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Friday 17 January 2014

Review: Waitman Wade Beorn, Marching Into Darkness

This academic study of the Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus is an exemplary work. It is clear, concise and meticulous in its presentation of primary material and balanced and open-minded in its evaluation and explanation of the events - the crimes - that it describes. At no point when I was reading this book did I feel that I was engaging with anything other than a thorough, patient and honest study.

Beorn's study looks at the early stages of the Holocaust in the Bloodlands of eastern Europe - the so-called Holocaust by Bullets which accompanied the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941-2 and which saw over a million Jews in the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine shot either by Einsatzgruppen dedicated to the task or by units of the Wehrmacht. (By way of addition to the tally, of the three million Soviet POWs captured by the Germans in 1941 some two million were dead within a year, by starvation or disease or execution).

His specific focus is on the involvement in 1941-2 of regular German military units in village and town-level round-ups and executions of Jewish civilians in Belarus. These were units behind the front lines, initially responsible for administration of the civilian population until this role was partly or largely taken over by German civil administrative organisations and Nazi outfits.

He tries to show how Wehrmacht involvement in the killing of Jews increased and became routinised but was never completely unproblematic: there were unit commanders and individual soldiers who declined to take part (and suffered no subsequent harm) and there were others who dragged their feet or passed the buck onto subordinates. Beorn tries to tease out the factors which made soldiers and their leaders enthusiastic or reluctant to murder non-combatant civilians, including women and children.

If I have a criticism it is that though Beorn evokes it in various ways, he does not fully recognise that ethnic cleansing and genocide were embedded in European and other "civilised" cultures, right up to the 20th century. "Who now remembers the Armenians?" asked Hitler, referring to the Turkish genocide of 1915. And when German soldiers went Jew-hunting in the forests of Belarus in 1941, that was only a dozen years after the last "Abo Hunt" in Australia. (Hitler also referred to the extermination of Aborigines and Red Indians as a context for the grand Plan to clear the conquered Ostlands for new German settlers). One consequence of evoking the broader context is, unfortunately, to suggest that there is much less needing to be explained when it comes to looking at ordinary men as killers. They do it only too easily. That is one reason for always trying to avoid wars, even just ones, because your own side will certainly behave badly given half a chance.

At one point (page 242), Beorn expresses dismay and bewilderment that ordinary soldiers could (for example) package up the clothing of murdered Jewish children and ship it back to their own families. But just twenty years before, Red Army soldiers re-taking Ukraine and South Russia from Whites and Cossacks were doing pretty much the same. Their very large parcels home could be sent at special, cheaper Red Army tarriffs. Later, the post office documentation (with postage stamps affixed) which accompanied the parcels was retrieved from the archives and sold off for foreign currency through the Soviet Philatelic Association. You can find them now in collections and auctions. The same is true for their later German equivalents.

If you read this book along with Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands (previously reviewed here) you would have a very good picture of the eastern European killing fields where World War Two was fought out at its most horrific.

Sunday 12 January 2014

Review: Douglas Thompson, Stephen Ward Scapegoat

Stephen Ward was born in 1912 and died in 1963. Except for Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, nearly all his friends and acquaintances who were of the same generation are dead and so can be written about freely without fear of British libel laws. Douglas Thompson's book contains much gossip about the Forbidden Pleasures once enjoyed by the now deceased.

There would be more gossip available if the Public Records were opened but those relating to the Profumo Scandal (Ward, Keeler, Rice-Davies, Ivanov, Profumo) have been sealed beyond the normal period of fifty years. A week before I am writing this, Richard Davenport-Hines (author of An English Affair reviewed here a year ago on 13 January 2013) suggested that this is partly to protect the reputation of Prince Philip who met Dr Stephen Ward back in 1947 over lunches at the dissolute Thursday Club - a sort of older man's Bullingdon Club - and was later sketched by him.

Thompson's book and Davenport- Hines' (which does not appear in Thompson's Bibliography) are chalk and cheese. Hines is not an academic but writes at the academic end of the genre of political biography and political history. Thompson is a journalist who writes in sentences which aren't. He doesn't footnote the claims he makes and often you do not know whether you are reading cut and paste from newspaper gossip columns going back to the 1950s or whether you are reading interview material of  unknown vintage. Occasionally, he dates a claim and attributes it to an interview he has conducted but not often enough for anyone interested in getting closer to the truth.

Every society forbids some Pleasures, either by Law or Public Opinion or both. Every society makes the prices of transgression higher for some citizens than others. Often enough, it is the poor and powerless who are punished hardest but quite often the rich and powerful are hardest hit - if they are found out and if police or press decide (or are persuaded) not to turn a blind eye.

The desire to experience Forbidden Pleasures affects members of all classes and in any big city, there will be rich and powerful individuals seeking the forbidden. And where there is demand there will always be a supply. The rich and powerful soon find themselves in contact with criminals and lower class individuals on the make. And in the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, they also found themselves in contact with the Spies of the Other Side.

Drugs, Gambling but above all Sex provided the soft underbelly of the post - 1945 British Establishment and it was through it that Soviet spies hoped to extract juicy morsels of intelligence and even to recruit Agents willing to go in search of their own country's secrets. It was hardly Soviet rocket science which propelled Soviet Naval Attaché Yevgeny Ivanov into the hedonistic set around Dr Stephen Ward. It was the bleeding obvious.

The people around Ward could not protect themselves by Coming Out. What they were doing was either illegal (homosexuality, for example) or regarded by Public Opinion as incompatible with holding any position in politics or government administration, not to mention the Church and the Law. The British War Minister John Profumo and his wife the actor Valerie Hobson may have agreed between themselves to have an open marriage, but in the court of public opinion, that still left Profumo an adulterer - and, of course, a security risk the moment Christine Keeler began to share her pillow talk with Colonel Ivanov (and she says she did).

All this is well-known and much-written about. More importantly, Thompson agrees with Davenport-Hines' and others (including most recently Geoffrey Robertson QC) that the prosecution of Stephen Ward  for living on immoral earnings was a frame-up initiated by the then Home Secretary the very-Christian Henry Brooke, eagerly executed by officers of the Metropolitan Police (using quite a bit of intimidation of witnesses), assisted by the security services, hurried along by the Judiciary, and finally whitewashed in the Enquiry conducted by the very Christian Lord Denning. The whole affair shows the Nasty side of an Establishment fearful of being discredited in the eyes of its overseer, the US government, and, more specifically, fearful of Conservative electoral defeat.

Things have changed. When 48 or 49 year-old Stephen Ward first asked Christine Keeler for a dance, back in 1961, he had false teeth (this titbit from Douglas Thompson). Like his entire generation, his mouth tasted of tobacco and his clothes were impregnated with cigarette smoke. Cologne would have disguised lack of personal hygiene.

Nowadays, Ward would not have false teeth and might well not smoke. Some of the Forbidden Pleasures are no longer forbidden and can be talked about and enjoyed, most obviously, the homosexual ones. But overall, I doubt that much has changed. From time to time, the Gossip columns still finger government ministers they suspect of enjoying Forbidden Pleasures, occasionally a Minister still falls on his sword, whistleblowers are still given a nasty ride - and as for the spies, well, that's the biggest change; they have gone electronic.

Note: Normally, the books I review here are bought from bookshop displays. On this occasion, the publishers of Douglas Thompson's book (John Blake) wrote to offer me a Review Copy.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

Review: Charles Cumming, A Foreign Country - or Their Spooks and Ours

I will occasionally read a Spy thriller and usually enjoy it, as I enjoyed this one by Charles Cumming. But I do find them a bit - well - Spooky.

They are often written by Spooks or ex-Spooks and they are certainly read by Our spies and Theirs. Their spies are looking for little tidbits of unintended disclosure about how We do things - and, presumably, our spies try to stop this sort of thing happening. What they can't stop is the way our Spy novels help the other sides understand the British Establishment since all our spy novels are about that. The genre unintentionally provides Manuals of Establishment etiquette and mores. A spy novel will help you learn how to Pass.

But the Spookiness goes deeper. Somehow I feel that all Spy novels are written under the direction of some Cultural Branch of the Secret Services. Take the present Novel.

You could easily read it as a work of Revenge directed at the cheese-eating surrender monkeys (the French) who did not rally to the Crusaders' flag for the Invasion of Iraq. What is the evidence for this claim?

The hero, Thomas Kell, is an MI6 man in temporary fall-guy disgrace because he was too blatantly a party to American mistreatment (torture) of AfghanistanIraq "unlawful combatants". There is, indeed, now an official British report which chastises our secret services for not standing up for the Best Traditions of their trade when confronted with superior American force and forcefulness.

But it turns out that Kell is really a throroughly decent chap and, actually, a Hero. And just look who he is up against!

We are asked to believe that France's secret service (the DGSE) is still playing tit for tat for some British unpleasantness at the time of the Iraq War. To get their scheme airborne they are obliged to (1) murder in an unpleasant way two elderly French nationals on holiday in Egypt, employing for the purpose Arab-could-be-Jihadis with a taste for throat slitting; (2) kidnap off the street the French National adopted son of the murdered couple; (3) set fire to the flat of said French National's best friend, his wife and their child in a way likely to cause death; (4) engage in all kinds of deception and falsification in order to replace the dead adopted son with one of their own agents posing as the kidnapped young man in order to compromise the new Head of Britain's MI6  ....

And all this before Cumming decides to spin - off the edge-of-seat later stages of the DGSE Plot as a Rogue operation.

Well, with Friends like the French, looks to me that the Rosbifs don't need enemies. And what a clever twist to link them to Arabs and throat-cutting Jihadis! Take that, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys!

We should, I suppose, now await the French response to Mr Cumming's novel. I am sure the DGSE is working on it. But though I found his novel an easy read, allowing the reader to guess the next Revelation twenty pages before it is Revealed, this smear operation against the DGSE does strain credulity. And you do end up wondering whose idea it was to bash the French (again). As I said at the beginning, Spooky!

Monday 6 January 2014

Review: Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal

This was Eleanor Catton's first novel - her Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries is her second. (I haven't read it).

It's very very good, but not unputdownable. That's because it's written as a series of scenes - over 130 of them in 300 pages -  and the strength of the book is in the arresting character of each scene rather than the overall narrative structure. In fact, I have a horrible feeling I missed something somewhere about the overall structure - the scene shifting between real life and dramatic pretence is sometimes obvious, sometimes only hinted at, and the overall effect is to create something of a mystery about what is going on.

Each scene usually includes at least an arresting character and some arresting thoughts, a quirky personality and some left-field thoughts (sometimes very funny). I felt consistently that I was listening to a very clever, very original writer who never intrudes as an opinionated author but is always present as a shrewd observer and surprising thinker. Though most of the two dozen reviewers quoted over the covers praise it as a book about (late) adolescence, about growing up, the late adolescents are paired with a more or less equal number of paid-up grown-ups, parents and teachers and though the adolescents get the best lines (exception made of Stanley's father who specialises in best lines), I didn't come away feeling I had been garnering insight about the youth of today. I think the book is cleverer than that.