The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell (1941)

In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly.

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius was published in February 1941, well into the Second World War, after Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. It is a long essay, divided into three parts.

  1. England Your England (35 pages)
  2. Shopkeepers at War (19 pages)
  3. The English Revolution (9 pages)

The three essays 1. describe the essence of Englishness and records changes in English society over the previous thirty years or so 2. make the case for a socialist system in England 3. argue for an English democratic socialism, sharply distinct from the totalitarian communism of Stalin.

Now, at this distance of 76 years, the political content seems to me almost completely useless. After the war, the socialist policies carried out by Attlee’s government, thirty years of ‘Butskellism’ and Britain’s steady industrial decline into the 1970s which was brutally arrested by Mrs Thatcher’s radical economic and social policies of the 1980s, followed by Tony Blair’s attempt to create a non-socialist Labour Party in the 1990s, and all the time the enormous social transformations wrought by ever-changing technology – the political, social, economic, technological and cultural character of England has been transformed out of all recognition.

That said, this book-length essay is still worth reading as a fascinating social history of its times and for its warm evocation of the elements of the English character, some of which linger on, some of which have disappeared.

England Your England

By far the longest section is part one which is an extended evocation of all aspects of English character, so powerful, well-written and thought-provoking that it is often reprinted on its own. In its affection for all aspects of England it continued the nostalgia for an older, less commercialised, more decent England which marked his previous book, the novel Coming Up For Air.

What really marks it out is not the truth or otherwise of Orwell’s statements, but the tremendously pithy lucidity with which he expresses them. If they are not true, many of us older white liberals wish they were true. The essay invites you to play a sort of ‘Where’s Wally’ game of deciding whether you agree or disagree with his generalisations, and why. It has a kind of crossword-y kind of pleasure.

What, he asks, is England?

The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.

Other aspects of Englishness, as Orwell perceived it in 1941, include: solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes, love of flowers and gardening, hobbies and the essential privateness of English life. An Englishman’s home is his castle means he can tell the authorities to buzz off and mind their own business.

We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official — the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea’.

Religion?

The common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities. And yet they have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, while almost forgetting the name of Christ.

This strikes me as true. A kind of buried Anglicanism flavours most mid-century English culture, in Auden the Anglican returnee, Vaughan Williams the agnostic Anglican or Larkin the atheist Anglican. This idea of the softening influence of a non-fanatical, non-Catholic, barely believed religion, leads on to the next idea. If you have read his writings of the 1930s it comes as no surprise when he says:

The gentleness of the English civilization is perhaps its most marked characteristic. You notice it the instant you set foot on English soil. It is a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers. In no country inhabited by white men is it easier to shove people off the pavement. And with this goes something that is always written off by European observers as ‘decadence’ or hypocrisy, the English hatred of war and militarism. It is rooted deep in history, and it is strong in the lower-middle class as well as the working class.

This reminds me of a consistent thread in Kipling’s writing which is righteous anger at the hypocrisy with which the general population despise and abuse soldiers – until they need them!

I went into a public ‘ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, ” We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ” Tommy, go away ” ;
But it’s ” Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play… (Tommy, 1890)

This anti-militarism has a comic side in that the English only seem to remember their terrible defeats: the Somme, Dunkirk. As Orwell puts it with typical pithiness:

The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.

This anti-militarism goes alongside a profound respect for the law; not necessarily obeying it, but knowing it is there and can be appealed to at all times. ‘Oi, you can’t do that to me, I aven’t done anything wrong’ is a universal cry of the English crook and trouble-maker. The law may be organised to protect the property of the rich but it isn’t as absolutely corrupt as in other countries, and it certainly hasn’t ceased to matter, as it has in the totalitarian states.

Abroad? An old saying had it that ‘wogs begin at Calais’ and the recent Brexit vote confirms the underlying xenophobia of the British who have a proud tradition of never learning a word of a foreign language, even if they’ve lived in France or Spain for decades. This rejection of the foreign partly accounts for English philistinism:

The English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual.

Class?

England is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.

Towards the end of the essay Orwell analyses the role of the ruling class. Basically, they have been unable to get to grips with the modern world and retreated into Colonel Blimpish stupidity.

One of the dominant facts in English life during the past three quarters of a century has been the decay of ability in the ruling class.

The great public schools, the army, the universities, all teach the upper classes to rely on forms and behaviour which was suitable to the 1880s. The fact that Germany was out-producing British industry by 1900, that America was emerging as the strongest economy in the world, that the working classes were becoming organised and demanding a say in the running of the country? Go the club and surround yourself with like-minded cigar-puffing buffoons and dismiss it all as easily as dismissing the waiter.

This refusal to face the world, this decision to be stupid, explains much. It explains the astonishing sequence of humiliating military defeats – in the Crimea, the Zulu War, the Boer War, the Great War the British ruling class, as epitomised by its upper class twit general, consistently failed in every aspect of war-making. In each case initial defeats were only clawed back when a younger, less ‘educated’ cohort of officers took charge.

Orwell continues the sheer stupidity of the ruling class in his description of the terrifically posh Tory politicians who ran British foreign policy during the 1930s. Two things happened: the empire declined and we completely failed to understand the rise of the totalitarian states. To take the second first, upper-class numpties like Lord Halifax (Foreign Secretary 1938-40) and Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister 1937-40) were paralysed during the 1930s. They were terrified of Stalin’s communism and secretly sympathised with much of Fascist policy, but couldn’t bring themselves to deal with the vulgar little Hitler. Their upbringing at public schools and running an empire where everyone said, Yes sahib, completely unprepared them for the modern world.

They could not struggle against Nazism or Fascism, because they could not understand them. Neither could they have struggled against Communism, if Communism had been a serious force in western Europe. To understand Fascism they would have had to study the theory of Socialism, which would have forced them to realize that the economic system by which they lived was unjust, inefficient and out-of-date. But it was exactly this fact that they had trained themselves never to face. They dealt with Fascism as the cavalry generals of 1914 dealt with the machine-guns – by ignoring it.

(Lord Halifax’s Wikipedia page relates that he almost created a massive scene when he first met Adolf Hitler and handed him his overcoat, thinking him to be the footman. Exactly. To Halifax’s class, everyone who didn’t go to their school must be a servant.)

And what about the British Empire? On the face of it between 1918 and 1945 the British Empire reached its greatest geographical extent, not least due to the addition of the various mandates in the Middle East carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. But despite the razamataz of the 1924 Empire Exhibition and so on, it’s quite clear that for most ordinary people and pretty much all intellectuals, the age of empire was over. it just took the ruling classes another 30 odd years to realise it. Orwell gives a reason for this decline in belief in the empire which I hadn’t heard before.

It was due to the rise of bureaucracy. Orwell specifically blames the telegraph and radio. In the golden age of empire the world presented a vast playground for buccaneering soldiers and ruthless merchants. No more.

The thing that had killed them was the telegraph. In a narrowing world, more and more governed from Whitehall, there was every year less room for individual initiative. Men like Clive, Nelson, Nicholson, Gordon would find no place for themselves in the modern British Empire. By 1920 nearly every inch of the colonial empire was in the grip of Whitehall. Well-meaning, over-civilized men, in dark suits and black felt hats, with neatly rolled umbrellas crooked over the left forearm, were imposing their constipated view of life on Malaya and Nigeria, Mombasa and Mandalay. The one-time empire builders were reduced to the status of clerks, buried deeper and deeper under mounds of paper and red tape. In the early twenties one could see, all over the Empire, the older officials, who had known more spacious days, writhing impotently under the changes that were happening. From that time onwards it has been next door to impossible to induce young men of spirit to take any part in imperial administration. And what was true of the official world was true also of the commercial. The great monopoly companies swallowed up hosts of petty traders. Instead of going out to trade adventurously in the Indies one went to an office stool in Bombay or Singapore. And life in Bombay or Singapore was actually duller and safer than life in London. Imperialist sentiment remained strong in the middle class, chiefly owing to family tradition, but the job of administering the Empire had ceased to appeal. Few able men went east of Suez if there was any way of avoiding it.

And of course, Orwell had seen this for himself, first hand, as an imperial servant in Burma from 1922 to 1928.

Lastly, the final section of part one describes the undermining of the rigid old class system since the Great War by the advent of new technologies, by the growth of light industry on the outskirts of towns, and the proliferation of entirely new types of middle-class work.

Britain was no longer a country of rich landowners and poverty-stricken peasants, of brutal factory owners and a huge immiserated proletariat. New technology was producing an entire new range of products – cheap clothes and shoes and fashions, cheap movies, affordable cars, houses with inside toilets etc, at the same time as the new industries no longer required thick-muscled navvies or exhausted women leaned over cotton looms, but educated managers, chemists, technicians, secretaries, salesmen and so on, who call into being a supporting class of doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, etc. This is particularly noticeable in the new townships of the south.

In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes – everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns – the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools. It is a rather restless, cultureless life, centring round tinned food, Picture Post, the radio and the internal combustion engine. It is a civilization in which children grow up with an intimate knowledge of magnetoes and in complete ignorance of the Bible. To that civilization belong the people who are most at home in and most definitely OF the modern world, the technicians and the higher-paid skilled workers, the airmen and their mechanics, the radio experts, film producers, popular journalists and industrial chemists. They are the indeterminate stratum at which the older class distinctions are beginning to break down.

It is fascinating to learn that this process, the breakdown of old class barriers due to new industries, new consumer products and a new thrusting classless generation, which I tended to associate with the 1960s – maybe because the movies and music of the 1960s proclaim this so loudly and are still so widely available – was in fact taking place as early as the 1920s.

The effect of all this is a general softening of manners. It is enhanced by the fact that modern industrial methods tend always to demand less muscular effort and therefore to leave people with more energy when their day’s work is done. Many workers in the light industries are less truly manual labourers than is a doctor or a grocer. In tastes, habits, manners and outlook the working class and the middle class are drawing together.

2. Shopkeepers at War

In this part Orwell declares that the old ruling class and their capitalism must be overthrown for the simple reason that

private capitalism, that is, an economic system in which land, factories, mines and transport are owned privately and operated solely for profit — DOES NOT WORK.

The war so far has shown that a planned economy will always beat an unplanned one. Both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have states and economies guided from the top downwards towards clearly articulated political ends (winning wars). A capitalist society is made up of thousands of businesses all competing against and undermining each other, and undermining the national good. His example is British firms which right up to the declaration of war were still aggressively seeking contracts with Hitler’s Germany to sell them vital raw materials required for weapons, tin, rubber, copper. Madness!

Only a modern centralised, nationalised economy can successfully fight off other centralised nationalised economies. This, argues Orwell, is why some kind of socialist revolution must take place. In order to win the war, the British government must, in the name of the people, take over central running of all aspects of the economy.

In this section Orwell gives us a good working definition of socialism, the definition which was promised and then so glaringly absent from The Road To Wigan Pier four years earlier. Maybe it took those four years, Spain and distance from England, to be able to define it for himself.

Socialism is usually defined as “common ownership of the means of production”. Crudely: the State, representing the whole nation, owns everything, and everyone is a State employee. This does not mean that people are stripped of private possessions such as clothes and furniture, but it does mean that all productive goods, such as land, mines, ships and machinery, are the property of the State. The State is the sole large-scale producer. It is not certain that Socialism is in all ways superior to capitalism, but it is certain that, unlike capitalism, it can solve the problems of production and consumption. At normal times a capitalist economy can never consume all that it produces, so that there is always a wasted surplus (wheat burned in furnaces, herrings dumped back into the sea etc etc) and always unemployment. In time of war, on the other hand, it has difficulty in producing all that it needs, because nothing is produced unless someone sees his way to making a profit out of it. In a Socialist economy these problems do not exist. The State simply calculates what goods will be needed and does its best to produce them. Production is only limited by the amount of labour and raw materials. Money, for internal purposes, ceases to be a mysterious all-powerful thing and becomes a sort of coupon or ration-ticket, issued in sufficient quantities to buy up such consumption goods as may be available at the moment.

However, it has become clear in the last few years that “common ownership of the means of production” is not in itself a sufficient definition of Socialism. One must also add the following: approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege, especially in education. These are simply the necessary safeguards against the reappearance of a class system. Centralised ownership has very little meaning unless the mass of the people are living roughly upon an equal level, and have some kind of control over the government.

Socialism aims, ultimately, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equality of human rights for granted.

The nature of the revolution

So what would this English revolution consist of? The complete overthrow of the useless ruling class which is bedevilled by its own stupidity and simply unable to see the genuine threat that Hitler posed, able only to read him as a bulwark against Bolshevism and therefore a defender of all the privileges of England’s entrenched ruling class. Away with it in –

a complete shift of power. New blood, new men, new ideas — in the true sense of the word, a revolution… It is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free. Revolution does not mean red flags and street fighting, it means a fundamental shift of power… What is wanted is a conscious open revolt by ordinary people against inefficiency, class privilege and the rule of the old… Right through our national life we have got to fight against privilege, against the notion that a half-witted public-schoolboy is better fitted for command than an intelligent mechanic… Although there are gifted and honest individuals among them, we have got to break the grip of the moneyed class as a whole. England has got to assume its real shape. The England that is only just beneath the surface, in the factories and the newspaper offices, in the aeroplanes and the submarines, has got to take charge of its own destiny.

In this section he speaks right to the present moment and lists the agents of defeat, from pacifists through Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts to some Roman Catholics. But the real enemy, he says, is those who talk of peace, of negotiating peace with Hitler, a peace designed to leave in place all their perks and privileges, their dividends and servants. These are the worst, the most insidious enemies, both of the war effort and of the English people as a whole.

3. The English Revolution

We cannot establish anything that a western nation would regard as Socialism without defeating Hitler; on the other hand we cannot defeat Hitler while we remain economically and socially in the nineteenth century.

Orwell gives a sweeping trenchant review of the current political scene in England, 1941. All the parties of the left are incapable of reform, the Labour Party most of all since it is the party of the trade unions and therefore has a vested interest in the maintenenace and flourishing of capitalism. The tiny communist party appeals to deracinated individuals but has done more to put the man in the street off socialism than any other influence.

The Labour Party stood for a timid reformism, the Marxists were looking at the modern world through nineteenth-century spectacles. Both ignored agriculture and imperial problems, and both antagonised the middle classes. The suffocating stupidity of left-wing propaganda had frightened away whole classes of necessary people, factory managers, airmen, naval officers, farmers, white-collar workers, shopkeepers, policemen. All of these people had been taught to think of Socialism as something which menaced their livelihood, or as something seditious, alien, “anti-British” as they would have called it.

Therefore, the revolution must come from below. Sound utopian? It is the war which has made it a possibility. The policy of the ruling class in the run-up to the war, the shameful incompetence of the opening year – Dunkirk – have made obvious to absolutely everyone that change is needed. Now, for the first time in its history, a genuinely revolutionary socialist change is thinkable.

A Socialist movement which can swing the mass of the people behind it, drive the pro-Fascists out of positions of control, wipe out the grosser injustices and let the working class see that they have something to fight for, win over the middle classes instead of antagonising them, produce a workable imperial policy instead of a mixture of humbug and Utopianism, bring patriotism and intelligence into partnership – for the first time, a movement of such a kind becomes possible.

Here, at the climax of the essay, he gives six practical policies:

  1. Nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.
  2. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest tax free income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.
  3. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.
  4. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.
  5. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.
  6. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers.

The general tendency of this programme is unmistakable. It aims quite frankly at turning this war into a revolutionary war and England into a Socialist democracy.

Wow! The verve, the intellectual confidence, and the optimism of these passages is thrilling!

In the final pages Orwell guesses what kind of revolution it will be, namely a revolution ‘with English characteristics’, the characteristics he so lovingly enumerated in the first section. He gives a complicated analysis of the many forces against it, including comparisons with Vichy France and guesses about the strategies of Hitler and Stalin, too complicated to summarise. The essays ends by repeatedly attacking the pacifism and defeatism of English intellectuals, left-wing intellectuals and so-called communists. It is an all-or-nothing struggle. We can’t go back. the world has completely changed. We must recognise these changes, grasp them, and take them forward in a sweeping social revolution which alone can guarantee victory.

It is goodbye to the Tatler and the Bystander, and farewell to the lady in the Rolls-Royce car. The heirs of Nelson and of Cromwell are not in the House of Lords. They are in the fields and the streets, in the factories and the armed forces, in the four-ale bar and the suburban back garden; and at present they are still kept under by a generation of ghosts. Compared with the task of bringing the real England to the surface, even the winning of the war, necessary though it is, is secondary. By revolution we become more ourselves, not less. There is no question of stopping short, striking a compromise, salvaging “democracy”, standing still. Nothing ever stands still. We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward. I believe in England, and I believe that we shall go forward.

Wow! It must have been amazing to read this at the time.

And then what happened?

Churchill’s government did grasp the need for total war mobilisation on an unprecedented scale. Rationing was introduced and every effort made to quash luxury. If we ‘won’ the war it was because Hitler made the mad decision to invade Russia at the same time as the Japanese foolishly attacked America. Britain became the baby buoyed up between Russia and America.

And the war was barely over (May 1945) when Britain held a general election (July 1945) which to everyone’s amazement swept the victorious war leader Churchill from power and produced a socialist government with a huge majority. For the one and only time in its history the British enacted a sweep of revolutionary policies, nationalising the entire health service, extending free state education, and nationalising the key industries of coal, steel and so on. Within two years India was granted its independence. Surely these fulfilled most of Orwell’s definitions of revolution.

And yet… Private schools weren’t abolished and continued to serve as a beacon for privilege and snobbery. The banks and entire financial system was left untouched to flourish, continuing to orchestrate an essentially capitalist economy and redistribute money upwards towards the rich. Income was in no way controlled and so soon the divide between rich and poor opened up again. Massive social changes took place and yet – as Orwell had clearly seen, England’s essential character remained unchanged. Attlee’s government achieved much in five brief years but then was tumbled from power and England reverted to being ruled by upper-class twits, the twits who, like all their ilk live in the past, thought Britain was still a global power, and so took us into the Suez Crisis of 1956. But by then Orwell was long dead.

Conclusion

This is a brilliant long essay, one of the greatest in all English literature, a wonderful combination of nostalgic description for an idealised England, with a fascinating analysis of the social and political scene of his day, and then onto a stirringly patriotic call to fight not only to defeat fascism but to create a new, fairer society. It is impossible not to be stirred and inspired by the combination of incisive analysis, the novelist’s imaginative evocation of English character, and then a speech-writer’s stirring peroration.

However, it is all too easy, in my opinion, to let yourself get swept along by the unashamed patriotism and the bracing insights into ‘the English character’ so that you end up acquiescing in what turned out to be Orwell’s completely inaccurate predictions of the future and his completely unfounded faith in an English revolution.

A social revolution of sorts did take place during and immediately after the war, but what made it so English was the way that, deep down, it didn’t change anything at all.

London 1940 - seat of a socialist revolution?

London 1940 – seat of a socialist revolution?


Credit

The Lion and the Unicorn by George Orwell was published by Secker and Warburg in 1941. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

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

George Orwell’s books

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

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell (1939)

I shoved my foot down on the accelerator. The very thought of going back to Lower Binfield had done me good already. You know the feeling I had. Coming up for air! Like the big sea-turtles when they come paddling up to the surface, stick their noses out and fill their lungs with a great gulp before they sink down again among the seaweed and the octopuses. We’re all stifling at the bottom of a dustbin, but I’d found the way to the top. Back to Lower Binfield!

This is a surprisingly nostalgic and moving book. It is the only one of Orwell’s novels told in the first person, and it soon becomes clear why. Most of the first half consists of his protagonist’s long and evocative memory of England before the Great War, a loving memory of an England of calm, order and confidence.

The plot

Part one

The narrator is George Bowling. He lives in an anonymous semi in an anonymous street, one of those streets which ‘fester all over the inner-outer suburbs’, in an anonymous London suburb. He is middle-aged and fat (he mentions that he is fat a lot, there are page-long meditations on the condition of fatness).

I haven’t got one of those bellies that sag half-way down to the knees. It’s merely that I’m a little bit broad in the beam, with a tendency to be barrel-shaped.

George is a 45 year-old insurance salesman who makes a respectable seven of so pounds a week, so he is significantly better off – and more comfortable, more at ease with life – than the protagonists of Orwell’s previous novels, A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep The Aspidistra Flying. He is married to a scrawny nagging wife, Hilda, and has two whiny kids – Billy (7) and Lorna (11) – that he refers to as the bastards.

On the day of the novel George has no work to do and so takes his time washing, shaving, having breakfast, taking the train into London, stopping into pubs for a quick one, and strolling the streets. It is, in fact, the day he is going to his dentist to take possession of his new set of false teeth. So a few things happen but there isn’t that much interaction with other people. For the most part we are inside George’s head listening to him muse about a) the wretched lives of London’s middle-class men, trapped by wage slavery and nagging wives –

Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semidetached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and his wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. (p.14)

b) the condition of being fat, how it crept up on him but how he still eyes up women in the street c) the awful shallowness and vulgarity of modern life – all those ads for shiny consumer goods; milk bars; radio – yuk d) overshadowing all his thoughts is his obsession with the shadow of war: bomber planes fly overhead at several points, and his imagination is saturated with the reality of modern war, whole cities bombed flat, refugees in the street, machine guns firing from broken windows. Hitler and Stalin, Stalin and Hitler.

I looked at the great sea of roofs stretching on and on. Miles and miles of streets, fried-fish shops, tin chapels, picture houses, little printing-shops up back alleys, factories, blocks of flats, whelk stalls, dairies, power stations – on and on and on. Enormous! And the peacefulness of it! Like a great wilderness with no wild beasts. No guns firing, nobody chucking pineapples, nobody beating anybody else up with a rubber truncheon. If you come to think of it, in the whole of England at this moment there probably isn’t a single bedroom window from which anyone’s firing a machine-gun.
But how about five years from now? Or two years? Or one year? (p.24)

War is coming soon, he reflects with a kind of grim satisfaction as he looks out the train window at the endless suburban gardens, as he sips his pint as he walks along the Strand.

As I read I kept thinking of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the famous modernist masterpiece describing a day in the life of an average man wandering round a big city, thinking, musing, pondering. But there is none of Joyce’s experimentalism here. The opposite, there is a good deal of repetition. The paragraphs about being fat, becoming fat, how a fat man feels, how a fat man looks and so on, are a bit repetitive, and so are the meditations about the trashiness of modern life (key hate word is ‘streamlined’ – everything ‘streamlined’ is by definition bad) and the visions of war come back every few pages like acid reflux and repeat entire phrases again and again (I got a little bored of envisioning the machine guns ‘squirting’ from the windows.)

Part two

But everything changes as the book enters part two. Triggered by a news story in today’s paper, George’s mind is taken back to the church services of his boyhood in the little village of Lower Binfield. This (fictional) village of around 2,000 inhabitants somewhere in south Oxfordshire, a few miles from the Thames, is where George’s idyllic childhood took place.

It was a wonderful June morning. The buttercups were up to my knees. There was a breath of wind just stirring the tops of the elms, and the great green clouds of leaves were sort of soft and rich like silk. And it was nine in the morning and I was eight years old, and all round me it was early summer, with great tangled hedges where the wild roses were still in bloom, and bits of soft white cloud drifting overhead, and in the distance the low hills and the dim blue masses of the woods round Upper Binfield. (p.58)

His father was a seed merchant who kept a shop off the High Street. George’s older brother, Joe, is a tough, part of a gang which eventually grudgingly lets little Georgie join in (the other members being Sid Lovegrove and Harry Burnes, the errand boy). He remembers that long distant era as a land of perpetual sunshine, endless wheat fields and cool tree-lined pools for fishing in. (Orwell deliberately makes his protagonist older than him: Bowling was born about 1893 – he’s just old enough to remember the Boer War and the argument about it between his father and Uncle Ezekiel, as well as the mad jubilation surrounding the relief of Mafeking.)

This is a long sequence with many passages of great descriptive beauty. It is an unembarrassed wallow in nostalgia for the sweet decency of rural south England (Orwell knows all too well about life in England’s cities and life in the North of England). It is a powerful vision of idealised south of England village life, the same kind of feeling which permeates John Betjeman and goes on into Philip Larkin in the 1950s…

I’m back in Lower Binfield, and the year’s 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier’s horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha’porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling’s carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls, and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. (p.34)

There are wonderful long descriptions of the wild flowers and weeds which, because of his father’s trade in seeds, he knew were alright to eat. And central to the section, and to the novel, is the long passage about his boyhood obsession with fishing, which involves pages of detailed description of how to make a fishing rod, how to make the flies and the float and the hook from basic household items – and when he’s got a little more experience, a detailed list of the different types of bait you need to catch all the traditional English fish.

Grasshoppers are about the best bait there is, especially for chub. You stick them on the hook without any shot and just flick them to and fro on the surface – ‘dapping’, they call it. But you can never get more than two or three grasshoppers at a time. Greenbottle flies, which are also damned difficult to catch, are the best bait for dace, especially on clear days. You want to put them on the hook alive, so that they wriggle. A chub will even take a wasp, but it’s a ticklish job to put a live wasp on the hook.

It is an astonishingly sensuous, free and delightful memory of boyhood, immensely readable like almost all of Orwell, but unexpectedly happy and carefree.

The still summer evening, the faint splash of the weir, the rings on the water where the fish are rising, the midges eating you alive, the shoals of dace swarming round your hook and never biting. And the kind of passion with which you’d watch the black backs of the fish swarming round, hoping and praying (yes, literally praying) that one of them would change his mind and grab your bait before it got too dark. And then it was always ‘Let’s have five minutes more’, and then ‘Just five minutes more’, until in the end you had to walk your bike into the town because Towler, the copper, was prowling round and you could be ‘had up’ for riding without a light. And the times in the summer holidays when we went out to make a day of it with boiled eggs and bread and butter and a bottle of lemonade, and fished and bathed and then fished again and did occasionally catch something. At night you’d come home with filthy hands so hungry that you’d eaten what was left of your bread paste, with three or four smelly dace wrapped up in your handkerchief.

There is much, much more capturing the quality of boyhood when there is no future and the sunny present stretches on forever. The local girl who looked after him and his brother when they were young. The taste and feel of long-forgotten sweets, bought by the penny. The sights and sounds of market day. His mother and father sitting either side of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, falling asleep over their respective newspapers.

It is not an utterly rose-tinted view. At school he and the rest tease the mentally sub-normal boy. Along with his brother’s gang, George pulls birds’ nests out of trees and stamps on the chicks. As he explains, violence and killing, tormenting and bullying, are part of the sense of power, of immortality which author and character both seem to see as an important part of boyhood.

The section continues past this boyhood into the arrival of puberty and girls, and then on to his first real experience of reading, of entering amazing imaginative worlds from the heat of India to the jungles of the Amazon. His older brother, Joe, always a handful, is co-opted by his dad into helping with the seed shop but is impatient, loafing at the front door, ogling girls, catcalling. One day he disappears from the house, having stolen everything in the till, and is never seen again.

There is a fascinating description of his experiences during the Great War. After being wounded just enough to be sent home from the trenches, Bowling finds himself, through a series of bureaucratic errors, charged with looking after a defunct rations dump in remotest Cornwall. Here he sits out the war in peace and comfort, along with another ne-er-do-well soldier, Private Lidgebird, ‘a surly devil’. Part of the enjoyment of this long memoir is not only Orwell’s prose but the vividness with which he describes the many odd characters his protagonist encounters.

  • Old Hodges, the lodge-keeper who acted as a kind of caretaker to the abandoned grand house on the hill. ‘He had a face like something carved out of a bit of root, and only two teeth, which were dark brown and very long.’ (p.75)
  • Whiskers (his name was Wicksey) the headmaster of the grammar school, a dreadful-looking little man, with a face just like a wolf, and at the end of the big schoolroom he had a glass case with canes in it, which he’d sometimes take out and swish through the air in a terrifying manner.
  • Gravitt, the butcher… was a big, rough-faced old devil with a voice like a mastiff, and when he barked, as he generally did when speaking to boys, all the knives and steels on his blue apron would give a jingle.

Finally, we get to George’s early manhood. After the war he is pushed into a job with the local grocer, before wangling a job as a travelling salesman. Through an extraordinary coincidence he bumps into the senior officer who had allotted him the job at the rations dump, now the head of a modern conglomerate business, and through him is given a much better job in the insurance company.

At around the same time he first meets Hilda. They completely misunderstand each other because, as Orwell elaborately explains, they are from completely different classes. Hilda’s people are ex-army, ex-India but come down in the world, living in a small house stuffed with memorabilia of the Raj. George thinks they are class. Hilda’s people think George is man on the move, going up in the world, and thus push Hilda towards marrying him.

They get married and quite quickly George realises he hates her. As soon as they’re wed she drops every effort to look nice or be comforting. She becomes sharp and shrewish and reveals that she is obsessed with money, penny-pinching at every turn. George is lumbered with her and fathers two brats by her but spends his life scheming how to get away which, fortunately, his life as a travelling insurance salesman makes relatively easy.

Part three

The short part three brings us back to the present. It is the evening of the same day. George allows himself to be persuaded by Hilda to go along to a lecture at the church hall, which turns out to be given by a fierce anti-fascist. George is appalled by the venom and violence in the man’s attitude. Afterwards he joins in good humouredly with a squabble about how to fight fascism with a little group of Labour supporters. The evening ends with George dropping in on a local friend, a public school teacher, Porteous, who is a satirical caricature of the Oxbridge ivory tower intellectual.

But beneath these surface vents, George has been coming to a decision. He will wangle a week’s leave from his firm, tell Hilda he’s got business for a week in Birmingham, and… he will go back to Lower Binfield. He will revisit the scene of his childhood and all its intense happiness, before the war starts, before the war obliterates everything, he will recapture that first fine careless rapture. He will ‘come up for air’.

Part four

Of course it’s all gone. As his car breasts the hill and he looks down into the village of 2,000 he remembers so well, George discovers… it has mutated into a town of maybe 25,000 people. Houses, houses everywhere. In the distance some glass and chrome factories – that explains the population boom. He gets lost trying to find the centre but eventually reaches it, parks up in the old village inn and takes a room for a week.

At which point Orwell sets about destroying every single one of Bowling’s happy memories by showing the present-day reality of all that fond nostalgia. The family home and shop which he remembered with such vivid intensity is now a tacky tea-rooms. He goes down to the Thames, with a newly-purchased fishing rod, determined to recreate those balmy summer days in the green light below the weir – but the towpath is absolutely packed out with screaming kids, ice cream stalls, hundreds of other fishers while the water is stirred up by non-stop pleasure cruisers and the water is filthy with diesel oil and paper cups. The big old house on the hill in whose ground he and the gang used to fish has been turned into a mental home. And the secluded pond, full of legendarily huge fish, has been drained and become a rubbish dump on the edge of a vast new estate.

They’d filled my pool up with tin cans. God rot them and bust them! Say what you like – call it silly, childish, anything – but doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England, with their bird- baths and their plaster gnomes, and their pixies and tin cans, where the beech woods used to be? (p.215)

You can’t go back. George finds himself getting drunk and wittering on to the barmaid, then trying to chat up a single woman who turns out to be posh and dismisses him with a withering glance. One further humiliation is when he bumps into his first real girlfriend, the girl (it is implied) to whom he lost his virginity, sweet honey-haired Elsie. Well, now she’s a shapeless grey-haired frump, and he follows her through the street where he first saw her, back to the frowsy little tobacconists shop she now lives in. Neither her nor husband recognise him. The past is dead.

One thing, I thought as I drove down the hill, I’m finished with this notion of getting back into the past. What’s the good of trying to revisit the scenes of your boyhood? They don’t exist. Coming up for air! But there isn’t any air. The dustbin that we’re in reaches up to the stratosphere. (p.216)

There is an odd scene almost at the end. On his last, disappointed morning, he’s strolling across the market square when there is an almighty explosion. Recognising a barrage when he hears one George drops to the ground, but there is no repeat. Earlier we had learned that there is a new bomber airfield somewhere near the town, and locals had told George that the newish stocking factory had recently been converted to manufacture bombs for the planes. It seems one of the pilots on a test run pushed the wrong lever and dropped a bomb on Lower Binfield! A grocer’s shop was flattened and the three inhabitants killed. See, George thinks, it’s coming, it’s coming and there’s nothing any of us can do to stop it.

In the final scene he motors home to find that Hilda, the suspicious little shrew, had figured out he was never in Birmingham by the simple expedient of writing to the hotel George claimed to be staying at and getting a reply saying the hotel closed two years previously. She knows George has been with another woman and starts to give him a piece of his mind George, faced with the daunting challenge of trying to explain the impulse to rediscover his childhood happiness which took him on a wild goose chase to his boyhood haunts, well, George realises it’ll be easier to admit he spent the week with another woman.


Visions of war

Barely a page goes by without George imagining the bombing or fighting in the street to come, or reflects on the streamlined, Americanised trashiness of modern life. The difference between George’s visions and those of Gordon, in Keep The Aspidistra Flying, is that George keeps these thoughts under control; he is not infuriated or exasperated by them. He sees the world about him, thinks about wars and modern life, and then has another pint which fills him with a glow of well-being. He thinks grim but he actually feels warm and rosy.

I can hear the air-raid sirens blowing and the loud-speakers bellowing that our glorious troops have taken a hundred thousand prisoners… I see it all. I see the posters and the food-queues, and the castor oil and the rubber truncheons and the machine-guns squirting out of bedroom windows. (p.29)

Next moment he’s an affable cheeky chappie, the type you’d meet in the saloon bar of a decent local pub, buying drinks for all and sundry and telling humorous stories. This alternation between Vaughan Williams pastoralism and the violence of the Gestapo, rubber coshes and machine guns is like the good cop/bad cop act. Just as you’re softening up to another vision of lying under a weeping willow beside the Thames’s purling water, a bomber flies overhead and George is off again about Stalin and Hitler.

The book is a work in its own right, and the pastoral passages are beautifully worth reading for their mental and sensual pleasure. But read in the context of Orwell’s political writings about the necessity and the inevitability of Socialism in England, I think there is a clear message. England’s dreamy past is over. We face an entirely unprecedented new threat in the form of totalitarianism. We must wake up and face the reality around us.

George has a particular variation on the widespread war fear of the time – he is more worried about what will come after the war – will it be the triumph of totalitarianism in England, with a secret police, torture chambers and loudspeakers blaring from every corner telling people what to think? Ten years later these fears would be worked up into the monstrous vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The modern world

Both Georges hate it. Streamlined, slick, Americanised, tasteless food, chromium bars, clever trite ads, George hates it all. He stops into a ‘milk bar’, epitome of everything flashy, American and revolting.

There’s a kind of atmosphere about these places that gets me down. Everything slick and shiny and streamlined; mirrors, enamel, and chromium plate whichever direction you look in. Everything spent on the decorations and nothing on the food. No real food at all. Just lists of stuff with American names, sort of phantom stuff that you can’t taste and can hardly believe in the existence of. Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or it’s hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube. No comfort, no privacy. Tall stools to sit on, a kind of narrow ledge to eat off, mirrors all round you. A sort of propaganda floating round, mixed up with the noise of the radio, to the effect that food doesn’t matter, comfort doesn’t matter, nothing matters except slickness and shininess and streamlining. (p.25)

George makes the bad mistake of buying a hot dog. One bite and he feels like retching.

It gave me the feeling that I’d bitten into the modern world and discovered what it was really made of. That’s the way we’re going nowadays. Everything slick and streamlined, everything made out of something else. Celluloid, rubber, chromium-steel everywhere, arc-lamps blazing all night, glass roofs over your head, radios all playing the same tune, no vegetation left, everything cemented over, mock-turtles grazing under the neutral fruit-trees. But when you come down to brass tacks and get your teeth into something solid, a sausage for instance, that’s what you get. Rotten fish in a rubber skin. Bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth. (p.27)

This modern trashiness provides an obvious contrast with the solid food and hearty beer of his childhood. But – the message of the book goes – this is the world today and we must face it.

On being a boy

I had a wonderful feeling inside me, a feeling you can’t know about unless you’ve had it – but if you’re a man you’ll have had it some time. I knew that I wasn’t a kid any longer, I was a boy at last. And it’s a wonderful thing to be a boy, to go roaming where grown-ups can’t catch you, and to chase rats and kill birds and shy stones and cheek carters and shout dirty words. It’s a kind of strong, rank feeling, a feeling of knowing everything and fearing nothing, and it’s all bound up with breaking rules and killing things. The white dusty roads, the hot sweaty feeling of one’s clothes, the smell of fennel and wild peppermint, the dirty words, the sour stink of the rubbish dump, the taste of fizzy lemonade and the gas that made one belch, the stamping on the young birds, the feel of the fish straining on the line – it was all part of it. Thank God I’m a man, because no woman ever has that feeling.

Having been a boy myself, raised in a little village in Berkshire, left to roam through woods and become part of a gang of other 8, 9, 10 year-olds, fishing in Englemere Lake and breaking into the old gravel pit to build dams out of sand, I very heartily respond to these visions of a south-of-England boyhood.


The importance of types and stereotypes in Orwell’s fiction and political writing

One of those…

In reviews of his previous novels I’ve highlighted Orwell’s continual appeal to our supposed common knowledge of various types or stereotypes of English life. He continues this trait in this novel, in fact it sits much better with Bowling’s cheeky-chappy, button-holing personality than it did with the third-person narrator of the earlier novels. But it’s the same habit of mind.

  • Do you know the active, hearty kind of fat man, the athletic bouncing type that’s nicknamed Fatty or Tubby and is always the life and soul of the party? I’m that type. (p.8)
  • She’s one of those people who get their main kick in life out of foreseeing disasters. (p.11)
  • He was one of those people who turn away and then suddenly dart back at you, like a dragon-fly. (p.17)
  • He’s one of these chaps you read about in novels, that have pale sensitive faces and dark hair and a private income. (p.22)
  • Warner is one of these cheap American dentists, and he has his consulting-room, or ‘parlour’ as he likes to call it, halfway up a big block of offices, between a photographer and a rubber-goods wholesaler. (p.25)

Again and again George shows off his ability to place and situate people he sees as characteristic types.

The girl was a kid about eighteen, rather fat, with a sort of moony face, the kind that would never get the change right anyway… He was an ugly, stiff-built little devil, the sort of cock-sparrow type of man that sticks his chest out and puts his hands under his coattails – the type that’d be a sergeant-major only they aren’t tall enough… Two vulgar kind of blokes in shabby overcoats, obviously commercials of the lowest type, newspaper canvassers probably, were sitting opposite me…

What I’m suggesting is that part of what Orwell’s fans and devotees describe as his honesty and his penetrating insight is actually created by this rhetorical habit of seeing the whole world in terms of recognisable and knowable types. This technique makes the world seem rational and susceptible to understanding, as organised, arranged and presented by an author who is a supreme knower of human types and behaviour. You bow before his wisdom.

  • I had one of those sudden inspirations that you get occasionally…
  • She was one of those people who never say much, but remain on the edge of any conversation that’s going on, and give the impression that they’re listening…
  • They had a little dark house in one of those buried back-streets that exist in Ealing.
  • Then they nearly joined one of those women’s clubs which go for conducted tours round factories
  • I could hear their voices cooing away in one of those meaningless conversations that women have when they’re just passing the time of day.

He is a man of the world, he knows all theses types, you know the sort, and he flatters the reader by expecting you to be, too.

Types and sterotypes

  • He looked the perfect professional soldier, the K.C.M.G., D.S.O. with bar type…
  • I’m the type that can sell things on commission…
  • I’m not the type that starves. I’m about as likely to end up in the workhouse as to end up in the House of Lords. I’m the middling type, the type that gravitates by a kind of natural law towards the five-pound-a-week level.
  • He was the usual type, completely bald, almost invisible behind his moustache, and full of stories about cobras and cummerbunds and what the district collector said in ‘93.
  • I knew the type. Vegetarianism, simple life, poetry, nature-worship, roll in the dew before breakfast. I’d met a few of them years ago in Ealing.

Yes, I know the type.

Stereotypes and Socialism

Having paid all this attention to Orwell’s use of types, half way through the book I had an epiphany.

In many ways political beliefs are built on ‘types’ of people, types we represent and speak for, types we oppose, who are our enemies. This was certainly true of the rather simple-minded (to our eye) political beliefs of the 1930s. To the Socialists their enemies are upper-class toffs, bankers, the bourgeoisie, the rentier class. To the Tory the enemy is the Bolshevik, the anarchist, the trade unionist, the stroppy worker. To the feminists of the day (who Orwell routinely lampoons: see the pert librarian who disapproves of Gordon Comstock asking for a book on midwifery, convinced he only wants to look at ‘dirty’ pictures) all men are horrible perverts only interested in one thing.

My questions are:

  1. To what extent is stereotyping your enemy vital to political discourse, in general?
  2. And what part do these types and stereotypes play in the formulation and expression of Orwell’s political beliefs?

Although his work is riddled with defences of ‘democratic socialism’, as even his own publisher, Victor Gollancz, explained in the apologetic preface he inserted before the second part of The Road To Wigan Pier, Orwell nowhere actually defines what Socialism is – except for a few trite phrases about justice and decency. Instead, the second part of Wigan Pier -which was intended as a 100-page long account of his intellectual development towards a belief in Socialism – mostly consists of Orwell setting up a whole series of straw men through the use of types and stereotypes – and then all-too-easily demolishing them. As a political manifesto, it is an embarrassing, almost incoherent failure.

Instead of proposing detailed plans to, say, nationalise key industries, to re-organise the economy, to create a nationalised health and education service – Orwell wastes these hundred pages addressing so-called objections the man-in-the-street might have to Socialism, via stereotypical caricatures of the views of its opponents. Thus he says the average person might be put off socialism because of the association that’s grown up with it and the kind of shiny technological future depicted in so many of H.G. Wells’s novels and tracts and magazine articles. The man-in-the-street doesn’t fancy that kind of technological future and so he (mistakenly) rejects socialism.

My point is that this farrago relies on a) trusting Orwell to know that this is in fact a major objection of the man-in-the-street to socialism b) accepting his much reduced and caricatured summary of Wells’s position and then c) accepting Orwell’s argument that a socialist future need not be a repellent one of glass and chrome.

This entire argument is so eccentric, so beside the point, that there’s something comic about it, and there is always something a little comic about Orwell’s use of human types, whether in his fiction or political essays. Something a little too pat, a little cartoonish. ‘It’s always that way with X.’ ‘They’re the type who Y.’ ‘He’s one of those Z.’ ‘Of course, the real bourgeoisie does A…  the true socialist says Y… the fascist type yells C…’

Look here, he always seems to be saying, I’m a man of the world and these people always say, do, promise, lie or behave in the following ways. It’s one thing when you’re listening to a fat, middle-aged insurance salesman in the pub; quite another when you’re deciding the future of the country.

To some extent, George Bowling is of course a parody of George Orwell’s own instincts, feelings and beliefs. Just as he cranked up his hatred of the modern world and conflicted self-loathing to create the wretched protagonist of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, so in Coming Up For Air he exaggerates both his sentimental nostalgia for a perfect England and his fear for the future.

You know

Backing away from the political implications, there’s no doubt that this button-holing and shoulder-nudging you towards acquiescence in the narrator’s thoughts and experiences is a major part of the rhetorical strategy of Orwell’s fiction.

George is propping up the bar and while the barmaid fetches another round of drinks, launches off on another story about one of those… you know the type… the kind of chap who…

  • You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses…
  • You know the smell churches have, a peculiar, dank, dusty, decaying, sweetish sort of smell…
  • You know the kind of kitchen people had in those days…
  • You know the feeling you had when you came out of the line. A stiffened feeling in all your joints, and inside you a kind of emptiness, a feeling that you’d never again have any interest in anything…
  • You know the kind of holiday. Margate, Yarmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Bournemouth, Brighton…
  • You know the atmosphere of a draper’s shop. It’s something peculiarly feminine. There’s a hushed feeling, a subdued light, a cool smell of cloth, and a faint whirring from the wooden balls of change rolling to and fro…
  • You know the feeling of a June evening. The kind of blue twilight that goes on and on, and the air brushing against your face like silk…
  • You know how it is with these big business men, they seem to take up more room and walk more loudly than any ordinary person, and they give off a kind of wave of money that you can feel fifty yards away…
  • You know those tennis clubs in the genteel suburbs — little wooden pavilions and high wire- netting enclosures where young chaps in rather badly cut white flannels prance up and down, shouting ‘Fifteen forty!’ and ‘Vantage all!’ in voices which are a tolerable imitation of the Upper Crust…
  • Do you know these Anglo-Indian families? It’s almost impossible, when you get inside these people’s houses, to remember that out in the street it’s England and the twentieth century. As soon as you set foot inside the front door you’re in India in the eighties. You know the kind of atmosphere. The carved teak furniture, the brass trays, the dusty tiger-skulls on the wall, the Trichinopoly cigars, the red-hot pickles, the yellow photographs of chaps in sun-helmets, the Hindustani words that you’re expected to know the meaning of, the everlasting anecdotes about tiger-shoots and what Smith said to Jones in Poona in ‘87…
  • It was rather a gloomy little hall. You know the kind of place. Pitch-pine walls, corrugated iron roof, and enough draughts to make you want to keep your overcoat on…
  • You know the line of talk. These chaps can churn it out by the hour. Just like a gramophone. Turn the handle, press the button, and it starts. Democracy, Fascism, Democracy…
  • Just behind her two old blokes from the local Labour Party were sitting. One had grey hair cropped very short, the other had a bald head and a droopy moustache. Both wearing their overcoats. You know the type…
  • You know the kind of day that generally comes some time in March when winter suddenly seems to give up fighting. For days past we’d been having the kind of beastly weather that people call ‘bright’ weather, when the sky’s a cold hard blue and the wind scrapes you like a blunt razor-blade. Then suddenly the wind had dropped and the sun got a chance. You know the kind of day..
  • You know the look of a wood fire on a still day. The sticks that have gone all to white ash and still keep the shape of sticks, and under the ash the kind of vivid red that you can see into…
  • You know how people look at you when they’re in a car coming towards you…
  • You know the kind of houses that are just a little too high-class to stand in a row, and so they’re dotted about in a kind of colony, with private roads leading up to them…
  • You know those very cheap small houses which run up a hillside in one continuous row, with the roofs rising one above the other like a flight of steps, all exactly the same…
  • I asked her for tea, and she was ten minutes getting it. You know the kind of tea – China tea, so weak that you could think it’s water till you put the milk in…
  • As soon as I set eyes on her I had a most peculiar feeling that I’d seen her somewhere before. You know that feeling…
  • Do you know that type of middle-aged woman that has a face just like a bulldog? Great underhung jaw, mouth turned down at the corners, eyes sunken, with pouches underneath…
  • Do you know the kind of shuffling, round-shouldered movements of an old woman who’s lost something?
  • You know the way small shopkeepers look at their customers – utter lack of interest…
  • Do you know these faked-up Tudor houses with the curly roofs and the buttresses that don’t buttress anything, and the rock-gardens with concrete bird-baths and those red plaster elves you can buy at the florists’?
  • You know the kind of tough old devil with grey hair and a kippered face that’s always put in charge of Girl Guide detachments, Y.W.C.A. hostels, and whatnot. She had on a coat and skirt that somehow looked like a uniform and gave you a strong impression that she was wearing a Sam Browne belt, though actually she wasn’t. I knew her type

Orwell, and his narrators, always know her type. They know all types. They are experts in all types of human and on the entire human condition. It is upon this claim to universal knowledge of human nature, upon this barrage of ‘types’ and ‘you knows’ that we are meant to place our trust in them.

Comments

Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air as soon as he’d finished Homage to Catalonia, the terrifying account of his time in Spain during the early stage of the Spanish civil war. He wrote Coming Up during a six-month stay in North Africa, from September 1938 to March 1939, which was recommended by his doctors on account of his poor health.

What a period to be outside of England and outside of Europe, looking in, looking back. From the Munich Crisis (September 1938) via Kristallnacht (November 1938) to the German annexation of Czechoslovakia  in March 1939.

Pretty obviously these were the twin sources of the powerful nostalgia which is Coming Up For Air‘s ultimate mood:

  • He had seen Soviet-style political terror in Barcelona and it made him re-evaluate the enduring value of the docile freedoms of England.
  • And then he was out of England for six long months, writing a book in which a middle-aged man reminisces about his boyhood in rural England, surely given piquancy at every turn from the fact that it was written under such very alien skies.

Ultimately Coming Up For Air is a dubious achievement as a novel – with little plot, almost no interaction among the characters and too much of a feeling that it is preaching at you – you could say that it dramatises a predicament more than a believable personality. But Orwell’s writing is marvellous throughout: you can open it at any page and immediately be drawn in by the vividness of the imagined details and the clarity of his wonderfully forthright, lucid prose.


Credit

Coming Up For Air by George Orwell was published by Victor Gollancz in 1939. All references are to the 1978 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

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

George Orwell’s books

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

Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

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

Vietnam before the war

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

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

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

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

Ho Chi Minh

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

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

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

Between the wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impact of the Second World War

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

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

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

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

Pearl Harbour

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

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

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

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

Roosevelt and Truman

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

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

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

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

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cast of characters

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

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

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

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

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

Dien Bien Phu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence the British refusal to commit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The volta

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

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

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

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beginning

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

Conclusion

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

Related links

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 is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War, having been writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students, and publishers, suggested he write a less scholarly, 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 period, full of intrigue and human stories.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

In fact the book actually feels 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 high 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 – signalling, in the first instance, to China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only, and in the second making significant concessions to the Soviets to defuse the situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of those two men.

It is by following the ramifications of this new theory of war, that Gaddis makes sense of 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 telling dates –

  • 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, in China accompanied by inconceivable brutality and 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 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 go.
  2. The revolution which Marx predicted could only happen in advanced industrial countries in fact only took place in very backward, feudal peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of third world basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. It only existed in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship and was thrown off the second that 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, mostly peasants. 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 after the Second World War Truman, Eisenhower and their advisers grasped some important and massive ideas: the central one was that America could no longer be isolationist. 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 the help 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, 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 dishonourable tradition of America supporting repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist force. The tradition kicked off with Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader that 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 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 emerged – 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, it meant the dictators could, in effect, get away with murder – and they did.

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 opinion through his achievement of power in China in 1949 through to Stalin’s death in 1953. This effect 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 who periodically 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. This of course presented the West with a great opportunity and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s visits to China and meetings with Mao. The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and 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 in the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers has become considerably more complicated, with 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 promise
  • 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. He fascinatingly 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, this act of obvious repression 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 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 concession, and was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by. When a Czech rock band was arrested, 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 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 over and above any actual government, of 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, thus solidifying Russia’s grasp in the East. With this 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 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. The great 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’. 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) he 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 collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
b) similarly, he 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.

At the time, as we lived through this in the 1980s, a lot of this seemed reckless and dangerous and the entrenched détente establishment on both sides agreed, so that newspapers and magazines were full of criticism. 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 about our ends. A 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 of the subject. In fact each chapter could well 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.

Related links

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

Related links

Real to Reel @ The Imperial War Museum

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Dr Johnson)

This is a small but densely-packed, moving and very thought-provoking exhibition. It would only take a about a minute to walk straight through the half dozen or so small rooms, created using an interesting setting of metal warehouse shelving and wooden packing crates – maybe only 15 minutes or so to stroll past the display cases and the dozen or so screens giving the looped movie clips a cursory glance – but stopping to watch every clip and read all the display case labels took me an absorbing hour and 40 minutes, longer than I’ve spent at many art exhibitions, time enough to form all kinds of thoughts and impressions – about individual films, about war, about films as a medium for history.

The exhibition

The show opens with a welter of classic war movie posters – Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca – and then about thirty display cases contain costumes and props, screenplays and set designs and storyboards, publicity stills, movie magazine articles and scale models of machines used in classic movies (a model of the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, and of the U-boat used in the German movie Das Boot).

The exhibition mostly features American and British movies. Of the 40 or so films referenced, there are none from France, Spain, Italy or Russia, all of which have or had pretty thriving film industries. The only non-Anglo country represented is Germany, with the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will, the TV-epic-turned movie Das Boot, and Downfall, the harrowing account of Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

v

Film still of Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005). A pair of the Santa hats worn in the movie are on display. © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Francois Duhamel

Limitations

The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘A Century of War Movies’, which makes sense on one level, since ‘moving pictures’ were invented only a little over a century ago. But it is also taken to mean that the subject matter of the films themselves is limited to the last hundred years. Thus there are no movie representations of the countless wars from earlier in history – none of the Hollywood epics about ancient Rome (Cleopatra), the Greeks (The 300 Spartans, Troy), medieval wars (Henry VBraveheart), the Spanish conquest of America (The Royal Hunt of The Sun), the English Civil Wars (Cromwell), the Seven Years War (The Last of The Mohicans), the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, The Duellists), or the countless wars of the British Empire (The Four FeathersThe Charge of the Light BrigadeKhartoum, Zulu, Breaker Morant) let alone the Americans’ very own Civil War (Birth of a NationThe Red Badge of CourageGone With The Wind).

Even within its 20th century framework, there are surprising omissions – nothing about the Russian Revolution (Dr ZhivagoReds), the Spanish Civil War (For Whom The Bell Tolls, Land and Freedom), the Korean War (Hell In Korea, Pork Chop HillM*A*S*H), Algeria (Battle for Algiers), the many wars of independence in European colonies, or the bloody post-independence conflicts in places like Biafra, Bangladesh, Angola, Mozambique, and so on.

No, only Anglo wars feature – the Great War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, in the last decade or so, Iraq-Afghanistan (the one possible exception, Yann Demange’s 2014 movie about Northern Ireland, ’71, is still firmly from the Anglosphere).

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Clips

If you wait and watch every clip on every screen you will see excerpts from the following films (ones in bold are factual films):

  • Battle of the Somme (1916) Fascinating explanation of how the British government commission and distributed one of the first real depictions of warfare to bring home to the civilian population the reality of the trenches.
  • Triumph of the Will (1934) Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, which begs the fundamental question whether films always glamorise, no matter how evil their subject matter. (My answer is, Yes)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, with production notes and stills, part of a larger section on the depiction of Hitler in films.
  • Dig for Victory (1941) Fascinating clip from an all-too-rare example of the British factual films produced during the war.
  • Hoch Der Lambeth Walk (1941) Short comedy setting Nazi goose-stepping troops to the popular Cockney tune.
  • Mrs Miniver (1942) Clip from the film’s moving patriotic climax.
  • Went The Day Well (1942) Scene where the vicar of a little English village stands up to the German invaders in Cavalcanti’s immensely moving British film, adapted from the Graham Greene short story.
  • Listen To Britain (1942) Fascinating depiction of Britain at war by the experimental documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings.
  • Donald Gets Drafted (1942) Comedy cartoon example of Disney supporting the war effort.
  • Victory Through Air Power (1943) An extended animated propaganda film from Disney – a display panel explains the surprising extent of the Disney studio’s involvement in war work.
  • The Cruel Sea (1953) A tearful Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) remembers his decision to depth charge a German submarine, thus killing the British sailors in the sea above it.
  • The Colditz Story (1955) Pukka chaps plan escape, led by John Mills.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) Pukka chaps pull off a cunning stunt, led by Richard Todd.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) the finale where the dying Alec Guinness falls on the detonator which blows up the bridge.
  • Paths of Glory (1957) A display case gives plenty of background to this early work by Stanley Kubrick, a powerful anti-war film based on the true case of a mutiny in the French army during the Great War.
  • Ice Cold In Alex (1958) Pukka chaps escape through the desert, led by John Mills.
  • Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) A big display case gives a thorough background to the heroic feats of Violette Szabo, who volunteered to work for the SOE in occupied France, until caught, tortured and executed.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Fascinating display case on how the Lawrence cult was carefully created by an American journalist.
  • The Longest Day (1962) All-star cast depiction of D-Day.
  • Hell In The Pacific (1968) One of the new breed of unglamorous anti-war films, starring Lee Marvin.
  • Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) Poster and clips from the archetypal anti-war film, satirising the First World War through music hall songs.
  • Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) Alec Guinness stars in what now seems a very dated, made-for-TV style.
  • Overlord (1975) an experimental black and white British film, which failed to get released in the States.
  • Das Boot (1981) The epic German TV series, edited down into a movie – a rare showing for a non-Anglo production. The show features one of the scale models of the German U-boat used in filming.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick’s shiny Vietnam film, complete with predictable ‘shocking’ scenes.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) Happy ending for an all-star cast. The exhibition features one of the scale models of the Flying Fortress used in filming.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg’s masterpiece. A display case shows the suit that Liam Neeson wears in the tear-jerking final scene.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) An extended sequence from the famous beach landing scene runs next to several display cases showing memorabilia from officers who landed that day, photos, maps, letters and uniforms, including from men who were killed in the landings.
  • Downfall (2005) Another rare non-Anglo production, with German actor Bruno Ganz giving a harrowing portrayal of the Fuhrer’s last days.
  • Atonement (2007) An extended display case includes production notes from the Dunkirk sequence of this love story gone wrong, and interview clips with the director and production designer which give insights into its creation.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008) The story of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Clips and interview with the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow.
  • Kajaki (2014) Clip and interviews with the film’s director, Paul Katis, and writer, Tom Williams.
  • ’71 (2014) British troops in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clip and interview with the director, Yann Demange.
  • Eye In the Sky (2016) Clip of a drone targeting ‘terrorists’ in Kenya, and an interview with the director, Gavin Hood.

The extensive interviews with writers and directors of the more recent films gives the last parts of the exhibition the feel of a bumper edition of ‘Film 2016’, and the suspicion that we are learning more and more about films we care less and less about.

Costumes

The show features a strong V&Aish, costume & design element. In various display cases we get to see:

  • the dress and shoes Marlene Dietrich used for her USO shows she gave to American troops during WW2
  • the RAF jacket worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
  • as mentioned, the tailored suit worn by Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List
  • the costume uniform worn by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
  • the very robe given to Lawrence of Arabia by Emir Faisal
  • the costume uniform worn by the lead character in Warhorse
  • the cap and jacket worn by Clint Eastwood as Lieutenant Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare
  • the costume uniform worn by McAvoy in Atonement
  • the very helmet worn by the hero of Black Hawk Down
James McAvoy starring in Atonement - this uniform is on display © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

James McAvoy starring in Atonement (2007). This uniform is on display in the exhibition © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

Props

As well as the scale models of the U-boat used in Das Boot and the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, there’s a cane chair from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the mandolin played by Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and a reconstructed version of the Triumph motorbike ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape!

There is a host of other memorabilia, such as the clapperboard used in Full Metal Jacket, Alec Guinness’s diary when filming Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a storyboard for the classic dogfight sequence in Battle of Britain, design sketches for the set of Dr Strangelove, production notes and models for Hope and Glory, a script for The Third Man, as well as publicity stills and movie magazine articles for numerous other war films, and much more in the same vein.

There’s even a genuine Hollywood Oscar – in case anybody doesn’t know what they look like.

Movie buff stuff

There’s a section about the wartime career of British actor David Niven, who dropped acting to serve in the RAF (though he found time to appear in several training films). He’s here mainly because of his starring role in the wonderful Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The background information about Marlene Dietrich i.e. her flight from Germany just before the war and the wholehearted way she threw herself into Allied propaganda efforts is very enlightening. Similarly, there is no clip of him but there’s a display case devoted to the wartime career of Clark Gable, at the peak of his career when the war began, having just starred in Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, a war film and, apparently, much enjoyed by Chancellor Hitler).

The section devoted to Lawrence of Arabia explains how his legend was fostered by an American journalist and broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, who shot footage of Lawrence in the desert and then went on tour with a show which included dancing girls and exotic props before a showing of the main film itself, which Thomas narrated. The film made Lawrence a household name (and Thomas lots of money). The exhibition explains all this with stills and a programme from the show.

There’s a moving section about Violette Szabo, a young shop girl from Brixton who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, was trained and then dropped into occupied France, where she performed several missions before being captured by the Germans, tortured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp – a true-life story which inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE in occupied France inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training, mission, then arrest and execution by the Nazis © IWM

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training and mission, including photos of her war hero husband and small daughter © IWM

Themes

The exhibition labels point out that war films provide an excellent vehicle for drama, for depictions of bravery, cowardice, love and passion etc.

Another label remarks that music provides an important element of war films, many war songs and themes going on to become patriotic and iconic tunes, or to be sung by soldiers in subsequent conflicts.

Another display comments that some war films were subject to censorship, citing Churchill’s exasperation at Powell and Pressburger’s classic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) which portrayed the British officer class as ageing buffoons and which he tried – but failed – to get suppressed.

The exhibition mentions questions and ideas like these, but it doesn’t really address or explore them, not in any depth. They tend to be overshadowed by the sheer brainless pleasure of movie-watching which, I’m the first to admit, I am also prone to. A discussion of wartime censorship? Look, here’s a chair from Rick’s Bar! Exploring the role of music in shaping emotional responses? Who cares, here’s Steve McQueen’s motorbike!!

It’s a little like putting a few sentences about cholesterol and heart disease into a massive exhibition about ice cream with forty free samples. And that, for me, is the problem with film. Although I enjoyed seeing so many clips from so many beloved old war movies, and finding out a wealth of movie trivia and behind-the-scenes stories about their making, I couldn’t suppress a growing feeling that – no matter how realistic, harrowing or moving – there is something inescapably shallow about film as a medium. In films, thought is always trumped by emotional manipulation.

The weakness of film

Films are shallow entertainment Films by their nature are intense but shallow. Customers pay to go into a darkened auditorium, where they stuff their faces with popcorn and Coca Cola, or to watch at home on a big Entertainment Centre while scoffing a Dominos pizza or takeaway curry. Films are crafted to be consumed in a deliberately infantilising and indulgent environment, designed to relax your rational mind and bring emotions to the surface. Who doesn’t cry when Humphrey Bogart makes his big speech at the end of Casablanca or when the survivors’ families get the letters that their loved ones have survived in In Which We Serve? But plenty of evil men have sent thousands to their deaths and then burst into tears at a Hollywood weepie. I always find it telling that both Hitler and Stalin were not just movie fans, they were massive movie fans, with their own private projection rooms in which they watched films again and again, and then shared their critical insights with their terrified associates. Being moved by a film doesn’t, ultimately, change anything.

Films are commercial products All Hollywood films are designed to make money. It may employ many craftsmen, and plenty of people who want to think of themselves as ‘artists’, but cinema is a commercial business. Many of the movies featured here are shameless blockbusters – from The Battle of Britain to Saving Private Ryan (which made a stunning $481.8 million worldwide in 1998, the highest-grossing US film of the year). They are products designed and honed, whatever the actual content, to make a profit.

Films use stereotyped plots, characters and gestures Film students are taught that their screenplays must have a structure in three acts. They have to have an inciting incident, a confrontation and resolution in a way that history, let alone real life, doesn’t.

As Virginia Woolf pointed out 100 years ago, movies don’t have much time to play with – generally between 1.5 and 3 hours – so they have to boil human behaviour, motivation and psychology down into stereotyped characters, plots and dialogue, all of which must be easy to grasp at one fleeting viewing. Each generation’s actors have used stylised gestures, attitudes and poses appropriate for their times. (Because I don’t like modern films, I particularly dislike the non-stop shouting which passes for acting with most modern American actors. One way to view the clips on show here is to note the way the amount of shouting and swearing steadily increases from the restrained 1940s through to the ‘fuck you asshole’ Noughties.)

Films are vehicles for films stars Then there is the simple fact that movies are vehicles for movie stars. Right from the start a star-struck audience has gone ga-ga for gossip about Errol and Clark and Bette and Jean – nowadays, about Leonardo and Brad and Angelina and Scarlett. The studio ‘system’ of the 1930s and 40s was a machine to find profitable vehicles for bankable stars. Though the situation is more complex nowadays, it’s still about money, the money which buys the stars which drive the promotion and publicity machine. ‘Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before’, ‘Leonardo gives the performance of his career’, etc etc in thousands of variations.

The exhibition brings out the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s to cram as many stars into a movie as possible – creating an ‘all-star cast’ – to try and ensure profitability: think of The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Cartoon characters War films up to about 1970 featured generally clean-cut heroes – classic movie stars from the 40s and 50s like Clark Gable (b.1901), Gary Cooper (b.1901), John Wayne (b.1907) David Niven (b.1910) and Gregory Peck (b.1916), John Mills (b.1908), Jack Hawkins (b.1910) and Kenneth More (b.1914). These were followed by the generation of movie stars I grew up watching in the 1960s – Richard Burton (b.1925), Clint Eastwood (b.1930), Steve McQueen (b.1930), Peter O’Toole (b.1932), Michael Caine (b.1933), David McCallum (b.1933). So many times, watching these clips, you realise it’s the star, the lines they’re given, the scenes they’re placed in, the way they’re made up, lit and filmed, which give the viewer deep pleasure.

The 1960s was a transition decade in so many ways but watching the war movies you realise they had a distinctive style of Swinging ’60s heroism – 633 Squadron (1964) or The Battle of Britain (1969), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968). The ‘characters’ in films like this are really animated versions of schoolboy comics, like the ‘Commando Action Comics’ which I devoured as a kid, target audience – 10-year-old boys. The 1960s movies in particular are somehow not really serious. The Great Escape is more memorable for its comic than its ‘tragic’ moments – and although 50 Allied officers are murdered by the Nazis at the conclusion, the very end of the film features the imperishably supercool Steve McQueen returning to his solitary cell in undimmed triumph.

Cool, stylish, glamorous, ironic, smiling – unreal.

Since Private Ryan

A lot of war films from the 1970s and 80s are just too bad to be included (think Escape To Victory) so that this is the most under-represented period in the exhibition.

This is odd because the late ’70s saw a rash of major films about Vietnam which brought a new brutality and cynicism to the genre, led by The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). A later wave of Vietnam films try but, in my opinion, fail to capture the shocking freshness of those 70s Vietnam movies – Stanley Kubrick’s over-studied Full Metal Jacket (1987), Oliver Stone’s over-schematic Platoon (1987) and unwieldy Born on the Fourth of July (1989), let alone the eccentric Good Morning Vietnam (1987). By this stage we all knew that war is hell and that US Marine training sergeants can be really mean.

Jacket and Platoon are referenced in the exhibition, but the general under-representation of war films from the 70s and 80s makes something else all the more obvious – which is the decisive change in tone and style which came over war films after the epoch-making Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.

That film’s extended sequence of American troops landing on Omaha Beach (shown here on the only really big screen in the exhibition, so that you can sit and watch it with the sound on headphones) was a game changer. It pioneered new computer-generated special effects to give the viewer a much more visceral sense of the devastating impact of bullets and ordinance on the human body. All war films since Ryan have had to match its hyper-realism, so that cinema goers now see soldiers being eviscerated, dismembered, punctured and disintegrated in unprecedented detail.

Think of the scene in the cave in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, not included here) which unflinchingly shows a group of Japanese soldiers committing harakiri with grenades, leaving them with half-removed faces and handless stumps of arms spouting arterial blood. Yuk.

This body-parts-in-your-face style is apparent in all the subsequent works in the genre. Similarly, the harrowing scene in Saving Private Ryan where the troop’s medic, Private Irwin Wade, takes a long time to bleed to death from a stomach wound which his comrades are unable to staunch, has also been replicated in the post-1998 depiction of war wounds, which are much more unflinchingly realistic.

Whether this anatomical hyper-realism which has been mandatory for all war films since Ryan has elevated any of them as ‘works of art’ is an open question, but it’s certainly the style of our time, the set of conventions – of gesture and sound and special effects – which we all take to be ‘true’ – at any rate, until the next stylistic revolution comes along…

Factual films

Seeing all these clips from classic movies is without doubt entertaining and the movie trivia in the display cases is often very interesting and informative. But it’s a shame that, in among all the Hollywood and Pinewood glamour, there isn’t more of an investigation of wartime factual films. There are some:

Nazi propaganda films On the Nazi side there is a clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will, a stunningly directed Modernist masterpiece celebrating the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally of 1934. The Nazis’ masterful use of propaganda films like this, and the steady output of Nazi-controlled film studios during the war, are a huge and fascinating topic, something I’d love to know more about – with relevant clips demonstrating Goebbels’ personal intervention in scripts and direction to bring out their Aryan values – but it was only referenced with this one clip and few panels about Triumph.

British propaganda films Presumably the Imperial War Museum owns a significant archive of British newsreel and propaganda films from the war. In fact the show opens with several clips from the information film about the Battle of the Somme which was commissioned by the War Office in 1916, and shown widely in cinemas throughout Britain to publicise the reality of the trenches. I was hoping there’d be much more like this explaining how governments used the new medium to promote or justify their wars.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

But, disappointingly, there were clips from only three other British factual war films in the exhibition. Obviously the tone, the subject matter and treatment, the look and duration of these films is completely different from the commercial products, and a world away from airbrushed Hollywood.

Maybe one comedy short was enough, but I’d like to have learned much more about the relationship between government-sponsored films and shorts and the output of commercial news organisations like Pathe. This is a vast subject only fleetingly touched on.

US propaganda films A nearby case was devoted to the wartime output of the Disney studios. I’m not surprised that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were dragooned into short comedy films about the silly side of becoming a soldier…

but it was fascinating to learn that the Disney studio also made some 170 factual information films during the war. And that it produced a feature-length animation, Victory Through Air Power, from which we see a powerful clip.

Either of these three – Nazi, British or American propaganda films – treated in depth, would make for a fascinating exhibition in their own right, and one well suited to the IMW’s archives and experts. Having them in the show gave us a sense of what we were missing, and tended to highlight the glossy shallowness of the commercial movies.

Conclusion

Shatteringly realistic, brutal and bloody though many are, commercial movies are not real and are of only limited use in understanding the past. The past wasn’t like this. All that films show us is what films from the past were like -subject to all the limitations of their era, to its visual styles and technical capacity, audience expectations and fashions. They offer insights into their times, not the times they depict and even then, severely hampered by commercial concerns.

Above all films are hamstrung by the fundamental requirement to give emotional closure: with a rousing comic ending (Kelly’s Heroes), an uplifting finale looking to a better future (like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), or as a hard-bitten meditation on the futility of war (any war movie of the past 20 years).

The narrative limitations, the psychological stereotyping, the simplification of the complex, the lack of time or space to explain anything in depth, all of these make movies the complete opposite of books. A history book, of course, also has a structure and an ending – but it will also be packed with references, notes and bibliography which encourage further exploration and further understanding, which move you forward and deeper, and will present you with conflicting points of view and opinions which you have to exercise judgement about. And books require mental alertness and mental effort – precisely the opposite of films.

Movies shut down the mind. Books open the mind.

This is a very enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking exhibition. These are the thoughts it provoked in me, but I’m sure every visitor will take away something different.


Related links

  • Real to Reel continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January 2017

Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

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 sibcerely, what would he say? Twenty-eight, according to his papers, a bit older when it came to his joints, his lungs and heart; ans 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 on Levi’s Wikipedia article.

1947 and 1958 Se questo è un uomo – If This Is a Man (translated into English 1959)
1963 La tregua – The Truce (trans: 1965)
1966 Storie naturali – Short stories, many in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1971 Vizio di forma – short stories, collected in The Sixth Day and Other Tales
1975 Il sistema periodico – The Periodic Table (trans: 1984)
1981 Lilìt e altri racconti – short stories, collected in Moments of Reprieve (1986)
1978 La chiave a stella – The Wrench (1987)
1982 Se non ora, quando? – If Not Now, When? (1985) The epic trek of a ragtag group of Jewish ‘partisans’, from Russia, through Poland and Germany into Italy, between July 1943 and August 1945, in an intense and unflinching depiction of degradation, suffering and endurance amidst the collapse of European ‘civilisation’.
1984 Ad ora incerta – Collected Poems (1984)
1986 I sommersi e i salvati – The Drowned and the Saved (1988)
1986 Racconti e Saggi – The Mirror Maker (1989)

Dark Voyage by Alan Furst (2004)

Furst has written 14 historical espionage novels, generally set in Eastern Europe, Russia or the Balkans, set towards the end of the 1930s and going on into the early years of the Second World War.

This, the eighth in the series, marks a notable change of location by being set, not in the hotels, cafés and bars of continental Europe, but aboard an old tramp steamer chuntering along the coast of North Africa. Although it is frequently in port, with cafés and intrigue, the predominantly maritime setting is unique in Furst’s oeuvre, and makes for an interesting and stimulating change.

The plot

Eric DeHaan is 41, the weathered captain of the tramp freighter Noordendam, of the Netherlands Hyperion Line, plying its trade around the Mediterranean. While docked in Tangiers in April 1941, he is called to a meeting in a local restaurant, to find the owner of the Line – Wim Terhouven – along with Marius Hoek, the woman artist Juffrouw Wilhelm, and Commander Hendryck Leiden of the Royal Dutch navy all waiting for him. Without much in the way of choice he is drafted into the Royal Dutch Navy (based in London since the Nazis invaded Holland in May 1940) with the rank of Lieutenant Commander (p.15).

So now he is working for the Allied cause. His contact for missions will be Wilhelm who, as an artist, is given more freedom than many men. Back on board ship we begin to get to know the large and varied crew (of about 40):

  • Johannes Ratter, patch over the eye he lost in an accident (p.24)
  • Stas Kovacz the Polish engineer, stooped and bearlike (p.62)
  • Mr Ali, the gentlemanly wireless operator
  • ‘Patapouf’, the plump assistant cook (p.63)
  • Van Dyck, the bosun, in charge of loading the cargo, strongest man DeHaan’s ever met (p.102)
  • Able Seaman Amado
  • Kees
  • Ruysdal
  • Vandermeer

DeHaan is ordered to repaint the ship and reflag it to impersonate a Spanish steamer of the same size, the Santa Rosa. Safer for cruising round the Spanish end of the Med. Able Seaman Amado will, when necessary, pretend to be captain. (This is the cue for a fascinating account of how the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War caused fights on Spanish ships around the world, including the one Amado was lucky to escape from, pp.39-40.)

Wilhelm passes on instructions for the ship to sail to Rio de Oro bay, where they pick up a detachment of British commandos, commanded by one Major Sims, trim and tense (p.43). The mission is to ferry the commandos to Cape Bon, where they will go ashore and attack the ship-spotting base there, which seems to be using some kind of new technology which can track and monitor passing ships, even in the thickest fog. Something to do with infra-red, which DeHaan has never heard of.

They drop the commandos, return to the ship and some time later hear bangs and bullets. Obviously a firefight. When they see a flashing torch from the shore DeHaan and his crew go back in small boats to pick up the survivors. He has to trek quite a way through desert, stony gulches and wadis to find the battered survivor of the firefight – Major Sims is missing presumed dead, and there are several badly wounded. There’s another confused firefight on the trek back to the shore in which the plump cook ‘Patapouf’ is killed. But the commandos have captured some of the German equipment, are gotten safely back aboard ship, and it steams to the safety of British-held Alexandria.

2. In Admiralty Service

In Alexandria DeHaan is ordered to report to a caricature British officer, all red face and handlebar moustache, who insists on being called ‘Dickie’ (p.92). Then on to another Brit officer who shows him a cable from the Hyperion Line. From now on he is under direct British control. They are loaded to the brim with munitions, with two Hurricane fighter planes on deck and provided with a (Jewish) doctor, Dr Shtern (p.103), before being lined up in a small convoy of freighters escorted by a destroyer, HMS Covington, off towards Crete, which has just been attacked by the Germans in a daring airborne invasion (started 20 May 1941).

The Noordendam experiences engine trouble – fixed by the tough Polish engineer – but meaning they are left behind by the others. When they join them and dock in the only port not in German hands, Sphakia, they’ve barely begun unloading when they’re attacked by German Ju87s, Stukas. The first three planes are destroyed by the destroyer’s heavy cannon, but then DeHaan finds himself on his knees in the ruined bridge, bleeding, covered in glass and half deaf. There was a direct hit on the freighter next to them which has wrecked the bridge of the Noordendam.

Cut to five days later and DeHaan, still alive, is back in Alexandria. They unloaded at Crete and sailed back, wrecked but still seaworthy. Next thing we know DeHaan is in Algeciras, Spain, where he’s been ordered to meet another British officer, Commander Hallowes. The next mission is to sail to the Baltic with a cargo of radio antennas, masts and equipment, designed to help set up a listening station up there. Precise details will be sent him by courier.

June 1. Back in Tangier DeHaan hooks up with Hoek, who is his local contact. Then with Yacoub, a local fixer, an Arab nationalist. And finally the courier, a young nervous Brit who hands over typed instructions on the mission: sail to Lisbon, collect cargo, sail to coast of Sweden, rendezvous with Allied ship.

3. Ports of call

Maria Bromen is a Russian journalist (like several previous Furst characters). She’d interviewed DeHaan years earlier in Rotterdam. Now she learns he’s in Tangier and arranges a meeting where she begs him to take her on board ship to freedom. She has travelled this far south incognito, on the run from Russian agents, presumably the NKVD, because she refused to play ball with them. Because DeHaan has a heart of gold, he agrees, getting Van Dyck to navigate the ship’s cutter into the more derelict docks of Tangier and then tracking her down to a set of sheds in a horrible wasteland, to collect her.

The voyage from Tangier to Lisbon is uneventful, livened up by the screening of a knackered version of a Jimmy Cagney movie the first mate picked up in the souk. At Lisbon, DeHaan gives Maria money and watches her walk down the gangplank, regretfully, and out of his life. Good luck. Then he goes to see the ship’s agent, a nervous Portuguese who is fronting for the mission and not happy about it. The agent hands over the fake papers which officially claim the ship is carrying sardines, and then scuttles off.

On the way back to the ship, DeHaan is called over by a Brit in a car, calling himself Mr Brown. Now, throughout the previous 200 pages we have periodically caught up with the movements of one S. Kolb and learned that he is a British agent who has been spirited at great trouble out of Germany and down here to Lisbon. Now Brown informs DeHaan that the British want him to take Kolb on the trip to the Baltic. It is hinted that DeHaan has no choice, so he agrees.

The crew load the crates, full of aerials, as well as guns and Lord knows what, and off they steam north along the coast of Portugal and France. Two incidents: a fire starts in one of the holds, oily rags apparently igniting the cab of one of the lorries. DeHaan spots it and he and the crew manage to put it out before the whole thing explodes, but the officers angrily discuss the possibility of sabotage and many suspect the odd little man Kolb. Throw him overboard, they say. And, close to the coast of Sweden, they witness a full blown air raid with searchlights, ack ack guns and swooping dive bombers attacking a naval base. But sail by it unscathed.

4. Baltic harbours

The last 70 pages of the novel. Will they make it to the rendezvous safely? Will they manage to get rid of the contraband cargo? Is Kolb some kind of spy who’ll sabotage everything? Will the ship make it safely to Ireland, its next destination? What will become of DeHaan and Broman’s love affair? It’s all set up quite nicely to keep the reader hooked. The sea. The black night. The suspense:

The Noordendam ran dark now. And silent – bell system turned off, crew ordered to be quiet, engine rumbling at dead-slow speed on a flat sea. A mile off the port beam, one fishing village, a few dim lights in the haze, then nothing, only night on a deserted coast. (p.240)

They do rendezvous successfully, with a smelly old fishing boat, the Ulla, its skipper co-operating with a Scottish commando and a man DeHaan chats to, a British scientist, the one who is going to erect the aerials and create an Allied listening post, here on the barren, deserted south Sweden coast. After repeat trips back and forth, all the cargo is unloaded and the empty Noordendam turns and sets sail for Malmö, there to pick up a legitimate cargo.

Until they are intercepted by a German patrol boat, M-56, searchlight and heavy duty cannon. The efficient keen Nazi captain, sub-Lieutenant Schumpel (p.256) insists on coming aboard and quickly sees through all their subterfuges, realising the terrified Amado is not the captain, that the ship is not the Spanish Santa Anna, not believing DeHaan’s story about smuggling booze, suspecting something much more incriminating. So he orders them to sail towards the nearest German port, closely shadowed by the gunship, and with himself and 6 or 7 Nazi soldiers distributed through the crew room, radio room and engine room to supervise.

These closing forty pages rise to the tension of a genuine action thriller. Without DeHaan’s prompting, his crew take on the Nazis – the cabin boy and a sailor jumping the Nazi commander and stabbing him to death, while the bosun knocks another goon out. In the radio room they capture the terrified stripling put in charge of the radio. In the engine room they find the chief engineer has already killed one German and tied up the other.

After reviewing the options (ram the German boat? – No, it would dodge and fire enough shells to sink them) DeHaan and his officers decide to ‘make smoke’, closing the air flaps on the furnaces to generate clouds of thick black smoke. At the same time they begin to veer away from the German-ordered course, and radio garbled messages to the Germans that they have engine trouble – the ship is on fire – going to fetch the commandant – abandon ship – and almost make it out of range of the gunboat when it finally starts firing shells.

The third one hits the stern, but above the water line. Impossible to steam West, that’s what the M-56 and cruising spotter planes will expect. Has to be East, towards Latvia and Russia. In the early hours of 22 June 1941 they approach the port of Liepaja. They are ushered in by Russian patrol boats, then met by a harassed official, partly expecting to be arrested, maybe spend the war in a camp.

What they don’t know is that at midnight Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Now a tramp steamer which has been helping the British is a heroic ally of the Soviet people. Relieved, DeHaan and crew then learn they are being dragooned into a convoy of all available shipping evacuating people from the port. A ramshackle collection including a ballet company, various police officers, soldiers and so on, along with a grand piano and miscellaneous military equipment, cram the Noordendam‘s decks.

The accompanying destroyers blow their hooters and, as they hear and can even see fighting erupting around the harbour, the convoy steams out to sea, heading north past the Gulf of Riga, then East towards Kronstandt. Through mine fields where they lose some boats. Then are attacked by German bombers, strings of them. Finally a chain of bombs explodes aboard the Noordendam, crippling the engines and severing the steering equipment. As the rest of the convoy steers East, the ragbag of soldiers and civilians packed into the Noordendam collect the dead and cover them, treat the wounded, and watch the ship drift helplessly north towards the shore of Finland. Eventually it crashes gently into rocks on a low, unmarked island off the coast.

And here, eerily and mysteriously and abruptly, the novel ends. By this stage I think we are meant to find the ship itself has become a legend. Furst has subtly built up the picture of it as a floating world, a universe to itself, with a crew gathered from all the nations – Arabs, Greeks, German communists, Spanish survivors, Polish anti-fascists, the sturdy DeHaan himself.

Like these later Furst novels it doesn’t end tragically, as the harsh WW2 milieu suggests – it ends dreamily, vaguely, romantically. It ends like a Shakespeare romance, on a note of wistful mystery, confirming the way in which – despite the occasional shootouts and deaths, these novels are essentially romances.

They searched for her, some time later, once the war in that part of the world had quietened down…They asked the people who lived along that rockbound coast, fishermen mostly, if they’d seen her, and some said they had, while others just shook their heads or shrugged. But, in the end, they found nothing, and she was never seen again. (Last sentences, p.309)


Sensual sex

I associate these later Furst novels with slinky, sensual, stockings-slipping-off sex as much as clandestine meetings in exotic capitals and intense firefights. The last two novels in particular seem to have acquired a formulaic rhythm: puzzling encounters with ‘agents’ and/or violent action > comfortingly sensual sex.

Throughout the text are sprinkled DeHaan’s memories of his brief affair with Arlette in Paris. Smelling hashish in a Tangier back street transports reminds him of the time he and Arletta tried the drug and ended up making passionate love, ‘ferocious and wildly chaotic’ (p.6).

On the way to drop the commandos, DeHaan remembers more Arlette:

At a crucial moment on their first night together, what his hand found pulsed, and the heat of it surprised, then inspired him. (p.49)

Immediately following the hair-raising raid on Cap Bon, the text jumps to DeHaan in bed with Demetria, a woman he picks up at a party back at Alexandria:

Freed of her daily life, and a stiff linen suit, her underwear buried somewhere in the rumpled sheets of the hotel bed, she lay back in her flesh, luxuriant, legs comfortably apart – the colour the French called rose de dessous casually revealed, and smoked with great pleasure. (p.85)

The odd character, Kolb, whose narrative periodically intersperses the main, ship-board one, spends his first few sections hanging round in a safe room in Hamburg, waiting for news of how he’s going to be exfiltrated. His only contact with the outside world is a large German woman, Fräulein Lena. He imagines her big body only held in place by an elaborate arrangement of corsets and stays. Finally he makes his move, on her next visit plying her with sticky apricot brandy, and discovering that:

God, she was as lonely as he was, soon enough strutting round the room in those very corsets – pink, however, not black – that had set his imagination alight. And, he did not have to dismantle them, as he’d feared, she did that herself while he watched with hungry eyes. And soon enough, he was to learn that secret depravities did lurk – the same ones shared by humanity the world over but never mind, they were new and pink that night, and slowly and thoroughly explored. (p.125)

From the moment DeHaan takes the Russian journalist Maria Bromen on board (she sleeps in the first mate’s cabin, while the latter doubles up with another officer) he lusts after her. When he says goodbye at Lisbon part of him is torn. So when she returns at Lisbon and is taken back on board, it isn’t long until she asks to borrow a book to read, and they find themselves standing very close together in his tiny cabin.

For a time they stood apart, arms by their sides, then he settled his hands on her hips and she moved towards him, just enough so that he could feel the tips of her breasts beneath the sweater. (p.222)

She asks him to turn off the light. He turns to find her stripped down to her panties. They both jump into bed. Etc. After that there are many scenes with one of them in bed and the other looking soulfully out the porthole at the grey ocean, worrying about the future in these troubled times; exactly as Marie-Galante or Serebin stood at windows looking out over Paris or Istanbul or Bucharest worrying about the troubled future.

This scene, emblematic of wistful regrets, recurs again and again, giving the novels their special mood of sensual nostalgia.

Datestamps, telegraphese and subtitles

Many of the sections start with the date, like a journal entry, sometimes with the exact time, like a ship’s log – a standard thriller procedure. More specific to Furst is the habit of omitting verbs from sentences or clauses, to make them feel more punchy and immediate – a kind of telegraphese. And, where the narrative voice or dialogue is often clipped and elliptical, Furst will often give the interpretive thoughts of one of the characters – generally the main protagonist, in this case Captain DeHaan – in italics. All three habits are exemplified in this clip:

6 June, 0820. Hotel Alhadar.
Hard to find, in an alley off an alley, grim and dirty and cheap. The desk clerk sat behind a wire cage, worry beads in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and beneath his tasseled fez, a mean eye – who the hell are you? (p.173)

Repeats

Furst enjoys repeating the same characters or settings over different novels.

  • The Café Heininger is the setting for a famous shootout in the first book and is mentioned in every one of the succeeding novels. Here DeHaan remembers it as the setting for  his last night in Paris with his beloved Arlette (pp.137-139)
  • When Maria Sambon tells DeHaan some of her backstory, she mentions trying to write short stories, in the manner of Babel, no, more like Serebin (p.224). Ilya Serebin is the fictional hero of the previous novel in the series, Blood of Victory.

The recurrence of some characters in the early, genuinely scary and threatening novels about the KGB and its murderous activities in Eastern Europe (and Civil War Spain) added to the sense of menace, the sense of a web of spies and assassins across Europe who the characters couldn’t escape.

But as the series has become softer and more sensual, with a lot more descriptions of fine food and ladies in stockings, the recurrence of minor characters has begun to have the opposite effect, and made the series seem more cartoony, somehow profoundly unserious. The recurrence of the Café Heininger has become an in-joke, like something in an episode of The Simpsons.


Credit

Dark Voyage by Alan Furst was published in 2004 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Phoenix paperback edition.

 Related links

The Night Soldiers novels

1988 Night Soldiers –  An epic narrative which starts with a cohort of recruits to the NKVD spy school of 1934 and then follows their fortunes across Europe, to the Spain of the Civil War, to Paris, to Prague and Switzerland, to the gulags of Siberia and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, in a Europe beset by espionage, conspiracy, treachery and murder.
1991 Dark Star – The story of Russian Jew André Szara, foreign correspondent for Pravda, who finds himself recruited into the NKVD and entering a maze of conspiracies, based in Paris but taking him to Prague, Berlin and onto Poland – in the early parts of which he struggles to survive in the shark-infested world of espionage, to conduct a love affair with a young German woman, and to help organise a network smuggling German Jews to Palestine; then later, as Poland is invaded by Nazi Germany, finds himself on the run across Europe. (390 pages)
1995 The Polish Officer – A long, exhausting chronicle of the many adventures of Captain Alexander de Milja, Polish intelligence officer who carries out assignments in Nazi-occupied Poland and then Nazi-occupied Paris and then, finally, in freezing wintertime Poland during the German attack on Russia.
1996 The World at Night – A year in the life of French movie producer Jean Casson, commencing on the day the Germans invade in June 1940, following his ineffectual mobilisation into a film unit which almost immediately falls back from the front line, his flight, and return to normality in occupied Paris where he finds himself unwittingly caught between the conflicting claims of the Resistance, British Intelligence and the Gestapo. (304 pages)
1999 Red Gold – Sequel to the World At Night, continuing the adventures of ex-film producer Jean Casson in the underworld of occupied Paris and in various Resistance missions across France. (284 pages)
2000 Kingdom of Shadows – Hungarian exile in Paris, Nicholas Morath, undertakes various undercover missions to Eastern Europe at the bidding of his uncle, Count Janos Polanyi, a kind of freelance espionage controller in the Hungarian Legation. Once more there is championship sex, fine restaurants and dinner parties in the civilised West, set against shootouts in forests, beatings by the Romanian police, and fire-fights with Sudeten Germans, in the murky East.
2003 Blood of Victory – Russian émigré writer, Ilya Serebin, gets recruited into a conspiracy to prevent the Nazis getting their hands on Romania’s oil, though it takes a while to realise who’s running the plot – Count Polanyi – and on whose behalf – Britain’s – and what it will consist of – sinking tugs carrying huge turbines at a shallow stretch of the river Danube, thus blocking it to oil traffic. (298 pages)
2004 Dark Voyage – In fact numerous voyages made by the tramp steamer Noordendam and its captain Eric DeHaan, after it is co-opted to carry out covert missions for the Allied cause, covering a period from 30 April to 23 June 1941. Atmospheric and evocative, the best of the last three or four. (309 pages)
2006 The Foreign Correspondent
2008 The Spies of Warsaw
2010 Spies of the Balkans
2012 Mission to Paris
2014 Midnight in Europe
2016 A Hero in France

Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith (2007)

This is the sixth of the eight novels featuring Russian homicide investigator, Arkady Renko, and arguably the most Russian.

As usual there is an extensive cast list and lots of scenes, events and encounters which often border on the bizarre and even visionary. For example, one evening Arkady is driving through the choked Moscow traffic when he comes across a jam around the Moscow Supreme Court. Getting closer he sees canvas awnings and police guiding the traffic, so he gets out to ask what’s going on. A cop tells him that workaday excavations under the Supreme Court to build a new café and facilities have revealed a mass grave. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Russians during the Stalin era of the 1930s, 40s and 50s were brought directly from the court room down into the cellar and shot in the back of the head.

Later in the novel, in countryside hundreds of miles from Moscow, Arkady gets accidentally involved with a group which calls itself ‘the Diggers’, poor provincials who assemble every weekend at rural sites which might contain mass graves from the second world war, and here they dig up the corpses, looting anything valuable from the German ones, sending the Russian ones, where identifiable, back to their families.

This latter scene takes outside the town of Tver, where the Nazi advance into Russia was halted then reversed, for this novel, more than any of the others, is about the toxic legacy of Russia’s immensely troubled past on its chaotic, crime-infested present. This is the guiding theme of the novel and it is brought out through a number of intertwining elements.

Elements of the plot

1. Moscow

Stalin’s ghost It opens with riders on the late-night Moscow metro claiming to have sighted Stalin, standing clear as day on one of the central stations. Arkady is tasked with what seems the trivial mission of getting to the bottom of this odd story. When he rides the last metro he comes across a TV crew led by the director Zelensky, his assistant, Petya, and a thuggish minder, Boris Bogolovo aka ‘Bora’. They claim to have been simply filming the metro passengers but Arkady suspects them of doing something with mirrors or optical illusions, or somehow being involved in what he thinks is a publicity stunt, so he confiscates their tape, and shoulders his way past the protesting crew, including Bora who is obviously tempted to get physical, except for all the witnesses.

Once outside the station, Arkady realises Bora is still pursuing him. In a scene of mounting tension, the fit hard man Bora follows Arkady into the snow-covered Gorky Park, but the latter has cleverly lured him onto the snow-covered ice of the lake at the park’s centre. As Bora catches up, Arkady jumps up and down to crack the ice and Bora falls through it, drifting away from the hole and starting to drown. Arkady waits a good while before making another hole and dragging the half-drowned Bora out, pumping his chest to evacuate the water. Bora never actually attacked him and appears to have no weapon so Arkady can’t get him locked up, so makes sure he’s more or less recovered and walks away. This incident will have dire consequences later on.

Kuznetsov murdered In a completely unrelated development a big, stocky middle-aged man named Kuznetsov is found dead in his crappy workers’ apartment with a cleaver embedded in his neck. Arkady is called to the scene to find it being investigated by a pair of detectives we haven’t met before, the dapper Nikolai Isakov and the thuggish Marat Urman. They claim it’s an open and shut case, the wife is covered with blood and hysterical in the next room: she will be charged with the murder.

Comrade Platonov In another strand Arkady is contacted by a certain Platonov, an eighty-year-old chess grand master and unreconstructed communist party member. Platonov has asked for police protection because the communist HQ has been attacked a few times and Platonov has been threatened for speaking out against the current regime.

Tanya the garroter Half way through the novel Arkady is invited to a ‘party’ at this communist party headquarters, a rundown office full of junk equipment. A pretty young woman is there, Tanya, who he had previously seen playing the harp in the bar of the swanky Hotel Metropol. One purpose of the scene is to show how completely collapsed and demoralised the communist party now is, run by a handful of tired old timers.

But there is another purpose: Tanya the harpist drunkenly flirts with Arkady then insists he sees her home. When he is rummaging round in the tatty stationery room looking for their coats he is astonished to feel a piano wire – a wire from her harp! – slipped round his neck and the supposedly drunk Tanya suddenly using all her strength to strangle him. There is a mad struggle in which he pushes backwards, failing to back kick her, but eventually nutting her backwards and, in her temporary loss of grasp, whipping the wire over his head and punching her hard.

Tanya is arrested and Arkady taken to hospital with severe bruising and cutting round his neck. He is startled to learn from his assistant, Viktor Orlov, that Tanya is the girlfriend of the thuggish cop, Urman. Hmmm. Characteristically Arkady’s superior, the prosecutor Zurin, who hates him, prefers Tanya’s version of the story: she is claiming that Arkady tried to rape her. As usual, Arkady finds himself surrounded by enemies and deliberate misunderstanding.

Eva In the previous novel, Arkady had hooked up with a female doctor who was working in the eerie Exclusion Zone around the ruined Chernobyl power station, Dr Eva Kazka. He had ‘taken’ her from her divorced husband (who turns out to be the killer at the core of the novel, Alex Gerasimov) and brought her back to his Moscow flat where they formed an odd household, looking after the street kid Zhenya, who sometimes flops on their sofa, sometimes is absent for long periods.

But early on it becomes clear that their relationship is in trouble. Throughout the novel Arkady is given to playing tapes they made in the happy early months of their relationship, and lamenting the fact that they’ve drifted apart. This mainly seems to be because she’s obscurely re-activated a relationship she had from an earlier part of her career, when she worked in Chechnya during the troubled years of the 1990s, during Russia’s savage wars with the little republic (Chechen population 1.27 million, Russian population 144 million).

In fact, it is a surprise to learn the man who is taking her away from Arkady is his fellow investigator, Nikolai Isakov. Bit by bit we learn that he was a member of the special forces or OMON (also known as the Black Berets) in Chechnya and so was his thuggish sidekick, Urman. This is where he met Eva who was, being a principled rebel, tending Chechen civilians caught in the conflict. She testifies that Nikolai was genuinely brave, a born leader of his men, and went out of his way to be chivalrous to the Chechen population. Doesn’t stop Arkady being upset that she is leaving him.

Isakov’s political ambitions It emerges that Isakov has not only smoothly transitioned from leader of men in Chechnya to Moscow investigator – he also harbours political ambitions. He is the figurehead of a new ‘Patriotic Party’ which will ‘make Russia great again’. To this end he has employed two American political advisers, satirical portraits of two chancers named Wiley and Pacheco. And also the former porn movie director, Zelensky, who we met at the scene of the ‘Stalin sightings’ on the metro.

Arkady feels some kind of pattern emerging from the fog. When the distraught wife of Kuznetsov, the man we met with a meat cleaver in his neck, is found having ‘swallowed her tongue’ and died while in police custody, it prompts Arkady to revisit the morgue to examine the Kuznetsov’s body. Turning him over Arkady and Orlov see the massive tell-tale tattoo of the OMON on his back. Aha.

Isakov, Urman, Bora, Kuznetsov were all in the same OMON unit in Chechnya. Tanya who tried to kill him is linked with Urman. Eva who is dumping him met Isakov in Chechnya. What are they all trying to hide?

The Sunzha Bridge incident Slowly a theme emerges, a central incident on which the plot turns out to hinge: during the Chechen War, Chechen guerrillas attacked a Russian hospital and massacred all the doctors, nurses and patients, then fled in lorries. Nikolai Isakov was leading a group of six OMON troops by a small bridge which the guerrillas were reported to be heading for. Here they intercepted the trucks and engaged in a fierce firefight with the fleeing guerrillas, eventually killing 14 of them and repelling the trucks, with only one wounded on their own side.

Isakov’s American political advisers have made a big deal out of this heroic episode and are using it in their posters and promotional videos to boost Nikolai’s patriotic credentials. ‘What Russia needs is courageous leaders etc’.

Arkady undermines the legend But, typically, Arkady obstinately pokes and enquires and digs deeper and begins to suspect the incident is not all it was painted to be. Through contacts he comes across the alcoholic Jewish hunchback, Ginsberg, who was attached to the OMON as press and PR man. He arrived at the scene of the heroic fight by helicopter only moments after it ended and took photos from the hovering chopper. After building up his trust, Arkady gets Ginsberg to hand over the photos he took from the chopper down onto the scene of the fight, strewn with dead Chechens and heroic OMON forces. Having had time to examine them really closely, Arkady makes an appointment to meet Ginsberg again, but the hunchback fails to turn up and eventually Arkady discovers his body in a nearby street. He appears to have drunk himself insensible in a snowdrift and been run over by a snowplough with gruesome results. And the investigating officer? The thuggish Urman. It really feels like a conspiracy now.

No medal for Nikolai Following up all the leads, Arkady gets a meeting with retired Major Gennady Agronsky who was in charge of allotting medals during the Chechen War. Isakov’s name was put forward for one because of the much-publicised incident, but Agronsky looked into the incident in detail, and eventually refused to grant one. A few weeks later he was forced into retirement. Like Ginsberg he thinks there was in fact no firefight: he thinks the Chechens were hostages or somehow captives of the OMON forces who simply executed them and claimed the glory.

Arkady’s father A completely different thread which runs through the text is a series of vivid memories Arkady has of his father, General Kyril Renko. Kyril was an eminent general during the second world war (which the Russians call the Great Patriotic War). The Russians suffered so badly in the war partly because Stalin, in his paranoia, purged (ie executed) nearly the entire command structure of the Red Army, 1,000s of senior and experienced officers. He also refused to believe all the intelligence telling him Hitler was about to attack, believing all such reports to be Western disinformation, thus giving the Germans all possible advantages.

Arguably it was the weather and nothing to do with Russian leadership which halted then turned the tide of the German advance. If they had attacked 6 weeks earlier they might have taken Moscow and forced the collapse of the Soviet government (as in Robert Harris’s brilliant counter-factual thriller, Fatherland.)

Arkady’s father navigated all these horrors to become one of Stalin’s favourites, managing to survive both the war and the revival of purges in the later 1940s and 1950s (until Stalin’s death in 1953). Throughout the book Arkady meets characters who think his father was a great patriotic hero. But, in line with the book’s general theme of debunking the past, Arkady knows his father was a butcher in his professional work and a bully in his private life.

Arkady repeatedly relives the countless times his father bullied the young boy into stripping down then rebuilding a pistol. If he made any errors his father forced him to stand with his arms outstretched holding the gun, a pose which quickly became a form of torture.

But at the heart of his memories is Arkady’s obsessive rerunning of the summer day when his mother took him down to the stream near the family’s dacha, to collect stones, the little boy has no idea why. That night the General holds a massive party for all his Army colleagues and neighbours in the select neighbourhood of dachas. The mother is reported missing and a search party finds her down in the lake. She has filled all her pockets with the stones and drowned herself. The General is furious when he discovers Arkady, the innocent little boy, helped her collect them, and asks his friends to take the boy away before he kills him. Kyril never forgives the boy and is further embittered when he rejects a career in the Army to become a lousy cop.

So when various supporters of the new Patriotic Party tell Arkady how much they admire his ‘heroic’ father, Arkady doesn’t even have to reply. We know his version. By extension, we know how much contemporary myths and legends – and lies – distort the past.

Zhenya’s father Another father looms large in the plot. Zhenya, the runaway street kid we met in the previous novel, flits in and out of Arkady’s life. He is just one of the estimated 50,000 kids living wild on the streets of Moscow. Most of them aren’t abandoned, they’ve run away from abusive alcoholic parents. There are so many of them running wild and committing street crime that Putin himself has declared them a threat to national security (p.54).

Cruz Smith’s novels paint an unremittingly bleak and hopeless picture of contemporary Russia.

Zhenya is 12 now and still the startling chess prodigy we met in the previous novel. He and old comrade Platonov are invited to take part in a TV chess championship. Cruz Smith lets rip in depicting this televised fiasco as a symbol of the collapse of Russian culture: instead of grandmasters spending days in subtle battle as back in the glory years, this is ‘blitz’ chess, a knockout tournament where each player has just five minutes to play all their moves, for the entertainment of the cheering, mindless TV audience.

Cruz Smith describes the chess games of Zhenya and Platonov with characteristic clipped poetry. Despite not describing the actual moves, he vividly conveys the way Zhenya slaughters his opponents to make it to the final. In this Big Match Zhenya is poised to win when someone in the audience coughs, Zhenya glances up, and then to everyone’s amazement, deliberately resigns the game.

Outside the studio, he explains to Arkady and Platonov that he saw his father in the audience. His father? Arkady has been keeping an eye out for Zhenya’s father for several years, under the impression the boy was dying to be reunited with his errant parent. In the event the dad – Osip Lysenko – follows Arkady, Platonov and his son out into the snow where he proceeds to harangue them all, blaming Arkady for abducting him, eventually pulling an old-looking gun out, pointing it at Arkady’s skull and – without any warning – shooting him in the head!

Arkady’s recovery That was unexpected. The whole plot goes on hold while Arkady recovers in a weird and powerful chapter which intertwines status reports on Arkady’s blood pressure, heart rate and so on, with snippets he overhears of the doctors talking about him and vivid memories, especially of the mother drowning incident.

In particular we hear the docs explaining to his on-again, off-again partner, Dr Eva, that the gun was very very old, so old the bullet barely detonated, though it did enter the skull and mash some of the brain. Arkady had been accompanied by the ever-faithful assistant detective Viktor Orlik who promptly shot Osip dead.

The doctors operate to remove the bullet and then cut open the front of Arkady’s skull to relieve pressure on the brain. As the days pass, Arkady comes out from anaesthesia, argues with his nurses and doctors, receives visitors and, with typical obstinacy, insists on checking out before he is fully recovered.

This section contains some weirdly affecting passages where the recovering Arkady realises the extent of his brain damage: he is shown an orange and asked what colour it is, what shape it is. He knows, but can’t formulate the words. It would have been very interesting if he had continued in this slightly brain-damaged state. A brain-damaged investigator would (presumably) be some kind of first in the vast annals of crime fiction. And also Cruz Smith’s style, his approach, is so very alert to language and its manipulation, that it’s a shame he didn’t make more of this opportunity.

2. Tver

Instead, Arkady recovers with disappointing speed and decides he needs to drive to Tver, a town a few hundred kilometres from Moscow. Why? Because all of the OMON group Isakov belonged to come from Tver. The secret of his rise, what his squad got up to in Chechnya, the secret of the Sunzha Bridge, all will be revealed there.

Prosecutor Sarkisian Tver’s town prosecutor has been tipped off by Arkady’s boss that his subversive underling is coming, and organises a Russian welcome, ie the manager of the hotel Arkady’s been booked into shows him up to the room, slips on some knuckle dusters and is about to beat him up, when Arkady sprays fly spray in his face.

Arkady decides it’s safer to take a furnished room and replies to an ad which introduces him to one Sofia Andreyeva Poninski, who rents out to him a rather nice flat, furnished with oil paintings and classy rugs, claiming to do so on behalf of its absent owner, an academic on an overseas posting. Possibly the academic doesn’t even know it’s being let, but Arkady won’t quibble, and he sets about investigating the scene in Tver.

Rudi Rudenko After getting shouted at by angry provincials he realises he’s going to have to ditch his car with its Moscow number plates, and on a whim decides to rent or buy a motorbike. Answering an ad he goes to the beaten-up garage of a pony-tailed hell’s angel, Rudi Rudenko, initially violent (like all the Russians in these novels), who eventually calms down and sells Arkady an ancient motorbike with sidecar. Rudi lets slip that he is one of the ‘diggers’ and Arkady insists on coming on their next dig.

This is the big jamboree I referred to above, where fleets of cars, with families, bikers, history fanatics, treasure seekers with metal detectors, all congregate on likely looking sites to dig up bodies from the Great Patriotic War. For as well as being the home town of Isakov, Urman, Kuznetsov and all six of the Omon troops involved in the Sunzha Bridge incident, Arkady tells us that Tver is also where the German advance into Russia ground to a standstill.

On this rather slender basis, Smith makes Isakov and Urman turn up at this particular dig, accompanied by their Yankee advisors, Wiley and Pacheco, and the camera team directed by the seedy ex-porn director, Zelensky. The idea is that Zendensky is filming Isakov at various ‘patriotic’ events, building up a portfolio which can be edited into TV ads for the forthcoming elections. (Slowly, without us really realising it, Isakov has stopped being a police investigator and morphed into a populist political candidate).

Disaster at the dig This is the long climactic scene which brings together all the novel’s threads and all its key characters. Isakov and Urman are there, along with the creepy director Zelensky who films the activities, and the two American political advisors consulting on how he should behave. Arkady has been joined by Eva (actually now in Isakov’s entourage) and young Zhenya.

The diggers set about digging in the lee of a hilltop crowned with pine trees, Arkady watching fascinated, and little Zhenya with him keen to see old guns and grenades. Soon enough bodies start turning up, garnished with equipment and name tags. The Americans cue the director who positions Isakov to make a grand Patriotic Speech about the patriotic soldiers who gave their lives for the great nation of Russia – ‘Who is willing to make that kind of sacrifice nowadays etc?’

However, the whole plan is seriously scuppered when the woman who rented Arkady the flat turns up on the site as the official pathologist brought in to verify the provenance of the corpses, Dr Poninski. She ruins the mood by examining a series of corpses and announcing that they are indisputably Polish, garnished with Polish name tags, letters, weapons etc – and every one of them has been shot in the back of the head.

Far from being patriotic heroes, these bodies are just some of the victims of one of Stalin’s worst crimes, the execution of the entire officer class of the Polish people which, along with the systematic extermination of all its intelligentsia and managerial classes, was designed to reduce the Poles to eternal slavery to the Great Russian People (this is also the secret at the heart of Robert Harris’s great thriller, Enigma.)

Angry, demoralised, disillusioned, the majority of the diggers pack up and leave. But not Isakov’s sidekick, the volatile thug Urman. He insists on taking a shovel and moving up the slope into the trees and is followed by the boyishly excited Zhenya, so Arkady has to follow them too.

All through this scene there have been alerts about armed ordnance left lying around and references to the steady trickle of diggers who have, in the past, blow their legs off when a spade hit a grenade or landmine. As Arkady tries to reason Zhenya into leaving, Urman suddenly turns violent, knowing Arkady is on their trail about the Bridge incident and blaming him for everything which has gone wrong with Isakov’s campaign. Now he turns his shovel on Arkady, clouting him round the head, knocking him, stunned, into the hole he’s been digging and, madly, impulsively, starting to bury Arkady alive. When he’s shovelled all the loose dirt available onto our hero he starts digging up more, and that’s when he uncovers an anti-personnel mine which springs into the air, loaded with ball bearings and scrap metal, gives a gentle click, and explodes, cutting Urman in half.

A dazed Arkady slowly excavates himself from his grave, picks up Zhenya and staggers back to the dig headquarters, mounts his bike and drives back into Tver.

Isakov’s father Cruising along the high street he sees two figures outside the local security services (FSB) headquarters. It is Isakov and Eva, pacing up and down, deep in conversation.

When he joins them Arkady finds Isakov agonising about his father, formerly a senior figure in the Tver NKVD, predecessor to the KGB. Like Arkady, he had a powerful dominating father, but this one was an alcoholic. Just like Arkady’s, all his colleagues said Isakov’s father was a great ‘hero’ during the war – in which case, why did he become obsessed in later years with washing his hands and end up drink himself to death?

After the revelation of the Polish genocide at the dig, Isakov thinks he finally understands. Now for the first time he is inclined to believe the rumours he heard about his father that he was not some hero, he was actually the KGB executioner – locked into a room with a pistol, boxes of ammunition and a bottle of vodka – night after night he got drunk and shot in the nape of the neck hundreds, then thousands, of Polish army officers who were corraled into his underground cell, until he was ankle deep in blood and covered in human gore.

Isakov’s confession In this febrile mood, Arkady confronts Isakov with his theory about what happened at Sunzha Bridge and Isakov suddenly confesses. He reveals he wasn’t even there, he was off driving round with Eva. The unpredictable Urman was in charge. And they were doing quiet peaceful trading with local Chechen merchants. They were buying Chechen carpets, one of Chechnya’s cultural exports, which fetch a fortune in Moscow, let alone in the West, in Paris or New York.

They were all sitting round, having concluded the deal and sharing a civilised cup of tea, when news came through on the radio of the guerrilla massacre of the Russian hospital and – crucially – that an armed convoy of Russian troops was heading their way. Did they want to be found by their infuriated comrades sitting round sipping tea with the enemy? No. On the spur of the moment, Urman executed all the unarmed Chechens where they sat, and was arranging their bodies in likely postures of battle when the helicopter with Ginsberg the hunchback arrived. This explains why the latter’s photos show the scene below being dramatically altered over the course of just a few minutes, as Urman and the other boys from Tver tried to rearrange it to look like a violent battle scene.

Isakov confesses it all then takes out his pistol and points it at Arkady’s head. Yes, he admits, that’s why Kuznetsov and Ginsberg had to die – they were about to reveal everything and ruin Isakov’s political ambitions – and now it’s why Arkady has to die.

But at this dramatic moment Eva, who has listened to everything, puts her hand in her pocket and presses play on the little tape recorder she’s got hidden there, and it plays back part of Isakov’s confession. As he turns towards her she takes the tape cassette and throws it over the barbed wire gates into the FSB compound. There is no way any of them can get in to retrieve it. And it will inevitably be found whatever happens to them. Isakov stands open-mouthed, completely non-plussed what to do. Eva and Arkady walk away.

Arkady makes a call on his cell phone to his long-suffering boss, prosecutor Zurin, explaining how the chain of murders all go back to Isakov and Urman’s illegal carpet-smuggling racket in Chechnya, and how Isakov’s political ambitions now lie in tatters.

Final assault In the last few pages, Arkady, Eva and the reader think it’s all over and the couple are reunited again (though how their relationship will feel after her defection back to Isakov remains to be seen). So it is all the more shocking when they climb the stairs to the apartment Arkady had rented, push open the door – only to be confronted by the killer Bora from the opening scenes. He has already murdered Sofia Poninski – a traitor to Holy Russia for revealing the dig’s corpses to be Polish, half cutting her head off – whose bloody corpse is lying in the corner. For Bora is carrying a razor sharp knife which Arkady tries to seize – badly slicing the palm of his hand – before Bora sinks it into the side of Eva, and rams it upwards, as she gasps and is pushed back against the wall.

The street kid Zhenya is also there, barricaded behind a pile of chairs and furniture, somehow surviving the madman, and holding Arkady’s ancient pistol, the gun he owns but rarely carries. As Bora turns to Arkady knife in hand, Zhenya shoots him through the head. God, what horror.

Arkady runs for the phone and rings an ambulance and all the way to the hospital holds Eva’s hand as she goes in and out of consciousness. The nurse comes out of the operating theatre a few hours later and says it’s touch and go whether she will survive.

And on this bombshell the novel ends.

Dramatis personae

Moscow

Arkady Renko – tall, rather gangling everyman hero, who wanders bemused through the crime-infested landscape of post-communist Russia
Nikolai Isakov – hero of the OMON / Black Beret forces in Chechnya, not least for his heroic stand at the battle of Sunzha Bridge, currently working as a fellow investigating detective of the Moscow militia but who is standing for election to the Russian Senate, partnered by –
Marat Urman – his unpredictably violent sidekick
Dr Eva Kazka – the doctor Arkady brought back from Chernobyl in the previous novel, but who is now reviving her old love affair with Isakov
Zhenya – the twelve-year-old street kid and chess genius who drifts in and out of Arkady and Eva’s lives
Grandmaster Platonov – dyed-in-the-wool communist and one-time chess legend, now asking Arkady for protection from Russian ‘patriots’
Zelensky – former independent film director, now reduced to making porno movies, who’s hoping to step back into the world by directing election ads for Isakov
Boris Bogolovo aka Bora – former OMON fighter, hired to mind Zelensky and crew as they do promotional shoots for Isakov; humiliated by Arkady he takes his violent revenge at the end of the novel

Tver

Rudi Rudenko – pony-tailed biker who sells Arkady a knackered motorbike and through whom he gets to know about the ‘diggers’
Big Rudi – Rudi’s gaga grand-dad who remembers Stalin and the ‘good old days’ – when you could exterminate the intelligentsia of a whole nation and nobody made all this fuss!
Prosecutor Sarkisian – Tver prosecutor, tipped off by Arkady’s boss Zurin, who plans to get Arkady beaten up
Sofia Andreyeva Poninski – forensic scientist of Polish extraction who identifies the bodies dug up by the diggers as Polish officers who had been systematically massacred by Stalin’s secret police / NKVD.


Thoughts

This is the third of the novels to centre round illegal smuggling – of sables in Gorky Park, art works in Red Square, Chechen carpets here. The criminal activities at the core of each novel rarely justify the convoluted webs of mayhem they seem to set in motion. To do that, Cruz Smith has to deploy some occasionally far-fetched plot twists and coincidences which aren’t always believable. In this one I never really believed in Isakov’s political ambitions, the central thread in the plot.

For a start, this would surely have been the very first thing Arkady would have had in mind about Isakov when we met him – a fellow investigator standing for the Senate would have been pretty big news in any office.

Then Isakov’s campaign itself seems oddly flaky and amateurish. There don’t appear to be any of the staff and volunteers you expect of such a campaign, with the exception of the not very believable American campaign advisers. And they advise their candidate to come up with a crude publicity stunt about Stalin and then go to the site of a mass grave and the exhumation of hundreds of dead bodies. Not classic feel-good photo opportunities, are they?

Similarly, the presence of Zelensky the ex-porn movie director allows Cruz Smith to make salient points about Russia’s thriving porn and prostitution industries (including a harrowing scene where Arkady gets to view footage he and friends shot of them gang raping a naive volunteer who wants to break into the movies). But it was never really clear how the footage he was shooting either in the Moscow underground or at the grim dig was going to be used in campaign ads.

Finally, the freakish story which starts the book, the supposed appearances of Stalin on the Moscow metro, are initially mystifying and eerie, so it is disappointing when they end up being explained away as mass hysteria sparked off by a few agents provocateurs who Zelensky and his people have planted on the trains. Once they start shouting ‘Stalin Stalin!’ it’s easy for the raddled drunks and ancient baboushkas on the late night tube to catch the fever, and think they saw something too. Was that all there was to it? And what a peculiar idea for a publicity stunt?

Then again, questioning the plausibility of some of these storylines is to misunderstand how Cruz Smith’s novels work. These rather eccentric plot lines are a) colourful in themselves but b) really serve as emanations of the commanding vision of the book – the dominance of the Present by the horrors of the Past. Their function is not to be plausible, but to be illustrative.

They should be seen less as storylines which have documentary verisimilitude, than as poetic embodiments of the novels’ themes and ideas.

And, of course, they act as opportunities for Cruz Smith to deploy his wonderfully spare, poetic prose.

Style

Cruz Smith is a great prose poet. He combines tremendous perception and acuity of observation with a dazzling ability to shape and turn a phrase.

She had long red fingernails and as she turned a cigarette pack over and over Arkady was put in mind of a crab inspecting dinner. (p.3)

Antipenko and Mendeleyev sat side by side, like the stones of a slumping wall. (p.35)

Outside the day faded, the sun a bonfire in the snow. (p.53)

Of the rackety Moscow metro:

The others gasped when the lights of the car flickered and sparks shot up between the tunnel and the train. This was the oldest section of the entire system. Rails were worn. Insulation frayed. Blue imps danced around the switches. (p.69)

Viktor took a first sip of vodka like a butcher whetting his knife. (p.231)

Not on every page, but regularly enough to have your breath taken away, the reader is dazzled and grateful for Cruz Smith’s ability as a writer, as a shaper and moulder of the English language.


Credit

Stalin’s Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith was published by Macmillan in 2007. All quotes and references to the 2008 Pan paperback edition.

Related links

Arkady Renko novels

Smith is a prolific writer. Under his own name or pseudonyms, he has written some 28 novels to date. The eight novels featuring Russian investigator Arkady Renko make up the longest series based on one character:

1981 Gorky Park – Introducing Arkady Renko and the case of the three faceless corpses found in Gorky Park, in the heart of Moscow, who turn out to be victims of John Osborne, the slick American smuggler of priceless live sables.
1989 Polar Star – In the first novel, Renko had clashed with his own superiors in Moscow. Now he is forced to flee across Russia, turning up some years later, working on a Soviet fish factory ship in the Bering Sea. Here, once his former profession becomes known, he is called on by the captain to solve the mystery of a female crew member whose body is caught in one of the ship’s own fishing nets. Who murdered her? And why?
1992 Red Square – After inadvertently helping the Russian security services in the previous book, Arkady is restored to his job as investigator in Moscow. It is 1991 and the Soviet Union is on the brink of dissolution so his bosses are happy to despatch the ever-troublesome Arkady to Munich, then on to Berlin, to pursue his investigations into an art-smuggling operation – to be reunited with Irina (who he fell in love with in Gorky Park) – before returning for a bloody climax in Moscow set against the backdrop of the August 1991 military coup.
1999 Havana Bay – Some years later, depressed by the accidental death of his wife, Irina, Arkady is ssent to Havana, Cuba, to investigate the apparent death of his old adversary, ex-KGB officer Colonel Pribluda. He finds himself at the centre of a murderous conspiracy, in an alien society full of colourful music by day and prostitution and voodoo ceremonies by night, and forced to work closely with a tough local black policewoman, Ofelia Orosio, to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the novel.
2004 Wolves Eat Dogs The apparent suicide of a New Russian millionaire leads Arkady to Chernobyl, the village and countryside devastated by the world’s worst nuclear accident – and it is in this bleak, haunting landscape that Arkady finds a new love and the poisonous secret behind a sequence of grisly murders.
2007 Stalin’s Ghost The odd claim that Stalin has been sighted at a Moscow metro station leads Arkady to cross swords with fellow investigator Nikolai Isakov, whose murky past as a special forces soldier in Chechnya and current bid for political office come to dominate a novel which broadens out to become an wide-ranging exploration of the toxic legacy of Russia’s dark history.
2010 Three Stations In the shortest novel in the series, Arkady solves the mystery of a ballet-obsessed serial killer, while the orphan boy he’s found himself adopting, Zhenya, has various adventures in the rundown district around Moscow’s notorious Three Stations district.
2013 Tatiana – is Tatiana Petrovna, an investigative journalist who appears to have jumped to her death from the 6th floor of her apartment block. When Arkady investigates her death he discovers a trail leading to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Coast and a huge corruption scandal which will involve him in love and death amid the sand dunes of the atmospheric ‘Curonian Split’.

%d bloggers like this: