Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction

Americocentric

It is Americocentric. There are no other countries worth troubling with on earth. Whether ‘man’ reaches out to colonise the planets, to settle on Mars or Mercury, invents hyperspace and travels to colonise distant planets, or stays at home to create the megacities of Caves of Steel – it’s Americans who do it, with American technology, and American culture.

And the home city is always New York: in the final story of I, Robot, it is New York which becomes seat of the new World Government and the World Co-Ordinator is, of course, American, as are the inventors of robots, and the hyper-drive, and anything else worthwhile that mankind comes up with. 3,000 years later, after billions of people have left earth to colonise the Outer Worlds, detective Elijah Baley lives in New York.

Everyone speaks English

With the result that everyone speaks English. It is one of the many ludicrous elements you have to overcome in order to read the Foundation trilogy, that 12,000 years in the future, and inhabiting planets scattered right across the inconceivable distances of the Galaxy – everyone speaks English. There’s a slight gesture towards reality, in that some of the humans on the more remote planets have an accent which is a bit hard for others to understand. But it’s always, everywhere, basically English that is spoken.

Planets become provinces

I can’t quite define it, but it’s the way all his (and other golden age writers’) universes consist of planets which just do one thing and are treated, in effect, like real-world people treat regions of their countries.

Thus a planet in the Foundation books is a ‘holiday planet’, as if one whole planet were made of beaches and cocktail bars. Another planet just supplies raw materials, in The Naked Sun Solaria is the planet with most advanced robotics. And that’s it. That’s what it does.

Planets – entire planets – are conceived of as one-trick ponies, which do just the one thing. Completely ignoring the evidence we have about the only planet where we know life exists – our own one – that planets are astonishingly diverse, in climates, life forms and so on.

It is a profoundly dumb way of thinking about planets. As if each one is a toy in a childish game. It is an example of the way Asimov and other Golden Age writers dismiss or ignore the mind-boggling diversity of life on our own planet. In Asimov’s fiction planet earth is reduced to American men arguing in rooms. It follows that his view of the entire galaxy is the same, but extrapolated to many more rooms.

It is this reductive gesture which makes so many of the planets in the Foundation stories end up sounding the same. They may be given a paragraph or so of cursory description – but they all have earth-type gravity and air, no radiation or dangerous environmental elements of any kind. They’re just variations of the same kind of futuristic room where Elijah Baley ends up meeting and arguing with people, or the protagonists of the Foundation stories end up meeting and arguing with people. In American.

A human-only universe

This imaginative reductionism is related to the way that there appears to be no other life in the galaxy.

Humans colonise all the other planets, and then hypertravel off to other star systems, and end up colonising pretty much every other planet in the galaxy and yet – encounter no other significant life forms.

It’s not only that this is unlikely (although it’s all completely unlikely). More to the point, it is extravagantly boring. It means that all Asimov’s fiction is about people, the same kind of people, a certain type of calculating adult, calculating the same kinds of odds and trying to figure out whodunnit.

They’re all detective stories

All the Foundation stories and the Elijah Baley stories are, in a sense, whodunnits. The Baley ones, obviously since he is a detective investigating murders. The Foundation ones in a more roundabout sense. In every Foundation story there is a dilemma or threat. Individual or group X think the best way to solve it is by doing Y. But the hero (or heroine) of each story knows better and all the stories end the same way: the secret of what really happened is revealed right at the end. So although they’re not overtly detective stories, they have a similar structure: dilemma – fake leads and red herrings – revelation of the true solution or meaning of events.

Simplistic politics

Having painted a childishly simplistic vision of a galaxy in which each planet does just one thing, in which there are no aliens to disrupt his whodunnits, Asimov only incorporates the most simplistic and child’s-eye version of ‘politics’ as is required to drive the stories.

If there are ‘political’ movements, they are a) perfectly understandable and b) perfectly rational and c) childishly simple.

Thus in The Caves of Steel there is a ‘party’ – the ‘Medievalists’ – which wishes to return humans to a simpler, earlier time. That’s it. There don’t appear to be any other political parties in America, there’s no mention of elections, with the vast amount of corruption and bullshit they usually throw up, let alone of the notion that there are different countries who might be economic or military rivals (as we know there have been throughout all human history).

No – magically, the entire world of national and international politics disappears with a wave of the magic wand, leaving behind just enough of a child’s cartoon version of ‘politics’ (a secret society who want to turn the clock back – about as sophisticated as the League of Red-Haired Men in Sherlock Holmes) as is required for make the hokey storyline.

Pretty much the same ‘party’ – really a conspiracy – appears in the final story if I, Robot where it is the Society for Humanity which opposes the rise of the robots.

Any other notion that people might disagree about fundamental principles of how to run the economy, how to redistribute wealth, whether to allow unchecked capitalism or moderate it or try and implement some kind of state economy, the usual nationalist, xenophobic and populist motivations for politics which we all know from the real world – gone, vanished, evaporated, cleansed – just like other nations or other languages.

Economics

Similarly, Asimov’s take on economics is raw materials are needed for factories on earth. That’s about it. The earth of The Caves of Steel is rigidly hierarchical but we don’t really get to see anyone at work except the police (we do meet a worker in a nuclear plant and the staff of a shop where an anti-robot riot nearly breaks out) and these police could come out of a Raymond Chandler novel or any of the thousands of other contemporary cop thrillers.

Real economics involves the continuously evolving exploitation of raw materials, and siting and building of factories, and the training of workforces to supply technologies which are constantly being invented solely to make money. America has been the world’s leading capitalist economy and society for at least a century. It is extraordinary that Asimov, for all his supposed intelligence, is blind to the disruptive energies of capitalism which always lead, everywhere, to the provision of a high standard of living for many, maybe a majority of a capitalist population, but also always involve low wages, unemployment and – a cardinal fact of untrammeled capitalism – the cycle of boom and bust, with periodic crashes leading to deep depressions every ten years or so.

In the real world it is difficult even to organise the workers in a particular industry to join together to take industrial action or bargain for better pay. In Asimov’s world entire planets truck along quite happily producing raw materials or being vacation planets, with no sense of struggle or exploitation or grievance or class or racial conflict.

All the things which we know absolutely dog the actual world – are excluded from his stories.

Wars

Similarly, real world wars break out for complex reasons and, once started, tend to develop a dynamic of their own and become very difficult to end.

As you might expect by now, wars in Asimov’s fiction are the opposite, as simply motivated and easily ended as his paper-thin notion of politics. Some of the Foundation wars do start for the time-honoured motivation that strong planets see an opportunity to conquer weak ones – but they are nearly always started by specific named individuals who, when we meet them, are portrayed as pantomime baddies.

I’m thinking of the story, The Mayors, in which the planet Anacreon is ruled by Prince Regent Wienis, who rubs his hand and cackles like a pantomime villain or Ming the Merciless, while bullying his whiney teenaged nephew, King Lepold I. It only takes Salvor Hardin to pull off a few tricks (he’s bugged the Anacreon fleet and also manages to turn off all power in Anacreon’s capital city) to overcome Wienis and the threatened war to end as quickly as it began.

My point is that, in the real world, wars are often supported by entire populations which have been whipped up top expect them – as all Europe expected World War One, as the Nazis whipped up the Germans or the Japanese military leaders organised their entire society for war. In Asimov’s fairy tales, the goody only has to eliminate the cackling baddy and the rest of the population instantly returns to being reasonable and peace-loving. Exactly the opposite of reality.

Women

It’s to Asimov’s credit that he gives a leading role to Bayta Darell, who grasps what is going on quicker than her husband in The Mule, and to her grand-daughter, 14-year-old Arcadia Darell, in Search By the Foundation, that Elijah Baley’s wife, Jessie, plays some role in The Caves of Steel and Gladia Delmarre plays the lead, a somewhat stereotyped romantic lead, in The Naked Sun. And not forgetting the way he places Dr Susan Calvin centre stage for the linked stories that make up I, Robot.

Still, Asimov’s failure to anticipate women’s lib and feminism is a good example of the way that, while he and his fans had their eyes fixed on the stars, real and profound social changes were transforming human relationships here on earth (in the West, at any rate) in a matter of just a few decades.

I’m not blaming him for failing to anticipate specific social changes: I’m pointing out that his fictions envisage basically unchanged social relationships stretching for thousands of years into the future and how profoundly misleading a view of human nature that is.

Race

Ditto race. In The Naked Sun the humans refer to the fleets of robots which do all the hard work as ‘boy’. Now this is the offensive, abusive term which white Americans used to blacks from the Reconstruction period onwards, and reached horrible aggressiveness as a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Asimov couldn’t anticipate that only a decade or so after he was writing, America was to be seriously divided by the rise of the Civil Rights Movement and then the assassination of Martin Luther King, of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and so on.

But that’s the point. While Asimov was extrapolating his neat and tidy Three Laws of Robotics, and anticipated them being carried 100, 3,000 and 12,000 years into the future by white English-speaking, Americans – meanwhile, around him, through the 1950s into the 1960s, the real world descended into a messy chaos.

Summary

This is why so many adult readers, writers and critics were, and are, able to dismiss and ignore most science fiction – it’s because science fiction itself simply excludes and ignores almost everything which makes up the actual world we live in, with all its difficulties and complexities and challenges and, by extension, its rewards and interest.


Reviews of books by Isaac Asimov

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny

1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’

1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery

1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936)

I’ve just read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, a classic account of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War One, which is based on the detailed diaries Jünger kept from 1915 to 1918, featuring, among numerous other fights, his part in the Battle of the Somme.

Notoriously, Jünger’s account is so close to the events it describes that it is often difficult to understand quite what’s going on – as it often was for the troops on the ground. Storm of Steel became so well-known precisely because it is an intensely immediate and visceral account, a moment-by-moment description of comrades being shot, blown up, shredded, sniped, burnt by flares or eviscerated by shellfire as they advance, fighting and shooting, chucking grenades and grappling in hand-to-hand combat with the foe. Jünger himself was repeatedly wounded, picking up some 20 wounds in all. The descriptions of fighting are so intense and immediate that the only lyricism which emerges is a kind of visionary hymn to war itself, to the supposedly purifying and transforming experience of danger, injury and pain.

Sagittarius Rising, Cecil Lewis’s account of the three years he spent flying airplanes over the Western Front – exactly contemporary to Jünger, and also taking part in the Battle of the Somme – couldn’t be more different.

The benefit of hindsight

The key difference is that Lewis didn’t come to write his account until nearly 20 after the events he describes, in 1935, the finished book being published in 1936. This has a number of consequences. It means everything he writes is coloured by his knowledge of not only who won the war, but of what the long-term consequences of Allied victory would turn out to be i.e. chaos across Europe and then the rise of Hitler.

But it also means he can’t remember a lot of what happened. Although he kept a flight log as part of his job, and he has it open on his table as he writes, the entries are so clipped and official that he himself admits that he often has no memory of the events they describe. In a couple of places he quotes them verbatim and then laments that he now has no memory at all of so many of the events he recorded.

I am like a man on a rise, looking back over a plain where white ground mists lie, seeing isolated trees and roofs, upthrust haphazard, floating on the sea, without apparent connection with the lanes and fields beneath. I remember only incidents, and lose the vivid landscape of time. (p.80)

Instead of the searing relentlessness of the Jünger, then, what we get is something far more fragmented, and infinitely more mellow and reflective.

The 266-page text is divided into nine chapters (in fact the last three of these describe Lewis’s career after the war ended). But these ‘chapters’ are really just buckets into which he has gathered together impressions, vignettes, memories and reflections from particular periods and postings. The actual text is made up of hundreds of short passages, none of them more than three pages long, many of them less than a page long.

World government

And knowing what he does, how the war ended, who lived and who died, how ‘victory’ was frittered away by the post-war politicians – and writing as he does, in 1935, with Hitler in full flood and the dark clouds of another war looming close – the book is drenched with hindsight about fallen colleagues, poignant laments for his own naivety, and dark forebodings of what is to come.

In fact there’s a surprising number of passages where Lewis completely switches from memoir mode into discussion of contemporary politics, and warnings about the contemporary situation in Europe 1935, passages where he passionately argues that what the world needs to avoid another war is some kind of World Government which will rise above the petty rivalries of nation states driven by fear. In these passages he is clearly echoing thinkers like H.G. Wells, who was one of the leading proponents of a World Government.

The influence of modernism

And there is another, stylistic, difference from Jünger’s book, another indication of the way the book was written twenty years after the fact. This is that Lewis has absorbed the lessons of the Modernist writers who became widely known after the war, suggestions about how to play with form and experiment with voice and style. This impact is visible in at least two ways:

One is the way the text is highly fragmented: not in order to be deliberately disorientating, just that it’s made up of lots and lots of short scenes and vignettes, which create a scrapbook, mosaic effect.

Second is that he’s relaxed about writing the vignettes in different styles. The opening couple of pages describing him and a friend as keen young public schoolboys wanting to join the Royal Flying Corps have the jolly chaps tone of late Victorian boys adventure stories. In sharp contrast, he has several passages describing what he imagines his mother must have felt about him running off to war and these are written in a sensitive style which bends the rules of narrative and goes right inside her head to give us her thoughts and anxieties directly described in a mild stream-of-consciousness style that reminds me of Virginia Woolf.

Other passages describing the terror he felt on his first few flights, and the first few times the planes had problems and he experienced real panic, are done in a full-on stream-of-consciousness way but more disrupted and anxious in feel.

By contrast, in the many sections about the specifications and performance of the planes themselves, Lewis’s prose is as factual and clear as an engineering manual.

In one passage, describing three airmen out on the town in a French village behind the lines, where one of them pairs off with (sleeps with) a pretty 18 year old girl – the whole thing is told in the third person, like a short story plonked down in the middle of an otherwise first-person memoir, although we gather he’s describing something he himself experienced.

To any modern reader none of this presents a challenge. But it’s interesting to observe how fully techniques and approaches which were new and daring in the hands of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce had obviously become accepted and absorbed into mainstream writing by 1935.

Themes and variations

1. His mother

It’s only around page 100 that we meet his father, who appears to have gone off to live by himself in Devon and devote himself to ruminating on philosophy and the meaning of life, happy to sound off about Marx and Socialism on the rare occasions when Lewis goes to visit him (pp. 112-115). The first hundred pages are much more dominated by his mother who – presumably – brought him up alone. There are many deeply evocative descriptions of the landscape of the Surrey Hills where he grew up.

His mother appears in a series of short scenes, dominated by his guilt. As an impetuous, ungrateful 17-year-old all Lewis wanted to do was run off to join the air force. Only now, as he writes in middle age, does he realise how callow and unfeeling he was, and how his mother must have suffered agonies of anxiety. For example, he meets hismother in the Piccadilly Grill after his first training flight.

‘Well, dear, how did you get on?’
‘Pretty well.’
‘Did you go up?’
‘Yes!’
‘Oh!’ there was a faint tremor in her voice. (Not already! This only son, in the air, and a moment ago he played at her feet. Not already! Not to be snatched away already…) (p.20)

See how he almost immediately takes us into her mind and worries.

It is a sign of Lewis’s maturity and character that he includes these scenes, and that he obviously took as much care crafting them as the other, more obvious ones, about flying and the war. They’re touching in themselves and an indication of the benefits of waiting twenty years and really mulling over the whole situation, as it affected those around him. (pp. 34, pp. 72-74)

2. Women

It was the 1930s and so authors could write more openly about sex than in the 1910s. And because the narrative is by way of being a sort of coming-of-age story (as Lewis says, instead of university, he had the Western Front) a silver thread runs through the book recounting his experiences with girls.

Remember he was only seventeen when the story begins, and we find him walking a pretty girl home along quiet Surrey lanes on his last evening before going to training camp (pp. 26-27). He is in agonies of embarrassment and shyness before it is she who invites him to give her one, quick, chaste kiss.

Next, more confidently, he takes ‘Eleanor’ out for a champagne meal and a box at the theatre, but, when she invites him into her place, they simply sit in front of the fire until she lets him kiss her once, and then, yawning, dismisses him. He was bursting with ardour and impatience, but didn’t know how to proceed, what to do or say. Looking back as a middle-aged man he can’t help wondering what might have been. (pp. 34-36).

A year or so later, having got his flying licence and experienced life among men, we see him getting drunk with two comrades in an estaminet behind the lines, where the two filles de joie accompanying his pals find him a girl, the pale, slender mistress of a French officer who, in her master’s absence, grants Cecil her favours (pp. 66-69). It is revealing that this story has to be told in the third person, as if it is a fictional short story.

Later still, our hero comes back to the French cottage he’s billeted on, roaring drunk from an officers’ piss-up, and yells through to the coarse peasant woman he’s been billeted on, and she sleepily shouts ‘oui’ from her bedroom, so that – we understand – he can go in and shag her.

Thus the book charts his progress from timidly innocent virgin to drunken debauchee in less than two years.

In another bravura passage he describes a secret location in Kensington where off-duty officers could go to party, to dance to the music of a jazz band and to pick up girls. He takes a willing slender young thing up to the balcony to stare at the stars, to be intensely in the moment. Having dispensed with Victorian hypocrisy, he has reached the stage of being an utterly unillisioned healthy young animal after animal fun (pp. 157-160).

3. The planes

Lewis loves the planes. He includes as much technical information and descriptions of the designs, layouts, flyability, shortcomings and advantages of all the models he gets to fly as he can, and, he assures us that in his three years of service he flew every plane available on the Western Front. Thus he gives us detailed accounts of the:

  • Maurice Farman Longhorn (p.22)
  • Maurice Farman Shorthorn
  • BE 2B (p.30)
  • BE 2C (pp.42, 116)
  • Avro
  • Morane biplane
  • Sopwith Triplane (p.133) his favourite
  • SE5 (p.136)
  • Higher-powered SE5 (p.150)
  • Spad (p.161)
  • Sopwith Camel (p.165)
  • Handley Page (p.198)
  • DH4 (p.198)

So when Lewis is eventually posted back to Britain, to a squadron tasked with trying out new designs of plane, he is in ‘paradise’ (p.132).

Throughout the book are sprinkled wonderful passages describing the freedom of the skies and the joy of flying, combined with the constant awareness of death looming at any moment in the form of enemy planes, and the awareness of the limitations and foibles of the plane he’s flying.

He really makes you feel the exhilarating freedom of flying those rattly old death-traps high up above the clouds into the clean clear blue of the empyrean.

4. The joy of flying

The upper rim of the circle of fire dipped finally behind the clouds, and a bunch of rays, held as it were in some invisible quiver, shot a beam high into the arc of heaven, where it turned a wraith of cirrus cloud to marvellous gold. The lofty shade had covered the visible earth, and beauty lingered only in the sky. It turned colder… I remembered suddenly the warmth of the mess fire and the faces of friends. It would be good to be down again. I turned towards home and throttled down. The engine roar died. The wind sang gently in the wires. A long steady glide carried me inland. Now that the engine was off and the warm air did not blow through the cockpit, I grew chilly and beat my hands on my thighs. It was cold at ten thousand in March. I opened up the engine again to feel its warmth. Slowly the aerodrome rose up through the gauzy swathes of mist spun by the invisible hands of twilight. Above, the cirrus turned copper, faded to pink and mauve, and at last drifted grey and shroud like in the vast arena of the darkening heaven. I must hurry, It would  be night before I was down. Over the sheds at four thousand I went into a vertical bank and rushed earthwards in a tight spiral. At a thousand I pulled out, feeling a bit sick, burst my engine to make sure of the plugs, and then cautiously felt my way in over the hangars and touched with that gentle easy rumble which means a perfect landing, turned, and taxied in. (p.55)

Aged just 18. What an experience!

5. Landscapes

The book is littered with wonderful descriptions of landscape, beginning with the misty mornings in the Surrey Hills where he grew up, and including a phenomenal description of flying from Kent back to France and being able, mid-Channel, to look down and see the landmarks in both countries, and the little ships like toys sailing across the foam-tipped water.

I was particularly taken by this lyrical description of the country surrounding the River Somme.

Beyond the village, towards the lines, where the poplars started again to flank the dusty road, was the aerodrome. A row of Bessoneau hangars (canvas-covered, wooden-framed sheds holding four machines each) backed onto a small orchard where the squadron officers stood. The sheds faced the lines, fifteen miles away; but they were hidden from our direct view by the rolling undulations of the ground. It was that wide featureless landscape typical of northern France, miles and miles of cultivated fields, some brown from the plough, others green with the springing crops, receding to the horizon in immense vistas of peaceful fertility – the sort of country that makes you understand why the French love their earth. A mile or two south of the road, and running more or less parallel to it, lay the shallow valley of the Somme. the lovely river wandered, doubling heedlessly upon itself, through copses of polar and willow, split into diverse channels where water-weeds streamed in long swathes, lazily curling and uncurling along the placid surface, and flooded out over marshes where sedge and bulrushes hid the nests of the wild-duck, the coot, and the heron. It was always there on our right hand as we left the aerodrome for the lines, an infinitely peaceful companion, basking under a haze at midday, cool and mysterious when mists stole out of the dusk. A sort of contrapuntal theme, it played against our short staccato madness an immortal bass, whose notes, serene and timeless, would ring on when this war was a story of no more moment to the world than Alexander’s, dead in the dust of Babylon. (p.73)

6. Detachment and futility

From up in the sky he can see the beautiful countryside stretching for 20, 30, 40 miles either side of the Front. And then he can look down on the tiny ant-creatures murdering each other and turning the countryside into a hellscape.

His own psychological predisposition to the lyrical and beautiful and the distance which comes from twenty years of hindsight reinforce the simple detachment which must have been been created by flying so high above the scene. They combine to produce a series of passages of heartfelt anger, rage and contempt at the folly of war and the pitifulness of humanity, at ‘human fury and stupidity’ (p.97). There’s no shortage of long passages, or short references, where Lewis lets us know his full opinion of the futility of war.

The war below us was a spectacle. We aided and abetted it, admiring the tenacity of men who fought in verminous filth to take the next trench thirty yards away. But such objectives could not thrill us, who, when we raised our eyes, could see objective after objective receding, fifty, sixty, seventy miles beyond. Indeed, the fearful thing about the war became its horrible futility, the mountainous waste of life and wealth to stake a mile or two of earth. There was so much beyond. Viewed with detachment, it had all the elements of grotesque comedy – a prodigious and complex effort, cunningly contrived, and carried out with deadly seriousness, in order to achieve just nothing at all. It was Heath Robinson raised to the nth power – a fantastic caricature of common sense. But the humour was grim, fit only for the gods to laugh at, since to the participants it was a sickening death-struggle, in which both sides would evidently be exhausted, both defeated, and both eager, when they had licked their wounds, to fly at each other’s throats again. (p.82)

And what did it look like, the war – from up there?

Just above us the heavy cloud-banks looked like the bellies of a school of whales huddled together in the dusk. Beyond, a faintly luminous strip of yellow marked the sunset. Below, the gloomy earth glittered under the continual scintillation of gunfire. Right round the salient down to the Somme, where the mists backed up the ghostly effect, was this sequined veil of greenish flashes, quivering. Thousands of guns were spitting high explosive, and the invisible projectiles were screaming past us on every side. (p.85)

His job

So what did Lewis actually do? For most of his time on the Western Front Lewis was in observation and reconnaissance. In the build-up to the Battle of the Somme he was ordered to fly along the line of trenches taking photographs – an incredibly perilous activity, given the primitiveness of the planes and the even more startling primitiveness of the cameras.

Once the battle started he was charged with flying over the battlefield to observe the advance, or not, of our troops, and activity on the Hun side (in ‘Hunland’, as he puts it), reporting this back to communication trenches behind our lines, who relayed the information back to the artillery barrages, who aimed accordingly. For his work during this period he was awarded the Military Cross.

In between doing his daily tasks he seems to have been fairly free just to go for ‘joy rides’ to spy out the lie of the land, during which he and his spotter sometimes encountered Hun planes and had primitive dogfights. At other times he seems to have been free just to fly for the pure joy of it, watching a cumulus cloud appear out of nothing high in the sky, and then noticing the way the shadow of his plane against the pure white backdrop was ringed by a perfect rainbow (p.126).

His entire chapter two – nearly 100 pages long – describes this work, the tension in the last few days before the Somme offensive began on July 1, and then gives a day by day account of his work in the first few weeks of the battle, conveying his slowly growing sense of disillusion as it became clear that this enormous concentration of men and resources was going to fail, both to meet its immediate objectives, and to do anything like end the war. He describes the mood of disillusionment which sets in among his comrades, and on our side. ‘A complete washout’, ‘bitter disappointment’ (p.90).

Coming back from a week’s leave (where he has, as ever, tried to calm his mother’s terrible anxiety about him) Lewis discovers that a whole bunch of his mates, the liveliest, funniest characters from the Mess – Pip, Rudd, Kidd – have all been killed (p.122).

And towards the end of 1916 he notices that the Brits no longer enjoy quite the air supremacy they had previously had. German anti-aircraft fire (nicknamed Archie) is getting more precise. German fighter planes are better built and engineered and their pilots are becoming more aggressive.

The Hun was everywhere consolidating his positions, and paying much more attention to us than hitherto. (p.118)

Several times he is forced to make emergency landings, described with hair-raising immediacy, although he always manages to walk away (pp. 95-97). And how different things look on the pock-marked, devastated stinking ground from up there in the clean blue air!

The trees by the roadside were riven and splintered, their branches blown hither and thither, and the cracked stumps stuck up uselessly into the air, flanking the road, forlorn, like a byway to hell. The farms were a mass of debris, the garden walls heaps of rubble, the cemeteries had their crosses and their wire wreaths blown horribly askew. Every five yards held a crater. The earth had no longer its smooth familiar face. It was diseases, pocked, rancid, stinking of death in the morning sun. (p.97)

One evening he is flying over the lines and sees ‘a long creeping wraith of yellow mist’ over the trenches north of Thiepval.

Men were dying there, under me, from a whiff of it: not dying quickly, nor even maimed and shattered, but dying whole, retching and vomiting blood and guts; and those who lived would be wrecks with seared, poisoned lungs, rotten for life. (p.103)

This yellow drift of death gas was, for him, ‘the most pregnant memory of the war’, a symbol of the entire twentieth century, a symbol of the way man, in his stupidity, greed and lust for power, perverts whatever science discovers into disgusting methods of slaughter.

In a vision that shows the influence of H.G. Wells and directly echoes the war-visions which haunt George Orwell’s pre-war novels, Lewis foresees the next war in which pilots like himself will drop gas bombs on densely populated cities and poison into reservoirs, slaughtering hecatombs of woman and children. He can see only one solution to the mad rivalry between nations led by demagogues, a power which rises above all of them:

World state, world currency, world language. (p.105)

In 1922 Wells had written that ‘Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe.’ Lewis echoes this sentiment (which I take to be a truism or cliché of the inter-war years):

It is a fight between intellect and appetite, between the international idea and armaments. (p.105)

We now know this is naive and simplistic. Education, science and technology have made improvements Lewis can never have dreamed of. And yet fighting never ends. It is about resources, the means for populations to live,and deeply embedded ethnic hatreds. And fighting over those will never end.

Posted home

Lewis developed conjunctivitis. All that staring from heights at troop movements on the ground, plus the effects of oil and smoke flying into his face from the plane engine. It kept recurring which impeded his battle fitness, so at the end of 1916 he was posted back to Britain.

As he remarks several times, the average life expectancy of a flier on the Western Front was three weeks. He survived eight months. But, obliquely, he records how such prolonged nervous strain takes its toll.

Nobody could stand the strain indefinitely, ultimately it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility. For you always had to fight it down, you had to go out and do the job, you could never admit it… Cowardice, because, I suppose, it is the most common human emotion, is the most despised. And you did gain victories over yourself. You won and won and won again, and always there was another to be won on the morrow. They sent you home to rest, and you put it in the background of your mind; but it was not like a bodily fatigue from which you could completely recover, it was a sort of damage to the essential tissue of your being. (p.61)

He is posted to a testing squadron and has great fun flying all sorts of new planes for several months, before being recalled for active duty, and leading a squadron back to France in April 1917.

Dogfighting in France

Whereas previously he had been flying reconnaissance missions, now he and his men are fully engaged in fighting enemy planes. There follow some amazing descriptions of dogfights in the sky, the meeting of massed ranks of planes from both sides, and an explanation of what a dogfight actually involved, and how to survive it.

Protecting London

Then some German planes bomb London, the populace and politicians panic, and he and his crack squadron are flown hurriedly back to London to protect the metropolis. Lewis, by now cynical beyond measure, contemplates the stupidity of the authorities for not protecting London before, and the hysteria of the Londoners, with contempt.

No further German bombers appear, but Lewis describes the hard partying he and his squadron pursue. Drunk at dawn with comrades. Dancing with strange girls at riotous parties. The 1920s started here with the complete abandonment of the stupid old morality, the starchy Victorian etiquette and fake politeness which concealed the raw facts of human lust and reproduction.

As crude as the Death which stalks them, is the young pilots’ quest for pleasure in the here and now.

Fighting gets more intense – injury

No German bombers reappearing, Lewis is posted back to France. The descriptions of the dogfights become more intense. More friends and colleagues are killed. Eventually Lewis is caught out. Flying separately from his squadron while he tries to fix his jammed gun, is attacked and it’s only because he was in an unusual posture fiddling with the gun that the bullet which streaked down his back didn’t enter it and penetrate his heart (p.163). Bleeding and in pain he makes it back to the aerodrome and is posted home to recuperate.

Defending and partying in London

Having recovered he is posted to a Home defence squadron in Essex. Lewis describes the air defence system created to protect the south of England from bombers, and his part in it, though he is sceptical. The sky is so big, planes are so small – the bombers will always get through. Then to everyone’s shock the Germans come on a bombing raid at night. He is at a dance at the Savoy Hotel when the music is brought to a screeching halt by the sound of bombs dropping nearby. He gives an almost science fiction description of the impact on the jazz dancing crowds as they panic and flee towards all the exits.

Now his squadron have to learn to fly at night and he gives a brilliant description of his first night flight, afraid it will be like flying into pitch blackness, and then enchanted to discover that there is much more light than he’d expected, and that the countryside beneath – villages, fields, roads, are all picked out in the eerie glow of moonlight (pp.168-170).

Night raids on London

He gets drunk. They party hard in London. There are hi-jinks in the Mess. A new raid alert system is put into place and he describes being scrambled and flying towards London, watching the searchlights and the ack-ack guns but being completely unable to find the enemy bombers.

His experience of trying to halt the German bombing raids leads him to one big conclusion which he is at pains to emphasise: You cannot stop the bombers – they will always get through – which leads him to another of  his urgent contemporary pleas for action.

Today the voice of no one man, or no one country, can save Europe (and after the whole civilised world) from imminent destruction. If we cannot collectively rise above our narrow nationalism, the vast credits of wealth, wisdom and art produced by Western civilisation will be wiped out. (p.154)

Flying, drinking, dying

The final pages feel bitty. The promotions come faster. He is moved from one squadron to another. He retells experiences of landing in fog, of his plane catching fire in mid-air. There’s an extended anecdote about the time he landed in a field to ask someone where the devil he was (that happened a lot), and went back to the plane and turned on the motor, but the plane began to move before he could climb into the cockpit. It then proceeded to run in a small circle just a bit too fast for him – wearing heavy flying gear and boots – to manage to run into the circle while avoiding the propeller. In the end he gave up and watched it move in circles and slowly across a field until it fell into a ditch.

And the last pages are darkened by friends dying. Armstrong was the best pilot he knew but he mistimed a landing, crashed and was killed outright. His friend Bill was killed stupidly – crashing into a small ditch at the airfield, getting out to inspect the damage when his engineer triggered one of the guns by mistake which shot him through the heart – that Lewis balls his fists and rages against the senselessness of the world.

He is proud to be chosen to lead three squadrons across to France to combat the final German offensive in the spring of 1918, one of the few massed flights that made the commute without at least one accident. As the tide turns against the Germans the squadron is posted forward into an aerodrome near Ypres and he can’t believe the utter desolation of the countryside which is revealed to them. What a hell men have made of the earth.

It’s all over

Then it is all over. The Armistice is signed. They celebrate as best they can and all feel let down and deflated. The new young squadron he’s commanding has only just arrived. Trained to fight they never seen any action. And Lewis himself feels bereft. For the four most formative years of his life he has been living under the shadow of war, in the presence of Death, stretching his nerves to breaking point. Now it is all over. He is demobilised.

He was twenty years old. What a beautiful, thoughtful, considerate, sometimes savagely bitter, often rapturously lyrical, intelligent and mature memoir this is.


1964 interview with Cecil Lewis


Credit

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis was published by Peter Davies Ltd in 1936. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (1920)

A figure stripped to the waist, with ripped-open back, leaned against the parapet. Another, with a triangular flap hanging off the back of his skull, emitted short, high-pitched screams. This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. (p.31)

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) fought for the German army in the First World War. Wikipedia gives a good summary of his wartime career.

Most other memoirs and fictions about the war took years to surface, while the authors struggled to manage their traumatic memories and to find the words to describe the experience.

No such hesitation for Jünger, who converted the 16 diaries he’d kept during his three-year period of service into a narrative – titled In Stahlgewittern – which he had privately printed in 1920 in an edition of 2,000.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919 – looking miraculously untouched after three years of war and some 20 wounds

Over the course of his very long life (he lived to be 102 years old), Jünger not only wrote many more books and articles, but he rewrote In Stahlgewittern half a dozen times, each time moving further from the diary format, adding passages of philosophical reflection, and altering the emphasis.

For example, the 1924 edition is the most blood-thirsty and gives precise details of how he shot British soldiers. The 1934 edition, by contrast, is much more muted and removes those descriptions. Jünger was by now reaching an international audience i.e. British and French readers, with whom he needed to be more tactful.

It was only in 1930 that Storm of Steel was first translated into English and given this English title. During the 1930s it quickly became acknowledged as one of the classic accounts of trench fighting in the Great War.

Translating Jünger into English

English written by an English person tends to indicate the author’s social class, with traces of the kind of school they went to (private or state), sometimes their regional origins, and so on. It is full of all kinds of traces.

Translations into English, on the other hand, generally tell you more about the translator than about the original author.

Clunky phrasing

The translation I read is by Michael Hofmann, the poet, and was published in 2003. Although it won several prizes, I found it very easy to dislike.

Hofmann’s English prose doesn’t flow, in fact it regularly (two or three times per page) breaks down into unidiomatic and clunky phrasing. Again and again I found myself thinking ‘No native English speaker ever spoke or wrote like that – so why are you?’

‘They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not soon be over.’ (p.8)
How about … ‘and whether the war was going to end soon’

‘I was given a couple of hours to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout.’ (p.9)
‘To find an exhausted sleep’??

‘If it’s all one to you, I’d just as soon hang on to it.’ (p.18)
No English speaker ever said ‘If it’s all one to you’. An English speaker would say ‘If it’s all the same to you…’

We had the satisfaction of having our opponent disappearing for good after a series of shots had struck the clay ramparts directly in front of his face. (p.65)
Why the -ing on the end of disappear?

‘Recouvrance was a remote village, nestling in pretty chalk hills, to where all the regiments in the division dispatched a few of their young men to receive a thorough schooling in military matters…” (p.16)
Why not just delete ‘to’? And replace ‘dispatched’ with ‘sent’?

Maybe the resolutely un-English nature of many of the sentences and the un-English atmosphere which hovers over the entire text is a deliberate strategy to convey the un-English nature of Jünger’s original German.

But I doubt it because many of the sentences in Hofmann’s introduction have the same broken-backed, wrong-word-order, clumsy clauses, not-quite-English feel about them.

As I read Hofmann’s translation I compared it with the first translation of Storm of Steel into English which was made by Basil Creighton back in 1930, and which I borrowed from my local library. Creighton’s translation of that last excerpt reads:

Recouvrance was a remote little village hidden among delightful chalk hills. A certain number of the more youthful of us were sent there from the division to receive a thorough military training…

Though not perfect, Creighton’s version has more of the rhythm of ordinary English prose, and is therefore much more readable, than the Hofmann.

Erratic vocabulary and register

Hofmann is an acclaimed poet – which maybe explains why in some places he shows a deliberately refractory choice of phrasing and word order – why he often flaunts odd words and phrases – in a way common in modern poetry but which stands out next to Creighton’s straightforwardly factual (if sometimes dated) prose.

This often leads Hofmann into what I thought was a curiously tin ear for register, by which I mean the way a writer chooses vocabulary and phrasing, manages the positioning of subordinate clauses and so on, in order to create a consistent style or voice.

To give a specific example, Hofmann seems to deliberately combine terms which are inappropriate or anachronistic in order to create a clash of registers. Take this sentence:

After this incident I betook myself to my dugout, but today too there was no chance of any restorative kip. (p.74)

‘Betook myself to’? When do you think that phrase was last used in everyday speech or writing? It sounds like Dr Johnson and the Augustans to me. Googling it you find that ‘betook myself’ is included in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven, which was written in the mid-19th century in a deliberately archaic and Gothic style. In other words, the phrase was old in 1845.

On the other hand ‘kip’ is a slang term for sleep which reminds me of George Orwell’s use of it in Down and Out in Paris and London in the 1930s, where it has the feel of the rough, lower-class, Victorian vocabulary used by Orwell’s tramps.

Bringing them together in the one sentence – an extremely archaic 18th century idiom running into a 1930s slang term – creates, for me, a car crash of registers. And neither of them are what you’d call modern colloquial or formal English. They create a made-up register, an invented English.

Why? Maybe we are meant to accept it as the style of a famous poet playing with language. ‘He’s a poet; of course he’s going to give you a poetic translation!’

Which is all well and good in the privacy of his own writing where he can do as he pleases – but when he is translating a notable foreign author surely he should try to recreate a consistent register of English which is the nearest possible replication of the original author’s tone of voice. Isn’t that the goal of most translations?

(Incidentally, the insertion of ‘too’ in the ‘betook’ sentence is something no English speaker would do, but is instead a quite obvious direct translation of the German word auch and is placed where the German word comes in the sentence: aber heute auch – ‘but today also’. An English writer might say: ‘After this incident I went back to my dugout but once [or yet] again there was no chance of a restorative sleep.’)

To take another tiny, jarring detail, I was pulled up short when Hofmann has Jünger use the term ‘grunt’ (pp.133, 196) for infantryman. Now ‘grunt’ is a well-known word to anyone who’s read about the Vietnam War of the 1960s, where it became the universal term for the American infantry, expressing a combination of embattled fondness for the dumb front-line soldiers with contempt for the shitstorm their superiors had dumped them in. Looking it up, I find that ‘grunt’ was first recorded in this sense in print in 1969.

My point is that all this word’s associations are to Vietnam – to choppers, ‘gooks’, napalm at dawn and so on. Dropping it into your translation of Jünger describing the First World War is like dropping a couple of seconds of colour film into a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie. It is a deliberately jarring anachronism.

It seemed to me that at moments like this the translator is grandstanding, making more of an effort to display his modernist taste for unexpected juxtapositions of register, signalling what a poet he is – rather than concentrating on translating Jünger into clear, effective and tonally consistent prose.

Sometimes Hoffman has Jünger use low-class phrases like ‘argy-bargy’ (pp.155, 245) and ‘getting on our wicks’ (p.149) – phrases more evocative of Eastenders than an élite Germany infantry officer of 1917.

But at the other extreme of class diction, after our hero survives a violent foray into the British trenches, Hoffman has him overhearing a common soldier saying:

‘I must say, though, that Lieutenant Jünger is really something else: my word, the sight of him vaulting over those barricades!’

‘I must say… My word’! Does Hoffman really think that an ordinary squaddie – one of the common infantry he describes as ‘grunts’ – would actually talk like that? While he has posh, upper-class officers says things are ‘getting on our wicks’. It is a topsy-turvy use of registers.

Where and when is this English set? Is it with Edgar Allen Poe in 1845, with Orwell’s tramps’ during the depression, 1920s Jeeves and Wooster banter, or in 1967 Vietnam slang? This prose is all over the place.

German word order

I studied German at GCSE level. Not enough to be fluent but enough to have a feel for its grammar and very different word order from English. So I kept having the feeling that Hofmann, happy to play havoc with the register of his prose, also made a point of clinging to the original German word order.

Maybe, again, this is a deliberate strategy to convey the ‘otherness’ of the original German, but too often it simply has the result of obscuring Jünger’s actual meaning.

For example, Jünger first experiences a really heavy artillery barrage at les Éparges in 1915. He feels weirdly disconnected from the mayhem around him. Hofmann has:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Note the way he handles the subordinate clauses in these sentences. French and German users often put descriptions of something or someone or an action that the subject of the sentence has taken, into a subordinate clause right next to the subject or object. They write:

The ball, having been kicked by Daisy, rolled across the grass.

Francois, a man I had never liked, opened the door.

It often makes French and German prose, if translated literally, feel clotted or lumpy. Deciding what to do with these stumpy subordinate clauses is one of the chief problems facing anyone translating from those languages into English.

Because in flowing, idiomatic English, we prefer to give such clauses a main verb and subject of their own, sometimes inserting them into the main sentence, or – if that’s too tricky – just breaking a long clotted sentence up into two simpler ones. This makes them flow better, and it makes the prose more punchy and effective because, instead of a passive past participle, you have an active verb. So we write:

Daisy kicked the ball and it rolled across the grass.

Francois opened the door. I had never liked him.

Clearer, simpler, more active. Let’s look at that passage again:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Twice in this short passage Hofmann uses subordinate clauses, and these create a sense of passivity: ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ and ‘returned to my unit’ are both adjectival phrases describing the ‘I’ which immediately follows. They blunt the potential for active verbs. They weight the subject down like a ball and chain. They make the prose inactive and heavy.

Compare and contrast with Creighton’s translation of the same passage:

At the same time I had no fear. For I felt that I was not seen, and I could not believe that anyone aimed at me or that I should be hit. Indeed, when I rejoined my section I surveyed our front with complete calm. It was the courage of ignorance.

Not perfect prose either, I grant you, but note:

  1. Hofmann’s passive subordinate clauses have become phrases led by an active verb – ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ has become ‘I felt that I was not seen’, and ‘returned to my unit’ becomes ‘when I rejoined my section’. Feels brighter and more lively, doesn’t it? The point is that Hofmann tucks away a lot of information in clauses which – as the name suggests – are subordinate – passive, veiled and hidden. Creighton’s prose brings this information out into the daylight as active phrases which contribute to the flow of the prose and which the reader notices more.
  2. And this greater activity is really rammed home by Creighton’s final sentence which has the ta-dah! impact of the pithy couplet at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. ‘It was the courage of ignorance’ is exactly the kind of didactic punchline the paragraph is crying out for, which brings the point out into the open and rams it home. (It’s easier to feel the impact of this last sentence if you’ve read the whole of the previous sequence of paragraphs: it neatly sums up an entire passage.)

The result of all this is that I didn’t really notice this passage at all when I read it in the Hofmann. It just drifted by, passive, subordinate and veiled. Whereas when I read the Creighton version, this passage really leaped out at me as the pithy and powerful conclusion of a man who had been through his first artillery barrage and now, looking back, realises how naive and foolish he was to have felt so confident.

It was only in the Creighton translation that I understood the point Jünger was making.

So: from very early on in my reading, I had the impression that Hofmann was more interested in tickling the tastebuds of modish readers who like poetic effects (jarring, modernist, poetic effects) than in finding a consistent register which would allow Jünger’s meaning and conclusions to come over as clearly, consistently and powerfully as possible.

To be even blunter – I felt that in reading the Hofmann, I not only had to put up with a steady flow of clunking un-English phraseology and word order, but that I was missing a lot of what Jünger wanted to say.

Hofmann’s clunks

At four o’clock already we were roused from our bed put together from bits of furniture, to be given our steel helmets. (p.93)
This is German word order, not English. French and German uses the equivalent of ‘already’ a lot more than we do in English. It’s a giveaway sign that the German is being translated word for word rather than into idiomatic English.

All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of coloured flares. (p.95)

When morning paled, the strange surroundings gradually revealed themselves to our disbelieving eyes. (p.97)
Show-off, poetic use of ‘pale’ as a verb.

In my unhealthy irritation, I couldn’t help but think that these vehicles followed no other purpose than to annoy us… (p.102)
I don’t think ‘to follow a purpose’ is an English idiom. We’d say ‘had no other purpose’, though it’s still clunky phrasing. How about: ‘I couldn’t help thinking the only point of these vehicles was to annoy us…’

The following morning, the battalion marched off into the direction of heavy firing… (p.131)
Doesn’t he mean either ‘in the direction of’ or, more simply, ‘towards’?

We ate heartily, and handed the bottle of ’98 proof’ around. Then we settled off to sleep… (p.166)
‘Settled off’? Obviously he means ‘settled down’. This is not English. Why wasn’t this book proof read by an English speaker?

Our first period in position passed pleasantly quietly. (p.142)

In the evening, the shelling waxed to a demented fury. (p.161)
‘Waxed’? I know that it can mean ‘grew’, but it hasn’t been used in this sense since Shakespeare.

German humour

Maybe they simply don’t survive Hofmann’s clumsy translation, but what appear to be  Jünger’s attempts at humour aren’t very funny. For example, I think the following is intended to include both a stylish reference to a German literary figure, and to be itself a humorous description of trying to get rid of lice.

Fairly unscathed myself thus far by that scourge, I helped my comrade Priepke, an exporter from Hamburg, wrap his woollen waistcoat – as populous as once the garment of the adventurous Simplicissimus – round a heavy boulder, and for mass extermination, dunk it in the river. Where, since we left Hérinnes very suddenly, it will have mouldered away quietly ever since. (p.20)

This is godawful English prose. What a mouthful of marbles! In Creighton’s version this becomes:

As I had been more or less free from this plague, I assisted a friend, Priepke, to deal with his woollen vest, which was as populous as the habit of Simplicius Simplicissimus of yore. So we wrapped it round a large stone and sank it in a stream. As our departure from Herne followed very suddenly upon this, it is likely that the garment enjoys a quiet resting-place there to this day.

Creighton’s version is not brilliant either, but at least he makes the sensible move of breaking up the long clotted main sentence into two smaller sentences. And the use of ‘so’ at the start of the second sentence gives a sense of logic and clarity to the description.

Still not that rib-tickling, though, is it?

In his introduction Hofmann devotes a couple of pages to explaining what an awful translator Creighton was, and how he made literally hundreds of elemental mistakes in his understanding of German. Maybe. But his version is much more readable than Hofmann’s. If Hofmann’s accusations against Creighton are true then, alas, it seems that the reader is stuck with two very flawed translations.

Worse, it appears that the Creighton contains content – passages of reflection and philosophising – which are simply not present in the Hofmann. Presumably this is because Creighton was translating from one of the more wordy and reflective versions of the book, and Hofmann has chosen to translate one of the leaner versions or to himself cut out the philosophising passages.

It is in these sections that Jünger gives his thoughts about the meaning of war and bravery. Creighton has quite a few of them; Hofmann has none. Maybe this makes the Hofmann version more pure and elemental but it does mean that the average English reader will never get to see and read Jünger’s thoughts about his central subject – men in war.

From all this I conclude that maybe what this important book deserves is some kind of scholarly variorum edition. An edition which:

  • clearly explains the textual history of the book
  • summarises the changes between all the different versions
  • decides which version to translate (and explains why)
  • renders it into clear, unfussy English

But which also features extensive footnotes or endnotes which include the important passages from all the other versions, so we can see how Jünger chopped and changed the text, and with notes explaining why he did this and how it reflected his evolving attitude towards the subject matter.

Jünger’s detached attitude

As to the actual content of the book, it is notorious for Jünger’s apparently cold, detached and heartless description of what he experiences.

There is absolutely no build-up in the way of the author’s birth, upbringing, family, education, feelings on the outbreak of war, agonising over which regiment to join and so on, none of the bonhomie and chat and certainly none of the humour which characterises, say, Robert Graves’s famous war book, Goodbye To All That.

Instead we are thrown straight into the action: the narrator just steps off a train in France, is told to line up with his squad, is marched to a village, has his first experience of shellfire, sees some men from a different unit get killed, and then he’s taken up the line and starts the trench soldier’s existence of sleeplessness, cold and discomfort.

It is a little as if an utterly detached intelligence from another planet has been embedded in a human body and proceeds to do everything it’s told, while all the time observing the strange human creatures and their customs.

I still viewed the machinery of conflict with the eyes of an inexperienced recruit – the expressions of bellicosity seemed as distant and peculiar to me as events on another planet. (p.27)

It’s only some way into the text that we even learn the year he’s describing, namely 1915. It is a bare bones approach. In the fifth chapter (‘Daily life in the trenches’) the text really returns to the ‘bones’ of his experience, as it reverts to its original format as a diary, each paragraph starting with a date and the events of that day. We follow a straightforward chronological sequence of dates which takes us through the summer and autumn 1915, through Christmas, and into the spring of 1916.

The names of lots of soldier comrades are given, but only in the briefest, most clinical way. Often they’re only mentioned on the date they die, in fact most of the diary entries are clipped descriptions of who died on what day, and how.

Jünger doesn’t seem to have any close friends. He certainly doesn’t have the witty conversations with them that Graves does, or hang out with a few close buddies like Frederick Manning does in his brilliant war memoir, The Middle Parts of Fortune.

Instead, Jünger observes with cool detachment everything that happens around him. After he’s wounded the first time – a shrapnel laceration across his thigh – Jünger is brought back to a clearing station, where the surgeon is overwhelmed with casualties.

At the sight of the surgeon, who stood checking the roster in the bloody chaos, I once again had the impression, hard to describe, of seeing a man surrounded by elemental terror and anguish, studying the functioning of his organisation with ant-like cold-bloodedness. (p.32)

As it happens, among his many other achievements, Jünger lived to become a famous entomologist i.e. an expert on insects, and went on to write books on the subject after the war. So it strikes me that his portrait of the surgeon, calm and detached among the slaughter, watching the people around him as if they were insects to be studied – is in fact Jünger’s self-portrait of himself.


Jünger’s vision of war

What it lacks in warmth, humour or human touch, the book more than makes up for with the thing that makes it so powerful, which helped it grow into a classic – which is Jünger’s hugely compelling descriptions of the brutal, the eerie, the strange, the heroic and the primordial nature of this utterly new kind of total war, and of the terrifying new race of men it seemed to be breeding.

Physical disgust

In the rising mist, I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform. Turning round, I took a step back in horror; next to me a figure was crouched by a tree. It still had gleaming French leather harness, and on its back was a fully packed haversack, topped by a round mess-tin. Empty eye-sockets and a few strands of hair on the bluish-black skull indicated that the man was not among the living. There was another sitting down, slumped forward towards his feet, as though he had just collapsed. All round were dozens more, rotted, dried, stiffened to mummies, frozen in an eerie dance of death. (p.25)

Not only are there corpses all around, but the book gives us hundreds of descriptions of men being shot, eviscerated, decapitated, buried alive, flayed by shrapnel, burned to death by fire, stifled by gas, and exploded.

There was another whistling high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.

Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine-gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smouldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for a moment tore open the extreme abysm of terror. (p.225)

The rate of deaths, the endless stream of deaths Jünger sees at first hand, right in front of him, never lets up, is staggering, stupefying. So many men, so many terrifying woundings, eviscerations, liquidations, smashings, manglings and screams of pain.

NCO Dujesiefken, my comrade at Regniéville, was standing in front of my foxhole, begging me to get into the trench as even a light shell bursting anywhere near would cause masses of earth to come down on top of me. An explosion cut him off: he sprawled to the ground, missing a leg. He was past help. (p.230)

Beside the ruined cottage lay a piece of trench that was being swept with machine-gun fire from beyond. I jumped into it, and found it untenanted. Immediately afterwards, I was joined by Oskar Kius and von Wedelstädt. An orderly of von Wedelstädt’s, the last man in, collapsed in mid-air, shot through one eye. (p.237)

One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured onto the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. (p.248)

On his six visits to dressing stations in the rear and then on to hospitals to be treated, Jünger is in the company of men weeping and screaming from all sorts of pitiful wounds. At one hospital he is told they had received 30,000 casualties in the previous three weeks. Men die horrible deaths left, right and centre, all the time, unrelentingly. Death death death.

In the spring the ice and frost melt and the walls of the trenches thaw and dissolve, revealing the massed bodies and equipment of the men of 1914 and 1915, whose bodies had been built into the defences. The soldiers find themselves treading on the slimy gloop of the decomposing corpses from last year’s battles.

The scale of the killing is inconceivable.

Heightened alertness

Yet Jünger combines countless examples of disgusting physical injury and the ubiquity of slimy, popping, farting, rotting corpses, with an unquenchable lust for life and excitement. Nothing can stop his steely patriotism and lust for excitement.

Whenever possible he volunteers to go on night patrols into no man’s land, risking his life for often trivial rewards or none at all, generally ending up haring back to his own lines as rifle and machine gun fire starts up from the British or French opposite. But to be out there, sneaking silently in the presence of Death, is to be alive as nowhere else.

These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterable menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow burst; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape. ( p.71)

Battlefield stress

Sometimes it all seems like a dream or a nightmare, a waking nightmare from which there is no escape. On one occasion, caught out in no man’s land when his little squad bumps into some foraging Brits, the two groups fall to mad hand-to-hand fighting in which all their 20th century weapons fail, leaving only wordless, primitive struggle.

After one shot the magazine had clicked out of my pistol grip. I stood yelling in front of a Briton who in his horror was pressing his back into the barbed wire, and kept pulling the trigger. Nothing happened – it was like a dream of impotence. (p.88)

Later, Jünger is behind the lines in the village of Fresnoy when it comes under a pulverising artillery bombardment that blows houses to pieces and human beings into shreds of flesh.

I saw a basement flattened. All we could recover from the scorched space were the three bodies. Next to the entrance one man lay on his belly in a shredded uniform; his head was off, and the blood had flowed into a puddle. When an ambulanceman turned him over to check him for valuables, I saw as in a nightmare that his thumb was still hanging from the remains of his arm. (p.135)

It is a world of despairingly horrific sights and intense visions. A world in which everything is bright, overlit, too vivid, permanently visionary.

Like a vision in a dream, the sight, lit only by falling sparks, of a double line of kneeling figures at the instant in which they rose to advance, etched itself into my eye. (p.147)

A world in which even things which have just happened are so outside the range of normal human experience that they are impossible to process in any rational way.

I experienced quite a few adventures in the course of the war, but none was quite as eerie as this. It still makes me feel a cold sweat when I think of us wandering around among those unfamiliar trenches by the cold early light. It was like the dream of a labyrinth. (p.190)

Unsurprisingly, so many close encounters with death – not just close, but so irrational, so uncanny, so deep, arousing the cave man or the prehuman in their souls – had psychological repercussions.

It was only afterwards that I noticed that the experience had taken its toll on my nerves, when I was lying on my pallet in my dugout with my teeth chattering, and quite unable to sleep. Rather, I had the sensation of a sort of supreme awakeness – as if I had a little electric bell going off somewhere in my body. The following morning I could hardly walk. (p.88)

But like the men he so fulsomely praises, Jünger does get up, he commands, he leads, he doesn’t stop.

The emotions of war

The intensity of the war, the relentless bombardment, the lack of sleep, the continual toll of deaths from snipers or random mortar bombs, gives rise to new emotions and feelings – strange hilarities, clarities, hysterias – which he observes working within himself.

Here, and really only here, I was to observe that there is a quality of dread that feels as unfamiliar as a foreign country. In moments when I felt it, I experienced no fear as such but a kind of exalted, almost demoniacal lightness; often attended by fits of laughter I was unable to repress. (p.93)

And he repeatedly describes the madness of combat, the crazed exhiliration of the charge, bayonets fixed, down a confusing warren of corpse-strewn trenches, towards the top, and over into the face of the enemy.

On, on! In one violently bombarded defile, the sections backed up. Take cover! A horribly penetrating smell told us that this passage had already taken a good many lives. After running for our lives, we managed to reach a second defile which concealed the dugout of the front-line commanding officer, then we lost our way again, and in a painful crush of excited men, had to turn back once more. At the most five yards from Vogel and me, a middle-sized shell struck the bank behind us with a dull thump, and hurled mighty clods of earth over us, as we thought our last moment had come. Finally, our guide found the path again – a strangely constellated group of corpses serving as a landmark. One of the dead lay there as if crucified on the chalk slope. It was impossible to imagine a more appropriate landmark.

On, on! Men collapsed while running, we had to threaten them to use the last energy from their exhausted bodies. Wounded men went down left and right in craters – we disregarded their cries for help. We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a thin chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another. At moments we felt our feet settling on soft, yielding corpses, whose form we couldn’t make out on account of the darkness. The wounded man collapsing on the path suffered the same fate: he too was trampled underfoot by the boots of those hurrying ever onwards. (pp.96-97)

Courage

And in this strange landscape, between the midnight hunting in no man’s land, the grinding lack of sleep of the nightly sentry routine, and the appallingly unrelenting artillery bombardments unleashed by the British, amid all this horror, Jünger’s comrades do not defect or resile. They stand to when ordered to. They muster by the revetments of the trenches causing Jünger to burn with pride.

It was in the course of these days that I learned to appreciate these men with whom I was to be together for two more years of the war. What was at stake here was a British initiative on such a small scale as barely to find mention in the histories of both armies, intended to commit us to a sector where the main attack was not to be. Nor did the men have much to do, only cover the very small amount of ground, from the entrance of the shelter to the sentry posts. But these few steps needed to be taken in the instant of a great crescendo of fire before an attack, the precise timing of which is a matter of gut instinct and feeling. The dark wave that so many times in those nights welled up to the traverses through fire, and without even an order being possible, remained with me in my heart as a personal yardstick for human trustworthiness. (p.85)

Something awesome is happening, and Jünger brilliantly conveys its tensed uniqueness.

These instants, in which the entire complement of men stood behind the traverses, tensed and ready, had something magical about them; they were like the last breathless second before a hugely important performance, as the music is turned off and the big lights go up. (p.77)

New men

For amid this inferno, a new race of men is being forged.

A runner from a Württemberg regiment reported to me to guide my new platoon to the famous town of Combles, where we were to be held in reserve for the time being. He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world… Nothing was left in his voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It’s men like that that you need for fighting. (p.92)

Invulnerable, invincible men of steel, forged in the furnace of war.

As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered. (p.99)

New men. Men of the future. The Overmen.

There was in these men a quality that both emphasised the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood. (p.140)

Something primordial

Men being shaped anew in the storm of steel because these are conditions and circumstances unlike any ever experienced by any humans in all previous human history.

From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away at and around Combles, innumerable shells criss-crossed hissing and howling over our heads. All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of flares. Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed. We had the sensation of the ineluctable and the unconditionally necessary, as if we were facing an elemental force. (p.95)

The sheer unrelenting killing machine mincing its way through human flesh on an unprecedented scale awakes echoes of something infinitely primitive, primordial, echoes of pre-human conditions, the beginning or end of the world.

The whole scene – the mixture of the prisoners’ laments and our jubilation – had something primordial about it. This wasn’t war; it was ancient history. (p.150)

Conclusion

Storm of Steel follows Jünger’s diary in giving the German point of view of a number of Western front battles, in chronological order, from 1915 to 1918, including the Battle of the Somme and leading up to the German spring offensive of 1918, followed by the Allied counter-attack in the summer of 1918. At this point Jünger was wounded for the sixth time, and he was recuperating back in Germany when the war ended.

The text could be used as evidence of the camaraderie of the German forces, or of their officers’ awareness of their material inferiority to the Allies, or of their confidence in the superiority of the German fighting spirit.

The Creighton translation has an introduction by one R.H. Mottram, who himself fought in the war. In his opinion Storm of Steel is evidence of the obtuse refusal to face reality of the entire Germany military class. After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in October 1914, it became clear that the war could only ever end with Allied victory – yet the German High Command stretched it out for four long, bitter years of psychological denial, resulting in ten million unnecessary deaths.

There are occasional moments when Jünger reveals a human side. Half way through the book there’s an unexpected passage in which Jünger discovers that his brother, who had also enlisted, is fighting in a unit right alongside his own. He immediately goes to find him, in the heat of a battle and, discovering him wounded in a farmhouse, arranges for him to be carried back to a field hospital in a piece of tarpaulin, probably saving his life.

So, all in all, Storm of Steel contains much material for historians or literary critics, psychologists or military analysts, to excerpt and analyse.

And there are countless details to shock and grab the casual reader’s attention, like the little girl lying in a pool of her own blood in a bombed-out village, or the soldier thrown into the exact pose of the crucifixion by a shell blast – the kind of details which feed into the modern liberal consensus that war is hell.

But in my opinion, all these elements are eclipsed by Jünger’s terrifying sense of a new world of war emerging, a world of unprecedented destruction and obliteration, in which a wholly new breed of heartless, battle-hardened warriors would arise to fight and flourish. Emerging from his visceral description of total war is a nightmare vision of the future, and an even more destructive conflagration to come.

As though waking from a deep dream, I saw German steel helmets approaching through the craters. They seemed to sprout from the fire-harrowed soil like some iron harvest. (p.235)


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974)

The term ‘Weimar culture’, while generally accepted, is in some respects unsatisfactory, if only because political and cultural history seldom coincides in time. Expressionism was not born with the defeat of the Imperial German army, nor is there any obvious connection between abstract painting and atonal music and the escape of the Kaiser, nor were the great scientific discoveries triggered off by the proclamation of the Republic in 1919. As the eminent historian Walter Laqueur demonstrates, the avant-gardism commonly associated with post-World War One precedes the Weimar Republic by a decade. It would no doubt be easier for the historian if the cultural history of Weimar were identical with the plays and theories of Bertolt Brecht; the creations of the Bauhaus and the articles published by the Weltbühne. But there were a great many other individuals and groups at work, and Laqueur gives a full and vivid accounting of their ideas and activities. The realities of Weimar culture comprise the political right as well as the left, the universities as well as the literary intelligentsia (Publisher’s blurb)

Laqueur was born into a Jewish family in 1921 in Prussia. He emigrated to British-controlled Palestine in 1938, where he graduated from school then worked as a journalist till the mid-50s. In 1955 he moved to London, and then on to America where he became an American citizen and a leading writer on modern history and international affairs.

Laqueur is still going strong at the age of 96 and has had a prodigious career – his first book (a study of the Middle East) was published in 1956 and his most recent (a study of Putinism) was published in 2015.

This book is about twice the length of Peter Gay’s 1968 study of the culture of Weimar. It is more urbane and expansive in style, and less tied to a specific thesis. Gay’s aim was to show how, in a range of ways, the intelligentsia of Weimar failed to support, or actively sought to overthrow, the young German democracy.

The overall tendency of Laqueur’s book is the same – the failure of the arts and intelligentsia to support the Republic – but his account feels much more balanced and thorough.

Geography

I appreciated his description of the geography of post-war Germany and how it influenced its politics. It’s important to remember that, under the punitive Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost all her overseas colonies, 13% of her European territory and a tenth of her population (some 6 million people) who now found themselves living in foreign countries (France, Poland, the new state of Czechoslovakia).

Much more than France or Britain, Germany had (and still has) many cities outside the capital which have strong cultural traditions of their own – Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Dresden.

Laqueur emphasises the difference between the industrial north and west and more agricultural south and east. He points out that the cities never gave that much support to Nazism; on the eve of Hitler’s coup, only a third of Berliners voted for the Nazis. Nazism was more a product of the thousands of rural towns and villages of Germany – inhabited by non-urbanites easily persuaded that they hated corrupt city life, cosmopolitanism, rapacious capitalists, Jews, and the rest of the Nazi gallery of culprits.

The left

I benefited from his description of the thinkers based around the famous Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923. The aim of the Institute was to bring together Marxist thinkers, writers, philosophers in order to work on a cultural critique of capitalist society. The idea was to analyse literature, plays, the new form of cinema – to show how capitalism conditioned the manufacture and consumption of these cultural artefacts.

To us, today, this seems like an obvious project, but that’s because we live in a culture saturated with an analysis of culture. Newspapers, magazines, the internet, blogs, TV shows, books, university courses by the thousand offer analyses of plays, art, movies and so on in terms of their construction, hidden codes, gender stereotyping, narrative structures, and so on and so on. The Frankfurt School thinkers – men like Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin – more or less invented the language and approach to do this.

With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all these Marxist thinkers were forced into exile. Did they flee to the Workers’ Paradise of the Soviet Union? No. They may have been Marxists but they weren’t stupid. They fled to the epicentre of world capitalism, America. New York at first, but many passed on to California where, among the palm trees and swimming pools, they penned long disquisitions about how awful capitalism was.

What Laqueur brings out from a review of their different approaches is the complete impracticality of their subtle and sophisticated critiques of capitalist society, which were more or less ignored by the actual German Communist Party (the KPD). In fact it only slowly dawned on these clever men that the Communist Party merely carried out Moscow’s foreign policy demands and that clever, individualistic Marxist thinkers like them were more of a liability to its demands for unswerving obedience, than an asset. In the eyes of the Party:

Since they lacked close contact with the working class few of them had been able to escape the ideological confusion of the 1920s, and to advance from a petty-bourgeois, half-hearted affirmation of humanist values to a full, wholehearted identification with Marxism-Leninism. (p.272)

Their peers in the USSR were rounded up and executed during Stalin’s great purges of the 1930s. Life among the tennis courts of California was much nicer.

The right

Surprisingly, Laqueur shows that this political impractibility also goes for thinkers of the right, who he deals with at length in a chapter titled ‘Thunder from the Right’.

The right had, probably, a higher proportion of cranks than the left, but still included a number of powerful and coherent thinkers. Laqueur gives insightful pen portraits of some of the most significant figures:

  • Alfred Rosenberg the Nazi propagandist, thought that the Bolshevik revolution symbolised the uprising of racially inferior groups, led by the Asiatic Lenin and the Jew Trotsky, against the racially pure Aryan élite (the Romanov dynasty). Rosenberg wrote The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), the myth being ‘the myth of blood, which under the sign of the swastika unchains the racial world-revolution. It is the awakening of the race soul, which after long sleep victoriously ends the race chaos.’ Despite this feverish support for the Nazis, Laqueur points out that Hitler and the Nazi leaders didn’t bother to read this long work. Rosenberg was in fact, seen as ‘plodding, earnest, humourless,’ a figure of fun even on the right.
  • Oswald Spengler‘s famous tome The Decline of the West (1922) had been drafted as early as 1911, its aim being to describe the 19th century as a soulless age of materialism, which had led to rootless immoralism in the arts. According to Spengler history moves in enormous unavoidable cycles of birth and decay. The age of kings and emperors was over, a new age of mass society and machines was at hand. (Although Spengler attacked the Republic for being a business scam, he also had some hard words for the Nazis who in reply criticised him. But they let him live and he died a natural death, in 1936.)
  • Moeller van den Bruck wrote The Right of Young Peoples and The Third Reich, the latter arguing that the key to world history was the conflict between the new young nations (Germany, Russia, America) and the old imperial ones (Britain and France). He thought Germany’s leaders needed to adopt a form of state ‘socialism’ which would unite the nation in a new Reich, which would become a synthesis of everything which came before. Laqueur comments that van den Bruck’s two books are almost impenetrably obscure, but nonetheless full of high-sounding rhetoric, ‘poetic visions, enormous promises and apocalyptic forebodings’ (p.96). It is in this hyperbole which he represents the overwrought spirit of the times.
  • Edgar Jung was a leader of the Conservative Revolutionary movement who lobbied long and hard against the Weimar Republic, whose parliamentarian system he considered decadent and foreign-imposed. Jung became speech writer to the Vice-chancellor of the coalition cabinet, Franz von Papen. He wrote a 1934 speech which was fiercely critical of the Nazis for being fanatics who were upsetting the return to Christian values and ‘balance’ which is what he thought Germany required. With the result that Hitler had him arrested and executed on the Night of the Long Knives, at the end of June 1934.
  • Carl Schmitt was an eminent legal philosopher who developed a theory based around the centrality of the state. The state exists to protect its population, predominantly from aggression by other states. To function it has to be a co-ordinated community of interests. Liberalism undermines this by encouraging everyone to go their own way. Parliamentarianism is the (ineffectual) reflection of liberalism. The state exists to make firm, clear decisions (generally about foreign policy), the opposite of the endless talking-shop of parliaments. Schmitt was yet another ‘serious’ thinker who prepared the minds he influenced for the advent of a Führer. But what I enjoyed about Laqueur’s account is that he goes on to bring out nuances and subtleties in the positions of all these people. Despite being anti-parliamentarian and soundly right-wing, Schmitt wasn’t approved of by the Nazis because his theory of the strong state made no room for two key Nazi concepts, race and Volk. Also – like many right wing thinkers – his philosophy was temperamentally pessimistic – whereas the Nazis were resoundingly optimistic and required optimism from their followers.
  • Ludwig Klages was, after the Second World War, nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work in developing graphology, the study of handwriting. But during the 1920s he was a pessimist of global proportions and a violent anti-Semite. His key work was The Intellect as Adversary of the Soul (1929) which claims that the heart, the soul, the essence of man has been trapped and confined ever since the beastly Jews invented monotheism and morality, twin evils which they passed on to Christianity. His book was a long review of the way Western morality had trapped and chained the deep ‘soul of Man’. Although the work was ripe in rhetoric, fiercely anti-rational and anti-democratic in tone and purpose it was, once again, not particularly useful to the Nazis.

To summarise: There was a large cohort of eminent thinkers, writers, philosophers, historians, of intellectuals generally, who wrote long, deeply researched and persuasive attacks on liberalism and democracy. Laqueur’s account builds up into a devastating indictment of almost the entire intellectual class of the country.

But all these attacks on Weimar democracy begged the central question: What would become of individual freedom when there were no longer human rights, elections, political parties or a parliament? The answer was that many of these thinkers developed a notion of ‘freedom’ completely at odds with out modern, UN Declaration of Human Rights-era understanding of the term. But notions which came out of deep German traditions of philosophy and religion.

Spengler, for example, maintained that, despite its harsh outer discipline, Prussianism – an epitome of core German values – enabled a deeper, inner freedom: the freedom which comes from belonging to a unified nation, and being devoted to a cause.

Protestant theologians of the era, on the other hand, developed a notion that ‘freedom’ was no longer (and never had been) attached to the outdated, liberal concept of individual liberty (which was visibly failing in a visibly failing ‘democracy’ as the Weimar Republic tottered from one crisis to the next). No, a man could only be ‘free’ in a collective which had one focus and one share belief.

In numerous thinkers of the era, a political order higher than liberalism promised freedom, not to individual capitalists and cosmopolitans, but to an entire oppressed people. The Volk.

What emerges from Laqueur’s summary of Weimar’s right-wing thinkers is that they were responding to the failure of democratic politics in just as vehement a fashion as the Marxists. The main difference is that invoked a much more varied selection of interesting (often obscure, sometimes bonkers) ideas and sources (compared with the communists who tended to be confined, more or less, to slightly varying interpretations of Marx).

To summarise, common features of Weimar right-wing thinking included:

  • the favouring of German Kultur (profound, spiritual, rural, of the soil) against superficial French Zivilisation (superficial, decadent, urban)
  • a focus on deep cultural values – Innerlichkeit meaning wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness
  • fierce opposition to the ‘ideas of 1918’:
    • political liberalism, social democracy, socialism, parliamentarianism
    • sexual lascivious dancing, jazz, nudity, immorality, abortion, divorce, pornography
    • cultural arts which focused on corruption and low moral values instead of raising the mind to emulate heroes
    • racial against foreigners, non-Germans, traitors and Jews

But just as the actual Communist Party didn’t think much of Weimar’s Communist intellectuals and were as likely to be repelled by avant-garde art as the staidest Berlin banker (as Stalin’s crack down on all the arts in favour of Socialist Realism was soon to show) – so Laqueur shows that the Nazis weren’t all that interested in most of the right-wing intellectuals, some of whom (as explained above) they even executed.

One of the themes which emerges from Laqueur’s long account of intellectuals of all stripes is that none of them seem to have grasped that politics is not about fancy ideas, but about power.

The Nazis had a far more astute grasp of the realities of power than the other right-wing leaders; they did not think highly of intellectuals as allies in the political struggle, and they made no efforts to win them over. (p.88)

The Nazis realised (like Lenin) that the intellectuals who supported them would rally to their cause once they’d won power; and that those who didn’t… could be killed. Simples.

The politically negative impact of the arts

As to the arts, Laqueur echoes Gay in thinking that every one of the left-wing plays and movies and pictures, all the scabrous articles by Kurt Tucholsky and the searing drawings of George Grosz – didn’t convert one conservative or bourgeois to the cause. Instead, their net effect was to alienate large sectors of the population from an urban, predominantly Berlin-based culture, a milieu which the conservative newspapers could all-too-easily depict as corrupt, decadent, immoral and unpatriotic.

Conservatives said: ‘Why do all paintings, plays, cabarets and movies seem to focus on criminals, prostitutes, grotesques and monsters? Why can’t artists portray ordinary decency and German virtues?’

Laqueur gives a long account of Weimar literature, the main thrust of which is that a) it was more varied than is remembered b) Thomas Mann was the leading writer. Indeed, Mann’s career, writings and changing political attitudes weave in and out of the whole text.

Weimar had possibly the most interesting theatre in the world with the innovations of Erwin Piscator standing out (projection of film onto the stage, facts, statistics, graphs; stylised stage sets; stage workings left exposed to view, and so on). But he, like the most famous playwright of the era, Bertolt Brecht, appealed ultimately to an intellectual, bourgeois audience (as they do today). There’s no evidence that ‘the workers’ saw many of these avant-garde plays. Instead ‘the workers’ were down the road watching the latest thriller at the cinema. Film was well-established as the populist art form of the era.

Art is much more international than literature or theatre, and Laqueuer makes the same point as Gay, that what we think of as Modern art was mostly a pre-war affair, with the Fauves, Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism all named and established by 1910, let alone 1914. In 1918 the survivors of these movements carried on, but Laqueur shows how the Expressionist impulse in all the arts – the harrowing sense of anguish, the apocalyptic visions, the strident imagery – was exhausted by 1923 or 4, and the more conservative, figurative (if still often stark and grotesque style) of Otto Dix and George Grosz was prevalent enough to be given its name of Neue Sachlichkeit well before the famous 1925 exhibition of that name.

Laqueur covers a lot more ground than Gay. There’s an entire chapter about German universities, which proceeds systematically through each of the subjects – sciences, arts, humanities, social studies and so on – explaining the major works of the era, describing the careers of key figures, putting them in the wider social and historical context. For example, art history emerges as a particular strong point of Weimar scholarship, from which America and Britain both benefited when Hitler came to power and all the art scholars fled abroad.

The main take home about universities is how shockingly right-wing the authorities and the students were, with plenty of learned scholars spending all their energy undermining the hated republic, and students forming all sorts of anti-Semitic and nationalist groups. I was genuinely surprised by this.

There’s a section on Weimar theology describing the thought of famous theologians such as Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and the Jewish thinker Martin Buber. As so often throughout the book there is often a strong sense of déjà vu, as the reader realises that ideas first promulgated during the 1920s have, in essence, echoed down to the present day:

The religious socialists, best-known among them Paul Tillich, preached ‘socialism derived from faith’, attacking soulless capitalist society, the free market economy and the alienation of man in which it had resulted. (p.210)

This sounds like the more outspoken Anglican bishops since as far back as I can remember (the 1970s).

Comparisons with our time

In fact one of the book’s great appeals is the way it prompts the reader to stop and draw comparisons between the Weimar years and our own happy times. Here are some thought-provoking similarities:

  • The left was full of utopian dreams, often about advanced sexual morality (divorce and abortions in the 1920s, LBGT+ and trans people in our time), which alienated a good deal of broader conventional opinion from their cause.
  • The left was characterised then, as now, by bitter internecine fighting (in our time the splits in the Labour Party between Momentum+young people supporting Jeremy Corbyn against the Labour MPs and left-wing commentators [e.g. The Guardian] who bitterly opposed him). The net effect of all this in-fighting, then as now, was to leave the way clear for the right to take and hold power.
  • The Weimar left was overwhelmingly urban and educated and made the fundamental mistake of thinking everyone was like them and shared their values. But, now as then, the majority of the population does not have university degrees, nor live in big cities full of talk about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘racial diversity’. This seems to be what took Vote Remain campaigners in the UK and Clinton campaigners in the US by surprise: the discovery that there are tens of millions of people who simply don’t share their views or values. At all.

Reading about: the obscene gap between rich and poor; the exploitation of workers; homelessness and dereliction; the in-fighting of the left; the irrelevance of the self-appointed avant-garde who made ‘revolutionary’ art, films, plays which were sponsored by and consumed by the bourgeois rich; while all the time the levers of power remained with bankers and financiers, huge business conglomerates and right-wing politicians — it’s hard not to feel that, although lots of surface things have changed, somehow, deep down, the same kind of structures and behaviours are with us still.

Reading the book tends to confirm John Gray’s opinion that, whereas you can definitely point to objective progress in the hard sciences, in the humanities – in philosophy, politics, art, literature and so on – things really just go round and round, with each new generation thinking it’s invented revolutionary politics or avant-garde art or subversive movies, just like the previous ones.

On a cultural level, has anything changed since the Weimar Republic produced Marxist culture critics, avant-garde movies, gay nightclubs, gender subversion and everyone was moaning about the useless government?

The peril of attacking liberal democracy

For me the central take-home message of both Gay and Laqueur’s books is that — If left wingers attack the imperfect bourgeois democracy they’ve got, the chances are that they won’t prepare the way for the kind of utopian revolution they yearn for. Chances are they will open the door to reactionaries who harness the votes and support of people which the left didn’t even know existed – the farmers and rural poor, the unemployed and petty bourgeoisie, the religious and culturally conservative – and lead to precisely the opposite of what the left hoped to achieve.

All across the developed world we are seeing this happening in our time: the left preaching utopian identity politics, supporting mass immigration and bickering among themselves – while the culturally and socially conservative right goes from strength to strength. I’m not saying there’s a direct comparison between Weimar Germany and now; I’m just pointing out that, reading this long and absorbing book, it was striking how many times the political or artistic rhetoric of the era sounded identical to the kind of thing we hear today, on both sides.

German values

Like Gay, Laqueur is German. Therefore his occasional, generally negative, comments about the German character are all the more noteworthy.

The esoteric language they [the members of the Frankfurt School for Social Research] used made their whole endeavour intelligible only to a small circle of like-minded people. This, incidentally, applied to most of the writings of the German neo-Marxists; the German language has an inbuilt tendency towards vagueness and lack of precision, and the Frankfurt School, to put it mildly, made no effort to overcome this drawback. (p.63)

The new trend [Modernism in all its forms] was in stark contrast to German innerlichkeit, wholesomeness, organic growth, rootedness. (p.85)

[Thomas Mann was] Weimar Germany’s greatest and certainly its most interesting writer. But he could not be its spokesman and teacher, magister Germaniae. For that function someone far less complex and much more single-minded was needed. With all his enormous gifts, he had the German talent of making easy things complicated and obvious matters tortuous and obscure. (p.124)

[The heroes of the most popular writers of the time, neither left wing nor modernist, not much known outside Germany] were inward-looking, mystics, men in search of god, obstinate fellows – modern Parsifals in quest of some unknown Holy Grail. They were preoccupied with moral conflicts and troubled consciences, they were inchoate and verbose at the same time, very German in their abstraction, their rootedness and sometimes in their dullness. (p.139)

Something that comes over very powerfully is that the Germans don’t appear to have a sense of humour. They have bitter sarcasm, biting satire and harsh irony – but lightness, wit, drollery? Apparently not.

[Before The Captain of Köpenick by Carl Zuckmayer] the German theatre had been notoriously weak in comedy. (p.152)

It is easy to think of many tragedies in the annals of German theatre and opera; the comedies which have survived can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There was no German operetta, not a single composer who could even remotely be compared to Johann Strauss or Offenbach, to Milloecker or Gilbert and Sullivan. (p.226)

Quite a few patriotic films dealing with heroic episodes of Prussian or German history were produced. Von Czerèpy’s Fridericus Rex, perhaps the first major film of this genre, was done so crudely, with such a total lack of humour, that it was acclaimed outside Germany on the mistaken assumption that it was anti-German propaganda. (p.231)

The absence during the 1920s of good comedies and adventure films helps to explain the tremendous popularity in Germany not only of Charlie Chaplin, but also of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, later, Jackie Coogan. (p.243)

These are just a few examples, but Laqueur repeatedly describes the writers, thinkers, intellectuals and so on who he summarises as humourless, earnest, heavy and serious. I thought the notion of Germans being ponderous and humourless was a dubious stereotype, but reading this book goes a long way to confirming it.

The Weimar revival of the 1960s

In his final summary, Laqueur presents another very important piece of information, when he explains how and why the reputation of Weimar culture underwent a revival.

This, he says, happened in the 1960s. For 40 years the period had been forgotten or brushed aside as a shameful failure which preceded the Great Disaster. It was during the 1960s that societies across the Western world saw a swing to the left among intellectuals and the young, a movement which became known as the New Left.

It was as a result of this revival of interest in far left thought that much of Weimar’s experimental and left-wing achievements were revived, that saw an upsurge in interest in of Piscator’s modernist theatre stagings, Brecht’s theory of epic theatre, and the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School. This revival has never gone away. The Marxist theories of the Frankfurt School – a kind of communism-without-tears – has gone on to take over the thinking of most humanities departments in the Western world.

But, as Laqueur points out, the revival of interest in left wing and ‘radical’ thinkers, artists, writers of the period, systematically ignores both the conservative or right-wing thinkers of the period, as well as the middle ground of run-of-the-mill but popular playwrights, novelists or film-makers – the kind that most people read or went to the theatre to enjoy. These have all been consigned to oblivion so that in modern memory, only the radicals stand like brave heroes confronting the gathering darkness.

Laqueur argues that this has produced a fundamental distortion in our understanding of the period. Even the opinions of non-left-wing survivors from the Weimar years were ignored.

Thus Laqueur reports a conference in Germany about the Weimar achievement at which Golo Mann accused the Piscator theatre of being Salonkommunisten (the German equivalent of the English phrase ‘champagne socialists’), while Walter Mehring criticised Brecht’s Threepenny Opera for abetting Nazi propaganda by undermining the Republic. These kinds of criticisms from people who were there have been simply ignored by the generations of left-wing academics, students and bien-pensant theatre-goers and gallery visitors who have shaped the current Weimar myth.

The utopian left-wing 1960s sought for and boosted the thinkers and artists who they thought supported their own stance.

Just like Gay, Laqueur thinks that the latterday popularity of the novelist Hermann Hesse would have been inexplicable to those who lived through Weimar when he published most of his novels. Back then he was seen as an eccentric and peripheral figure, but in the 1960s he suddenly found himself hailed godfather of the hippy generation, and his books Steppenwolf, Siddhartha and Narcissus and Goldmund became bestsellers. In his final years Hesse was in fact driven to declare that his writings were being misinterpreted by the younger generation. But then, in 1962, he died and the hippies and their successors were free to interpret him according to their own needs and fantasies.

After the Second World War Bertolt Brecht’s plays and productions became the toast of champagne socialists everywhere.

The Bauhaus brand underwent a great efflorescence, the architects who had settled in America (particularly Mies van der Rohe) having a huge impact on American skyscraper design, while the works of Kandinsky and Klee were revived and made famous.

In the humanities, the Frankfurt School’s criticism of capitalist consumer culture fit perfectly with the beliefs of the ‘New Left’, as it came to be known in the 1960s. The obscure essays of Walter Benjamin were dusted off and are now included in all literature, culture and critical theory courses. (I was struck by how Benjamin was referenced in almost every one of the 14 essays in the book about Weimar Art I recently read, The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33. I wonder if you’re allowed to write an essay in a humanities subject which doesn’t mention Saint Walter.)

Laqueur’s point is that the New Left of the 1960s, which has gone on to find a permanent home in humanities departments of all universities, chose very selectively only those elements of Weimar culture which suited their own interests.

Right here, at the end of the book, we realise that Laquer has been making a sustained attempt to present a less politicised, a more factual and inclusive account of Weimar culture than has become popular in the academy – deliberately ranging over all the achievements in pretty much every sphere of cultural endeavour, whether left or right, popular or avant-garde, whether it had undergone a golden revival in the 1960s or slumped into complete obscurity – in order to present a complete picture.

Weimar: A Cultural History 1918-1933 is a big, rich, thorough, sensible and thought-provoking book, which prompts ideas not only about the vibrant, conflicted culture of its time, but about how the Weimar legacy has been appropriated and distorted by later generations.


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The Heath Robinson Museum, Pinner

The Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner Park, an easy 5-minute walk from Pinner Tube station up the Metropolitan Line, is an unalloyed joy and delight.

The Museum opened in October 2016 and houses some 1,000 artworks by this brilliant and prolific artist, cartoonist and illustrator. Not only is the collection a thing of joy and wonder, but the museum is sited next to an open-air cafe which serves yummy food, both set beside a tree-lined lake in the picturesque Pinner Memorial Gardens. It is a perfect Sunday outing.

The Heath Robinson Museum (right) next to Daisy's In The Park cafe (left)

The Heath Robinson Museum (right) next to Daisy’s In The Park cafe (left)

Why Pinner? Because Heath Robinson moved here with his young family in 1908, doing much of his best work at a house in nearby Moss Lane, where he is now commemorated by a blue plaque.

Museum layout

The Heath Robinson museum in fact consists of just one main display room but it is an education in itself to witness just how much information can be conveyed in one room. The most interesting feature is the way his life and career is told on a continuous strip extending right round the room at waist height, and undulating and curving a bit like a solidified scroll. This tells HR’s full life story with explanations of key aspects of his career. Some pictures are embedded in the scroll, while above, at head height, is a series of black and white prints, and then over our heads hang a sequence of really large full-colour, poster-size illustrations.

The Heath Robinson Museum showing the waist-level information shelf, mid-height prints, and high-up posters, plus the model contraptions in the middle

The Heath Robinson Museum showing the waist-level information shelf running round the wall, the mid-height prints, and the high-up colour posters, plus the model contraptions in the middle

There’s an audio guide or commentary. Just tap it against the symbol next to a relevant illustration and it gives a bit of commentary and opinion about it.

And in the centre of the room are some entertaining models of some Heath Robinson contraptions. So although it’s only one room it takes a good 30 to 40 minutes to go round reading everything and looking at everything (and laughing out loud).

Potted biography

William Heath Robinson was born in Finsbury Park in 1872 into a family of artists. His father was an illustrator for newspapers and magazines, and William and his brothers used to copy him as well as drawing things in the family garden and nearby park. Eventually all three brothers became illustrators.

William hankered to be a landscape artist and landscapes remained his first love, but a man needs to eat and, through contacts of his father and brothers, he quickly found work which rewarded his stunning draughtsmanship and eye for detail. From the turn of the century he provided lavish colour illustrations to editions of children’s classics such as Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Legends (1897), The Arabian Nights (1899), Tales from Shakespeare (1902), Gargantua and Pantagruel (1904), Twelfth Night (1908), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1914) and The Water-Babies (1915). Several of these titles are available in the Museum bookshop as luxurious hardback editions.

'So full of shapes is fancy' (Twelfth Night) by William Heath Robinson

‘So full of shapes is fancy’ – Twelfth Night (1908) by William Heath Robinson

The most amazing thing about this picture is that it’s set during the day. The topmost part of the facade opposite is in full daylight – so this isn’t a night-time scene, as the dim darkness suggests – it’s a beautifully poetic evocation of daytime shadow.

In 1909 Heath Robinson was commissioned to illustrate Kipling’s multi-part poem, A Song of the English, written to convey the far-flung nature of the British Empire and the heroism of the men, in particular the sailors, who toiled to preserve it. The pen and watercolour illustrations are quite dazzlingly brilliant.

It’s startling that a man capable of such powerfully visionary pictures could also write and illustrate a children’s book of his own, The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902). This is the strange tale of a man who falls asleep minding his baby by a brook only for it to be stolen by the ‘bag-bird’, resulting in a series of adventures to remote picturesque locations like Arabia or the Arctic to try and find the missing babe. Uncle Lubin features in a number of images here, including large poster-size versions of Lubin flying in a typically fraying-string and hand-made balloon.

The Aeronaut from The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902) by William Heath Robinson

The Aeronaut from The Adventures of Uncle Lubin (1902) by William Heath Robinson

Contraptions and gadgets

In fact, Uncle Lubin is sometimes regarded as the start of HR’s career in the depiction of unlikely machines – the enormous range of illustrations and cartoon of complicated hand-made contraptions featuring ropes and pulleys, levers and handles, and incongruous household elements like umbrellas and kettles, absurdly and unnecessarily complicated devices erected to carry out incongruously simple or far-fetched activities. It is the mind-boggling array of such devices which gave the language the adjective ‘Heath Robinson’ which can be applied to any absurdly complex and jerry-rigged contraption.

'Stout members of the sixth column dislodge an enemy machine gun post on the dome of St Paul's' by William Heath Robinson

Stout members of the sixth column dislodge an enemy machine gun post on the dome of St Paul’s by William Heath Robinson

Heath Robinson realised that the contraptions are funnier, the more seriously they are taken. Therefore every element of every device is imagined down to the tiniest pulley and knotted string, and all of the army of technicians and engineers and soldiers and scientists are going about their business with the utmost seriousness. He said that the viewer has to believe in the subject as seriously as the characters themselves.

Deceiving the Invader by William Heath Robinson

Deceiving the invader as to the state of the tide by William Heath Robinson

Two World Wars

The market for top end, luxury, lavishly colour-illustrated books dried up with the advent of the Great War. Heath Robinson had been providing comic cartoons for a variety of publications and, when war broke out, began a stream of humorous cartoons satirising the enemy in three books – Some ‘Frightful’ War Pictures (1915), Hunlikely! (1916) and The Saintly Hun: a book of German virtues (1917). All three volumes are collected into one book, available in the bookshop.

Twenty years later, the saintly Hun was back again and Heath Robinson produced another set of war cartoons, this time noticeably satirising official British war efforts. As the commentary points out, maybe the Nazis were just too unspeakable to laugh about.

The war was of course a period of rationing and austerity, with everyone being encouraged to ‘make do and mend’, not throw anything away, but patch and fix things. There’s an obvious link between the increasingly home-made, amateur DIY which the whole population was forced towards, and the relevance and popularity of Heath Robinson’s cracked contraptions.

A warm welcome for every parachutist by William Heath Robinson

A warm welcome for every parachutist by William Heath Robinson

Cartoons

After the Great War the early lavish illustrations gave way to a flood of humorous drawings for magazines and advertisements. In 1934 he published a collection of his favourites as Absurdities. For example:

You could go a bit heavy and wonder if this between-the-wars interest in absurdity echoes and anticipates the French existentialist emphasis on the absurdity and futility of human existence. The French had Jean-Paul Sartre and the Resistance; we had Heath Robinson and Dad’s Army; the Nazis had the Horst Wessel Song; we had Noel Coward and comic songs like Don’t Let’s Be Beastly To The Germans.

The intellectual summer holiday reminded me of my recent visit to the Wolfgang Tillsman exhibition at Tate Modern, where everyone had their heads stuck in the exhibition pamphlet. Works like Testing teeth typify his deployment of massed ranks of managers and technicians, scientists and supervisors, to give the joke machinery added solemnity and pomposity. They remind me a lot of the government departments where I’ve worked.

Designs for living

The 1930s saw the first big wave of self-improvement books and guides and manuals. Only recently at the British Museum exhibition of landscape watercolours, I was reminded of the Shell guides, written by poets and writers of the day and illustrated by leading artists, which were designed to get the reading public motoring off into the country to explore the counties of England, or pulling on their hiking boots and setting off a-rambling.

It was in this climate that Heath Robinson was paired up with the humourist K.R.G. Browne to illustrate a brilliant series of ‘how to’ books – How to live in a flat (1936), How to be a perfect husband (1937), How to make a garden grow (1938), poking fun at new trends and fashions for ‘modern living’.

Romantic possibilities in modern flats by William Heath Robinson

Romantic possibilities in modern flats (1936) by William Heath Robinson

In 1933 Heath Robinson did his marvellous cartoon illustrations for the first of the Professor Branestawm books written by Norman Hunter – The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm – which I read and loved as a boy.

Adverts and commercial work

It is also striking to learn that Heath Robinson provided illustrations, straight or comic, for some 100 commercial products, several of which are included here, notably his cartoon-style ads for Hovis bread and some of the humorous illustrations he did for the leather-making firm of Connolly Brothers.

Heath Robinson’s watercolours

But the aspect of his work which I wasn’t expecting and which crept slowly up on me as I walked round, was the strength and power of his more serious work – the early Shakespeare and literary illustrations, for sure, but also the really stunning watercolours and landscapes which he produced throughout his life.

Eastern Market Scene by William Heath Robinson

Eastern Market Scene, watercolour by William Heath Robinson

The commentary explains that, quite separately from his commercial work, Heath Robinson continued to paint landscapes in his spare time – sometimes pure pastoral, sometimes with whimsical fairies and goblins, sometimes with more spiritual-looking Greek or idealised human figures ghosting through them.

Girl on a riverbank by William Heath Robinson

Girl on a riverbank, watercolour by William Heath Robinson

The cartoons are often very, very funny, all the funnier the more carefully you follow through their ludicrously intricate machinery. But some of these watercolours and spiritualised landscapes are masterpieces in a completely different mood – brilliantly evocative and powerful, strange and haunting.

The commentary points out that Heath Robinson made careful use of deliberately limited tone and palette – the washes come from the same colour base i.e. almost all greens in the watercolour above, variations on blue in the Twelfth Night illustration at the top of this post, more greens in the landscape below. An almost Japanese sense of the unity and harmoniousness of the colours creates a wonderfully dreamlike impression.

Landscape with tall tree and haystack by William Heath Robinson

Landscape with tall tree and haystack, watercolour by William Heath Robinson

As you soak up Heath Robinson’s command of watercolour and the tonal unity of these works, it makes you appreciate all the more how he combined this colour control with the immaculate draughtsmanship so obvious in the cartoons to produce a synthesis – wonderful tonal harmony controlled by breath-taking design – in the best of his fairy, Shakespeare and literary illustrations. And makes you go back to marvel at them all over again.

And, as the exhibition shows, this incredibly diverse artist could also use the same combination in another flavour or style or ‘voice’ altogether – away from the fantastical fairy world, in a style which depicts the modern world with no comic intent but with the same breath-taking linesmanship and colour harmony to create a wonderful sense of warmth and friendliness.

Heath Robinson’s art is at home in the world and makes the viewer, also, feel profoundly, safely at home.

What a really great artist, a brilliant illustrator, a hilarious cartoonist, and a wonderfully evocative watercolourist. This is an absolute treat of a museum!

Credit

All Heath Robinson images reproduced with kind permission of the William Heath Robinson Trust and © The William Heath Robinson Trust.


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The Last Valley by Martin Windrow (2004)

‘While an increasing flow of American dollars, weapons, vehicles and aircraft in the early 1950s did improve the fire and mobility of the CEFEO, they could not offset the fundamental disadvantages of a roadbound army facing a hill and forest army in a country which had few roads but a great many hills and forests.’ (p.129)

This is a really epic book about an epic battle. Its full title is The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam and it does what it says on the tin at immense length and in fascinating detail, clocking in at a whopping 734 pages, including detailed endnotes, bibliography, list of acronyms, no fewer than 21 maps, and a thorough index. It clearly sets out to be the definitive account of this debacle.

1. Background

The first hundred or so pages take us through the origins and early stages of the First Indochina War (1946-1954). Vietnam had been part of French colonial Indochina since the 1850s, colonial rule which was consolidated at the turn of the century. The higher education the French offered the natives ironically educated a generation to demand greater freedom and independence.

The most notable of these nationalists Ho Chi Minh (born 1890) travelled to France after World War One and tried to contact the American delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference, hoping President Woodrow Wilson would apply his Fourteen Points to Europe’s colonies – particularly French Indochina – and secure their independence. But his letters went unanswered.

Rebuffed, Ho set about educating himself in communist doctrine and guerrilla tactics, traveling to Soviet Moscow to study, then returning to Vietnam where he helped set up the Indochina Communist Party in 1930 and then helped weld the various disparate nationalist groups into a united front, the Viet Minh, in 1941.

After the Fall of France to the Nazis in June 1940, the French authorities in Indochina (as in France’s other colonies) switched allegiance to the new Vichy government, a puppet state which the Nazis allowed to administer the south of France and the French Empire.

On September 27, 1940, Germany, Italy, and Japan signed the Tripartite Pact, which became known as the Axis alliance. Japanese forces entered French Indochina and took over all important administrative powers from the Vichy French. The native Vietnamese (and Laotians and Cambodians) watched in wonder as their European imperial masters were humiliated by fellow Asians. In a culture based on ‘face’, the French empire in the East (like the British one) never recovered from the loss of face involved in their feeble surrender to the Japanese.

France was finally liberated by the Allies in late 1944 and the Vichy regime was overthrown. This put the Vichy administrators in Indochina in a tricky position vis-a-vis their Japanese masters and the growing tension came to a head in March 1945 when the Japanese rounded up the Vichy forces, locking them up in Japanese prison camps and executing anyone who resisted (‘In Saigon the senior military and civil prisoners, General Lemonnier and Resident Auphalle, were beheaded after being forced to dig their own graves.’ p.81)

In the six months between Japan’s seizure of power and the final Japanese defeat in September 1945, the Japanese left the Viet Minh to their own devices, allowing them to organise and set up cells throughout the country. The Japanese concentrated their efforts on pillaging Vietnam’s food resources to feed Japan, leading to the catastrophic famine of45 in which well over one million Vietnamese starved to death.

When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Viet Minh, led by Ho, their by-now veteran organiser, immediately declared Vietnamese independence to cheering crowds and amid nationwide rejoicing. Frederick Logevall’s epic account of the period, Embers of War, includes eyewitness accounts by the handful of Americans on the scene who were amazed and impressed when Ho quoted the American declaration of Independence. Like the Americans, the Vietnamese just wanted to be free from an imperial oppressor.

Which makes the tragedy all the more bitter, which makes you want to weep tears of frustration to read of the way the Americans under President Truman abandoned their wartime commitment to liberate colonial peoples, and instead stood behind General de Gaulle’s arrogant insistence that all of Indochina must be returned to French Imperial rule.

As per the agreement made between the Big Three powers (the USA, Britain, USSR) at Potsdam earlier in 1945, a ragtag army from nationalist China was allowed to occupy the north of the country, and a division of the British Indian army occupied the south, both of them holding the ring until the French returned.

Thus, through into spring 1946 the French armed forces arrived from Europe, determined to restore the status quo ante, immediately rounding up any nationalists foolish enough to trust them, amid an atmosphere of mistrust and tension. Scattered moments of resistance quickly grew into a guerrilla insurgency across the country, in the north and south, which was crystallised in a dispute over customs dues in the port of Haiphong. On November 26 1946 the French navy bombarded the city, seriously damaging it and killing over 6,000 civilians, in just one afternoon. After such massacre, there was no going back (p.90).

2. The first Indochina war

So by 1947 France found itself drawn into an unwinnable guerrilla war against an enemy who mostly refused open battle in preference for urban terrorist attacks and hit-and-run guerrilla operations in the steamy jungles of northern Vietnam. In a way the 8 years of war, from 1946 to 1954, are footnotes to, or simply the logical consequence of, the fatal initial French decision to reoccupy the country against the express wishes of the majority of the population.

The French military struggled to contain an insurgency which was so unpredictable and where the terrain and the people were so much on the side of the insurgents. French generals arrived in Indochina full of enthusiasm and confidence, slowly grasped the hopelessness of the situation, and ended up writing bleak reports back to Paris, while all the time little convoys and isolated outposts were ambushed and annihilated.

Back in Paris the governments of the Fourth Republic proved themselves as addicted to bickering and posturing as the French governments before the war, lacking – in a neat formulation of Windrow’s – either the strength to prosecute the war with conviction (to implement conscription and triple the number of French troops in Vietnam) or the political courage to face the facts and concede to talks with the Viet Minh.

The situation underwent a sea change in October 1949 when Mao Zedong’s communist forces finally secured power in war-torn China. Mao immediately set about sending supplies to the Viet Minh and Windrow describes how military training camps were set up in south China for cohorts of Viet Minh forces to attend – learning skills of organisation, rifle, machine gun, mortar and artillery technique.

Reading the history of this period has taught me that the fall of China to communism caused massive recriminations in American politics, with a wave of republicans queueing up to accuse President Truman’s Democrat government of being ‘soft on communism’. The American political atmosphere was paranoid even before communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, precipitating America into a bloody three-year struggle in support of the beleaguered south.

All this turned the independence struggle in Vietnam into a cauldron of the Cold War and, especially after the Korean War ground to a long-delayed armistice in summer 1953, the two sides (Viet Minh and French) were supplied ever increasing amounts of arms and matériel by their respective backers (China and America – by the time it ended in 1954, the United States was paying three-quarters of the cost of the war.)

3. Dien Bien Phu

In 1951 and 1952 there were larger scale engagements as the Vietnam Army’s self-taught general, Vo Ngyen Giáp, experimented with larger attacks on French positions around Hanoi. Windrow describes each of these in meticulous detail, with precise maps showing troops dispositions in staggering detail and there are very precise maps for each of them, so that you can follow the night’s or day’s events with great precision.

November and December 1952 saw the Battle of Nà Sản. Giáp attacked the French outpost at Nà Sản, an isolated fortified camp in Tonkin supplied only by air. Giáp sent wave after wave of Viet Minh infantry in direct attack, but these either failed, or seized territory was immediately retaken by aggressive French paratroop units. Ultimately Giáp failed, with the Viet Minh suffering very heavy losses.

In May 1953 General Henri Navarre was dispatched to Vietnam with orders to bring the situation to some kind of resolution favourable for possible negotiations. He based himself in Hanoi in the north of the country, where the Viet Minh were strongest. His first priority was maintaining security in the corridor from Hanoi down to the port of Haiphong and in the broader delta of the Red River. Late in the year he launched an anti-insurgency operation in the middle of the country known as Annam. But the idea slowly took shape of deliberately recreating the Nà Sản experience on an even larger scale with the aim of drawing Giáp into committing the bulk of the Viet Minh forces – alternately known as the Vietnam Liberation Army – into a massed assault. This would allow superior French artillery, armour and air support to decimate the exposed VPA.

Given the French total domination of the air, the base would be supplied by air and air forces would also help decimate all VPA units brought against it. Windrow charts the process whereby various factors led to the decision to locate this ‘air-land base’ at the remote settlement of Dien Bien Phu. This was actually a straggle of small villages in a long narrow valley far in the north-west of the country. It was given strategic value by being a kind of crossroads for Viet Minh forces coming from China or heading south-west to threaten French-occupied Laos.

Plans were drawn up to parachute in over 10,000 men, mainly crack paratroop regiments and Foreign Legionaries, along with vast amounts of equipment, including 10 Chaffee tanks, bulldozers to create a working airstrip – Operation Castor, as it was called, commenced on 20 November 1953.

Once the airstrip was laid, old Dakota transport planes from the war began flying in scores of artillery guns, hundreds of mortars, vast amounts of ammunition and everything required to build a vast military encampment in the long narrow valley. During this set-up phase there was little or no sight of the enemy and countless politicians and journalists flew in to be impressed by the might and power of the French Army. In actual fact, right from the start a lot of the planes, crews and equipment were supplied by the Americans.

4. Catastrophe

The entire project rested on a number of assumptions or propositions:

  • Dominance in the air would prove decisive:
    1. supplies could be dropped indefinitely
    2. wounded taken out
    3. new men brought in
    4. Vietnam Liberation Army forces would be identified from the air and wiped out
    5. VLA artillery would be identified from the air and wiped out
  • The VLA would not be able to get their artillery over the high ridges surrounding the valley, and if they did they’d be wiped out from the air
  • The base could be used for offensive attacks on VLA supply lines

In the event every single one of these assumptions proved false. The few attempts to go out on offensive patrol were beaten back by the encircling VLA with heavy French losses. As January changed to February the early monsoon brought fog and mist, drastically reducing flights in and out of the airstrip. The VLA went to extraordinary lengths to camouflage their supply tracks, bending trees over to be tied in the middle above jungle paths, meticulously camouflaging each other’s uniforms and helmets and, most effectively, only moving at night. The VLA did manage to haul their heavy guns over the ridges, in heroic efforts which Windrow describes at length. This took the French completely by surprise. And then the VLA dug them into deeply embedded fissures and caves with huge overhangs of solid rock. For the entire battle the French struggled to locate the attacking guns and, despite dropping hundreds of tons of explosives, didn’t destroy a single one.

French intelligence knew that Giáp was building up large forces around the base and expected an attack on 25 January. By 31 January they were completely surrounded. The battle proper started on 13 March 1954 with a devastating barrage of one of the most remote outposts of the base. (In a hilariously French touch, it is alleged that the nine or so outcrops, based on small hillocks scattered over the valley, were named after mistresses of the womanising camp commander, Colonel Christian de Castries – Eliane, Beatrice, Gabriele etc.)

That first evening’s barrage destroyed lots of French illusions. It was as intense as a Great War artillery attack and ranged freely from the intended target (the most isolated stronghold, ‘Beatrice’) across the entire camp, damaging the airstrip, threatening command HQ deep in the compound, and killing key commanders at Beatrice within half an hour. De Castries’ chief of staff had a nervous breakdown on that first night from which he never recovered. It took only a few more days of such intense barrage for the French artillery commander, Charles Piroth, to realise that a) the VLA had brought their artillery over the mountains b) they had hidden them so effectively they couldn’t even be located let alone pummeled by the French c) air attacks were similarly ineffective. Plunging into a depression, after only a week he withdrew to his hut and killed himself with a hand grenade.

Windrow then describes the 56 day-long ordeal of the French forces as they are then slowly, systematically reduced, the VLA targeting one stronghold after another, softening them up with overwhelming artillery attacks and then sending wave after wave of fanatical VLA troops against the French forces who showed episodes of tremendous courage but time and again were borne down by sheer numbers. (In one of the countless insights the book provides, Windrow points out the narrowness and inflexibility of Gap’s tactics which were, in essence, exactly the same as First World War tactics – dig trenches close up to the enemy positions – fire a devastating bombardment – then pour endless troops into the breach, regardless of horrendous losses.)

Windrow

What makes Windrow’s account distinctive is the immense detailed attention he pays to every aspect of the military side of the battle. For example,

  • He devotes pages to a minute breakdown of the exact structure of the Viet Minh forces (named the Vietnam Liberation Army), giving the names and numbers of each division, brigade, along with the respective generals and senior officers.
  • He explains the threefold division of the Viet Minh forces, into local irregulars based in villages who provided support; militia based in villages who were organised to carry out small scale engagements; and regular army who were fully trained and lived in jungle ‘barracks’ high up in the inaccessible hill and jungle territory of North Tonkin, near the Chinese border.
  • He gives comprehensive histories of all the French divisions, regiments and battalions involved in the battle, down to platoon and squad level of all the French forces.

I have never read such an exhaustive account of a sustained military operation, such a precise breakdown of the forces involved, nor such a minute-by-minute narrative of almost every parachute that opens, every canon that fires, every machine gun blockhouse which fights on to the death.

Hundreds of pages are filled with comprehensive blow-by-blow descriptions of every units involved in the battle, clotted with division or regimental or battalion numbers, commanders and personnel, sometimes amounting to lists of acronyms and locations which can get quite confusing. This is a typical paragraph from thousands like it:

The withdrawing Group East consisted of Colonel Barrou’s GM 100, the Vietnamese light infantry unit TDKQ 520, and irregular scouts. Although much harried over the past five months this motorised brigade had a fine reputation; its infantry were the two-battalion Régiment de Corée – the former French UN battalion from the Korean War, expanded by local recruitment – and BM/43 RIC, a good unit enlisted mainly from ethnic Khmers from western Cochinchina. Coming to meet them in Lieutenant Colonel Sockeel’s Group West were GM 42, built on three montagnard battalions recruited among Rhadés from around Ban Me Thuot; each brigade had the usual 105mm artillery battalion and a few Stuart tanks from the 5th Cuirassiers. Group West also had a small airborne brigade: GAP 1, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Romain-Defossés, with 7 BPC (Major Balbin) and 3 BPVN (Major Mollo). (p.634)

Learnings

It is a profoundly instructive book because it takes you so deeply and exhaustively into every aspect of the battle – not only into the experience of the men fighting in the trenches and front line of each stronghold, but giving a complete account of all the orders issued, signals sent and plans devised both by General Navarre and his staff in Hanoi, and de Castries and his in the camp, as well as insights into the challenges faced by the different air forces which were involved in the non-stop drop and resupply of the base. We get to know many of the officers, including the legendary Lieutenant-Colonel Marcel Bigeard and Colonel Pierre Langlais.

It is fascinating to have such an epic battle so firmly located within the larger French strategy, for Navarre had also to defend the Delta and provision his campaign in Annam.

It is a major revelation to learn that most of the French forces fighting in the battle were not strictly French, for they included a large number of native forces, both Vietnamese and Thai regiments recruited from the locality; as well as a large number of Algerian forces, and colonial troops from West African countries such as Senegal. A significant number of battalions were from the French Foreign Legion, none of whose men were French and a frisson goes through the reader to learn that many of these men were former Wehrmacht soldiers who had various reasons to flee Europe with no questions asked.

At regular intervals Windrow stops his narrative to explain aspects of warfare, always writing with clarity and common sense.

  • He gives a detailed technical explanation of artillery shell fire, how it works, what it feels like, the kind of wounds it inflicts (pp.371-374)
  • what it’s like inside a tank (hot, cramped, blind, poisoned by fume) (pp.448-449)
  • how a flamethrower works and what the flame looked like and did (p.504)

One of these digressions is the best description of what motivates men to fight I think I’ve ever read.

The section were the soldier’s closest comrades- his copains, mates or buddies; he marched, fought, ate and slept beside them, and came to know them as well as he had known his childhood brothers. It would be absurd to imagine that every soldier likes and trusts all the men in his squad; nevertheless, every serious study of human motivation among combat soldiers confirms that the key to a man’s behaviour in battle is his feeling of mutual dependence and obligation towards these immediate comrades. Today many veterans of serious and prolonged combat are not embarrassed to use the word love. This unique sense of unselfish fellowship forged in shared ordeals is the principal reward of soldiering, and its rupture by the death of friends is the most painful price. (p.176)

This put me in mind of all those accounts of British officers in the First World War who came to love their men, and were upset to be separated from them, by different postings or injury. The war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon write eloquently of this soldierly love, and only a force this powerful and primeval can explain why right up to the end French troops were being parachuted into Dien Bien Phu to fight alongside their fellow Legionnaires or Parachute divisions, in a cause which was obviously hopelessly lost.

The Geneva Conference

As the battle grew more intense, preparations began for a major conference of diplomats and politicians to be held in Geneva, designed to bring together all the interested parties in South-East Asia (China, Russia, America, Britain, France) in order to address the aftermath of the Korean War as well as the situation in Indochina. Though it hadn’t been planned this way, political and military commanders on both sides (Ho and Giap, Navarre and de Castries) now realised that the outcome of the Battle at Dien Bien Phu could well determine the outcome of the conference, and thus the entire fate of the French Empire in Asia.

Also the open access given to journalists early on ensured the battle had more, and more graphic, coverage on French radio, in newspapers and magazines, than previous confrontations. The struggle against overpowering odds of their brave boys in the jungle seized the French imagination more powerfully than any previous engagement in the eight-year-old war. As the situation became progressively more grim so did the mood of the French public.

I hadn’t really grasped how fragile France was after the Second World War. There were some 19 different governments between 1945 and 1954, many lasting only months, as the relentless backbiting of a host of extreme parties, including a powerful communist party, stymied the ability to govern.

Amid a welter of parliamentary backstabbing, and recriminations among the generals and between military and politicians, Dien Bien Phu eventually fell to the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954.

In fact, as Windrow harrowingly shows, the misery for many was only just starting because around half of the prisoners of war taken by the Viet Minh died on the long jungle marches to POW camps, or in the camps themselves, due to malnutrition and disease, a process he describes with characteristic grim thoroughness.

A thoroughly demoralised French government announced its intention to quit Indochina, despite the readiness of many, including General Navarre to fight on. The Geneva Conference agreed to partition Vietnam along the 17th parallel, handing the north – Tonkin – to the Viet Minh, while the south was to be under the ‘democratic’ rule of the puppet emperor Bao Dai. Even before the French had left Americans were appearing in numbers to give political, strategic and material aid to the southern regime, a further decisive step towards their entanglement in what became known as the Vietnam War, a decade later.

Right to the end Windrow’s book is full of fascinating insights. The final pages explain how many of the survivors of Indochina found themselves redeployed to French Algeria, where the first attacks by the Front for National Liberation took place in October 1954, just a few weeks after the French evacuated Hanoi. He goes on to describe how many French soldiers felt betrayed by lack of political and military support at Dien Bien Phu. The suffering was on such a scale that for the whole cause they were fighting for – to preserve the French Empire in the Far East – to be overthrown within weeks seemed like a grotesque betrayal. This laid the seeds of the growing alienation of the French Army in Algeria, which saw a similar betrayal by politicians beginning to take place and led to the creation of the Organisation armée secrète which waged a terrorist campaign against French politicians and tried to mount a military coup in 1962.

For France herself, that was to be one legacy of Dien Bien Phu. For America, it was to be dragged into a catastrophic war. For the poor Vietnamese it was to be another 20 years of war before they finally secured their independence.

Video

There’s no shortage of videos and documentaries about both the First Indochina War and Dien Bien Phu in particular. This is the pithiest one I’ve watched.

Credit

The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam by Martin Windrow was published in 2004 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Cassell Military Paperback edition.

Related links

All Quiet On the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)

While away in Northumberland I read All Quiet On the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, in fact I read it twice, in a good, fluent 1994 translation by Brian Murdoch.

It’s not a memoir but a novel with all that means in terms of compressing and simplifying events. There’s a handful of characters, from the narrator’s schooldays, and one by one they are killed off. Scenes are cinematically vivid, like the famous artillery attack in the graveyard. Most of all, the narrator, Paul, is continually on the edge of a nervous breakdown, oppressed by the horror and the meaninglessness of war but also by his own miserable, poverty-stricken family life.

A grim, intense read.


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

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