Night by Elie Wiesel (1960)

In front of us those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.
(Night, page 28)

Wiesel was 15 when the authorities in his Hungarian hometown, Sighet, rounded up all the Jews and forced them into a tiny ghetto. A few months later, with terrifying suddenness, the Germans arrived, arrested all the Jewish elders, packed the rest of the population into cattle trucks and sent them to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. On the ramp men and women were separated in a matter of minutes, then marched off to their separate dooms, to be stripped naked, forced into the gas chamber, then incinerated in the crematoria. The bewildered boy watched his mother and sister lined up with the other women and marched off, and that was the last he ever saw of them. Wiesel and his father were selected for labour and sent to a men’s barracks where he survived, enduring privations and the anguish of watching his father’s steady deterioration.

In August 1944 he and his dad are transferred to Buna camp where the entire focus of existence becomes getting enough food. They witness terrible scenes. Hangings, shootings. There is the terrifying ordeal of a ‘selection’, all the inmates passing naked before the legendary Dr Mengele, his pencil hovering, ready to add your number to those selected for the gas. Eliezer and his father pass. Then Eliezer develops an infected foot and is sent to the infirmary. He is terrified they will amputate his leg, but it is only an abscess which needs lancing.

Only days later, with the same suddenness, the same midnight panic, the Block elders announce the Russians are now close, so the Germans are evacuating the camp. It is January 1945, the depths of bitter frozen winter, when Eliezer and his father join the 60,000 inmates who are driven on a death march west. Cold, snow, thousands not walking but jogging, forced to run by hundreds of SS guards with machine guns. Respite in a snowed-in ruined factory, prisoners falling asleep in the snow never to rise. Then roll call and more jogging, the body an empty machine, cold, the pain, arriving at a new camp named Gleiwitz, bodies collapsing on each other, squeezing out breath and life.

Someone had lain on top of me, smothering me. I couldn’t breathe through my mouth or my nose. Sweat was running down my forehead and my back. This was it; the end of the road. Silent death, suffocation. No way to scream, to call for help. (p.94)

Three days in the derelict camp without food or water. Many die. They can hear the cannons of the advancing Russians. Then the SS rouse them and march them further west, to the middle of a field by a railway. They are packed into open-roofed cattle trucks, 100 per truck, which travel in bitter cold under the snow. Most die of exposure and are thrown out of the trucks. Light-headed, weak, hallucinating, starving, it is always night, the freezing snow is everywhere. Eliezer slaps his father to keep him awake, to stop him being stripped and thrown overboard. They pass through German towns, German workers throw bread into the wagons and Eliezer watches people literally fight to the death for scraps of bread. Someone tries to strangle him. Night. Snow. Someone dies, someone else starts keening and before long the entire wagon is a frozen hell of corpses and keening wailing lost souls.

Amazingly, Eliezer and his father are just about alive when they arrive at the gates of Buchenwald. 100 entered their wagon. 12 leave.

Everyone is starving. Everyone is dying. At the rest in the factory on the death march, Eliezer had talked to a rabbi he knew who was pitifully looking for his son amid the night and snow and corpses. He realised he had seen the son forging ahead on the march, having left his father, having abandoned his father, hoping to survive without the impediment which was his sick, ailing father.

Now, at the most searing moment of the narrative (which Wiesel had already told us about in the Preface to the book) young Eliezer repeats this ultimate act of impiety, unfiliality, inhumanity. He lies terrified on the upper bunk of a bed while he hears his frail father being beaten on the bunk below by an SS officer. He is too terrified to move or protest but must listen to each blow landing on his father’s frail skull. It was 28 January 1945. And the worst thing? Deep inside – he is relieved.

The process of dehumanisation is complete. He is a shell. Two and a half months are covered in a few pages. Details, descriptions, living no longer matter to him. Soup and bread are all that matter. In April the Germans announce a systematic selection and gassing of the inmates. But on 11 April the inmates rise up and disarm the SS guards. Later that same day, units of the Sixth Armored Division of the United States Third Army arrive at the gates. They are liberated. Eliezer eats. He gets sick. He recovers.

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.
The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me. (p.115)

History of the text

It is almost unbelievable that anyone could continue living after these experiences, but Wiesel settled in Paris and attended the Sorbonne university, before getting a series of jobs as a journalist. It was only ten years later that the French novelist, François Mauriac, encouraged him to write it all down. The first manuscript was in Yiddish and 850 pages long. He went through and reduced this to 245 pages and, titled Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent’) it was published by a Jewish publisher in Buenos Aires in 1956.

Wiesel translated it into French and sent this manuscript to Mauriac, who tried numerous publishers who all rejected it. Eventually Samuel Beckett’s publisher agreed to take it, cut it down to 175 pages and changed the title to La Nuit. This French version came out in 1958.

Wiesel’s agent had similar problems interesting an American publisher until Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang in New York agreed to take it. He commissioned an English translation by Stella Rodway – which was further trimmed down to 116 pages – and published it as Night in 1960. It sold little to begin with, but became a word-of-mouth classic and stirred interest among Jewish literary figures.

As interest in the Holocaust revived among historians, academics and the wider culture, as more documentaries, films, plays and novels were written, Night grew steadily more important as testimony. In the early 2000s his publishers commissioned a new English translation from Wiesel’s wife, Marion, and upon its publication in 2006 it was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club, which led to a surge in sales and awareness.

Although first-hand testimony in its own right, Night – for good or ill – is now also part of the substantial cultural enterprise known as ‘Holocaust studies’.

(This textual history – and including the mention of Holocaust studies – is described in Wiesel’s own preface to the Penguin edition.)

Style

The book’s textual history explains its style. It is the result of not one but two translations, and an extensive process of revision and paring down. It has been extensively filtered. It is no surprise, then, that some critics have commented on its ‘minimalism’. By this they mean the style is polished. The sentences are mostly short. But they are pregnant with meaning. And suppressed emotion.

They ordered us to run. We began to run.

The old Jew, Moishe the Beadle, who he used to pore over the Zorah with, is shipped off with all ‘foreign’ Jews but, by a miracle, months later, reappears to tell everyone what happened to his transport i.e. they were lined up in a forest and shot, then piled into pits. He was wounded, played, dead, escaped to come back and warn everyone. But as in a fairy tale – or nightmare – no one will listen.

Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. (p.7)

Short sentences, simple forceful ideas conveyed in unfussy vocabulary. It has the power of a folk story. Or a sci-fi apocalypse.

Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb. (p.17)

Also, it is very fragmented. There are nine distinct chapters (though they don’t have titles or numbers) but within them the text is made up of short bursts, page-long sections. And – at least in the earlier part – each one starts with an indication of the time – ‘and then’, ‘one day’, ‘suddenly’. Cumulatively, they make the text feel punchy, staccato, like being punched. Thus pages eight to 20 have ten separate sections, which start like so:

  • Spring 1944. Splendid news from the Russian front.
  • Anguish. German soldiers – with their steel helmets and their death’s-head emblem.
  • The eight days of Passover.
  • Two ghettoes were created in Sighet.
  • Some two weeks before Shavuot. A sunny spring day…
  • For a moment we remained alone.
  • The ghetto was awake.
  • The small ghetto.
  • Night.

Diary format. Short entries. Each one situated in time, their brevity conveying the sense of hurtling headlong. And that is part of the point. It all happened very suddenly at night, arrests, orders to pack all your belongings, to be outside by 10 o’clock. And continues. In short staccato bursts. Facts. At pace. Bewilderment. Horror.

The Oberkapo was arrested on the spot. He was tortured for weeks on end. He gave no names. He was transferred to Auschwitz. And never heard from again. (p.64)

At six o’clock the bell rang. The death knell. The funeral. The procession was beginning its march.
‘Fall in! Quickly!’
In a few moments, we stood in ranks. Block by block. Night had fallen. (p.84)

God

As a Jewish comedian commented, if God especially loves the Jews, he has a funny way of showing it. The first twenty pages or so describe young Eliezer as devoutly religious. His family want him to be the learned one, the scholar. He prays day and night with fervent feeling, and finds rabbis to study the Talmud and Kabbalah with, he fasts to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

But of course, rounding up into the ghetto knocks his faith and then the journey to the camp and even what he sees in the first few hours, destroys it. There follows the long slow lingering terrible extermination of his faith in God, man or anything. He walks past trenches full of gasoline into which Germans and camp kapos are throwing live babies and infants. Alive. Into the flames (p.32). People around him mutter prayers or reproaches against God.

Jewish and Christian literary critics make much of this central strand of the text. When Wiesel describes walking past a young boy who is being hanged, he overhears someone saying: ‘Where is God?’ to which, inside, he replies: ‘Here, hanging from this gallows’ (p.65). The exchange has promptedliterary critics to give fancy interpretations of the boy as symbolising the crucified Christ and thus uniting Christian and Jewish blah blah blah.

I can see the imaginative, psychological, religious and literary power of such moments and such interpretations, but I find them blasphemous. For me, there is no God, no hint of God, no way of hiding, no way out, no redemption. Just humans reduced to animals scrabbling in the dirt by systematic and sadistic evil. To elevate any of this, to invoke any kind of ‘spiritual’ aspect to any of this, seems to me a blasphemy. It is the quintessence of human evil. Talk of God is absurd, irrelevant, inadequate, grotesque.

But then, What do I know? I have never had any remotely comparable experience. I am just a reader.

Youth and identity

I’ve recently read two other Holocaust texts, The Periodic Table by Primo Levi and This Way To the Gas by Tadeusz Borowski. Levi was 24 when he was sent to Auschwitz and had graduated as a chemist. In other words he had an adult identity. He credits his scientific training with saving his life, because it caused him to be transferred to the laboratory where he could steal things to exchange them in the camp for food (specifically the metal rods which he barters for the bread which keeps him and his friend Alberto going to the camp’s liberation – as told in the story ‘Cerium’ in The Periodic Table). But in a subtler way, it meant he had an identity based on science, scientific knowledge, the scientific method, and which related him to the entire scientific tradition of the West. The full depth and resonance and psychological power of this tradition is what gives such weight and force to his masterpiece The Periodic Table.

Borowski was twenty when he was sent to Auschwitz, and was already as a writer of poems, short stories and novels. He also had an adult identity which, in some way, helped him. Even as he unloaded the human freight onto the ramp at Auschwitz, maybe he was shaping and forming the experiences into words to write down.

Comparison with these two (still very young) men highlights Wiesel’s youth. All he had by way of vocation and ambition, was to become a religious scholar. So it wasn’t just his faith he lost in the camp, but  his entire purpose, his entire identity. And that is why, more completely than Levi or Borowski. his account conveys a sense of utter desolation. The others had an adult identity which could, to some extent, step back and rationally analyse the events.

Once stripped of his family and his religion, Wiesel had nothing. He is completely gutted, abolished, vacuated.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame. (p.37)

My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now… (p.68)

Controversy

Alas, Night has been dogged by controversy. At one extreme, some people have claimed Wiesel was never at Auschwitz and the whole thing is a fake. The ‘evidence’ for t his and the counter-arguments are laid out in this article:

A lot of the criticism of Night and broader attacks directed at Wiesel and his works stem from his outspoken support for the state of Israel, and for its policies of holding onto the land seized in the 1967 war, and building Jewish settlements on Arab land. Plenty of anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish critics see all of his writing as compromised by his support of Israel.

Then there are critics who broadly support Wiesel, but claim that Night is not a work of fact, but of documentary fiction. Criticism in this vein can range from quibbling about various factual inaccuracies through to questioning entire episodes from the book. Much of this is summarised in this review of the new translation of 2006.

I am not qualified to comment on Wiesel’s stance on Israel or on debates about the book’s factuality. All I can comment on is the text before me. And reading some of the criticism mentioned above did crystallise in me some misgivings about the book, namely:

Harrowing and terrifying though it is, ultimately its shape seems a bit too pat and convenient. In particular the last twenty pages or so are designed to wring the very last ounce of anguish from the story of his dying father. Despite all the confusions of multiple transports, endless roll-calls, despite being split up into different Kommandos and work details, despite going through selection procedures and being shuffled from one barracks to another, Eliezer is never separated from his father. Through the confusion of the death march when others were dropping dead, there’s his dad. In the brick factory, he keeps his dad awake and alive. In the open freight car he supports his dad. In Buchenwald his first thought – on getting his soup or his coffee or his bread is always his dad. He goes to several doctors to get them to treat his dad for dysentery. He cradles his dad as he gives him the water he asks for. After the SS man hit his dad, he is still just about alive and he cradles his head for a long time before he finally retreat to his own bed exhausted. Then he wakes the next morning and his father is gone, died in the night and spirited away. At which point the son bitterly laments he had no opportunity to light the candles and say the prayers and perform the Jewish ceremonies over him.

I won’t say it rises to Hollywood levels of sentimentality – but it did feel laid on with a trowel. If you were going to craft a story designed to tug, pluck and finally rip to shreds your heart strings, this is how it would go.

And this sense of artifice is reinforced by the careful way Wiesel sets up earlier father-and-son anecdotes to anticipate his one. On the death march an old rabbi gets separated from his son and and young Eliezer doesn’t have the heart to tell him he saw his son steaming ahead, looking grateful to have ditched the old liability. And again, in the open train to Buchenwald, Eliezer claims to witness a burly son beat his own father to death for the sake of some bread thrown into the truck by passing Germans.

The point being, the final operatic Odeipal climax to the narrative has been carefully prepared and anticipated, almost like a Shakespearean tragedy in which minor plots are designed to parallel and comment on the main action. Having witnessed the two earlier father-and-son betrayals allows Eliezer to feel even more distraught when he, also, fails the test.

I have absolutely no idea how much of this is fiction, fact, false or ‘faction’, but a worm of suspicion has been awoken.

For this reason, I would recommend, say, schoolkids seeking a first encounter with Holocaust testimonies to start with Primo Levi’s If this Is A Man, and would also prefer Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman to Night, harrowing, intense and poetically written though it undoubtedly is…


Credit

As described above, Night was published in French in 1958, Stella Rodway’s English translation was published in 1960, and Marion Wiesel’s revised English translation was published in 2006. All page references are to the 2008 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Related reviews

The Resistance by Matthew Cobb (2009)

Timeline

1939
September 3 – France and Britain declare war on Nazi Germany as a result of its invasion of Poland
1940
May 10 – after 9 months of ‘phoney war’, Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and quickly overruns them
June 18 – In the dying days of the Battle of France, General de Gaulle broadcasts from London telling the French to resist Germany
June 22 – The defeatist French government signs an armistice with Germany which establishes German direct rule over northern and western France and leaves southern, ‘unoccupied’ France, to be run by a new French government led by First World War hero, Marshal Pétain. Technically, the unoccupied territory became know simply as the ‘French state’, but the English-speaking world refers to it as ‘Vichy France’ because its government was located in the small spa town of Vichy.

Map of German-occupied and unoccupied France from July 1940 to November 1942

During its 18 month rule the Vichy government slowly instituted Nazi policies, banning Jews, rounding up eligible Frenchmen for enforced labour in Germany and so on.
1942
November -in response to the mounting level of Resistance activities, the Nazis moved to occupy all of France.
1943
January – The Germans lose the Battle of Stalingrad
July – The Allies invade Italy and fight their way up the peninsula
1944
June – D-Day landings in Normandy
August – Paris is liberated


The French Resistance

Books There are over 3,000 books about the Resistance in French, and half a dozen good overall accounts in English, of which this is one of the most recent.

Number of résistants Anyone who resisted was a résistant. In total, in the four years of Germany occupation, from June 1940 to the liberation of Paris in August 1944, some 500,000 people took part in the broadest definition of resistance activities. Around 100,000 were arrested, imprisoned, deported to camps in Germany or executed.

Collaboration and resistance It seems that when Marshal Pétain and members of the Vichy government first used this word, collaboration, to describe their working arrangement with the Germans, it had neutral connotations, it just described a new way of working together. Many French thought the old Marshall was a canny planner who was just waiting for the right moment to turn on the Nazis and kick them out. Only very slowly did ordinary people realise that Pétain had no such plan and was happy to connive in:

  • the collapse of living standards
  • food shortages
  • the mass deportation of young men to work in labour camps
  • the persecution, imprisonment then deporting of the Jews

So ‘resistance’, as a concept, was developed partly as a response to ‘collaboration’ – yin and yang.

De Gaulle The book makes clear that when General de Gaulle escaped to England, he was more or less alone. Certainly, over 100,000 French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk and then billeted in the south of England, but from the higher echelons of the French army de Gaulle was virtually alone. When an army officer called on him to ask for a job he had to bring his own paper to write out the specification. De Gaulle barely had an office, no secretary, a few military assistants.

Nonetheless, de Gaulle’s invincible optimism that France would be liberated persuaded the British government to give him a five-minute slot in the weekly half hour broadcast to France, and this helped identify him with the cause of Free France, which is what he named his movement.

The book then chronicles the very long and very complex series of political manoeuvring among the Allies, de Gaulle’s own camp, among the myriad different resistance groups and among Vichy politicians which slowly led to de Gaulle becoming the most acceptable – or the least unacceptable – figurehead which all the different forces fighting to liberate France could rally round.

 

Varieties of resistance Only slowly, and in scattered pockets all over occupied and unoccupied France, did people from all walks of life decide they had to ‘resist’ the invader, by any means possible. To begin with this took modest forms:

  • schoolchildren marched on patriotic holidays
  • everyone, from kids to old ladies, carved, wrote or made models or hand gestures of ‘V for victory’, for example painting V on the wall or writing it in the dirt on cars
  • after waving the tricolour flag was banned, people woreclothes the same colour as the French flag

Amateur and professional

While dealing with these early outbreaks of spontaneous and ‘popular’ resistance, Cobb also sets the scene for the politics of the Resistance. The broad outline is simple. De Gaulle isolated in London assumed every French citizen would place themselves under his control and would obey military discipline and his orders. The snag was that the Allies had a very uneasy relationship with de Gaulle and his supposed Free French, because he was arrogant, dictatorial and unbending. On the other hand, he did become an icon due to his radio broadcasts and it aided the Allied effort to have a central focus of dissent, even if a difficult one.

Meanwhile, for his part, de Gaulle had little grasp of what was going on in France. Broadly speaking there appear to have been two periods: before Hitler’s invasion of Russia the entire communist party and all its affiliates was under orders from Stalin not to attack the Germans. They were hors du combat from June 1940 till June 1941. During this period small resistance networks bloomed all across France, some carrying out ad hoc sabotage, others – in Paris – organising underground newspapers, propaganda and morale boosting stunts, and learning from bitter experience how to set up underground organisations. Newspapers around which organisations clustered included Liberation, Combat, Valmy and Pantagruel.

All these organisations reflected the severe splintering which had characterised French political life before the war (and would continue to do so afterwards). Some were extreme right-wing Catholic monarchists; some liberal, some non-aligned, some socialist and when the communists joined the fray in 1941, it was reflected in the resurgence of their well-written newspaper, L’Humanité.

The engagement of the communists after June 1941 changed the dynamic in numerous ways: most obviously because they were well-organised, motivated and armed, and started carrying out effective assassinations and sabotage straight away. But they also upset the political balance. De Gaulle and the Allies became worried that arming ‘the Resistance’ would mean, in effect, helping the communists prepare for a post-liberation revolution. Certainly, the resistance had to be maintained as a morale-boosting force and military asset, but prevented from turning into an insurrectionary, revolutionary force. This one consideration explains the single greatest issue for the resistance, and its biggest complaint against the Allies, its persistent shortage of weapons.

The rest of the book details the prolonged and complex negotiations and jockeying between all parties at a high level, a lot of which focuses round De Gaulle’s representative in France, Jean Moulin, expert at setting up committees and organisations. On this, political, level the history of the Resistance disappears into a blizzard of organisations and acronyms, continuing as high-level political and diplomatic negotiations for the rest of the war. To give a flavour:

On 23 July 1943 the MUR [Mouvement Unis de la Résistance] and some of the small resistance organisations set up a ‘Central Committee’, which deliberately excluded all the political parties (including the Communists, the FTP [Francs Tireurs et Partisans] and the Front National) and which sought to control all armed action. In response, de Gaulle’s delegate to the northern zone, Claude Serreulles, set up a rival CNR [Conseil National de la Résistance] ‘Bureau’, composed of the Front National, the PCF [Parti Communist Français], the CGT trade union, Ceux de la Résistance, the OCM [Organisation Civil et Militaire] and Libération-Nord, which also claimed control over the maquis and the Secret Army. This was a straightforward power struggle over the leadership of the Resistance, but the contending parties were aligning themselves in unexpected way. The Parisian Gaullists had united with the Communist Party, while the Resistance movements had the support of Colonel Passy’s BCRA [Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action] in the shape of Pierre Brossolette… (p.226)

Much of the book reads like this. There are three densely-printed pages of acronyms at the end of the book.

The maquis

Meanwhile, down on the ground, people were fighting and getting killed. Cobb describes how various resistance groups organised, created structures, cells, passwords, safe houses, dead letter drops and all the rest of the ‘tradecraft’ we read about in John le Carré novels. (It’s slightly strange that no-one has thought of creating a series of Resistance novels; maybe there are lots in french; I’ve never heard of any.)

There was another turning point in February 1943 when, as a consequence of the catastrophic defeat of the German Army at Stalingrad, the Germans decided to force all able-bodied French men into the Service du Travail Obligatoire i.e. being conscripted to work in Germany. Many thousands evaded the call-up by taking to the hills.

This is the origin of the maquis – meaning ‘the bush’ – a word which describes the scrubby landscape of south-eastern France where it these groups became common. They were quite separate from the longer-established urban-based underground newspapers and information-gathering networks although, over the next few years as Cobb shows in detail, they became organised into regional groupings and these themselves came under the umbrella of the national organisations which were being set up.

Reprisals

The Nazis started the occupation fairly relaxed, but responded fiercely to ad hoc assassinations or sabotage, and got slowly, steadily crueller. There was a step change when the communists became active after June 1941 and began to carry out assassinations and attacks on German soldiers. The Nazis had taken hostages and didn’t hesitate to murder them in reprisal. When the military commander of Nantes, Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Hotz was assassinated in October 1941, a handful of French hostages were shot until Hitler heard about it and personally ordered a hundred to be executed. That was his rule of thumb: 100 natives shot for every Nazi murdered. The book is littered with stories of a resistance attack leading to the execution of hostages or just to the rounding up and shooting of men off the street of the nearest village or town. There are some nightmare accounts by people lucky enough to survive mass killings as at the famous incident at Oradour-sur-Glane where, on 10 June 1944, the entire population of 642 was urdered and the village reduced to ruins by a German Waffen-SS company, allegedly to free an SS officer who was being held prisoner by the Resistance.

This was the most extreme example of cold-blooded brutality, but Cobb’s narrative is full of stories of résistants captured, tortured, deported and executed.

Many were given away by informers: entire networks, sometimes of 1,000 people, could be rolled up, imprisoned and tortured by the betrayal of one person. When two SOE men were arrested carrying uncoded messages in June 1943, it led to the capture of over 1,000 members of the PROSPECT network, the biggest single blow suffered by the Resistance. But Cobb also gives stories of terrible accidents and basic errors in security – carrying uncoded lists of names was a common error. I was struck that it is a basic rule of tradecraft to only wait ten, a maximum of fifteen minutes, at a rendezvous site, then clear off. Cobb gives stories of several high-ranking résistant who ignored this rule and were stopped, questioned, arrest, tortured, revealed their networks.

By page 200 I had already had enough of men and women being arrested, tortured, breaking, giving other names, then being shot or beheaded or sent off to the death camps in the East – but it was only 1943 and there was another year of escalating horror and brutality to go. It becomes painful and terrible to imagine what it must have been like. And to witness so much heroism, God the bravery and dignity with which so many of these very young men and women went to their deaths makes me feel ashamed of the triviality of our modern world.

The Jews

To my mild surprise the book is full of stories of how very pro-Jewish the French were. There are lots of stories of non-Jews in all walks of life doing what they could to help and protect the Jews, as the Nazi regime became more repressive, humiliating and then began rounding up Jews for extermination.

Léon Bronchart was a forty-four-year-old train driver. In October 1941, when he was ordered to drive a train of Jewish deportees from Montauban station, he simply refused. The station master and depot manager argued with him but he refused. He shut down the engine and walked away. Another driver was found, and Bronchart was disciplined and fined. A few months later he was caught in possession of the banned resistance paper, Combat, and sent to do forced labour in Buchenwald camp, where he sabotaged the V-2 rockets he was working on, before being sent to Bergen-Belsen. As a non-Jew, he survived. After the war, Israel awarded him the title ‘A Righteous Among the Nations’. This story made me cry.

Or the account of André Trocmé, the Protestant pastor of Le Chambon, who organised the mass concealment of thousands of young Jews among his flock and in the nearby countryside. He is quoted as saying, ‘We do not know what a Jew is. We only know men.’ Simple principle, but leading to unimaginable bravery.

In July 1942 the Nazis rounded up about 13,000 Jewish men, women and children in Paris. Half of them were kept in a sports stadium for days with no food or water, till they could be loaded into trains and shipped east. Resistance newspapers reprinted accounts of the conditions (which, of course, went unmentioned in the official newspapers) and commented on the horror.

With the latest measures taken against the Jews, we are sinking even lower. Those who have ordered these measures are forever condemned in the eyes of all human and divine justice… We hesitate to use the term bestiality, because a beast does not separate a female from its babies. This is a case of human intelligence entirely in the service of Evil, using all its resources to aid the global triumph of evil, of cruelty, of filth. (quoted page 137)

This is stirring rhetoric against the evil of anti-Semitism, but Cobb also quotes an article in Combat titled ‘The Jews, Our Brothers’, which makes more of a reasoned case for the stupidity, for the incoherence, for the meaninglessness of anti-Semitism.

All those who suffer at the hands of the Germans, be they Jews or not, be they Communists or not, are our brothers… There is no Jewish racial problem, no question of Jewish ‘blood’, for the simple reason that the ‘Jewish race’ is, as all serious ethnologists recognise, as mixed as the ‘French race’ or the ‘German race’… This Jewish community is a constituent component of the French national community, just like all the other religious, cultural or regional communities. (quoted page 137)

Some of the resistance groups came from the right, some from the extreme right-wing of French politics, and included military men, extreme Catholics and conservatives among whom everyday anti-Semitism had been commonplace. Cobb shows how one of the effects of the occupation was to undermine if not eliminate anti-Semitism in the rhetoric of all the Resistance groups.

Nonetheless, in the final analysis, 85 railways convoys left France, carrying 70,000 Jews (10,000 of them children) to the death camps, without any serious effort made to hamper or sabotage them. You can dwell on this fact and ask why the Resistance didn’t do more to stop them (the short answer is that no-one appreciated the scale of the Holocaust until the war was over). And then, to put it in context, a similar number of trains left France carrying some 88,000 résistants and nobody stopped or liberated those, either.

The Resistance could only do what it could do, generally small-scale attacks or sabotage at times and places which best suited its (very) limited means.

Politics by other means

In summary, the Resistance may have played a sporadic role in hurting the Nazi war effort (though not, in the great scale of things, very much) – but more importantly, it was the way French politics continued during the occupation.

You can separate the book into two distinct strands – one is the complex history of numerous groups and networks on the ground, their heroic work to organise, meet, print newspapers and occasionally carry out attacks, some minor, some really significant and daring, like the January 1944 attack on the aircraft propeller factory at Figeac.

The other is the permanent buzz of high-level politics going on ‘behind the scenes’ as all sides fought over their visions for a post-war France. For example, the anti-imperialist Roosevelt envisioned a Europe of free states stripped of their colonial empires. For de Gaulle, on the contrary, regaining control of the empire was a key part of the French war aim, alongside restoring strong, authoritarian government under a strong authoritarian leader such as, ahem, himself.

While Roosevelt detested de Gaulle, he realised that at least he wasn’t a communist. For he, Churchill and de Gaulle shared a common fear that the Resistance would become a united military force strong enough so that, come the liberation – in whatever form – it would provide the vanguard for a Russian-style revolution.

And this is what some communists hoped for. But Socialist résistants, on the contrary, wanted something like a restoration of the 1936 Popular Front government. While a lot of people on the ground in France simply wanted a restoration of democratic politics – or had no political views at all – or were at the opposite extreme, arch right-wing Catholics who detested communists, socialists and liberals alike.

So a major strand of the book is detailing the incessant manoeuvring which went on all the time between all these different players, in light of the changing fortunes of war (e.g. June 1941 German invasion of Russia; December 1941 Japanese attack on pearl Harbour entry of the USA into the war; January 1943 Germans lose the battle of Stalingrad; July 1943 the Allies take Sicily and Mussolini is sacked and imprisoned). This manoeuvring carried right on up to the liberation of Paris in August 1944, and then swiftly became the ‘business as usual’ of French politics – which meant the dizzying turnaround of half-baked administrations which drove de Gaulle so mad with frustration that he resigned as head of the provisional government in 1946.

But America’s main war aim re. France was achieved. The Resistance did not become the kernel of a revolutionary army. There was no communist revolution in France. The communist party remained a very powerful presence for the rest of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, but it had been ordered during these crucial years not to foment revolution, not to frighten the Allies which Stalin needed to keep as friends, not to abuse its power. In fact, when Corsica was liberated in September 1943, the communist participants went out of their to work in partnership with and submit themselves to the authority of the Free French forces.

de Gaulle part two

It is hilarious to read how much Roosevelt hated de Gaulle for his arrogance and hauteur – he couldn’t bear to be in the same room as the tall Frenchman. Even after the Free French located their new government in Algiers (after it had been liberated from the Germans by the Americans) Roosevelt still refused to consult it, and de Gaulle was never invited to the meetings of the Big Three – Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin.

It is a very striking fact that the Allies didn’t bother to tell de Gaulle the date of the D-Day landings until two days beforehand, on 4 June. All senior Allied officials and military leaders knew this weeks before de Gaulle; even the Resistance leaders had been told a week earlier. It cannot be over-emphasised how much Roosevelt et al disliked him.

And yet, the final pages of Cobb’s book show how, despite everything, de Gaulle’s rigidity and hauteur paid off. Once Paris was liberated, once he had walked down the Champs d’Elysees at the head of triumphal French troops (rustled up for the occasion), once he had announced that he was running the government, no other individual had the same a) contacts with the Allied leaders b) reputation among the general population, thanks to all those radio broadcasts. By definition, most of the Resistance leaders had worked anonymously, or under pseudonyms, whereas de Gaulle broadcast under his own name.

Which just goes to show that nations need, in the sense of wish for, desire, want to obey, one clear identified leader – even if he is a supercilious wanker. By the time I got to the last chapter I wasn’t at all surprised to read that in his speeches on the day of Paris’s liberation, de Gaulle made no mention of the Resistance, none at all; didn’t mention them, didn’t thank them (p.268). And that ten years later, in his memoirs, he hardly referred to this entire, huge, multi-headed organisation with its hundreds of thousands of brave men and women, who ran terrible risks and so many of whom paid for it with torture, slave labour and execution. Instead, all de Gaulle’s praise went to his little staff of ‘Free French’ colleagues in London or Algiers, but most of all to his mystical invocation of La France itself.

Then again, de Gaulle did have a grasp of the global situation. In order to earn respect from the Allies, in order to restore France as a world power, he vitally needed the French to take part in the conquest of Nazi Germany. Which is why, within three days of the liberation of Paris, de Gaulle called for the winding up of the two main Resistance organisations, the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieure and the Comité d’Action Militaire, and for all résistants to be absorbed into the Free french army. This was called l’amalgame and by November over 200,000 former résistants were fighting in the French Army which entered Germany.

What if…?

Obviously the book’s overt purpose is to provide a narrative history of ‘the resistance’. The main learning from it is how scattered and multi-headed this entity was, and how acts of resistance could range from schoolkids drawing a V for victory on a wall to complex plans to smuggle German military plans to England.

But all the way through, as I read of the outrageous courage and heroism of so many men and women, I was creating a secondary book in my mind, a ghost book, wondering – what would happen now?

How would I respond if, say, the Russians invaded England and created a dictatorial state (as they do in Kingsley Amis’s counter-factual novel, Russian Hide and Seek)? How would we all respond? Who would take a job with the regime, hoping to work improvements inside? Who would sell out, pure and simple? Who would go underground committing sporadic acts of sabotage or terrorism? Would I have the courage to refuse to drive the trainload of Jews like Léon Bronchart? What if… what then… how would…

The fate of empires

Finally, it made me wonder about the French and British empires.

Again and again, de Gaulle and other French leaders are quoted as wanting to restore the gloire and the grandeur and the prestige of France. I have recently read several histories of the wars for independence from France fought by the Vietnamese (1945 to 1954) and the Algerians (1954 to 1962), bitterly contested, bloody, brutal wars which repeatedly jeopardised the French state itself.

So what I wonder is this:

Did France’s losing the war, being occupied and humiliated for four years, harden its patriotism, making all sectors of the political spectrum absolutely adamant that part of France’s core identity was its glorious empire and its famous mission civilatrice (France’s self-appointed mission to bring its glorious civilisation to the poor benighted peoples of Africa and south-east Asia)?

Did losing the war – and four years of resistance – make it harder for France to give up its empire? Hence the absolute debacles in Vietnam and Algeria?

And is it valid to compare and contrast France’s attitude to its empire with that of Britain, which wasn’t invaded or occupied, which fought off the attacker, which significantly helped win the final victory and so – to some extent – forged a national identity based on its own courage and pluck? Did this give the British a relatively secure, a psychologically confident, position which made it easier for the Brits to relinquish their empire?

In 1947 Britain gave away the jewel in the crown of its empire, India. In 1947 in Vietnam, the French had just launched a bloody attack on the port city of Haiphong, which hardened and spread anti-imperialist sentiment. Can the diverse approaches taken to their respective empires by the French and British governments be traced to their very different national experiences of the Second World War?

Le chant des partisans


Related links

Vietnam

Algeria

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

[I believed] that the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves: and that therefore Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo.
(The Periodic Table p.41)

This is a really marvellous book, a must-read, a fabulously intelligent, sensitive, thought-provoking collection, a tribute to human nature and a classic of the 20th century.

Primo Levi graduated in chemistry, before he was forced to take to the mountains outside Turin by Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation. He was captured by Italian police, then sent to Auschwitz in February 1944. His scientific knowledge secured him a job in a laboratory where he managed to avoid the hard labour in freezing conditions which killed off so many other inmates. He survived to write the searing memoirs of Auschwitz, If This is A Man and the Truce, along with many other works.

There are 118 items in the periodic table of chemical elements. In The Periodic Table Levi selects 21 of them to base short stories on or around. 21 short stories squeezed into 230 pages i.e. they are generally very short. The stories form a pretty coherent autobiography, taking us from a meditation on Levi’s distant relatives, through his childhood, student days, brief partisan career then shipment to the Lager. It is a wonderfully inventive and evocative idea.

Because the elements are aligned with key events in his life, which took place against the backdrop of Italian Fascism and then the Nazi Holocaust, he calls them ‘tales of militant chemistry’ (p.78).

Levi’s attitude and style are not English. They are lovingly elaborate, in numerous ways. He dwells on sensual details. He is lovingly affectionate and respectful of other people. At school, by age 16, he appears to have studied philosophy and slips references to Aristotle or Hegel, Pindar and the Peloponnesian War very casually into the text. And from among the references to Jewish belief and language, to the smells and tastes of Turin life, to his shyness and respect for others, grow an increasing number of entirely factual, technical descriptions of laboratory processes as Levi passes from chemistry student to practitioner of:

my chemistry, a mess compounded of stenches, explosions, and small futile mysteries. (p.60)


The stories

Argon (18 pages) A wonderful evocation of his ancestors, Jews from Spain (apparently) who moved to north Italy in the 17th century, and developed their own pidgin of Hebrew and Piedmonese dialect. This essay/memoir explores some of these musty old words and links them to dim and distant relatives, each with funny and poignant family anecdotes attached. I was attracted by the ancestor who took to his bed and didn’t get out for the next 23 years. Wise man.

Hydrogen (8 pages) Levi is 16 and his friend has been given the keys to his older brother’s home-made ‘laboratory’. Here they do basic experiments, which start with heating up and moulding glass test tubes, but goes onto the elementary but satisfying process of electrolysis, attaching two wires to each terminal of a battery, putting them into a beaker of water with some salt dissolved in them and fixing water filled jam jars above each wire. Result: along the wire attached to the cathode terminal developed tiny bubbles of oxygen, along the diode wire, tiny bubbles of oxygen. Next day the hydrogen jar is full, the oxygen one half empty, exactly as the chemical formula predicts. To prove it to his sceptical friend Levi lights a match under the hydrogen jar which promptly explodes with a ‘sharp and angry’ explosion. The joy of confirming a hypothesis and carrying out a successful experiment!

It was indeed hydrogen: the same element that burns in the sun and stars, and from whose condensation the universes are formed in eternal silence. (p.28)

Zinc (8 pages) Levi describes his admiration for the stern chemistry teacher, Professor P. who runs the course in General and Inorganic Chemistry. This tale, or section, recounts how Levi neglected an experiment he was meant to be doing in order to make his first, shy, approach to a girl in the class, Rita. It contains a meditation on the element itself, which is characteristic in its mixture of scientific fact, lyrical description, thoughtful

Zinc, Zinck, zinco: they make tubs out of it for laundry, it is not an element which says much to the imagination, it is grey and its salts are colourless, it is not toxic, nor does it produce striking chromatic reactions; in short, it is a boring metal. It has been known to humanity for two or three centuries, so it is not a veteran covered with glory like copper, nor even one of those newly minted elements which are still surrounded by the glamour of their discovery. (p.33)

Iron (13 pages) Now Levi is 20, the Italian anti-Semitic laws have just been passed, and so he finds himself subtly isolated from his peers in the advanced chemistry class. This section is a moving tribute to the friend Sandro, he made in his class, who took him climbing in the mountains two hours’ cycle ride from Turin, who showed him endurance, determination, who, in the climax of the section, ends up making them spend a night without shelter high in the snowstormy mountains when they get lost. They survive and stumble down the next morning to the village where they left their bicycles, chastened but experienced. Levi powerfully describes how Sandro was descended from a family of iron workers and was, in some obscure way, preparing Levi for the iron future which was coming to all of them. Only at the end do we learn that Sandro was Sandro Delmastro, one of the first men to join the Italian Resistance – and to be killed in it.

Potassium (11 pages) It is January 1941, the Nazi empire is reaching its height. Levi says he, his friend and family heard vague rumours of Nazi atrocities but what could they do? They had no money, in any case no countries were accepting Jewish refugees, the only thing was to work on in blind hope. His thinking about science continues to evolve. He now has doubts about chemistry, an affair of dubious recipes and mess, and finds himself more attracted to the purity of physics and so he wangles a post helping a lecturer at the Institute of Experimental Physics. He is tasked with purifying benzene in order to carry out an experiment testing the movement of dipoles in a liquid. First he has to purify the benzene and this is described in some detail, including a passage on the beauty of distillation. Then he has to distil it again in the presence of sodium, but he has no sodium and so uses potassium. The result, due to leaving a minute fragment of potassium in the distilling flask, is a small explosion which sets the curtains on fire. He has learned one of Chemistry’s many lessons: the importance of small differences.

I thought of another moral, more down to earth and concrete, and I believe that every militant chemist can confirm it: that one must distrust the almost-the-same, the practically identical, the approximate, the or-even, all surrogates, and all patchwork. The differences can be small, but they can lead to radically different consequences…; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade. (p.60)

Nickel (18 pages) November 1941, the Nazis have conquered all Europe and are now flooding into Russia. Levi has his certificate of accreditation as a professional chemist. He is offered work at a mine in the mountains. Huge amounts of rubble are being dynamited then broken down to extract asbestos. An army officer attached to the works suspects there is nickel in the vast mound of waste rubble left behind. Can it be extracted in quantities justifying setting up commercial extraction? Levi is hired to solve the problem and we follow his thought processes as he tries out different methodologies for identifying and extracting the nickel. There’s a large work force of 50 men and women who live at the mine and Levi gets to know them all, finding he has a gift: people talk to him, confide in him, tell him their stories – which he records for us to enjoy and savour 70 years later.

During a meal the radio announces the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941). Working late into the night, Levi a new technique which, apparently, purifies and isolates the nickel, and is exultant. For that one night he rejoices in his cleverness, training, insight, courage. He does not belong to some ‘inferior race’. He can hold back the forces of darkness by sheer intellect. Alas, the next morning, the lieutenant points out the errors in his methodology. And soon afterwards the Germans discover vast quantities of pure nickel in Albania rendering his sponsor’s labour-intensive hopes of tweaking tiny amounts of vast piles of rubble completely redundant.

The stories are full of this sort of ironic reversal, wry, mature reflections back on his youthful enthusiasm. And hope.

Lead (17 pages) A fictional story Levi wrote in his twenties, told in the first person by a prehistoric figure, Rodmund, a traveller in Bronze Age Europe who is an expert in discovering lead ore, extracting it and working it. We follow his travels south, staying in primitive villages, bartering, discovering a lead source which he sells to a local for gold, and supporting himself until he manages to take ship across the sea to the legendary isle of metals where, indeed he finds another lead source, takes a woman, and plans to pass on his knowledge. it is a wonderful, mythical imagining.

Mercury (13 pages) A second fictional story, told by a Brit, one Corporal Daniel Abrahams, who inhabits a small island, 1,200 miles from St Helena, with his wife Maggie. They inhabit the only two huts left standing out of the original settlement. The purpose of having a garrison here was to prevent the island being used as a stopover for any french plans to liberate Napoleon from St Helena, but that was long ago. Napoleon is long dead and they are more or less abandoned here, just about ekeing out an existence on the island they’ve named Desolation, on seal meat and birds’ eggs and the twice-yearly visit of a supply ship.

The supply ship drops off two Dutch men, on the run for obscure reasons. they immediately eye up Maggie. Later two Italians are found shipwrecked on a tiny islet off the main island. Daniel takes them in. They all eye Maggie. Next time the supply ship comes Daniel asks him to find some women to bring back, to partner the men. The captain asks, ‘What will you pay for them with?’ and weighs anchor.

Some months later there is a volcanic eruption on the small island, the lava flow, luckily, going down the other side of the mountain from the huts, but it devastates a little grotto Maggie used to frequent. Now, to all of their amazement, there are rivulets of mercury running free. They play with it and revel in its peculiar qualities which Levi, of course, describes lyrically. Daniel realises they can purify it in basic clay kilns and sell it. When the ship next docks, in Easter, they hand over 40 clay jars full of pure mercury and order four brides.

That August the ship appears and dumps four ragamuffin women, one with only one eye, another old enough to be his mother, and so on. Beggars can’t be choosers. The four men pair off quickly, Daniel hands over Maggie to one of the Dutchmen who she’s been eyeing for a year or more and takes the small thin girl who’s come lumbered with two kids. The kids, after all, will come in handy looking after the pigs :).


Fiction as a holiday

Sun, sea, foreign travel, sex – it may be blasphemous to think of a text which deals with the Holocaust in these terms, but the stories in first half of the book take us to Italy, giving us nuggets of the language. His high school education sounds wonderful, far more interesting than mine, with its memorising of Greek, Latin and Italian poetry. I am filled with envy that it was only a two hour cycle journey to the Alps, where he regularly went mountain climbing. And whereas, in the biographical stories he regrets being shy and wondering if he’ll ever fall in love, the second his imagination is off the leash in the two fictional tales, it is quite funny that instantly the protagonist has plenty of women, for the night or a few weeks, and the second story is dominated by the issue of sex. Even a prosaic story about working at a nickel mine is coloured by his learning that almost the entire staff of fifty has slept with each other, and there are constant erotic realignments going on. This is Italy, after all.


Phosphorus (18 pages) In June 1942 Levi is offered a job by a very strict Swiss businessman, working at a commercial lab outside Milan, so he quits the job at the nickel mine and takes a train carrying all his essential belongings:

my bike, Rabelais, the MacaronaeaeMoby Dick translated by Pavese, a few other books, my pickaxe, climbing rope, logarithmic ruler, and recorder. (p.111)

Levi’s quirkiness along with the poverty and simplicity of the age, summarised in a sentence. In fact he was recommended by a classmate of his, Giulia Vineis, and, while the ostensible subject is the experiments he is ordered to carry out, to extract phosphorus from everyday plants and then inject it into rabbits to see if any of them have potential as a cure for diabetes, the real story is the way Giulia and he almost, nearly, several times tremble on the brink of having a love affair, despite the fact that she is a) a goya b) passionately engaged to a soldier at the front. Many years later they meet after the war and, to this day, have the feeling that if only a slight change had been made, they would have fallen in love, married, and both their lives would have been completely different. Sensitive and haunting.

Gold (12 pages) 1943 saw swift changes in Italy. In July the Mussolini regime fell, but in September the Germans invaded and occupied north Italy. Out of the shadows come older men who had always resisted Fascism to inspire youths like Levi and  his friends. They take to the hills with a feeble number of guns. But on 13 December 1943, they are betrayed and surrounded by a Fascist militia, taken down to the valley and driven to Milan prison. Here they are interrogated and Levi manages not to reveal anything, but the core of the story is how one day a rough-looking newcomer is thrown in among them, who he thinks might be a spy, but turns out to tell him about how his family has survived for generations by the time-consuming but free labour of extracting gold from the shallow sands of the nearby river Dora.

Cerium (8 pages) November 1944. Levi is inmate number 174517 at Auschwitz. He has wangled a job in the camp laboratory, where he steals whatever he can to barter for food for him and his friend Alberto. He finds an unmarked jar of small metal rods, steals some then he and Alberto discuss what they are, before realising they are the material cigarette lighter flints are made of. So they spend nervous nights, under their blankets when everyone is asleep, filing the rods down to lighter flint size, so they can barter them on to the underground lighter manufacturers. Which they do and the bread they get in return keeps them both alive for the last few months till the Russians liberate the camp (on 27 January 1945).

As with all the stories, it contains a sweet divagation about the origin, naming and cultural associations of the element in question, in this case cerium:

about which I knew nothing, save for that single practical application, and that it belongs to the equivocal and heretical rare-earth group family, and that its name has nothing to do with the Latin and Italian word for wax (cera), and it was not named after its discoverer; instead it celebrates (great modesty of the chemists of past times!) the asteroid Ceres, since the metal and the star were discovered in the same year, 1801. (p.145)

Although just as typically, these civilised musings are juxtaposed with history, with the horrors he witnessed, with workaday tragedy. 30 years after the event Levi is clearly still haunted by the way that he, Levi, happened to contract scarlet fever just days before the Russians arrived and so was left in the camp hospital, to be liberated, whereas his wise and ever-optimistic friend, Alberto, was rounded up along with almost all the other inmates and sent on a death march West, never to be seen again.

Chromium (13 pages) A story within a story. Many years after the war Levi is working for a company of varnish manufacturers. Over dinner he and colleagues swap technical anecdotes about chemical processes and ingredients. In stories like this you can see the appeal of chemistry in that it is rich in history, it’s a form of cooking, and it involves a lot of detective work since things are often going wrong and you have to be both knowledgeable and imaginative to figure out why and methodical to test your hypothesis.

Bruni from the Nitro department tells a story about when he was working at a varnish factory in the 1950s by a lake, leafing through the formulae for various products and is surprised to find that it requires the inclusion of ammonium chloride in the manufacture of a chromate-based anti-rust paint. Levi then shares with us the fact that he himself was personally responsible for introducing this chemical into the process and why. For he himself worked at the same factory in the years just after the war, poor and obsessed with  his experiences, when the boss called him in and asked him to identify why consignments of paint were ‘livering’ i.e. turning out like jelly.

It is as engrossing as a Sherlock Holmes story to follow Levi’s detective work in finding out the error which turns out to be that too much of a reagent was being added. Since many batches had been made with the wrong amount of reagent, Levi speculated that adding a substantial amount of ammonium chloride would counter the effect – and it did! The reader shares Levi’s pride and joy. He left instructions for the AC to be added to all future batches to counteract the reagent, but is surprised, that years and years later, this formula is still being following slavishly even though the immediate error it sought to address had been solved. Thus do small errors, corrections, texts and marginalia become fossilised into Tradition.

Sulfur (5 pages) Levi doesn’t appear in this short, presumably fictional, story about a worker, Lanza, who tends a massive industrial boiler, which suddenly begins to overheat and threatens to explode. The story is about the panic which grips Lanza, his attempts to remain calm and reason out what must be going wrong, his experiment to fix the situation and his triumphant victory. Mind – understanding – masters matter.

Titanium (4 pages) A child’s eye view of the painter painting the apartment white. Little Maria asks the painter what makes the paint so white and he answers ‘titanium’. She is toddling around and threatens to get herself wet and spoil the finish of the paint, so the man kindly draws a magic circle with chalk around her and tells her she must stay inside it. And so she does until he has completely finished painting, erases the chalk from the floor and she is once again free! Charming. Sweet.

Arsenic (6 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio have set up an amateur chemical consultancy in a flat. One day a poor cobbler arrives with a bag of sugar which he thinks is contaminated and asks Levi to analyse it. It is another detective story and we follow with fascination Levi’s thought processes as he tries various basic tests, before proceeding to chemical tests, develops a hunch and then confirms with a few tests that the sugar is spiked with arsenic. The cobbler returns and tells him a new young shoe-mender has set up shop round the corner and developed an irrational hatred for him. Sending this sugar as a ‘gift’ is the latest in a series of ‘attacks’. Well, he’ll take the sugar round to its sender and have a few words with him. Levi watches the cobbler leave with tranquil dignity.

Nitrogen (9 pages) Still trying to be an independent chemist, Levi is delighted to get a call from a tough guy who runs a cheap lipstick factory (where he tests the lipstick’s stickiness by repeatedly kissing all the women who work for him). But his lipstick tends to melt and spread along the fine lines around the women’s lips. Why? Levi takes samples back to his improvised lab and quickly establishes the tough’s lipsticks lack the rare and expensive pigment alloxan, which helps to fix lipsticks. The tough accepts Levi’s report and then asks if he can supply this alloxan.

Levi gives an enthusiastic yes, goes back to his books, discovers it can be isolated from uric acid, which is common in the faeces of birds and even more of snakes. So he takes his new wife on a tour of chicken farms on the outskirts of town, scrabbling at the bottom of filthy chicken cages to scrape out their poo, but to no avail. Mixed with grit and feathers the poo turns out to be impossible to purify. Then he goes on an even wilder goose chase to a reptile zoo where he is firmly told that the (valuable) snake faeces are already bought and paid for by a large pharmaceutical company. Back in his home-built lab, amid the chicken poo, feathers and filthy residues of his failed experiments, Levi decides maybe he’ll stick to inorganic chemistry in future.

Tin (7 pages) Levi and his friend Emilio had set up a complex and elaborate home-made laboratory in the latter’s parents’ apartment – the last three stories give aspects of their adventures – which becomes an alchemist’s den as they try to manufacture stannous chloride, by combining tin with hydrochloric acid. This is a delicate business and also the acid creates fumes which tarnish all the metal in the place and even rot the nails holding up pictures.

Eventually, conceding defeat, they remove all their apparatus, revealing all kinds of buried treasure in doing so (many of these stories have the feel of folk tale or treasure story, with all kinds of odds and ends, secrets and riddles, bric-a-brac and rarities involved).

There came to light family utensils, sought in vain for years, and other exotic objects, buried geologically in the apartment’s recesses: the breechblock of a Beretta 38 tommy gun (from the days when Emilio had been a partisan and roamed the mountain valleys, distributing spare parts to the bands), an illuminated Koran, a very long porcelain pipe, a damascened sword with a hilt inlaid with silver, and an avalanche of yellowed papers. (p.189)

They pay professional removers to remove the vast wooden gas hood they’d erected over the oven where they conducted most of the experiments, but it’s so heavy is snaps the pulley it’s on and crashes four storeys to the courtyard beneath.

Uranium (9 pages) Levi, having packed in his attempt to be an independent chemical consultant, is now an established employee of a varnish company, He is told to go the rounds as a salesman (a role he describes as customer relations – definitions seem to have changed in 40 years). He describes being despatched to chat up the head of a commercial company, noting the smallness of his desk and dinginess of his office, and realising the man likes telling stories, settles down to listen before making his pitch.

The client tells a long meandering story which unexpectedly ends with him coming across a German light airplane and two Nazis round it asking directions to Switzerland. Our man tells them and in reward they hand him a lump of metal which they claim is uranium then fly off. The client can see that Levi doesn’t believe him so promises to send a cutting of the ‘uranium’ round to his office, which he duly does.

Levi is excited to do a real bit of chemical analysis, something he hasn’t done for years, and eventually – through the characteristically fascinating protocols of investigation – discovers the metal is in fact cadmium, picked up God knows where. The story is a pack of lies. And yet Levi envies the shabby man his tremendous freedom to have invented his ridiculous flight of fancy and, apparently, tell the same kind of fabulist tales to all-comers.

How marvellously free!

Silver (11 pages) Another story within a story designed to convey ‘the strong and bitter flavour of our trade’. It is 1969. Levi receives an invitation to a 25th anniversary party of his graduation class at the university. It’s organised by a man named Cerrano and the first half gives a profile of this man, his career, and then how Levi gets chatting to him about how he’s collecting stories about chemistry to try and explain it to a wider world.

Cerrano tells him a wonderfully compelling story, another detective case describing how he was tasked with finding out why batches of X-ray material the company he worked for were turning out defective. It involves discovering that the affected batches are produced only on Wednesdays, and then identifying that washed lab coats are returned from the cleaners every Wednesday, but there’s still a lot more to it than that, plus the precise nature of the chemical tests Cerrano has to implement to be completely sure he’s found the culprit. Informative, logical, stuffed with chemical know-how but also paying due to the imagination and intuition required in chemistry, it is a glowing tribute to the humane and compelling nature of Levi’s trade.

Vanadium (13 pages) 1967. Now a senior figure in the varnish manufacturer Levi is tasked with sorting out a problem in supplies sent from Germany. Correspondence from the German firm is signed by a Dr Müller. When he makes a mistake in the spelling of naphthenate Levi has the jarring realisation that this might be the same Dr Müller who supervised the lab he worked in at Auschwitz in the last months of the war. There follows a painful correspondence in which Müller confesses he is the same man, and then writes a really long letter part extenuation, part honest confession, part made-up memories, a confusing mish-mash. Real people, Levi points out, are not black or white, goodies or baddies; even their memories of the past are confusingly mixed. Levi struggles to formulate his own response and is dismayed when  Dr Müller phones him and, on a crackly line, asks for a meeting. Levi is not sure he wants one. Can you forgive someone who doesn’t fully admit their guilt? How precisely do you measure full guilt anyway – Müller secured Levi permission for an additional weekly shave and a new pair of shows in those fraught times, but also feigned complete ignorance of the crematoria and even now uses stock German formulae to conceal his complicity.

What lifts the story above (troubling) anecdote is the weird way that this intensely personal correspondence goes on in parallel with an utterly sober and professional correspondence about the defective chemicals being sent from the German factory. And then the agonising dilemma is abruptly terminated before they get to the promised/threatened meeting, when Levi is informed by Dr Müller’s widow that the good doctor has died from a heart attack. An ending, but not closure; the opposite of closure. So much left hanging…

Carbon (8 pages) In his twenties, while still studying, Levi fantasised about writing stories about the chemical elements; early on in the book he mentions wishing to write one about the life cycle of a carbon atom. And that’s how this amazing collection ends, with the imaginary adventures of an atom of carbon, the basis of life on earth.


Credit

Il sistema periodico by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi in 1975. The English translation by Raymond Rosenthal Weaver was published by Michael Joseph in 1985. All references are to the 1986 Abacus paperback edition.

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Levi’s books

A complete bibliography is available on Primo Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947/1958 Se questo è un uomoIf This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La treguaThe Truce (translated 1965)
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (translated 1984)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (translated 1987)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – Moments of Reprieve (translated 1986)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (translated 1985)
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (translated 1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (translated 1988)

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The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953)

In the people’s democracies, a battle is being waged for mastery over the human spirit. Man must be made to understand, for then he will accept. (p.191)

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish poet, essayist and diplomat. He worked for the state radio company before the war and went underground in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation. After Poland’s ‘liberation’ by the Red Army in 1944, Miłosz was initially sympathetic to the communist regime and served as Polish cultural attaché in Paris and Washington, D.C. But in 1951 he defected and spent the rest of his life in the West, teaching in American universities and, in 1970, became a U.S. citizen.

He wrote a lot. The Penguin edition of his collected poems runs to 800 pages. And this poetic output ran alongside numerous essays of literary criticism. In 1980 Miłosz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Captive Mind

Miłosz wrote The Captive Mind in Paris after his defection, in the years 1951 and 1952. As he explains in the preface, French intellectuals of the post-war period were bitterly resentful of America for liberating them and turned to the Soviet Union as a model for post-war society. He aimed to set them straight on the reality of life under a communist regime.

The result is a long, often circuitous, but in the end comprehensive and compelling description of the mentality, the climate of thought, the experiences and mind-set of intellectuals in Poland and the surrounding countries as they emerged from the ruinous Second World War and found their nations and cultures slowly taken over by Russian communism, forcing them to decide whether to collaborate, acquiesce or – eventually – defect, as Miłosz did.

Literary comparisons

Miłosz is a poet not a political analyst, and the early chapters use some pretty roundabout methods to make their point.

For example, the first chapter takes a detour through Insatiability, an avant-garde novel by pre-war Polish writer Stanislaw Witkiewicz which describes a decadent, faithless, modern society being menaced by an approaching Asiatic army. This army is fortified by the philosophy of Murti-Bing, a Mongolian philosopher who preached acceptance of life and whose beliefs, through the wonders of modern science, can now be replicated by taking Murti-Bing pills.

As the army approaches, an advance guard of peddlers starts hawking the pills of Murti-Bing to the inhabitants of the decadent society and everyone who takes one suddenly forgets all their troubles, all the questions about life which were making them anxious, becoming calm and accepting. Outcome: the Eastern hordes conquer the country and impose Murti-Bingism on the population; everyone takes Murti-Bing pills and becomes happy but, deep down, still feel an unappeasable unease. Miłosz uses this story as an analogy for the way communism invaded and converted his people, and strings the analogy out for an entire chapter.

The third chapter focuses on ‘Ketman’, a concept Miłosz came across in a book written by the French novelist, diplomat and travel writer, Arthur Comte de Gobineau – namely his Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia. According to Gobineau, Ketman is a protective attitude of silence and opaqueness adopted by men living in Muslim-dominated lands who are not themselves Muslims, a way of keeping your most personal beliefs to yourself. There are several pages of direct quotation from Gobineau and explications of Ketman, before Miłosz goes on to apply this idea to people living under Soviet rule who conform but don’t believe. Because under a communist regime, everyone is an actor. Everyone acts all the time till it becomes second nature. Everyone lies, deceives, keeps their thoughts to themselves.

As these examples suggest, The Captive Mind is a very literary book, the opposite of a history or sociology or philosophical analysis. It covers numerous issues and ideas around the fatal allure of communist belief, but by way of thoughts and feelings, personal stories, anecdotes and insights, more than structured argument.

Four portraits

The central 100 pages of the book are made up of four portraits of Polish writers who Miłosz knew when they were youths together, and who each capitulated, in different ways, to the demands of the Communist state. They are given abstract names –

  • Alpha, the Moralist
  • Beta, The Disappointed Lover
  • Gamma, the Slave of History
  • Delta, the Troubadour

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, a moment’s search reveals them to be, respectively:

  • the Catholic novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski (b.1909) who, in this telling, is argued round into submission to communism and writes a lengthy self-criticism of his previous objections to the system
  • the poet and short story writer Tadeusz Borowski (b.1922) who experiences two years in Auschwitz and emerges bitter and angry, before throwing his nihilistic flame into the service of the party
  • the poet, novelist and politician Jerzy Putrament (b.1910) of rough peasant stock, whose sojourn in Russia leads him after many tribulations to become a cultural supremo, controller of magazines and publishers, with the fate of scores of other writers in his gift
  • the absurdist poet Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński (b.1905), a wonderfully eccentric-sounding man whose carefree imagination was crushed by the system

I vaguely remember that, when I first read this book in the late 1980s, I was disappointed with the psychological aspect, the literariness of these portraits because I was looking for political argument and debating points. Now, rereading them, I am really impressed by the depth of insight and sympathy he shows for these talismanic members of his generation, and his feel for the terrible things they lived through and the fateful choices they made.

His portrait of Tadeusz Borowski, a scornful young poet who survived two years in Auschwitz and wrote pitilessly accurate stories about it, before deciding to return to Poland and become a journalist writing increasingly hectic and vitriolic articles against the West and its corruption, before committing suicide at the age of 28 – is particularly haunting and terrifying.

Also, because each writer’s biography passes through the same walls of fire – the Russian invasion of 1939, the German invasion of 1941, the Nazi occupation, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising, the Red Army liberation and then the slow strangling of civil life by the New Faith – it is like seeing the same scenes through different windows, or captured by different photographers, retold from different points of view. Taken together – and because each portrait itself references the subject’s other friends and colleagues, wives, lovers or children – the four portraits build up into an insightful and terribly moving portrait of an entire generation.


The appeal of communism

So rather than follow the ‘argument’, it might be better to pick out key points which emerge from the text. Here are some of the key reasons Miłosz describes as explaining the victory of communism in Eastern Europe and its strong appeal to people of all classes.

Revulsion from fascism The pre-war period was dominated by extreme right-wing parties whose main policy was anti-Semitism. Society was visibly unjust with huge discrepancies in wealth. Land ownership, in particular, was flagrantly unfair. Therefore, like many other educated young people, Miłosz thought only leaders true to a socialist programme would be able to rebuild Poland in such a way as to abolish the obvious unfairnesses.

The destruction of liberal values The Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe devastated existing values. Westerners, particularly Americans, simply can’t conceive what it is like to have your city divided into sections, each to be inhabited by different races, one of which is randomly shot in the streets, packed in cattle cars and taken off to be incinerated, while anyone who complains or even makes the wrong facial expression, can be arrested and tortured to death. Streets full of ruined houses, the inhabitants reduced to scrambling for mouldy bread in the ruins. People taking false names, going underground, while neighbours disappear without explanation. The complete abolition of all the fixed points of civil society which those in peaceful societies, or the West, take for granted.

But the New Faith stood the test of this destruction. It encountered and prevailed against the most nihilistic ideology in history. Its true believers organised and survived even the worst atrocities. Communism seemed to be an earthy, practical politics, which taught how to organise and fight back. The Nazis created a devastated environment which went a long way to destroying bourgeois liberal ideals, and preparing the ground for the communist takeover.

Stealthy takeover But, Miłosz says it’s important to realise that, even under these circumstances, the post-war communist takeover didn’t happen all at once, but proceeded by slow steps. Initially, social democrats and peasant parties were allowed to take part in government and everyone thought there would be true democracy.

The wish to fit in Intellectuals and Western commentators underestimate the basis human wish fit in. ‘There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness’ (p.6) in most people. Once the New Faith gains ground, many people go with it in order to conform, to be happy. They’re not particularly afraid, they just don’t want to stand out.

Communism as an alternative religion For centuries, the highest and lowest in the land, intellectuals and peasants, kings and carpenters, shared the same belief system and so felt united, joined, linked, at home, shared a common faith and language of symbols, and rituals. The death of God not only plunges intellectuals into crisis but deprives an entire people of their cultural unity. Communism restores this: everyone in a communist society reads the same books, thinks the same thoughts, reveres the same symbols. Many rebelled from the start and many came to see them as a stupid sham – but many, many people were deeply nostalgic for that ideological unity and wanted to feel part of a movement whose language and beliefs could be understood by illiterate peasants and the most sophisticated intellectuals. The solidarity of belief offered a refuge from the miserable alienation of so many between-the-wars intellectuals, so many of whom fantasised about becoming one with ‘the masses’, throwing in their lot with the workers etc. But it wasn’t just them: communism offered a mental home to everyone.

(This prompts the thought, What unifies us, now, today in 2017, if we don’t have religion or communism? How come we aren’t all stricken with the alienation and angst that the writers of the 30s, 40s and 50s went on about so?  I would hazard a guess that it’s consumerism. From kings to carpenters, peasants to princes, we are all united in our worship of mobile phones, cars, TVs and trainers. Consumerism has been the religion of the West for some time, maybe since the 1950s, and, with the advent of digital devices, shows no sign of going away, in fact is invading every aspect of our lives. What else unites rich and poor, black and white, in such a shared set of values and symbols?)

The importance of writers More than giving them a new sense of meaning and purpose, communism also gave far more respect to writers, artists and composers than the pre-war regimes, which by and large ignored them. That’s because the Soviet programme of re-engineering society requires constant propaganda and it is writers, artists and composers who must perform this propaganda role. Big rewards for those who comply – prison or exile for those who don’t.

Revenge But Miłosz also points out the pleasures of revenge offered by the triumph of communism. Pre-war artists were despised by the bourgeoisie. Under the New Faith these same writers were praised while the bourgeoisie who had once looked down on them, was arrested. Ha ha ha. And of course it goes much wider than artists. All kinds of people who were despised and humiliated in bourgeois society, now triumph – workers and peasants lord it over factory owners and aristocrats. Communism catered to a very human appetite for revenge.

Socialist realism Unfortunately, it took a while for these artists to realise that the doctrine of Socialist Realism runs directly counter to the role of the artist through the ages, at least a Miłosz defines it. Miłosz thinks the role of the artist is ‘to look at the world from his own independent viewpoint, and to tell the truth as he sees it’. Many sincerely thought they needed to repress this bourgeois subjectivity in order to join the March of History. The four portraits of Polish communist writers each indicate the price they had to pay for obeising themselves to the new regime’s demand for Socialist Realism.

Significance Tied to the psychological issue of conquering absurdity and finding meaning in life, is the related idea that most artists, writers etc not only want to write and publish, they wish their work to mean something: to have significance. In the communist states they could either soldier on, producing their own individualist ‘visions’ against the increasingly monolithic state culture; or they could join ‘the March of History’ and all their work would, at a stroke, become validated and meaningful.

The West Some Eastern writers and artists looked to the West for inspiration or alternative paths, but most saw – with disgust – that art and culture in the West was carrying on as if nothing had happened, no Holocaust, no extermination of peoples or destruction of cities or undermining of all bourgeois values. They carried on churning out glamorous movies and high fashion and decorative art for the rich. Disgusting! Communist ideology not only supplied objective reasons to justify the disgust of many Easterners for Western ignorance, but had the additional bonus that communism predicted the West would, in due course, also go through the fire and brimstone of revolution. In other words, communist ideology encouraged Eastern writers and artists to feel not only morally superior to their silly bourgeois counterparts in the West, but to consider themselves pioneers, way ahead of the West in experience and social development

Hence, Miłosz laments, the attitude of the Eastern intellectual to the West is that of a disappointed lover. He wishes the West were better. He wishes the West used its freedoms and technological superiority to better purpose. He wishes the West was free for something useful, noble and uplifting, instead of shiny vulgar consumerism.

Snobbery For Eastern communism also offered a simple appeal to snobbery. Eastern intellectuals were encouraged to feel superior to the shocking ‘vulgarity’ of Western culture: Hollywood movies, chewing gum, popcorn, fast cars, jeans, sneakers – what shallow, vulgar materialists! From Paris via Berlin to Moscow, adherents of communist ideology were convinced that the New Society would produce, alongside a superior economy, a superior culture, a culture proclaiming the New Socialist Man and a New Socialist Society of freedom and equality.

This was to be their weakest point. It turns out that, whatever ‘intellectuals’ might say, everyone else in the world does want to wear jeans and shades, to own cars, fridges and televisions which work (unlike the awful, malfunctioning communist products), to own the latest mobile phone.

Informers The ‘new socialist man’ is an informer. Snoops thrive, the more cunning and duplicitous the better, leading to a constant but unspoken war of all against all and ‘the survival of the craftiest’ (p.76). Everyone is watched, or suspects they are being watched. The result is that, in absolutely every social encounter, everyone must act – act a part, act a role, stop yourself saying what you think, run it past your inner censor to see if it could be interpreted as being against the Party, against Russia, against the Leader.

The state which, according to Lenin, was supposed to wither away gradually is now all-powerful. It holds a sword over the head of every citizen; it punishes him for every careless word. (p.219)

The failure of communism

The two long final chapters are devastating indictments of life under Russian communism. The first one gives a searing analysis of how the different classes in Poland have responded to the imposition of Russian-style communism. What came home to me most was the way that any kind of personal initiative whatsoever was not just banned but punished. Sell off a few eggs from your hen – you are a ‘speculator’, 5 years in a labour camp. Organise a strike – ‘bourgeois reactionary’, off to labour camp. Set up a youth group without permission – ‘subversive’, labour camp.

You can at least see the logic, according to their own lights, of punishing the bourgeois and the speculator. But the really unbearable irony of the communist system was that the whole grim repressive set-up was supposed to exist for the sake of ‘the workers’ and yet it was the workers who were most dissatisfied with it. The much-vaunted proletariat ended up having to work in the same factories, having ever-increasing demands for productivity imposed on them, with anyone speaking out of turn being arrested and sent to Siberia. And all for worse pay with which they could no longer buy half the things they needed, products which, under the inefficient communist system, were either no longer available or of shockingly bad quality.

Miłosz shows how this inefficiency was the inevitable result of having to factor into the cost of production – whether of agricultural products or factory outputs – the enormous bureaucracy which now infested every level of the communist economy: the huge number of middle managers who counted and tallied every input and output, measuring it all against the Five Year Plan. And the immense cost of the secret police, the state police and the huge army.

All of this was paid for by the sweat of the workers who found their living standard under communism actually declining. No wonder it was workers who led the spontaneous strikes and demonstrations which broke out all across East Germany in 1953.

Russia

Another reason for discontent was the unavoidable fact that the sort of communism they were being forced to submit to was unmistakably Russian in origin and technique, with all that that implied for East Europeans from Warsaw to Berlin, namely that it was backward, crude, unsophisticated, brutal and stupid. Here are some of Miłosz’s references to the wonderful Motherland.

  • It isn’t pleasant to submit to the hegemony of a nation which is still wild and primitive. (p.19)
  • …the Russian inferiority complex… (p.35)
  • Russia has always hated and despised the West, for its prosperity and decadence. (p.43)
  • Russia’s inferiority complex leads her to demand constant homage and assurances of her unquestionable superiority… (p.45)
  • One has but to read Tolstoy’s What Is Art? to get a picture of the scorn for Western sophistication that is so typical of the Russians. (p.47)
  • Russians, who do not possess the virtue of moderation… (p.51)
  • … a nation which has never known how to rule itself, and which in all its history has never known prosperity or freedom. (p.52)
  • The chief characteristic of the people who practice National Ketman is an unbounded contempt for Russia as a barbaric country. (p.61)
  • The New Faith is a Russian creation, and the Russian intelligentsia which shaped it had developed the deepest contempt for all art that does not serve social ends directly. (p.74)

Communist crimes The result of a failed system imposed by crude barbarians was:

  • Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups… (p.63)

The Terror And so, the grand result of all these factors, is that an inefficient and unpopular system can only possibly be kept in place by the rigorous suppression of all opposition, indeed of all free thought. Insofar as the slightest deviant thought or the slightest outbreak of selling things for a profit contain the germ of the resurgence of hated capitalism, everyone must be spied on and listened to, no heretical thought or word dare go unpunished. The result?

  • When one considers the matter logically, it becomes obvious that intellectual terror is a principle Leninism-Stalinism can never forsake, eve if it should achieve victory on a world scale. The enemy, in a potential form, will always be there… (p.214)

The Baltic states

The final chapter is an essay on the horrible post-war fate of the Baltic states i.e. complete absorption into communist Russia, the collectivisation of their agriculture, the lowering of living standards, the mass deportations to Siberia, the colonisation by Russian civilians, the imposition of Russian culture and language. Because Miłosz was born in Lithuania and later in life insisted on being thought of as a Lithuanian rather than a Polish writer, he is particularly heart-broken by this devastation of his homeland.

The manifold humiliations of the Balts, and the casual references he makes to living under a state of permanent terror, of the liquidation of entire classes and peoples (e.g. the Crimean Tartars), the falsification of culture, the lies about industrial production, the waves of purges and mass arrests, the way everyone is forced to play act and lie, even to themselves, due to the ubiquity of spies and informers – it all builds up to a horrific vision of life in hell and a hell which, amazingly, many leading intellectuals in the West wanted to import into their countries, too. And here he returns to his stated aim of lifting the scales from the eyes of the idiotic pro-communist sympathisers in the West.

Western communists

  • The writer, in his fury and frustration, turn his thoughts to Western communists. What fools they are. He can forgive their oratory if it is necessary as propaganda. But they believe most of what they proclaim about the sacred Centre, and that is unforgivable. Nothing can compare to the contempt he feels for these sentimental fools. (p.20)

Credit

Zniewolony umysł by Czesław Miłosz was published in Polish in Paris by the Instytut Literacki in 1953. This translation into English by Jane Zielonko was published in 1953 by Secker and Warburg. Page references are to the 1985 King Penguin paperback edition.

The translation is excellent. Having waded through the terrible Penguin translations of Albert Camus into stilted, unidiomatic English, it is a joy to read Zielonko’s graceful, clear and compelling prose.

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Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or gulags. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


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Edward Said on Albert Camus (1994)

A brief introduction to Edward Said

Edward Said was born in 1935 in Palestine. His father was from Palestine, his mother from Lebanon. They were both Christians, not Muslims, so he was already an outsider in a predominantly Muslim part of the world. Said attended British Anglican schools in Jerusalem and Alexandria, which further detached him from the surrounding Muslim culture and Arab language, before being sent to an elite school in Massachusetts. He went on to earn a BA (1957) at Princeton University, and Master of Arts (1960) and Doctor of Philosophy (1964) in English Literature from Harvard University, before joining Columbia University in 1963 as a member of the English and Comparative Literature faculty.

A privileged private education and a prodigious academic ascent.

At Columbia Said taught the classic 19th and 20th century novels – Jane Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Conrad, Graham Greene. His thesis was on Conrad, the novelist of colonial disillusion and pessimism. He produced several works of straight literary criticism which show awareness of the new intellectual winds blowing in from Paris, an awareness of the theories of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and so on, but all these pale into insignificance before his epoch-making work, Orientalism (1977).

Orientalism examines the little-read works of 19th century ‘orientalists’, men who claimed to be experts on the peoples, the histories, cultures and languages of the Middle East, India and North Africa. The book’s thesis is straightforward – that the writings of all these ‘orientalists’, even the most sophisticated and erudite of them, are soaked in a set of clichés and stereotypes about the native peoples of the places they studied, which helped their European imperialist masters – in most cases Britain or France – to rule them, to dominate them, to subjugate them.

Orientalist discourse portrays ‘the natives’ as lazy, corrupt, decadently sensualist or fanatically religious, as economically or culturally backward – however you cook it, as needing the beneficent intervention and rule of our glorious, civilised, law-bringing empires.

Said reviews the rise and development of ‘orientalism’ as a field of knowledge and shows how riddled it is from top to bottom with offensively racist clichés which allowed the imperialist powers to pursue their aims of control and exploitation with a clear conscience.

Although you can criticise various aspects of the book (and many critics did, very fiercely) there is no denying that it opened minds to a completely new way of seeing European culture – from the outside, as an instrument of domination and control – and that this radical new perspective led quickly to the birth of a new discipline, ‘post-colonial studies’.

The book caused much controversy, especially among contemporary experts on ‘the Orient’ (mostly meaning the Middle East) who felt insulted and undermined. Said defended his thesis in journals and in the media, his TV and radio appearances raising his profile.

His public profile went up further when he began to get involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1967 War onwards, assenting to Israel’s existence but calling for equal recognition of the rights of Palestinians, including the right to their own territory and the right for the large Palestinian diaspora to return home. His ongoing involvement with Palestinian politics, to the extent of becoming a member of the Palestinian National Council, ensured his position as a leading public intellectual, frequently subject to furious criticism.

Anyway, back to his books, Said followed up Orientalism with Culture and Imperialism (1993). This was based on lectures he gave applying the insights of Orientalism to specific authors from the canon of 19th and 20th century literature, including Jane Austen (with her famously casual mention of Caribbean sugar plantations in Mansfield Park), Dickens (the role of Australia as the destination for Mr Micawber at the end of David Copperfield and as the site of Magwitch’s reformation in Great Expectations), Conrad’s florid depictions of colonial despair in his Far Eastern novels and, especially Heart of Darkness.

And there is a chapter about Albert Camus.

Albert Camus

Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria to European parents. His father died when he was small and he grew up in great poverty in a suburb of Algeria, mostly looked after by his strict grandmother while his mother went out to work. He showed intellectual precocity and studied philosophy at Algiers university. There he will have been exposed to the latest European thinking of the early and mid-1930s which was uniformly pessimistic, typified by Spengler’s masterpiece The Decline of the West (1922) and the grim existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, summed up in Being and Time (1927).

But unlike most writers and philosophers, Camus was a very physical being. He was good looking and fit, played football professionally, swam in the Mediterranean and had many girlfriends.

This dichotomy, between physical activity, sunbathing and swimming – Joyful and happy – and thinking – Negative and troubled – comes across powerfully in his early essays such as Summer in Algiers and underpins a lot of his ‘philosophy’.

In The Myth of Sisyphus (if I understand it correctly) the thinking mind is afflicted by the absurd disconnect between the human wish for order and meaning in the universe and the distressing absence of that order and meaning in the universe as we experience it. The anguish of feeling disconnected, ‘abandoned’ in a ‘godless universe’ is so distressing it leads some people to contemplate suicide, which is the subject of the essay.

But Camus revolts against this option, because it destroys one half of the absurd proposition Man + World. It is an absurd solution to an absurd predicament. Absurd man is saved from despair by his revolt against his situation:

Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.

‘Passion’. Maybe I’m over-simplifying but it seems to me that Camus had to struggle all his life just to allow the joyous physicality of existence to triumph. I feel like I’ve experienced the same kind of struggle between being a bookish depressive appalled by the history of our species, and a guy who likes to go running, swimming, cycling and walking. Maybe lots of bookish people feel the same. Although his terminology and his prose style are often impenetrable, I think it is centrality of this common dichotomy, and Camus’s passionate defence of Life, despite all the arguments to the contrary, which made him so popular in his day and such an enduring figure.

Said on Camus

Pages 204 to 224 of Culture and Imperialism are devoted to a study of Camus. It opens with a brief recap of the way the French Empire expanded exponentially after the French defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War – overseas conquest against technologically backward countries compensating for their humiliating defeat to the all-powerful Germans. This huge expansion (between 1880 and 1895 French colonial territory shot up from 1 to 9 million square kilometers, p.205) was accompanied by an explosion of new writing, not only factual descriptions of the new colonial acquisitions – mainly in Africa – but also expanding and justifying France’s vision of itself as a uniquely privileged exporter of civilisation and culture – what came to be known as its mission civilisatrice.

The essay takes the history of the Algerian town which the French named Bône as an example, a settlement which the French expropriated from the native Algerians and where they recreated French architecture, law and culture. And then Said points out that Camus was born to immigrant European parents in the small settlement of Miondovi, just outside Bône.

Said starts his critique by quoting from Conor Cruise O’Brien’s long essay about Camus, written for the old Modern Masters series back in 1970. O’Brien critiques aspects of Camus’s writings but nonetheless praises Camus for his achievement in depicting ‘Western consciousness’, for being the most representative intellectual of his day, in his troubled quest to establish and preserve humanist values in the unfavourable circumstances of the Cold War.

Said criticises O’Brien, and by implication all other fans of Camus, for precisely this evaluation, claiming that making him a universal representative of the Western intellectual effectively erases the profound and vital Algerian roots of his writings.

Let’s look at the novels in terms of their Algerian setting. Of Camus’ three novels – The Outsider (1942), The Plague (1947), The Fall (1956) – the third one is immediately excluded because it is about a Paris lawyer now living in Amsterdam. It was published two years after the Algerian War of Independence began (November 1954) and so Algeria was no longer available as a neutral backdrop for a fable about human consciousness.

This simple fact already sheds light on the other two novels – it brings out how the Algeria of their setting (Algiers and nearby villages in The Outsider, Algeria’s second city, Oran, in The Plague) is prior to the war of independence. Camus’s Algeria is a blank canvas, a neutral backdrop against which the European heroes act out their allegorical stories.

Only three Arabs appear in The Outsider, none of them are named or speak, and the role of the central one (the brother of an Arab woman who is regularly beaten up by the protagonist’s friend, Raymond, and who seeks to avenge her) is to be shot dead on a sunlit beach by the novel’s anti-hero, Mersault.

It requires little effort for even the casual reader to see that the Arabs are merely the toys or mannequins or wordless puppets which exist solely to provide fodder for the adventure and agonised musings of the central, European figure.

Likewise there are no named Arabs in The Plague. It is a novel entirely about Europeans. The majority of deaths from plague in The Plague must, logically, be the deaths of Arabs, since they made up nine tenths of the population of Algeria and of Oran, the city where the story is set – but there is no sense of this in the novel, no sense, for example, that the Algerians might have had different cultural and religious ceremonies and traditions surrounding their Muslim dead.

To be harsh: in Camus’s two most famous novels, nameless faceless Arabs have to die in order for Europeans to have fancy philosophical reflections.

So you don’t have to be a genius to see that Camus’ reputation as an embodiment of ‘Western consciousness’ can be regarded – when seen through a post-colonial lens – as more of an indictment than a tribute, in that this wonderful ‘Western consciousness’ is in fact the consciousness produced by, and which benefits from, wide-ranging and brutal imperial exploitation.

The accusation is that Camus’s fictions erase the identity, and even the presence, of colonised native people. Seen from this harsh perspective, far from promoting a universal anything, Camus’s fictions – no matter how troubled and questioning they may appear to be – in actual fact, by virtue of their assumptions and subject matter, continue the racist, colonial project of imperial France.

This is despite the fact that Camus himself, when working as a journalist before the war, produced powerful and well-researched reports on the miserable poverty of many Algerians which he regarded as a direct result of imperial exploitation. He may well have done; but in the fictions – which is all that anyone reads – Camus is, despite his best intentions, an accomplice.

Said’s prose style

Said’s aim is admirable, it is a shame that his prose is so wordy and pretentious.

What I want to do is to see Camus’s fiction as an element in France’s methodically constructed political geography of Algeria, which took many generations to complete, the better to see it as providing an arresting account of the political and interpretative contest to represent, inhabit, and possess the territory itself. (p.213)

To resituate L’Etranger in the geographical nexus from which its narrative trajectory emerges is to interpret it as a heightened form of historical experience. (p.224)

Culture and Imperialism is mostly made up of this kind of bombastic grandiloquence which often produces relatively little insight. Said’s prose preens and grandstands. Also, he spends a lot of time promising detailed close readings of the texts which he then often fails to deliver. Both these characteristics quickly become pretty irritating. Nonetheless, just pondering the colonial position of Camus for the time it takes to read these twenty pages, prompts powerful reflections.

My overall conclusion on Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, both of which I’ve read in their entirety – is that the bombastic style routinely fails to deliver the kind of nuanced text-based insight it promises – but that, despite the pretentious literary-critical style, Said’s thorough-going post-colonial approach is a revelation, a real eye-opener, and prompts a complete re-appraisal of everything you thought you knew about the literature of the European imperial powers.

Paralysis

Sometimes Said’s contorted prose style throws up unexpected phrases which strike a chord.

I was struck by Said’s phrase that Camus’s was an ‘incapacitated colonial sensibility’ (p.213). That notion of ‘incapacity’ is fruitful. As I mentioned above, from his earliest essays Camus appears to be stricken, caught, torn between the healthy outdoor joys of the body which are continually ‘sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ (Hamlet), by the bleak indoor climate of 1930s philosophy and intellectual enquiry to which he was also passionately attached.

It adds an extra dimension to Camus’s essays and novels if we overlay this body-mind dichotomy with the additional idea of a late-imperial guilty conscience. Camus wants simple pleasures – he wants life to be simple – but it isn’t because Algeria is a colonised country, the great majority of its population are downtrodden and exploited. How can you not feel guilty living there and seeing the poor and exploited every day? How can you join in the great European debates about ‘freedom’ and ‘being’ and ‘communism’ and all the rest of it, while you pick your way between the ragged street beggars or avert your gaze from the Arab Quarter, the squalid lanes of the Casbah?

On this reading, the paralysis of his characters – trapped under the pitiless sun like Mersault, or imprisoned inside the quarantined city of Oran – reflects not only the overt issues of exile and rebellion, but also the ideological dead-end of French colonialism, which fully understands its time is up, that it has no future repressing an entire people, but simply can’t conceive the possibility of handing over power to the natives and thus abandoning the hard work of a century of colonising effort. The French colonial mind is trapped, stuck, paralysed, stricken, incapacitated.

The plight of Camus’s fictional characters may well be the plight of stricken 1930s intellectuals – but, seen from Said’s perspective, it is also the plight of last-gasp late-colonialism.

On this reading, absolutely everything Camus wrote is compromised, holed beneath the waterline, by his unwilling, reluctant, and barely acknowledged acquiescence in French imperialism. The recurrent longing for union with the sun, the sea, the desert, is an impossible longing by the writer to be free of French colonial history and commune directly with the Algerian landscape, for a moment forgetting that it is a landscape made safe for Europeans to have great philosophical epiphanies in as a result of 100 years of expropriation, land clearing, and forced resettlement of its original peoples. It is a longing to forget that guilt.

Said analyses a story from Camus’s late collection Exile and the Kingdom to bring out how all but one of these late stories are nostalgic for a simpler, less conflicted world, in that they are about French people seeking ‘to achieve a moment of rest, idyllic detachment, poetic self-realisation’.

These are not stories about existentialist man (and woman). They are stories about late-imperial men and women, seeking a peace and harmony with their colonial setting which is ultimately impossible, an impossible dream.

The literary critic Roland Barthes described Camus’s prose as écriture blanche, which translates as ‘white writing’, but also has overtones of blank or empty writing. Said’s post-colonial perspective helps us see that the tone of The Outsider is not just blank because the lead character is almost psychotically disconnected from society and his own life (the obvious interpretation) – but because the entire narrative blanks out the native population, the colonial setting, France’s imperial presence. What makes the novel so blank and empty is the complete absence of the violent history and oppressive imperial structure in which it operates.

Camus and the Algerian War of Independence

After the war of independence broke in 1954 out Camus found himself in an impossible position. His entire childhood, his identity and that of his poverty-stricken mother and all the friends he had seen around him struggling to survive, were all entirely derived from their setting in Algeria. He couldn’t tear his entire personal and social history out of his identity. And so the great defender of humane liberal values found himself attacking the Algerian freedom fighters and opposing the war for independence. Camus went back to Algeria (from Paris where he’d lived since 1945) and tried to set up a movement for peace, to organise local truces to end the appalling bloodshed on both sides, but these all failed.

It was a war of extremes and Camus’s well-meaning liberalism was a drop in the ocean, a drop of dew which evaporated without trace in the fierce Algerian sun. It is no accident that in his last few years he turned from either political essays or novels back to his first love of the theatre, for the most part writing dramatisations of other people’s novels (winning prizes for his stage adaptations of Faulkner and Dostoyevsky). The blank unpeopled background of Algeria which underpinned his most famous works was no longer available.

Camus’s tragic death in a car crash in 1960 aged just 46 has a poetic justice about it. His identity had been torn apart, his ability to write the nativeless allegories set in his homeland had been removed. As a late-colonial writer, the death of his colonial setting signified his own writerly – and then literal – death.

To summarise in a sentence: whenever you read anyone saying that Camus’s writing in some way addresses ‘the human condition’, Said’s wordy but invaluable contribution is to force you to add that Camus’s writing just as much or more, and whether he wanted it to or not, reflects the late-imperial, colonial condition.


Credit

Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said was published in Britain by Chatto and Windus in 1993. All quotes & references are to the 1994 Vintage paperback edition.

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The Algerian war of independence

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth (2016)

‘Everywhere counter-revolutionaries run about and swagger; beat them down! Beat their heads where you find them! If counter-revolutionaries were to gain the upper hand for even a single hour, there will be no mercy for any proletarian. Before they stifle the revolution, suffocate them in their own blood!’ (Hungarian communist Tibor Szamuely, quoted page 134)

The sub-title sums it up – Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923. We Brits, like the French, date the end of the Great War to Armistice Day 11 November 1918, and the two-minute silence every year rubs in our happy sense of finality and completion.

But across a wide swathe of Eastern Europe, from Finland, through the Baltic states, all of Russia, Poland, down through the Balkans, across Anatolia and the entire Middle East, the violence didn’t end. In many places it intensified, and dragged on for a further four or five years.

Individual studies have long been available on the plight of individual nations – revolutionary Russia, post-Ottoman Turkey and so on. But Gerwarth claims his book is the first one to bring together the tumult in all these places and deal with them as symptoms of one deep cause: losing the war not only led to the break-up of Europe’s defeated empires – the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire – it undermined the very idea of traditional governments and plunged huge areas into appalling violence.

Gerwarth categorises the violence into a number of types:

  1. Wars between countries (of the traditional type) – thus war between Greece and Turkey carried on until 1923 (200,000 military casualties), Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1920 (250,000 dead or missing), Romania’s invasion of Hungary in 1919-1920.
  2. Nationalist wars of independence i.e. wars to assert the independence of ethnic groups claiming a new autonomy – the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Ukrainians.
  3. Revolutionary violence i.e. the attempt to overthrow existing governments in the name of socialist or other political causes — there were revolutionary communist putsches in Berlin and Munich, in Vienna, Hungary became a communist state under Bela Kun for 115 days in 1919.
  4. Civil wars – the Russian civil war was the biggest, with some 3 million dead in its three year duration, but Gerwarth also describes the Finnish Civil War, which I’d never heard of, in which over 1% of the population died and whose ramifications, apparently, continue to this day.

The lesson is best summarised in a blurb on the back of the book by the ever-incisive Max Hastings. For many nations and peoples violent conflict had started before 1914 and continued for another 3, 4, 5 years after 1918 — until, exhausted by conflict, for these people, order became more important than freedom. As the right-wing Waldemar Pabst, murderer of Rosa Luxemberg and Karl Liebknecht and organiser of Austria’s paramilitary Heimwehr put it, people across these chaotic regions needed:

the replacement of the old trinity of the French Revolution [liberté, egalité, fraternité]… with a new trinity: authority, order and justice.’ (quoted on p.141)

The communist coups in all these places were defeated because the majority of the population didn’t want it, while the actual ‘class enemies’, the landowners, urban bourgeoisie, conservative politicians, were able to call on large reserves of battle-hardened officer class to lead militias and paramilitaries into battle against the ‘reds’.

No wonder T.S. Eliot, writing about his famous masterpiece the Waste Land, could refer in 1923 to ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.

Gerwarth’s book gives the detail of this panorama, especially in the relatively unknown regions of central and eastern Europe – Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania – and with special attention to the catastrophic Greek invasion of Turkey and ensuing war.

Turkey

Turkey experienced the Young Turk revolution against the old rule of the Sultan in 1908. During the ensuing confusion across the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary annexed the Ottoman territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina then in 1911 Italy invaded and seized modern-day Libya from the Turks. The Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 led to the loss of almost all of the Empire’s European territories, and was followed by a series of coups and counter coups in Istanbul.

All this upheaval was before Turkey even entered the Great War, which it did with an attack on the Russian Black Sea coast in October 1914. Skipping over the Great War itself – which featured, for Turkey, the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the Arab Revolt of 1916 – defeat in the war led the Allies to dismember the remainder of the Ottoman Empire by the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920.

Opposition to this treaty led to the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal (later given the surname ‘Atatürk’) and the final abolition of the sultanate and the old Ottoman forms of government in 1922.

At which point the Greeks invaded, hoping to take advantage of Turkey’s weakness and seize the Aegean coast and islands. But the Greek attack ran out of steam, the tide turned and Turkish forces under Atatürk swept the Greek forces back down to the sea. Greek atrocities against Turkish villagers was followed by counter-reprisals by the Turks against the Greek population of the coast, which escalated into the mass exchange of populations. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks were forced to flee the Turkish mainland.

The point is that by 1923 Turkey had been in violent political turmoil for some 15 years. You can see why the majority of the population will have opted, in Max Hasting’s words, for Order over Freedom, for any party which could guarantee peace and stability.

Brutalisation and extermination

Gerwarth questions the ‘brutalisation thesis’, an idea I had broadly subscribed to.

This theory is that the Great War, with its four long years of grindingly brutal bloodshed, dehumanised enormous numbers of fighting men, who returned to their respective societies hardened to violence, desensitised, and that this permanently brutalised European society. It introduced a new note of total war, of the killing of civilian populations, the complete destruction of towns and cities, which hadn’t existed before. Up till now I had found this thesis persuasive.

Gerwarth says modern scholarship questions the brutalisation thesis because it can be shown that the vast majority of troops on all sides simply returned to their societies, were demobbed and got on with civilian lives in peace. The percentage who went into paramilitiaries and Freikorps units, the numbers which indulged in revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence, was very small.

But he partly contradicts himself by going on to say that the violence immediately after the war was new in nature: all the parties in the Great War were fighting, ultimately, to wring concessions from opposing regimes which they envisaged staying in place and legitimacy. This is how war had been fought in Europe for centuries. You defeat your enemy; he cedes you this or that bit of territory or foreign colony, and things continue as before.

But in the post-war period a completely new ideology appeared – something unprecedented in history – the wish not just to defeat but to exterminate your enemy, whether they be class enemies (hated by communists) or ethnic enemies (hated by all brands of nationalists) or ‘reds’ (hated by conservatives and the new fascist parties alike).

This extermination ideology mixed with the unprecedented collapse of empires which gave rise to a host of new small nations to create a new idea – that these new small nations emerging in and after the war needed to feel ‘cleansed’ and ‘pure’. Everyone not genuinely German or Czech or Hungarian or Ukrainian or whatever, must be expelled.

This new doctrine led to the vast relocations of peoples in the name of what a later generation would call ‘ethnic cleansing’, but that name doesn’t really capture the extraordinary scale of the movements and the depths of the hatreds and bitternesses which it unleashed.

For example, the final peace in the Turko-Greek war resulted in the relocation of some 2 million civilians (1.2 million Greeks expelled from Turkey, 400,000 Muslims expelled from Greece). Huge numbers of other ethnic groups were moved around between the new post-war nations e.g. Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Czechoslovakia etc.

And of course Britain experienced none of this. Between the wars we found Europe east of Germany a dangerous and exotic place (see the pre-war thrillers of Eric Ambler for the noir feel of spies and secret police they convey) but also left us incapable of really imagining what it felt like to live in such completely fractured and damaged societies.


The ‘only now…’ school of history

Although the facts, figures, atrocities, murders, rapes and violence which plagued this period are hard to read about, one of the most striking things in the whole book comes in Gerwarth’s introduction where he discusses the ebb and flow of fashion, or waves of historical interpretation regarding this period.

He dismisses traditional French and especially British attitudes towards Eastern Europe and the Balkans as a form of ‘orientalism’ i.e. the racist belief that there is something intrinsically violent and brutal about the people of those regions. Part of this attitude no doubt stems from Great War-era propaganda which portrayed the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires as somehow intrinsically despotic and repressive. Part from the ongoing political violence in these countries which generally ended up being ruled by very conservative or semi-fascist regimes.

Modern scholarship, Gerwarth says, has switched to the opposite view, with many modern historians claiming those regimes were more liberal than is often claimed, more stable and more open to reform than the wartime allies claimed. As he puts it:

This reassessment has been an emphatic one for both Imperial Germany and the Hapsburg Empire, which appear in a much more benign (or at least more ambivalent) light to historians today than they did in the first eight decades after 1918. (p.7)

That last phrase leapt out at me. He seems to be saying that modern historians, working solely from written documents, claim to know more about these empires than people alive at the time, than contemporaries who travelled through and experienced them and encountered and spoke with their rulers or populations and fought against them.

Quite casually, it seems to me, he is making a sweeping and quite unnerving statement about the control which historians exert over ‘reality’. Gerwarth’s remark echoes similar sentiments I’ve recently read by historians like Rana Mitter (China’s War with Japan 1937–1945) and Chris Wickham (The Inheritance of Rome) to the effect that only now are we getting to properly understand period A or B of history because of reasons x, y or z (the most common reason for reassessments of 20th century history being the new access to archives previously unobtainable in the former Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China).

I am a sceptic. I don’t believe we can now anything with much certainty. And a fan of later Wittgenstein who theorised that almost all communication – talking, texts, movies, you name it – are best understood as games, games with rules and regulations but games nonetheless, which change and evolve as the players do, and are interpreted differently by different players, at different times.

Currently there are some seven and a half billion humans alive on the planet – so there’s the potential for at least seven billion or so interpretations of anything.

If academic historians produce narratives which broadly agree it is because they’re playing the same academic game according to the same rules – they share agreed definitions of what history actually is, of how you define ‘evidence’, of what historical scholarship is, agreement about appropriate formats to present it in, about style and voice and rhetorics (dispassionate, objective, factual etc).

But the fact that the same set of evidence – the nature of, say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, can give rise to such wildly divergent interpretations, even among the professionals, only fuels my profound scepticism about our ability to know anything. For decades historians have thought the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a repressive autocracy which was too encrusted and conservative to cope with changes in technology and society and so was doomed to collapse. Now, Gerwarth informs me, modern scholarship claims that, on the contrary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was more flexible and adaptive than its contemporaries or anyone writing in the last 80 years has thought.

For contemporary historians to claim that only now can the truth revealed strikes me as, to put it politely, optimistic.

  1. Unless you are a religious zealot, there is no absolute truth
  2. There are plenty of dissenting voices to any historical interpretation
  3. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that future historians will in turn disagree and reinterpret everything all over again a) because fashions change b) because they’ll be able to do so in the light of events which haven’t happened yet and trends which aren’t clear to us

When I was a young man ‘we’ i.e. all the students I knew and most of the media and political commentators all thought Ronald Reagan was a doddery imbecile. Now I read books about the Cold War which claim he was among the all-time greatest American Presidents for playing the key role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism.

Which story is true ? Or are they both true and will more ‘truths’ be revealed in the future? If Vladimir Putin unleashes a nuclear war, will the collapse of communism – which 20 years later has given rise to a new aggressive Russian nationalism – come, in time, to be seen as a bad thing, as the prelude to some disastrous world war?

History is, in the end, a matter of opinion, a clash of opinions. These historians may well use evidence scrupulously to support thoroughly researched points of view – but they can only access a subset of the evidence (no historian can read everything, no historian can read every human language, no book can reference every text ever written during a period) and will tend to use that evidence selectively to support the thesis or idea a historian has developed.

Therefore, I don’t believe that any of the history books I’m currently reading reveal the only-now-can-it-be-told truth.

But I do understand that academics are under more pressure than ever before to justify their salaries by churning out articles and books. It follows that historians, like literary critics and other humanities scholars, must come up with new interpretations, or apply their interpretations to new subjects, simply in order to keep their jobs. It’s in this context that I read the pronouncements of only now historians – as the kind of rhetoric which gets articles published and books commissioned, which can be proclaimed in lecture theatres, at international conferences and – if you’re lucky and manage to wangle a lucrative TV deal – spoken to camera (as done by Mary Beard, Niall Ferguson, Ruth Goodman, Bettany Hughes, Dan Jones, David Reynolds, Simon Schama, Dan Snow, David Starkey, Lucy Worsley, Michael Wood).

In other words, I read statements like this as reflections of the economic and cultural climate, or discourse, of our times – heavily embedded in the economic necessity of historians to revise and review their predecessors’ findings and assumptions in order to keep their jobs. Maybe these new interpretations are bolstered by more data, more information and more research than ever before. Maybe they are closer to some kind of historical ‘truth’. But sure as eggs is eggs, in a generation’s time, they in their turn will be outmoded and outdated, fading in the sunlight outside second-hand bookshops.

For now the new historical consensus is a new twist, a new wrinkle, which appeals by its novelty and its exciting ability to generate new ideas and insights. It spawns new discourse. It creates new vistas of text. It continues the never-ending game of human understanding.

History is a cousin of literature with delusions of grandeur – at least literature knows that it is made up. And both genres, anyway, come under the broader rubric of rhetoric i.e. the systematic attempt to persuade the reader of something.

Notes and bibliography

One of the blurbs on the back says Gerwarth’s achievement has been to synthesise an unprecedented amount of primary and secondary material into his new narrative. This is supported by the elephantine size of the book’s appendices. The book has 446 numbered pages but no fewer than 161 of these are made up of the acknowledgements (5 pages), index (22 pages), bibliography (62 pages) and endnotes (72 pages). If you subtract the Introduction (15 pages), Epilogue (19 pages) and the three blank pages at the start of each of the three parts, then there’s only 446-198 = 248 pages of main text. Only 55% of the book’s total pages are actual text.

But it’s the length of the bibliography and endnotes which impresses – 134 pages! I think it’s the only set of endnotes I know which is so long that it has 8 pages of glossy illustrations embedded within it, rather than in the actual text.


Conclusion

As with so many histories of the 20th century I am left thinking that humanity is fundamentally incapable of governing itself.

Bumbling fools I can see why so many people believe in a God — because they just can’t face the terrible thought that this is it – Donald Trump and Theresa May, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, these are as good as you’re going to get, humanity! These are the people in charge and people like this will always be in charge: not the terrifyingly efficient totalitarian monsters of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but bumbling fools, incompetents and paranoid bullies.

The most ill-fated bumblers in this book must be the rulers of post-war Greece who decided (egged on by the foolish David Lloyd-George) to invade the western coast of Turkey in 1921. The book ends with a comprehensive account of their miserable failure, which resulted not only in appalling massacres and bloodshed as the humiliated Greek army retreated to the coast and was shipped back to Greece, but led to the expulsion of all Greek communities from Turkey – some 1.2 million people – vastly swelling the Greek population and leaving the country almost bankrupt for decades to come.

Hats off to the Greek Prime Minister who supervised all this, Eleftherios Venizelos. Well done, sir.

Intractable But half the reasons politicians appear idiots, especially in retrospect, is because they are dealing with impossible problems. The current crew who are bumbling their way through Brexit cannot succeed because they have been set an impossible task.

Similarly, the Western politicians and their civil servants who met at Versailles after the Great War were faced with the impossible challenge of completely redrawing the map of all Europe as well as the Middle East, following the collapse of the Hohenzollern, Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, with a view to giving the peoples of Europe their own ‘nation states’.

Quite simply, this proved too complicated a task to achieve, and their multiple failures to achieve it not only led to the Second World War but linger on to this day.

To this day ethnic tensions continue to exist in Hungary and Bulgaria about unfair borders, not to mention among the statelets of former Yugoslavia whose borders are very much still not settled.

And what about the violent can of worms which are the borders of the Middle East – Iraq, Syria, Jordan – or the claims for statehood of the Kurds, still the cause of terrorism and counter-terrorism in eastern Turkey, still fighting to maintain their independence in northern Iraq.

If the diplomats of Versailles failed to solve many of these problems, have we in our times done so very much better? How are Afghanistan and Iraq looking after 15 years of intervention from the West? Are they the peace-loving democracies which George W. Bush promised?

Not easy, is it? It’s so easy to ridicule diplomats and civil servants of the Versailles settlements for making a pig’s ear of so much of their task. But have we done much better? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Reading this book makes you think that managing human societies peacefully and fairly may simply be impossible.

Rainbow nation or pogroms? Reading page after page after page describing how people who were essentially the same flesh and blood but happened to speak different languages or have different religious beliefs or wear funny hats or the wrong design of jacket, proved not only incapable of living together, but all too often turned on each other in homicidal frenzy — reading these 250 pages of mayhem, pogroms, genocide, mass rape and massacres makes me worry, as ever, about the viability of modern multicultural societies.

People from different races, ethnic groups, languages, religions and traditions living alongside each other all sounds fine so long as the society they inhabit is relatively peaceful and stable. But put it under pressure, submit it to economic collapse, poverty and hardship, and the history is right here to prove that time and again people will use the pettiest differences as excuses to start picking on each other. And that once the violence starts, it again and again spirals out of control until no one can stop it.

And sometimes the knowledge that we have created for ourselves just such a multicultural society, which is going to come under an increasing number of economic, social and environmental stresses in the years ahead, fills me with fear.

Petersburg. Belgrade. Budapest. Berlin. Vienna. Constantinople. The same scenes of social collapse, class war and ethnic cleansing all over Europe between 1918 to 1923


Related links

Great War-related blog posts

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)

Koestler biography

Born in Hungary in 1905, of Jewish parents, Arthur Koestler joined the German Communist party in 1931 and worked as a freelance journalist across Europe in the 1930s. Like many Communist Party members, Koestler was shocked and disillusioned by Stalin’s show trials, held in Moscow from 1936 to 1938. He knew personally some of the senior Bolshevik figures who were made to confess a litany of improbable crimes and humiliate themselves at their public trials, before being carted off to be executed. Very obviously Stalin was getting rid of the ‘old guard’ of the Party, eliminating rivals and consolidating his grip on power.

As a result Koestler quit the Communist Party in 1938 and began writing Darkness at Noon. The novel is an imagining of the interrogation of a fictional figure, Rubashov, an old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the Bolshevik government that he had helped to create.

Translated from German

Koestler wrote the novel in German and it was translated into English by his lover, the sculptor Daphne Hardy. The phrasing frequently betrays its German origin. For example, when the two men from the Commissariat of the Interior arrive to arrest Rubashov and bang on the door of his apartment in the middle of the night, a woman downstairs yells at them to shut up, at which Vasily, the building’s porter, shouts back:

‘Be quiet,’ shouted Vasily. ‘Here is authority.’ (p.13)

No English person ever used that wording.

  • He sniffed and noticed that for some time already he had the scent of Arlova in his nostrils.
  • For a whole while No. 402 did not answer.

Maybe it is deliberately cast in unEnglish English in order to emphasise the unEnglish setting and the unEnglish mind-set of the story.

The fear

Darkness at Noon terrified me when I read it as a teenager in the 1970s, when the Soviet dictatorship still dominated Eastern Europe, routinely arresting and imprisoning its dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. The scenes it described still seemed possible and had a horrifying compulsion about them, like the terrifying scenes depicted in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels a generation later. (Somehow the atmosphere changed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and very visibly got bogged down in an unwinnable war. Their mystique of omnipotence was punctured.)

Darkness at Noon

Rereading Darkness at Noon now, it seems almost gentle next to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The character Rubashov is depicted as calmly accepting his fate – he has been in many prisons before, he knows the ropes, how to preserve food, how to contact the prisoner in the neighbouring cell by tapping messages out on the pipes and so on. And he is interrogated first by a former friend and colleague, Ivanov, who is unwisely considerate to his prisoner until he himself is arrested and hauled off to be shot. Ivanov is replaced by his more ruthless and hard-headed subordinate, Gletkin, his head shaved to reveal a harsh scar, always impeccably dressed and rigid in his interrogator’s chair – Rubashov calls him a Neanderthal to his face. He is the stony-hearted generation the Revolution has produced.

And yet neither interrogator lays a finger on him. They keep him readily supplied with cigarettes. Gletkin’s interrogation ‘technique’ amounts to carrying out long sessions before a blindingly bright desk-top light and only allowing Rubashov two hours sleep before waking him and bringing him back for more questioning.

Rather than physical violence or even threat, Rubashov is broken down cleverly by the interrogator pointing out a series of encounters and conversations Rubashov had with various figures in the past – during the time he was posted abroad as a trade delegate, or in other episodes, earlier in his career, when he worked undercover in Germany. Also by the treacherous affair he had with his bovine secretary, Arlova.

Under questioning Rubashov admits that he is cynical about ‘the leader’ of the Revolution (universally referred to in the book, not as Stalin, but as ‘Number 1’). As a result he is forced to confess that when, a few years earlier, he had returned from imprisonment in Germany and staunchly declared his support for Number 1, he must have been lying. When he allowed Arlova to be arrested, denounced and executed a year or so later, the interrogator points out that Rubashov could – if he had wanted to – have stood up in her defence. He didn’t. Now though – as Gletka points out in his unrelenting, logical way – Rubashov admits he knew she was innocent of all charges. In other words, he sacrificed his lover to save his own skin. Is he really such a noble hero of conscience? Is he not in reality a weak old man who is putting personal pride above the future of his Nation?

Thus the ‘interrogation’ is entirely psychological, wearing down Rubashov’s sense of himself as someone special, making him feel guilty, making him realise he is a selfish liar, and so on. This is drastically different from the harrowing interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eight-Four, where Winston Smith is injected with drugs and repeatedly electrocuted, causing his body to arch and spasm in unbearable pain.

Slowly a web is spun round Rubashov from casual conversations, comments and actions raked up from throughout his career, which are twisted in such a way as to fully justify the accusation that he is guilty of cynicism and mockery towards Number 1 and the Party, guilty of counter-revolutionary thoughts.

And slowly Rubashov himself comes to realise that he really is guilty, that he really has drifted away from the Party, that he really would join any available opposition and would, if the opportunity presented itself, help to assassinate Number 1. It doesn’t really matter that there is no organised opposition; it doesn’t really matter that there was never a plot to poison Number 1. He would have done all those things. He is guilty as charged.

To give an example: in one scene Rubashov is confronted with the son of a former friend who he met when he was posted abroad, and is reminded of a long-forgotten conversation between all three of them about what they would do if they had the (purely theoretical) opportunity to change the direction of the Revolution, to bring it back in a more humane direction.

Rubashov has frequently seen this young man in the bleak exercise yard where he and other prisoners are taken and had nicknamed ‘Harelip’ from his appearance. Now, confronted with him in the interrogation room, Rubashov realises that Harelip has himself been beaten, starved and demoralised into numbly declaring to his face that Rubashov commissioned him to poison Number 1.

Rubashov knows the accusation that there was ever a concrete assassination plan is nonsense – but he did have dissident conversations with the boy and his father, they did discuss whether the Revolution might be made to take a different turn, they did speculate what would happen if Number 1 could be got rid of. Slowly, through incidents like this, the interrogator brings Rubashov to see that, even if he didn’t plan any of the ridiculous charges pressed against him – he might haveHe could have. Objectively, from the Party’s point of view, he is guilty as charged.

Moreover, Rubashov himself in his revolutionary prime, earlier in the 1930s, had been just as cruel and unflinching as Gletkin. He himself had sacrificed members of a Communist cell in Germany because, after the Nazis came to power and arrested many of them, the survivors said they needed to adopt new tactics. Rubashov, as representative of the Comintern, disagreed, disciplined them, and ultimately denounced them to the Nazi authorities. On another occasion he got to know Little Loewy, a cripple working for the Party in a North European port who had organised fervent Communist Party activism across the docks – and had had to explain to him and his colleagues – who had been carrying out a strict and honourable boycott of foreign goods arriving at the port – that the Soviet Union had now completely changed its approach, and wanted to sell vital raw materials to the Nazi regime. If they didn’t someone else would, and the Nation desperately needs the cash to carry out its own industrialisation, to make itself strong enough to resist attack. Some of the dockers Rubashov explains this to leave the room in disgust. Little Loewy agrees without hesitation, but later hangs himself.

Koestler shows us Rubashov haunted by memories like this, some in dreams, some in daylight remembrance, being forced to review his hard-hearted career, analysing his behaviour, and slowly acknowledging that Ivanov, and then Gletkin, are only being as thorough and logical and dispassionate as he was in his prime. The Revolution cannot afford bourgeois sentimentality. He is brought to see that, yes, his own self-sacrifice is the logical step. He must submit.

Nineteen Eighty-Four describes the events of a few days in Winston Smith’s life. By contrast Darkness at Noon uses Rubashov’s memories and musings, as he lies on his prison bunk, to range far and wide over Communist Party activities and Soviet policy throughout the 1930s, as epitomised by Rubashov’s career.

Darkness at Noon feels on the one hand wider and richer than Orwell’s novel, because it covers a longer period and with more complex relationships with a bigger cast of characters – but at the same time is significantly less intense, because Rubashov meets and interacts with a large number of people out there in the real world, with all its colour and smells and sights and distractions – whereas Winston Smith cannot escape anywhere from the nightmarish gaze of the telescreen, Big Brother and his own terrified claustrophobic thoughts.

Dreams and issues

Darkness at Noon also feels softer in the sense that many of Rubashov’s memories are mixed up with dreams: he relives the same events over and over – his meeting with nervous Peter the German cell-leader, his friendship and then betrayal of Little Loewy, his nights in bed with his supine mistress, Arlova – all these are recalled in great physical and sensual detail, and recur again and again as in a dream. Sometimes Rubashov has trouble knowing whether he’s sleeping or waking.

Similarly, many of the exchanges between Rubashov and his two interrogators are rather poetic and philosophical, in a dreamy European kind of way. Where Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien discuss the nature of power in a ruthless, logical way, O’Brien’s relentless logic of power bearing down on Smith like a nightmare which the reader shares, by contrast Ivanov is given to poetic flights of fancy.

For example, at one stage Ivanov launches out on a long disquisition about God and Satan, bringing these Christian characters up to date to apply to the present European situation. Ivanov says all this while pouring himself and Rubashov glasses of brandy. It could almost come from a bourgeois 19th century ‘novel of ideas’, the characters sitting in front of a roaring fire in the drawing room of a grand house, swirling brandy round their glasses, puffing on cigars.

‘I would like to write a Passion play in which God and the Devil dispute for the soul of Saint Rubashov. After a life of sin, he has turned to God – to a God with the double chin of industrial liberalism and the charity of the Salvation Army soups. Satan, on the contrary, is thin, ascetic and a fanatical devotee of logic. He reads Machiavelli, Ignatius of Loyola, Marx and Hegel; he is cold and unmerciful to mankind, out of a kind of mathematical mercifulness. He is damned always to do that which is most repugnant to him: to become a slaughterer, in order to abolish slaughtering, to sacrifice lambs so that no more lambs may be slaughtered, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it – an abstract and geometric love. Apage Satanas! Comrade Rubashov prefers to become a martyr. The columnists of the liberal Press, who hated him during his lifetime, will sanctify him after his death. He has discovered a conscience, and a conscience renders one as unfit for the revolution as a double chin. Conscience eats through the brain like a cancer, until the whole of the grey matter is devoured. Satan is beaten and withdraws – but don’t imagine that he grinds his teeth and spits fire in his fury. He shrugs his shoulders; he is thin and ascetic; he has seen many weaken and creep out of his ranks with
pompous pretexts…’
Ivanov paused and poured himself another glass of brandy. Rubashov walked up and down in front of the window.

This is typical of the frequent long, rather wordy and metaphorical debates the characters have. It could come from a George Bernard Shaw play, or maybe a Chekhov story. And it’s what I mean by ‘softer’ or ‘more relaxing’ than the Orwell: many passages feature long-winded chatty discussions which rather inevitably refer to the ‘great’ European classics like Dostoyevsky or Don Quixote.

On the other hand, these passages often snap back out of their amiable doze into the harsh light of the present and snap the reader back to the 1930s, to the era of totalitarianism, to the prison cell and the interrogation room.

In another long passage Ivanov gives the rationale for all the brutality of the Soviet regime during the 1930s. Koestler makes it a handy summary of the Soviet Union’s crimes and this long passage must have scandalised loyal Communist Party members and fellow-travellers in the West.

Ivanov explains that the Party has had only decades, only a few years, to try and catch up with the advances the capitalist West has had 150 years to make – no wonder they have to be ruthless: ‘it is to ensure the Revolution survives; it is to ensure the peace and happiness of a future generation, that we must be brutal, now.’ At which Rubashov finally lets rip a long stream of the crimes of the Soviet regime.

Rubashov rubbed his pince-nez on his sleeve, and looked at him short-sightedly. ‘What a mess,’ he said, ‘what a mess we have made of our golden age.’

Ivanov smiled. ‘Maybe,’ he said happily. ‘Look at the Gracchi and Saint Just and the Commune of Paris. Up to now, all revolutions have been made by moralizing dilettantes. They were always in good faith and perished because of their dilettantism. We for the first time are consequent…’

‘Yes,’ said Rubashov. ‘So consequent; that in the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labour in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the party line to be followed in Indo-China. Our engineers work with the constant knowledge that an error in calculation may take them to prison or the scaffold; the higher officials in our administration ruin and destroy their subordinates, because they know that they will be held responsible for the slightest slip and be destroyed themselves; our poets settle discussions on questions of style by denunciations to the Secret Police, because the expressionists consider the naturalistic style counter-revolutionary, and vice versa. Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labour conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down
to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national Institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture. We whip the groaning masses of the country towards a theoretical future happiness, which only we can see. For the energies of this generation are exhausted; they were spent in the Revolution; for this generation is bled white and there is nothing left of it but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh. … Those are the consequences of our consequentialness. You called it vivisection morality. To me it sometimes seems as though the experimenters had torn the skin off the victim and left it standing with bared tissues, muscles and nerves. …’

‘Well, and what of it?’ said Ivanov happily. ‘Don’t you find it wonderful? Has anything more wonderful ever happened in history? We are tearing the old skin off mankind and giving it a new one. That is not an occupation for people with weak nerves; but there was once a time when it filled you with enthusiasm. What has so changed you that you are now as pernickety as an old maid?’

This long passage gives a good feel of the book, the way it boils down, ultimately, to a dialogue between two interpretations of Communist history – both coming from within the Party, both using the terminology and worldview of the Party – but fundamentally opposed about the tactics and consequences of 20 years of Bolshevik rule.

Climax

Eventually, Rubashov is worn down by sleeplessness and the relentlessness of the interrogation, to not only confess, but to agree to take part in a show trial at which he will abase himself, grovel and admit to all kinds of crimes. Gletkin has convinced him that the Party needs unity, it needs a strong leader, it needs to nip all opposition in the bud, and it needs to demonstrate the futility of the slightest hint of opposition.

And that all these things must be made screamingly obvious to the most illiterate and stupid peasant. The show trials aren’t for the intelligentsia (though they scare the daylights out of them), they are for the vast majority of Russian’s poorly educated, mostly illiterate, peasant population. That is why they are shows. That is why they have as much in common with traditional village puppet entertainments as with Western notions of ‘justice’. Their message must resonate to, must be heard about and discussed and convey the right message to, the remotest poverty-stricken villages in Siberia or in Central Asia.

Gletkin successfully persuades Rubashov that his last great service to the party he has served all his life will be to repress his egotism, to suppress his own bourgeois sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, to sacrifice himself for the good of the Party and for the future of his country.

And so, in the short final chapter of the book, we read excerpts from Rubashov’s show trial where he does just that, admits to all the charges, humiliates himself, praises the Great Leader to the skies – all in the name of the Perfect Future which the Party will deliver.

The perfect future

By the 1970s the Soviet economy was visibly failing, only surviving through the complex network of unofficial deals between managers of the epically mismanaged state industries. The decade-long war in Afghanistan (1979-89) widely discredited the regime in the eyes of the population. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power he unleashed forces of dissatisfaction he could not control.

In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed and the entire 70 year-long Communist experiment was revealed for not only the prolonged crime against humanity which it was, but also to have been completely futile. Did 70 years of communism build a better life for Russians? No. They led to Putin and his new Russian nationalism, the obscene wealth of the oligarchs contrasted with the poor quality of life of the majority, a Russia characterised by state control of the media, the assassination of troublesome journalists, a terrifying mafia, epic alcoholism and the lowest life expectancy in the industrialised world (65 years for men).

For some time now the problems Russia faces internally, and the military threat it presents to Europe, have far outweighed this old stuff about the darkest days of its communist regime. Darkness at Noon is a densely imagined, psychologically rich and well-argued portrait of a long-vanished era, an age which is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

Related links

George Orwell in Barcelona

In chapter 10 of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes how street fighting broke out in Barcelona in 1937. I happen to have been in Barcelona recently and so used Orwell’s account to track down and photograph the buildings he describes.

Background

On 18 July 1936 generals in the Spanish army mounted a military coup against the democratically elected left-wing government. This sounds like a simple case of right and wrong but early 20th century Spain had had a troubled history. It only became a republic when King Alfonso XIII fled the country in 1931. Spain was deeply polarised between the forces of reaction – powerful landowners, the Catholic church, the police and army – and of the republic – the urban working class, some peasants. There had been an attempt to mount a left-wing revolution in 1934, which was repressed but left all sides convinced the other side was planning huge conspiracies.

In July 1936 the generals had planned and hoped that their coup would take the entire country. But the uprising failed in barracks in the major cities (Madrid and Barcelona) and in the east generally, and in the two provinces of Spain which have always prized their independence, the Basque country in the north-west and Catalonia in the north-east.

Both sides took steps to round up and disarm opponents in their part of the country, often with bloodshed. Thousands died in the early days and it was in these early days that the trade unions acted with decisiveness to raise huge militias. They begged the cautious government for arms and just about managed to put enough troops in the field to stall the nationalists’ advance. By September both sides – generally referred to as nationalists and republicans – were looking abroad for help. The nationalists quickly gained support from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The republicans were subject to a (controversial) arms embargo by France and Britain and forced to rely entirely on arms and advisors from Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Within a few months sympathisers in the democracies began to volunteer to fight for the republic (and a handful for the nationalists). For many idealistic young men and women in Britain, France, America and elsewhere, the outbreak of the war in Spain represented a tipping point in history, the moment when fascist forces came out into the open and had to be defeated. If Spain fell to fascism, went the argument, with Italy and Germany already fascist and Fascist parties powerful or in power in many east European countries, then France and Britain would be next.

Among the many volunteers from Britain was George Orwell, author up to that point of three novels and his documentary books, Down and out in Paris and London and The Road To Wigan Pier. Orwell approached the British communist party but they were (rightly, as it turned out) suspicious of his independent attitude, so he ended up wangling an introduction to the Independent Labour Party representative in Barcelona, John McNair. Having travelled across France and crossed the border into Spain, Orwell arrived in Barcelona, and was channeled away from the Overseas Volunteers – the International Brigades which were being administered by communists – and into the militia of the anti-communist revolutionary party, the POUM (the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista).

Orwell writes vividly of the egalitarian atmosphere in Barcelona when he arrived in december 1936: everyone dressed in workers’ clothes, prostitution, begging and tipping had been banned, revolutionary banners hung from all the buildings and from passing lorries full of cheering militia.

After some primitive training and armed with antique rifles without much ammunition, Orwell was despatched to the ‘front’. He sat out the winter in the freezing trenches, opposite Fascist ones 1,000 yards away and, with one or two exceptions, was rarely involved in any fighting. He was at the front for 115 days solidly and eventually given leave to return to Barcelona to meet his wife – who had by this stage also come to Barcelona – in late April.

He was shocked to find the atmosphere of the city completely transformed. The bourgeoisie had emerged from hiding, luxury restaurants had opened up, bootblacks and tipping were again in evidence. More oppressively, though, was the atmosphere of tension and suppressed violence. In his absence the relatively small Spanish communist party had lost no time imposing its influence on the central government and in all the republican areas. they were able to do this because Stalin was now the only outside power supplying the government with arms and ammunition. And with advisors. Not only military advisors but political advisors who, not surprisingly, advised the government that they could never win with a hodge-podge of voluntary militias raised from a kaleidoscope of different unions and parties. All of them must come under one central dominant control – Comrade Stalin said so.

From the start the republican side was riven by factions and feuds. the Civil Guard, who continued to police the republican areas, had long been the traditional enemy of the working class. The republican government was an uneasy alliance of anarchists, socialists and communists. In Catalonia especially, the working class was represented by anarchist trade unions who advocated the worker takeover of the means of production and distribution, but via decentralised federations – the opposite of the centralised Stalinist model.

If Stalin, through his commissars and advisors was just imposing one model instead of another it would have been one thing. But there was worse. Stalin, looking at the map of Europe, with a central band of antagonistic Fascist powers, and Spain now at risk of going Fascist, realised that he must make allies with the French and, hopefully, with the more reluctant British. If war was to break out he desperately needed all the allies he could get. But what would scare Briain and France away from him and into the arms of the anti-Bolshevik Fascists faster than anything else? A full-scale workers revolution in Spain. Therefore, Stalin instructed his advisors and commissars, as they infiltrated themselves further into government departments and into every level of the republican administration – to repress the genuinely revolutionary instincts and achievements of the anarchists and the other non-Stalinist communist parties.

It was this rolling back of the revolution, and the slow insidious propaganda which criticised and blamed the anarchists for every military defeat – in other words, the same techniques of insulting, vilifying and outlawing your opponents that Stalin was using at the very same time in Russia – that Orwell got back from the trenches to find being used in Barcelona. Nobody knew who would attack whom first but the atmosphere was heavy with violence.

The May fighting

On 3 May Orwell was crossing the foyer of his hotel when a friend told him ‘it’ had started. the Catalan government had sent Civil Guards to take control of the Telephone Exchange in the Plaza de Cataluna, and the anarchists who controlled it had fired back. I looked long and hard in the modern-day Catalonia Square but couldn’t identify the Telephone Exchange.

That afternoon, between three and four, I was half-way down the Ramblas when I heard several rifle-shots behind me. I turned round and saw some youths, with rifles in their hands and the red and black handkerchiefs of the Anarchists round their throats, edging up a side – street that ran off the Ramblas northward. They were evidently exchanging shots with someone in a tall octagonal tower – a church, I think – that commanded the side-street.

I’m not sure but this church, Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, is half way down the Ramblas, has an octagonal tower and is opposite an alley running off the other side of the Ramplas.

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Parròquia de la Mare de Déu de Betlem, Barcelona

Then:

At this moment an American doctor who had been with us at the front ran up to me and grabbed me by the arm. He was greatly excited. ‘Come on, we must get down to the Hotel Falcon.’ (The Hotel Falcon was a sort of boarding-house maintained by the P.O.U.M. and used chiefly by militiamen on leave.) ‘The P.O.U.M. chaps will be meeting there. The trouble’s starting. We must hang together.’

The Hotel Falcon is down towards the sea end of the Ramblas. It is now a library, named after the anarchist leader Andreu Nin.

Biblioteca Gòtic - Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Biblioteca Gòtic – Andreu Nin, Barcelona

Here’s the precise Google maps location.

With some kind of historical irony, I found three or four derelicts sleeping in the ground floor window alcoves, while the hordes of rich tourists hurried by on their way top spend money at the monster shopping centre on the seafront.

Orwell went across the Ramblas to the building opposite, a disused cabaret theatre which had been taken over by the POUM. He spent hours with a colleague exploring it and also looking for arms, eventually spending the night there rolled up in a curtain he tore down for the purpose. The building is still there and is now the Teatre Principal. 

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Teatre Principal, Barcelona

Next morning POUM and their associated trade union, the CNT, start building barricades outside the Hotel Falcon and the theatre. Orwell nips up the Ramblas to the Hotel Continental where his wife is staying, dropping in on the moasly closed market to buy some cheese. This covered market is very much still there and very popular with tourists.

Orwell then walked a hundred yards or so to the POUM Executive Building. This is now the Hotel Rivoli at number 128 Ramblas. He’s inside when he hears firing nearby and discovers that the Café Moka next door had been seized the day before by 20 or 30 Civil Guards.

Next door to the P.O.U.M. building there was a cafe with a hotel above it, called the Cafe Moka. The day before twenty or thirty armed Civil Guards had entered the cafe and then, when the fighting started, had suddenly seized the building and barricaded themselves in. Presumably they had been ordered to seize the cafe as a preliminary to attacking the P.O.U.M. offices later. Early in the morning they had attempted to come out, shots had been exchanged, and one Shock Trooper was badly wounded and a Civil Guard killed. The Civil Guards had fled back into the cafe…

But when an American tourist walked down the street they had opened fire. Both sides now erect barriers outside their buildings and have an armed stand-off. Eventually Orwell’s commandant in the POUM militia, the Belgian George Kopp, bravely organises a truce. Both Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka are still there side by side. It is a little hard to conceive how either side could have built a barricade outside without being riddled with bullets from their opponents.

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

Hotel Rivoli and Cafe Moka

The Cafe Moka, captured by Civil Guards in May 1937.

Naturally they had looted everything drinkable the cafe possessed, and they made Kopp a present of fifteen bottles of beer. In return Kopp had actually given them one of our rifles to make up for one they had somehow lost on the previous day.

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Cafe Moka, Barcelona

Immediately opposite there was a cinematograph, called the Poliorama, with a museum above it, and at the top, high above the general level of the roofs, a small observatory with twin domes. The domes commanded the street, and a few men posted up there with rifles could prevent any attack on the P.O.U.M. buildings. The caretakers at the cinema were C.N.T. members and would let us come and go… There were generally about six of us up there. We placed a man on guard in each of the observatory towers, and the rest of us sat on the lead roof below, where there was no cover except a stone palisade.

This building is still there, along with its two domes. Difficult imagining being up there with a couple of comrades and some rifles, ready to snipe at any Civil Guards who fire at you.

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

Reial Academia De Ciences I Arts

By the Thursday the Catalan government – the Generalite – was trying top patch things up. Nobody wanted a civil war within a civil war. The CNT and POUM wanted the Civil Guard to retreat from the Plaza de Catalunia and lay down their weapons. Their newspaper advised peace and taking down the barricades. Orwell’s mood going into that Thursday night was one of frustration, disgust and extreme hunger. On the Friday the barricades began to be dismantled,. the Civil Guards in the cafe Moka came out to sit in the sunshine dandling their rifles on their knees.

Peace had sort of broken out. That night the city was flooded by Assault Guards who were meant to be a neutral force between the anarchists and the Civil Guards, and the next day they are patrolling the city in squads, reassuring the population and all the political factions. Orwell is most impressed by their shiny new rifles, far better than anything he or his comrades have at the front. The May fighting had profound consequences. it marked the triumph of the central government – backed up by Stalin’s communists – over the truly revolutionary forces of the POUM and its trade union, the CNT.

The Barcelona fighting had given the Valencia Government the long — wanted excuse to assume fuller control of Catalonia. The workers’ militias were to be broken’ up and redistributed among the Popular Army. The Spanish Republican flag was flying all over Barcelona — the first time I had seen it, I think, except over a Fascist trench. In the working-class quarters the barricades were being pulled down, rather fragmentarily, for it is a lot easier to build a barricade than to put the stones back. Outside the P.S.U.C. buildings the barricades were allowed to remain standing, and indeed many were standing as late as June. The Civil Guards were still occupying strategic points. Huge seizures of arms were being made from C.N.T. strongholds, though I have no doubt a good many escaped seizure. La Batalla was still appearing, but it was censored until the front page was almost completely blank. The P.S.U.C. papers were un-censored and were publishing inflammatory articles demanding the suppression of the P.O.U.M. The P.O.U.M. was declared to be a disguised Fascist organization, and a cartoon representing the P.O.U.M. as a figure slipping off” a mask marked with the hammer and sickle and revealing a hideous, maniacal face marked with the swastika, was being circulated all over the town by P.S.U.C. agents. Evidently the official version of the Barcelona fighting was already fixed upon: it was to be represented as a ‘fifth column’ Fascist rising engineered solely by the P.O.U.M.

From now on the POUM would be blamed for everything, for every military failure and political setback. He heard stories of POUM officials being snatched in midnight raids, of secret prisons being created and quickly filling up with ‘Fascist saboteurs’. Orwell returned reluctantly to the front, but was wounded four weeks later, shot in the throat. He was treated at several hospitals before finally being returned to Barcelona in mid-June and being reunited with his distraught wife.

After only a few days they were both horrified when the logic of the May Fighting came to its logical conclusion and on 16 June 1937 the POUM was banned for being a traitorous organisation. Orwell has to go on the run, sleeping rough at nights and hanging out in obscure parts of town by day, until his wife can make the arrangements to have them both smuggled across the border into France. His brave commander, Kopp, was in prison. Andreu Nin and almost the entire POUM leadership was arrested and tortured. Nin was executed.

As soon as he was back in England Orwell began writing Homage to Catalonia, the eye-witness account of his experiences at white-hot speed. It was published in April 1938 and was a commercial flop. More than that, it was solidly attacked in Britain’s communist-sympathetic press for defending ‘Trotskyite saboteurs’ etc etc.

The entire experience opened Orwell’s eyes about a) the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism; it made him realise it was just a national totalitarian party which used the communist parties of other countries simply as extensions of its entirely self-interested foreign policy. And b) it showed him at close quarters how political and military events could be completely distorted and ‘history’ rewritten to suit the interests of a totalitarian government which controlled all the organs of communication.

This, of course, was to be Orwell’s most central theme in the war years and afterwards, finding its apotheosis in the nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Away from the Ramblas, which is where Orwell’s eye-witness account of the May Fighting mostly takes place, there is a sweet little square in Barcelona named after him

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell

It is home to vegetarian restaurants, bars and boutiques. the bar which we ate at had an Orwell-themed menu with 1984 pizza and an Animal Farm fry-up. I modestly suggested that they should add Victory Gin to their menu.

Placa de George Orwell

Placa de George Orwell


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938)

Potted biography

Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair to a civil servant in India in 1903. The family moved back to England in 1907 and sent young Eric, first to prep school near Eastbourne, then to Eton, where he met other boys who were to be among the literary luminaries of his generation. In other words he was brought up to be the toffiest of the toffs. However, unlike most of his literary contemporaries, Eric decided not to go on to Oxford or Cambridge but instead enlisted in the Indian Imperial Police and returned to Burma. Here he served from 1922 until 1927, wielding great responsibility for large provinces and huge numbers of ‘natives’.

Slowly he lost his faith in the Imperial mission, and came to dislike his role. One contemporary said he had an unusual sympathy for the natives and went to the unprecedented lengths of learning their language. He had a taste for the underdog and a dislike of power.

So he quit the Imperial Police and moved back to Europe, staying with friends and family and trying to make a living as a writer. In the late 1920s he spent two years in Paris, struggling to write and working in the kitchen of a big hotel; and he developed a taste for dressing in rags and going on the tramp, sleeping in the roughest parts of London and investigating the capital’s poorest doss houses and hostels. He converted these experiences into his first book, a long work of reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). There followed a novel based on his time in Burma – Burmese Days (1934) and another which recycled his experiences sleeping rough in London and working in the hop fields of Kent – A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935). Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) exaggerates Orwell’s own taste for slumming it into the caricature of the alienated intellectual, Gordon Comstock, a failed poet consumed by bilious hatred of the modern world.

By the mid-1930s Orwell was established as a novelist, an essayist and a writer of reportage, a presence, a name, contributing overtly political left-wing articles to a variety of magazines and journals. No sooner had he delivered the manuscript of Keep the Aspidistra Flying in January 1936, than his publisher, Victor Gollancz, suggested he write a book on the social conditions in the north of England, badly affected by the international Depression.

Orwell readily agreed and set off to live among working class people in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield from January to March 1936. He spent the summer working up his diary and notes of the trip into the first part of Wigan Pier, which consists of documentary reportage of the conditions he saw, the wretched housing and the unbelievably tough life of a coal miner. Then he turned to writing part two of the book,ich is an odd autobiographical account of his own personal development as a Socialist followed by a quirky set of ‘arguments’ in favour of ‘Socialism’. I recently reviewed this and made clear, I hope, that, as contemporary critics pointed out, Orwell nowhere in his hundred-page defence of Socialism actually defines what socialism is – a major Fail – beyond some high-sounding truisms about it representing Justice and Decency.

So Orwell brought with him to Spain:

  • the self-confidence of the Eton-educated Englishman
  • the hard-headed experience gained from being an officer in the British Imperial police for five years – which meant a familiarity with weapons, drill, commanding men, and swift decision-making
  • his abilities as a writer, in particular his talent for detailed factual description and for vivid pen portraits of individuals
  • his passionate support of Socialism which was, however, ideologically and politically naive and undeveloped

The Spanish Civil War

While he was working on the manuscript of Wigan Pier there was a military coup in Spain against the left-wing democratically elected government. On 18 July 1936 generals in the Spanish army co-ordinated military risings in Spain’s African colony of Morocco and throughout barracks on the mainland. However, not all the risings worked, some were repressed or didn’t take place, so after a confusing few days the generals were left in control of Morocco and the western half of Spain, leaving the capital, Madrid, the second city, Barcelona up in Catalonia, and most of the south and east of the country in government or ‘republican’ hands. Both sides thought the thing would be over in days, either the coup would be suppressed or it would succeed, but in the event it did neither. In both parts of the country there began to be reprisals against the ‘opponents’: in the parts controlled by the ‘nationalist’ generals, trade unionists, communists, writers and subversives were rounded up and executed; in ‘republican’ zones rumours soon abounded of churches being burned down, priests executed and nuns raped (though the raped nuns stories have to this day never been proved).

Both sides hardened their positions, with the generals leading military assaults designed to expand their territory. But the government was hampered from the start by fear of their own supporters; they delayed handing out arms and ammunition to whatever forces remained loyal. It was the anarchist and socialist trade unions which immediately rallied their members, and armed them with whatever was to hand.

The generals had risen because they were terrified that the republican government was going to push through socialist and even communist reforms. They mounted the coup against the leftists and in the name of the Catholic Church and a mystical idea of an older, nobler Spain. But their coup had the unintended consequence of triggering the very revolution they feared: in republican areas workers rose up, seized their farms and factories, implemented workers’ council and collectivisation. In the cities bourgeois dress and even forms of speech disappeared, socialist, communist and anarchist flags appeared everywhere. Young men and women dressed like revolutionaries and addressed each other as comrade.

Almost immediately the conflict was internationalised when fascist Italy and Nazi Germany spotted the potential of having an authoritarian ally in the western Mediterranean and the Germans, in particular, with their methodical approach, saw the opportunity for testing out the military hardware they had been developing – tanks and planes. For their part the two western democracies, France and Britain, shied away from involvement. I’ve recently read Antony Beevor’s outstanding history of the Spanish Civil War where Beevor he makes it shamefully clear that many in the highest political circles in England supported the military coup. Thus it was that England led the democracies (including America) in imposing a ban on arms exports to the Spanish government. In the long run this lack of foreign support for the elected government was to guarantee the success of the military coup – but it turned out to be an extremely long-drawn-out conflict, a bitterly fought civil war which lasted three long bloody years, until April 1939, costing upwards of a million civilian and military lives.

The international brigades

Quite quickly the Left in England responded to the outbreak of the war. They lobbied the government to intervene (futilely, as it turned out), but many left-wing organisations also called on volunteers to go out to Spain and ‘fight fascism’. In fact, volunteers streamed in from all across Europe and by just a month into the war, had begun to be organised into what became known as the International Brigades.

While he was finishing the manuscript of Wigan Pier Orwell was also making enquiries about volunteering. The main conduit for volunteers, the British Communist Party, was doubtful about his party loyalty, so Orwell secured a letter of recommendation from the Independent Labour Party to their representative in Spain, John McNair, who was co-ordinating British volunteers in Barcelona. Thus it was that, instead of being channelled into one of the communist-backed International Brigades, Orwell found himself being steered towards the Spanish militia associated with the British Independent Labour Party – the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (in Spanish the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista or POUM).

This was to be decisive in Orwell’s experience of the war, in his subsequent account of it, and in all his subsequent writings. For although the generals’ rising had triggered a revolutionary situation in the cities of republican Spain, what nobody knew at the time was that Stalin’s Communist International had instructed the communist party in Spain to suppress the genuine workers’ revolution which had happened on the streets.

The reason is simple. By 1936 Stalin was very concerned at the rise of Hitler and the formation across central Europe of the Fascist axis of Germany and Italy. He was scared of being attacked. He needed allies. Stalin had been assiduously cultivating the French with a view to making an alliance and was also feeling out to the more reluctant British. It was true he wanted the proto-Fascist Spanish generals to be defeated, but he was just as concerned that a true Bolshevik revolution in Spain would scare France and Britain further to the right, forcing them to come to some kind of understanding with the Fascist powers, and thus effectively setting all of Europe against him.

It was vital to Stalin not to scare France and Britain. Thus from the first the communist machine put out the message that a limited and bourgeois revolution was to be supported, but that all genuinely revolutionary elements should be suppressed. In the context of Spain this largely meant the very large political and social movement of Anarchism. In Spain Anarchism meant, in practice, that workers controlled loose federations of farms or industries which they organised individually. It was form of socialism but completely and proudly without the idea of one, authoritarian, central control: which was, of course, the form Stalin’s totalitarian regime took in the USSR.

Orwell in Spain

This was the complex and cynical political situation Orwell found himself in when he crossed the French border and arrived in Barcelona, introduced himself to McNair and was inducted into the POUM militia. His book describes the astonishing atmosphere in revolutionary Barcelona, the lack of beggars, prostitutes or ostentatious luxury in the streets. A whole host of issues around poverty and decency, which readers of his novels and reportage would have been familiar with, had here come true. He was dazzled.

It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Senior’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ and ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving.

Orwell describes conditions in the militia barracks (which had been renamed the Lenin Barracks), the pathetic training and almost complete lack of arms. Then the journey up to the ‘front’ near Zaragosa, and the squalor, cold and boredom of life in a trench zigzagging along ridges about a mile away from the fascist trenches.

Orwell was at the Aragon front for 115 days without break during which there was little or no fighting and certainly no campaigns by either side. His eye for the filth and squalor (human excrement everywhere) and descriptions of everyone’s attempts to keep warm would ring bells with anyone who’s read Down and Out or Clergyman’s Daughter.

We were near the front line now, near enough to smell the characteristic smell of war – in my experience a smell of excrement and decaying food.

In February Orwell was sent with other POUM militiamen 50 miles to join the army besieging Huesca. The main struggle is with the cold and, once Spring arrives, with the infestation of lice. Throughout the book there are those characteristic sparkles of Orwell’s grim humour.

I have had a big experience of body vermin of various kinds, and for sheer beastliness the louse beats everything I have encountered. Other insects, mosquitoes for instance, make you suffer more, but at least they aren’t resident vermin. The human louse somewhat resembles a tiny lobster, and he lives chiefly in your trousers. Short of burning all your clothes there is no known way of getting rid of him. Down the seams of your trousers he lays his glittering white eggs, like tiny grains of rice, which hatch out and breed families of their own at horrible speed. I think the pacifists might find it helpful to illustrate their pamphlets with enlarged photographs of lice. Glory of war, indeed! In war all soldiers are lousy, at least when it is warm enough. The men who fought at Verdun, at Waterloo, at Flodden, at Senlac, at Thermopylae – every one of them had lice crawling over his testicles.

There is one sizeable military manoeuvre, when his troop were ordered into a ‘holding attack’ on Huesca, designed to draw the Fascist troops away from an Anarchist attack on the Jaca road. Orwell vividly describes the tension and confusion as his group of fifteen captured a Fascist position, are disappointed to find no guns or much-needed ammunition but stumble across a beautiful telescope, when the fascists counter-attack and Orwell and his men are forced to pull back to their own lines in such confusion that they leave the telescope behind.

Afterwards we learned that the action had been a success, as such things go. It was merely a raid to make the Fascists divert troops from the other side of Huesca, where the Anarchists were attacking again. I had judged that the Fascists had thrown a hundred or two hundred men into the counter-attack, but a deserter told us later on that it was six hundred. I dare say he was lying – deserters, for obvious reasons, often try to curry favour. It was a great pity about the telescope. The thought of losing that beautiful bit of loot worries me even now.

Finally, in April 1937, he was granted leave to return to Barcelona where he rendezvoused with his still-new wife (they’d only got married in June of the previous year) on the 27th April. Orwell was horrified by the change that had come over the city. Gone was the revolutionary zeal, back were top hats and fur coats and bootblacks and tipping. On a superficial street level, the revolution seemed already to be defeated.

The street fighting of May 1937

Also there was a poisonously tense atmosphere. The political rivalry between the anarchists, including the related group of the POUM, and the steadily power-grabbing communists was coming to a head. On 3 May 1937 Orwell was crossing the foyer of his wife’s hotel when a friend told him that ‘it’ had started.

‘It’ was a week or so of street fighting that broke out between the various left-wing factions when a contingent of Civil Guards tried to storm the Barcelona telephone exchange, which was held by the anarcho-syndicalist CNT union. Shots were fired and suddenly barricades went up all over town and communists, anarchists, socialists and Civil Guards all started shooting at each other.

From a journalistic point of view, Orwell was extraordinarily lucky to be in the right place at the right time. He hurried down the Rampla, the central avenue on Barcelona, to POUM headquarters and was handed one of the handful of rifles available, and then took his place on the barricades. He describes how the cafe next door to POUM headquarters had been occupied by Civil Guards who build their own barricade and how, after an exchange of fire, Orwell’s respected superior, Georges Kopp, negotiated a ceasefire. Later Orwell was posted to the cinematograph opposite POUM headquarters, a building which had two ornamental domes on its roof which commanded a good view up and down the Rambla. Rumours fly around, and at night there is the sound of gunfire and distant explosions. Eventually, a ceasefire of sorts is negotiated and the barricades begin to come down. Orwell’s eye witness account is a priceless piece of social history, not only of events, but of mood and atmosphere.

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues, and prowling gangs of armed men.

Being shot

With a tense semblance of normality restored, Orwell is ordered to return to the front. Here, just a week or so later, on 20 May, Orwell, back in the republican trenches, was shot through the neck by a nationalist sniper. He gives the most extraordinarily vivid account of being shot.

Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion. There seemed to be a loud bang and a blinding flash of light all round me, and I felt a tremendous shock — no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shrivelled up to nothing. The sand-bags in front of me receded into immense distance. I fancy you would feel much the same if you were struck by lightning. I knew immediately that I was hit, but because of the seeming bang and flash I thought it was a rifle nearby that had gone off accidentally and shot me. All this happened in a space of time much less than a second. The next moment my knees crumpled up and I was falling, my head hitting the ground with a violent bang which, to my relief, did not hurt. I had a numb, dazed feeling, a consciousness of being very badly hurt, but no pain in the ordinary sense.

There is a long, sober and fascinating description of what happens to you as a casualty in war: the panic of friends and colleagues; the scrabbled medic doing what he can; being carried  by sweating men down terrible paths to the field hospital. All the time he was convinced he was going to die. But he doesn’t. The wound is cleaned and dressed and he is transferred on to several hospitals before arriving back at Barcelona.

But God, all the politics apart, Orwell has such an eye for detail and such a vivid forceful way of expressing himself.

At Monzon Hospital the doctor did the usual tongue-pulling and mirror — thrusting business, assured me in the same cheerful manner as the others that I should never have a voice again, and signed my certificate. While I waited to be examined there was going on inside the surgery some dreadful operation without anaesthetics – why without anaesthetics I do not know. It went on and on, scream after scream, and when I went in there were chairs flung about and on the floor were pools of blood and urine.

On the run

Here he arrived in a town transformed out of recognition. In his absence, on 16 June 1937, the POUM had been declared an illegal organisation. Its leaders had been arrested and, though Orwell didn’t know this when he wrote, taken off by the Soviet NKVD to a newly established prison, and tortured before being executed. His wife tells him all this in a hurried sotto voce conversation in the hotel foyer before hustling him out and Orwell has to go on the run. They make an attempt to free his former commander, Georges Kopp, from prison where he is now confined, Orwell going to the lengths of personally tracking down and pleading with the colonel commanding engineering operations in the Army of the East in his office – but with no success. Anyone connected with the POUM is condemned. They have to look for their own safety.

After a week or so hiding with other fugitives, his wife manages to get the help they need to smuggle them both onto a train, on 23 June 1937, and straight to the border with France, where, mercifully, they are allowed to cross and are free.

Back to sleepy England

And so slowly back to England, recuperating from the physical and mental exertions of his 6-month trip. And there to face the biggest challenge of all when the orthodox communist party of Great Britain, along with all its allied writers and editors and magazines, refuses to believe his eye-witness account about the communist suppression of revolution in Spain. He saw at first hand, the lying and deceit practiced by numerous left-wing magazines and intellectuals and realised how totalitarian regimes don’t just lie, the systematically control reality – and, worse, many educated people who should know better, go along with their systematic distortions.

This was the seed, the germ, from which the horrifying total mind control depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four was to grow.

The lasting impact

Soon after arriving home Orwell’s health broke down and he wrote part of Homage to Catalonia in a sanatorium in Kent, some in Morocco where he was advised to go to escape the damp English climate. It was here that he followed the classic Stalinist show trial held for the POUM leaders (and himself and his wife) in Barcelona, all of whom were accused of Trotskyism, sabotage, treason and so on.

Victor Gollancz, founded of New Left Books, refused to publish Catalonia thus damning him in Orwell’s eyes as a member of the Stalinist intelligentsia. It was published by Warburgs in April 1938. The Spanish Civil War still had one long bloody year left to run but already it was clear to informed opinion that the republicans would lose. Like most of Orwell’s books Catalonia didn’t sell well, shifting only 900 copies by the time the Second World War broke out.

From now onwards his writing would have a much more informed sense of what socialism could mean in practice, but also of the terrifying reality of a totalitarian society, the reality of repression, torture and execution and of pitiless political struggle, which threatened all the common decencies he held so sacred.

This sense of fighting for what was good and decent in English society and culture was to underpin many of the essays he subsequently wrote, especially once the great European war everyone had been fearing finally broke out in September 1939.

And Spain…

After describing his perilous mission to meet the senior army officer who might be able to release his friend Georges Kopp from prison, Orwell recalls how, when he finally admits that both men served in the POUM, the officer stepped back with alarm on his face. Absolutely everyone was being brainwashed by communist propaganda that the POUM were traitors, Trotskyites and fascist spies. However, right at the end of the interview, though he has visibly failed in  his mission to get Kopp released there is a slight pause… and then the Spanish officer shakes his hand. It is a small but moving gesture. And it reminds Orwell of the many acts of generosity and nobility he has seen among the Spanish and Catalans.

I record this, trivial though it may sound, because it is somehow typical of Spain – of the flashes of magnanimity that you get from Spaniards in the worst of circumstances. I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards. I only twice remember even being seriously angry with a Spaniard, and on each occasion, when I look back, I believe I was in the wrong myself. They have, there is no doubt, a generosity, a species of nobility, that do not really belong to the twentieth century. It is this that makes one hope that in Spain even Fascism may take a comparatively loose and bearable form. Few Spaniards possess the damnable efficiency and consistency that a modern totalitarian state needs.

General Franco’s regime was to endure until the dictator’s death in 1975, but although conservative and repressive in the extreme, Orwell was right in that it never approached anything like the genocidal horrors of Hitler’s Germany.

George Orwell in Catalonia with POUM militia

George Orwell (the tall one) in Catalonia with POUM militia


Related links

All Orwell’s major works are available online on a range of websites. Although it’s not completely comprehensive, I like the layout of the texts provided by the University of Adelaide Orwell website.

George Orwell’s books

1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman’s Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1941 – The Lion and the Unicorn
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four

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