William Morris reviews Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy (1889)

In 1888 the American author Edward Bellamy published his utopian novel, Looking Backward. In it an upper-class citizen of Boston falls into a deep sleep in 1887 and wakes up in the same city, one hundred and thirteen years later, in 2000.

Bellamy was a socialist and uses the Perfect Society he describes as existing in 2000 to a) highlight the appalling inequality and inefficiency of the runaway capitalism of his own day b) to describe very systematically how a centrally planned socialist economy – which has eliminated money, gives everyone the same education, requires everyone to work but assigns them jobs best suited to their abilities, and pays everyone the same monthly amount of ‘credits’ – has eliminated the economic chaos, gross waste, and revolting inequality of the society of his day.

William Morris was born in 1834 and despite his privileged upbringing in private school and Oxford, and his interest in arts and crafts, he became increasingly disgusted by the appalling exploitation of much of Britain’s working population by the class of factory owners, bankers and lawyers, and the poverty and misery which resulted.

In 1883 Morris joined the newly-founded Social Democratic Federation, the first official socialist party in England, and spent the last years of his life writing pamphlets arguing for socialism, and on the stump around the country, making passionate speeches to working class audiences.

Himself the author of a number of medievalising romances, Morris was, therefore, temperamentally well-suited to sympathise with the aims and style of Bellamy’s book, and in 1889 he published a review of it in the SDF’s official magazine, The Commonweal.

Bellamy’s main points

The crux of Morris’s short review is a profound disagreement with Bellamy, for Bellamy’s future society is profoundly regimented. It’s the kind of utopia strict rules and regulations have been introduced which everyone follows. Namely, the idea that everyone is educated till they’re 21, then does exactly three years of manual labour, during which they discover their skills and abilities, at which point they opt for a career, from coal mining to cardiology.

A state of ‘equality’ is achieved by ensuring that those who do unpleasant work, work relatively short hours, while those doing rewarding jobs work longer hours. But everyone is paid the same, in ‘credits’ rather than money, credits only the state can issue and which can only be redeemed at state shops – so there is in effect no money and no private enterprise.

Bellamy spends quite a few pages describing how the workforce is, in effect, organised like an army, with the world of work divided into ten or so divisions representing types of industry, and goes into detail about how people are assessed and ranked within each division, how they can earn promotion (which doesn’t bring more money, just more responsibility), how work is assessed, and so on. At age 45 everyone is forced to retire, and devote their lives to whatever passtimes they wish.

At one point, back in 1887, the narrator sees a squad of soldiers march by and explicitly makes the point that how much better the world would be if the world of work was as unified and organised, with a central chain of command and plan, as the army. Bellamy envisages a socialist future in which work has been militarised.

Morris’s criticism

When I read all this I accepted it, partly because nearly all utopias are like this – that is, they tend to imagine that everyone in a future utopia will be regimented, will live according to a fairly small set of rules. The same is true of dystopias like Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It is this which Morris strongly objects to.

For him, the whole point of a socialist world would be that nobody is forced to do anything. Bellamy’s notion of militarising the world of work is the exact opposite of Morris’s aspiration. For Morris Bellamy makes the cardinal error of accepting modern industrial civilisation at face value. He accepts factories and mass production and regimented work forces. Bellamy’s

temperament may be called the unmixed modern one, unhistoric and unartistic; it makes its owner (if a Socialist) perfectly satisfied with modern civilisation, if only the injustice, misery, and waste of class society could be got rid of.

As I understand it Bellamy incorporates the idea of Marx and Engels that there is an unstoppable tendency in capitalism towards larger and larger monopolies. Already the state has taken over some monopolies such as the Post Office, because everyone realises it’s in our best interest to have just one post office not a whole load of competing post offices. Well, hopes Bellamy, the population will finally realise that every industry is better off in state hands. The state will step in and take over the capitalist monopolies.

Morris thinks that Bellamy relies too much on this notion of monopolies evolving into state socialism. He thinks it too passive, a kind of ‘economical semi-fatalism’ which is ‘deadening and discouraging.’

Also it runs the risk that, if there is an economic upturn and a return to full employment and people feel well-off again (which is what in fact happened as the 1890s proceeded) then people will resile from their ‘socialist’ views.

Back to the main point – which is Bellamy’s view of the militarisation of working life. Morris hates it. It simply inherits and intensifies the capitalist view of life in that it is mechanical, it focuses on the machinery of life and not its content. At bottom, Bellamy’s book is about economics and production and attributes the poverty of 1887 to the absurdity of leaving production to ‘private enterprise’, with all its competition and waste and regular crises of over-production leading to recessions and unemployment. The solution is State Communism organised on military lines.

The result is that though he tells us that every man is free to chose his occupation and that work is no burden to anyone, the impression which he produces is that of a huge standing army, tightly drilled, compelled by some mysterious fate to unceasing anxiety for the production of wares to satisfy every caprice, however wasteful and absurd, that may cast up amongst them.

What Morris finds oppressive is Bellamy’s reliance on the machine to solve problems.

A machine-life is the best which Mr. Bellamy can imagine for us

His notion is that more and better machines will improve life for everyone. Bellamy’s ‘only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery’ and because work, even in Bellamy’s utopia, is acknowledged to be sometimes unpleasant, Bellamy replaces the motive of contemporary capitalism – fear of starvation – with new motives, namely patriotic spirit, altruism and pride engendered by membership of the army of labour.

Morris disagrees. He thinks Bellamy is barking up the wrong tree. He thinks that thinking about work this way, you will never be able to eliminate the element of repulsion. Relying on machines to eliminate the unpleasantness of work will just lead to a world of more and more machines. Morris starts from a different basic assumption, an assumption summed up in the title of one of his most famous essays, Useful Work versus Useless Toil (1884). Morris thinks that work itself must be made rewarding.

It cannot be too often repeated that the true incentive to useful and happy labour is and must be pleasure in the work itself.

Morris rejects machine civilisation as a whole. It is the machine which enslaves workers, turning them into mere ‘hands’. Increasing the role of machines in society, indeed relying on machines to solve the central problem of work is, for Morris, a cardinal error. Work must be personal, small-scale, individual. Then it will be its own reward.

There are, in fact, two diametrically opposed types of Socialist. The Bellamy type thinks:

  • that the problem of the organisation of life and necessary labour can be dealt with by a huge national centralisation, working by a kind of magic for which no one feels himself responsible
  • that individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State

The Morris type thinks

  • that on the contrary it will be necessary for the unit of administration to be small enough for every citizen to feel himself responsible for its details, and be interested in them
  • that individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other

Bellamy’s Socialism is based on a large, urban army of industrial labour who work at often unpleasant tasks from a sense of duty to the nation.

Morris’s Socialism is based on small, scattered, semi-rural villages of craftsmen and women making what they want for themselves, when they want it, and so finding real meaning and reward in their work.

A warning

What’s interesting is that Morris considers the success of Bellamy’s book to be dangerous. Looking Backward was a tremendous, almost unprecedented, success. To quote Wikipedia:

It was the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It influenced a large number of intellectuals, and appears by title in many socialist writings of the day. ‘It is one of the few books ever published that created almost immediately on its appearance a political mass movement’ (Erich Fromm). In the United States alone, over 162 ‘Bellamy Clubs’ sprang up to discuss and propagate the book’s ideas. Owing to its commitment to the nationalization of private property and the desire to avoid use of the term ‘socialism’, this political movement came to be known as Nationalism. (Looking Backward Wikipedia article)

All this clearly unnerves Morris. Throughout his review he worries that casual readers might take this version of Socialism as canonical.

The book is one to be read and considered seriously, but it should not be taken as the Socialist bible of reconstruction…

Whereas, of course, he wishes to promote his own, more or less diametrically opposed, version. In this respect, the review is less a review than a warning to readers of The Commonweal not to be lured into what Morris considers a profoundly incorrect version of Socialism.

The moral

And that, I think, is the real point.

On one level the review is fascinating because of the light it sheds on both Looking Backward and especially on Morris’s own Socialist ideals.

But stepping back from the detail, what it also indicates is the profound inability of ‘socialists’ to agree on their programme and their ultimate goals. Reading any biography of Marx, you are struck by the violent disagreements among the tiny groups of revolutionaries who officially preached brotherhood and unity, yet in all their writings violently attacked and criticised each other.

The same tone dominates the writings of Lenin, the man responsible for splitting the Russian Socialist party into bolsheviks and mensheviks – and would go on to become part of official Soviet rhetoric, an apparently endless armoury of terms to vilify anyone who deviated from ‘the party line’.

All this reflects what I take to be a fundamental psychological fact about socialism and revolutionary movements, especially revolutionary writings. Which is that every person’s image of ‘the good place’ is different. Everyone’s image of utopia is unique to them.

If you think about it, the real, actual world of the here and now enforces a certain level of uniformity on people who write about it – politicians, commentators, economists and so on – because they are forced to concede most of the facts about currently existing society. Their readers can see it in front of us. (Though even given the ‘hard facts’ it is amazing how much politicians, commentators, economists and so on manage to wildly disagree with each other. Listen to any panel of politicians. Listen to any group of economists.)

So bearing in mind the ability of intellectuals to disagree about the world which is right in front of their noses, how much infinitely more are they likely to disagree about some future world which they are making up, in which there are no constraints whatsoever.

This fissiparousness of revolutionary or alternative or utopian or socialist thinking goes a long way to explaining its persistent failure. Radicals fail to create a better world because they can’t even agree among themselves what it looks like, let alone persuade other people to sign up to their visions.

As Morris predicted, the economy did indeed pick up in the 1890s and, despite much entrenched poverty, misery and degradation, despite fierce ongoing battles between labour and employers, capitalism in the West survived and flourished. If Bellamy’s notion of state communism, of the entire workforce mobilised like an army to build the New Jerusalem, it was in Stalin’s Russia, with its Five Year Plans. The militarisation of the workforce came true. Unfortunately, the life of grace and leisure lived by the characters in Looking Backward never arrived. And Morris’s vision of the future as scattered hamlets full of contented craftsmen vanished like the morning dew.


Related links

Reviews of other William Morris articles and essays

Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)

‘If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.’ (Dr Leete. Chapter 12)

It is 1887. The narrator, Julius West, is full of plans to get a new house built in a stylish part of Boston – a project which is delayed because of strikes by the workmen – and worrying about marrying his fiancée.

All this stress exacerbates his insomnia so at the end of a trying day he retires to the sound-proof, purpose-built, cement-lined cellar he’s had built in his current house, and sends for the local mesmerist (Dr Pillsbury) who he’s been relying on for some time to help him get off to sleep.

When he wakes up in a strange room, the kindly people around him tell him it is the year 2000 and he has slept in that underground bunker for 113 years, three months and eleven days. Bellamy spends a little effort conveying West’s disbelief, and then a page or so on his sense of horror and disorientation, but these are gestures. The effort and bulk of the text goes towards the political theory, for the book quickly becomes an immensely thorough vision of The Perfect Society.

In the few pages devoted to describing life in 1887 the narrator had spent most of his time lamenting ‘the labour problem’. By that he means that since (what turned out to be) a prolonged economic depression had begun in 1873, the working classes had woken up to their plight, organised unions across all industries, and been striking for better pay, better conditions, shorter working hours and so on.

Society as giant coach

In an extended metaphor West compares the society of his time to an enormous coach which is being pulled along by thousands of wretched workers, whipped on by those who’ve managed to clamber up into the driving seat of thousands of companies and corporations.

Right on top of the coach, not doing any work and enjoying the sunshine, are those who’ve acquired or inherited the money to live off the labour of everyone beneath them. As the coach blunders along its muddy track some people fall lower down the coach, ending up pulling on the reins or fall right into the mud and are crushed, while others manage to escape the slavery of pulling and clamber up the coachwork bit. Even those at the top live in anxiety lest they fall off. No-one is secure or happy.

Society 2000

As you might expect, society in 2000 appears to have solved these and all the other problems facing society in 1887. The people who’ve revived him – Dr Leete, his wife and daughter – have done so in a private capacity. They were building an extension to their house when they came across the concrete bunker, all the rest of West’s property having, apparently, burned down decades earlier and, on entering it, discovered West’s perfectly preserved barely breathing body.

Waking him gently, the father, mother and (rather inevitably) beautiful daughter, carefully and sympathetically help West to cope with the loss of everything he once knew, and induct him into the secrets of Boston 2000. Dr Leete explains that the society he has arrived in is one of perfect peace and equality.

Leete then begins the body of the text which turns into an enormous, encyclopedic description of the Perfect Society of the future. Capitalism has been abolished. The ‘market’ has been abolished. Everything is controlled and managed by the state which represents ‘the nation’. All industry has been nationalised and all production is planned and administered by civil servants. Everyone is supplied with whatever they need by the state.

All citizens are born and raised the same. Everyone pursues education until aged 21, educated to the highest level they can attain, and then undertake three years working as a labourer. During this period people find out what their skills and abilities are, and then opt, at age 24, for a career, from coal mining to teaching Greek. And then they join ‘the army’ of workers, organised and co-ordinated like one of the armies of 1887, and inspired by the same martial sense of patriotism and duty – but an army devoted to maintaining peace and creating wealth for everyone.

Equality is maintained by making those in unpleasant jobs work relatively short hours for the same rewards as those who work longer hours under more pleasant conditions.

And there is no money. Everyone has a ‘credit card’ and the state pays everyone the same amount every month. How you ‘spend’ that credit is up to you, but it is all you get every month and there is no way to increase it, because individuals are not allowed to buy or sell or barter anything.

It is a sustained attempt to work through the 19th century socialist adage of ‘from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their need’ (popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program).

And how did all this come about? Was there a violent revolution to transform the values of Bellamy’s day and – more to the point – to combat the vested interests of capitalists and bankers? The opposite, explains Dr Leete.

Now I just happen to have recently read Friedrich Engels’s pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

In it Engels explains that historical materialism uses the philosophical notion of the dialectic to explain how new social systems arise out of the old. Thus, in Marx and Engels’s view, out of the anarchy of super-competitive capitalism, thronged with competing companies, in the late nineteenth century were slowly emerging larger companies, which bought each other up to create cartels of a handful of giant companies, thus creating monopolies. This appears to be the natural development of capitalism, if unchecked.

Engels shows how out of this natural development of capitalism, quite naturally and logically emerges state socialism. For already in various Western countries the state had decided to take into state ownership ‘natural monopolies’ such as telegraphy and the Post Office.

Engels explains that, as the other industries (coal, mining, steel, ship-building, railways) also become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands it will become obvious that the State should step in and run these as well. In other words, out of the anarchy of capitalism will emerge the order of state socialism.

That’s exactly what happens in Bellamy’s version of history. One by one the state took over ownership of every industry until it had taken over all production. And the state, representing all the population, proceeded to reform them in the interests of the whole population, along the lines which Dr Leete explains to West in pedantic detail.

Was there a violent revolution? No, because people had by that staged grasped the trend and seen how government efficiently managed other big concerns. People realised that it made sense. It was all quite painless.

Bellamy loses no opportunity to ram home the contrast between the squalor of his day and the wonder of the perfect Society. Not only do Dr Leete and Edith Leete explain things – at great length – but towards the end of the book West is invited to listen to a sermon delivered by one Dr Barton, who has heard about the discovery of the sleeper, and takes it as a peg on which to hang a disquisition about the change between West’s day and the present. Here is Dr Barton describing the glorious revolution which, about a century earlier, overthrew the old order and instituted the Perfect Society.

‘Doubtless it ill beseems one to whom the boon of life in our resplendent age has been vouchsafed to wish his destiny other, and yet I have often thought that I would fain exchange my share in this serene and golden day for a place in that stormy epoch of transition, when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race, in place of the blank wall that had closed its path, a vista of progress whose end, for very excess of light, still dazzles us. Ah, my friends! who will say that to have lived then, when the weakest influence was a lever to whose touch the centuries trembled, was not worth a share even in this era of fruition?

‘You know the story of that last, greatest, and most bloodless of revolutions. In the time of one generation men laid aside the social traditions and practices of barbarians, and assumed a social order worthy of rational and human beings. Ceasing to be predatory in their habits, they became co-workers, and found in fraternity, at once, the science of wealth and happiness. ‘What shall I eat and drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?’ stated as a problem beginning and ending in self, had been an anxious and an endless one. But when once it was conceived, not from the individual, but the fraternal standpoint, ‘What shall we eat and drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?’—its difficulties vanished.

‘Poverty with servitude had been the result, for the mass of humanity, of attempting to solve the problem of maintenance from the individual standpoint, but no sooner had the nation become the sole capitalist and employer than not alone did plenty replace poverty, but the last vestige of the serfdom of man to man disappeared from earth. Human slavery, so often vainly scotched, at last was killed. The means of subsistence no longer doled out by men to women, by employer to employed, by rich to poor, was distributed from a common stock as among children at the father’s table. It was impossible for a man any longer to use his fellow-men as tools for his own profit. His esteem was the only sort of gain he could thenceforth make out of him. There was no more either arrogance or servility in the relations of human beings to one another. For the first time since the creation every man stood up straight before God. The fear of want and the lust of gain became extinct motives when abundance was assured to all and immoderate possessions made impossible of attainment. There were no more beggars nor almoners. Equity left charity without an occupation. The ten commandments became well nigh obsolete in a world where there was no temptation to theft, no occasion to lie either for fear or favor, no room for envy where all were equal, and little provocation to violence where men were disarmed of power to injure one another. Humanity’s ancient dream of liberty, equality, fraternity, mocked by so many ages, at last was realized.’ (Chapter 26)

You don’t need me to point out the way that, the nearer an author gets to a difficult subject, the more flowery and evasive his language becomes – ‘when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race’ etc.

Here is Dr Leete’s version of the Great Event:

‘It was not till a rearrangement of the industrial and social system on a higher ethical basis, and for the more efficient production of wealth, was recognized as the interest, not of one class, but equally of all classes, of rich and poor, cultured and ignorant, old and young, weak and strong, men and women, that there was any prospect that it would be achieved. Then the national party arose to carry it out by political methods. It probably took that name because its aim was to nationalize the functions of production and distribution. Indeed, it could not well have had any other name, for its purpose was to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived, not as an association of men for certain merely political functions affecting their happiness only remotely and superficially, but as a family, a vital union, a common life, a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn. The most patriotic of all possible parties, it sought to justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.’ (Chapter 24)

‘a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn’

Instead of specifics, Bellamy gives us windy rhetoric. Instead of practical human steps, Bellamy gives us poetic visions.

Thus, by virtue of this bloodless revolution in human society, politicians and political parties have been abolished because the committees which make up the nation adjust and control things in the interests of the people.

Thus laws and lawyers have been abolished because nine-tenths of 1887 law was about protecting, gaining, winning and disputing property. Now there is no way to gain private property except by spending the monthly credit which everyone receives, now there is no money and no buying or selling or any other way whatsoever of acquiring valuables – there is no need for almost all the law.

Even the criminal law has fallen into disuse since nine-tenths of violent crime was robbery or burglary or mugging designed to get money. In a society without money there is no motive for crime.

And so, for 200 rather wearing pages, Mr West and Dr Leete sit in a room while the former asks dumb questions and the latter wisely and benevolently explains how the Perfect Society works. It often feels like one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, in the sense that West is simply the straight man who asks the questions – what about the law? what about crime? what about education? – which prompt Dr Leete to roll out another highly detailed and well-thought-out explanation of the Perfect Society.

Hardly anything happens. West accompanies young Edith Leete on a shopping expedition but this is solely so she can explain to him the huge advantages of a planned economy where the state provides everything its citizens require through central production and distribution, thus eliminating competition with the enormous waste of resources spent on advertising, different brands and makes, countless different shops all offering complicated deals and 0% finance and all the rest of it. All gone. You go to the one and only local megastore and buy goods which are available everywhere in the country, at the one fixed price. And it’s all cheap precisely because there are no middlemen and advertisers and so on to raise costs.

Similarly, one evening he goes out for dinner with the Leetes, which is the pretext to explain food production and distribution, and the way public food cooked in public restaurants is now cheaper and infinitely better than it was in 1887, while the waiters and so on are simply performing their three-year labouring apprenticeship and are not looked down on as a different class. Dr Leete himself was a waiter for a spell. Everyone is equal and is treated as an equal.

Critique

Painting visions of the future is relatively easy – although Bellamy’s vision becomes more and more compelling due to the obsessive thoroughness with which he describes every conceivable aspect of the Perfect Society – the difficulty is explaining how it came into being. This is often the weak spot in the writing of utopias. Often the author invokes a catastrophic war to explain how the old world was swept away and the survivors vowed never to make the same mistakes again.

Because it’s the most important, and often the weakest part of a utopian narrative, it’s often the most telling. And it is, I think, is the crux of the problem with Engels and Bellamy – the notion they both have that the state somehow, magically, becomes the people. Notoriously, Engels speculated that the state would simply ‘wither away’. Once the people had seized the means of production and distribution, once they had overthrown the exploiting bourgeois class, then ‘the state’ – defined as the entity through which the bourgeoisie organised its repression of the people – would simply become unnecessary.

Bellamy and Engels conceive of the state as solely a function of capitalism. Abolish the inequalities of capitalism – abolish ‘the market’, indeed all markets – and the state disappears in a puff of smoke.

Instead, the entire history of the twentieth century has taught us that the state does the opposite: given half a chance, it doesn’t weaken and fade, it seizes dictatorial power. More accurately, cunning calculating people – Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler – will seize absolute power from weakened states – Tsarist Russia, post-war Italy, Weimar Germany -and then institute absolute control, using all the tools of modern technology and propaganda.

The last hundred years have revealed ‘the state’ to be something more like an arena in which a host of competing interests can just about be brought into alignment, held, contained, managed, with frequent political and economic crises and collapses. We now know that when ‘revolutions’ occur, they do not overthrow the state, but simply entrench a new and generally more oppressive state than the one that preceded it – Russia 1917, China 1949, Iran 1979.

More important than how the old regime was overthrown, at the heart of the description of all utopias is a debate over ‘human nature’. In Looking Backward West asks the obvious question: how have you manage to revolutionise human nature? to which Dr Leete, in his calm, wise, man-of-the-future way, explains that there has been no change in human nature: changing the system people are born into and live under allows real human nature to blossom. People are, says Dr Leete, naturally co-operative and reasonable, if you let them. The Perfect Society is not a distortion of human nature, it is its final, inevitable, true blossoming.

This is the crux: we in 2018 find this difficult to credit because we have the history of the twentieth century to look back on, an unmitigated catastrophe in which, time after time, in Europe, Asia, Africa, China, South America, people have been shown to be irreducibly committed to pursuing their own personal interests, and then the interests of their family, tribe or kinship group, their community, or region, or class, or ethnic or racial groupings – rather than to any vague concept of ‘society’.

In my view the real problem with utopias like Bellamy’s or William Morris’s News From Nowhere (published just two years later) is that – although they deny it – they both posit a profound, and impossible change in human nature, but not quite the one they often identify and refute.

My point is that in their books, everyone in society is like them – gentle and well-meaning, middle-class, bookish and detached. It is symptomatic that West wakes up in the house of a doctor, a nice, educated middle class man like himself not, say, in the house of a coal miner or factory worker or street cleaner or sewage engineer.

So many of these utopias are like that. One well-educated, middle-class white man from the present meets another well-educated, middle-class white man from the future and – they both magically agree about everything!

In a way, what these fantasies do is magic away all the social problems of their day, hide, conceal, gloss over and abolish them. It turns out that two chaps in a book-lined study can solve everything. Which is, of course, what most writers like to think.

Most writers have this problem – an inability to really grasp the profound otherness of other people – beginning with the fact that most people don’t even read books, let alone fairy tales like this, and so never hear about them and their fancy plans.

It is symptomatic that when the daughter of the house, fair Edith, wants to cheer West up, she takes him to a library which contains leather-bound volumes of Dickens, Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley and all the rest of the classics. He is instantly reassured and at home. In a fantasy world of books. Exactly.

Practical problems

There is no money and so no greed in this future society. Dr Leete says people don’t pass on inheritances because you cannot now convert goods into money, so heirlooms are just so much clutter. As I read that I thought, but people will barter and exchange. Why? Because people enjoy it, as my mum used to enjoy going to car boot fairs. And as soon as you have fairs and markets and people bartering and exchanging, you give goods a value, a higher value to some than to others – and people will start collecting, hoarding, exchanging, building up reservoirs of valuable goods – and it all starts over again.

Somehow all these utopias ignore the basic human urges to value things, and to swap and exchange them. My kids are collecting the Lego cards from Sainsburys and are swapping them with friends in the playground. My mum loved going to car boot fairs. My wife likes watching Antiques Road Show which is about money and value. Maybe these are all tools of the capitalist bourgeois system to keep us enslaved to a money view of the world. Or maybe they reflect something fundamental in human nature.

This may sound trivial but whether people had the right to sell goods was the core of the problem Lenin faced in 1921, after the civil wars with the white Russians were more or less finished, and he faced a nation in ruins. And so he instituted the New Economic Policy, which allowed peasants and farmers to keep some of their produce i.e. not turn it all over to the state, and allowed them to use it or sell it as they saw fit. I.e. Lenin had to buckle to the human need to buy and sell. It was Stalin’s insistence that all agricultural produce was taken from the farmers by the state authorities that led to the great famine in the Ukraine which led to some three million people starving to death.

Which all reminds me of the terrifying stories in Anne Applebaum’s book, Iron Curtain, about the lengths communist authorities had to go to in post-war Eastern Europe to ban freelance buying and selling. As soon as a farmer sells eggs from a chicken or milk from a cow which are surplus to the state’s quota, he is laying the basis for capitalismAny display of independent buying and selling had to be banned and severely punished. Hence Applebaum’s accounts of farmers and workers and even schoolchildren, being arrested for what seem to us trivial amounts of marketeering. Each and every incident was, to the communist authorities, a crack in the facade which threatened to let capitalism come flooding back.

In Bellamy’s Perfect Society prices are set by the state, everything is supplied by the state, and you ‘buy’ things based on your fixed monthly income from the state. There is no competition and so no bargains or special offers. We now know that, when something very like this was put into effect in Soviet Russia, the result was the creation of a vast black market where normal human behaviour i.e. bartering, buying and selling for profit, returned and triumphed. In fact, the several accounts of the last decades of the communist experiment which I’ve read claim that it was only the black market i.e. an unofficial market of bartering and trading everything, raw material, industrial and agricultural produce, which allowed the Soviet Union to stagger on for as long as it did.

What the Russian experiment, and then its extension into China and Eastern Europe, showed is that the socialist concept of society proposed by Marx, Engels, Bellamy or Morris, can only exist by virtue of an unrelenting war on human nature as it actually is – selfish, stupid, criminal, lazy, greedy, sharp and calculating.

Only by permanent state surveillance, by the complete abolition of free speech and freedom of assembly, by the creation of vast prison camps and gulags, and severe punishments for even voicing anti-socialist sentiments, let alone tiny acts of rebellion such as bartering or selling goods, could ‘socialist societies’ be made to artificially survive, despite all the intrinsic ‘human’ longings of their inhabitants.

And even then it turned out that state planning was inefficient and wasteful and completely failed to produce any of the consumer goods which people cried out for – cars, fridges, TVs, jeans.

Bellamy’s encyclopedic approach

Then again, it’s not necessarily the function of utopias like this to portray a realistic society of the future. Bellamy tries to, more than most, paint a really persuasive picture of what a Perfect Society would look like. But ‘utopias’ at the same time can also perform the less arduous function of highlighting the absurdities and injustices of the present day society – and here Bellamy, in his slow, steady, thoughtful manner, is very thorough and very effective. His targets include:

  • competition over wages
  • the anarchy of a myriad competing companies
  • the inevitability of regular crises of over-production leading to crashes, banks failing, mass unemployment, starvation and rioting
  • state encouragement for everybody to rip everybody else off
  • the system whereby a lengthy number of middle-men all cream off a percentage before passing products on to the public thereby ensuring most people can’t afford them
  • advertising and hucksterism, which he ridicules – now abolished
  • political parties representing special interests – all gone
  • demagogic lying politicians – rendered redundant by universal altruism
  • rival shops stuffed with salesman motivated by commissions to sell your crap – replaced by one shop selling state-produced goods
  • how greed, luck and accident forced most people into a job or career – rather than his system of allowing people to choose, after long education in the options, the vocation which suits them best
  • having to travel miles to concert halls and sit through tedious stuff before they get to anything you like – in the future ‘telephones’ offer a selection of music piped straight to your home
  • international trade is managed in the same way, by a committee which assigns fixed values to all goods
  • travel is easy, since American ‘credit cards’ are good in South America or Europe
  • when the Leete family take West for a meal, they point out that communal canopies unroll in front of all buildings in case of rain, to protect pedestrians
  • at the meal there is a lengthy diatribe on how the waiter serving them comes from their own class and education and is happy to servile, unlike 1887 when the poor and uneducated were forced into ‘menial’ positions
  • state education is a) extensive, up to age 21, b) designed to draw out a person’s potential
  • sports is compulsory at school in order to create a healthy mind in a healthy body (Chapter 25)
  • women are the equals of men, and all work, apart from short breaks for childbirth and early rearing
  • all the false modesty of courtship has been abolished, replaced by frank and open relationships between the sexes
  • and – with a hint of eugenics – Dr Leete claims that now men and women are free to marry for love instead of for money, as was mostly the case in 1887, this allows the Darwinian process of natural selection to operate unobstructed and it is this which accounts for the fact that the Bostonians of 2000 are so much taller, fitter and healthier than the Bostonians West knew in 1887

All come under Bellamy’s persistent, thorough and quietly merciless satire.

Style

A comparison with the science fantasies which H.G. Wells started writing a few years after Looking Backward was published, sheds light on both types of book.

The key thing about Wells’s stories is their speed. One astonishing incident follows another in a mad helter-skelter of astonishing revelations. Wells is heir to the concentrated, punchy adventures – and the pithy, active prose – of Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. He takes their fast-moving adventure style and applies it – instead of to hunts for treasure in colourful settings – to the scientific ideas which he found being discussed by all around him as he studied for his science degree in South Kensington.

Bellamy couldn’t be more different from Wells. He is slow – very slow. His book is really a slow-paced, throughtful political treatise, with a few romantic knobs on.

And his prose, also, is slow and stately and ornate, pointing back to the Victorian age as much as Wells’s points forward to the twentieth century. Here is Dr Leete giving another version of the crucial moment when the capitalist world of monopolies gave way to one, state monopoly.

‘Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.

‘In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world’s history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people’s livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.’ (Chapter 5)

Wordy, isn’t it? You have to slow yourself right down to his speed to really take on board the power of his arguments.

But it’s worth making the effort in order to savour and mull them. It is, for example, a clever rhetorical move to make the American rejection of capitalism seem a natural extension of the American rejection of monarchy a century earlier.

Here is Dr Leete explaining why, in the new system, money isn’t needed.

‘When innumerable different and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary.’

Clever, isnt it? Clear, rational, sensible. And totally unrelated to the real world.

Epilogue

And the West wakes up and it was all – a dream! I kid you not. Like the corniest children’s school composition, that is how the book ends. West finds himself being stirred and woken by his (black) manservant and experiences a crushing sense of loss as he realises the future world he was just getting used to – was all a fantasy.

There then follows the most imaginatively powerful passage in the book where, for ten or so pages, West dresses and goes out into the Boston of 1887, walking past the confusion of shops, the bombardment of advertising hoardings, down into the industrial district where noisy smoky factories are employing children and old women, screwing out of them their life’s blood, wasted in violent and unplanned competition to produce useless tat (‘the mad wasting of human labour’), then wandering up to the banking district where he is accosted by his own banker who preens himself on the magnificence of the system, before walking on into the slums where filthy unemployed men hover on street corners and raddled women offer him their bodies for money.

All the time comparing every detail of this squalid, chaotic, miserably unhappy and insecure society, with the rational, ordered life in the Perfect Society which he (and the reader) have been so thoroughly soaked in for the preceding 200 pages.

The contrast, for the reader who has followed him this far, between the beauty of what might be, and the disgusting squalor of what is, is genuinely upsetting. It was a clever move to append this section. It is the only part of the book which has any real imaginative power, and that power is fully focused on provoking in the reader the strongest sensations of disgust and revulsion at the wretchedness and misery produced by unfettered capitalism.

From the black doorways and windows of the rookeries on every side came gusts of fetid air. The streets and alleys reeked with the effluvia of a slave ship’s between-decks. As I passed I had glimpses within of pale babies gasping out their lives amid sultry stenches, of hopeless-faced women deformed by hardship, retaining of womanhood no trait save weakness, while from the windows leered girls with brows of brass. Like the starving bands of mongrel curs that infest the streets of Moslem towns, swarms of half-clad brutalized children filled the air with shrieks and curses as they fought and tumbled among the garbage that littered the court-yards.

There was nothing in all this that was new to me. Often had I passed through this part of the city and witnessed its sights with feelings of disgust mingled with a certain philosophical wonder at the extremities mortals will endure and still cling to life. But not alone as regarded the economical follies of this age, but equally as touched its moral abominations, scales had fallen from my eyes since that vision of another century. No more did I look upon the woeful dwellers in this Inferno with a callous curiosity as creatures scarcely human. I saw in them my brothers and sisters, my parents, my children, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. The festering mass of human wretchedness about me offended not now my senses merely, but pierced my heart like a knife!

And then – on the last page – there is a last twist. He wakes again, and is back in the Perfect Society. His vision of waking and wandering through the Golgotha of Boston in 1887 was itself a dream. He rouses himself hot and sweating. He looks back in horror at the life he led and the values he accepted. And he is filled with shame, bitter recriminating shame and overwhelming guilt that he did nothing, nothing at all to change and reform the society of his day but acquiesced in his privileged condition, enjoyed the wine and fine women of his class, ignored the poor and brutalised, and didn’t lift a finger to change or improve the world.

The fair Edith appears picking flowers in Dr Leete’s garden and West falls at her feet, puts his face to the earth and weeps bitter tears of regret that he stood by and let so many people suffer so bitterly.

And I confess that, despite all the rational objections to his Perfect Society and to the rather boring 200 pages which preceded it, these final pages are such an effective accusation of all us middle-class people who stand by and let people endure appalling poverty and suffering, that it brought a tear to my eye, as well.


Related links

Reviews of other early science fiction

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy

1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris
1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
1898 The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
1899 When the Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells

1901 The First Men in the Moon  by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle (1929)

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

 

The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells (1901)

This is the seventh of Wells’s classic science fiction novels. He had also, by 1901, written over 60 science fiction short stories. Single-handedly he had created a new genre for the English-speaking world, which was quickly taken up and copied.

It wasn’t just that he wrote a lot, it’s that the early books each tackled, described, thought through and realistically presented some of the founding tropes of science fiction – time travel, and attack by aliens from another world, being the two outstanding ones – which have been recycled thousands of times since.

The First Men in the Moon is not quite in the same league because it didn’t invent the topic of travelling to the moon – Jules Vernes had written a novel on the same theme thirty years earlier (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865) and in fact a number of fantasies and romances on the subject had been written for centuries (including the version by Cyrano de Bergerac whose illustrations by Quentin Blake I recently reviewed – Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, based on the Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, 1657).

Also, the mechanism by which they get there – anti-gravity metal – the way it’s discovered and handled aren’t that persuasive. Nonetheless, the story is still compelling because of the detail with which Wells thinks through the practical details, and then with the avalanche of astounding discoveries his heroes make once they’ve arrived on the moon.

Amateur hour

As usual in Wells, the whole thing is managed by an inspired amateur, the notion of government-sponsored scientific research being still decades away, pioneered by the Manhattan project of the 1940s. Instead the story is narrated by a rather disreputable bankrupt, Mr Bedford, who retreats to a bungalow on the Kent coast where he hopes to scribble a best-selling play in order to make a quick buck, but gets into conversation with a neighbour, Cavor, and gets drawn into the latter’s scientific experiments.

The ‘scientific’ basis is simple, or simple-minded, enough. Cavor points out that we now know the universe is full of rays and waves that act at a distance – light rays, x-rays, electricity and gravity. We know of materials which block light and electricity and x-rays. So why can’t we create something which blocks the effect of gravity?

Bedford immediately sees the vast amounts of money to be made from such a material in a hundred and one commercial applications

An extraordinary possibility came rushing into my mind. Suddenly I saw, as in a vision, the whole solar system threaded with Cavorite liners and spheres de luxe. (p.27)

So he persuades the rather other-worldly Cavor to take him on as a ‘partner’ and becomes a regular visitor to the latter’s house down the hill, incidentally observing the comic rivalry of the three working class labourers Cavor has working in his various workshops.

An enormous explosion and then terrific hurricane announces that they’ve succeeded in making the new material, by fluke, when a substance they’d been working on was left to cool and obviously crystallised into the material they now christen ‘cavorite’. (All taking place on 14 October 1899, as Bedford records.)

As soon as it came into existence, the cavorite blocked the earth’s gravitational pull from working on the air above it, which meant that all that air – which normally presses down at a pressure of 14 pounds per square inch – ceased doing so but floated free upwards, creating a column of ’empty air’ directly about the square of cavorite. Into this gravity-less tube rushed all the surrounding air which, on finding itself unpulled by the earth’s gravity, also lost its downward force and was forced upwards by the rest of the surrounding air rushing in, and so on and so on, in a split second creating an uprushing funnel of air into which everything not tied down was immediately dragged at tremendous force.

For the few moments that this happened all the air in the neighbourhood was sucked into the gravity-free tube – which explains the sudden hurricane Cavor and Bedford felt – while the cavorite itself was sucked up by the empty vortex and they both watched it soar up through the column, up, up and – presumably – right out of the earth’s atmosphere, at which point everything returned to normal. ‘By Jove, old chap.’

Bedford and Cavor look at each other. This thing could escape the earth’s atmosphere. It could fulfil man’s oldest dream of leaving earth. But how to steer or control it? Cavor goes off pondering and the next day has come up with a solution: encase the cavorite in steel plates and only open the plates to reveal it when you want it to work.

(You can see why the narrator, Bedford, keeps lamenting that he didn’t keep notes, didn’t make a record of the process by which cavorite was made, didn’t follow all of Cavor’s abstruse thinking. This is mostly because Well’s idea doesn’t really make practical sense.)

So they build a sphere, with an inner layer made of glass, then covered in warm cavorite paste, then steel divided into plates. (In fact it’s less a sphere than a polyhedron made of flat plates. And the plates are more, in fact, like ‘blinds’ which can be opened and closed. I’ve always found this quite hard to visualise.) Once everything is in place they heat the cavorite to securely bind it to the ‘sphere’ and then, as it cools, it assumes the magical properties and – whoosh!

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Hering (1901)

The idea is that to steer the sphere you open a plate in the direction you want gravity to cease working and are repelled away from any nearby object (the earth or moon or sun). Once in space, close the plates and you’ll be pulled towards the nearest big object. Like the moon.

Bedford climbs into the sphere and Cavor shows him the blankets, some frozen oxygen in cylinders, some food, an electric light and some carbolic acid device to get rid of the carbon dioxide they inhale and, while Bedford is still pondering whether he wants to go, Cavor opens the earthside shutters, the cavorite works and whoosh! they are flying towards the moon.

It is all quick quick quick to stop you realising what tosh it is, and to enchant you in his spell. Wonder follows wonder. First of all there is weightlessness. Maybe earlier writers had realised we would be weightless in space but Wells gives a very accurate prophecy of what it feels like, the tingling in the blood and the way everything inside the sphere floats around bumping into everything else.

It was the strangest sensation conceivable, floating thus loosely in space, at first indeed horribly strange, and when the horror passed, not disagreeable at all, exceeding restful; indeed, the nearest thing in earthly experience to it that I know is lying on a very thick, soft feather bed. But the quality of utter detachment and independence! I had not reckoned on things like this. I had expected a violent jerk at starting, a giddy sense of speed. Instead I felt—as if I were disembodied. It was not like the beginning of a journey; it was like the beginning of a dream.

They open some of the plates to see where they’re headed and a) are dazzled by the brightness of the sun and b) looking the other direction, are stunned by the profusion of stars, millions more than you can see through earth’s atmosphere.

Cavor makes last minute adjustments and they come to land in a vast crater on the moon. Here the reader is bombarded with impressions. It is dark and the ground is covered in soft white stuff which they only slowly realise is frozen atmosphere. They have arrived just at sunrise over the crater and are astonished to watch the frozen white stuff melt and then evaporate, to form an atmosphere, tingeing the sky blue.

Is it breatheable? Cavor performs the ludicrously amateur experiment of opening the manhole which they use to get in and out and, yes, it is thinner than earth’s but the moon’s atmosphere turns out to be perfectly breathable – no ill effects from sunlight, radiation, burning, toxic gases, nothing! Convenient, eh?

They climb outside and are astounded to watch small pebbles shiver, pop, put out roots, and then stalks. They are plants and shrubs and strange tree sized flora, which grows as they watch. Of course. The moon’s ‘day’ only last 14 earth days. In that fortnight life forms have to spring, grow, mature, produce their own seed, and decline.

But the thing they are most enraptured with is the low gravity. Only a sixth of the earth’s. Off they go springing and bounding in giant leaps amid the surreally growing and blossoming fruits of the moon. Until they realise they have forgotten where the sphere was and, looking back, see only an immense rustling growing forest of moon flora.

It is then they hear an ominous boom boom boom noise from beneath the surface and a grinding as of great gates opening. Not long afterwards they see the first of the Selenites herding a vast slug-like creature with tiny closed eyes and a horrid red mouth which is slurping and munching its way through the foliage.

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Amazement

The aim is to amaze, stun, astonish and astound. The basic, foundational trope of a visit to a strange land is reminiscent of any number of late-Victorian yarns – Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) to the Rider Haggard tales of darkest Africa (She, 1886), or Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger trip to a Lost World (1912) in the remotest Amazon.

But science fiction has the advantage over adventure stories in that it can make things up purely to astound, astonish, shock, disgust and amaze the reader.

Because the text is available online, it is searchable, and so I searched and counted 415 exclamation marks, as the characters, and the author, continually signal their amazement at their astounding discoveries!

For fun I searched all the instances of the word ‘amazing’.

It comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my participation in these amazing adventures of Mr. Cavor was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident.

[Cavor’s workshop] looked like business from cellar to attic—an amazing little place to find in an out-of-the-way village

It was an amazing piece of reasoning. Much as it amazed and exercised me at the time.

And then, sudden, swift, and amazing, came the lunar day.

With a steady assurance, a swift deliberation, these amazing seeds thrust a rootlet downward to the earth and a queer little bundle-like bud into the air.

Cavor panted something about ‘amazing sensations’.

What the Selenites made of this amazing, and to my mind undignified irruption from another planet, I have no means of guessing.

Amazing little corner in the universe—the landing place of men!

… returning after amazing adventures to this world of ours.

There were several amazing forms, with heads reduced to microscopic proportions and blobby bodies.

Amazing and incredible as it may seem, these two creatures, these fantastic men insects, these beings of other world, were presently communicating with Cavor by means of terrestrial speech.

To amaze is ‘to cause someone to be extremely surprised’. Synonyms for ‘amaze’ give a sense of the goal or aim of Well’s fantasies (and of the thousands of pulp sci-fi writers who followed him):

astonish, astound, surprise, bewilder, stun, stagger, flabbergast, nonplus, shock, startle, shake, stop someone in their tracks, stupefy, leave open-mouthed, leave aghast, take someone’s breath away, dumbfound, daze, benumb, perplex, confound, dismay, disconcert, shatter, take aback, jolt, shake up

Taken prisoner

Our heroes sneak away from the ghastly apparition of the Selenite and realise they are hungry. Not having any provisions from the sphere they are driven by desperation to nibble one of the growing ‘trees’ and Wells gives quite a humorous account of the way that the ‘food’ does them no harm but makes them both very drunk. Through their drunken bickering they are aware of Selenites surrounding them and of some kind of struggle, then it all goes dark.

They wake up with hangovers in a dark cell in handcuffs and shackles. One or two individual Selenites come to see them before they are raised to their feet and led by a posse of Selenites, some of whom are carrying the sharp spiked goads they’d seen one using to get the big fat mooncalf moving.

They are taken through caverns measureless to man, and past enormous machinery which appears to be pumping out some kind of liquid which glows blue and provides illumination, here under the surface of the moon. Cavor speculates wildly that there may be a whole civilisation here, under the surface of the moon. Maybe networks of caverns descending via tunnels down to some inner sea.

When they come to a narrow plank going out over what appears to be a vast bottomless pit, Bedford rebels. One of the Selenites gods him with the spiky implement and he sees red. He punches the Selenite and is astonished to watch his fist go right through its head and out the other side. They are far less sturdy and strongly made than humans. Before he knows it he is attacking all of them and then grabbing Cavor to make a getaway.

This is actually the turning point of the book, because the rest of the main narrative describes their escape back to the surface of the moon. As you can imagine it involves climbing up clefts and stumbling into vast caverns and a lot more fighting, with the unpleasant discovery that the Selenites have a sort of crossbow which fires spears.

Nonetheless they finally blunder out into a huge circular shaft with a spiral steps running up the outside (the kind of thing we’ve all seen in sci-fi and fantasy movies) leading up to the surface. Up it they run, emerging into the lip of a ‘crater’ and they now understand that the moon’s craters are in fact an immense network of circular ‘lids’ which can be retracted to reveal the labyrinth of tunnels create by Selenite civilisation.

The sun is visibly waning: some 14 days have passed underground though they haven’t noticed. Where is the sphere? Afflicted by despair as they survey the vast area of lunar foliage, now visibly browning and declining, they pin a handkerchief to a nearby bush and set off to explore in opposite directions, taking vast moon leaps as they go.

Nearing exhaustion and plagued by fear that search parties of very angry Selenites will be out after them, Bedford is on the brink of giving up when he is momentarily dazzled by a shaft of light and realises it is sunlight reflecting off a panel of the sphere. Weeping with relief he bounds over and confirmed it’s true. But what of Cavor? He leaps to a nearby peak and shouts Cavor’s name but – as Wells had pointed out from the first (in the kind of scientifically accurate detail which are such a joy of these stories) moon air is a lot thinner than earth air and so sound doesn’t carry very well: even when they’re shouting at each other it sounds like they’re whispering.

He can see the hankie in a bush a few miles away and so leaps over towards it. Here he yells Cavor’s name again, then looks down and sees an archetypal adventure story sight: broken bushes, churned up soil, all the signs of a struggle. Going down he finds a scrap of paper in which Cavor has hurriedly written that he’s hurt his knee in landing awkwardly in a ditch and can hear the Selenites closing in, any moment they’re going to -…

And here his message breaks off and the paper is marked by… a red liquid!!!!

They’ve got him. The crater is closed. All entrance to the interior is blocked off. The sun has almost set. Bedford realises he must save himself. I found his flight back the sphere quite gripping. Wells convincingly describes the sudden cold as the sun declines, the air grows thin and cold and then the first snowflakes will fall. The temperature will ultimately drop to Absolute Zero and Bedford will freeze to death unless he can make it to the sphere. At last he is there. Crawling on hands and knees. Barely strength to reach up to the manhole, Twists. Can’t do it. Twists again. Pulls himself up and is… inside!

An exhausted Bedford just about makes it back to the sphere as snow falls, illustration for The First Men In The Moon by Claude Allin Shepperson

An exhausted Bedford just about makes it back to the sphere as snow falls, illustration for The First Men In The Moon by Claude Allin Shepperson

Food. Blanket. Warmth. Recovery. Sleep. Wakes rejuvenated. Grasps the grim reality of his situation. Opens the cavorite plates. Silently flies into space. More by luck than judgement he steers a course back to earth.

In an outcome is so ludicrous it is like a pantomime, he not only lands back on earth, but he lands back on the south coast of England barely a few miles from where they took off. On the sea but by a beach. Some jolly chaps are coming down for their morning swim. ‘Crikey, old chap, you look a bit peaky let us take you up to the old hotel.’

Here he tucks into bacon and eggs and is drinking coffee when there’s an explosion and bewilderment outside the door. Some young land had accompanied the chaps taking dirty dishevelled Bedford up to their hotel. He’d looked a bit shifty. The young wretch must have gone back to the sphere, climbed in and opened a plate. Damn and blast! There go Bedford’s dreams of setting up an interplanetary travel agency.

But he still has the gold. Did I mention the gold? Amid their adventures Bedford had realised that the shackles and manacles the Selenites had bound them with were of gold. He had grabbed a couple of tyre lever size gold rods during their breakout, in fact he’d found them handy for fighting their way through the Selenites.

At least he still has them. He is rich.

A coda from Cavor

Wells could have stopped his tale there. Instead, there is a coda which takes up a surprising amount of space, pages 150 to 186 in the Everyman paperback edition. To the outrage of all common sense, a Dutch electrician and early radio ham, picks up radio messages… from the moon! Yes, Cavor was captured, as Bedford had described: but his captors were kind to him, and, once he’d recovered, they took him on a Cook’s Tour of their vast civilisation. Part of this was learning that there was an apparently infinite variety of types of Selenites and soon Cavor was being introduced to the brainy ones: he could tell they were brainy, because they had very big heads! Big heads and thin skins so he could actually see the brain matter pulsating as they thought their deep thoughts.

Turns out some of them are specialists in language and set down to study Cavor who quickly catches on and starts to teach them English. Thus, within a few weeks, Cavor is communicating with the Selenites who take him on a tour of their civilisation, explain how it all works, confirm that the moon is a swiss cheese of underground caverns and passages, that the phosphorescent liquid and much else is produced by immense machinery, that at the centre of the moon there is indeed a vast and tempestuous sea – and much more besides.

These visions of an alien civilisation, as so often, develop a strong flavour of being social criticism of the author’s own civilisation. Cavor discovers that the Selenites breed all the different types of workers in the equivalent of test tubes, distorting all aspects of their bodies and brains to suit them to the work they’re destined for. (Anticipating Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by 30 years).

Harsh? Yes, he is a bit disgusted by it but, especially one particular sight of an embryonic Selenite having its forelimbs artificially lengthened to do manual work, but – and here is the Author’s Message –

of course it is really in the end a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.

On another occasion his guides – the preposterously named Phi-oo and Tsi-puff – brings him to a great field of mushrooms being grown for food, where they find all the workers drugged and fast asleep, until they are needed for the harvest when they’ll be woken. Again, the character Cavor becomes a mouthpiece for the Fabian Socialist H.G. Wells:

To drug the worker one does not want and toss him aside is surely far better than to expel him from his factory to wander starving in the streets

Cavor’s tour climaxes with a presentation to the Grand Lunar, Master of the Moon – at which point the book definitely feels more like a lampoon or a parody than a ‘serious’ fantasy. Except that here it reaches a kind of height of teenage socialism Cavor radios back a lengthy version of his interview with the Grand Lunar which begins with harmless stuff about the structure of the earth, why we live on the surface and not underneath like the Selenites, what weather is like in a place with 12 hour days, and so on. Little by little Cavor describes human civilisation, cities and factories and trains, how we do not breed different types of human to perform different tasks, not yet anyway.

But, when asked whether there is a Grand Earthly as there is a Grand Lunar, he finds himself having to explain the idea of nations and empires and, before he realises it, is describing ‘war’ which fills the Grand Lunar and the huge entourage of Selenites listening to Cavor’s account with horror. Yes, wars in which men flock to the flag, train and arm and proudly wear uniforms before clashing in huge armies designed solely to kill as many of the opponents as possible. As he proceeds he realises the moans of disappointment and disillusion rising from the crowd and the ‘expression’ on what passes for the Grand Lunar’s face.

Cover of Amazing Histories magazine, featuring an illustration of Cavor addressing the Great Lunar

Cover of Amazing Histories magazine, featuring an illustration of Cavor addressing the Great Lunar

A week later comes the final broadcast which is a panic-stricken sentence, ‘I was mad to let the Grand Lunar know – “. And then a few words attempting to convey the secret of cavorite. Then silence.

Beckford imagines the dismay Cavor’s revelation about the true nature of human beings must have caused, and how the mood turned against Cavor, and especially the risk that he might bring more members of this violent conquering species to the moon.

Which all remind me very much of Gulliver’s Travels in which our hero proudly describes human behaviour to the King of Brobdingnag, who replies, accurately enough:

‘I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.’

True or not, the point is that, bolted on to the science fantasy, this coda reads very much like a variation on the time-honoured satire on contemporary civilisation and, by extension, of human nature, which goes back before Swift to Thomas More’s Utopia and before that to any number of Roman and Greek authors.


Commentary

There are three obvious features about a Wells novel like this, what he called his ‘fantasy novels’:

1. Fast

It’s fast-moving. Bedford has bumped into Cavor, built the sphere, gone to the moon, watched the desert bloom, been captured and taken below, escaped and fought his way to the surface, found the sphere and escaped, crash-landed on earth and had a hearty breakfast, all in a mere 150 pages (in the Everyman paperback edition I read).

2. Fantastic

So fast moving you don’t notice how quickly you leave the world of Edwardian England, with its pubs and evening strolls along the Downs, completely behind. It only requires ten or so pages from Bedford meeting Cavor, to him thoroughly involving him in his theoretical speculations, and then – whoosh! they’re off to the moon.

It is fast-moving because it is, in a sense, pulp.  Only by moving fast from one astounding moment to the next can it stop you pausing to reflect and thus breaking the spell.

3. Mundanity

But, contradicting a little everything I’ve said above, just as important is its air of mundaneness and normality.

I think it was Tom Shippey in his book about Lord of the Rings who explains that what made the book such a success was the invention of the hobbits. Tolkien had been working on his private-world mythology for decades, inventing languages and complex histories for his elves and dwarves and so on, and had produced quite a few texts narrating whole eras in his legendary Middle Earth. But they were boring and flat.

It was the invention of the down-to-earth, small, beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, no-nonsense, common-sensical hobbits which gave him a vehicle to take the reader into his world. We are introduced to the hobbits first and thoroughly identify with their idealised pastoral English life, before the first hints of other-worldly menace ever appear.

This explains why Lord of the Rings is regularly voted the greatest novel of the 20th century while I’ve never met anyone who managed to complete The Silmarillion, another of Tolkien’s epics, describing a different era in Middle Earth’s history, but which lacks hobbits and, therefore, all charm and – crucially – representatives of the ordinary reader; imaginative vectors allowing us  to enter into his imaginative world.

It’s an overlooked element of Wells that his best books also require this dyad – the interlocking of two opposites. We all know about the fantastical in his books, for example the idea that Martians launch an attack on earth or a man invents a time machine and travels to the distant future. Those are certainly the ideas at the core of the books. But when you actually read the texts what comes across almost as powerfully is the very mundane details – that the Martians land in Dorking and head towards London across the humdrum landscape of Surrey, blasting well known landmarks on their way (which is why there is a striking sculpture of a ‘Martian’ in Dorking town centre).

Wells himself was well aware of doing this:

For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader play the game properly he must help him, in every possible unobtrusive way, to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. (quoted in the critical afterword to the Everyman edition)

And one mark of that is the way the people who witness and generally write up the narratives are very ordinary, everyday chaps, who are often a bit confused, puzzled, don’t quite follow what’s going on, miss important details, don’t quite follow the scientific whatchamacallit, and, in their bumbling innocence, stand in as a kind of stylised representative of the innocent reader.

They are all Dr Watsons to a succession of fierce, eccentric or visionary Holmeses, respectively:

  • 1895 The Time Machine – first person unnamed narrator
  • 1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – first person narrative by shipwrecked sailor Edward Prendick
  • 1897 The Invisible Man – third person narrator
  • 1898 The War of the Worlds – first person unnamed narrator
  • 1899 When the Sleeper Wakes – Graham, the eponymous sleeper
  • 1901 The First Men in the Moon – first person narrative by Mr Bedford
  • 1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – third person narrative
  • 1906 In The Days of the Comet – unnamed narrator
  • 1908 The War in the Air – featuring Bert and Tom Smallways
  • 1914 The World Set Free – third person narrator

Making this list shows that this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. But it goes some way to explaining, to me at any rate, why of the early stories The Invisible Man stands out as particularly unlikeable, and negative. the main character has those qualities, and so it is one of the few not told by a more or less reasonable chap, who we’re meant to identify with.

This explains the presence of the three working class men who Cavor employs in  his lab who are each jealous of each other’s specialisms, argue and often down tools to go off to the pub and argue some more. They are like the rude mechanicals in Shakespeare, offering both comic interludes but also throwing into relief the more serious activities of their middle class superiors.

This also explains why Bedford, at an early stage, has an argument with Cavor and goes off for an epic walk across Kent, enjoying the countryside, stopping for lunch in a pub, chatting with the local yokels while he puffs on his pipe. All designed to give the fantasy a fully-fitted coat of verisimilitude.


Related links

H.G. Wells science fiction novels

1895 The Time Machine
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau
1897 The Invisible Man
1898 The War of the Worlds
1899 When the Sleeper Wakes
1901 The First Men in the Moon
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth
1906 In the Days of the Comet
1908 The War in the Air
1914 The World Set Free

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 he based on the detailed diaries he kept from 1915 to 1918, and which includes his involvement in part of 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, flamed by flares, eviscerated by shellfire as they advance, fighting and shooting, chucking grenades and grappling in hand-to-hand combat with the foe, with Jünger himself repeatedly getting hit, picking up some 20 wounds in all – 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 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 those, or many of the other 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.

The 266-page text is divided into nine chapters (the last three of these describe his career after the war ended). But these ‘chapters’ are really just buckets into which he has gathered together impressions, vignettes, memories and reflections: 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.

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 optimism.

There’s a surprising number of passages where he completely switches from memoir mode into warnings about the contemporary situation in Europe 1935, passages where he desperately pleads 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 sounds a lot like H.G. Wells in prophetic mode.

And there is another, stylistic difference from the  Jünger, that writing twenty years after the fact allows. Lewis has absorbed the lessons of the Modernist writers about playing with form and experimenting with voice and style, 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 stories. Elsewhere he describes what he imagines his mother must have felt about him running off to war in a sensitive style, which includes switches to the thoughts running through her head in 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.

By contrast, in the sections about the specifications and performance of the planes themselves his prose is 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, although we gather he’s describing something he 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 in his cottage in the country (pp.112-115). The first hundred pages are much more dominated by his mother who – presumably – brought him up alone. There are lyrical 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. He meets her 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)

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, not just his immediate first-person experiences. (pp.34, p.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 for him the young, 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 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 he can go in and shag her.

Thus his progress from timidly innocent virgin to drunken debauchee in less than two years. In another bravura passage he describes the secret location in Kensington where off-duty officers could go to party, dance to the music of a jazz band and pick up girls. He takes a willing slender young thing up to the balcony to stare at the stars, to be 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

He 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, 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 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 you’re flying.

He really makes you feel the exhilirating 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 lyrical descriptions of landscape, beginning with 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 country into hellscape. His own psychological predisposition to the lyrical and beautiful and the detachment which comes from twenty years of hindsight reinforce the simple detachment which must have been rammed home by flying so high above the scene, to produce a whole series of passages of heartfelt bitter anger, rage and contempt at the folly of war and the pitifulness of humanity, ‘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

And what did he 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 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 slow 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 disillusion 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 fighters are better built and engineered and their fighters 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, several times crashing but able to walk away (pp.95-97). How different things look on the pock-marked, devastated stinking ground.

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 fighting over those will never end.

Posted home

He 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, to become

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, 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 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, he 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 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 bombs drop nearby and gives an almost science fiction description of the impact on the jazz dancing crowds.

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. All this experience teaches him that you cannot stop the bombers – they will always get through – which leads him to another of  his urgent contemporary please 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, of the time he landed in a field to ask someone where the devil he was (that happened a lot), went back to the plane and turned on the motor but it began to move before he could climb into the cockpit and then proceeded to turn in a small circle just a bit too fast for him, wearing heavy flying gear and boots, to run into the circle avoiding the propeller.

And 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 so 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 German spring offensive, one of the few massed flights that made the commute without at least one accident. As the tide turns the squadron is posted forward into an aerodrome near Ypres and he can’t believe the utter desolation of the countryside. 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. His new young squadron had trained to fight and never seen any action. Lewis 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 details his war career.

Most other memoirs and fictions about the war took years to surface, while the authors struggled with their memories and to find words to describe the experience. No such hesitation for Jünger, who converted the 16 diaries he’d kept during his three-year 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, Jünger not only wrote many more books and articles, but rewrote In Stahlgewittern half a dozen times, each time moving further from the diary format, adding passages of reflection, toying with the emphasis – the 1924 edition is the most blood-thirsty, giving precise details of how he shot British soldiers; the 1934 edition is much more muted, removing those references, as Jünger realised he was by now reaching an international audience i.e. British and French readers.

By the 1930s Storm of Steel (first translated into English and given that title in 1930) had become 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 their social class, with traces of the kind of school they went to (private or state), sometimes their regional origins, and so on – all kinds of traces.

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

This translation is by Michael Hofmann, the poet, and was published in 2003. Although it won 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 unEnglish nature of many of the sentences and the unEnglish atmosphere which hovers over the entire text is a deliberate strategy to convey the unEnglish nature of Jünger’s German. I doubt it, though, 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 1930 translation of Storm of Steel by Basil Creighton, 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.

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 – compared with Creighton’s straightforward (if often dated) prose.

This often leads to 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 useage in Down and out in Paris and London in the 1930s, where it has the feel of the rough, lower-class, Victorian words 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.

Why? Maybe we are meant to accept it as a famous poet playing with language. Which is all well and good in the privacy of his own writing, but when he is translating a 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.

(Incidentally, the insertion of ‘too’ in that 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. 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.’]

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 American infantryman, expressing a combination of embattled fondness for the dumb front-line soldiers, along with contempt for the shitstorm their superiors had dumped them in. Apparently, ‘grunt’ was first recorded in this sense in print in 1969.

My point is that all its associations are to Vietnam, to choppers, ‘gooks’, napalm at dawn and so on. Dropping it into your translation of Jünger in 1920 is like dropping a couple of seconds of colour film into a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie, 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, than to translate Jünger into clear, effective and tonally consistent prose.

Elsewhere he makes Jünger use 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.

And yet, at the other extreme of class diction, after our hero survives a violent foray into the British trenches, he overhears a soldier saying:

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

‘My word’! An ordinary soldier – one of the ‘grunts’ – is meant to talk like that? While posh, upper-class says things are ‘getting on our wicks’.

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

One last example which shows that the way that Hofmann clings to the German word order obscures Jünger’s meaning.

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)

Now 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 they’ve taken, in a subordinate clause right next to the subject or object: they write:

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

It often makes French and German prose seem 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.

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:

He kicked the ball and it rolled across the grass.

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’; ‘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 weighed down.

Compare and contrast that 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.
  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.

The result of all this is that I didn’t notice this passage at all when I read the Hofmann. It just drifted by, passive, subordinate and veiled. Whereas when I read the Creighton version, this passage really stood out 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. I got the point Jünger was making.

So: from very early on I had the impression that Hofmann was more interested in tickling the tastebuds of modish readers who like poetic effects (contemporary, 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 unEnglish phaseology, 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’. 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.

I saw myself face to face with a young man of about twenty-six… (p.210)
‘Saw’? An English speaker would write ‘found’

German humour

Maybe they simply don’t survive Hofmann’s translation, but what appear to be German jokes aren’t very funny. For example, I think the following is intended to include both a stylish reference to a German literary figure, and 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. 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 German. Maybe. But his version is much more readable than Hofmann’s. It seems like we are stuck with two very flawed translations.

Worse, the Creighton contains 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. In these passages Jünger gives his thoughts about the nature of meaning of war and bravery. None of them are in the Hofmann. Maybe this makes the Hofmann version more pure and elemental but it does mean the average English reader will never get to see and read Jünger’s thoughts about his subject – men in war.

What this book really deserves is a variorum 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) and renders it into clear, unfussy English, but has 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

What comes over, despite the clunky translation, is that, for much of the time, Jünger’s approach is strangely colourless.

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, 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. In the fifth chapter (‘Daily life in the trenches’) the text reverts to its original format as a diary, each paragraph starting with a date, and with a chronological sequence of dates which takes us through summer and autumn 1915, through Christmas and into the spring of 1916.

The names of lots of colleagues are given, but generally in a dry, 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 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 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)

Now, among his many other achievements, Jünger was an 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, is in fact a self-portrait.


Jünger’s vision of war

But 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 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 the hospitals, 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.

In the spring the ice and frost melt and the trenches thaw and dissolve, revealing the massed bodies and equipment of the men of 1914 and 1915, whose bodies were built into the defences, and 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 unquenchable 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. 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 horror.

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 shreds human beings.

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 the recently lived is so outside normal human experience that it is 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, led to 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, he 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 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.

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 has a narrative of sorts in that Jünger’s diary gives the German point of view of a number of Western front battles, in chronological order, including the Battle of the Somme and leading up to the German spring offensive of 1918, and then the Allied counter-attack in summer of 1918, at which point Jünger is wounded for the sixth time and is recuperating back in Germany when the war ends.

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, but their confidence in the superiority of their fighting spirit.

In the introduction to the Creighton edition, R.H. Mottram, who himself fought in the war, says the entire text is evidence of the obtuse refusal to face reality of the entire Germany military class. The war could only ever end with Allied victory yet they stretched it out for four years of psychological denial, resulting in ten million unnecessary deaths.

Half way through there’s an unexpected section about the discovery that his brother, who had also enlisted, is fighting in a different unit right alongside his, and the two brothers even meet up in the heat of a battle, when Jünger arranges for his wounded brother to be carried back to a field hospital in a piece of tarpaulin.

So there’s enough 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, 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 all the other elements I’ve mentioned is a nightmare vision of the future, and an even more destructive conflagration.

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 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.

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 as the Germans overcompensated 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 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 how individual villages, towns and cities were subject to Russian administration and violence, and a lot about the impact of war on the region’s simmering ethnic tensions. I didn’t realise 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, there are lots of graphs and diagrams scattered throughout the text 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 kicked in soon after the war started and reached catastrophic depths during the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-17. These were triggered 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 (pp.330-374).

So there’s more about the food shortage than the actual battles. Maybe, in the long run, the starvation was more decisive. Maybe, he would argue, there are hundreds 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, he gives gripping accounts 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 he gives a very high-level overview, and only enough detail to explain (fascinatingly) why the German offensive failed, but 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.

Something else I found disappointing was his neglect of campaigns even a little outside his main concern with German and Austro-Hungarian military politics and social impacts.

He gives a thrilling account of the initial Austrian attack on Serbia – which was, after all, the cause of the whole thing – 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 she is later successfully invaded is skated over in a sentence. Similarly, none of the fighting on the front between Austria and Italy is described, and there is only one reference to Romania being successfully occupied and nothing at all about Bulgaria until a passing mention to her capitulation in 1918. In other words, I had been hoping that the book would give an account of the First World War in the East, but it doesn’t. 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 emerges 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 national 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 homogenous 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. However, when war came, Watson shows how, in a hundred different ways, German society closed ranks in a patriotic display of unity and so the SDP, after some debate, united with all the other parties in the Reichstag in voting for the war credits the Chancellor asked for.

Watson says contemporaries called this the Burgfrieden spirit of the time, meaning literally ‘castle peace politics’ but more accurately a political policy of ‘party truce’, all parties rallying to the patriotic cause, trades unions agreeing not to strike and so on. The sense that Germans were encircled by enemies and must all pull together.

Typical of Watson’s social-history approach is his account 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 charity and 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. There was a very clear First Division of empires, a class of Great Powers, and the rulers of Austria-Hungary were petrified that the collapse and secession of any part of their heterogenous empire would relegate them to the class of also-rans, beginning them on the path to humiliation and impotence being experienced by the disintegrating Ottoman and powerless Chinese empire.

Watson shows how, as soon as war broke out, the empire began dividing. Vienna ceded control of large regions to localised governments best placed to mobilise the war effort among their own peoples, not least in Galicia, inhabited by a majority Polish community.

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 in 1920, before eventually becoming Poland’s strongman in the interwar period)
  2. the second was to encourage inter-ethnic tension and violence

The difference between homegenous Germany and heterogenous 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, welcomed into homes and communities all over the Reich, and were recipients of charity from a popular refugee fund which raised millions of marks. Even when the refugees were in fact Polish-speaking or Lithuanians, they were still all received as loyal members of the Fatherland (pp.178-181).

Compare and contrast with the bitter resentment which greeted refugees from the Russian invasion of the Austro-Hungarian border region of Galicia. When some 1 million refugees 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 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, going back centuries –  but that it was this 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 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 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 you have a mix of ethnicities in a society put under pressure, you get voices raised blaming ‘the other’, blaming whichever minority group comes to hand.

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 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.

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, who think 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, 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.

And 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 the First World War and the stubborn refusal to give in which led to over ten million men being slaughtered and say – ‘Well, 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’.

Because in my lifetime the savagery of the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the genocide in Darfur, the failure of the Arab Springs and the civil war in Syria, 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 they prove anything, 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. But 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’ 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. 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.

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 could very easily be read as a manifesto against the notion of a multicultural, multi-ethnic society.


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Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) A synopsis

Introduction

Ring of Steel sets out:

  1. to explore how consent for war was won and maintained in Austria-Hungary and Germany
  2. to explain how extreme and escalating violence radicalised 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 permanent annexation of Belgium, northern France and west Russia
  3. to describe the societal fragmentation caused by the war, in an Austria-Hungary already deeply fissured by ethnic tensions 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

Chapters

  1. Decisions for war
    • The conspirators– Elements in Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry and military had been waiting an opportunity to suppress Serbia, on its borders and fomenting nationalist unrest. When Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian (A-H) throne was assassinated on 28 June, they blamed Serbia and spent most of July devising an ultimatum they, and everyone else in Europe, knew 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 their fellow Slavs, the Serbs.
    • War of existence – Reasons the Austro-Hungarian hierarchy were so harsh on Serbia i.e. 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, reflect a nation anxious about the growing might of Britain and France, the industrialisation of Russia, but well aware of the risk of world war. He gambled that a) the Austrians would whip Serbia quickly, within a week and b) 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 mobilises out of fear that an A-H vistory over Serbia would give the whole Balkans to Germanism, demolish Russia’s traditional claim to lead the Slav peoples, relegate her out of the league of Great Powers. Fear and anxiety led her to full mobilisation. Hearing of this, Bethmann tried to roll back and curtail Austrian aggression
  2. Mobilising the people
    • Assassination – The impact of the assassination 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 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, by a series of Balkan wars and international crises in all of which Germany was 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 parties – only Germans. Fear of invasion by backwards Russia persuaded leaders of the largest party in Germany, the million-strong 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 – 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 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. Meanwhile 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 by the ‘illusions’ of their military leaders.
    • The Western front – On the night of 1 August advance 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 lerge-scale invasion started things went wrong. The Belgians were better armed and more resistant than expected. The French stood their ground and even counter-attacked. Both sides were jittery. Even the suspicion of potshots by civilians, spies and franc-tireurs drew terrible revenge. Houses, sometimes entire villages were burnt down. 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, and 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 Hapsburg army (p.156).
  4. The war of defence
    • Invasion – News of the Russian sweep into Galicia and Eastern Prussia, and the atrocities they promptly started 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. terrible threat of arbitrary violence which the mayor, police and other civili 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 violence was fueled by the ordinary soldier’s fear of being shot by civilians, by spies, by the general terror of this new kind of warfare. It 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 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.
    • 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 and whereas a flood of refugees cemented Germany identity, here the arrival of Poles, Ruthenians, Jews and other minorities in Germany, Hungarian or Czech lands bred resentment and hostility, social tensions and racial antagonism’ (p.205). Watson quotes an Austrian 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 – German ruling class and intelligentsia were bitterly disappointed that Britain ended up joining the war – 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 that German authorities badly mismanagement 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), with the inevitable result that, over the next four years, all of those people lost faith in the Hapsburg administration and increasingly hankered after rule by their own people. Watson’s descriptions of the Hapsburg army’s heavy-handed 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 with the promise of extensive Austrian territory and with gold, by France and Britain. The 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 provision 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.
    • Eastern utopias – In 1915 Germany counter-attacked against Russia and took back East Prussia and Galicia as well as conquering Tsarist Poland the Baltic states. Watson describes the German plans to administer and exploit this large new territory, including the racialisation of 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, the Russian Brusoliv offensive.
    • The Grognards – The armies of all the combatants were much larger than 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 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 storm through the Austro-Hungarian Fourth and Seventh Armies in the East, ‘yet enother 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 whch, for the first time, really felt the Entente’s superiority.
    • 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 gazetted at all levels of the useless Austro-Hungarian army 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). How the Germans stripped labour, agricultural goods, 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 America entered the war on the Entente side, changing the alliance 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 another German gamble which, like the Schlieffen Gamble back in 1914, 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, but 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 get money, as well as the states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. To educated people it came as no surprise when America 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 for 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, 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 of a middle-class Provisional Government and a 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 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 speak among politically aware workers. The SPD split, with an independent SPD pursuing calls for an immediate peace, and a tiny splinter group, the Sparticists, who were to be involved in the post-war revolutionary uprisings.
  12. The bread peace
    • Brest-Litovsk – The Bolsheviks staged their coup d’état in November 1917 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 Berst-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 urgently needed food supplies. 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 was the end of 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 they weren’t nationals in order to prevent them furthering the nationalist chaos which was threatening the empire. 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 ruling class tied its wagon to Germany’s fortunes. In May 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 it had taken the major supply depots of Amiens or Haezebrouck it might have forced to 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 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. 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 in 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. Supply lines were stretched. Ammunition was running low. And the men, who had suffered huge losses, were recycled back to the Front and expected to fight again and again. 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 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 more 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 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 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 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 singled out 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. 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)

Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

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, up into 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 order (which, apparently, he nearly was), or simply executed by British Intelligence (who had more than one opportunity) – 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 of 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.

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 it 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.

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

And all the art on display at the exhibition and in this book suggests that whoever took the reins would not have been able to hold back the tremendous, society-wide thirst for complete change in social, political, economic and cultural values which was straining Russia to breaking point.

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. 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 wreaked just as much social and personal havoc as the Bolsheviks.

In other words – speculation about how much the German High Command makes for interesting reading, and leads to fanciful speculation – but I don’t think it would have changed the outcome of events.


Completely new visual styles

Abstract 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, themselves based on 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 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 toney 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 well-established strategy. At the same time, the Germans were arming independence fighters in Ireland and trying to foment rebellion against British rule in India.

This book sets out to recreate the fateful journey, describing the broader context of the war and wartime St Petersburg, the nexus of German agents and dodgy Russian businessmen who arranged the deal, the journey itself, and the fraught political situation in  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 that’s what it feels like, to this reader at any rate.

Part one – Catherine’s adventures and pukka Brits

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

Then, 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 (which is, she tells us, a simply magical city!).

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

Chaps like Sir Samuel Hoare, Sir George William Buchanan, Major-General Sir Alfred William Fortescue Knox, Sir John Hanbury-Williams, and so on.

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 prewar Russian strategy.

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 convergence 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’, Marxist theoretician, revolutionary, and activist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany. You might expect Merridale to give us at least a hint of their theoretical discussions and how they influenced the man who went on to be number two in the Russian Revolution, but no. The Trotskies:

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, with the initial downpayments he sets himself up in Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel where he establishes an entourage of bosomy blondes and orders champagne for breakfast (p.63).

This may all be true, but these first hundred pages or so 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 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 (and pleasant travelogue about how Merridale herself has visited as many of these shops and cafes and sites as 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 starts everything is the February Revolution – covered in gripping detail by Merridale – when a march of women to celebrate International Women’s Day attracts other protesters, swells in size and then – crucially – the soldiers sent in to suppress it refuse to obey orders, and even turn 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. Meanwhile, 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 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 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 trying to motivate a huge army of some seven million men who now wondered what on earth 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 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 she 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 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 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 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 conservatives and reactionaries. Even the more radical Bolshevik faction which Lenin had himself founded back in 1903 was surprised, with Bolsheviks just back from Siberian exile such as Kamenev and Stalin having to readjust their positions to match Lenin’s. 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 section describing the very 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 named individuals in German secret service. using 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 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 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? 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 the 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. 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.

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 how Lenin’s absolute, unwavering insistence that the next stage of the revolution needed to take place now, with the declaration of 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. There is a compelling logic to stopping here.

Then something odd happens. The book changes tack completely.

Part three – German money and Catherine’s reflections

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

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. Were they right?

Merridale lays out the pros and cons of these claims and shows how. down the years, they continued, until well into the 1950s and even 60s. Russians in exile after the Revolution continued the accusations and, periodically, 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 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 funded 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.

This was 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.

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. 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 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 pouring into Russia to support the different sides 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.

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.

Aftermath and Catherine’s views

Having brought her historical narrative to and end with the discussion of the funding issue, Merridale then concludes the book with a chapter outlining the fates of many 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 (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 read up to 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.

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 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.

But, 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? Do you mean John Lennon?’

The world moves relentlessly on. People forget their history 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 quotes and 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 buildup to the First World War as seen from Russia, with some 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 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 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 up an overseas empire. In the eighteenth century this threat had come from France – in the 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 both times there were influential British voices raised against involvement. But both times we surprised and dismayed the Germans by plunging in, thus preventing quick wins.

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). Germany was completely excluded 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, victors’ justice, profoundly unfair etc etc.

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 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.

And 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, it 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 1900, 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 force 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 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 nations’ two strongmen are both 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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