The Good Soldier Švejk, Volume Four: The Glorious Licking Continues by Jaroslav Hašek (1923)

Chapter One – Švejk in a transport of Russian prisoners

At the end of Volume Three, Švejk, acting as orderly to the 11th march company of the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austrian Army, had been sent ahead by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Lukáš, to scout out a village in Galicia, southern Poland, where the command could billet.

Švejk ended up on his own and came across a Russian prisoner of war who had a) escaped from his captors b) stripped off by a lake to go skinny-dipping. Terrified, the Russian gets out further along the lake and legs it. Like a numpty, Švejk tries on the Russian’s uniform for fun and is promptly arrested by a passing troop of Hungarians.

Švejk tries to explain that he’s a Czech, a fellow subject of his Imperial Highness, but the Hungarians don’t speak Czech and, reasonably enough since he’s wearing a Russian uniform, take him for a captured Russian.

It’s only at a roll-call later, when the officer asks if anyone speaks German and Švejk steps forward, that he is able to explain to someone that he is actually a Czech not a Russian. However, the officer Švejk explains all this to, an ‘interpreter sergeant-major’, doesn’t believe him and insists he is a Jew since all the German-speakers they’ve caught have been Jews.

(There is a digression while the sergeant demonstrates how perfectly he has his orderly trained, by making him walk round the office on all fours and bark like a dog.)

And since the Jews are ‘intelligent’, the ‘interpreter sergeant-major’ sets ‘Švejk the Jew’ to record the name of all the other prisoners in the camp. This leads to comedy since the prisoners come from a broad cross-section of nationalities and have weird and garish names, like Muhlahaley Abdrachmanov or Davlatbaley Nurdagaljev. Which leads Švejk to tell them all off for not having sensible easy-to-pronounce names like him and his fellow Czechs. Not that any of them understand him.

‘Švejk had experienced much in his life, but all the same these Tartar, Georgian and Morodvin names simply would not stick in his head’

Švejk returns to the office to find the interpreter sergeant-major drunk (as he had got sloshed he had taken to his favourite habit of setting adverts from the newspapers to the music of the Radetzky March and singing them at top volume, p.676). Švejk tries to explain his predicament again, but the sergeant-major slowly falls asleep and then off his chair onto the floor.

Next morning Švejk is sent to help with the rebuilding of the huge fortress at Przemyśl. This is being supervised by one Major Wolf. Wolf asks the assembled prisoners if any of them speak German and Švejk steps forward, but when he explains that he is in fact Czech, Wolf immediately jumps to the conclusion that he’s one of the many Czechs who have defected to the Russians and got caught.

Wolf is all for hanging Švejk there but is prevailed upon to carry out a minimum of formalities and so sends Švejk to garrison command, hoping to gain merit from his astuteness. Here Švejk is thrown into a dirty cell, kicking out a Polish prisoner who shouts something rude at him in the process. There are lots of mice in the cell which make a comfortable home in Švejk’s mattress, which he doesn’t mind, and triggers a digression about cats in the military, how some good mousers were given medals, while other cats which failed in their mousing duties were hanged.

The door opens and another Czech is thrown into Švejk’s cell. It becomes clear to the reader that he is an agent provocateur, who’s been tasked with entrapping Švejk by getting to talk about how he defected to the Russians. A bit of exposition explains that the Austrian authorities knew Czechs were deserting but didn’t know how many or whether they were being organized into regiments under the Russians. All this the spy hopes to extract from Švejk but Švejk, of course, is too simple, or simple-clever, to fall for his game and replies with a selection of characteristically long-winded and confusing stories, anecdotes about people he knows back in Prague, sticking to his story that he changed into a Russian uniform for a laugh and this is all a big misunderstanding, which eventually convinces the spy he is a simpleton.

Švejk is then hauled in front of a kangaroo court which uses ‘evidence’ gathered by the informer to incriminate him, but once again Švejk sets off on a long rambling story, this one about a Mr Božetěch who got into trouble for going for a swim in a lake and meeting a nice man and splashing about for ages, till the man made his excuses and left and when nice Mr Božetěch got out, he found a note where his clothes had been, saying the other man was a tramp who’d apologetically stolen his clothes. Mr Božetěch reluctantly got into the tramp’s dirty clothes and on the way back into Prague was arrested for vagrancy.

Because of language difficulties the prosecuting officer decides this Mr Božetěch must be a dangerous traitor, too!

Leading the kangaroo court is General Fink von Finkenstein (p.690) who has been put in charge of rebuilding Przemyśl fortress. His favourite hobby is hanging people and the text quotes a letter he’s written to his wife describing the jolly larks he has hanging people who sometimes manage to escape or evade punishment. Fink closing the letter with love and kisses for his son, little Willi (p.691).

This is one more example of the numerous places where the book is spookily prescient of the horrors of the Second World War. Again and again Hašek describes the complete lack of respect for human life, and – as here – the positive enjoyment anyone in a position of power on the Eastern Front appears to have taken in humiliating, tying up, kicking, beating, hanging or shooting anyone more vulnerable and helpless than them. The reader remembers the poor Ruthenians who were being rounded up from far and wide, tied up, kicked and beaten and probably worse, which Švejk’s regiment saw from their train in Volume Three.

It’s also the second example of someone in power innocently writing home and expecting their wife to revel as much in torturing and killing people as the letter-writer does, without recognizing any clash or incongruity.

The point is, many people wring their hands to this day wondering how the smart and sophisticated Germans, the country of Bach and Goethe blah blah blah, could have carried out the Holocaust.

One not very funny conclusion to draw from The Good Soldier Švejk is that many, many officials, all across the Bloodlands of Eastern Europe, held these same inhumane attitudes, demonstrated a complete indifference to human life and suffering, decades before the Holocaust and all the other horrors of the East commenced.

In a way, you could say that the Holocaust was like the values of Eastern Europe (of Russia with its generations of pogroms and Poland with its entrenched anti-semitism) as demonstrated in this book and others like it, encroaching into central and western Europe.

In the end a persistent major in the kangaroo court insists that they try and contact this 11th march company of the 91st regiment that Švejk keeps going on about, to check his story. Fink is forced, grumpily, to acquiesce.

The chapter ends with some comedy about a new character, one Chaplain Martinec. Chaplain Martinec is ‘one of those few who still believe in the Lord’ and was so disgusted by the drunken antics of his vicar that he volunteered to join the army to get away from him.

This was, of course, jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, as he is appointed to the command of General Fink, who turns out to be another drunk and womanizer. Under his influence Martinec finds himself coerced into joining the general for drinks on a daily basis, which sometimes lead him to get completely drunk, at which point the General orders up a couple of pretty fillies to entertain them. Afterwards the chaplain feels disgusted with himself, and is starting to believe he deserves a daily flogging.

General Fink calls the chaplain in, tells him they’ve got a chap in gaol he’d like to hang and be done with it (Švejk) but he’s a Catholic so, reluctantly, he’s agreed to let him (Švejk) have some ‘spiritual consolation’ before they string him up. Fink sends Martinec to tender to Švejk’s spiritual needs.

Chapter Two – Spiritual consolation

The shortest chapter in the book, at a mere nine pages, is a kind of set-piece example of how Švejk’s good-humoured idiocy, and his non-stop barrage of long, inconsequential stories, can reduce even the strongest man to blubbering bewilderment.

Švejk and Chaplain Martinec at the optimistic start of their relationship

For example, Martinec barely manages to explain that he’s a chaplain before Švejk leaps in to commiserate with him for being banged up in prison, asks him to sit beside him on his prison bunk and launches into a complicated story about five chaplains he once knew.

Then the chaplain has barely offered him a cigarette before Švejk launches into another long story about waitress of easy virtue who brought a paternity suit against eighteen of the customers of the café where she worked, and when she had twins, they each turned out to have genetic elements of all eighteen, plus the café owner thrown in for good luck.

Martinec had prepared a long speech full of worthy sentiments about how the Emperor was Švejk’s lord and master on earth and he owed him his loyalty etc, but is now finding it hard going against the vast tide of Švejk’s peasant eloquence. He just about manages to utter that he’s here for ‘spiritual consolation’, which Švejk hilariously misinterprets to mean that the chaplain is seeking spiritual consolation from him, Švejk.

Which triggers a really long anecdote about a Mr Faustyn who was a porter in a local hotel to Švejk in Prague and used to procure women for the hotel’s guests. He prided himself on taking highly specific orders – for fat or thin women, tall or short, clever or dumb, blonde, brunette or redhead – and being able to fulfil it in ten minutes flat.

He always prided himself on not taking money from the women – he was not a common pimp – though he did present the hotel customers with carefully itemised bills. Now, in the story, he turns up on Švejk’s doorstep, distraught. Someone has accused him of behaving like a common bawd, him! Mr Faustyn! Who has such high standards!

Now he shares a bottle of rum with Švejk then asks him to throw him out of the third floor window and end it all, he can’t cope with the shame. So Švejk being Švejk, simply agrees, manhandles drunk Mr Fausyn over to the window and throws him out. To demonstrate how he did it, Švejk grabs Chaplain Martinec, pulls him up to where he’s now standing on his bunk and then…. drops him onto the floor.

Because, Švejk goes on to explain, drunk Mr Faustyn had forgotten that Švejk had moved flat, to the ground floor. Švejk had simply pushed him out the ground floor window and the drunk had rolled onto the pavement. As he has just dropped Chaplain Martinec to the cell floor.

Martinec is realises that he is dealing with a madman and bangs on the door and shrieks to be let out. Švejk watches through the bars as the chaplain goes across courtyard accompanied by guards and gesticulating wildly. Obviously a madman, thinks Švejk, probably taking him off to the mental ward. And he starts singing merrily.

As I say, a textbook example of how Švejk’s a) stolid unflappability and b) relentless cheerfulness and c) unstoppable torrent of long inconsequential stories, reduces character after character to drivelling idiocy.

The chaplain reports to General Fink’s office to find a number of other officers drinking heavily attended by ladies of the night who, the more the chaplain complains about Švejk and how he obstructed his plans to give him spiritual succour, laugh louder and louder and throw cigarettes at him and put their legs up on the table so he can see their knickers, and Chaplain Martinec feels the claws of Beelzebub reaching out for him!

Chapter Three – Švejk back in his march company

Ah, there was me thinking the Russian uniform gambit would mean abandoning forever all the other characters we’d come to know so well. But hooray! Švejk is reunited with them!

The major who had argued they don’t hang Švejk straight away was attending the party at the General’s. In the middle of it he leaps to his feet and drunkenly declares he’s going to interview the prisoner, blusters and insults his way past the guards and sits on Švejk’s bunk, demanding to know where the prisoner. ‘Sir, humbly report I am the prisoner,’ Švejk replies, and the major passes out on his bed.

Alcohol, drinking to excess and passing out really are the recurrent troop in the novel.

Next morning the major wakes up horribly hungover to have Švejk tell him a typical story about a man he knew back in Prague, a professional mourner who’d come to the pub and get drunk but somehow manage to sleep on his formal top hat without ever denting it.

The major brushes Švejk off and makes his way back to his apartment where he discovers General Fink strangling his batman (once again, we note the casual brutal violence of the entire officer class) in a bid to discover the major’s whereabouts. We discover the major is named Major Derwota,

The General furiously throws at the major a telegram ordering that Švejk be sent to his company at the Galician town of Wojalycze. They summon Švejk and make him tell his story again. The General says out loud that the man must be an idiot, prompting a classic exchange:

‘The fellow is a complete imbecile,’ said the major to the general. ‘Only a bloody idiot would put on a Russian uniform left on the dam of a lake by goodness knows whom and then get himself drafted into a party of Russian prisoners.’
‘Humbly report, sir,’ Švejk said, ‘you are right. I do sometimes notice myself that I’m feeble-minded, especially towards evening when…’
‘Shut up, you ox,’ the major said to Švejk and turned to the general to ask what they should do with him.
‘Let his brigade him him,’ the general decided. (p.716)

This little exchange summarises the essence of the book: Švejk confronted by angry officials, his harmless deflection of their anger with his idiot’s simplicity, his tendency at the slightest provocation to set off on another long wandering anecdote, and the casual, sweary brutality of the official response.

So the hanging general is forced to let Švejk be despatched back to his regiment at Wojalycze.

Švejk is put under the supervision of four soldiers each of different nationality, an epitome of the multicultural Empire – a Pole, a Hungarian, a German and a Czech. I found it very telling that the corporal in charge (the Czech, as it happens) is described as being a) a cowman i.e. an illiterate peasant, and that therefore b) he is very brutal. He is not intelligent to win respect by intelligent decisions; all he has is his jumped-up power. Extend that principle across millions and millions of junior officers and petty tyrants right across Eastern Europe and the region’s tortured history makes more sense.

I laughed at the way the Hungarian only knew two words of German, Jawohl and Was?, so that the German explained things at great length to him, the Hungarian nodding and saying Jawohl, Jawohl all the way through, and then when the German had quite finished, saying Was?, so that the German started all over again.

They escort him by train to Wojalycze where, after some typical confusion at the station, Švejk eventually, by page 720, arrives at brigade headquarters for his regiment. He finds that command of brigade staff has been given to Colonel Gerbich who is an affable incompetent who suffers from bad gout. When it hurts he shouts and yells at everyone. When it fades away, he invites all the officers to his rooms to tell them dirty stories.

Now, as Švejk is ushered into the colonel’s presence, we discover that irascible Lieutenant Dub is in the room, who promptly leaps to his feet and starts berating Švejk as a deserter etc while Švejk bemusedly puts his side of the story in his usual placid, untroubled way.

Lieutenant Dub ranting at the Good Soldier Švejk in front of gouty Colonel Gerbich

(By the way, we learn that in the few days that Švejk’s been absent Lieutenant Dub a) made a recovery from his cholera attack and b) was showing off his horsemanship skills when  he rode into a marsh where he had to be rescued by soldiers with a rope during which he suffered a mild concussion and as a result is even more angry than usual.)

The gouty colonel overrules Lieutenant Dub’s ranting and orders Švejk to go and get a proper uniform, collect some pay, and catch a train back to his company.

Švejk arrives in Żółtańce to find real confusion – he is near the front line now and sees baggage and artillery trains, soldiers from all regiments milling about. Disturbingly the so-called ‘Reich Germans’ (Germans from Germany, not Austria) are far better provisioned and turned out than the scruffy Austrians, strolling round in their gleaming boots, handing out cigarettes and chocolate to their poor colleagues – but what makes it disturbing is that Hašek crowds of Jews milling round, waving their hands and lamenting the burning of their villages, and ‘every moment’ gendarmerie patrols bring in another terrified Jew who they accuse of spreading false news, and then proceed to beat and whip them till their backsides are ‘lacerated’ (p.725).

After being shouted at by more army bureaucrats, a rare friendly officer tells Švejk his company are billeted in the village of Klimontów. He makes his way there to discover them in the biggest building in the village, a school (which, he waspishly points out, was built by the Polish authorities in this predominantly Ukrainian region in order to increase Polish influence: it’s hard not to see the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a kind of permanent battlefield between competing national groups).

We have seen Jews being whipped, it’s true, but in Volume Three we also saw entire communities of Ruthenians being rounded up, tied up, and beaten. Now we learn that on the tree outside the school was recently hanged a Greek Catholic vicar.

Here Švejk is reunited with his friends and we re-encounter big bearded Baloun, permanently starving hungry who is just getting into a fight with the occultist cook, Jurajda, who is making sausage meat in the school kitchen. Upstairs Captain Ságner is cursing the Jewish merchant who’s sold the regimental officers a concoction of crude corn spirit coloured yellow with onion peel juice which he claimed was finest Napoleonic brandy.

Švejk strolls into the battalion office which is empty except for the one-year volunteer, Marek, who you will remember has been commissioned to write a history of the regiment and has risen to the occasion with glee, fabricating all sorts of heroic escapades for the regiment as a whole and inventing all kinds of glorious deaths for its members. This is a simple idea which I found epically funny as it allows Hašek to satirise all sorts of heroic writing which glorifies war.

Obviously, they’ve barely got chatting before Švejk is off telling numerous digressive anecdotes – ‘There was a preacher who…At U Brejsku there was a cellarman years ago…In Nusele there is a certain Mr Hauber and…’ plus an off-colour story about a soldier who comes across a woman on all fours scrubbing the floor, spanks her once on his vast bum, spanks her twice, spanks her a third time and since she doesn’t move, hoiks up her skirt and has his wicked way with her… only for her to turn round at the end and reveal the face of a 70-year-old and cackle.

Marek says Švejk hasn’t changed at all, and Švejk goes upstairs to the first floor where the officers are awaiting the arrival of the feast prepared by the occultist cook. He walks in just as his name was being mentioned and takes Captain Ságner and Lieutenant Lukáš by surprise, the latter once again horrified and appalled at the reappearance of his bad penny.

They throw things and swear at Švejk until he retreats back to the kitchen where he’s reunited with the rest of the boys. Here Baloun tries to wangle some of the roast meat and sauce which the occultist is preparing, giving long descriptions of meals from freshly slaughtered animals back home, but Jurajda kicks him out and gives a morsel of bread dipped in sauce to Švejk (p739).

Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Vaněk is plunged into gloom at Švejk’s return because it is going to throw his carefully calibrated company accounts, based on Švejk’s disappearance. He was hoping Švejk had drowned 🙂

Marek bursts through the door to announce that Lieutenant Dub with the young puppy, Cadet Biegler. Dub is furious as usual, and lays into Švejk who is his usual imperturbable self. There’s a very funny account of how Cadet Biegler has survived the supposed cholera (which he never had, as explained in volume three, chapter one) but has emerged from prolonged treatment in cholera hospitals with such weakened bowels that he has to visit more or less every WC he sees, and missed every train and every connection because he was visiting all the WCs between the hospital and regiment, but he finally made it back, brave boy! This fact, that Cadet Biegler is, from now onwards, going to be condemned to get stuck in every possible public convenience is rich with comic potential, made all the more preposterous because we are told that Biegler spends all these hours on the can replaying the great battles of the Austro-Hungarian army throughout history.

In a flashback we learn that Lieutenant Dub and Cadet Biegler have had the most ferocious argument, which began when Biegler was camped out in a WC which Dub wanted to use, and then continued on into the car which they got to drive them from brigade HQ out to the regiment, and got worse on the way.

As Dub and Biegler pursue their argument upstairs to the officers quarters, in the kitchen the lads have finished feasting deep on the pork soup he occultist cook has made and conversation has a rich, post-prandial feel to it, with the cook revealing that he used myrtle instead of marjoram in the soup, in fact myrtle he found in the rather dried-up wedding garland hanging in a village house. The owners didn’t take too kindly to him impounding it.

The occultist cook Juradja requisitioning the wedding garland of myrtle from Galician peasants

This leads into a discussion about herbs and spices in cooking, which triggers an anecdote from Švejk about a butcher who one drunk day mixed up his spice box with a packet of insect powder which he tipped into the sausage meat and to his amazement it went down a treat, people stormed his shop to get it and, funny to tell, it also killed all the insects and bugs so that the town where it happened became one of the cleanest in Bohemia.

Then Marek goes on about the delights of iced soup, Vaněk mentioned frozen goulash, and Švejk is just starting a story about a Lieutenant Zákrejs who was always aggressively threatening to turn poor squaddies into various forms of food (like beaten steak or mashed potato) when there’s a piercing scream from upstairs.

It is the continuation of the argument between Dub and Biegler. Dub was greeted with a great roar when he entered the room because a) all his brother officers were by now very drunk on the filthy liquor supplied by the Jewish merchant and b) they are all taking the mickey out of him for his riding accent with merry yells of ‘Welcome cowboy!’ and the like.

A little offended, Dub is soon handed a glass of the ‘cognac’ while poor Biegler is more or less ignored, and finds a chair in the corner. Dub meanwhile, beginning to be affected by the booze, raps on the table and stands to make a speech about patriotism.

And that is where the book ends abruptly, Jaroslav Hašek dying suddenly of heart failure on 3 January 1923. Thank you, Jaroslav.

Thoughts

And you know the quirkiest thing about this 750-page-long novel about the First World War? Švejk never hears a shot fired in anger. He never actually arrives at ‘the front’. He never sees any fighting (the aftermath of shelling, networks of trenches and damaged buildings, for sure, but no actual fighting). In fact, I think that nowhere in the novel is a shot actually fired at all. It is a 750-page-long novel without any actual fighting in it!

OR maybe that’s part of its satirical intent. Because as you reflect back over the long sprawling text, you realise most of the conflict, of the violence, came not between nations; although there is doubtless vast bloodshed and massacre going on between nations, what we mostly see is violence between classes, the most obvious violence of the book being carried out by furious police, state officials and army officers against ordinary citizens and ordinary soldiers.

Credit

This translation into English of The Good Soldier Švejk by Cecil Parrott was first published by William Heinemann in 1973. All references are to the Penguin Modern classic edition, published 1983.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ The Jewish Museum

The current exhibition, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, is taking place at two London venues: half at the Photographers’ Gallery, just off Oxford Street, half at the Jewish Museum, a few minutes walk from Camden tube. I’ve already reviewed the half of the exhibition on display at the Photographers’ Gallery.

When he died in New York in 1990, Vishniac left his negatives, prints, correspondence and so on to the International Centre of Photography. The Vishniac Archive now houses more than 50,000 objects, including vintage prints, moving footage, contact sheets, personal correspondence, audio recordings, and a staggering 10,000 negatives. The process of digitising and reviewing them only began in 2012.

Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head, Warsaw (c.1935-37) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Sara, sitting in bed in a basement dwelling, with stencilled flowers above her head, Warsaw (c.1935-37) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The result of all this is that:

  1. sorting through the archive is an ongoing scholarly quest, which has only just begun and has already thrown up surprises and discoveries
  2. already it has generated so much material that the first major exhibition of Roman Vishniac’s work, originally held in New York, wouldn’t fit into just the Photographers’ Gallery in London. And so it has been shared between the Photographers’ Gallery and here, at the Jewish Museum, where it occupies the entire top floor of the building.
Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum, London

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum, London

The lady on the door explained how the show had been divided between the two spaces: the Photographers’ Gallery show focuses more on Visniac’s technique, approach and achievements as a photographer; whereas the Jewish Museum selection, as you might expect, embeds him more into the Jewish tradition, bringing out his Jewish subject matter, and the themes of contemporary Jewry which he photographed and recorded.

An example is the room dedicated to the 1947 book, The Vanished World. This was issued by the Yiddish magazine and publisher, the Forward Foundation, based in New York, and brought together images of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe by a number of photographers, including Alter Kacyzne, Menachem Kipnis, Vishniac and others.

The Vanished World contained over 550 densely packed images (150 by Vishniac) conveying the richness of those communities even though, by the time the book was published, they had been almost entirely destroyed. In the room devoted to The Vanished World are displayed not only a copy of this rare volume, but a selection of individual prints, as well as correspondence and notes surrounding its creation.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum showing the room devoted to The Vanished World

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Jewish Museum showing the room devoted to The Vanished World

As at the PG, the JM show places a production like this in the broader context of Vishniac’s astonishing life and prolific output, all displayed in chronological order. I counted 15 distinct areas or themes, including:

  • 1920s-30s street photography in Berlin
  • 1930-37 the Nazi rise to power
  • German Jewish charitable organisations
  • Jewish life in eastern Europe 1935-38
  • agrarian camps for Jews in Holland c.1938
  • travel, refuge and internment in France 1938
  • Jewish life in the Carpathians – an exhibition held in New York 1945
  • New York studio portraits
  • New York night clubs
  • the face of America at war
  • Berlin in ruins 1947
  • displaced persons camps in Germany 1947
  • scientific microscopy 1950s – 1970s

Vishniac’s oeuvre as a whole amounts to an awesome x-ray of the tormented middle years of the twentieth century.

The blurb here and at the Photographers’ Gallery say that Vishniac is best known for the photojournalism he did among the severely impoverished Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in the later 1930s, and this photo of happy kids is meant to be his most famous image.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Thus both exhibitions claim to be expanding – rediscovering – the full range of Visniac’s work, and setting the Eastern Europe stuff in the much broader context of his oeuvre. But since I’d never heard of Vishniac before, and wasn’t particularly aware that he is, apparently, the single biggest influence on ‘contemporary notions of Jewish life in Eastern Europe’, the whole thing – his entire oeuvre – came as an equal revelation to me.

Thus I was as entranced by his images of day-to-day life in the Berlin of the 1920s and early 1930s as by any of the specifically Jewish subject matter.

People behind bars, Berlin Zoo, ca. 1930-1935 © Mara Vishniac Kohn

People behind bars, Berlin Zoo, ca. 1930-1935 © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Certainly there seemed to be more about the photos he took in Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, more documentation and explanation of how they were used by the Jewish charities who commissioned Vishniac to take them, than there had been at the Photographers’ Gallery. But it was by no means all synagogues and rabbis; in fact, in a way, I was surprised at the relative scarcity of overtly religious photos. What came over for me, from this selection, was just the general poverty. The figures in the photos may or may not have been Jewish but, God, the snow and the pelting rain and the dirty streets and the shabby buildings and the filthy rooms. I was struck, horrified, oppressed by the sense of universal poverty, of millions of central and east Europeans living in poverty and want. And that was before the strutting Overmen goosemarched in with their plans for a New Europe which ended in typhoid camps and piles of half-burned bodies. What horror. What horror upon horror.

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow (1935-7) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Isaac Street, Kazimierz, Cracow (1935-7) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

It is an immense relief when the exhibition moves on to Vishniac’s arrival in New York, home of skyscrapers, comic books, movie stars, nightclubs, jazz, and about to see the birth of Abstract Expressionism. It is like escaping from a nightmare and presumably that’s how it felt to so many of the European refugees. Now they could just get on with living their lives. There’s no doubting that America really was the Home of the Free for the vital years at the centre of the Dark Century.

I always remember the way Kurt Weill – remembered for his collaborations with the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, most famously for the Threepenny Opera – as soon as he arrived as a refugee in new York, immediately dropped the politics and the poverty and the proletariat of his entire previous career, and switched to trying to write shiny, optimistic musicals to match Rodgers and Hammerstein and the rest. I can see how it was just not the need to make money in a completely different milieu. It was also the escape from what must have seemed like an endless nightmare. Similarly, W.H. Auden dropped his left-wing politics and completely rethought his position on the basis of a newfound existentialist type of Christian faith.

Well, similarly, Vishniac’s photos of New York are portraits of the famous, snaps of exciting, open and free nightclubs and jazz acts, and (something both exhibitions comment on) a focus on healthy young children. Possibly because that’s what the American market called for. But also as a release from the bottomless poverty and misery he had seen in central and eastern Europe. Civilisation, not barbarism.

Boys exercising in the gymnasium of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (1949) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Boys exercising in the gymnasium of the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn (1949) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The exhibition ends with a small dark room in which you can sit on a bench and watch no fewer than 90 slides of the colour microphotographs Vishniac took from the 1950s onwards, and which made him a much sought-after specialist.

He produced these stunning images for corporate clients like IBM, Westinghouse, and Pfizer as well as for magazines like Life, OMNI, and Popular Photography.

Again, the visual range is extraordinary, from wonderful photos of coloured jellyfish apparently suspended in black space, to close-ups of the eyes and bodies of various insects, and to unnerving microphotos of the structure of bodily substances like hormones, skin and hair, magnified so much that they look like modernist abstract paintings.

Central core root tissue by Roman Vishniac

Central core root tissue by Roman Vishniac

I sat there for five minutes, watching them all. Something about the rather lurid colour palette transported me back to the kind of basic science books I must have read as a kid at school or in the library in the late 1960s and early 70s.

As I mentioned in my Photographers’ Gallery review, the quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

He was a wonderful photographer, and the necessity of visiting the two locations – the Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum – gives a kind of stereoscopic, three-dimensional effect, viewing the same story but from different angles, the same basic chronology illustrated with different examples of his work, bringing it wonderfully, sometimes harrowingly, to life.


Related links

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Prepare to be stunned, upset and amazed at this major exhibition showcasing the incredibly long and varied career of Russian-born, Jewish-American photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897–1990).

The vast archive of Vishniac’s work in New York contains tens of thousands of items and so the exhibition is so copious it is not only spread across two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, but is also being co-hosted by the Jewish Museum, in north London.

It includes recently discovered vintage prints, rare and ‘lost’ film footage from his pre-war period, contact sheets, personal correspondence, original magazine publications and newly created exhibition prints as well as his acclaimed photomicroscopy.

The quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

I’d never heard of him before but the commentary tells us that Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. Maybe I’ve seen his photos in various history books of the period, but never registered his name.

Russia 1897-1920

Born in Pavlovsk, Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family, Roman Vishniac was raised in Moscow. On his seventh birthday, he was given a camera and a microscope which inspired a lifelong fascination with photography and science. He began to conduct early scientific experiments by attaching the camera to the microscope and, as a teenager, became both an avid amateur photographer and a student of biology, chemistry and zoology.

Berlin 1920-33

In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vishniac immigrated to Berlin. Armed with two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Vishniac joined some of the city’s many flourishing camera clubs and took to the streets to record everyday life.

He was influenced by the advent of modernist art with its interest in unusual framing, strange geometries, experimental camera angles, and the dramatic use of light and shade. His subject was the people of the streets: streetcar drivers, municipal workers, day labourers, protesting students, children at play, the eeriness of public spaces.

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Nazis 1933-39

The later 1920s saw the rise of the Nazi Party which finally achieved political power in January 1933. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. German Jews had their businesses boycotted, were banned from many public places and expelled from Aryanised schools. They were also prevented from pursuing careers in law, medicine, teaching, and photography, among the many other indignities and curtailments of civil liberties.

Vishniac used his skills to document the growing signs of oppression, the loss of rights for Jews, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the proliferation of swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life.

Vishniac's daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads 'The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights', Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads ‘The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights’, Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden

Charities had long existed in Germany to channel help to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. From 1933 onwards they also helped Jews in the Fatherland. Zionist and other groups flourished which trained would-be émigrés in the practical agricultural and vocational skills they would need in their new lives in Palestine.

In response to restrictions placed on Jewish artists, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was established and Vishniac was commissioned to record the work of several large Jewish community and social service organisations in Berlin.

His images were used in fundraising campaigns for an American donor audience. This work brought him to the attention of a wide variety of other charitable and philanthropic groups, in Europe and America, which were to provide him with further commissions from Jewish relief and community organisations throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish life in Eastern Europe 1935-38

In 1935 Vishniac was hired by the European HQ of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s largest Jewish relief organisation – to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The photos were to be used in lectures, magazines, presentations in the wealthy West to drum up donations.

Over the next four years Vishniac travelled extensively in the region, documenting the impact of anti-Semitic restrictions on populations who were already impoverished, in cities, towns and rural settlements. The technical proficiency and variety and impact of this big body of work ended up turning into something different from what was originally envisaged: it became the last extensive photographic record of an entire way of life that had existed for centuries and was about to be swept away forever.

Here, as in all the aspects of his career, the exhibition doesn’t just show the photos but also has display cases presenting the outputs of these projects: books, magazine articles, slide shows, with texts by Vishniac himself or other writers.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers’ Gallery

Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp 1938

As the plight of German’s Jews worsened many families got their children to join Zionist organisations or sent them to camps in neutral countries. Among these was the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in the Netherlands where young Jews could work at practical crafts while waiting for visas to travel to Palestine.

In 1938 Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document the community. He used the heroic style common to Soviet propaganda photography of the 1920s – fit young men and women working in bright sunshine, shot from low angles to make them look big and powerful – to convey the sense of strong determined Jews building a better future.

In 1941 the SS ordered the inhabitants of the camp who hadn’t managed to flee to be sent to transit camps en route to concentration camps, where most of them died.

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

France 1939

From April to September 1939 Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer in France, while he and his wife struggled to get a visa to America. Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph a vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille.

It so happened that Visniac’s own parents had relocated to Nice in 1937, where he went to visit them and managed to take a series of light-hearted photos of Riviera beach life. So many angles, so many lights to his career.

Arrest and escape

In late 1939 Vishniac was arrested by the French authorities and placed in the Camp du Ruchard. His wife lobbied to secure his release and the pair, and their children, then took ship from Lisbon to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Settling into his new American home opened up a range of possibilities. On the one hand Vishniac was still deeply attached to the Jewish community in Europe. He lobbied on their behalf and the exhibition includes a letter he wrote in 1942 directly to President Roosevelt, including five photographs, asking him to intervene in Europe to save the Jews.

Professionally, he was able to recycle the immense archive of photos from Eastern Europe in a number of exhibitions designed to highlight their plight, including a 1944 show Pictures of Jewish Life in Prewar Poland which has a slot to itself here, featuring images from Warsaw, Lublin and Wilno, presented on their original display boards.

In 1945 he was given a second exhibition, Jewish Life in the Carpathians. Both were organised by the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Wilno which had also fled to New York.

In the same spirit Vishniac’s work was included in a 1947 book titled The Vanished World edited by Raphael Abramovitch.

It was these exhibitions, books, magazine articles and reviews which established Vishniac’s lasting reputation as the chronicler of the now-lost world of European Jewry.

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Immigrants, refugees and emigre life

But many had managed to flee and now found themselves in an alien land. The exhibition devotes a section to ‘immigrants, refugees, and New York Jewish community life 1941 to 47’.

Through the network of philanthropical agencies he had developed in Europe, Vishniac got work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Refugee Society who paid for him to photograph new shiploads of refugees, and document their efforts to start a new life, and the inspiring work of Jewish social services and community groups.

Surprisingly, maybe, this section features many shots of children looking remarkably fit and healthy and well-fed. After the abject poverty of Eastern Europe, and then the miserable persecution of the Nazis, Visniac, along with many immigrants, wanted to accentuate the positive and make images of the new life in America full of youth, energy and optimism.

America at war 1941-44

Alongside these is a section where Vishniac applied the street photography skills he had honed in Berlin to New York, in a strikingly varied series of shots which include sequences shot in New York’s Chinese community, shoppers queueing for rationed food, women’s entry into the military, off duty soldiers, and so on.

Customers waiting in line at a butcher's counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

New York life

In New York, Vishniac established himself as a freelance photographer and built a successful portrait studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He used his connections with the Jewish diaspora to secure portraits of eminent Jewish émigrés including Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. These VIP shots helped to attract other dancers, actors, musicians and artists to his studio and provide a steady supply of work.

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Alongside the studio work, he began a new series of shots made on location in New York’s countless nightclubs, featuring jazz musicians, dancers, singers and performers in a variety of settings, playing or relaxing backstage. Fascinating and evocative.

Back to Europe

In 1947 Vishniac was again commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, this time to return to Europe and document refugees and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps, recording a wide array of relief activities such as the distribution of food and clothing, education and so on

He also got the opportunity to return to Berlin, city of his young manhood, now reduced to rubble. The same locations which hummed with life in his Weimar photos are now rubble-strewn ruins and vacancies. Pitiful remnants.

Photomicroscopy

As if this large body of invaluable documentary and street photography wasn’t enough, Vishniac never lost interest in his first love, scientific photography. And once he was financially secure in America he was able to pick it up with renewed enthusiasm, especially in photography of the very small, or ‘photomicroscopy’.

This field became the primary focus of his work during the last 45 years of his life, till his death in 1990. By the mid-1950s, he was regarded as a pioneer in the field, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms.

Classic examples of Vishniac's photomicrography (all magnifications as noted on originals): A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb," colorization", x40, 1950s-1962. Mara Vishniac Kohn recalls her father slicing this specimen from his thumb. (Radzyner 2106B) B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10, 1950s-1962. C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100, 1950s-1970s. D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100, early 1950s-1970s © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Examples of Vishniac’s photomicrography: A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac’s thumb, ‘colorization’, x40 (1950s-1962). B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10 (1950s-1962) C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100 (1950s-1970s) D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100 (early 1950s-1970s) © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

In 1961 Vishniac was appointed Professor of Biology Education at Yale University, and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books.

The exhibition includes a darkened room where you can watch a slide show of 90 blown-up transparencies from the 1950s to the 1970s, of Visniac’s full colour plates of scientific subjects – ranging from the cells of various organs in the body, to close-ups of fungal spores or of insect eyes. Nearby is a case displaying the actual microscope and lenses he used in this work.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Microscope and lenses used by Roman Vishniac in his photomicroscopy work

What an amazing life! What a breath-taking achievement! This is a wonderful exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

New East Photo Prize 2018 @ Calvert 22

A woman wearing a goldfish bowl on her head, a building like a concrete football, an Orthodox church surrounded by tower blocks, a ruined electricity pylon leaning right over like a science fiction monster galloping into the mist, born-again Christians being immersed in cheap blow-up swimming pools, a snack bar caravan by a deserted lake, a silver birch tree ensnared in metal cables, a baboon in a lecture hall – these are just some of the weird and wonderful images to be seen for FREE at Calvert 22, the exhibition space devoted to the art and film and fashion of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

They are all the work of photographers who were finalists for Calvert’s ‘New East Photo Prize 2018’, a biennial photography competition.

The Prize champions contemporary perspectives on the people and stories of the New East – the 29 countries of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia.

Calvert received over 600 entries which they whittled down to the 16 finalists on display here, each represented by a cluster of photos. Some entrants have as few as four photos, others have a dozen or more, all clearly grouped and presented around the gallery’s clean and minimalist ground floor and basement exhibition spaces.

The finalists are:

  1. Antal Bánhegyesy, Orthodoxia
  2. Vika Eksta, The Devil’s Lake
  3. Daria Garnik, Gagarin
  4. Ilkin Huseynov, Shared Waters
  5. Join the Cool, Vinietka (Ukrainian graduation album)
  6. Karol Pałka, Edifice
  7. Lucia Sekerková, Vrăjitoare
  8. Michał Sierakowski, Wild Fields
  9. Michal Solarski, Infirmi
  10. Alnis Stakle, Heavy Waters
  11. Lana Stojićević, Sunny Side
  12. Elena Subach and Viacheslav Poliakov, City of Gardens
  13. Fyodor Telkov, Ural Mari
  14. Peter Trembeczki, Victory
  15. Adam Wilkoszarski, After Season
  16. Boglárka Éva Zellei, Furnishing the Sacred

Apology for my poor quality photos

I apologise in advance for my poor quality photos. I need to buy a better camera. Some of the photos are viewable in the picture quality they deserve in the gallery towards the bottom of this Calvert 22 web-page.

But I wanted to share the images I liked, albeit in my poor quality reproductions. If you want to get the real, full visual impact – go visit the show!

I particularly liked the following (N.B. Rather than try and paraphrase it, I’ve quoted the exhibition information for each photographer, verbatim):

Some personal favourites

Sunny Side by Lana Stojićević. Stojićević won the Metro Imaging Mentorship Award as part of the New East Photo Prize in 2016. She also won the Croatian Association of Artists’ annual award for best young artist and has been exhibited internationally. Based around the futuristic swimming pool at the Zora Hotel in Primošten, Croatia, the project creates a narrative in the style of a 60’s sci-fi film, exploring both the factual and fictional.

Sunny Side by Lana Stojićević (Croatia)

Sunny Side by Lana Stojićević (Croatia)

Victory by Peter Trembeczki. Trembeczki dedicates his work to collective memory and intergenerational issues. His project features Hungarian buildings that have either been abandoned or modified. Often grotesque, these sites have become subjects of collective remembrance: reflections of the nation’s social-political psyche.

Victory by Peter Trembeczki (Hungary)

Victory by Peter Trembeczki (Hungary)

Orthodoxia by Antal Bánhegyesy (Hungary). Bánhegyesy currently lives and works in Budapest, where he has won a number of international prizes. The project reveals links between Romanian national identity and religion, exploring the 7,000 Orthodox churches built in Romania following the fall of communism just 27 years ago.

Orthodoxia by Antal Bánhegyesy (Hungary)

Orthodoxia by Antal Bánhegyesy (Hungary)

Wild Fields by Michał Sierakowski (Poland). Sierakowski is a documentary photographer capturing how landscapes influence communities and the ways in which people transform environments to fit their needs. His project focuses on the relationship between Ukraine’s modern landscape and national identity as the country construct new national myths.

Wild Fields by Michał Sierakowski (Poland)

Wild Fields by Michał Sierakowski (Poland)

The Devil’s Lake by Vika Eksta (Latvia). Eksta is a visual artist and pedagogue interested in portraiture, performance, archival research and the border between documentary and fiction. Her project examines a mysterious lake in the middle of a forest in eastern Latvia’s Aglona region. The artist grew up close to the lake itself, but only started to photograph it in 2015. The project was first exhibited in June 2018 in Riga but remains unfinished, with plans for a photo book on the horizon.

The Devil’s Lake by Vika Eksta (Latvia)

The Devil’s Lake by Vika Eksta (Latvia)

City of Gardens by Elena Subach and Viacheslav Poliakov (Ukraine). Subach and Poliakov use documentary photography to create stories about our relationship with everyday objects and places. The project travels around the Polish city of Katowice, once an industrial site, now branded a “city of gardens”, in the hopes of reflecting uniquely Polish aesthetics in an era of rapid globalisation.

City of Gardens by Elena Subach and Viacheslav Poliakov (Ukraine)

City of Gardens by Elena Subach and Viacheslav Poliakov (Ukraine)

After Season by Adam Wilkoszarski (Poland). Wilkoszarski is a documentary and landscape photographer based in Poznań, Poland. His work concentrates on how places change once abandoned and deserted by the people, and this project looks at holiday resorts suspended in time at the end of the season, when the tourists have left and beaches and hotels lie empty.

After Season by Adam Wilkoszarski (Poland)

After Season by Adam Wilkoszarski (Poland)

Infirmi by Michal Solarski (Poland). Solarski is a London-based Polish photographer who divides his time between commercial and personal projects. His photography is strongly connected to his own background and experiences, concentrating on leisure, migration and memories. His project takes viewers into the world of Soviet-era sanatoriums: magnificent spas built for the workers to rest and re-energize. Though in varying states of decay, many of these amazing buildings are still functioning.

Infirmi by Michal Solarski (Poland)

Infirmi by Michal Solarski (Poland)

There’s an album of photos from the graduating year at a Ukrainian college showing some gorgeous pouting teenagers who are all dying of cool and want to be models. Calvert 22 shows always include this kind of material, partly because it is interested in fashion, film, photography and new stuff from the region. It’s one of these images which the curators have chosen to be the poster image for all its promotions.

Join the Cool (Ukraine), Vinietka (Ukrainian graduation album)

Join the Cool (Ukraine), Vinietka (Ukrainian graduation album)

I get that they’re reaching out to a young demographic, and trying to connect up the yoof in all the various countries with our yoof here in the rich West.  But personally, I find one bunch of sulky, pouting, skinny models with high cheek bones pretty much the same as the next bunch, whether they’re in New York or Novosibirsk.

What I like about the Calvert 22 exhibitions is the images which convey a real sense of strangeness and difference – the derelict lakes, ominous forests, the urban decay, strange architecture, non-western traditions and beliefs and ideas, the haunting sense of abandonment, which run through so many of these images.

I may like or dislike individual artists and bodies of work, but I am hugely supportive of Calvert 22’s goal of showing us the art and lives and identities, the geography and landscape and urban environment, of this underrepresented region, with all its strange, twisted and tragic history.

Promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Calvert 22 exhibitions

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize @ the Photographers’ Gallery

To my embarrassment I’ve never been to the Photographer’s Gallery before. It turns out to be a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (number 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street East. It’s a bit of an Aladdin’s Cave, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, as well as downstairs in the basement, next to the excellent shop full of photography books and equipment.

Since all the exhibitions are FREE, if you arrive before noon, and the ground floor has a comfy café with wifi and cakes, this is quite a cool place to meet up with friends or just take some time out.

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize exhibition 2018

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation is a Frankfurt-based non-profit organisation which focuses on collecting, exhibiting and promoting contemporary photography. Deutsche Börse began to build up its collection of contemporary photography in 1999 and it now holds more than 1,700 works by over 120 international artists.

Together with The Photographers’ Gallery in London, the foundation awards the renowned Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize each year, when a long list of entrants is boiled down to a short list of four. This year they were:

  • Mathieu Asselin
  • Rafal Milach
  • Batia Suter
  • Luke Willis Thompson

The work which got them onto the short list has been on display at the Photographers’ Gallery since 23 February. On 17 May the winner was announced and it was Luke Willis Thompson, who picked up the first prize of £30,000.

So what is his work and the work of the other three photographers like? I’m glad you asked.

First the competition criteria. The prize ‘rewards a living photographer, of any nationality, for a specific body of work in an exhibition or publication format in Europe felt to have significantly contributed to the medium of photography.’ The press release states that ‘All of the projects share a deep concern with the representation of knowledge through images, where facts can be manipulated and meanings can shift.’

I was to be surprised at just how knowledge- and information-based the work of all the finalists was.

Mathieu Asselin

The room devoted to Mathieu Asselin is a ‘photographic interrogation of global biotech giant, Monsanto’. It was originally conceived and published not as a display but as a photobook, and the exhibition contains a number of documents, legal forms, invoices and testimonies, among much else that Asselin has assembled to document what he sees as the nefarious activities of this huge biotech corporation.

The book and display have the overarching title Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation and have been five years in the making. The book – and the excerpt of works here – are the result of a meticulous investigation supported by archival documentation, court files, personal letters, company memorabilia and photographs.

David Baker at his borther Terry’s grave, Edgemont Cemetery, West Anniston, Alabama, 2012 © Mathieu Asselin. Courtesy of the artist

David Baker at his brother Terry’s grave, Edgemont Cemetery, West Anniston, Alabama, 2012 © Mathieu Asselin. Courtesy of the artist

This photo shows David Baker whose brother Terry died at the age of 16 from a brain tumour and lung cancer, caused by exposure to PCB, a chemical manufactured at the nearby Monsanto Chemical works. A variety of toxic chemicals are present in the soil and water of Anniston at far higher than legal levels. In Asselin’s account Terry is just one of Monsanto’s victims.

Monsanto is known as a leading manufacturer of insecticides DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange and of genetically engineered seeds. Another photo shows one of the many farmers who Monsanto have pursued through the courts, accusing them of abusing the company’s property rights by harvesting crops contaminated by, or originally sown from, seed genetically engineered by Monsanto.

Twenty years ago I did the research for a television documentary which tried to bring out the grotesqueness of a possible future in which Monsanto and a handful of other biochem companies could develop genetically engineered food crops:

  1. which only respond to Monsanto-produced fertilisers, insecticides and so on – so that if you buy the seed they have a monopoly of all the other products you need to buy to grow them
  2. and in which these companies own the intellectual copyright of the resulting grain crop, which you are not allowed to resow without paying them a licensing fee. Environmental activists were trying to get this practice banned before it could take off in the EU and the documentary followed their efforts.

So I’m familiar with the issues; none of this was really new to me.

The ‘Asselin room’ includes a variety of photographs, but also just as many legal, environmental and similar types of documents, blow-ups of newspaper articles and of Monsanto promotional images, as well as examples of the company’s attempts to change their negative public image through children’s TV shows and marketing campaigns.

Installation view of the Mathieu Asselin room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of the Mathieu Asselin room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery

I came, I saw, I read, I took it all in and it seemed a lot more like photo-journalism than a photography display, as such.

Rafal Milach – Refusal

Milach is Polish and his work explores issues and ideas around abandoned aspects of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. He is particularly interested in the way governments and states distort and control information. To quote:

Rafal Milach’s project focuses on the applied sociotechnical systems of governmental control and the ideological manipulations of belief and consciousness. Focusing on post-Soviet countries such as Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Poland, Milach traces the mechanisms of propaganda and their visual representation in architecture, urban projects and objects.

I found the most arresting items in his room to be:

1. A brilliantly stark photo of a viewing tower in Georgia. This was commissioned for the Black Sea village of Anaklia by the then-President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, in 2012, as an ostentatious way of showing the world how new and modern Georgia would become under his pioneering administration. It was a form of architectural propaganda.

Then, when Saakashvili fled the country after a coup in 2013, the tower was abandoned half-built, leaving it unused and useless, standing in an eerie, unpeopled wasteland.

Anaklia, Georgia, 2013 by Rafal Milach © Rafal Milach. Courtesy of the artist

Anaklia, Georgia, 2013 by Rafal Milach © Rafal Milach. Courtesy of the artist

2. A nearby monitor is showing a ‘rap’ video in which a Belarussian woman, Xenia Degelko, is singing to an enraptured crowd. The point is that this is a government-sponsored video created by the Belarus authorities and using ‘youth culture’ tropes to promote a patriotic, pro-government message. It is, thus, an example of Milach’s overarching theme of government manipulation, and what he sees as the need for refusal of this manipulation.

Not a photograph, though, is it?

3. Another wall displays a line of print-sized images. These are photos of hand-made objects used in the chess schools based in government buildings across Azerbaijan. Each one is an optical illusion designed to help young Azerbaijanis’ spatial imagination and abstract thinking skills. Seen through the slightly paranoid lens of Milach’s project, they are included here as yet more examples of way that governments can manipulate young minds.

Installation view of the Rafal Milach room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of the Rafal Milach room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery

Batia Suter – Parallel Encyclopedia #2

My teenage daughter’s bedroom wall is covered with photos of herself and her mates, posters of their favourite bands and tickets to gigs, images torn out of magazines and so on – images which speak to her, which say something, which click.

Batia Suter does the same thing. She collects books, often second-hand ones, full of images, and selects the ones which light her candle. Then she blows them up into large (two or three feet across) prints and then – this is the best bit – hangs them on the walls of galleries, thus creating, in the words of the commentary:

an encyclopaedic collection of visual taxonomies that expose the shifting and relative meanings of printed images depending on their context

Unlike the rather minimalist hangings of the previous two rooms, Suter’s work is definitely ‘immersive’ covering all four walls from floor to ceiling.

Installation view of the Batia Suter room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of the Batia Suter room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery

The way the images are unframed helps them to meld together. And neighbouring images bring out new aspects and details you hadn’t noticed in the individual works on their own. For example, it all looks very organic until you see the big pic of a vacuum cleaner and the even more incongruous close up of a printed circuit!

Her work is an exploration of how visual formats affect and manipulate meaning, depending on where and how they are placed. Apparently she has amassed a collection of over 1,000 publications to use as source material. What a simple, elegant and beautiful idea!

Luke Willis Thompson – autoportrait

As you enter the 5th floor room there’s a very loud noise of machinery which I thought must be some kind of building works going on next door. But on crossing the gallery and walking into the pitch black alcove behind it you find a really old-fashioned 35mm film projector at work. It’s this that’s making all the racket.

Film projector for Luke Willis Thompson's work, autoportrait

Film projector for Luke Willis Thompson’s work, autoportrait

And what is it projecting?

A silent black and white film showing a bust or portrait framing of a young black American woman, Diamond Reynolds.

In July 2016, Reynolds broadcast, via Facebook Live, the moments immediately after the fatal shooting of her partner Philando Castile, by a police officer during a traffic-stop in Minnesota. Reynolds’ video circulated widely online and clocked up over six million views.

In November 2016, Thompson established a conversation with Reynolds and her lawyer, and invited Reynolds to work with him on an aesthetic response to her video broadcast. Acting as a ‘sister-image’ the artwork would break with the well-known image of Reynolds, until then only known as a distraught woman caught in a moment of violence, and then distributed far and wide as a shocking news story. As the gallery guide puts it:

Shot on 35mm, black and white film and presented in the gallery as a single screen work, autoportait continues to reopen questions of the agency of Reynolds’ recording within, outside of, and beyond the conditions of predetermined racial power structures.

In other words it makes you compare and contrast her image in the self-filmed distraught moments after the shooting – and how that image was swept up in social media and then into a firestorm of angry comment about police racism in America – with this silent, calm and meditative image? Which is the real Diamond? Who owns her image, and her behaviour? How is anyone’s ‘personality’ caught and distorted by film?

I’d like to link off to the video on YouTube but it doesn’t seem to be on there. Here’s a promotional still. Diamond is recorded, successively wearing a couple of different outfits, in all of them looking screen left, downwards, silent and expressionless. Quite obviously portrayed in a soulful, introspective mode. Which is the real Diamond? Can we ever know? Are we, the viewers, participants in yet another distortion or only partial presentation of her personality? Discuss.

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018

To my surprise, this is the work which won the £30,000 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018.

There’s no doubt that it’s a sensitive and moving work in itself; that it’s a thoughtful response to the way the young woman’s image was ‘kidnapped’ by the circulation of the tragic video footage on Facebook, and that this is a careful effort by her, and Thompson as intermediary, to reclaim her image in a way controlled by her, to portray herself as more than the weeping victim of a moment of police violence.

But it’s not at all a photograph, is it, and certainly not a ‘body of photographic work’.

I wonder what established photographers make of the fact that one of the most prestigious prizes in photography was won by a film, that two of the other entries (Monsanto and Refusal) were essentially book projects which contained a lot of video, TV and text-based content as well as photos – and that the fourth entry (Batia Suter’s) didn’t include a single original photograph but was instead a collage of previously-existing images.

Also, the imperial dominance of American culture and values is a bugbear and bête noire of mine, so I was disappointed that, although the competition specifically mentions ‘Europe’ among the entrance criteria, two of the entries (Monsanto, autoportrait) are about entirely American subject matter.

The videos

Three of the entrants have a video about them on YouTube. They play consecutively, one after the other.


Related links

The photographers’ websites

Other photography reviews

Post-Soviet Visions @ Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 Foundation was set up about ten years ago to celebrate the culture and creativity of the once-communist nations of the former U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. The term they use to cover all these countries is ‘the New East’, meaning the countries of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and the former Soviet states of Central Asia.

Calvert 22 is a not-for profit organisation which aims not only to promote art, film, photography, fashion and other cultural activities from the region, but also to stimulate debate and discussion. Hence the busy schedule of screenings, talks and debates (details on their website).

As well as the London headquarters and exhibition space (Calvert 22 Space) they publish the Calvert Journal (an online magazine of New East contemporary culture) and organise the Calvert Forum (a think tank for the New East, focused on research and policy for the creative industries).

Oh, and the name? it comes from the address. It’s located at 22 Calvert Avenue, London E2 7JP.

Post-Soviet Visions: Image and identity in the new Eastern Europe

This is a group show of photography by a young generation of artists from the former USSR and communist countries, namely Russia, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

Most of them were either born or came to maturity after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, and grew up amid the ruins of their grandparents’ communist dreams. Now they were no longer members of the socialist vanguard but teenagers and young people just like anywhere else, except poorer, living amid the crumbling infrastructure of impoverished states, and above all completely disillusioned with their heritage and culture.

Kids in America or Britain or France, for all their complaints, have a history of democracy and high ideals which can certainly be mocked, but do have some basis in fact. We do live in relatively affluent societies which respect human rights, women’s rights, LBGT+ rights (compare and contrast with Putin’s Russia).  And teenagers here have money and jobs and fashion and records to spend it on.

What did the USSR achieve to be proud of, apart from get invaded by Nazi Germany and then fight him back at gigantic cost in lives and treasure? But after the slow declines of the 1960s and 70s, after Brezhnev and Andropov, after the years of stupid war in Afghanistan, after drunk Boris Yeltsin and the sell off of state industry to a new generation of utra-rich oligarchs  – where has all this left its children? Those not fortunate to be born into the nomenklatura or mafia families, have been chucked on the scrapheap.

The result is that the photos of all the young people here, no matter which country they’re from, convey the same sense of aimless futility. It’s all high rise alienation – teenage vodka parties, tacky tattoos, bad attitude, and cheap rip-offs of American music and clothes.

The photographers

Jędrzej Franek (Poland) is the executive editor of Stacja Poznan, a cultural, architectural and design web platform. He is project manager of the Poznan Design Festival. He’s represented by three big colour photos of buildings, the best of which (below) has a strongly romantic vibe, giving his stranded high rise buildings the glamour once associated with mountains in the mist. That said, these high rises could be anywhere – Brooklyn, Gdansk  or Sheffield. It represents an international style of alienation.

Jędrzej Franek

Jędrzej Franek

Dima Komarov (21) Born in 1997 in the Mari El Republic, in Russia, Dima is a self-taught photographer and Post-Soviet Visions is his first major exhibition. He’s represented by eleven roughly A4 size colour pics of his mates, a gallery of poor, pissed-off teenagers. What struck me is how 70s and 80s their clothes were. If the New East is meant to be at the ‘forefront of fashion’ (as the introduction to the show optimistically claims) it’s going to have to try a bit harder than this. I think I had a tartan-lined windcheater like the one below way back in the 70s, and there’s a great shot of a surly skinhead wearing a Ben Sherman shirt straight from the 1980s. These could be early photos of provincial youth by the English photographer Martin Parr.

Dima Komarov

Dima Komarov

David Meshki (39) was born in 1979 in Tbilisi, Georgia. After gaining an academic degree in photography, he worked as a photographer for major Georgian cultural magazines. His first solo show consisted of photographs of skaters and athletes taken in his native country and he went on to co-direct the award-winning documentary When Earth Seems to Be Light, based on these photographs. He’s represented here by five photos (2 black and white, three colour) of skater dudes with their trademark long hair and cut off jeans. The photo below – probably the best in the exhibition – which has been blown up to fill an entire wall. Way to go, Georgia dude.

David Meskhi

David Meskhi

Apart from being spectacular photo, it’s also an obvious symbol, showing unstoppable youth with, all energy and fearlessness, transcending the crumbling concrete infrastructure of the junk countries they’ve inherited.

Patrick Bienert and Max von Gumppenberg have been working together since 2007. Travelling between Germany and New York, they ‘explore concepts of culture and identity’ grounded in the heritage of street and documentary photography. The nine black-and-white and five colour photos here, of sullen youths and crappy townscapes, are described as ‘a love letter to the rave scene in Kiev’. The best of them show a really rotted, decaying urban environment.

Patrick Beinart and Max von Gumppenburg

Patrick Beinart and Max von Gumppenburg

Genia Volkov (37) was born in the Crimea (then still part of the Ukraine) back in 1981, and educated at the Institute of Journalism in Kiev. He became a self-taught multimedia artist. He’s represented by three big colour photos, highly stylised, two of them taken at night of hands reaching out or a scattering of star-like fireworks. His use of unnatural lighting effects sets him distinctly apart from the overwhelmingly naturalistic photorealism of all the other snappers.

Genia Volkov

Genia Volkov

Armen Parsadanov (36) Born in Baku in 1982, Armen has lived and worked in Kiev since 2013. He’s represented here by thirteen black and white prints, unframed and taped to the wall so that they look like the results of a photo shoot with fashionably wasted youths and blonde models, taped up to be selected by a magazine editor. Tatts, tacky t-shirt, most importantly heroine-chic skinny, if you goggle ‘alienated youth’ you get articles from the 1990s, 25 years ago. The ‘new’ East is just catching up.

Armen Parsadanov

Armen Parsadanov

Masha Demianova studied journalism and creative writing before turning to photography. She’s represented by two neat rows of three A4-sized black and white photos. Apparently, she is ‘a pioneer of the female gaze photography movement in Russia’, ‘challenging prevailing notions of female sexuality and desire’. So the shots are of naked women in non-sexy poses, standing on a jetty or squatting on a tree.

Masha Demianova

Masha Demianova

The most striking one for me was unrelated to female desire, a shot of multiple car headlights on a motorway in a thick fog, although cars looked at by the female gaze obviously look completely different from cars looked at by the male gaze.

Grigor Devejiev ‘is a photographer with over a decade of experience working in fashion, whose atmospheric, gritty pics have been included in international fashion magazines including i-D and Metal’. He’s represented by three big, A3-sized colour photos of shabby-looking people in threatening poses in really run-down horrible buildings. The full crappiness is brought out by the use of flash which projects cheap shadows behind the dodgy-looking characters. Note the horrible grey plastic macs.

Grigor Derevjiev

Grigor Derevjiev

Hassan Kurbanbaev (36) Born in 1982 in Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, Hassan was educated at the Tashkent State University of Arts. He began his career as a cinematographer, producing short films focusing on social and youth issues. He’s represented here by a series of colour photos of pissed-off Tashkent teens, part of his Tashkent Youth project. Apparently, Tashkent is one of the youngest cities in the world, with 60% of the population under 25. This young lady doesn’t look too thrilled about it.

Hassan Kurbanbaev

Hassan Kurbanbaev

Ieva Raudsepa Born in Latvia, Raudsepa is now based in Los Angeles. Her photographic work has been exhibited and featured internationally, including in i-D, YET, Latvian Photography Yearbook, FK Magazine. She’s represented here by 13 colour and two black-and-white photos, all of different sizes and arranged higgledy-piggledy so that some are overlapping. (I enjoyed the way the photos of each of the different photographers were hung, placed and arranged differently on the walls.)

Raudsepa is the only photographer who takes photos of landscapes. Most of her snaps still feature the same cast of gangly, alienated youths, but they tend to be taken on mossy banks or by lakes. One or two feature no people at all, so I’ve chosen a misty morning landscape for the sake of variety.

Ieva Raudsepa

Ieva Raudsepa

Michal Korta was born in Poland and studied German philology and photography. He has been working in photography for more than 15 years, working with press, advertising agencies and international cultural institutions, and is a lecturer on photography in Poland and Switzerland. He’s represented by four lovely black and white photos of the weird, brutalist, concrete architecture of Skopje in Macedonia, from his Beautiful Monsters series. All four are marvellous. What extraordinary buildings!

Michael Korta

Michael Korta

Paulina Korobkiewicz (25) was born in 1993 in Suwalki, Poland and is now based in London. She gained a first class honours degree in Fine Art Photography from Camberwell College of Arts and has also attended the Warsaw School of Photography. In 2016 Paulina was the winner of Camberwell Book Prize. She doesn’t appear to do people at all. Instead she’s represented by five big colour photos of aspects of buildings – the serried balconies of apartment buildings, the locked door of a nightclub in the grim morning light, fog half hiding some local shops.

Paulina Korobkiewicz

Paulina Korobkiewicz

Pavel Milyakov (30) Born in 1988 in Moscow, Pavel attended Moscow State Academy of Art and Industry, working with graphic design and then Moscow Film School. Post-Soviet Visions is his first exhibition. As far as I could see he was represented by one work, an enormous blow-up of a comedy photoshop he’s done of The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but with modern apartment blocks added in. Works amazingly well. It’s blown up onto an enormous scale which makes it all the wittier.

Orehovo by Pavel Milyakov

Orehovo by Pavel Milyakov

The videos

I nearly missed the fact that there’s a downstairs space, containing a few more photographers, a display case of photography magazines – but most importantly a projection room in which 11 videos from film-makers of the New East were playing on a loop. These are different from and in addition to the photographers.

Most of the films feature more shots and stories about alienated youths – in one, kids get drunk in a park, smoke fags and share vodka, before going along to a shabby disco where they throw up or snog and fondle each other. In another video, two skater boys skate through the wreckage of their crappy town, lie around in a cemetery, then end up having a fight in a graffiti-covered underpass.

One is a sort of mock documentary with a voiceover in Russian explaining the contemporary rave scene, how and why alienated youths go to big warehouses, deliberately don’t eat much, but smoke and drink to excess in order to encourage a sense of delirium, and dance all night to electronic music.

The standout film for me was Lake, directed by Vita Gareskina, in which several Iranian-looking women (actually from Georgia), dressed in dark robes and then wearing glittering masks, carry out some kind of ritual by a lake which involves torches and – as far as we can tell – the ritual drowning of one of them. This stood out by dint of being one of the few films with any aspiration beyond recording skater board, vodka-drinking, trying-on-trainers, teenage times.

That said, my favourite was this video – Jungle With Fiction by KayaKata. On reflection, maybe because – as a professional music video – it simply had higher production values than all the others and so was more watchable. But also because – although I think they’re taking themselves seriously – I found it hilarious the way these dudes in some crappy post-Soviet town copy the style, movements and attitude of black rappers from South-Central LA.

Like almost all the other kids, youths, skaters, rappers, party goers, drivers and fashion victims captured in this exhibition, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that – far from innovating or creating any kind of ‘new’ fashion, music or scene – all these young people trapped in dead-end towns in the former communist countries of the East are hopelessly copying every aspect of the wealthy Western lifestyle they can get their hands on, twenty years after it’s been and gone in the West.

The meaning of ‘post-Soviet’

For according to the exhibition blurb, the term post-Soviet ‘has become a byword for bold, innovative creativity in cultural fields from high fashion to film’.

To those of us outside the bubble of fashion and film, ‘post-Soviet’ is also a byword for economic collapse, falling life expectancy, epidemic alcoholism, a tsunami of organised crime, the rise of billionaire oligarchs, and the triumph of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule.

All fourteen photographers are interesting in different ways – some of their work is striking, all is to a high professional standard – but they all tend to gravitate towards the same central issues, of urban decay and youth alienation.

What is post-Soviet culture? It’s a big subject and one – with a newly re-elected Vladimir Putin continuing to goad and test the West – which requires investigation and understanding.

If the photos and videos focus overwhelmingly on youths with no apparent jobs and little apparent involvement in the social structures around them, if they offer no political or economic insights into the world of ‘the New East’ – they do at least put faces, voices and sounds to the younger part of the populations of this huge region, populations which are coming, in our time, under the control of a new generation of authoritarian and intolerant politicians.


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The exhibition is FREE – but note that Calvert 22 is CLOSED on Mondays and Tuesdays, and open Wednesday to Sunday only from 12 noon (until 6pm).

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Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

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

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

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

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

Zero Hour

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

Victors

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

Communists

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

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

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

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

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

Policemen

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

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

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

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

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

Violence

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

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

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

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

Ethnic Cleaning

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

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

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

Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio

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

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

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Stalinism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth (2016)

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

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

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

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

Gerwarth categorises the violence into a number of types:

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

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

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

The communist coups in all these countries were defeated because:

  1. the majority of the population didn’t want it
  2. the actual ‘class enemies’, the landowners, urban bourgeoisie, conservative politicians, were able to call on large reserves of battle-hardened officer class to lead militias and paramilitaries into battle against the ‘reds’

No wonder T.S. Eliot, in 1923, referred to James Joyce’s use of myth in Ulysses as the only way to make sense of ‘the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’.

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

Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

Brutalisation and extermination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The ‘only now…’ school of history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes and bibliography

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading this book makes you begin to wonder whether managing modern large human societies peacefully and fairly may simply be impossible.

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

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

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

Petersburg. Belgrade. Budapest. Berlin. Vienna. Constantinople. The same scenes of social collapse, class war and ethnic cleansing took place across Europe and beyond between 1918 and 1923


Related links

Great War-related blog posts

The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350 by Robert Bartlett (1993)

The sub-title is ‘Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950 – 1350’ and that is very much the central idea I take from this book – that before Europe embarked on its well-known colonial adventures from 1492 onwards, it had already experienced centuries of internal colonisation.

Another book I’ve recently read, Robert Fletcher’s The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD, has prepared my mind for this idea, with its account of the millennium-long process whereby Christianity was spread across the ‘nations’ (such as they were) of Europe, to the pagan peoples and rulers of the fringes. The final part of that book makes it clear that, after the First Crusade (1095-99), as Christianity was spread along the Baltic and into the last bastions of paganism in Eastern Europe, the evangelising became much more violent. It no longer amounted to a much-venerated saint converting a bunch of open-mouthed peasants by healing a sick girl; it was now about armed bands of knights united in an ‘Order’ – the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the Teutonic Order – who waged fierce wars of conquest into the East, forcibly converting the populations they conquered and building imperial castles to hold the territory they’d seized.

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Charge of the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus, April 5, 1242

Europe had to colonise itself, before its rulers went on to violently colonise the rest of the world.

Bartlett’s book aims to make you see that a number of scattered events usually treated as separate entities in siloed national histories, were actually all part of One Really Big Pattern: the spread, by conquest, of a centrally organised, Latin, Catholic Christianised state ideology right across Europe, and that this diffusion came from the heart of the old Frankish empire, from the most technologically and ideologically advanced heart of Europe consisting of north-France, north-west Germany and south-east England (after it had been conquered by the Normans in the 1060s).

Thus:

  • The Norman invasion of Ireland in the 1170s was partly a crude seizure of land and resources, but also involved the imposition on Gaelic Christianity of the much more centrally organised Latin Roman version.
  • A hundred years later, Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the 1280s had a similar aim of imposing a strong, centralised, Latinate organisation onto a culture traditionally made of scores of petty princes.
  • The Scots had already undergone a European-style centralising ‘revolution’ under King David I (1124-1153) and so could muster more resources to resist Edward I’s imperial ambitions – but only at the expense of handing over large parts of southern Scotland to settlement by Normans (and Flemings).
  • This period also saw the Reconquista of Spain, the long effort to push the occupying Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula, over the centuries from the reconquest of Toledo in 1085 to the recapture of Seville in 1248.
  • It was also the era of the Crusades (1095 to 1291), which imposed Latin, Catholic Christianity on formerly Orthodox territories in the Middle East.
  • Just before the First Crusade began, Norman troops under Roger I conquered the Kingdom of Sicily from the Muslims (complete by 1091).
  • En route to the Holy Land, King Richard I seized Cyprus from its Greek ruler in 1191, transferring it to Latin rule.
  • And the sack of Constantinople in 1204 led directly to the imposition of Latin, Catholic dioceses and bishops over much of the Byzantine Empire.

The same period saw the campaigns to Christianise the remote regions of northern and north-eastern Europe, now collectively referred to as the ‘Northern Crusades’. These included:

  • The Wendish Crusade (1147) against the Wends of north-east Germany and Poland.
  • The Crusade against the Livonians in the north-east Baltic in the 1190s.
  • The Teutonic Knights prolonged campaign to crush and convert the Prussians in the 1250s.
  • And a series of drawn-out campaigns against the pagan Duchy of Lithuania, the last stronghold of paganism in all Europe.

Moreover, this period also saw internal crusades to impose order and uniformity within Latin Christendom – most notoriously against the Cathars, a heretical sect which had followers across the South of France and which was brutally suppressed in the ‘Albigensian Crusade’ from 1209 to 1229 (named for the town of Albi, which was one of the heretical strongholds).

The Frankish expansion

The animation below shows the first 500 years of the spread of Christianity, the loss of the Middle east and Africa to the Muslims in the 700s and 800s, the Christian fightback – permanent in Spain, transient in the Levant – and then the abrupt worldwide explosion of Christianity commencing in 1500. It’s the first 1400 years or so we’re interested in, the fluctuations in and around the Mediterranean, and the period 950 to 1350 that Bartlett is particularly concerned with.

In a host of ways Bartlett identifies this expansion with the Franks, the Gothic tribe which seized Gaul from the Romans in the 500s and quickly established a centralised state which reached its geographical maximum under the legendary Charlemagne, king of the Franks from 768 to 814. I hadn’t realised that at its peak, Charlemagne’s empire was coterminous with Western Christendom (with the exception of the Christianised Anglo-Saxon kingdoms) as this map shows. It really was an awesome achievement.

Map of Europe around 800 AD

Map of Europe around 800 AD

William of Normandy who conquered Britain in 1066 was a descendant of the Frankish kings. Frankish aristocrats played key roles in all the conquests of the day, against the Moors in Spain and the Saracens in the Levant, in Sicily and Crete and Cyprus, and in the north pressing into Denmark, into Poland and along the Baltic towards Finland and Russia. Bartlett has a nifty diagram showing that by the late Middle Ages, 80% of Europe’s monarchs were descended from the Frankish royal family or Frankish nobles.

No surprise, then, that the word ‘Frank’ began to be used widely as a generic name for the conquerors and settlers all over Europe – the Byzantine Greeks called the incoming Latins ‘the Franks’; a settlement in Hungary was called ‘the village of the Franks’; the newly conquered peoples of Silesia and Moravia had to submit to ‘Frankish law’; Welsh chroniclers refer to incursions by ‘the Franci’; and Irish monks referred to the Anglo-Norman invaders as ‘the Franks’. Similarly, in the Middle East of the Crusader era, Muslim commentators, kings and peoples came to call all Westerners ‘the Franks’. So widespread and famous was this association, that Muslim traders took the name Faranga on their journeys through the Red Sea eastwards, spreading the term as far East as China, where, when westerners arrived hundreds of years later, they were identified as the long-rumoured Fo-lang-ki. (pp.104-105).

Questions and theories

All this prompts three questions:

  1. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to convert the entire continent?
  2. Why did Latin Christianity feel it had to be so centralised; why did it feel so obliged to impose uniformity of ritual and language all across the Christian world?
  3. What gave Latin Christian culture its dynamism – the aggressive confidence which would spill out to the Canary Islands (conquered in the early 1400s), to the Caribbean (1490s), to Central America (1520s), along the coast of Africa (first settlements in Mozambique in 1500), to India and beyond?

1. The first of these questions is answered at length in Richard Fletcher’s book, which shows how the Great Commission in St Matthew’s Gospel (‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you‘) was interpreted by successive Church authorities to mean, first of all, gaining some converts among the rich in cities around the Roman Empire; then to convert all inhabitants of the cities; then, only slowly, to undertake the task of converting the rural peasants; and only then, in the 700s and 800s, the brave idea of venturing beyond the pale of Romanitas to try and convert pagans.

The second two questions are the ones Bartlett specifically addresses and he approaches them from different angles, examining various theories and sifting a wide range of evidence. I found two arguments particularly convincing:

2. The centralisation of the Catholic Church. This stems from the Gregorian Reforms, a series of measures instituted by Pope Gregory VII from around 1050 to 1080. They banned the purchase of clerical positions, enforced clerical celibacy, significantly extended Canon law to impose uniformity on all aspects of Catholic practice. As Wikipedia puts it, these reforms were based on Gregory’s

conviction that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in his capacity as a divine institution, he is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church under the Petrine Commission, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity.

This gathering of power by the papacy is generally thought to have reached its height under the papacy of Pope Innocent III (1198 to 1216). Innocent further extended Canon Law, upheld papal power over all secular rulers, using the Interdict to punish rulers he disagreed with (e.g. King John of England) and he was personally responsible for some of the violent campaigns we’ve listed: Innocent called for Christian crusades to be mounted against the Muslims in the Holy Land and the south of Spain, and against the Cathars in the South of France.

Making Christian belief and practice uniform was part and parcel of the extension of its power by a vigorously confident papacy, a vision of uniformity which echoed and reinforced the tendency of secular rulers to create larger ‘states’ in which they asserted increasingly centralised power and uniform laws.

3. As to the literal force behind the aggressive military confidence, Bartlett has a fascinating chapter about the technology of medieval war. Basically, the Franks had heavy war-horses, heavy body armour, the crossbow and a new design of impenetrable defensive castles and all of these were absent in the conquered territories, the Holy Land, southern Spain, Wales and Ireland, in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. These advanced military technologies gave the better-armed Franks victory – at least until their opponents managed to figure out and copy them for themselves. (The Crusades are a different case – fundamentally the Crusaders lost for lack of men and resources.)

But I was drawn to a subtler cause for this great expansion: in the 9th and 10th centuries the laws of inheritance were hazy and patrimonies and estates could be divided among a number of sons, daughters, cousins, uncles and so on. (One aspect of this is the way that Anglo-Saxon kings were chosen by acclamation, not rigid law; and this uncertainty explains the long English civil war following Henry I’s death between his daughter Matilda and her cousin Stephen of Blois, which lasted from 1135 to 1153.)

Thus, along with the imposition of clearer laws and rules within the Church went secular attempts in Frankish lands to regularise secular law, and one element of this was to enforce the previously haphazard law of primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. But this new rigour had unexpected consequences – it forced all the other male heirs to go off looking for land.

In a fascinating chapter Bartlett sketches the histories of several aristocratic Frankish families where one son inherited the father’s entire estate and left the other 3 or 4 or 5 well-armed, well-educated, ambitious sons literally homeless and landless. There was only one thing for it – to associate themselves with the nearest campaign of Christianisation and conquest. Thus the de Joinville family from the Champagne region of France spawned sons who fought and won lands in Ireland, in Africa and Syria. The descendants of Robert de Grandmenils from Normandy (d.1050) won lands in southern Italy and Sicily, served the Byzantine Emperor, joined the First Crusade, and ended up building castles in northern Wales.

So a newly rigorous application of the law of primogeniture provided the motive for forcing dispossessed aristocrats to go a-fighting – the newly authoritarian Catholic Church provided a justifying ideology for conquest in the name of uniformity and iron armour, heavy warhorses, the crossbow and castles provided the technology. Taken together these elements at least begin to explain the phenomenal success of the ‘Frankish expansion’.

Other aspects of medieval colonisation

These ideas are pretty clearly expressed in the first three chapters; the remaining nine chapters flesh them out with a host of details examining the impact of the Frankish expansion on every aspect of medieval life: the image of the conquerors as embodied in coins, statutes and charters; the division of time into primitive pagan ‘before’ and civilised Christian ‘after’; the propagandistic literature of conquest (in various romances and epics); the giving of new Latin place names which over-wrote the native names of the conquered – the Arabs, the Irish, the Slavs; the imposition of new Frankish laws and tax codes; the proliferation of New Towns with Western-based charters, and the creation of hundreds of new villages, laid out on logical grid patterns, especially in eastern Europe. (This reminded me of the passage in Marc Morris’s history of Edward I which describes Edward’s creation of New Model Towns on grid plans in Wales (Flint) but also England (Winchelsea)).

Bartlett presents the evidence for the widespread importation from Christian Germany of heavy, iron-tipped ploughs which were much more efficient at turning the soil than the lighter, wooden Slavic ploughs, and thus increased productivity in the new settlements (pp.148-152). This went hand-in-hand with a ‘cerealisation’ of agriculture, as woods were cleared and marshes drained to provide more ploughing land to grow wheat and barley, which in turn led to significant increases in population in the newly settled lands. (Although as with all things human this had unintended consequences, little understood at the time; which is that the pagan predecessors, though fewer in number, had a more balanced diet which included fruit and berries and honey from woodlands – the switch to a cereal-based monoculture increased production but probably led to unhealthier people. Analysis of corpses suggests there was a net loss of stature in humans over the period, with the average height decreasing by about 2 inches between the early and the High Middle Ages.)

Names became homogenised. The Normans imported ‘William’ and ‘Henry’ into the England of ‘Athelstan’ and ‘Aelfric’, and then into the Wales of ‘Llywelyn’ ‘Owain’ and the Ireland of ‘Connor’, ‘Cormac’ and ‘Fergus’. Bartlett shows how these essentially Frankish names also spread east replacing ‘Zbigniew’ and ‘Jarosław’, south into Sicily and even (to a lesser extent) into Spain.

In a move typical of Bartlett’s ability to shed fascinating light on the taken-for-granted, he shows how the centralisation and harmonisation of the Latin church led to the diffusion of a small number of generic saints names. Before about 1100 the churches of the various nations were dedicated to a very wide spectrum of saints named after local holy men in Irish, Welsh, Scots, Castilian, Navarrese, Italian, Greek, Germanic or Polish and so on. But the 1200s saw the rise of a continent-wide popularity for the core gospel names – Mary at the top of the table, followed by Christ (as in Christ Church or Corpus Christi) and then the names of the most popular disciples, John, Peter, Andrew.

The names of individual people as well as the names of their churches, along with many other cultural changes which he describes – all followed this process of homogenisation and Latinisation which Bartlett calls ‘the Europeanisation of Europe’ (chapter 11).

New worlds and the New World

Bartlett doesn’t have to emphasise it but the parallels are clear to see between the colonisation by violence and crusading Christianity of the peripheral areas of Europe in the 1000s to 1300s, and the conquest of the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s. It’s a mind-opening comparison, which works at multiple levels.

For example, many of the charters and decrees about the new European lands proclaimed them ’empty’ virgin land ready to be settled, despite the evidence of native populations living in well-developed (though non-Latin) settlements – just as publicists for the Americas and, later, Australia, would declare them ’empty’ of natives.

Even when there are obviously natives (Welsh, Scots, Muslims, Slavs) the official colonial medieval literature disparages the aboriginal inhabitants’ lack of literacy, of iron tools or weapons, of orthodox Christianity, of organised towns with advanced codes of law and so on.

‘They’ are in every way uncivilised; ‘we’ in every way deserve to take their land because only ‘we’ know how to make it productive and fertile.

Many of the other histories I’ve read describe the numerous medieval conquests in terms of battles, alliances, troops and armour and so on; Bartlett’s is the only one I know which goes on to explain in great detail that, once you’ve conquered your new territory – you need people to come and live in it. You have to persuade people from the old lands to risk making a long journey, so you have to advertise and give would-be settlers tax breaks and even cash incentives. Settlers in Ireland, the south of Spain, the Holy Land or Livonia were all told how much empty land they could have, were offered tax breaks for the first few years and then reduced taxes for decades after, and the lords and conquerors fell over themselves to give the new towns attractive charters and independent powers to determine their own laws and taxes.

All of these techniques would be copied by the conquistadors in Central America or the merchant adventurers who launched the first settlements in North America, or the colonial authorities desperate to fill the wide ’empty’ spaces of Australia or New Zealand. It is a mind-opening revelation to learn how all these techniques were pioneered within Europe itself and against fellow ‘Europeans’, centuries before the New World was discovered.

Conclusion

This a very persuasive book which mounts an impressive armoury of evidence – archaeological and ecological, in place names, people’s names, saints names, in cultural traditions, church records and epic poems, in the spread of monasteries and universities and charters and coinage – to force home its eye-opening central argument: that the more advanced, centrally organised parts of Europe (north-west France, north-west Germany and south-east England) (all ultimately owing their authority, technology and ideology to the Frankish empire of Charlemagne) succeeded in conquering and settling the rest of less advanced, less developed and non-Christian Europe with the aid of a panoply of technologies and ideologies, legal and cultural and physical weapons – a panoply which Europeans would then use to sail out and conquer huge tracts of the rest of the world.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books and exhibitions

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