Archive for the 'history' Category

Bernie Gunther, post-war

17 July 2017

I’ve stayed away from Philip Kerr‘s crime novels. This wasn’t because I doubted the universally positive judgment of readers and reviewers as to the excellence of the writing or the depths of the character, Bernie Gunther, but more because you get too much Nazi history in real life, even in 2017, without having to turn to fiction for it. (And maybe I get weary and wary when people compare other writers to Raymond Chandler.) 

So I was pleased to find in a second hand stack in the corner of a cafe a copy of one of his post-war Gunther novels, The One From The Other, set in the ambiguous demi-monde of reconstruction Germany and Austria, with war criminals trying to escape from justice, identity and personal history written in shades of grey, the “Amis” army of occupation resented, and Gunther played for a fool, and painfully, by people who are almost always one step ahead of him. Beautifully plotted, well written. 

The next one, no spoilers, looks to be set in Argentina.  I’m looking forward to finding it. 

The dangers of snap elections

2 June 2017


Stewart Wood worked with Gordon Brown in late 2007, when as a new Labour party leaders, and therefore a new but unelected Prime Minister, he dithered about calling a General Election, and then decided against. The financial crisis evaporated his poll lead, and he never recovered politically from that.

Wood posted a series of tweets reflecting on that moment through the lens of the difficulties Theresa May is having with her equivalent election, which are worth sharing so they don’t get lost in the Twitter firehose.

Five years on from Brown’s decision not to call with an election, Brown’s spin doctor Damian McBride wrote up the day-by-day inside story (in the Telegraph) of how an apparently inevitable decision to go to the polls became a decision not to.

On the other hand, we all should be grateful that Brown was Prime Minister in 2008; he held his nerve, and used his knowledge of economics and history, to make sure that the British banking system didn’t collapse, and helped stiffen the resolve of the  world’s leaders at the height of the crisis. People forget that we were hours away from a collapse of the banking system.

As Aditya Chakrabortty wrote:

What sticks out about that period is how Brown and Alistair Darling were not only acting without a roadmap, they were driving with Cameron and Osborne right on their bumper telling them to do a U-turn. The diagnosis that British banks were dangerously low on capital was correct – but it was the opposite of what most bankers were saying.

Had Brown called an election, and not won, the thought of Cameron trying to make those decisions is frankly terrifying.

The image at the top of the post shows Brown arriving at No. 10 as new Prime Minister in 2007.

Shooting the past

26 March 2017


There’s a scene in Mark Herman‘s 2008 film The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas in which the concentration camp commander plays for his family and officers, by way of an after-dinner entertainment, the Nazi propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City. It is a fabricated account of Theresienstadt which portrays life in the camp as a kind of Butlin’s with a dash of Mittel European cafe culture. (23 minutes of rushes survive; there is an extended sequence on youtube.)

In the context of The Boy it is a moment in which a half-fiction is wrapped inside a half-fiction in pursuit of a greater truth. Theresienstadt was briefly converted into a model camp in 1944 as a result of political and diplomatic pressure by the Danish government, which wanted assurances about the well-being of Danish citizens sent there. With hindsight it is interesting that diplomatic pressure by the government of an occupied state had such an effect on the German government during wartime.

Most of the prisoners who did the work of sanitising the camp were shipped out immediately to Auschwitz, including the director of the film Kurt Gerron, a Theresienstadt inmate, and his family, who were murdered on their arrival there. The Nazis thought about distributing the resulting film, but decided against; it’s not clear, at least from some brisk online research, how the rushes were found.

When Herman decided to use sequences from the Theresienstadt film as part of his version of John Boyne’s novel, he found (unsurprisingly) that the surviving prints were old and scratched, and would not have looked good cut into a modern feature film. So they set about re-shooting the Nazis’ propaganda film. There are scenes from this modern shoot on the DVD of the movie. Mark Herman said that re-making it made him feel uncomfortable. I bet it did.

The image of the crew shooting The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a Village is a public domain image via Wikipedia.

Tail end Charlies

18 September 2016

‘The Battle of Britain’, by Paul Nash (Imperial War Museum)

It was Battle of Britain Day last week, the anniversary of the last great air battle over Britain, in 1940, when pretty much every available plane on both sides was up in the sky. It’s well caught in Paul Nash’s huge canvas, which is now in the Imperial War Museum. My father-in-law Denis Robinson fought in the Battle of Britain as a Spitfire pilot, turning 22 during the Battle. Like many others, he didn’t fly combat missions again. After the Battle he was shifted first to pilot training and later to transport, for example running supplies into Normandy after D-Day, and ferrying the wounded out.

He reckoned that he survived through a mixture of having had a decent amount of flying experience pre-war, some luck (he was shot down but managed to crashland the plane), and, reading between the lines, a wilful disregard for some of the RAF’s stupidities.

Flying doctrine in the 1940s had it that the squadron’s four sections should fly in a straight line, one plane ahead, two behind. It took only a little experience to work out that this meant the whole formation was a sitting duck if attacked from behind, especially the “tail end Charlies,” as he called them, at the back. (There’s a good explanation of all of this tactical detail here).

As tail end Charlie, Denis took to weaving around behind the front pair, which made both him and the rest of the section harder to hit. He was, he recalled before his death, reprimanded for this breach of instructions. He promptly ignored the reprimand, as did other pilots in the same position. By the end of the Battle of Britain, it was accepted that the tail end Charlie would weave; by 1942, it was doctrine.

The RAF’s blinkers extended to its prejudice about the Polish airmen who had arrived in the UK after the fall of Poland. They were experienced and committed pilots who had performed creditably against the Luftwaffe in old aircraft, but that wasn’t how the RAF saw it.

The film Battle of Britain has a sequence in which a Polish squadron on a training flight under the supervision of an RAF officer, not yet permitted to fly combat missions,  break formation to attack a group of German planes, and story is broadly true. The squadron was commissioned, and performed heroically.

By that stage in the Battle of Britain, even the RAF’s stuffed shirts knew they needed pilots desperately, and were lucky that the Poles were here and ready and willing to fly. They represented the largest contingent of overseas airmen, as the Statista chart below shows.


There’s a memorial to the Polish airmen—those who flew in the Battle of Britain and also later in the war—just off the A40 on the way out of London, close to Northolt airfield, and an adjacent garden of memory. We visited it on the Augist Bank Holiday. The memorial was refurbished about a decade ago, and is in good condition, but the garden, which is looked after by the Borough of Hounslow and the Polish Government, looks as if it has suffered from local authority cutbacks, and needs a little loving care, if only out of respect for the contribution they made to the Allied cause.


Image: Wikimedia




Shakespeare in Silver Street

28 April 2016


It is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this month, so a good moment to write something about Charles Nicholl’s Shakespeare book, The Lodger. It’s about Shakespeare’s time lodging on Silver Street with the Huguenot family the Mountjoys, and I bought it on the strength of Nicholl’s fine book on the death of Marlowe, The Reckoning.

Silver Street, or Sylver Street, doesn’t exist any longer, bombed in 1940, but it ran east to west near the London Wall, close to the present Museum of London and south of the current Barbican complex. The Huguenot church in Fann Street is about five minutes walk to the north. The house was destroyed earlier, in the Great Fire of London, or before.

Old Map Showing Silver StreetsmallNicholl suggests Shakespeare was probably a lodger in the Silver Street house from 1603-1605, which would mean that he probably wrote Othello, Measure for Measure, All’s Well That End’s Well, Timon of Athens and King Lear while he was there.

Shakespeare’s stay at Silver Street is interesting to Shakespeareans because it gave rise to the one document from his lifetime that Shakespeare attested in his own voice, as a witness in a court case between the owner of the house, Christopher Mountjoy, and his daughter, Mary, and son-in-law (and former apprentice) Stephen Belott.

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“To be given back your life”

16 September 2015

_48646848_3511975a-2c11-48e9-bf53-76d73ad84431My father-in-law, Denis Robinson, who fought in the Battle of Britain, died some weeks ago. He was in my mind on Battle of Britain Day. At 97, he was the last member of his Squadron (152) that flew in the Battle.

For the Order of Service at his funeral, I edited his long account of how he came to crash-land in Dorset in August 1940, and it seems appropriate to share that here today.

On 8th August 1940, we were returning to RAF Warmwell to refuel and re-arm from a patrol in which we had intercepted the enemy and had used all our ammunition.

Unfortunately, a group of Me109s spotted us and attacked our unprotected rear. The first thing I felt was the thud of bullets hitting my aircraft. In a reflex action I slammed the stick forward as far as it would go. For a brief second my Spitfire stood on its nose and I was looking straight down at Mother Earth, thousands of feet below. I could feel the straps of my Sutton harness biting into my flesh as I entered the vertical with airspeed building up alarmingly. I felt fear mounting. No ammo and an attacker right on my tail.

All this happened in seconds, but now the airspeed was nearly off the clock. I had to pull out and start looking for the enemy. Suddenly the engine stopped. Apparently a bullet in the glycol tank had dispersed all the coolant and even the faithful Merlin could not stand that for long at full power.

By now, my eyes were searching wildly, frantically looking for my adversary, but as often happens in air combat, not a single plane was to be seen. The release of tension as I realised my good fortune is something that cannot be described. If you have been through that experience you know what it is like to be given back your life.

The problems that still confronted me now seemed almost trivial. I experienced this feeling several times during the Battle of Britain and it had a profound effect on me. It somehow changed my value system, so that things that had seemed important before never had the same degree of importance again. Maybe this is what generated the anti-authority behaviour amongst us.

I prepared to bail out and began going through the procedure in my mind. During this I’d got the Spit into a steady glide. I surveyed what I could see of the damage from the cockpit. Not much, apart from a few bullet holes. It worried me to abandon the old bus to certain destruction on to heaven knows what, perhaps a school full of children. Besides, I convinced myself that bailing out was too bloody dangerous. I would stay with her and force land in a suitable field. Full flap and a flare out near the ground achieved a creditable touchdown.

Then suddenly, I felt her going up onto her nose and, I thought, onto her back. With an almighty crash the canopy slammed shut over my head. I grabbed it with all my might and threw it backwards. Now I could see that the aircraft had finished up vertically on its nose, in a ditch I hadn’t seen from the air.

Next day I was back on ops again.

Telling this story helps me to deal with my survival syndrome. It is as though I am speaking for the other chaps who did not make it. One constantly asks: ‘Why did I survive … why did others not?

After he crashed he went back to the field the next day to take the picture that’s at the top of the post. The full-length version of this account can be found at website of the Battle of Britain London Monument.

After his death, my wife – Denis’ daughter – was talking to the curator of one of the Battle of Britain sites. He said he often finished his talks with a phrase from an interview that Denis had given:

I flew 60 sorties and at 22 I had lost my youth…I did not like the killing and did not want to be given medals for killing people.

I usually think that as humans we can empathise with things that are a long way from our experience, if we wish to, however incompletely. But reading his account, and those of other pilots, I think it is impossible to have any understanding of what they went through. And other combatants too, of course. Even the survivors paid a large price.

Making claims

6 June 2015
One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, held at the British Library.

The long history of the Magna Carta turns out to have been a lucky accident, or at least that’s my reading of it from the 800th anniversary exhibition at the British Library. King John signed it to placate a powerful group of barons who had taken up arms against the king in response to his heavy taxation and arbitrary behaviour, and had captured London. Having signed, John immediately cried foul, telling his protector, Pope Innocent III, that he had signed under duress (shades of Charles I, who has his own part in this story.) Innocent promptly issued a Papal Bull annulling the Charter.

Popes being Popes in the Middle Ages, that should have finished it off, except that John died a year later, leaving the 9-year old Henry III on the throne and his advisers needing to appease the barons, with Britain still in a state of civil war. The advisers reissued the Charter in both 1216 and 1217, the second time as part of the peace treaty that ended the civil war.

But the real breakthrough came in 1225, when Henry, no longer a minor, issued the fourth version of the Magna Carta in exchange for the grant of taxes, which also created a connection between representation and taxation.Importantly, he also stated that he did this with his “spontaneous and free will”, and affixed the Royal Seal.

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‘The hell of the North’

5 May 2015

Inside the velodrome: Paris-Roubaix 2015.
Source: Andrew Curry. CC BY-NC-SA

I recently spent a few days in Lille so I could watch Paris-Roubaix, which is for me one of the great one day cycle races, run over sections of cobbles, starting these days from Compiègne, and finishing as it did in the very first race in the velodrome at Roubaix, close to the Belgian border. Since we were there anyway, we also decided to visit the area of Great War fighting around Ypres—the Ypres salient.

Happily, we found a Flemish cyclo-tourist company, Biking Box, which was able to guide us on a one day ride across the last eight secteurs of the race, before dropping us at the velodrome to watch the race unfold on the big screen. And then picked us up the next day to ride the route around the salient, learning more about the “war of the mines” as we went.

Afterwards, reading Iain MacGregor’s chatty history of the race, built around his attempt to do the amateur sportive that now precedes the professional race, I discovered that in a way, these two were related.

Paris-Roubaix has always been run in April, and in 1919 Henri Desgrange, of the race sponsors L’Auto, sent one of his reporters, Victor Breyer, and the cyclist Eugène Christophe to recce the route, to see if it would be possible to hold the race. Lille and Roubaix had been behind the German lines for most of the war, so the race would have to run across the battlefields.

Neither was prepared for what they found. The images of the mud and desolation of the trenches are familiar to us now, but little of the news that came from the front described the conditions. Breyer’s report has a shocked tone:

”From Doullens onwards, the countryside was nothing but desolation. The shattered trees looked vaguely like skeletons, the paths had collapsed and been potholed or torn away by shells. The vegetation, rare, had been replaced by military vehicles in a pitiful state. The house of villages were no more than bare walls. At their foot, heaps of rubble. Eugène Christophe exclaimed, “Here, this really is the hell of the north”.”

And yet … as MacGregor explains, on Easter Sunday 1919, after a minute’s silence, the race did roll out of Paris, a peleton of 130 riders, flanked by columns of French soldiers, with crowds cheering them on. Henri Pelissier’s winning time was the slowest on record, as was the average speed, down to a mixture of the road conditions, the lack of racing fitness of the riders, their pre-war bikes, and possibly a deal done by the peleton not to race until the last 70 kilometres or so.

”The resumption of the race”, writes MacGregor, “certainly attracted the crowds, but there was also a definite sense of starting anew—an attempt to reignite enthusiasm for such an event, perhaps any social event, so soon after the devastation of the Great War.”

The resonance of history

25 April 2015


Sometimes you think that history rhymes, and it turns out that it doesn’t.

I’d always believed (without ever having done any research) that the Allies had chosen Nuremberg as the site for the trials of the Nazi leaders as a marker, since it was the home of the Nazi Party rallies, Streicher’s grotesque propaganda paper Der Sturm, and the racist Nuremberg laws that turned the Jews in to second (or third) class citizens.

But it turns out – as I discovered on a recent visit to Nuremberg – that the reason the trials were held in Nuremberg was largely down to logistics.

Post-war Nuremberg. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Post-war Nurember. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By the end of the war most German cities had been more or less completely flattened by Allied bombing. Nuremberg was no exception; 90% of the city centre had ben destroyed. The Palace of Justic, though, and the prison, just outside of the centre, were still standing and needed only some repair work to make them serviceable.

Nuremberg Palace of Justice, Winter 1945. Source: Nuremberg City Archives.

Nuremberg Palace of Justice, Winter 1945. Source: Nuremberg City Archives.

There was also just about enough accommodation to house the legal teams, the court staff and officials, and journalists, although the journalists complained about their lodgings in the spartan-to-eccentric castle of the pen magnate Faber-Castell.

So, the first trials were held in Nuremberg because it was possible to hold them there. It’s also striking how quickly the legal infrastructure was put in place – from translators to stenographers – while Allied jurists wrestled with the task of agreeing the legal process for a war crimes trial and aligning it to fit three different legal systems – Anglo-American, French and Russian. As it was French judges voted against any conspiracy verdicts because they had no equivalent in French law.

The outcome of the trial – some found guilty and sentenced to death, some found guilty and jailed, some acquitted – also persuaded some observers that the process was not just punitive, although looking back, Albert Speer was lucky not to get the death sentence for his role as Minister for Armaments from 1942 to 1945, overseeing forced and slave labour.

Still: even when history doesn’t rhyme, it sometimes resonates.

The image at the top of the post is by Andrew Curry, and is published here under a Creative Commons licence. Other images as credited in the captions.

In praise of Boney

11 March 2015

 gillray james friend B20089 74

I learned recently, in the sleevenotes to The Moral of The Elephant by Martin and Eliza Carthy, that there are some 200 English folksongs still surviving from the Napoleonic War that – broadly – express the hope that Napoleon will successfully invade Britain and sweep away the British aristocracy.

This discovery came hard on the heels of reading a review by Edward Luttwak in the London Review of Books of Roger Knight’s book on Britain’s strategy to contain and then defeat Napoleon, in which the British-educated Luttwak writes of his argument with his Armenian father about Napoleon’s defeat:

[M]y father burst out with a vehement attack on ‘the English’ for having selfishly destroyed Napoleon’s empire. Wherever it had advanced in Europe, modernity had advanced with it, sweeping away myriad expressions of obscurantism and hereditary privilege, emancipating the Jews and all manner of serfs, allowing freedom of, and from, religion, and offering opportunities for advancement for the talented regardless of their origins. … Great Britain was already on its way to liberty and did not need Napoleon, but Europe did, and Britain took him away.

Of course in the UK, with our Wellington Arches and Boots, our Waterloo Stations, and even our Sharpes and Patrick O’Brian novels, it is easy to forget how radical Napoleon was. We’re much more likely to repeat the story of Beethoven angrily scrubbing out the dedication to Napoleon from the front of the the Eroica Symphony when he heard that Bonaparte had crowned himself Emperor.

The reason for Luttwak’s father’s regret was indeed deeply radical. The Code Napoleon was founded on three simple and egalitarian principles:

  • “clarity, so that all could know their rights if they could read, without the recondite expertise of jurists steeped in customary law”
  • “secularism … thereby introducing civil marriage, part of an entirely new form of individual and civic existence”
  • “the right to individual ownership of property … and employment free from servile obligations.”

It is still the basis of the law in every country it was introduced into by Napoleon.

The song by the Carthys on *The Moral of the Elephant* is the often-covered “Grand Conversation”. The singer John Howson, who has performed it, observed,

many working people in England thought that if Napoleon beat Nelson they would have a better life, and songs about Napoleon were certainly popular in Sussex.

Similarly, in “Napoleon’s Dream,” the lyrics are clear:

On the plains of Marengo I tyranny hurled
And wherever my banners the eagle unfurled
‘Twas the standard of freedom all over the world
And a signal of fame,” cried Napoleon.

And the one book that’s studied British attitudes to Napoleon found that attitudes were more mixed than our history books suggest. Stuart Semmel writes,

“To a much greater degree than has been recognized, many British radicals continued to have kind words to say about Napoleon, and continued to use him as a cudgel with which to chastise their own rulers. There was a continuous, if at times attenuated, tradition of British radical admiration of Napoleon, stretching from the earliest days of his military career through his consulate and empire and on into the period of his exile.”

And some had more practical reasons for disliking their rulers. Taxes were high because of the war, and food prices higher, and unemployment had increased both because of the war and because of the introduction of new machinery. Even those who joined the army out of desperation couldn’t always support their families on a soldier’s pay, because of army wage structures. In Ireland (then part of Britain), they also had religious and political reasons to dislike the government, and there seems to be some evidence that some of these pro-Bonaparte songs emerged through Ireland.
Some of the songs were written later. One of the curiosities of Napoleon is that after the war was over and he was exiled on St Helena, the idea of what he’d stood for – “liberties” – seemed to give strength to Britain’s new radical movements. Ruth Mather of the British Library:
In 1819, the Female Reform Society of Manchester denounced the ‘unjust, unnecessary, and destructive war, against the liberties of France’, stating that it had ‘tended to raise landed property threefold above its value, and to load our beloved country with an insurmountable burden of Taxation’. Although the war had begun with the ostensible aim of protecting the liberties of the British people, many of those people queried whether the corrupt aristocracy were the only ones to benefit.
The songs, perhaps, are part of a thread that connects the radicalism of the French revolution to Peterloo and to the successes of the Chartists in the 1830s.
*The image at the top of the post is a cartoon by James Gillray, “The Friend of the People; & his Petty New Tax Gatherer paying John Bull a visit,” from the British Library’s collection.*