Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012)

The historical texts need constant rereading as we attempt to understand better the problematic of femininity and the role of images in the social production of meaning. (p.31)

This is a massive, hugely impressive and very useful book, a comprehensive history of women artists from the Middle Ages to the present day, which reincorporates hundreds of women into the canon of Western art, while raising all kinds of issues, not all of them necessarily the ones the author intends to.

Women, Art and Society demands a huge amount of respect and being paid the compliment of being seriously read, analysed, questioned and critiqued.

Expanding the list of women artists

Women, Art and Society is a staggering 552 pages long, including 20 pages of bibliography, notes and references in very small print. It is hugely knowledgeable, scholarly and authoritative.

On the down side it is part of Thames and Hudson’s famous ‘World of Art’ series which means that it is on the small side for an art book (20cm by 15cm) and has much more text than illustrations. The illustrations often share pages with text and so are often pretty small – 3 inches by 2 inches is typical – and the majority of them are in black and white. Also, the text refers to hundreds of art works which aren’t included. Nowadays we can look them up online but prior to the internet you had to read sometimes detailed analyses of pictures which you couldn’t see.

Oh well, you can’t have everything. All these disadvantages are outweighed by the book’s enormous achievement which is to hugely expand the number, range, depth, variety and achievement of thousands of women in art, to write them back into the history of Western art and, along the way, to point out again and again how women were deterred, derided, mocked and systematically prevented from making art by a whole web of laws and regulations, institutional barriers and cultural and social norms and expectations.

It is a lot to take in; I’ve reread it twice and should probably do so at least once more, as well as keeping it handy on the shelf as a reference book.

If (like me) you have only a shaky grasp of the (traditional, male) history of Western art and, if pushed, could name barely half a dozen (mostly male) artists for each major style, then this book will vastly expand your knowledge, bringing to light hosts of women who contributed to the art of every era of Western art and, in an astonishing number of cases, were actually leading lights of the time.

In this respect, this book is a massive achievement and an enormous revelation.

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola

A women’s eye view of the history of Western art

Taken as a basic history, the book gives a thrilling overview of Western art, starting in the Middle Ages with a consideration of women’s roles as producers of then-current types of artistic object (textiles, tapestries, illuminated manuscripts) and then proceeding very thoroughly and systematically, in chronological order, through all the major movements and art styles of Western art, right up to a 2010 work by Pae White (the final artist named in the text).

It has the thrill and the sense of empowerment which really sweeping historical narratives have, as well as the excitement of discovering entirely new aspects of a fairly ‘familiar’ story – not only the wealth of specifically women artists, but also accounts of the movements, exhibitions, networks and organisations which women organised for themselves to promote women’s art.

As one tiny example, take the enormous Women’s Building designed and built specially to hold works of art and craft solely created by women at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Chadwick spends some time explaining how the all-female organisers got into fairly heated debate about whether or not to include any men (No), whether to limit the displays to the ‘fine arts’ or include all creative endeavours women were active in, handicrafts like needlework, tapestries, carpet-making (Yes). If you didn’t know about these debates, you’ll find out about them here – if you did know a little, you’ll be surprised how long some of them have been going on.

I for one was surprised at just how many women’s institutes, women’s art schools and fabric and design and needlework schools, were being set up in the mid-Victorian era, and how well-established feminist artists and authors were by the later 19th century.

Simply by focusing relentlessly on women’s experiences and achievements, Chadwick brings to light all kinds of historical material, debates and discussions which shed light not only on the women’s (and men’s) art of their time, but also makes you reflect on our own values, now, showing you the deep historical origins of many anti-women commonplaces and prejudices which endure to this day.

Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi

Feminist issues

Liberally sprinkled throughout the factual history, amid her reclaiming of names and dates and works of neglected women artists, is Chadwick’s eloquent interpretation and exposition of the key issues of feminist art criticism. These can be broadly divided into reporting debates among feminists at the time, and reporting debates contemporary feminist art historians and critics have now about interpreting past art.

Historical debates

The 1893 the argument between women about what to include in the Women’s Building is one example of her summaries of historical debate, one among many, many other occasions when women debated among themselves the role of women, or the rights of women, or whether women have a special feminine ‘character’ or whether women’s art is detectably different from men’s art, and so on.

a) The nature of these debates is often fascinating, especially when the arguments on both sides still resonate to this day. (Is there such a thing as ‘the feminine’ in art?)

b) As with another book I have just read, 50 Women Artists You Should Know, it’s quite a revelation to realise just how long many of these debates, complaints, pleas and arguments have been going on for. When you learn that art critics were debating the ‘nature of femininity’ and ‘the role of women’s art’ in the 1750s, or that Mary Wollstonecroft published her Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 – 225 years ago – you begin to wonder whether any of these debates will ever be resolved. Maybe they are just discussions which will go on forever, reinvented and reinterpreted in each age, but remaining essentially unanswerable (not least because they are so big and simplistic). Maybe questions like ‘Is there such a thing as women’s art?’, ‘Does women’s art differ in any way from men’s art?’ are now just permanent features of the culture, alongside other old chestnuts like, ‘What is Art?’ ‘What is a work of art?’ ‘What is Beauty?’ and so on. Maybe they’re not meant to be answered – maybe their sociological purpose is to prompt debate, new insights and, very often, new art for each successive generation.

Feminist art history

2. Then there’s Chadwick’s summary of contemporary feminist theories, issues and ideas, which she uses retroactively to analyse the vast terrain she covers. In this respect, the preface to the original 1990 edition of the book (it’s been through five editions) reiterates some basic questions which the feminist art pioneers of the late 1960s and 1970s asked themselves and which form a sort of base camp for what follows:

  • Why did traditional male art historians ignore the work of almost all female artists for so long? (Although anti-women bias existed throughout Western history, the blanking of women artists in art history became really endemic in the Victorian period, reflecting the hardening of gender roles as a result of industrialisation, which crystallised previously quite flexible gender roles into really clear rules about men being the breadwinner and women being the angel in the house, stereotypes which endured well into the 1960s and beyond).
  • Were the successful woman artists who did feature in male histories isolated ‘freaks’, or the tip of a big iceberg of female achievement which had been systematically ignored? (As this book eloquently proves, there has been a vast iceberg of female artistic achievement through the ages.)
  • Did and should female artists lay claim to ‘essential’ gender differences which result in the production of certain kinds of imagery i.e. Is women’s art different from men’s art? (Some women artists and theoreticians have claimed their works were specially ‘feminine’, but in practice it’s impossible to tell from a painting alone whether it was done by a man or a woman – as the jungle of misattributions of paintings from the Renaissance to the 18th century amply demonstrates.)
  • Can works of art be viewed as androgynous or genderless? (Yes)
  • What is the relationship between ‘fine art’ – the ‘serious’ work of painting and sculpture – and the handicrafts which women either chose or were often forced to work in (quilts, needlework, tapestries etc)? Should it all be championed as women’s art or should the distinctiveness of ‘fine art’ be preserved? Or is that a male prejudice, a hangover from five centuries of masculine rhetoric about Great Artists and Old Masters, which we should deconstruct and overthrow? (Tricky: some feminists think craftwork should be included in a much more open definition of ‘art’, widened out to include all kinds of visual, textile creativity, not least because that would also ‘let in’ huge numbers of non-European women artists; others stick to the old definitions of ‘fine art’ as opposed to ‘watercolour’, ‘crafts’, if only for practical purposes of helping contemporary woman artists define what they do, where they should exhibit and so on.)
Still life (1653) by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Still life (1653) by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Fundamental feminist art ideas

So those are some of the big questions which Chadwick’s book raises, and numerous women artists and critics are quoted as discussing.

In a different category are the main feminist ideas, findings or axioms about women’s art and art history, which Chadwick reports and explains. Women theorists, practitioners and historians often disagree about the interpretations of these ideas, because they are now and have always been alive, debated, changing and evolving. But certain basic premises of the feminist position recur again and again and seem to be central. For what it’s worth, here is my attempt to summarise the main ‘findings’ of feminist art theory:

Throughout history art institutions were mostly run by men. Men privileged their own gender and male ways of seeing the world. They privileged genres to do with power and heroism (history paintings), genres which depicted heroic men and which were considered suitable only for male artists. They also created the whole idea of the artist as a ‘hero’, someone gifted with special powers and the unique ability to express the noblest thoughts of the human species – Religious ideas in the Renaissance, the power of Reason during the Enlightenment, Family morality during the 19th century, revolutionary and rebel ideas with the onset of Modernism. Later generations called these earlier pioneers the Old Masters, embedding ideas of masculinity, power, strength and so on into the very definition of art. In a host of ways, big and small, male artists were privileged by writings and ideas and expectations which promoted ‘male’ attributes and achievements.

Women artists were generally defined in contrast to all this, by a male notion of ‘the feminine’ i.e. as the opposite of the ‘male’ characteristics of power and virility. Therefore, if they insisted on working as artists, they were discouraged from working in the top genres like history painting, and instead encouraged to work to their ‘feminine’ strengths by doing portraits, animals, scenes of domestic life and so on.

If women artists were praised, it was generally for their ‘feminine’ attributes, i.e. their work was ‘delicate’, ‘sensitive’, full of ‘feeling’ etc, subtly relegating them to a second division, keeping their work within a supposedly ‘feminine sphere’.

By 1893 radical American women perceived the ideology of separate spheres as a male invention and a male response to feared competition in the workplace. (p.250)

Money plays a role. Men’s art fetched higher prices, therefore everyone involved in selling art had a vested interest in attributing art to famous men. Chadwick gives examples of works by 16th and 17th century women artists which were systematically misattributed to the male heads of their workshops so that they would sell for more, both at the time and later. The net effect of this money motive across the entire history of Western art was to reduce the number of works attributed to women, one more factor making them appear ‘marginal’. (And giving rise to a specialised area of feminist art scholarship which is the reattribution of older art away from men and re-establishing the oeuvres of long-neglected women artists.)

Another way traditional art criticism and history privileges men is in terms of size and scale. Big is best. Works on a ‘monumental’ scale are valued more than smaller works, and there is a long history of regarding women as simply incapable of working on this much vaunted ‘monumental’ scale. Women’s art had to be small and ‘domestic’.

Similarly, artists who are prolific tend to dominate the record e.g. the unstoppable Picasso. This bias doesn’t take account of the way many women artists were deprived of the money or resources to make large works, were ignored when big commissions came round, who chose to work on a smaller scale, or who were often burdened with the responsibilities of child-bearing and child-rearing and so produced significantly less than the child-free men.

Gender A lot of this debate is premised on the axiom that notions of ‘gender’ are entirely socially produced. A long list of feminist writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Judith Butler has insisted that gender is created. As de Beauvoir wrote: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ Obviously, there are undeniable biological differences between boys and girls, men and women. But the cultural and psychological meanings of what it is to be a ‘man’ and what it is to be a ‘woman’ are entirely man-made (literally), are created, are social constructs, are something we are taught, and so can be changed.

The more we study history with this in mind, the more we see how ‘gender roles’ have in fact varied from place to place and time to time. Studying gender role-creation in the past suggests the extent to which gender roles are still socially manufactured and could, conceivably, still be rewritten for the better.

Just how far this process can go, whether 100% identity between men and women (and other genders or transgenders) is possible, remains to be seen / is the subject of ongoing debate and investigation, but this book opens up fascinating vistas, putting on record women and artists who were discussing and addressing these questions centuries ago.

The male gaze I Lots of male art depicts naked women. This is the most blatant example of the ‘male gaze’ i.e. the way men see in ways intimately involved with power, control and predatory sexuality. Tens of thousands of nudes display women in semi-pornographic poses, made ‘available’ to the male viewer, in passive, inactive, submissive stances. For hundreds of years women have tried to produce images of themselves, of the female body, which won’t lend themselves to exploitation by the ‘male gaze’. Is this possible?

For all these reasons and more, quite a few feminist art historians, critics and artists refuse to play the entire game of art history, refuse to take part in male institutions or exhibitions and refuse to contribute to a discourse of criticism and history which they see as hopelessly compromised, inescapably based on overwhelmingly ‘male’ notions of power and dominance. To take one example from hundreds, the notion that there is a ‘canon’ of ‘important’ works: Who says there is a canon? Who defines it? On what criteria?

And lastly, feminism is itself an unstable construct. From the start feminist criticism and history has been attacked from within by black and other ethnic or class-based points of view which point out that the women artists being ‘reclaimed’ and inserted into this male narrative were overwhelmingly white and often themselves very wealthy and privileged. From this perspective, the whole project of rediscovering and reinserting neglected women artists into ‘the canon’, the ‘official histories’, and subjecting them to ‘traditional art criticism’ just ends up reinforcing established (male) notions of race and class and economic privileges.

But, would reply Chadwick, if you don’t make the effort to rehabilitate all these women artists, you leave the male history unchallenged, women artists are lost to history, women’s voices go unheard. Catch-22.

The solution must, then, be to try and reconcile the two imperatives, to engage in a) the rehabilitation project while b) also looking for ways to deconstruct the very notion of a ‘canon’, at the very least to extend it outwards to include non-traditional art and art from other ethnic groups, and to be aware of more marginal, minority, genuinely unprivileged groups.

These, then, are some of the key ‘charges’ made against traditional male art history and criticism, some of the basic ideas which underpin the entire book, and these last couple of paragraphs summarise Chadwick’s position (as I understand it).

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1788) by Angelica Kauffman

Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1788) by Angelica Kauffman

Some historical learnings

The main learning of the book is quite how many women have been involved in artistic production at all levels for the last 1,000 years (the book starts with nuns and craftswomen creating illuminated manuscripts and textiles from around 900 CE. It includes, for example, a section on the Bayeaux Tapestry c.1080, and on Hildegard of Bingen who flourished in the 1100s.) Hundreds of names which were new to me are given an introduction and analysis.

The second learning is the depth of feminist scholarship about all these artists. Of the hundreds of women artists mentioned here, all have been subject to one or numerous art critical and historical essays written about them by feminist theorists and scholars.

In other words, Women, Art and Society impresses not only by the sheer numbers and achievements of the women artists, but by the parallel numbers and achievements of women art scholars and historians in the modern world. Very sophisticated debates about individual artists, or entire eras, are now possible quoting numerous scholars not a single one of which is a man. Feminist theory, feminist history, feminist art criticism are now enormous fields in their own right.

The ‘male’ Renaissance

Chadwick deepened my understanding of the Renaissance by describing it in feminist terms. The Renaissance foregrounded learning, especially the mathematics which underpinned its astonishing achievements in creating realistic perspective in painting and neo-classical architecture. All the intellectual qualities required for this – maths, geometry, trigonometry, architecture and so on – were characterised as male qualities and women were discouraged or banned from learning them. Women were encouraged to study dress, deportment, morality and the sensitive arts.

This underlying idea of power, the power of the intellect, the forcefulness of monumental buildings in the new style, all rotated round and reinforced gender ideas about masculinity. Power, force and energy are the qualities admired, which climax in the High Renaissance and then drive on into the even more monumental and heavy Baroque.

Chadwick points out that the most influential book of art history ever is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. It does include some women painters but by privileging ‘male’ concepts of power and mastery it set the tone for a huge amount of the art criticism and history which followed.

Thus Chadwick’s account left me with a deeper understanding of how an anti-women bias was ‘inscribed’ into the founding texts of art history.

Northern versus southern art

It also helped me understand my own taste more. Though it’s heresy to admit it, I don’t much like Renaissance art or architecture – I find it inhumanly imposing, monumental and power-hungry – I much prefer the art and architecture of the Middle Ages (Gothic) and the painting of the so-called Northern Renaissance, a view or prejudice I’ve aired in several reviews:

Chadwick greatly deepened my understanding of the difference between Italian Renaissance and Northern European art. To put it in cartoon form: Italy was ‘male’ and the North (the Low Countries) ‘female’. What I like about Northern painting is that:

a) It is more human, it shows people more realistically, it shows peasants dancing (Breughel), there are hundreds of scenes of winter fairs and people skating on frozen lakes etc, its portraits are realistically plain and often ugly (whereas Renaissance portraits are about Power and Dukes and Popes).
b) It often depicts modest, quiet domestic scenes, flowers, still lives, women quietly working (Vermeer).

Chadwick explores the difference in a number of illuminating ways. I learned from her account that Michelangelo, no less, was quoted at the time giving a detailed account of why he despised and disliked Northern European art, precisely for the aspects I like, for its everyday scenes and understatement. Michelangelo thought it was all very pretty but lacked grandeur and dynamic design and humans (generally men) cast in bold dramatic postures. (p.118)

Italian Renaissance art was born of bragging. Each city state was proud of its artists and its huge buildings (much as northern British cities competed to build the most imposing town hall in the 19th century). The earliest records of individual artists were written to shed honour on their town of birth (or where they worked) and on their splendid sponsor, whoever that might have been, before praising the artist themselves.

Italian Renaissance art is grand, public and aristocratic – its patrons are dukes, cardinals and the Pope. Northern European art was smaller, more intimate and designed to be hung in the homes of the middle classes. Northern European art is more democratic.

Self-Portrait by Judith Leyster (1633)

Self-Portrait by Judith Leyster (1633)

Rococo art

King Louis XIV of France created a vast ideology of royal power based at his enormous palace at Versailles. When he died in 1715 he was succeeded by the boy King Louis XV and the court and all the aristocrats moved back to Paris with a big sigh of relief. Rococo art with its lightness of touch and fanciful subject matter, is:

a) a reaction to the straitjacket of Louis XIV’s power ideology
b) the result of the French aristocracy mingling with the well-to-do Paris bourgeoisie, more relaxed and pleasure-loving
c) the fact that the aristocracy, newly arrived back in Paris after a generation of exile in Versailles, hired or built grand new town houses which needed decorating. Hence an explosion of paintings, sculptures, carvings, mouldings, gildings all designed to enhance and bring out enjoyment of a more domestic, ‘feminine’ space and lifestyle

In fact, the 18th century has been conventionally characterised as a highpoint of ‘feminine’ influence in art and culture, dominated by the salons of powerful Parisian women, visually represented by frivolous and frolicsome subject matter.

As usual, Chadwick challenges this idea, which clashes with modern feminist doctrine denying the existence of a ‘feminine nature’ or ‘feminine attributes or ‘feminine art’ – but she first has to describe the period in traditional art historical terms before deconstructing it, and finds it difficult to avoid the fact that the art of Louis XV, dominated by women’s salons and women aristocrats is indisputably ‘softer’, hazier, more full of pastoral imagery, than the imposing icons of power politics of Louis XIV.

However you resolve that and other debates, the 18th century was indisputably the era of some really important and impressive women artists, Rosalba Carriera, Angelica Kauffmann and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun to pick just a handful among scores.

Self portrait in straw hat (1782) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Self portrait in a straw hat (1782) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Victorian feminists

I had no idea that a large number of American women sculptors moved to Rome and worked there in the 1850s and 1860s, daughters of supportive liberal families. The moved in an extended feminist network, many of them chose not to marry in order to concentrate on their careers, some were lesbians or notably non-conformist (they wore trousers, smoked, rode horses not side-saddle!).

Henry James wrote a satirical essay on them. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a fable/romance set among them, The Marble Faun (1859), and Louisa May Alcott wrote a novella about female friendships among the group, Diana and Persis (1879). It’s a whole community to read about and admire. Probably the most important was Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908).

Zenobia in Chains (1859) by Harriet Hosmer

Zenobia in Chains (1859) by Harriet Hosmer

I was also surprised to learn that so many women’s groups, institutions, art schools, feminist magazines, newspapers, activists and so on, began to flourish so early in the 19th century, in America, Britain and Europe.

From the 1850s onwards the diversity of women’s artists is matched by a steadily increasing diversity of women’s institutes, professional bodies, critics, theorists, writers, patrons and so on.

  • 1825 American National Academy of Design
  • 1844 United States National Woman’s Rights Convention
  • 1854 Cosmopolitan Art Association
  • 1855 Society of Female Artists
  • 1866 modern feminist movement launched in France
  • 1868 The Revolution (women’s rights newspaper)
  • 1876 Philadelphia Exposition featured a Women’s Centennial Executive Committee
  • 1877 Society of Decorative Art of New York
  • 1878 International congress on women’s rights
  • 1881 Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs in France
  • 1894 ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’ by Sarah Grand published in the North American Review crystallises the idea of the New Woman
  • 1897 Millicent Fawcett founds the National Union of Women’s Suffrage

As the book moves onto the turn of the century, there is more of everything: fast-growing populations, new technologies, scientific and medical discoveries, terrible mechanised wars, and a dizzying array of artistic movements – from late Victorian arts and crafts, Aestheticism, Symbolism, through the early 20th century revolutions of Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, on into the Great War with Dada and all the movements which come out of the Russian revolution.

The exponential growth of population and activity (in every field of human endeavour) over the past 150 years is reflected by the way the period from about 1850 to the present day takes up 350 pages (two thirds) of this 520-page book.

And Chadwick is there, reporting on the lead women artists in each of these movements, describing how they tried to navigate fast-moving social and political situations, position themselves in the male art world, and establish their own voices and styles.

It’s a massive story and far too complex to summarise here. Buy the book.

So much for the history. Meanwhile, as I read on and immersed myself more and more in the text, I couldn’t help noticing the intrusive presence of:

  1. the post-modern, feminist critical theory ideas which Chadwick invokes on every page
  2. the post-modern jargon or style which she uses with increasing frequency to describe artists and their works

1. The impact (or not) of post-modern French thinkers

The usual suspects In the preface to the 1990 edition Chadwick invokes the names of all the usual suspects of what was already called Critical Theory when I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s -Saussure (d.1913), Benveniste (d.1976), Marx (d.1883) and Althusser (d.1990), Freud (d.1939) and Lacan (d.1981), Barthes (d.1980), Foucault (d.1984), Derrida (d. 2004).

A lot of dead white men, then. Right at the end of this list she adds the famous French women writers of this ilk, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva. The same names are then all repeated again on page 502. This list of once-fashionable French thinkers effectively book-ends the main text.

This discourse is ageing But the list sounds pretty dated now. The network or matrix of ideas generated by these very influential French theorists was certainly the great new wave of ideas in the 1970s and 1980s, but now feels very passé. Just incanting their names takes me back to my student days in the 1980s, to the era of Reagan and Thatcher and Greenham Common, to the West’s enthusiastic support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan – back to an age now lost in the mists of time.

So I wasn’t surprised when, half way through the book, I googled Whitney Chadwick to discover that she is a 74-year-old white American feminist academic. She was born in the same year (1943) as Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell.

Nothing wrong with being old, we’re all getting old. But her age is an indication of where she is coming from, and explains why so much of her rhetoric dates from the strident and optimistic feminism of the late 1960s and 1970s, the kind of militant rhetoric which spread out of the academy into the wider political world in the 1980s when I was a student – but then evaporated like morning dew in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the deregulation of financial services, and the universal triumph of consumer capitalism.

Post-modern ideas mostly absent Anyway, Chadwick may well namecheck these French philosophes but – surprisingly – her book rarely uses or incorporates their ideas, above all their profoundly subversive ideas about writing and language, into the actual shape, pattern, flow and style of the text.

In the preface Chadwick briefly (in two sentences, p.12) invokes the idea from Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) that power in modern societies is expressed less by institutions than by the ‘scientific’ or learned discourses which they produce (about medicine, or mental health or sexuality etc).

In six sentences (p.13) she recaps Lacan’s theory that entry to the ‘symbolic order’ of writing and power is through possession of a penis in a phallocentric society, and that, lacking a penis, each woman is ‘constructed’ as a symbolic ‘other’ in the ‘phallocentric’ symbolic order of ‘patriarchal’ society, deprived of power and ‘agency’.

I could do with a bit of clarification on these and related ideas, but this is notable by its absence. That list of Great Thinkers which I mentioned as coming on page 502 is, in its entirety, the statement that postmodernism:

brought to a wider academic and artistic audience new European influences that included Roland Barthes’s use of linguistic models in the interpretation of text and images, Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, Michel Foucault’s analysis of social systems, and Jacques Lacan’s study of the structure of the unconscious. All of these investigations owed much to Marxist models of culture and ideology… (p.502)

And that’s your lot.

Not enough, is it? If these French theories underpin postmodern feminist theory, and that theory underpins and informs every page of this 500-page-long history, then I think the book ought to have started with a good, clear explanation of who the post-modern thinkers were, what their key findings were and how their theories are applied by feminists generally, and by feminist art historians in particular.

But the two places I’ve mentioned are the only places where Chadwick ever actually explains these post-modern ideas – ‘explain’ maybe giving too much credit to what is essentially a glorified list – and there is no one place where she goes into any of them in any kind of detail. My thumbnail sketch would be that the founders of postmodern Critical Theory:

  • question whether it is possible to name and categorise and write history or science or any ‘factual’ discourse without creating new impositions of power and control (Foucault)
  • claim that we can never be confident that an author’s meaning is fixed, stable or read as intended (Barthes)
  • undermine the ability to write anything definitive i.e. whose meaning isn’t sabotaged at every turn by a vast network of linguistic ‘traces’ from the infinity of other writings (Derrida)
  • undermine the whole idea of coherent prose because that very notion, that long tradition, has almost exclusively been a vehicle for masculine power (Cixous)

What all these thinkers have in common is to completely undermine the notion of human beings as stable fixed psychological entities; to undermine the ability of language to ever really convey anything for certain, because of the instability of the relationship between author, text and reader (Barthes) or because language itself isn’t a ‘site’ of authority, but the reverse, a potentially endless play of peripheral traces (according to Derrida).

From the feminist point of view, these sustained underminings of traditional notions of reason and authority can be powerfully deployed to criticise and undermine traditional male discourses of power and control – in society at large, but most of all in literature and the arts, which rely most completely on signs and symbols – precisely the areas of concern to the most subversive and disruptive findings of Barthes, Derrida, Cixous and their peers.

It is the complexity of the thinking about how traditional ‘discourse’ is undermined which explains why the writings of these French thinkers is, itself, so often tortuous and barely comprehensible, because they take their own findings about the unreliability of language and meaning at face value and try to write new kinds of prose to accommodate and express these findings.

None of these subversive ideas or disruptive prose strategies have any impact on Chadwick’s actual prose which is – certainly for the first half of the book – mostly indistinguishable from the most traditional style of male art scholarship. Take this passage:

The Birth of the Virgin is closer to a genre scene of family life in Bologna than to its Biblical source, despite its outdoor setting and nocturnal illumination. It balances a sense of monumentality and decorum with a naturalism close to that of the Cremonese school, and was influenced by Anguissola, whose work Fontana knew and admired and who no doubt provided an important model for her. Fontana’s Consecration to the Virgin, originally intended for the Gnetti Chapel in S. Maria dei Servi in Bologna, combines figures elongated according to Mannerist conventions with greater naturalism in the treatment of the children’s figures. Prospero Fontana’s influence continued to be felt in Fontana’s later religious paintings, as did that of Peleotti, for links between the Bishop and the painter’s family remained strong. (p.94)

This could have been written by Kenneth Clark or Ernst Gombrich in the 1950s, and a lot of the book is written in this surprisingly conservative style.

The steady pressure of feminist ideas So, in practice, hardly any of the deeply subversive ideas of the French post-structuralist thinkers are really applied in this plain prose. The reverse: Chadwick’s prose is almost always clear and authoritative (just like her male art historian predecessors) – which is a good thing and makes this a very good introduction to her themes and history.

But all that said, her feminist stance is continuously present throughout the book, in at least two major ways:

1. Not a page goes by without factual reference to the half dozen fundamental feminist ideas which I’ve listed above – that so-and-so was excluded from an academy, encouraged only to paint ‘feminine’ subjects, was marginalised because their work didn’t conform to ‘masculine’ values i.e. big and heroic etc. These were the recurrent experiences of women artists and so they recur in the text. On every page there will be detail of the social, political, legal and professional obstacles put in the way of women, across all the widely varying and changing societies of Western Europe, across the past millennium (it is an enormous topic).

Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) by Rosa Bonheur

Ploughing in the Nivernais (1849) by Rosa Bonheur

And then, as the story reaches the later nineteenth century, there’s an increase of ideas and strategies and debate among women artists. This is further encouraged by the explosion of modernism in the decade around the Great War – and Chadwick’s prose increasingly reflects the language of women’s rights campaigners and writers, with the slow infiltration into the text of phrases expressing women’s rights, reproductive rights, feminine essence and so on.

But it’s when the book arrives at the 1960s that there is an absolute explosion of ideas, texts, debates, political activitism, philosophy and radical new feminist theories. This happens about page 330 and then dominates the remaining 200 pages of the text. From this point onwards the prose style changes significantly to include more and more of the jargon and clichés of postmodern feminist criticism. This had been sporadically present earlier. Now it becomes the dominant voice. Eventually every single woman artist is defined and summarised (and controlled and categorised) using the same, relatively small vocabulary of this rebarbative academic style.

Let’s look a bit more closely at this professors’ argot.


A Lexicon of Feminist Critical Theory

The following aims to be a deconstruction of Chadwick’s text which reads it not as a consecutive history but as an assemblage of terminologies, a discursive tessellation (‘a pattern of geometric shapes that fit together’).

In other words, I am perfectly well aware that it Women, Art and Society is a chronological history of women artists but, at the same time, the surveys of contemporary women’s art (fascinating and immensely informative as they are) can also be thought of as:

  1. a pretext for the generation of text, a machine for churning out textual phrases and semantic units (because, after all, every ostensible ‘subject’ is merely a pretext for the exercise of writing and reading, which are deeply pleasurable in themselves, regardless of the theme)
  2. elements in a system of meaning and inclusion. What I mean is that the lexicon Chadwick uses not only has an overtly analytical aim, but also amounts to the specialised vocabulary of a sect or group or tribe – the tribe of university-educated feminists – which signals membership of the tribe and offers the psychological reassurance of taking part in shared values and a shared worldview.

Looking at her book like this, as a kind of machine for generating meaning, could itself be divided into two main areas: one bringing out the ‘political’ aspect of the rhetoric (detailing its obsessive repetition and recombination of what amount to a small number of ‘political’ ideas (generally subverting the patriarchy) or the psychological aspect.

Of the two, I choose to investigate the psychological aspect because I think it is wider and deeper.

On this point of view, Women, Art and Society is a discursive machine for the generation of an awesomely long text which is made up of thousands of reiterations and recombinations of a handful of basic words and phrases, the net result of which is to reassure the members of the sect or cult of feminist Critical Theory of their essential virtue, their correctness, their inclusion in an elite group of intellectuals, and the sense that they are engaged in a vast, international political movement which is changing the world for the better.

Members of this élite (having done a university course in feminist theory, critical theory, queer theory etc may make you feel like you’ve entered an entirely new world but does, in fact, put you in a tiny proportion of the general population) signal to each other through this highly mannered prose style because it, like the catchphrases of any religion, is designed more for mutual reassurance, to encourage ‘group think’ and discourage dissent, to bolster the reader’s identity as member of the elect – than for its allegedly logical or intellectual content.

(This possibly explains why she doesn’t feel the need to explain the ideas of Barthes, Foucault, Cixous et al in any detail, because the ideas aren’t important; the recitation of their names alone serves a sociological purpose, as in any other religion which recites the names of its saints and founders to bind together its members.)

With this in mind – focusing not so much on their overt meaning as on their impressive ability to generate apparently limitless permutations in order to spool out webs of reassuring verbiage – here’s an introduction to the key terms and phrases of feminist critical theory.

Key terms of feminist art critical theory

Works are not hung on walls or published; they are ‘positioned’ or ‘located’ or ‘situated’. The actual subjects depicted are not ‘placed’ or ‘set in’ so-and-so location. They are ‘situated’ or ‘sited’.

Mary Bracquemond sited many of her works in the family garden. (p.238)

Spaces The varied and interesting places which you and I go to – home, work, supermarket, cinema, pub, park – are all subsumed into a special terminology which talks about ‘spaces’, particularly the binary opposition of the ‘private space’ and the ‘public space’.

Because it is axiomatic in feminism that women have always been relegated to the domestic ‘space’ (or ‘sphere’), it is always headline news when they make a work, sculpture, painting or publish something which enters ‘the public space’.

Morisot’s and Cassatt’s paintings demarcate the spaces of masculinity and femininity through their spatial compressions and their juxtapositions of differing spatial system. (p.238)

In ‘Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity’, [feminist art scholar Griselda] Pollock maps the new spaces of masculinity and femininity and articulates the differences ‘socially, economically, subjectively’ between being a woman and being a man in Paris at the end of the [nineteenth] century. (p.232)

Subvert Works of art or literature are never made for enjoyment. They always have a political purpose. In the right-on worldview of Critical Theory, this purpose turns out always to be rebellious. What this means is that works ‘perform’ one of the following actions: they ‘subvert’, ‘interrogate’, ‘engage with’, ‘circumvent’, ‘undermine’, ‘question’, ‘contest’, ‘challenge’, ‘confront’, ‘critique’ or ‘disrupt’ social norms, conventions, accepted opinions, stereotypes, patriarchal values, white male narratives, and so on.

Note that these are generally Latinate words – a sure way to impress your reader – often with melodramatic overtones thrown in. A painting ‘interrogates’ assumptions about x, y or z. Makes it sound like a scene from a war movie instead of a flat old painting hanging on a wall.

Barbara Kruger’s (b.1945) blown-up, severely cropped photographs of women, and their short accompanying texts subvert the meanings of both image and text in order to destabilise the positioning of woman as object. (p.382)

Cindy Sherman’s (b.1954) photographs reveal the instability of gender, and challenge the idea that there might be an innate, unmediated female sexuality. (p.383)

Levine’s work not only contests notions of originality and authorship, but it situates those ideas within the premises of patriarchy. (p.384)

Mary Kelly (b.1941), an American who lived in London during the 1980s, also refused the direct representation of women in her work in order to subvert the use of the female image as object and spectacle … Post Partum Document… addressed the positioning of women in patriarchal culture… [It also] deconstructed psychoanalytical discourses on femininity… in order to articulate… the child’s insertion into the patriarchal order as a gendered (male) subject. (pp.403-404)

Later works by Kelly, as well as by the American artists Martha Rosler and Carrie Mae Weems also interrogate the ways that women’s roles are formed within the family and in society. (p.404)

Messager’s Story of dresses examines and critiques Western cultural representations of female identity, intimate relations, sexuality and power. (p.410)

Other women use humour and irony to challenge social constructions of gender. Irish artist Dorothy Cross’s (b.1956) installation The Power House (1991) addressed issues of class and the gendered division of labour and space. (p.411)

Walker’s work confounds the visual codes though which race, gender, sexuality, and the history of slaves in the American South have been presented. (p.492)

Transgress With tedious predictability, feminist works of art ‘transgress’ this, that or the other social norms, conventions, boundaries and so on.

Catherine Opie (b.1961) has also benefited from the spaces opened up by the transgressive photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. (p.396)

Articulate Works of art don’t express feelings or ideas. They ‘articulate’ issues or ‘mediate’ narratives.

Millie Wilson’s work articulates the historical inaccuracy, often absurdity, of social constructions of lesbianism within dominant heterosexual discourse. (p.396)

Through performing the piece [Wake and resurrection of the bicentennial Negro], Ringgold articulated a specific story of family tragedy, loss and redemption. (p.362)

Sexuality, class, race, and ethnicity mediated women’s attempts to define what it meant to be a woman, to experience life from within a woman’s body and to understand one’s subjectivity as feminine. (p.367)

Address Works of art are no longer designed to please the eye, be beautiful or entertaining (how crude, how passé!). Their sole purpose is to address issues and themes. In exactly the way that your local council says it is addressing the issue of parking spaces or bin collection.

During the 1980s Hiller produced several multimedia installations that address issues of language and silence. (p.400)

Kelly’s photo/text installation Corpus (1985)… explores femininity and representation by addressing the issue of aging… (p.405)

Many art exhibitions these days aren’t organised in order to display works of art; they are organised in order to address issues. This is particularly true of Tate Britain which has had a long run of issue-based shows (Queer art (overlooked), British Empire art (restoring native peoples to imperial narratives), Folk art (too often ignored) and so on). Issues can also be tackled. Though Chadwick prefers them to be addressed.

Ines Garrido (b.1966) in El secreto de Duchamp tackled issues of gender. In a nearby gallery, Magaly Reyes (b.1968) exhibited a group of colourful and quirky self-portraits in the manner of Frida Kahlo that addressed social issues through questions of her own identity. (p.429)

Issues Whatever the precise verb used, contemporary art is all about issues. In this respect a lot of modern art is barely ‘art’ at all, but more plausibly a colourful extension of sociology or anthropology.

  • The 1997 Johannesburg Biennale ‘dealt explicitly with issues of colonisation, race relations and identity in South Africa…’
  • Lucy Orta (b.1966) addresses ‘issues of class’
  • Tracey Moffatt ‘addresses issues of cultural identity’
  • contemporary women artists from developing countries address ‘issues of displacement, imperialism, economic colonisation, sexuality and identity’
  • Salcedo’s contribution to the 1993 Venice biennale addressed ‘issues of representation’
  • The Australian Aboriginal Campfire Group speak to issues of cultural hybridity and displacement (p.452)
  • Kimsooja’s work addresses ‘issues of nomadism, migration, displacement, the body, and history.’ (p.485)
  • Contemporary women artists engage ‘issues of personal and historical memory’ (p.492)
  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

Discourse What works of art are usually interrogating is ‘traditional’ assumptions, customs, traditions etc. That sounds a bit obvious, so it’s better to use the buzzword ‘discourse’. This is a blanket term covering books, essays, lectures, articles, speeches, a society’s entire collection of ways of communicating.

Women’s positions in relation to imperialist discourse were seldom fixed … (p.199)

Each era has an official ‘discourse’ which is – it goes without saying – deeply sexist. Therefore, feminist theory prefers (or foregrounds or privileges) the kind of works which ‘subvert’, ‘interrogate’, ‘engage with’, ‘circumvent’, ‘undermine’, ‘question’ or ‘challenge’ the ruling ‘discourse’.

Inscribe New ideas aren’t taken up or incorporated; they are ‘inscribed’ or ‘reinscribed’ into the ruling discourse.

Narrative The ruling discourse is always male or masculine. All writing about anything before about 1970 was written by men for men. This masculinist ‘discourse’ ‘prescribes’ (like a doctor) or ‘constructs’ (like a builder) a ‘masculinist’ view of the world. The ruling discourse is made up of ‘narratives’. Again ‘narrative’ doesn’t refer to a specific work but to the general story an age tells itself, in effect its values. You often read about ‘Western imperial narratives’.

Hegemony is a term adapted by the Italian communist philosopher Gramsci in the 1930s to describe the across-the-board control of all aspects of society by nasty capitalists. Although Marxism is dead, Critical Theory has extended the term to refer to the ‘hegemony’ white people or men or heterosexuals (depending on which group you are ‘subverting’, ‘interrogating’ or ‘questioning’).

Thus subversive works try to ‘undermine’ or ‘engage with’ or ‘interrogate’ male ‘discourse’ or ‘narratives’ or ‘hegemony’. (Hopefully, you can see that, by mastering just a few basic phrases you can begin to build up impressive-sounding sentences of your own. It’s a bit like Lego.)

As [the 1980s] progressed an international group of younger artists… emerged to rework the feminist implications of materials into complex challenges to hegemonic movements in Western European and North American modernism. (p.503)

Code has two meanings. First, the usual one of codes of conduct:

In demanding access to art training and life classes women were not only challenging codes of feminine propriety and sexual conduct; they were also claiming the right to see and represent actively the world around them, and to command genius as their own. (p.178)

Encode/decode But works of literature or art are often said to contain secret ‘codes’. These difficult ‘codes’ (i.e. secret messages like ‘Men are Best’, and ‘Women are crap’) are ‘encoded’ in ‘texts’, ‘discourses’ or ‘representation’, and have to be ‘decoded’ by experts. For example, Harriet Powers (1837-1911) a black woman born into slavery in Georgia, went on to make story quilts. They were displayed at an 1886 exhibition.

Powers herself produced the detailed descriptions of each scene that enabled subsequent generations to decode its complex iconography. (p.21)

I’m not questioning this moving story. Just the way that previous generations would have written ‘read’ or ‘interpret’, but we write ‘decode’. The characteristic feminist theory tactic of combining the scientific-sounding (as in computer code) with a dash of melodrama ( James Bond secret codes).

Signifier is a technical term originating in linguistics and incorporated into semiotics, or the study of signs. Ferdinande de Saussure revolutionised linguistics by theorising that language is made up of signs which always consist of two parts – the signifier and the signified i.e. a sign’s physical form (such as a sound, printed word, or image) and its meaning, the thing signified or referred to. In Critical Theory this has been removed from its specific context in linguistics, and watered down to mean ‘representing’ or ‘standing for’ or ‘symbolising’. But, importantly, it retains the cachet of sounding scientific and serious.

By 1913, the Italian Futurists were exploring the idea of clothing as a signifier for revolutionary modernism. (p.262)

Competing ideologies began to use images of the body as signifiers for other kinds of social meanings. (p.274)

It is the images produced by modernists like Delaunay and the Russian artists which became the basis of a modern ideology in which the commodified image of woman signifies her expanded role as a consumer. (p.277)

‘Mark of’, ‘sign of’, ‘indication of’, ‘symptom of’, ‘representative of’, lots of more ordinary words would mean the same. But ‘signifier’ has the cachet of the difficult specialism of linguistics and the cool, newish (in the 1970s) discipline of semiotics.

Practices Artists don’t have techniques or styles or methods but instead the much more scientific or sociological term, ‘practices’ (like doctors and solicitors). This word ‘practice’ can be widely used. Critics don’t write criticism they ‘engage in a critical practice’. An art work doesn’t subvert the hegemony, it subverts the ‘hegemonic practices’ (of a particular era or society). After the Second World War, Abstract Expressionism emerged as

the dominant practice in American modern art (p.319)

Not style, kind, form, vein, strain, type, trend or technique. Practice.

Projects Alongside ‘practices’ goes the word ‘projects’. In general, it is nations that have ‘projects’ and it is most often used to describe European imperialism or, more correctly, ‘the European imperial project’. Having read quite a few histories of imperialism, it’s hard not to conclude that reducing the incredibly complicated history of imperial acquisition and conquest and the bewildering variety of nations, peoples and territories involved and the vast range of economic, strategic and military impulses at work, down to one little phrase, is hugely reductive.

In fact, it’s striking that Critical Theory, although it talks a good game about diversity and multiple points of view, in practice holds just one point of view and arguably a very narrow, repetitive one – hence, perhaps, its popularity.

The representational and discursive strategies that created the imperial nation as masculine, and the conquered, colonised and imperialised as feminine, implicate both race and gender in colonialist projects. (p.199)

Read that sentence carefully. Issues of race and gender were ‘implicated’ in imperialism.

The primary sense of ‘implicate’ is ‘to show or suggest that someone was involved in a crime’. It’s quite a dramatic word, most commonly used in connection with police investigations and lawyers in court.

But does ‘implicate’ here mean much more than ‘involved’? The sentence could be translated into something like: ‘Pictures and texts which depicted imperialism as essentially male and the conquered native peoples as feminine…. involved race and gender.’

This comes close to pure tautology, or repetition: ‘Pictures and texts which depicted imperialism as masculine and conquered native people as feminine involved ideas of race and gender.’

Isn’t that obvious? Isn’t the second half essentially repeating what the first half said? Interpreted harshly, the sentence doesn’t add anything to your factual understanding, it just summarises an attitude.

What it is really saying is: ‘You know I’m always telling you that all history represents a battlefield between men and women; you know I’m always telling you that race and gender are key ‘issues’ that recur throughout history and that’s why they’re so prevalent in contemporary art; well, by depicting themselves as male conquerors and native peoples as helpless and female, needing to be guided and tutored, imperial discourse does exactly what I’m always telling you it does. See? I was right. We are right. These issues are everywhere.’

The only real ‘information’ conveyed by the second half of the sentence comes from the melodramatic overtones of the word ‘implicate’. It is emotional or psychological information, rather than logical or historical information. ‘Implicate’ gives the mind a frisson and a thrill – God, yes, implicate – someone somewhere must be guilty, sooooo guilty.

To summarise: sentences like this (and there are thousands of them in the second half of the book):

  • Are essentially tautologous – the second part tells you what the first part has already told you, but uses bombastic rhetoric to make it seem like some really important new information has been conveyed. The sentence can be boiled right down to saying: ‘the imperialist strategies which cast race in terms of gender (male European good, female native bad) used race and gender’. A = A.
  • Are serving the far more important function of confirming the reader’s (and author’s) prejudices, and reinforcing the feminist theory worldview: Imperialist propaganda used issues of race and gender; See! I told you so! Issues of race and gender are everywhere, just like we teach you.

When Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote about her travels in Turkey, she couldn’t escape the fact that she was a rich Westerner, or, to put it in femtheoryspeak:

even as she portrayed their clothing as more ‘natural’ than that of European women, and life in the harem as offering positive benefits to women, she remained complicit in the European imperial project of constructing the Orient, and conflating it with Oriental women. (p.199)

Aha, ‘complicit’, another threat word.

The primary meaning of complicit is ‘to be involved with others in an activity that is unlawful or morally wrong.’ Thus femtheoryspeak claims that any writings undertaken during the imperial period implicates its author – that anybody who did anything during the imperial period was complicit in this enormous crime.

This is reminiscent of the language of Stalin’s show trials in the Soviet Union. The language of crime is used to smear and defame people who can’t talk back. Without bringing forth much actual evidence (as historians, for example, are compelled to), this rhetoric, through sheer repetition, builds up the sense of an enormous criminal conspiracy involving the whole of Western civilisation.

And, like all conspiracy theories, the psychological effect is to make the reader feel threatened on all sides, to circle the wagons, to believe all the more fervently in the great teachers and leaders of feminist theory. Only they can save us from the patriarchy. It’s not saying this on a rational overt level, nobody involved is children. But the emotional, psychological pressure to believe in the conspiracy is present in almost every word and phrase of a lexicon which (implicitly, through its choice of lexicon) claims scientific authority to highlight the heinous crimes being committed all around us by the patriarchy. Beware, sisters!

Anyway, back the lexicon, ‘project’ is interchangeable with ‘imperative’.

In 1863 Baudelaire situated fashion at the heart of the modernist imperative… (p.252)

Like ‘project’, the word ‘imperative’ makes a bunch of run-of-the-mill ideas, and a very shaky grasp of history, sound authoritative, urgent and thrusting – by virtue of both its Latinate origin and its overt meaning (‘an essential or urgent thing’) giving the impression that people just had to do it, to be modernists, chuck figuratism, use bright colours and abstract patterns. It was imperative.

Male gaze II Apart from obvious restrictions on what women could wear or do or go, male art always privileges the ‘male gaze’. This is the way women have been visualised and depicted for millennia as objects, to be savoured, visually enjoyed and (in the imagination, in the male mind’s eye) undressed and sexually possessed.

Feminist theory has often held to the premise that the viewing field is organised for the male subject who exercises power through looking, and in this way asserting visual control over the objects of his desire. (p.214)

I’ve always found it difficult not to have a male gaze, being a man who likes looking. I go to an art gallery with a female partner. If her gaze is meant to be so radically, drastically different from mine…. isn’t that somehow enshrining the very sexual difference we have been warned against? To claim that men and women see things in fundamentally different ways…. is that not an extremely gendered way of thinking about humans? Could a claim really be more gendered?

But it is a persistent thread:

The subject of the nude in art brings together discourses of representation, morality and female sexuality, but the persistent presentation of the nude female body as a site of male viewing pleasure, a commodified image of exchange, and a fetishised defence against the fear of castration has left little place for the explorations of female subjectivity, knowledge and experience. (p.282)

I’ve never understood why, if the naked female body is such an intense ‘site’ for male gaze, control, lust, othering, commodification and so on – that so very many contemporary women artists obsessively strip, photograph, paint, display and video their own naked bodies for all the world to see – half of the world being those very men whose wicked, wicked gaze we all know about it.

That’s why I like women artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Riley, Rachel Whiteread, Sonia Delaunay, to name a few, women who discovered new languages and new ways of seeing, instead of returning obsessively to the scene of the old, old crime of judging, assessing, defining and thinking about women in terms of their bodies.

Hon (1966) by Niki de Saint Phalle

Hon (1966) by Niki de Saint Phalle

Produce Anyway, all works of art, paintings and sculptures, are ‘produced’, making artists sound awfully grown-up, like proletarians working 8 hour days in a factory, not layabouts in a studio. And so artists are referred to as ‘producers’, their works are ‘products’, and workshops are ‘sites’ or ‘locations’ of ‘cultural production’ or display.

By 1997, international biennials provided key sites at which to consider the tremendous diversity of practices that had emerged among women artists worldwide. (p.442)

Sites can be not just physical places but metaphorical places within ‘discourse’ where meaning is ‘produced’ or (as you might expect) ‘resisted’ and ‘subverted’. Thus the lesbian feminist artist Harmony Hammond is quoted as saying:

‘I see art-making, especially that which comes from the margins of the mainstream, as a site of resistance.’ (p.13)

In the early 18th century:

The Salons of Julie de Lespinasse, Germaine Necker de Stael, Madame du Deffand, Madame de la Fayette, Madame de Sevigny, Madame du Chatelet and others became famous as sites of artistic, philosophical and intellectual discourse. (p.144)

More up to date:

In 1990, social historian Janet Woolf published an essay entitled ‘Reinstating Corporeality: Feminism and Body Politics’, in which she argued for the female body as a legitimate site of cultural politics. (p.407)

The body as a site for ideologically based inscriptions continues to play a significant role in the work of women artists. (p.508)

[Wanchegi] Mutu is not alone in focusing on the female body as site of political and social action. (p.513)

Map All these sites and locations need maps. More precisely, ‘map’, and especially ‘map onto’, have come to be jargon terms which indicate how one set of issues or ideas is combined with others, especially (with its original meaning in mind) ideas of place.

Zittel’s relationship to the California desert maps the personal present onto the historical past and structures her subjective experience of place through her interactions with loss and destruction as well as presence. (p.487)

Construct Linked to works of art being ‘products’ ‘produced’ at ‘sites’ of ‘artistic production’, is use of the word ‘construct’. Ideas are no longer developed, they are ‘constructed’, like bridges. Berthe Morisot’s paintings pay:

attention to the attitudes and rituals that mark the social construction of femininity. (p.300)

Surrealism constructed women as magic objects and sites on which to project male erotic desire. (p. 313)

The fact that, in this jargon, ideas, narratives, values or discourses are constructed means that they can also, of course, be ‘deconstructed’.

A number of women in Britain and the United States have adopted deconstructive strategies as a means of exposing the assumptions underlying cultural constructions of gender, race and sexuality. (p.393)

Negotiate You or I have to manage relationships or handle them or juggle commitments or navigate the obstacles of life. All these activities and more are subsumed under the Critical Theory verb ‘negotiate’ which, as usual, manages to sound both very serious (negotiate a peace deal) and filmic (The Negotiator).

Morisot and Cassatt’s ability to sustain professional lives and negotiate relationships of some parity with their male colleagues was class specific. (p.235)

Male gaze III In art criticism this relates to whether you get the sense that women in paintings are conceived of being able to do anything, or whether they are just passive objects for ‘the male gaze’. If a woman is painted naked by a man it is exploitation and objectification; if a woman is painted naked by a woman, chances are she is given ‘agency’ and is not just the passive victim of the male gaze. If a modern artist takes photographs of herself naked, stripping, in suggestive poses, sucking a lollypop or displaying her genitals this all, apparently, disarms the male gaze, because the woman in question is choosing to do it.

(Agency means the quality of being able to do something. Women do or (more often) do not have ‘agency’; yes if they’re asserting their identity and contesting patriarchal norms; no, if they’re victims of the male gaze.)

Thus feminist art criticism is as alert as a traffic warden to signs of whether women depicted in paintings are a) victims of the male gaze, or are subtly subverting it; b) as a result, do or do not have agency.

This is a responsible job. Gauguin’s women have a downturned gaze; they are victims; they lack agency.

Also, the male fantasy female nude tends to be voluptuous, plump and fertile. This was brought into relief by comparison with the paintings of the 20th century lesbian artist Romaine Brooks. Here, Chadwick claims, we can tell that the naked women are not victims of the male gaze because a) we know Brooks was a lesbian who – by definition – can’t have the male gaze b) they are slender and not plump c) they are not facing the viewer pouting or turning down their eyes on coquettish invitation; their gaze is independent, free spirited, off elsewhere.

White Azaleas (1910) by Romaine Brooks

White Azaleas (1910) by Romaine Brooks

Brooks’s paintings admittedly eroticise the female body (oh dear) but ‘in the context of a lesbian spectatorship’ (phew). This is the longest discussion of the male gaze and leads up to the notion that in her famous self-portrait, ‘the gaze is watchful’ (p.301).

Sexual difference refers to in any way noticing or highlighting the alleged differences between the sexes. This is a very bad thing.

Art history has never separated the question of artistic style from the inscription of sexual difference in representation. (p.25)

(Representation here means any form of representative art. As in all these examples, the technique – How to Talk Critical Theory – is to take a common or garden idea and describe it with a generalised abstract noun which immediately makes it sound more scientific and precise. It makes as if you have grasped an entire subject down to its finest details across an entire society or historical period.)

If you make any reference whatsoever to any differences between men and women you are not only a sexist (obviously) but you are making ‘gendered’ statements, analogies, comparisons and soon.

Such gendered analogies make it difficult to visualise distinctions of paint handling without thinking in terms of sexual difference. (p.26)

Basically any thought or idea which in any way compares and contrasts men and women as somehow definable entities with definable characteristics, is frowned on.

Krasner and other women Abstract Expressionists were well aware of the operations of sexual difference within artistic practice. (p.323)

Other women shared her [Lee Krasner’s] awareness of the deep divisions in the play of sexual difference within social ideology and artistic practice. (p.328)

The Other Look out for opportunities to use the ominous and meaningful-sounding phrase ‘the Other’. Generally ‘the Other’ is what the group which you are describing defines itself against, the negative which helps it create its own positive view of itself, whose (often made-up and falsely perceived) ‘inferiority’ is used to bolster our own right to rule and govern.

Since Critical Theory is generally attacking white men and their sexist gendered discourse, it will, for example, describe the way white imperialist discourse defined itself against ‘the other’ of the native peoples they were oppressing; the way white people defined themselves against ‘the other’ of black people; or the way men defined women as ‘the other’, loading them with an array of negative qualities against which to define their own rationality, responsibility and right to rule.

Thus, of Victorian women travellers, Chadwick writes:

They shared with their male contemporaries the need to claim and construct the Orient as a European ‘Other’ in their writings… (p.201)

Or:

The works of male Surrealists are dominated by the presence of a mythical Other onto whom their romantic, sexual and erotic desire is projected. (p.310)

Or:

The siting of woman as ‘other’ has taken place in societies that have rationalised both sexual and cultural oppression. (p.386)

Gauguin’s nudes are reprehensible because they are doubly patronising, not only deploying the ‘male gaze’ to control women’s bodies, but doing it in a contrived ‘exotic’ location which also essentialises, objectifies and degrades ‘native’ women. Double whammy:

Gauguin’s nudes recline in states of dreamy reverie or emerge from the imagery of an exoticised otherness (i.e. the Tahitian landscape constructed as ‘feminine’ through an over-emphasis on its exoticism, bounteousness, and ‘primitivism’ in relation to Western cultural norms) … (p.289)

Naughty, naughty Gauguin.

By reducing the vast complexity of all human history and culture, and the infinitely complex and multifarious human interactions between races, peoples, nations, groups, classes, and hundreds of millions of individuals, to a handful of basic binary opposites, the notion of ‘the Other’ could hardly be a more primitive, simplistic and reductionist idea.

As feminist theory morphed into the wider category of identity politics (i.e. taking in complaint by gays, lesbians and blacks) ‘the Other’ has found new applications for its simple-minded binary way of thinking. Since a 1984 New York art show about primitivism and modernism

postmodernist theory has examined constructions of ‘otherness’ in several overlapping forms, including the feminine Other of sexual difference, and the Other of discourses of the Third World and/or cultural diaspora. (p.386)

Something which is ‘other’ obviously possesses the quality of ‘otherness’, thus:

The place assigned woman by Lacan is one of absence, of ‘otherness’. (p.13)

And consigning something (generally the victims of cruel imperial men, such as colonised natives or women) to the category of ‘the other’, is known as ‘othering’.

Attentive We must all be ‘more attentive’ to the ever changing, ever more complex issues of gender identity and difference. You must. I must. We all must.

Lists Where possible use lists of high-sounding issues to appear earnest, committed and clever, in sentences like, ‘O’Keeffe’s practice addresses issues of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and class’. No one will ask if you have any understanding of these ‘issues’ of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or class. Just reciting them is like a magic spell which conveys special powers and prestige on the reciter.

All the above contribute to ‘the social construction of femininity’, the idea that there is nothing particularly ‘feminine’ about women because ‘femininity’ is an entirely social construction, the creation of all-pervading ‘patriarchy’ which defines ‘the feminine’ in order to limit, control and repress women.

The patriarchy “Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property.” (Wikipedia). All feminists spend their lives fighting or trying to deconstruct the patriarchy with all its insidious tentacles of power.

During the late 1970s and the 1980s, a growing number of artists, male and female, worked to decentre language within the patriarchal order, exposing the ways that images are culturally coded, and renegotiating the position of women and minorities as ‘other’ in patriarchal culture. (p.382)

Refusing the image of woman as ‘sign’ within the patriarchal order, these artists have chosen to work with an existing repertoire of cultural images because, they insist, feminine sexuality is always constituted in representation and as a representation of difference. (p.400)

Perez Bravo, like so many modern women artists, took photos of her body to subvert the patriarchy.

Her photographs bypass ritual and essentialised representations of female power in order to explore feminine identity and the conditions of being female in ways that counter patriarchally constructed stereotypes of womanhood. (p.428)

Patriarchy is taken to be everywhere, responsible for all institutions, languages, codes and conventions, for the law, for all medical and scientific discourse, for all art and visual language.

Conclusion of feminist theory

Thus women are confronted every waking moment with ‘the problematic of femininity’ because their minds and personalities, their attitudes to their own bodies, and even the language they use to think with, are all hopelessly compromised by words, ideas, laws, institutions, religions, and cultural artefacts all created by ‘the patriarchy’ and designed to define ‘femininity’ in order to limit, control and repress women.

Medea (1889) by Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

Medea (1889) by Evelyn Pickering De Morgan

Reflections on post-structuralist rhetoric

These fifty or so key words and phrases can be endlessly recombined and recycled to produce a deceptively large number of sentences which all say more or less the same thing. Take one sentence from thousands:

Foucault’s analysis of how power is exercised has raised many questions about the function of visual culture as a defining and regulating practice. (p.12)

Has it now? And does the text go on to list and explain those questions? Nope. But it makes the reader feel as if they partake of some of Foucault’s searching (and usually quite difficult) analyses of key social institutions (the madhouse, the prison, the hospital) and somehow understand his insights about how power is ‘inscribed’ in ‘institutional discourses’ (even thought this has barely been explained).

It doesn’t matter. The key function of this rhetoric is that you, the reader, can ‘decode’ this jargon and so confirm yourself as are part of the Elect which really truly understands what is going on in Western society and is working to make the world a better, fairer place.

Why post-modern rhetoric is so widespread

I suggest that the jargon-heavy style of Anglo-Saxon, postmodern critical and feminist theory has become so widespread in modern writing in the humanities – art, literature, film studies, cultural studies, gender studies, post-colonial studies and so on – for a number of reasons:

a) because it sounds so intellectually impressive without, in fact, requiring too much thought
b) because it sounds so professional, not just anybody can talk and write like this, it needs years of practice
c) because it sounds so radical, so right-on, so politically committed without, actually, requiring you to take part in any particular political activity

A lot of the terms are borrowed from sociology which, back in the utopian 1960s, hoped to become a new scientific analysis of every aspect of society which, as its investigations progressed, would help to analyse out and solve pressing social problems.

Presenting these problems reconstituted as ‘issues’ and ‘problematics’ described in a deliberately objectifying would-be scientific jargon would – it was hoped – force readers and citizens to question previously held prejudices and assumptions, to overthrow them, to change society for the better.

It’s silly to be too dismissive because lots of social and cultural improvements have indisputably taken place in the language we use in subjects around sex, women and ethnic groups. Attitudes and expectations to all sorts of groups, not just to women and ethnic minorities and other sexualities, but to the disabled or mentally ill, are vastly more egalitarian and respectful than they were when Chadwick was first writing this book in the 1980s. It would be stupid to underplay the vast progress that has been made towards more equality and better life expectations for millions of people because of these cultural changes.

Nonetheless, my interest is in language and its rhetorics i.e. how language is used to argue, persuade and influence people (including, quite often, the writers themselves). And I find the ubiquitous post-modern rhetoric of Critical Theory to be:

  1. Closed It is a specialist jargon which in practice excludes almost the entire population of the country, and is only really accessible to a tiny minority of university lecturers and students. Ironic given its supposedly ‘democratic’ and ‘subversive’ intentions.
  2. Pretentious In the literal sense, it is designed to give the impression of profound thought while very often amounting to nothing but an iteration of what are, by now, well-worn clichés. This happens to every new style: it is developed by radical pioneers, it is bold and innovative, it helps people think and see in new ways, it finds proponents in the academy, it is formatted into term-long courses and topics, it becomes regularised and routinised so it can be taught and examined and marked, not only to students but to A-level schoolchildren, it becomes the accepted jargon of the times, it becomes the new orthodoxy. When a subject is being taught to a nation’s schoolchildren it is no longer subversive: it has become the opposite of subversive.
  3. Repetitive In at least three senses:
    1. The lexicon of post-modern or post-structuralist thought, the actual working vocabulary of Critical theory, is surprisingly small. There are maybe fifty words and phrases which are endlessly recycled and repeated. I list many of them below. Once you’ve grasped their general intention it becomes possible to combine and recombine them in sentences which essentially say the same thing, but sound impressive and clever. After a few hundred pages of reading the same words combined in slightly varying combinations, the reader develops a strong dense of déjà vu and repetition.
    2. Once something is being taught it is, by definition, being repeated: authors write it, lecturers speak it, students make notes, write exams and theses – this rhetoric is repeated. Repetition of any language tends to empty it of meaning: repeat the same word again and again and you experience the dizzy feeling of forgetting what it means, tending to prove Wittgenstein or Derrida’s ideas that language only works while it is in play, quick and dirty, moved around between text and reader, reconfigured on each reading. Repeated in the same way, in the same flat tone, hundreds of times, it becomes empty. So in a very basic sense, reading the same phrases and the same recombinations of phrases over and over and over again eventually makes your mind glaze over. They become invisible – at least to the fully adult mind.
    3. However, as Freud suggested over 120 years ago (yawn) our minds contain any number of ‘minds’. We aren’t single, unified, rational entities, quite the opposite, all kinds of people and age groups are competing in the battlefield of our consciousnesses. Among these is the child mind, still very present in all of us. And children like repetition. In her first book, The Sculptor’s Daughter, the Finnish author Tove Jannson describes the adult world from the point of view of a very small child, maybe 4 or 5 years-old. Something which comes over very strongly in these stories is the child’s need for a safe space, for reassurance, for repeated rituals and habits which create a sense of familiarity and security. Tea-time, bath-time, bed-time. And a bed-time story. And, with her usual acuity, Jannson points out that the bed-time stories must always start the same way (‘Once upon a time’) and, if they’re familiar, they must be told the same way, the same events in the same order, ideally in the same words.

I find in the endless repetition of the same fifty or so phrases of the Critical Theory lexicon the same sense of childhood reassurance. After a page of purely factual history, Chadwick will add a sentence or two of critical commentary – and the ardent young feminist will be back in her comfort zone, among talk of ‘discourses’ and ‘sites of production’ and ‘gender separation’ and ‘sexual difference’ and, of course, the most reassuring presence of all, the big, bad Daddy of ‘the Patriarchy’ – paradoxically reassuring in the way the Big Bad Wolf is in the fairy story, because the reader knows that the Patriarchy, just like the wolf, will be defeated in the end.

The language of post-structuralist or post-modern Critical Theory – in the way it is now universal in the teaching of the humanities, in gender studies and cultural studies and queer studies and film studies and literary studies – has become the opposite of disruptive and subversive; it has itself become a kind of safe space.

The Roll Call (1874) by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler

The Roll Call (1874) by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler

A pragmatic question

Leaving aside whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ prose style, or whether my interpretation of it as a form of semantic reassurance is correct or not — the only really important consideration is does it teach you anything, does it convey new information?

And my answer is a straightforward ‘No’.

This jargon rarely adds much to what the factual elements of the text haven’t already told you. To be told that Artemisia Gentileschi was forbidden membership of so-and-so academy but forged an immensely successful career through cultivating royal patrons – this tells you a lot, makes you admire and respect her achievement. To then be told that, in so doing, she ‘circumvented patriarchal narratives of feminine norms’ or ‘used her art to interrogate masculine ideas of a feminine “essence”‘, tells you a lot less. In fact it really only tells you about the worldview of the author, and encourages you to sign up to her worldview.

Partly because:

  • this kind of post-structuralist discourse is so generic, because it repeats the same handful of terms with monotonous predictability (negotiate, subvert, interrogate – discourses, narratives – in the public space, the private sphere – interrogating the feminist problematic, and so on)
  • and because Chadwick applies the same terminology to wildly different artists, working in wildly different times, places and cultures (both Artemisia Gentileschi and Georgia O’Keeffe ‘question masculine assumptions about ‘”feminine” art’)

the tendency is for your mind to switch off every time you come to another stretch of PoMo FemCrit and skip forward to the next bit of factual information.

It’s rather like driving at night and hitting a patch of black ice, skidding for a second or two, and then feeling the tyres getting a grip back on the proper road surface.

Feeding the swans (1889) by Edith Hayllar

Feeding the swans (1889) by Edith Hayllar

(Most of the explicitly feminist commentary on the hundreds of paintings included in the book make little or no contribution to one’s understanding. But I did like the observation that the innocuous painting above, portrays the Five Stages of Woman’s life – toddler, teenager, young lady, wife and granny – against the backdrop of what the critic calls the very ‘male’ ordering of the classical columns, symbolising the rigid rules and control of a patriarchal society.)


Chadwick’s last word on feminist theory

This book was published in 1990, so is quite obviously a summary of the feminist theory and rhetoric up to that time, the theory of the 60s, 70s and 80s. From before the Yugoslav civil wars, the Rwanda genocide, 9/11, the American invasion of Iraq, and so on. From before the internet, mobile phones, Facebook, snapchat and the entire realm of digital technology.

To give it credit, the book does address its own profound out-of-dateness in two places. There’s a final chapter which describes the ongoing production of women artists through the 90s and noughties (the kind of brief catch-up chapter you often see in books like this which have been in print for some time. I was a little awed by the way she makes no analysis of the impact o 9/11 or the Iraq War on feminist artists; maybe they didn’t notice.)

But more interesting is the second preface, right at the start. The book opens with the preface to the original 1990 edition which, as indicated, goes heavy on the feminist discoveries of the 1960s and 1970s, giving you a strong flavour of where Chadwick is coming from, and her continuing emotional allegiance to the revolutionary feminist fervour of that era.

But then, on page 16, there’s a brief preface to the current, fifth, edition of the book, published in 2012.

It’s less than a page long but in a way it’s the most interesting part of the book, because it consists of a potent recantation of a lot of the ideas which underpin the 500-page-long text. In this brief preface Chadwick concedes that, since the book’s original publication in 1990, ‘the art world has changed dramatically’ and that it is:

less dominated by discussions of postmodern theory and more attuned to the realities of global instability, less comfortable with the rhetoric of ‘women’s liberation’ and more concerned with changing economic and social conditions…

… artists and art historians must rethink issues of marginalisation not just in terms of gender, but also in relation to culture, race, geography and class…

… the idea of a universal ‘women’s movement has given way to new configurations that include ‘eco-feminist-artist collectives’ and ‘techno-savvy feminist groups’, the naming of sexual identities has expanded from ‘heterosexual/homosexual’ to ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bi’, and ‘transsexual’.

All true enough. Her concluding sentence, the summary of all her thinking in this area, the summarising thought for a book which must have taken some years to write and which she has lived with, pondered and updated several times in its 27-year existence, is:

The feminist rhetoric of the 1970s may no longer be relevant to the global realities of the twenty-first century, but feminism as a political ideology and a call to action continues to leave its mark on art and its history. (p.16)

‘The feminist rhetoric of the 1970s may no longer be relevant to the global realities of the twenty-first century…’

Quite a massive thing to write, don’t you think

None of this invalidates the scale and scope of her history of women artists, the way it pulls together and summarises the efforts of hundreds and hundreds of feminist scholars and art historians, its depth and range and formidable learning, nor the ideas and issues it raises on every page. But it’s still quite a bombshell to admit that this entire text, kick-started as it is on early feminist rhetoric and outdated theory, itself needs to be somehow thoroughly overhauled and dragged into the 21st century.

I wonder if somebody’s done it, written a 21st century post-feminist history of women’s art?

Boating (1910) by Gabriele Münter

Boating (1910) by Gabriele Münter


Modern challenges to the idea of Great Art

Just to complete this line of thought, what I’d like to read is a book which steps right back and explains why anyone in 2017 should give a damn about the ‘Great Canon of Western Art’, or ‘Western Art’ at all.

1. The death of High Culture

When Chadwick started writing, ‘Art’ was seen as a key achievement of the ‘High Culture’ of the Western World and it stood to reason, and made sense to her and her generation, that women artists should be reinstated in this canon and should be written about and understood on their own terms, not in the words, concepts and ideas of patronising men. Fine.

But in the last thirty years the whole notion of a Canon of Western Art has been pulled apart, undermined, or discredited. This was happening as she wrote, with the whole postmodern impulse of the later 1980s and 90s to equate all art, all images, all visual input, to value and assess them all on the same level, to cease privileging ‘high’ art, to follow through on Roland Barthes’ idea that a bus ticket tells you as much about a culture as its most famous painting. Mickey Mouse and Michelangelo were discussed in the same way on The Late Show.

So it feels like, while Chadwick spent a career disputing the way older male historians wrote about Western Art, the entire concept of what is and is not ‘Art’ and the importance and meaning of ‘Western Art’, have seismically shifted around her.

And with the advent of digital art and phones with high-powered cameras in the last 10 years or so, the entire world of what images mean, how they are produced and consumed and valued, has been thrown high in the air. Who knows where it will all land.

Sonia Delaunay, Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939)

Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939) by Sonia Delaunay

2. Art as investment/commodity in a hyper-capitalist world

The second thing which has worked to undermine any sense of the special spiritual or religious or moral or imaginative value of ‘Art’ is the way that, over the past thirty years since the end of communism, the world has become dominated by a uniform brand of neo-liberal or finance capitalism. This has generated huge surpluses of capital for billionaires in Russia or China or America, who regard ‘Art’ as an investment vehicle on a par with stocks and shares, property or gold.

Although she mentions Marx and the French Marxist Althusser on page 11 there is rarely any sense in her text of an even mildly socialist, yet alone full-blown Marxist critique of the historic association between artists and money and power, of the complex layers of exploitation on which art was built, or of the drastic effect of the contemporary monetisation of art and the art world.

Just as the past 40 years of feminist activism and scholarship enable us to look back at the past with new eyes, from a new, women’s, perspective, so the absolute triumph of finance capitalism should made us think anew about the role of MONEY in art, for Art always was (and is now more than ever) about money.

This vital strand in Art’s meaning is occasionally nodded to in the text (with occasional mention of wealthy patrons or, at the other end of the scale, in the Victorian era, the poor working conditions of women factory workers) but nowhere is it directly addressed as a fundamental condition for the commissioning, production, consumption and commodification of Art. 

At the time of writing the largest amount paid for a painting by a woman artist is the $44.4 million commanded by Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1932 painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) by Georgia O'Keeffe

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Then again, Chadwick is American and America has never had much of a radical tradition – I mean there has never been a real threat of a communist revolution there, as there was in all of Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. Which is maybe why American academics have taken so completely to indulging in pseudo-Marxist, semi-subversive PoMo rhetorics. because they know, deep down, how utterly irrelevant they are to the political realities of their great nation.

As PoMo pseudo-Marxism, Critical theory, feminist theory and all the rest spread throughout university humanities departments – the country was ruled by Ronald Reagan, George Bush, George Dubya Bush and Donald Trump. Some subversion.

3. Women artists supporting the patriarchy

For Art, whether High Renaissance art or 21st century rebel art, has always been commissioned and bought by the richest people in a society. Because she’s batting for the women’s team, Chadwick task is to promote knowledge about the careers of Artemisia Gentileschi and hundreds of other 16th, 17th and 18th century women artists, but she glosses over quite a major point – that all these successful women artists worked for dukes and kings and emperors.

She likes to portray her women artists as rebels against masculine discourse and ‘interrogating’ ‘heteronormative’ assumptions and ‘circumventing’ the ‘male gaze’ and so on – while all the time missing an obvious point – that these women artists could hardly have been more the willing tools of the people at the very top of the patriarchal systems which Chadwick devotes her book to criticising.

It’s the equivalent of praising artists who worked for Hitler or Goebbels as being ‘subversive’. These successful 17th and 18th century women artists worked directly for kings and emperors. They were right at the heart of the patriarchal system. They were working directly for the patriarchs themselves, helping to create icons and images of male power, along with coins, medals, media of royal male control.

They weren’t subverting power. They were serving it.

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, king of Poland (1797) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, King of Poland (1797) by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

4. Imperialism and colonialism, the absence of

When Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) goes to work for the King of Spain, Chadwick sees this as a fabulous thing, proof that women could succeed in a man’s world. But where did the King of Spain get the money he paid Anguissola with? From the silver mines of the Spanish Empire where native Americans were worked to death in appalling conditions. And the slave plantations in the Caribbean. And from the output of feudal labourers on the king’s vast estates.

The slave labour on which the wealth of Europe was based, which generated the money which allowed the kings and emperors to commission lavish paintings and sculptures from these plucky women artists, is invisible, unmentioned – written out of this account in exactly the same way that Chadwick is so upset that women artists were written out of art history in previous generations.

In the first, pre-modern, half of the book, there is nothing about the wretches who died to produce the wealth which was celebrated by women artists. Just more descriptions of the lavish furs, sumptuous silks and rich jewellery of Anguissola’s portraits.

The longest consideration of colonialism is in the section on lady Victorian painters and travellers and then the short section about Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women.

In the final chapters about today’s multicultural art scene, Chadwick ropes ‘colonial oppression’ in as a new bogeyman alongside the patriarchy, without showing much interest in the actual dynamics of the European empires, or in the violent independence movements which ended them.

All of that is transmuted into just another bloodless ‘issue’ for modern artists to tackle, address, mediate and negotiate. The entire history of European imperialism becomes just another item on the feminist critic’s shopping list.

This stunning painting by Marie-Guillemine Benoist is not mentioned in the book.

Portrait of a Negress (1800) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist

Portrait of a Negress (1800) by Marie-Guillemine Benoist

5. A complete, fully political history of Western Art

A full history of this subject would contain the same basic narrative (the list of women painters remaining essentially unchanged) but would ‘situate’ their works in a much more sophisticated political narrative which took more account of the basically problematic basis of all Art, and quite a bit more account of the guilt, the inescapably compromised nature of all Western culture, tainted by its centuries-long history of oppressing, enslaving, murdering and working to death countless tens of millions of native peoples.

Compared to the scale of those horrors, the fact that a rival (male) painter spread rumours about Properzia de’ Rossi to spoil her career as a sculptor, or that no woman became a full member of the Royal Academy of the Arts until 1933, although obviously unfair, although obviously shocking, in the great scale of things just doesn’t get me so worked up.

It’s a question of perspective and morality.

Chadwick’s history is one in which we are invited to pour our hearts out for a relatively small number of well-off and often very wealthy or fabulously-rewarded artists working at the centres of European power and currying favour with kings and popes. And, in the present, we are meant to get worked up about debates currently going on among a predominantly white, middle-aged, academic elite of Western universities.

Royal women painters from the 17th century. Rich white American women’s righter from the 1870s. Prize-winning and grant-funded feminist artists at the Venice Biennale. Their names and achievements are recorded, memorialised, championed and promoted in countless articles, books like these, galleries and exhibitions.

I prefer to keep my sympathy for the vast numbers of nameless poor of both sexes who lived short, illiterate, poverty-stricken lives, not in white America but in Europe and Asia, or were worked to death in distant colonies, to produce the obscene wealth which 17th and 18th century artists were squabbling to secure – and for the modern-day slaves, for the forced labourers, and labouring poor all around the world who’ve never heard of Mary Cassatt or Judy Chicago.

It would have been preferable if women artists hadn’t faced so many handicaps and obstacles for centuries but, like the Great War or the Holocaust, the past is gone. All we can do is try to remove all such obstacles to women artists and academics today.

Chadwick’s book is a massive and major contribution to that process, to the rewriting of art history and to the rehabilitation of hundreds of women artists to their rightful place in that history. In terms of its contribution to academic curricula, to the writing and understanding of art history, and to increasing the understanding and enjoyment of the minority of the population who go to art galleries and are interested in art, it is a major scholarly and revisionist achievement, and a massive enrichment of our knowledge and pleasure.

But in terms of memorials and remembrance – it’s the anonymous labouring poor of all the ages who have my sympathy.

6. Making America great again

But by the end of the book I was sick of America and heartily sick of New York. It’s not so much that Chadwick is a white American, or that her history of the 19th century, and early feminism, and 1960s feminism, is almost entirely set in America, quotes American feminists and privileges mostly white American feminist art – but that time after time, hundreds of times, she will take American feminists, and American politics and American art movements as central, defining and paradigmatic of how all other women around the world should think.

Chadwick writes at length about what a hard time the women members of Abstract Expressionism had competing with the men, but it goes without comment that American Abstract Expressionism was the most important art movement of the period. Just as American Pop Art, minimalism and so on turn out to be the defining movements of theirs.

All the while she is championing the subversion and questioning of patriarchal narratives, the more basic narrative of American cultural supremacy goes unchallenged and unexamined.

For the most irritating thing about American cultural imperialism is that Americans don’t realise they’re doing it. They just take it for granted that American art is the best – like American cars and American technology and American democracy and American movies are the best in their fields.

And that New York is just, well, shucks, the most exciting city in the world. Which is why the final chapters of the book refer to contemporary women artists and again and again and again and again and again, they turn out to be based in New York New York, that wonderful town.

  • Shahzia Sikander was born in Pakistan but now lives and works in New York (p.445)
  • Mariko Mori was born in Japan but now lives and works in New York (p.457)
  • Non Hendratmo was one of a number of Indonesian artists who relocated to New York after the Jakarta riots of 1998. (p.461)
  • Kimsooja was born in South Korea but now lives and works in New York (p.463)
  • Ghada Amer was born in Egypt but now lives and works in New York (p.469)
  • Shirin Neshat was born in Iran but now lives and works in New York City (p.481)

When, of all the works by Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, Chadwick selects Ramallah/New York your heart just sinks into your boots. Really? New York? Again?

When she finally gets round to using this new-fangled internet thingy, Chadwick googles the year ‘1990’ and discovers that the key moments of that year were the publication of her book in New York, the publication of American philosopher Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble, the swearing-in of the first female American Surgeon General and Jenny Holzer being the first women to have a solo exhibition in the America pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

America America America America.

I dislike the American supremacism which oozes from these pages (not overtly – on the surface it is all multiculturalism and new artists in developing countries). It’s just that they all come to New York to live and work and sell their art, an art which again and again is described as ‘subverting’ white Western stereotypes and ‘interrogating’ Western culture and ‘questioning’ Western capitalism etc, but which – it turns out  – is utterly dependent on Western art markets, Western art galleries and Western art magazines for its very existence.

And also on the vast sums of money managed by the Western financial system which is based in Wall Street, New York, a tiny fraction of which is siphoned off to fund the museums and galleries and biennials and expositions and exhibitions where feminist artists fondly display works of art which they think are subverting the system. No.

They are in fact part of this global system of capitalist commodification and consumer culture. As a visit to the bookshop of any art gallery, no matter how ‘radical’, instantly proves.

Why are they all in New York? They would say because it is a vibrant melting pot of culture and ideas. But in fact, it’s because that’s where the money is.

When Chadwick comes to do a thumbnail review of the last fifty years she thinks immediately of American artist Rachel Harrison, New York Times critic Holland Cotter, American scholar Linda Nochlin, the founding of Ms magazine in New York and goes on to generalise that:

American artists in particular explored formal, conceptual, and political issues related to materials, languages of form, and their hierarchical classifications. They incorporated personal and cultural histories in narrative and autobiographical art; they explored sexuality, gender, class, race and ethnicity in works that redefined modern art’s assumed hierarchies and relationships between form and content; they performed their bodies and their sexual identity in new ways…. (p.500)

Go USA!!

In a way, Chadwick’s book is a good example of Donald Trump’s policy of putting ‘America first’. Maybe he should give her a medal. God, I’d pay money to watch that award ceremony!

Untitled (1960) by Lee Bontecou

Untitled (1960) by Lee Bontecou

P.S. Has this rhetoric worked?

Chadwick’s history of women artists sees almost all women’s art works in terms of ‘projects’ and ‘strategies’ which have been designed to interrogate, subvert and challenge stereotypical ideas of ‘the feminine’, to contest and critique all notions of ‘sexual difference’ and – Project Number One – to undermine and overthrow the patriarchy.

If modern feminist theory began in the late 1960s we’ve had just about 50 years of it by now. In that period tens of thousands of feminist artists, sculptors, painters, installationists, gallerists, curators, critics, writers, philosophers and theorists have given all their time, energy, lives and efforts into eradicating sexist stereotypes and overthrowing the patriarchy.

It is not unreasonable to ask – Has it worked?

Well, in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, 53% of the voters – a clear majority – were women. That’s a good thing, right? If reality lived up to feminist theory about ‘all women’ wanting radical change, then you’d expect to see a drastic vote in favour of women’s causes and for the woman candidate, right?

And yet who did this 53% help elect? President Donald Trump.

It’s true that, overall, more men than women voted for Trump, and yet – in a key statistic for feminists – 53% of American white women the majority of white American women – voted for Donald Trump.

The majority of white American women voted for Donald Trump, the racist sexist pussy-grabber.

After 50 years of the best-organised, best-run and most advanced feminist movement on the planet, producing countless tens of thousands of art works, installations, happenings, posters, books, articles, learned papers, conferences and art exhibition excoriating sexism, challenging all notions of sexual difference and subverting the patriarchy – the majority of white women in America voted for Donald Trump.

Take a moment to let the implications of this startling fact really sink right in.

How do you account for the massive discrepancy between what these women artists and feminist critics think they’re doing (challenging, subverting mobilising, raising awareness etc etc) and what actually happens in the real world?

As a left-wing person who dissents from political correctness, I think it’s in part because modern feminism, with its impenetrable academic jargon and its incredibly narrow range of issues, almost systematically, almost deliberately goes out of its way to ignore the issues which most women (and men) face in today’s society: Will I ever have a stable job? Will I ever have a career? Will I ever pay off my student loan? Will I ever be able to afford a home of my own? How can I get affordable child care? Where is the next meal coming from? Are my kids going to be worse off than me? Who can help with my teenagers’ opioid addiction? How can I afford health insurance? What happened to my pension? Will I be able to afford a decent care home in my old age?

Contemporary feminist artists and curators and critics have collaborated to create a mystique, a jargon, and a terminology about their ‘practice’ which effectively seals modern art off from the modern world.

In the safe spaces of the international biennales and contemporary art galleries, in the world centres of art, in university courses on culture studies, on queer studies, film studies and the rest of it, members of this cult talk to each other in their arcane language, like medieval alchemists convinced that at any moment one of them will discover the philosopher’s stone which will transmute the base metal of the actual existing world into the gold of postmodern theory – a genderless world where the male gaze and sexual difference have been abolished and everyone celebrates difference and diversity.

But, unfortunately, from time to time society lines up to be counted, to give its opinion, to elect representatives on the basis of what it thinks is important – and on this simple, easy-to-grasp metric, the achievement of five decades of feminist analysis and postmodern critical theory unremittingly aimed at a radical and thorough-going transformation of society must be judged, as my teenage daughter would put it – an epic fail.

I like Rachel Whiteread’s work, I loved her concrete sculpture House. But I also know that the East End locals where it was located, hated it, sprayed graffiti on it and lobbied the local council to get it demolished. This stands for a symbol of contemporary art.

A peasant would have understood the Palace of Versailles and a portrait of King Louis XIV, both of which shouted: ‘I’m the boss’. But in my experience plenty of well-educated modern people hate contemporary art, don’t understand a word, think it’s all crap.

In fact contemporary ‘art’ is probably more disconnected from the lives and concerns of ‘ordinary people’ than ever before in human history. If the notion of ‘art’ contains some element of the idea of being accessible to a reasonable number of the people of its times, it’s questionable whether modern art even is ‘art’.

`House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

House (1993) by Rachel Whiteread © Rachel Whiteread. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

But meanwhile, back in international artworld, unbowed by recent batterings from reality, the comedy continues, the same writers and critics use the same words, the same ideas, the same lexicon, to describe the same artists, addressing the same issues, deploying the same strategies, going round and round in circles:

Women artists’ contribution to major international exhibitions – from biennials to recent museum-sponsored exhibitions like ‘Without Boundary (2006) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York – are shaping today’s visual culture worldwide. Redressing social inequalities, negotiating change, redrawing spatial, social, and subjective boundaries, women artists are challenging the so-called ‘alternative canon’ of earlier feminist art without abandoning the issues, practices, and processes through which sexuality, gender, and difference are articulated visually. (p.495)

Fine words, as my mother used to say, butter no parsnips.

To make it as simple as possible:

Feminist theorists kid themselves that they are ‘political’

But in a democracy political means communicating to a mass audience to persuade them to vote for your policies

Whereas, by virtue of its hermetic jargon and of deliberately outrageous behaviour, which is incomprehensible to all but initiates, the art world does the exact opposite of reaching out to a mass audience. Contemporary art concerns itself with a tiny globalised elite of artists, dealers, galleries and clients – virtually guaranteeing the failure of its ideas.

That these artists and their artworld critics and scholars imagine that they influence or change anything out in the real world just shows you how deluded and out of touch they have become.

To anyone who has actually been involved in politics, or engaged with a mass audience via television or the internet, and who knows the challenges of communicating to and influencing the largest possible audience, the isolation and ineffectualness of contemporary artists (male or female) and their artworld supporters, could hardly be more complete.

In fact, by diverting attention away from the real bread-and-butter issues which the great majority of the populations of modern, post-industrial countries face, if they have any impact at all with their endless wailing about gender and the body, it might that contemporary artists have helped to create precisely the popular image of a self-obsessed, out-of-touch, metropolitan elite which helped to alienate the majority of voters from what they perceived to be this elite’s cosmopolitan values, its support of sexual anarchy and unrestricted multiculturalism, and mobilised them into mass protest votes against the liberal status quo.

Hence Trump. Hence Brexit. Hence the ADF. Hence the exact opposite of everything which Chadwick and her artworld colleagues and critics stand for.

Elke Ekrystufek undermining the male gaze and subverting the patriarchy

Elke Ekrystufek undermining the male gaze and subverting the patriarchy

Disclaimer

Just to be crystal clear, I am myself left-wing. I support all the legal and social aims of feminism. But I think that the ‘practice’ of many feminist artists, and the accompanying prose of many feminist critics and theorists, has painted them into a corner and cut off all connection with the practical pursuit of power in democratic countries.

Chadwick’s book is immense and important (the grotesque length of this blog post is tribute to the wealth of ideas it contains and debate it stimulates). But the time has come for a new generation of women artists to figure out genuinely effective ways of lobbying for political change.

Taking photos of yourself naked in your bedroom is not going to overthrow the patriarchy. The patriarchy has heard all about feminist art. In fact, it sponsors and buys feminist art. Feminist art is, in a simple financial sense, one of the many faces of patriarchal capitalism.

Time for a change.


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of exhibitions of women artists

Reviews of general exhibitions which included women artists

From time to time Chadwick says some of her feminist women artists use humour in their practice. I didn’t see any sign of that anywhere. Not a laugh in the whole book (except the unintentional humour of some particularly fatuous piece of practice, or of particularly dumb-ass phraseology).

So if you’ve made it this far, you probably deserve a reward. Here’s a clip of some 1970s performance artists interrogating narratives of authority and contesting the construction of woman as ‘other’ under the patriarchy. A least I think that’s what Terry Jones is doing in this clip.

The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre versus Camus by Andy Martin (2012)

Martin’s savvy, streetwise, wordplayful book is a joint biography of the two great mid-twentieth century French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

It’s told in a popular, punning, jokey style which is hip to the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll reputation of these two top thinkers and proceeds by the themes, ideas and associations of their writings more than strict chronology.

This is plain enough from the title which refers to the fact that young Sartre was a boxer at school, whereas Camus is famous – to anyone who cares about these things – for being the goalkeeper for various soccer teams in his native Algeria. The aggressive pugilist spoiling for a fight, and the cautious backstop with time to admire the view – this is just one of the many dichotomies Martin uses to build up a portrait of these two complex men.

Like the ‘New Journalism’ of the 1960s, the book also has a fair sprinkling of Martin’s own memories and autobiographical anecdotes which are told to ease us into the subject.

The tone is set by the opening where Martin looks back to being a troubled bookish teenager in the 1970s, plagued by worries about whether he exists, whether other people exist, is it all a dream etc? In this mood he picked up a second-hand copy of Sartre’s masterwork – Being and Nothingness – and was instantly hooked by its description of a waiter.

Sartre’s waiter

Sartre is in the Café Flore in Paris. He watches the waiter who brings him his coffee then serves other customers. He begins to realise that the waiter is being just a bit too punctilious, with his bowing and scraping and smiling and his exaggerated politesse. Sartre realises he is playing the role of a waiter. And who is he playing it for? Not only for everyone in the café but – for himself! The eyes of the customers are upon him, reinforcing his role, but his own mind is looking watching judging his performance.

This insight is the gateway into Sartre’s philosophy. We humans are completely free, at every moment, to do what we wish. But this freedom is too much, crushing, causes anguish and so most of us prefer to act a part. There are a thousand ways to do this but they can all be described as bad faith i.e. denying, refusing to acknowledge, our freedom. Instead we prefer to say ‘I am a waiter’ and then to adopt the persona of The Waiter in all our social relations. Makes life so much simpler. In reality, the waiter could stand up at any moment, undo his pinafore and step outside, walking into whatever future he wants to create – poet, painter, soldier, runaway. But, like most of us, he is afraid to.

The total freedom of each human being; the burden of the resultant responsibility which gives rise to anguish and panic; taking refuge in role playing/bad faith; and the compelling power of other people’s gaze in moulding and defining us – in just a few pages Martin has not only neatly explained key concepts of Sartre’s philosophy, but related it to the feelings of a confused teenager in the 1970s in a way which makes it accessible to any sympathetic reader.

Martin’s style

And this is the playful, accessible approach Martin then takes for the next three hundred pages, introducing us to the key themes and ideas of Camus and Sartre’s writings, relating them to everyday life, all told in punning, jokily clever prose.

As examples, the short chapter covering the attitude towards drugs of the two writers is titled ‘The Philosophers Stoned’ ha ha. (Sartre experimented with mesacline in his 20s and later became dependent on stimulants and uppers, although drugs only really confirmed the weirdness, the often hallucinatory intensity of his early perceptions; whereas Camus had no illusions about drugs – he married an opium addict and stuck with her till he found she was being unfaithful to him; for the rest of his life he was suspicious of all short cuts to ‘ecstasy’).

Similarly, he riffs on Sartre’s most famous quote – ‘other people are hell’ – when he describes Camus’s very different feel for social solidarity, for whom – ‘other people are health’ boom boom!

Maybe the high point of Martin’s word play comes on page 215 – by which stage Camus and Sartre are established as not only very different types of men and writer, but have become enemies slagging each other off in publications – and Martin produces a sort of aria of allusiveness:

If their dual intellectual trajectory had to be written down in a single letter, it would look like this:

X

Jacques Derrida used to refer to this crossover effect (which is also deferral and aporia) as a ‘chiasmus’ (thinking of the original Greek letter). I am going to stick with the X because I like to think of Sartre and Camus as, if not ‘existentialists’ (a label even Sartre initially refused), then ‘X-men’ – or even ‘ex-men’ – subject to random mutation. Sartre and Camus contain an anti-Camus, an anti-Sartre, and in their opposition to one another they also oppose themselves. The X is an X-ray, illuminating not so much two adversarial individuals as a larger, composite, conflicted consciousness, the ‘universal singular’ (in Sartre’s phrase). X-theory is the meeting, the clash, between existentialism and the absurd. (p. 216)

Quite finished, Mr Martin? No more puns, jokes, high-brow, low-brow or scientific references to x, y or z? Right. We can begin.

Graphomania

What came over strongest for me from reading the book is the way that both men were essentially writers, that’s to say they were addicted to writing, writing anything, first — and the exposition of logical philosophy a long way second. Martin uses their notebooks and diaries and letters to show two men who wrote compulsively about how it feels to be alive, to think, to perceive, to feel, to act, and how these thoughts were continually friable, fissiparous, open to radical reassessment and reworking.

Only snippets and snapshots appeared in print till after their deaths. From their letters and notebooks Martin creates a much more fluid, intensive, insightful, probing, exploratory investigation of their mind-sets than is remotely possible from the isolated bulletins of their published works.

It would be convenient to think of Sartre and Camus’s works of ‘philosophy’ as settled statements of fact, but – alas – Martin highlights how they are more like way stations in a never-ending flow of thought, insights and ideas. It would be nice to think that once you had struggled through the 650 pages of Being and Nothingness you had ‘understood’ Sartre, but unfortunately, the so-and-so went on to develop a ‘late’ philosophy, embodied in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) which differs substantially from the early version.

(The Critique is a sustained and punishing attempt to reconcile ‘the best’ in Marxist thought with Sartre’s earlier existentialism, specifically to reconcile the early idea of man’s indeterminable freedom with the Marxist notion that History has a predetermined course and is hurtling towards the communist revolution. Tricky balancing act, which explains the book’s retreat into impenetrable jargon.).

Similarly, the reader of Camus’ essay on suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), can’t help noticing the change of tone, subject and emphasis between it and his next major essay, his massive demolition of revolutionary thought, The Rebel (1951).

Also, both writers notoriously didn’t just write ‘philosophy’. Camus was first and foremost a novelist, but just as famous for his half dozen plays, for his powerful short stories and – like many French thinkers – for the notebooks or carnets which he tidied up and published throughout his life.

Which is the real Camus?

Sartre was even more prolific and Martin confirms the impression I had from reading his Roads to Freedom trilogy, that Sartre had lifelong graphomania – he just couldn’t stop writing. There’s a story that during his national service in the French army he not only wrote continuously through all his downtime but even wrote standing up while on sentry duty. As well as the numerous big books of philosophy, Sartre wrote long essays about contemporary artists and authors (collected in the sequence of volumes titled Sequences I, II etc), wrote journalism for Camus’s paper, Combat (32 articles from New York), lectured across America and Europe, edited and wrote for his own journal, Les Temps Modernes (est. October 1945), produced his own suite of plays, as well as scribbling away in a series of packed notebooks and diaries, not to mention a huge number of letters to his countless mistresses and lovers.

Moreover, Sartre wanted to be famous. He published details of his love affairs, he gave numerous interviews, he wanted to appear in magazines and newspapers and be interviewed on radio and TV, he encouraged de Beauvoir to write romans à clef about their affairs and relationships, he wanted it all to be out there, he wanted to bombard the world with Sartreana.

And it worked. By 1945 he was famous, by the 1950s he was a superstar.

How much is enough?

For me this appalling profusion of words raises a fundamental question about authors, writers, philosophers and thinkers of all stripes, which is: How do you know when you’ve finished? How many books by Sartre or Camus (or any other author) do you need to read to feel confident that you have understood, grasped and got them?

There’s obviously a spectrum of consumption, from ordinary people who’ve never heard of either of them, ordinary people who’ve heard the names but never read them, people who’ve read magazine or newspaper articles and picked up a hint of what they’re about, people who’ve read simple introductions or bluffer’s guides, people who’ve read one or two of their books and liked (or disliked) them, people who’ve read a few books and maybe studied them at uni, people who are fans and read most of their works, students who have studied aspects of their work in detail, academics who have read most of it and written papers or books about them, all the way through to die-hard scholars who have read and reread everything available and are world experts on them.

Which are you? Which should you aim to be? What is the correct attitude to ‘key twentieth century thinkers’ like this?

Whatever it is, Martin gives a really good, accessible, light-hearted, stylish introduction to the two men, their lives and times and obsessions and theories and ideas and writings, which not only informs but entertains and amuses. Crucially, he joins the dots, he takes themes from the totality of the writings – not just the famous works but the letters and notebooks and diaries, as well as interviews and articles – to embed the famous Penguin paperback works into a really fertile bed of their lives, writings and relationships.

This is a hugely enjoyable and brilliantly informative book.

Sex lives

Let’s get it out of the way, the two men had florid sex lives. Both were professional seducers and womanisers. Camus at one point actually feared he had a sex addiction and wondered about seeking professional help. Sartre knew that he was a selfish, womanising bastard (he writes as much to his lifelong partner in crime, Simone de Beauvoir). They competed to have as many (young) women as possible. They met up and paraded their latest catches in front of each other. They even competed over the same (young) women.

For example, a young American journalist (improbably named Sally Swing) approaches Sartre in a restaurant in Cannes and asks for an interview. Sartre (always charming) agrees and gives her his card, says call me in Paris. She leaves, He turns to the other people at the table and says he is going to seduce and fuck her. And he does (p.143)

‘Fuck’ because Sartre – it emerges – swore like a trooper. His normal speech was littered with effing and blinding. It was part of his rejection of bourgeois norms. Similarly he refused to wash and was filthy dirty. During his time in a barracks in the Phoney War of 1940, the other soldiers forcibly stripped and showered him, his stench was too much even for soldiers.

He was, apparently, a cold fish of a lover. De Beauvoir said so (it was part of their fidelity to truth to always be brutally honest) and so did numerous of the young women he speared. Sartre himself described how he clambering aboard a woman, harshly penetrating and then jigging hurriedly to his climax. Bearing in mind that he rarely washed or cleaned his (yellow, tobacco-stained) teeth, the stench from his crotch, armpits and mouth must have been disgusting. But the young women queued up because he was famous, charming and intensely clever.

As Martin points out, to a large extent, for Sartre, love affairs and even sex, only really existed when he wrote about them in diaries, notes for novels or plays, insights to be included in critical essays, and in the hundreds of letters he wrote to his lovers and the thousands he wrote to de Beauvoir about his lovers  — they were maybe just a pretext for the never-ending writing he was addicted to.

Camus, meanwhile – Mr clean-cut, good-looking Mediterranean Man in contrast to short, ugly, foul-mouthed stinking Sartre – also had numerous lovers, running alongside his two wives. (In America he describes being at Vassar College, dazzled by ‘the army of long-legged starlets, lazing on the lawn’. He has a fling with Patricia Blake, the 19-year-old student tasked with showing him round New York. Par for the course. In the months before his tragic death in a car crash, he was living in a remote village in the south of France with his lover, Mi, a twenty-something Dutch artist. His wife and his twin children came to stay. And in the days before the crash he wrote letters to Blake in New York, to his lover Catherine Sellers in Paris, and to his other lover in Paris, the actor Maria Casares. No wonder he was exhausted. p.278)

But whereas it’s relatively easy to explain/understand why the short ugly Sartre had to continually prove himself with a string of young women, Camus presents (as he does generally) a slightly more puzzling case. It seems he was suspicious of his success with women, of anything which came too easy. In fact, Martin extends the metaphor, he was suspicious of all ejaculations, effusions, ecstasies. He fought a constant battle to rein himself in, restrain his life and moods and writing.

The reverse. In various forms he sought oblivion, an almost oriental idea of self-erasure. His first novel is about an empty man who commits a meaningless murder and is pointlessly hanged for it. His first factual book revolves around suicide. If Sartre is a machine generating endless texts laced with weird mental states, Camus is the hugely restrained reporter of minimal consciousness and bare desert landscapes. Martin quotes Camus’s notebooks to show that not only in his fictions, but in his life and loves, he was always seeking moments of stasis, transcendence.

I’m so glad I persisted in tracking down and reading Camus’s last volume of stories, Exile and the Kingdom, because I think it’s his best book, least troubled by religion and Big Meanings, in which the problematics of existence are given their sparest, most dramatic, most compressed expression. Martin’s account helps bring out how this strange desert mood was central to Camus’s imagination.

The triteness of biography

However, the trouble with reading about writers’ sex lives is they are so samey: boy finds girl, writes love letters, diary entries, finally gets to fuck girl, ecstasy, misunderstandings, they split up, anguished letters/diary entries, boy marries someone else, gets bored, is unfaithful, more anguished letters/diary entries, mistresses, mess, alcoholism. Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Albert Camus, Harold Pinter, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis – adultery, alcoholism, suicides. It’s so boring and predictable.

We read writers’ writings because they have an exceptional way with words, language, ideas and feelings which are disturbing, innovative, exciting, which help us escape and transcend the human condition, carry us with it, flying up on wings of words.

I avoid writers’ biographies because they are the extreme opposite, always the same thing: unhappy childhood, precocious schooldays, bright young students, first love affairs, early hope, middle-aged achievement, discontent, affairs, mistresses, unhappiness, alcoholism, decline, death.

Any of the stories in Exile and the kingdom – but especially The Silent Men or The Guest – are worth more than all the facts of Camus’s biography.

Clash of the titans

The twin motives for reading this book were the promise of understanding their philosophies better; but also to read a good account of their famous falling out and enmity. And Martin does not disappoint. The first 200 or so pages paint in the evolution of their writing and thought, against the backdrop of their lives and characters. The final 100 go into some detail about their quarrel.

Camus and Sartre met in 1943. Sartre invited Camus to read through Huis Clos, playing the part of Garcin. They got on like a house on fire and hung round with Sartre’s daemon, Simon de Beauvoir, in Martin’s version flirting with her body and mind, while having numerous affairs with other women, discussing them, sex, politics, novels, plays, everything with each other. Thick as thieves. Camus commissioned Sartre to go to New York as American correspondent for the Resistance newspaper, Combat, which he carried on editing till 1947 (giving rise to a very interesting chapter comparing and contrasting their attitudes to America: Camus loved it; Sartre loathed it).

But, in the later 1940s, as Sartre became keener on communism (though never quite keen enough to join the Party), promoting it through the pages of his quarterly magazine Les Temps Modernes, Camus had his doubts. The newly defined Cold War was forcing people to take sides – and the Parisian intellectual world was overwhelmingly anti-American and pro-communist: Sartre was snugly nestled in the majority view.

But Camus had increasing doubts. The Berlin Blockade (1948-49) and the steady communist seizure of power in all the East European nations which the Soviets had ‘liberated’, crystallised Camus’s dislike, growing slowly into fear, encouraged by friends like the arch anti-communist Arthur Koestler.

It took Camus several years to write his long political essay on the subject of revolution, L’Homme Révolté, which was published in 1951. Martin points out that it refers to now fewer than 166 authors, poets, writers, artists and philosophers (and points out with typical humour that he knows because he counted them himself).

In readings of de Sade, Saint-Just, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and many others, Camus finds the same basic ideal of freedom with no limits, the exorbitant, all-consuming wish for the triumph of extra-human values regardless of others, despite others, over others. In Hegel, Marx and the communist tradition, this Romantic delusion of Total Freedom becomes a fetishised utopia which will be reached at some remote time in the future. In the meantime, through a grotesque perversion, almost any repression, suppression, violence, censorship and inhumanity can be justified in the here and now because – according to the new tyrants, the leaders of the ‘Party’ – only this way can we reach the Promised Land.

L’Homme Révolté starts off slowly (and quite obscurely, with its lengthy discussion of Sade) before building up to a sustained and devastating critique not only of communist theory and practice but, eventually, implicitly, of the practice of philosophy itself, which the book suggests has been on the wrong track for 150 years.

Sartre was personally insulted not only by the anti-communism and the anti-philosophy stance of L’Homme Révolté, but also – as Martin notes, typically bringing out the highly personal nature of everything the dynamic duo wrote – also by the simple fact that he, the leading philosopher of the day, was not mentioned among all those 166 writers! Not once!!

The rest of the editorial board of Les Temps Modernes, Marxists to a man, was also outraged. They commissioned a junior editor in the office to write a hatchet job of L’Homme Révolté. Camus was upset by the review – which took twenty pages to say that he was basically too stupid to understand Hegel or Marx and his opinion was therefore worthless – but just as upset that they gave it to a young unknown; that his ex-bosom buddy J.P. hadn’t considered it worthy of his attention. Camus wrote a long letter restating his case and complaining of his treatment. At which point Sartre rolled up his sleeves and wrote a long editorial explaining that their friendship was over, that Camus misunderstood philosophy, politics and history, that he was yesterday’s man.

Ouch.

Martin describes all this with his trademark grasp not only of the facts and the texts, but with a stylish witty insight into how the men’s philosophies derived from their worldviews which ultimately stemmed from their very different characters and upbringings, summed up in the book’s knowingly tabloid sub-title:

The Boxer and The Goal Keeper: Sartre Versus Camus
They should have been a dream team. It turned into a duel to the death!

The final 30 or 4o pages are riveting because they cover some fascinating topics.

1. Martin explains how Sartre tried to morph the Free Man of the early existentialist philosophy into the Proletarian, the Working Man of Marx’s worldview, who carries the burden of changing the world. Camus, by contrast, withdrew bruised from the L’Homme Révolté debacle, and turned his attention to plays, the wonderful stories of Exile, but was also filling his notebooks with almost mystical questions about life and the universe. It is a revelation to know that he produced a series of haikus about nature. All this nature-feeling was incorporated into the big autobiographical novel he was writing at the time of his death, and which was later published as The First Man.

2. In terms of the Cold War, Sartre managed to criticise the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe while still supporting a vehemently anti-capitalist line, supporting anti-Franco agitators in Spain and anti-colonialists around the world.

3. Separately from the issue of communism in Europe was the rapid spread of anti-colonial movements all around the world. If he had trouble reconciling existentialism with Marxism in  his philosophical works, Sartre had no problem at all translating his communist sympathies into a loud and unflinching anti-colonialism. If Third World nationalists were fighting for independence, Sartre could be guaranteed to write articles, sign petitions and go on marches. Hence his much-photographed meeting with Che Guevara who he fatuously described as ‘not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age’, as if the Cuban revolutionary needed his endorsement.

4. Algeria, of course, was Camus’s Achilles’ heel, and when the Algerians broke their uneasy post-war acquiescence by rising for independence in 1954, Sartre had absolutely no problem giving the violent National Liberation Front his full blessing and condemning all the colonists and France’s entire presence there. He happily wrote an introduction to Frantz Fanon’s 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, a blistering attack on colonial racism and repression, supporting Fanon’s proposition that revolutionary violence is not only an option in the struggle for liberation, but vital for the mental health of the oppressed (by erasing the colonial oppressor, the nationalist killer asserts his freedom, dignity and identity, p.281).

For Camus it was a tragedy, since he had grown up among the 80% of the white Algerians who didn’t own limousines and chauffeurs, but themselves lived in abject poverty (the poverty described in his story Les Muets and in the unfinished First Man).

Camus’s attempts to stop the spiral of murder, massacre and torture came over as mealy-mouthed and ineffectual, though surely they are the position most of us liberals would take nowadays.

5. The Nobel Prize, Camus was awarded it (in 1957), Sartre turned it down (in 1964). Martin’s chapter on this is absolutely riveting. Camus hated it, the attention it drew, and the knowledge that his clever enemies in Paris would despise him even more for selling out. He refused to give interviews about it, he tried to back out of attending the ceremony, he felt it was like being ‘buried alive’. By the last few years of his life he wanted to be a recluse in the rural house he bought with the prize money in the south of France.

Sartre, of course, loved the attention, lapped it up, and managed the situation with suavity and aplomb, politely telling the Academy that i) the prize generally went to writers from the west whereas he considered the East should have equal respect as well, that ii) he didn’t believe in a hierarchy in literature, that iii) he didn’t want to become an ‘institution’. Almost as if he had had the letter, and the dignified refusal, prepared for years :).

Later he regretted losing out on the money – quite a sum, 250,000 Swedish kronor – which he airily declared in interviews he would have given to third World nationalist struggles, starting with donations to London-based anti-apartheid organisations.

6. Death. The final chapters are grim, giving a detailed account of Camus’s pointless death in a car crash on a drive back to Paris (his friend, Michel Gallimard was driving the poxy French car, a Facel Vega, on a rainy road at 100 miles per hour when it skidded and hit a tree. He and Camus, in the front, were killed. Gallimard’s wife and daughter, in the back, escaped with scratches.) By contrast, Sartre lived on till 1980, past is heyday, having the baleful experience of becoming an irrelevant back-number. In his last years, totally blind, his mind went – and his final drooling bumbling years are portrayed in unflinching detail by his faithful if brutally honest companion, de Beauvoir.

Wow. What a journey the reader has been on!

T shirts

In the end, Martin returns to his own life, living, working studying in New York, pondering the meaning of Sartre/Camus’s writings. He brings in Barthes and Derrida, Wittgenstein and Bergson, to give us his take on the pair’s relevance and importance, their enduring insights into the great puzzle of the mind-body conflict, the disjunction between the symbolic and the real, the way nothingness is the vital prerequisite for our sense of being, and so on.

Maybe. It’s a view.

But I suspect that the great writers most enduring gift to posterity will be – t-shirts.


Related links

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of books by Albert Camus

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.


Related links

Related reviews

The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J. Silbey (2012)

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

1. Silbey is an American – he is Associate Professor of History at Alvernia University, Pennsylvania – so for a start it’s nice to read someone who is not a Brit and therefore does not go on and on about the wickedness of the British in a tediously self-hating manner (compare and contrast with the tediously anti-British tone of recent China books by Rana Mitter or Robert Bickers).

Instead, Silbey treats the Brits sensibly, as the dominant imperialist power until later in the 19th century, when more and more European powers began hovering around China like vultures – but as only one among a pack of imperialist nations who all shared the same values and assumptions and, moreover, by 1900, one that was very much losing its European dominance to Germany, its global industrial dominance to America, and, in Asia, was nervously aware of the growing rivalry between Japan and Russia.

2. This is a great read – at a slender 240 pages it’s half the size of most of the other China books I’ve been reading, and is written in a clear style with short declarative sentences retailing facts and events in a lucid, forceful way, not drowning them in political correct attitude or an over-fancy prose style.

To begin with Silbey skips briefly over the prior history of the Qing Dynasty (which was founded way back in 1644), and through the more recent two opium wars with Britain (1839-42 and 1856-60). These passages lack the depth or detail of a John Keay or Jonathan Fenby, but they are well judged as an introduction to the main theme. Slowly the detail builds up along with the pace, until I found myself genuinely gripped and excited by his narrative. I read the whole book in less than a day.

Background

Before he even gets to the account of the Boxer Rebellion itself, I found one early section particularly memorable, mainly because it chimes with my own obsessions/concerns.

For me everything any human being does or says or thinks is secondary to the basic fact that we are breeding like rabbits and destroying the planet. Our ‘cultural’ achievements – much though I spend time and effort enjoying and analysing them – are ultimately trivial compared to the one Big Story of our time, that we are degrading the natural environment wherever we go, driving huge numbers of plants and animals extinct, fouling our own nest and bequeathing our children a poisoned planet.

So I sat up a bit when Silbey himself early on introduced an environmental explanation for the rise of what became known as the Boxer Rebellion. Basically, overpopulation was the fundamental cause for the social instability which plagued China throughout the 19th century and beyond:

  • Population China’s population was 150 million in 1700, around 350 million by 1800, and maybe 430 million by 1850!
  • Environment, flood and famine This explosive population growth was supported by the immense fertility of China’s huge river valleys – specially the Yellow River in the north and Yangtze to the south. But the Chinese didn’t have the kind of ‘agricultural revolution’ that we in the West benefited from during the 1700s. By 1850 even these huge fertile river plains could barely support the galloping population. Thus, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, China’s population was extremely vulnerable to agricultural disaster, caused by drought or torrential rain leading to floods, or when the Yellow River underwent one of its periodic massive shifts of route, leaving devastation in its wake (as it did in 1855). China lived on an environmental and agricultural knife-edge which was almost guaranteed to produce periodic disasters, mass starvation, huge population dislocations. (Silbey doesn’t mention it but Jonathan Fenby’s more overarching account of China 1850 to 2000 describes, in often gruesome detail, repeated outbreaks of cannibalism in famine-stricken areas of China.) Even at the best of times, many millions were reduced to a hand-to-mouth existence on the periphery of their villages, or became migrant labourers roaming the countryside and easily transitioning into the ‘bandits’ who plagued much of non-coastal China – angry young men looking for food/justice/a better life.
  • Secret societies Chinese culture was drenched in respect for authority, for the family dead, for parents, local authority figures and for the Big Daddy of them all, the emperor. There were no political parties. There was no legal way to express opposition or dissent. Anyone who got on the wrong side of the emperor – and, in the second half of the 19th century, that meant anyone who crossed the all-powerful Dowager Empress Cixi – was liable to be beheaded. Hence it was a country alive with ‘secret societies’, cults and underground movements, the more so as so many of the dispossessed migrant workers, deprived of the traditional home, support and constraints of a settled village community, sought safety and validation elsewhere – in what were, basically, gangs.

So unlike Rana Mitter – who centres his (admittedly later) history on the diary of China’s leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or Robert Bickers – who quotes extensively from British traders and officials throughout the nineteenth century – i.e. unlike both those accounts which focus on surviving texts left by high-level, literate social leaders – Silbey digs deeper to put his finger on the key structural forces which help to explain the chronic instability of 19th century China.

And in particular he applies them to the rise of the so-called Boxer movement in the last years of the 19th century: population explosion, poverty, secret societies and then – a catastrophic natural disaster. In 1898 the Yellow River broke its banks, flooding millions of acres and reducing millions of peasants to starvation; the following year, in a cruel irony, there was drought. Huge numbers of peasants took to the road seeking food.

Exterminate the foreigners

The Boxers were mostly illiterate peasants, which explains why we have no manifesto or documentation from, for or about them. There are hardly any photographs of ‘Boxers’, even though their numbers at their peak ran into the millions. They didn’t have a leader, so we have no diaries or correspondence to pore over, no high level meetings to eavesdrop on, no strategies to weight and assess.

Almost the only thing we know about the Boxers is their one, simple, peasant slogan –

Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners

What seems to have happened is that disparate groups of young men across northern China but especially in Shandong Province, just to the south of the capital Peking (as it was then called), became superstitiously convinced that it – the disaster, the poverty, the starvation -was the fault of the foreigners.

In particular, they blamed the only foreigners that the average peasant ever met or knew about – the interfering missionaries, missionaries from all the European nations, who arrived one day out of the blue in your village and not only began preaching un-Chinese nonsense about a tortured god, but made converts often among the lowest dregs of society – criminals and losers – who promptly used their powerful western backers to start winning village feuds and gaining the upper hand.

Silbey quotes numerous missionaries and journalists who were uncomfortably aware of this trend at the time. Missionaries appealed most to renegade members of society who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by acquiring powerful new western sponsors, but were often despised and scorned by their peers.

So the Boxer phenomenon first manifested itself, to western eyes anyway, as attacks on the Chinese converts to Christianity. Reports of scattered attacks, some murders, some atrocities, filtered into the European legations in Peking in 1898. And then came reports – sporadic at first – of attacks on the European missionaries themselves, which filtered in during 1899.

Occasional attacks on remote mission settlements were not unknown already, so it took a while for anyone to realise something new was happening, something more organised. Silbey reports the scepticism among consular officials in Peking, and even more so among hard-pressed imperial civil servants back in Britain and and the European nations.

The missionaries had always been a problem for imperial officials because they were always wandering far beyond the protection of our minimal military forces and then getting into trouble. For a long time the Boxer thing seemed like more of the same.

The Boxer movement

The Boxers are so-named because they grew out of secret societies and groups who were reviving China’s native traditions of martial arts. In Chinese the name was Yi-he quan, roughly translated as ‘Righteous Fists of Harmony’ or ‘Boxers United in Righteousness’. Boxers was short and snappy, so that’s what caught on with the British and has stuck to this day.

To their martial arts the Boxers added the voodoo belief that the correct rituals and spiritual exercises, for example swallowing bits of paper with magic phrases on them, would make them invulnerable to bullets – something we’ve seen in our own time among some African fighting groups.

Their discipline, their cult-like conviction, the righteousness of their cause, all spread like wildfire among half-starving angry young men in the drought summer of 1899, and through into the spring of 1900. They attacked missionaries and got away with it, they coalesced into larger bands, they stole guns and weapons where they could find them – and then they began to infiltrate the big cities.

The fighting

As 1900 progressed, consular officials wrote reports about the increase in attacks. In the spring Boxers – wearing their trademark red sashes – began to appear in towns frequented by foreigners, intimidating them with hard stares and displays of martial arts.

In April and May reports arrived of Chinese converts being murdered in ritualistic ways, tied to trees, having their arms chopped off and their intestines hacked out.

On June 1 two missionaries were ambushed, tortured and murdered. In late May the first surly, aggressive, red-sashed young men arrived in the streets of Peking, terrifying the Europeans. On May 27 a bloodied Belgian engineer staggered into the Peking embassies to announce that the train line to the coast was being destroyed by Boxers. On 31 May the British ambassador called a meeting of all the foreign consuls and they telegraphed to the coast for help and soldiers. The menfolk of the legations began building defences, reinforcing the existing wall surrounding the European quarter, adding barbed wire and trenches. On 9 June a racetrack just outside Peking was attacked and burned down. Some young Westerners who rode out to see the fun got caught in a firefight and came scampering back. On 11 June the Japanese ambassador, Sugiyama Akira, went with a servant to the train station to check on the arrival of the reinforcements but was shot dead in the streets. On June 13 the last telegraph line was cut. On 14 June several hundred Boxers with flaming torches attacked the legation but were beaten back by a picket of marines. By June 17 the legation quarter was surrounded and the Westerners were besieged, cut off from food, water, ammunition and help.

Thus Silbey shows how a trickle of scattered events slowly snowball into a major historical event -the siege of Peking – without anyone realising.

Several points are worth making about Silbey’s approach:

1. Day-to-day detail

There are numerous different ‘types’ of history writing, but nothing replaces a straightforward account of what actually happened.

Silbey’s narrative covers every available strand of the so-called Boxer Rebellion, the European part of which, the bit which is well-documented and understandable, took place in three or four locations simultaneously. By taking you carefully through it on a day-by-day basis, Silbey helps the reader understand the pressure the players were under, the limits of what they knew, the decisions they faced, why they did what they did – even if, with the benefit of hindsight, it turns out to have been the wrong decision.

Like a video game, this approach puts you in the game

  • Should the European forces set off to relieve Peking by train (quicker but vulnerable) or by river (safer but a lot slower)?
  • Should the Empress Cixi back the Boxers, hitching her star to this unpredictable uprising because it’s the best chance in a generation to kick the Europeans out of China?
  • Or are the Boxers a flash in the pan which the Europeans will crush, in which case she should declare war on them?

Silbey shows how at the start of June contingents of the Chinese army were stationed all along the train track and river from the coast via the city of Tianjin and along the route on to Peking – waiting for orders from the court: were they to make an alliance with the foreign armies in order to attack the Boxers – or ally with the Boxers against the foreigners?

Silbey’s day-by-day approach means that you, the reader, get involved in these decisions and find yourself taking sides, making gambles, taking part. The result is vastly more involvement, commitment and understanding than in the usual run of higher-level histories, which might make throwaway references to this or that battle, generalising, summarising etc.

But in Silbey’s account we are right down in the nitty gritty. When Able Seaman McCarthy is shot down in open ground in front of the fortified walls of Tianjin, Basil Guy a midshipman stays with him to bind the wound, under heavy fire, runs to get a stretcher team which he brings back, then helps the stricken McCarthy to safety. This takes half a page to describe and the reader is shaking at the intensity of the experience; you wonder whether you would have the nerve to do that, to stay with a comrade under heavy rifle and sniping fire, taking every measure to save their life. Guy was awarded the Victoria Cross (p.154).

During the same battle, the allies struggled to take the heavily defended inner wall of the city. Late at night the Japanese, closest to the inner wall, under cover of darkness planted tins of gunpowder against the south gate and set a fuse. Three times they set it and three times the Chinese defenders saw it flaring and shot it out. Until finally a Japanese engineer grabbed a box of matches, ran to the pile of gunpowder, and lit it. Boom! Up went the gate and the engineer was blown to smithereens. Wow – what bravery, fanaticism, madness!

On August 13 the Boxers made what was to be their final assault on the Peking legations, including an attack on the so-called Tartar Wall, an ancient fortification which they’d included in their defences. The section under attack was defended by just two men, Captain Newt Hall and Private Dan Daly of the U.S.Marines. As the attack intensified, Hall left Daly to go get reinforcements. Now alone, Daly, five feet six inches tall and ‘the most prolifically profane man in the history of the armed services’, held off waves of attacks. If he had given in or run away the Boxers would have made a breach, swarmed in and massacred the 500 plus Europeans. For his sweary bravery Daly was later awarded the Medal of Honour.

The day-by-day approach puts this book (for me) in the same league as Simon Schama’s monumental history of the French Revolution, Citizens (1989), or Orlando Figes’ epic account of the Russian Revolution (1996) or – going back earlier – Veronica Wedgwood’s masterpiece narrative of the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, The King’s War (1958).

By dealing with each day at a time, these historians convey not only the events, but something important about the very nature of human behaviour, of time and free will. The outcome of entire wars are shown to hang by a thread. The Chinese had held off the Europeans at Tianjin – if the Japanese engineer hadn’t sacrificed his life to blow the gate, would they have continued to hold out long enough to force the Europeans to run out of ammunition and be forced to retreat? Would the European legations in Peking have been stormed? Would Chinese forces in the rest of China, hesitating about which side to join, have come in on the side of the Empire and the whole thing turned into a genuine war of liberation against the Europeans? Would the Empress Cixi have gone down in history as the woman who liberated China and guaranteed the future of the Qing Dynasty for another century? And China never have fallen to Mao’s communists?

The day-to-day approach shows how truly contingent human affairs are, how people are forced to take all kinds of decisions on the basis of inadequate or zero information, decisions which only later assume huge importance.

All of this – the specificity of human agency and free will, the importance of individuals, the contingency of human affairs, heroism and cowardice, luck or good planning – come over brilliantly in this thrillingly detailed and exciting history.

And all of this is precisely what is lost as you write higher and higher level history, which deals in broader and broader brushstroke, misleading generalisations, giving a profoundly misleading sense that human history is somehow fated, predictable or purposeful.

2. Revealing the precise scope of the war

The day-by-day approach helps you understand a whole range of things. For a start, by the end of the book you’ve grasped the odd shape of the ‘conflict’. Basically, the European legations in Tianjin and further up the river, at Peking, found themselves unexpectedly besieged. A train of troops led by Admiral Seymour set off from the coast to rescue them, but found the track dug up by Boxers and came under repeated attack until eventually they had to retreat in disarray. So, next the Europeans tried the river route up the River Hai to get to Tianjin. But the seaward entrance to the Hai River was guarded by two forts on the north and south banks. So Silber gives us a nailbiting description of the European assault on the forts, infantry fighting their way across the mudflats, while the Royal Navy planned to bring two ships alongside two moored Chinese battleships and storm them – a plan Silber righttly describes as ‘insane’.

But it worked.

And so, having secured the forts, the riverborne relief troops set off up the river and, next, had to take Tianjin to free the besieged Europeans inside. This was a long hard fight in which the Europeans nearly lost. Eventually, they took the city, freed the Europeans and sailed on into another battle, to take the next settlement up the river, Beicang. Silber describes this battle in punishing detail, as he does the next encounter at Huangcan.

The Dagu Forts are significant because it was this which forced the Empress Cixi to make a decision. Support the Europeans against the illegal rebel Boxers, or support the Boxers against the far-from-invulnerable Europeans? She took option B, executed all the advisers who had been pushing for option A (there really not being space in Chinese politics for opposition or political parties – your argument loses, you die), and ordered the Chinese army to engage the foreigners.

At Beicang and again at Huangcan the Chinese army proved tougher and better organised than the foreigners expected. The Chinese lost, but they fought hard, and they withdrew in good order, not just scarpering and abandoning their kit.

The great mystery at the heart of the story is what happened next: after the battle of Huangcan the Chinese opposition suddenly and completely melted away. Before Huangcan the allies had been sniped at and ambushed at every bend in the river; afterwards, it was plain sailing through an empty landscape to Peking.

Why?

Silber invokes the same causes he gave at the beginning of his account: it started to rain. Plenty of journalists had been accompanying the expedition and they, and accounts from soldiers, paint a searing picture of the scorching summer heat of July and August in the north China plain. Dead crops, abandoned villages, bodies of animals and humans scattered across the barren plains. Then it started to rain. And rain. And rain. Crops needed tending, fields looking after, animals shepherded back into health, families needed supporting, flood defences reinforcing. The Boxers disappeared back to their villages. And the Chinese army hesitated.

At Peking, it’s true, the allies did encounter stiff resistance – but this was patriotic: after all, who would want their capital city assaulted and razed by foreigners? The Dowager Empress Cixi and her court had long fled into the western provinces (where, in Fenby’s account, she for the first time in her life witnessed the squalor her subjects endured, living in mud huts or holes in cliffs, suffering malnutrition and starvation in their hundreds of thousands).

After hard fighting, the allies took Peking and liberated the legations who, to their surprise, were generally in better shape than many of the troops – not having spent the previous two months marching through a parched landscape and fighting tough battles. A peace settlement was imposed on the Chinese government. The war was over.

Thus Silbey’s account allows you to really understand the shape and scope of the actual events. It wasn’t a ‘war’ as we think of European wars; it was really a glorified relief expedition which, at several key moments, very nearly failed.

3. Imperial shame

Because Silbey’s account has soaked us in the day-to-day struggles and suffering of everyone concerned – the starving peasants, the angry Boxers, the murdered missionaries, the officials and soldiers on both sides, because it has all been made imaginatively alive and important to us – this makes the atrocities that he describes all the more shocking.

The taking of the three towns (Tianjin, Beicang and Huangcun) was followed by Western reprisals and, because the Boxers were essentially civilians, only sometimes marked out by their red sashes, the reprisals are shockingly indiscriminate. An American contingent came across a group of French soldiers who had corraled about 300 Chinese men, women and children down towards the river and were firing indiscriminately into them – mass murder.

High level historians like Mitter and Bickers use words like racism very freely, so freely that after a while they lose their power. Silbey, by contrast, rarely uses the word – he shows you the thing in action – and this is infinitely more shocking, repellent and shameful.

Plenty of correspondents, even senior army officers and European officials, were horrified at the behaviour of their troops and – crucially – realised that they undermined if not destroyed any claim whatsoever that European ‘civilisation’ possessed any kind of superior values.

Having ‘liberated’ Peking, the allied troops went on a rampage of killing, raping and looting. Officers and officials tried to prevent it, and Silbey recounts the story of one American soldier who was tried and convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to life imprisonment; and this attempt at keeping control contrasts with, say, the behaviour of Japanese troops in China 30 years later who were given complete freedom to murder, rape and torture the Chinese at will. There was a real difference in attitude, with the best of the allies trying to prevent atrocity. But all too often they failed, and they certainly failed when it came to the wholesale ransacking the Peking.

Silbey doesn’t judge, he just shows. And by taking us so thoroughly into the feel and pressure of the time, by taking us so close to the sweating, fearful people of those days, makes us experience the atrocities with a similar visceral intensity – more powerful than any amount of name-calling or political correctness. Less is more.

4. Patriotic hate and the fall of the Qing

The Empress Cixi came back to Peking, her tail between her legs, and appointed the aged statesman Li Hongzhu to negotiate a crushingly humiliating peace treaty with the allies. A huge indemnity was forced on China, which she was still paying off 40 years later. The Western rapes, murders and looting shook the  Chinese intellectual class to the core; quite obviously ‘Western values’ were about as humane as Genghis Khan’s. They smile and invite you to tea with the vicar but, given half a chance, will ransack your capital city and rape your women. 

Cixi’s gamble had failed. She had backed the wrong side. More starkly than in some of the other accounts I’ve read, Silbey highlights how her failure condemned not only her dynasty, but the entire tradition of imperial rule, to the dustbin. Patriots and intellectuals growing up during this crisis not only saw at first hand that Westerners were violent, exploitative hypocrites – but just as clearly that the entire structure of imperial rule had failed and had to go.

5. The allies

So far I haven’t mentioned one of the dominant threads in the story which is that the expedition to relieve the besieged legations was strikingly multinational. Forces from Britain, British India, France, America, Japan and Russia took part. Again, by drilling down to the daily nitty-gritty Silbey reveals the highly complex world of competing imperial rivalry which operated, from staff level all the way down to individual soldiers. When the allied force finally took Tianjin, there was a race, an actual race, between the Japanese and British to get to the city flagpole and be the first to raise their flag over the liberated city. There was even more intense rivalry about which nation’s forces would be the first into besieged Peking (again it boiled down to bitter rivalry between the British and Japanese).

Silbey makes the point (as does Bickers in his book) that the Boxer conflict took place at exactly the same period as the second modern Olympic Games were happening in Paris (summer 1900). Exactly the same spirit of international rivalry was on display in China.

6. The aftermath

I’ve mentioned that one of the medium-term consequences was the end of the Qing dynasty, which itself contained the seed of another 75 years of further turmoil for China.

But it was really the rivalry between the allies which was full of portent and omen. The armies of France, Britain, Russia, Japan, America not only fought alongside each other against the Boxers and Chinese army – they watched each other and assessed each other. Spookily, at the Peking victory parade, the Japanese examined the Russians with a very appraising eye, noticed by onlookers. Four years later Japan would provoke a conflict with Russia in which she would whip the hapless Slavs, and consolidate her sense of being a World Power and entitled to a major role in Asia – a sense of entitlement which would lead her to annex Korea in 1910 and then invade north China in 1931.

It is fascinating to learn that conquered Peking was partitioned into sectors, each run by a different power – exactly like Berlin in 1945. All through the story the Germans had behaved with egregious brutality, inspired by their wicked Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who made a speech to departing troops telling them to take no prisoners and to inspire the same terror as their forebears, the Huns under Attila.

Silbey goes on to detail how the Chinese fled the brutality of the German sector, which became a ghost town, and flooded into the relatively well-run American sector. Apparently, when the Americans came to pull out a year later, the Chinese raised a large petition begging them to stay. The Americans brought order, stability, law, as well as clean water, medical facilities, schools and so on, something even their own authorities couldn’t provide until…. well, when exactly? The 1980s? The 1990s?

Conclusion

This is a thrillingly powerful, well-written, lucid and thought-provoking account of the Boxer Rebellion and the allied expedition to relieve Peking – bristling with all kinds of ideas and insights into the period itself, but also into the very nature of war and politics, of heroism and failure, of the scope and possibility of free will and action in a world constrained by society, history, politics and culture.

They did what they thought right, some of it wicked, some of it wrong, some of it foolish and deluded, some of it inspired and heroic. They were flawed people, constrained by their times, just as we are, in ours. For as Silbey writes:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

Judge not lest ye be judged. A clear, well-written factual account of these kind of events is vastly more illuminating – and ultimately damning – than any amount of editorialising and name calling.

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China's corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion

American cartoon (by Joseph Keppler for Puck magazine) satirising the foreign powers squabbling over China’s corpse in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion


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Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

This is a staggeringly good book. The main text is a hefty 714 pages long, with another 76 pages of endnotes, a comprehensive list of further reading, and a thorough index. It is beautifully printed on good quality paper. It is in every way an immaculate book to own and read and reread (in fact I found it so addictive I read the first 500 pages twice over).

Vietnam before the war

Most histories of the Vietnam War focus on ‘the American War’ of the mid- and late-1960s. Logevall’s epic account comes to an end in 1959, when there were still only a few hundred U.S. troops in the country, before the American war of the movies and popular legend had even started (the Gulf of Tonklin Resolution in the U.S. Congress which gave President Johnson full power to prosecute a war was passed in August 1964.)

Instead, Logevall’s focus is on everything which preceded the full-blown American involvement. It is a masterly, incredibly detailed, superbly intelligent account of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule over Indochina, which has its roots way back before the First World War, but whose major and fateful decisions were made in the years immediately after the Second World War. For the core of the book covers the twenty years between 1940 and 1960 which saw the First Indochina War of Independence and the bitter defeat of the French imperial army. Logevall’s intricate and comprehensive account for the first time makes fully comprehensible the circumstances in which the Americans would find themselves slowly dragged into the quagmire in the decade that followed.

Above all this is a political and diplomatic history of the events, with a great deal of space devoted to the personalities of the key political players – Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh General Giap, U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, French president Charles de Gaulle – along with exhaustive explanations of their differing aims and goals, and thorough analyses of the diplomatic and political negotiations which were constantly taking place between a dizzying and continually changing array of politicians, statesmen and military leaders.

The attractiveness of the book is the tremendous intelligence with which Logevall dissects and lays bare the conflicting political goals and shifting negotiating positions of all these players. Time and again he puts you in the room as Truman and his team discuss the impact of China going communist (in 1949) on the countries of the Far East, or Eisenhower and his team assessing the French forces’ chances of winning, or the debates in the Viet Minh high command about how best to proceed against the French army at Dien Bien Phu. In every one of these myriad of meetings and decision-points, Logevall recaptures the cut and thrust of argument and paints the key players so deftly and vividly that it is like reading a really immense novel, a 20th century War and Peace only far more complex and far more tragic.

Ho Chi Minh

A central thread is the remarkable story of Ho Chi Minh, who could have been a sort of Vietnamese Mahatma Gandhi, who could have led his country to peaceful independence if the French had let him – and who certainly emerges as the dominating figure of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence, from 1918 to 1975.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung in 1889. In his long life of subterfuge and underground travel he used over 50 pseudonyms. The text skips through his education to his travels from Asia to Europe via the States (as a cook on merchant navy vessels, seeing the major American cities, establishing himself as a freelance journalist in Paris), and then the story really begins with Ho’s presence at the peace conference which followed the Great War.

Vietnam had been colonised by the French in the 1850s and their imperial grip solidified around the turn of the century. The French divided Vietnam into three units, Tonkin in the north (capital Hanoi), the narrow central strip of Annam, and Cochin China in the south (capital Saigon). Logevall eloquently evokes the atmosphere and beauty of these two cities, with their wide boulevards, French cathedrals and opera houses. The French also colonised Laos, which borders Vietnam to the central west, and Cambodia, which borders it to the south-west. These three countries were collectively known as French Indochina.

Between the wars

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles peace conference which followed World War One brandishing his much-publicised Fourteen Points, the noble principles he hoped would underpin the peace, the fourteenth of which explicitly called for the self-determination of free peoples.

As Logevall points out, in practice the Americans were thinking about the self-determination of the peoples in Europe, whose multicultural empires had collapsed as a result of the war e.g. the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; the principle wasn’t really addressed at the inhabitants of Europe’s overseas empires.

In a typically vivid snapshot, Logevall describes how the young optimistic Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had already gained a reputation as a journalist advocating independence for his country, hired a morning coat and travelled to Versailles hoping to secure an interview with President Wilson to put the case for Vietnamese independence. But his requests were rebuffed, his letters went unanswered, nobody replied or took any notice. It was the start of a long sequence of tragically lost opportunities to avert war.

Instead the ‘victorious’ European empires (Britain and France) were allowed to continue untroubled by American interferences and French colonial administration of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with all its snobbery and exploitation, strode on into the fragile 1920s and troubled 1930s.

Dispirited by the complete lack of interest from the Allies at Versailles, Ho traveled to Soviet Moscow in the early 1920s, where he received training from the infant Communist International (or Comintern) before returning to Vietnam to help organise a Vietnamese nationalist and communist movement.

But according to Logevall’s account, Ho continued to have a soft spot for America – not least because it was itself a country which had thrown off colonial shackles – and continued for decades to hope for help & support in Vietnam’s bid to escape from French control. In vain. Maybe the central, tragic theme of the book is how the American government went in the space of a decade (1940 to 1950) from potential liberator of the world’s colonial subjects, to neo-imperial oppressor.

The impact of the Second World War

In the West, and particularly in Britain, we think of the Second World War as starting with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. But the war in the East had its own timeframes and geography, and is really marked by the step-by-step aggression of Japan through the 1930s. For the highly authoritarian, militaristic Japanese government was the rising power in the East. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China 1931 and then, in 1937, invaded the rest of coastal China, penetrating south. China was already embroiled in a chaotic civil war between various regional warlords, the nationalist movement of Chiang Kai-Shek and the nascent communist forces of Mao Zedong, which had been raging since the late 1920s. The border between north Vietnam and China is 800 miles long and the French colonial administrators watched developments in their huge northern neighbour with growing trepidation.

Meanwhile, in faraway Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime successfully intimidated the western democracies (i.e. Britain and France) into allowing him to reoccupy the Rhine (March 1936), occupy Austria (March 1938) and seize the Czech Sudetenland (September 1938). But it was the surprise Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and then Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland which plunged the continent into war.

None of this affected distant Indochina until the Germans’ six-week Blitzkrieg campaign in May 1940 against France. The victorious Nazis allowed a puppet right-wing government to be created in France, under the 84-year-old Marshall Petain and based in the spa town of Vichy. As a result of their defeat, the colonial administrations around the French Empire – in West and North Africa, in the Middle East and in Indochina – found themselves obliged to choose between the ‘legitimate’ new Vichy administration, which soon began persecuting socialists, freemasons and Jews (Logevall makes the ironic point that there were only 80 Jews in all Indochina and most of them were in the army) or the initially small group of followers of the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’, Charles de Gaulle.

When the highly armed and aggressive Japanese continued their expansion into northern Vietnam in September 1940, the Vichy French briefly resisted and then found themselves forced to co-operate with their supposed ‘allies’ – or the allies of their Nazi masters back in Europe. The Japanese wanted to cut off supply lines to the Chinese nationalists opposing them in China and also needed the rice, rubber and other raw materials Indochina could offer. In an uneasy understanding, the Japanese allowed the Vichy officials to administer the country at a civil service level – but they were the real masters.

Pearl Harbour

By setting it in its full historical context, Logevall for the first time made clear to me the reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour (on 7 December 1941) and the central role played in this cataclysmic event by Indochina.

From 1940 U.S. President Roosevelt and his advisers were concerned about Japan’s push southwards and especially their seizure of Vietnam. If they continued, the Japs would be in a position to carry on down the Malay peninsula, taking Singapore and threatening the Philippines in the East and Burma to the West.

When, in July 1941, Japanese troopships were sighted off Cam Ranh Bay on the south coast of Vietnam, it set American alarm bells jangling and, after much discussion, the President imposed a goods blockade on Japan, including oil and rubber, insisting the Japanese withdrew from China. Negotiations with the moderate Japanese Prime Minister Konoye continued through the summer but neither side would back down and, in October 1941, Konoye was replaced by General Hideki Tojo, who represented the aggressive stance of the armed forces. His government decided the only way Japan could continue to expand was by eliminating the American threat and forcibly seizing required raw materials from an expanded Japanese empire. Hence the plan was formulated to eliminate the American Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, and it was in this context that the Japanese Fleet launched the notorious attack on 7 December 1941.

Logevall describes this tortuous process and its consequences with great clarity and it is absolutely fascinating to read about. He introduces us to all the key personnel during this period, giving the main players two or three page biographies and explaining with wonderful clarity the motives of all the conflicting interests: The Vichy French reluctant to cede control to the Japanese and scared of them; the Japanese busy with conflicts elsewhere and content to rule Indochina via the compliant French; the Americans reeling from Pearl Harbour but already making long-term plans to regain Asia; and in Vietnam, alongside Ho’s communists, the activities of the other groups of Vietnamese nationalists, as well as numerous ‘native’ tribes and ethnic minorities. And far away in embattled London, the distant but adamantine wish of General de Gaulle and the ‘Free French’ to return Indochina to French rule.

Roosevelt and Truman

For most of the war the key factor for Asia was President Roosevelt, a lifelong anti-colonialist, who condemned and opposed the European empires. Admittedly, he had to tread carefully around key ally Winston Churchill, who was doggedly committed to the preservation of the British Empire, but he had no such qualms about France, which he despised for collapsing so abjectly to the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Roosevelt was only reluctantly persuaded to support the haughty, pompous General de Gaulle as representative of the so-called ‘Free French’ – he preferred some of the other leaders in exile – but took a particular interest in Indochina. Roosevelt gave strong indications in speeches that – after the Germans and Japanese were defeated – he would not let the French restore their empire there. Instead, the president got his State Department officials to develop the idea of awarding ‘trusteeship status’ to post-colonial countries – getting them to be administered by the United Nations while they were helped and guided towards full political and economic independence.

Alas for Vietnam and for all the Vietnamese, French and Americans who were to lose their lives there, Roosevelt died just as the Second World War drew to a close, in April 1945, and his fervent anti-imperialism died with him.

He was replaced by his unassuming Vice-President, plain-speaking Harry S. Truman from Missouri. (In the kind of telling aside which illuminates the book throughout, Logevall points out that Truman was only selected as Vice-President because he was so non-descript that when all the competing factions in the Democratic Party cancelled out each other’s nominations, Truman was the only one bland enough to be left acceptable to all parties.)

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

The atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystallised Japan’s defeat and she surrendered on 2 September 1945. Within days of Japan’s fall, Ho and his party were organising major celebrations of Vietnam’s independence. In a historic moment Ho spoke to a crowd of 300,000 cheering compatriots in Ba Dinh Square, central Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, formally declaring Vietnam’s independence. Logevall quotes American eye witnesses who were startled when Ho quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence, as part of his ongoing attempt to curry favour with the emerging world superpower.

But alas, back in Washington, unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman had little or no interest in Indochina and all talk of ‘trusteeship’ leading to eventual independence disappeared. Instead the victorious allies had to make practical arrangements to manage Indochina now Japan had surrendered. It was agreed that the north of the country would be taken over by an army of the nationalist Chinese (at this stage receiving huge aid from America) while the British Indian Army would take over temporary running of the south, in a temporary partition of the country while both forces waited for the full French forces to arrive and restore imperial rule.

Riven by political infighting and a spirit of defeatism, the French had rolled over and given up their country in 1940. Then a good number of them spent five years collaborating with the Nazis and shipping Jews off to concentration camps. Now they expected the Americans to give them huge amounts of money and military resources to help them return to their colonies, and they expected the colonial peoples to bow down to the old yoke as if nothing had happened.

General de Gaulle typified the militaristic, imperial French view that ‘metropolitan’ France was nothing without its ‘magnificent’ Empire; that France had a unique ‘civilising mission’ to bring the glories of French culture to the peoples of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia (and Algeria and Syria and Mali and so on). Of course, the Empire provided cheap raw materials and labour for France to exploit.

The tragedy is that the Rooseveltian anti-imperial America which Ho and his followers placed so much hope on, betrayed them. Why? Two main practical reasons emerge:

  1. Restoring France Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War Stalin set about consolidating his grip on the Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe by establishing puppet communist regimes in them. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin Airlift, both in 1948, epitomise the quick collapse of the wartime alliance between Russia and America into a Cold War stand-off. In this context, the Americans thought it was vital to build up Western Europe‘s capitalist economies to provide economic and military counterweight to the Soviet threat. Hence the enormous sums of money America poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan (which came into force in June 1948). A glance at the map of post-war Europe shows that, with Germany divided, Italy in ruins, Spain neutral, and the Benelux countries small and exposed, France emerges as the central country in Western Europe. If France’s empire contributed economically (through its raw materials), militarily (through colonial soldiers) and psychologically to France’s rebuilding, then so be it. The nationalist aspirations of Algeria, Tunisia and the other African colonies, along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were sacrificed on the altar of building up a strong France in Europe to act as a bulwark against the Soviet threat.
  2. The domino theory It was only later, after China fell to communist control in October 1949, that Cold War hawks began to see (not unjustifiably) evidence of a worldwide communist conspiracy intent on seizing more and more territory. This received further shocking confirmation when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It is from the communist victory in China and the start of the 1950s that the Americans began to talk about a ‘domino effect’ – seeing non-communist countries as dominoes lined up in a row, so that if one fell to communism all the others would automatically follow. As the map below shows, the fear was that i) communist victory in Korea would directly threaten Japan ii) communist forces in central China would threaten the island of Formosa and the other western Pacific islands, and iii) most crucial of all – the collapse of Vietnam would allow communist forces a forward base to attack the Philippines to the east, open the way to the invasion of Thailand to the west, and threaten south down the long peninsula into Malaya and Indonesia.

Cast of characters

Logevall introduces us to a number of Americans on the ground – diplomats, analysts and journalists – who all strongly disagreed with the new American line, but were powerless to change it. Against their better judgement the Americans allowed the French to return to run Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Logevall explains the arguments among the French themselves, and accompanies his account of the next nine years (1945-1954) with a running commentary on the changing patterns of the very fractured French political system (19 governments in just 8 years), and the conflicting priorities of the French communist party, the Socialists, the centre and the Gaullist right.

In contrast to French perfidy and inconsistency, Ho emerges as very much the hero of this account for the patience and mildness of his demands. Ho was in communication with both the French and American authorities – the French ignored all requests for independence, but he had some hopes the Americans would listen. Ho guaranteed that his independent Vietnam would allow for capitalism -for private property, a market economy. He said American firms would receive preferential treatment in rebuilding the post-war economy.

All on deaf ears. The same crowds who had greeted Ho’s historic declaration of independence in September 1945, stayed away from the pathetic French re-entry into Saigon the next year. On their first night of freedom, French troops who had been interned by the Japanese were released and went on a drunken rampage, beating up Vietnamese in the streets for being collaborators. Photo journalist Germaine Krull saw Vietnamese nationalists paraded through the streets with ropes tied round their necks while French women spat on them. Krull realised, right there and then, that the French had lost all respect and deference – instead of befriending the Vietnamese and creating a genuine partnership with promises of ultimate nationhood, the French hardliners had insisted nothing must question the ‘Glory’ and ‘Honour’ and ‘Prestige’ of La Belle France.

And so the quixotic quest for gloire and grandeur and prestige condemned France to nine years of bitter war, hundreds of thousands of death and, ultimately, to crushing humiliation. It feels like a grim poetic justice for the arrogance and stupidity of the French.

Dien Bien Phu

Almost immediately armed clashes between French soldiers and small guerrilla units or individuals began in all the cities and towns. Various nationalist groups claimed responsibility for the attacks but slowly Ho Chi Minh’s communists emerged as the best disciplined and most effective insurgent forces. The communists made up the core and most effective part of the coalition of nationalist forces christened the Viet Minh. Saigon became a twitchy nervous place to be, with an irregular drumbeat of gunshots, the occasional hand grenade lobbed into a cafe, assassinations of French officials in the street.

Logevall gives a detailed narrative of the slow descent of the country into guerilla war, with the dismal attempts of successive generals to try and quell the insurgency, by creating a defensive line of forts around Hanoi in the north, or sending search and destroy missions into the remote countryside.

The diplomatic and political emphasis of the book comes to the fore in the long and incredibly detailed account of the manoeuvring which surrounded the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from the beginning of its inception in 1953.

I have just reviewed a classic account of this battle, Martin Windrow’s epic military history, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice to say the French had the bright idea of creating a defensive stronghold in an isolated valley in remote north-west Vietnam which could only be supplied from the air. Why? a) They intended to use it as a base to undertake offensive actions against Viet Minh supply lines running from China past Dien Bien Phu southwards into neighbouring Laos and b) they planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle where they would be crushed by overwhelming French artillery and airborne power.

The plan failed on both counts, as the Viet Minh surrounded the fort in such numbers that ‘offensive’ missions became suicidal; and with regard to luring the Viet Minh to their destruction, the French a) badly underestimated the ability of the Viets to haul large-calibre cannon up to the heights commanding the shallow valley and b) the battle took place as the monsoon season started and so air cover was seriously hampered (and in any case the Viet Minh were masters of camouflage, who only manoeuvred at night, making them very difficult to locate from the air).

The result was that the series of strongholds which comprised the French position were surrounded and picked off one by one over the course of a gruelling and epic 56-day battle.

Logevall devotes no fewer than 168 pages to the battle (pp.378 to 546) but relatively little of this describes the actual fighting. Instead, he chronicles in dazzling detail the intensity of the political and diplomatic manoeuvring among all the interested powers, particularly the Americans, the British and the French. Each of these governments was under domestic political pressure from conflicting parties in their parliaments and congresses, and even the governments themselves were riven by debate and disagreement about how to manage the deteriorating situation. Press reports of the French Army’s ‘heroic’ stand against the surrounding forces for the first time caught the public imagination, in France and beyond and the battle began to become a symbols of the West’s resolve.

It is mind-boggling to read that the Americans repeatedly mooted the possibility of using atom bombs against the Chinese (who were by now openly supporting the Viet Minh forces) or of giving the French some atom bombs to deploy as they wanted. The generals and politicians rejected dropping atom bombs directly onto Dien Bien Phu since they would obviously wipe out the French garrison as well as the attacking forces. Extra peril was added to the international scene when the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, intensifying the sense of Cold War superpower rivalry.

But it is in his running account of the minute by minute, phone call by phone call, hurried meetings between ambassadors and Foreign secretaries and Prime Ministers, that Logevall conveys the extraordinary complexity of political and strategic manouevring during these key months. The central issue was: Should the Americans directly intervene in the war to help the French? The French pleaded for more, much more, American supplies and munitions; for American troops on the ground; or for a diversionary attack on mainland China; or for more, many more bombing raids over Viet Minh positions.

Republican President Eisenhower was himself a supremely experienced military leader and had come to power (in January 1953) by attacking the (Democrat) Truman administration’s ‘capitulation’ in letting China fall to communism – and then for letting the Korean War to break out on Truman’s watch.

Logevall’s account is so long because it chronicles every important meeting of Eisenhower’s cabinet, examining the minutes of the meeting and analysing the points of view of his political and military advisers. And then analysing the way decisions were discussed with other governments, especially the British Foreign secretary (Anthony Eden) and Prime Minister (an ageing Winston Churchill).

Basically, Eisenhower found himself forced into a position of issuing fiercer and fiercer threats against the growing communist threat. In a keynote speech delivered on 7 April 1954, he warned of the perils of the Domino Effect (the first time the phrase entered the public domain) but hedged his bets by insisting that America wouldn’t go to war in South-East Asia unless:

a) the decision was ratified by Congress (one of the Republican criticisms of Truman was that he took the Americans into the Korean War by Presidential Decree alone, without consulting the Congress)
b) it was a ‘United Action’ along with key allies, namely the British

The focus then moves to the British and to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Would he agree to U.S. demands to form a coalition, and thus give the Americans the fig leaf they needed to go in and help the French, whose situation at Dien Bien Phu was becoming more desperate each day.

But Logevall explains the pressure Eden was under, because he knew that any British intervention to prop up the ailing French imperial position in Indochina would be roundly criticised by India and other members of the newly-founded Commonwealth at an upcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of state, and the British very much wanted to ensure the continuation of this legacy of their Empire.

Moreover, British government opinion was that the French were losing and that the Americans, if they intervened, would quickly find themselves being sucked into bigger and bigger commitments in Vietnam in a war which the British thought was doomed to failure. The risk would then be that the Americans would be tempted to ‘internationalise’ the conflict by directly attacking the Viet Minh’s arms supplier – China – possibly, God forbid, with atomic weapons – which would inevitably bring the Russians in on the Chinese side – and we would have World War Three!

Hence the British refusal to commit.

American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles flew to Britain several times but failed, in one-on-one meetings, to change Eden’s position. And it was this failure to secure British (and thence Australian and New Zealand) support to create a ‘United Action’ coalition which meant that Eisenhower wouldn’t be able to win round key members of Congress, which meant that – he couldn’t give the French the vital military support they were begging for – which, ultimately, meant that Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

It has been thrilling to read Martin Windrow’s bullet-by-bullet account of the battle (The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam) alongside Logevall’s meeting-by-meeting account of the diplomacy. Logevall gives you a sense of just how fraught and complex international politics can be and there is a horrible tragic inevitability about the way that, despite the French paratroopers fighting on bravely, hoping against hope that the Americans would lay on some kind of miracle, a massive air campaign, or a relief force sent overland from Laos – none of this was ever to materialise.

Instead, as the battle drew towards its grizzly end, all the parties were forced to kick the can down the road towards a five-power international conference due to start in Geneva in May 1954. This had been suggested at a meeting of the Soviets, British and Americans in Berlin late the previous year, to address a whole range of Cold War issues, from the status of West Germany and a final peace treaty with Austria, through to the unfinished aspects of the Korean War Armistice, and only partly to the ongoing Indochina crisis.

Dien Bien Phu had begun as only one among several operations carried out by General Navarre, head of French forces in Indochina, but it had steamrollered out of control and its air of a heroic last stand had caught the imagination of the French population and, indeed, people around the world, and had come to symbolise all kinds of things for different players – for the West a last ditch stand against wicked communism, but for many third-world populations, the heroic overthrow of imperial oppressors. And so the military result came to have a symbolic and political power out of all proportion to the wretched little valley’s strategic importance.

In the event, the central stronghold of Dien Bien Phu was finally overrun by the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954, the Viet Minh taking some 10,000 French and colonial troops (Algerian, West African, Vietnamese) prisoner. About two-thirds of these then died on the long marches to POW camps, and of disease and malnutrition when they got there. Only a little over 3,000 prisoners were released four months later.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954)

Meanwhile, Logevall works through the geopolitical implications of this titanic military disaster with characteristic thoroughness. Briefly, these were that the French quit Indochina. News of the French defeat galvanised the Geneva Conference which proceeded to tortuously negotiate its way to an agreement that a) the French would completely quit the country; b) Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel with the North to be run by an internationally-recognised Viet Minh government, while the South would be ruled by the (ineffectual playboy) emperor Bao Dai (who owned a number of residences in the South of France and was a connoisseur of high class call girls).

The negotiations to reach this point are described with mind-boggling thoroughness in part five of the book (pages 549 to 613), which give a full explanation of the conflicting views within each national camp (Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, British, Viet Minh) and the key moments when positions shifted and new lines of discussion became possible. Maybe the key breakthrough was the election of a new French Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, who broke the diplomatic stalemate and set himself the deadline of one month to negotiate an end to the whole wasteful, crippling war.

Why did the Viet Minh in the end accept less than total independence for their country? Because they were leant on by the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, himself carrying out the orders of his master, Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to intervene in the war, with the risk of attacks on mainland communist China. In fact the Russians and Chinese partly agreed to this temporary partition because they secured agreement from everyone that full and free elections would be held across the entire country in 1956 to decide its future.

The Americans, meanwhile, held aloof from the final agreement, didn’t sign it, and now – with the French definitively leaving – felt that the old colonial stigma was gone and so they were free to support the newly ‘independent’ nation of South Vietnam by any means necessary. When July 1956 – the date set for the elections – rolled around, the elections were never held – because the communist North had already in two years become very unpopular with its people, and because the Americans knew that, despite everything, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists would still win. So both sides conspired to forget about elections and the partition solidified into a permanent state.

This then, forms the backdrop to the Vietnam War – explaining the long tortuous history behind the creation of a communist north Vietnam and a free capitalist South Vietnam, why the Americans came to feel that the ongoing survival of the south was so very important, but also the depth of nationalist feeling among the Vietnamese which was, eventually, twenty years later, to lead to the failure of the American war and the final unification of the country.

The volta

A high-level way of looking at the entire period is to divide it in two, with a transition phase:

  • In part one America under Roosevelt is trenchantly against European empires and in favour of independence for former colonies.
  • Under Truman there is growing anxiety about Russian intentions in Europe, which crystallise with China going red in 1949 and the North Korean attack in 1950 into paranoia about the communist threat so that –
  • In part two, America under Eisenhower (president for the key eight years from January 1953 to January 1961) reverses its strategy and now offers support to Imperial powers in combating communist insurgencies in Indochina, Malaya, Indonesia, as well as in Africa and South America.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive was the detail on the earlier, wartime Roosevelt period, which I knew nothing about -and then Logevall’s wonderfully thorough explanation of what caused the change of attitude to the European empires, and how it was embodied in anti-communists like Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959 John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s clever Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

The last hundred pages of the book cover the six and a half years from the end of the Geneva Conference (July 1954) to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the youngest ever U.S President in January 1961.

Titled ‘Seizing the Torch 1954 – 59’, this final section deals relatively briefly with the French withdrawal from Tonkin and northern Annam i.e. from the new territory of ‘North of Vietnam’ which was now handed over to the control of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (There is a good description of this difficult and potentially dangerous operation in Martin Windrow’s book).

The partition triggered the flight of an estimated 900,000 Vietnamese refugees from the North to the South – shipped to the South in a fleet of American passenger ships in what was titled Operation ‘Passage to Freedom’.

And in the North, the communists began to implement a foolishly harsh and cruel regime copied direct from the communist tyrannies of Russia and China. Most disastrous was their ‘land reform’, based on the categorisation of rural dwellers into different types – landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant etc – made with a view to rounding up and executing, or torturing or sending to labour camps everyone arbitrarily put in the ‘rich’ categories.

All this led swiftly to the predictable collapse of rural markets and the threat – yet again – of famine. There are records of Ho himself berating his top comrades for the brutality and foolishness of this brutal policy, but he doesn’t seem to have done much to stop it: the cadres had learned it from the masters; this was how Stalin and Mao had led their ‘revolutions’.

But Logevall’s real focus, as always, is not so much on these domestic social changes but on the continuing  international diplomatic and political jockeying, now focusing on the supposedly ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’ regime in the new territory of South Vietnam. With the French withdrawing all colonial forces and administration during 1955, the path was for the first time clear for the Americans to act with a free hand. As usual Logevall explicates the complex discussions which took place in Washington of the various options, and shows how policy eventually settled on installing the peculiar figure of Ngo Dinh Diem as President, under the aegis of the docile emperor Bao Dai.

Logevall first paints a thorough picture of Diem’s personality – a devout Catholic who went into self-imposed exile in Europe at various Catholic retreats in between cultivating American opinion-formers in his perfect English -and who, upon taking power in South Vietnam, began to immediately display authoritarian traits, namely confining power to a small clique of  his own direct family, and launching harsh persecutions of suspected communists and ‘traitors’.

In parallel, Logevall shows the tremendous efforts made by the American government to justify his corrupt and inefficient rule. The fundamental problem in Vietnam, as in so many other U.S. puppet states, would turn out to be that the Americans’ candidate was wildly unpopular: everyone knew that if a genuinely democratic election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win a decisive victory, even in the capitalist south. Thus the Americans, in the name of Democracy, found themselves defending a leader who would lose a democratic vote and showed clear dictatorial behaviour.

Diem wasn’t the representative of ‘democracy’ – he was the front man for free-market capitalism. As such he was enthusiastically supported by Eisenhower, Dulles and – as Logevall shows in some fascinating passages – by the stranglehold that mid-twentieth century U.S. media had on public opinion. Logevall lists the activities of a well-connected organisation called the ‘American Friends of Vietnam’, which included all the main publications of the day, most notably Time magazine, which ran glowing tributes to Diem in every edition.

Logevall introduces us to the born-again anti-communist doctor, Tom Dooley, whose account of working as a medic among refugees from the North – Deliver Us From Evil – was filled with the most appalling atrocity stories and became a highly influential bestseller, serialised in Reader’s Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million. Only decades later was it revealed to be a preposterous fake – with none of the atrocities Dooley recorded having any basis in fact.

It was ordinary American families who consumed this barrage of pro-Diem propaganda through the press and radio and TV from the mid-1950s onwards, with kids who in eight years time (when the States escalated the war in 1965) would be old enough to be drafted to go and give their lives to support the Diem regime.

But the reality in South Vietnam was much different from this shiny propaganda. Almost none of the huge amounts of American aid, soon rising to $300 million a year, went on health or education. Over 90% went on arming and training the South Vietnam Army which, however, continued to suffer from low morale and motivation.

America’s ‘support’ ignored much-needed social reform and was incapable of controlling Diem’s regime which passed increasingly repressive laws, randomly arresting intellectuals, closing down the free press, and implementing a regime of terror in the countryside.

More and more peasants and villagers found themselves forced to resist the blackmailing corruption of the Diem’s rural administrators, and revolt arose spontaneously in numerous locations around the country. This is a historical crux – many commentators and historians insist that the communist agitation in the South was created by the North; Logevall demurs and calls in contemporary analysts as evidence and witnesses. In his opinion, revolt against Diem’s repressive regime grew spontaneously and was a natural result of its harshness.

Indeed, newly opened archives in the North now reveal that the Hanoi leadership in fact agonised about whether, and how much, to support this groundswell of opposition. In fact, they were restrained by China and, more distantly, Russia, neither of whom wanted to spark renewed confrontation with America.

Nonetheless Hanoi found itself drawn, discreetly, into supporting revolutionary activity in the South, beginning in the late 1950s to create an administrative framework and a cadre of military advisers. These were infiltrated into the South via Laos, along what would become known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. In response the Diem regime used a nickname for the communist forces, calling them the Viet Cong, or VC, a name which was to become horribly well-known around the world.

While the American press and President awarded Diem red carpet treatment, a tickertape parade in New York, and fawning press coverage when he visited the States in 1956, back home things were growing darker. As 1957 turned into 1958, Diem reinstituted the use of the guillotine as punishment for anyone who resisted his regime, and his roving tribunals travelling through the countryside used this threat to extort even more money from disaffected peasants. But simultaneously, the communist apparatus in the south began to take shape and to receive advice about structure and tactics from the North.

The beginning

The book ends with an at-the-time almost unnoticed event. On the evening of 8 July 1959 eight U.S. military advisers in a base 20 miles north of Saigon enjoyed a cordial dinner and then settled down to watch a movie. It was then that a squad of six Viet Cong guerrillas who had cut through the flimsy surrounding barbed wire, crept up to the staff quarters and opened fire with machine guns. Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand and Major Dale Buis died almost immediately, before armed help arrived from elsewhere in the camp to fight off the intruders. Ovnand and Buis’s names are the first of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are all carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Conclusion

Embers of War won many prizes and it really deserves them – it sheds light not only on the long, tortured death of French imperialism in Indochina, and gives incredible detail on the way the Americans inch-by-inch found themselves being drawn deeper into the Vietnam quagmire – it also shows any attentive reader how international affairs actually work, how great ‘decisions’ are ground out by the exceedingly complex meshing of a welter of complex and ever-shifting forces – at international, national, domestic, military, political and personal levels. On every level a stunningly informative and intelligent work of history.

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Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin (2012)

Empire – as the assertion of mastery (by influence or rule) by one ethnic group, or its rulers, over a number of others – has been the political rule of the road over much of the world and over most of world history: the default mode of state organisation. (p.7)

This is a much more sober, earnest and thoughtful account of the British Empire than Niall Ferguson’s popular blockbuster, Empire. Whereas Ferguson references popular myths and preconceptions in order to puncture them in the manner of a swashbuckling columnist, Darwin is the cautious scholar, thoughtfully engaging with the voluminous literature of other historians on the subject – which makes his book a much denser, more challenging, but hugely more rewarding read.

The medieval origins

Ferguson’s account starts with the Elizabethans establishing plantations in Ireland and America at the same time as they set up their own offshoot of the Atlantic slave trade (roughly the 1590s). Darwin takes the more interesting and, characteristically more thorough, approach of going back much further, to the Norman Conquest, to trace the origins of the attempts by the conquering Normans to take an ‘imperial’ approach to the British Islands.

Among the hundreds of rewarding points Darwin makes is that the entire left-wing critique of the British Empire tends to treat it as if it was a historical freak, a one-off, as if only this empire ever existed and was uniquely evil, racist and sexist.

In fact, as Darwin calmly points out, empire has been the normal form of rule for most of the world for most of history.

Thus, just looking at Britain, we were part of the Roman Empire for 400 years; were invaded and part-colonised by the Vikings (800-950), before becoming part of Canute’s Danish Empire from 1014 to 1042. Were then invaded and colonised by the Normans (1066), brutal subjugators who imposed their economic system, language and laws on their subjects, as well as confiscating vast swathes of their land.

Darwin picks up the story with the Plantagenet kings (1154-1485), who ran an Empire which included a large chunk of western France (wine-producing Gascony), which they extended west into Wales (it was the Plantagenet Edward I who built all those Welsh castles in the late 1200s), and tried with varying success to push into Scotland and Ireland.

In the 14th century England hung on to her possessions in south-west France in the face of growing power of the centralised French state, but eventually lost them in 1453. In fact the steady consolidation of the European kingdoms of France and Spain effectively locked Britain out of Continental Europe and forced us to look elsewhere for growth. In other words, Britain’s efforts to find gold and wealth abroad were bound to be maritime, not continental. Locked out of Europe, Britain had to look further across the seas for conquest and colonies.

Protestant paranoia

Darwin adds to Ferguson’s account of the Elizabethan period, the importance of Protestant paranoia. It’s worth remembering that, after Henry VIII’s declaration of independence from the Roman Catholic church in the 1530s, English monarchs lived in fear of being invaded and conquered by the military superpower of the day for the next 250 years, first Spain, then France.

The campaigns to pacify Wales and Scotland were wars of conquest designed to protect the English monarchy’s exposed flanks. Scotland remained an entry point for invasions long after the Scottish Reformation partly calmed English fears. Even after the semi-forced Act of Union of 1707 created a country called ‘Great Britain’, there were still threatening Scottish insurrections – the last one, armed and supported by the Catholic French, as late as 1745, and only defeated after the Catholic army had got as far as Derby, just 130 miles from London.

Unrepentantly Catholic Ireland, though, remained an enduring problem for England’s Protestant monarchs, from the first attempts to assert authority over it in the 1100s right up to the present day (today I read a news story saying the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, warned David Cameron that a Brexit from the EU might jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement).

Rivalry with other empires

My recent visit to the British Museum reminded me of the long list of empires which battled for supremacy throughout  history: just in the Middle East, the so-called ‘cradle of civilisation’, we have the Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians, the Babylonians and so on – while successive emperors ruled the vast area known as China, and waves of imperial invaders conquered and tried to bind together enormous India, leading up the Mughal emperors that the British had to deal with in the 18th century. When Cortes and Pizarro arrived in Mexico they didn’t discover vegan environmentalists but well-organised, centralised empires – Aztec and Inca – which had been vying for supremacy for centuries, supported by their blood-thirsty religions.

What we think of as the Tudor period, when Henry and his successors tried to conquer and bind together the people on these British islands, was also the era when the kings of Spain and France were doing the same in their realms, fighting to create strong centralised states. In this as in so many other ways, England was just one among many European nations doing the same thing at the same time.

And so, whenever we consider the complex, byzantine history of all the enterprises and entities which eventually coalesced into something we call ‘the British Empire’, we shouldn’t forget that:

a) it was always in rivalry and competition with the other, often more powerful and better-established, European empires
b) in many places it came up against existing ‘native’ empires, for example the Mughal empire in India or the Zulu empire in South Africa

Complexity

From the first pages Darwin emphasises the complexity of the imperial story, that there were a myriad stories of negotiation, business deals, trades, coercion, attack, rebuff, invasion and so on. And they jostled against each other. The imperialists and colonisers, the traders and soldiers, the central government and the men on the ground, not to mention the Christian missionaries, often had wildly different aims and strategies.

Throughout his book Darwin defines different ‘types’ of empire – which immediately make you realise that what later history too glibly thinks of as the ‘rulers’ of ‘the Empire’ always had conflicting aims, which often led to confusion, sometimes disaster.

And even a cursory reading of the history soon makes you aware of the arguments, often bitter angry arguments, between the so-called ‘ruling classes’ back home.

The most obvious example is the fierce arguments surrounding the anti-slavery movement which overcame the angry resistance of the plantation owners and slave traders to eventually ban the institution of slavery, then ban the slave trade, so that, from the 1830s onwards, Britain become the world’s leading agent against slavery. The ruling classes were anything but monolithic – they were at daggers drawn.

Similarly, a strong anti-imperial party always existed in British society, arguing from morality, from Christian principle or just for pragmatic reasons, that ruling an empire was immoral, it distorted the economy and made it too reliant on cheap external commodities or foreign trade, and so on.

I studied the later Victorian period for A-Level and had drummed into me the level of personal and political dislike between Disraeli, the slippery impresario of Empire, and Gladstone, its pompous opponent who carried on vigorously arguing against it into the 1890s.

By the late 19th century you have organised socialist parties giving coherent economic and social reasons against Empire, a set of arguments encapsulated in the classic text, Imperialism: A Study (1902) by the British political scientist John Hobson, which argued that imperialism is an immoral and unnecessary extension of capitalism.

There was always opposition to ‘Empire’, and imperial rule itself was bedevilled by the frequent changes of government and sudden changes of attitude and strategy caused by the pesky democratic system. A central strand of Rudyard Kipling‘s work is his real anger and hatred of idiot politicians, especially Liberal politicians, who were constantly meddling with things they didn’t understand and making the lives of the men on the spot, the men trying to run things, impossible and often dangerous.

So these are just some of the ways in which the Empire was always ‘unfinished’ – giving the book its title.

The British Empire never achieved stasis; it was always too big, too complex, too unstable, in a permanent state of crisis dealing with local wars or rebellions, the threats of rival European empires, economic woes like depressions or agricultural blights, the disruptive impact of new technologies like electricity or the wireless.

Darwin quotes the historian John Gallagher who wrote, ‘Once the British Empire became world-wide the sun never set on its crises.’

Each generation of rulers felt it had been handed a vast can of worms to try and make sense of, organise, maintain and keep secure. It was like the game show challenge of keeping all those plates spinning on the top of the poles, and it is amazing how such a small country managed to keep so many plates spinning for so long until, during the Second World War, they all began crashing to the ground.

Types of empire

  • Entrepôt empire – from the 1690s to 1790s British merchants thrived on the Atlantic trade, moving around slaves and sugar to make profits
  • Free trade empire – from the 1790s onwards, diversifying into the spices, calico and other stuffs supplied from Asia
  • Conquest empire – military conquest to make existing territories secure, to overthrow troublesome ‘native’ rulers
  • The English Atlantic empire – based on a series of early, coastal bridgeheads around the Atlantic
  • The Trading empire in India – run by the East India Company and dependent on the goodwill of local rulers

And amid this diversity of empire, Darwin also defines a whole variety of types of colony. There were at least five large categories: Company Rule; Colonies; Protectorates; Dominions; Mandates.

However many you count, the point is that they were diverse: from tiny Hong Kong to vast Canada, from almost empty land settled by convicts (Australia) to countries teeming with well-established populations, cultures and rulers (India) – each required different handling, legal and trade arrangements.

Strength in diversity

This is a brilliant book which quietly, calmly, confidently dispenses with left-wing rhetoric about the British Empire and shows, again and again, what a weird, peculiar hodge-podge of entities ‘it’ really was.

Darwin refers to Edward Said and his ground-breaking work, Orientalism, as the source of the theory that the European empires and the British Empire above all, were ruled by a monolithic ideology which drummed home the repressive messages of racism, white supremacy, gender stereotyping, masculine violence and so on, via a set of channels which were completely controlled by an Imperialist ruling class – the press, magazines, music hall, literature, art and so on.

According to this view, all our modern ills – racism, sexism, inequality etc – directly stem from an imperial ideology which oppressed the British population as much as the foreign peoples it was used to control.

Darwin says it was more or less the opposite. It was precisely the extremely diverse nature of British society, with a strong central spine of monarchy and a settled parliamentary and legal framework providing the base for a huge diversity of religious belief, cultural practice and even languages among the populations of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, which meant that Britain was uniquely well-placed to ‘engage’ with the lands its settlers, merchants and missionaries discovered in a kaleidoscopic variety of ways.

It was the diversity of Britain which helped it cope with, engage with, conquer, negotiate with and manage the extraordinary diversity of peoples, races, cultures, civilisations and traditions which it met.

*********

All these ideas are conveyed in the first 50 pages of this brilliantly insightful, calm, measured and fascinating book, which is too crowded and packed with insights to do proper justice to in a summary. Do your mind a favour and read it.


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Mission to Paris by Alan Furst (2012)

When you are in Paris, you have to make love to somebody. (p.76)

This is the twelfth of Alan Furst’s historical espionage novels, all set on continental Europe in the late 1930s or early years of World War Two, in which fairly ordinary European men find themselves caught up in cloak and dagger activities, but are generally consoled by sensuous love affairs with one or more willing young ladies. The very strong love elements in Furst’s novels make them as much romantic novels as historical or spy thrillers.

This one is something of a return to the brooding intensity of his debut, Night Soldiers, with a real sense of growing menace and threat until almost the last pages. The previous two or three books in the series featured interesting hero figures – Carlo Weisz, Jean Mercier, Costa Zannis – who had sporadic undercover adventures, but then tended to return back to the safety of their hotel rooms or apartments for a good kip and some sensual sex with their lady of the moment – before setting out on another adventure, and so on. They felt episodic, only intermittently featuring violence which gave any sense of real danger.

Nazi menace

But in Mission to Paris the hero becomes enmeshed in a web of intrigue that doesn’t let up, but draws him deeper and deeper into peril – in which the Nazis who are tracking him systematically crowd into every part of his life, at first just requesting favours, then threatening vague reprisals, then physical violence and eventually he finds himself running for his life. It is this steadily mounting sense of threat and peril which is reminiscent of the powerful mood of the first books in the series.

The story is set against the looming threat of a European war. Hitler and the Nazis are screaming about the injustices being suffered by ethnic Germans in the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia and in western Poland – all, of course, preparing the way for his invasions of  those countries. Many pundits and many ordinary people are concluding that some kind of war with Germany is inevitable. Into the feverish atmosphere of war-worried Paris arrives a Hollywood movie star, Fredric Stahl (in fact born in Austria and who’s made good in the States) who has carved out a niche as an actor of sturdy, reliable male characters. He is coming over to play the lead in a Warner Brothers France production titled Après la Guerre.

As background, the novel gives examples of the incredibly widespread and well-organised propaganda efforts the Nazis are making to promote the parties of the right, to spread disinformation about Hitler’s intentions, to praise Germany, to promote the idea that it is silly to fight the Germans, there will be no war, to blame all warmongering on communists and Jews. In other words, of the Nazis’ extensive use of ‘political warfare’.

As to Stahl, the Ribbentropburo of the German Foreign Ministry knows about his stay in Paris, knows about his Austrian background, and is drawing up plans to exploit him in all sorts of ways: these include setting him up for press interviews with right-wing papers which distort his banal answers into apparent calls for peace, or a more menacing invitation to fly to the Reich to attend a film festival.

German figures from his past suddenly appear out of nowhere, journalists put words into his mouth, Paris salon hostesses introduce him to charming people who run Franco-German Friendship societies, would he like to attend a meeting, give an interview for their magazine, attend a German film festival? As the pressure grows on Stahl from multiple directions, the novel conveys a good sense of claustrophobia and mounting paranoia.

Things take a distinct turn half way through when Stahl reluctantly agrees to attend the wretched film festival in Berlin, and finds his contact at the American Embassy in Paris, J.J. Wilkinson, asking if he would mind taking a large sum of money with him and making a clandestine rendezvous with an American agent working under deep cover in Berlin. At this point Stahl crosses the line from innocent bystander to active agent, and the tension and pressure cranks up from that point onwards right to the end.

Plot summary

As usual with Furst’s novels, the text is divided into four parts or ‘acts’:

1. German money – 14 September to 30 September 1938

September 1938. We are introduced to Hollywood movie star Frederic Stahl, born Franz Stalka in Vienna 40 years previously, ran away to sea from his strict father aged 16, was on board a neutral ship when the Great War broke out. The ship was fired on by Italians and limped to Barcelona where the Austrian Legation gave him a desk job for the remainder of the war. Shipped back to Austria he tried to escape his domineering father and supine family by taking to acting. He played small parts at local theatres, then got a gig in Paris, where he was talent spotted by the Warner Brothers agent and sent to Hollywood. Here he’s created a brand as a clean-cut, reliable good guy. He’s been sent by the studio to star in a movie in Paris, Après la Guerre, alongside a French producer, director, crew etc. He’ll play the hero, leader of three soldiers who find themselves released after the 1918 Armistice and having to make their way home across a war-ravaged Europe.

The text actually opens with a scene depicting a hitman from the Nazi Ribbentropburo, named Herbert. The sinister Baroness Cornelia Maria von Reschke und Altenberg, a German aristocrat who has established one of the top salons in Paris, is a German agent, surreptitiously handing out funds and favours to French VIPs who can influence public opinion and policy in a direction favourable to Germany. As one of her many workstreams she has given a bag of money to one Prideaux, the chef de cabinet of a French senator, to pass onto his boss in return for Germany-friendly speeches. However, handling so much money went to Prideaux’s head and he has absconded to the Black Sea port of Varna, before moving on into Turkey. Unfortunately, Herbert and his henchman Lothar have tracked him down to Varna, with instructions to recover the money and terminate Prideaux. We watch Herbert and Lothar hire a local assassin to murder Prideaux. This opening scene sets the scene and mood, showing the sophistication and extent of their efforts to influence opinion in France, and the ruthlessness if someone crosses them.

The scene then shifts to Stahl on board the transatlantic liner, Ile de France, having a mild flirtation with a star-struck (and married) fan, Iris. He is met at le Havre by Zolly Louis, Warner Brothers man in Paris, and driven to the capital city in a stylish 1938 Panhard Dynamic car, where he’s been booked into a nice room at the Hotel Claridge. Stahl has barely unpacked before the hotel present him with letters and invitations, including one from the Baroness Cornelia Maria von Reschke und Altenberg. No reason not to go, so he dresses smartly and takes a cab to her luxury apartment but, as he takes her wizened claw and observes her tight face with the blue vein in her forehead and her fawning manner, he begins to feel antipathy, confirmed as he is then introduced to a succession of businessmen who gently but consistently ask him his opinion about Germany, about the situation in Europe, wouldn’t peace be better, isn’t war futile, you know it’s all these Jews who want war, they own all the armaments companies – and so on and on.

In the midst of this stifling atmosphere, Stahl is relieved to meet the stylish young Kiki de Saint-Ange, who whisks him away to a much more cool Bohemian party on the Left Bank. Being driven there in the big Panhard they come across men posting up affiches blanches to the walls, indications of the partial mobilisation the French government is beginning as war looms. Stahl’s chauffeur, Jimmy, is on the list and later Stahl learns that the director slated to direct his movie has been called up and sent to Alsace. The threat of a European war is becoming very real.

Next morning Stahl gets a cab out to the Paramount film studios in the Paris suburb of Joinville where, in Building K, he gets measured for his costumes by the costume designer, Renate Steiner, herself an émigré from Germany – her husband is a communist so they had to flee when Hitler came to power. Renate is brisk and professional and half way through her friends Inga and Klaus stop by to excitedly tell her that Daladier and Chamberlain have signed the Munich Agreement, in effect handing over the Sudeten part of north-west Czechoslovakia to Germany in exchange for Hitler’s promise of peace.

Stahl’s taxi back to the hotel gets stuck in a crowd of marchers protesting against the scandalous sellout to Hitler, and Stahl is forced to get out and walk. Suddenly, masked men attack the marchers with iron rods and Stahl finds himself coming to the defence of a woman being hit, next thing he’s struck by a bar himself, several times, falls to the ground, and is in the middle of fighting back when he is arrested and taken to a police station.

After a grim night Stahl is released by Zolly Louis, who has greased a few palms, but ‘Hollywood actor spends night in Paris gaol’ becomes one of the many threats the Germans will hold over him. Although he has a girlfriend / confidente / lover, Betsy Belle, back in Hollywood, he nonetheless accepts an invitation from Kiki to meet for a drink. He and Kiki stroll round lovers’ Paris in the evening, until they come across a nice discreet hotel and slip into it for an evening of slow, sensual sex.

This first ‘act’ ends with the three brief documentary-style examples of the way the Germans are bringing pressure to bear at every level of French society, but especially on the media and opinion formers:

  • We find Hervé Charais, news commentator for Radio Paris, relaxed in his bedroom and (naturally) admiring his half-dressed Spanish mistress (p.63) while she taunts and teases him and gently suggests that maybe his commentaries ought to put the German view a bit more, mention the hardships of the poor German minorities trapped in the Sudetenland or Poland and subject to bullying and intimidation. ‘How about it,’ she asks, as she takes his pecker in her hand…
  • The Director of the National Press Guild of Germany writes to the chief executive of the Havas Agency, the leading French wire service, confirming an all-expenses paid trip to the Reich where he will have dinner with the German Foreign Secretary, von Ribbentrop, and then a meeting with the Führer himself.
  • We hear LaMotte, wine king, in a phone conversation with the publisher of Le Temps, chatting about a weekend away together, the tennis they’ll play, and casually linking the money he’s about to spend on his next advertising campaign in the magazine, with a few comments on recent editorials about Germany: doesn’t he think the magazine is being a bit harsh? After all it was Hitler who invited Chamberlain and Daladier to Berchtesgarten, it was Hitler who defused the crisis; all the Germans want is peace. Honest.

2. Agent of Influence – 12 October to 4 November 1938

Stahl meets the cast of the movie – Pasquin the burly comedian, Brecker the blonde German, Justine Piro his female lead, Jean Avila the boy wonder director.

Mme Boulanger in the Warner Brothers office has fixed up an interview with Loubec, a journalist from Le Matin with his photographer René. Expecting to give an easygoing chat about the new movie and  his c-stars, Stahl is amazed when the interview is all about his attitude to war, to the Germans, with insinuating comments about his lack of active service during the Great War. When he sees the headline next morning – Hollywood stars speaks out for rapprochement – he realises how badly he’s been stitched up.

Stahl receives an invitation to visit the US Embassy, where he is seen by Second Secretary J.J. Wilkinson, who formally welcomes him to Paris. Wilkinson points out that he’s already been seen consorting with people known for their Nazi sympathies – the Baroness von Reschke, Philippe LaMotte – as well as managing to be locked up in prison for the night. An impressive start. Wilkinson explains to a puzzled Stahl that he is an ‘agent of influence’; a casual word from him will be widely reported and might help nudge public opinion, towards pacifism, fatalism, the wish for peace at any price: exactly what Hitler wants.

Next day  Stahl is appalled when a cast reading of the script is interrupted by Karl ‘Moppi’ Moppel’, Stahl’s boss at the Austro-Hungarian legation in Barcelona where Stahl worked during the Great War. What the hell is he doing here? How did he track him down to the studio? Moppi acts all innocent – he just wants to see his old friend, but has just enough time to make it clear that Stahl is Austrian, something the other cast members didn’t know. It’s a small nudge designed to alienate him from them and push him a little closer to the Nazi camp.

His Hollywood girlfriend Betsy Belle writes a letter dumping him, saying she’s met an older man who’ll ‘look after her’. On the rebound, Stahl phones Kiki and takes her out to a movie theatre where, to his surprise, she manoeuvres his hand between her thighs and makes him masturbate her to a brief gasping climax, all the time watching the silver screen.

Moppi continues to pester Stahl with phone calls and with invitations to lunch at the famous restaurant, Maxim’s. Eventually Stahl gives in, determined to go along and tell him to stop bloody bothering him. He finds a table full of repellent Nazis stuffing themselves with the best French food who invite him to a little film festival they’re having: all-expenses paid, luxury hotel, good food, he just has to watch half a dozen movies and select the best. Stahl stands up and delivers his speech, saying he absolutely will not go and telling them to stop pestering him. But as he walks away, he hears them laughing and drooling over the desserts as they arrive, completely unperturbed.

Next day Stahl goes back out to Building K out at Joinville for further fittings for his costume, where he finds Renate red-eyed and tearful, until he is prompted to give her a big hug. Things are bad at home; her husband is depressed at having gone from big-shot journalist in Berlin to nobody in Paris and gets so low he threatens suicide. Stahl is a friendly shoulder to cry on. ‘Gee, ma’am, wish there was more I could do to help.’

Madame Boulanger, slightly embarrassed at setting him up with the reptile Loubec, now fixes for Stahl to meet André Sokoloff, Russian émigré journalist, senior correspondent for Paris Soir, at the Brasserie Heininger. This is the ‘famous’ restaurant which, rather monotonously, features in every single Furst novel. Sokoloff appals Stahl by giving him an in-depth explanation of how ‘political warfare’ works, a nudge here, a word there, an interview, a commentary piece in a paper, and so on (pp.109-114). What appals him most is the extent of the active treachery of such large parts of French society which would rather have the country ruled by Hitler than by a Jew or a liberal.

When Stahl gets back to his hotel room it’s to find a Nazi bruiser has broken into his room and is calmly lounging on his sofa. It is Herbert who threatens him, warning him that he must come to the Reich for the film festival or he and his colleagues would be upset and you don’t want to upset us do you? You never know what might happen. Before getting up and casually sauntering out the door. It is his arrogance, his assumption that Stahl wouldn’t dare start anything, which Stahl finds so upsetting and demoralising.

Cut to the scene back at the Ribbentropburo in Berlin, where a meeting is convened to go through a long list of eminent French people who are being targeted with invitations, bribes or smears and threats, to toe the Nazi line. It includes discussion of some eye-opening examples, like the Catholic priest who preaches against Nazi ideology and who they’re working on the Vatican to get transferred to Martinique. Towards the bottom of the list is Stahl and, when he hears that the actor is refusing to play ball, the Deputy Director gets into a fury and threatens his underlings that Stahl better go to this bloody festival or else!

Stahl goes for a walk to calm down after the scary encounter with the Nazi in his room, and is sitting in a bar nursing a cognac when Kiki walks in. The conversation morphs from her cheering him up into the seductive role-playing mode of a soft porn movie, and he ends up taking her back to his luxury hotel (the Claridge) where she is soon ‘half-stripped, in high heels and lacy bra and panties’ before Stahl kneels and performs cunnilingus on her (p.125). All frightfully French and sophisticated.

Next day, back at the sound studio out at Joinville, his co-star Brecker arrives at a rehearsal at the studio with his arm in a sling. It was broken in a bar-room brawl. Can it possibly be some kind of threat from the Nazis? Stahl is now so spooked he is seeing their malign influence everywhere.

Stahl seeks another meeting with Wilkinson at the Embassy, tells him about the accumulated incidents and talks through what to do? Well, no laws have been broken – and each one of the incidents by itself is almost trivial. ‘Is he going to go to the film festival?’ Stahl is trying to decide, when Wilkinson points out that, if he does decide to go… well, there’s a little favour he could do for his government…

3. Espionage – 9 November to 10 December 1938

In act three, Stahl crosses a line by agreeing to work undercover for Wilkinson, becoming an agent, a spy. He phones the Nazis and agrees to go to their bloody festival. Has a horrible time on the plane to Berlin, along with repellent Emhof and reading Nazi propaganda rags. Taxi to the Hotel Adlon. The streets are absolutely packed with uniformed men and violence is in the air. He dresses for the evening meal, sucks up to the revolting German hosts – notably Otto Raab, the embittered mediocrity who’s found his niche in the Nazi Party as a hack turning out propaganda movies, and who is organiser of the festival.

Over the festival banquet, Stahl strikes up conversation with the athletic and attractive Russian émigré film star, Olga Orlova, who is one of Hitler’s favourite German actresses, and quite quickly she invites him to pop along to her bedroom after the banquet. Yummy. He waits a decent interval, makes his excuses to his hosts and goes up to her room. The reader expects that this is going to lead to yet another Furstian soft porn interlude. Instead, she calls for his identification, which turns out to be a Reichsmark note whose numbers she has been tipped off to check. They match; his identity is confirmed. Because it turns out, Olga is a spy, too. The mission Wilkinson gave Stahl was to smuggle in $100,000 in cash, which he hands over to Olga in return for the latest top secret documents she has secured. These he will stash in the secret compartment in his bag and take back to Wilkinson. Exchange made, Olga and Stahl agree he must stay in her room till the early hours as if they had had sex, which is their cover story for any snoopers. She goes to sleep in the bed, he on the couch.

Intermittently throughout the evening – when he stepped out for a cigarette, when he was in Olga’s bedroom – he and Olga both smelled burning. The omniscient narrator tells us this is because these events just happen to be taking place on Kristallnacht, the night of 9-10 November 1938, when, in reprisal for the assassination of a German official in the Paris embassy, the Nazi authorities encouraged the destruction of synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany and the roundup of up to 30,000 Jews to be taken off to camps. Obviously neither Olga nor Stahl understand this is what’s happening, though they realise it’s something bad.

Next day, Stahl has to watch a series of revolting Nazi films and ends up giving the top award to a propaganda farrago titled Hedwig’s Mountain, produced and directed by none other than Otto Raab, amid much backslapping and a graceful speech. Stahl plays his role to perfection without a trace of repulsion, secretly gratified that he is doing these scum some damage.

At the banquet the night before, the waiter serving him and Olga – Rudi – had been unpleasantly intrusive until Stahl bluntly told him to go away. As he’s preparing to leave the hotel, Stahl is horrified when the waiter approaches him and threatens to blackmail him and Olga. Were they really sleeping together – or doing something traitorous, conspiring against the Führer, for example? He wants $5,000 and fast! At first he thinks it’s a ridiculous joke, but then, as the waiter’s bitterness becomes more apparent, and as he thinks of all the stories he’s heard about the Gestapo, Stahl becomes genuinely frightened. He phones Olga on an emergency number, explains the situation, and in 40 minutes she appears with the required money in a bag, and they go up to Rudi’s attic room. Here she mollifies and soothes him, distracting him as she gets out the money, and then shoots him in the head with a silenced gun. She scribbles a suicide note and arranges the body to look like suicide. Stahl, stunned, watches her. Nobody mentioned murder. He’s really in it, now. Up to his neck.

Nonetheless, Stahl takes a taxi to the Berlin Tempelhof airport and flies unhindered back to Paris, job done. Next day he is relieved to see the Warner Brothers press people did a small release about how he’s doing his bit to ‘promote’ his new movie in Germany. Clever way of spinning it.

Out at the Joinville studio, the movie finally starts filming – Furst supplies interesting detail on the script, the opening scenes, technical problems overcome and so on.

In the costume room, Stahl discovers Renate in tears; she has broken up with her depressive husband – more accurately, he’s run off with a younger model. As her hands touch his body as she adjusts shirt and trousers and outfits, as she measures him and as she walks away from him with a sexy sway, Stahl realises he really fancies her or, as Furst puts it, ‘He wanted to fuck her’ (p.165). He makes subtle moves but she doesn’t respond.

Stahl is invited out to a society dinner party where he meets Wilkinson to hand over Olga’s documents. Wilkinson gives Stahl (and the reader) more insight into the complex international situation. Turns out the money he’s given him to give to Olga, is not US government money. Congress, the Senate and most of the population don’t want anything to do with Europe. But Roosevelt knows war is coming and is strongly anti-German. This money comes from private donors and friends of the president’s in order to gather information to help Roosevelt make his case Stateside, to influence important people. Stahl has got himself involved in America’s efforts at ‘political warfare’.

Finishing a day’s filming unexpectedly early, Stahl surprises Renate in her costume room wearing only stockings and suspenders, trying out a blouse. She squeals and runs for the changing room. Stahl is absolutely confirmed in his erotic obsession with her now. He fantasises about her, though she remains cool.

Stahl continues to be pestered by Moppi, this time invited to come meet the famous Wolf Lustig, the most eminent producer in Germany, at a reception being given at the Pré Catelan restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne. It is being hosted by the Roussillon wine people (who we know from early on are pro-German organisation) and the witchy Baroness is presiding – once again Stahl has to shake her claw and stare into her beady eyes – before being introduced to Lustig who he takes an instant dislike to. Lustig, confident and jokey like Emhof, like all these arrogant Krauts, offers Stahl a role in his next production. It will be set in Poland, titled Harvest of Destiny, about a good-hearted German girl who is victimised by cowardly Poles and Jews. ‘Does he want at least to come on the reconnaissance journey round Poland? All expenses paid?’ Stahl feels physically ill and can’t extract himself fast enough.

Stahl goes to meet Wilkinson again. Wilkinson by this time has become a kind of commentator on the action: when something happens to Stahl, Stahl goes to Wilkinson to have it interpreted and explained. Now Wilkinson explains that the ‘recce’ could quite possibly be a spying mission – what better cover than a film producer looking for locations, and quite justifiably taking detailed notes of railway lines, bridges, infrastructure? The more that is revealed to him, the more horrified Stahl becomes at the complexity of the web of deceit which seems to be enmeshing Europe and the lust for violence which underpins it all.

In a new narrative thread, we are introduced to two new characters, Freddi Müller, one of the Führer’s favourites up at his Berchtesgarten retreat, and his wife, Gertrude ‘Trudi’ Müller. Olga is a valued guest of the Führer’s from time to time and the narrator explains how Trudi has developed a lesbian crush on her. A crush Olga the professional spy knows she can exploit. One morning the two women gear up to go for a healthy, vigorous, Aryan walk up a nearby mountain – but snow and bad weather close in and force them back to the hotel they’re staying in. Here, Trudi has a slow luxurious soak, while Olga gets busy riffling through husband Freddi’s briefcase and using a specially adapted Leica camera to snap everything she finds in it, lots of information about Poland.

Through secret channels Olga communicates to Wilkinson that she has new information for sale, but at an even higher price than the previous product. Wilkinson is set to send another courier to Berlin to collect it, but the agent is injured in a car crash, so he’s at a loss. In conversation with Stahl, Wilkinson discovers that the movie he’s working on now moving to do its foreign location shoots – first stop will be Morocco, to a place called Erg Chebbi in the Ziz Valley on the edge of the Sahara Desert (p.192).

So Wilkinson arranges for Olga to send a courier with the photos of the documents all the way to Morocco  and gives Stahl a pack of cash to meet him and pay for it. From Stahl’s point of view, we see the flights of him and the film crew in several stops down to Morocco, a bit of atmospheric reconnoitring into the desert, and the set-up for a few days’ filming. In the middle of all this, Stahl takes a break to go to the railway station as planned, and meets almost the only European on the train, a pudgy German. They identify each other and make a discreet swap, Stahl’s money for Olga’s envelope full of photographed documents.

Mission accomplished, Stahl relaxes and invites Renate out for a drink or a meal that night after work, but she is stuck in looking after her room-mate member of the crew, who’s got food poisoning. Stahl is frustrated at his lack of progress with her. He keeps seeing her stockings, her suspenders, her smooth creamy thighs etc.

Early next morning he is woken by the movie’s director, Avila. The police have arrived. As usual nowadays, Stahl’s heart almost stops with fear that he’s somehow been exposed and will spend the next thirty years in a Moroccan gaol. But the police just want them to come to the morgue to identify a body, as almost the only other Europeans in town. It is, inevitably, the corpse of the pudgy German, who had been horribly garroted and thrown off the train. Both Avila and Stahl say they’ve never seen him before.

4. A Good Soldier – 17 December 1938 to early February 1939

The filming is completed without further incident and the crew all fly back to Paris. Stahl makes an appointment to meet Wilkinson at what has become their regular rendezvous, the American Library in Paris. Wilkinson is shocked to hear about the murder, but grateful for the Polish documents – he explains they’ll come in handy influencing senators and congressmen of Polish origin, back in the States.

Stahl chats more to Renate on the plane home, keeping up a slight but relentless pressure for a date. That night she invites him to her small Bohemian flat in rue Varlin for a home-made dinner. They’re drinking wine and relaxing in an intimate candle-lit atmosphere, when Stahl surprises her (and the reader) by asking her to strip. But – thus addressed point blank – she does: she gets up and does a slow strip-tease in front of him, finally unbuttoning his flies, extracting his manhood and kneeling to perform fellatio. Lucky old Stahl.

Meanwhile, in a completely different time zone and mood, Olga is entertaining Trudi to tea in a chintzy tearoom in Berlin. We have, by being party to her thoughts, by this time realised that she mainly works for the Soviets, but sells things onto Wilkinson or the British, if they’ll buy. She’s not fussy. Unexpectedly, there is a phone call for her. At first surprised, Olga is terrified when a voice says simply, ‘Get out now, the Gestapo are in your apartment.’

Flushed and stressed, she takes leave of Trudi who, to her surprise, insists on helping her, so she accepts a lift to the train station. But this is heaving with Gestapo so they drive around before finding a tiny hotel. They take a room then Olga sends Trudi out to buy peroxide and scissors. They cut Olga’s hair short and dye it. Next morning Trudi drives her beloved and now disguised Olga out to the Berlin suburbs, they have a tearful goodbye and then Olga catches a series of local trains to Frankfurt, where she catches a fast one to Prague.

Stahl is at Renate’s when there is a phone call, it is for him, it is long distance from Berlin, one of those arrogantly confident German voices saying they wish to know the whereabouts of a certain Olga Orlova, maybe he can help them. Furious and terrified, Stahl slams the phone down. How did they know he’d be at Renate’s? How did they get her number? It is designed to scare him, and her. As has become usual, Stahl meets Wilkinson to discuss the news and its implications, this time on one of those tourist boats that ply up and down the Seine.

Later Stahl is phoned in his hotel room by another smiling German voice, which asks him to look out the window and there, in the apartment opposite, a hand waves and he hears a voice laughing. Now he is really spooked.

Kiki phones Stahl for a meeting at a cafe in a smart part of town. Instead of her usual seductive self, she is scared. She says she has come from the Baroness and is delivering what she calls ‘a final warning’. They want to know where Olga is. They will brook no refusals.

Meanwhile, back on the film production, as it approaches the end of the year, the entire crew fly to Hungary for the final location shooting at an old Hungarian castle, a key scene in the movie. When I read that the castle belongs to none other than Count Polyani I burst out laughing. Count Janos Polanyi has appeared in numerous previous Furst novels, and is a spymaster at the Hungarian legation in Paris. At a stroke I knew the book would have a happy ending.

Furst litters this series of novels with recurring characters which is entertaining, but the drawback is that their appearance mostly militate against seriousness: they remind me of the gallery of characters you get at the beginning of Tintin books, and the childish pleasure to be had identifying them and trying to remember which one appeared in which story. Same here.

The count is, of course, a noble old host – roast venison is served along with bulls blood wine, and the filming cracks on at a good rate. Except that early on New Year’s Day 1939, the cameraman comes hurtling into the breakfast room to announce that all the cameras have been stolen. A message is left that the crew must bring a ransom to an old inn down the Danube.

The count is amused at this presumption and rustles up to aristocratic friends, Ferenc and Anton to sort out  his guests’ little problem. They load a large motorboat and steam down the Danube with Avila and Stahl in attendance but the Hungarians insist that, as their guests, they stay aboard the boat. They anchor it near the old inn and then the count and pals disappear into the woods. After some suspense, our chaps hear a sudden outburst of shooting – single shots then an automatic – and then the roar of a car engine.

The count and pals reappear: three Germans were waiting, but they caught them napping, there was a shootout in which everyone missed, and the Germans ran away. Alas the cameras were nowhere to be seen. Laughing over the incident, the count steers the boat back upstream towards the castle. He secures some more cameras from Budapest and the filming is finally finished. The crew assemble to fly out of Budapest airport, but at passport control there is a problem.

Renate has a German passport, she has never been naturalised in France and she doesn’t have the correct exit visa. The rest of the crew can leave, but she can’t. So they all board the plane out, but Stahl also refuses to go, insisting on staying with his new girlfriend, despite a strong hint from the passport official that it is his last chance.

This ought to be scary but, as with the appearance of Count Polanyi, there is a pantomime feel about the menace. Stahl is not one of the completely powerless Jews I read about in the work of Primo Levi – he is an American film star. Therefore, he is able to get a taxi to a nice hotel, from where he makes an appointment with the American consulate. Here he is shown right in and meets a nice young man named Stanton, who says he’ll be able to expedite getting Renate an American visa which will allow them both to fly right over Hitler’s Germany. Might take a week or more, though. Outside is a long line of people queueing for visas, who are not American film stars.

So they’ve secured one route to freedom, but this is trumped after Stahl makes a person to person call with his agent, Buzzy Mehlman, in California. He explains the situation and Buzzy says he’ll get on it. Result? At 11am next day Jerry Silverberg turns up, Warner Brothers’ man in Eastern Europe, who has fixed everything: train to Arad on the Romanian border; bribe Major Mihaly of the border guard to get into Romania; train to Constanta on the Black sea; steamer to Istanbul; ship to Lisbon; boat to New York; 20th century Limited transcontinental train back to Hollywood. He’s booked all the tickets, first class. Such is the power of Hollywood and American money.

Sure enough, Renate and Stahl get the rather slow train to Arad where there is a civilised exchange of money with Major Mihaly, who waves them across the border.

Stahl and Renate are in a hotel room in Constanta waiting for the ferry, when the narration tells us that… so is Herbert, the Nazi hitman we met in the opening scene of the book, and his sidekick Lothar. On January 13 Herbert packs his Luger and swaggers off to the Princess Maria hotel where Stahl and Renata are staying. He bangs on their bedroom door with increasing impatience, thinking they are unarmed, helpless prey, getting bored and frustrated and hungry for his lunch. However, Stahl still has the pistol Count Polanyi gave him back at the castle, during the trip down the river. As Herbert’s threatening becomes more impatient, angry and Germanic, something in Stahl snaps and he fires through the door. There is the sound of a body falling – then silence.

They smuggle the corpse down onto a nearby bench overlooking the sea then go on to the dock to await their ship. It is a long journey, three weeks at sea, with a few stopovers, before they reach New York. As the Statue of Liberty comes into view Renate is crying and Stahl is choked up. The nightmare is over, and they are both free.


Dramatis personae

As always it’s only when you list them, that you realise what an enormous number of characters a Furst novel contains, and how they add a great sense of depth and complexity and historical verisimilitude to the story.

The characters listed here (and the plot summary above) don’t include the plot and characters of the movie Stahl is making –  Après la Guerre – which has a cast of characters and a storyline all its own, which we get to hear quite a lot about as we watch it being rehearsed and filmed. Then there are further ‘stories’ embedded in the text, such as the plot of the film which Stahl and Kiki watch as she masturbates herself on his fingers and which Furst describes in some detail. Or the numerous background stories, such as the slightly complex chain of events which led up to the Kristallnacht and which Furst explains for us.

On multiple levels, then, and in interlocking and overlapping webs, Furst’s books are tremendously dense with story and character, which makes for a rich and rewarding reading experience, like the multiple layers of flavour in an expensive wine.

  • Louise Prideaux, chef de cabinet of a French senator, who has absconded with a sizeable bribe given him by the Countess to pass on to the senator, but instead he’s done a bunk and is holed up in a cheap hotel in the Black Sea port of Varna (p.4).
  • Herbert, Nazi thug, organises killings for the Ribbentropburo (p.7).
  • Lothar, Herbert’s sidekick, fat, fiftyish, jolly (p.8).
  • General Aleksey, the Russian émigré they’ve hired to assassinate Prideaux (p.9).
  • Deputy Director of the Ribbentropburo, based in the Reich Foreign Ministry at 3 Wilhelmstrasse, young, incisive, angry (p.13).
  • Herr Hoff, Ribbentropburo functionary in charge of the French section, so gets handed the Fredric Stahl brief (p.15).
  • Fredric Stahl, Hollywood movie star, born Franz Stalka in Vienna, he now makes $100,000 a picture and has been sent by Warner Brothers in a deal to appear in a Paramount France production (p.15).
  • Iris, the wife of a drunk mid-Western businessman who Fredric has a kiss and a cuddle with on the transatlantic liner, the Ile de France (p.16).
  • Zolly (short for Zoltan, Hungarian) Louis, Warner Brothers man in Paris (p.21).
  • Jimmy Louis, Zoltan’s nephew and chauffeur of the huge 1938 Panhard Dynamic automobile in which Fredric is driven round (p.23).
  • Jules Deschelles, producer of the movie Fredric’s to appear in, Après la Guerre (p.36).
  • Baruch ‘Buzzy’ Mehlman, Stahl’s agent at the William Morris Agency in Hollywood (p.25).
  • Walter Perry, right hand man to Jack Warner, boss of Warner Brothers (p.25).
  • Mme Boulanger, 50-ish, determined head of publicity at Warner Brothers Paris (p.27).
  • Karl ‘Moppi’ Moppel, a threatening presence from the past, Stahl’s boss at the Austro-Hungarian legation in Barcelona where Stahl worked during the Great War (p.32).
  • Frau Hilda Bruner, his friend (p.34).
  • Jean Casson, a French film producer who was the hero of two Furst novels, The World At Night and Red Gold. We don’t see him; Stahl walks past his door on the way to Deschelles’ office (p.36).
  • Baroness Cornelia Maria von Reschke und Altenberg, sinister hostess of a leading Paris salon, German and pretty obviously a German agent.
  • Betsy Belle, Stahl’s official Hollywood fiancée / lover, ie they take care to be seen out and about together and photographed by the gossip columns (p.40).
  • Philippe LaMotte, managing director of the Roussillon wine company, also director of the Comité Franco-Allemagne, a German propaganda front.
  • Kiki de Saint-Ange, stylish young Parisienne who frequents the Baroness’s salon but prefers a racier, more bohemian set on the Left Bank. Quite quickly she and Stahl become lovers and he is excited by her open-minded sexual inventiveness (p.48).
  • Renate Steiner, married German émigré costume designer for the movie, fled Germany with her husband because he is a communist (p.53).
  • Inga and Klaus, two émigré friends of Renata who cycle by to tell her the Munich Agreement has been signed (30 September 1938) (p.54).
  • Justine Piro, female lead in the movie (p.71).
  • Pasquin, burly frequently drunk French comedian, co-star in the movie (p.72).
  • Gilles Brecker, Germanic looking co-star in the movie (p.82).
  • Jean Avila, young Wunderkind director who is now slated to direct Après la Guerre (p.73).
  • J.J. Wilkinson, Ivy league Wall Street lawyer, now Second Secretary at the US Embassy in Paris and conduit for money from President Roosevelt’s anti-German friends (p.74).
  • Loubec, journalist from Le Matin with his photographer René (p.89)
  • André Sokoloff, Russian émigré journalist, now senior correspondent for Paris Soir, a friendly presence who explains in some detail how ‘political warfare’ works, the extent it has penetrated French high society, the sheer number of top French who are, in effect, traitors to their own country (p.109-114).
  • Emhof, pop-eyed Nazi in charge of the group at Maxim’s who invite Stahl to the film festival in Berlin (p.99).
  • Otto Raab, mediocre German film director who has found is niche in the Nazi party (p.145).
  • Olga Orlova, Russian émigré movie star, one of Hitler’s favourites, who turns out to be a spy for hire and who plays a key role in the final sections of the book (p.146).
  • Rudi the waiter, who tries to blackmail Stahl and Olga with fatal consequences (p.148).
  • Wolf Lustig, Germany’s most successful movie director (p.176).
  • Freddi Müller, one of the Führer’s favourites up at the Berchtesgarten.
  • Gertrude ‘Trudi’ Müller, Freddi’s wife who has developed a lesbian crush on Olga, a crush Olga ruthlessly takes advantage of (p.184).
  • Count Janos Polyani, who has featured in several of the previous novels as a spymaster based in the Hungarian legation in Paris. The film crew use his castle as the final location for the movie (p.233).
  • Jerry Silverberg, fairy godmother aka Warner Brothers man in Eastern Europe who fixes the entire escape route for Stahl and Renate out of Hungary and back to the US of A (p.249).

Credit

Mission To Paris by Alan Furst was published in 2012 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent – The adventures of Carlo Weisz, an Italian exile from Mussolini living in Paris in 1938 and 1939, as Europe heads towards war. He is a journalist working for Reuters and co-editor of an anti-fascist freesheet, Liberazione, and we see him return from Civil War Spain, resume his love affair with a beautiful German countess in Nazi Berlin, and back in Paris juggle conflicting requests from the French Sûreté and British Secret Intelligence Service, while dodging threats from Mussolini’s secret police.
2008 The Spies of Warsaw The adventures of Jean Mercier, French military attaché in Warsaw between autumn 1937 and spring 1938, during which he has an affair with sexy young Anna Szarbek, helps two Russian defectors flee to France, is nearly murdered by German agents and, finally, though daring initiative, secures priceless documents indicating German plans to invade France through the Ardennes – which his criminally obtuse superiors in the French High Command choose to ignore!
2010 Spies of the Balkans The adventures of Costa Zannis, senior detective in the northern Greek port of Salonika, who is instrumental in setting up an escape route for Jews from Berlin through Eastern Europe down into Greece and then on into neutral Turkey. The story is set against the attempted Italian invasion of Greece (28 October 1940) through to the German invasion (23 April 1941).
2012 Mission to Paris The adventures of Hollywood movie star Frerick Stahl, who travels to Paris to make a movie and becomes embroiled in increasingly sinister Nazi attempts to bully, blackmail and intimidate him into making pro-German or at least pacifist statements, and then gets caught up in actual espionage with more and more at stake.
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris (2012)

Young historian and TV presenter Marc Morris has written a racy pacy account of the ‘most important event in English history’, a  350-page overview which starts 50 years before the big event, continues for a generation afterwards, and effortlessly integrates scholarly weighing of the various sources and their reliability with common-sense interpretation and stylish factual asides.

For example, the population of 11th century England was some 1.5 million of whom over 10% were slaves. Most of the population above them were smallholding churls, with around 5,000 significant landowners in the whole country, of whom only an estimated 90 held enough land to be rich enough to attend the king, and only 4 earls at a time ruled the four main regions of Wessex, Mercia, Northumberland and East Anglia.

There are some fascinating sections on the rise of Norman church architecture, later named the ‘Romanesque’, whose soaring new designs eclipsed the clunky windowless churches of the Saxons.  And a chapter dedicated to the origin and implementation of the amazing Domesday Book.

However, no matter how brightly and enthusiastically it starts, like every account of this era, Morris’s book soon bogs down in the tangled web of family trees and promises – ie who promised who the throne of which country when, who invaded who, who made solemn oaths of friendship and then declared war etc – webs which ensnare not just the throne of England but those of Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, Wales and France as well as the dukedoms and earldoms of Anjou and Flanders and Normandy, to name just the main ones.

As one way through this complex web I set out to record simply why each king of England – from Æthelred the Unready onwards – actually became king. Not their acts and achievements. Just why they became king.

***

Æthelred the Unready (978–1013 and 1014–1016) son of King Edgar and Queen Ælfthryth, Æthelred was the great-grandson of Alfred the Great. King Edgar had an older son by another wife, Edward, who duly became king in 975 but was not the choice of many powerful nobles and was murdered just three years later in 978. It’s at this point that the Witan or council of powerful landowners elected the ten-year-old Æthelred king. Over the following 40 years Æthelred failed to bind together the factions which had made his election so bloody, and his long reign was characterised by backstabbing weakness at the centre and betrayal at the periphery. All made worse for coinciding with a resumption of the Danish/Viking raiding which everyone thought had been staunched in the mid-900s. Thus in 1002 Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, landed and began harrying whole swathes of England in sustained campaigns until, in 1013, Æthelred was forced to flee abroad (to the court of Normandy, home of his wife Emma) whereupon Sweyn declared himself king.

Sweyn Forkbeard (1013-14) Sweyn had himself crowned king of England on Christmas Day 1013. He reigned for 5 weeks, dying on 3 February 1014. He had one son, Cnut, aged about 20, who had been an active helper in his wars. But the English ealdormen rejected Cnut and invited Æthelred back to be their king. Kingship in Anglo-Saxon England was elective.

Æthelred the Unready part 2 (1014–1016) Æthelred accepted the invitation, returned from Normandy and organised an army which defeated the Danes in Lincolnshire, the one and only military victory of his reign. However, old divisions among his senior advisers once again opened up and soon his eldest son, Edmund, was in open opposition to him. In September 1015 the Danes led by Cnut re-invaded and Edmund led the armies against them while Æthelred fell into his final illness and his court squabbled as usual. In April 1016 Æthelred died.

Edmund Ironside (April – November 1016) third of the six sons of Æthelred by his first marriage to Ælfgifu, Edmund gathered loyalist forces around him to fight the Danes, first Sweyn and then his son Cnut. Edmund was king of England from April 1016, when his father died. He led fierce resistance to the invading Danes, fighting five major battles against them before defeat at the battle of Battle of Assandun led him to agree to a division of the country, Edmund keeping Wessex, the old English heartland of Alfred the Great, and Cnut taking the rest. These arrangements were rendered moot when Edmund himself died 0n 30 November, probably from wounds sustained in the battle.

—At  this point Æthelred’s children by his second wife, Emma of Normandy – Alfred, the future Edward the Confessor and their sister, Godgifu – fled abroad to Normandy.—

Cnut the Great (1016-1035) Cnut and his Danish army successfully regained the throne claimed by his father Sweyn. He was to rule as king of England for nearly 20 years, at the same time being king of Denmark and of as much of Norway as he could conquer.

[Edmund’s heirs – Edmund had two children by Ealdgyth – Edward and Edmund. Cnut sent them to the king of Sweden to be murdered, but the Swedish king forwarded them to Hungary where Edmund died but Edward prospered. Edward ‘the Exile’, as he became known, returned to England in 1057 only to die within a few days of his arrival...]

Cnut had sons by two wives:

  • Ælfgifu of Northampton, who he was betrothed to by his father Sweyn upon the conquest in 1013, gave him Svein and Harold, called ‘Harefoot’. Svein was to die on campaign in Norway in 1035.
  • Upon taking the throne Cnut invited Æthelred’s widow, Emma of Normandy, to marry him; she did and bore him Harthacnut.

Hiatus (1035-37) When Cnut died after nearly 20 years on the English throne he left the conditions for a bloody struggle between the two sets of sons. The great men of the kingdom held a meeting at Oxford on the river Thames, the border between Wessex and the south where Emma based herself and which supported Harthacnut, and the more Scandinavian north which supported Harold. They agreed to partition the country (once again) but in fact Harthacnut found it impossible to leave Denmark where he was threatened by invasion by the kings of both Norway and Sweden, for some years. And so, the record suggests, Harold little by little made himself actual ruler of the whole country.

Harold I ‘Harefoot’ (1035-40) son of Cnut by his second wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, some historians speculate that his mother was the real power behind the throne. After the conflicts surrounding his election not much is recorded of his reign. He died in on 7 March 1040 at the relatively young age of 24, just as his half-brother Harthacnut had finally got round to organising a fleet to invade England.

Harthacnut (1040-42) son of Cnut and his second wife, Emma the widow of Æthelred. He arrived with a fleet of 62 ships at Sandwich on 17 June 1040.  Most of the army were mercenaries and one of Harthacnut’s first acts was to levy an enormous tax to pay for them. Unpopular across the country, two tax collectors in Worcester were killed by the mob which led Harthacnut to send forces to kill everyone in the city and raze it to the ground. His popularity never recovered and he levied the same punitive tax the next year. After two brief years, on 8 June 1042 Harthacnut dropped dead at a wedding feast in Lambeth.

But, according to Morris, one of the few good things Harthacnut did in his reign was, in the second year, unexpectedly, to invite Edward, son of Æthelred and Emma, to come and join him in a joint rule (p.42). Maybe he realised how unpopular he was and needed an English intermediary. Whatever the motivation it paved the way for Edward’s swift acclamation.

Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) was a son of Æthelred by his second marriage to Emma of Normandy. Æthelred already had no fewer than six sons by his first marriage to Ælfgifu and so it must have seemed unlikely that Edward would ever inherit the crown. However, the most powerful son, Edmund Ironside, was killed resisting Cnut as, it seems, were four of the others, and the survivor, Eawdwig, was executed by Cnut along with any other members of the English nobility who seemed a threat soon after his victory in 1016. So now, in 1042, the son of Emma and Cnut – Harthacnut – was dead – and so were the sons of Cnut and Ælfgifu – Svein and Harold – and so were all the sons of Æthelred and Ælfgifu – leaving Edward on the spot and eligible. He was elected king by the Witan and crowned on Easter Day 1043.

Harold II Godwinson (1066) Edward reigned for a long time and a lot happened. A central thread is the presence of the great earl Godwine, who had risen under Cnut from relative obscurity to become, through his fighting prowess, earl of Wessex and one of the most powerful earls in the country by about 1020. A theme of Edward’s reign was the difficulty he had managing Godwine, problems which reached a climax in 1051 when Edward ordered Godwin to punish the population of Dover for a drunken brawl with visiting Frenchmen. Godwin refused, it became a battle of wills and Edward rallied the other earls and leaders and managed to get Godwin and his sons exiled and seized all his land. However, in 1052, the Godwins returned with a large armed force and won enough support to compel Edward to restore him. In 1053 he died and his son Harold inherited the earldom of Wessex, every bit as strong and imperious as his father.

The fatal promise

The crux of the Norman Conquest is whether Edward the Confessor promised the English throne to Duke William of Normandy, as is depicted in the Bayeaux tapestry and in all Norman accounts. When Cnut ruled England the entire Saxon royal family sought refuse in Normandy, where Edward was raised. As it became clear he was going to have no male issue, he allegedly, in 1051, sent a promise to Duke William that he would inherit the English throne. Over the years he infiltrated various Normans into high positions, including Archbishop of Canterbury.

Edward was well aware that earl Godwin’s headstrong son, Harold, considered himself a legitimate heir and so in 1064 Edward ordered him to go to Normandy to confirm Edward’s election of Duke William as his successor. This Harold did with very bad grace and William forced him to make the oath of allegiance over holy relics, effectively making Harold William’s vassal. But in his heart Harold didn’t accept it.

For Harold and the Saxons the crown was passed on by the decision of the Witan or council or by brute force; one king couldn’t choose to pass it to another. For William, Edward’s promise and Harold’s confirmation of it on holy relics, was a solemn and binding legal agreement.

And so when Edward died and Harold, ignoring his forced promise, and acclaimed by the other nobles of the country, took the throne, Duke William felt cheated and was able to persuade not only his own people but even Pope Alexander II that his cause was Just, to raise a massive armada, and to get the Pope’s blessing for his invasion. Harold counter-claimed that Edward gifted him the throne on his deathbed.

Who was telling the truth? Did such a gift supersede – if it was made – the solemn promises Edward had made earlier to William? Did those solemn promises have meaning in English custom and law?

Harold was crowned in Westminster Abbey on January 6 1066. In September he had to march north to deal with the invasion of the Norwegian warrior, Harold Hardrada.

Harald Sigurdsson (called ‘Hardrada’) Half-brother to King Olaf the Saint of Norway. Following Olaf’s defeat and death at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030, Harald saw action in Russia and then as a member of the Byzantine emperor’s famous Varangian Guard in warfare around the Mediterranean. In 1046 he returned to Scandinavia and to conflict with his nephew Magnus I who had become king of Denmark and Norway. When Magnus died in 1047 Harald became king of Norway but hankered after Denmark as well and raided the country every year for nearly 20 years. Moreover, he contemplated invading England more than once, to restore the Empire of Cnut the Great. The Confessor was well aware of this and sent numerous emissaries to pacify Harald, but who also gave him the impression he would get the throne of England when Edward died.

In 1066 Harold Godwinson’s brother Tostig, former earl of Northumbria, was driven out of England and into exile. He came to Norway and persuaded Harald to try and invade the north of England, the part of the country with strong Scandinavian ties due to the prolonged settlement there of Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries. The landings were initially successful and Harald and his forces won the battle of Fulford outside York. However, King Harold II Godwinson arrived with a large force and, catching the Norwegians by surprise, massacred them at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066.

William the Bastard (1066-87) In 1036 Duke Robert of Normandy died on pilgrimage to the Holy Land leaving a 7-year-old son by a working woman to whom he was not married and who he named William. William’s childhood and teens were spent in a court in crisis and beset by war, an environment he mastered, making himself the most successful military leader in northern Europe. He was convinced Edward the Confessor had promised him the crown of England and was outraged when Harold ‘usurped’ it. He assembled a huge invasion fleet and an army well-stocked with mercenary fighters, before waiting impatiently for the weather in the English Channel to become favourable. Landing in Pevensey Bay on 28 September 1066, he marched his army to Hastings and then inland to the ridge at Senlac where, on 14 October, the Battle of Hastings was fought, King Harold Godwinson killed, and the Saxon forces decimated.

William then marched his men from the coast through Sussex and Surrey, across the Thames and then north-east along the Chilterns to Berkhamsted, ravaging and burning as he went. All resistance was crushed and eventually the English nobles in London realised they had to capitulate. William had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. For the Normans coronation put God’s seal on power. He also had the Pope’s imprimatur. William claimed the throne:

  • by right of the Confessor’s solemn promises
  • by right of conquest
  • by right of the Pope and Mother Church
  • by the (eventual) acclamation of the leading English nobles

Edward the Aetheling Remember Edward the Exile, the son of Edmund Ironside? Who came back to England in 1057 only to drop dead? Well, he had a son known to history as Edgar the Ætheling (b.1051?). After Harold II was killed at Battle, Edward was briefly proclaimed king of England and based himself in anti-Norman London, at least for the few months that William ravaged his way through the Home Counties. It was Edward who led the deputation from London which went to submit to the Conqueror at Berkhamsted. He was allowed to live but plagued William by putting himself at the head of a number of rebellions against William’s rule between 1067 and 1075. With the end of English opposition in that year he went and fought alongside the Conqueror’s son Robert of Normandy in campaigns in Sicily (1085-1087) and accompanied Robert on the First Crusade (1099-1103) before dying of old age in England in 1126.

The failure of monarchy

The fundamental reason there was a Norman Conquest is because Edward the Confessor failed to have a son, indeed any children. His widow, Edith, later commissioned a Life of Edward which claimed he was so devout and holy the couple never had sex. More likely it was just a common-or-garden case of infertility, in which case two of the most seismic events in English history – the Norman Conquest and the Reformation – can be attributed to malfunctioning sex organs.

Related links

King Edward the Confessor promising what, exactly, and to whom?

King Edward the Confessor promising what, exactly, and to whom?

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