the Mastaba

If you look at it and ponder it and walk around it and think about it, the nature of ‘the barrel’ places certain limits on what you can build with it.

You can have a vertical wall – like the one blocking the street in Paris – because the round surfaces pile very neatly on top of each other – but only so long as you have something to brace the edges of the wall against. Without two walls to hold the sides in place, a rectangular arrangement of barrels would simply fall apart. If you want your barrels to be freestanding, the most stable arrangement is the triangle, as in the arrangement above.

But the facade is a problem. The tops and bottoms, or fronts and backs, of the barrels, the round ‘faces’ – are unavoidably flat. No way are they going to slope in any direction. Not unless you set each successive layer of barrels a set distance back from the one below – a foot, say, or half a barrel length. This would create a very sharp, stepped, zigzag effect. And it would have the drawback of being contrived – of not emerging naturally from the nature of the material.

And so, the logical conclusion of really thinking what you can build with barrels is the mastaba shape – two sides sloping gently with the natural slope created by piling rows of cylindrical objects on top of each other, each successive layer one barrel less wide than the one below. But the front and back faces of the pile rigidly flat and vertical, and so creating a straight, vertical wall.

Christo’s been working on trying to build just such a massive shape since the late 1960s. In the 1970s a great deal of planning and architect’s drawings were made to erect a massive mastaba painted orange to be sited amid the undulating sands of the United Arab Emirates.

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

There are photos of the location, and group photos of the Arab engineers and designers who collaborated on the plans. There are detailed sketches and draft designs. There’s even a scale model of the enormous result, complete with tiny stick humans scattered around the base.

The Mastaba by Christo (1979) Enamel paint, wood, sand and cardboard

The Mastaba by Christo (1979) Enamel paint, wood, sand and cardboard. Photo by the author

What with the desert and all, it’s hard to miss the blatant reference to the Egyptian pyramids. Mausoleums to dead tyrants. ‘Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair!’ as future generations will look back on our fossil fuel civilisation, and not with affection.

But it was not to be (there’s no explanation in the exhibition why the plan for a massive mastaba in the desert didn’t come off, but IChristo’s career has been full of ambitious plans which never quite make it).

Instead, the last room in the exhibition shows the focus switching to London, where the powers-that-be obviously gave the go-ahead for it to be constructed, and Christo’s team of designers, engineers and architects swept into action – as described here in a welter of sketches, designs and architect’s plans.

The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) 2018. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, technical data and tape.

The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) 2018. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, technical data and tape.

Conclusions

These images of Christo working with oil barrels, stretching back 50 years or more, indicate the enduring centrality of a lifelong interest in mass-produced industrial artefacts and what can be done with them, in their sculptural, architectural and aesthetic possibilities.

I used to associate Christo with wrapping buildings in foil, but for the rest of my life he will be ‘the man who was obsessed with barrels’.

The antiquity of some the sketches – dating back to the 1960s – indicate the incredibly long lead time required for all of his projects, many of which have taken decades to organise and fund, and which give you a real respect for his combination of ambition with dogged determination.

Plenty of time for the ideas themselves to be sketched, played with, and then planned in meticulous detail – all with the kind of safety and engineering requirements which bring in town planners, health and safety officials, engineers and so on.

The exhibition suggests the deep creative commitment required. And then the intensely collaborational nature of the final result.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo by Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

And that final result? Is rich and strange and puzzling – banal in everyday daylight, strange and haunting at dusk, throwing an endless variety of rippled reflections across the surface of the lake, a statement of… what?

An artistic statement, a political statement, a cultural statement, an environmental statement. All or any of these.

It is the Rorschach test-like nature of his works which I find so liberating. The London Mastaba is a big impressive thing and what you make of it is up to you, a test of your imaginative resources and open-mindedness.

The exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is FREE and so is the Mastaba. There for anyone to visit and investigate, or just to pull up a deckchair and ponder.

I think it’s wonderful.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

BP Portrait Award 2018 @ the National Portrait Gallery

The BP Portrait Award is in its thirty-ninth year at the National Portrait Gallery and twenty-ninth year of sponsorship by BP. The competition is open to everyone aged 18 and over, from anywhere in the world.

From the 2,667 entries submitted from 88 countries, 48 portraits were selected to be put on display in the NPG galleries, where you can visit them for FREE. A few weeks ago the judges announced the winners of the first, second and third prizes.

In a commendable move the NPG has made all the portraits available to view online.

Thus you are as free as me to make up your mind which ones you like, and dislike, and to pick out trends or patterns.

Winner of the first prize: An Angel At My Table by Miriam Escofet, 2017 © Miriam Escofet

Winner of the first prize: An Angel At My Table by Miriam Escofet, 2017 © Miriam Escofet

White art for white people

Art is a middle-class, white activity. Some artists are, admittedly, lower-middle-class or working class. A handful are black or Asian. But for the most part it’s a white person’s game. Most art critics and scholars, for example, are comfortably white, professional and upper middle class. Think Andrew Graham-Dixon.

And the vast majority of gallery goers – as I can attest from the 100+ shows I’ve reviewed for this blog, and from the hundreds I visited before I started writing it  – are white, middle class and middle aged.

The white, professional orintellectual milieu of the art world comes over very strongly from the 48 portraits in this exhibition.

Sister by Zack Zdrale, 2017 © Zack Zdrale

Sister by Zack Zdrale, 2017 © Zack Zdrale

Conservatism

As does a powerful feeling of stylistic and visual conservatism.

Maybe it’s the format. Maybe, after 150 years of photography, films, TV and advertising have devised countless ways of presenting the human face in all kinds of formats and situations, maybe the sheer idea of painting someone’s portrait is intrinsically conservative and, well, a bit dull.

But the show reeks of safety and conformity. There are quite a few examples of breath-taking technical dexterity as in, for example, the staggeringly life-like Bertha (2004) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa.

Bertha (2004) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2017 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ocho

Bertha (2004) by Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ochoa, 2017 © Jesús María Sáez de Vicuña Ocho

But it is skill in the service of an essentially conservative, utterly realistic vision.

There is, in other words, a surprising absence of modern art in all the paintings on display. It’s as if van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso or Bacon had never existed.

Numbers

First, a summary of the numbers:

  • 48 pictures
  • featuring 62 people
  • 13 of whom are children
  • so about 49 adults
  • 27 of whom are women (55%)
  • 6 black subjects (12%)
  • 1 Chinese guy

Nationalities

It seemed to me there were more non-Anglo artists than last year i.e. it was a more truly global selection. Thus the three prize-winning entries were by a Spaniard, an American and a Chinese.

  • First prize: An Angel At My Table by Miriam Escofet (Spanish)
  • Second prize: Time Traveller, Matthew Napping by Felicia Forte (American)
  • Third prize: Simone by Tongyao Zhu (China)
Winner of the third prize: Simone by Zhu Tongyao, 2017 © Zhu Tongyao

Winner of the third prize: Simone by Zhu Tongyao, 2017 © Zhu Tongyao

Persons of colour

There’s a portrait of a Chinese guy, but no south Asians that I could see.

I’m not sure if there were any black artists. What was clear is that all (I think) of the portraits of black people were painted by white artists.

  • Portrait of Gifty from Shitima by Huey Glynn-Jones
  • A throne in the West by Massimiliano Pironti
  • Laura by Shawn McGovern
  • David by Robert Seidel
  • Miranda by Meghan Cox
  • Vincent Desiderio by Bernardo Siciliano
  • Portrait of Neema Tambo by Gaela Erwin

Which doesn’t stop some of them being the best things in the show.

Portrait of Neema Tambo by Gaela Erwin, 2018 © Gaela Erwin

Portrait of Neema Tambo by Gaela Erwin, 2018 © Gaela Erwin

But it only takes a smattering of critical theory, or politically correct-speak, to suggest that, on this showing black people are certainly allowed into art galleries – so long as they have been painted by white people.

Or to suggest that, in the act of painting them, white artists present a sedate, restrained, bland, mute and very passive image of black people.

Not consciously. Not deliberately. But it seems to be the cumulative effect of a) most of the artists being white b) most of the portraits being stiflingly muted.

Style

Almost all of the 48 portraits are figurative, covering a range of realism, from ‘photographic’ through a variety of more stylised approaches, such as the portraits of Francesca Hayward, and the children’s book illustration-style portrait of Laura.

Only a handful – six (12.5%) that I counted – were deliberately ‘experimental’ or modernist, in composition or style. And even these felt like only soft references to modern art. Or to art that had been and gone a hundred years ago.

Charlie Masson by Alvin Ong is very unlike most of the other straightforward pictures. But isn’t it a bit in the style of Edvard Munch, the Edvard Munch who had his heyday over a hundred years ago?

Charlie Masson by Alvin Ong, 2017 © Alvin Ong

Charlie Masson by Alvin Ong, 2017 © Alvin Ong

Maybe the best ‘experimental’ work is Ako by Nikita Sacha, a self portrait which aims to capture the blurred, faceless, heartless quality of our era of web-camming and skyping.

Not an immediately striking image, it is, though, if you focus on it for a bit, quite an effective depiction of the emptying effect of modern digital communications. You can imagine how a whole series of these would have an appropriately alienating effect.

Ako by Nikita Sacha, 2017 © Nikita Sacha

Ako by Nikita Sacha, 2017 © Nikita Sacha

Group portraits

I counted three group portraits, including a real monstrosity, The New Religion by Conor Walton.

The New Religion by Conor Walton, 2017 © Conor Walton

The New Religion by Conor Walton, 2017 © Conor Walton

Nudes

Just the one (female) nude. According to the wall label:

This self-portrait was painted by Güven as a response to moving from her native Turkey to live in the Netherlands. She says: ‘This new cultural environment, together with the natural surroundings, has provided a new dimension to my feelings and mode of personal experience. In particular, it has enabled me to freely experience my own identity more intensely and at greater depths.’

What this reproduction doesn’t capture is that, once you’ve got over her bare boobs and fanny, and the dark rings under her eyes… once you’ve got past the human figure – her rendition of twigs and grass and leaves are done in staggering realism. I took a while to look at the way every single twig and leaf had been rendered with pinpoint accuracy.

Slightly reminiscent – now I think about it – to the pedantic super-realism of John Everett Millais’s portrait of Ophelia – although the comparison brings out the lack of flowers in the Güven. And, on further comparison, also the stylisation of the face compared to Millais’s naturalism. Has she deliberately made herself look more Turkish? If you really look at the eyes and eyebrows you realise they have a simplified, stylised, cartoon quality.

Self-Portrait by Seçil Güven, 2017 © Seçil Güven

Self-Portrait by Seçil Güven, 2017 © Seçil Güven

Emotion

I noticed at last year’s show that nobody was smiling let alone laughing or, indeed, showing any human emotions at all.

Same again this year.

My friend said, ‘Don’t be an idiot, it’s hard enough getting someone to sit still for hours and hours in the same pose, let alone asking them to sit still for hours with a funny expression on their face.’

Maybe so. But, taken together, it still seemed to me that these 48 unsmiling portraits make for a very constrained, emotionless and, therefore, cold and unengaging experience.

A Throne in the West by Massimiliano Pironti, 2017 © Massimiliano Pironti

A Throne in the West by Massimiliano Pironti, 2017 © Massimiliano Pironti

Keeping it in the family

So there’s a definite lack of emotional diversity. But you could argue that there’s also a strong lack of social diversity, a thought which forces itself on you as you read the wall labels which explain who each sitter is:

The portrait is of the artist’s younger sister, Abigail.

The portrait is of the artist’s friend and studio-mate, Charlie.

The portrait is of Huang’s long-standing friend Chen Ching Ming

The portrait is of Tim, a long-standing friend of the artist.

The portraits are of the artist’s mother and brother.

The portrait is of the artist’s sister-in-law.

The portrait is of the artist’s brother, Tom.

The portrait is of the artist’s nephew.

The portrait is of the artist’s mother, herself an artist.

The portrait is of Vittorio, the artist’s colleague and friend.

The portrait is of Nicki, a model and friend of the artist.

The portrait is of the artist’s girlfriend, Verania.

The portrait is of Miranda, a performer, playwright, artist’s model and long-term friend of the artist.

The portrait is of the artist’s daughter, Ilea.

The portrait is of the artist’s friend Antonio.

The portrait is of the artist’s daughter, Bertha.

The portrait is of the artist’s son.

The portrait is of Vincent, a fellow teacher at New York Academy of Art.

The portrait is of Kelly, a friend and regular model for the artist.

The portrait is of the artist’s friend Mark.

The portrait is of the artist’s daughter, Maeve.

The portrait is of the artist’s son, Finn.

The portrait is of Forte’s friend Matthew.

The portrait is of the artist’s brother-in-law, David.

Again my friend said, ‘Don’t be an idiot. These people aren’t rich, you know. Who do you expect them to paint? The Queen? Of course they’re going to paint friends and partners and work colleagues and whoever is available and agrees to sit for them. Hence the popularity of the self portrait, where the poor artist can use the cheapest, most available subject imaginable – themselves!’

Yes. Maybe. But it still makes for a collective portrait of an overwhelmingly white, bohemian, artistic class, reeking satisfaction with all its liberal values and sympathies. The same class, in other words, as the visitors to the gallery. Everyone congratulating themselves on agreeing about everything.

Except that this isn’t the world. Not the real, big, complicated messy world, with its footballers and movie stars and bankers and buskers and Pride marchers and Notting Hill paraders and policewomen and ambulance drivers and nurses and doctors and lawyers and estate agents and plumbers and postmen and builders and decorators and shop assistants and chief executives and PAs and pilots and caterers and farmers and casual labourers.

It’s a world of friends of the artist and the artist’s son and the artist’s nephew and the artist’s mother. Who, in several instances, are themselves artists. Artists making art about other artists. Thus A portrait of two female painters by Ania Hobson. The wall label thinks this is ‘radical’, because one of the girls is wearing boots, thus subverting gender stereotypes blah blah blah. I think it couldn’t be more narrow and limited, because it is an artist painting two other artists and thinking this is somehow new or interesting.

In summary: I felt the absence, in the exhibition, of real social diversity. There’s one writer (Claire Tomalin), a ballerina (Francesca Hayward) and probably a few other job descriptions I’ve missed but, for the most part – it’s overwhelmingly a world of artists and their friends and families. A small world. A tiny world.

Moreover, hardly anyone was portrayed doing anything. No one is portrayed in a uniform or work clothes (except for a number of fellow artists in paint-spattered dungarees). No-one is in a factory or warehouse or at a desk or driving a car or watching telly or cooking food or standing by a bike or a canoe or anything at all interesting or active.

In fact, if I tabulate it, and if we exclude ‘sitting down’ as an activity, then the only human activities being carried out in the pictures are:

  • sitting at a laptop (Charlie Masson)
  • sewing (Patchwork)
  • sketching at a desk (The Oolographer)
  • doing something with biological specimens (the Biologist)
  • playing a lute (in The New Religion)

Maybe it’s this curious absence of human activity of almost any kind which contributes to the strange sense of limbo and deadness which the exhibition as a whole creates.

To end and sum up, here’s a wonderfully realistic painting, done with amazing technique, which I really liked. Its subject is, inevitably, a relative of the artist, in this case a portrait of the artist’s nephew. Andthe little boy in question is not doing anything at all – unlike most little boys of my acquaintance. But he is almost smiling. Which is something.

Found Albert Crouching in the Kitchen by Samantha Fellows, 2018 © Samantha Fell

Found Albert Crouching in the Kitchen by Samantha Fellows, 2018 © Samantha Fell


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 (2017)

The Great Man theory…

Catherine Merridale’s book Lenin on the Train describes the journey by sealed train which Lenin and 30 or so of his Bolshevik supporters made across Germany, by boat across the Baltic to Sweden, across the border into Finland and then south to St Petersburg, in April 1917.

The whole thing was laid on and funded by the German High Command in the hope that returning this noted troublemaker to the febrile political atmosphere of wartime Russia, only a few weeks after the Tsar had been toppled in the February revolution, might lead to even worse political disarray, and that this might cause Russia to abandon the war altogether, thus allowing Germany to concentrate her forces in the West.

In the chapter titled ‘Gold’ Merridale speculates on just how extensive German support for the Bolsheviks in fact was. Was laying the train, passports, visas, food and so on just the beginning? Did the Germans also siphon money to the Bolsheviks to fund their party newspaper, Pravda, and their campaigning leaflets, to pay for meetings and venues?

The evidence is murky, but underlying the whole enquiry is a variation on the Great Man theory of history, namely: if only someone had stopped Lenin getting to Russia, if only he had been arrested at the Finland border (which, apparently, he nearly was), or simply executed by British Intelligence (who had more than one opportunity to do so) – then maybe the whole Russian Revolution, with the immense worlds of suffering it produced, would never have happened. Maybe it all came down to one man or, at the least, to one small political party – the Bolsheviks.

… versus the hunger for change

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 is the massive coffee table book published to accompany last year’s enormous Royal Academy exhibition about the radical, world-changing new art and design which was inspired by the Russian Revolution.

I spent an afternoon flicking through it (and dipping into the 16 intense and detailed essays which address every genre and type of art influenced by the Revolution). And it dawned on me that the extraordinary explosion of high and popular art, all across the nation, art for factories and workshops and steelyards and barracks, radical innovations in film and design and posters and graphics – mitigates against the Great Man theory. One man didn’t do all this.

At the very least the sheer scale and scope and dynamism of the new movements, which lasted for at least a decade (until Stalin suppressed them in favour of his bland, conventional ‘Socialist Realism’ in the early 1930s) show the enormous hunger for change and for radical, world-changing experimentation, among all the artists, poets, authors, film-makers, craftsmen and designers of 1910s Russia.

Maybe, possibly, the Bolsheviks might not have seized power in October 1917. But the existing unstable dual government couldn’t have continued – somebody would have seized power.

The fact that these outpourings of propaganda films and wallpaper and textiles and ceramics and architecture and completely new styles of graphics and design were welcomed, watched, read and distributed so widely, suggest the Russia as a whole was a society straining at the leash for an incredibly total transformation.

Maybe Lenin could have been stopped and the Bolsheviks banned. But the evidence of this exhibition and book suggest that whoever took power in Russia in late 1917 would still have been compelled to make wide-ranging and sweeping changes, which would have led to much the same end – a dictator force-marching Russia through agricultural and industrial modernisation, in its bid to catch up with America and Germany.

Given Russia’s long history of secret police and prison camps, any faction which had come to power – on the right or left – would probably have deployed them just as ruthlessly as the Bolsheviks.

In other words – speculation about how much the German High Command funded the Bolsheviks, with its corollary, would the Bolsheviks have come to power without the aid of the German High Command – make for interesting reading, and lead to high-level, alternative history-style speculation – but I don’t think it would have changed the fact that Russia would have undergone some kind of transformative social revolution.


Completely new visual styles

Here is just a tiny sample of the art which featured in the exhibition and which is included in the book. I could add a paragraph or so about each of them, but all of them can be looked up on google. I just want to convey the variety and the energy of the art of the period.

Constructivist art

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1919) by El Lissitzky

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky (1919)

Figurative art

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

After the battle by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1923)

Architecture

Model of Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Moscow, 1920

Ceramics

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Russian revolutionary plate (1921)

Design

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Propaganda poster by Alexander Rodchenko

Fabrics

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Red spinner by Andrey Golubev (1930)

Film

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the famous 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Still from Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 avant-garde film directed by Eisenstein

Avante-garde photography

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Osip Bril by Alexander Rodchenko (1924)

Socialist realist photography

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

A Komsomol at the wheel (1929) by Arkady Shaikhet

Posters

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Poster for Man with a movie camera (1929)

Even if Lenin had never lived, and the Bolshevik party never existed, the complete and utter collapse of Russian society, with all its traditions, its religion, its class system, king and aristocracy, its system of land ownership and industrial production, would have triggered an immense social and cultural transformation, regardless.

Artists reflecting these changes would have fallen in line with the discoveries of the other European avant-gardes, in France and especially Germany,  themselves responding to the transforming impact of the new technologies of the day which were driving all Western societies – mass production of ceramics and fabrics, the new popularity of film and radio, the excitement of cars and fast trains – and everywhere the transforming impact of electricity with its ability to power lights in streets and public buildings, as well as driving a whole new world of consumer goods.

My argument is that Russia had reached the edge of collapse, and that seismic change would have happened no matter what the precise alignment of political parties in Russia. Or who the German High Command had funded.


Related links

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Lenin on The Train by Catherine Merridale (2016)

Dominic Lieven’s book about the diplomatic build-up to the Great War – Towards The Flame – was very demanding, every page full of analyses and counter-analyses of complex international situations, which took a good deal of concentration to understand.

By contrast, Catherine Merridale’s book is like a series of articles in a travel supplement, or the book version of a TV script – chatty, opinionated, entertaining, lightweight and, in the end, a bit disappointing.

The story

In April 1917 the German High command laid on a sealed train to transport Lenin and 30 or so communist colleagues to war-weary Russia, in the hope that his subversive activities would weaken the Russian war machine. It was a strategy they’d been trying elsewhere. The Germans were arming independence fighters in Ireland and trying to foment rebellion against British rule in India.

This book sets out to recreate Lenin’s fateful journey, describing the broader context of the war, the nexus of German agents and dodgy Russian businessmen who arranged the deal, the journey itself, and the fraught political situation which Lenin found in wartime St Petersburg when he arrived.

Lenin's train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Lenin’s train journey from Switzerland to the Finland Station in St Petersburg

Three parts

Merridale’s book isn’t formally divided into three parts, but it felt to me like it fell naturally into three big sections.

Part one – Catherine’s adventures and pukka Brits

For such an important and, in its consequences, tragic subject, the introduction and part one are disconcertingly light, chatty and frivolous.

In the introduction Merridale describes her own attempt to recreate Lenin’s journey on modern-day trains and ferries, with a great deal of travel magazine observations – people smuggling booze on the ferry from Germany to Sweden, it’s very cold in Finland, and so on.

Her observations are often disappointingly trite – in one place she points out that when Lenin took the journey Europe was at war, whereas in 2016 – Europe is at peace! Back then it was a dangerous and uncomfortable journey – but now crossing frontiers is easy, and the seating is nice and comfy! Golly.

So much for the introduction. In the first 80 or so pages of the text proper she plunges us not into the fraught economic, military and political situation of 1917 Europe but… into the world of quirky upper-class characters who populated the British Embassy and diplomatic corps in 1917 St Petersburg.

It was, she tells us gushingly, a simply magical city!

The journey ends in the magical city of St Petersburg, Lenin’s wartime Petrograd, the second Russian capital. (p.17)

She introduces us at very great length to chaps like Sir Samuel Hoare, Sir George William Buchanan, Major-General Sir Alfred William Fortescue Knox, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, and so on.

Now, when Dominic Lieven introduces diplomatic personnel or political leaders into his narrative, it is always to summarise their ‘line’, their views on geopolitical issues, and to feed them into his intricate portrait of the complex debates about political and diplomatic strategy among the Russian ruling class.

When Merridale introduces key players, it is generally to tell us a funny story about their parrot or their umbrella.

When Lieven introduces Marxist revolutionaries, it is to explain their theories and how they had developed out of the economic and social situation of Russia, the threats they posed to the Tsarist order, and to clarify the complex concatenation of circumstances which made them viable.

When Merridale introduces her revolutionaries, it is to tell us about their love lives and taste in wine.

So, for example, she tells us that in 1905 Trotsky and his wife arrived at the Munich apartment of Alexander Helphand (known as ‘Parvus’), a Marxist theoretician, revolutionary, and activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

You might expect Merridale to give us at least a hint of the theoretical discussions and how they influenced the man who went on to be number two in the Russian Revolution, but no. The Trotskies, she tells us:

became unofficial lodgers at the big man’s place, sharing all the news and imbibing Parvus’ theories of revolution along with his strong coffee and delicious late-night wine. The two men talked about the revolutionary potential of the general strike, they honed their idea of a world revolution (for Russia was only ever meant to be a starting point) and they dared each other to get tickets for the next train east. (p.60)

Instead of anything about his theoretical contribution or political strategy, we learn that Parvus was so fat that the children of German Marxist leader, Karl Kautsky, nicknamed him ‘Dr Elephant’.

When Parvus persuades the German High Command to fund his plan to send revolutionaries to Russia, we learn that he used the initial down-payments to set himself up in Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel where he established an entourage of bosomy blondes and ordered champagne for breakfast (p.63).

This may all be true, but these first hundred pages present serious, tragic, even catastrophic history, as jolly japes retold by Bertie Wooster. The British Embassy, we learn, was situated in the impressive Saltykov Palace, although the diplomats had to share it with:

an ancient princess, Anna Sergeyevna Saltykova, who still lived in the back with her servants and a loquacious parrot. (p.31)

The British ambassador to Petersburg was supported by his wife, Georgina, his daughter Meriel, and – a bad-tempered Siamese cat.

The acting head of intelligence at the time was Major Cudbert Thornhill, an old India hand and ‘a good shot with rifle, catapult, shot-gun and blowpipe.’ (p.33)

It feels a lot like ‘Miss Marple investigates the Russian Revolution’.

Part two – The Russian revolution and the train journey

Around page 100 things pick up. Merridale begins to pay more serious attention to Lenin’s beliefs and theories. We still get a lot about his haircut, his boots and how he was dragged off to a department store in Stockholm to buy new clothes so that he would look more presentable on arriving in Russia (plus some more gushing travelogue from Merridale who has, she assures us, visited as many of these shops and cafes and sites as still remain).

But for the central hundred and fifty pages or so Merridale’s narrative becomes genuinely gripping.

The genesis of the idea to send Lenin to Russia remains a bit murky. Some communist fixers-cum-shady businessmen (hence the portrait of Parvus and others of his type) appear to have volunteered their services as go-betweens with the communist agitators, at just the time that the German secret services were casting around for characters likely to cause the most damage to the Russian state.

Contacts and discussions had been floating in the foggy atmosphere of war more or less since the outbreak of hostilities. What suddenly kick started everything was the February 1917 Revolution – covered in gripping detail by Merridale – when a march of women to celebrate International Women’s Day attracted other protesters, swelled in size and then – crucially – the soldiers sent in to suppress it refused to obey orders, with some turning on their own officers.

After a winter of escalating strikes and unrest, exacerbated by severe food shortages, it was the mutiny of the soldiers in garrisons all across Petersburg which led to the Revolution.

The members of the Duma, the Russian Parliament, were confused by events. The conservatives fled, many resigned, but a hard core of liberals stayed on to set up what they called a Provisional Government, under the benign figurehead of kindly old Prince Lvov.

At the same time, there was unstoppable momentum from politicised workers (especially from the working class Vyborg area of Petersburg) and representatives of the mutinous regiments, to set up their own council or soviet.

Meanwhile, the Tsar had been forced to abdicate, excluding his sickly son from the succession, and passing the throne on to his brother, Grand Duke Michael, who himself deferred taking it up until ‘the people were allowed to vote through a Constituent Assembly for the continuance of the monarchy or a republic’.

This never happened, and it was Grand Duke Michael’s demurral, his refusal to accept the poisoned chalice of monarchy, which, in effect, brought the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty to an end.

Thus in a few hectic days came about a situation in which Russia had become a republic, but was lumbered with two governing bodies – the Provisional Government and the Petersburg Soviet – who eyed each other with suspicion.

The initial euphoria of the revolution settled down into a pattern of all-night debates and arguments in smoke-filled rooms – while all the while Russia was still fighting a war against an extremely professional opponent, imperial Germany, and the government was trying to motivate a huge army of some seven million men who now wondered what and who they were fighting for.

Merridale explains all this very well, not least because she draws heavily on the eye witness accounts of the British diplomats and writers present in Petersburg. It is only now that the reader understands why we were introduced to all these upper-class twits in the first 80 or so pages – it was because they would turn out to be invaluable source material for describing and interpreting the confusing chaos of events in Petersburg that fateful spring.

It would have helped a lot if Merridale had prefaced her opening chapters by explaining this, by saying: ‘I am now going to introduce you to a florid collection of British upper class eccentrics, incompetents and curiosities which might seem odd but, trust me, they will turn out to be vital eye-witness testimony to one of the most seismic events in history.’

Anyway, Merridale now skillfully intersperses pretty much everything that is known about the eight-day journey of the train – the organisation of the train by German authorities, the gathering up of Lenin’s associates, the setting off, the stops, the delays, the invasions by drunken soldiers, the professional and personal rivalries of many of the figures aboard it, the border passports control (which, I was surprised to read, included humiliating strip searches) – all interspersed with sections describing the fast-moving events in Petersburg.

Above all, for the first time, the narrative starts to sound political. For the first time Merridale descends into the feverish mesh of argument and counter-argument which engulfed every educated person living in Russia, and gives it a sense of urgency:

Should Russia continue fighting? Some socialists thought Russia should offer an immediate ceasefire in what was, after all, a brutal imperialist war. Liberal pacifists agreed. But right-wing traditionalists thought Russia must fight on to defend her honour, the Holy Church etc. And many socialists thought to surrender would be simply to allow imperial Germany to invade and conquer European Russia.

Among socialists there was fierce and bitter debate about whether the ‘revolution’ needed to be continued or whether it had achieved its aim. You have to understand that Marx thought that Western societies would inevitably and unstoppably pass through certain fixed stages of development, and that orthodox Marxists therefore thought that Russia had to pass from a peasant autocracy into a bourgeois democracy, before it could go on to have a workers’ revolution. The Tsarist autocracy had quite clearly been overthrown and the new provisional Government, made up mostly of lawyers, academics and some industrialists, quite clearly represented the triumph of the bourgeoisie. This stage should be given a chance to bed in, to establish Western norms of democracy, a free press and so on, while the socialists continued to educate the workers and peasants in order to prepare for the next stage, the socialist revolution which was just around the corner. Manana. Soon. Probably.

Merridale’s very English, pragmatic, unintellectual approach to the situation brings out some of the more basic, humdrum psychological explanations for delay – namely, that many of the so-called socialists and communists were in fact scared of assuming responsibility in such a perilous situation. Power looked like a poisoned chalice. Russia was losing the war and the people were starving. With the convenient scapegoat of the Tsar removed, whoever took the reins would get all the blame.

This is the fraught backdrop against which Lenin’s train finally steams into the Finland station and he is greeted by a large cheering crowd and dignitaries with bouquets of flowers etc.

Merridale has, by this stage, done such a good job of bringing out Lenin’s spartan, puritan, obsessive personality that we’re not at all surprised that he throws away the bouquets, ignores the pompous welcome speeches, and goes straight out onto the balcony to address the crowd of workers to announce that – ‘The Time Is Here, the time is now for uncompromising revolution. No-one must cooperate with the bourgeois provisional government. It must be stormed and overthrown and all power vested in soviets or communes of workers and peasants.’

Merridale brilliantly conveys the shock Lenin’s unbending zealotry had on absolutely everyone: the bourgeois liberals, the meek-minded socialists, let alone the cowering conservatives and scheming reactionaries. Even the radical Bolshevik faction of the Party, which Lenin had himself founded back in 1903, was surprised by his single-mindedness. Bolsheviks who had only just arrived back from Siberian exile such as Kamenev and Stalin found themselves having to readjust their positions to match Lenin’s extremism.

No-one else was thinking so radically and violently.

Merridale shows how Lenin was in a minority of one even among his own followers, and quotes both socialists and provisional government officials, who were eye-witnesses in the days and weeks that followed to meetings, debates, speeches and presentations in which Lenin was booed and roundly lost the argument.

The acting premier, Kerensky, initially worried by his return, watched Lenin alienate his entire party and confidently concluded that he was ‘finished’.

How to end?

If you think about it, Merridale and her publishers had always faced a problem with this book which is, Where to end it? The train journey lasted just eight days, from 9 to 17 April. How far either side of the actual journey should the book extend?

You can see how you’d need a build-up to the journey, in Merridale’s case using the accounts of British diplomats to paint in the privations and discontents of wartime Petersburg.

You can see how you’d need a middle section describing the shady activities of the immense swamp of spies, middle men, entrepreneurs, smugglers, double agents, conspirators, fanatics, political zealots of all colours and so on who infested wartime Switzerland, in order to give a flavour of the struggle the German High Command had to weed out hundreds of absurd plots from the handful of ideas which might really contribute to their war effort.

And how you’d then drill down to the specific contacts between Russian Bolshevik supporters (often themselves pretty shady businessmen) and try to identify the specific individuals in the German secret service who carried out the negotiations (whatever archive material still exists).

Merridale does all this and summarises what is currently known about the contacts, agreements, payments and practical details fixed up among these men.

Then you’d want a detailed description of the train journey itself, right down to the most trivial detail, right down to the way Lenin hated smoking and so insisted that people use the only toilet in his set of ‘sealed’ carriages to smoke in – which made it uncomfortable for people who actually wanted to use the loo as a loo. So that, in the end, Lenin devised a ticketing system: second class tickets for those who wanted to smoke in the lav, first class tickets for those who needed to use it for its primary function.

Then you’d want to gather all the eye witness accounts that exist, from the memoirs and diaries and letters of survivors, to describe Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station.

And then you’d want to follow the excitement of his arrival and track the stimulus it gave to the left-wing cause, on into the days and weeks afterwards to gauge the impact Lenin had on the political situation (and, incidentally, to assess the value for money which the German High Command got for what, it turns out, was quite a hefty investment in the train plan).

But where should the book end? One week after Lenin arrives? One month? A year?

In fact six months were to pass between Lenin’s arrival in April and the October Revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power. Is Catherine going to describe all six months in the kind of intense detail with which she had described the crucial eight days of Lenin’s journey and the first week or so of his arrival?

No.

It would be too much, it would be too long. Other people have done it better, more comprehensively and thoroughly following the immensely complicated twists and turns of the revolution – and the ongoing fighting – for that six months and beyond.

Even if you took the story up to the October Revolution, you’d still have to stop at some stage – before the peace with Germany, before the Russian civil wars break out.

In the event Merridale continues her account of the fierce arguments among all shades of political opinion which Lenin’s arrival had brought to a head, up until the writing of the ‘April Theses’, the set of ten directives which Lenin hammered out immediately upon his arrival, announced in speeches on 17 April and subsequently published in Pravda.

The core of Merridale’s book is devoted to showing Lenin’s absolute, unwavering insistence that the next stage of the revolution needed to take place now, and required peace with Germany, the complete overthrow not only of the Provisional Government but of all the bourgeois instruments of the state, and the assumption of power by workers’ and soldiers’ soviets.

With the April Theses Lenin established clear blue water between the Bolsheviks and every other party in Russia, and positioned them as more or less the only alternative to the bodged ‘dual government’ situation of Provisional government and Petersburg Soviet. So, from Merridale’s point of view, there is a compelling logic to stopping here and this is where her chronological account of events does, indeed, stop.

Then something odd happens. The book changes tack completely.

Part three – German money and Catherine’s reflections

The historical narrative morphs into a chapter devoted to investigating one specific issue: how much did the German High Command fund the Bolshevik revolution? (‘Gold’, pp.242 to 266)

Quite clearly the German High Command laid on the train to carry Lenin back to Russia. His opponents weren’t blind to the propaganda value of this simple fact, and many of them – both rival socialists and opposition liberals and conservatives – set out to prove that the entire Bolshevik operation was in fact a German front designed to take Russia out of the war and let Germany win. That the Bolsheviks were German agitators, and traitors. But were they right?

Merridale lays out the pros and cons of these claims and shows how, down the years, opponents of Bolshevism continued to make them, on until well into the 1950s and even 60s.

Russians in exile after the Revolution spread the accusations that the Bolshevisks were hired dupes of the Germans and, from time to time, dubious individuals popped up, both in Russia and later in Europe, even including an American (Frank Chester) – all of whom claimed to have been involved and to have proof that the entire Russian Revolution was a German scam.

I found Merridale’s exposition of all this a little confusing. I think in the end she is saying that (apart from the obvious fact of the Germans laying on the train, making all the practical arrangements, arranging all the passports and visas etc) the initial operations of the Bolsheviks in Petersburg – the running of the printing press, distribution of pamphlets and so on – must have cost a lot more money than the party was making simply through membership fees (although membership of the Bolshevik party did rocket from some 13,000 to around 80,000 by the time of the October coup).

Where did this money come from?

Well, there is archive evidence that several of the dubious middle-men who we met earlier, socialist-minded fixers who ran a healthy smuggling trade from Germany through Sweden to Russia – did indeed receive substantial payments from German authorities, which can’t be accounted for solely by their business activities. So, yes, it is quite possible that the Germans continued to fund the Bolsheviks, after Lenin’s arrival, via various middle-men.

But this is all very murky. It was wartime. The Germans didn’t keep full accounts of their off-the-record espionage activities and anyway Berlin was bombed to the ground in 1945, destroying most archives. For their part, the smugglers didn’t exactly keep legitimate accounts. The Bolsheviks had no incentive to tell the truth at the time and, under Stalin, became past masters at suppressing any inconvenient truths.

So this whole question is sort of interesting in a gossipy, John le Carré sort of way, but I mentally consigned it to the same place as speculation about who killed JFK or whether an alien UFO landed at Roswell.

Does it really matter? Even if it could be proved that the Germans actively funded the Bolsheviks in the months between Lenin’s arrival and the October Revolution, it is only really icing on the basic fact that they sent Lenin back to Russia in the first place.

Moreover, no-one denies the fact that the Germans were pouring millions of marks into funding all kinds of subversive activity in Russia (in April 1917 alone, the German Foreign Ministry alone authorised five million marks to be used for propaganda, and there were numerous other German agencies doing the same – p.257).

And in any case, once the war in Europe was over, the civil wars in Russia got into full swing, and the sums of money which the Allies poured into Russia to support the White Armies dwarfed anything the Germans might have spent on the Bolsheviks.

The money, important on one level, is only really of interest to obsessives who think that somehow the Russian Revolution could have been averted – exactly like the geeky types who think that, if only JFK hadn’t been assassinated the Americans would never have gone into Vietnam and brought their own country to the brink of civil war. If only, if only, if only.

But, in my opinion, ‘if onlies’ like this, counterfactuals and hopeful speculations, are rendered irrelevant by the sheer scale of the economic and political crisis, the enormity of the vast social collapse Russia found itself in. It was falling to pieces. It was the Titanic sinking.

For me, this and the other accounts I’ve read tend to show that Lenin’s unflinching extremism matched up to the extremism of the situation.

If it hadn’t been Lenin, Russia would still have collapsed into chaos and probable civil war between red and white factions, maybe allowing Germany to have advanced into undefended territory and establishing a Germanic empire in Russia. Other extremists would have been pushed to the surface and into leadership roles, and any of these would have found it very difficult if not impossible to resist the soldiers’ calls for peace and the hundred million peasants’ clamour for land reform.

Extreme circumstances called for extreme solutions, no matter who provided them.

But none of these alternatives took place. Deeper realities prevailed. And even though sending Lenin to Russia did lead to not only political disruption, as the Germans hoped, but to a comprehensive revolution – which must have exceeded their wildest fantasies – and then to a hugely advantageous peace settlement in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, precisely what they wanted in order to free up their eastern armies to take part in the massive Spring 1918 offensive against the West —-

The Germans still lost the war. In the end, the entire policy of the Lenin train and payrolling the Bolsheviks was a failure for the Germans. So what if they funded the Bolsheviks. They still lost.

Aftermath and Catherine’s views

Having brought her historical narrative to an end with the discussion of the funding issue, Merridale then concludes the book with a chapter outlining the fates of the key characters and personalities we have met through the book, before jotting down a few final reflections.

Most of the Bolsheviks who greeted Lenin so enthusiastically, and were either appalled or enthused by the fierce line he took, were murdered in the 1930s during Stalin’s judicial purges. So the final pages turn into a litany of gruesome and ironic deaths.

The shrewdest members of the Provisional Government, such as the egregious Kerensky, managed to escape, living on in exile in Paris or New York. And the British embassy staff, with their Siamese cats and expertise at blowpipes, lived on to claim their knighthoods from a grateful monarch.

Merridale’s concluding thoughts mix reflections on the characters we’ve met in the narrative, and of her own visits to museums enshrining the memory of Lenin – in Zurich, or at his sisters’ flat in Petersburg (where he stayed in the period before the October Revolution) – with reflections about the lasting significance of Lenin in Russian history.

These are, to be polite, disappointing. Having worked hard to attain the level of Dominic Lieven’s intellectually demanding account of prewar Russian and European diplomacy, it was a long plummet back down to the Readers Digest level of many of Merridale’s reflections.

She is, basically, a nice Radio 4-type of white, middle-class professional lady, who often finds herself wondering why the world is such a beastly place. For example:

There is as much instability across the planet now as there once was in Lenin’s day, and a slightly different collection of great powers is still working hard to make sure that they stay on top. One technique that they use in regional conflicts, since direct military engagement tends to cost too much, is to help and finance local rebels, some of whom are on the ground, but some of whom must be dropped in exactly as Lenin was. I think of South America in the 1980s, of all the dirty wars in central America since that time. I shudder at the current conflicts in the Middle East. (p.9)

This paragraph contains almost no useful information at all, in fact it blunts understanding. Great powers use regional conflicts to their advantage? This is elementary, GCSE-level knowledge.

The most salient feature of the paragraph is the centrality of Catherine herself to it. The way she ‘thinks’ of South America in the 1980s doesn’t tell us anything at all about South America but is designed to emphasise what a thoughtful and concerned soul she is. And then, whenever she thinks about the current conflicts in the Middle East, Catherine shudders, yes shudders.

In these final pages we learn that Stalin used the cult of Lenin to underpin and validate his own authority, and so Lenin’s reputation was whitewashed as thoroughly as his body was preserved in its mausoleum.

That both Lenin’s memory and his body rotted in the stagnant decades of the 1960s and 70s due to incompetent mummification techniques. That the 1980s period of glasnost under Gorbachev was a period of ‘dangerous’ change. That after a decade of chaos in the 1990s, Russia reverted to the strong man rule of Vladimir Putin.

We learn, in other words, nothing that any fifth former studying history or anybody who reads serious newspapers, doesn’t already know.

Merridale’s book ends with sentimental descriptions of her visits to the fading museums of Leninism and chats with their sad curators.

Shame. There are few if any insights or ideas worth recording or summarising in her final section.

Still, to emphasise the positive – the long central section of the book detailing the personalities and circumstances surrounding the train journey, and Merridale’s description of the incredibly intense political crisis into which Lenin arrived, are thrilling, convey a gripping sense of the chaos and confusion and knife-edge political atmosphere of the time, and are worth reading.

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917 by Nicolai Babasiouk (1960)

Lenin’s Address at the Finland station in Petrograd, 1917, painted by Nicolai Babasiouk in 1960

Nowhere man

Maybe the most symptomatic of the various encounters Merridale describes having with railway officials, passport checkers, museum keepers and so on when she undertakes her own version of the Lenin journey, is when she arrives at the swanky Savoy Hotel in Malmö, where Lenin and his entourage stopped for lunch after an unpleasant crossing of the stormy Baltic Sea.

Merridale knows that Lenin ate here. In fact, she later finds a plaque commemorating his visit tucked away in a corridor. But when she asks about him, the concierge looks blank. ‘Lenin? Lenin? Oh, you mean John Lennon?’

Quite. The world moves relentlessly on. People forget their history and are busy with their own day-to-day concerns. And – it could be argued – that’s a blessing.


Credit

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale was published by Allen Lane in 2016. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

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Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia (2) by Dominic Lieven (2015)

Lieven concludes his rather exhausting history of the diplomatic build-up to the First World War as seen from Russia, with some Big Ideas.

Big ideas

– The First and Second World Wars were essentially wars fought between Russia and Germany for control of Europe. The first war ended in stalemate; Russia won the second one.

– This explains why both the world wars started in eastern Europe, in the badlands between the two empires – with the Austrian attack on Serbia in 1914, and the Nazi attack on Poland in 1939.

– The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 led to a vacuum. It led to the creation of a host of smaller nations (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, alongside the existing weak powers of Bulgaria and Romania), none of which was strong enough by itself to stand up to either Germany or Russia, making the second war, if not quite inevitable, then a lot more likely.

– In both these wars France was the only liberal democracy on the continent of Europe, and both times was too weak by itself to decide the outcome.

– Britain was in some ways an onlooker to both wars: her armies fought and suffered, horribly in the first war, but in neither was she defending her own territory – in both she was fighting in line with her centuries-old policy of preventing any one of the ‘powers’ from establishing dominance of Europe; to make sure her ‘back’ was protected while she concentrated her efforts on building and maintaining her overseas empire. In the eighteenth century this threat had come from France – in the early twentieth century it came from a unified Germany.

– In both 1914 and 1939 the German leadership gambled that Britain would not get involved in a European war, and, indeed, both times there were influential British voices raised against involvement. But both times we surprised and dismayed the Germans by plunging in, thus preventing her from getting the quick wins she’d gambled on.

– America was even more of a spectator than Britain, and reluctant to get involved in either war, until forced to in 1917 and 1941, respectively – i.e. three years and two years after they’d both started.

– In Lieven’s eyes the Treaty of Versailles which ended the Great War had two great weaknesses:

  1. The two powers at the centre of the conflict, the two powers likely to tear Europe apart, were both excluded from the peace treaty. Soviet Russia wasn’t interested and was too busy fighting her own civil wars (1917 to 1920) or trying to invade Poland (in 1920) to take part in Versailles. Germany was deliberately excluded by the triumphant Allies, and had the treaty imposed on it — thus allowing German politicians and especially the Nazis, to claim they had never agreed to it, had had it imposed on them, it was victors’ justice, profoundly unfair, and to justify her attempts to unravel the treaty agreements during the 1930s.
  2. The Versailles treaty was largely the creation of the United States and its idealistic President Wilson. When the United States Congress refused to either ratify the treaty or join the League of Nations which was set up to safeguard it, they effectively removed the treaty’s most powerful support. Given that Great Britain was busy during the 1920s pursuing its imperial aims in the Middle East, India and Far East, the onus of defending the terms of the treaty ended up being left to France which – once again – was simply too weak to resist a resurgent Germany.

The situation today?

The European Union is a massive geopolitical experiment designed to address the same ongoing problems.

  • It was born from the attempt to bind Germany and France together with such intricate economic ties that they can never again fight a war.
  • For the first forty years of its existence, the EU was an attempt to create an economic and political bloc which could stand up to the Soviet Union and its communist satellite nations in eastern Europe, an economic counterpart of the NATO military alliance.
  • Nowadays it is an attempt to create a sort of European ’empire’, i.e. a geopolitical power bloc which can compete with the global superpowers of America and China. Huge argument goes on within the EU about its ability to convert this economic power into political power.

To return to the idea of 20th century history consisting of a war between Russia and Germany for control of Europe, for 44 years after the end of the Second European War, the Russians had, in effect, won.

They had achieved everything the most ambitious Russian generals and politicians of 1914 could have imagined. They had extended the reach of Russian control through the Balkans almost as far as Constantinople, they had swallowed the Baltic nations and Poland, they had extended their grip across Europe as far as Berlin.

With the collapse of Soviet power in 1990, the pendulum swung the other way, with Germany rapidly reuniting into one super-nation, and the other, newly liberated East European states all joining NATO, whose membership now extends right up to the traditional borders of Great Russia.

It was this rapid extension of the NATO alliance right up to Russia’s borders – with the threat that even Georgia on her southern border in the Caucasus might join, and the threat that Ukraine, pointed like a dagger into the heart of Russian territory, and which many Russians regard as part of their spiritual homeland, was about to join forces with the West – which prompted Russian intervention in both Georgia and eastern Ukraine, and the present atmosphere of Russian anxiety, paranoia and bravado.

Maps of NATO in 1990 and 2015 showing how NATO has extended its reach right to the borders of Russia

Maps of NATO in 1990 and 2015 showing how NATO has extended its reach right to the borders of Russia © Stratfor http://www.stratfor.com

In other words the issue which plagued the Edwardian era, the struggle which defined European and to some extent world history for most of the 20th century, is continuing in our time – a Germanised Europe faces an anxious, unpredictable, and increasingly nationalistic Russia.

What will happen next? Who knows? But Lieven’s book, in supplying such a detailed account of Russian diplomatic and strategic thinking in the build-up to the first war, forms a kind of training manual of all the possible permutations which the problem, and its solutions, can take.

It certainly made me want to understand Russo-Turkish history better, particularly at a moment when the nationalist leaders of both countries are causing liberal Europe such concern.

Towards The Flame prompts all kinds of thoughts and ideas about how we got where we are today, and gives its readers the long historical perspective as they watch current Russian foreign policy play out.


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