This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman by Tadeusz Borowski (1948)

Anything can be done to a human being.
(Introduction, page 12)

Sometimes, after a transport had already been gassed, some late-arriving cars drove around filled with the sick. It was wasteful to gas them. They were undressed and Obershadrührer Moll either shot them with his rifle or pushed them live into the flaming trench. (p.96)

In The Captive Mind, Czesław Miłosz’s 1953 book describing the experiences of his generation in Poland, there are chapter-length portraits of four fellow writers who, in their different ways, ended up acquiescing in, and collaborating with, the communist takeover of Poland. The most haunting is the profile of short story writer Tadeusz Borowski, who had a blazing reputation for a few years after the war, lapsed into writing increasingly shrill communist propaganda, and then committed suicide by gassing himself in 1951, aged 28.

This review is divided into three parts: Borowski’s biography and reviews of short stories from his first, and then second, books.

1. The short harrowing biography of Tadeusz Borowski

Just reading Borowski’s biography is harrowing enough, before you even get to his prose fiction.

Borowski was born in 1922 in modern-day Ukraine, to Polish parents. When he was 4 his father was sent to a Russian labour camp above the Arctic Circle, to work on the infamous White Sea Canal, as punishment for having been a member of a Polish military organisation during the Great War. In 1930, when he was 8, Borowski’s mother was deported to another Russian labour camp, leaving the boy to be raised by his aunt. In 1932 his father was released, and the family was repatriated to Warsaw where, in 1934, his mother, released from her camp, rejoined them.

Borowski was 16 when the Nazis and the Soviets invaded Poland in September 1939. He had been studying at a Franciscan school but had to complete his secondary schooling in secret. He then progressed to studying literature among the clandestine groups which made up the underground Warsaw University.

In 1943 his fiancée was arrested for her role in the underground and, when Borowski went looking for her at the flat of a mutual friend, he too was arrested. He was held in Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak prison for two months. The prison was on the edge of the ghetto and from his window he could watch German soldiers throw grenades into tenement buildings before systematically burning them to the ground.

In April 1943 Borowski was sent to Auschwitz and was tattooed with the number 119 198. He was 20 years old. His fiancée arrived separately and was sent to the women’s camp. Eventually he was able to make contact with her and the ‘story’ Auschwitz, Our Home includes the letters he sent to her. Both survived because of the ‘lucky’ accident that Aryans had stopped being sent to the gas chambers just three weeks earlier; from now on only Jews would be gassed and cremated en masse.

Borowski had a range of jobs – carrying telegraph poles, night watchman, hospital orderly, before a spell working at the railway station. Supervised by brutal SS guards with machine guns and whips, he was one of the kapos or non-Jewish inmates, who met the endless freight trains of Jews sent from all over Europe, sorted the desperate, confused victims into lines of men and women, and saw them loaded into the trucks which drove them off to the crematoriums. Within the hour everyone on the train was dead, gassed, burned and contributing to the black smoke climbing from the crematorium chimneys.

In the final days of the war Borowski and the surviving other non-Jewish workers were marched from Auschwitz to Dachau concentration camp and it was here, on 1 May 1945, that he was liberated by the US Seventh Army. From the liberated American zone of Germany in 1946, Borowski published a collection of stories in collaboration with two friends. He stayed with the liberated Poles in Bavaria; had a dissolute spell in Paris; discovered his fiancée was alive and well and living, for some reason, in Sweden, but then decided to return to Poland. Here, in 1948, he published two more collections of stories, Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria), mostly about Auschwitz, and a set of short stories about the immediate post-war environment, set in displaced persons camps, Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone).

In the same year Borowski joined the Communist Party of Poland and began writing impassioned articles praising the communist future and violently critical of the decadent West. Despite encouragement from friends he wrote no more stories or poetry. In his profile, Miłosz calls Borowski ‘the disappointed lover’, and interprets his journalism as a state-endorsed vehicle where he could express his rage and despair against the world. In the introduction to this volume, Jan Kott (the noted theatre critic, who was himself an enthusiastic Stalinist until the upheavals of 1956) writes that Borowski:

could not resist that most diabolical of temptations – to participate in history, a history for which stones and people are only the material used to build the ‘brave new world’. (p.19)

His earlier stories had attracted criticism from the communist party for their bleakness and nihilism: the Party demanded prose which praised socialist heroes and proletariat solidarity, even in Auschwitz. According to Kott, the newly communist Borowski at first believed that Communism was the only political force truly capable of preventing a future Auschwitz from happening. In 1950 he received the National Literary Prize, Second Degree for this more ‘Socialist Realist’ work.

So favourable was he with the authorities that in the summer of 1949 Borowski was sent to work in the Press Section of the Polish Military Mission in Berlin. Here he may possibly have carried out some kind of intelligence work. When he returned to Warsaw he had become involved in an extramarital affair.

Soon afterwards, however, a friend of his (the same friend in whose apartment both Borowski and his fiancée had been arrested back in 1943) was imprisoned and tortured by the Communists. Borowski tried to intervene on his behalf and failed; he became completely disillusioned with the regime. Maybe the whole apparatus of arrests and transports to labour camps was starting up all over again. Maybe nothing could stop the Auschwitz world.

Thus, politically disillusioned, trapped by his affair, and perhaps unable to cope with the long-term trauma of what he’d seen, on July 1, 1951, at the age of 28, Borowski committed suicide by breathing in gas from a gas stove. His wife had given birth to their daughter three days previously.


The short stories

The Penguin paperback, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman, brings together all of the Holocaust-related stories from his early collections of short stories, being:

  • This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (21 pages)
  • A Day at Harmenz (32 pages)
  • The People Who Walked On (16 pages)
  • Auschwitz, Our Home (A Letter) (45 pages)
  • The Death of Schillinger (4 pages)
  • The Man with the Package (5 pages)
  • The Supper (5 pages)
  • A True Story (4 pages)
  • Silence (3 pages)
  • The January Offensive (10 pages)
  • A Visit (3 pages)
  • The World of Stone (4 pages)

It would have been extremely useful if the editors of the Penguin edition had made it clear which of these stories come from Farewell to Maria and which from A World of Stone. Since the book doesn’t say and I can’t find anything on the internet, I am guessing that the first four are from the first volume about Auschwitz, and the final eight from the world of displaced persons camps.

This guess is based on the fact that the first four are long and diffuse, often divided into sections and containing numerous stories or anecdotes, while the final eight stories are strikingly short, much more polished, generally focus on one event, and in their brevity and ellipticism, are marvellously charged with meaning.

2. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman

It’s no accident that the editors place this story first and name the entire collection after it, since it plunges us straight away into the horrors of Auschwitz, with its unflinching first sentence.

All of us walk around naked.

The inmates are naked because their only clothes, their striped pyjama uniforms have been temporarily taken away to be deloused. They are being fumigated in Zyklon B,

an efficient killer of lice in clothing and of men in gas chambers.

Note this tone and attitude which, right from the start, is laconic to the point of cruelty. Borowski’s narrator has had all his ‘outside world modesty’ burned away. Now he accepts all the facts of Auschwitz, no matter how grim and grotesque, as facts of life, and his prose, by stating these facts plainly and evenly, draws you into his world far more effectively than if he raged or wept. Borowski saw the worst things humans can do to other humans and describes it all the more upsettingly for being conveyed in such a flat factual style.

From the rear blockhouses we have a view of the F.K.L. – Frauen Konzentration Lager; there too the delousing is in full swing. Twenty‐eight thousand women have been stripped naked and driven out of the barracks. Now they swarm around the large yard between blockhouses.

Some critics, and the introduction, dwell on Borowski’s style, his use of simile and so on, or concut lengthy analyses of his moral position. But what comes over strongest to me, and what is in a sense most shocking, is the implicit attitude in the story that – it was just a job, a tough hard physical job, certainly, but a job which, like countless other labouring jobs, has its shitty bits but also its perks, moments when you can relax, share a cigarette or some food or vodka with workmates, enjoy the sunshine and feel pretty content with life.

It is the everydayness of the work which keeps drawing you in, Borowski’s persuasive descriptions of the mundaneness of it all – until you remember the purpose of all this activity – the systematic extermination of millions – millions – of human beings. Here is the ramp, where the cattle trains packed with Jews from all over Europe are unloaded, just before a new transport arrives.

Meantime, the ramp has become increasingly alive with activity, increasingly noisy. The crews are being divided into those who will open and unload the arriving cattle cars and those who will be posted by the wooden steps. They receive instructions on how to proceed most efficiently. Motor cycles drive up, delivering S.S. officers, bemedalled, glittering with brass, beefy men with highly polished boots and shiny, brutal faces. Some have brought their briefcases, others hold thin, flexible whips. This gives them an air of military readiness and agility. They walk in and out of the commissary – for the miserable little shack by the road serves as their commissary, where in the summertime they drink mineral water, Studentenquelle, and where in winter they can warm up with a glass of hot wine. They greet each other in the state‐approved way, raising an arm Roman fashion, then shake hands cordially, exchange warm smiles, discuss mail from home, their children, their families. Some stroll majestically on the ramp. The silver squares on their collars glitter, the gravel crunches under their boots, their bamboo whips snap impatiently.

Tadeusz’s job, along with his gang of kapos, is to open the doors of the trucks, pull out the bodies, some still alive, many dead, all of them stinking of faeces and urine. they have to force the living to line up to be loaded into lorries which will drive them off to the changing rooms, the gas chamber and the crematorium or throw the corpses onto other lorries which will also go to the crematoriums. On one level all very manageable, especially with SS men standing behind you with whips which they are quick to use, and behind them the guards with machine guns.

The shitty part was cleaning out the cattle trucks after they’d been emptied of the Jews locked up in them for days, if not weeks, without food or water.

We climb inside. In the corners amid human excrement and abandoned wrist‐watches lie
squashed, trampled infants, naked little monsters with enormous heads and bloated bellies.
We carry them out like chickens, holding several in each hand. (p.39)

The narrator looks around for one of the Jews awaiting loading into a lorry to take the dead babies off his hands. An SS guard makes a motion as if to start shooting the reluctant Jews and so a tall grey-haired woman steps forward and takes them. ‘My poor boy,’ she whispers to Tadeusz. If he has any moral or psychological or emotional response, it is not included. He just feels momentarily tired and leans against the side of the truck and then, when his pal Henri tugs at his shirt, confesses that he is angry at the victims. He could beat them and throw them into the ovens himself. It’s their bloody fault that he’s here doing this disgusting job. Damn them, damn them all! Henri says it’s normal: everyone hates the people weaker than themselves.

Once the lorries have all been loaded and every last Jew, alive or dead, has been packed off to be incinerated, once all the cattle trucks have been cleaned out, you can wash your hands and settle in the sun alongside your mates till the next shipment arrives.

The great perk of the job is that the kapos can keep all the food and drink they find among the suitcases and clothes the Jews are ordered to abandon on the loading ramp. Gold, jewellery and valuables were taken by the supervising Germans – and it’s true that any labourer caught stealing valuables was shot – but the food, nah, help yourselves.

With the disconcerting result that, in all these stories, food-wise, the kapos were pretty well off; especially if you include the astonishing fact that they were allowed to receive letters and food parcels from their relatives. Thus the narrator of these stories, Kapo Tadeusz, has a pretty healthy food stash including onions and tomatoes from his father’s garden, Portuguese sardines, bacon from Lublin and sweetmeats from Salonica.

This is all the harder to read if you recall Primo Levi’s descriptions of how the Jews in Auschwitz were systematically starved to death, supplied with pitifully inadequate rations which left them permanently ravenous. Tadeusz, by contrast, lives the life of Reilly. Oh, apart from his entire situation and plight. It is this constant oscillation, between moments of ‘normality’ and humdrum human foibles – and sudden moments of complete horror – which make the stories almost unbearable to read.

I shut my eyes tight, but I can still see corpses dragged from the train, trampled infants, cripples piled on top of the dead, wave after wave . . . freight cars roll in, the heaps of clothing, suitcases and bundles grow, people climb out, look at the sun, take a few breaths, beg for water, get into the trucks, drive away. And again freight cars roll in, again people.

The narrator

These longer stories are narrated in the first person by a deputy kapo, Vorarbeiter Tadeusz. the fact that he has the same name has led generations of readers to identify him directly with the author. But the introduction and various articles I’ve read contest this: apparently, other survivors testify that the actual Borowski was kind-hearted and charitable.

This kind of debate is entertaining but ultimately irrelevant to the stories: what matters is the workings of the text. In these, the narrator tries to be tough as nails but keeps failing. He knows he cannot afford to become at all connected to the people he is chivvying along to the gas chamber but, despite himself, he keeps making human connections and then feeling sick, more deeply nauseated than any of us reading this can possibly imagine.

He witnesses a mother furiously denying her small child who is running after her, calling out ‘Mummy, mummy’. The woman thinks she might survive if she has no child, so ignores and walks away from it. An enraged Russian kapo punches her in the face, tells her she is a rotten mother, and throws her onto one of the lorries and then her child after her. A watching SS man grunts his approval, ‘Gut gemacht, Gut, gut, Russki’.

More screaming wailing humanity shuffles, walks, staggers past. Then amidst the squalor, Tadeusz sees a vision, a beautiful young blonde woman, miraculously fresh and clean who asks him point blank: ‘What is happening? Where are we going?’ He can say nothing, there are literally no words to convey the situation. She nods her head and says, ‘I know’ and walks purposefully over to a lorry. That is all the author describes. We must imagine how he feels. And even getting a fraction of the way there is devastating.

To say the narrator is untouched by all this seems wildly wrong. He is stricken.

I go back inside the train; I carry out dead infants; I unload luggage. I touch corpses, but I cannot overcome the mounting, uncontrollable terror. I try to escape from the corpses, but they are everywhere: lined up on the gravel, on the cement edge of the ramp, inside the cattle cars. Babies, hideous naked women, men twisted by convulsions. I run off as far as I can go, but immediately a whip slashes across my back… (p.45)

Later he reaches into a truck full of still-steaming corpses, goes to grab the first corpse and, as in a horror movie, the apparently dead hand closes round his.

I seize a corpse by the hand; the fingers close tightly around mine. I pull back with a shriek and stagger away. My heart pounds, jumps up to my throat. I can no longer control the nausea. Hunched under the train I begin to vomit. (p.48)

Yes, he very obviously and severely is affected by what he is doing.

Similes

Among the functional but carefully chosen prose, glisten occasional, telling similes.

  • Now [the occupants of the cattle trucks] push towards the open doors, breathing like fish cast out on the sand. (p.37)
  • A huge, multicoloured wave of people loaded down with luggage pours from the train like a blind, mad river trying to find a new bed. (p.37)
  • Trucks leave and return, without interruption, as on a monstrous conveyor belt. A Red Cross van drives back and forth, back and forth, incessantly: it transports the gas that will kill these people. The enormous cross on the hood, red as blood, seems to dissolve in the sun. (p.38)
  • The morbid procession streams on and on – trucks growl like mad dogs. (p.41)
  • Again weary, pale faces at the windows, flat as though cut out of paper, with huge, feverishly burning eyes. (p.42)

Shining out like jewels in mud.


3. Silence

As mentioned above, I think the last eight of the stories here, being much shorter and generally set after the liberation, must come from his second collection, A World of Stone. Not only shorter, and describing a different period, but substantially different in style. More polished and canny.

Here is Borowski’s short story, Silence, in its entirety, as translated by Barbara Vedder.

Silence

At last they seized him inside the German barracks, just as he was about to climb over the window ledge. In absolute silence they pulled him down to the floor and panting with hate dragged him into a dark alley. Here, closely surrounded by a silent mob, they began tearing at him with greedy hands.

Suddenly from the camp gate a whispered warning was passed from one mouth to another. A company of soldiers, their bodies leaning forward, their rifles on the ready, came running down the camp’s main road, weaving between the clusters of men in stripes standing in the way. The crowd scattered and vanished inside the blocks. In the packed, noisy barracks the prisoners were cooking food pilfered during the night from neighbouring farmers. In the bunks and in the passageways between them, they were grinding grain in small flour-mills, slicing meat on heavy slabs of wood, peeling potatoes and throwing the peels on to the floor. They were playing cards for stolen cigars, stirring batter for pancakes, gulping down hot soup, and lazily killing fleas. A stifling odour of sweat hung in the air, mingled with the smell of food, with smoke and with steam that liquified along the ceiling beams and fell on the men, the bunks and the food in large, heavy drops, like autumn rain.

There was a stir at the door. A young American officer with a tin helmet on his head entered the block and looked with curiosity at the bunks and the tables. He wore a freshly pressed uniform; his revolver was hanging down, strapped in an open holster that dangled against his thigh. He was assisted by the translator who wore a yellow band reading ‘interpreter” on the sleeve of his civilian coat, and by the chairman of the Prisoners’ Committee, dressed in a white summer coat, a pair of tuxedo trousers, and tennis shoes. The men in the barracks fell silent. Leaning out of their bunks and lifting their eyes from the kettles, bowls and cups, they gazed attentively into the officer’s face.

“Gentlemen,” said the officer with a friendly smile, taking off his helmet-and the interpreter proceeded at once to translate sentence after sentence-“I know, of course, that after what you have gone through and after what you have seen, you must feel a deep hate for your tormentors. But we, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness. We must show our respect for the law. I assure you that the guilty will be punished, in this camp as well as in all the others. You have already seen, for example, that the S.S. men were made to bury the dead.”

“. . . right, we could use the lot at the back of the hospital. A few of them are still around,” whispered one of the men in a bottom bunk.

“. . . or one of the pits,” whispered another. He sat straddling the bunk, his fingers firmly clutching the blanket.

“Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?” Now listen to what the American has to say,”a third man, stretched across the foot of the same bunk, spoke in an angry whisper. The American officer was now hidden from their view behind the thick crowd gathered at the other end of the block.

“Comrades, our new Kommandant gives you his word of honour that all the criminals of the S.S. as well as among the prisoners will be punished,” said the translator. The men in the bunks broke into applause and shouts. In smiles and gestures they tried to convey their friendly approval of the young man from across the ocean.

“And so the Kommandant requests,” went on the translator, his voice turning somewhat hoarse, “that you try to be patient and do not commit lawless deeds, which may only lead to trouble, and please pass the sons of bitches over to the camp guards. How about it, men?”

The block answered with a prolonged shout. The American thanked the translator and wished the prisoners a good rest and an early reunion with their dear ones. Accompanied by a friendly hum of voices, he left the block and proceeded to the next.

Not until after he had visited all the blocks and returned with the soldiers to his headquarters did we pull our man off the bunk – where covered with blankets and half smothered with the weight of our bodies he lay gagged, his face buried in the straw mattress – and dragged him on to the cement floor under the stove, where the entire block, grunting and growling with hatred, trampled him to death.

Commentary

It is short, and it is beautifully shaped. It has the brevity of one of Hemingway’s earliest stories and like them, is heavy with meaning beyond what it says.

You can, of course, have a 6th form debate about the morality of the prisoners murdering the man (presumably a Nazi guard or camp official) –

“Are the prisoners justified or ‘right’ to take revenge? Discuss”

But as regular readers of this blog know, I’m not very interested in morality, because it is generally an excuse for long-winded tergiversation which never arrives at a useful outcome. And also because nine times out of ten morality is, as Freud said somewhere, obvious. Making a song and dance out of it is generally a way of avoiding the obviously correct decision.

Quite obviously it is wrong to kill anyone, therefore they ‘shouldn’t’ kill the Nazi. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a moral debate, it’s a work of literature. The point is the tremendous artistry of the story.

1. Dramatic contrast Note the skill with which the clash of moralities, which is the ostensible ‘subject’ of the story, is fully dramatised. It isn’t an abstract debate but beautifully embodied in the contrast between the American officer and the unnamed mob. And everything about this confrontation or polarity is brought out by wonderful details. ‘The young man from across the ocean’ is not only young, he wears a freshly-pressed uniform. A whole clause is devoted to the state of his pistol, dangling with Yankee casualness against his thigh. Confident, happy, yet somehow superficial.

His speech is calm and fair and reasonable. It praises the Enlightenment values of Reason and Justice. It sounds like Lincoln at Gettysburg or the Founding Fathers in full flood:

We, the soldiers of America, and you, the people of Europe, have fought so that law should prevail over lawlessness.

Shucks. Compare and contrast the undisciplined mob who confront him, bickering inmates who steal from the nearby farms and are preparing food in filthy, unhygienic ways, chopping meat on dirty wooden slabs, throwing potato peelings all over the floor, gambling for stolen loot (the cigars). The filth and squalor of the barrack couldn’t contrast more vividly with the freshly-pressed uniform of the clean-cut young American.

2. Tension and suspense I had to read it twice to make sure I hadn’t missed the identity of the man they kill. No, he isn’t identified anywhere. It’s not even clear that he is a Nazi. This anonymity makes his lynching all the more… uncanny and… bestial. Generalised. Unfathomable.

In a similar way, I had to read the story twice to be really clear that the ‘company of soldiers’ running down the camp’s main road are indeed Americans. You have to wait through the long description of the men in the barracks, cooking and gambling, before you get to the word ‘American’ describing the officer. Only with this one word does the situation become clear and the whole scene is flooded with new meaning. An American is addressing the barracks. Then this must be after the liberation from the Germans. So this one word explains the freedom of the inmates’ behaviour, cooking and gambling and picking their fleas. They are free. And the soldiers running down the main strip, they must be Americans, too. Surely. Although a flicker of doubt remains. Not logical doubt, aesthetic doubt.

Similarly, I didn’t understand the whispered conversation among the three inmates while the American was still speaking, or why the third whisperer was angry, until it is revealed – after the American has left – that all three were stifling under the blankets the man they intend to kill and are impatiently discussing where to dump his body. That’s why the third man says, ‘Shut up! Can’t you wait a little longer?’ i.e. wait a few more minutes till the American leaves. Which indicates how impatient they are to carry out their revenge; how deep it runs.

You have to read the story at least twice for it to reveal its meaning.

Borowski’s deliberate delay or suspension of understanding is tremendously effective – in such a small space – in charging the text with energy. Arguably, the strategy carries on beyond the end of the story because we never get told the identity of the murdered man. 70 years later, we’re still waiting, and will wait forever. Some things are never explained.

Human psychology It is a portrait of men as they are, not as writers or philosophers would have them be. The point, the crux, the convincing thing about it, is the way the barrack full of filthy men cheer the American to the rafters. They admire him. They are grateful to him. They agree with everything he says. They are going to completely ignore him. When he leaves he is ‘accompanied by a friendly hum of voices…’ – what a brilliantly convincing detail – the American officer departs, proud of his virtue and the fine example the New World is setting the Old. Good man.

But morality has nothing to do with it. Animal passions, lust for revenge, lynch mob mentality take over. The entire story is an ironic comment on the fatuous other-worldly innocence of the American, of anyone who hasn’t lived through the camp, who hasn’t survived in the bestial world of the Lager.

Two minds

And it is also a subtler comment on human nature – not the obvious fact that people can behave like animals, we all know that. The slightly more interesting point that the same people can, with one part of their mind, listen, understand and agree with all the finest points of moral philosophy and ethical debate – and with another part trample and tear a fellow human being to pieces. The same people.

It is this fundamental schizophrenia of the human animal which comes over from all Borowski’s stories. In the story Auschwitz, Our Home, the narrator has a relatively cushy time  since he has managed to wangle his way onto a course to train as a hospital orderly. The hospital is lovely, with fine views of tree-lined roads, plenty of food, and the lessons are interesting. Of course, he knows that some of the surgeons are carrying out experiments on live human beings with no anaesthetics, removing their organs one by one to see how long they survive, just down the hall. But the symphony orchestra the hospital staff have organised is really wonderful, and you should see the canteen!

Or take another moment, described in the story, The People Who Walked On, when the narrator’s taking part in the regular football match between hospital staff and runs to retrieve the ball from the touchline. From here he can see through the barbed wire to the train ramp where he used to work, and the road leading off to the crematorium. Along it are trudging a new trainload of Jews to the gas chambers. He throws the ball in and continues playing the game. Five minutes later the ball goes out again, and he goes to fetch it from the same spot by the fence. Now the road and ramp are empty. Between two throw-ins of a football match 3,000 people have been gassed and incinerated.

Is it a searing indictment of the human mind that it can enjoy Bach while across the hall human beings are being tortured to death? Or a tribute to the human mind that it can find order and beauty in the midst of such horror, of such degraded surroundings? Kicking a ball around while people just like us are being gassed to death?

Or, as I read Borowski’s stories, do none of these trite and easy formulae fit the bill? The world is what it is and people do what they can to survive in it. That’s all we can know.

The earlier, longer, more diffuse stories are full of scenes of horror. They are documentary records of the kinds of tasks and sights encountered in Auschwitz, written as unflinching testimony. They are crafted to give an sense of duration and intensity, of the long days full of unremitting labour, and the day after day mundaneness of horror.

But the second set of much shorter stories are, for me, on a different level altogether. Their compactness, their brilliance of detail, their psychological insight combine with their elusiveness to escape summary or interpretation. They are wonderful and mysterious, like pebbles worn by a stream.

They offer no moral consolation but they are not fashionably nihilistic, either. They offer no answers or resolution. They are what they are, no more, and it is partly this restraint which makes them such powerful works of art.


Credit

Pożegnanie z Marią (Farewell to Maria) and Kamienny Swiat (A World of Stone) were published in 1948. This selection of stories from them was published under the title Wybor Opowiadan in Poland in 1959. This translation of that selection, by Barbara Vedder, was published by Penguin in 1967. Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Related reviews

The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953)

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

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

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

The Captive Mind

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

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

Literary comparisons

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

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

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

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

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

Four portraits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The appeal of communism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The failure of communism

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

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

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

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

Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Baltic states

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

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

Western communists

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

Credit

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

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

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Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

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

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

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

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

Zero Hour

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

Victors

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

Communists

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

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

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

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

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

Policemen

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

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

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

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

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

Violence

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

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

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

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

Ethnic Cleaning

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

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

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

Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio

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

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

Politics

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

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

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

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

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

Economics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High Stalinism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010)

This was the first war in history in which public opinion played so crucial a role. (p.304)

This a brilliant book, a really masterful account of the Crimean War, a book I reread whole sections of and didn’t want to end. It covers the military campaigns (along the Danube, in Crimea) and battles (at the Alma river, Balaklava, Inkerman) competently enough, maybe with not quite the same dash as the Crimea section of Saul David’s Victoria’s Wars – but where it really scores is in the depth and thoroughness and sophistication of Figes’ analysis of the political and cultural forces which led to the war in the first place and then shaped its course – his examination of the conflict’s deep historical roots and in its long lasting influence.

Thus the first 130 pages (of this 490-page text) deal with the background and build-up to conflict, and drill down into the issues, concerns, plans and fantasies of all the main players. Not just the British (though it is a British book by a British historian) but a similar amount of space is devoted to the Russian side (Figes is a world-leading expert on Russian history), as well as the situation and motives of the French and the Ottoman Turks, with insights into the position of the Austrian and Prussian empires.

The Holy Places

The trigger for the war has always struck anyone who studied it as ridiculously silly: it concerned the conflict about who should have control of the ‘Holy Places’ in Jerusalem, the Catholic church (championed by France) or the Orthodox church (championed by Russia). (Who could have guessed that the acrimonious theological dispute about the meaning of the word filioque which split the two churches in the 11th century would lead to half a million men dying in miserable squalor 800 years later.)

To recap: the life and preaching and death of Jesus took place in Palestine; by the time of the Emperor Constantine (c.320), Roman Christians had supposedly tracked down the very barn Jesus was born in, at Bethlehem, and the precise site of the crucifixion in Jerusalem – and begun to build chapels over them.  By the 1800s there were well-established Churches of the Nativity (at Bethlehem) and of the Holy Sepulchre (in Jerusalem) with attendant monasteries, chapels and so on stuffed with Christian priests and monks of all denominations.

The situation was complicated by two factors. 1. In the 700s the Muslim Arabs stormed out of Arabia and by the 900s had conquered the Middle East and the North African coast. The Muslim world underwent a number of changes of leadership in the ensuing centuries, but from the 1300s onwards was ruled by the Ottoman dynasty of Turkish origin. The Ottoman Empire is alleged to have reached its military and cultural peak in the late 1500s/early 1600s. By the 1800s it was in obvious decline, culturally, economically and militarily. Many of the ‘countries’ or ‘nationalities’ it ruled over were restive for independence, from the Egyptians in the south, to the Christian ‘nations’ of Greece and Serbia in the Balkans.

What Figes’ account brings out in fascinating detail is the extent to which the Russian Empire, the Russian state, Russian culture, Russian writers and poets and aristocrats, academics and military leaders, were all drenched in the idea that their entire Christian culture owed its existence to Constantinople. The founding moment in Russia’s history is when missionaries from Greek Orthodox Byzantium converted the pagan ‘Rus’ who inhabited Kiev to Christianity in the 9th century. This newly-Christian people went on to form the core of the ‘Russians’, a people which slowly extended their empire to the Baltic in the North, the Black Sea in the south, and right across the vast territory of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean.

In a really profound way, which Figes’ book brings out by quoting the writings of its poets and philosophers and academics and Christian leaders, Russia saw itself as the Third Rome – third in order after the original Christian Rome and the ‘Second Rome’ of Constantinople – and felt it had a burning religious duty to liberate Constantinople from the infidel Turks (Constantinople, renamed Istanbul, being of course the capital of the Ottoman Empire). It is fascinating to read about, and read quotes from, this broad spectrum of Russian nationalist writers, who all agreed that once they’d kicked the Turks out of Europe they would rename Istanbul ‘Tsargrad’.

Alongside the deep and varied rhetoric calling for a ‘Holy War’ against the infidel Turks was the linked idea of the union of all the Slavic peoples. Russians are Slavs and felt a deep brotherly feeling for the Slavic peoples living under Ottoman rule – in present-day Serbia and Bulgaria in particular. The same kind of Russian intelligentsia which wrote poems and songs and pamphlets and sermons about liberating Constantinople, and – in extreme versions – going on to liberate the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, also fantasised about a great pan-Slavic uprising to overthrow the shackles of the infidel Turk, and uniting the great Slavic peoples in an Empire which would stretch from the Adriatic to the Pacific.

Intoxicating stuff, and this is where Figes is at his tip-top best, taking you deep deep inside the mind-set of the Russian educated classes and leadership, helping you to see it and understand it and sympathise with it.

The only snag with this grand Russian vision was the unfortunate fact that there is such a thing as Catholic Christianity, and that a number of the ‘nations’ of the Balkans were not in fact either Slavs or Orthodox Christians – e.g. the Catholic Romanians. In fact, there was a lot of animosity between the two distinct versions of Christianity, with the Catholics, in particular, looking down on the Orthodox for what they regarded as their more primitive and pagan practices.

The simmering conflict between the two came to a head at the two churches mentioned above, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The churches had become rabbit warrens themselves, with holy grottoes underneath and vestries and side chapels sprouting onto them, with both Orthodox and Catholics clerics building monasteries and so on in the immediate vicinity and claiming complete access and ownership to the sites.

The Ottoman Turks had done their best to resolve disputes between the squabbling Christians and there had even been a succession of treaties in the 1700s which laid down the precise access rights of each Christian sect. But when the silver star embedded in the floor of the Church of the Nativity by the Catholics was dug up and stolen in 1847 the ‘dishonour’ was so great that the new ruler of Catholic France became involved, demanding that the Ottomans cede the French complete control of the Holy Sites to ensure there wasn’t a repetition of the sacrilege.

In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity. In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the “sovereign authority” in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century. The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in “authority,” citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)—and deployed armies to the Danube area. (Wikipedia)

Egged on by the pan-Slav and religious zealots in his court, Tsar Nicholas I saw the opportunity to teach the Ottomans a lesson, to reassert Orthodox authority over the Holy Places, to spark the long-awaited Slavic uprising in the Balkans and to extend Russian power to the Mediterranean. Hooray! In May 1853 Russian forces moved into the two principalities which formed the border between Russia and the Ottoman Empire – the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, ‘Danubian’ because the river Danube ran through them. The Ottomans moved armies up to face them, and the war was on!

Politics in depth

What sets Figes’ account apart is the thoroughness with which he explains the conflicting political and cultural pressures within each of the countries which then got drawn into this conflict.

France, for example, had recently been through a revolution, in 1848, which had eventually been crushed but did manage to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy and usher in the Second Republic. To people’s surprise the man who managed to get elected President of the Republic was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. When Napoléon’s presidential term expired in 1851, he first organised a coup d’état in that year, and then the following year, reclaimed the imperial throne, as Napoleon III, on 2 December 1852. At which point the Second Republic changed its name to the Second Empire. (19th century French history is a hilarious farce of revolutions, coups, republics and empires, each one more incompetent than the last. Mind you, 20th century French history isn’t much better – between 1946 and 1958 the French Fourth Republic had 22 Prime Ministers!)

But that’s not the interesting stuff, that’s just the basic factual information: the interest Figes brings to his account is his analysis of the various political pressures which the new president found himself under from within France. Obviously the Catholic Right and many actual churchmen were calling for action to defend the rights of Catholics in the Holy Places; but there was a large left-wing grouping in France whose hopes had been crushed by in the 1848 revolution. Napoleon realised that he could reconcile these opposing factions by depicting war against Russia as a pro-Catholic crusade to the Church and as a setback to the autocratic Tsarist regime – which was widely seen on the Left as the most repressive and reactionary regime in Europe. On top of which a glorious French victory would of course cover secure his place as successor to his famous uncle.

Polish liberation was a big cause in France. It wasn’t so long since 1830 when Polish nationalists had risen up to try and throw off Russian control of their country. The rebellion was brutally put down and Tsar Nicholas I (the same Tsar who launched the Crimean offensive 20 years later) had decreed that Poland would henceforward be an integral part of Russia, with Warsaw reduced to a military garrison, its university and other cultural activities shut down.

A stream of Polish intellectuals and aristocrats had fled west, many of them settling in France where they set up presses, publishing newspapers, pamphlets, books and poems and establishing networks of lobbyists and contacts. Figes investigates the writers and activists who made up this Polish lobby, specifically Prince Adam Czartoryski, and explains how they went about demonising Russia (and you can understand why), losing no opportunity to exaggerate Russia’s threatening intentions and, of course, lobbying for the liberation of Poland. Figes is excellent at showing how the Polish activists’ influence extended into both British and French ministries and military hierarchies.

But this was just one of the many forces at work across Europe. All the way through his account of the war, which lasted two and a half years, the constellation of forces at work in France shifted and changed as public opinion evolved from feverish support of a war against the Russian aggressor to increasing war-weariness. It is absolutely fascinating to read how Napoleon III tried to manage and ride the changing positions of all these factions, the vociferous press, and fickle public opinion.

And the same goes for Britain. In the 1830s and 40s conflicts in the Middle East – not least the rebellion of Mehmet Ali, pasha of Egypt, who rebelled against his Ottoman masters and demanded independence under his personal rule for Egypt and Syria – had forced the British to realise that, corrupt and collapsing though it may be, it was better to have a weak Ottoman Empire imposing some order, rather than no Ottoman Empire and complete chaos over such a huge and crucial region.

Thus the French and British governments, though perennially suspicious of each other, agreed that they had to prop up what became known as ‘the sick man of Europe’.

Again where Figes excels is by going much much deeper than standard accounts, to show the extent of the ‘Russophobia’ in British politics and culture, identifying the writers and diplomats who showed a fondness for Turkish and Muslim culture, explaining how British diplomats, the Foreign Office, and the cabinet staked their hopes on British-led reforms of Turkey’s laws and institutions.

Figes presents not a monolithic slab called ‘Britain’, but a complex country made up of all kinds of conflicting interests and voices. For example, it’s fascinating to learn that the British had the most varied, free and well-distributed press in the world. A side-effect of the railway mania of the 1840s had been that newspapers could now be distributed nationally on a daily basis. The prosperous middle classes in Bradford or Bristol could wake up to the same edition of The Times as opinion leaders in London.

This led to the first real creation of an informed ‘public opinion’, and to a huge increase in the power of the press. And Figes is fascinating in his depiction of the robust pro-war politician Lord Palmerston as the first ‘modern’ politician in that he grasped how he could use the press and public opinion to outflank his opponents within the British cabinet. Thus the British Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was against war and supported the moderate Four Points which a peace conference held in Vienna suggested be put to the Russians. But Palmerston, as Foreign Secretary, had a much grander, much more aggressive vision of attacking Russia on all fronts – in the Baltic, Poland, the Balkans, the Crimea and in the Caucasus.

Figes’ account goes into great detail about these other little-known fronts in the war – for example the repeated efforts by the British to storm the Russian naval port of Kronstadt on the Baltic, with a view to ultimately marching on St Petersburg! (The successive British admirals sent out to size up the plan consistently declared it impossible pp.337-339.) Or the plan to foment a Muslim Holy War amongst the tribes of the Caucasus, who would be levied under the leadership of the charismatic leader Imam Shamil and directed to attack the Russians. In the event there were several battles between Turks and Russians in the Caucasus, but Palmerston’s Holy War plan was never implemented (pp.336-337)

The summary above is designed to give just a taste of the complexity and sophistication of Figes’ analysis, not so much of the actual events which took place – plenty of other histories do that – but of the amazingly complex kaleidoscope of political forces swirling in each of the combatant countries, of the various leaders’ attempts to control and channel them, and of the scores of alternative plans, alternative visions, alternative histories, which the leaders were considering and which could so nearly have taken place.

Being taken into the subject in such detail prompts all kinds of thoughts, big and small.

One is that history is a kind of wreck or skeleton of what is left when leaders’ grand plans are put into effect and come up against harsh reality. History is the sad carcass of actual human actions left over when the glorious dreams of night time meet the harsh reality of day.

The Tsar dreamed of liberating the Balkans, creating a great pan-Slavic confederacy and throwing the Turks completely out of Europe, liberating Istanbul to become the centre of a reinvigorated empire of Orthodox Christianity.

The Polish agitators dreamed of throwing off the Russian yoke and creating a free united independent Poland.

Napoleon III dreamed of establishing French supremacy over a weakened Ottoman Empire, thus consolidating his reputation at home.

Palmerston dreamed of a grand alliance of all the nations of Europe – Sweden in the Baltic, France and Prussia in the centre, Austria in the Balkans, allied with the Turks and Muslim tribesmen in the Caucasus to push back the borders of the Russian Empire a hundred years.

Figes is just as thorough in his analysis of the forces at work in the Ottoman Empire, which I haven’t mentioned so far. The Ottoman Emperor also struggled to contain domestic opinion, in his case continual pressure from Muslim clerics, imams and muftis, and from a large section of educated opinion, who all dreamed of an end to the ‘humiliation’ of the Muslim world by the West, who dreamed of a ‘Holy War’ to repel the Russians and restore Muslim power and dignity.

All these shiny dreams of glory, honour, liberation and holy war ended up as battlefields strewn with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of men blown up, eviscerated, decapitated, butchered, bayoneted, as well as plenty of civilian women and children raped and murdered – all rotting in the blood-soaked soil of the Crimea, the Danube, the Caucasus.

No matter what glorious rhetoric wars start off with, this is how they always end up. In rotting human bodies.

Figes brilliantly shows how, as reality began to bite, the various leaders struggled to control the rising tides of disillusionment and anger: Napoleon III deeply anxious that failure in the war would lead to another French revolution and his overthrow; the Tsar struggling to contain the wilder pan-Slavic fantasies of many of his churchmen and court officials on the one hand and a steady stream of serf and peasant rebellions against conscription, on the other; and, strikingly, the Ottoman Emperor (and his British advisors) really worried that unless he acted aggressively against the Russians, he would be overthrown by an Islamic fundamentalist revolution.

In standard histories, the various nations are often treated as solid blocks – Britain did this, France wanted that. By spending over a quarter of his book on an in-depth analysis of the long cultural, historical, religious, technological and social roots of the conflict, Figes gives us a vastly more deep and sophisticated understanding of this war, and of the deeper social and historical trends of the time.

Relevance

Many of which, of course, endure into our time.

Why read history, particularly a history of a forgotten old war like this? Because it really does shed light on the present. In a number of ways:

1. The area once ruled by the Ottoman Empire is still desperately unstable and racked by conflict – civil war in Libya, military repression in Egypt, chaos in northern Iraq, civil war in Syria. Almost all Muslim opinion in all of these regions wants to restore Muslim pride and dignity, and, whatever their factional interests, are united in opposing meddling by the West. And it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were living through the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, in lands where Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians were raping and murdering each other.

2. In other words, the religious and cultural forces which lay behind the Crimean War still dominate the region and still underpin modern conflicts. Again and again, one of Figes’ quotes from the pan-Slavic visions of the Russians or the Muslim doctrine of Holy War read exactly like what we read in the newspapers and hear on the radio today, in 2017. After all it was only as recently as March 2014 that Russia annexed the Crimea, an act most UN member states still consider an act of illegal aggression, and the Foreign Office consequently advises against any foreign travel to the Crimea.

165 years after the events analysed so brilliantly in this book, Crimea once again has the potential to become a flashpoint in a wider war between East and West.

What could be more relevant and necessary to understand?

3. And the book continually stimulates reflection not just about the possible causes of war, but about how national and religious cultures have eerily endured down to the present day. Figes paints a fascinating portrait of the fundamentally different social and political cultures of each of the belligerent countries – I was particularly struck by the contrast between the essentially open society informed by an entirely free press of Britain, as against the totalitarian closed society of Russia, which had only a handful of state-controlled newspapers which never criticised the government, and where a secret police could cart people off to prison and torture if they were overheard, even in private conversations, to utter any criticism of the tsar or the army. 160 years later Britain is still a raucously open society whereas journalism in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a risky occupation and open opposition to the President has landed many of his opponents in gaol, or worse. Plus ca change… Also, it becomes quite depressing reading the scores and scores of references to Muslim leaders, mullahs, muftis and so on, insistently calling on the Sultan to put an end to Western interference, to declare a Holy War on the Western infidels, to attack and punish the Christians. Again, almost every day brings fresh calls from Al Qaeda or the Taliban or ISIS to defeat the infidel West. How long, how very, very long, these bitter hatreds have endured.

4. And the book offers another, more general level of insight – which is into the types of political pressure which all leaders find themselves under. The leaders of all the belligerent nations, as described above, found themselves trying to manage and control the often extreme opinion of their publics or churches or courts or advisors. How they did so, where they gave in, where they stood firm, and with what results, are object lessons modern politicians could still profitably study, and which give fascinating insight to us non-politicians into the sheer difficulty and complexity of trying to manage a big modern industrialised country, let alone a modern war.

The Crimean War was a shameful shambles for nearly all the participants. This book not only describes the squalor and suffering, the disease and dirt, the agonising deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in a pointless and stupid conflict – it sheds fascinating light on how such conflicts come about, why they are sometimes so difficult to avoid and almost impossible to control, and why sequences of decisions which each individually may seem rational and reasonable, can eventually lead to disaster.

This is a really outstanding work of history.


Memorable insights

The trenches The Siege of Sevastopol lasted from September 1854 until September 1855. Criminally, the British were completely unprepared for winter conditions in Russia (like Napoleon, like Hitler) resulting in tens of thousands of British soldiers living in pitifully inadequate tents, with no warm clothing, amid seas of mud and slush, so that thousands died of frostbite, gangrene and disease. In an eerie anticipation of the Great War both sides created elaborate trench systems and settled into a routine of shelling and counter-shelling. In between times there were pre-arranged truces to bury the dead, during which the opposing armies fraternised, swapped fags and booze and even toasted each other. In this element of prolonged and frustrating trench warfare,

this was the first modern war, a dress rehearsal for the trench fighting of the First World War. (p.373)

Alcohol 5,500 British soldiers, about an eighth of the entire army in the field, were court-martialled for drunkenness. It was rampant. Some soldiers were continually drunk for the entire 11-month siege.

Disease As usual for all pre-modern wars, disease killed far more than weapons. For example, in January 1855 alone, 10% of the British army in the East died of disease. Died. Cholera, typhoid and other waterborne diseases, combined with gangrene and infection from wounds, and frostbite during the bitter winter of 1854-55. Figes has a splendid few pages on Florence Nightingale, the tough martinet who tried to reorganise the wretched hospital facilities at Scutari, on the south side of the Black Sea. I was staggered to read that the Royal Inquiry, sent out in 1855 to enquire why so many soldiers were dying like flies, despite Nightingale’s intentions, discovered that the hospital barracks was built over a cesspit which regularly overflowed into the drinking water. As Figes damningly concludes, the British wounded would have stood a better chance of survival in any peasant’s hut in any Turkish village than in the official British ‘hospital’.

Nikolai Pirogov Figes goes into some detail about Florence Nightingale (fascinating character) and also Mary Seacole, who is now a heroine of the annual Black History Month. But Figes brings to light some other heroes of the 11-month long siege of Sevastapol, not least the Russian surgeon Nikolai Pirogov. Pirogov arrived in Sevastapol to find chaos and squalor in the main hospital, himself and the other doctors operating on whoever was put in front of them by harassed orderlies and nurses, as the allies’ continual bombardment produced wave after wave of mangled bodies. Finally it dawned on Pirogov that he had to impose some kind of order and developed the  system of placing the injured in three categories: the seriously injured who needed help and could be saved were operated on as soon as possible; the lightly wounded were given a number and told to wait in the nearby barracks (thus not cluttering the hospital); those who could not be saved were taken to a rest home to be cared for by nurses and priests till they died (pp.295-298). He had invented the triage system of field surgery which is used in all armies to this day.

Irish A third of the British army consisted of Catholic Irish. This surprising fact is explained when you learn that the army was recruited from the poorest of the urban and rural poor, and the poorest rural poor in the British Isles were the Irish.

The camera always lies The Crimean War is famous as seeing the ground breaking war reporting of Russell of The Times and some of the earliest photographs of war, by the pioneer Roger Fenton. However, Figes points out that the wet process of photography Fenton employed required his subjects to pose stationary for 20 seconds or more. Which explains why there are no photographs of any kind of fighting. He goes on to explain how Fenton posed many of his shots, including one claiming to be of soldiers wearing thick winter wear – which was in fact taken in sweltering spring weather – and his most famous photo, of the so-called Valley of Death after the Light Brigade charged down it into the Russian guns – in which Fenton carefully rearranged the cannonballs to create a more artistic effect.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1855) by Roger Fenton

This reminded me of the account of Felice Beato I read in Robert Bickers’ The Scramble for China. Beato was an Italian–British photographer, one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers. Beato was allowed into the Chinese forts at Taku after the British had captured them in 1860 towards the climax of the Second Opium War and – he also arranged the bodies to create a more pleasing aesthetic and emotional effect.

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato

Interior of the North Fort at Taku (1860) by Felice Beato


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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

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject, and this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘the deals, the spies, the lies, the truth’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, it gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels very much like a textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments, but is at its core an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Then again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising president Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda but which proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates from succeeding decades, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would be inevitably grow larger as the ruling capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletariat revolution inevitable and unstoppable.

  1. In direct contradiction to this, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.
  2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of very backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only ever existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and here was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened. It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief and how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist war, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with experience of the Second World War, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war.

This was a big shift. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945-49), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies, and ensured freedom from tyranny, for France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it turned into a long and dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy – thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded their states as buffers to communist expansion, which meant the dictators could get away with murder – and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection: France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This lingering respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – contradicting Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested in 1977 leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history – contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but above all space is given to the importance of Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

a) Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in all shapes and sizes and hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations (SALT)) talks.
b) Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua, although Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of being seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account (and others I’ve read) he is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’ p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

a) Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter) his strategy and speeches were based on the idea that it would inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism collapsed like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.

Conclusion

To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991 – it is really a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era. Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred). Thus coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


Credit

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All quotes and references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe

At Powayen near Königsberg, for example, the bodies of dead women were strewn everywhere: they had been raped and then brutally killed with bayonets or rifle butt blows to the head. Four women here had been stripped naked, tied to the back of a Soviet tank and dragged to their deaths. In Gross Heydekrug a woman was crucified on the altar cross of the local church, with two German soldiers similarly strung up on either side. More crucifixions occurred in other villages, where women were raped and then nailed to barn doors. At Metgethen it was not only women but children who were killed and mutilated: according to the German captain who examined their corpses, ‘Most of the children had been killed by a blow to the head with a blunt instrument,’, but ‘some had numerous bayonet wounds to their tiny bodies.’ (p.75)

No summary can really do justice to the cumulatively devastating effect of reading the hundreds and hundreds of vignettes like this which Keith Lowe has assembled in his excoriating book about the moral, economic social and psychological collapse of an entire continent into bottomless savagery and barbarism.

Savage continent

There are countless books about the origins of the Second World War – histories of the alliances and invasions, biographies of Hitler and Mussolini, cultural studies of the 1930s – but comparatively few about how the war ended or its long-drawn-out aftermath. This book sets out to fill that gap and is a fascinating, well written and traumatising account which aims to cover every element of the catastrophe.

And it really was a catastrophe beyond comprehension. The book starts with hard-to-grasp facts about the numbers of people killed, soldiers and civilians, before going on to describe the physical destruction which touched every corner of the continent.

Death

Up to 40 million people died in the Second World War, an estimated 27 million of them Russians. About a third of all women born in the 1930s never married because there were no men – just a huge gap where all those dead men should have been.

Every schoolchild is taught that around 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust, but the scale of other losses were comparable: Germany lost an estimated 4.5 million soldiers and 1.5 million civilians, roughly the same number. Poland also lost about 6 million dead; Ukraine between 7 and 8 million killed, a fifth of the country’s population. A quarter of Belarusians died. By 1945 huge areas of the East were nothing but smoking rubble and ruined fields and landscapes emptied of human beings.

Destruction

Hitler lost patience with the Poles after the Warsaw Rising and ordered the city to be razed to the ground. In the event some 93% of buildings were destroyed, along with the National Archive, Financial Archive the Municipal Archive, all libraries, art galleries and museums. Factor in Hitler and Stalin’s joint efforts to wipe out the entire professional class of Poland and the mass murder of all its army officers at Katyn, and it’s a surprise Poland still exists. Coventry was devastated as were London, and most German cities were destroyed though few as thoroughly as Dresden or Hamburg, where the notorious fire storm bombing killed some 40,000 in one night. About a fifth of all German living space was destroyed. Some 20 million Germans were rendered homeless. Maybe 70,000 villages across Russia were destroyed along with their entire rural infrastructure. Some 32,000 Russian factories were destroyed. In Hungary, the Germans flooded or destroyed every single mine. In Holland, the Germans deliberately opened the dykes that kept out the sea and flooded half a million acres of land. From one end of the continent to the other, the scale of the conscious and deliberate destruction of all signs of civilisation is breath-taking.

The more you read of villages, towns and landscapes obliterated, and historic towns razed to the ground, the more you realise that we latecomers live amidst the ruins of a once great civilisation. How did we ever survive?

Four parts

The book is divided into four big parts, each of which contains 6 or 7 sections. The quickest way to convey the breadth of subject matter is simply to list them.

  1. The Legacy of War – Physical destruction. Absence. Displacement. Famine. Moral destruction. Hope. Landscape of Chaos.
  2. Vengeance – The thirst for blood. The camps liberated. Vengeance restrained: slave labourers. German prisoners of war. Vengeance unrestrained: Eastern Europe. The enemy within. Revenge on women and children. The purpose of vengeance.
  3. Ethnic cleansing – Wartime choices. The Jewish flight. The ethnic cleansing of Ukraine and Poland. The expulsion of the Germans. Europe in microcosm: Yugoslavia. Western tolerance, Eastern intolerance.
  4. Civil war – Wars within wars. Political violence in France and Italy. The Greek civil war. Cuckoo in the nest: communism in Romania. The subjugation of Eastern Europe. The resistance of the ‘forest brothers’. The Cold War mirror.

Some themes

The subject matter, the scale of the disaster, is too big to grapple with or try to summarise. Lowe’s book itself is only a summary, a flying overview of a vast and terrifying continent of savagery, peppered with just a tiny sample of the endless torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism, persecution, murder and violence which was unleashed across Europe. Some of the thoughts or ideas which stuck out more than most:

The myth of national unity After the war every country wanted to think well of itself. France is the most glaring example. In all his broadcasts General de Gaulle emphasised that La France was united in its fight against Fascism, the spirit of gloire and liberté etc etc was shared by all good Frenchmen. This ignored the fact that France, of course, enjoyed a right-wing government which enthusiastically co-operated with the Nazis from 1940 onwards, dutifully rounded up French Jews and shipped them off to death camps, helped by collaborators at every level of French society.

De Gaulle’s success was that during the war and, especially, after the Liberation, he helped the French gloss over this shameful fact, and to promote the myth of the heroic Resistance. There were a lot of French resistance fighters (around 100,000), but the figure went up fourfold once the Allies landed and victory became certain (p.168). In later years almost every Frenchman turned out to have helped the Resistance in one way or another. In Yugoslavia Marshal Tito appealed to the spirit of unity and brotherhood in an attempt to unite the fractious factions of his made-up country. Stalin’s speeches invoked a united Russian people, and so on.

Reading about the foreign comparisons shed light on the strongly patriotic writings and especially movies of my own country, England, during and after the war, and made me realise that the national pride evinced in all those classic war movies was just the local expression of a feeling which nations all across Europe wanted to feel, and allowed themselves to feel, with a greater or lesser distorting of the truth.

Victimhood As a reader of the Guardian newspaper it’s often easy to think that modern society is made up entirely of victims – black victims of racism, Muslim victims of Islamophobia, women victims of sexism, LBGT victims of prejudice and so on and so on. Even bankers felt persecuted after the 2008 crash. Everyone in the modern world seems quick to have a grievance, a permanent readiness to feel hard-done-by or treated unfairly.

It is very interesting to discover that this is not a new phenomenon – to read Lowe’s examples of the way entire countries, and groups within countries, competed in the aftermath of the war to appear the bigger victims.

It is an eye-opener to learn that – after the hammering their cities took from Allied bombers, and then especially after the forced relocation of millions of ethnic Germans from the surrounding countries into the borders of a reduced Germany, combined with the industrial raping of German women by the invading Red Army – that a lot of Germans managed to present themselves as the victims of the Second World War. ‘They were only civilians. They never shot anyone etc. They never really supported that crazy Hitler and his stupid Nazi party.’

Similarly, many of the collaborators, the police and militias who co-operated with the occupying Germans in countries all across Europe, later, after the Liberation, were themselves subject to attacks or arrest and trial. This led many to work up a sense of grievance that they were the ones who were the true victims. They had only been obeying orders. If they hadn’t done it someone else would. They managed to restrain the wilder savagery of the Nazis. And so on and so on. It wasn’t us, really, why is everyone being so nasty?

Thus right-wing French historians and politicians have exaggerated the massacres carried out by the Resistance immediately following the Liberation, claiming they indiscriminately murdered 100,000 loyal, noble, patriotic French men and women. Similarly, modern right wing forces in Italy where partisans and collaborators openly fought after the Liberation, claim that the (generally communist) partisans killed up to 300,000. In both cases history is twisted to exonerate those who collaborated with the Germans, and to create a permanent sense of grievance which right-wing politicians can still appeal to, in our time.

Rape on a mass, on an industrial, scale. All sides committed rape but it was the Russian army, invading west into Germany, which wins first prize. As many as two million German women were raped by Red Army soldiers, but it’s the number of times they were violated which is really sickening, with some women being raped 60 or 70 times, sometimes scores of times on the same day, during the same horrific night. Every female from eight to 80 was at risk. As many as 100,000 women were raped and raped again in Berlin alone.

We can take it as read that rape is an instrument of war and/or terror, and occurs in almost all war zones. Soldiers can justify it because a) they despise the enemy and their women b) they may die at any moment and regard sex as their due c) it is a form of psychological warfare, humiliating a nation’s menfolk for being unable to defend their women.

Lowe points out that rape seems to occur where there is a significant ethnic difference between groups – thus the Russian forces which fought across Bulgaria committed relatively few rapes because of the close cultural similarities between the countries. Whereas, in the West, several Arab battalions became well known as mass rapists, for example the Moroccan Goumier battalions. At least part of the atrocity, Lowe claims, due to cultural difference.

Shearing women collaborators A surprising number of women in occupied countries fell in love with the German invaders. Lowe shocks me a little by claiming that various surveys at the time and later revealed this was because they found the Germans more ‘manly’ than their own, defeated and humiliated, menfolk (p.166).

One of the features of the Liberation from German rule everywhere was the punishment not only of collaborator administrators and police, but of the women who had slept with the enemy. Lowe describes in grisly detail, and includes photos, of the tens of thousands of women who found themselves attacked by lynch mobs who often stripped them naked and often shaved all the hair off their head as a mark of ‘shame’.

Where he adds an insight which is typical of the book, typical of its way of shedding new light in a sober, empirical way, is when he points out the psychological role these humiliations took. Many bystanders, including horrified British officers, realised that there was something medieval or even pagan about the ceremonies. The women were shaved with mock ceremony by the community barber, sometimes daubed with swastikas etc, but rarely really hurt, never beaten or killed.

And this is because, witnesses report, the shavings had something of a festival spirit, often accompanied by heavy drinking and folk or patriotic songs. By nominating one scapegoat to bear all the sins of the community, the taunting crowds could forget their differences, bury the hatchet, and renew themselves. Witnesses report a marked reduction in tension in places where the ceremony had taken place, and where shaved women could be seen in the streets. The angry, the potentially violent, could see that at least some justice had been done, goes the argument – and so more overt violence was avoided.

Weird, persecutory, grotesquely unfair? Yes – but that’s human nature. This book shows you who we are, the fierce, frightened animals which lie just beneath the thin veneer of ‘civilisation’.

Jewish restraint No need to reprise the horrors of the Holocaust here. Dealing with the aftermath, Lowe devotes some pages to the revenge taken by camp inmates on their guards and tormentors. Generally the Allies, taken by surprise by the scale and atrocity of the camps, allowed the inmates – or the few who were well and healthy enough to do it – to take what revenge they wanted. This happened in numerous places, and there’s a fascinating page about Abba Kovner’s ‘Avengers’, an organisation of Jews which explicitly set out to murder one German for every Jew. They massacred garrisons of German soldiers where they could and were only just foiled in a grand plan to put poison into the drinking water of five German cities.

But by and large Lowe emphasises the restraint which Jews exercised. There’s a telling quote from the US General Lucius Clay, that the restraint of the liberated Jews and their respect for law and order were one of the most remarkable things he saw in his two years in Europe (p.89). All the more striking, given that virtually every other social group seems to have been hell-bent on some kind of revenge, revenge against collaborators which sometimes escalated into overt civil war, as in Greece (1946 to 1949), or was only just contained, either by Allied forces (as in Italy) or by the brutal crackdown of communist authorities (as in Tito’s Yugoslavia).

All the more striking given Lowe’s pages devoted to highlighting the way vicious anti-Semitism continued and even increased after the war in various countries, where civilians were by and large indifferent to the sufferings of the Jews, told them to their face it was their own fault, or explicitly blamed them for the start of the whole war (p.191).

Ethnic cleansing Part three is devoted to this subject in all its disgusting variations. 11 million Germans were forced to move, kicked out of western Poland and northern Czechoslovakia, often at short notice, often forced to march carrying all their possessions. Lowe gives harrowing details of the old and sick dying early on, then Polish or Soviet soldiers picking off the walkers, sometimes just for kicks, firing at random at anyone who was too tall or too slow, or just firing into the columns of shuffling refugees and, of course, routinely pulling any pretty woman out of the crowd and raping her, often in sight of everyone, and shooting anyone who tried to interfere. In Europe as a whole an estimated 40 million people were displaced – on the roads – at one point or another.

Many people were surprised by the ferocity of the small wars which broke out in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, but this book makes clear that they were just the continuation of feuds and enmities stretching way back into the 1930s, and which flared up with particular horror all through the war and well into the post-war period.

Even worse was the mass expulsion of Poles from Ukraine and Ukrainians from Poland, as Stalin and the Polish leaders each sought to ‘purify’ their lands. Defence organisations, bandits and partisans sprang up, one atrocity sparked reprisals and all sides adopted a general policy of terror ie not just the killing but the torture, rape, looting and destruction of completely ‘innocent’ communities. Again and again, all across the continent, as soon as you had successfully ‘dehumanised’ your opponents, you could do what you liked with them.

In Croatia the Ustashe not only killed Serbs but also took the time to hack off the breasts of women and castrate the men. In Drama, in north-eastern Greece, Bulgarian soldiers played football with the heads of their Greek victims. In Chelmon concentration camp German guards would kill babies who survived the gas vans by splitting their heads against trees. In Königsberg Soviet soldiers tied the legs of German women to two different cars and then drove off in opposite directions, literally tearing the women in half. (p.50)

The book pullulates with examples of the most grotesque atrocities. No sadistic cruelty the human mind could devise went unexampled, uncarried-out, in this grotesque era.

Western civilisation and Eastern barbarism One theme Lowe repeats again and again is that whatever barbarity you can think of, it was ten times, or a hundred times, worse in the East. Everything here reinforces the horror depicted in Tim Snyder’s terrifying book, Bloodlands, which gives figures for the mind-boggling scale of murders, executions, holocausts, pogroms, persecutions, and deliberate starvation which devastated the region from the Baltic states down through Poland and the Ukraine from the later 1920s until well after the war.

It is fashionable to ridicule the kind of old-fashioned English patriotism exemplified in Cecil Rhodes’ quote: ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.’ That’s certainly silly if it’s interpreted to mean an Englishman has some innate superiority over other races. But in a context like this, bombarded with details of the atrocities almost every group on the continent carried out against everyone within reach, you realise it’s a simple statement of fact.

Britain was the only region not occupied by the Nazis or the Soviets, the only area which didn’t experience systematic terror, the creation of bandit and partisan groups outside the law, which didn’t suffer from collaborators and then experience the breakdown of civil society which led to civil war and mass atrocities.

To be born an Englishman in the first half of the 20th century really was a lucky fate compared to being born Polish, Ukrainian, Greek, Russian, German or Jewish.

The Iron Curtain Partly this is because the East was closer to the monstrous Russian bear, in its even-more-brutal-than-usual Soviet incarnation. Lowe’s book gives heart-breaking accounts of how communist parties in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia conspired to intimidate or murder opponents, make false promises to peasants and workers, fake election results, bribe and threaten their way to key ministries and then engineer communist takeovers of power which led in a few short years to the attainment of a completely communist Eastern Europe under Stalin’s iron control.

What I didn’t know was that partisans who had learned their trade resisting Germans during the war, continued in some of these countries a heroic anti-communist resistance, pathetically hoping for intervention and liberation from the West, well past the end of the war, sometimes into the 1950s. Apparently, the last anti-communist partisans in Lithuania weren’t completely stamped out (ie killed) until 1956 (p.356). Lowe describes how the memory of their stand against communism, led them to become folk heroes, subjects of songs and poems and books, and then, when the Baltic states gained independence in the 1990s, heroes of the new nations.

Nationalism Lowe doesn’t draw out this point, but I would: Nationalism is probably the most vicious belief ever to grip the human mind. It emerged from the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars and spawned a century in which ‘nations’ across Europe decided they needed to be ‘free’. It was Serbian ‘nationalists’ who kicked off the Great War which led to the final collapse of Europe’s multicultural empires, and the world we find ourselves in today is still dictated by the fragmentation of these empires into so-called ‘nations’, each one of which wants to represent one ‘national’ spirit, one language, one religion, one army, strong and proud etc etc.

The murdering, raping, torturing, crucifying, throwing from buildings and beheadings which we see in Iraq and Syria are the long-term consequence of the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the failure of the Allied attempts to draw lines and define new ‘nations’ in a world plagued by ‘nationalism’. The French and British imperial authorities are routinely ridiculed for drawing neat lines on the map of the Middle East during the Great War, creating ‘nations’ which arbitrarily separated some ethnic or religious groups and just as arbitrarily pushed others together, storing up ‘trouble’ for the future.

But what lines would be better? What lines would prevent Sunni and Shia, Alawite and Sufi, Druze and Maronite, Jew and Arab, spending so much time and effort trying to murder each other in order to ‘purify’ their territory, once the poison of nationalism took hold – once the delusion that you should live in ‘nations’ made up of ‘your own’ people takes hold among political leaders?

Closer to the terrain described in Lowe’s book, we celebrated when the East European countries threw off the shackles of communism 25 years ago. But they have experienced a steady drift to the right over the past decade, under governments which have responded to economic difficulties and geopolitical uncertainty (Islamic terrorism, the refugee crisis) with stock appeals to national unity and pride etc, swiftly followed by its ever-present zombie twin – threats against ‘the enemy within’, against ‘subversives’, against anyone who undermines the ‘glorious values of the heroic fatherland’ etc etc, gypsies, Jews, gays, religious and ethnic minorities of any description, anyone who can be safely bullied and persecuted.

Conclusion

The rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany is such a well-worn story – both my children had to study it at school and could recite it like a fairy tale, ‘the Reichstag fire, blah blah blah’ – that it seems to me to have been almost emptied of content and relevance. All those textbooks and documentaries didn’t stop the Bosnian Serb Army from rounding up and exterminating more than 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica or bombarding Sarajevo.

By contrast, Lowe’s careful, scrupulous and judicious overview of the chaotic forces unleashed by the Second World War, and which lingered on in violence, hatred, blame and revenge for years afterwards, has much more to teach us about contemporary Europe and the worrying threats it still faces today.

This is a really important book which deserves to be widely read.


Credit

Savage Continent by Keith Lowe was published by Viking in 2012. All quotes and references are to the 2013 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

If Not Now, When? by Primo Levi (1982)

The Lord our God, the King of the World, had divided the waters of the Red Sea, and the chariots had been engulfed. Who would divide the waters before the Jews of Novoselki? Who would feed them on quails and manna? No manna descended from the black sky, but only pitiless snow. (p.65)

Primo Levi

Primo Levi was an Italian Jew, born in Turin in 1919. He was taking his final exams in chemistry as Italy joined Hitler’s war (June 1940), and then pursued a number of job options designed to conceal his Jewish identity. In 1943, when the situation in the civilian world became impossible for Jews, he joined a partisan group in the mountains outside Turin, but was quickly captured by Fascist forces. He was held in an Italian internment camp before being shipped to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. Here his chemistry expertise secured him a ‘good’ job and helped him survive a grim and horrifying year, before the camp was liberated in 1945 and he made his way, via a long detour into Russia, back across a ruined Europe and home to Turin.

Levi took up various jobs in post-war Italy while writing short stories and an account of his year in Auschwitz, Se questo è un uomo. This wasn’t much noticed when first published in 1947, in a country still prostrate with poverty and wanting to forget the war – but had more impact when republished in 1958. It was translated into English as If This Is a Man in 1959. It was followed by a sequel, The Truce (1963/65) describing his long odyssey home after release from Auschwitz, and then by a trickle of short stories, further memoirs, poems and novels. All depict with unsparing accuracy the horrors which he and tens of millions of others, Jewish and Gentile, had to endure as Europe descended into barbarism and anarchy.

The combination of unflinching truthfulness about the horrors he’d witnesses, and the quiet dignity of his civilised worldview and restrained style, led Levi, by the 1980s, to be considered one of Italy’s leading writers and, in some quarters, as a secular saint.

Narrative levels

The novel operates on least three narrative levels:

  1. The present The ‘present’ of the main narrative which moves forward in simple chronological order, the events of one day or night following the others consecutively. The chapters are long and broken up into shorter sub-sections, a flexible technique which allows some scenes to be described in detail while others move swiftly over months of relative inaction.
  2. The remembered past Most of the many characters in the novel has a back story which we learn about at some point or other. In addition, many of them tell anecdotes about the adventures and travels which brought them to join the partisans. Thus, from the level of the Continual Present, the text repeatedly opens doors into events from the past, recalled around a campfire, over a drink, in the safety of the forest or a ruined building – memories which slowly form a mosaic, the remembered fragments of a lost, an exterminated, civilisation.
  3. History The text is divided into 12 chapters and each of them has a formal date stamp, as the present narrative moves slowly from ‘July 1943’ to ‘July-August 1945’. In the early chapters the events seem to take place in a nameless wilderness and the characters have the archetypal power of types – the silent one, the strong one, the lost one, the angry one – like modern equivalents of The Pilgrim’s Progress or extras from Waiting For Godot. But as the novel progresses, the context of the wider world impinges more and more – especially after the partisans hear over a crackly radio that Mussolini’s government has fallen and the Allies have invaded Italy (September 1943) – and the story is pulled out of its timeless allegory and into the orbit of actual history, becoming less mythical, less archetypal, more the story of individuals in recognisable times and places.

If not now, when?

Levi published If Not Now, When? in 1982 under the Italian title Se non ora, quando? It was translated by William Weaver and published in the US in 1985. Some 40 years after the events it purports to describe.

I was expecting it to be about his time in the mountains outside Turin with the Italian partisans, but it isn’t at all. It is set a thousand kilometres away, in the vast empty spaces of south-west Russia and describes the adventures – or bare survival – of several groups of ‘partisans’ – in fact little more than ragtag groups of men, women and children – who’ve somehow escaped the Germans as they swept into Russia in 1942, and have survived to endure an incredibly harsh hand-to-mouth existence in the wild.

The narrative describes their extended trek across the marshland, forests and fields of Russia and Belarus, across the border into Poland, and then on to Germany. It features a host of harrowing and upsetting incidents along the way, as the group joins and splits from other partisan groups, Jewish and Gentile, and struggles to survive, to kill or sabotage German forces where they can, sustained by hatred, revenge, fear, and the dream of one day journeying to Palestine to start a new life.


Plot summary

Mendel and Leonid

The novel opens with two Jewish men meeting in the woods. Mendel ben Nachman, a watchmaker, is 28. He saw the Jews of his village, Strelka, rounded up by the SS, forced to dig a pit, then shot and buried in it, including his wife, Rivke, his ballebusteh, the queen of his house. Throughout the novel her death and his visions of her body, lying cold and lifeless in a pit of lime and mud, haunt his days and especially his nights. Mendel was dragooned into the Red Army artillery and fought numerous battles before being defeated by the Germans and escaping into the forest.

Mendel is talking to Leonid, trained in paratroop school, caught and imprisoned in a concentration camp or Lager (as Levi always calls them) near Smolensk, who has escaped and lived wild. Mendel has made a base of sorts in the forest, near Valuets, a village near Bryansk, and Leonid has just stumbled across it as the novel opens. They eat, smoke, chat. Two Jews with terrible stories to share and a minimal approach to bare survival in the wild. After a few days a little girl, all unwary, stumbles across the base. She’ll tell the local peasants. They must move on. And so begins their epic trek.

The Uzbek and the Heinkel

Mendel and Leonid meet Peiami Nazenovich (p.14), who’s made a base in a crashed German plane, a Heinkel. They warily chat, then they barter salt for some mouthfuls of a rabbit he’s caught and cooking. Food. Hunger. Barter.

They move on, towards Nivnoye marshes, and come across a larger camp with some scores of ‘partisans’ ie men and women who are surviving in the woods, led by Venjamin Ivanovich (p.33) As they approach the camp, the band are celebrating the end of the war, a bit prematurely since in fact it’s only the overthrow of Mussolini (July 1943). Surely the war can’t last much longer, they sing happily. Little do they know. Venjamin is suspicious of them because they are Jews and, after they’ve been with them a few days, advises them to leave, to press on West towards Novoselki, in the midst of the Polessia marshes, where rumour has it there’s an entire village of hiding Jews, the so-called ‘republic of the marshes’.

The republic of the marshes

The first hundred pages or more of the novel refer to place names but I couldn’t find many of them on a map. They appear to be so generic that there are scores of them scattered across the vast empty spaces of western Russia and Belarus. The landscape – frozen marshes, snow-capped forest, secret hideouts – is as stark and primeval as the elementary human relationships it is describing. Men and women are reduced to their basest needs: food, shelter, a smoke, companionship. It is the minimal landscape, the psychological ground zero of Waiting For Godot (1953).

After walking for more than ten days Mendel and Leonid come to the ‘republic of the marshes’, based on an abandoned monastery hidden in the forest and inhabited by a group of armed Jewish survivors. It is ruled by Dov, in his fifties, who comes from faraway Siberia where the comet exploded and destroyed hundreds of miles of trees. The Germans have not got anywhere near Siberia so he’s one of the few characters who can be confident that his native village still exists and the people he knew will still be alive. Almost all the others know their villages have been burned and everyone they knew murdered by the Germans. Mendel and Leonid are welcomed to the ‘republic’ and given tasks  in the routines of chores, foraging, guarding, cooking, as autumn comes on, August and September.

At which point the group get a tip-off that a German force is in the area, trying to track down surviving partisan bands. There is just time to prepare some defences, to build camouflaged trenches, when the Germans attack. There’s a big firefight with machine guns – the heaviest weapons the partisans possess. The fleetest of foot escape out the back while some see the slower members being caught, lined up against a wall and shot by laughing SS officers. Old Adam was wounded in the thigh and bleeds to death a little distance away. His daughter, Sissla, keeps on, weeping. Ten partisans survived the attack.

Ulybin’s partisans

Dov leads the survivors north where, after weeks of travel, they stumble into guards for a larger band led by a tough man named Ulybin. This is based in three wooden barracks hidden in forest near Turov (p.74). These are Russian and Polish partisans, not Jews. They accept the Jews as allies but, in a series of personal encounters, explain that they finds them strange and uncanny. They tell them they had included a group of Jews, led by the eccentric Gedaleh Skidler, but he didn’t get along with Ulybin and, after one almighty argument, Gedaleh had led them off.

Some Red Army officers appear with information and supplies. Dov, injured at the monastery and visibly aged since, reluctantly goes off with them, to what they all refer to as ‘the Great Land’, meaning Russia, free Russia unoccupied by the Germans, but making it sound like a country from an allegory.

In another sequence the partisans discover a handful of Germans have built a triangle of fires a few days march away, which they are lighting to get German planes to drop supplies. Ulybin selects a group of the fittest men to carry out a small mission, to walk across country to the strip, to shoot the handful of Germans who man it, and create an alternative drop zone a mile away, then returning to the barracks with their booty (p.103). All goes according to plan, and the partisans feast their eyes sorting through the food and munitions. But next night the German planes drop bombs fly low over the fake landing zone and drop bombs instead of supplies. Somehow they’ve learned about the partisans’ trick. Several men are killed by the bombs.

The Gedalists go their own way

To everyone’s surprise, twenty or so pages after he went off to ‘the Great Land’, Dov returns with Russians bearing supplies, and accompanied by the troupe of Jewish partisans led by Gedaleh. They had been in Lyubin when the Germans took it and killed all the Jews they could find. They escaped into the woods and here they are. Gedaleh holds a summit meeting with Ulybin. Ulybin’s men have been ordered East to join up with Red Army forces. Gedaleh considers he has different aims, to head West, harass the Germans, and break through the line.

The survivors split into two groups, Gentiles going with Ulybin, all the Jews deciding to follow Gedaleh, plus one token Russian, Piotr, who can’t explain it but feels he’s come to like and respect the Jews. There is a moving scene where he tries to put into words why he likes them, egged on and ridiculed in equal parts by his Jewish audience. It is one of the many scenes where the nature of Jewishness – what is it to be a ‘Jew’ – is discussed, probably the most prominent theme in the book.

The rest of the novel follows the epic trek of Gedaleh and his thirty or so partisans who come, over a period of time, to refer to themselves as the ‘Gedalists’. Gedalah is much more emotional and unpredictable than Ulybin. He used to be a shoe salesman and keeps an old violin with him in homage to the time it stopped a bullet going for his heart, at Luninetz, and which he later ironically decorated with a medal taken from a dead Hungarian. He partners off with one of the five or so women in the group, plain, lazy, bubble-bursting Bella. Gedaleh’s mercurial character, his flashes of humour, his impulsive decisions, his quickness to take up the violin and start playing a Jewish folk tune, are a major flavour in the rest of the book.

In the windmill

After weeks of trekking, the Gedalists hide out in an abandoned windmill miles from anywhere. One of the youngest in the group, Isidor, can’t stop himself paring away the mould from the walls and eating it. He is 17, and hid from the Germans in a hole under a stable with the rest of his Jewish family for four years, until the peasants hiding them had milked them of all their money at which point they betrayed them to the Germans. Isidor, who happened to be taking one of the rare permitted walks into the woods at the time, returned to watch, from hiding, a squad of teenage Nazis beat his mother, sister and father to death. He ran away, survived for weeks in the wild, then stumbled upon the group, but has been mentally disturbed ever since, given to compulsive behaviour and obsessed with fantasies of revenge.

On one of the peaceful evenings, Gedaleh plays folk tunes on his violin and then an arrangement of a long poem by a Jew, Martin Fontasch. Gedaleh tells his story. Martin was a writer who escaped to join a partisan band. When the Germans captured him they gave him thirty minutes to write a last poem, before they shot him.

Do you recognise us? We’re the sheep of the ghetto,
Shorn for a thousand years, resigned to outrage.
We are the tailors, the scribes and the cantors,
Withered in the shadow of the cross.
Now we have learned the paths of the forest,
We have learned to shoot, and we aim straight.

If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
If not this way, how? And if not now, when? (p.127)

Here, as in scores of other memories and vignettes on almost every page, the novel stuns and appals with the understated way the characters share stories of horror and unendurable suffering. Each of them is a survivor and a witness to barbaric atrocity.

Along the trek, Leonid who we first met in the opening pages, had paired off with Line, a skinny, blonde woman named after the English suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. But one night Mendel, overcome by memories of his dead wife and exterminated village and, very characteristically, recalling the women and love affairs of the Patriarchs and Elders from the Old Testament, finds himself seducing Line. They silently climb the stairs to the windmill’s rickety upper floors and make dry, sad (and, one imagines, very dirty) love. But Line was the only thing keeping Leonid together and next morning he is gone, along with a machine gun, to Geladeh’s fury.

The relief of Chmielnik

Having crossed the border from Belarus into Poland, the Gedalists hear from locals about a small concentration camp or Lager at the nearby town of Chmielnik, and go on a mission to liberate it (p.170). There is a great deal of tension on the long walk through the snow to get there and they arrive only to discover they are too late to save most of the inmates, who have been shot and incinerated. The air of the surrounding area is heavy with the ashes of incinerated human beings. Behind the barbed wire fence remain only ten walking skeletons.

The partisans approach carefully, realising the watchtowers are abandoned, their machine guns gone, but there are one or two guards patrolling the perimeter. The terrifying character known as Mottel the throat-cutter silently kills the ones out patrolling, and then the partisans attack the guardhouse with grenades. At least one guard survives and prompts a prolonged firefight, before they storm the building, finish off the wounded and drag the officer outside. The partisans bicker and quarrel about what to do until the German stands to attention and says, ‘Get on with it’, and they shoot him.

In the brief firefight Leonid, who had rejoined them, is shot dead. He had given up the will to live anyway. But not as much as the Lager inmates. Only one will even walk out the gates, and he hasn’t gone far into the woods with the partisans before he asks to go back.

The Free Polish Army

The Gedalists hear that there’s a long goods train in a siding at a town nearby, Tunel, and go to loot it then sabotage it. Here they are unexpectedly surrounded by armed men led by Edek, 23, leader of a squad of the Free Polish Army, the Armia Krajowa, and Marian, his experienced sergeant. The Gedalists are disarmed while Edek seeks guidance from his superiors (p.184). The Gedalists settle into a modus vivendi with the Poles.

In November the Polish Army group picks up a distress call from a group of fellow Poles surrounded by Wehrmacht forces in the nearby Holy Cross mountains (p.196). The Gedalists volunteer to help, and set off accompanying Edek’s Poles to travel across country for several days. When they arrive, the mountain is shrouded in fog. They make their way slowly to the summit, intending to surprise the surrounding Germans, and so help the besieged forces escape. But the firefight which kicks off is very confused, it’s never clear where the enemy actually is, and after chaotic firing and explosions, they appear to disappear altogether into the fog.

As our guys climb the mountain they discover nothing but dead bodies and a fortress at the top completely filled with emaciated corpses. The Germans had starved them to death then left. Once again they are too late. Once again the forces of Death triumph. The Jews lament and Mendel, who has emerged as a moral focus of the text, wonders why, why does evil prevail?

The Russians arrive

Back at the barracks the partisans are celebrating a wedding. A while earlier Gedaleh had suggested that a way to ‘cure’ young Isidor might be to make a man of him, to take his virginity and the woman they call White Rokhele, ten years older, had obliged. Now they are very definitely an item and Rokhele comes to Mendel, who has established a sort of authority, as a man who knows prayers and sprinkles his conversation with Biblical blessings and references, asking him to marry them.

In the middle of the celebrations, a terrifying bombardment kicks off, deafening everything, a monstrous barrage of shells and munitions screaming overhead, some landing terrifyingly close. Initially the Gedalists think it’s a German attack on them, but then realise it’s actually a full scale attack by the nearby Russians on the German lines. The front line of the war in the East has crept up to them and now is passing right over them (p.210).

In the midst of the chaos one of the partisans on guard duty outside crashes through the door, clutching a man they think might be a spy, named Schmulek, who he found prowling round just before the bombardment began. But Schmulek claims to be a partisan like themselves and begs to be allowed to take them to his hideout. Amid the deafening din of the shells, some of the Gedalists follow Schmulek through the woods to a well. In its walls are embedded steps down which they clamber to find the entrance to a cave. In fact to a warren of caves. At one stage, Schmulek tells them, 200 Jews took refuge here. Now all of them are dead except him – in the middle of this chaos more memories of atrocity and murder. Our partisans cower in the dark, listening to the inhuman rage of the guns over their heads.

The schoolhouse at Wolbrom

Next morning, when they emerge from the well-cave into the unnaturally quiet landscape, it is to find the well surrounded by laughing Russian soldiers. A political commissar turns up and the mood changes. He rounds up the other survivors from the Gedalists’ ‘barracks’, and they are disarmed and driven off to the nearby town of Wolbrom. Here the Red Army authorities accommodate them in an abandoned school and feed them, they are treated alright, even though the commissar is sceptical about their story of being real genuine fighting partisans. He thinks Jews can only be helpless victims. But while they await some kind of orders from above about what to do with the Gedalists, and the weeks go by, right-wing Poles start to hassle them. First they daub anti-Semitic slogans on the walls, then chuck a Molotov cocktail through the window. It is time to leave (p.221).

The Lager at Glogau

The Gedalists steal a lorry from a vast vehicle dump near the railway station and head West towards Glogau, just inside Germany (though, after the war, it became part of Poland). The high anxiety of stealing the lorry at night, and then the bickering and arguing about who should drive the truck (since none of them know how to drive) are described with deadpan humour. But some days down the road they run into a platoon of Red Army soldiers under the command of an angry corporal who impounds their vehicle and they are again detained – but this time behind the barbed wire of the former Lager or concentration camp at Glogau (p.230).

But it is not under concentration camp conditions. Once again they are fed and watered by the Red Army. And the officer in charge is a puzzle: he claims to be named Smirnov, Captain Smirnov, but Mendel and the others suspect he is a Jew pretending to be ethnic Russian.

One by one Smirnov calls the partisans in for interviews. To Mendel he explains that he wants them to write their story. He wants a record made of this vast panorama of chaos and destruction and suffering. The Gedalists mingle with other camp inhabitants and hear their – generally horrifying – stories. A French woman in particular recounts her long harrowing journey from Paris high society to the lowest pit of hell in a concentration camp. It is just the latest of the many harrowing accounts which stud the text, which make it not just the story of a handful, but emblematic of an entire generation, of an entire race hunted to near extinction.

Eventually it is May 1945. The Gedalists wake up one day and all the Russians are gone. The camp gates are open. Smirnov leaves a note telling them where to find a stash of machine guns and ammunition. The Gedalists move out, heading west further into Germany.

Vengeance in Neuhaus

The end of May finds them at the German village of Neuhaus, near Dachau. The German army has surrendered. The Americans are in charge. The towns and roads are packed with displaced persons trying to find their way home. In Neuhaus they find themselves among a crowd of Germans, who mutter anti-Semitic insults. Suddenly there’s a shot from somewhere, and the woman they call Black Rokhele slumps to the ground and quickly dies (p.241). The crowd vanishes, it is impossible to tell who did it.

That night the male Gedalists go on a revenge attack, breaking into the local Rathaus or town hall, killing the bodyguards, throwing grenades, executing all the men they find. Ten Germans for one Jew. Exactly as the Germans did in so many of their occupied territories. And, being Jews, they debate it fiercely afterwards: is revenge justified? Bible heroes carry out vengeance, so does God condone or forbid it? If it’s wrong why, as Jozak says, does it feel so right?

Mendel, who has emerged as the reader’s representative in the text, simultaneously the most Jewish (the most learned in Bible teaching and Talmudic law) and the most sceptical of the group, can’t decide. To be a Jew seems to involve being endlessly plagued with questions and anxieties.

But mostly, the Gedalists just want to get out of Europe, out of this place where there is no safety and no escape from endless persecution and contempt.

They hand themselves into the American authorities, who note their names, then let them go on their way, in their easygoing  Yankee manner – so unlike the murderous Germans or suspicious Poles or unreliable Russians. They walk on to Plauen, to the big railway station here, on the main Berlin to Italy line (p.246).

Train to Italy

The Geladists find a derelict house in the town to make a base and set about bartering for food. Over the next few days Geladeh chats up one of the men who works on the German railroad, who plays the flute. They are to be seen playing flute and violin duets. Abruptly, one night, Geladeh announces he’s got his railway friend to arrange for an entire carriage on the next train heading south to be made available to them. It’s a hush hush operation and in the middle of the night the surviving 31 Geladists pack their few belongings into the carriage, which the railroad man attaches to the long locomotive. The whistle blows and it sets off chuntering slowly south towards Italy.

The British Army Jews

At the border of the Brenner Pass, the train is stopped and the carriage opened by British Palestine Jews, operating with the British Army but licensed to help and rescue surviving Jews (p.256). There follows a long discussion about whether to accept their help or not during which their spokesman, Chaim, lays out the merits of going to Palestine but on condition they hand over their weapons at the border to the Allied border guards and declare themselves stateless persons. After much debate among the group, they agree.

Milan

The train rumbles into the bombed-out central station at Milan. The British Army Jews had given them the address of the Assistance Centre for Jews in the city. Processed through here, they are sent out of the city to a farm in the countryside, where the Geladists are housed in peace and comfort, where there is regular food, all they have to do is help with the farm work, sometimes loading rather heavy crates, which they suspect are full of weapons, onto trucks (p.266). All of them now want to leave Europe and make their way to Palestine to found a new state, a state where Jews won’t live in fear.

They are surprised to be invited to a party in the city, given by a very swanky fashionable couple. Four or five go and find themselves completely ill at ease among city dwellers, a type none of them have ever known, and who poke and prod them like zoo animals. ‘If they knew everything we’d done, they’d be scared of us,’ says Mendel (p.269). And the reader has become so inured to the hardships and horrors of their journey, that we too feel uncomfortable – we resent the tourist superficiality of the well-heeled Milanese who seem to have come through the war unscathed and enjoy the frisson of talking to real genuine partisans!

In the middle of their embarrassment, there’s a phone call from the farm. Their comrade, the one they call White Rokhele who Mendel married to Isidor on the night of the great bombardment, and who the text has recorded becoming more and more heavily pregnant over the past few months, has gone into labour and been rushed to hospital.

With relief the Gedalists exit the party and catch a taxi to the maternity hospital, there to meet with their comrades, Izu, Bella, and the baby’s father, Isidor, the one who saw his own family beaten to death by the SS, the one who Rokhele ‘healed’ with love and sex, now pacing the room like any expectant father.

It is a painful labour, there are complications, doctors and nurses rush in and out and tell our guys to be patient, while all along I had a bad feeling that God (and the author) might pull one more brutal hurt from his bag.

But no – Rokhele is safely delivered of a baby boy. And as the small group huddle round laughing and celebrating, another group, of nurses and doctors, is huddled round a newspaper that’s just been brought in, with an enormous headline. A new kind of weapon, an atomic bomb, has been detonated at a place in Japan named Hiroshima. And on this ominous, on this world-threatening note, the novel ends.

New life has come into the world. The mother’s friends celebrate. But a new technology which could end the entire world and place all previous barbarity in the shade, has entered at the same moment. God and the author have left a bitter blow to the end, not the one I expected, one much bigger and which shadows our lives to this day.


Jewish

‘A dozen rivers can’t wash away the Yiddish accent’ (p.5)

The book is saturated in Jewish traditions, Jewish proverbs, Jewish stories, Jewish music and humour, rabbinical teachings, with numerous characters referring to (what we Gentiles call) ‘Old Testament’ characters, as if they lived only recently, as if their lives provide useful examples of how to behave now, people to compare ourselves against, here in the midst of the worst calamity humankind has ever known.

He, Mendel, if they were to ask him his age, and he decided to answer sincerely, what would he say? Twenty-eight, according to his papers, a bit older when it came to his joints, his lungs and heart; and on his back a mountain of years, more than Noah and Methuselah. Yes, more than they, since Methuselah begot Lamech at the ripe old age of one hundred eighty-seven, and Noah was five hundred when he brought Shem, Ham and Japheth into the world, six hundred when he built the ark, and a little older when he got drunk for the first time… No, he, Mendel the watchmender, roaming about the woods, was older than they. (p.23)

Many of the characters speak only Yiddish, and the book is alive with the language itself, and its traditions, stories, jokes and riddles, with its peculiar kind of argumentative wisdom, with its vivid words and phrases.

‘You’re a nebbish, a loser, a meshuggener.’ (p.30)

And also rings with the prayers and blessings and the age-old laments of persecuted Jews, updated to reference all the innovations of modern evil:

The Holy One, blessed be He, why was he hiding behind the grey clouds of Polessia instead of succouring his people? ‘You have chosen us among the nations’: why us exactly? Why do the wicked prosper, why are the helpless slaughtered, why bare their hunger, mass graves, typhus, and SS flamethrowers into holes crammed with terrified children? (p.61)

Why indeed? And why – everywhere they go – the unremitting hostility, anger and hatred of almost all the Gentiles, the contempt, suspicion, spitting, threats and violence, the Jew-baiting and Jew-hatred, why the virulent genocidal anti-Semitism which the characters experience or recall on almost every page?

The novel offers no answers, no redemption, except for the vitality of the text itself and the words and memories and lives and consciousnesses of the characters it creates. Implicitly, its message is that People are our salvation. There is no God. There is no Heaven. Life. Being alive. Living, breathing, thinking, are the greatest, the deepest, the fathomlessly profoundest gift. Everyone who spits on Life, holds Life cheap, who kills, alienates himself from the God who made us.

The story is its own justification. It bears witness to atrocities and suffering beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine. Yet it pulls and gathers this unspeakable horror into the great European art form, the novel, which proves able to takes all the abuse which can be hurled at it, only to emerge stronger and more powerful.

Not many writers can really be called ‘wise’. Many, especially many British and American writers, are merely provocative – creators of brands and personas which are good for a quote or a facile phrase, poolside entertainers, producers of fictions which morph seamlessly into TV dramas or Hollywood movies.

Levi is different. Even translated into another language, his books have a depth and dignity in their phrasing and rhythm, a restraint which accepts the full depths of horror but doesn’t give in to hysteria or despair, effortless insight into extremes of human psychology, which lift him onto another plane.

This is an astonishing novel, resonating on countless levels, which deserves to be read and reread and reread, to appal, to terrify, to teach and to inspire.


Credit

Se non ora, quando? by Primo Levi was published by Einaudi Editore, Turin in 1982; in English translation by Simon and Schuster in 1985; by Michael Joseph in the UK in 1985. All references are to the Abacus paperback edition of 1987.

Related links

Levi’s books

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

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

Related reviews

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst (1995)

Poland, September 1939, a nation being carved in two by the German Wehrmacht invading from the West and Stalin’s Red Army invading from the East. This, Alan Furst’s third novel, follows the adventures of Alexander de Milja (pronounced Mil-ya, p.24), a captain in Polish Military Intelligence, who is among the many Poles who vow to fight back against both invaders.

The novel is divided into five long sections.

1. The Pilava Local

The Germans have reached Warsaw. They are fighting their way through the streets. De Milja is summoned from his defence of the Warsaw telephone exchange to meet Colonel Anton Vyborg. (We met Vyborg towards the end of the previous novel, Dark Star, when he and the journalist hero Szara fled before the invading forces at the start of the invasion ie the scenes involving him here take place only a few days after is scenes in Dark Star. Characters are interlinked. History is interlinked.)

De Milja is tasked with finding a train to carry Poland’s entire national gold reserve south to Romania. This he does, his men concealing it under the floor of ordinary carriages, and then filling up with refugees at Warsaw station before a long journey south, punctuated by an attack by a German fighter plane, which leaves numerous dead and injured, and later, a holdup by violent Ukrainian bandits, which leaves more dead. Eventually they make it to the Romanian border and both refugees and the gold are allowed in.

2. Room 9

October 1939, Poland has fallen. From the safety of Romania de Milja returns into Poland, first to make sure his mentally ill wife is alright, at her asylum, then to set up a network in occupied Poland. The underground is to be called ZWZ, Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej – the Union for Armed struggle, answerable to the Polish government in exile in London. De Milja is recruited into the intelligence directorate run by Colonel Josef Broza, one-time military attaché to Brussels. The recruitment takes place in room 9 in the basement of the Saint Stanislaus Hospital.

The leaflets They pay a printer to print thousands of leaflets, then steal a plane from a small flying club, and circle high over Warsaw, dropping them. They tell the civilian population they are dropped by RAF planes and soon bombers will return to drive the Germans out. Not true. A little while later the printer is rounded up by the Gestapo. De Milja and colleagues realise someone has snitched. It is the tough detective they’d involved in the plot, who says the printer was only a snivelling Jew anyway. They execute him in a dirty alley under a railway bridge.

Madame Kuester De Milja moves around, never staying in the same safe apartment too long. In one apartment he has an affair with the stodgy Madame Kuester, a stocky, disapproving middle-aged woman who turns out to have a need to be passionately taken doggy fashion every afternoon at 2.35 precisely.

Network information An old lady buying rags outside a Wehrmacht barracks, sells them on to a rag dealer who passes them to a chemist who analyses the type of oil. A commodity analyst in Warsaw writes a report about wool. De Milja manages this information which indicates a) the Germans aren’t deploying the kind of low-temperature oil they would need in Russia, nor are they buying up wool. Conclusion: they will not invade Russia this year (1940). So it will be France.

Rumbled On 28 March the Gestapo come to the apartment block where he’s hiding. The other inhabitants, who knew about him, make it downstairs and escape. De Milja climbs to the roof, evades the armed guard there, but slips and falls badly against the fire escape of the neighbouring building, concussing himself. He is helped to safety, hidden, then shipped out of the city to a safe farmhouse where he is patched up and slowly recovers.

Coal steamer to Stockholm Here he is told the Saint Stanislaus Hospital cell has been betrayed and captured, though some managed to take cyanide. He is now ordered to evacuate to Paris. There is fascinating detail on the Polish underground and its ability to match the German obsession for paperwork. De Milja is smuggled north to the port of Gdinya, then into the hold of a steamer carrying coal to Stockholm. It takes 70 hours and de Milja becomes poisoned by the carbon monoxide and dioxide fumes, hallucinates, loses consciousness and, by the time the hold is opened in Stockholm, the strong implication is he’s dead.

3. Lezhev’s Last Day

Cut to a completely new character, Boris Lezhev, a depressed Russian poet who has fled before various persecuting authorities right across Europe. We are just getting to know his depressive personality when he actually does die (by suicide? it’s not clear) bequeathing his works to his muse, Genya Beilis, who is, of course, an agent.

Like Dark Star many of the short sections are dated with a timestamp. On 9 June 1940 de Milja (so he didn’t die in the coal hold of the steamer) is meeting a French army officer, Major Kercheval, at a headquarters at Les Invalides. They are very clearly pulling out, burning their files etc. He meets with Vyborg who tells him the French government has fled to Orléans, and de Milja is to remain behind in Paris till the last moment. There is some mockery of the stupidity of the French in building a defensive line against Germany which stopped at the Belgian border. And wonder at the way an entire nation just gave up.

In the middle of the night French security come calling at his safe house, but he is able to bribe the officers, then pack and slip away. He finds somewhere to hide in the shabby area around the Gare Saint-Lazare.

De Milja adopts the cover of the dead poet Boris Lezhev and commences a steamy sexual affair with Genya. In his cover as a bohemian poet he is often found at the notorious drinking hole of artists, the Bar Heiningen (well known to Furst readers for its appearance in his first two novels). He spends a lot of effort cultivating a German officer, Freddi Schoen, who thinks he is an artist.

Along with a colleague, Fedin, de Milja is ordered to scout the forthcoming invasion of Britain, buys a black market delivery van and delivers produce all along the north coast, Dunkirk and so on, logging the numbers of barges on the canals, the names of Wehrmacht units etc, all despatched to a 17-year-old girl who radios it in code to London. She is tracked down by a German radio expert, arrested, crunches a cyanide pill in the Gestapo car. When the obese German radio expert begins to unscrew the captured English radio it explodes killing him. Genya Beilis had been making the drops and notices they’re not being collected, suspects the agent has been rounded up, is given instructions for a new contact procedure.

De Milja passes on information given to him by a French patriot who works in the northern docks about a practice invasion exercise. This results in the British bombing the port of Nieuwpoort, which the narrative describes at first hand. And then Calais. The narrative stops to introduce us to a public school Englishman who flies a Swordfish biplane with a torpedo into Calais harbour just as De Milja achieves a piece of James Bond heroism by making his way right across the armed and secure harbour to find a ship he knows, from the dockyard papers their agent gave them, is loaded with burning naphtha. As the British planes approach de Milja lights up its night lights so they can attack it creating a wonderful explosion by which the rest can bomb the moored German troop ships and barges at will.

De Milja has romantic lover sex with Genya in an isolated hotel by the coast. Then she leaves forever to Switzerland and he burns the Lezher identity.

4. Paris Nights

De Milja is exfiltrated to Spain, debriefed by agents. Vyborg tells him his wife has died of TB. He is returned to Paris with a new identity, as Anton Stein. For the first time in these three Furst novels, I felt a section or plot development was de trop. I found it hard to believe that a man who had led quite a high-profile life as a Russian poet, would be returned to the same city a month later, looking the same but with a quite different identity, for the first thing Stein does is buy a big coal business, and use it as a cover a) for being a rich businessman in Paris b) for finding information about German troop and resources movements.

I bet myself that having lost his wife and his championship sex lover wouldn’t prevent him tumbling into bed with the next woman he meets, and had to wait precisely 10 pages before a dreamboat redhead – Madame Roubier – arrives to decorate the nice villa he’s bought in the Paris suburbs before he is exploring her ‘soft, creamy body’ and listening to her cry ‘oh, oh’.

He hobnobs with rich Parisians and Germans. It is spring 1941 and the British are bombing. He is called suddenly to a church in the east end where he finds Fedin, his fellow agent, has been mortally injured in an air raid.

A contact of Fedin’s at a place called Vannes gets in touch with the network and gives them priceless information that the pilots of the German Pathfinder planes which guide German bombers to their targets all arrive at the airfield in one coach. If they could ambush that coach and massacre the pilots… When this intelligence is passed to London, they reply by parachuting in a cache of arms, explosives and French agents, all co-ordinated on the ground by de Milja.

But at this moment de Milja is recalled to London. He says goodbye to sexy Madame Roubier, his other colleagues, travels to the Spanish border, is collected by a rubber dinghy from a submarine, arrives in cold wartime London, eats the horrible food, and is set to do depressing bureaucratic tasks. Then the opportunity arises to volunteer for service in the East, in expectation of Hitler’s attack on Russia…

The Forest

October 1941, four months into Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s campaign to invade and conquer Russia. De Milja is parachuted into occupied Poland, near the river Bug, with arms, ammunition, explosive, money, to join a partisan group led by Razakavia, backed by Kotior and Frantek. Bronstein the ex-science teacher uses the explosive to blow up rail lines, derailing troop trains which they then decimate with grenades and machine gun fire. He learns of the Banderovsty, Ukrainian nationalists under Bandera, working for the SS. ‘They do what the SS won’t.’ They encounter communist partisans in a struggle over requisitioning grain from peasants. In other words, the bloodlands are full of roving bands of killers.

When he meets with his control, Major Olenik, he is ordered to organise a squad to break into Rovno prison and liberate a certain sergeant Krewinski, who escaped the Katyn massacre, and was sent to Moscow for indoctrination. ZWZ wants to know the procedures, what he learned.

In a very tense sequence de Milja leads his men on a successful break-in to the prison, they liberate Krewinski and others, and drive in a lorry to a safe farmhouse out in the country. Which is attacked by a mass of partisans, following a tip-off, in the early hours. Everyone de Milja knows is killed in the fighting and he just manages to escape with the badly wounded Krewinski, and with a Jewish woman. She asks him to shoot her and stands undefended – they both know what the partisans to do Jewish women – and he raises his pistol to her forehead but can’t do it.

Under a hail of bullets they make it to the lorry and then there are four or five pages of struggling to drive it through the dense Polish forest in the depths of winter, until they come to a river and find it easier to drive on the thick ice, until the river narrows and the ice becomes so slippery it will no longer advance. De Milja and the woman huddle under all the blankets they can find, expecting to falls asleep and never wake up, killed by the bitter sub-zero temperatures.

But he awakens some hours later to realise it is fractionally less freezing, realising it is snowing. the lorry will have traction. they get it started again and drive past burning villages and bridges clogged with Germans too busy to worry about a peasant lorry, until they can scramble it back onto a proper road and climb a hill to look down on the town of Biala as dawn is breaking. They will head down into the town once the curfew is lifted, contact the local ZWZ, be given somewhere to hide and food. They will fight on. They will endure.


Comments

This is shorter and less epic ie with a smaller range of characters, than the previous two novels. It is more ‘domestic’, focusing much more on the one character of de Milja, filling in his family background, his cold northern professor father, his hot-blooded southern mother with the outrageous drunken uncles, the backstory of how his sensitive wife became mentally ill and was sent to an asylum.

This is reflected in the prose style which his more relaxed and informal than previously, with lots of ‘you knows’ and ‘whatevers’ — ‘.. or whatever it meant’, ‘… or whatever description they had’… ‘and God only knew what else..’.

The prose of this third novel is deliberately more casual than the crisper, more documentary factual style of the first two. We are more inside de Milja’s head, skipping verbs, cramming short perceptions together, thrust into just this one character’s feelings – very different from the panoramic overview of the first two.

The escape-route safe house in Torun was run by a girl of no more than seventeen, snub-nosed with cornsilk hair. De Milja felt tenderness and desire all mixed up together. Tough as a stick, this one. Made sure he had a place to sleep, a threadbare blanket, and a glass of beer. Christ, his heart ached for her, for them all because they wouldn’t last the year. (p.107)

The previous novels saw things from a variety of viewpoints, and the characters were interesting and varied and – crucially – the situations were highly political. This novel is much more about the one personality, the Polish officer, and there is still a lot politics, a lot of background information, but somehow the book feels less political.

Whereas the protagonists of the first two were Russian and therefore lived in permanent anxiety about being arrested or betrayed by their own side, in this book the situation is more straightforward – he is an undercover agent in occupied Paris and scared of being caught by the Nazis; it’s much more like lots of other ‘hiding from the Nazis’ novels.

Sensuality

I am getting used to the episodes of frolicsome sex in Furst’s novels. In section two he visits his mentally disturbed wife and they make love on a coat in the asylum grounds. Later there is a very erotic encounter with his stodgy, middle-aged landlady, Madame Kuester, all starched blouses and decorum, who turns out to be reading pornographic novels in the afternoon, and waits for de Milja in her bedroom, skirt hitched up, loins on a pillow so her bum is raised and accessible. The paragraph which describes de Milja’s astonishment at this turn of events, possibly also sums up the effect Furst is aiming for by deploying scenes of very sensual love-making in among the deaths, destruction and corrosive cynicism which the novels describe.

It was the sheer contrast of the moment that struck his heart. The dying, ice-bound city, heavy with fear and misery and the exhaustion of daily life, set against these brittle pages of print, where gold passementerie was untied and heavy drapes flowed together, where pale skin flushed rose with excitement, where silk rustled to the floors of moonlit chambers. (p.84)

It feels like de Milja has a different woman in each of the five sections, each with lovely bottoms, and given to role-playing, saying rude words, lots of sex play and frolic. Maybe undercover agents in occupied Poland and Paris did have lots of sex with smooth-skinned beauties, but there’s more than a dollop of James Bond-style fantasy about much of this.

Recurring characters

  • Not only Vyborg recurs at the start of the novel, but the conductor on the gold train south is the same conductor, with his droopy big moustache, who’d been on the passenger train dive-bombed by a Stuka towards the end of Dark Star.
  • The Bar Heininger recurs for the third time, having become notorious for the assassination of the head waiter Omaraeff in Night Soldiers and then the place where, according to a newspaper scoop last year, Lady Angela Hope recruited the Soviet agent known as CURATE (who, we know from Dark Star, was that novel’s hero, André Szara).
  • In a tiny detail, the Parthenon Press, a little publisher of poetry in the area of Paris where de Milja hides out, includes on its list of poetry by Russians, a volume by Vainshtok. Would this be the same Vainshtok, the sarcastic and unpleasant journalist colleague of Szara who, in Dark Star, in an inexplicable gesture, as he is being arrested and taken back to Moscow for probable execution, palms Szara his pistol, the pistol Szara uses a few minutes later to shoot dead the NKVD officer arresting him, Maltsaev.

The exotic

Too many times to count, the reader finds themself in the company of exotic and strange characters, as if in a movie. Maybe all novels are escapist in that they tell a complete rounded story, unlike our own messy lives. And that people’s motives are comprehensible, unlike the impenetrable inexplicability of so many of the people we meet in real life. And that fictional characters’ lives really matter, their experiences are made up of important decisions and dramatic confrontations etc, unlike most people who spend their lives going to work and worrying about money.

And maybe espionage novels turn up the volume on all of these aspects because the undercover agent can be arrested at any moment, which gives every sight of the blue sky, every smell of fresh coffee, every caress of a lover’s body, an extra force and significance.

But one especial pleasure of this kind of novel is the sheer exoticism of the situations which amount to a mental holiday – abroad, with strange collocations of foreigners, thrown into intense and unusual plights. Hence, de Milja has barely checked into a provincial hotel before the British fighter bombers come swooping in to attack the docks.

On the top floor of the dockside Hotel Vlaanderen, de Milja and a whore wearing a slip and a Turkish seaman wearing underpants watched the fight together through a cracked window. (p.193)

There is something touchingly naive in the ubiquitousness of whores and prostitutes in these novels, as in many other adventure novels. Whereas in ordinary life none of us ever sees a prostitute, in the Paris de Milja walks around every doorway shelters a hooker who whistles, whispers and propositions him, hotels are full of them, you can barely move for them. On the night Fedin dies, de Milja has just arranged for two courtesans to give Count Riau the experience of his life in a private room at a classy restaurant, and when he returns to his drinking buddies they drink a toast to The Pleasures of Excess.

Written by a male novelist for (I’m guessing) a predominantly male audience, these stories fulfil the most primitive male readerly fantasies, which are a) that the hero beds a new, utterly willing, sexually adventurous woman in every chapter and b) that the streets are overflowing with sexually available women.

History

These are historical novels, set in a specific historical period, overflowing with period detail and dense with historical fact. There is a certain kind of pleasure to be derived from rereading once again the horrible chronology of the 1930s, the Stalin purges, the Hitler invasions and then the war itself.

The characters, as spies acting for governments with vested interests in political events, play a part in them, shed light on them, discuss them and analyse them. What is maybe most illuminating about these novels focusing on characters from Russia and Eastern Europe, is the way they shed light on what is, in the West, mostly an unfamiliar and untold history. In doing so they bring out a wealth of new and fascinating perspectives on what we thought was a well known period of history.

Thus the early two sections vividly convey not just the shock and horror of the German assault on Poland, but the wild opinions the Poles held at the time – the British are coming, the Americans will intervene, we will be saved. For 9 months from September 1939 until June 1940, many Poles clung on to the hope that the French and British will intervene to save them somehow. But then, in June 1940, France fell to Hitler, almost without a fight. And it is at that point that there was a wave of suicides across Poland as people lost hope, and couldn’t face a life of tyranny. Not something I knew or had thought about.

Again, in the final sections de Milja meets his control in the occupied city of Rosnov and they discuss the possible scenarios: the Germans defeat the Russians and permanently occupy Poland – then, permanent sabotage and resistance; the Russians defeat the Germans and push them back to the Rhine – then permanent resistance to the Russians; the Russians defeat the Germans but, at the moment they are poised to enter Poland, declaration of independence and a Great Uprising.

We know what happened. It’s witnessing intelligent people working out the options, discussing and speculating, that gives the novels a terrible pathos, but also makes them intellectually interesting.

These novels bristle with history as seen by non-Brits and non-Americans; as seen by the long-suffering nations of the East. We knew their twentieth century was horrible, but Furst’s novels brilliantly dramatise the day-to-day opinions and hopes and arguments of people living through these horrors, and that’s what brings them so powerfully alive in the reader’s imagination.


Credit

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst was published in 1995 by HarperCollins. All quotes and references are to the 2001 Ottakars/HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Dark Star by Alan Furst (1991)

That was the nature of the intelligence landscape as he understood it: in a world of perpetual night, a thousand signals flickered in the darkness, some would change the world, others were meaningless, or even dangerous. (p.67)

Alan Furst’s second novel covers similar territory as the first, territory he has subsequently made his own in a series of 14 novels about espionage in 1930s Europe. This one felt even more complicated than its epic predecessor, Night Soldiers, because although it features one protagonist, André Szara, foreign correspondent for the Soviet newspaper Pravda, both he and the reader are kept permanently confused by the bewildering hall of mirrors, the complex overlay of conflicting intelligence agencies and missions, in which he finds himself.

1. Silence in Prague

Part one finds Szara sent on journeys to Ostend, Prague and Berlin to write propaganda pieces for Pravda. But his experience is a confusion of secret meetings and instructions; in one set he is despatched to Berlin to meet an industrialist, Baumann and during a formal dinner with Herr and Frau Baumann (and a young Fräulein invited along to make up the numbers) Herr B very subtly makes it clear that, as Jew, he is against the regime. When Szara goes to visit him at his factory the next day, he realises it doesn’t just make steel, it makes high-tensile steel used as control rods in airplanes. Herr B shares with him production figures, which Sazara’s NKVD masters will use to calculate the German war effort.

The shy young woman is Marta Haecht. Szara is attracted to her, offers to walk her home, instead she comes to his hotel room and to his surprise they have championship sex. He is in love, a poet masquerading as a hack.

But parallel to this, Szara had been approached by a Russian on the Ostend ferry who asked him to keep an eye on another Soviet operative, one van Doorn, real name Grigory Khelidze. A day later he sends a message to his approacher, telling him which hotel Khelidze is staying in. The next morning he gets, along with his morning coffee and roll, a shred of paper naming a cafe. He goes there and is approached by a woman calling herself Renata Braun, who takes him to Khelidze’s hotel room, where they find the man horribly murdered and sprayed with acid. While Szara is sick, Braun searches the dead man’s belongings and finds tucked away a folded-up piece of paper which turns out to be the chit to a left luggage deposit box in a Czech railway station. Is it a trap?

Feeling like he is in way over his head, Szara sets off to Prague and, paranoid that his every step is being watched, finds the station, the box and the ancient suitcase inside. Back at his hotel room he rips open the concealed bottom to find a cache of documents going back to Tsarist times which seem to be records of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, in their dealings with a Bolshevik activist – known only as DUBOK – who was in fact a double agent, one of their informants. Sweat breaks out all over Szara’s body as he realises the dates and other references can only be to Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, also known as Stalin!

2. Rue Delesseux

It is spring 1938. Back in Moscow his ‘debriefer’, another Jew, Abramov, listens in horror to Szara’s experiences, then fills him in on the background to these puzzling events. There are different factions in the NKVD, arranged in khvosts or ‘gangs’ – a southern or Georgian one, an intellectual Jewish one, probably others, all of which operate abroad and conspire against each other; and there’s the Comintern, which has its own agenda abroad, and which Khelidze worked for – and the status of all of them is permanently unclear as the entire apparat is subject to wave after wave of purges. The Red Army has been decimated by Stalin’s purges; he, Abramov, suspects there is an anti-Jewish pogrom going on which might affect them both. The only protection he can offer Szara is to go officially on the payroll of the NKVD.

And so Szara undergoes spy training and then is sent to Paris to run the OPAL network, as well as manage ‘product’ from Herr Baumann and his German military secrets.

And so this 70-page section is about the nuts and bolts and personnel of the network of agents Szara runs in Paris, with a side responsibility for messages from Baumann in Berlin. One of the most interesting elements is that his control, based in Belgium, is the same Ilia Goldman who played such a large part in the first novel, Night Soldiers, here shown as an epitome of efficiency and professionalism.

The focal point of the section is a big stake-out he and operatives carry out after a tip-off from an agent who has taken a lover who works in a German liaison office. They arrange a meeting place for a VIP German visiting Paris, then stake it out and take photos. To Sazara’s amazement the man meeting the Nazi turns out to be a senior NKVD officer, Derzhani. What? Why?

After the VIPs have their meeting, our guys wrap up the surveillance and think they are getting away safely, when a slick car draws alongside driven by the security men who’d accompanied the Nazi. There is a car chase through the streets of Paris – for a moment they think they’ve lost the Germans and Szara alights at a remote Métro station, but moments later the car he was in is rammed by the pursuing Nazis and his agent, Sénéschal, killed. Back at the office he develops the 11 precious prints of the meeting, which Sénéschal died for. What the devil does it mean? Who is the Nazi, obviously a big wig? And what is a senior NKVD director doing in Paris without him or Goldman being told, and why is he meeting a Nazi? Szara hides the prints and tells no-one.

In the previous section, after he hid the Okhrana files, Szara was unnerved to hear an acquaintance at a cocktail party in Paris jokingly refer to the story – that Stalin was a Tsarist agent – in front of an American magazine editor, Herbert Hull. A continent away, months and many other incidents, later, Hull is invited from New York out for a country party with the kind of liberal intellectuals he knows, the Mays. After a day’s healthy activities, they have a lovely diner, then chat about politics and literature in front of a nice log fire, and Hull casually mentions the story about Stalin being a spy – ‘oh, that old one’, his host replies – but Hull goes on that he met someone in Europe who had some kind of evidence to back it up, and so he’s drafted an article on the subject. Days later his magazine offices are burned down, all proofs, all the furniture, files and records burned to ashes, and the gallon drum which fuelled it placed in the middle of the floor. Hull gets the message, his little magazine folds, and he soon gets a job with one of the New York glossies and forgets about the Okhrana story.

This anecdote is hugely thought-provoking, making the reader realise that the viper’s nest of espionage which the competing powers created in Europe extended far beyond its shores. Will this incident contribute somehow to the overall narrative or will it, like so many in Night Soldiers, simply add to the atmosphere of tension and paranoia, and to the sense of panorama – the fearful sense that similar incidents, spying, betrayals and deceits are happening all across the world…

3. The Iron Exchange

Szara meets Sergei Abramov on a deserted beach in Denmark, shows him the photos of the stakeout. Abramov says they can be interpreted in a score of ways; more importantly, he fills him in on latest developments in Moscow, namely Yezhov has been overthrown as head of the NKVD, replaced by Beria, one of the Georgian khvost. Along with Yezhov went his wife and any intellectuals or writers close to him, for example Isaac Babel. They speculate on how much of an anti-semitic pogrom it is – but then non-Jews disappear too, all the time.

Abramov tells Szara his stock is not high, to recover respect he must go in person to Berlin and tell Baumann to give more information, compromising information, about all the other board members and managers of his steel mill (because the apparat clearly expects Baumann to be done away with like all the other German Jews and wants to identify his successor).

So Szara goes to Berlin. He stays at the Hotel Adlon but is very keen to meet up again with Marta Haecht the young woman he slept with on his last visit. When he gets in touch, amazingly – in this world of dead and disappearing people – she is still alive and they meet up and they resume their relationship exactly as before, with her posing in silk underwear, whispering naughty words in his ear and play acting sex frolics. Ie they create a super-sensual world of their own in the disused apartment of an artist in the old Iron Exchange, a half derelict building in Berlin.

On a first meeting Baumann, in his home, refuses to tell more information about his firm, so Szara gets permission for a second go, which is a more elaborate rendezvous at a synagogue after hours in a Berlin suburb. They’ve barely begun negotiating when they hear a mob chanting and singing, which turns out to be Nazis who attack, ransack and set the synagogue on fire. Terrified, Baumann and Szara only just manage to escape undetected onto the roof of a nearby shed, wait till the crowd marches drunkenly off, then make their way back to the NKVD driver who’d waited for them.

What we have just witnessed is part of Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, the infamous night when the Nazis organised gangs to ransack and attack synagogues and Jewish businesses across Germany, supposedly in ‘revenge’ for the assassination of a Nazi diplomat in Paris by a young Jew. Szara drops Baumann back at his house and returns to his lovers’ apartment at the Iron Exchange deeply shaken.

There are numerous other plot strands and events, in this and each of the sections, but this is by far the most dramatic of  this part. This novel, more so than Night Soldiers, feels deeply involved with history, in fact several of the sections are divided into sub-sections marked with specific dates and explanations of key incidents in the countdown to war, so that we – like the characters – are hurtled along by the terrifying pace of events.

During this trip he briefly meets Nadia Tscherova, heavy drinking actress in Berlin, code name RAVEN head of a sub-network for OPAL, who turns out to be the sister of Colonel Alexander Vonets aka Sascha, who played such a large role, especially in the climax of Night Soldiers (though obviously Szara doesn’t know that).

Having failed to get more information out of Baumann, in fact having to doubt whether the information he is giving is actually correct, having reunited with Marta but realised she is not as innocent as he first thought, having worked with a sarcastic fellow journalist Vainshtok to file some innocuous cover stories, and having witnessed terrible scenes of Jews being humiliated all across Germany, Szara finally concludes his mission and takes the train back to Paris.

Here he is debriefed by his control, Goldman, a presence throughout the text, receives messages from other agents and resumes the running of the OPAL network, in among which he receives an invitation to a very up-market Parisian club, the Renaissance Club. The opulence of serious wealth, unobtrusive waiters, leather chairs. In a private room he is greeted by Joseph de Montfried, from one of the wealthiest families in France.

Their conversation brings the bubbling issue of the Jews to the fore in the novel. We’ve known from the start that Szara is a Jew from Poland, who has had a continuous trickle of memories from his brutal youth (the pogroms, beatings and murders of Jews there – in the synagogue he remembers details of ceremonies including the ceremony for cleansing a raped woman – a common occurrence). Goldman his control, is a Jew. General Bloch who interviews him on a train in the first section, is a Jew. And the man who debriefed him in the old days when he was just a journalist, who suggested he enrol as a full-time agent, and who still meets him from time to time, Abramov, is a Jew. The whole novel is set against the unfolding nightmare of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, while back in Moscow Stalin’s purges continue to gobble up huge numbers of people, many of whom are Jews so that Abramov and Szara speculate whether one element of the purges is a covert pogrom.

It is in this atmosphere that de Montfried launches on a long passage of historical exposition, an encyclopedia-style explanation of the background to the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the ongoing issue of Jewish emigration to Palestine. Briefly, the British have limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to a tiny quota based on official emigration certificates; de Montfried wonders, in a polite and lofty way, whether Szara can obtain any. Szara’s NKVD straitjacket is chafing. He is sickened by events around him. He promises to do what he can.

Out of the blue Abramov orders Szara to meet him in Switzerland and bring an unusual amount of money. At the office appears Maltsaev, a slick unpleasant operative from Moscow, who is to accompany him and the money. We know that Maltsaev is the angel of death – in Night Soldiers he brought word to Kulic in the mountains that he had to execute some of his own partisan group. And so it is here – after a hair-raising drive to the village where Abramov is holding out, the latter bolts at the sight of Maltsaev, making it half way across a snowy meadow before he is gunned down.

Szara conceals all emotion, even as they bury the body, but his mind is racing. He speculates that Abramov must have shown people the photos taken in the garden in Paris of the secret meeting, maybe in some kind of power play that failed and rebounded on him. Hence the flight and execution. Maltsaev cordially tells Szara that he thinks he, too, should have met Abramov’s fate, but orders from high up were to preserve him. Shaken, Szara returns to Paris.

4. The Renaissance Club

Szara has become an habitué of the Bar Heininger. This is just one in a whole series of jolts of recognition to the reader who has read Night Soldiers, because a surprising number of characters, incidents and locations from the first book crop up throughout this one. The first time it happened was childishly exciting, the second time exciting – this is the 6th or 7th strong overlap, following hot on the heels of Maltsaev and complementing the persistent presence of Goldman as Szara’s immediate boss, the same Goldman who played such a pivotal role in Night Soldiers.

These aren’t coincidences, the two texts interpenetrate at multiple levels in numerous places via quite a few characters and this slowly changes your perception. These are the same sort of people, in the same profession, living through the same historical period; it comes to seem inevitable that there will be a lot of overlap.

So the reader of Night Soldiers remembers that the Bar Heininger was where Khristo hid out after fleeing from Civil War Spain, and where three hoodlums arrived one night with machine guns to shoot the place up and assassinate the head waiter, Omaraeff, because of his involvement in a hit on a Soviet diplomat. As a cynic predicted at the time, this bit of underworld violence has made the place more fashionable than ever and now – two years later in 1939 – Szara routinely hangs out there to play up his ‘cover’ role of high-visibility Pravda journalist.

Among the innumerable exiles and counts and princesses and poets and playwrights to be found in the Bar every night is the posh, promiscuous Lady Angela Hope. She invites Szara to a private dinner at Fouquet’s, for which he makes a big effort to press his suit and buy a new shirt. After some brief flirting, there is a knock at the door and they are joined by Roger Fitzware (who is an agent of British Intelligence; he appeared in Night Soldiers where he tried to recruit Khristo and, angry at being rebuffed, suggested to French intelligence that they lock him up).

Now Fitzware tries to recruit Szara and Szara lets him, but at a price. He offers information about German steel wire production (the ‘product’ from Baumann in Berlin), but to be paid for with emigration certificates to Palestine. They haggle and settle on 500 certificates per batch of Baumann information. Szara is sickened, but cold; this is the world he lives in.

Much else happens. One of the OPAL operatives, a prostitute, passes on the briefcase of a German officer which is full of Polish phrasebooks for fellow Wehrmacht officers. Goldman appals Szara by giving him advance warning that Stalin is about to make a pact with Hitler. In May 1939 Molotov replaces Litvinov as Soviet Foreign Minister, a signal to the alert that Soviet foreign policy will be conciliatory to Germany (and Litvinov was a Jew, difficult for the Nazis to respect).

Szara is sent on an official assignment for Pravda to Poland just days after the Nazi-Soviet Pact is announced 23 August 1939. Thus he is on a sleepy provincial train trundling towards Lvov when it is dive-bombed by a Stuka, the first he or any of the passengers know that Germany has invaded. Recovering from blast injuries in hospital he is called to the office of a Polish officer, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Vyborg (p.278) who from that point keeps Szara at his side as they set off on the journey to Lvov and find themselves caught up in the German advance, witnessing the Germans fording the river River Dunajec under Polish artillery fire from close up, and on into a gruelling eye-witness account of the Polish Army’s defeat and retreat over the next 30 pages, so packed with incident, vignettes, walk-on characters and vivid scenes, they could almost be the basis of a novel by themselves.

5. Poste Restante

The final eighty pages are among the most exciting and dazzling I’ve ever read. Szara is recovering in a spa hotel near Lvov which has been taken over by diplomatic personnel from all countries fleeing the fighting when NKVD arrive and start processing everyone. This includes the angel of death, Maltsaev who, in a gripping moment, after interviewing Szara in one of the pools in the basement casually asks him to go ahead of him up the spiral staircase. There is a cinematic moment as Szara refuses and says, No, after you to Maltsaev who also refuses. there is a standoff for a few long seconds then Szara pulls his gun and shoots Maltsaev once, then again, drags his body to a cubicle and hides it. He has burned his bridges. He is now a fugitive.

He clutches the briefcase which contains  his false documents and walks calmly down the steps and into one of the parked cars of the NKVD officers, starts the engine and drives off before anyone can stop him. There follow three paranoid, intense days north through Poland to Lithuania, avoiding the invading German army to the West and Russian army to the East. He in fact makes it safely to Kovno where he finds tens of thousands of refugees ahead of him and no places available on any of the boats leaving the port for months.

After days selling the car then other valuables to feed himself, and after scary encounters with possible NKVD agents or plain thugs, he takes another approach when he hears the Germans are evacuating ethnic Germans back to the Fatherland. He pays a lot of money to a Lithuanian criminal to get the passport of a German man dying in a local hospital and have his photo pasted into it, and then undertakes the terrifying experience of being processed onto one of the Volkdeutsch repatriation boats at Riga. The journey gives him the chance to see the Germans up close, their inferiority complex coming out as anger. They are poisoned with themselves, he thinks, these monsters at the heart of Europe.

But his plan to slip away once the boat arrives in Hamburg underestimate German efficiency, as all the Volkdeutsch are corralled off the boat and onto a train taking them to Berlin for a triumphant rally. At the station Szara does, finally, manage to give officials the slip and rings the only person he trusts in Berlin, the agent Nadia Tscherova. Something clicked the first time they met and now there is an extraordinary interlude, for he finds her the mistress of a German general (away in Poland) set up in an astonishingly opulent mansion. Here she gives him a good bath, a good shave, a good meal and then there is some characteristically Furstian championship sex, deep and sensuous, with role playing and hard words before they collapse exhausted in bed. In the middle of a continent gone mad, there is time for pleasure, for the life of the senses, for poetry, for delight.

After several days he must move on, clean shaven and well dressed but in fact is picked up by the Gestapo an hour after leaving Nadia’s house, as he tries to board a train and finds an alert is out for his stolen passport. There are tense scenes in Columbia House, Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, and a lot of very intelligent insight into the psychology of interrogation, in light of which Szara comes clean about his full identity to the officer interrogating him, who is now worried to have such a high profile Russian prisoner on his hands at such a fraught political moment.

Thus it is that footsteps come clanking down the cold corridor to his cell and he is yanked out of his room and dragged to another room where we are fully expecting him to be beaten to death, but instead is presented with a wobbly character wearing a uniform over his pyjama trousers, released into his custody, ushered into his car and driven for hours into the remote hills where they pull up at an inn. Inside is Herbert van Polanyi who now gets a long speech of exposition.

Turns out von Polanyi is a senior official in the Foreign Ministry, still largely run by the kind of landed aristocrats Hitler and his gang despise. He was ‘running’ Baumann all along, deliberately getting him to feed Szara the steel production figures. the reason why leads to a long explanation of the political relationship between Russia and Germany, of their co-operation throughout the 1920s, the setback of Hitler’s election, but then the way both dictators came to understand each other. It is a long and fascinating and intelligent analysis. I haven’t brought out how intelligent the continual presence of Furst’s analyses of situations, of geopolitics for the micro to the macro scale, are, throughout these books.

Von Polanyi recognises Szara as a professional who has now become rootless, he is a man without a country. He is going to set him free on the understanding that he may be able to do them all a service and prevent Europe falling to a Hitler-Stalin tyranny. They shake on it and his man drives Szara to the Swiss border.

There then follows an intensely described section where Szara goes seriously underground, into the criminal underworld of Budapest, Athens, Smyrna. He begs, he is beaten up, he thieves, he loses weight, grows a moustache, gains a permanent scar, changes the man he is, ending up washing pots for a woman restaurant owner in Turkey, finding peace or oblivion on a straw mattress on an old door in a filthy cellar, where, in his little spare time, he writes out a full account of everything that happened to him and tries to piece together how the conspiracies he was involved in played their part in the collapse of civilisation.

When, in May 1940, he reads that the Germans have invaded France, he shakes the Turkish woman by the hand, shaves and presents himself at the docks as a patriotic Frenchman ready to do his duty, and as such is welcomed aboard a steamer setting off for Marseilles, and welcomed there as a hero. He makes his way across southern France and back to Switzerland for where he contacts his super-rich contact in Paris, de Montfried. He is cabled money which allows him to rent an apartment and begin planning. He makes wide contacts and does background research until he thinks he has identified an NKVD network. Then he contacts von Polyani, saying he is ready to go to work.

The funny little man who liberated him from Columbia House meets him in Zurich and hands him an envelope. Within are half a dozen nuggets of information suggesting Germany is planning to invade the Soviet Union, up to an including the operation codename, Barbarossa. The new thin, moustachioed, scarred Szara will feed this information to the NKVD network. He will use the skills he has acquired for good; he will alert the Russians to the coming invasion, he will prevent the triumph of evil.

The final act in the book is the fruition of his love affair with Nadia Tscherova. The little man took back to Berlin a message for her and a few weeks later, Szara is waiting at the Swiss border as a plush Mercedes crosses it with no questions asked. Half a kilometer down the road it stops as agreed. He rushes to open the door and into his arms comes his love, Nadia’s drive to freedom paralleling her brother Sascha’s escape to freedom at the end of Night Soldiers and the image of lovers embracing after long separation also ending both books.


Overlapping characters

  • Ilya Goldman trains at the NKVD academy in Arbat Street along with Khristo in Night Soldiers, and plays a key role in the narrative, saving Khristo’s life and freeing his kidnapped lover.
  • We learn (to our shock) that it was Goldman who organised the abduction of Khristo’s lover, Aleksandra, in Night Soldiers.
  • General Bloch aka Yaschyeritsa or the Lizard, subjects Szara to an intimidating interview on a train in the first section. He is the same General that Khristo found himself begging for his life to in NS.
  • Nadia Tscherova in a big coincidence is sister to Colonel Vonets aka Sascha, who plays such a large role, especially in the climax of Night Soldiers.
  • Maltsaev is a bringer of orders to execute in Night Soldiers and here. We are glad to see him shot dead.
  • Roger Fitzware, MI6 man, plays a small but key role in both books, suggesting Khristo’s arrest and imprisonment in Night Soldiers and recruiting Szara for MI6 in Dark Star, so that Baumann’s information is shared with British Intelligence.

1. Overlapping characters like this give a sense, not exactly of verisimilitude – surely the world isn’t this small – but of a graspable fictional universe. There is something gleefully childish about recognising this character from that scene and discovering, ‘Oh, so that’s what happened to them.’

2. It occurs to me that another aspect of having so many recurrent figures is a dramatic irony, that we readers often know the past or future of a character which everyone in the fiction doesn’t. a) That’s standard dramatic irony, but b) it also reinforces the atmosphere of endless smoke and mirrors in the bewildering world of espionage, the sense of multiple levels, in fact a never-ending maze of levels, of secrecy, of characters never knowing what becomes of each other.

Sensuality

In among the densely described and densely analysed historical background and the complex mesh of conspiracies, are islands of tremendous sensuality. In Ostend Szara visits a nightclub where the showgirls came prancing out wearing zebra masks and nothing else, whinnying and shaking their bums at the male customers. Szara takes one of them back to his hotel room. Later he has a one-night-stand with the shy young Fräulein he meets at the dinner at Herr Baumann’s, and then is haunted by the memroy until he can see her again months later. These encounters are described with great lyricism and sensuality.

When I read The Polish Officer years ago, I thought Furst’s sensuality was a little over-ripe. Now I see it as a congruent part of the fantasy of these novels. All the historical accuracy in the world, all the paragraphs explaining the NKVD and Comintern and Red Army purges, can’t conceal the poetic power of the prose, which is permanently striving for lyrical description. The sensuous sex scenes are just a fragment of the larger lyrical sensibility, a poet’s sensibility seared by the brutalities of the 20th century.

It snowed on the night of the sixth, and by the time Szara and Maltsaev left the Gare de Lyon on the seventh of February the fields and villages of France were still and white. The nineteenth century, Szara thought with longing: a pair of frost-coated dray horses pulling a cart along a road, a girl in a stocking cap skating on a pond near Melun. The sky was dense and swollen; sometimes a flight of crows circled over the snow-covered fields. (p.223)

Note that it is not a poetic use of language – Martin Cruz Smith is my prose poet of the moment, a man who can bring off unexpected and miraculous turns of phrase. Furst’s language is plainer, Furst’s is a poetry of perception: the poetry is in the selection of detail which gives his prose the power of a certain kind of realist painting. On almost every page there is finely perceived detailing which brings to life the scores of minor characters which bristle throughout the narrative.

The owner was a Hungarian, a no-nonsense craftsman in a smock, his hands hard and knotted from years of cutting and stitching leather. (p.255)

He leaned out the window and peered down to find the old woman looking up at him from the yard. She stood, with the aid of a stick, like a small, sturdy pyramid, wearing sweaters and jackets on top, broad skirts below. Her dogs, a big brown one and a little black and white one, stood by her side and stared up at him as well. (p.269)

Vyborg’s driver was a big sergeant with close-cropped hair, a lion-tamer’s moustache, and a veinous, lumpy nose that was almost purple. He swore under his breath without pause, swinging the big car around obstacles, bouncing through the fields when necessary, hewing a path through the wheatfields. (p.281)

No special words or magical phrasing. It is the density of fully imagined detail, and the wealth of fully imagined people, places, scenes and events which fill the narrative to overflowing, which give this book its breath-taking and epic quality.


Credit

Night Soldiers by Alan Furst was published in 1988 by The Bodley Head. All quotes and references are to the 1998 HarperCollins paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe.
1995 The Polish Officer
1996 The World at Night
1999 Red Gold
2000 Kingdom of Shadows
2003 Blood of Victory
2004 Dark Voyage
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in Franceen

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