HISTORY TELLS US : REMAIN

This is a revision of some material I posted about two years ago.

From the beginning of the One Hundred Years War to the conclusion of the Second World in 1945, a period more than six hundred years, European nations were at war. The issues were sometimes religious, The Thirty Years War in what is now mostly modern day Germany between 1618 and 1648 for example,  but more often than not, territorial aggrandisement, or, in other words, grabbing land that doesn’t belong to you. Such greed, which involved most of the countries which we now call Europe, reached its peak in 1945 with the bloody conclusion of the Second World War.

In the summer of 1945, Germany lay in ruins. Millions were dead, either on the battlefield, in prisons, concentration and slave labour camps or beneath the rubble created by Allied bombing raids. The transport infrastructure had been almost totally destroyed, there was a desperate shortage of food and such power that existed was intermittent and unreliable. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners-of-war were languishing,mostly in the open air, in hastily erected barbed wire compounds where the death rates climbed day-by-day.

The almost total collapse of Germany left the victors with a mighty difficult problem: what to do with a country that had been responsible for a European war  in which more than thirty five million people had died. There were some, like the US Treasury Secretary Morgenthau, who  proposed that Germany’s industrial capacity be completely destroyed and that country be downgraded to a purely agricultural state. Fortunately wiser councils prevailed and the more astute politicians, political scientists and economists recognised the importance of a revitalised German economy to the long-term health of Western Europe. The rest of Europe was, by 1948, languishing under Communist rule directed from Moscow by Stalin.

Once the immediate post-war blood-letting and initial denazification had passed and some semblance of modest self-government had been established, the problem of how to re-integrate Germany into West European economic, political and social life remained. Ironically it was a Frenchman, Robert Schuman who proposed a solution to this dilemma. Schuman was a former French Prime Minister who had been, since 1948, Foreign Minister. He had no love for the Germans, having been imprisoned by them in the early part of the war before escaping to join the resistance in 1942. On May 9th. 1950, the Schuman plan was announced. This lead to the formal establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in April 1951. The aim of the Community was two-fold (1) to end the frequent and bloody European conflicts and (2) to create a Common Market for coal and steel amongst its member states.

The original six members, France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries signed  The Treaty of Rome in 1957, thus creating the European Economic Community. The original six became nine (including theUK) in 1973, twelve in 1986 and fifteen in 1995 until today membership of the re-titled European Union has reached twenty seven. Amongst the ten members admitted in 2004 were Central and Eastern European nations who had, until 1989, been behind the Iron Curtain. Europe, divided at Yalta in February 1945, was close to being totally re-united.

The European Union has given the continent seventy-one years of peace. I wouldn’t go so far as David Cameron who suggested that leaving the EU might lead to war but it could lead to the threat of increased conflict. We need our partners to help us overcome the threat of terrorism and face up to the ever-increasing menace of Russia. The UK Border would no longer be in Calais, Ostend, Brussels and so on but in Dover and St Pancras for example where political refugees will claim asylum and, quite frankly, remain. The camps at Calais will be replaced by similar eyesores at Dover. The battle against the s0-called Islamic State will take years to win. Britain needs the EU and Europol to tackle this enormous threat

I will only briefly touch on the economic dangers of leaving the EU. The leave campaigners tell us that we shall seek and find new trading partners when we lose those in the EU. I’m not sure who those are; China? (economy on the slide), USA ?(‘you’ll have to go to the back of the queue’), Russia? (you must be joking) Saudi Arabia? (more weapons –  ‘man cannot living by creating machines of death alone’) Professional economists and businessmen (Governor of the Bank of England for example) warn up of the dangers of ‘leaving’. Amateur politicians from the leave campaign refute these claims despite the fact that they have little or no experience of the world of high finance and economics. If someone like Christine Lagard, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, says that there will be damaging economic consequences if Britain leaves the EU, I’d rather believe her than Nigel Farage!

Worryingly, the main issue appears to be immigration and the nauseating campaign poster from UKIP says it all. It’s quite simply outrageously racist and, in any case, appears to feature middle eastern refugees, the flow of which will not be stemmed by brexit. I simply don’t trust the politicians, especially those like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove, political opportunists all. I’d rather listen to professionals who have the brains to analyse the effects of leaving the EU and warn of its dangers. Of course there are issues with immigration that have to be tackled but this is the 21st. century. The world has changed since the days of empire. Everybody wants, and should have, their share of the global cake. And as for that word sovereignty ugh! It’s a dirty word along with nationalism. Hitler led his the Fatherland and Stalin the Motherland. Collectively they were responsible for probably fifty million deaths of men, women and children (including those killed in World War Two). In 2012 the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” Some things are more important that nationalistic flag-waving.

 

 

 

 

 

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WEEKEND IN BERLIN

Ten years or more on from our first visit, my wife Anne and I returned last weekend  to Berlin. We had a very decent hotel, close to Checkpoint Charlie, and weThe Blue Pencil spent Friday afternoon walking in the warm sunshine. Crossing the busy Leipzigerstrasse, where Roger Martin first encountered the horrors of Kristallnacht in my debut novel THE BLUE PENCIL, we headed for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This extraordinary collection of 2711 stelae, or concrete slabs, is spread over 19000 square metres. Some commentators have been critical of the site, questioning what it means, but the visitor is clearly told that this is a permanent site of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. Below ground there is the understated but devastatingly effective Place of Information which, amongst other things, lists 3 of the 6 million Jews murdered during the Second World War. What moves me most at memorials and exhibitions of the Holocaust are the photographs of happy and contended Jewish families in the days before the war

Holocaust Memorial (also known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), Berlin, Germany. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. Built 2003-4

Holocaust Memorial (also known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), Berlin, Germany. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. Built 2003-4

Nearby were complementary memorials to others murdered by the Nazis; Gypsies and Homosexuals, but we needed a bit of a breather so we set off to the Brandenburg Gate and thence into the delights of the Adlon Hotel. After an expensive (but great value) afternoon tea, we explored inside probably the most famous of European hotels which had been destroyed at the end of the Second World War. Externally, the new hotel bears a mercifully strong resemblance to the original but a very senior party member returning to the scene of many intrigues before the war would have difficulty in recognising the interior.

The evening was spent with our son Neil and his wife Liz at the Berliner Republik Restaurant, a lively eating house close to Friedrichstrasse Station, itself a site of great historical significance as it formed the boundary between East and West Berlin between 1945 and 1989. There was no early night and, consequently, we set off late the following morning on our ‘hop on-hop off’ bus tour around central Berlin. This proved to be a bit of a disappointment because the bus was constantly held up by standing traffic in the Alexanderplatz/Unter den Linden area where a new U Bahn station is under construction.

After passing the chief Berlin tourist spots we ‘hopped off’ on the Kurfurstendamm where Berlin’s most elegant shops are located. We chose one to explore, Ka de We and resisted the temptation to spend €900 on a pair of trousers, opting instead to buy a couple of canvas shopping bags at €3 each!. Back on the bus, we disembarked, for the final time that afternoon, at the DDR Museum, close to the Spree. This was an excellent small museum with lots of items of interest for folk of all ages. My wife drove (and crashed) a Trabant and I participated in a mock interrogation in a Stasi cell.ddr-museum-berlin

We were so tired that we didn’t emerge from our hotel until early evening. We trudged up to the Potsdamer Platz. This had been incomplete on our last visit but was now a sparkling new entertainment complex which, to be fair, you could find in any major European City. A rather tasty burger, consumed against the backdrop of the Eurovision Song Contest, ended our day.

Rain was forecast for Sunday but, thankfully, it didn’t materialise which was important because most of the day was to be spent outdoors. Our first destination was the Olympiastadion and, when we emerged from the U Bahn, we saw that that the exterior seemed unchanged since our last visit when this famous sports venue was still in 1936 mode. Naturally it has been substantially upgraded in recent years to host the World Cup Final, the 2009 World Athletics Championships, where Usain Bolt set World Records at 100m and 200m, and the 2015 Champions League Final. Of course, the new seats are comfortable, no more sitting on stone terraces, and everything else has been thoroughly modernised.

olympiastadtion-berlin-3

The purpose of our visit to the stadium was to see  Neil and Liz finish the Berlin Lauf where ten thousand road runners raced either over 10k or other distances, all running together. It was no surprise to see two Africans in the first three finishers over one of the longer events and we had to wait a little while before Neil and Liz crossed the line after their 10k, on a track once graced by Jesse Owens, Jack Lovelock and Godfrey Brown, anchoring the final leg of the Great Britain gold medal winning team in the 1936 Olympic the 4x400m relay, a British quartet which included Godfrey Rampling, father of Charlotte.IMG_1298

Neil and Liz certainly looked as if they left their efforts on the course and they were well pleased, as they should have been. A brief U Bahn trip back into central Berlin found us at the German Historical Museum where we spent an hour or so looking at an exhibition by the photographer Martin Roemers. The subject of this display was ‘Relics of the Cold War’ and fascinating it was. Anne and I walked back to our hotel, passing the old government quarter which houses numerous embassies, many of which were proudly flying the flag of the European Union, alongside their own national emblems. It was here in the winter of 1938-9 that Ruth and Jonathan Gerber queued for hours, hoping for British or American visas to enable them to escape Nazi Germany in my second novel TWO FAMILIES AT WAR.photo

The final delight of a memorable visit was dinner in the Orderquelle Restaurant in Prenzlauerberg district. On the way there, Liz pointed out a grass area which had once been a death strip between the Berlin Wall and the West. Now, in happier times, children were cheerfully playing football on a bright Sunday evening.

Berlin is, without doubt, one of the most interesting cities in the world to visit. This thrilling metropolis, once home to Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Wilhelm II, Hitler and now Angela Merkel, was overrun by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century and the Allies at the end of the Second World War and has risen from the ashes to complete a remarkable transformation from the rubble of 1945. One piece of advice; allow plenty of time for rest and, if possible go for longer than a weekend. There’s so much to see and be excited by.

 

 

 

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DISCOVERING JUDITH KERR and WHEN HITLER STOLE PINK RABBIT

In November 2013, the BBC in the UK screened a programme called Hitler, the Tiger and Me about the children’s writer and illustrator Judith Kerr OBE.

I am ashamed to say that this was the first time I’d heard of her. Perhaps it was that, when she started writing children’s books, I’d already moved on to Ian Fleming. That’s no excuse because, when my son was growing up in the seventies and early eighties, he didn’t read them either but he should have and I should have known about Judith Kerr and made him aware of them.

Judith Kerr was born in Berlin in 1923 into a non-orthodox Jewish family. She had an elder brother, Michael, and her father Alfred was a well-known theatre critic and writer who had openly criticised Hitler and whose books were amongst those burned by the Nazis in May 1933. By this time, the family had left Germany. There were brief stopovers in Switzerland and Paris before they settled in London, where they remained.

Later, Judith met and married the writer Nigel Kneale whom I remember well from my childhood as the author of the Quatermass science fiction TV serials. They were married for fifty two years until Neale’s death in 2006. Judith Kerr still lives in the family home in Barnes, South-West London, where she has been since 1962. She is now in her ninety first year, fit and still working.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, one of her best known books, is an autobiographical novel telling of how the family left Berlin and ended up in England. Though told in the third person, the narrative revolves around Anna (Judith herself). I would guess that the target audience is younger teenagers but it can be read and enjoyed by both older teenagers and adults. I can think of no other book that so effectively captures the plight of political refugees. Anna has to learn French, which she initially struggles to do, and later English although the novel ends as they set off for England. How many of us could have coped with three languages by our 12th. birthdays?  Once they had left Germany, money became a serious problem for them as father found it difficult for newspapers, journals and publishers to accept his work while they were living in France. The Swiss weren’t too keen on him either as they were anxious to retain their traditional neutrality and not upset their powerful neighbours, Germany.

The family fled first to Prague (a safe haven in 1933) and then to Zurich. The train journey from Berlin to the border (minus father who had already left) is as tense as that undertaken by Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) in that brilliant film Julia but in a different way because Anna and Michael have to be completely on their guard without ever knowing why. Mother has to constantly remind the children to remain silent each time an official checks their tickets and other travel documents. Throughout the journey, the threat of being sent back to Berlin hangs over every kilometre. There’s a particularly hair-raising episode when they nearly board a German bound service by mistake while changing trains in Basle.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit tells of the horrors of Germany in the early nineteen thirties seen through the eyes of a child. Judith Kerr makes these times no less threatening than in adult books. Her achievement is to tell the tale in such a way that young teenagers could understand just how threatened Jewish people felt in Nazi Germany. Briefly, she introduces tragedy to remind the reader of the dangers of being a Jew in the Third Reich.

The post-script to the book poses and helps to answer some of the questions which younger readers may have about Nazi Germany as well of talking about refugees, bombs and life in Britain during the Second World War. There are pointers to places where the young researcher can learn more.

There are two more books in this series; Bombs on Aunt Dainty and A Small Person Far Away. I’ve read neither but certainly will.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit reminds us of those dreadful days and helps younger readers, who know little or nothing of that era, understand those events so that they, like us, will never forget.

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DEFENDING THE MONUMENTS MEN

George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men opened in the UK  to generally poor reviews a couple of weeks ago. The story was based on fact and followed seven men (later eight) who tried to recover billions of dollars worth of art stolen by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. The movie focused on one small group of these people. There were others on a similar mission but The Monuments Men followed the fortunes of just one group.

Even before the film opened in the UK, film journalists were sharpening their pencils to have a go at the film. One article criticised the movie for not acknowledging the contribution of one particular Englishman who had been part of this mission. When the film arrived, several pundits suggested that the film trod an uneasy path between humour and action. This was a narrative movie, not a documentary or a book. To tell the full story, it would have taken a factual film several hours.

Director Clooney sets out to achieve a number of things in about one hundred minutes.

(1) To draw the audience’s attention to the work of The Monuments Men.

(2) To emphasise the importance of the work of these men

(3) TO ENTERTAIN

The humour was there to remind us that, as important as this mission was, it was very much a side line in the final months of the war. The team comprised people who had dedicated their lives to the preservation of magnificent works of art. They were not soldiers and, inevitably they blundered  their way across Europe in search of the stolen horde. Many of the quips are the result of an understandable nervousness amongst the group members. Some of the funniest moments centre around Matt Damon’s feeble attempts to speak French.

There wasn’t a great deal of action but plenty of exciting detective work as the Nazis raced to hide their haul from the advancing allies. There were a number of reminders of the dangers theses men faced as some of them found themselves behind enemy lines. There was also a touch of espionage as Cate Blanchett, initially jailed as a suspected French collaborator at the liberation of Paris,  provides the final clues about the whereabouts of many of the priceless items. Glossy World War Two films often stand accused of ignoring the serious aspects of the war but Cooney deals with this cleverly. Their most gruesome discovery when they unearth the loot are thousands of gold teeth filling and, right at the end, Cooney himself conducts a brief interview with a captured SS man. The director/star does this in such a laid back way that it feels far more chilling than the table thumping that probably accompanied the interrogation  of many of the black uniformed sadists.

The ending is slightly contrived, rather like the climactic airport scene in Argo. The men escape in the nick of time. This provided a satisfactory ending to a thoroughly entertaining film which introduced me to the work of these people and the importance of what they achieved. The Monuments Men was no classic (it wasn’t even Clooney’s best film, that was Good Night and Good Luck) but neither was it a turkey and captivated the sell out crowd in my cinema.

 

 

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TEN WORLD WAR TWO NOVELS YOU MAY NOT HAVE HEARD OF BUT SHOULD READ

People have been writing fiction about the Second World War for seventy years. There were novels written during the war, in its immediate aftermath, in the fifties, sixties, seventies and so on. They’re still being published today. Many of them are very good and others not so. They cover a variety of genres from action stories set on the front line, espionage tales, romantic fiction and political thrillers. Most take place during the war itself but some cover the period leading up to the war, explaining why it happened for example, and others the period after the war had ended. In this latter category, I’d place Holocaust novels, of which there are plenty, where the leading characters tell of their personal experiences in the death camps. Or indeed, such fiction may be about the hunt, many years after the war’s end, for Nazi war criminals. Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File springs to mind.

I’ve been reading war fiction for decades and, until recent years, these have come from well-known authors. Recently, however, with the advent of the E reader, many previously unknown books, space for which can’t be found on the shelves of the ever dwindling number of bookshops, have become easily accessible and relatively cheap. So, instead of cramming paper books in the small space of my flat, I can store several hundred on my Kindle. There are so many books available these days it’s quite easy to miss something worth reading. Reviews in newspapers tend to focus on established authors and ignore popular fiction.  So how do you find out about these hidden gems? The answer is with difficulty which is why I’m writing this post in the hope that somebody will read it. Hopefully, my four and a half thousand Twitter followers will pass the word around.

I’ve chosen a single book by each of ten different authors. Some are part of a series and I’ve said so in the section about that particular book. I’ve excluded novels by Philip Kerr, Alan Furst and David Downing because they are amongst the very best in the genre and, if you haven’t heard of them, you should have. I’m going to blog about these three sometime in the future. I’ve included two by established authors; John Lawton and Allan Massie, because their work is not as well-known as it should be.  I make no apologies for including my own novel, The Blue Pencil. This is a thriller that tries to say something about how the European War came about and how it might have been avoided. The books highlighted are in alphabetical order by title. They’re all worth reading and reviewing on platforms like Goodreads and Amazon.

Au Revoir LiverpoolAU REVOIR LIVERPOOL by MAUREEN LEE. Available in hardback, paperback, as an E book and audio download. Published by Orion in 2011.

Maureen Lee is a prolific writer of romantic fiction. Until I read Au Revoir Liverpool I have to confess I’d never heard of her. However, after reading this novel, I found out that she is a very successful writer in this genre and most of her novels are set on Merseyside.

Au Revoir Liverpool has all the classic ingredients of a good piece of romantic fiction. It is exceptionally well written, the characters are well drawn, varied and interesting, the plot is credible and there a good people and not so good people. It also has sweep, an almost epic tale spread over several years which starts in Liverpool, moves to German occupied Paris and ends back home in Liverpool. I enjoyed every minute of it.

The Best of Our SpiesTHE BEST OF OUR SPIES by ALEX GERLIS Available in paperback as an E book. Published by CB Creative Books 2013.

This is Alex Gerlis’ first novel I believe and it’s an absolute humdinger.  The Best of Our Spies is a novel about disinformation and fans of Ben McIntyre’s non-fiction Second World books will find Gerlis’ totally credible.  Apart from being a thrilling espionage thriller, The Best of Our Spies is also a very moving love story. Terrific


BlackoutBLACKOUT by JOHN LAWTON.
Available in hardback (limited I guess), paperback and as an E book. First published by Viking in 1995 and recently re-published by Phoenix.

It might seem a bit strange to suggest that John Lawton is an “unknown” author because he certainly is not. However, I wonder how many people have heard of Blackout, the first, and in my opinion the best of the Troy thrillers. I read Blackout almost fifteen years ago and the memory of it remains with me to this day. I’ve read all of the subsequent Troy stories, and enjoyed them,  but this one stands out as a tale of twists and turns, surprises, very well-drawn characters and an evocotive sense of time and location. The setting is London in 1944 during the final stages of the blitz. Brilliantly researched, it’s definitely a must-read for all fans of historical crime fiction.

The Blue PencilTHE BLUE PENCIL by DAVID LOWTHER. Available in hardback, paperback and as an E book. Published by Sacristy Press in November 2012.

The Blue Pencil is an anti-appeasement thriller. Neville Chamberlain’s government went to any lengths to ensure that their policies of not opposing Hitler and Mussolini received favourable coverage in the media. The hero, a young journalist, risks life and limb to tell his readers just how bad things are in Nazi Germany and becomes a vehement opponent of the government. His stance attracts the attention of the shadowy figures behind Chamberlain and his appeasers. Read it to fully understand the devastating consequences of appeasement.


Code Name VerityCODE NAME VERITY by ELIZABETH WEIN
. Available in paperback, E book and as an audiobook.  Published by Electric Monkey in February 2012.

Code Name Verity is a tale of courage, love and deception set in occupied France. The central characters are women and the story reminds us just how important women were to the war effort whether it be replacing the men at the front in manual work or, as in the case of Code Name Verity, flying aeroplanes or being parachuted into enemy territory to serve as an agent behind enemy lines.  The tension, and there is a great deal of it, is created by the uncertainty as to whether the heroine will betray vital secrets to the Gestapo after she’s been captured. Read this thrilling book to find out.

The CyclistTHE CYCLIST by FRED NATH. Available in paperback and as an E book. Published by Fingerpress UK in 2010

The Cyclist is another novel set in occupied France but different from Code Name Verity. It’s part of a trilogy, the next two in the series being Farewell Bergerac and Francesca Pascal. The first book in the series, and the only one which I have read, is a resistance story with numerous plot twists, a touch of romance and courage. All the best French resistance stories deal with collaboration and betrayal and The Cyclist is no exception.

Death-in-BordeauxDEATH IN BORDEAUX by Allan Massie. Available in paperback and as an E book. Published by Quartet.

Allan Massie is well known but I have to confess I hadn’t heard of him until I read a review of Death in Bordeaux a few years back. I read the book and then set about reading his back catalogue. He is a brilliant writer of historical fiction. I met him at a Book Festival two years and he signed a copy of his novel Surviving (superb). He told me that he’d had difficulty in finding a publisher for this book. How is that? I asked myself, when there is so much dross weighing down the shelves in our bookshops.

Death in Bordeaux is a murder mystery set just before the Germans arrive. It too has numerous twists in plot, a beautifully drawn central character and a very interesting supporting cast. The shadow of the war hangs heavily over it as does the recently finished Spanish Civil War.  It has been succeeded by Dark Summer in Bordeaux (terrific) and the soon to be published Cold Winter in Bordeaux.

Lavender RoadLAVENDER ROAD by HELEN CAREY. Available in hardback, paperback and as an E book. Published by Orion in 1994.

This is the first of a trilogy. I haven’t read the others yet but I intend to. The author suggested to me that this book, and others in the trilogy, were targeted at women. Well, you can forget that. The book’s audience is anybody who likes a well-constructed credible plot, painstakingly researched, a whole range of interesting characters and plenty of twists and turns.  Lavender Road rather reminds me of The Avenue Goes to War, one of RF Delderfield’s Avenue series. From memory, however, Delderfield’s location was middle-class while the setting for Lavender Road is a part of South-West London where a mix of social classes adds to the book’s appeal. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.

The Nero DecreeTHE NERO DECREE by GREGORY LEE. Available in paperback and as both and E book and Audiobook. Published by Thomas and Mercer 2013.

This is the story of two half-brothers who hate each other. Most of the action is set in Berlin, right at the end of the war, when allied bombers from the sky and Soviet artillery from the east are reducing the German capital to rubble.  Of course, there are other novels set amongst the ashes of Berlin but what I liked about The Nero Decree was that it had no pretentions to be anything other than a thrilling tale of good versus evil. The good guys were very good and the bad guys extremely evil. This is well-researched, exciting and action packed story with multiple twists. Highly recommended.

Shadow and LightSHADOW and LIGHT by Jonathan Rabb. Available in hardback, paperback and as an E book.  Published by Halban 2009.

Shadow and Light is the second book, and the best, of Jonathan Rabb’s Berlin Trilogy. All three have a senior detective Nikolai Hoffner as the central character. In common with most policemen in recent fiction he comes with a lot of personal baggage but this doesn’t interfere with the plot. In Shadow and Light, he tackles a murder at Berlin’s legendary Ufa film studios in the late 1920’s.  What seems a straightforward case at first becomes anything but as Hollywood people, Goebbels and even the great director Fritz Lang become involved. It’s a really exciting novel about the use of film as propaganda, industrial espionage and a dedicated policeman (who is Jewish) battling against the odds to solve a very tricky case.

Those are my choices of ten books aficionados of Second World War fiction would I think, enjoy. I’ve yet to tackle battlefield fiction. There are so many wonderful non-fiction books in this genre on the market that I’d prefer to read about what actually happened rather than what the fiction writer might have thought might have happened. All of them help the reader to understand the war just a little better and the considerable research carried out by the authors lends an air of credibility and a sense of time and place to the stories.

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SUITE FRANCAISE by IRENE NEMIROVSKY. The story of an extraordinary novel

 

 

Something about the novel to start. It was written in 1941-2. There are two novels, linked by a small French community which appears in both tales. It doesn’t feel like an unfinished novel, but it is. The reader knows from reading the appendix that the author planned four, or perhaps even five, parts to the novel. Circumstances didn’t permit her to complete her task, but more of that later.

Unlike most novels set during the Second World War, Suite Francaise  was written a very short time after the events it depicts took place. The first part Storm in June follows the fortunes of a number of characters as they flee Paris when the Germans approach in June 1940. It’s not so much the events; attacks from the air, ground fired shells, firefights, broken down vehicles, shortage of fuel, lack of food, nowhere to sleep and so on, that are fascinating but different groups of people’s reactions to one another as they’re thrown together in a time of crisis. As France collapses, we meet people who are selfish, arrogant, vain, indifferent and courageous. Unease between France’s social classes comes sharply into focus.

The second part Dolce is set in a French village which the Germans have occupied. The soldiers themselves generally behave correctly but the villagers’ response to them varies according to age, gender and social class. The children enjoy the sweets the soldiers give them, the young women find them attractive, those young men actually there (some would still be prisoners of war) hate them as both the detested enemy and rivals for the attention of the girls, some are just indifferent and others use the authority that the Germans have established to settle old scores. As the story progresses, the unbearable stench of collaboration grows ever stronger.

Suite Francaise is superbly written (and brilliantly translated from the French by Sandra Smith). Nemirovsky’s  prose conjures up visions of the hell of war or the beauty of the rural France on a warm summer’s day. The characters are wonderfully drawn and entirely credible. It’s a wonderful book and all the better for having been written without hindsight.

Irene Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903. She was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. At the time of the October Revolution, the family were living in St Petersburg. They fled, dressed as peasants, to Finland and eventually found their was to Paris via Sweden.  Here her father became director of a branch of his bank and re-built his fortune. Irene enrolled at the Sorbonne where she graduated with a distinction in literature. She began writing and her first novel David Golder was published to great critical acclaim in 1926. She married another Russian Jewish émigré Michel Epstein in 1926. Throughout the thirties she was a celebrated French writer.

When war came in 1939, the family (they had two young daughters) moved to Issy-l’eveque in Saone-et-Loire in later occupied France where Irene continued her writing. She began Suite Francaise in 1941. On July 13th.1942 she was arrested by the French police and sent to the French concentration camp in Loiret. On 17th. July she was deported to Auschwitz where she died on 17th. August 1942.

Her husband Michel, desperate to find his wife, even wrote to Petain to appeal on her behalf. The only response was his own arrest and deportation to Auschwitz where he was gassed on arrival on the 6th. of November 1942. Shortly afterwards, the police came for the children but they were already on the run with friends of the family. They spent the rest of the war in hiding. Many years later one of the daughters Denise found the manuscript of Suite Francaise in a bag that she’d taken  from her home when she left to escape the French police all those years ago. She read the tiny writing, re-typed it herself and then found a publisher Denoel in 2004. The English translation appeared in 2006.

Now I must read those of Irene Nemirovsky’s novels that have been translated into English

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RED LOVE by MAXIM LEO: A review

Red Love is an autobiographical memoir by Maxim Leo who was nineteen when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. It’s not, strictly speaking, an autobiography, since the author devotes a great deal of space recounting the lives of his maternal and paternal grandfathers. This succeeds in giving us a picture of the two Germanies, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich and how what happened there evolved in the third and fourth Germanies, the German Democratic Republic and the re-unified Federal Republic.
We learn from the two grandparents that, initially, the GDR had a good deal of support from its citizens emerging, as they were, from the blackest of all nightmares. It’s hardly surprising that, after almost six years of the most terrible war in history, many Germans were able to embrace the new idealism of the Soviet controlled East Germany. Of course, they were quickly disillusioned as their paranoid rulers instigated a system of surveillance and control that, in many ways, mirrored the twelve years of Nazi rule.

The two grandparents  Gerhard is a Jew, a professional man and a communist. He flees Germany and settles in France where he becomes a member of the resistance. After the war he returns to the Eastern Zone of occupied Germany where he is viewed with suspicion. For Gerhard has a fatal flaw; he is an idealist and believes in democracy rather than dictatorship. It is this failure to embrace democratic left-wing ideologies that has resulted in virtually all communist experiments to ultimately fail. It destroyed the Spanish Republic in the 1930s and brought down Leon Blum’s ‘ popular front’ in France before the war, leading to one of history’s greatest betrayals, Vichy France. Indeed, Gerhard comments on the occasional disunity in the French resistance which, of course, almost brought about a minor civil war in post-war France.

The other grandparent, Werner, is a political opportunist and becomes part of the GDR because that’s where he returned to after the war after working on a prison farm in France. He became one of the millions of Germans trapped in the Eastern Zone of occupation. He makes the most of this and carves out a career for himself while Gerhard is often in trouble with the authorities for questioning policies, laws and practices. The GDR survived for forty years and this was in part because, despite constant criticism of the regime, the West was happy to let it. A divided Germany didn’t provide any kind of threat to world peace.

Eventually however,  through Maxim’s interviews with his grandparents and parents, we learn of growing dissatisfaction from its citizens. The re-writing of history (just as in Nazi times), the attempts to control political thought, the surveillance state and the Stasi, the restrictions on travel and so on. We see, through the eyes of its citizens, the gradual decline of the GDR as an economic and political power.

The final part of the book deals with those thrilling months which led to the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and, of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall. These events are brilliantly described by Leo who, in his late teens, is able to witness and take part in a momentous bloodless revolution which would change the lives of twenty million Germans for ever.

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written (and translated) telling the tale of a country that existed for just forty years. Today, Germans approaching their mid-twenties will have been born after the fall of the Berlin Wall and, worryingly, some younger Germans may not realise the full significance of what happened in November 1989. They should read Red Love and watch its companion piece The Lives of Others, the finest film of the 21st. Century so that they may fully understand the dangers of political ideology attempting to seize control of the hearts and minds of citizens, backed not by consensus but by force.

 

 

 

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THE SECOND WORLD WAR and THE EUROPEAN UNION

In the summer of 1945, Germany lay in ruins. Millions were dead either in battle, through persecution or as a result of allied bombing raids. The transport structure had been almost totally destroyed, there was a desperate shortage of food and such power that existed was intermittent and unreliable. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners-of-war were languishing, mostly in the open, in hastily erected barbed wire compounds where death rates climbed day-by-day.

The almost total collapse of Germany left the victors with a mighty difficult problem; what to do with a country that had been responsible for a European war in which more than thirty-five million people had died? There were some, like  the US  Treasury Secretary Morgenthau who proposed that Germany’s industrial capacity should be totally destroyed and the country downgraded into a purely agrarian state.

Fortunately, wiser counsels prevailed and the more astute politicians, political scientists and economists recognised the importance of a revitalised German economy to the long-term health of Western Europe. The rest of Europe were, by 1948, languishing under communist rule directed from the Kremlin by Stalin.

Western Europe had been at war, on and off, for centuries.  From the Hundred Years War, through the Thirty Years War, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, culminating in the cataclysmic conflicts of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. The last three had, of course, involved Germany and her near neighbour France. The interim post-war French Government had Charles de Gaulle as its Prime Minister. He was distinctly hawkish in his attitude to Germany and, like Morgenthau, would like to see his warlike neighbour reduced to feudal status. Luckily for Europe, De Gaulle had one of those political fallouts that so characterised his career and resigned in 1946.  By the time he was inaugurated as the first President of the Fifth Republic in January 1959, much of the West European political landscape had changed for ever.

Once the immediate post-war blood-letting and initial denazification had passed and some semblance of modest self-government had come into existence, the problem of how to re-integrate Germany into West European social, economic and political life remained. Ironically, it was a Frenchman, Robert Schuman, who first proposed a solution to this dilemma. Schuman was a former French Prime Minister who had been, since 1948, Foreign Minister. He had no love for the Germans, having been imprisoned by them in the early part of the war before escaping to join the Resistance in 1942. On May 9th. 1950, the Schuman Plan was announced that led to the formal establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in April 1951. The aim of the Community was two-fold (1) to end the frequent and bloody European conflicts and (2) to create a common market for coal and steel amongst its member states. There were six signatories to the charter; France and Germany were joined by Italy and the four Benelux countries.

The same six signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, thus creating the European Economic Community. The original six became nine in 1973 (including the UK), ten in 1981, twelve in 1986 and fifteen in 1995 until today membership of the re-titled European Union has reached twenty seven. Amongst the ten members admitted in 2004 were Central and East European States that had, until 1989, been behind the Iron Curtain. Europe, divided at Yalta in February 1945, was close to being totally re-united.

In Britain today, there is much discussion about the EU and our role in it. This is not the place to discuss the rights and wrongs of this debate and I probably know as little about the workings of the EU as a majority of the electorate who will vote in the referendum on continued membership should it take place in 2017. No doubt there are shortcomings but these should, in my view, be ironed out through negotiation rather than throwing our toys out of the pram.

The integration  of the former Iron Curtain countries, has almost completed the European Union’s goal of setting up a family of nations. In 2012 The European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” Some things are more important than nationalistic flag-waving.

 

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EUROPE AT WAR 1939-1945 No Simple Victory. Thoughts on Norman Davies’ superb book

 There are, of course, enough books about the Second World War to fill the Grand Canyon. There are illustrated books, novels, personal memoirs and narratives. In my rather limited experience there’s not too much in print which could be called ‘a commentary.’ But a commentary is exactly what this book seems to me to be. It presumes that the reader has a reasonable knowledge of the events of the war. Perhaps even, there is a presumption that those who read the book have certain views about the right and wrongs, good and evil and winners and losers of the war in Europe. If that’s the case then many will have their ideas about the conflict rudely shattered.

Davies acknowledges throughout that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 helped him enormously as he prepared his reflections on the greatest conflict in history. The end of the Soviet Empire led to the increased availability to the researcher of papers long since buried in the deepest vaults of the Soviet Union and its subject countries.  This must also explain why so many books about the war have been published since 1989.

One theme running throughout the book is that there was not one but two totally evil dictators operating throughout the war; Hitler and Stalin. Indeed, if one was choose the most dreadful of these two, one might choose Stalin based on the exhaustive evidence in Davies’ book. That’s not to excuse in any way the utterly appalling atrocities committed by the Nazis but, as Davies points out, Stalin was practising mass murder long before the Fuhrer. In a way, this overall theme is the one aspect of the book which troubles me personally because I’m not sure when I first became aware that Stalin was such an ogre. I was a boy when he died in 1953 and I do remember folk chatting about Krushchev’s  de-Stalinisation speech of 1956 but later evidence suggests that only a tiny fraction of the truth was revealed. Growing up, I became aware that the Russians were the ‘bad guys’ in the Cold War as they controlled the governments of the majority of East European countries. But Stalin as a mass murderer? I think it is only now that I’m learning the truth.

The other theme that stood out to me was anti-Semitism. I have never for one second in my life had even the tiniest inkling of an understanding as to why the Jews have been so atrociously treated throughout history. We all know about the Holocaust but were we aware that pogroms continued long after the war had finished in many Eastern European countries, notably Poland whose treatment of the Jews had been almost as bad as the Nazis prior to 1939?  Many survivors of the death camps were not made especially welcome when they returned to their homes after the war. This was not just in Poland, where there was more than one disgraceful pogrom, but throughout Western Europe where many returnees were treated with indifference and even distaste. No wonder many of them turned their backs on Europe and headed for Palestine.

Norman Davies’ book Europe at War looks at the war from many aspects, far too numerous to be listed here. He looks at the war, for example, from the point of view of children, writers, film makers and photographers, poets, women and politicians. He examines the effects that the war had on heavy industry and agriculture, on life behind barbed wire in prisoner-of war camps, concentration camps and slave labour camps. He examines the lives of those who lived under occupation and looks at the war at sea , in the air, on land and the armaments that were developed during the conflict.

In the introduction, the author describes the book as an ‘essay.’  This is strictly speaking true but it’s a five hundred page essay with exhaustive footnotes and a magnificent index. Highly recommended. Not to be missed.

 

 

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VENGEANCE and THE SECOND WORLD WAR

 

I make no apologies in saying that the majority of detail in this post  comes from Keith Lowe’s superlative book Savage Continent, Europe in the aftermath of World War II.

Growing up in the 1950s, I was vaguely aware that the Soviet Union, the bogeyman of the era, controlled much of Eastern Europe against the will of the majority of the populations of those countries. When I was eleven, the Hungarian people rose up and attempted to overthrow their communist masters. Briefly it seemed they were about to succeed but then the Red Army tanks rolled into Budapest and crushed the Hungarian revolution and the hatred between the west and the Soviet Union intensified.

Twelve years later , the people of Czechoslovakia attempted to throw off the Soviet yoke. For a while, throughout the summer of 1968, they appeared to have succeeded but then, in August that year, Russian and other Warsaw Pact countries appeared on the streets of the Czech capital and what became known as The Prague Spring was over. These are but two illustrations of the years of the Cold War. There were many others, in The German Democratic Republic and Poland for example, but the setting up of the Iron Curtain was part of the USSR’s revenge on Germany for their catastrophic losses in the Second World War.

Lowe, in his book, concentrates on the period between the end of the war and 1949 when the Soviet Empire of Eastern Europe became firmly established. He does, however, point out that the war ended at different times in different places, depending on when countries were liberated from German occupation. Like Lowe, the eminent late historian Tony Judt, in his wonderful history of Europe since 1945 Post War, makes a strong case for identifying 1989 as the real end of the Second World War when, on that joyous day in November, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. This triggered off a series of largely bloodless revolutions throughout Eastern Europe that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Indeed, apart from the terrible civil wars in Yugoslavia, Europe has been at peace since.

Vengeance  in the aftermath of the Second World War took many forms. The Soviet Union seizing control of Eastern Europe was one thing.  Revenge taken on those who had collaborated with the Nazis from the shaven heads of the women horizontal collaborators to the public beatings, murders and court-ordered executions was another.

Then there was the vengeance of the displaced. At the end of the war there were 6.5 million displaced persons in Germany alone. Most of these were foreign workers taken from occupied lands to serve as slave labour in German farms and factories. To celebrate freedom there was a massive outbreak of rioting, looting and some rape in defeated Germany which the allied occupation authorities found difficult to control.

The most visible of all vengeance activities were those carried out by the victors over the vanquished. The best known of these was the mass rapes carried out by Red Army soldiers as they invaded Germany in 1944/45. German women and children were raped, some on numerous occasions and by up to a dozen soldiers at a time in one of the most horrific of history’s acts of vengeance. Men were forced to watch while their wives, mothers and sisters were subjected to unspeakable horrors. The great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was once a reluctant witness as one victim was transformed from young innocent girl to abused woman and finally to a corpse in a matter of minutes.

Wiping out entire communities, sometimes but not always accompanied by rape and torture, was commonplace. The Nazis had been practising this since the invasion of Poland in 1939 but perfected their abominable skills in the Soviet Union two years later. Even as late as 10 June 1944, the SS Panzer Division Das Reich killed all 642 inhabitants of the French village of Oradour-Sur-Glane . The very first village that the Red Army entered in East Prussia was Nemersdorf where they murdered every single inhabitant. The German propaganda machine made much of this as they had when they uncovered the mass graves containing the bodies of several thousand Polish officers at Katyn near Smolensk in 1943. The Kremlin was quick to deny responsibility and only in 1991 did Russia acknowledge that the Soviet Union had carried out these killings.

However, the greatest propaganda coup of all came from the USSR when, one by one, their advancing armies liberated the concentration camps of Eastern Europe. The surviving  inmates of these camps, many of whom were Jewish, were too frail to carry out acts of revenge, although it seems likely that the Soviet troops meted out their own brand of justice. American troops were not above taking the law into their own hands, although there are few recorded instances of this and their conduct was far better than their Russian allies.  When Dachau was liberated, US troops summarily shot more than thirty SS guards and then stood by while angry inmates killed up to thirty more.

Some used the aftermath of war to settle old political scores. There was prolonged post-war violence in both Italy and France, while in Greece a bitter full-scale civil war raged until 1949.

The Second World War was not just a conflict of territorial gain but one of race and ethnicity. It’s likely that as many as ten million died in the ethnic and racial cleansing which followed the war’s end. To this should be added the thirty five million who died during the European war itself.

Amazingly, the Jews continued to be persecuted. Survivors from the death camps were not always welcomed in their home communities when they returned after liberation. The Poles before the war were rabid anti-Semites, some would say worse than the Nazis during the nineteen thirties. When the conflict ended, the pogroms re-emerged. The worst of these was at Kiele in South-West Poland where seventy Jews were killed by Polish citizens, police and soldiers. Not surprisingly, many Jews turned their back on Europe and headed for Palestine.

In Eastern Poland, Ukranians were attacked and murdered. The survivors were sent to the Soviet Ukraine, even though they had lived in Polish Ukraine for generations. Poles who had lived in the Soviet Ukraine travelled in the opposite direction. Millions of Germans flooded into Eastern Germany. Five million were thrown out of East Prussia, Upper Silesia and Danzig when the post-war settlement saw three areas incorporated into Poland. This was to compensate the Poles for having much of their eastern lands seized by the Soviet Union. Thus in the new Western Poland Stettin became Szczecin, Danzig Gdansk and Breslau Wroclaw. Germans were thrown out of the Czech Sudetenland and parts of Hungary. Germans had lived in those areas for hundreds of years and now they watched as their land and property was grabbed by Poles, Hungarians and Czechs. The Russians, not to be outdone, took a little piece of East Prussia for herself.

These are just a few examples of the massive upheavals and blood-letting that characterised the aftermath of the greatest conflict in history. They are, if you like, signposts to Keith Lowe’s remarkable and superbly researched book that tells the whole story.

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